I wonder if you have a praying man? In God’s kindness, I think I have just gained another. I know I already have at least one. He is an older friend, a man who assures me that I can safely get on with the work that the Lord has given me to do, because he is interceding for me. I know he is entirely reliable. I have heard him pray. It is a blessing to my heart to know that this father in the faith is storming heaven on my behalf day by day, that I need only to drop him a note with a particular request and he is sure to take it to the Lord. It is almost a dangerous confidence – so certain am I of his efficacious dealings with God through Christ that I could become inclined to pray less for myself (and how I wish I were inclined to pray more). I also know that he is not the only one.
And now I have at least one more. A man who has lived a long, first very painful but now very fruitful life. A man who feels he cannot do much any more as he might wish, but a man who knows that he can still pray. He is the kind of man who does not talk about ‘only’ praying or ‘just’ praying as if it would be nice if he could do something worthwhile, but is now disappointingly reduced to dealing with God at the throne of grace. This is a man who is confident that he is accepted in Christ, and who enjoys a holy familiarity with his heavenly Father. And he asked if he could pray for me. Not just once, but daily. He asked if, should I need it, I send him prayer requests and he would be sure to carry them to our God and plead for a blessing.
I know that we have one who ever lives to intercede for us, and that his pleadings on our behalf are those pleadings upon which our continuing and advancing experience of salvation depends. But I also know that there are some choice servants of God who can be relied upon to go to God, through Christ, to seek his face and favour: “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified, just as it is with you” (2Thes 3.1).
I cannot forget that when Spurgeon was asked the secret to his ‘success’ he replied, “My people pray for me.” If I desire a blessing, if I am to see fruitfulness, if I am to know particular mercies in my particular labours, I need people who pray for me. This man I mention is not ‘my people’ but I know he will pray for me, and I am grateful. With such a Moses on the mountaintop, a Joshua can fight with confidence in the valley, and anticipate that God will give the victory. May God give us more praying men and women.
Richard Baxter to gospel ministers:
O then let us hear those arguments of Christ, whenever we feel ourselves grow dull and careless: ‘Did I die for them, and wilt not thou look after them? Were they worth my blood, and are they not worth thy labour? Did I come down from heaven to earth, to seek and to save that which was lost; and wilt not thou go to the next door, or street, or village to seek them? How small is thy labour and condescension as to mine? I debased myself to this, but it is thy honour to be so employed. Have I done and suffered so much for their salvation, and was I willing to make thee a co-worker with me, and wilt thou refuse that little that lieth upon thy hands?’ Every time we look upon our Congregations, let us believingly remember, that they are the purchase of Christ’s blood, and therefore should be regarded accordingly by us.
And think what a confusion it will be at the last day to a negligent Minister, to have this blood of the Son of God to be pleaded against him, and for Christ to say, ‘It was the purchase of my blood that thou didst so make light of, and dost thou think to be saved by it thyself?’ O, brethren, seeing Christ will bring his blood to plead with us, let it plead us to our duty, lest it plead us to damnation.
It would be unfair to say that I am plotting my own demise. It may be that there are plenty of people more than willing to plot that on my behalf. However, I do think it makes sense to take full account of my own expected and intended dispensability. The fable of indispensability afflicts most of us almost naturally. We come to see ourselves at the centre of a particular web, the one without whom some sparkling edifice will most assuredly collapse. If God gifts one or another with an unusual measure of gift or degree of grace, paradoxically, that one can be all the more inclined to imagine themselves irreplaceable. Some learn it a hard way: try falling sick for a couple of months, and watch the kingdom of God stutter and stumble along without you … or not. Even Paul, lest he be exalted above measure, was blessed with a thorn in the flesh.
To be sure, we must take account of certain realities. By the grace of God, each of us is what we are, formed, forged, fashioned by a sovereign God for his wise and perfect purposes. We must not deny that it is for the Lord to appoint those formed, forged and fashioned instruments for particular purposes in particular times under particular circumstances, to raise up men to meet the needs of the hour. At no point can we or need we trespass upon the divine prerogative. God employs us in his kingdom for his glory; he does not rely on us.
