Baxter’s Plea for Unity Among Pastors and Churches

Fewer books have had a greater shaping force on my convictions about pastoral ministry than Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor (“Reformed” is not used in a theological sense: it means something like “changed for the better”).

At the close of an especially stirring section (“The manner of this oversight”) Baxter pleads that his fellow pastors seek to promote unity among themselves instead of splintering into factions based on petty differences. The consistency of our human nature to seek self-aggrandizement by enlarging the distinctions that make us differ from other churches makes Baxter’s words both timeless and timely. But since Baxter wrote over 350 years ago, his vocabulary and syntax may be challenging for the modern reader. Accordingly, I have taken the liberty to “translate” Baxter’s exhortation, using contemporary wording, while attempting to retain the force and vigor of his argument.

As fellow pastors, we are allies in a common cause. Therefore, we must be diligent to cultivate union and communion among ourselves and seek to promote the unity and peace of the churches we oversee. We must realize how critical this unity and peace is to the wellbeing of the church as a whole, the strengthening of our common cause, the good of the individual church members, and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.

Instead of being instigators of conflicts among churches, pastors—of all people—should themselves feel the sting of these divisive wounds. They must accept as part of their calling the responsibility to prevent and heal divisions. They must be willing to work day and night to discover ways to close up breaches between churches. Instead of bending their ears to divisive rumors, they must listen to ideas for mending conflicts, and even come up with ideas of their own and be willing to carry them out.

To bring about such unity, pastors must have a clear grasp of the ancient simplicity of the Christian faith, and of the foundation and center of universal Christian unity. We have an inbred arrogance that turns zeal for suppressing error and maintaining the truth and into a pretense for wrecking and ripping apart the church of Christ. Pastors must learn to recognize and abhor this tendency in themselves. They must be willing to impose no other rule than the rule of Scripture, which takes precedence over church confessions and other writings. Pastors must know the difference between certainties and uncertainties, essentials and non-essentials, universal truths and personal opinions.

When dealing with controversies, pastors must be careful listeners. Some doctrinal errors are real; others are merely semantic. Let us not accuse a brother of heresy before we understand what he is actually saying. We must patiently get to the bottom of an issue so we may see the real point of difference, and not make it seem greater than it actually is. Instead of fighting with our brothers, let us combine our forces against our common enemy. Let us fellowship with each other, communicate with each other, and hold meetings together without letting smaller differences of judgment come between us. As much as we are able, let us do the work of God together. The purposes of our organizations should not be to make laws, but to avoid misunderstandings, to mutually encourage each other, to maintain love and fellowship, and to be unified in the work God has charged us to do.

Is God’s Plan to Keep You Safe and Comfortable?

When preparing to preach on Romans 8:28 last Sunday, I was reminded of an imaginary dialogue I have seen floating around the web from time to time. Many people have found some sense of comfort in this dialogue, supposing that it illustrates God’s good sovereignty at work in the lives of his children.

The dialogue goes something like this:

Person: Why did You let so much stuff happen to me today?

God: What do you mean?

Person: Well, I woke up late. My car took forever to start. At lunch they made my sandwich wrong, and I had to wait. On the way home my phone went dead just as I picked up a call. And to top of it all off, when I got home, I just wanted to soak my feet in my new foot massager and relax. But it wouldn’t work! Nothing went right today! Why did you do that?

God: Let’s see. . . . The death angel was at your bed this morning and I had to send one of my angels to battle him for your life. I let you sleep through that. I didn’t let your car start because there was a drunk driver on your route that would have hit you if you were on the road. There was salmonella in the first sandwich that was made for you, and I didn’t want you to catch that. I knew you couldn’t afford to miss work. Your phone went dead because the person that was calling was going to give false witness about what you said on that call. I didn’t even let you talk to them so you would be covered. Oh, and that foot massager? It had a shortage that was going to throw out all of the power in your house tonight. I didn’t think you wanted to be in the dark.

Person: I’m sorry, God.

God: Don’t doubt that My plan for your day is always better than your plan.

Of course, it is possible for God to intervene in specific ways to keep people from getting sick or hurt or dying. But the dialogue leaves us with the impression that God is working all things for the “good” of our staying safe and healthy. It says that our consolation is to be found in believing that God allows some minor inconveniences in order to shield us from greater disasters.

