Serving in Sardis


It’s been more than a year since I returned to the US from the UK.  The year I spent living, working, and ministering in the heart of England will always exert a strong influence on my life (and I hope that year will only have marked the beginning of my relationship with old Blighty and not the end of it).  One of the things that particularly struck me during my time in the UK was the sense of decline which seemed to permeate the church culture.  There was none of the naive optimism that pulling the lever for the right candidate or passing the right law would somehow transform the culture.  There was little of the bravado and swagger which has too often characterized the American church.  Perhaps this has something to do with the deeper-set character differences between the stereotypical “brash/optimistic” Americans and the “stiff-upper-lip” Brits.  I don’t know.  But part of the story was that Britain knew that she had, in some profound sense, fallen.  Fallen from a place of influence and strength within the Christian world to a place of reproach.  The British church has been pushed to the margins by an increasingly aggressive secular culture.

Now the good news is that there are wonderful stories of God’s grace in Britain that need to be told.  There are reservoirs of resolve and stockpiles of strength which reside in the spirit of British believers.  I was blessed to see first-hand churches being planted, people being baptized, the gospel being preached, and the faithful being built up in my short time in the British church.

All of this however, prompted me to contrast the UK with the US.  Many of my British friends seemed to think that the church in America was strong.  After all, don’t statistics show that 70% of Americans identify as believers?  Aren’t there hundreds of solid Christian schools and colleges?  Aren’t there dozens of Reformed seminaries?  Aren’t there publishing houses, and ministries all over the country that are working for the spread of the gospel?  Aren’t there faithful Christians in all levels of influence and in every field of work?  Aren’t there churches with thousands of members?  Aren’t there more missionaries coming from America than there are from any other country in the world?  Isn’t the American church strong?

Well, yes.  And yet, no.  The American church has a reputation (and even an appearance) of great strength and vitality, but as I’ve reflected on the differences between the church in the US and the church in the UK it’s helped me to realize something: as an American, I serve in Sardis.

Now what do I mean by that?  In Revelation 1-3 Jesus gives his famous “Greeting to the Seven Churches”.  These “greetings” often contain rebukes as well.  Corrections for sins committed and warnings of pitfalls to be avoided.  Here’s what Jesus says to the church in Sardis in Revelation 3:1-6

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.  I know your works.  You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.  Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.  Remember, then, what you received and heard.  Keep it, and repent.  If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.  Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.  The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life.  I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

These words deserve a full exposition, but I simply want to use them to draw our attention to a simple idea: America is Sardis.  We have a reputation for being alive, but we are dead.  Those familiar with the state of American Evangelicalism will know the cancers which seems to eat us away from the inside.  We are not as healthy as we appear.  But Jesus is calling us to both repentance and hope.  Repentance for our dead deeds and incomplete works yes, but also hope that we are to remember what we have received and heard, we are to strengthen that which remains, and we are to keep God’s words in repentance.  As Jesus said: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Reformed Rituals and the Benedict Option

bloggable-ben-op-cover1As some of you will know, much of my thought and reflection over the past year or so has been shaped by Rod Dreher’s recent discussion of what he terms the “Benedict Option”. If you’re new to the term don’t read another word until you’ve had the time to digest this helpful introduction to the topic here.

I’ve found Dreher’s contributions to be very stimulating personally. While much (probably most) of what he calls for is simply a faithful expression of historic Christianity the perspectives and practices he calls for are things that we vitally need to recover and explore if Christianity in the West is itself to remain vital. There are many things I appreciate about the Benedict Option (and I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of his book on the subject in March, 2017) but in this article I want to consider a more specific issue that has arisen in the conversation surrounding the Benedict Option – namely the role of ritual.

Drawing on the writing of Patristics scholar Robert Louis Wilken, Dreher has repeatedly highlighted the central role of ritual in the formation and transmission of the Christian faith and life. While Dreher (who is Eastern Orthodox) goes out of his way to cast the Benedict Option in Ecumenical terms, he himself openly wonders if, “The lack of ritual in most Protestantism and much of modern Catholicism — [impedes] our ability to remember?” While I would share Mr. Dreher’s concern that much of modern Protestantism (especially in its non-denominational and broadly evangelical expression) lacks the thick practices and habits which form Christian character and preserve Christian culture, I think it’s important to recognize that this hasn’t always been the case, and as someone who is writing out of the Reformed tradition I think Dreher’s concerns can serve to push us to reflect on our own Reformed rituals.

