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August 15, 2013

The whole of France is bathed in the blood of innocent people and covered with dead bodies. The air is filled with the cries and groans of nobles and commoners, women and children, slaughtered by the hundreds without mercy.” So read a Genevan diplomatic dispatch from the autumn of October of 1572 in a description of what would come to be known as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, one of the most bloody and horrifying episodes in the history of the church.

This awful event is captured in a painting from the era, “Le massacre de la Saint-Barthelemy,” the lone surviving work from artist Francois Dubois, an eyewitness to the massacres. It hangs today in Musee cantonal des Beaux-Arts, in Lausanne, Switzerland and captures the ugly violence that for a time almost seemed to stamp out the spread of Protestantism in one of Europe’s greatest kingdoms. This, Dubois’ painting, is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we can trace the history of Christianity.

From the first spark of Reformation in the opening years of the sixteenth century, Protestantism spread quickly and within just a few decades, it was a powerful presence through most of Europe. Protestantism gained a significant foothold in France where, by the 1560’s, there may have been upwards of two million Protestants, known as Huguenots. The rise of Protestantism in kingdom dominated by Catholicism brought inevitable political instability and France endured several bloody civil wars. The Catholic factions were led by a succession of weak kings under the influence of the powerful Guise family and dominated by the queen mother, Catherine de Medicis. Meanwhile, the Protestants were led by Gaspard de Coligny along with the Bourbon princes Henri of Navarre and Henri of Conde. These leaders wanted the Protestant churches to receive legal recognition and Huguenots to have freedom of worship. This was, of course, unthinkable to the Guise family and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

On August 18, 1572, prince Henri of Navarre married Margaret of Valois, the sister of King Charles IX. This was a political marriage between a Protestant prince and the sister of the Catholic king and it seemed to portend a new era of peace and stability. Many Protestants were invited to Paris for the ceremony and they both arrived and participated unmolested.

August 12, 2013

FranklinSelf-salvation is sinful man’s most natural inclination. We all know there is something wrong with us, that we are not all we want to be and not all we were meant to be. And left to ourselves we look for that salvation anywhere and everywhere except in the place it can be found—in Jesus Christ.

I recently came upon a great illustration of this in the life of Benjamin Franklin. Come Christmas or birthdays or other occasions, I love to buy my parents biographies; they are adept at finding the most fascinating facts and anecdotes and it was my mother who dug this one up in Walter Isaacson’s life of Franklin.

Franklin was a Deist. He held to the existence of some kind of higher power, but believed that this God had created and then retreated, that he was not personally present in the world. If this is the case, all we can know about divinity and humanity will be revealed through nature and reason. Franklin had no use for Scripture or worship and certainly no use for Jesus Christ beyond personal example.

Franklin believed “The most acceptable service to God is doing good to man.” Yet when he was still young he “came to the conclusion that a simple and complacent deism had its own set of drawbacks. He had converted Collins and Ralph [two friends] to deism, and they soon wronged him without moral compunction.” He began to see that Deism accounted for the existence of a God, but not an ethic that would transform behavior. He wanted to better himself and do good to man, so systematized his approach.

On the pages of a little notebook, he made a chart with seven red columns for the days of the week and thirteen rows labeled with his virtues. Infractions were marked with a black spot. The first week he focused on temperance, trying to keep that line clear while not worrying about the other lines. With that virtue strengthened, he could turn his attention to the next one, silence, hoping that the temperance line would stay clear as well. In the course of the year, he would complete the thirteen-week cycle four times.

He wanted to improve himself, wanted to be good. He was willing to admit fault with himself, rather a rare trait, and to work to improve those shortcomings. And so he arrived at a orderly way of pursuing his goal. He would identify and quantify his faults in order to grow in virtue.

August 11, 2013

Matthew Henry was born in 1662, the same year that the Act of Uniformity barred his father, Phillip, and 2000 other pastors (including Thomas Brooks) from official ministry in the Church of England.

Henry was raised by godly parents in the Puritan way (daily Bible reading, prayer, self-examination, etc.) and always wanted to be a pastor. However, believing there was little chance of ever becoming one, he decided to study law and pursue theological study only on the side. Before long he began preaching on the side as well. This led to him being asked to serve as a local minister, at which point he became ordained as a Presbyterian minister and took up the pastorate in Chester.

