Preaching, Gravity and Depravity

15 07 2009

It’s now over seven months since I last preached (boy am I missing it!), but the intervening time has given me opportunity to read and reflect on what the task of preaching really is. Much that passes for preaching in our generation falls far short of what the word means biblically, and what it has meant historically. I can think of no finer tutor in what the task of preaching represents than Iain H. Murray, and recently a quote from his ‘A Scottish Christian Heritage’ has been coming back to me with force. It is from Thomas Chalmers, and ought to serve as a warning to all who preach, and to all who listen to preaching:

How little must the presence of God be felt in that place, where the high functions of the pulpit are degraded into a stipulated exchange of entertainment on the one side, and of admiration on the other! And surely it were a sight to make angels weep when a weak and vapouring mortal, surrounded by his fellow sinners, and hastening to the grave and judgment along with them, finds it a dearer object to his bosom to regale his hearers by the exhibition of himself, than to do, in plain earnest, the work of his Master’
– Thomas Chalmers in A Scottish Christian Heritage, p.94


The Reformation: T.M Lindsay

9 12 2008

Protestantism can be an embarassing concept at times… For the first twenty years of my life the term was identified with the Troubles which raged around my generation, and the ugly notion of taking aggravated and hostile sides against ‘the other sort’. As school life at a Protestant boys school gave way to university and diversity, my sense of malaise about being a ‘Protestant’ intensified, leading me eventually to energetically distance myself from the term and those who espoused it. ‘Evangelical’ or simply ‘Christian’ were label enough for me without the cultural entailment of heated and Scripturally infused invective which ‘Protestant’ seemed to embody. The most prominent spokesmen for ‘Protestant’ communities in our political life did little to temper my disgust at much of what was identified with my own cultural heritage. Looking back such shame at one’s heritage and background can scarcely be a healthy thing.

This is where the Banner of Truth and other Reformed publishers came into play as I read my way through my twenties. The books published by them and the articles within their magazine brought me face to face with a Protestant viewpoint emancipated from the hateful caricature which is painted on gable walls, and etched upon the never, never, neverland fantasies of politically contorted Christianity, or spirtually distorted politics. The Banner allowed me to approach Protestant thinking from an historical, theological and more sociologically nuanced perspective, in which the intellectual underpinnings of the great movement for spiritual change in the sixteenth century were shown to be glorious and grand in many respects.

The gradual changes which have taken place in my thinking were recently thrown into bold relief by my reading of T.M. Lindsay’s The Reformation. Written as a shorter version of Merle D’Aubigne’s magnum opus, Lindsay’s 267 page work is designed to demonstrate that the Reformation, and the Protestant heritage which emerged from it, were nothing short of a revival of religion – and one for which we ought to be enormously thankful.

Lindsay’s procedural basis is plain and simple, although his engagement with the issues is by no means facile or smugly uncritical. The book views history through the lens of geography, demonstrating how the liberating effect of the Reformation took hold across Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Scotland and England. Lindsay is keen to show that God’s providence lay behind the events of the sixteenth century, but not so keen as to lose his poise or critical facility as an historian. Where benefits were brought by the Reformers Lindsay is quick to highlight them, but is likewise careful to trace the shortcomings and ideological failures which were embodied by almost every expression of Reformation across the European countries he highlights. At times the detail in the book can be a little overhwhelming, but it does give the book a feel of being scholarly as well as popular, and this is refreshing when it comes to an issue which is too often handled emotionally rather than intellectually.

For me the strongest section of the book was Lindsay’s depiction of the Reformation in England, with a balance of empathy with those who shed their blood to see the evangelical faith established, and sympathy for the antagonists of the Reformation, with Mary Tudor in particular depicted with depth and pathos which could easily be lacking in such an account. Lindsay’s tracing of medieval trends which pressed for Reform prior to the events of the sixteenth century is also refreshing, and alleviates some of the ‘line in the sand’ thinking around this historical period which can be most unhelpful.

Lindsay’s work is an excellent example of good historical writing, with an evangelical bias. This book is not the Banner of Truth equivalent of ‘The Reformation for Dummies’ but is a serous study of the great movement of God in the sixteenth century, distilled into a brief and terse account which draws the reader in and maintains their attention throughout.

Under the terms outlined by Lindsay it is possible for previously disillusioned people like me to realise that there is much to be proud of in Protestant heritage. It does not need to imply hatred for those who differ, or a polarised ‘them and us’ mentality which demonises other communities, but can stand as a social, moral and spiritual identity which prizes liberty of conscience, earnest enquiry and intellectual probing of those things which are taken as absolutes within society. I’m a long way from identifying myself primarily, chiefly or even readily as a ‘Protestant’, but books such as ‘The Reformation’ give good reason to probe further into the rich heritage which belongs to those who come from such a background.

