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Tim Challies

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October 28, 2012

Last month saw the release of Thabiti Anyabwile’s most recent book The Life of God in the Soul of the Church. I had the privilege of reading the book well before publication and for some time now have been wanting to draw your attention to the closing pages which offer an interesting little glimpse of ministry in a very different context. As it does that it challenges each one of us in our relationships with other Christians and displays the joy of spiritual fellowship. Here is one of Thabiti’s early experiences of ministry on Grand Cayman.

When I first arrived at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman (Cayman Islands), I found a gentle, humble, eager-to-be-taught congregation of saints. From our arrival, greeted by a couple of dozen members of the congregation, my family and I have received nothing but warmth and love from the church.

However, a few weeks into our service here, we noticed a couple of things that struck us as odd. First, everyone we invited to our home for Sunday dinner turned us down. They were polite, and perhaps a little embarrassed. But everyone we welcomed to our home met us with the same reply. ‘Thanks for the invitation. But we already have plans.’

Second, we noticed that the church became a ghost town almost immediately following the service. There were a handful of people who lingered to greet others. But in those first few months we were in danger of recognizing people only by the back of their heads.

Was my preaching that bad? Was our company that unwanted?

As it turns out, we had a few things to learn about the culture of the Cayman Islands. Unlike most parts of the United States, where we are from, Caymanian culture remains very family-centered. Sundays after church means visiting mom and dad for family dinner with the extended kin. Not coming for family dinner is hardly imaginable. We were unknowingly kicking against the goads of a good cultural value and practice. So, we began to invite people on week nights and our social calendar began to fill.

But we also learned something else about our new church family. They had not yet learned the joy of spiritual fellowship. That’s not to say there weren’t genuine and long-standing friendships, or to say that people did not care for one another. We could see lots of people caring for others and enjoying lasting friendships. However, such caring and friendship tended to occur in smaller clusters of rather homogeneous groups. The caring was rooted in friendship, not in Christ and His body as a whole.

Two conversations stand out to me as defining moments for that first year. The first was a midweek dinner with an older couple in the church. They had become dear to us very quickly, adoptive parents in our new homeland. My wife and I decided to have them over simply to fellowship with them. About ten minutes into the meal, the wife of the couple gently laid down her knife and fork beside her plate. She placed her hands flatly on the table and sat upright in her chair. Then in a no-nonsense voice she said, ‘Okay. I can’t take this any longer. Why are we here? Did we do something wrong? Are we in trouble?’ The husband, surprised by the timing of his wife’s query, slowly lowered the fork an inch away from delivering chicken to his mouth. His face said the timing, not the question, surprised him. It was clear they both wondered why they had been invited.

My wife and I explained that there was no agenda other than to enjoy one another’s company, exchange our testimonies, and to perhaps encourage one another with discussion of our Lord and His work in our lives. As we explained, their shoulders relaxed. Smiles returned to their faces. We began to eat again. Then she explained, ‘I’ve been at the church for twenty years, and I’ve never been invited to a pastor’s home.’ You could have knocked me over with a feather. The Lord stamped that dinner conversation on my mind as an indication that we would need to set an example in recovering the biblical art of spiritual fellowship.

The second conversation—actually a recurring conversation—took place after our church services or over meals with members. It’s been my custom, learned from those faithful saints who discipled me, to ask Christians about their spiritual lives. Sometimes the questions are very general: ‘How is your spiritual life?’ Other times the questions are more specific or probing: ‘Tell me, what are you learning about our Lord these days that’s keeping you close to Him? How is your battle for joy or against sin? ’

As I asked these questions in that first year or two, the most frequent responses were: ‘That’s a tough question to answer,’ and, ‘I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that before.’ I receive those responses even when asking people the most basic spiritual questions.

From those exchanges, the Lord impressed upon me the need to root our spiritual relationships in the rich soil of gospel and biblical truth. We would need a community or culture of meaningful membership, widespread relationships and affection, and persistent inquiry and encouragement in our spiritual lives.

September 16, 2012

This week I came across a sermon by Charles Spurgeon in which he preaches on the Holy Spirit as the Comforter or Helper. As he comes to his conclusion, he suddenly turns on those who approach him with a word from the Lord. I share this excerpt because it is amusingly stated and because I find it interesting that he takes so hard a line against those who speak with a message from the Lord that does not originate in Scripture. “When my Lord and Master has any message to me He knows where I am…”

Dear Brothers and Sisters, honor the Spirit of God as you would honor Jesus Christ if He were present! If Jesus Christ not there! Do not ignore the Presence of the Holy Spirit in your soul! I beseech you, do not live as if you had not heard whether there were a Holy Spirit. To Him pay your constant adorations. Reverence the august Guest who has been pleased to make your body His sacred abode. Love Him, obey Him, worship Him!

