10 Things to Do in 2023

Everyone is thinking about the New Year, starting to put together resolutions or reading plans. These are ten things that you should do in 2023. In honesty, these are things you should commit to at any time in life (as with most “New Year’s” commitments), but why not take these ten items and commit to pursuing them during the new year? Admittedly, these are things where I need to grow as well, and things that require renewed resolve regularly (how’s that for alliteration?).

  1. Be in a Church. I don’t mean “be a member” if you think “be a member” permits non-attendance. I don’t mean “be a member” if you’re not a believer. I mean “go to church.” Be there twice on Sundays. Be at the “extra” thing the church does, whether a prayer meeting or time of teaching or whatever it is they do during the week. If you claim to be a Christian, this should be a no-brainer, but for a lot of people it’s not. If you’re not a Christian, and need to know “what church should I go to” and “what does it look like to ‘go to church,’?” feel free to reach out to me and I can help you out.
  2. Be in the Bible as a Family. If you are married and have children, you ought to be regularly reading the Bible together. This should be common, but it isn’t. People are often surprised when their children leave the church, or when they begin attending somewhere of very different convictions. This isn’t always because they didn’t instill things in them as a family, but it is often the case. Promote the doctrines of your church, point at the law and point to the gospel.
  3. Pass on and Receive What’s Important. If you’re an older person, look for someone young to hand over what you value (and if it’s something actually handed over, let go of it when it’s time). Sometimes these are principles, but it should also be practices, activities, organizations, etc. Older people expect the young to look for them, but there’s often a sense among younger people of “If they’ve got it covered, there’s no need there for me to fill.” Further, if you don’t pass things on purposefully, the next generation might not understand the value of something. If you think it’s good, do the work to say “Here’s why this was started,” and then do the work to teach the next generation how to do it. Voting? Church activities? Community services? All of these are things where there’s recognizable disengagement by rising generations. Tied to this, if the “passing on” of things is done on a personal level, be ready to hear the next generation discuss different ways of doing the same sort of thing. If the practice is important, and if the values it demonstrates are important, then it may be that the particulars are different from one generation to the next. If you’re a younger person, look at the things that are done by older people and seek to come alongside them (and under them). Remember, they used to be young and full of passion, and the thing they do is something that they believed (and still believe) is important for expression of good things. While it might look different in various ways from how you would do it or will do it in the future, learn what it is and why it is.
  4. Go to Funerals. You’re going to die. Going to a funeral reminds you of that and forces you to consider how you’re living life now in view of that fact. Further, it comforts people to see people they care about attending a funeral for someone else they cared about. I try to make it to funerals when I can. I haven’t been able to make it to all of those that would have been good for me to go to, but I do try. If you’re a younger person, don’t wait for your parents to tell you to attend a funeral; decide for yourself that you’re going to go.
  5. Spend Time in Meditation and Prayer. We live in a noisy world, and contrary to the way a lot people mention that, it’s not a bad thing. Words are good, conversation is good, time with others is good. (Of course, these are often bad too). But we have largely begun to fill times that were designed for quiet contemplation (what Christian meditation is) and prayer with more noise. Go for a walk, sit in silence, go to the woods, journal if you need too, but have regular time in your day and life without noise (audible or otherwise, e.g., social media).
  6. Get Coffee/Lunch. In our time, it’s easier for those who are physically close to you to be more relationally distant (which is one reason I really dislike Zoom). Make it a practice to meet with people regularly for breakfast/coffee/lunch. It can be the same person all the time or different people every time, but make it a habit in some way to spend time talking to people face-to-face.
  7. Have People Over. Like the item above, make it a practice of having people over to your home. You can be formal, but you don’t have to be (I actually prefer it to be really informal). Have dinner, hang out, talk. (Note: If you’re single, it’s unwise to do this with someone of the opposite sex by themselves).
  8. Watch Your Intake. We are a gluttonous age, and this applies to food as well as other things. Everyone is overweight; everyone overindulges in social media; everyone overindulges in some particular form of consumption. (Every time someone says we’re “consumeristic,” translate that in your mind to “gluttonous”). Make it a point to monitor what you take in. Since we are quite prosperous, we can’t depend on the lack of something to create a natural limitation on things. Thus, we must create those limitations for ourselves.
  9. Enjoy Good Things. While this may seem like a contradiction to the previous item, they actually go hand in hand. If you always eat a good steak, you soon lose your appreciation for good steak. Enjoy wine, cigars, steak, chocolate, beer, art, videos, humor, etc. Don’t live your life in overindulgence, but also don’t deprive yourself of the enjoyment of that which is pleasing and good.
  10. Stop Complaining. It is a hard world, and there are things we don’t like about all sorts of things, particularly about the “way things are run,” and it is extremely easy to spend days complaining about things to friends, leaders, neighbors, etc. In other words, there are good reasons to complain, and it’s easy to complain, but the better thing to do is not complain. This will bring about greater submission, greater camaraderie, greater innovation, and greater enjoyment. Why? It brings greater submission because the decision not to complain to or about leaders leaves you with a disposition to follow them or at least to allow them to lead. It brings greater camaraderie because the things discussed are edifying and enjoyable. It brings greater innovation because, if you can’t complain, you must come up with a way to pursue things within the structure. It brings greater enjoyment because in leaving off complaints, you are forced to discuss things that are more enjoyable.

