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Banner of Truth 2008

April 15, 2009

John MacArthur has kicked off a bit of controversy with his posts on Song of Solomon and, in particular, with his rationale for doing so—addressing pastors who, when preaching through the book, “employ extremely graphic descriptions of physical intimacy as a way of expounding on the euphemisms in Solomon’s poem.” In his first two articles he has singled out Mark Driscoll as one he considers a prime offender. This will be the last time the name Driscoll comes up in this article; I really do not want his name to sideline any discussion.

As I wrote in yesterday’s A La Carte, I think this is a discussion that we will all benefit from. I look forward to hearing what Dr. MacArthur has to say about Song of Solomon and a proper, biblical way of understanding, interpreting and preaching it. I think his long and faithful ministry has given him the right to speak out and speak up. We’d be foolish to immediately write him off as old and irrelevant and out-of-touch (as some are doing, based on what I’ve seen in blog comments). There is no need to be defensive here! The men he is writing against are all big boys and can handle what he says and the discussion that will ensue.

And already I have read some interesting discussion. For example, Erik Raymond gave me some things to think about when he gave two reasons that he is uncomfortable with all the talk of sex coming out of evangelicalism today. Here is what he wrote:

1. The emphasis upon sex has become so strong that it has begun to sound like our message. The danger here is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is regrettably assumed, neglected or forgotten. When many evangelicals begin to ride the waves of media popularity and are given a platform to speak, they sound more and more like sex coaches than ministers of a message. Somewhere along the way that which is of first importance gets shelved.

2. Most of the way in which these pastors handle the text is just flat out troubling. Often times we are given a reading of a verse or a section and then the pastor launches off into sexual advice and counsel. And when there is something that is legitimately debated among Bible teachers the issue is not dealt with responsibly (in my view) but rather quickly. The text then, which has not been adequately unpacked within its context, is then made prescriptive for the Christian.

I have listened to a couple of sermons of the kind MacArthur is reacting against—sermons which tend to look at Song of Solomon line-by-line, expressing how each metaphor, each poetic device, describes a particular part of the body or a particular sexual act. I have been bothered by such sermons for two reasons. The first lines up with what Erik wrote above: the poor handling of the text. Turning Song of Solomon into a how-to manual that describes or prescribes certain acts is to miss the point of the book. As MacArthur says, “It is, of course, a lengthy poem about courtship and marital love. It is filled with euphemisms and word pictures. Its whole point is gently, subtly, and elegantly to express the emotional and physical intimacy of marital love—in language suitable for any audience.”

The other reason is one for which I’d be interested in feedback. Song of Solomon is poetry and as such, should not be treated, exposited, in the same way as prose. Not too many people would disagree with this. It strikes me as well that Song of Solomon is substantially different from other kinds of biblical poetry. If we compare one of David’s Psalms to Song of Solomon we see that they are tangibly different. So while it may make sense to progress line-by-line through Psalm 119, interpreting each line, it seems to me that Song of Solomon does not give itself to this kind of interpretation. Song of Solomon is an expression of wonder, an expression of joy, an expression of mystery. Or that’s certainly how it appears to me. I don’t think we are supposed to understand it in a word-by-word, line-by-line sense as we might the book of Romans.

MacArthur quotes a few lines. They are worth reading just for the beauty of the poetry and the creativity of the imagery:

A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
A rock garden locked, a spring sealed up.
Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
With choice fruits, henna with nard plants,
Nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
With all the trees of frankincense,
Myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest spices.
You are a garden spring,
A well of fresh water,
And streams flowing from Lebanon.”
Awake, O north wind,
And come, wind of the south;
Make my garden breathe out fragrance,
Let its spices be wafted abroad.
May my beloved come into his garden
And eat its choice fruits!”

MacArthur says it right, I’m sure, when he says “Let’s face it: overall, the Song is about as far from explicit as the writer can get.” Had the author wanted to be explicit, he could have done so. Instead, he wrote in poetry, in metaphor, carefully crafting a poem that is full of mystery. “Song of Solomon is incredibly beautiful precisely because it is so carefully veiled. It is a perfect description of the wonderful, tender, intimate discovery that God designed to take place between a young man and his bride in a place of secrecy. We are not told in vivid terms what all the metaphors mean, because the beauty of marital passion is in the eye of the beholder—where it should stay.” To remove the veil is to remove the beauty!

