Gospel-centered obedience

This is a beautiful piece of writing from Tim Challies on the Christian experience of pursuing Christ. Read it together with Andree Seu’s response to those who accused her of legalism when she recently wrote about “striving” for greater faith. I share Andree’s concern on this point. In all the commendable talk about Gospel-centered worship, Gospel-centered preaching, Gospel-centered churches, Gospel-centered leadership, etc., it is sometimes forgotten that there is such a thing as Gospel-centered obedience. In fact, is that not what the Gospel is all about – saving us from our sins? Here are some excerpts from Andree’s column:

I would not trouble you with a column responding to the responses except that it is so life-and-death a point, and the misunderstanding of it is so endemic and persistent. Is not confusion on this issue at the root of the prevalent tepidness, complacency, and defeat in our walk with Christ?


As for “grace”: Do the contenders of “grace alone” (when by it they mean, without works) even understand what grace is? Grace is the favor from God by which we are enabled to walk in His ways by His Spirit in obedience. Grace is a provision by which we may exercise faith in the concreteness of our lives.

Grace is more than that. But it is at least that.

Pastoral Picks

How to organize your library
Pastors and students, if you want a guilt-trip, read Andy Naselli on how to organize a theological library. My only hope of attaining to this is in heaven. Seriously though, there are some good tips here. But don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress.

Pastoral Accountability
Not being a settled pastor in one congregation, I’ve been feeling the need for more formal accountability in my wider ministry. My local church and I have been working on this and while looking for resources I came across this great questionnaire used by John Piper at Desiring God.

The Cult of Personality and the Myth of Influence
What do you appreciate most about your pastor? The White Horse Inn reveals some worrying answers.

Ten things I wish someone had told me about ministry
Tim Challies put me on to this one.

Feeling others’ pain
In pastoral ministry, we will often come across suffering people who cannot really express themselves or describe their situation. Then there are others who are just not very open; they try to hide what’s going on in their lives, sometimes because they are afraid of how other Christians will respond. That’s where the eloquent pens of others, even if they may not be Christians, help us to enter into the sufferings of others with knowledge and sympathy. And that’s one of the reasons why I subscribe to the Postpartum Progress blog, where I can read moving articles like this from Alexis Lesa on Postpartum anxiety and the incessant fear of losing our loved ones.

Confident but not sure

On the fundamentals of the faith, we should be bold as lions. We should not be timid and fearful, but dogmatic and certain. We have enough doubters and ditherers.

However, what about issues of guidance? What about discerning the Lord’s will for a new church building or a new outreach program? What about giving counsel to those in complicated relationships? What about areas where there is no clear biblical instruction, or there are strong and persuasive arguments on both sides? Must a pastor teach his millennial view with as much dogmatic certainty as he does justification by faith alone? Should a parent be as decisive in guiding their childrens’ choice of a wife or husband as they are in calling them to Christ? Should this seminary student be recommended to that congregation?

These questions seem to demand a combination of firm biblical wisdom together with a conscious awareness of, “I maybe wrong.” We don’t want to set ourselves up as infallible popes on every area of life, but neither do we want to present our answers and conclusions as mere guesses.

Robert Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Sanford University, proposes that great leaders should be “confident but not sure.” He says, “I strive to be confident enough to convince people that I am in charge, but humble enough to realize that I am often going to be wrong.” Sutton recounts an interview with Intel’s then-Chairman, Andy Grove, who said:

None of us have a real understanding of where we are heading. I don’t. I have senses about it. But decisions don’t wait, investment decisions or personal decisions and prioritization don’t wait, for that picture to be clarified. You have to make them when you have to make them. So you take your shots and clean up the bad ones later. I think it is very important for you to do two things: act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.

Sutton says “this balancing act between confidence and doubt is a hallmark of great bosses. The confidence inspires people to follow them and believe in them, but the doubt helps ensure they get things right. They are always listening and watching for evidence that they might be wrong, and inviting others to challenge their conclusions (albeit usually in private and in “backstage” conversations).”