These ten things are good practices for all of life. If you are given to using natural changes in life as a means to focus or refocus on various things, and if the change of a calendar year is one of those things you use, use this list as a help in your pursuit of “the good life.” Go to church, bring the faith into your home, pass on and receive what’s important, spend time learning at funerals and in meditation and prayer, meet with people in various settings and without complaining, and enjoy the gifts of life in a way that is appropriate.

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Guest Preaching: Some Advice

I’ve done a bit of guest preaching in the past and I find these are a few questions to ask those for whom you preach (i.e., the pastor you’re filling in for). The reason for these questions is that you are serving someone else. It is an honor and privilege for someone else to trust their pulpit to you, but it is really a gift you’re giving to them, so you should act in a way that best serves them. If you have any others, feel free to leave a comment. I’ll include reasons/response after the question.

  1. What translation do you typically use? You should use the same translation they do because that’s likely what many of the people use. It’s good to know with enough time to incorporate it in your study so you’re comfortable with the structure of the sentences if it’s a translation that’s different than you normally use.
  2. How long do you typically preach? If it’s shorter than you’re used to, go shorter. If it’s too long for your ability, feel free to let the brother know that you’re not quite there yet and tell him how long you can preach.
  3. What are you preaching? I don’t think it’s a good idea to preach a text close to the same as the pastor you’re filling in for. We all know that most of our study could have turned into multiple sermons, so it’s not an issue of, “Did he really say all that can be said?” Instead, imagine what sort of issues you might cause if you take a different interpretation on a passage than the congregation’s pastor?
  4. Is there a topic you would like me to address? This could be a topic the pastor hasn’t been able to study in depth yet because of time, or it may be a little far from any of the texts that he’s working through to be able to comfortably put into the series he’s already in. This could be a time where you could serve him by addressing it.
  5. What do you typically wear to preach in? If he typically wears a suit and you typically wear a polo (or the other way around), the church may be put off by your attire. This is a “no stumbling block” issue. It’s not your “teaching moment” issue. You usually don’t need to match exactly. If he normally wears a suit and you wear a sport coat (or vice versa), you’ll likely be fine. If he normally wears a polo and you wear a button up without a tie, you’ll likely be fine.
  6. Are there any components of the liturgy that I’ll be conducting? There may be items that you choose or things that you do, and it’s good to know beforehand. Let the brother know if there’s anything you’re uncomfortable doing. I had to let a brother know I was uncomfortable administering the Supper since I wasn’t an elder there. Others have made sure I was ordained so that they could ask me to say the benediction. It’s good to know these things beforehand if possible.
  7. What time should I arrive? Many pastors have a time of prayer, either with the deacons or with the other elders (or both) a few minutes before the service, and you want to be on time for that. Don’t just ask what time the service is.
  8. Is there anywhere you’d like me during or after the service? This is a question to ask when you arrive rather than in an email. Sometimes churches have elders’ chairs near the pulpit that the preacher (even a visiting preacher) will sit in. Also, sometimes the preacher stands at the back door after the service to shake hands and greet people as they leave.

It’s What We Believe!

This past Lord’s Day, I introduced the sermon with a quotation from the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith 16.2. When I did so, I also made some “rabbit trail” remarks about our Confession. I said, “We confess that…” and then explained why I was saying “we confess.” It’s because a confession of faith, whether small or large, is both an objective and subjective statement. Objectively, it can be pointed to by those outside a congregation as defining the things that body of Christians believe. It’s further objective in that a confession of faith is a summary statement of the main headings taught in Scripture, and thus, insofar as it is faithful to Scripture, it is not something that can be discarded out of hand.

Nevertheless, for a confession of faith to be a “confession,” it must be the objective truth to which a group of people individually and corporately hold. Since it’s a confession of faith, it must be believed. Since it’s a confession of faith, it must be believed alongside others. It is the objective statement of what is held in the hearts of the believers who confess it. It is good practice, and many churches find some way in their life together—such as a worship service or a business meeting or some other venue—to actually say the things documented in the confession (whatever confession that church holds) out loud, together. It’s this “subjective” aspect that leads to the question, “have you read the Confession and do you agree with it” in membership interviews. It’s not that we’re simply being curmudgeonly. We believe these things and we would love for everyone to believe them with us because they’re true, and we want to know if you believe them too? We want to know, “When we say ‘WE’ believe these things, will you be included in the ‘We’?”

I’m not going to offer the caveats here (e.g., what if someone is unsure about this or that particular point) simply because this is meant to be a short post. Those things matter too. Nevertheless, the thrust of confessional adherence is the idea that a body of believers can state clearly and somewhat succinctly those things they know the Bible to teach, those things “most surely believed among us.”

Let’s Change the Lord’s Supper!

If the headline to this blog post encourages you to become tense and immediately check out what I have to say with skepticism, that’s good. Along with the preaching of the Word, singing, prayers, and baptism, the Lord’s Supper is an essential element of worship. As such, we should be quite skeptical of any calls to change the Lord’s Supper, as we would be toward calls to change the preaching or baptism. Further, since we believe the elements of worship should be regulated according to the Word of God, we should be ready for any proposed changes to be due to something said in Scripture, and not otherwise.