Take care never to impute the vain imaginings of your fancy to Him. I have seen the Spirit of God shamefully dishonored by persons—I hope they were insane—who have said that they have had this and that revealed to them. There has not, for some years, passed over my head a single week in which I have not been pestered with the revelations of hypocrites or maniacs. Semi-lunatics are very fond of coming with messages from the Lord to me and it may save them some trouble if I tell them once and for all that I will have none of their stupid messages. When my Lord and Master has any message to me He knows where I am and He will send it to me direct, and not by mad-caps!  

Never dream that events are revealed to you by Heaven, or you may come to be like those idiots who dare impute their blatant follies to the Holy Spirit. If you feel your tongue itch to talk nonsense, trace it to the devil, not to the Spirit of God! Whatever is to be revealed by the Spirit to any of us is in the Word of God already—He adds nothing to the Bible, and never will. Let persons who have revelations of this, that, and the other, go to bed and wake up in their senses. 

I only wish they would follow the advice and no longer insult the Holy Spirit by laying their nonsense at His door. At the same time, since the Holy Spirit is with you, Beloved, in all your learning ask Him to teach you. In all your suffering ask Him to sustain you. In all your teaching ask Him to give you the right words. In all your witness-bearing ask Him to give you constant wisdom and in all service depend upon Him for His help. Believingly reckon upon the Holy Spirit. We do not continually take Him into our calculations as we should. We reckon up so many missionaries, so much money and so many schools—and so conclude the list of our forces. The Holy Spirit is our great need, not learning or culture! Little knowledge or great knowledge shall answer almost as well if the Spirit of God is there—but all your knowledge shall be worthless without Him.

Let but the Spirit of God come and all shall be right. I would we took the power of the Spirit into our calculations always. You have a class at school and do not feel fit to teach it—ask Him to help you and you do not know how well you will teach! You are called to preach, but you feel you cannot—you are dull and your talk will be flat, stale, unprofitable. Bring the Holy Spirit into it and if He fires you, you shall find even the slender materials you have collected will set the people on a blaze! We ought to reckon upon the Spirit—He is our main force—what if I say He is our only force and we grieve Him exceedingly when we do not reckon upon Him?

Love the Spirit. Worship the Spirit. Trust the Spirit. Obey the Spirit, and, as a Church, cry mightily to the Spirit! Beseech Him to let His mighty power be known and felt among you. The Lord fire your hearts with this sacred flame, for as this made Pentecost stand out from all other days, may it make the close of this year stand out in our history from all other years. Come, Holy Spirit, now! You are with us, but come with power and let us feel Your sacred might!

September 12, 2012

The American presidential election is almost upon us (even those of us who do not live in the United States) and one of the contentious issues in this election, as with most elections today, regards the distribution of wealth and the inequality of possessions. Is it right that the wealthy should have wealth taken from them and given to those who have less? Is there anything fundamentally wrong with some having more than others? Wayne Grudem’s short book Business for the Glory of God contains a very helpful section on this very matter.

Some inequality of possessions is fundamentally good and provides many opportunities for glorifying God, but also many temptations to sin; and some extreme inequalities are wrong in themselves.

It may seem surprising to us to think that some inequalities of possessions can be good and pleasing to God. However, although there is no sin or evil in heaven, the Bible teaches that there are varying degrees of reward in heaven and various kinds of stewardship that God entrusts to different people. When we stand before Jesus to give account of our lives, he will say to one person,

“You shall have authority over ten cities,”

and to another,

“You are to be over five cities” (Luke 19:17, 19).

Therefore there will be inequalities of stewardship and responsibility in the age to come. This means that the idea of inequality of stewardship in itself is given by God and must be good.

In a similar teaching, Paul, speaking to believers, says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). This implies degrees of reward for what we have done in this life. Many other passages teach or imply degrees of reward for believers at the final judgment. Even among the angels, there are differing levels of authority and stewardship established by God, and therefore we cannot say that such a system is wrong or sinful in itself.

Inequalities are necessary in a world that requires a great variety of tasks to be done. Some tasks require stewardship of large amounts of resources (such as ownership of a steel mill or a company that manufactures airplanes), and some tasks require stewardship of small amounts of resources. And God has given some people greater abilities than others, abilities in artistic or musical skills, abilities in mathematics or science, abilities in leadership, abilities in business skills and buying and selling, and so forth. If reward for each person’s labor is given fairly and is based on the value of what that person produces, then those with larger abilities will naturally gain larger rewards. Since people are different in abilities and effort, I don’t think there could be a fair system of rewards for work unless the system had different rewards for different people. Fairness of reward requires such differences.