Now it may strike you that the term “Reformed ritual” is nothing more than an oxymoron.  Certainly, the language of ritual has traditionally been avoided in most of the Reformed tradition (often out of a well founded distaste for ritualism) but defined correctly, Reformed piety and practice has rituals because “ritual” is just another term for that piety and practice. So what, then, are the practices which constitute Reformed Ritualism?  Here are a few that came to my mind:

I.  Family Worship

The Reformed tradition has long preserved and promoted the practice of family worship.  Building on the biblical commands which God gave to His covenant people in the Old Testament, the Reformation argued that the family is to be a “school of Christ” and a “little church”.  Without in any way undermining the unique priority and role of God’s corporate people groups such as the Westminster Assembly encouraged families to cultivate the daily practice of family worship.  In addition to the more famous Westminster Confession of Faith with Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the Westminster Assembly also produced several additional documents for the benefit of the church.  Among these was a document entitled The Directory for Family-WorshipThe main features of family worship are well outlined in the second paragraph of the Directory:

II. The ordinary duties comprehended under the exercise of piety which should be in families, when they are convened to that effect, are these: First, Prayer and praises performed with a special reference, as well to the publick condition of the kirk [church] of God and this kingdom, as to the present case of the family, and every member thereof. Next, Reading of the scriptures, with catechising in a plain way, that the understandings of the simpler may be the better enabled to profit under the publick ordinances, and they made more capable to understand the scriptures when they are read; together with godly conferences tending to the edification of all the members in the most holy faith: as also, admonition and rebuke, upon just reasons, from those who have authority in the family.

II. Catechizing

The paragraph quoted above already points to the next Reformed ritual worth considering: the practice of catechesis.  In a very helpful article (which contains links to a number of solid resources on the subject), Camden Bucey offers some sound reflections on the Importance of Catechesis:

Reformed catechesis in the home, especially, grounds a child in the reformed doctrines and solidifies them by building a foundational structure.  Whenever a catechized child encounters a new doctrine, its claims pass through a reformed grid.  Catechesis, then is not simply instruction, but foundational and provides guidance and counsel to children when parents are not directly available to provide instruction – even as they grow up and move out on their own.

III.  Christian Education

These first two rituals flow naturally into the next: Christian Education.  It is significant that part of the work of the Reformation was the promotion of learning and literacy.  Early American settlers (for example) would often form themselves in communities around the twin institutions of the church and the school.  The first great institutions of higher learning in this country (whether Harvard, Princeton, or Yale) all have, not only Christian, but specifically Reformed roots.  The emphasis on Christian education has in fact been a feature of almost every expression of the Reformed tradition (whether Dutch, Scottish, English or American).  Ben House delves into some of that history in our own country in his article: Classical Christian Education: A Look at some History

Typically the schools in early American history were Classical Christian schools. The instructors were usually ministers whose training was a combination of classical languages and literature and Protestant theology. In other words, they studied the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek, and they read Homer’s Iliad in Greek, Tacitus’ histories in Latin, as well as studying John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. For example, Moses Waddell, a Southern Presbyterian preacher and teacher (1770-1840), began studying Latin at age eight, and after six years of school, he had finished courses in Greek, Latin, and mathematics.

IV. Psalm Singing

The Reformers were famous for their radical re-centering of the Christian life around the Word of God.  This found expression not only in the preaching of the church but also in the praise of the church.  Many early Reformers were in face exclusive Psalmists (they believed that the only acceptable source for singing in Christian worship was the inspired Book of Psalms).  While the Reformed tradition has often (though not always) moved away from the exclusive Psalmody position of these early Reformers, the Psalms have nevertheless played a central role in historic Reformed worship.  Psalm singing often shaped not only the praise but the practical piety of Reformed believers.

V. Lord’s Day Observance

This leads naturally to the final ritual I wish to highlight which is Lord’s Day observance.  Again, this is a practice which has experience too much of a decline in our own day despite the fact that it was central to our forefathers.  In fact, earlier Reformed believers saw Lord’s Day observance as so vital that they often made statements like this from J.C. Ryle:

The subject is one which is of immense importance. It is not too much to say that the prosperity or decay of organized Christianity depends on the maintenance of the Christian Sabbath. Break down the fence which now surrounds the Sunday, and our Sunday schools will soon come to an end. Let in the Hood of worldliness and pleasure-seeking on the Lord’s Day, without check or hindrance, and our congregations will soon dwindle away. There is not too much religion in the land now. Destroy the sanctity of the Sabbath, and there would soon be far less. Nothing in short, I believe, would so thoroughly advance the kingdom of Satan as to withdraw legal protection from the Lord’s Day. It would be a joy to the infidel; but it would be an insult and offence to God.

Concluding Thoughts:

I’ve only pointed towards some of these practice but each of them deserves (and have elsewhere received) a more thorough discussion.  Nevertheless, it is my hope that Dreher’s writings on the Benedict Option can help Reformed Christians to more intentionally and thoughtfully reengage with the practices and rituals which have formed our tradition through the centuries.  Many of these practices which were so vital to the preservation and propagation of the Reformed faith have fallen on hard times.  If we are to survive the dark days ahead we must work to revive practice such as these.

