The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

The deal

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“I’m just not being fed,” s/he said. “This is not a very friendly church. No one really speaks to me. I am not the only one who feels this way. There are lots of people who are struggling. I’m just not sure that this is the right place for me. Why can’t we be more like Broadstreet Evangelical? I really think that I would be better off there.”

“I am very sorry to hear that,” said the pastor. “Might I suggest a deal? I recommend that you go to Broadstreet Evangelical for six months, but on the following conditions:

  • You must not arrive more than two minutes before any service begins. If possible, slip in just afterwards. You should leave as soon as it is over, or – ideally – just before it is properly finished.
  • Please do not attend more than one service a week, certainly not more than once on any given day. When you are able, miss occasional days altogether.
  • Please minimise all contact with others who attend the church. Avoid face-to-face communication at all costs, but – if possible – filter out any notes, cards, texts, emails, or any other such interaction. Cut right down on meaningful conversation.
  • You should not go to anyone’s home, nor invite anyone to yours.
  • Under no circumstances must you engage with the elders. Don’t call them or answer the phone if they call. If you can, wait until they are looking the other way or engaged with someone else before you leave. If necessary, find an alternative exit. Make all conversation as perfunctory as possible. Do not come to them for counsel, consult with them in difficulty, seek them out when distressed, or listen to their advice.
  • Cultivate a healthy sense of resentment (passive-aggressive behaviour is fine) toward anyone who might even begin to suggest that you could make some sort of contribution to the life of the church. Maintain the stance that your occasional presence is quite sacrifice enough.
  • If you must engage with others, seek out the least spiritually healthy in the church. As soon as possible, steer the conversation round to the faults of the church, her members, and her elders.
  • Maintain a healthy circle of worldly friends. Spend as much time with them as possible, going to all the places they attend, engaging in all the chatter they pursue, indulging in all the activities they embrace. Keep up a lively social media engagement with such.
  • Put the advice of friends, family, doctors, self-help books, and anything else really, above and before the advice of any spiritually mature Christian.
  • Should anyone seek to reach out to you to minister to you, cultivate unreliability: assure them of your best intentions, but evade, postpone, or cancel all such interaction with varying degrees of notice. Train them to expect you to seem vaguely positive but never actually available.
  • Sleep through some sermons.
  • Don’t read. Just don’t.
  • Don’t push yourself. You’re worth it!
  • Minimise private devotion, especially private prayer. Make sure that you are at least as busy with other significant demands as you have been for the last couple of years. Don’t read any ‘tricky bits’ from the Bible, and don’t overdose on the obvious stuff.
  • Take long holidays, and give yourself plenty of time on your return to ‘get back into the swing of things.’
  • Never volunteer. Avoid being nominated.
  • Under no circumstances make meaningful eye contact.
  • Look out for others now at Broadstreet who left this congregation for the same reasons as you are giving. If they are speaking, you might want to listen.
  • Also, if anyone at Broadstreet tries to pin you down, I would recommend an occasional visit to Gaping Lane Community Church. By all means be subtle, but make clear that if Broadstreet is becoming a little narrow, the open-minded congregation over at Gaping Lane might be the place for you.

“There’s some other stuff,” said the pastor, “but that should do for starters. It should not take a great deal of investment – no new skills to learn, no additional duties to embrace. Perhaps if you would be willing to give it a go for six months, and then come back and let me know how your soul has prospered and your walk with the Lord has developed? Then we can chat again. Deal?”

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 25 January 2018 at 17:21

The corrective power of an old exposition

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Though it was not his idea, many readers will be well aware of the problem that C. S. Lewis famously identified as “chronological snobbery.” This is, in essence, the thoughtless assumption that our own conclusions are inherently superior to those of a previous age. It shows itself in various ways, perhaps in the simple failure to reckon with the conclusions of a previous intellectual or cultural climate, or even in the implicit or explicit rejection of them as necessarily discredited.