They Were Pilgrims: Marcus L. Loane

10 11 2008

Last November Carolyn gave me a copy of this book as a 30th birthday present. I had casually mentioned it to her weeks before (I wasn’t hinting, honestly!), and was astounded to open the wrapping and find that she had gone to Belfast to get me a copy in the intervening time – what a wife!!!

I had wanted to read They Were Pilgrims in light of the fact that the four individuals portrayed within it each died before, or around, their 30th year. These were men who accomplished much for God in a short span of time, and I felt that it might be a suitable challenge to my own indolence and mediocrity to read of them at this period of my own life. I spread my reading of the book out over a year, and have benefitted enormously through taking my time with these great men of God.

In They Were Pilgrims Loane writes extended biographical sketches of David Brainerd, Henry Martyn, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and Ion Keith Falconer. His aim is not to provide incisive and criticially nuanced analyses of their lives and ministries, but to celebrate the incredible worth of handing over all of our hopes, plans, ambitions and personalities to God for His glory.
For a little more detail about Loane’s other literary output please see Gary Brady’s brief summary here.

The accounts of Brainerd, M’Cheyne and Keith-Falconer were particularly rich. I had already enjoyed a brief encounter with Brainerd’s biography through one of John Piper’s audio biographies, had read Bonar’s Memoir and Remains of M’Cheyne last year, and knew nothing of Keith-Falconer at all. To follow the progress of the Gospel amongst native Americans through Brainerd’s ministry, with his pioneering concern to see them won for Christ regardless of personal or physical cost made a deep incision into my own inherent sense of self-protection in Christ’ service. There is much talk in Christian ministry circles at the moment of ‘self-care’ (which is vitally needed), but this can at times be at the expense of challenging men and women to sacrificial service. Brainerd’s life serves to bore holes in any sense ministerial self pity. M’Cheyne’s sweet piety, his diligent pursuit of holiness in ministry, and his tireless efforts in a settled local church ministry refreshed me once again. It is clear that Loane relies heavily on Bonar’s memoir, which made my reading of his sketch all the more enjoyable, given my recent readings in that text. One niggling concern which I harbour about our view of M’Cheyne is the lack of critical material regarding his life. The Memoir was written by a close friend of M’Cheyne and, as Loane acknowledges, follows a Victorian approach to the writing of his life. One feels that the great preacher of Dundee might prove to be even more of a challenging role model if we saw and sensed more clay mixed with the iron of his devotion to God. Keith-Falconer was a stranger to me, and it was a blessing to read of his labours in Aden to reach Muslims. Keith-Falconer was a linguist of the highest academic acumen, and his willingness to devote intellectual and financial resources to the cause of Christ was stirring. Some of the incidental details of his life – like his expedition on a Victorian large wheeled bicycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats provided light relief amidst the rigours of his labours to Christ. Keith-Falconer was a contemporary of C.T. Studd and John G. Paton, and his work among Muslim communities is highly informative, given our world mission context of the 10-40 window.

The only low point in the book for me was Loane’s treatment of Henry Martyn. While there was much to bless me, I did feel that too much detail and time were devoted to his doomed romance with Lydia Grenfell. Whilst this was a cause of much vexation and heartbreak to Martyn, Loane’s focus on it did at times draw one’s attention away from his life and labour in Persia. This is a trifling criticism, and Martyn’s life still proved to be a deep challenge as I read the treatment of it contained within these pages.

Loane’s writing style is quite simply beautiful. Biographical details are conveyed to the reader via language which is lyrical, succinct and deeply moving. The book is presented in typically good Banner hardback quality with a beautiful dust jacket, and large easily readable typeface. I would readily recommend this title to anyone who wishes to gain an introductory insight into the lives of these great men of God, and would definitely commend it as an excellent gift idea for anyone who is reaching the ripe old age of 30!

For a survey of Loane’s other writings see Gary Brady’s brief overview here.

The Fight of Faith by Iain H. Murray

11 10 2008

Of all the Christian authors whose works have blessed me, Iain H. Murray’s biographical writings come top of the list. Murray’s books are written in a beautifully unadorned prose, with a respectfulness of tone for their subject which is refreshing in a world of hero destroying literature. I also love the fact that Iain H. Murray has never attained Christian ‘celebrity’ status in spite of his considerable influence for the Kingdom of God – he is as humble in person as he is articulate in print.

The Fight of Faith is the second volume of Murray’s landmark biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I read the first volume (entitled The First Forty Years) in autumn 2002 when I had just commenced pastoral ministry in Armagh Baptist. To say that this volume was life changing would be something of an understatement. This volume introduced me to a theology and a manner of preaching which for me were hitherto largely untapped, and gave me a sense of perspective on how the minister ought to approach the teaching of the Word of God. All of Murray’s biographical works carry a didactic element which invites the reader to adjust their perspective and way of living in so far as his subject exemplifies godly living. The First Forty Years certainly achieved this for me, and I will be forever grateful.