So here is what I am wondering. Don’t we do damage to the Song of Solomon when we seek to interpret and explain every line? To use an old cliche, don’t we miss the forest for the trees? Isn’t it better to leave some mystery in the Song, understanding themes but ultimately finding satisfaction not in drawing a one-to-one comparison between metaphor and act, poetry and body part, but rather in seeing it as one man’s attempt at expressing the joy, the wonder and the mystery of sex and sexuality? Isn’t the very reason he had to use poetry was that prose just couldn’t express the wonder? The beauty and the mystery of the Song go hand-in-hand. To remove one is to remove the other.

May 29, 2008

Last night I grabbed a few of the newest Banner books from the rather well-stocked bookstore here at the conference.

This morning Rick Phillips preached his second message on the book of Hebrews, this was entitled “Outside the Camp.” It was based on Hebrews 13:9-14: “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” Those who were at Together for the Gospel will note that this was the same text that John Piper spoke on and while Phillips’ sermon was very different, there was certainly some overlap. He focused especially on verses 12 and 13, saying that these verses are the very heart of Hebrews. It is the heart of the pastoral message and motive that is being given to these Christians (and to us today). He warned against the lure of false teaching that draws big crowds and wins popularity and encouraged instead that pastors need to be willing to go outside the camp and to suffer there with Christ. The suffering of pastors as they face persecution for the message they preach is the same suffering that Christ passed through when He was on the cross. Pastors must be willing to bear the reproach that Christ has already endured.

After a brief break, Ian Hamilton took the pulpit to preach his second message, titled “The Minister’s Character.” His text was Isaiah 42:1-5. Looking to this text he showed that here we are introduced to the servant of the Lord—Jesus Christ Himself. There is no other kind of gospel ministry than that of servant ministry. So pastors need to consider, ponder, behold this servant. God raises up servant, the second man, the second Adam. He is God’s answer to the darkness and vanity. We see here that he is set up as the model of true servanthood.

Servants are answerable only to God and are committed to doing His will come what may. We are not only the servants of God but also of the people of God. If you do not have a heart for God’s people, you should not be in Christian ministry. If our hearers do not feel that they matter to us more than life itself, if they do not see, hear and feel in what we say to them and how we interact with them than their good matters to us more than life itself, our preaching will never impact their lives.

The remainder of the message was structured around found things the Lord tells us to behold in this passage. What is it that He is particularly reminding us to behold in Christ?

His complete dependence on God (“whom I uphold”) - The Savior was upheld by God and the Spirit of God was placed upon Him. It was by the power and grace that He was enabled to carry out His ministry. He lived and ministered in humble dependence upon His Father.

His unyielding faithfulness to God - He would allow nothing to distract or divert, far less determine, what He would do. He was utterly faithful to the calling God had given Him. We need to let this mind be in us—that Christ had a commission from the Father and though it would cost Him everything, He would pursue and fulfill it. Being united to this servant of the Lord, we must go through many tribulations to enter the kingdom.

His personal humility before God - The servant’s service was humble. He does not shout others down or seek to promote himself at the expense of others, for He is the servant of Jehovah. It is never enough to speak the truth; the way we speak the truth is every bit as important as the truth we seek.

His servant’s unimaginable grace that magnifies God - The Lord’s servant in this chapter is not less than God himself. He is the true revelation of Jehovah. Here is the animating pulse of the servant’s ministry—He is gentle with the weak and the fragile. But it is far easier to preach grace than to practice it. Christ doesn’t just welcome sinners—He runs after sinners and embraces them. Does this kind of grace mark our ministries? Does it mark our churches?

And finally, we need to note that God says “Behold my servant…in whom I delight.” God delights in those who preach His Word and He loves them. This gives grace and confidence to the servants of the Lord.

May 28, 2008

This evening’s session was based around a talk given by Iain Murray and entitled “Our Present Needs.” It was a message that felt like an older pastor lovingly exhorting younger pastors. He covered three great needs for pastors (he spoke in the first person plural and I will do the same even though the “we” doesn’t really apply to me as a layperson!).

Our Need for Less Self Confidence

Calvin’s Institutes begins with by saying that sound wisdom begins with two parts—the knowledge of God and of ourselves. When we are young we pursue the knowledge of God but often omit the knowledge of ourselves. We assume that the knowledge of ourselves is a comparatively easy study but this is really an expression of our self-confidence.

He showed a few ways that we inadvertently display our self confidence.

First, we set out in our work, find difficulties, and tend to think that they are not insurmountable; if we give ourselves to it we shall overcome and win. But we come to find that there are difficulties that can be overcome and we tend not to anticipate this. We do not realize the importance of spending time in the school of failure. We have to learn our inability.