And yet, this confident humility and humble confidence should not prevent us using the means that God has provided to do and to continue the work he has appointed for us and others to do. Paul might have been considered indispensable in a robust sense of the word, and yet, with confidence in God’s means to accomplish God’s ends, Paul began to invest in men who would follow after him. We see him taking the Marks, Timothys, Tituses, Demases, and others, under his wing. Some of them disappoint him rapidly or eventually. Some of them are subsequently rehabilitated. Some of them depart, having loved this present world. Others always were and remained like sons to him. Some went on to break new ground. Some cultivated what had been planted. In his relationship with them, he models the principle that he impresses upon Timothy: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2Tim 2:2).
We know that there are always those who will hang upon a personality, and cultures and circumstances in which that disposition seems more ingrained. When the personality fades, so does the commitment and attachment of the mere hanger-on. This can happen in a church or in any other institution. Someone or someones build the momentum around himself or themselves, or allow that to happen. There is no investment in those immediately behind, and a yawning gap begins to develop. When the figurehead droops, the work drops into the chasm, or is barely rescued from it. In such a way begins a dreadful cycle of progress, collapse and recovery, the whole stilted and staggering. In a church, it can happen when one man is seen as the key figure. Sometimes he preaches the place full and then empty again, or builds the behemoth, only to see it begin to wane. Sometimes the work continues to advance, but everyone is fearful of the moment when the leader is taken away. Wittingly or unwittingly, the leader and those around him buy into the myth that it hinges upon him; structures are put in place to keep the figurehead propped up, postponing the inevitable. Acolytes rally round to try to maintain the progress that the Great One had when his energy levels were higher and his gifts not quite so worn. Churches that should be and in many ways are healthy roll on until the inevitable rolls in. Then there is almost of necessity a painful period in which a variety of men prove that they are not up to scratch. They cannot match the great personality, and too often there is despondency, despair and desertion before enough time passes and enough people leave to pick up the threads once more and to build again from the ground up.
But where is the investment in succession? I happen to be persuaded that the scriptural model for church rule involves a plurality of elders, under Christ exercising an equal authority while manifesting a diversity of gifts. Ideally, even where that diversity of gifts allows for greater public prominence or usefulness for one or some, or the guidance of God’s Word and Spirit directs the church into certain avenues of service which puts a greater onus on certain men, this provides for a measure of real stability and continuity. Of course, sinful men can and do conspire to muck up the best system, but the principle is sound. When the church in Antioch sent out Barnabas and Saul, they sent away two of the five prophets and teachers that the Lord had gifted to the church there. Paul himself took pains to invest in those who followed him, taking Timothy and Titus and others with him, discipling them, acting as a mentor in word (spoken and written) and deed (seen and reported). When Paul was directing Titus in his work in Crete, he directed him to appoint elders in every city, men who would take up and pass on the baton of apostolic truth and labour: “Titus, make yourself effectively redundant; prove you are ultimately dispensable.” When you pass from the scene, moved on, sent on, pulled on, taken away, make sure that – under God – you have invested in those equipped to follow you. This does not sap the energy. It need not encourage armchair Christianity. It is not building for retirement, but providing for future investment. We should wish to be part of a line, not the end of one. Even once-in-a-lifetime men (and who, at best, is not that?) can make sure that when the curtain falls on a particular scene, or on the whole play of life, there are other players already stepping into the roles that they have played. Even the inimitable do not have to be irreplaceable. They still play Hamlet though Gielgud is no more.
