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Hallelujah, Advent is Here

Sunday marks the beginning of the Advent season. I love this time of the year. Beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the church since the fourth century has celebrated the arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ by focusing attention on the Old Testament promise of His coming, the realization of the promise in His Incarnation, and the blessed hope of our Lord’s Second Coming. Advent is designed to nurture in Christ’s church humble reverence and joyful longing.


With all the events of the year 2020 it is perhaps uniquely difficult for our churches to consider Advent. It’s easy to forget the wonder of the Christmas season with our minds consumed with COVID-19; various degrees of lockdowns on businesses, schools, and churches; financial hardship; distant family; and all that has come with the theater of the presidential election. But regardless of what is going on in the culture, the pastor’s job is to remind God’s people of the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Indeed, the gospel story in every season must be heard over all other competing stories.

The Apostle Peter knew the challenge of remembrance. This is why he made no apologies for explaining the same truths over and over again:

Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things (2 Peter 1:12-15).

Like a good pastor, Peter understood that he would not always be there to remind people of gospel truth. He was aware of his inevitable, and soon, departure unto death. Therefore, out of great love for the church, he served tirelessly in a ministry of remembrance so that the people “may be able at any time to recall these things.”

As faithful pastors we must feel two things: great affection for our people and the inevitability of our own death. If we truly love our church then we will say with John, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). And if we know our life is “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14), then we will labor by the grace of God to ground our churches in the Word of God so that after our departure they “may be able at any time to recall these things.”


Advent is an incredible opportunity to remind our people of the central truths of the gospel—to stir them up by way of reminder. The Advent season is designed to take up the grand narrative of the Bible and hold it before the church in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In this sense, the church calendar can act like a catechism for our people as each week we emphasize a different aspect of the gospel story.

Christina Rossetti in 1876 captured the heart of Advent in a poem. Note the gospel richness in every stanza from this sample of “Advent”:

There no more parting, no more pain,
The distant ones brought near,
The lost so long are found again,
Long lost but longer dear:
Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard,
Nor heart conceived that rest,
With them our good things long deferred,
With Jesus Christ our Best.

We weep because the night is long,
We laugh, for day shall rise,
We sing a slow contented song
And knock at Paradise.
Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept
For us, —we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go except
He bless us first or last.

Weeping we hold Him fast to-night;
We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight,
And summer smite the snow:
Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
Shall coo the livelong day;
Then He shall say, “Arise, My love,
My fair one, come away.”

In beautiful poetry, Rossetti describes great and terrible biblical themes like the fall of mankind and our present groaning because of sin, the substitutionary suffering and death of Christ, the communion of saints, and the sure hope of the resurrection when all things will be made new. Pastoral ministry is a labor in gospel poetry for our people. The Advent season helps us do this.


As I type, I’m listening to a wonderful rendition of one of my favorite oratorios, Handel’s “Messiah.” With heavenly beauty, Handel takes us through the Old Testament longings for Messiah (Behold, a Virgin Shall Conceive) to the wonder of the Incarnation (For Unto Us a Child is Born) to the horror of the cross (Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs) to the matchless power of the resurrection (Hallelujah) to the glorious Second Coming (The Trumpet Shall Sound). By the end Handel knew that everything in us wants to proclaim “Amen” to the glory of God!

Advent declares to the world the wonderful truth that Messiah has come. Indeed, God is with us. And so, with humble reverence and joyful longing we sing, Come, Lord Jesus, and make all things new.

This is worth everything to remember.

Advice to Young Preachers

Time was that church historians also taught church polity and what is sometimes called pastoral theology. This was, I suppose, because we used to recognize that the study of the history of the practice of the church gives a certain insight into how ministry should be conducted.

I mention this to apologize (i.e., defend) for the propriety of the historian-pastor (or pastor-historian) to give advice to young preachers. By “young” I mean seminary students or those just out of seminary. This is a talk I’ve given informally to many students individually and it seems like a good idea to write it down—before I forget it.


Seminary students spend proportionally more time writing term papers than sermons. As a result, sermons can become term papers especially if one is writing a sermon manuscript (see below). It is difficult to shift audiences and modes of communication. The audience for a term paper is professors and perhaps other students. Academic writing can be dense and full of technical code in order to save time and space. Good preaching is neither of those.

There are similarities between a sermon and a term paper, however. Like a term paper, a sermon involves learning new stuff. Like a term paper, a sermon has a central, organizing thesis. Like a term paper, a sermon is making a case for something. Students (and recent grads) should transfer those skills to the sermon but they need to take an additional step or two.

You need to recognize that writing a term paper, as it were, is the first step of writing a sermon. The research behind this “term paper,” however, might result in multiple sermons (see below). Further, the audience for a sermon is much more diverse than the audience for a term paper. A congregation is composed of 8-year olds and 80-year olds and the preacher has to announce God’s good news to all of them, at the same time, in the same sermon. Thus, a sermon is a much more complex act of communication than a term paper. Where a term paper might use code to save time, a sermon must explain almost everything.

A sermon is a divinely authorized announcement of God’s truth. It is a proclamation of the great history of redemption as much as it is the transmission of data. A term paper doesn’t necessarily have to distinguish law and gospel but if your sermon doesn’t, then your it is a failure. A sermon must capture the attention, inform, illustrate, persuade, and exhort. The preacher has a much bigger job before him. If a term paper fails to meet its goals it might result in a poor grade or a re-write. If a sermon fails to do its job (to announce the bad news and the good news) there is much more at stake.

Good research is necessary—any preacher who isn’t doing good research into God’s Word isn’t fulfilling his vocation— but it is only half of the work of creating a sermon. The next step is to figure out how to communicate effectively what you’ve learned, what’s appropriate to the sermon and to the pulpit, what’s beneficial for the congregation, what’s edifying. After all, the sermon isn’t about you. It’s about Christ and it’s about the congregation in Christ. In a good sermon the minister, like a good umpire, disappears. If he’s doing his job, the congregation will leave talking about the text, about God in Christ for them and not how clever or entertaining the minister is.


It is not unusual for young preachers in term-paper mode to write complex sermons, that is sermons that are not one sermon with (for example) three points but three sermons in one. The temptation of the young preacher is to try to tell everyone everything he learned all at once. Again, that temptation is partly due to the circumstances of the sermon. Student preachers doing pulpit supply aren’t going to be back week after week for years. This helps to create a certain unspoken pressure to say it all now because the young preacher might not ever get another chance. Still, it’s a good habit (i.e., disposition and practice) to force one’s self to preach just one sermon at a time. One way to achieve this goal is to recognize the limits inherent to the preaching event.