That same year, 1687, he married Katherine Hardware. Sadly, she passed away just two years later during childbirth. A year after Katherin’s death he married Mary Warburton. Between them they bore a son, Philip, and eight daughters, three of whom would die in infancy.

Henry was a popular preacher who, by principle, never refused an invitation if he could possible accept it. In addition to his own church, which grew steadily, he took on monthly engagements in five other villages, along with regular visits to preach to prisoners.

After serving for 25 years in Chester, in 1712 Henry accepted an invitation to pastor a church in Hackney, an important congregation near London. Just two years after that transition, in May of 1714, while returning home from a visit to Cheshire, he fell from his horse and passed away the following day. He was 52 years old.

Unique Contribution

Matthew Henry is most remembered today for his Commentary on the Whole Bible. He began work on it in 1704, laboring diligently until his death. In those ten years he completed and published volumes covering Genesis through Acts. After his death, a group of 13 fellow ministers compiled notes from his preaching to complete the Commentary from Romans through Revelation.

The Commentary was and remains so well known because of its ability to apply the Scriptures to life. It “has never been surpassed in its practical emphasis. Its divisions, main points, and practical applications are invaluable,” write Beeke and Pederson (Meet the Puritans). And J. I. Packer concludes,

Simple and practical in style while thoroughly scholarly and well-informed for substance, the Commentary remains an all-time classic, standing head and shoulders above any other popular exposition produced either before or since. (Puritan Portraits)

Indeed. We may at times shun older commentaries in favor of more modern ones, but we lose too much if we forget about Henry’s. He is a master of the pithy phrase and at distilling whole sections of Scripture to one or two pertinent, heart-searching points of application.

If you are going to read just one of his works, make sure you reference his commentary. There is nothing quite like it.

Most Important Works

August 08, 2013

I am often asked how I organize my books and how I maintain my library. Because I am a book reviewer I receive new books nearly every day and this has forced me to discover a few principles I might otherwise have missed. I have found that the key to organizing and maintaining a library is releasing the irrational hold books have on so many of us. Here are a few tips.

There are some people with impressively large libraries and they may be among the few who can actually make use of thousands or even tens of thousands of books. But most of us simply do not need nearly that many. There is no necessary correlation between the size of a library and the excellence of a library. Quantity does not equal quality. The person with 100 excellent books may have a much better library than the person with 1,000 mediocre books. Do not merely collect books; collect good books.

When your bookcases have reached their capacity, practice the add-a-book, remove-a-book principle. Every time you add a book to your library, remove another book, either by throwing it away, selling it, or giving it to someone else. This will continually prune your library, ensuring it gets better, even without getting bigger.

An unread book does no good to anyone. It is far better to have someone else read a book and benefit from it than to have it remain unread on your bookcase. If it is a worthwhile book and you know you will never read it again, pass it to someone who will.

It is not sinful to throw away a book. When I receive books I usually take them to the church office and sort through them there. The ones that are not worth keeping I throw in the trash. It is amusing to me how often I find people removing these books from the trash as if books have intrinsic worth or value and should not be thrown away. Free yourself to throw away bad books. And when I say to throw them away, I mean it. Do not sell them at a used book store or garage sale. If they are harmful to you, they are harmful to others. Do the world a favor and toss them.

August 07, 2013

I did not set out to be a preacher. Ten years ago I would have laughed out loud if someone had told me that a decade hence I would be a regular in the pulpit. As I’ve slowly acclimated to preaching, I have found myself thinking very differently about sermons. I’ve been listening to sermons all of my life, but only now do I see preaching from the other side of the pulpit, so to speak. It has been very good for me.

Today I want to share a lesson I’ve learned that applies primarily to those of us who listen to preaching (as I do, most Sundays, since I am not an every-Sunday kind of preacher). Here’s the lesson: Sermons are not for liking. Sermons are for listening, they are for discerning, they are for applying, but they are not for liking. You don’t get to like or dislike a sermon. We tend to ask questions like, “So how did you enjoy the sermon today?” It is just the wrong question to ask.