And so we should plot our own demise, plan for our obsolescence. Our inimitability is, for most if not all of us, a mercy of God. Really, does the world need anyone else like you? But we should never plan or hope to be irreplaceable. In fact, we should cultivate and establish our own dispensability. I think I can genuinely say that it would be a moment of profound pastoral thankfulness for me to say, “I hope these saints still want me, but I do not believe that they need me in any pressing sense.” I hope that before then we have already sent the painfully but joyfully dispensable out as investments into other work in other places. That is likely to involve real sacrifice, but be a mark of real progress. Perhaps there will come a moment when they will send me on to other things? In this way the church of Christ can send out its ones and twos and threes, and see other disciples made, other churches established, other efforts undertaken, without the compromise or collapse of those who began that work.
Are you planning your demise? Have you learned and embraced the lesson of your own dispensability? By God’s grace, you might even at some point become properly superfluous where you are, and be the one who gets sent away to do something else, where you may seem briefly and uncomfortably indispensable until you are able once more to establish afresh your own dispensability.
Some readers of the blog might be interested to know of an upcoming study day at London Theological Seminary on Baptist covenant theology. The day is planned for Monday 23 November, to run from 10am to 4pm. If you are interested in coming, please book by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and registering your name for the day. There is a fee of £5, payable on the day itself if you wish. Lunch is not included in that fee, but tea and coffee will be available.
If you need a little more information, here’s a taster from the blurb:
Who or what are Reformed Baptists? Are they the same as Particular Baptists? Confessional Baptists? Calvinistic Baptists? Independent Baptists? Grace Baptists? Covenantal Baptists? Can Baptists even be Reformed?
More importantly, perhaps, who am I and what do I believe? What does it mean for me to be a Reformed Baptist, or whichever one of these other labels is used? Is that what I am? What about the church to which I belong? Does it make a difference? Ought it to make a difference?
The purpose of this study day is to introduce the topic of covenant theology in a Baptist context. We need to consider the matter historically and practically, but primarily biblically and theologically. Seeking to ground our studies in the Word of God, we will consider the various expressions of covenantal thought of Reformed or Particular Baptists as it began to find particular expression in the 17th century in the writings and confessions of our spiritual forefathers. From there, and taking account of how other Baptists addressed these issues, we will look at how modern Reformed Baptists of various stripes have wrestled and continue to wrestle with these issues. Along the way, we will, in some measure, be interacting with our paedobaptist brothers (Presbyterians, Congregationalists and others), as well as taking some account of Dispensationalism and New Covenant Theology (all of whom and which, in some measure, stand apart from the mainstream of Reformed Baptist thought, which is itself not monolithic).
Our goal is a positive declaration and discussion, grounded in the Scriptures. We will be less interested in figuring out which camp one ought to belong to, more interested in identifying and clarifying the issues that need to be addressed, and the lines along which our thoughts should run. The pastoral and practical implications of the principles and patterns understood and embraced will be at the forefront of our thought.
So, if you’re interested, please sign up and I shall look forward to seeing you there, God willing.
There has been an outpouring of grief and shame following the horrific pictures of a Syrian child lying drowned on the shore of the Mediterranean. If you think those photographs are painful, read the account of the father who tried to fight his way through the surf to the beach, losing his wife and then his two sons to the waves, one by one. It is truly agonising. Many have agonised.
It has prompted a spurt of sympathy for the flood of refugees pressing into Europe from various points east. News footage pummels us with insights into the horrific sufferings of their previous lives and their often-incredible journeys. We are stirred by video of them arriving in ‘free Europe’ to the acclaim of cheering crowds who pour out their affection verbally and practically. Nations are – to use the dry rhetoric of government – increasing their refugee quota, spurred on by the feeling of the populace and their knee-jerk reaction to what they have seen.
This is not a comment on the appropriateness, or otherwise, of offering refuge to some or all of these men, women and children. It is not a question about whether or not the flood of refugees contains a trickle of terrorists. It is not in any way an attempt to dismiss the gut-wrenching misery suffered by people made in the image of God, or the gut-wrenching grief we feel as those made in the image of God when we see that suffering before us. It is not a comment on compassion fatigue or our almost voyeuristic fascination with suffering.