The Westminster Assembly adopted the “Directory For The Publick Worship of God” in 1644. The Directory has a section on preaching that deserves more attention than it receives. They were aware of the temptation to try to do more in one sermon than should be attempted:

And, as he needeth not always to prosecute every doctrine which lies in his text, so is he wisely to make choice of such uses, as, by his residence and conversing with his flock, he findeth most needful and seasonable; and, amongst these, such as may most draw their souls to Christ, the fountain of light, holiness, and comfort.

Notice that the divines (most all of whom were active, preaching ministers) limited what the preacher should attempt in a single sermon. Not every doctrine taught by Scripture should be explained. The medium (a sermon) imposes limits. The minister must “make choices” and focus on what is of most use to his congregation at the time. The preacher will ordinarily have other opportunities to preach the same text and to point out other features or implications. The preacher shouldn’t try to do everything in every sermon. The goal of the sermon is to “draw their souls to Christ….”


Long sermons have been a problem in the Reformed tradition since the beginning. Historically, for the most part, Reformed congregations have been models of patience. That is no excuse, however, to try their patience. There are some realities that you simply cannot change or challenge. Before the age of modern communication, before the age of constant stimulation and entertainment, people were accustomed to listening to long discourses. In most cases that age has passed. In most cases, in North America, 30 minutes is probably the limit for a sermon. It’s probably true that congregations can learn to endure and perhaps even appreciate longer sermons but that’s a subject for another post. Most of the time, young preacher, you have thirty minutes to get in, get it, and get out.

If you’ve done your work, you know what the heartbeat of the text is and you’ve built your sermon around that. You have a thesis that has emerged from the text and your points have emerged from the text as a way of elaborating on that central point. Introduce the text, the central thesis around which the one sermon (not three) is organized, illustrate it appropriately and get on with it.

Most sermons, most of the time, have three points. In 30 minutes you have about 3 minutes to introduce a sermon, three minutes of transitions from introduction to body, within the body, and to the conclusion. You have about 3 minutes for your conclusion. That leaves you with 21 minutes for the body of the sermon or about 7 minutes a point. If what you have to say cannot be said in 7 minutes, you’re trying to do too much.

I started by distinguishing between a term paper and a sermon. That distinction has practical implications. It means you should leave your manuscript in the study. A minister must communicate clearly and the Holy Spirit uses ordinary means. The Westminster Divines recognized that reality.

The illustrations, of what kind soever, ought to be full of light, and such as may convey the truth into the hearer’s heart with spiritual delight.

A sermon manuscript is a good discipline but its use in the pulpit usually hinders communication. Write your manuscript, read your manuscript, learn it but leave it in the study. Make an outline and take the outline with you into the pulpit. A manuscript is fine but it is preparation for, not a culmination of, a sermon.

  1. Research (including prayer)
  2. Manuscript
  3. Outline

If your sermon is so complex that you can’t remember what needs to be said (introduction, thesis, points, illustrations, conclusion), if the outline isn’t a sufficient cue to your memory, then you’re preaching a term paper not a sermon.

Well, young preacher, there it is. Follow the text. Preach the text. Be bold but be wise. Trust the Spirit to do his work. Pray. Don’t fret too much but don’t be lazy. Preach Christ.

Preaching for Discipleship

In his article Sermons Don’t Make Disciples Alan White asserts that preaching doesn’t make disciples. He gives a litany of reasons but in the end, the article reveals more about White’s low view of the Bible and the ministry of the Spirit than to prove preaching doesn’t make disciples. His point is valid about the value of relationships in the process of discipleship. But White errs in one major way: he ignores careful study of the Scriptures themselves on the topic of preaching. We need a far higher view of the Scriptures and of preaching. And preaching need not be diminished to uphold the value of relationships in discipleship.

I take my argument from the Bible and from the ministry of a faithful preacher from church history, Martyn Lloyd-Jones. His classic book, Preaching and Preachers, is utterly relevant for our day.

In his time, Lloyd-Jones faced many critics of preaching. He saw their low view of preaching as a result of their low view of the Scriptures. Furthermore, Lloyd-Jones argued that preaching wasn’t merely an important task for the church and her pastor, but the single most important task:

I suggest that here are some of the main and the leading factors under this heading. I would not hesitate to put in the first position: the loss of belief in the authority of the Scriptures, and a diminution in the belief of the Truth. I put this first because I am sure it is the main factor. If you have not got authority, you cannot speak well, you cannot preach . . . . Well now the great question is—what is our answer to all this? I am going to suggest, and this will be the burden of what I hope to say, that all this at best is secondary, very often not even secondary, often not worthy of a place at all, but at best, secondary, and that the primary task of the Church and of the Christian minister is the preaching of the Word of God. 1Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan, 2012), 20, 26.

White rightly argues that we need godly examples to look to in order to imitate them. To whom should we first look? Jesus. What did he do? He preached and spent time in small group discipleship—it’s both. We should note that Jesus’ ministry was absorbed in preaching. Matthew’s gospel is filled with extended passages of the preaching of our Lord. White emphasizes the time he spent with the twelve disciples but overlooks or seems to ignore the vast material, particularly in Matthew, that is record of Christ’s preaching. We certainly don’t have to make over generalized statements like “sermons don’t make disciples” in order to bring up the importance of small group discipleship. Rather, we should first check the biblical record and, second, consider whether we simply have too low a view of preaching before making such a sweeping statement.

Let’s continue to look at the Scriptures specifically Matthew 28:18-20 where Jesus commissions his disciples for gospel work:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

The missional movement seems to generally emphasize the “go” and sometimes the “make disciples” in this text. However, many often overlook the “and teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” Teaching is essential to the task. Can that happen and should that happen in small group discipleship? Yes! But note what we find the apostles doing immediately following the commission (hint: it’s not rushing out to form cell groups or missional communities). It’s preaching! See Acts chapter two and four, and then chapter six where the primary mission of the church is first tested: “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (6:2).

Commenting on this text, Lloyd-Jones states:

Why go on preaching when people are starving and in need and are suffering? That was the great temptation that came to the Church immediately; but the Apostles under the leading and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the teaching they had already received, and the commission they had had from their Master, saw the danger and they said, ‘It is not reason that we should leave the Word of God, and serve tables.’ This is wrong. We shall be failing in our commission if we do this. We are here to preach this Word, this is the first thing, ‘We will give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word.’ 2Preaching and Preachers, 30.

In Acts 8 the disciples are scattered in persecution and what do we see them doing? Preaching! The book of Acts makes the priority of preaching unmistakable.