I guess that isn’t always true. If a sermon is outright unbiblical—if the preacher butchers his text, misses the point, teaches nonsense or outright error, then I guess you are well within your rights to dislike it because God dislikes it and is dishonored by it. And maybe if it is clear the preacher put little or no thought into his text, if he is delivering a sermon only out of a sense of duty or the overflow of pride, maybe then you can dislike it because, again, it dishonors God. But I suspect few of us find ourselves in that situation on a regular basis.

Back to my point: Sermons are not for liking. There are at least two reasons for this: it dishonors preaching and it dishonors the preacher.

To ask, “How did you like the sermon?” dishonors preaching. It dishonors the very form, the God-given medium. We trust that when the Word is preached, the Spirit works. He is present in the preaching, present in the speaker and in the hearer, shaping words, moulding hearts, applying truth. We preach because God tells us to and we preach trusting that God uses this form of communication instead of another form. We preach even though preaching seems so foolish. When we ask, “How did you like the sermon?” we make the sermon something we consume rather than something that consumes us. We judge it like we judge the custom-crafted latte at Starbucks or the new iDevice we saved up for.

August 04, 2013

Today I continue this new Sunday series entitled “The Puritans.” I have a growing fascination with Puritan writing and decided it might be valuable to introduce you (and me!) to some of the most important Puritan writers. I will focus primarily on men whose works I have read in the past. Because I do not have the expertise to introduce the men or their work, I will be relying on experts like Joel Beeke and J.I.Packer to guide me. This week we meet Thomas Brooks.

We do not know a whole lot about Thomas Brooks’ early life. He was born in 1608 and he entered college at Cambridge in 1625. It is uncertain whether or not he ever finished his degree; nevertheless, in 1640 he was ordained to the ministry in the Church of England and became a chaplain in the English navy.

His years at sea were apparently very rich. He said of them, “through grace I can say that I would not exchange my sea experiences for England’s riches.”

After returning to London in 1648, Brooks served at St. Thomas the Apostle church and then at St. Margaret’s. But in 1662, with the passage of the Act of Uniformity (which required all Anglican ministers to conduct prayers, sacraments and other aspects of church in the same way—an agreement Brooks could not make), he lost his ministerial license and position. He was able to regain his license in 1672 with the passage of the Declaration of Indulgence, but then lost it again in 1676.

Despite the legal battles over his license, Brooks continued to preach and minister throughout London with little persecution. When the Great Plague hit London in 1665, he, unlike many other ministers, remained in the city to care for the saints.

He was married twice. His first wife, Martha, whom he dearly loved, died in 1676. He afterwards married a notably younger woman, Patience, before his own passing in 1680.

Unique Contribution

Brooks is remembered most for his ability to preach messages that were simple and practical, yet full of spiritual life, Scripture, and the power of God.

Charles Spurgeon was a great fan of Brooks’ teaching. He even took it upon himself to compile an entire book of sayings and illustrations by Brooks, which he cleverly titled Smooth Stones Taken from Ancient Brooks (I had not noticed the pun before today!). In the preface, Spurgeon writes,

Had Brooks been a worldly man, his writings would have been most valuable; but since he was an eminent Christian, they are doubly so. He had the eagle eye of faith, as well as the eagle wing of imagination. He saw similes, metaphors, and allegories everywhere; but they were all consecrated to his Master’s service.

If You Read Just One

If you read just one of Thomas Brooks’ books, make it Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices. I read it recently and cannot even tell you how much I enjoyed it and how important it was to me.

Most Important Works

Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices

Heaven on Earth

The Secret Key to Heaven: The Vital Importance of Private Prayer

August 01, 2013

I love to receive challenges and lessons from unexpected places. Lately God has been teaching me so much through the book of Jonah. Yes, Jonah. Jonah is a book that ends in an unorthodox way. Where most books end with a satisfying conclusion, this one ends with a question mark. Where most books end with people or with God, the final word in Jonah is “cattle.” It’s all very strange. It’s all deeply challenging.

