Nursery for Missionaries: The Forgotten Legacy of Old Princeton

I am always intrigued when I read the writings of missionaries from previous generations, especially missionaries of the pioneering sort. Where did their initial drive come from? How was their sustaining perseverance instilled in them? Without a doubt, they were, first and foremost, men and women who did not count their lives as precious; they only aimed to finish the work given to them by their God (Acts 20:24). But what of their upbringing, education, peers, teachers, and mentors? What role did these play in their zeal?

Certainly, the parents and mentors of many shaped them to value the call to leave behind home and family for the glory of the King. John Paton and Amy Carmichael serve as good examples here. Others were influenced by a forerunner in missions, such as David Brainerd. His biography and writings arrested men like William Carey, Robert Morrison, and Henry Martyn, eventually guiding them to faraway lands. But the more I read about the history of missions, the more I see the crucial role of institutions, and especially their key leaders, in shaping so many long-term missionaries.

In particular, a breakout session at a recent Radius Conference made me aware of the radical nature of Princeton Seminary as a missions hotbed.

Nursery of Missions

Two centuries ago, Princeton was the jewel of theological education in the English-speaking world. It is no overstatement to say that it was the most known, trusted, and respected seminary of the nineteenth century.

Luminaries like B.B. Warfield, James Boyce, Jonathan Edwards, J. Gresham Machen, and so many others served as professors or studied as students at this venerable institution. And amazingly, in its prime, one out of every three Princeton graduates headed out to be involved in serious long-term missions (Princeton Seminary, 406).

When Princeton was formed, one of the stated pillars of the school was to be a “nursery for missionaries,” and professors led and taught to that end (Princeton Seminary, 139). This intentionality fostered student-led groups that met regularly to pray that some among them would be led to missions. The “Society of Inquiry” dealt with logistical issues in reaching faraway countries, collected language data, and worked steadily to gather a library of books to aid those students setting out to be missionaries. Students also queried active missionaries, asking for information about their field of service, the surrounding people groups, and ways they could pray for the work on the ground.

In short, the faculty of Old Princeton made missions a primary topic of discussion and study, and students caught what the professors prioritized, resulting in over one-third of graduates moving to places where no church existed. Oh, for God to raise up in our day more seminaries, Bible schools, and colleges with the Old Princetonian values!

Schooled by Princeton

Considering that most who will read this article will not help to lead a Christian institution of higher education, what applications can we take from the model of Old Princeton for our churches and other institutions today?

1. Making missions primary helps, not hurts, the church.

David Livingstone, the famous missionary to Africa, is reported to have said, “The best remedy for a sick church is to put it on a missionary diet.” While many would expect a missionary to say as much, hearing the same sentiment from other Christian leaders is rare. The spirit that existed at Old Princeton was alive for Christ-exalting missions, and the faculty at every level bought into it. Archibald Alexander, the seminary’s first president, would remark, “we regard the missionary cause as the greatest beneath the sun” (quoted in John C. Lowrie’s 1876 paper, “Princeton Theological Seminary and Foreign Missions,” 11). This spirit grew the seminary numerically, but more importantly, in zeal.

There exists today, as in earlier days, an unvoiced fear that if a church or seminary pushes missions too hard, the building projects won’t get done, the giving will decline, and some who are needed on the home front will be sent to the field. The problem with this fear is that it views the task of missions through man-centered eyes. If the task of taking the gospel to those peoples still in darkness is merely conjured up by fallen men, then we are right to hold back resources, avoid speaking about it from the pulpit, and generally tamp down the entire enterprise.

“The astounding legacy of Princeton can be measured by what its graduates gave their lives for.”

But if Christ himself issued the Great Commission, then the God of all grace has stamped his own name on this task, and it remains binding on the church today. He must bring in his sheep that have yet to hear his voice (John 10:16). And his voice, his call of the gospel, comes through God’s ambassadors, as though God himself were making his appeal through men (2 Corinthians 5:20). Far from being a man-centered task, the Great Commission is given by God, is orchestrated by God, and will result in God’s eternal glory.

The church, the school, the seminary that puts the commission of the God of heaven and earth above endowments, above building plans, above succession plans works in harmony with the heart of our God. The institution that makes itself a “nursery for missionaries” will not regret that path. How wonderful for a local congregation to foster sister congregations around the world raised up by men and women whom they have sent! On that great day, the glory accorded to those pastors and congregations will be something to behold.

2. Champion missions from the front.

The astounding legacy of Old Princeton can be measured by what its graduates gave their lives for. But most of the graduates didn’t go into the seminary with missions in mind; they caught the passion of the institution’s leaders. Men like Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, Samuel Miller, and others led from the front.

Listen to what James W. Alexander said in a talk to the seminary students about “calling” in missions:

Candidates for the sacred office [church pastor] are too much accustomed to think, “I will prepare myself to serve God as a preacher in my native land, and if I should be specially moved, and loudly called, I will become a foreign missionary.” Here there is altogether an error, and an error so great, that we need not be surprised to find him who harbors it, as really unfitted for the ministry at home, as he supposes himself to be for the ministry abroad. (Considerations on Foreign Missions, 125–26)

Did you catch that? According to Alexander, if you think you need a special call to go into missions, you’re unsuited for ministry in your home country. This is coming from the leadership!

No amount of zeal from a young person and no depth of history from a missions committee can substitute for a pastor leading his flock into long-term missions. If the pastor isn’t “into it,” it likely won’t happen. There may be the proverbial missions weekend or an offering for some overseas cause, but there will be scant few who leverage their futures to go to the nations unless the church leadership is genuinely leading that way from the front.

I don’t mean every Sunday brings a Matthew 28 or Acts 1 message, but the pastor clearly and regularly puts the burden of reaching those groups who still have no access to the gospel before the congregation. He tailors the church’s book reading so missions is in the mix (good biographies to start with) and ensures that those in the next generation are taken to the right conferences, exposed to missions regularly, and given a chance to see what it might be like to consecrate their lives to the task of cross-cultural church planting. What would the world look like with church leaders who fearlessly lead in “come and die” missions?

Legacy in Foreign Tongues

The lessons from Old Princeton are too good not to be retold. Today, Old Princeton is spoken of most often in regard to its theological acumen and well-known graduates who changed the course of the English-speaking world. But when the King does the final accounting of this school someday, Old Princeton will likely bear a far more glorious legacy — one sung in foreign tongues.

May God raise up more like her for his glory to the ends of the earth.