Now let’s look to the pastoral epistles (interestingly, a portion of the Scriptures White doesn’t address in his article). Paul’s climactic charge to Pastor Timothy uses arguably the strongest language of any of his instruction to him in 2 Timothy 4. Listen to his final charge:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (4:1-2).

Here, Paul keeps upping the ante on his charge, first drawing on the presence of God and of Christ himself, then on the coming judgement, and finally on Christ’s personal appearing and his very kingdom! What in the world could be this important!? The answer: preaching! Indeed, in view of all this glory, Timothy is to “preach the word.”

There is much more to say regarding the indispensable role of preaching in the life of the church. But I end with this question that every pastor would do well to answer: Why is there so much emphasis on preaching and its importance in the New Testament if it doesn’t make disciples? There is so much emphasis on preaching in the New Testament because it does make disciples. The problem is that many pastors haven’t taken a high enough view of it in accordance with the Scriptural record to render their preaching effective.


1 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan, 2012), 20, 26.
2 Preaching and Preachers, 30.

The Resistance Continues

By now most of you know that all the major media outlets have called the presidential election for Joe Biden. With the Biden-Harris ticket securing wins in key battleground states, the Democrats will be taking control of the executive branch (baring any successful legal challenges by the Republicans).

With all that’s changed, and will change in the months to come, this much we know: the pastor’s job description remains the same.

Regardless of who’s in the White House, the pastor’s job is to shepherd God’s people into deeper degrees of discipleship. Of course, we do this in many ways—ways that don’t change with transitions in Washington. We will continue to preach the Word, teach sound doctrine, care for the saints, evangelize the lost, and mobilize our churches for global missions. In other words, we will continue, by the grace of God, to help our churches live like pilgrims and exiles in this world in our holy pursuit of another.

As pastors we are always aware of being part of a resistance movement. What are we resisting? The world, the flesh, and the devil. And this resistance is always necessary no matter what political party holds office.

This is not to say there are not unique challenges for God’s people depending on who leads our secular governments. To be sure, a Biden presidency has the potential to accelerate godless trends in our nation that will call on the church to act in specific and courageous ways for righteousness—just as it was the case under a Trump presidency with its unique challenges for the church. Because our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) we must never be at ease in Zion (Amos 6:1) no matter who sits in the Oval Office. Indeed, this world is not our home and as pastors we labor to help our people be increasingly homesick for heaven.

The 2020 presidential election has the potential to be a galvanizing time for pastors as we remember again for the first time what our job description requires. It is a job description that does not change with the changing of the guard in Washington. Our job is to help our churches resist the world with its pattern of rebellion against God, the flesh with its indwelling sin, and the devil as he prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. We do this gospel work grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28) because our God reigns never subject to term limits.

Week in and week out pastors call their churches to join the resistance. This has never been easy work because the opposition comes at us with a relentless fury and cunning. But it is work worth every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears for the reward is great. As one of the foremost leaders of the resistance has written, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

Join the resistance, and look forward to receiving the crown of life.

Our Father in Heaven

Coming off the heals of Reformation Day I’ve been thinking about all the wonderful posts I saw on social media heralding the essential doctrine of justification as it relates to the gospel. Many a commentator quoted the phrase most often attributed to the great Reformer Martin Luther: “Justification is the article by which the church stands or falls.” Whether Luther said it exactly this way is not the issue; the essence of the idea is certainly in his writings and Protestants are right to affirm it.

But there is another aspect of the gospel that we would do well to herald in our day as well: adoption. To do so takes nothing away from the glory of justification, but the doctrine of adoption helps us see and experience the love of God in greater depth and has tremendous implications for pastoral ministry.


God’s merciful adoption of a people for himself is a theme that many theologians in church history have helpfully traced throughout the Scriptures. I remember well when, in my early twenties, J.I. Packer helped bring this doctrine alive for me in chapter 19 of his classic work Knowing God. Later, in my thirties, Sinclair Ferguson taught me much about adoption through his book-length treatment of the subject entitled Children of the Living God. And, more recently, I’ve benefited from Trevor Burke’s fine work of biblical theology Adopted into God’s Family. Add to these titles several fine systematic theologies and commentaries on the subject and the glories of adoption are richly accessible in our day. These books have opened for me the biblical teaching on adoption and, perhaps more than any doctrine, helped me relate to God as Father.

Consider a biblical text like Ephesians 1:4-6,

In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

It is the love of God that moves him to predestine us for adoption. To be sure, there is no son or daughter of God who is not first declared righteous before him. But justification, as essential as it is, is not all there is to the gospel. We are acquitted by the Judge so that we can be loved by the Father.

Given our adoption the Apostle goes on in Ephesians 1:11 to talk of our inheritance, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” And part of the purpose of God in salvation is to give us all the blessings of being full family members in God’s household. Knowing this is why Paul chastens the Corinthians for lusting after worldly treasures and acclaim. They had evidently forgotten (or some needed to learn for the first time) about their inheritance in the gospel and what it included, namely, everything:

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).

This beautiful truth is also seen in Romans 8:15-17,

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Notice we are not told to cry, “Merciful Judge!” — although that would be true and right to cry. Our justification ushers us into a relationship with God that allows us to cry “Abba! Father!” Indeed, we are not merely acquitted sinners, but children of God and, therefore, fellow heirs with Christ the One who is not ashamed to call us brothers (Cf., Hebrews 2:10-12).

A powerful illustration of this gospel reality is seen in Luke 15. It is there that Jesus helps his followers see how they are to relate to God in salvation. You’ll recall the benevolent father who embraces his wayward son upon coming home. This repentant rebel would not be a hired hand, but a full member of the family: ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, and robe on his back symbolizing this fact. And there would be a great celebration recognizing the magnitude of the moment — a son had come home and with his homecoming, family status restored. This parable, of course, is intended to move us to see that salvation is “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6).


What are the implications of the doctrine of adoption for pastoral ministry? At least this: It forces us to examine our ministries and consider how we relate to our people. Do we see our churches as a collection of merely acquitted sinners or the glorious local congregation of the children of God? Do we consider our church members as merely “not guilty” or as co-heirs with Christ? Do we relate to our people as a judge or a shepherd? Understanding the doctrine of adoption will make all the difference in our pastoral ministries as we seek to reflect the fatherhood of God in our leading (Cf., 1 Peter 5:1-4).

So let us herald the truth that “Justification is the article by which the church stands or falls.” But let us not stop there. May we move from justification to what our right standing before God grants us: adoption as sons to the praise of his glorious grace.