The second volume has always daunted me a little in prospect. It stretches to in excess of 800 pages (by comparison with 412 pages in the first volume), and handles many of the more controversial issues which faced Lloyd-Jones during his ministry. I’ve dipped a toe in the book over the intervening years, but never felt able to commit to such a hefty biography. Such hesitation was not to my benefit, given the wonderful piece of Christian literature which Volume 2 represents.

The Fight of Faith opens with Lloyd-Jones ministering in London during the height of the Second World War as Assistant Minister to G. Campbell Morgan. It follows his work for the Lord through his installation to the full charge of Westminster Chapel, his widening influence through the student movement, the Westminster Fellowship, and transatlantic preaching ministry. Lloyd-Jones work in Westminster is presented as being singularly owned of God, with a sense of the power of His Holy Spirit in the warp and woof of the words spoken from the pulpit. Regardless of whether his ministry was exercised in his own pulpit, or across the country, the testimony of his hearers was universally of man used of God to communicate His truth.

In terms of Lloyd-Jones’ significance Murray does not merely emphasise his public ministry, but also the influence for good which he was to exercise over a generation. He was no pulpiteer, but a Pastor whose deep concern for the welfare of church members, fellow ministers, and those under conviction of sin were unquestionable. The work of the Westminster Fellowship and the extraordinary influence it had on the generation following Lloyd-Jones is portrayed in intimate detail, with his judicious work as chairman of many discussions fully illustrated with recorded exchanges. His work in helping to establish or encourage other agencies for God’s truth is also demonstrated, with his help to Geoffrey Williams and ‘The Evangelical Library’ as well as to Iain Murray and Jack Callum with the foundation of ‘The Banner of Truth’ showing his deep concern that historic Christianity be recovered worldwide.

A considerable section of The Fight of Faith is occupied with the controversies and difficulties that were faced by Lloyd-Jones, particularly in the 1960s. With the onset of ecumenism, Lloyd-Jones foresaw the problems which this movement would present to the evangelical world, and issued a clarion call for believers not to become involved in it. His radical stance with regard to those who were labouring in ‘mixed denominations’ led him in to some of his most lonely years. His advocacy of ministers removing themselves from those Churches which were involved in ecumenism was not welcomed, while his call for evangelicals to form a broader unity which transcended denominational lines was largely misunderstood. Murray traces the contour of this debate with candour and care, highlighting those times when Lloyd-Jones did not adequately explain his views, as well as those times when he spoke with an almost prophetic voice concerning the consequences of flirting with ecumenism or liberal theology.

Issues such as Lloyd-Jones’ views on pneumatology are well handled within the biography, with all of the references to the great preacher’s views on the topic carefully footnoted. While open to seeing a work of God by His Spirit, and not immediately dismissive of the fledgling Charismatic movement Lloyd-Jones was not a Pentecostalist. As the Charismatic gained momentum and found its expression through figures such as Du Plessis, Lloyd-Jones was quick to distance himself from it fully. This exposes many of the statements made within the Charismatic church that Lloyd-Jones was their advocate. Murray proves this to be far from the truth.

Lloyd-Jones’ work in the 1970s, following his retirement from Westminster Chapel in 1968, are particularly moving, with his encouragement of other ministers its most prominent feature. The closing section of the book, with its intimate portrayal of Lloyd-Jones preparing himself, his family, and the evangelical community for his death are moving in the extreme.

A regular charge laid at Murray’s door with regard to his writings about Lloyd-Jones is that they stray from biography into hagiography. Such statements can only be made by those who have not fully or carefully reads his works. Murray is routinely critical of certain stances, attitudes, and actions on the part of Lloyd-Jones, and is not slow to suggest ways in which he might have handled certain issues more capably. That Murray respects his subject, harbours great affection for Lloyd-Jones memory, and is grateful to God for His servant are incontestable – but these sentiments lend strength rather than weakness to his biographical writing.

I would not hesitate to call this two volume treatment of Lloyd-Jones my favourite book. It has taught me a lot, has humbled me before an unchanging God, and has challenged me afresh to uphold the sufficiency of God’s Word when taught in the power of God the Holy Spirit, to do the work of God in the world.

Book Review: Every Second Counts

8 08 2008

Every Second Counts is the second volume of Lance Armstrong’s autobiography, following on from It’s Not About the Bike, which chronicles his amazing recovery from cancer. Given my current resurgence of interest in cycling I borrowed this from the public library, and it has served as a safe haven from thinking about my thesis during the past week.

Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France over a record breaking seven years (1999-2005), and in Every Second Counts he writes candidly about life in the world of professional athletic competition, life as a father of three, and life as someone who has managed to survive seriously life-threatening cancer. The style of the book is gutsy, honest and masculine, chronicling everything from how it feels to taste victory on the Alpe d’Huez to the emotions involved in the breakdown of a marriage relationship.