However, there were some changes that took place over the last few hundred years, and especially in the last hundred or so, that churches did not work hard enough to resist. The result? We now have a Lord’s Supper practice in evangelicalism that is quite… different (to put it mildly) from what the apostles handed down from the Lord (1 Cor. 11:23). As one of my fellow-pastors, Luke Mace, has begun to preach through the section in 1 Corinthians that addresses the Supper (chs. 10–11), I’ve been reflecting again on the ways we (evangelicals as a whole) observe the Lord’s Supper. There are some “dispositional” issues that I could address, such as our tendency away from seeing it as a means of grace, our tendency to only take it somberly, etc., but my goal in this post is to name three practical alterations to the Lord’s Supper that we should change back to something more consistent with apostolic practice.

Frequency

It seems the New Testament practice was to take the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7). Unfortunately, it had become common for the ‘laity’ to only take the Supper once a year in the Middle Ages, so it was a big deal when people started to take it quarterly or even monthly. Nevertheless, it seems most pastors from Calvin to today have desired fervently to have the Supper every Lord’s Day (I might speculate on why pastors have been fearful of fixing this, but I won’t do that here). I have not heard any arguments against this that are convincing; rather, my experience has been just the opposite of people’s concerns. When it is taken weekly, people grow. People love to have that reminder of their covenant union with Christ week by week. It seems odd that something we call a “means of grace” would be something we would limit ourselves to receiving but once a month or quarter. (NB: If you live in a place with limited access to the material resources, such as the Middle East where it’s hard to get alcohol, it makes complete sense that you may be forced to a less frequent observance). (For a fairly technical argument for weekly observance, see Thomas Goodwin, vol. 11, pp. 388–409; without contending strongly for it, Spurgeon makes some passing comments that “If there be any rule as to the time for the observance of this ordinance, it surely is every Lord’s day.”)

Material

This almost seems the least consequential, but it’s also the most absurd invasion of social justice into the worship of the church that I know of. The temperance movement of the nineteenth century gave way to the widespread adoption of using grape juice in the Lord’s Supper. Though the Corinthians were clearly drinking something that one could get drunk on (1 Cor. 11:21), Christians of the twentieth century made absurd arguments that changed the material content of the Supper. We should have never ceased to use wine, so the change to juice was an unbiblical imposition on the practice of the church. While one might scoff at the notion of people using soda and crackers, we’ve already weakened our claim to “just do what Jesus said” when we said, “but in this area, we know a better way.” (Spurgeon made some remarks of warning about the zeal of the temperance movement in this vein, Sword & Trowel, 1877, p. 437)

Form

Of the three practical items I’m listing in this post, this one is probably the most foreign and the most theologically important. I think taking the Supper weekly is a beautiful and good thing. I think changing the substance of one of the elements was a bad thing. However, the item I list here is the one that actually carries a theological argument in Scripture, and yet we have changed it. In our changing it, not only do we disobey the Lord (since we’re not doing what he delivered by him through the apostles [1 Cor. 11:23]), but we actually distance ourselves from being able to make sense of the theological points Paul makes in Scripture. Prior to the twentieth century, it was common for Christians to use a single cup and loaf in the Supper. Due to various things, such as epidemics, the use of a common cup was abandoned. Now? Well, now evangelical Christians use thimbles, sometimes even prepackaged. What is the symbol of the one cup? We are all partaking in the one Christ as one people of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16–17; cf. Calvin’s comments on these verses, or Matthew Poole). What’s the symbol of our thimbles? Often it symbolizes an extreme individualism in our spirituality. It astonished Paul that the Corinthians weren’t taking the Supper together (1 Cor. 11:33). While we may take it in the same room and at the same time, we also tend to close ourselves off in our minds to those around us. (Calvin considers the precise manner it gets from the singular loaf/cup to the individual communicant a thing indifferent, whether by the elder/deacon distributing it to each or by congregants passing it from one to the next, Institutes, 4.17.43. Haykin points out in his book, Amidst Us Our Beloved Stands, that eighteenth-century Baptist Anne Dutton’s explanation of the Supper assumes a “single cup that was passed around the congregation”).

I have ministered in a church that took communion weekly (Kosmosdale Baptist in Louisville), and I have taken communion at a church that had reformed their Lord’s Supper observance according to the Word of God (Tucson Reformed Baptist Church). The latter used wine (as is proper), took the Supper weekly, and had a way of maintaining the biblical form that I found wise. They use a pitcher of wine (poured in cups for distribution) and the minister very visibly breaks the bread before the congregation as he recites the words of institution. This practice of the unity of the elements at the table while recognizing the distribution could include the smaller cups (though much larger than thimbles) and the pieces of bread has seemed to me the best recovery of a biblical form, matter, and frequency of the Supper.

So, should we change the Supper? Yes. Does it create a sense of “consternation” or “tension” for me to say that? Good. We should not alter the elements of worship without biblical warrant, and the problem is that earlier generations did so. Now we have the hard work of fixing things because it’s harder to fix something than to break it.

On the SBC

I have a lot of thoughts about the SBC, and I think you should too (if you live in the USA). Why? It is the largest group of Protestants in the country and the direction it takes will both reflect and influence evangelicalism in general. It is responsible for educating a massive portion of theological students and the impact on missions is likewise great. But I’m not a Southern Baptist. Why? Quite simply it’s because I’m not in a Southern Baptist church, and the fact that I don’t live in the South means I don’t particularly feel compelled to encourage our congregation to join it. In other words, I think the regional identity of the Convention should matter (even if they have not maintained it themselves). In other words, the reason I’m not Southern Baptist right now is both convictional (I think it should be regionally identified) and non-convictional (there’s nothing I have against the SBC doctrinally and I could—and do in my work at SBTS—still affirm the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, as I did in my book Still Confessing).