The Dallas Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliot, and the Pulpit in America

“I want to say I’m sorry and this one is on me. I need to be better.” – Ezekiel Elliot


Ezekiel Elliot’s self-deprecating honesty after the Dallas Cowboys were humiliated by the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football (Elliot had in mind his two fumbles on back-to-back drives in the first and second quarters) is a confession many evangelical preachers should consider adopting.

There is much talk today about the weakness of the American church in the face of an increasingly militant secularism. It seems self-evident that the modern megachurch movement has left American evangelicals doctrinally impoverished and generally confused on what constitutes the biblical gospel (notwithstanding helpful exceptions to this rule). This, of course, leaves the Church vulnerable to an encroaching worldliness. And while there are many reasons thoughtful Christians can point to for this unfortunate state of the church, the primary culprit is the pulpit.

As David Gordon observed in his provocative book Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, “many ordained people simply can’t preach.” Gordon made this argument back in 2009. However, given the acceleration of trends in the culture generally and in  evangelicalism specifically, his thesis is still more relevant today. 1For an excellent overview of Gordon’s work and to see how he measured good preaching, please see this review. As the pulpit goes, so goes the church. If Johnny can’t preach, we shouldn’t be surprised that the church in the main is spiritually weak.

Long before Gordon made this observation about the American church, Martyn Lloyd-Jones was making it in his native Wales. In 1925 Lloyd-Jones gave an address that took up themes that would occupy much of his ministry in the years to come, not least of which was the state of the pulpit. He set out to explain what were some of the causes of the degeneration of the country. For Lloyd-Jones the pulpit, among other things, was to blame:

Preaching today – again please note the glorious exceptions – has become a profession which is often taken up because of the glut in the other professions. I have already referred to the method adopted in the choice of ministers and we are reaping what we have sown. It is not at all surprising that many of our chapels are half-empty, for it is almost impossible to determine what some of our preachers believe. Another great abomination is the advent of the preacher-politician, that moral-mule who is so much in evidence these days. The harm done to Welsh public life by these monstrosities is incalculable. Their very appearance in public is a jeer at Christianity. Is it surprising that the things I have already mentioned are so flagrant with all these Judases so much in evidence? We get endless sermons on psychology, but amazingly few on Christianity. Our preachers are afraid to preach on the doctrine of the atonement and on predestination. The great cardinal principles of our belief are scarcely ever mentioned, indeed there is a movement on foot to amend them so as to bring them up-to-date. How on earth can you talk of bringing these eternal truths up-to-date? They are not only up-to-date, they are and will be ahead of the times to all eternity. 2Cited in Iain Murray, The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones 1899 – 1981 (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), 52. MLJ would develop this theme about the importance of the pulpit in a series of lectures in the United States at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1969. These lectures would become the book Preaching and Preachers.

What was true with the Welsh pulpit in 1925 could be said about the American pulpit today. Should we be surprised that our churches are weak when “it is almost impossible to determine what some of our preachers believe”? How can our churches be strong when “the great cardinal principles of our belief are scarcely ever mentioned”? And where there are “preacher-politicians” there will not be prophets of the Lord heralding God’s revelation. As it did in Lloyd-Jones’ day, this monstrosity makes for a weak church in our day.

The pulpit must be reformed if we would see our churches strengthened. The reformation of the pulpit will mean not less, but more Bible and theology. The church must reclaim the exposition of the Bible rather than “talks” on Sunday mornings consisting of pop-psychology, self-help advice, or mere moralism. To ground this conviction in the Bible, consider Romans 16:25-27:

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

In this benediction the apostle makes it clear that God’s strength comes “according to [the] gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ.” And we find this gospel of Jesus Christ in the “prophetic writings.” Given this, every preacher worthy of the name must make the exposition of the Scriptures the main thing in corporate worship. This will make for strong Christians and strong churches able to withstand the increasing secularism of our time.

The strength of the church begins with the pulpit and with preachers willing to say, “I’m sorry and this one is on me. I need to be better.” Let’s forget the fumbles and take up the Scriptures for the glory of God and the strengthening of his church.


1 For an excellent overview of Gordon’s work and to see how he measured good preaching, please see this review.
2 Cited in Iain Murray, The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones 1899 – 1981 (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), 52. MLJ would develop this theme about the importance of the pulpit in a series of lectures in the United States at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1969. These lectures would become the book Preaching and Preachers.

Ignatius of Antioch and Contemporary Evangelicalism

Each autumn term one of my responsibilities is to spend about half the semester helping a group of students to walk through the Apostolic Fathers, a collection of second-century Christian texts which was first compiled in the 17th century. That collection has varied some but it represents some important early Christian writers. The author we studied in this morning’s session was Ignatius of Antioch, who, we presume, was martyred, in Rome, before A.D. 117. Ignatius was a pastor in Antioch. His office was episkopos, overseer, which, if we are to judge from what he says about his ministry looks very much like the pastoral office. In the seven letters we have from him he describes and refers to three offices, his own, the presbyterion, and the diaconate. The presbytery seems to refer to something like what the Reformed call the consistory and presbyterians call the session, rather than to a regional assembly of elders (and ministers, i.e., the Presbytery or Classis). He treats these three offices as distinct and urges the faithful laity in the various congregations to obey and follow them. He especially stresses the episcopal office, which has led some to conclude that he must have held to a hierarchical, monepiscopal view of church and office, i.e., that view of the church which sees it beginning with the episkopos and flowing downward, from the episkopos, to the presbytery, and thence to the diaconate, and thence to the people. In such a hierarchical view (as in Rome), the presbytery and the diaconate are mere subsidiaries of the episkopos.

If we read Ignatius on his own terms, in his own setting, without anachronistically reading back into his words 9th or 13th-century ideas, the picture is rather different. In Ephesians 2:2, 4:1, Magnesians 2:1, and 6:1, among other places, Ignatius appealed to these three offices as roughly correlated. He had a high view of the episcopal office, the pastoral office in his scheme (and in Paul’s?) but not a hierarchical view. In Smyrnaeans 8:1 that high view of the episcopal office is on view:

Flee from divisions, as the beginning of evils. You must all follow the episkopos, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbytery as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the episkopos. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. 1rev. from Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, updated ed. (Baker Books, 1999).