Second, we show our self-confidence in our prayer lives. We all confess there is a discrepancy between what we believe about prayer and what we actually do. We could offer many reasons that this is so. God has given us great promises and yet we pray in secret so little.

A third illustration of self-confidence is in the satisfaction we have with our theology. The Lord has taught us certain great truths and we should love and honor these. Among these truths we hold fast to the doctrines of grace and in the past fifty years there has been a remarkable recovery in these doctrines. But the danger comes that when men think they’ve ascended to these heights they feel they’ve mastered any point of theology. There can be a satisfaction in theology that is warranted in the Scriptures, but we do well to remember that the most advanced in the school of Christ are still but little beginners. There is so much we do not know and do not understand. The man who thinks he knows anything knows nothing. “We are called to preach far more than we understand.”

Our need of increased and persevering faith in God

When we consider our weakness and our inability, is it not amazing how many have done such great things for the cause of Christ? Faith is the mainspring of the Christian life and ministry. With all that the Bible says about faith and the importance given to it, it is no surprise that our faith is the main point of Satan’s attack. There is such a thing as being an “unbelieving believer.” In a real sense this applies to all of us.

We need an increase in faith in Scripture as the Word of God. Such is the perversity of our nature that we can become hardened even during the exercise of studying the Bible week after week, day after day. One can study Scripture and be dry as a bone. We can become people who feel nothing for the Word we preach.

We need an increase in faith in all of God’s attributes but particularly in His goodness and love. The first temptation of Satan was to tempt Eve to doubt the goodness of God. The message of the Bible is that God is benevolent and that He is friendly-minded towards sinners. Murray offered two reasons that this area needs to be strengthened: our spiritual happiness depends upon it and the recovery of the orthodox faith depends upon it. We can err in giving the impression sometimes that God is just interested in a small number of people whom He favors while the rest of mankind is outside of His compassion and interest. The way to counter this is to show God’s love for sinners. We can also fall into the trap of repeating truths but ones that have not been properly digested and meditated upon. For many people the intellectual priorities are too high while the priority of reaching the lost and serving the church is too low.

Our Need for Guidance on the Best Use of Our Time

When we first became Christians we became aware of the fact that time is precious; time is short. But as we get older it is a solemn reality that there is a divine inspection before us. We will all stand before the Judgment Seat to give an accounting. Only what Christ does in and with and through us will last; only that is of spiritual value. Should we not dedicate our time to those things? We need guidance about the best way to use the time we’ve been given. We need guidance to do the things we’re called to do and to leave aside the things we’re not called to do.

Here he offered six points directed especially to young men:

  1. It has been the practice for many ministers to be away from the routine and to look closely at our lives in the light of eternity. This is a valuable practice—taking a day per month or a few days per year.
  2. Watch your own temperament. If you love being out and about you probably need to be in your study more; if you love to be in your study you may need to be out and about more.
  3. Read the best books and only the best and read them with a pencil in your hand or with some other system so you can recall even years later what you’ve learned.
  4. Be sure you do not let emails and web sites control your priorities.
  5. We need very carefully to avoid losing time on controversies. Sometimes it is necessary but most often it is not.
  6. Do not “see” in your churches what you cannot change. In most churches there are things we’d like to see changed but that we can’t change. Sometimes it is good not to see such things—to just ignore them. It is better not to see a disputable matter that can disrupt the whole church.

The Need to Pray for a Great Awakening

We can become so accustomed to the status quo that we stop anticipating great change. The keenness of our expectation slowly disappears. Very few ministers keep up the edge on their spirit that was there at first. There is a sense in which being dissatisfied with the present is sinful, but we can still eagerly anticipate God’s works. The extraordinary is not ordinary and there is a real sense in which we need to be satisfied with what God is doing now. But at the same time it is true that we need to expect great things from God.

Murray’s final exhortation was this: we may not see a revival in our lifetimes but we have a present duty to be filled with the Spirit. There is a great danger that we’ve lost the awareness of the changes in our ministries if God was to fill us with the Holy Spirit.

This was a wonderful message and one that seemed to move the men in attendance. If you can find the audio, listen to it!

May 28, 2008

I had a good and restful evening last night. My roommates never showed up (or maybe I was never assigned any). Regardless, I got to bed early and woke up early; just the way I like it! I enjoyed breakfast with some fellow Reformed Baptists, though these ones hail from Maryland. It was good to spend some time with them.

This morning began with a sermon from Rick Phillips, whom I’ve written about several times in connection to his involvement with the Reformed Expository Commentary series. He preached on Hebrews 7:26-28 (and having written a commentary on the book he is well qualified). This is the first of two messages he’ll preach. This one was meant to lay much of the ground work with the bulk of the application coming in the second.