What are my thoughts on the SBC? Well, there are a lot, but as one who is concerned for healthy Baptist life, I have several that I think would help to reinvigorate it. This doesn’t solve all the problems we all know about right now (sin’s the problem; repentance, diligence, and the return of Christ are the solution). However, consider these as suggestions for how the SBC could be better in terms of the structure it ought to have.

First, associationalism. Baptists have been an associating people since our beginning. By “associating,” I mean formal communion among churches. Formal means there’s an entrance and a mutual concern and at times a removal. The SBC is generally structured in three “tiers” of fellowship: local, state, and regional (though the latter has become national, and indeed international). The SBC really is designed to direct resources for common ends (education, missions). It is the local associational level at which the theological and fidelity conversations should be had. The reality? Many churches are never involved in the local association or the state associations, and the reason is that they don’t find them valuable. Ways forward? 1) Remove churches that are inactive. This had been a very common practice among Baptists. 2) Assess the agreed upon doctrinal commitments (BFM and various other confessions) and be willing to have the hard conversations that lead to some congregations being removed from the associations. 3) Make associational meetings more robust (they are generally a-theological because of the huge spectrum of SBC theology today; local associations don’t need to be as broad as the SBC). Ask for reports from the churches and engage in the older forms of mutual support in theological and practical decision making within the churches. (Often, local association meetings are basically just reports of some evangelistic outreach—e.g., a block party or ESL classes—that a church is doing). Pastors, you’re in charge of the associations, not the DOMs, so speak.

Second, reform the SBC’s missionary practices. The North American Mission Board (NAMB, pronounced like “lamb”) had originally focused on reaching the Indians and immigrants. Now, NAMB is seeking to plant churches all over the country. It’s an unfortunately common experience for me to hear of local ministers complaining about the way NAMB seeks to overwhelm an area where there are already local associations and local church plants. NAMB still does try to help with reaching immigrants and they are involved in things like disaster relief and caring for those who are rescued out of sex slavery. Great! But if our (Baptists’) polity is to emphasize the local church and local associations, then NAMB should not be operating on its own in local areas. The other missionary organization, the International Mission Board (IMB), is one that has favorable positions on paper, but I’ve heard very disturbing stories from the mission field. While officially opposed to the “Insider Movement,” the IMB has not actually resisted it among missionaries on the ground (I’ve heard multiple stories of IMB missionaries having to leave the field because of their concerns with the IMB’s on-the-ground permissive stance toward the IM). While the goal ought to be to see Baptist churches planted and self-sustaining (at which point I would think the IMB would see their task as complete), very often the reports are that IMB workers don’t have that goal as clear in their minds.

Third, be willing to let go. This goes to things that were implied in the former two items. Early Baptist associations planted churches in other areas, which then grew into self-sustaining associations. There was communication between the associations by way of reports, but it wasn’t a way of just expanding the reach of one of the associations. The Baptist Union and the various conventions (such as the Triennial and Southern Baptist Conventions) extended the communion of churches in ways that Baptists were concerned about very early on. The SBC should, it would seem, probably be willing to resist the urge to have churches in New England and New Zealand. Plant churches? Sure. But then allow those churches to form their own associations etc. Be willing to be smaller for the sake of the health that comes from more localized politics (politics in the sense of people working together). The reality (regardless of whether it must or ought to be this way) is that by having a robust Southern Baptist Convention, energy is sapped from the hard work that goes into local efforts. Serve the churches and the local associations. That’s baptist. Note when the task you desire to do or have already engaged in is beyond the purview of what you should do and cut it off to allow it to grow by itself.

The SBC is the largest group of Protestants in the US, and the result is that their health affects the health of us all. We should be seeking the good of the SBC and urging them to continue to reform according to the Scriptures, which are best expressed in Baptist principles. This means more focus on the local churches, more focus on the local associations, more desire to serve as a conduit only insofar as it is proper, and less seeking to be a “global” movement. I praise God for the SBC because it was the commitments of that communion of Baptists to the gospel that edified me and trained me for the ministry. I never “left the SBC” but only the area where the SBC is (and I think ought to be) functional, and my desire is for Southern Baptists to continue to uphold Baptist principles and take the gospel to the lost.

A Forced Pastorate?

This past Sunday, I referenced an event in Augustine’s life in the introduction to my sermon (the details may have been a little off, but the substance was correct). Just because it’s such a fascinating event, I share it here from Peter Brown’s biography. Augustine tells how, because his reputation had grown, he wouldn’t go anywhere that didn’t already have a bishop so that he wouldn’t be made to become a bishop. Thus, when he went to Hippo, he was not seeking the pastorate (in fact, he was hoping to set up a monastery). Here’s how Brown tells of how things unfolded:

The incident was a common one in the Later [Roman] Empire. It passed over quickly: in a sermon, the bishop, Valerius, spoke pointedly of the urgent needs of his church; the congregation turned to find, as they expected, Augustine standing among them in the nave; with the persistent shouting required for such a procedure, they pushed him forward to the raised throne of the bishop and the benches of the [presbyters], which ran around the curved apse at the far end of the basilica. The leading [c]atholic [(as opposed to Donatist)] citizens of Hippo would have gathered around Augustine, as the bishop accepted his forced agreement to become a [presbyter] in the town. What was happening seemed perfectly natural to them: twenty years later they would try, without success, to kidnap in this way another passing ‘star’. They merely assumed that Augustine had burst into tears because he had wanted to be a bishop, but now found himself condemned to the inferior rank of [presbyter].