September 02, 2012

John Flavel was one of the great Puritan preachers and authors. Much of Flavel’s ministry was toward sailors, so he often relied on nautical metaphors and terminology. In An Honest, Well Experienced Heart, Adam Embry shares a poem titled “My Naughty Heart.” “Naughty” rhymes with “knotty,” a play on words that falls in the middle of the piece. Flavel writes of a heart that is so often steered in the wrong direction.

A ship of greatest burthen will obey
The rudder; he that sits at helm, may sway
And guide its motion: If the pilot please,
The ship bears up, against both wind and seas.
My soul’s the ship, affections are its sails,
Conscience is the rudder. Ah! But Lord, what ails
My naughty heart, to shuffle in and out,
When its convictions bid it tack about?
Temptations blow a counter blast, and drive
The vessel where they please, tho’ conscience strive.
And by its stronger persuasions it would force,
My stubborn will to steer another course.
Lord, if I run this course, thy word doth tell,
How quickly I must needs arrive in hell.
Then rectify my conscience, change my will;
Fan in thy pleasant gales, my God, and fill,
All my affections, and let nothing carry,
My soul from its due course, or make it vary;
Then if the pilot’s work thou wouldst perform.
I should bear bravely up against the storm.

A Living Example
August 31, 2012

I have been reading (or, more accurately, listening to) the book Columbine by Dave Cullen. Written ten years after the 1999 school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, it seeks to be the definitive account of an event that left an indelible mark on America and the world. As I listened yesterday on my way home from the office, there was a short section that leapt out at me. It takes place in the immediate aftermath, just hours after the shootings erupted. The last survivors have been brought to their parents and a few families remain, grappling with the reality that their children will never return.  

At Leawood, even the resilient families were faltering. Nothing had changed: no buses, no word, for hours on end. District Attorney Dave Thomas tried to comfort the families. He knew which ones would need it. He had thirteen names in his breast pocket. Ten students had been identified in the library, and two more outside, based on their clothing and appearance. One teacher lay in Science Room 3. All deceased. It was a solid list, but not definitive. Thomas kept it to himself. He told the parents not to worry.

At eight o’clock, they were moved to another room. Sheriff Stone introduced the coroner. She handed out forms asking for descriptions of their kids’ clothing and other physical details. That’s when John Tomlin realized the truth. The coroner asked them to retrieve their kids’ dental records. That went over unevenly. Many took it gravely; others perked up. They had a task, finally, and hope for resolution.

A women leapt up. “Where is that other bus!” she demanded.

There was no bus. “There was never another bus,” Doreen Tomlin said later. “It was like a false hope they gave you.” Many parents felt betrayed. Brian Rohrbough later accused the school officials of lying; Misty Bernall also felt deceived. “Not intentionally, perhaps, but deceived nonetheless,” she wrote. “And so bitterly that it almost choked me.”

Sheriff Stone told them that most of the dead kids had been in the library. “John always went to the library,” Doreen said. “I felt like I was going to pass out. I felt sick.”

She felt sadness but not surprise. Doreen was an Evangelical Christian, and believed the Lord had been preparing her for the news all afternoon. Most of the Evangelicals reacted differently than the other parents. The press had been cleared from the area, but Lynn Duff was assisting the families as a Red Cross volunteer. A liberal Jew from San Francisco, she was taken aback by what she saw.

“The way that those families reacted was markedly different,” she said. “It was like a hundred and eighty degrees from where everybody else was. They were singing; they were praying; they were comforting the other parents, especially the parents of Isaiah Shoels [the only African American killed]. They were thinking a lot about the other parents, the other families, and responding a lot to other people’s needs. They were definitely in pain, and you could see the pain in their eyes, but they were very confident of where their kids were. They were at peace with it. It was like they were a living example of their faith.”

I think every parent wonders how they would react in the face of tragedy, and especially a tragedy as painful as the loss of a child. Here at Columbine we see Christians being Christians even at that darkest hour. Here we see the reality that God really does give grace when grace is needed.

August 26, 2012

John and Betty Stam served with China Inland Missions in the 1930’s. In December of 1934 they fell into the hands of Communist insurgents and were soon executed, dying as missionary martyrs. Both had been raised in Christian homes and both had parents who supported their desire to be missionaries. A short time after they were put to death, John’s father wrote this beautiful letter in which he so powerful expressed both joy and grief, declaring that there is no sacrifice too great to make for the One who gave all he had for us.