Another way of putting this is that “the best leaders and the best organizations have strong opinions that are weakly held.” Film director Frank Hauser illustrated this:

As the director, you have three weapons: “Yes,” “No,” and “I don’t know.” Use them. Don’t dither; you can always change your mind later. Nobody minds that. What they do mind is the two-minute agonizing when all the actor has asked is “Do I get up now.”

This is one of the hardest balances to find in pastoral ministry, in parenting, and in the Christian life in general: to know when to be confident and sure, and to know when to be confident but not sure. Which areas are non-negotiable and which opinions can be “weakly held.”

Temperament plays a large part in how we find the sweet spot. But find it we must, by knowing the Word and walking in the Spirit. Congregations, families, and relationships have been sunk by doubting and equivocating over non-negotiables. They have also been blown apart by over-bearing over-confidence that cannot distinguish between a fundamental of the faith and the color of the new church carpet.

The World’s Largest Art Competition


The world’s largest art competition has been going on for the past few weeks in….Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids? Not Venice or Paris or Greenwich Village? Grand Rapids, Michigan?

Yes, that’s right. Conservative, Reformed, traditional Grand Rapids has just hosted Artprize, the world’s largest art competition. This annual event has cash prizes totaling $450,000, with first prize receiving $250,000 (do I hear the sound of old paintbrushes being cleaned up?), most of it coming out of the generous pockets of Dick and Betsy DeVos. You can see the winners here.

I’m not much of an art buff, but even I took my family on to the streets of Grand Rapids to view some of the 1400 exhibits showing in strategic places throughout the town. Much to my surprise, we had a really great time. The streets were packed with young and old. And most people looked kind of “normal”; not the usual arty crowd. And the pieces of art were (mainly) understandable; not the usual weird, incomprehensible, abstract stuff.

Part of the reason for that was that the winners were all decided by public vote (you texted or voted online), and this clearly motivated the artists to produce works that would impress “ordinary” people. And most of the work was hugely impressive. The creativity, imagination, and ingenuity was fantastic. I found myself wishing I had more time to see more and appreciate more. Not quite sure what came over me.

God’s image
But I also found myself thinking of how God’s image was being so clearly displayed in and through the art and the artists. In these beautiful, stunning, and eye-popping paintings, sculptures, and all sorts of varied constructions, I could see a bright shadow of God’s own creative genius and awesome creativity in the Garden.

Some of the most impressive pieces were constructed out of waste metal and other assorted pieces of junk. How could so much ugliness be transformed into such loveliness! In the same way God is making old and junky creatures new and beautiful in His powerful work of sanctification.

The streets of Grand Rapids are back to their familiar drabness now. But in the memory of these temporarily beautified public spaces and crossings, surely we can get a little foretaste of how God will yet renew and beautify the earth with His works of grace.

So many of the pieces could form the basis of sermons and blog posts. But I’d like to leave you with one that was brought to my attention by Charissa Romens at the Acton Institute’s Powerblog. She writes:

Confess is a large board where people can anonymously write their confessions. Everything from the dark, to deeply personal, to lighthearted, to witty is posted on this public wall for anyone to peruse.

As I watched people write their messages for strangers to read, my first reaction was: “This is dumb and not even art. Why would anyone write something so personal in public for anyone to see?!” However, as I stood observing many people come and go, furtively writing their secrets and lingering over those of others, I was struck by the universal desire for interpersonal connection and communication.

As I thought about this, I was also struck by the universal desire for confession. Wherever we look in the world we find this urge, this “instinct,” this compulsion to admit sin in a public way. No matter how hard we may try to forget, to hide, to cover-up, to deny, to blame others, to balance with good works, that sin or these sins keep bubbling up to the surface of our consciousness.

But even when confession is made, most of the time it is misdirected to priests, counselors, psychologists, walls! As a result, there is no lasting sense of peace or forgiveness. And there is no power to change.

The greatest prize
This is where true Christianity has such a powerful and relevant message. If we confess our sins to Christ, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). I sometimes wonder if we underplay this basic and fundamental promise of Christianity. We can get so caught up in doctrinal controversies about justification, etc., that sin-burdened souls do not hear this simply profound promise. Confess your sins to Christ and you will receive full, free, felt, and forever forgiveness from all your sins.

What greater prize can there be?

Deborahs or Jezebels?