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, Forty-Fifth Anniversary Edition, 131–32

While unfamiliar to us today, it would likely be too much to say this was forced, as seen in the fact that the man they tried the same with twenty years later was able to refuse. Nevertheless, it is an interesting account not uncommon in church history.

Suggestion for Historical Theologians

A fascinating (and often ugly) debate rages on the internet and in academic circles, and it’s a debate over the doctrine of God. One well-known apologist keeps asking, “What changed?!” What he means is, Why is the doctrine of God from the latter years of the twentieth century found to be deficient. Part of the answer, I think, can be found in a number of key works that came out at the same time.

I title this post “Suggestions for Historical Theologians” because I honestly think a monograph could be written on this topic. I think it will need to wait another number of years, but that’s how long these things take anyway :).

I first discovered how closely these works were published when writing my dissertation and I kept having to type in the same year in the footnotes (yes, I manually type in the footnotes, and yes, I have been influenced by the works listed). When we think about the relationship of these works to each other, we see why there has been a recovery of certain classic Christian doctrines and why it would be a “shock to the system” for those who aren’t engaged in the academic world.

  1. Nicaea and Its Legacy by Lewis Ayres (2004)
  2. Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck (2002–2008; Doctrine of God came out 2004)
  3. Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics by Richard Muller (completed 2003)

In that list, we see something particularly telling. In the first, Ayres, a Roman Catholic historian, demonstrated that the division of Eastern and Western Trinitarian theology was overblown by the social Trinitarians and that, in fact, the East and West affirmed the same basic principles. This was crucial for Protestants, and even conservative Reformed evangelicals in particular, because Social Trinitarian theology had an influence to various extents in our circles. Even though we usually rejected it, some of the Nicene categories had been lost.

In the second, English-speaking Reformed finally had direct access to the theologian who had loomed somewhat in the background of our theology throughout the twentieth century. Warfield and Berkhof and Van Til all had high praise for Bavinck, and now we were able to read him ourselves. (I should say, when I say “we,” I’m using this term communally. I’m actually about a decade too young to have experienced this movement when it was fresh). This is important because an interpreter will use things that are conducive to their own argument (which isn’t a bad thing; just a fact of writing). What we find here is that the division between certain types of theological reasoning was not always considered “non-Reformed.” In other words, maybe Sproul wasn’t such an anomaly if Bavinck is representative of Reformed thinking prior to the 1930s.

Finally, Richard Muller completed his magnum opus at the same time the other two works came out, notably especially his volume on the Triunity of God. It had been common to think of the Reformation as though it started with a tabula rasa in its formation of theology, but Muller showed that the Reformers, and especially their confessionalizing successors, continued along many of the lines of their predecessors. Again, it was a reformation. Heiko Obermann had preceded Muller, but Muller stands out in our day.

If we think carefully about these three works, consider three more works that came out later.

  1. Quest for the Trinity by Stephen Holmes (2012)
  2. All that is in God by James Dolezal (lectures originally given in 2015; book published 2017)
  3. One God in Three Persons by several authors (2016)

In the first book, Stephen Holmes traces out the history of Trinitarian theology, showing the consistency of the doctrine throughout the ages and the classical doctrine’s difference from the “Trinitarian revival” of the twentieth century that he had earlier been influenced by. We begin to see some cracks emerging here as we see something like a “classical theology proper” emerging in evangelical circles.

In the second book, which was originally lectures given at the Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastors Conference, Dolezal calls attention to the fact that those theologians who had most influenced conservative, Reformed evangelicalism had abandoned the doctrine of divine simplicity. “Abandoned” may sound too strong, but the fact that simplicity is an absolute denial of something (i.e., composition), any modification of it equates to a denial.

In the third book, we have the book that sparked the “infamous” semi-popular Trinity debate of 2016. A couple things should be said. First, not all the authors advocated for eternal submission, but some of the doctrine’s chief proponents were included in the book. Second, I call it “semi-popular” because it was/is a debate engaged in a popular forum (blogs; social media) but it was/is engaged by formal academic theologians. Third, it is a clear demarcation point of the divide between new conservatism (say, late twentieth century evangelicalism) and orthodox conservatism. I call the latter “orthodox conservatism” because it says something like, “trying to conserve the historic confession of the church.”

Perhaps we’re in the midst of another development. Whereas the first was very academic and the second more “bringing theology to the masses,” we’re witnessing something of a resurgence of the polemicism that surrounded the “2016 Trinity debate,” but this time in more formal print. Maybe we could look at these four books as representative:

  1. Trinitarian Theology edited by Keith Whitfield (2019)
  2. Systematic Theology, 2nd edition, by Wayne Grudem (2020)
  3. Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett (2021)
  4. The Failure of Natural Theology by Jeff Johnson (2021)

In the first, we see a formal, written debate/dialog over the issues of eternal submission. There is even a noticeable movement by Ware to seek to incorporate more traditional categories. In the second, we see an update of Grudem’s argument for ERAS in light of the debates. The third is a polemic work against ERAS written at the level of a typical pastor, and the fourth takes aim at Thomas Aquinas. While that last one may seem unlike the others, it is somewhat representative of the vitriolic reaction to orthodox Christian theology among some new conservatives.

