Christianity Today reports that post-evangelical provocateur Brian McLaren has officiated the same-sex wedding of his son. Denny Burk has some good reflections, as does Carl Trueman. There are some obvious “talking points” to engage in here, about the trajectory of McLaren’s hermeneutic, slippery slopes and all that. The reality is that you can’t close the flue and not expect the room to fill with smoke. But upon reading this news I was immediately taken back to my preaching text Sunday:
And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
– Mark 3:31-35
Jesus is providing a foundation and a watershed at the same time, a connecting point for his other provocative statements about letting the dead bury the dead (Luke 9:59-60), bringing division to families (Matt. 10:34-37), hating mom and dad on his account (Luke 14:26), no marriage in heaven (Matt. 22:30), and how his mom ain’t so special (Luke 11:27-28). We also get some grounding for Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:29.
Confronted with the well-meaning concerns of familial loyalty, Jesus will not take his eyes off the cross before him. He knows God is building a new family, one that is eternal, one that is centered on God as Abba and the Son of God as the good older brother, the finally worthy of the honor who in his gospel is not ashamed to call his brethren brethren (Heb. 2:11). So the warnings are strong, the wording is harsh. Jesus doesn’t hate his family. But he loves his Father and the will of his Father more. He wants to honor the will of God more than he wants to satisfy the will of his family.
This is a good word to us familyolaters. We take what most of us consider the most important thing in our lives and give it the weight of our worship in a way that is both dishonorable and unsustainable. And we end up living “Thus saith the family” rather than “Thus saith the Lord.” I know personally what happens when one worships his wife: he harms her. I know what happens when we make our children the center of our universe: we harm them. That is true hatred. Trading in the cross for the thin gruel of temporary satisfaction, appetites, compulsions, is the worst thing you could do to somebody. And when it comes down to seeking one’s happiness over their holiness, we aid and abet the theft of their eternal joy. This is what Brian McLaren has done. I hope for the grace not to follow suit at a million different turning points, big and little, as my kids grow up. I know the temptation will be great.
Christ would have us focused on him, loving him above all else. And when all else, including our beloved families, asks us to betray Christ and his word in order to serve them, we face Abraham’s excruciating dilemma. But pledging our hearts to heaven, we will not look back to Egypt or Sodom, trusting that true mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters are those who follow Jesus and that obeying God is worth any cost, including hurting the feelings of those we love.
When our children ask for stones, let’s give them bread.
“It may seem absurd to say that he ‘is in heaven’ while he still lives on earth. If it is answered that this is true about his divine nature, then this expression would mean something else—namely, that while he was man he was ‘in heaven.’ I could point out that no place is mentioned here and that only Christ is distinguished from everybody else as far as his state is concerned, since he is the heir of the kingdom of God, from which the whole human race is banished. However, as very frequently happens, because of the unity of the person of Christ, what correctly applies to one of his natures is applied to another of his natures, and so we need seek no other solution. So Christ, who ‘is in heaven,’ has clothed himself in our flesh, so that by stretching out his brotherly hand to us he may raise us to heaven with himself.”
– John Calvin, John, Crossway Classic Commentaries, eds. Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 74-75.
“For even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of man into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. Here is something marvelous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning!”
– John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:481.
“In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
– C. S. Lewis
When Pastor Matt Chandler shares online what text he will be preaching from next at The Village Church, he will sometimes then invite people to attend the worship service by saying, “Come play.” I like that a lot. If it is true that when God’s people gather to exalt him together, he is in the midst of them in a special way, great joy waits for us in doing so, for, “At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11 KJV).
It is not out of bounds to think of hearing the gospel proclaimed as playing, if we are receiving the word with gladness, savoring its declarations like honey, joyfully submitting to its authority, and reveling in the infinite excellencies of its Author. Authentic worship is in many ways a childlike wonder. When we are fixated on the greatness of God, we become caught up, unself-conscious, utterly and joyfully dependent, without pretense or worry. From N. T. Wright:
Worship is humble and glad; worship forgets itself in remembering God; worship celebrates the truth as God’s truth, not its own. True worship doesn’t put on a show or make a fuss; true worship isn’t forced, isn’t half-hearted, doesn’t keep looking at its watch, doesn’t worry what the person in the next pew may be doing. True worship is open to God, adoring God, waiting for God, trusting God even in the dark.