Defenders of a monepiscopal polity (e.g., Romanists) might wish to seize on the first part of v.1 but keep reading. Christians are to follow the episkopos, which I argue is better understood here as pastor than “bishop,” as it is usually translated. It is almost impossible for us to read or hear the word bishop without loading it with notions that do not yet exist. The pastoral office here is something like that conveyed in the Dutch word Dominee (Dominie). A Dominie is a pastor, perhaps a strong pastor, but he is not a regional governor of the church nor the source of the church. We are to follow the pastor and the elders. We are to respect the deacons. We are to avoid a church without a pastor and we are to receive the Supper, the eucharist, from the pastor. Agree or disagree with him, Ignatius had a high view of the visible church. The early church was not a loosely organized, dynamic, kergymatic (i.e., charismatic) assembly. It was an organized body with offices and creeds. It had structure. The true humanity of Christ and the reality of the visible church were both essential to Christianity according to Ignatius of Antioch.

He addressed two or three themes consistently in his seven epistles. Chief among them was the true humanity of Christ (against the docetists, i.e., those who claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human but was not really human). To the Smyrnaeans he described himself as theophoros, lit. God-bearer, which Michael Holmes quite fairly translates as “image bearer.” He continues by surveying the essentials of the faith in a way that reminds one of what would soon come to be known as the “rule of faith” (regula fidei): that Christ is God the Son incarnate, that he is true man, born of a virgin, that he entered into an earthly ministry for us “in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him” (1:1). He affirms that Christ was nailed to the cross for us, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch, and that he was raised for our salvation. “He suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved…” (2:1). He affirms the true humanity of Christ repeatedly. Christ became incarnate and remains incarnate now, for us (3:1). Anyone who denies that Jesus was and remains incarnate will become “disembodied and demonic” (2:1).


My experience in evangelicalism and with evangelicals is that there is a good bit of docetism. I have written in this space about what I call the “Star Trek” Christology, whereby Jesus dematerializes and passes through doors. Even worse, perhaps, is the notion held among some Pentecostals that Jesus stepped out of his humanity after his ascension. This is rank heresy. The Jesus of the New Testament (see the entire book of Hebrews and then read it again and again) and of the early church and of the ecumenical creeds is true God and true man. That was certainly the doctrine of and dogma of Ignatius of Antioch. He was passionate about the reality of Jesus’ humanity before the crucifixion and after the resurrection and ascension. He knew that our salvation depends on Jesus’ true humanity. Our faith rests upon our Savior and Mediator who is true God and true man. On the “Star Trek” Christology see the resources below.


He was also passionately devoted to the reality of the church and of the Christian life in the church. One of his great concerns was that he should be allowed the privilege of giving witness (martyrdom) in Rome. He was anxious that the Christians should not intercede on his behalf. His passion to be put to death by the pagans, in Rome, is a little disquieting to us today and sometimes we struggle to appreciate it. As some have noted, one explanation may be that he was concerned that, should he not be martyred, some might think that he lapsed, i.e., failed to confess Christ and denounced him before the pagans.

He was also concerned that the Smyrnaeans and all the churches hold to the orthodox Christian faith: “Even the heavenly beings and the glory of angels and the rulers, both visible and invisible, are also subject to judgment, if they do not believe in the blood of Christ” (6:1). Furthermore,

Now note well those who hold heretical opinions about the grace of Jesus Christ that come to us, note how contrary they are to the mind of God. They have no concern for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the oppressed, none for the prisoner or the one released, none for the hungry or thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up (6:2).

This is a striking way of speaking and one, my experience tells me, that is almost entirely foreign to contemporary evangelical theology, piety, and practice. When I say “evangelical” I mean those traditions whose roots are in the American “awakenings” or “revivals” in which I include both the so-called First Great Awakening in the 18th century and the so-called Second Great Awakening of the 19th century. Notice how Ignatius measures orthodoxy: love for widows, orphans, the oppressed (e.g., slaves), and prisoners in the congregation. Ignatius had no idea of a general social program. In his seven epistles, he shows virtually no concern for the broader world. He certainly gave no evidence of any plan for social transformation nor to gain social influence in the Roman empire. His fondest wish was to die in the teeth of lions for the sake of Christ.

Notice the second, and equally important, mark of orthodoxy: participation in the “eucharist and prayer” (εὐχαριστίας καὶ προσευχῆς). These are clear references to public worship. He was aghast at the idea that some dare call themselves Christians but willfully absent themselves from public worship, the two marks of which he mentions are the Lord’s Supper and prayer. They do not confess (ὁμολογεῖν) that the eucharist (lit. thanksgiving) is “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ (σάρκα εἶναι τοῦ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ), which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up.” The Lord’s Supper is that important to his understanding of the visible church and to the Christian life. Perhaps Ignatius was wrong, but his language sounds much more like the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism than it does the typical, independent evangelical congregation. How many evangelicals are able to say that the Supper “is the flesh of Christ”? The Reformed say it happily. Contra the Romanists, Ignatius nowhere said or implied that elements are transubstantiated nor that they “become” the body and blood of Christ. For Ignatius, the eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. He did not say how they are, just that they are.

We see the same sort of language in his epistle to the church at Philadelphia:

Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup which leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God. 2Holmes, 6.

There is “one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “one cup which leads to unity through his blood.” There is one altar, one pastor, who serves the congregation together with the presbytery and the diaconate. It is striking how easily he wrote (or dictated) and spoke of the Supper as the body and blood of Christ. My experience tells me that most evangelicals do not speak this way and should one do, one comes under almost immediate suspicion of being a Romanist. Ignatius was no Romanist. The Roman communion did not exist yet. The ancient church spoke freely of the Supper as the body and blood of Christ because they are are the body and blood of Christ sacramentally. By metonymy, the one thing is said to be the other. Through the Supper, by the work of the Spirit, we are fed by the body and blood of Christ, administered in the visible church, by the pastor, with the elders and deacons. The ancient Christian life was not lived in isolation or merely in private prayer, but also in communion with the structured, confessing visible church. Unity is in the gospel, about which Ignatius was very clear. (It is striking how often and clearly he spoke of Christ’s substitutionary atonement for us.) It is also found at the communion table or altar, as he used the metaphor. There should be little doubt that this is a metaphor since he used it that way in other places (e.g., Romans 2:2). Polycarp called widows an “altar of God” (4:3). We are not to think that Polycarp was saying that we are to perform literal sacrifices upon widows. That would be a miserable (if memorable) pastoral visit indeed.


The modern evangelical church sometimes seems to assume that whatever its theology, piety, and practice is must be (a priori) that of the ancient church when, in fact, much of its theology, piety, and practice is very modern indeed. It is not even Reformation theology, piety, and practice let alone that of the ancient church. The Reformed churches, however, sought assiduously to recover the theology, piety, and practice of the ancient church. This is one reason why, contra the evangelicals, the visible church is so important to us. It is also why the sacraments are so important to us. As we read the Fathers again, in original texts, in the 16th and 17th centuries, we realized that the Medieval church (which also often assumed her theology, piety, and practice to be that of the ancient church) had fallen some distance from the fathers. They had placed a pope where only Jesus can be. They had turned the eucharist into a propitiatory sacrifice. They had turned the gospel, the good news about Christ’s life and death for us, into a message about our cooperation with grace for God.