One apologist has asked, “what’s changed?” in reference to the fact that some of his ways of thinking are now considered “less-than-robust” in reference to his theology proper. Some of the men who were “called out” in books like All that is in God have asked the same question. The time period they have to reference is the 1990s and early 2000s. What’s changed between 2000 and 2022? A lot actually. It’s not just in theology proper either. We have seen a similar “change-by-recovery” in the area of Baptist covenant theology in the same time period. As the academy has recovered older works, and then proposed the recovery of older ways of thinking about theology, those who were once considered conservative chafe under the challenges to their adherence to what they claim to hold. We saw this in the 1950s through 1990s with the recovery of Reformed soteriology and ecclesiology (in some ways, this is simply a continuation of that movement, but I digress). To claim to affirm the classical doctrine of God, expressed in the creeds and confessions, has required a lot of theological repentance (i.e., changing how one thinks of God).

My goal in this post wasn’t to make a huge argument (though I’m sure it has some “argument-like” statements in it). Instead, it has been to maybe stoke the flames of some interested reader to think about studying the changes of “2004” as an historical (or perhaps “intellectual-sociological”) touch point in the world of theological ideas. If 1919 marked a major moment with Barth’s Römerbrief, or the 1950s with the reintroduction of the Puritans by Banner of Truth, I think it may be viable to document a theological historical transition point in the mid-20-aughts. This academic-level transition point has had popular-level effects, which has resulted in renewed academic-level constructive work.

Some Good Books

It’s the time of year when everyone shares what they read during the year. Rather than requiring myself to reach a certain number, I’ll just mention a few books that stood out in my reading this year.

1. The Spirit of the Age by J. V. Fesko

This book came out a few years ago, but in it Fesko works through the curious, apparent absence of a treatment of the Holy Spirit in the Westminster (and therefore London Baptist) Confession. What really presses the interest home is the reason Mercersburg theologians wanted it amended.

2. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman

Perhaps it’s unnecessary to give an explanation of this book since it’s been in the news so much. Think of it as a prolegomena to the theology of the age.

3. Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett

This book is actually slightly different than his earlier None Greater in that it is more of a polemic against the modern error of eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS). I have a review of this book coming out in the Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies at some point.

4. The Same God Who Works All Things by Adonis Vidu

This is a very technical book working through the doctrine of inseparable operations. It was good for contemplation. Would I recommend it? That’s hard because I think it is definitely an advanced book. I would heartily recommend it to someone who is working through the doctrine or who has a decent grasp of classical theology. I think it should be something that’s influencing the way Christians think and talk. Perhaps Dr. Vidu could write a 100 page “layman” introduction? 😉 If I had to offer one critique, I was reading this book at the same time I was rereading Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition by Craig Carter, and I thought, “I wish Vidu would just disregard the Second Temple stuff” (i.e. I wish he just immediately adopted a pre-modern hermeneutic). I think the rest of the book is good; I just wish the biblical section was less “SBL” and more De Doctrina Christiana.

5. R. C. Sproul: A Life by Stephen Nichols

This book was so much fun to read. Anyone who knows me, knows I love R. C. Sproul, and reading this biography was like hanging out with him in the excitement his life involved. You could basically make a biographical movie from the book. My wife listened to some of it and shared with me some parts of it where there are recordings of him speaking, which is a fun bonus.

Sermon Books

Three books are worth mentioning that were/are used for sermon prep.

Commentary on Peter and Jude by Martin Luther

It has been a great joy to read through the Reformer’s theology in commentary form. I think of particular intrigue are the ways you see his doctrine of the Word come out

Reforming Apologetics by J. V. Fesko

I’ve had this book on my shelf since it came out and I skimmed it when I first got it, but when I got to 1 Peter 3:15 I decided to sit down and work through it. It was quite helpful in filling in some areas of my thinking.

He Descended to the Dead and Crux, Mors, Inferi by Matt Emerson and Sam Renihan

I read these books (along with others) in preparation for preaching through 1 Peter 3:18–20 and found them helpful. I had already moved to adopt their view several years ago, probably helped by an article or two by Emerson, but this was another area where the reading gave strength to my thinking.

Dishonorable Mention

One last book worth mentioning was The Failure of Natural Theology by Jeff Johnson. I mention it because, not only was it bad, it also ignited controversy that has continued since he published it in September. I was actually excited to get the book at first because I thought it might give a fair argument from “the other side,” but it was actually quite terrible. I suggest the review offered at the link if you click the book’s title.

Reviews: I guess it’s worth noting that I also reviewed Fesko’s The Need for Creeds (Spring) and the RTS faculty’s Covenant Theology (Fall) for the journal Presbterion, and Matthew Barrett’s Simply Trinity (forthcoming) for Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies. All were good books for what they are trying to do and stimulate thought in their own ways.