Go Where God Walks: The Everyday Paths of Astonishing Grace

This message is part 1 of a three-part seminar on practicing the habits of grace in a hectic world. See here for the other two messages:

Let me start with a text before we do some more orienting work on where we’re going this weekend. Let’s get a little glimpse of the early church, the church that endured these various heresies and challenges of legalism, distraction, and competition in the first century. We get this little glimpse, like a little honeymoon moment, early in the Book of Acts. Peter has preached, three thousand people have come to faith, and then we find this out in Acts 2:42–47. Here’s what they do:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

This is an amazing, shining, warm, bright moment. Early in the church, before persecutions come one after another, and before the Book of Acts moves from one obstacle to the next, we have this little, early moment. Who wouldn’t want these things? Awe coming upon every soul? Many wonders and signs? People want to sign up for signs and wonders. They want to see the spectacular.

And they were sharing their stuff. They weren’t forced to have all things in common. They chose to do this. They were selling their possessions. They were attending the temple together. They were receiving their food with glad and generous hearts. It was so ideal. They were praising God, and they had favor with all the people (that will change). God added to their number day by day those being saved.

Who doesn’t want to be part of a church like this? What’s the recipe? We want to know. What were they doing that had the Holy Spirit flowing through them like this? We want to be part of a church like this. We want to have lives like this. People want to sign up for numbers increasing and signs and wonders being performed.

Spectacularly Unspectacular

In Acts 2:42, it’s just so unspectacular. It’s so normal. In Acts 2:42, what did they devote themselves to? “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” The apostles were teaching the word. They had this message about Jesus called the gospel, and they were teaching Jesus from the Old Testament Scriptures. This is the apostles’ preaching and teaching about Christ and how we should live. Then it mentions “the fellowship” — we’ll say more about that tomorrow morning, and focus on it as a means of grace.

We have teaching. We have the word being taught. We have the community, the fellowship, the company, the congregation. There’s the breaking of bread. (I take this to be a reference to both the sharing of their meals and to the Lord’s Supper.) And we have the prayers. It’s very basic, normal stuff. It’s Bible teaching, prayer, the gathering of the congregation, and fellowship. And in the midst of that, they share food and the Lord’s Supper. These are very unspectacular things.

And yet, that’s what our focus is going to be on this weekend. As we think about distraction, competition, and legalism, we don’t want to just survive but to thrive in the Christian faith, with joy. So we’re going to talk about these seemingly mundane, very ordinary, electric-with-power means of grace for the Christian life.

This is our outline here for tonight and for tomorrow. As we’re breaking this into three sections, it’s important that we do some introductory work here first tonight. Tonight is going to be the most principled, theological, or visionary component of the three sessions. Then I’m going to try to get way more practical tomorrow morning and afternoon.

Tonight, we’ll start off with an introduction to the means of grace. We want to get our theology right at the outset. What’s the deal with the means of grace? How does that relate to our habits of grace? And tonight we’ll introduce God’s “chief” and “soul” means of grace: the word. That’s what Jonathan Edwards called it. Tomorrow morning, God willing, we’ll come back and do some practical focus on the word, and I’ll introduce prayer. Then in our final session, I’ll focus on some practical aspects of prayer, and then tackle this remarkable and often forgotten means of grace called “the fellowship.”

Clarify, Simplify, Inspire

Let me state here my aims for us in our time together tonight and tomorrow. Here’s my aim for these sessions: I want to clarify, simplify, and inspire. I’d like to clarify the source of the Christian life in God’s ongoing grace for us and how to access that grace. Then I want to simplify our pursuit of God’s grace through his appointed means. God has told us how he means to bless us. He has told us how he means to have the flow of his grace coming into our lives. I want to rehearse those things and then seek to sync up the habits of our lives with the remarkable flow of his grace.

Then I want to inspire you to cultivate habits of grace in your life, whatever season of life and whatever your personal bent, so that you can develop habits that would help you to know and enjoy him. And in knowing and enjoying him, to glorify him. It’s all so that he would be glorified in our delight in him and in the expressions of that delight, as it works its way out into our lives. It’s so that we would let our light shine in such a way that others would see our good deeds and give glory to our Father (Matthew 5:16).

My hope here is to keep the gospel and the energy of God at the center. As we talk about these actions, these efforts, and these initiatives we might take, we don’t want to fall into our own version of Christian legalism. We’re going to put the gospel at the center and the grace of God at the center.

Then we’re going to want to emphasize corporate dynamics as well. This is often overlooked in discussions of the spiritual disciplines. It becomes a very me-and-God-oriented thing, which is good. That has its place, but there are also amazing things in the Christian life that are corporate. There are means of grace that are corporate.

I want to present God’s means of grace and your own habits that develop around those means as not just accessible and realistic but truly God’s means for your knowing and enjoying Jesus, for a lifetime. That’s where we’re going, as our goal: we want to know him, enjoy him, be close to him, and hold fast to him, that he would be the great, personal life and source of our spiritual survival and thriving — and do so for a lifetime.

This is what we aim at: we aim at lives that glorify God through hearts that are happy in him, through souls satisfied in Jesus. That’s going to happen through his ongoing supply of grace to our lives, and he has given us his appointed means of grace. Then we’re going to seek to have our own habits and corporate habits whereby we access his grace and know, enjoy, and glorify him. We want to see God glorified through our joy by God’s threefold means of grace in our own habits of grace.

Primer on the Means of Grace

Session one is an introduction and a focus on the word. I want to introduce “the means of grace,” this concept, and then talk about God’s first and foremost means of grace for our Christian lives. Just to set this up, let me talk about Proverbs 21:31, which is a great means text. One danger in applying Christian theology and human responsibility would be that we think our means — the things that we do — just bring about our ends no matter what, as if it’s just a closed system, as if it’s pure cause and effect. We’re responsible; we get it done. That’s it.

Or we could have a more fatalistic view, thinking, “Well, it really doesn’t matter what we do because God’s the one who does things decisively.” So, we need to bring these two together theologically and experientially when we talk about the means of grace. It’s just a little glimpse of glorious means all throughout the Bible, once you see it:

The horse is made ready for the day of battle,     but the victory belongs to the Lord.

Now, a godly king gets his horses ready for the battle. If he has a battle, he prepares for the battle. Get your soldiers ready for the battle. Prepare, execute, have a strategy, engage. And he’s not so naive as to think that there are no prayers to be prayed and a God to be leaned on and seen as the One who decisively does it. You can have the best army and chariots and guns and tanks, and if God decides you lose the battle, you lose the battle.