Our dear children, John Stam and Elisabeth Scott Stam, have gone to be with the Lord. They loved him, they served him, and now they are with him. What could be more glorious? It is true, the manner in which they were sent out of this world was a shock to us all, but whatever of suffering they may have endured is now past, and they are both infinitely blessed with the joys of heaven.

As for those of us who have been left behind, we were once more reminded of our sacred vows by a telegram received from one of John’s schoolmates in the Midwest—”Remember, you gave John to God, not to China.” Our hearts, though bowed for a little while with sadness, answered “Amen!” It was our desire that he, as well as we, should serve the Lord, and if that could be better done by death than by life, we would have it so. The sacrifice may seem great now, but no sacrifice is too great to make for him who gave himself for us.

We are earnestly praying that it will all be for God’s glory and the salvation of souls. How glad we shall be if through this dreadful experience many souls shall be won for the Lord Jesus! How glad we shall be if many dear Christian young people shall be inspired to give themselves to the Lord as never before, for a life of sacrifice and service!

We were honored by having sons and daughters minister for our Lord among the heathen, but we are more signally honored that two of them have won the martyr’s crown. We are sure that our dear brother and sister, Dr. and Mrs. Charles Scott, both join us in saying, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

August 19, 2012

Here is some wisdom from Mark Dever, drawn from What Is a Healthy Church?. He offers up six considerations for before you decide to leave a church and four to apply if you decide that you must leave.

Before You Decide to Leave

  1. Pray.
  2. Let your current pastor know about your thinking before you move to another church or make your decision to relocate to another city. Ask for his counsel.
  3. Weigh your motives. Is your desire to leave because of sinful, personal conflict or disappointment? If it’s because of doctrinal reasons, are these doctrinal issues significant?
  4. Do everything within your power to reconcile any broken relationships.
  5. Be sure to consider all the “evidences of grace” you’ve seen in the church’s life—places where God’s work is evident. If you cannot see any evidences of God’s grace, you might want to examine your own heart once more (Matt. 7:3-5).
  6. Be humble. Recognize you don’t have all the facts and assess people and circumstances charitably (give them the benefit of the doubt).

If You Go

  1. Don’t divide the body.
  2. Take the utmost care not to sow discontent even among your closest friends. Remember, you don’t want anything to hinder their growth in grace in this church. Deny any desire to gossip (sometimes referred to as “venting” or “saying how you feel”).
  3. Pray for and bless the congregation and its leadership. Look for ways of doing this practically.
  4. If there has been hurt, then forgive—even as you have been forgiven.

August 12, 2012

I have been reading a lot of history and biography in recent weeks, from books on the history of Mormonism to books portraying characters as diverse as Abraham Lincoln and Queen Elizabeth II. One thing that has stood out to me in my reading is how seldom unbelieving authors accurately portray the beliefs of Christians. I read only some of Mary Rubio’s Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (a fitting read while on Prince Edward Island) before coming across this quote:

The Presbyterian church was located in the centre of the community, on land provided by Maud’s Mcneill clan. The Presbyterian Church was organized democratically, with power resting at the local level: historically, in Scotland, it had been a hothouse of violent internal feuds. Indeed, in Cavendish, there was also a Baptist church—founded by disgruntled Presbyterians—at the other end of the village. Serious doctrinal differences divided the two churches. The Baptists believed in salvation from sin by the ritual of immersion and public confession. Presbyterians thought sinful man could not achieve salvation so easily: many still believed in “Predestination,” the doctrine holding that man was inherently sinful, and only God determined who would be “saved.” These “Elect” (the “chosen ones”) were believed to be picked by an omnipotent God’s arbitrary will and pleasure—not necessarily by their good deeds in life. Still, children were taught to behave themselves, as there was no point in taking chances. Bad behavior suggested exclusion from the “Elect.”

I hardly know where to begin! Rubio is a lifelong scholar and student of her subject’s life, yet she could hardly have packed more mistakes into such a small paragraph. I suppose you might say that Presbyterian churches are “organized democratically” and you might say that “power rests at the local level,” but that requires some degree of nuance since Presbyterian churches are not independent and the quote suggests. Baptists do not believe in salvation by immersion and confession and, in fact, are very likely, especially in that day, to believe just what Presbyterians believe about predestination. Speaking of which, no Presbyterian (or Baptist, for that) holds that God chooses his people by “arbitrary will and pleasure.” The word “necessarily” should necessarily be removed when she seems to suggest that some Presbyterians would hold that God chooses on the basis of works. I also doubt too many genuine believers were raising their children to put on a good show because bad childish behavior suggested exclusion from the “Elect.”

This is just one example of the many, many faulty attempts I’ve witnessed.