There is always time for Reformation. Ignatius, for all his faults, was a better picture of a shepherd of the flock than the celebrity culture cultivated in contemporary evangelicalism. Confession, prayer, the sermon (about Christ and salvation), and the sacraments–these are the sorts of things that animated Ignatius as he wrote to the congregations who sought to support him on the way to his martyrdom. And these are the sorts of things that ought to animate us as we emerge from the COVID crisis into an increasingly hostile post-Christian culture.


1 rev. from Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, updated ed. (Baker Books, 1999).
2 Holmes, 6.

Worship is the Way: Pastors as Worship Leaders

Maverick City Music has been helping me worship for weeks since I first heard their rendition of “Promises.” Here’s a sample of the lyrics that have saturated my soul:

God from age to age,
Though the earth may pass away, your word remains the same.
Your history can prove, there’s nothing You can’t do,

You’re faithful and true.
Though the storms may come, and the winds may blow,

I’ll remain steadfast.
And let my heart learn, when You speak a word, it will come to pass.

From the rising sun to the setting same
I will praise Your name,
Great is Your faithfulness to me.

Yes, I’ll still bless You.
In the middle of the storm,
In the middle of my trial,
In the middle of the road,
When I don’t know where to go,

I’ll still bless You.

Great is Your faithfulness to me.

The song speaks to the profound truth that God is to be worshiped through any and all circumstances. Whether in good times or bad, great is his faithfulness to us. And because God’s faithfulness does not wax and wane based on the diverse situations we find ourselves in, worship is the way for the Christian.

Worship is the way because God makes all the difference in every circumstance of our life. We worship God in “times of plenty” so that his good gifts don’t become idols. And we worship God in “times of famine” so that we don’t lose heart under the weight of trials. Faithful pastors know this and, therefore, see at the heart of their ministry to the church the effort to lead God’s people into worship. Understanding their ministry in this way, pastors are first and foremost worship leaders.

Of course, in evangelicalism worship leaders are typically seen as the musician or vocalist up-front leading the congregation in song. But worship understood biblically, is about far more than singing on Sunday mornings. Indeed, it is a way of life (see, for example, Philippians 1:18-26; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:12-17; and 1 Peter 2:9). The essence of the Christian life is summed up clearly by Jesus when he answers a lawyer’s question about the most significant part of the Law: “And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment’” (Matthew 22:37-38). In other words, the worship of God is paramount.


As a faithful shepherd in the early church, Peter labored to lead God’s people into worship. For he knew that whatever the circumstances, a worshiping church is a flourishing church able to withstand the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil. We see this pastoral theology working itself out in the earliest verses of his first epistle:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:1-5).

Who were the recipients of Peter’s letter? He refers to his readers as “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (v. 1). These homesick sojourners were countless young believers living away from all that was familiar due to the severe persecution of the church that broke out shortly after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his ascension to glory. The followers of Christ had been displaced throughout the known world. We can only begin to imagine what it must have been like for these new disciples to be learning to follow Christ when everything in their world had been turned upside down. The temptation for these Jewish Christians to turn back to old ways must have been overwhelming at times. Peter, sensing the urgency of the moment, writes with a palpable earnestness for the welfare of God’s scattered pilgrims. (This is seen in the structure of vv. 3-9 in 1 Peter. It’s one long sentence in Greek, which speaks to Peter’s determination to further ground his readers in the gospel knowing the threat of apostasy is real.)


Peter begins by going Godward in praise. This is seen in the great doxology of v. 3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” You might expect Peter to immediately address the homesick pilgrims—these young Christians who are suffering under tremendous persecution. He will in short order, but first things first. Struggling pilgrims need to go Godward.

So much of our struggle in the Christian life is a result of “spiritual amnesia.” We forget about God, the One who makes all the difference in every equation of our life. Peter’s pastoral care sounds like an echo of Psalm 103 where the psalmist opens with praise to God with a plea to “forget not all his benefits”: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (vv. 1-2). To shore up the faith of these elect exiles, Peter presents an exercise in remembrance.


Peter, first, reminds suffering saints to praise God for their living hope. You see it in the second part of v. 3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (italics added). God does not treat us according to our sins. No, instead of wrath (which we deserve because of our sin), we receive mercy in Christ. “According to his great mercy” God has acted. What, according to God’s great mercy, has he done? He has “caused us to be born again to a living hope.”

Where does Peter get this “born again” language? It’s important language to Peter as he’ll use it again in v. 23 when he reminds his readers that “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” This, of course, is New Covenant language that Jesus used in his earthly ministry. You’ll recall his interaction with Nicodemus in the gospel of John. It is there that Jesus makes clear how one can enter the kingdom of God:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:1-8).

This new birth in Christ (that is, the doctrine of regeneration) is what gives us our living hope. And unlike the dead hopes of the world (insert ‘money,’ ‘fame,’ ‘health,’ ‘power,’ ‘intelligence,’ ‘beauty’), our hope in Christ is living. How do I know this? Because it’s “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis for our new birth and living hope. Without the resurrection of Christ from the grave our new birth would be impossible and our hope meaningless. But he has risen from the grave. This was the testimony of the apostles in the book of Acts. Indeed, not only did Peter write about it here in his first epistle, but he proclaimed it on the day of Pentecost: “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24).

Pastor Peter writes to weary saints to assure them that their hope is not merely something future, but their present possession. Because he lives, we can face today with absolute confidence in the triumph of Christ. The faithful shepherd assures God’s people that their hope, because it’s living, will never put them to shame. This truth is designed to sanctify every suffering as it awakens worship in the church.


Peter introduces inheritance language in v. 4 when he continues the thought of being born again “to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” The word ‘inheritance’ calls to mind the death of a person who has willed his/her property to loved ones. Peter, however, casts the term in the context not of death, but of life. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are born again to a priceless inheritance.

Peter is showing how the idea of ‘inheritance,’ so prominent in the Old Testament, has to do with eternal realities.

The inheritance Peter points to is the final salvation believers inherit when they leave this earthly scene and obtain eternal glory (see, for example, how Peter explains this in vv. 5 and 9 of this chapter). This is an inheritance “kept in heaven” for us, where God stores it safe and secure until the appointed time when we receive it.