Means are important in the Christian life. If God appoints that a nail be in a board, he also appoints a hammer and a hand driving it into the board. Or as a father and a homeowner, I can’t help but think of faucets and light switches. One reason I think about this is that I have a father-in-law who’s a plumber. I did not grow up in a plumber’s family — my dad was a dentist. He did stuff around the house, but he also hired other people to do stuff around the house. I didn’t grow up a handyman. So, when I became a homeowner for the first time fifteen years ago, it was all new to me, and I felt all this pressure because my wife’s dad is a plumber. If something goes wrong, she just expects me to fix it. I’ve had a lot of learning to do.

But an amazing thing about the plumbing or the electricity in the house is that if you want some water, you don’t just walk around the living room going, “Water, fall on me. Water, give me water.” No, the home has been plumbed and wired, so to speak, in a certain way. You go to the sink to get water, and then you turn on the sink. You do the action. You engage the means, and hopefully, water comes out of the spigot. When you do that, you don’t celebrate and say, “Look what I did. I made it water. I made the water come out.”

Or maybe you walk into a room to turn on the lights. By the way, Canadians — you guys are funny sometimes with the hotel lights. The same thing happened to me in Montreal. I could not figure out the lights in Montreal, and it took me about ten minutes last night to figure out the lights in the hotel. There are mood lights, and there are all sorts of different lights. When the lights come on, because I flick the switch, I don’t celebrate that I did it. The city provided the electricity, and some electrician wired up the walls and got the outlet installed.

But it would be silly for me just to walk around and demand that light to come on or to have water without engaging the appointed means. That’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with here in the Christian life. God has told us that he has provided power, he has wired things up, and he has provided various switches. He provides faucets where we engage the means and get the flow of water.

Now, here’s where we’re going in this session. First, we want to talk about the God of grace. We have to start with him. He’s the personal provider of this grace. It’s not this rogue thing, a power that you try to access and find. It’s his power through his Spirit. Second, he has given us his appointed means of grace. Third, we’ll talk about various habits in our lives for accessing his grace. Fourth, we want to emphasize the end of the means as well. To have a means implies there’s an end. You have to have an end of the means. We’ll talk about that and introduce his first and foremost means: his word.

1. Know the God of grace.

First, let’s celebrate the God of grace. First Peter 5:10 says,

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

Our God is a God of grace. When he reveals himself to Moses, he reveals himself as “a God merciful and gracious, full of steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). This is the kind of God who is overflowing. He’s eager to help his children. He wants to shed his grace. The very coming of Jesus is the climactic expression of his grace.

So, we have a God of grace. That’s a very important starting point in coming to the means of grace — that we see that we don’t have this miserable God who’s holding back his stuff. He wants to give. He’s happy, he’s generous, and he wants to give his grace to his people, especially as they come through his means.

First Timothy 1:11 says, “Sound doctrine [is] in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” I just want to linger over the word makarios, which means “blessed” or “happy.” Our God is the infinitely happy God. He’s not miserable up in heaven. He’s infinitely happy. He lives for all eternity in the infinite bliss of the Trinity. He’s the happy God who radiates out with his glory and, because of that, has a gospel to save sinners.

And then in 1 Timothy 6:15 he says of this God, “He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.” Our God is overflowing in his riches, in his goodness, in his fullness. That fullness comes to us and meets us in his grace toward us sinners.

So, first and foremost, we have the God of grace. And then very importantly, we need to recognize how this grace manifests in our lives, and how it comes to meet us.

The Grace of Justification

The God of grace justifies us. You may be familiar with this language of justification, of God justifying us. If you’re not, I’ll try to explain it. If you are, glory with me in it, that the God of grace does this for his creatures.

Romans 4:4–5 says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” So, if you work, you get wages, and they aren’t given to you as a gift. They’re what you are due. You deserve the wages. You enter into this arrangement, and you get the wages.

Then Paul continues, “And to the one who does not work but believes—” The opposite in this contrast he sets up is that one is working for it, and the other is believing. He is contrasting belief here. He says, “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).

Justify means he counts them righteous. He accepts them fully. He declares them to be in the right with him. “Faith,” at the end of the verse, goes back to “belief” at the beginning of the verse. This is justification by faith. This is coming before the holy God for his acceptance not on the basis of anything we do. We are coming to him to believe in him. We come as the ungodly, and by faith — because of Jesus and his righteousness in our place — we are justified. We are declared to be in the right. Working is one path, and belief is another. That’s the realm of justification.

Here’s more of his blessedness, his fullness, his riches, his goodness, and his lovingkindness. Titus 3:4–7 says,

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us [justification], not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Not only is he excluding from our acceptance with God poor works, partial works, or flawed works, but he is also excluding works done in righteousness — the best works you can do. God justifies us by his grace. Our full acceptance before the holy God is not based on anything we do. Our habits of grace, however good, even if they’re done in righteousness, do not earn our right standing with the holy, rich, blessed God. That comes through faith in Jesus Christ. God justifies.

The Grace of Sanctification

You might just say, “Well, that’s enough. That’s enough grace for me. I’ll just take that grace and go home.” But God says, “I’m the God of all grace. I have more grace than that. That justification is spectacular good news, and I’m not done.” This is double grace — what Calvin called duplex gratia. This is the grace of God that sanctifies. Sanctification, our own becoming holy, is not an annoyance or a burden; it is another grace.

Titus 2:11–12 uses the same kind of language. He just talked about the appearing of God’s mercy and goodness and lovingkindness in Jesus. Now we’re talking about how the grace of God has appeared. Jesus is God’s grace, embodied and personal. The passage says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people —” Then you might say, “Oh, that’s great. Grace means there’s nothing for me to do, right?” Well, there’s some grace here for your training. He continues,

The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. (Titus 2:11–12).

Brothers and sisters, self-control, uprightness, and godly lives — these things aren’t burdens. This is more grace. God is more gracious than to just save you from your sin, forgive your sin, reckon you righteous, and then leave you in the misery of your sin. He says, “I want to save you out of your sin, I want to forgive you of it, and then I want to pull you out of the misery of your sin.” Ungodliness is miserable. Worldly passions are miserable. Self-control, uprightness, and godly living empowered by grace is double grace.

Now we’re getting into how this grace works in our lives as a means, and how we might work. We don’t work in justification. We only believe. But in sanctification, we get to work. We act, and we put some effort in by grace. Here’s how it happens. Paul says, “By the grace of God, I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). So you might think, “Oh — grace. Does that mean you’re going to find the apostle Paul on a couch?” Probably not with Paul. (It’s not that the couch is a problem. There’s a time for couches, though I don’t know if Paul had any time for it.) Instead he says,

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Now, when Paul said he “worked harder than any of them,” do you know what he’s talking about here? He’s not talking about bums in Crete or the lazy folks in Galatia or whatever; he’s talking about the other apostles. Paul must have had such a gargantuan work ethic that he could say something like this in utter humility. I don’t think there’s any posturing here. I don’t think there’s any pride. I think it was just so well-known. Paul was just wired differently. Peter is not the same. John is not the same. But Paul is just Herculean.

