the gospel

How to Keep Going in Christian Ministry

I got this blog post in my email inbox this morning. It’s from “Practical Shepherding,” one of the most useful and, well, practical ministry blogs I follow. Well worth the (short) read:

One of my pastoral teachers and heroes, Bill Hughes, said goodbye to his beloved wife of over 60 years this past week who met her Savior in glory and is no longer suffering.  Bill spent most of his long and faithful ministry serving in Scotland.  Thinking about and praying for Bill this week reminded me of a simple, but profound truth I learned from him about how to endure through the constant struggles of pastoral ministry.  In an exposition of 2 Corinthians 4 I once heard Bill Hughes preach, he made this observation to answer the nagging question, “How do I endure through the difficulties of pastoral ministry?”

“Never forget the debt to mercy we owe.”

See what I mean?  Simple.  Stunningly true.  Yet, when measured against anything we might face as pastors, it produces endurance in every trial, struggle, and difficulty.  Bill instructed that when we remember who we once were and the amazing debt to mercy we owe to our Savior, we will be more patient, gracious, and merciful to even the most stubborn and petty of conflicts and complaints we experience in the church.  Likewise, if we forget who we once were  and presume upon this debt to mercy in the gospel, those same petty people and issues will eat us up and will destroy us and our ministry.

Dear brothers, if you find yourself discouraged, angry, wondering why some of your people do and say what they do and you can’t take it any more…do not forget the debt to mercy you owe.  It is a debt greater than you and I could ever payback.  It is a debt that should weigh heavier on our joyful hearts than the most difficult person in our church.  Apply this truth that I was so powerfully taught to me by this sweet and faithful man and see if you then find the hope and perspective you need for that struggling person or circumstance you face in your ministry.

Justin Taylor’s Review of “What’s Best Next”

whats best next book cover 2Justin Taylor, blogger at The Gospel Coalition, has written a short review and roundup of opinions regarding Matt Perman’s new book, What’s Best NextTaylor writes,

To my knowledge, there is no one writing today who has thought more deeply about the relationship between the gospel and productivity. You will find in these pages a unique and remarkable combination of theological insight, biblical instruction, and practical counsel that would change the world if put into practice. I could not recommend it more highly.

I don’t think Taylor is exaggerating, and so I encourage you to pick up a copy on Amazon or WTS. It releases today, March 4th.

Did Jesus Exist? Part 1: What the Greeks and Romans Said

How do we know that Jesus actually existed?

In the four Gospels we have about 300 individual and unique literary units all generated by this figure: Jesus Christ. There’s no doubt that the early church thought he existed. Their lives were radically changed because of who he was, what he did, and the things said. But how do we know that our gospels aren’t simply Christian delusion, or the result of an ancient conspiracy that went just a little better than planned? Are the Gospels the only place that we hear about Jesus?

The answer is a firm “no.” We have several written documents besides the Gospels that mention Jesus. While it’s true that the Gospels are the main place we hear about Jesus, it’s not true that they’re the only place. Other ancient witnesses testify to the existence of Jesus. And even though that doesn’t settle the question, “was he who he said he was?” it does answer the question, “did he exist to say these things?” And that’s what I want to focus on in these posts. What evidence, outside the four Gospels, do we have for Jesus’ existence?

Greco-Roman Sources

1. Tacitus

Tacitus (AD 56-117) was a Roman historian who described the persecution that Christians faced during Nero’s reign. Tacitus refers to Jesus through his latin name, “Christus.” Speaking of the Christians, he says

“They got their name from Christus who was sentenced to death during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.”

Annals, 15.44.

Tactitus goes on to describe the way that the Christian movement was “checked,” or stopped, because of the crucifixion of Jesus. Unfortunately for the Romans, the movement “broke out” once again both in Judea and in Rome.

… a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome

Annals, 15.44.  It’s clear that Tacitus thought of Christians as a nuisance. His words mock Christianity, “mischievous superstition,” “evil.” Tactitus’ historiographical skill and anti-Christian bent leads many scholars to believe that Annals 15.44 is the most important and trustworthy reference to Christians and Christ we have outside the Gospels themselves. There is no way that a Christian would refer to their own movement in this way.

2. Suetonius

In the early second century (100’s), another Roman historian, Suetonius, wrote,

Because the Jews at Rom caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from the city

Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars, §25. There’s a lot of debate about this section in Suetonius’ history. One of the main issues is whether Suetonius is actually referring to the Christ, Jesus. The “misspelling,” is at the root of the confusion. Is “Chrestus” a reference to Christ? Or is this another figure in Rome?

I’m inclined to say that Suetonius is referring to Christ for two main reasons:

  1. The Jews and Christians in Rome (and everywhere) did not get along. The book of Acts testifies to this. 1st century Jews and Jewish Christians had numerous irreconcilable religious differences that would have (and did) lead to many disputes and conflict. This would’ve happened in Rome only if there were someone for them to fight with: those instigated by Christ, the Christians.
  2. The majority (though not all) of writing I’ve read on this quote seems to evaluate it this way: “a garbled reference to Christ.” Once you’ve considered Tactitus’ reference to Christ and Pliny’s reference to the problems Christians are making him face, that seems to be a fair evaluation. Christians probably did exist to create these issues for government.

