The Well Is Deep, and Our Brains Are Shallow

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

The title is essentially the post. I have been reading Richard Baxter’s classic work for pastors, “The Reformed Pastor,” with a friend, and we just came across a gem. Baxter exhorts pastors to throw themselves wholeheartedly into sermon preparation:

“Study hard, for the well is deep, and our brains are shallow…”

I don’t know a preacher who disagrees.

A Warning About Fiction

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Most of us have never critically examined the genre of fiction. We have simply been swimming in it for decades in its various forms. We know that there are bad things to listen to, watch and read, and that from those things a Christian should steer clear. But what about the genre as a whole? Are there characteristics inherent to the whole category that pose risks? I believe J.C. Ryle has identified one such characteristic in his book “Practical Religion” (Chapter 7, “Charity”). As a preemptive note of explanation, Ryle was writing in the mid eighteen hundreds, and so when he uses the term “charity,” we would substitute the word “love.”

“The delusion which I am trying to combat is helped forward to a most mischievous degree by the vast majority of novels, romances, and tales of fiction. Who does not know that the heroes and heroines of these works are constantly described as patterns of perfection? They are always doing the right thing, saying the right thing, and showing the proper temper! They are always kind, and amiable, and unselfish, and forgiving! And yet you never hear a word about their religion! In short, to judge by the generality of works of fiction, it is possible to have excellent practical religion without doctrine, the fruits of the Spirit without the grace of the Spirit, and the mind of Christ without union with Christ!

Here, in short, is the great danger of reading most novels, romances, and works of fiction. The greater part of them give a false or incorrect view of human nature. They paint their model men and women as they ought to be, and not as they really are. The readers of such writings get their minds filled with wrong conceptions of what the world is. Their notions of mankind become visionary and unreal. They are constantly looking for men and women such as they never meet, and expecting what they never find.

Let me entreat my readers, once for all, to draw their ideas of human nature from the Bible, and not from novels. Settle it down in your mind, that there cannot be true charity without a heart renewed by grace. A certain degree of kindness, courtesy, amiability, good nature, may undoubtedly be seen in many who have no vital religion. But the glorious plant of Bible charity, in all its fullness and perfection, will never be found without union with Christ, and the work of the Holy Ghost.”

His point is that in our intake of fiction, we enter worlds where the heroes have the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) – without being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and this can never be! This errant view of mankind can detach us from a sense of our desperate need for Christ.

And losing site of that is a high price to pay for having been entertained.

His Love Is Utterly Realistic

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

A phenomenal quote from Chapter 3, “Knowing and Being Known”, of J.I. Packer’s classic, “Knowing God”:

“There is unspeakable comfort – the sort of comfort that energizes, be it said, not enervates – in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me. There is, certainly, great cause for humility in the thought that he sees all the twisted things about me that my fellow humans do not see (and am I glad!), and that he sees more corruption in me than that which I see in myself (which, in all conscience, is enough). There is, however, equally great incentive to worship and love God in the thought that, for some unfathomable reason, he wants me as his friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given his Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose.”

Wow. Double wow. Because God is all-knowing, there can never be a discovery about any of His people that can disillusion Him and quench His determination to love us. He wants us as His friends, and He wants to be our Friend, and Jesus has laid down His life to bring us together with Him. Beautiful.

Thorough Christianity

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Okay, things are spiraling out of control… I am currently in various stages of reading “The Holy Bible” (God), “Holiness” (J.C. Ryle), “Knowing God” (J.I. Packer), “Lectures to My Students” (Spurgeon), “Sacred Marriage” (Gary Thomas), “The Reformed Pastor” (Baxter), “Practical Religion” (J.C. Ryle), and a biography of Patrick Henry titled “Lion of Liberty” (Unger) just for fun. And I start “The Gospel’s Power & Message” (Washer) next week. I have never, ever been in such a state. HOWEVER – I must admit that the way I am going about it is making it a little more manageable. Five of these are being read aloud with other people, meaning that we meet and actually do the reading together – NO HOMEWORK (huzzah!).