But you know what? Paul says, “That’s the grace of God. It’s not I.” All these long journeys, all that he went through, all the labors and works — he does it by grace. I’m not saying you have to be as tireless as Paul. What I’m saying is that the grace of God empowers us to make effort. There’s no effort for justification. You cannot earn God’s acceptance. But in grace, you can experience the joy of walking in real holiness.

Here’s the dynamic as Paul talks to the Philippians about it:

Beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12–13)

He didn’t say work for it. That would be in the realm of justification. If he said work for it, that would be a breach of justification. He’s saying, “Work out your salvation. God is saving you. You’re righteous in Christ. Work it out.” How? Is it that in your own effort you work it out? No, he says, “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). God works in you.

We saw this in the Titus text about the Holy Spirit being given to us richly. The reason that justified sinners don’t become lazy or antinomian is that with this gift of justification, which you did not earn with any of your works, another gift comes. His name is the Holy Spirit, and through him God loves to continue to pour out his grace.

He’s at work. He works in you by the person of his Holy Spirit, both for your willing and working, which is deeper in us than we can sense. We’ll see that tomorrow when we talk about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is deeper in us than we can even sense. He’s at work in us for our will and for our work, for God’s good pleasure.

The Grace of Glorification

We’ve spoken of the grace of justification, the grace of sanctification, and then there’s a triple grace (and another one, and another one, and another one). This is the last one we’re going to do for right now. The grace of God glorifies.

Second Thessalonians 1:11–12 says, “[May God] fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you—” At this point we think, “Amen. To him be the glory. Glorify Jesus.” Then Paul surprises us here and says, “. . . and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:12).

So, Christ is being glorified in us Christians, and we are being glorified by grace in him. There is a coming glory, a glory that’s already happening in our lives as we grow in holiness and Christian maturity. Second Corinthians 3:18 talks about moving from one degree of glory to the next. There’s a final glory coming, and it’s coming by grace. It’s when the groom glorifies his bride with himself. Ephesians 2:4–7 says,

But God, being rich in mercy [more “richness” language], because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

This is what he has begun in you if you have faith in Jesus, and this is what he will do for endless ages. He will lavish on us the immeasurable riches of his grace in Christ Jesus. So, the God of grace justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies. We are in a matrix of God’s grace in Christ in the Christian life. And God has given us appointed means of grace.

2. Grasp the means of grace.

How do we pursue sanctification? How do we pursue one degree of glory to the next? There are God’s appointed means of grace. Now, sometimes people talk about the spiritual disciplines. It’s a common term. It’s a subtitle in my book because I tried to set it up within the genre of spiritual disciplines.

But I like the term “means of grace” because I want to try to coordinate our actions with God’s actions. I want to see that first and foremost, we have the God of grace, and then in light of who he is, we’re now taking action from a creaturely posture of receiving his grace, rather than only the language of “spiritual disciplines.” Spiritual disciplines could begin and end with you. They could be about what you have to do.

“My most pressing need is not to master the Bible but to be mastered by God through his word.”

This is why D.A. Carson says, “Means of grace is a lovely expression less susceptible to misinterpretation than spiritual disciplines.” That’s your good Canadian brother right there. Or consider J.I. Packer. (Look at all these Canadian voices! He’s originally from England, but he spent a lot of time in Canada.) I first got onto this term “means of grace” from this quote from Packer: “The doctrine of the spiritual disciplines is really a restatement and extension of the classical Protestant teaching on the means of grace.”

Then Packer gives us a little helpful summary. What are these means? We have to know what these means are. Packer is going to help us here. There are four means of grace, he says: “The word of God, prayer, fellowship, and the Lord’s Supper.” He gave us four. We’ll keep coming back to that.

Here’s another quote by J.C. Ryle. As far as I know, he never lived in Canada. He’s a good British brother. He says,

The means of grace are such as Bible reading, private prayer, and regularly worshiping God in Church, wherein one hears the Word taught and participates in the Lord’s Supper. I lay it down as a simple matter of fact that no one who is careless about such things must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification. I can find no record of any eminent saint who ever neglected them. They are appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul, and strengthens the work which he has begun in the inward man . . . Our God is a God who works by means, and he will never bless the soul of that man who pretends to be so high and spiritual that he can get on without them.

Don’t you want that? Don’t you want fresh supplies of grace to your soul from the Holy Spirit? Thank you, J.C. Ryle. We’ll come back to Ryle.

So then, how might we approach these means? I think there’s a helpful paradigm here in Zacchaeus and Bartimaeus. They’re back-to-back stories in the Gospel of Luke. I wonder if Luke’s putting them back to back to get at this very purpose. Whether he’s trying to do that or not, let’s look at the story of Zacchaeus and Bartimaeus.

Bartimaeus and the Road

Jesus drew near to Jericho, and there was this blind man sitting by the roadside, right? He was by the road. That’s significant. He didn’t think, “Well, let me just go wander in the wilderness, and maybe I’ll bump into the Messiah.” He’s by the road. You’re going to get help by the road. Position yourself by the road. Then it says,

And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” (Luke 18:36–37)

Because he was by the road, Jesus was going to come by him. The passage continues:

He cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God. (Luke 18:38–43)

The reason the grace comes to Bartimaeus is that he’s by the road. He went to the place where grace was passing. Jesus wasn’t over there in the wilderness. He was coming down the path, and Bartimaeus was by the path, and so he has the encounter with Jesus. He asks for mercy and receives the grace of healing because he’s by the path where Jesus is passing.

Zacchaeus and the Tree

Now, let’s see what happens with the wee little man, Zacchaeus.

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd, he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. (Luke 19:1–6)

Zacchaeus doesn’t run out into the desert and hope to encounter the Messiah out there. He hears Jesus coming. He comes to see Jesus. He sees he’s too short and there’s too big of a crowd, so he goes up to a sycamore tree by the road, gets up in the tree, and gets Jesus’s attention. He positions himself along the path where the grace of God will be passing. Here’s what Jonathan Edwards had to say:

Persons need not and ought not to set any bounds to their spiritual and gracious appetites.

By that, he means that you can’t want too much to be happy in God. You don’t have to curtail that. There are no bounds on your desire to be happy in God, which is what you were made for. He continues:

Rather, they ought to be endeavoring by all possible ways to inflame their desires and to obtain more spiritual pleasures. Endeavor to promote spiritual appetites by laying yourself in the way of allurement.