Even the context is odd. Jonah has just witnessed a miraculous city-wide revival with tens of thousands of people turning to the Lord in repentance and faith. Yet despite seeing this great work of God, Jonah’s reaction is one of anger. He is furious with God—so angry that he just wants to die. He would rather die than see these inhabitants of Nineveh call out to the Lord.

And as Jonah sits outside the city mourning the loss of a plant that had shaded him from the sun, God speaks to this rebellious prophet.

The Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

This is one of those classical biblical arguments from the lesser to the greater. God is saying, “You feel compassion for a plant. That’s good. But don’t you see how much greater people are than plants? If you pity the plant, which was here yesterday and gone today, shouldn’t you also pity people? Shouldn’t you pity them even more? And tell you what, even if you can’t bring yourself to pity these pagan people, can’t you at least muster up some sympathy for animals? Surely you don’t want me to destroy all of those animals, do you?”

God calls on Jonah to understand that he is seeing this all wrong. Jonah, the God-fearing prophet, should be rejoicing to see God save sinners. Instead he hates it. He believes that he and his fellow Jews are somehow worthy of God’s grace; he believes that all others—especially those dangerous, pagan Assyrians—are unworthy of grace.

And I think you and I are tempted to come to the end of the book and laugh at Jonah. We can roll our eyes in exasperation. “Jonah, you foolish, ignorant, xenophobic, pathetic man. Don’t you see? People are more important than plants! Only human beings are created in God’s image. Therefore nothing could have more value than people. You are a fool!” And we go our way.

Email Mistakes
July 31, 2013

I am convinced that some day we will all have a really good laugh at ourselves for ever using a form of communication as ridiculous as email. We will laugh that we ever tried to make it do the things we make it do. It is my hope that we will soon move to more efficient forms of communication.

In the meantime, though, we are stuck with email, and need to learn to use it well. I have put a lot of time and thought into the best email practices and have identified 8 dumb email mistakes you may be making (which is to say, 8 dumb email mistakes I have found myself making). Many of these mistakes apply to everyone, though some apply primarily to those of us who tend to sit at a desk most of the day.

1. You Check Email All Day

This is the most common of all email mistakes: leaving it open all day long and checking it constantly. I do not spend my days sitting outside the house, looking longingly down the sidewalk, hoping to see the mailman come walking into sight. I do not check my mailbox every five minutes all day long, hoping to find something good there. And yet this is exactly how so many of us behave with email. We monitor our inboxes constantly, hoping we will find something there, feeling the need to respond to every email as soon as it arrives. If this describes your behavior, ask yourself this question: Do I own email, or does email own me?

The solution is simple. Set aside specific times in the day you will check email and keep it closed at all other times. Most of us can make do very well even if we check only once or twice in a day. You may need to send emails throughout the day, but determine to check email only on a schedule. Here’s a hint: If you use GMail you should be able to use this URL to compose an email without seeing your inbox.

(I acknowledge that in some job situations you are required to monitor email all day. Even there, though, consider how you can bring self-control to bear.)

2. You Use Your Best Hours To Check Email

One of the most important things you can do for personal productivity is to reserve your best hours for your most important work. For some people those are hours late in the day; for most, though, they are the first hours of the day, somewhere between the second cup of coffee and the pre-lunch stomach rumbles. Unless email is the most important thing you do, keep it closed during those peak hours. Far better, go into those hours with a plan that will help you to use them well. If your peak productivity is between eight and noon, check email before or after that time, but not during it.

3. You Use Email For High Priority Communication

Email is a helpful medium for some kinds of communication, but a very poor one for others. It is at its worst when it comes to high priority messages and notifications. When we use email for high priority communication—family emergencies, church members asking for help from pastors, and so on—we are then forced to have it open in front of us all the time or to use notifications to alert us to each new mail.

Determine not to use email as your form of communication for emergencies or other high priority contact. If you have people who need to be able to get in touch with you at a moment’s notice, have them do it via phone or in person, not through email. This is crucial if you are going to reduce your dependence upon constantly checking email.