Such snobbery is as much a problem in theology as in anything else. We might exercise it simply by selecting or reading only modern texts, as if the modern age and our place in it have a monopoly on insight. We might excuse it by looking at everything through the lens of the moment and calling it contextualisation. We might embrace it by working on the assumption that our age and its big names has, by definition, a clearer view that the outmoded thinkers of yesteryear. Such attitudes, even in their more careless rather than arrogantly crass variety, can cripple our explanation and application of God’s word. This is as much an issue in the pulpit of the local church as it is in the classroom of the local seminary. It is primarily the former with which I am concerned, but the problem may begin, in many cases, in the latter. The solution applies to both.

There is great value, in all our thinking and preparing, in reading materials which might reveal a substantially or even radically different agenda. I do not necessarily mean opinions against ours (though there is value in those, too), simply opinions that are properly apart from ours. The resources we need might not be readily available to us, but they are worth tracking down and using. We need to duck out of our own age and dip into others as we are preparing our sermons and processing our theological convictions.

Let me offer a couple of practical examples. The first puts me in mind of an interesting experience at university. It concerns a colleague who cultivated an appearance and attitude that corresponded to his vampire-festooned leather jacket and appetite in death metal. He came in one day complaining about the fact that a mate had crashed at this place for a few days and had then disappeared just as quickly, leaving a puppy behind. Not knowing what to do with the unexpected canine, he called his grandma, who I think had a significant role in his upbringing. She was apparently as sweet and cute as he was brash and ugly. She recommended drowning the dog. My colleague was horrified. The disconnect was over only a couple of generations. She was, by nature and nurture, an early twentieth century country lass. To her, animals were animals. He was, by nature and nurture, a late twentieth century city boy. To him, despite the facade, animals were Bambified.

The same sort of disconnect comes when reading, for example, J. L. Dagg on the essential goodness of God. Consider, for example, this little gem:

Brute animals have, on the whole, a happy existence. Free from anxiety, remorse, and the fear of death, they enjoy, with high relish, the pleasures which their Creator has given them; and it is not the less a gift of his infinite goodness, because it is limited in quantity, or abated by some mixture of pain.1

Does that not raise a whole heap of problems? I mean, how could someone – even someone from as benighted a period as the nineteenth century – dismiss animals as part of brute creation? And how could anyone suggest that God’s goodness could be anything other than his intent to maximise happiness? Dagg goes on:

It is a favorite theory with some, that God aims at the greatest possible amount of happiness in the universe; and that he admits evil, only because the admission of evil produces in the end a greater amount of happiness than its exclusion would have done.2

It sounds rather familiar, does it not? But, says, Dagg,

It may be, that God’s goodness is not mere love of happiness. In his view, happiness may not be the only good, or even the chief good. He is himself perfectly happy; yet this perfection of his nature is not presented to us, in his word, as the only ground, or even the chief ground, on which his claim to divine honor and worship rests. The hosts of heaven ascribe holiness to him, and worship him because of it; but not because of his happiness. If we could contemplate him as supremely happy, but deriving his happiness from cruelty, falsehood, and injustice, we should need a different nature from that with which he has endowed us, and a different Bible to direct us from that which he has given, before we could render him sincere and heart-felt adoration. In the regulation of our conduct, when pleasure and duty conflict with each other, we are required to choose the latter; and this is often made the test of our obedience. On the same principle, if a whole life of duty and a whole life of enjoyment were set before us, that we might choose between them, we should be required to prefer holiness to happiness. It therefore accords with the judgment of God not to regard happiness as the chief good; and the production of the greatest possible amount of happiness could not have been his prime object in the creation of the world. We may conclude that his goodness is not a weak fondness which indulges his creatures, and administers to their enjoyment, regardless of their conduct and moral character. It aims at their happiness, but in subordination to a higher and nobler purpose. According to the order of things which he has established, it is rendered impossible for an unholy being to be happy, and this order accords with the goodness of God, which aims, not at the mere happiness of his universe, but at its well-being, in the best possible sense.3

It doesn’t really fit with our nice, early twenty first century idea that happiness really lies at the core of healthy theology. Not only are we jolted out of the idea that animals can expect happiness of the same order that humans enjoy, measured on the same scale that we might use for ourselves, but we are even denied the happy modern assumption that happiness should be considered the be-all-and-end-all of our existence.

Or, for a more psychological, more immediately internal concern (and don’t those very words remind us of just how modern we really are?), how about John 21? There we find Peter, affirming his love for Christ and informed that his future holds service and suffering, even to death, after the pattern of his Lord. Peter immediately asks concerning John, “But Lord, what about this man?”