In other words, cultivate your desire for God’s grace and for God’s Son by laying yourself in the way of allurement, along the paths where Jesus will be passing. If he tells us where he is going to be passing, we should position ourselves along those paths.

His Voice, His Ear, His Body

So then, what are these means? How do we put ourselves on the path of God’s grace? Why don’t we come back to Acts 2:42 where we started? It says,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Remember that we saw Packer mention the word of God. We saw Ryle mention Bible reading and the word being taught. “The apostles’ teaching” is mentioned here. The apostles were doing word-ministry and teaching. Then you have “the fellowship,” the body of Christ, the corporate dynamics of the covenant people together in relationship with each other. They are a means of God’s grace to each other, which is an amazing thing. It’s not just God’s word that is a means of grace, but we are means of grace to each other, back and forth. And finally it speaks of “the breaking of bread and the prayers.” I think the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace fits in the context of the fellowship, in the corporate life of the church.

Here’s how I organize them. Here are my three principles, my way of doing it. You could take a pie and cut it into twelve pieces, or eight pieces, or four pieces. I like to cut my pie into three pieces. I’m cutting the pie of the means of grace into three pieces, and I have reasons for that. I’ll show you those briefly. Here’s my summary:

Hear his voice in his word.
Have his ear in prayer.
Belong to his body in the fellowship of the local church.

I’m making the effort to make it personal here. We hear his voice in his word. Don’t hear his voice out in the wilderness. Don’t close your Bible and “hear his voice.” That’s your own voice talking to yourself. You hear his voice in his word. You have his ear in prayer and belong to his body in the context of the local church.

Matrix of Means

So, where does this threefold matrix come from? I think it’s a whole-Bible doctrine for me. This is a whole-Bible synthesis. You test it this weekend or next week, for months and for the rest of your life. See if this is a viable three-part summary of God’s means of grace.

I do think it’s Trinity-like, in the sense that it’s a kind of whole-Bible synthesis. I think God is very clear that his first and foremost means of grace is the initiative he takes in revealing himself in his word and climatically in his Son, who is the Word. Clearly, he means for his people to respond in prayer, and he doesn’t create those people as individuals alone, but in the context of the church. So, there’s my three-dimensional bringing together of his means of grace that we will be walking through tonight and tomorrow.

I think you can observe the pattern in Hebrews. This is what I’ve often done. I love Hebrews. If you’re allowed to have a favorite Bible book, mine is Hebrews. Hebrews does a really good job of summarizing these. Some of the best texts on hearing God’s voice are in Hebrews. We’ll see those in a minute. We also see this amazing passage about drawing near to the throne of grace with confidence, which means at least a kind of prayer and having his ear. And then regarding fellowship, I don’t know what to say except that Hebrews has probably the two best texts on fellowship.

Hebrews does this so well. You can see God’s means of grace in wanting the Hebrews to persevere. He commends God’s ongoing speaking through his word by the Spirit, approaching the throne of grace in prayer, and then enduring in the context of the local church.

Over time, I think the Psalms shaped me the most, and I started to see this more and more. There are so many texts in the Psalms about God’s word, God’s ear, and the congregation of the covenant fellowship. We could spend hours on it, but we won’t spend hours on it. I’m going to race through it in a few minutes. Here’s the pattern.

God’s Voice in the Psalms

In the Psalms, hearing God’s voice comes from his word. Psalm 19:7–8 says,

The law of the Lord is perfect,     reviving the soul;the testimony of the Lord is sure,     making wise the simple;the precepts of the Lord are right,     rejoicing the heart;the commandment of the Lord is pure,     enlightening the eyes.

The Bible is God’s personal revelation of his law, testimonies, precepts, and commandments. Psalm 29:4 says,

The voice of the Lord is powerful;     the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

And Psalm 46:6 says,

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;     he utters his voice, the earth melts.

It’s a symbol of his power. It’s a sign of his power that he doesn’t take out the divine sword or the divine muscles. All he has to do is speak. He’s that powerful. The nations do their raging, their plotting, and he just speaks, and it all melts. As Psalm 68:33 says, “Behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice,” and with it comes much grace for its people.

On the flip side, sin is not listening to his voice. The Psalms lament those who do not listen to God’s voice. It’s very basic. Our Father says, “Son, daughter, listen to my voice. You will be safe if you listen to your daddy’s voice and obey your daddy’s voice. You have a gracious daddy who’s speaking so that you can have joy and be protected and not go into misery. Listen to my voice.” But he says,

My people did not listen to my voice;     Israel would not submit to me.So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,     to follow their own counsels.Oh, that my people would listen to me,     that Israel would walk in my ways! (Psalm 81:11–13)

He speaks to the wilderness generation. They’ve come out of Egypt, they’ve been through the Red Sea, and they’re on the cusp of going into the promised land. God has given them promises. He has said, “Go take the land.” They see the giants, and they’re getting fearful. Psalm 106:24 says,

Then they despised the pleasant land,     having no faith in his promise.

He had promised, saying, “I’m going to give you this land. Obey the promise.” The passage continues:

They murmured in their tents,     and did not obey the voice of the Lord. (Psalm 106:25)

It’s a tragedy when his people do not attend to his voice, and it’s delight, joy, glory, and life when his people attend to his voice.

God’s Ear in the Psalms

The Psalms are also a massive example of having his ear in prayer. The psalmist prays,

Give ear to my words, O Lord;     consider my groaning.Give attention to the sound of my cry,     my King and my God,     for to you do I pray.O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;     in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch. (Psalm 5:1–3)

And Psalm 17:6 says,

I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;     incline your ear to me; hear my words.

Don’t you see it in the Psalms over and over again? The psalmists know that God stoops, and he listens. He wants to hear from his people. Not only does he reveal himself in his word, but he wants to hear from his people. He wants this to be a relationship. He doesn’t just broadcast it. He speaks and then wants to hear from his people in prayer.