How are we to think about this aspect of our salvation? Elsewhere in Scripture, we learn that salvation is, among other things, forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and life everlasting. But here, Peter uses three adjectives to help us feel the weight of glory that awaits us.

First, Peter describes our salvation as imperishable. Our treasure is not subject to death or destruction. It is unbreakable. It can never perish. It is not, therefore, limited by time. It is eternal. This is the accent the Apostle Paul places on our salvation in 2 Cor. 4:17, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

Second, Peter describes our salvation as undefiled. Our salvation can never be spoiled, corrupted, or polluted. It remains eternally free from any blemish, moral or otherwise. It’s the vision of the Apostle John in Revelation 21:27, “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”

Third, Peter describes our salvation as unfading. It is not and never can be subject to decay. Peter comes back to this theme in chapter five when he points us to the return of Christ, “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Precious gemstones may lose their vividness, their brilliance over time. But not so with our salvation. When we are glorified we will forever “shine like the sun in the kingdom of [our] Father” (Matthew 13:43).

Pastors of all people must know that the things of this world are perishable, defiled, and fading. Therefore, as the worship leaders of the church, we plead with our people to look by faith not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal! We know this to be true because at the heart of our salvation is no one less than the triune God. This is the promise of the gospel: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). To secure this covenant relationship is why Jesus suffered and died, as Peter explains: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18; italics added).

Pastors help God’s people examine their hearts to see what they’re investing in. Are we investing in the fleeting pleasures of this world or the eternal riches of Christ? (Matthew 6:19-20) Week in and week out Pastors, as worship leaders, echo the cry of the Lord from Isaiah 55:1-3:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.

When all our earthly treasures are taken away from us we remember the priceless inheritance that is ours in Christ.


Peter reminds us to praise God because nothing less than the power of God is directed toward us for our eternal good. Christians are a people “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (v. 5).


Peter’s readers may have been anxious about whether they would have the strength to remain faithful to Christ should persecution or suffering increase. Peter assures them that God’s power will guard them against finally falling away. God, in other words, would be their ultimate protector and ensure that his elect exiles would make it to glory.

The word translated “guarded” means “kept safe, carefully watched.” The word is a present participle meaning “you are continually being guarded.” It reminds me of the simple yet powerful hymn and the lyrics, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches over me.” Always.

This guarding is by God’s power but also “through faith.” This, of course, does not mean that our final salvation depends on us. It means that God will protect his children to the end by sustaining their faith (to see this in powerful narrative form, see Luke 22:31-32). It’s the promise of Philippians 1:6 where Paul assures the church “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” After all, Jesus is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). All omnipotence will ensure that we experience nothing but “pleasures at this right hand forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).


Pastors are first and foremost worship leaders in the church. Worship of God is what we were made for and where we find our true humanity. This is why pastors must labor in a ministry of remembrance, helping our people “forget not all his benefits.” It is this ministry alone that will help the church sing,

God from age to age,
Though the earth may pass away, your word remains the same.
Your history can prove, there’s nothing You can’t do,

You’re faithful and true.
Though the storms may come, and the winds may blow,

I’ll remain steadfast.
And let my heart learn, when You speak a word, it will come to pass.

From the rising sun to the setting same
I will praise Your name,
Great is Your faithfulness to me.

Yes, I’ll still bless You.
In the middle of the storm,
In the middle of my trial,
In the middle of the road,
When I don’t know where to go,

I’ll still bless You.

Great is Your faithfulness to me.

Joy in Trials?

James loves to exhort his readers. 59 times in 108 verses, in fact. James is relentless in his drive to get us to live out our faith in God-honoring ways. Most of the time we have no trouble with his exhortations. After all, what Christian objects to asking God for wisdom (1:5), being quick to hear and slow to anger (1:19), putting away wickedness (1:21), being a doer of the word and not a hearer only (1:22), caring for orphans and widows (1:27), and avoiding worldliness (1:27)? To these exhortations we say, “Amen.” It’s when James starts talking about trials that we get a bit uncomfortable.

Consider his opening words:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (1:2-4).

What immediately causes some cognitive dissonance is the association of joy with trials. Upon reading this, the reader is tempted to dismiss James altogether as a reliable counselor or take offense at his apparent naive callousness toward people’s pain. To make it still worse for James, we should remember the situation of his original readers. He was addressing “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1). What do we know about this dispersed or scattered group of Jewish Christians?

In making a profound theological point about who constitutes the true Israel, James compares the scattered and persecuted church of Christ to the twelve tribes of Israel that had been scattered throughout the world through the oppression of the Assyrians and Babylonians. His audience would understand this comparison as they identified as the true Israel of God in Christ. Christians, James knows, are sojourners and exiles living away from their heavenly home even as they await the glorious return of the Lord to gather his people to himself. But even as this ingathering is assured, the present pilgrimage to our heavenly home is wrought with “many dangers, toils, and snares.” Followers of Christ are called to “go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13-14). Indeed, on our way to the city of God, we meet trials of various kinds as we live in solidarity with Christ in his suffering and death.

James is not naive. As a leader in the Jerusalem church for nearly two decades, James would shepherd God’s people through countless struggles and fears and hurts. In connecting joy to trials James is not crazy, he’s serving as a faithful pastor.

James is helping his readers step back and see the redemptive purpose of God in our trials – a purpose we need to help our people see as well if they would live as faithful pilgrims on the King’s way. In vv. 2-4 James gives us two exhortations and two corresponding explanations that move toward a glorious climax. It’s as if we’re ascending Mount Everest with the promise of a breathtaking view that more than justifies the excruciating climb.

The first exhortation James gives is, “Count it all joy, my brothers, whenever you meet trials of various kinds” (v. 2). The word translated ‘count’ carries with it the idea of ‘deliberate consideration’ or ‘measured judgment.’ And James’ idea of ‘joy’ is not some thin worldly happiness (like R.E.M.’s ‘Shiny Happy People’ from the 1991 song of the same name). Christians are far too honest about the realities of a fallen world for that. Christian joy, likewise, is not stoicism or emotional detachment or denial. And we do not rejoice in the trial itself. Christian joy exists alongside sorrow and grief and pain (cf. 2 Cor. 6:10 “sorrowful yet always rejoicing”). Christian joy is a serious happiness that is realistic about the trials that come in a fallen world, but also intensely confident that God is sovereign over them. This leads us to James’ explanation of why joy in trials.