3. Pliny the Younger

Around the same time, in the early second century, a governor of Bithynia (in Asia) named Pliny the Younger wrote to the emperor Trajan wanting to know how to deal with Christians who wouldn’t worship Trajan. Pliny mentions “that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn to Christ as to a god.” Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, pg 5-7, cited Four Gospels, One Jesus, pg 39 by Mark Strauss.

Darrel Bock, in his class on the “Life of Christ,” says that the evidence of opponents can sometimes be worth more than we first think. It’s especially true in this case. In Pliny the Younger, we have an enemy of Christianity with something very important to say: the Christian trouble-makers worshiped Christ as though he were a God.

A Pending Conclusion

“In summary, Greco Roman writers of the late first and early second centuries are aware that Jesus was a Judean who was crucifed by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, and that his followers now venerated him as a god.”

There are certain questions that historical research can (usually) answer: Did a person exist? What did they say? How were they received? These are all legitimate questions that can be addressed by going to the sources. It does seem Jesus existed. We do have a record of what he said. And we know exactly how he was received: at once with enthusiasm, and finally with blows. But there are questions that historical inquiry cannot answer: Is it true? Of how much value was this person? Were they justified in doing what they did? Once these kinds of questions are run through a text, they us up off the ground and into the air of evaluation and judgement.

But because of these 3 Greco Roman sources we have this firm ground beneath our feet: A Judean man. Governed by Pontius Pilate. Crucified. Worshiped. [1] That’s what the Greek and Roman sources tell us.

1. Four Gospels, One Jesus, pg 39 by Mark Strauss.

The New Testament & Old Testament in 10 Minutes

These two videos has been making their rounds across the Christian blogosphere. In them you’ll see two trustworthy and articulate thinkers presenting the essence of each Testament. The essence. See, for yourself, if the Bible is an amazingly unified whole:

The Old Testament in 10 Minutes

The New Testament in 10 Minutes

The Unforgivable Sin: Is It Really Unforgivable?

(This is the second installment of two posts on the “unforgivable sin.” The first post answers the question, “what is it?” This second post answers the question, “Can I repent of the unforgivable sin?”)

This post is going to be less interesting to most people, and that’s okay with me. It’s going to answer a question that you could phrase several ways:

  • Can I repent of the unforgivable sin?
  • If I think I’ve committed the unforgivable sin, can I ask for God’s forgiveness?
  • Is there any way to “take back” blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?

A few people are at least a little bit curious about what the unforgivable sin is. Fewer still are convinced that they’ve done it, and now need to deal with the consequences. That smaller group of people is, I assume, the kind of people whose consciences are sensitive to their state before God. And for that reason there’s no way I can make light of this question. For some, even if it is a select few, the question is real: “How can I repent of the unforgivable sin if I think I’ve committed it?”

So, Can You Be Forgiven?

Here’s my answer: As long as you want to be forgiven, you can be assured that you haven’t even committed the “unforgivable sin.”

I come to that conclusion based on these things:

  1. The context (before and after material) of the passage
  2. A definition of the “unforgivable sin” based on that context
  3. A basic theological framework

1. The Context

It’s really unfair, you might even say irresponsible, to try and lift the passage up and out of it’s context. So remember the conclusions drawn from the the previous post: The situation is the Jewish Religious Leadership’s repeated, repeated, repeated, dismissal and denunciation of Jesus’ work. They saw what Jesus did on a regular basis and persisted, to the very end, to denounce his work as coming from Satan and not God. The four Gospels give us no reason to believe that they ever turned away from their unbelief and toward Christ in faith. We’re dealing with people who are Jesus’ enemies. They are not crawling at his feet for mercy. They are attacking him every chance they get.

2. A Definition Based on the Context

If you want a definition that’s both nuanced and sensitive to the context, then you can’t do much better than Craig Blomberg’s from Jesus and the Gospels (pg 280), which I referred to last time.

“In context, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit means the persistent equation of Christ’s power with the demonic by those who refuse to believe him.”

3. A Basic Theological Framework

“Theology” is a word that means “the study of God.” So a theological framework is a way of viewing the Bible that’s based on the rest of the Bible. If you see one verse that seems to say something different than the rest, you try to interpret it in light of the other truths you know about God.

So what does the whole Bible have to say about repentance? As long as a person wants to repent, they can. Sometimes (and this is getting into some deeper waters) God will, in his sovereign justice, let a person experience the results of their sin. As a result, they won’t want to. But God also, in his sovereign mercy, can show a person how they have sinned against him, and keep them faithful to him through repentance. Often, like David in Psalm 51, this will lead to an honest plea for forgiveness. As long as this person wants to (that is, God has sustained them in his mercy), they can ask for forgiveness and receive it freely.