But I wonder how long such a response will last, and what kind of investment it will sustain? It won’t be long before those refugees, if they are permitted to stay, are no longer wrapped in the warm embrace of liberal sentiment, but facing the cold reality of life in foreign countries which will not prove to be the Promised Land. They will quite likely be living in enclaves where either they are banding together for security, or among – even surrounded by – others who quite possibly resent them and will manifest their resentment. Even many of those moved to tears by their sorrows and sufferings will find those tears drying up as the realities of life bite and time passes. The tears will be stimulated again by fresh atrocities but the old ones will quickly drift away. Many will feel much and do nothing.
I wonder if the same thing has happened or is happening with the Planned Parenthood videos. Remember those? Yes, just a few weeks ago many were up in arms because of the footage of those who work for Planned Parenthood negotiating the transfer for gain of the body parts of murdered children. Even many of those for whom abortion per se is no issue were stirred by the graphic nature of some of the pictures and the callous nature of the conversations. But again, the consequence has not been the sustained mobilisation of a great mass of committed humanity against the murder of the unborn. Rather, we are troubled by the gross appearance of the thing. Doubtless, if it can be tidied up and carried out in a ‘humane’ way – because there’s nothing like a properly humane murder to assuage the conscience – then we shall go on quite content with the fact of abortion. Sentiment will be assuaged, and life can go on as normal.
I wonder if we could go back even to the slave trade. There is, it seems, little doubt that the primary opponents of the slave trade used powerfully emotive arguments to raise the profile of their cause and enforce their principles. The appalling testimonies of ex-slaves, the diagrams of human beings packed like sardines into the squalid interiors of slaving vessels, the protestations of ex-slavers, some of them converted – all of these served to further the cause. But the cause itself did not advance because of this, nor was it eventually won because of this. It was advanced and won, under God, by men and women who were moved by more than sentiment. It was carried forward by those who were governed by principle.
Reasonable sentiment need not in itself be sinful, but it is not always substantial. Sentiment can be swayed, one way or the other. Sentiment in one direction can be turned back by an opposing sentiment that seems equally reasonably. Sentiment tends to be reactive; it is rarely proactive. It bubbles up in a moment and melts away just as quickly. The sentiment that wishes to find a home for poor refugees might be overcome by a different sentiment when they move in next door. Principle – especially Christian principle – should be grounded in enduring truth. It is anchored in such a way that tides of sentiment or waves of feeling (whether that be weariness in pursuing principle or opposition to the principled) will not carry it away. Principle stands against pressure. Principle identifies and reacts to the fundamental issue, not the peripheral and perhaps unpleasant phenomena surrounding the issue. Righteous principle takes full account of misery, but it is moved by a regard for fundamental reality – matters of truth, mercy, justice, peace, righteousness. Righteous principle acts proactively out of allegiance to God in Christ. Christians need to be a people of principle.
Mere sentiment can be dangerous. In the unprincipled – and, once we have abandoned any notion of enduring, fixed, eternal truth, truth grounded outside of our experience and feelings, we have no real basis for true principle – sentiment can move individuals and groups far and fast. It can even leave them horrified by what they accomplished under the influence of sentiment and in the absence of principle. Principle can also be dangerous if it is the wild-eyed conviction about things that are foul and vile. Then unrighteous zeal can drive a person or group to truly terrifying extremes. But principle grounded in divine truth, with appropriate sentiment yoked behind, can and should accomplish much.
So, we will, in this fallen world, hear or see many things that horrify us. Many of them should horrify us. But they do not properly and persistently move us because principle is lacking. Perhaps we also hear and see things that ought to horrify us and move us, but do not because principle is lacking. How many vile things do we see – perhaps even enjoy – without a proper feeling reaction? Principle is not unfeeling; it actuates and directs feeling in proper channels. When faced with a moral challenge, we would do well to ask not only, “What do I feel?” but “What should I feel and what should I then do?” We must dig down to and stir up righteous principle. Reasonable sentiment might galvanise and stir us, but only righteous principle will guide and sustain us.