Through Thick And Thin

God has graciously given us who believe in Christ great and precious promises.  But it’s not enough to simply have them.  We must believe them.

O! He is a suitable Savior! He has power, authority, and compassion, to save to the uttermost. He has given His word of promise, to engage our confidence, and He is able and faithful to make good the expectations and desires He has raised in us. Put your trust in Him; believe (as we say) through thick and thin, in defiance of all objections from within and without. –John Newton

It’s easy to believe God’s promises when we’re prospering, when our children are doing well, when everything is going our way.  When Israel marched triumphantly out of a crippled Egypt after the destroying angel had killed Egypt’s firstborn, and Israel was laden down with the treasures their captors had given them, it was easy for them to believe God would fulfill his promises.

But shortly afterward, when they came to the Red Sea and Egyptian chariots were barrelling down upon them, everything around them screamed that God had abandoned them.  Reminds me of the song Stuck in the Middle with You by Stealers Wheel: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”  Israel was stuck with no where to go.

Everything within and without them screamed “God has abandoned us.”

The big question when we go through a trial is what are we going to believe – God’s promises or our circumstances?  God’s word or our emotions?  God’s promises or our interpretation of the circumstances?

How it would have glorified God if the Israelites had said, “Don’t worry, he’ll be here.  He’s brought us this far; he won’t abandon us now.”  How it would have pleased God, when they heard the thunder of chariot wheels, if they would have said, “Don’t worry, God will protect us.  He’ll make a way of escape.”

Trust him “through thick and thin, in defiance of all objections from within and without.”  And you will see the One who is able to save to the uttermost fulfill his promises.

Talk Like A Theologian

I’ve been taking a Hebrews class all week with about 90 other guys taught by D.A. Carson at the Sovereign Grace Ministries Pastors College.

Dr. Carson is warm, humble, engaging, and very, very smart.  On top of that, there are a lot of very smart guys in the class.  I know this because I was an art major in college.  I can recognize smart people when I see them.

So I’ve  been listening to everyone and taking notes not only on Hebrews but on how to talk like a scholar. I can’t teach you to walk like an Egyptian, but now I’m pleased to say I can teach you to talk like a theologian.  After reading this you will be able to stride into the halls of Oxford or Cambridge and converse with the C.S. Lewises and Tolkiens of today with confidence.  Talking like a theologian is as simple as sprinkling a few choice words into your conversations.

Start with the word “trajectory.” This is currently a very hip term among scholars.  Say this and you will not only impress theologians but rocket scientists as well.  Here’s how to use it: “I’m moving on an ever-increasing trajectory toward lunch,” or “If I continue on my current trajectory of coffee consumption, I’ll need to move to Sumatra.”

Next word you need to know is “nuance.” This refers to subtle distinctions.  If you say, “I love the nuanced flavors in this Big Mac,” a hush will come upon McDonald’s as everyone realizes they are in the presence of Sophistication incarnate.

Theologians don’t simply explain things, they “unpack” them, or they “tease things out.” For example, I may say to my wife Kristi, “Let me unpack for you why I bought this car without asking you.”  Or, “Let me tease out for you why I need another electric guitar.”  To which she will probably reply, “I’ll tease you out — right in the head!”

When scholars want to digress off topic, they say, “Let me make a brief ‘excursus.’” Now when I have a conflict with Kristi and she says, “You’re avoiding the issue,” I can say, “I’m not avoiding anything, I’m just taking a brief excursus.”  No comeback for that one.  Genius!

Finally, bright people add “-logical” to the ends of words that end in “-logy.” For example, methodology becomes “methodological,” and “ontology” becomes “ontological.”  My last name, Altrogge, becomes “Altrological.”

Alright, I’ve given you some tools.  Let’s put your new genius vocabulary to work.  Next time you’re with friends try this:

“Hey Mary, have you met Bill?  Let me tease out for you some of the nuances of the trajectory of our phenomenological commonalities despite our differentialities of confessionalism and variegated methodologies.  Are you up for an excursus?  Ok, Let’s unpack our lunch.”

Your friends will look at each other, shrug, and be amazed at your conceptualities.

(P.S.  I have heard all of these words this week.  Of course, I know what they all mean).

photo by woicik

Christianity Tomorrow – John Piper Runs Out of People To Dedicate Books To

Sometimes when I get bored I like to think about what the Christian headlines of the future will be. What will magazines like Christianity Today be saying in 25 years? Maybe something like this…

John Piper Runs Out of People to Dedicate Books To

MINNEAPOLIS: Sources within Desiring God Ministries have confirmed that John Piper has actually run out of people to dedicate books to.

In the last twenty years, Dr. Piper has dedicated books to his wife, children, grandchildren, all the current, past, and present employees of Desiring God Ministries, all the living relatives of Jonathan Edwards, those people who were collecting seashells in that Reader’s Digest article, and numerous others. Now it appears that Dr. Piper may have actually run out of people to dedicate books to.