Southern California RB Pastors Conference, 2021

I wasn’t sure if this would be worth a Facebook post or a blog post, so I figured I’d the blog just in case it’s a little longer than appropriate for Facebook. I was able to attend the SCRBPC earlier this week for the first time. I first found out about the conference back in 2015 when James Dolezal gave his now-famous treatment of divine simplicity, lectures that were subsequently published as the book, All that is in God. Those lectures, which I “watched” on my way into seminary class each morning, led to me to conclude that I wanted to go to this conference if I ever got the opportunity in my schedule. This year was the year. One of the primary reasons I’ve wanted to attend is the fact that it’s not trying to reach more people than it claims, which I’ll mention again below, which means that it’s able to be deeper than others. Here are some thoughts.

1. Great Content

The topic this year was chapter 7 of the 2LBCF, which is on the covenant. The primary speaker was Dr. Sam Renihan, the premier scholar right now on the covenant theology of the Particular Baptists in the 17th century. Thus, as he addressed the various points in his discussion, he was able to press beyond a generic treatment of the continuities and distinctions from the paedobaptists of the era. Dr. Richard Barcellos also gave a great treatment of Genesis 3:15, a summary of larger seminary lecture materials.

2. Great Fellowship

The men that attended the conference, whether from the area (it is, technically, a regional association’s conference) or further away (such as myself), are likeminded in their love for classical theology and Reformed Baptist distinctives (i.e. those things that make us distinct from other Baptists and those that make us distinct from other Reformed). That means that conversations were less guarded and there was a greater sense of immediate communion.

3. Great Pitches

Dr. Barcellos mentioned several great books throughout, either before a session or during his own talks, and they were all commendable materials. Further, and this one was particularly exciting for me, Dr. Barcellos explained the fact that IRBS has been attempting to teach integrated theology. By that, he meant that all the courses aim to incorporate the various fields of the theological disciplines. This means that they are striving for the very thing I mentioned in my “seminary aspirations.” I’ve wanted a less “siloed” approach to theological education and it was comforting to hear that a seminary we’ve been financially supporting as a family is aiming for the same thing. (In fact, I’ll will likely go edit my original post at some point).

4. Great Food

Dr. Barcellos always advertises the conference as including good food, and on that point I was not disappointed.

5. Depth of Content

I mentioned above that I like that they are purposeful in who they’re attempting to reach; I’ll explain that a little more here. First I’ll explain the contrast. Many conferences, even when they claim to be pastors conferences, are geared toward a broad audience of Christians. Because of that, the teaching tends to lack the sort of depth I (and people I know) would appreciate. Though the speakers purport to speak to those who are generally educated (most churches require, minimally, a 3–4 year master’s degree [M.Div.]), and men who are in a vocation given to deep study (we read church history, theology, foreign languages, etc. every week), addresses are not often reflective of that particular audience. SCRBPC is different. The speakers they’ve had have addressed the sort of people I would assume a pastors conference would address. The topics they’ve covered have been deeper, focused issues. Often conferences are deficient “heady” theology, but SCRBPC aims at that. It’s a way of keeping men sharp as the time from their seminary education lengthens.

Five Years of Ministry

I was ordained to gospel ministry October 30, 2016, five years ago today. In light of this fact, I’d like to offer five items I’ve learned in the course of that time. Before I begin, I have three disclaimers. First, as is to be expected, I have probably learned more in these first five years than I will in the next due to the nature of growth. Second, I fully recognize that some Baptists out there believe that ordination is something that is redone every time you take up ministry in a new church, which would mean that I have only been ordained a matter of a few months when in fact I’ve been conducting Reformed Baptist ministry for five years. Third, some things are solidified by experience that were obviously known intellectually beforehand.

1. The Minister is a Servant of God

That a minister is a servant of God was one of the items I obviously knew before entering the ministry, but it is an item that has become solidified in my thinking as I have served. There is a tendency among members of the church and in our own hearts to view a minister as a servant of the church in the sense of the church being the object of our service. There is truth to this. We ought to be like the Chief Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve. However, when serving in ministry, you quickly realize (at least if you have doctrinal convictions) just how weighty it is to know that you stand before God in terms of faithfulness in the ministry. Should I do “X” ministry thing? It is easy to answer with, “Well, will people be interested in it; will there be turn-out; will it offend people?” To ask “Does this please my Master,” and then seek the answer in Scripture will often cause displeasure or discomfort among some in the church. However, the Lord does care for his servants. Rather than making this a separate point, it is worth noting here that for a minister to be a servant of God means he is regularly on his knees in prayer, regularly before the Word, regularly in meditation. In other words, it should (but can’t) go without saying that a minister is a Christian, and must be a faithful Christian.

2. The Minister Should be in Contact with Other Ministers

It is vital to be in conversation with other ministers, both inside and outside the church. Talk to your fellow elders or you will have a less-than-complete understanding of the state of the congregation. However, be sure to also have ministers outside the church you can speak with. Ministers outside the church will be able to provide insight and comfort that can only come from an “outsider,” and they will be able to draw on their own experiences. Make sure to have men whose ways of reasoning are different than your own, though you will want to make sure he has similar convictions. I have found it to be helpful to be in conversation with those of different denominations and simply different personalities. It’s easier to listen to people who think exactly like you, but we have not been called to do easy things; we have been called to do faithful things.