Once again, Craig Blomberg’s comments are really helpful, “There is no evidence anywhere in Scripture that an individual who genuinely desired to repent and turn back to God is denied the opportunity. Indeed, the very consternation that causes some believers to wonder if they have committed the unforgivable sin by definition demonstrates that they have not.” Jesus and the Gospels, pg 281. John, the writer of the 4th Gospel, says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9 ESV)

A Conclusion

The right question is not so much, “Can I be forgiven of the unforgivable sin?” so much as “Did I ever really actually commit it?” And unless, 1) you’re dead, and really did persist in it, or 2) God has sovereignly allowed you to experience the consequences of you sin, (unless one of those is true) you can still ask for forgiveness.

If either one of those things is true, you won’t want forgiveness.

Blomberg’s point (in the above quote), and mine (in these 2 short posts), is that as long as there is godly sorrow and grief over “the persistent equation of Christ’s power with the demonic by those who refuse to believe him…” then there will be forgiveness. As long as you want forgiveness for misunderstanding Jesus’ message, mission, and identity, you can have it.

Free Book: Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church

Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church - A Guide for MinistryA free book from logos.com this month: Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry by Michael Lawrence.

From the Logos website: “Do you want to understand how each part of the Bible fits together to form one unified, unfolding message? Michael Lawrence helps you to do just that. This essential volume presents the substance and practical importance of biblical theology for ministry. He begins with an examination of a pastor’s tools of the trade—exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology—and commends biblical theology as the tool that should never be on the shelf. Lawrence helpfully distinguishes between biblical and systematic theology, but also emphasizes the importance of their collaboration in ministry.”

Usually, you have to go to different sections of the bookstore to find good books on biblical theology, systematic theology, ministry, the church, and the Christian life. At the very least, the relationship between theory and practice seems strained. However, this book brings these concerns together. Michael Lawrence believes that good shepherds are theologians and good theologians are shepherds. For anyone who believes that theology needs the church and the church needs theology, this will be a welcome resource. For anyone playing with the idea, it will be a compelling one.

Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary, CA

A Loving Life by Paul Miller

A Loving Life - Paul Miller

My wife and I are going to begin reading this book together in the evenings. After watching Justin Taylor interview the author, I’m really excited. Here’s what two men, Scotty Smith and David Powlison, whom I deeply respect, have said about Miller’s book:

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is the most honest, timely, and helpful book I’ve ever read about the costly and exhausting demands of loving well. And at the same time, A Loving Life is the most faithful, alluring, and encouraging presentation of God’s love for us in Jesus I’ve fed on in years. …
— Scotty Smith

“The word love is often either a vague sentiment or just another four-letter word. But in Paul Miller’s hands, the quiet, compelling reality emerges. You will witness how love is thoughtful, principled, courageous, enduring, and wise—all the things you know deep down it should be. And even more than those fine things, you will be surprised and delighted at how true love is grounded in God.”
— David Powlison

Memorizing the Bible: why and how

The 8th chapter of Romans has been called the “Mount Everest” of the Bible, the pinnacle, the high point. According to Christians both old and new (read: dead and alive), it’s the place where the truths of Christianity shine most brilliantly and clearly.

And so at the beginning of this year I begun memorizing Romans 8. It was awesome. I loved having verse 1 remind me all day long, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And I kept going. Verse 2. Verse 3. And things got less clear. I don’t know if you’ve read Romans 8 recently, but verse 2 and 3 begin talking about the “law of the spirit of life” and the “law of sin and death,” and it confused me. I memorized them, but with less fervor. And eventually (about two weeks ago) I trailed off and abandoned the whole thing.

Just last night though I was catching up on John Piper’s podcast and heard him talk about bible memorization. His points about the lost spiritual discipline of memorization were so encouraging and refreshing that I decided to pick it up again. This is part of the normal Christian life, I suppose: resolving by God’s grace to do something, doing it, becoming discouraged, encountering your fallibility, and picking it up again by God’s grace.

The Why:

The How:

Get Started with This:

http://www.fbcdurham.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Scripture-Memory-Booklet-for-Publication-Website-Layout.pdf

Some Examples:

 

Why Being A Christian Is Hard

Our experiences today do not reflect God’s inattention or unfaithfulness, but his jealous love. He is exposing our wandering hearts and foolish minds and the way we trust our passions more than the principles of his Word. He is calling us to forsake our own glory for his, and teaching us that the idols we pursue will never satisfy us. He is making us wise to temptation and aware of a lurking enemy. He is teaching us to live for treasure that moth and rust can’t destroy and that thieves can’t steal. He is teaching us to live open, approachable, and humble lives.

We forget that God’s primary goal is not changing our situations and relationships so that we can be happy, but changing us through our situations so that we will be holy.

Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Handspg 241.