Here is the latest gem from Chapter 1, “Self-Inquiry”, of J.C. Ryle’s “Practical Religion”:

“Is any reader of this paper a professing believer in Christ, but a believer without much joy and peace and comfort? Take advice this day. Search your own heart, and see whether the fault be not entirely your own. Very likely you are sitting at ease, content with a little faith, and a little repentance, a little grace and a little sanctification, and unconsciously shrinking back from extremes. You will never be a very happy Christian at this rate, if you live to the age of Methuselah. Change your plan, if you love life and would see good days, without delay. Come out boldly, and act decidedly. Be thorough, thorough, very thorough in your Christianity, and set your face fully towards the sun. Lay aside every weight, and the sin that doth so easily beset you. Strive to get nearer to Christ, to abide in Him, to cleave to Him, and to sit at His feet like Mary, and drink full draughts out of the fountain of life.”

We have been invited to plunge into the extremes of wholeheartedly loving God, and all the happiness that accompanies those extremes. Has it been a while since you assessed your entanglements with the world and what they are costing you? It has been a while for me, and I am very thankful for the reminder.

The Remedial System of the Gospel

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

I am almost finished re-reading J.C. Ryle’s “Holiness”, and I came across this gem in Chapter 18, titled “Unsearchable Riches”, regarding whether or not a person truly knows Jesus Christ:

“After all, this is the question of questions! Pardon, peace, rest of conscience, hope in death, Heaven itself – all hinge upon our answer. To know Christ is life eternal. To be without Christ – is to be without God. ‘He who has the Son has life – and he who has not the Son of God has not life.’ (1 John 5:12). The friends of purely secular education, the enthusiastic advocates of reform and progress, the worshipers of reason and intellect and mind and science, may say what they please, and do all they can to mend the world. But they will find their labor is in vain if they do not make allowance for the Fall of man, if there is no place for Christ in their schemes. There is a sore disease at the heart of mankind, which will baffle all their efforts and defeat all their plans, and that disease is sin. Oh, that people would only see and recognize the corruption of human nature, and the uselessness of all efforts to improve man which are not based on the remedial system of the gospel! Yes, the plague of sin is in the word, and no waters will ever heal that plague except those which flow from the fountain for all sin – a crucified Christ.”

The point being made is obvious: the gospel is remedial, meaning that it – and only it – cures mankind’s real problem. All other attempts amount to treating cancer with band-aids (imagine the futility!). There is no going forward without first going back and dealing with the source of our problems – we have waged a war against a holy God and our many and great sins must be cleansed by the blood of Jesus.

And that, friends, is why a purely social gospel is much worse than just a waste – it sustains people in their rebellion against God while only temporarily alleviating the pain and hardship that should drive them to Christ for real relief.

The saving gospel is a preached gospel that illuminates the sinfulness of sin and points to the only remedy – the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is what must be at the absolute leading edge, the absolute forefront of all of our efforts to address the problems of this world, whether poverty or abortion or any other source of pain and hardship.

Stay Tuned for Malawi Updates

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

I hope to post frequent updates from Malawi in the coming days. We depart on Thursday, August 28, and arrive home, if the Lord wills, on Friday, September 12. I plan to add updates here at the top of the post, pushing the older updates further down.

- This is our second trip to Malawi. The first was two years ago, in August 2012. As a review, this was the preview for that trip, and this was the follow-up.

Friday, September 12

After a brief stop in Dakar, Senegal and a plane change in Washington D.C., we arrived in Raleigh at 9:30 a.m. – right on time and WITH ALL OUR LUGGAGE, which is no small thing! It was a great trip, and it’s great to be home!

Thursday, September 11

We toured Soweto (the shortened version of “South West Township”), the township of Johannesburg where the movement to topple Apartheid developed and finally triumphed. In the late afternoon, we boarded our flight and began the eighteen hour journey home.

Wednesday, September 10

We said goodbye to our dear friends and flew out of Blantyre, arriving in Johannesburg mid afternoon. We stayed with Tim Cantrell, pastor of Antioch Bible Church, and Scott and I had the privilege of preaching at the church in the evening.

Tuesday, September 9

Our last full day in Blantyre was largely spent with twenty young men from Antioch Baptist Church. We met in Mala’so living room and Mike, Victor, Scott and I all gave messages about different aspects of studying Scripture. These are hungry young men and it has been a real joy to be with them and to teach them.

In the afternoon Marvin Jere drove us to Mount Mulanje, the third highest mountain in Africa. On the way, we passed through miles and miles of tea fields (yes, drinking tea). Come to think of it, they also grow a lot of sugar cane… Hmmm – they have all the key ingredients to becoming Southern, but I digress… Anyway, tea comes from short shrubs that would be about halfway to your knee if you were standing in the field. It is a beautiful green and makes for a breathtaking landscape.