The psalmists pray for his ear. They ask:

Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy,     when I cry to you for help,when I lift up my hands     toward your most holy sanctuary. (Psalm 28:2)

O God, hear my prayer;     give ear to the words of my mouth. (Psalm 54:2)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!     O Lord, hear my voice!Let your ears be attentive     to the voice of my pleas for mercy! (Psalm 130:2)

I say to the Lord, You are my God;     give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O Lord! (Psalm 140:6)

And as they ask for his ear, as they pray for it, they’re already confident that he hears. So they not only pray for his ear; they declare that they have his ear:

The Lord hears when I call to him. (Psalm 4:3)

O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;     you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear. (Psalm 10:17)

I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God. (Psalm 17:6)

The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous     and his ears toward their cry.The face of the Lord is against those who do evil,     to cut off the memory of them from the earth.When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears     and delivers them out of all their troubles.The Lord is near to the brokenhearted     and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:15–18)

The psalmists celebrate having his ear:

In my distress I called upon the Lord;     to my God I cried for help.From his temple he heard my voice,     and my cry to him reached his ears. (Psalm 18:6)

Blessed be the Lord!     For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy. (Psalm 28:6)

You heard the voice of my pleas for mercy     when I cried to you for help. (Psalm 31:22)

Come and hear, all you who fear God,     and I will tell what he has done for my soul.I cried to him with my mouth,     and high praise was on my tongue.If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,     the Lord would not have listened.But truly God has listened;     he has attended to the voice of my prayer. (Psalm 66:16–19)

You might say, “Well, maybe he would listen to David because David was a king. David had this special role. But does this apply to me?” The answer is that this applies to us all the more in Jesus. We have all the more reason, because of Jesus, to know that the Lord hears our prayer.

We’ll talk about that foundation. We’ll talk more about Jesus’s high priesthood, his coming into the throne room, and his pouring out his Spirit so that even as we cry out, it is God himself, the Spirit, crying out in and through us. You have all the more reason than ancient Israelites and Davidic kings to know that he hears your prayer if you are in Jesus.

God’s Body in the Psalms

Belonging to his body and having fellowship appears in the Psalms as well. This is the congregation of the righteous in the Psalms:

I will tell of your name to my brothers;     in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. (Psalm 22:22)

I will thank you in the great congregation;     in the mighty throng I will praise you. (Psalm 35:18)

You get the point. Again and again, the psalmist is not alone. He’s with fellows, covenant fellows, which has pretty clear application for us.

3. Practice habits of grace.

God’s matrix of grace for the survival and joy of his people’s souls includes hearing his voice in his word, having his ear in prayer, and belonging to his body in covenant fellowship. What about these various habits of grace? If those are the means of grace — word, prayer, and fellowship — what about our habits? What is a habit?

This is from Charles Duhigg’s book, Power of Habit. He says,

Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often so that the mind can attend to something else.

This is from Gretchen Rubin:

The real key to habits is decision-making, or more accurately, the lack of decision-making.

So, if every time you get in a car, you have to go through the process of thinking, “Should I put the seat belt on or not?” habit comes along to help with that. Or when the light turns red, do you want to stop at that moment and have a decision-making party and ask, “Well, the light turned red, what should I do about this?”

No, the life-saving habit is to just hit the brakes. The life-saving habit is to say, “It’s Sunday morning. Let’s worship with God’s people.” We don’t need to have a decision-making party here on whether to go this week. Or if it’s Saturday morning, do you ask, “Should I start the day with God’s word?” It’s a good habit to form.

What do good habits do? Habits free our focus to give attention elsewhere. They protect what’s most important. They keep us persevering. They’re person-specific, and they can change in various seasons of life. You may have habits that are not lifelong but just for this season. Habits can change. They’re driven by desire and reward. Your brain generates habits because there’s some reward that you’re looking to, however consciously or subconsciously, which is very important for forming spiritual habits.

Habits also change us. They condition us. You’re not hardwired in such a way that habits themselves aren’t part of changing you. Habits are part of a process of you being changed, your neural plasticity, and the changing of your soul and your heart by these habits.

As we already saw, “the grace of God has appeared . . . training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:11–12). We are being trained by God’s grace. God’s grace should form various habits in our lives for the ongoing flow of his grace and the ongoing changing of our souls, of our hearts. It’s reforming us for self-control, for upright and godly lives.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)

If I had more time, we would talk about training and the importance of it. We’re in an Olympic city. When you train for the Olympics, it changes your body. You condition the body. And when you are trained by grace, or you train in righteousness, it changes your heart, it conditions your heart, it makes you more able to delight in God rather than all the stuff of the world.

A big question for Christians as we look at the various habits and patterns of our life is this: Am I conditioning my soul to delight in God or the world five years from now? You may be believing right now, but if we audited the habits of your life, perhaps you are conditioning your soul to no longer believe in five years. The question for us, if we want to delight in God, is this: Am I conditioning my soul to delight in Jesus?

4. Long for the end of the means.

This relates to the end of the means. It’s the reason why we’re doing it. There’s an end. And the end is John 17:3, which says,

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Or consider Philippians 3:7–8, which says,

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Knowing Jesus and enjoying him is the reason that we talk about the means. We could have gathered this weekend and done meditations on the glory of Christ (which is my preference). That’s what we want to do, and that’s where this is going: enjoying Jesus, delighting in Jesus, talking about Jesus. But I’m hoping that by focusing on the habits of grace we’re preparing ourselves for how to enjoy him and conditioning ourselves for enjoying him so that we can see him, know him, and enjoy him. He, enjoying him, is the great end of all these means.

Engaging His Voice

Finally, I’m going to close by introducing the word, and then we will come back tomorrow morning to talk more practically. How do I engage the word? If the word is God’s first and foremost means of his grace — God reveals himself through his speaking — how might I go about accessing his word? Tonight, let’s introduce the principle. God’s first and foremost means is his word. I told you Hebrews had great texts:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. (Hebrews 1:1–2)

This is the Book of Hebrews’ way of saying that Jesus is the Word. He’s the speaking of God. He’s the climactic revelation of God.

Then, in Hebrews 3–4, taking up the Old Testament text from Psalm 95, it says, “The Holy Spirit says . . .” (Hebrews 3:7). This is so important. When he’s talking about Old Testament Scripture, he doesn’t say, “The Holy Spirit said this once.” Rather, he says, “The Holy Spirit says . . .” He’s saying it right now. He said it then, and he continues saying it right now, as you hear it. The passage continues:

The Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:7–8)

That’s what he’s talking about, then, when he says, “The word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). It’s not a dead word. It’s not like God spoke in the past, but he’s not saying it right now by his Spirit to his people.

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12–13)

The Holy Spirit continues to speak God’s word. Then the last warning in Hebrews 12:25 says, “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking.” He is speaking. It’s amazing to see this live, present doctrine of God’s ongoing speaking by his Spirit here in Hebrews. Our God is a talking God. He’s a speaking God.

What Is God’s Word?

Let me give you a quick summary of God’s word, because what I want to do is get outside of our thinking only of God’s word as this book that we flip through. The book is infinitely precious. But sometimes, if we just think about the letters on the page and not the larger concept and all that it means for God to reveal himself and speak to us, we may not appreciate what we hold in our hands. Our God is a talking God.