Wright’s scope for worship extends beyond the scheduled corporate gathering of the church, of course, as does the Bible’s scope for worship. If one day the earth will be covered with the knowledge of God’s glory as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14), worship is for every nook and cranny of human existence.
The cumulative effect of the gospel is affectionate worship of the one true God. The grand design of gospel proclamation, then, is gospel enthrallment, gospel enjoyment.
The best preaching exults in the Scriptures so that hearers will know that worship is the only proper response to who God is and what he’s done. Preachers are laboring for the joy of the hearer, after all (2 Cor. 1:24). Exultational preaching is an act of worship itself, the proclaimer faithfully expositing the Bible while enjoying it at the same time, speaking its God-breathed words as if they were delicious, reflecting on them and reacting to them as if no words were ever more impressive, staggering, powerful. Because none are.
The best worship, then, exults in who God is and what he’s done both in the corporate exaltation of a church service and in the private devotion at the foot of the bed in the dark of night or at the breakfast table in the coffee-poured ripeness of dawn. The best worship exults in who God is and what he’s done in hour four of data entry in the gray cubicle as well as in the timeless revelry of the sun-dappled field or by the glittering mountain stream. The best worship exults in who God is and what he’s done in the sharing of the gospel with the lost, in works of justice, works of service, or no works at all. Because the joy of the Lord is our strength.
As disciples spread out over the inhabited world, planting churches in the American rust belt, planting the gospel in the dangerous recesses of the Amazon, planting the seeds of their blood in Mohammedan deserts far afield, as they love and serve and teach and pray and die, they are beckoning, “Christ is risen! His kingdom’s afoot! Come play!”
(This is an excerpt from a chapter about gospel enjoyment titled “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” in my upcoming book Gospel Deeps.)
Cultivate the habit of fixing your eye more simply on Jesus Christ, and try to know more of the fullness there is laid up in Him for every one of His believing people.
Do not be always poring down over the imperfections of your own heart, and dissecting your own besetting sins.
Look more to your risen Head in heaven, and try to realize more than you do that the Lord Jesus not only died for you, but that He also rose again, and that He is ever living at God’s right hand as your Priest, your Advocate, and your Almighty Friend.
When the Apostle Peter “walked upon the waters to go to Jesus,” he got on very well as long as his eye was fixed upon his Almighty Master and Savior. But when he looked away to the winds and waves, and reasoned, and considered his own strength, and the weight of his body, he soon began to sink, and cried, “Lord, save me.” No wonder that our gracious Lord, while grasping his hand and delivering him from a watery grave, said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Alas! many of us are very like Peter-we look away from Jesus, and then our hearts faint, and we feel sinking (Mat. 14:28-31).
– J.C. Ryle, “Our Profession”
They leap to unnecessary and often absurd conclusions in order to see those they oppose in the worst light (Matthew 9:34, 12:24).
They watch in order to nitpick (Matthew 12:2).
They like conspiracy theories (Matthew 12:14, Mark 3:6).
They’re always looking to take offense (Matthew 15:12, Luke 14:1).
They seek to “win” with malicious tests (Matthew 16:1, 19:3, 22:15).
They seek to “win” by parsing words (Matthew 22:15, Mark 12:13, Luke 6:7, 11:53).
They grumble (Luke 5:30, 15:2).
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
– from Philippians 2:12
Fear and trembling. Paul uses this phrase a couple of other times (2 Corinthians 7:15 and Ephesians 6:5), apparently with the connotation of submissive humility and receptive meekness. It is an affections-full being put into one’s place, I think. A disposition appropriate to the circumstances. The command in Psalm 2:11 is “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling,” showing us that fear is not without activity and trembling is not without joy.
Here I remember Emma Thompson’s beautiful portrayal of Elinor Dashwood at the end of the film Sense and Sensiblity when Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars reveals it was his brother who got married, and not himself. Thompson’s Elinor is an expert at keeping her emotions bottled up — until this moment where we see “fear and trembling” brilliantly and movingly in display. It chokes me up every time.