Review & Reflection: Pentecostal Outpourings

pentecostal__69435-1446558671-1280-1280“Pentecostal Outpourings” may not sound like the title of a Reformed book, but the collective authors of the new book, “Pentecostal Outpourings: Revival and the Reformed Tradition” show that such an assumption would be wrong.  As the writers make clear, Spirit-wrought revival has had a strong and ongoing presence in the history of Reformed churches.  The book is edited by Robert Davis Smart, Michael A.G. Haykin, and Ian Hugh Clary, and contains chapters from all three of these men together with contributions from Steve Lawson, Joel Beeke, Eifion Evans, Iain D. Campbell, Peter Beck, and Tom J. Nettles.  This is an expansive book, with a range of authors discussing an assortment of issues related to the various revivals which have taken place in numerous countries over many centuries.  The book is divided into two parts.  The first part deals with “Revival in the British Isles” looking at its impact and expression for the Welsh, the Irish, the English, and the Scottish in turn.  Part two shifts to a discussion of “Revival in America” with chapters on revivals among Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and the American Dutch Reformed.

Through this thorough survey, the authors clearly show that revival is not foreign to the Reformed tradition.  Indeed, not only is it something that has happened in the past, it is also something the we should long to see happen again.  The final chapter of the book is aptly entitled: “A Concluding Word: A Call to Seek God for Revival Today”.  While Reformed believers have always rightly been wary of Revivalism (and the emotionalism it produces), God-honoring, biblical revival is something that should be close to all of our hearts.  This book goes a long way towards helping us understand what that has looked like over the centuries; and it points us towards what it might look like in our own day.

I would like to thank the good folks over at Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a free review copy of this book.  I was not obligated to provide a positive review.

Review & Reflection: Portraits of Faith

portraits_front__85263-1450209876-1280-1280Anyone who hasn’t read Joel Beeke is missing out.  Beeke has steeped himself in the biblical, practical, and theological mindset of the 16th-17th century Puritans and it shows.  His writing is winsome and wise, accessible and arresting, devotional and deep.  In his new book: “Portraits of Faith: What Five Biblical Characters Teach Us about Our Life with God” Beeke draws a rich and textured picture of what faith looks like from the stories of the Bible.  He speaks in the first chapter of the challenge of merely defining faith.  Faith is a rich biblical word that is laden with theological significance.  Hours have been spent and pages have been written in the attempt to define it fully.  Beeke tells the story of how he was given the task in seminary of writing a description of faith.  Yet, he writes, “As I tried these ways of describing faith, I began to realize that faith is something far richer than all my theological language.  It is as all-embracing as life itself, for faith is the heart of our relationship to God. […] You can best understand faith by seeing how faith operates by the Spirit in the lives of fallen sinners like us.  And when I understood that, I began to make real progress.” (pg. 5, 7-8)

With this as his starting point, Beeke walks us through the stories of five biblical characters (Adam & Eve, the Shunammite woman, the Canaanite woman, and Caleb) and challenges his readers to, “ask yourself three questions.  First, do I have saving faith? Second, am I exercising the particular aspect of faith evident in this biblical person?  Third, and most important, how can this particular dimension of faith mature me in the most holy faith?” (pg. 8).  Beeke’s book is short, simple, and refreshing.  His chapters speak to both believers and unbelievers of the centrality of saving faith and challenge us all to grow in our faith.

I would like to thank the good folks over at Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a free review copy of this book.  I was not obligated to provide a positive review.

Review & Reflection: Why bother with Church?

qcachurch_original-yxupwh4ibp64wbxntip4nka3fedlfadrIt seems to be increasingly common to hear people say that they are “Spiritual but not religious” or that they love Jesus but are turned off by church.  Sam Allberry has done us all a great service by writing a response to this mindset in his little book called: “Why bother with Church: And other questions about why you need it and why it needs you”.  I loved Allberry’s earlier book on homosexuality and I’ve found this little book to be equally helpful.  The strength of Allberry’s style is that it is both pithy and pointed.  It comes in at under 100 pages and is written not only to address the perspective described above but also to address the person who holds to that perspective.  This is a book that I would hand to churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike.  It is brief and biblical, practical and pastoral, and is an invaluable resource for our current cultural climate.

I would like to thank the good folks over at Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a free review copy of this book.  I was not obligated to provide a positive review.