But that’s a serious misunderstanding of God and his plan for his children.

Because sometimes the drunk driver does hit the van filled with children. Sometimes the sandwich does poison us so that we get sick and miss work and lose pay. And sometimes people do use our words to destroy our reputation. And sometimes the divorce papers do show up on the kitchen table. And sometimes the diagnosis comes as cancer. And sometimes the power goes out and everything goes dark.

If the outcome of God’s plan is the “good” of keeping you healthy and wealthy and comfortable, then it wasn’t good for the Apostle Peter because he died a martyr’s death. And it wasn’t good enough for Paul because he was beheaded. And it wasn’t good enough for Jesus because he died on a cross. And it isn’t good for the many Christians, past and present, whom God allows to suffer in excruciating ways.

The problem with the above dialogue is not just that it misses the point of Romans 8:28. It also scorns the glory of God, mangles the plan of God, and exchanges hope in God for a pitiful, contemptible counterfeit.

No, God is not a genie who is busy keeping you from salmonella and drunk drivers and cancer and power outages. He is infinitely better than that. He can use those things for a higher purpose that will satisfy you infinitely more than health and safety and comfort—and, most importantly, will bring glory to himself. The “good” of Romans 8:28 is not comfort and safety, but his children being conformed to the image of Christ for the glory of God (Romans 8:29).

Your ultimate conformity to the image of Christ is the only thing that simultaneously exalts God and thrills every part of your being.

In light of that—not some imaginary dialogue in which your inconveniences are justified by God’s shielding you from disasters—we can say with the Apostle Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s “Personal Reformation”

“Start by reading something that will warm your spirit,” Martin Lloyd-Jones advises preachers who struggle in their prayer lives. “Get rid of a coldness that may have developed in your spirit. You have to learn how to kindle a flame in your spirit, to warm yourself up, to give yourself a start.”

I’ve taken that advice to heart, and Robert Murray M’Cheyne is my kindling of choice. As a young man, he wrote out what he called his “personal reformation”—a continual and deep examination of his heart and behavior. There were three parts to this “personal reformation,” highlights of which I include below.

1. To maintain a conscience void of offense

“I ought to confess my sin the moment I see it to be sin. . . . If I go on with the duty, leaving the sin unconfessed, I go on with a burdened conscience, and add sin to sin.”

2. To be filled with the Holy Spirit

“I ought to study the Comforter more—His Godhead, His love, His Almightiness. I have found by experience that nothing sanctifies me so much as meditating on the Comforter, as John 14:16. And yet how seldom I do this! Satan keeps me from it. . . . If I would be filled with the Spirit, I must read the Bible more, pray more, and watch more.”

3. To gain entire likeness to Christ

“I am persuaded that nothing is thriving in my soul unless it is growing. ‘Grow in grace.’ ‘Lord, increase our faith.’ ‘Forgetting the things that are behind.’ . . . I ought to strive for more purity, humility, patience under suffering, love. ‘Make me Christ-like in all things,’ should be my constant prayer.”

A Pastor’s Ministry Focus

Before I began pastoring my current church, a friend recommended The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry. And how thankful I am for his recommendation!

Here’s an excerpt I especially appreciate:

“As pastors, we must resolve to study, live, and teach the Scriptures. Our people need us to know, breathe, and abide in the Word of God. They need us to have a daily encounter with the living Christ through his Word, because it is from this Word that we have something to give them. We teach, reprove, correct, train, and equip on this foundation. Apart from knowledge of the Word, we have no competence in the ministry” (from The New Pastor’s Handbook by Jason Helopoulos)

Enough said.

Making a Difficult Decision? Try this Tip.

Ever had to make a difficult decision? I sure have.

Of course, what counts as “difficult” depends on who you are, your level of experience, and the magnitude of responsibility. Harry Truman had to decide to drop an atomic bomb on Japan, to deploy U. S. forces to the Korean peninsula, and to relieve General MacArthur of his command.

You’ll probably never have to make decisions on that scale.

But you do have to make decisions that—for you—are difficult, even agonizing. Besides the complexity of information to process, the feelings of the people involved, and the conflicting stories you are hearing, you face another big obstacle to good decision-making: yourself.