Most sermons on the text explore the spirit of competition or curiosity that might seem to possess Peter’s soul at this point. Almost every modern commentary, and all the more the closer you get to the present day, make this an occasion for delving into the psyche of Peter. Why does he ask this question? Is it an inexcusable attitude of rivalry? Is it an inappropriate spirit of inquiry? I think those are fair questions. In our self-obsessed and social-media-drenched age, it is an appropriate application to ask whether or not we are more caught up in the lives of others than we ought to be.

However, go back a little further, and Augustine barely touches on that matter. As far as he is concerned, the really pressing question of the passage is this:

Which of the two disciples is the better, he that loveth Christ less than his fellow-disciple, and is loved more than his fellow-disciple by Christ? or he who is loved less than his fellow-disciple by Christ, while he, more than his fellow-disciple, loveth Christ? Here it is that the answer plainly halts, and the question grows in magnitude. As far, however, as my own wisdom goes, I might easily reply, that he is the better who loveth Christ the more, but he the happier who is loved the more by Christ; if only I could thoroughly see how to defend the justice of our Deliverer in loving him the less by whom He is loved the more, and him the more by whom He is loved the less.4

I would suggest that, without Augustine to prompt us, this question might not even enter our modern consciousness. I am not necessarily saying it is the only question, still less the only right question, but it is clearly a question that could and should be asked. And yet how many of us would have thought to ask it? We are so wrapped up in our obsessive internalisation of issues, that we may not even step far enough outside to ask the question about Christ and his love. We are tempted to make the passage all about us. Augustine is ready to make it much more about Christ.

My point is not that these are spectacular examples, or even spectacularly insightful examples. If anything, it is their ordinariness which appeals. A fairly constant and fairly careful checking against the standard of another time and possibly another place, in the regular course of pastoral ministry, prevents us from assuming what we assume is the obvious answer. It stretches our exegetical approach and challenges our applicatory instinct. We might still reach the same conclusions and make the same applications, but we do so having tested those conclusions and applications against the wisdom of the ages. We are consulting with those who made very different assumptions to us, even if they are working the same channels as us. We are confessing that we have no monopoly on wisdom, no iron grip on insight. Even if we might not have got it all wrong, it forces us to ask if we can get it more right.

  1. J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology, First Part: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; Macon, GA; Selma, AL; New Orleans: Southern Baptist Publication Society; S. S. & Publication Board; B. B. & Colporteur Society; B. B. & Book Depository; B. B. Depository, 1859), 80.
  2. J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology, First Part: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; Macon, GA; Selma, AL; New Orleans: Southern Baptist Publication Society; S. S. & Publication Board; B. B. & Colporteur Society; B. B. & Book Depository; B. B. Depository, 1859), 80.
  3. J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology, First Part: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; Macon, GA; Selma, AL; New Orleans: Southern Baptist Publication Society; S. S. & Publication Board; B. B. & Colporteur Society; B. B. & Book Depository; B. B. Depository, 1859), 80–81.
  4. Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. John Gibb and James Innes, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 449.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 22 January 2018 at 23:06

The Westminster Conference 2017: “God With Us and For Us”

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The Westminster Conference meets for two days each year, usually in December. During the conference, six papers are presented, three on each day, examining the history, doctrine and practice of people, events and churches associated with the Puritans, their forebears and successors. The perspective is that of evangelical and reformed Biblical Christianity, focusing on central gospel themes such as grace, faith, atonement and justification and the outworking of the gospel in the lives of believers.

The title of the conference this year is God With Us and For Us. If you are interested in attending, you can download the booking form or book online directly.

The speakers and their papers are as follows.

Tuesday 5th December

To understand the work of the Spirit in the heart of man is to start to become a true physician of the soul. But the work of the Holy Spirit is intertwined with the ministry of the Word of God. How, then, does the Holy Spirit work in and through the Word? Is he bound to the Scriptures in some way? If so, how? Such questions, and their answers, provide us with both challenges and comforts as we seek to be ministers of the Word and Spirit.