After writing his most recent book over a lunch hour, Dr. Piper started working on the dedication, only to realize that he couldn’t think of another person to dedicate a book to. He took a short mental break by memorizing the book of Philippians, then came back to the book problem, only to be stumped again.

“This is a real conundrum,” said Dr. Piper. “You simply can’t savor this book in the white-hot manner required if there is no dedication at the front.”

Dr. Piper’s assistant, David Mathis said, “We are currently taking suggestions for possible dedication ideas. Right now John is considering dedicating the book to Calvinism or hyphenated words, although neither is set in stone.”

While this article was being written, Dr. Piper wrote four other books.

Note: John Piper is seriously one of my heroes. Dr. Piper, if you happen to read this, I hope that someday I can be half as godly as you and write one-tenth as many books.

Things My Dad Didn’t Do: Act Surprised At My Sin

Growing up, my dad expected me to be a sinner.

My dad knew that his kids, just like him, were weak, frail sinners who struggled with sin on a daily basis. He didn’t expect me to be perfect. He didn’t expect me to always make the wisest, most godly decisions. He expected that I would sin, against him and against God.

Because my dad expected me to sin, he didn’t act surprised or shocked when I sinned. He didn’t belittle me, or explode in anger, or say, “I can’t believe you would do such a thing!” He could believe that I could do such a thing because he himself did such things. Instead of acting surprised or shocked, he often communicated that he understood my struggle and that he himself had struggled with the same things I did.

I think my dad had the same attitude as Paul, who said:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15)

My dad always tried to think of himself as the foremost of sinners, and that mindset carried over into his parenting.

This made a huge difference in my relationship with him. It freed me up to come to him and confess my sins and struggles. It was still hard and humbling for me to confess my sin, but dad’s humility and grace certainly made it easier.

Dad’s attitude toward sin has also shaped the way that I relate to others. When someone confesses a sin to me, I’m rarely surprised. I know that I’m a sinner and I expect others to be sinners as well. It doesn’t shock me when someone confesses a particularly serious sin. Sinners commit sins. To expect anything else is kind of silly.

So thanks dad. Your grace toward me has led me to extend grace to others. I’m really grateful for that.

It Matters What We Sing

Last week I had the privilege of interacting with a songwriting class at Liberty University via Skype, thanks to Travis Doucette, who teaches the class. One of the things they were interested in was how I view worship songs in my role as a senior pastor.  Here’s what I said:

Worship songs have a critical teaching component.  Our time of singing together isn’t a warm-up for the preaching.  It’s a time for God’s word to dwell richly in us, as it says in Co 3:16:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

The word of Christ abides in us as we instruct and exhort one another, and as we sing to the Lord.  As we are worshiping, we are meditating. The lyrics are shaping us, as will the preaching to come.  As we sing of Christ and him crucified, truth sinks deep into our hearts – it dwells in us richly – and transforms us.

Every worship song transmits theology, either good or bad, and theology affects us.

Joshua Harris underscores how critical theology is in Dug Down Deep:

“I’ve come to learn that theology matters. And it matters not because we want a good grade on a test but because what we know about God shapes the way we think and live.  What you believe about God’s nature — what he is like, what he wants from you, and whether or not you will answer to him — affects every part of your life.”

As a pastor, I’m deeply concerned that we sing doctrinally accurate songs because they affect how we think about God. When folks in our church go through the fire, I want them to think rightly about God – that he is sovereign, loving, wise and good. When Satan accuses them, I want them to remember Christ was condemned in their place.  When they’re tempted to fear, I want them to recall God’s faithfulness.  They’ll learn these things through preaching and study, but they also learn them through the songs we sing.

Obviously, worship songs do more than teach.  They provide us with passionate expressions to our Lord’s revelation of himself. They help us delight in and enjoy him.  But they do teach.  If you’re a pastor or worship leader, be sure to feed your flock doctrinally rich songs.  They’ll be stronger in Christ and enjoy him more deeply.

photo by ramtops

An Endless Supply of Internet Guilt

Sometimes being on the Internet can be an overwhelming experience.

I get on Facebook and see that different people need prayer. So I try to pray for them. Then I start reading blogs and I see different articles that are sad and sobering. A man in Afghanistan is going to be executed for his faith. Abortion has reached new, sickening levels. The United States government is trying to pass laws that could potentially thwart the gospel. A little girl has cancer and needs prayer. A ministry needs more support. Sex trafficking is spiraling out of control.

Many of the blogs and articles contain appeals for help.

What am I supposed to do with all this? I want to pray, to help, to do something. But I’m limited, and I’ve got lots of friends in my own church who are also in tough situations too. That’s why being on the Internet can be a guilt-inducing experience for me. I suddenly become aware of all that I’m not doing.

I think Galatians 6:10 is a helpful verse in this regard.