Pent-up hopes and dormant affections brought near the super-electric current of a fearsome reality. The hair on our arms stands up, gooseflesh springing, a sense of fresh air and being winded at the same time. Overwhelmed. That’s fear and trembling. As it pertains to having the living God draw near to us, fear and trembling assume it is truly God and the glorious Christ we have encountered and not some pitiful caricature. The god of the prosperity gospelists is a pathetic doormat, a genie. The god of the cutesy coffee mugs and Joel Osteen tweets is a milquetoast doofus like the guys in the Jane Austen novels you hope the girls don’t end up with, holding their hats limply in hand and minding their manners to follow your lead like a butler, or the doormat he stands on. The god of the American Dream is Santa Claus. The god of the open theists is not sovereignly omniscient, declaring the end from the beginning, but just a really good guesser playing the odds. The god of our therapeutic culture is ourselves, we the “forgivers” of ourselves, navel-haloed morons with “baggage” but not sin. None of these pathetic gods could provoke fear and trembling.
But the God of the Scriptures is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). He stirs up the oceans with the tip of his finger, and they sizzle rolling clouds of steam into the sky. He shoots lightning from his fists. This is the God who leads his children by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. This is the God who makes war and sends plagues and sits enthroned in majesty and glory in his heavens, doing what he pleases. This is the God who incarnate in the flesh turned tables over in the temple like he owned the place. This Lord God Jesus Christ was pushed to the edge of the cliff and declared, “This is not happening today,” and walked right back through the crowd like a boss. This Lord says “Nobody takes my life; I give it willingly,” as if to say, “You couldn’t kill me unless I let you.” This Lord calms the storms, casts out demons, binds and looses and has the authority to grant us the same. The devil is this God’s lapdog.
And it is this God who has summoned us, apprehended us, saved us. It is this God who has come humbly, meek, lowly, pouring out his blood in infinite conquest to set the captives free, cancel the record of debt against us, conquer sin and Satan, and swallow up death forever.
Let us, then, advance the gospel of the kingdom out into the perimeter of our hearts and lives with affectionate meekness and humble submission. Let us repent of our nonchalance.
I’m like Pedro’s cousins with all the sweet hookups. Got a sweet deal for those of you who haven’t yet registered for the Gospel Alliance/PLNTD Fall Conference in Portland, Maine Sep. 20-21 with Scotty Smith and Caesar Kalinowski (with myself and others in the backing band).
If you register here using the promotional code jaredwilson you’ll get $10 off your 2-day registration. You will also receive my book Gospel Wakefulness and J.D. Greear’s book Gospel, on top of the other 2 free books available to all registrants, my forthcoming Gospel Deeps and Tim Chester and Steve Timmis’s Gospel-Centered Church.
Not only that, but we have 2 FREE pre-conference registrations, donated by Initiative 22 church plant out of Montreal, Canada, that we will give away at random if you use the code above between now and Saturday.
To sum up, using the promotional code jaredwilson provides:
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A shot at totally free registration.
“My happy conviction is that pastors ought not to be experts on everything.”
- John Piper
One of the most valuable sentences in a pastor’s arsenal is “I don’t know.” The pressure to know and be everything everybody expects us to know and be can be pride-puffing. I once worked at a bookstore where we were told never to say “I don’t know” to a customer. We must give them some answer, any answer, even if it was a guess or a likely wrong answer. Customers don’t want to hear “I don’t know” from service people, but even a wrong answer makes them feel helped. I confess the temptation to “satisfy the customer” has persisted through my ministry days, for a variety of reasons. I want people to feel helped. And I also don’t like looking like a rube.
Why is it important for pastors (and Christians in general!) to say “I don’t know” when they don’t know?
1. Because it’s the truth.
First and foremost, if you don’t know the answer to something, say you don’t know the answer. Making stuff up is not our calling. We all know some folks who seem pathologically unable to admit ignorance in any area. I don’t trust those people, and neither should you. Better a disappointing truth than a manipulative or misleading fabrication.
2. Because it impresses the right people.
I’ve done more than a few Q&A’s after preaching or on panels at speaking engagements before, and the desire to impress with wisdom and insight can be nerve-wracking. Once during a Q&A after a sermon at our church in Nashville, I got real honest when a question stumped me. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember realizing I had no information available to my brain to even begin formulating a halfway intelligent response. So I just said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know the answer to that.” Afterwards a young lady approached me to thank me for saying “I don’t know.” She said she wished more “religious people” could say it too. The reality is that acting like you know everything impresses shallow, naive, or otherwise easily impressed people. But saying “I don’t know” impresses people who value honesty and appreciate their pastor admitting weakness, ignorance, or just general fallibility.