3. The Minister Must be Driven by Theological Conviction

This is related to the first item, but is worth standing on its own. Everyone has ideas about how a minister ought to 1) preach and 2) conduct the work of ministry. A man not driven by conviction will be driven by convenience (though “convenience” usually looks like “political expediency”). What I’m not saying: do everything you think is right immediately. Obviously there are things that should be done slowly and with care. Not everything is of equal value, and not all things of value will be valued appropriately if they are done the same way. What I am saying: Don’t let that reality serve as an excuse for cowardliness. It will still hurt, but a clear conscience with “dusted off sandals” is better than knowing you have disobeyed the Lord. For instance, if the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, or the ministry of the Word are practiced in ways that are clearly contrary to Scripture, you will need to address that quickly and explicitly. If the Sunday school program could be refined, but it is functioning fine, you can take your time. As an aside on this, there are times when, providentially, something that would have been a “back burner” issue can be addressed quicker than assumed. Don’t press things where it’s not immediately important, but I also think the advice not to change anything within a particular amount of time is both unrealistic and at times unfaithful. In relation to the issue of preaching, remember that we live in an age when people have read Spurgeon’s 50 pages on “Posture, Action, Gesture, etc.” instead of Perkins’ more reserved half-page, or they’ve spent more time asking “is this the next Piper” than “was Scripture opened up faithfully?” or “did everyone ‘get’ something out of that” than “have I beheld God in Christ?” Preach to please God, and his sheep will hear his voice.

4. The Minister Must Love the Saints

Let’s be honest: It is easier to be heartlessly “right” than invested in others agreeing. The minister could get up and say, “This is the way it’s going to be, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.” However, when the minister loves the people, he wants them to agree with the Lord’s Word. If he believes the Word teaches X, he can not change that out of “love” for the people, but he should also be careful not to be callous in his stand for truth. When going through several serious disagreements that led to my departure from Massachusetts, I sat and listened and prayed before and after conversations and fasted and prayed and wept and asked others to do the same. I included the things mentioned above (theological conviction, communion and counsel from other ministers, including those older and more experienced), but I did so with my heart and soul invested in seeing the people of God come to embrace the beautiful truth of God. It was not a mere “change of job location” but a deep-seated hurt that they had not wanted to follow the Lord. (It’s worth noting that people today often view events like that as mere relational or business-like events; they are deeply spiritual, deeply theological, and God’s eye is upon them).

5. The Minister Must Persevere in Ministry

Unlike some, I do believe there are times when someone who has become a minister should not have, and they should have the freedom to step down. It may be the abilities that were thought to be present actually weren’t, or that the season of life requires resignation (e.g. retirement age, sickness). In such cases, I believe the minister ought to move to another church for the sake of the incoming minister, but the pastor who steps down in this case should not be viewed as sinning. However…, with that caveat in place, ministry is hard, and men ought to persevere. It requires the whole man being invested in the office. It requires time, energy, the mind, the heart, and the body. They say men depart the ministry fairly quickly, and I think I understand why (such as the instances mentioned above), but if you aspire to the office of overseer, you aspire to something that requires perseverance. To stand on conviction in love, and to do the hard things, and to meet with people often and invest in their lives, all while preparing to deliver God’s Word, are all taxing on the body and soul, but perseverance is the call.

Some Books

Every pastor likes books, so here are 5 that I recommend after 5 years.

  1. Help for the New Pastor: Practical Advice for Your First Year of Ministry by Charles Wingert—Most books on ministry are more like what I provided in my list above, more principles than practical helps. This book was extremely helpful because it deals with all the normal things it seems nobody else talks about. How often will you do a wedding? Not often, but every “minister’s handbook” talks about it. How often will you be in an elders meeting? Usually at least monthly, yet this may be the only book I’ve seen that actually talks about how it should look. By contrast, I think (almost?) every one of the books I was assigned in pastoral ministry in seminary was useless.
  2. Art of Prophesying by William Perkins. This book laid the groundwork for the method of preaching employed by (in my opinion) some of the greatest preachers the church has seen. They have a bad reputation, but I don’t think the current state of the church—with its widespread theological ignorance and largely absent piety—gives it the right to stand in judgment on this matter.
  3. The Christian’s Reasonable Service by Wilhelmus à Brakel. Though the whole work is worthy to purchase, the reason I include it on this list is the introductory biography by Dr. W. Fieret which includes a section on à Brakel’s view of the ministry that I found helpful.
  4. Commentary on the Old and New Testaments by John Gill. This set used to be a standard resource for Baptist pastors, and it still stands in my mind as the go-to treatment on texts. It is thoroughly engaged in biblical studies (including Jewish and ancient church interpretation) as well as deeply theological (which most modern commentaries aren’t).
  5. Ancient Commentary on Scripture edited by Thomas Oden and Reformation Commentary edited by Timothy George. I assume any pastor will have various modern commentaries on books they’re preaching and teaching through, so I don’t feel the need to recommend those. However, these series provide insight into how the church fathers and Reformers looked at the text. We always hear “if you’re interpreting the text in a way that’s never been done before, you’re probably wrong,” but the reality is that most modern commentators (even conservatives) are beholden to 19th and 20th century methods and conclusions in interpretation, which are—by methodological design—theologically skeptical. In what’s been recently called “premodern exegesis,” Christian commentators assume the Bible really does speak about the Trinity and justification and faith and the law and the Person and natures of Christ and the church, and these things are throughout Scripture and serve as controls on our interpretations.