So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

God calls me to do good, as I have opportunity. I am not called to meet every need. I’m not called to solve every problem. I serve a big God who is powerful enough to run the world without me. I’m simply called to do good as I have opportunity. And the reality is, I’m surrounded by opportunities to do good. There’s always someone in my church who is sick, or needs prayer, or needs counsel. The opportunities to serve the Lord are there. I don’t need to feel guilty about all the things that I’m not able to do. I’m simply called to be faithful to the opportunities that God has given me.

So the next time you feel overwhelmed about all that you’re not doing, don’t freak out. Simply pray and ask God to help you see what opportunities you should be taking advantage of. You can’t do everything. Only God can.

PLANT!

Are you a church planter, pastor, a pastor who desires to see your church plant churches, or desire to be a part of planting a church some day?  Then this conference is for you.

Date: March 24-26, 2011
Location:  Covenant Fellowship Church, Glen Mills, PA
Cost:  $99/person

What’s unique about this conference is that Sovereign Grace Ministries is gathering church planting thinkers and doers from different denominations and church planting movements for three days of teaching and dialogue about planting and building churches on the gospel.

It’s an opportunity to learn from a group of men from Acts 29, Sovereign Grace Ministries, the PCA, 9Marks and SBC, who have planted, replanted and are in the midst of leading planting movements.  Men like Darrin Patrick and Daniel Montgomery from Acts 29, Mark Dever and Mike McKinley from 9Marks and the SBC, Tim Whitmer from the PCA, and CJ Mahaney and Dave Harvey from SGM.

I’m planning to be there.  Hope you can come too.

Interested?  Find out more at www.sgmplant.org

Mysterious Promises


His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises… 2 Peter 1:3-4

The promises of God. We say those words all the time. We’ve got promise books and promise boxes (what exactly is a promise box anyway?). We’ve got Bible covers with an eagle embroidered on one side and a promise on the other (never was a big fan of Bible covers). But when was the last time you really thought about what it means that “God has promised”?

Have you ever wondered why God gives us promises? God doesn’t owe us a single thing. He’s the almighty, all-knowing Creator of the universe. He’s completely happy in himself, and doesn’t need anything or anyone. Our very breath comes from God. And as our creator, God doesn’t owe us anything.

In addition to being our creator, God is also our judge. We’ve rebelled against our creator. We’ve sinned against God, committing spiritual treason on a cosmic scale. Jeremiah 2:12-13 says, “Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Our treason against God is so perverted that even the heavens are shocked and appalled. Actually, God does owe us something. He owes us wrath.

But in the pages of scripture we find something utterly astonishing: God has promised to do us good. God has promised forgiveness to any who appeal for mercy. God has promised to put his spirit into us, and promised to help us overcome our sin. He has promised to work all things for the good of those who love him, and has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us. In making these promises God has bound himself to do good on our behalf.

Why would God do this? Why would God make unbreakable promises to do good things for me? I’ve done nothing to deserve such lavish promises. I deserve blistering wrath, instead I receive precious promises. Only a God that is rich in mercy and love would do such a thing.

Let me close with the words of Charles Spurgeon:

Surely it is a wonderful thing that the eternal God would make promises to His own creatures. Before He pledged His word, He was free to do as it pleased Him. After He has made a promise, His truth and honor bind Him to do as He has said.

Originally published February, 2008

God Isn’t Finished With Us Yet

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. PHP 1.6

We should look at Christian brothers and sisters as those whom Christ is changing and will continue to change.

If someone is truly born again, then Christ has begun a “good work” in them – the good work of transforming them into his own image.  And he will not fail to complete this good work.  Until the day he returns or we go to be with him, Christ is patiently, faithfully transforming his children.  Little by little his Spirit chips away at our sins and helps us to put them to death.  Week by week he changes our desires to be more like his own.  He speaks to us and sharpens us through his Word preached and read.  Trial by trial, he increases our faith and humbles us.

Sometimes we can be impatient with our fellow believers.  Why can’t they change more quickly? Sometimes it might seem like your spouse will never be different.  But if your spouse is a genuine believer, he or she will change, because Christ is working in them.  If your child or teen is truly born again, they will bear fruit sooner or later.

This is my confidence when I’m counseling believers.  Knowing that Jesus is working in them frees me from feeling any need to pressure them to change.  It gives me confidence to simply share God’s word and trust the Holy Spirit to bring hope, encouragement and conviction.  It frees me from the temptation to be impatient with someone’s slow progress.

Having been a pastor for 30 years, I’ve had the opportunity to watch the Lord work in the lives of people over many years.  I’ve seen God gradually transform husbands who seemed like they’d never change. I’ve seen God cause young believers who kept falling into sin to live lives of steadfast victory.  I’ve seen Jesus make doubters who needed constant reassurance into those who encourage others.

If you have called on the name of Christ, don’t be dismayed by your sins and failures.  Keep turning to Jesus, keep trusting him. Get back up when you fall.  He’s at work in you and he won’t fail.

photo by chrys