July 28, 2013

Today I continue this new Sunday series entitled “The Puritans.” I have a growing fascination with Puritan writing and decided it might be valuable to introduce you (and me!) to some of the most important Puritan writers. I will focus primarily on men whose works I have read in the past. Because I do not have the expertise to introduce the men or their work, I will be relying on experts like Joel Beeke and J.I.Packer to guide me. This week we meet Richard Sibbes.

Richard Sibbes was born in 1577 in the village of Tostock, Suffolk. He loved books as a child, even though his father, who was reportedly a “good, sound-hearted Christian,” was not happy about it. Being a wheelwright, he bought his son tools to take up the trade himself; but his interest in books won out, and at age 18 Sibbes entered St. John’s College.

In 1603, a year after graduating with his Masters, Sibbes was born again under the preaching of Paul Baynes, his “father in the gospel.” Five years later, Sibbes himself entered into the preaching ministry.

From 1608 until his death, Sibbes would hold preaching positions at numerous locations throughout England, most notably at Gray’s Inn in London and Holy Trinity in Cambridge. He also served as master of St. Catharine’s College for a season.

Sibbes’ noteworthy preaching—his most lasting legacy—appealed to Christians across the denominational spectrum and gave him a wide influence. He also maintained a large and diverse network of friends, including a number of politicians and fellow ministers (as seen in the fact that he authored at least 13 introductions for works written by other Puritans).

After a full and fruitful ministry, Sibbes passed away on July 5, 1635.

(I know what you’re thinking: What’s with the crown and collar? Truth be told, I’ve got no idea. But I’m kind of jealous.)

Unique Contribution

Sibbes is remembered most of all for his persuasive, Christ-centered preaching. “To preach is to woo,” he wrote. “The main scope of all [preaching] is, to allure us to the entertainment of Christ’s mild, safe, wise, victorious government.”

Beeke and Pederson quote the historian William Haller as saying that Sibbes’ sermons were “the most brilliant and popular of all the utterances of the Puritan church militant.” Even today Mark Dever makes it his habit to read Sibbes’ sermons aloud and to invite his church to listen along.

If You Read Just One

If you are going to read just one of Sibbes’ works, make it The Bruised Reed. This is an encouraging and pastoral book that will encourage you with the Lord’s love for you.

Most Important Works

Among his collected works, the most enduring are

July 25, 2013

We Evangelicals are known for our obsession with virginity. Now don’t get me wrong—I affirm that it is good and God-honoring to remain sexually pure before marriage (and within marriage and after marriage). As a pastor I want to teach the people in my care the value of having their first sexual experiences with their spouse in the marriage bed and not with a prom date in the back of a car. I want my children to value sexual purity and to understand that lust is not love, that love expresses itself in self-control. Virginity matters because sexual purity matters because God says it matters. But it is not the highest of virtues. It is not the measure of a godly young man or young woman. It is not the goal and the measure of Christian living.

This Evangelical obsession with virginity manifests itself in youth conferences where a flower is passed around a room, going from hand to hand, until the speaker can hold it up, all bent and twisted, and ask with a knowing grin, “Who would want a rose like this?” The teens look and say, “I would never want a rose like that.” But then there are the few who silently look away and weep because they are that rose. They learn they have been spoiled, that their beauty has been given away. (As Matt Chandler reminds us, Jesus wants the rose!)

The obsession manifests itself in the pre-marriage course where the young man who burned up his teens and early twenties staring at tens of thousands of pornographic images somehow thinks he holds the moral high ground over the young woman who had sex one time with one boyfriend. After all, he is a virgin and she is not. She is the one who ought to seek his forgiveness for giving to someone else what was rightly his.

It manifests itself in young people who ask questions about “technical virginity” like doing these sexual acts, which stop short of full-on sexual intercourse, are somehow less serious or less morally significant than going all the way. “It’s okay, I’m still a virgin!”

This obsession with virginity measures so many of the wrong things, asks so many of the wrong questions, delivers so many of the wrong answers.

Not only that, but this obsession causes such pain. Elevating virginity to the first place among the virtues hurts those who were raised in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, who were genuinely saved, who knew better, and who chose to ignore God’s good command. They may feel they sinned irreversibly, that this was the greatest of all sins, that they have been relegated to a lesser class of Christian, that they can only ever disappoint that future spouse.