3. Because it trains others not to be know-it-alls.
A few weeks ago a fellow came up to me after our service to ask about the Old Testament figure Ahimelech. I recognized the name but could not recall his biblical importance or the narrative where he was found. My inquirer expected that, as a pastor, I would know all about this figure and even the references where he would be found. I blanked. When I looked him up later, of course, I “remembered” who Ahimelech was, but in the moment, despite losing face with a relatively new Christian, I said, “Brother, I don’t remember. I just don’t know.” This led to a great talk about so-called “Bible trivia,” knowledge, learning, wisdom, and righteousness and the like. I think it was a teachable moment for both of us, but I walked away believing that when a leader is open about the gaps in his knowledge it trains others to be okay with not knowing everything. Of course, we want to know our Bibles as well as we possibly can, but we want to remember that knowledge puffs up and that the Scriptures and the doctrines they teach are meant to make us full-hearted with Christ not big-headed with minutiae.
4. Because it cultivates humility.
It is good for a pastor’s heart — no matter the reception — to make his “I don’t know”‘s public.
It is my conviction that gospel wakefulness erupts from the intersection of beholding the glory of God in Christ in the midst of profound brokenness (see 1 Thess. 1:6, for example), and so it is my conviction that regular gospel enjoyment precludes the appropriation of comfort as a Christian’s chief virtue. Rest is good. Sabbath is commanded. But a life and ministry of comfort is dangerous to our souls. If you’re a pastor in particular, God bless you in times of great success and peace, but keep a close watch on your life and doctrine, because while we need not have martyr complexes and be thankless in our times of victory and relative ease, we ought not become numbed by those times into being ill-prepared for the trouble Jesus promised. We have not been called to avoid difficulty and conflict, but to trust Jesus within them.
Here are three areas we can stay in the thick of the messy ministry that is fertile soil for gospel joy:
The temptation for ministry leaders is often to keep “graduating” to easier ministry. This usually means interacting only with “easy” personalities, but in some cases it means insulating from most people altogether. Indeed, it is a great temptation for lead pastors or busy church planters to begin to elevate themselves above the “hoi polloi,” removing themselves from street level ministry to focus on vision, study, writing, etc. Those things are important, but if you spend all your time by yourself or only with those who aren’t messy, you will remove yourself further and further from the visceral compassion Jesus felt when he looked upon the helpless crowd (Matthew 9:36). Peter tells the elders to shepherd the flock of God that is among them (1 Peter 5:1-2), assuming they are actually, you know, among the people, not away from or over them. Pastor: Don’t outsource all your messy people. Love them personally, counsel them directly, disciple them regularly. Of course you can’t give to all, but you can give to some.
Messy ministry in the church family is hard and it is taxing. So the temptation then becomes to withhold from spouse and kids. When church life is difficult, we typically want to retreat into a well-ordered, problem-free home. We want our houses to be respites, not more of the same. But our families should be our first ministries! So, pastor, don’t avoid the hard conversations and the deep questions with your wife. She wants to be known, and she wants to feel like you want to know her, not just keep her emotional arm’s length for your own emotional convenience. Your kids need you too, and not just in the quality time kind of way but in the quality discipleship kind of way. Are there difficult issues or questions you’re not addressing with your kids because you feel helpless or ignorant or scared? Those circumstances are designed for the God-reliance that helps us — and our families — treasure Jesus more.
3. Friends and Fraternity
Whether personal friends or ministry colleagues, it is important that we seek out the sharpening of iron against iron (Proverbs 27:17). “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). In other words, you will want friends and coworkers who are encouraging and edifying, who are unequivocally for you, but you do not want a stable of yes-men. Open yourself to hard questions, challenges, conflicts in opinions, loving rebukes, and constructive criticism. People who only tell you what you want to hear are not your friends and are doing you harm. And if you intentionally surround yourself with people who are afraid to tell you the truth because of your self-defensiveness or your verbal or occupational retaliation, you’re not a friend to them, but a self-righteous guy afraid of the repentance that leads to growth in Christ. Cultivate a climate of transparency and honesty in your friendships and ministry circles, and you will see the gospel spread more dominantly within them.