Review & Reflection: Zeal Without Burnout

4175qaqjcql-_sy344_bo1204203200_I was laid up in bed sick this week.  The bad part of that scenario should be obvious, but the good part was that it gave me a chance to read through Christoper Ash’s new book “Zeal Without Burnout: Seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice”.  I had the privilege of hearing Christopher Ash speak at a youth workers conference in Wales a few years back and his gracious humility and biblical wisdom struck me at the time.  I was happy to have the chance to work through this helpful little book and to share my thoughts with you about it.

The book is short – just over 120 pages – and I was able to read the whole book in about an hour and a half.  It is sprinkled with stories from various Christians who have wrestled with the specter and symptoms of burnout.  The heart of the book are the “Seven Keys” which are made of up four “needs” (we need sleep, we need Sabbath rest, we need friends, and we need inward renewal) followed by a warning, an encouragement, and a delight.  The book is simple and much that is shared is simply Biblical common-sense.  But it is the very common-sense approach that Ash takes which makes this book profoundly helpful.  At its most basic level, Ash’s book can be boiled down to what he calls, “A Neglected Truth”: we are mortal creatures.  As Ash puts it, “The foundation of all I have to say is that you and I are dust.  We need to know that and never to forget it.  You and I are embodied creatures; we are dust” (pg. 35).  From this truth flows the recognition that we need rest, sleep, friends and renewal.  What drives ministerial burnout is the faulty belief that we are somehow indispensable.  We proudly assume that God needs our sacrifice, our gifts, or our personalities to build His kingdom.  Ash graciously shatters that thinking.  I found myself humbled and encouraged by this book.  It stands as a needed warning against my own pride and offers a helpful balance so that I can faithfully sacrifice without foolishly rushing into burnout.  This is a book to read and to share; enjoy and be blessed!

I would like to thank the good folks over at Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a free review copy of this book.  I was not obligated to provide a positive review.

Review & Reflection – Wittenberg vs Geneva

61jltnxjool-_sx331_bo1204203200_As my readers will know by this point, from time to time I get review copies of new books that I’ll write about.  The most recent book I received was interesting to me on several fronts.  The title of the book is Wittenberg vs Geneva: A Biblical Bout in Seven Rounds on the Doctrines that Divide by a Lutheran Pastor named Brian W. Thomas.  As the title suggests, the book is designed to offer a comparison of the two great wings of the Protestant Reformation – with confessional Lutheranism on one side of the ring, and confessional Reformed churches on the other.  This book is of interest to me, as I mentioned before, for several reasons.  Partly because I am myself Reformed and am hoping to be a Reformed Pastor, but also because my wife grew up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod before becoming a Presbyterian several years ago.  Needless to say, I was eager to dig into this book.

Let me start, then, by highlighting the strengths of Thomas’s work.  The book as a whole is relatively short and the chapters are manageable.  Professional theologians are already able to compare Pieper to Bavinck, so Thomas wisely limits his audience to the layperson.  Thomas also recognizes that  both traditions represent a range of thought and so he wisely compares the confessional documents of each tradition rather that getting locked into interminable debates between individual personalities or theologians.  Thomas self-consciously brings the discussion back to the Scriptures in a recognition that both sides hold the Bible as their final authority.  These are all strengths, and I commend Thomas for his efforts.

Each chapter seeks to identify a topic or question that has been a source of debate between the two camps.  Once the question is identified, Thomas offers a summary of the Lutheran and Reformed views as articulated by their church confessions and leading proponents.  Then he highlights some key passages of Scripture and offers the reader his reasons for why he believes the Lutheran camp more faithfully explains the texts.

As a Reformed person, I often felt that Thomas did not fully grasped the Reformed view of the different topics that were presented.  While it’s clear that Thomas did his best to get up to speed and do his homework, it’s equally clear that he was not fully aware of the intramural debates that exist within the Reformed camp that would anticipate and respond to some of his critiques (for example, on page 6 where he quibbles with the Reformed use of the phrase “common grace” he seems unaware that there are those within the Reformed camp who offer the very same concerns that he does on the topic.  Or on pg. 15 when he suggests that the Reformed fail to stress the objective role of the Sacraments when a close study of Questions 65-82 of the Heidelberg Catechism would show otherwise).

On the one hand, this is an encouraging book – if only because it tries to bring the two great wings of the Reformation back into conversation with each other.  On many substantial issues of doctrine and life both Lutherans and the Reformed stand together in contrast to both Rome and much of the broader evangelical world.  Perhaps this work can help believers from both traditions to work harder to understand what the other believes.

On the other hand, however, I don’t think that Thomas displayed the knowledge of historical theology requisite to faithfully carry out his project.  There are simply too many places where he displays his ignorance of the historical Reformed tradition.  Perhaps another theologian can pick up where Thomas has left off to offer a more rigorous comparison between these two camps.

I would like to thank the good folks over at Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a free review copy of this book.  I was not obligated to provide a positive review.

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