He spoke to create. That’s how he created the world. It was not a show of power with his hands, but speaking. And he speaks through creation. In Psalm 19:1, it says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” He spoke in human words through his prophets, like the text we already saw about his law, testimonies, precepts, and commandments from Psalm 19:7–11. He speaks definitively in his Son, who is the Word, as we saw in Hebrews 1. John also says, “In the beginning was the Word . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). That’s the climactic revelation of God.

So, what is the word of God? Here’s my summary. Just think about the concept of God’s speaking. He speaks, he reveals himself, he’s communicative, he’s talkative. Isn’t that amazing that we have a God who speaks? Where would we be if he did not speak? He speaks to create, he speaks through creation, and he speaks particularly through his prophets. And then his word, spoken through the prophets, is written down and preserved in Scripture. When you hold that book in your hand, this is the preservation of God speaking.

Next comes his incarnate word. That’s his word made personal in his Son. Jesus is the Word of God. I put this in because I was marveling over that this morning in Matthew 17. Moses is there, Elijah is there, and Peter is like, “Oh, let’s build three tents. Moses can have a tent, Elijah can have one, and Jesus can have one.” And the voice speaks from heaven,

This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him. (Matthew 17:5)

I mean, how amazing is that? In the presence of Moses, he says, “Listen to him, the beloved Son.” That’s what Moses was anticipating. The great prophet Elijah anticipates the coming of the Son.

Then we have the word preached or spoken. That’s the gospel. This is the main way the New Testament uses the word word. In the New Testament, when you see “word,” it’s usually not referring to Scripture. That’s the word Scripture. The word word usually refers to the gospel.

Then Christ’s spokesmen, his apostles, write down their letters and their Gospels — the New Testament. So we have the prophets’ word, and we have the word about Jesus, captured by the apostles. So when we take up our Bible — this is such an amazing thing — we have here not only a record of what God has spoken into the world for his people, but we have the speaking. This is the Holy Spirit speaking to us in God’s Word.

Gather a Day’s Portion

Let me give you this last thing as we go. I want to give you one practical thing because, between now and tomorrow when we talk through the practicals, there’s a morning. I’d like to influence your morning tomorrow, if you would let me, before you come out. I call this “gather a day’s portion.”

This is my reminder for me in a world of distraction, competition, and legalism — in a hectic world — to have my focus be where it should be when I pick up my Bible in the morning. A temptation for me is, “How much can I do here?” rather than, “Can I feed my soul? God, would you feed my soul this morning?”

This comes from Exodus 16. God’s people are in the wilderness. They’ve come out of Egypt, and he’s going to give them this gift called “manna.” This is not exegesis that I’m doing here. This is a parallel, an analogy.

Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day. (Exodus 16:4)

Here’s what’s behind it. Your Father wants to provide food for you every day. Don’t store it for tomorrow. Don’t store it for next week. Don’t fill a barn. These are daily provisions. The passage continues:

Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat. (Exodus 16:18)

Lamentations 3:23 talks about how his mercies are new every morning. And Jesus prays, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Sometimes God gives you daily bread in five minutes. Usually, it’s a little longer than that. Sometimes it’s twenty minutes. Sometimes you may really wrestle with him like Jacob, and it might be an hour.

But I want to encourage you tomorrow morning to come before him and pray, “God, would you give me a day’s portion? Would you feed my soul this morning? Even more than my stomach is hungry, because I slept all night and need breakfast, my soul is hungry. Would you feed my soul this morning in your word?”

So, “gather a day’s portion” is my reminder not to try to do too much in morning devotions and have them get hectic. I don’t want to miss the main thing. My most pressing need is not to master the Bible in a few short months or weeks but to be mastered by God through his word, just a little each day, on the arc of a lifetime.

Developing a daily habit of feeding on him in Christ is more like a marathon than a sprint. It’s not hectic and hurried, but it’s coming before him saying, “Father, would you feed my soul this morning?”

What Are the Marks of a Good Pastor?

Most pastors would say that they aspire to be good pastors—that is, good at the task to which they’ve been set, not merely average (much less rotten!). Thankfully, the Scriptures don’t leave us without guidance as to what being a “good pastor” means. When Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy, he told him, “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 4:6).

The Bible Is Not Boring (Part 1)

The method for establishing familiarity is frequent exposure, even immersion. Ask yourself what book of the Bible you’re least familiar with. Now, why not do something about it?

The Bible is not boring. It is the Drama of the ages, the Story of all stories. In this book we read of the living God’s acts of creation and redemption. We see the true story of the world. It rivals all other epics and transcends ancient myths. The Bible is not like any other book.
But maybe you think the Bible is boring. You open it and, before long, you’re yawning and thinking about something else. If you’re bored with the Bible, have you wondered why?
A variety of explanations exist, and any (or several) of them could identify the problem.
First, maybe you’re not thinking about the kind of book you’re reading. You’ve picked it up like it’s a novel or something with a familiar genre. But the Bible is a library of books. The Old and New Testaments contain various genres which all contribute to the redemptive Epic. The Bible is inspired—but not in the way that an author might say he or she was inspired to write what they published. The biblical writings are Spirit-inspired.
Scripture is the Word of God because it is, from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22, the words of God. The Bible is the most important book because its words are not merely from the minds of men. The Spirit has ensured the accuracy and coherence and authority of what the Old and New Testaments say.
Second, maybe you’re ignoring the Christological shape of Scripture. The Bible is a Jesus book. The Old Testament foretells his coming, and the New Testament announces his arrival. In order to properly understand the parts of Scripture, we must see them in light of the whole. The Big Picture is a redemptive story, and it leads to a cross and through an empty tomb.
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Maybe We Make Meditation Too Difficult