The day ended with “The Last Supper”: dinner at Mala’s house with a few of our closest friends from Blantyre.

Monday, September 8

Today was the pastors’ conference at EBCOM (the Evangelical Bible College of Malawi). Nineteen pastors attended. After the first two sessions, Scott went “off script” and taught an extemporaneous session on Deuteronomy 6, applying it both to pastors and their families, and also to the pastor’s duty to teach these things to the fathers of their church and require their obedience.

At lunch, we decided to abandon the original schedule in favor of teaching on and applying the sufficiency of Scripture. I taught first, establishing the doctrine from 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and Mark 7:1-13, and then applying it to three controversial areas of Malawian culture: the education of children, marriages where the husband lives and works in one location with the wife in another, and women pastors (there were four in the room). Scott followed up with a message clarifying the gospel and pressing the pastor’s duty to identify, help, and confront those who are likely unbelievers in the congregation.

Needless to say, our discussions afterwards were quite lively, though thankfully not openly contentious.

Sunday, September 7

Scott and I taught on different aspects of the fear of the LORD at Antioch Baptist Church, while Mike and Victor both went to preach at other local churches.

A Women’ Conference was held in the afternoon, with Deborah Brown teaching the two sessions. This was attended by the women of Antioch and also students from several of the local universities.

In the evening, Mala took us to Catholic University, where the men went to a classroom to meet with the young men, while Deborah and Mada (Masada and Mada married in April) met with the young women. We both led discussions on the sufficiency of Scripture. The men’s discussion was great, but I suspect not quite as lively as the ladies’ discussion. Deborah has already received an email from one of the young ladies saying that the group has been continuing to discuss these things and to search the Scriptures, and they are beginning to realize these things are true, even though the implications are daunting. We should be praying that the Lord would help these women not to be afraid to obey anything that they find in Scripture.

Saturday, September 6

The Gospel Conference was well attended with about seventy five attendees, mostly from the local universities, listening very attentively to a lot of teaching – six sessions in all. We labored to press home the true biblical gospel, insisting that being born again always results in changed thinking and a changed life. We also attacked the false gospels of easy beleivism and the prosperity gospel, both of which are pervasive here in Malawi.

Tuesday, September 2 – Wednesday,  September 5

I felt like the balance of the “Your Marriage Matters” was very valuable with strong messages from each of the speakers (Scott Brown, Mike Davenport, Victor Maxson and myself). There was a very wide range of ages in attendance, from the many college singles to some older men from a local Presbyterian Church who knew us from two years ago. Marvin Jere’s parents also joined us for a couple of the sessions.

On Friday, between the afternoon and evening sessions, we spread out two-by-two on the campus of Blantyre University for evangelism. Like two years ago, I was pleasantly surprised at the students’ overall willingness to engage in meaningful discussions.

Monday, September 1

We traveled safely from Lilongwe to Blantyre, where we will remain for the rest of our stay. The trip was just as I remembered it – harrowing, since people (and livestock) walk and ride bikes (not the livestock) right next to speeding traffic. Oh, and passing in the face of oncoming traffic is part of the deal. I’m not sure why…

Anyway, I’m comfortably settled at the home of Mala and Rachel.

The 5-day marriage conference began at noon, with a single session over the lunch hour and then two sessions in the evening. The venue is in downtown Blantyre, so that many of those working there can attend over lunch and then immediately after work. That will continue to be the schedule through Friday.

Sunday, August 31

We had a wonderful start to the Lord’s Day at Reformation Fellowship, which is the church the Maxsons are planting in Lilongwe. I taught on “What Is a Biblical Christian?”, primarily from John 3, and then Scott preached on “What Is a Biblical Church?” Along with our team and the Maxsons, there were about ten Malawians from the community. It is a small church plant with a sweet spirit of fellowship in Christ.

Saturday, August 30

This afternoon Scott and I spoke at the “Your Marriage Matters” seminar sponsored by Frank Maxson and the church here. There were something like 25-30 people who attended from around the community, and it was a very attentive and engaged group. It is a great blessing to be able to preach the gospel and its connection to marriage and family life.

Thursday/Friday, August 28/29

We departed Raleigh at 6:00 a.m., flew to New York, and then 8,000 miles and 15 hours later we arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa. We made the flight to Lilongwe, Malawi with five minutes to spare (literally), and arrived right on time – with all our luggage. ‘Twas a miracle! Most of the flight to Africa was at an altitude of about 40,000 feet, with a average outside temperature of -50F (yes, that is not a typo – it is really, really cold up there!). I had plenty of time to pray for everyone in the church by name. If you attend Sovereign Redeemer, you were the recipient of high-altitude prayer.