James explains why Christians should count it all joy whenever we meet trials. The reason is because of something his readers know: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (v. 3). This ‘test’ of our faith is producing ‘steadfastness’ or ‘perseverance’ or ‘fortitude’ or ‘endurance.’ This testing is intended to make our faith strong. The background is likely the Refiner’s fire from Proverbs 17:3, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.” God is doing a refining work so that our faith is rid of all impurities, leaving steadfastness through the fire. The Christian knows these tests are given by the hand of the loving, merciful, gracious, Almighty God. Indeed, our heavenly Father stands behind every trial and test, refining our faith so that it is strong and steadfast.

Knowing this, William Cowper, no stranger to suffering, was able to write in 1774 one of the great hymns of the church “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

Pastor James continues to help us on our climb by offering another exhortation and explanation. He exhorts, “And let steadfastness have its full effect” (v. 4). What we see with James is that steadfastness is no passive thing. Perseverance, in other words, is strong and active. We are called to endure in the right path even when difficult. Like a good shepherd, James exhorts us to not try to short-circuit the gracious process of our Lord in trials. Of course, we try to do this in manifold ways. We may try to deny the trial by pretending it’s not there. Or, we may try avoid it by doing everything imaginable to get-out-of-the-way of it. Or, we try to speed it up as if we, and not God, were sovereign over it. In our arrogance we simply say, “Ok, I’m done with this. The trial is over.” (I see people trying this with quarantines, lockdowns, and COVID.) But James will have none of this for steadfastness is not the end for James, but something far greater.

James explains what the “full effect” of steadfastness is: “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (v. 4). The “full effect” of steadfastness is ‘perfection,’ ‘completeness,’ ‘lacking in nothing.’

This is nothing less than Christlikeness – being as much like Christ as glorified human beings ever could be. This is what God’s salvation is accomplishing in us. And James isn’t alone in this thinking. Consider Paul’s words in Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Like James, Paul would have us see the “big picture” of our salvation. We will glorify God by perfectly reflecting his character throughout eternity so that he is the preeminent One among an innumerable host of “the righteous [who] will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). We are now at the summit. And pastors help their people take in the view.

To make the point still more emphatic, James says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (1:12). It is this eschatological perfection that provides the ultimate framework for James. Without an appreciation for this eternal perspective in James, the idea of joy in trials is at best nonsensical, at worst, offensive.

Where did James get this vision of trials? What had he been taught, and what had he witnessed, that led him to write such audacious things about suffering?


Our joy in trials is blood bought. Indeed, this was the way of Christ. In Isaiah 53:11 we learn that it was only out of an anguished soul that the Lord was satisfied. And in Hebrews 12:2 we are reminded that the joy of the ascension comes only through the agony of the cross. It is the loving pastor who helps God’s people see that the journey through suffering and to glory that Christ walked, is the same journey we are called to walk by faith.

Notice, for example, how explicitly Paul makes this connection: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16-17). We are fellow heirs with Christ in his glory “provided we suffer with him.” The road to glory is paved with trials of various kinds.

James is not crazy in his talk of joy in trials. On the contrary, he’s a faithful pastor. As co-laborers with James, pastors today must help God’s people see trials in their redemptive context. In the company of suffering saints, pastors exhort their churches to imagine a day when we will be perfected in Christ, complete in Christ, lacking nothing in Christ. A day when our faith will no longer need to be tested for it will have resulted in perfect praise and honor and glory to the One who authored it.

May that day come soon.

Shepherding in the Fruit of the Spirit: Self Control

It should be no surprise that Paul ends his list of the fruit of the Spirit with self-control. After noting love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness, Paul wants us to get to work. Whatever is keeping us from loving others or being gentle must be put to death. But the desires of the flesh won’t go down without a fight. Walking in love and joy won’t be easy. And so we need self-control. Paul put it this way: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). The presence of self-control proves it.

Pastors have the wonderful opportunity to model self-control in a world that prizes self-indulgence.

What about your situation? Where does the fight for self-control take place in your ministry? Every man is different. But the temptations that come with leadership are common, and they are numerous.

Pastors and church leaders are in the public eye. It’s impossible to teach without being noticed, and a certain amount of attention follows. You interact with people eager to share their problems and looking for help. The pastor is often a counselor, and this work breeds an intimacy with others we can easily abuse.

If a hurting woman comes to you seeking help, are you careful to serve her while being entirely above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2)?

Self-control is your best friend in moments like this. It will lead you to counsel in a visible space, perhaps in the presence of another counselor. Self-control will keep you from probing too deeply into salacious details you really don’t need to know. Finally, self-control will keep you focused on the Bible, reminding you she needs Christ and His Word more than you and your wisdom. This will discourage you from playing the savior, which can puff you up in her eyes and encourage you to tear down important boundaries.

Too many men have blamed the advances of a woman for their sin. Of course, every individual, male and female, will stand before God and give an account for his or her actions. But the pastor who stumbles in this area is not to blame his circumstances— which may include the immaturity of a sister in Christ. He is to look at his own heart and ask himself, “Why did I not exercise self-control?”

Brothers, as you read these words, how many respected, theologically sound church leaders can you think of who recently lost their ministry and tarnished the name of Christ and His church because they lacked self-control in the area of sexuality? Far too many. There are countless roads into sexual scandal, but there is only one result: destruction. How many pastors and church leaders are, right now, locked into a pattern of viewing sexually explicit material on their computers, smartphones, or television sets? Again, far too many. Sadly, they minister with the constant fear of being found out. Honestly, they know why their heart is cold to the Lord. The sexually immoral “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9). This is why self-control is a piece of the fruit of the Spirit.

Obviously, pastors struggle with more than sexual purity. We are uniquely challenged in the arena of pride as well. Congregations tend to highly esteem their pastors and elders. In many ways, this is wonderful. After all, elders are worthy of honor (1 Tim. 5:17). But such honor shouldn’t be used as an excuse for a pastor to isolate himself. Far too many men lead as if they are clothed in bubble-wrap—beyond the need for correction. A brother has lost the fight for self-control if he thinks he is above critical feedback, in no need of accountability, or singularly responsible for the vitality of the ministry he leads. In cases like these, self-control is like truth serum. Even a little will helpfully remind us we are nothing more than stewards of a ministry belonging to Christ alone (Col. 1:18). This humility—fueled by self-control—will help us submit to the wisdom of others “out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

Wherever you struggle, self-control is a fruit of the Spirit that appears only with difficulty. There’s a reason Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The Christian life is difficult. There is no easy path to travel, no broad entrance. We will find ourselves at war with sin, bloodied and bruised, before the last battle is won and the tears are gone (Rev. 21:4).


[ Editor’s note: The following excerpt is taken from Character Matters: Shepherding in the Fruit of the Spirit by Aaron Menikoff (©2020). Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.]