Of all the Christian disciplines, it is my guess that meditation may be the least practiced—though I suppose fasting might have something to say about that. Most people diligently make time to read the Bible and pray. And yet, while most people have good intentions when it comes to meditation, it so often seems to get displaced. After all, life is busy, the world is noisy, and meditation is a challenge.
But I wonder if part of the problem is that we have made meditation too difficult. I wonder if we’ve made it a little too abstract, a little too inactive, and perhaps a little too solitary.
What is meditation? Meditation is pondering the words of the Bible with the goal of better understanding and sharper application. Ideally, meditation leads us to understand the words we have read and to know how God may call us to work them out in our lives. It is one of the ways that we output wisdom after inputting knowledge.
Most often we associate meditation with solitude and silence—sitting quietly and alone with an open Bible as we prayerfully ponder the words we are reading. This is not the mantra-repeating or mind-emptying meditation of Eastern religions, but the Scripture-pondering and mind-filling meditation of King David who wrote, “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Psalm 119:15-16).
The goal is wisdom—wisdom that works itself out in the life of the Christian. Hence, we ponder biblical information—words, verses, chapters—and seek to gain wisdom—understanding, character, action. Meditation is a crucial bridge that spans the Word on the page and the Word written on the heart and acted out through the hands, feet, and lips.
Meditation is a crucial bridge that spans the Word on the page and the Word written on the heart and acted out through the hands, feet, and lips.Share
That is a wonderful and necessary goal, but it is not a goal that can be achieved solely through silent solitude. Many have found that they meditate best when they have a pen in their hand and are writing in a journal—a journal that records their thoughts as they go from meandering to precise, from broad information to specific knowledge. Many have found they meditate best when they sit with friends or a spouse and talk over what they have been reading together or perhaps discuss questions that were provided alongside a sermon. Many have found their minds focus best when their fingers sit upon a keyboard and they can see the progress of their minds and hearts on the screen.
In every case, the goal is the same and it’s merely the means that is different. In other words, there is a variety of ways to usher the Bible’s truths deeper into the human heart and different ways to spur people on to love and good deeds. And I would suggest that more important than how it is done is the fact that it is done at all. We are different people with different personalities and different strengths and weaknesses. We come from different backgrounds and live in different circumstances. We have different abilities and different amounts of Christian experience. Yet we have the same goal, which is to understand and apply—to read what the Bible says, to know what it means, and to live it out.
Now, I’ll agree it is probably best if there is some element of silence and solitude in every Christian’s life—some element of being still before the Lord outside the busyness and buzz of daily life. But I also want to affirm that this is not the only means through which we can meditate on his Word and see growth in wisdom and obedience. Whether through writing in a journal or tapping out a devotional, whether talking deliberately with friends or sitting quietly before the Lord, the goal is the same, and surely God is pleased to bless it.

Words That Are Worth More than a Picture

Today, we need the Apostles’ Creed more than ever, but in our current church culture, there is a tendency to reject words for an emotional experience. Far too often, we see performance-driven worship use imagery to draw us into a higher emotional state.

I read an article a while ago that has stuck with me. The author described how, during a conversation with several people, he was asked, “What do you believe?” By his own admission, he struggled to come up with just the right words to describe his faith, and by the time he had something, the moment had passed.
You may have been in a similar situation; I know that I certainly have. Yet my answer was almost automatic:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Now that may have been more than the questioner was looking for, but it does describe what I believe and what orthodox Christians have believed for over two millennia. (This is the old English version that I memorized as a child and the one I still use—I just like to say, “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” A modern English version can be found here.)
In the small, rural south Florida Presbyterian church where I grew up, the Apostles’ Creed was an integral part of our worship service. Every Sunday, the pastor asked us, “Christian, what do you believe?” And we responded with the Creed. By the time I was five, I knew it by heart—quite an accomplishment for someone so dyslexic that I still have trouble with the order of the alphabet.
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3 Imperatives for Christ’s Early Disciples (and for Us)

Three thousand people could point to that specific day when they repented, were baptized, and received forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. That first Pentecost was not only the dividing line of history; it was the dividing line in their lives. 

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”Acts 2:36
What Do We Do?
This certainty Peter is calling his listeners to, and calling us to, is not arrogant certainty. He’s calling us to the kind of certainty that leads us to humble trust, the kind of certainty that causes us to reevaluate what we’ve been putting our confidence in up to this point and to recognize that Jesus is worthy of our trust, worthy of our lives. This conclusion or certainty he’s calling his listeners to is, in one sense, a matter of the mind. Peter has made a clear case to be thought through and evaluated, contending that Jesus is the Christ as promised and prophesied in the Old Testament. But Peter is not merely calling for intellectual agreement. He’s calling for a personal response to the truth he has presented. Jesus is Lord. And because of that he should not, indeed he cannot, be resisted or ignored. The reality of the person of Jesus demands a response. And the group in the sound of Peter’s voice wants to know how to respond.
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”Acts 2:37
“Cut to the heart.” The reality of the identity and lordship of Jesus pierced into the deepest parts of the disciples’ minds, wills, and emotions. They were moved by this reality—so much so that they were willing to do whatever it took to respond rightly to this revelation. Peter was ready with an answer. He told them three things that they needed to do in response to their certainty that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ:
Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”Acts 2:38
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Does Hebrews 6 Teach You Can Lose Your Salvation?

The preacher expects us to take to heart both the urgent warning against a final departure from Christ and the admonition to assured confidence in God’s promise  without any whisper of contradiction. He doesn’t admonish us to doubt the inheritance that God assures us by his sworn oath and promise. God regularly uses warnings and consolations or threats and promises together to secure us in the way of salvation.

Who hasn’t been perplexed by the warning in Hebrews 6:4–8?
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
This passage confuses us because it relates to how we process the relationship between the gospel’s promises and its admonitions. In fact, doctrinal strain between warning and promise prompts many to remove the tension altogether, since they regard it as uncomfortable if not contradictory.
Looking Back or Ahead?
Some, as I once did, resolve the tension by explaining the passage as a retrospective (backward-looking) assessment of one’s faith in Christ. They accentuate gospel promises with adjustments to gospel admonitions. In so doing, they unwittingly alter the prospective (forward-looking) conditional warning against repudiating Christ and intractable unrepentance. So the warning becomes a backward-looking reflective appraisal of one’s perseverance amid temptations. This is often seen as evidence that implies the genuineness of one’s faith. Accordingly, if my faith is enduring, this authorizes me to infer I’m truly united with Christ. If I’m not persevering in faith, however, this evidence suggests my faith is false.
To contend Hebrews 6:4-8 addresses falling away that exposes one’s faith as false is to advocate what Tom Schreiner and I call the “tests of genuineness” explanation. If I’m to feel the passage’s proper effect, the argument goes, I must entertain the possibility that my faith in Christ may be fraudulent.
Even though advocates of this interpretation claim their explanation prompts believers to remain loyal to Christ, it pushes us to be retrospective and introspective. But the passage is a future-oriented warning. And as a warning, it directs us to be prospective and extrospective so that we might persevere in faith. It’s a warning God employs as a means of enabling his people to endure.
Can You Fall Away?
To alleviate the strain, some say the warning presents a possibility that genuine believers may reject Christ and be cast away forever. They stress gospel admonitions with abridgment of gospel promises. Advocates of this interpretation are convinced the passage is truthful and sincere—not a deceitful charade or false exaggeration—only if the believers addressed can fail to persevere in loyalty to Christ (see Scot McKnight, “Warning Passages Ahead: Brief Response”).
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