 

 

Loving Jesus Christ

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Here is another gem from J.C. Ryle’s Holiness, Chapter 15, “Do You Love Me?” (based on John 21:16).

“…if you love Christ, never be ashamed to let others see it and know it. Speak for Him. Witness for Him. Live for Him. Work for Him. If He has loved you and washed you from your sins in His own blood – you never need shrink from letting others know that you feel it, and love Him in return.

‘Man,’ said a thoughtless, ungodly English traveler, to a North American Indian convert, ‘Man, what is the reason that you make so much of Christ, and talk so much about Him? What has this Christ done for you, that you should make so much ado about him?’

The converted Indian did not answer him in words. He gathered together some dry leaves and moss and made a ring with them on the ground. He picked up a live worm and put it in the middle of the ring. He struck a light and set the moss and leaves on fire. The flame soon rose, and the heat scorched the worm. It writhed in agony, and after trying in vain to escape on every side, curled itself up in the middle, as if about to die in despair. At that moment the Indian reached forth his hand, took up the worm gently and placed it on his bosom.

‘Sir,’ he said to the Englishman, ‘do you see that worm? I was that perishing creature. I was dying in my sins, hopeless, helpless and on the brink of eternal fire. It was Jesus Christ who put forth the arm of His power. It was Jesus Christ who delivered me with the hand of His grace, and plucked me from everlasting burnings. It was Jesus Christ who placed me, a poor sinful worm, near the heart of His love. Stranger, that is the reason why I talk of Jesus Christ, and make much of Him. I am not ashamed of it, because I love Him.’

If we know anything of love to Christ, may we have the mind of this North American Indian! May we never think that we can…

love Christ to well,

live to Him to thoroughly,

confess Him too boldly,

lay ourselves out for Him too heartily!

Of all the things that will surprise us in the resurrection morning, this I believe will surprise us most: that we did not love Christ more before we died!”

Saturday Chores: Making Hope a Laughing Matter

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Most Saturdays for the past few months, a young couple has joined us for a few minutes outside the Jones Franklin Road abortion clinic for a goofy sort of counter-protest, making use of social media and calling it Saturday Chores.

Their shtick has been for one to hold a sign that they find random or humorous or both, the other to take a picture, and then to use that picture to add to a series of pro-choice posts. Their humorous approach has been universally praised by the media outlets that have picked this up over the last week or two.

Here is the problem: the death of babies isn’t funny. When mothers are in crisis, it isn’t funny.

So there is nothing praiseworthy about their approach, because babies are dying every day on the other side of that clinic door. And the mothers who are coming, having been told and wanting to believe that they are solving their problem, are only increasing their troubles exponentially. A baby isn’t a problem, and abortion isn’t a solution. These women need the hope of the good news of Jesus Christ, along with caring practical help, which is exactly what we are there to offer, and that is no laughing matter.

That is why I am so glad that Taylor Tsantles is leading the effort to carefully articulate what we are doing at the clinic and why at hopebeforethedoor.com. You will find visiting well worth your time.

One last thought. One of the random counter-protest signs was “I Like Turtles“. Ironically, our culture loves turtles at the same time that we hate babies. Consider this sign posted above a sea turtle nest that my daughter encountered this past weekend on the beach:

Protecting Sea Turtle Eggs

 

That’s right: mess with a turtle egg and you just might be facing a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. But kill your baby and exit the clinic to a round of applause.

Truth really is stranger than fiction.

Christ Can Ever Maintain His Own Cause

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

When the global church is pressed on every side, from without and within, it is good to remember that the great Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ, needs no help in defending His own.

Consider the true words of J.C. Ryle:

“Fear not for the Church of Christ – when ministers die, and saints are taken away. Christ can ever maintain His own cause. He will raise up better servants and brighter stars. The stars are all in His right hand. Leave off all anxious thought about the future. Cease to be cast down by the measures of statesmen, or the plots of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Christ will ever provide for His own Church. Christ will take care that ‘the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.’ All is going on well, though our eyes may not see it. The kingdoms of this world shall yet become the kingdoms of our God, and of His Christ.” (Holiness, Chapter 13, “The Church Which Christ Builds”)