The passage he spoke on is one of the great chapters in the Bible and is Scripture’s most concentrated teaching on Jesus’ High Priesthood. His sermon reminded me of James Boice’s “Where is the Lamb?” sermon that he preached many times. From this text Phillips taught that there are four things that must be asked about any sacrifice: what is offered; to whom it is offered; by whom it is offered; for whom it is offered. He moved through each of these headings showing that the sacrifice was for sinful man under condemnation of the law; that it was offered to the Holy God; that Christ Himself was offered; and that it was offered for the sake of those who would be Christ’s. He taught that though “Where is the lamb?” is a great question, we must also ask “Where is the true priest?”

He offered just a few words of application to the pastors here, focusing on the necessity of preaching on sin and atoning blood. Those Old Testament sacrifices always pointed forward to Christ; as blood was so central in the sacrificial system, so Christ’s blood must be central to the theology of the New Testament church. His exhortation was to hold to this theology and to preach this theology with boldness.

After a short break, we enjoyed a sermon by Iain Hamilton entitled “The Minister’s Calling. ” He preached from Romans 11:33-36. It was a message very much geared towards pastors and very much encouraging them to press on in their calling to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ even as they deal with the tough times that are inevitable to those who are called to minister.

May 27, 2008

This morning I headed to the airport and made the brief hop to Harrisburg, PA. It was a short flight (just over an hour) on the tiniest plane I’ve flown on. You know it’s a small flight when the guy who takes your bags planeside (and who checks your seat belts and who explains the emergency exit procedures) pulls off his orange safety vest, jumps into the cockpit and flies the plane! The plane was hot and smelly and small enough that there was no snack service, but I was engrossed in a book and barely noticed. Incidentally, have you ever noticed how the smaller the plane, the more the pilot flies it like a fighter jet? I’m pretty accustomed to flying by now but there were a few times where my stomach fell to the floor! What a ride.

Anyways, I am here for the Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference. This is my last conference for the year (or for the spring at least). Though I am feeling a mite “conferenced out,” I really did want to experience Banner of Truth—the original Reformed ministry and Reformed conference. Before there was Together for the Gospel or The Basics or Ligonier or any of these, there was Banner of Truth. It has long stood firm and has brought us countless numbers of great books. We are gathered here on the campus of Messiah College and look forward to messages from Iain Murray, Rick Phillips, Ian Hamilton, David Troxel and David Campbell. A couple hundred men have gathered here to enjoy this event and to enjoy fellowship together. Though there are nine plenary sessions, it looks like the schedule allows for a fair bit of off-time, ideal for catching up with old friends (I’ve already met a couple of friends I didn’t know would be here). I’ll be bringing updates over the next couple of days before heading home Thursday afternoon.

The first sermon came courtesy of Iain Murray and he spoke on John 21:18-19—the last command of Jesus. He spoke to the pastors here of what it means to follow Christ and to live life in His presence and for His service.

After this message we broke for dinner and I observed that this conference is one that functions almost like a fellowship. Many men clearly come year after year and on the first day there are reunions all around. I ended up eating at a table filled with Canadians (and one American), some of whom went to the churches I did back in my younger days. It was good to meet them for the first time in many years and to catch up on all that has happened since. And then I hurried back to my dorm to guest on Moody Radio’s Prime Time America (you can probably find the archived audio on the site if you care to listen. You can likely guess what we were discussing. I was on 1.5 hours into the program if you want to fast forward).

And as I write this we are at the end of the conference’s second message, a sermon by Craig Troxel entitled “Fan the Flame” and expositing 2 Timothy 1:6. I’m in a hurry to post this because Iain Murray is going to lead a guided tour of the bookstore (a task that usually falls to Sinclair Ferguson who, unfortunately, was not able to be here this year). It will be interesting, I’m sure, to gain Murray’s perspective on these books (all of which are published by Banner of Truth).

I’ll check in again tomorrow…

November 02, 2006

Thursday November 2, 2006

Children: Amy points out a phenomenon my wife and I also noticed: “Whoever invented Daylight Saving Time did not have a baby in the house.”

Health: Jollyblogger points to a strange and interesting story about “Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert - how he lost his voice and got it back.”

Audio: Earlier this week John MacArthur was guest on Al Mohler’s radio program. You can hear the discussion here.

Church: Thabiti Anyabwile shares pictures from a baptism service he conducted for his new church on Grand Cayman.

Politics: An article by SunMedia shows how many immigrants find ways of bringing parents and siblings into Canada - quite simply, they marry them!