I don’t mean your own weaknesses, lack of experience, etc. I mean this: the very pressure to decide can compromise a leader’s ability to make a good decision. This is why a friend of mine once told me that the right decision is abundantly clear until you’re the one who has to make it.

If only you could split yourself into two people—the one who bears the responsibility to make the decision, and the one who, free from that responsibility, can see what the right decision should be.

I know of only one way to do just that, and here it is: Take some time to write out—or at least think out—the decision as if it were a section in a historical biography. Fast-forward twenty-five or fifty years—when the dust has settled and emotions have cooled, when the principles at stake are better understood and the guiding values come into focus, when the decision may be viewed as a laudable step forward in the march of history, even if it’s just your personal history or the history of the organization you lead.

Then, from that serene vantage point, you may just get a better glimpse into what the right decision should be, and—just as importantly—gain fresh courage to execute it.

I’m a Believer. So Why Do I Struggle with Doubt?

“When they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

“Some doubted.” Yes, even when looking at the resurrected Christ.

What can we learn from this? We can learn that while we are still in this world—even if we were to see Jesus with our own eyes—we sometimes struggle with doubt. If this was difficult for the disciples who stood staring right at Jesus, how much more necessary is it for us today!

I came across a helpful discussion of this mingling of faith and doubt in Calvin’s Institutes. I offer it here to encourage those of us who find our faith mingled with doubt—who cry with the father of the demon-possessed child, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). (Note: I’m using Henry Beveridge’s translation. For clarity’s sake, I have updated the language and taken the liberty to paraphrase in some places).

The believer finds within himself two principles: the one filling him with delight in recognizing the divine goodness, the other filling him with bitterness under a sense of his fallen state; the one leading him to recline of the promise of the Gospel, the other alarming him by the conviction of his iniquity; the one making him exult with the anticipation of life, the other making him tremble with the fear of death. These principles are due to the imperfection of our faith. For, in this present life, we are never fully cured of the disease of distrust. We are never quite completely engulfed in perfect faith. That is why we feel those inner conflicts.

But this does not mean that faith is an obscure and confused understanding of God’s will. Even though we may be harassed by various doubts, it does not follow that we are divested of faith. Though we are agitated and carried to and fro by distrust, we are not immediately plunged into the abyss. Though we are shaken, we are not driven from our place.

The certain outcome of this struggle is this: that faith in the long run triumphs over the difficulties which try to bring it down.

Why? Because of the nature of true saving faith. As soon as the minutest particle of genuine faith is instilled into our minds, we begin to behold the face of God—in peace and favor toward us. We behold him, though far off, yet so distinctly as to assure us that there is no delusion in it.

-Adapted from Calvin’s Institutes Book 3, Chapter 2, Sections 18 and 19.

The “Book of Nature” is Not Enough

“The heavens declare the glory of God.” Every day, to each human being, the universe tells us something: There is a creator, and he is unimaginably powerful.

For centuries, people have called this “the Book of Nature,” or, to use a theological term, “general revelation.”

But it is obvious that something has gone wrong with this “Book of Nature,” this story of God’s glory. At the very least, something has gone wrong with our ability to read it right. The words seem to be smudged. Important pages are missing. In fact, the more closely we look, we will notice that there is another story written between the lines—a tragic tale of selfishness, rebellion, despair, and, finally, death.

This is not the story of the original Author. Rather, it was edited by our own sin and rebellion, as we are told in Genesis 3:17-19:

Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam]; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The Apostle Paul expresses it this way in Romans 8:20: “The creation was subjected to futility,” and is in “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21).

This “futility” and “bondage” is part of the reason that on one night we might look up at the stars and say, “What a Creator!” And on another day, we look at the decay all around us, and say, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”

It is because of human sin that humans fail to read the book of nature as we should. This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:19-21, when he writes,

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

There is enough in the Book of Nature to show us that there is a God and that he is unimaginably powerful and glorious. But the Book of Nature is powerless to teach us why we are in such a predicament, why we feel so wretched and still long for light and salvation. It is powerless to teach us how to have a right relationship with God.

And that’s why we need another book, the Book of Scripture.