I found the book really interesting for a number of reasons:

1. Its breadth of application to life: Armstrong’s reflections on professional competition frequently serve as a metaphor for other issues and relationships in the human experience. It is nothing short of inspiring to read of someone standing face to face with impossible odds (be it in the cancer ward or in the midst of an aggressive peloton)and finding victory from the deepest levels of self-motivation and belief. It is a challenge to the way that many of us face adversity in any sphere of life.

2. Its direct application to ministry: although Armstrong has no room for Christian belief (see below) there are a number of episodes in the book which speak loudly to those in ministry. Whether it be the challenge of continuing to work and strive whilst being misunderstood and misrepresented by others (as in Armstrong’s drug use allegations), the blessing of striving in a team for the greater good (as in US Postals team tactics in the Tour) or of the loneliness of pursuing an ideal and calling in the midst of difficulty and demotivation. A grave warning from the book is of the danger of pursuing a good and glorious goal to the cost and detriment of family life. Armstrong’s unyielding dedication to cycling and the noble cause of supporting those suffering from cancer is ulimately blamed for the breakdown of his family. This is a salutary warning to those in ministry about pursuing their calling to the exclusion, and at the expense, of investing in those whom we love and who matter to us.

3. Its picture of a man on the run from God: I truly believe that this is where Armstrong stands spiritually. In a chapter entitled ‘Faith and Doubt’ he shares of how many times he has been asked by people at airports and other public places about his relationship with God. Armstrong is agnostic, attributing his recovery from cancer to good mental attitude and excellent medical care, and not God. He writes about painful and abusive experiences at the hands of his church deacon stepfather, who regularly beat him in private whilst maintaining an air of spritual respectability in public, and of how Christian faith can be a crutch for the weak, or a convenient cover up for the wicked. Behind all of this, however, is a deep respect for his wife’s devout Catholicism, and a hint of a belief in God which barely reaches the surface. As a mine for illustrations in Gospel preaching alone this chapter is well worth reading.

I really enjoyed Every Second Counts, and would love to read It’s Not About the Bike at some point as well. Armstrong’s book is an excellent piece of sports writing, high on action and adventure, whilst at the same time giving a fascinating insight into the human condition with all of its capacity for surprise and disappointment.

Insights in the Institutes – Christian Hedonism

31 07 2008

John Piper’s teaching on the enjoyment of God being the key to glorifying him has impacted the Reformed evangelical world very deeply. The teaching of books such as Desiring God, with the use of terms like ‘Christian Hedonism’ have been the inspiration of discipleship and debate in almost equal measure.

I have posted before about my initial struggles with the notion of Christian hedonism, and my eventual acceptance of it as authentic in biblical and historical terms. This is evidently the case when one comes to read the Institutes. A number of quotes could be drawn from the early sections of Calvin’s great theological treatise, but the following more than adequately summarises much of what he teaches about our relationship to, and enjoment of, God our creator.

“I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him – they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him”.

[Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol.1, p.41]

Insights in the Institutes – Postmodernism

24 07 2008

Uncertainty is massively overated, and the upcoming generation know that full well. They have been living in a world, schooled in an education system, and saturated by a media industry, which has extolled the benefits of not knowing anything truly or firmly – except for the fact that one doesn’t know anything truly or firmly. They have listened to the equivocations, deliberations, and qualifications of a world whose supreme idea of virtue is ambivalant vacuity, and they have found it wanting in the balance of their own judgement.

Young Christians do not want stumbling, fumbling words about maybes, might-bes, and conversation. They are not set alight by the despondent countenance of a hermeneutical humility which probes every point in every part of modern life, without ever daring to jump to a single conclusion. What convinces, what inspires, what motivates to true Christian knowledge and full Christian living is the Truth and certainty revealed in the Word of God – the sense of belonging to something big, grand, historic, and genuine. The sense that they have a Saviour who can speak for Himself, a God whose Word is firm eternal and right. These are truths worth living and dying for.

In the Institutes, Calvin likewise imagines the shameful state of a world in which nothing is known certainly, and little is held to firmly, and he addresses this issue with precision and force – blowing the speculations of godless philosophy in his day and ours into tiny pieces.

Some praise the reply of Simonides, who, asked by the tyrant Hiero what God was, begged to be given a day to ponder. When on the following day the tyrant asked the same question, he asked for two days more, and after having frequently doubled the number of days, finally answered, ‘The longer I consider this, the more obscure it seems to me’. He wisely indeed suspended judgment on a subject so obscure to himself. Yet hence it appears that if men were taught only by nature, they would hold to nothing solid or clear-cut, but would be so tied to confused principles as to worship an unknown god.
[Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol.1, p.66]