Before I was converted to Christ in the late 1980′s, I was a bit of a political zealot. After a monotonous succession of dull and disastrous male leaders, Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a small shopkeeper, burst on to the UK scene with clarity, confidence, and courage. She took on the Unions and won. She took on Argentina and won. She took on the media and won. She took on the Labor party and won, and won, and won again. Many powerful men tried to take her on, and lost. Home ownership soared. Multiple privatizations formed a new army of shareholders. The stock market boomed and many made small fortunes.

These were good days to be a young man in the UK, especially if you worked in the financial services industry as I did. Inspired by Mrs Thatcher’s renewal of the UK, I joined the local Conservative party and campaigned for Winston Churchill’s grandson in a lost-cause of a seat in the socialist republic of Glasgow. We spent part of our time running from vicious dogs, and the rest of the time from violent people who didn’t take too kindly to an upper-class Englishman on their territory. The Conservatives seemed to think it was a valuable rite of passage for their rising stars to be battle-scarred while fighting unwinnable seats in the most socialist areas of the country.

The “Tea-Party” women
Anyway, not long after, I was converted to Christ and my life, thankfully, took another direction as my passion for a cross on a ballot was replaced by a passion for the cross of Christ. But I often think back to Margaret Thatcher and the condescending and cruel way the political and media elites treated her, when I see the way that some of the Republican women are being treated in the USA. Although Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina have suffered to some degree, it’s especially the “Tea-Party” women that are under all-out assault. Like Mrs Thatcher, Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, Sharon Angle, Michelle Bachmann and others come from humble backgrounds. None of them come from big money or famous families. Like Mrs Thatcher (and most “ordinary” people), they have some pretty obvious character flaws and rough edges. Like Mrs Thatcher their “straight-talk” sounds abrasive in a world full of polished spin. Like Mrs Thatcher, they do not cower before power or hide unpopular views. Like Mrs Thatcher, their past life and family connections are often used to embarrass or shame them. Like Mrs Thatcher, they are mockingly impersonated and caricatured. (Yes, we had a Saturday Night Live in the UK then. It was called Spitting Image).

Without approving all that they say and do, I cannot but admire the tremendous courage and tenacity of these women. And I cannot but daily pray for them and their families. Can you imagine what it must feel like for these “ordinary” people and their families to be daily torn asunder and to have their past raked over and over and over. It must be terrifying at times to face the media in interview after interview knowing that every interviewer is out to kill you with questions.

Yet, I’ve noticed that some Christians feel very strongly that none of these women should be in politics in the first place, and that these “Jezebels” are getting what they deserve for “deserting their families.”

Some of this is motivated by a commendable desire to uphold male headship. They say that women should not take leadership positions over men. I agree that this principle is unquestionable in the Church and in the family sphere. However, is it also true in the civil sphere? Always? Even if it may be the norm, the ideal, for men to lead in the civil sphere, might exceptional times sometimes call for exceptional measures?

For example, think of the time of the Judges. These were anarchic and leaderless times. Israel was hanging on to existence by the skin of its teeth. And just when everything seemed hopeless, God would raise up a Judge, a special temporary leader to deliver Israel from her enemies. These Judges were not so much judicial figures, but rather military deliverers with some limited civil leadership roles. They usually came from humble backgrounds, and had few resources and flawed characters. And one of them, and it was only one, was a woman – Deborah (Judges 4-5). She was a believing woman, and she was a brave woman. In fact her courage is in stark contrast to the cowardly men of the time, like Barak, who were too afraid to take on Israel’s enemies. And to emphasize this contrast, the story concludes with another brave women, Jael, driving a tent-peg through the head of Israel’s arch-enemy. As I said, these were exceptional times!

Deborah was the only female judge. She was not the norm, but the exception. She was a special Judge whom God, in His mighty grace, raised up to rebuke “the establishment” and to expose the cowardly failure of Israel’s male leadership.

Maybe we are living in similar times. And maybe God, in His grace, is raising up more exceptionally courageous “Deborahs” for such a time as this” and for similar purposes. If so, we should pray for these women and their families. And we should also pray that men in politics would hear the divine rebuke and bravely step up to the plate with some straight-talking and some straight-dealing.

Tent-pegs not required.