What does it mean to know the presence of God with us? Should we expect it? Can we lose it? How can we regain it? Concentrating on key works of Thomas Goodwin and John Owen, this paper will look particularly at the loss and recovery of such a sense of divine sweetness, comparing and contrasting the convictions, explanations and applications of these two theologians of the Holy Spirit.

The way or ways in which we worship the Lord so as to honour and glorify him remains a topic of vigorous and often heated debate. This is no new thing. Andrew Young will consider Calvin’s approach to this topic, including his doctrine of worship, his approach to liturgy, and his preaching and teaching ministry. Such assessments should assist us to ask the right questions in the right spirit as we move toward answers grounded in something more than preference.

Wednesday 6th December

Theological labels are quick to apply, and provide us with easy targets. Particular theologians are relatively easy to demonise. Jacob Arminius has given his name to a theological system that is defended by supporters and assaulted by opponents with equal ardour. It is profitable for us to understand who Arminius was, what he believed, and how his name became connected to this system. Phil Arthur will introduce us to this man, and guide us through his life and thought.

In November 1618 the Dutch Reformed Church convened a synod at Dordrecht in the Netherlands. With representatives of Reformed churches from around Europe, the synod debated the tenets of the Remonstrants, who disputed the Calvinistic understanding of the plan of redemption. Politics and theology intertwined as they wrestled to address the controversy over Arminianism. This paper will help us understand this critical event and its relevance today.

William Williams is best known among evangelicals as ‘the sweet singer of Wales’ on account of his hymnody, combining a rigorous commitment to truth and a profound experimental sense. However, he is also recognised as a towering figure in the literary and spiritual spheres of his native Wales. Mark Thomas will help us to understand the character and context of this man, and how the Lord used him during and after his lifetime.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 31 August 2017 at 22:10

The appeal

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Image result for image offering boxIf you have not heard it yet, you have probably not been online for a few weeks. If you have heard it once, you have probably heard it many times. For many organisations, institutions and associations, it is the time of year for the appeal. You know how it goes – something like this:

“The end of the year is fast approaching. The beginning of the next one is going to arrive a second later. For us, it is also the end of the financial year. And this is all the good we have done or tried to do, and this is all the good we plan or intend to accomplish. And yet … money is tight. With just a few pounds or dollars from many of you, or a good bundle of them from even a few of you, Ministry X can keep moving forward and can accomplish so much more in the coming months. Might I suggest a concrete sum or a specific goal to give you a sense of definition and accomplishment? Thank you! So, please, consider whether or not this is a cause to which you can donate. And, by the way, this is your last chance … for now!”

Before you respond to such appeals, I would also like to draw attention to an institution very much in need of your financial support. It is a longstanding institution in which you should have a personal investment on multiple levels, if you do not already do so. It generally stands in need of support, and does untold good, with the capacity for yet more good than can be imagined. It ought to have the first claim on your money.

I hope you know that I am speaking of the local church. This, my friends, is the one institution with direct divine sanction. It is the the one missionary organisation with a heavenly mandate. It is the one establishment with a celestial constitution. Its work is defined by divine fiat. It is the one body with a guarantee of perpetual existence and unending profitable service. And it is the one organisation which has the legitimate and primary claim on our financial contributions to the kingdom of God.

Please do not misunderstand me. There are many institutions and organisations which are doing fine work. Many of them are doing work that lies outside the remit of the church, and they deserve your time, attention and support. Some of them do not have the capacity or desire to clamour for your probably hard-earned cash. Some of them are known to thousands, some to few. Some of them are eminently worthy, others debatably so. You should consider supporting them financially, if you are able. I also understand that there are some avenues of service that are difficult to define in terms of the role of the church either as the direct instigator or overseer.

But that is not the point. The point is that the first call on your financial investment ought to be the church to which you belong for the work which the church is called to do. Beyond that, I would suggest that the second call ought to be the local church to which you belong for the work which that church is called to do. If you trust the elders and the deacons (one presumes that you do, if you belong to the church), and if they have a sincere and wise desire for kingdom investment (and I hope that they do), and if you have a little more that you wish to do (and most of us do), why not give a little more to that church of which you are a part? Most church officers and the congregations they serve already know where and how and why they might invest any further funds made available.

It is clear from the Scriptures that Christians should support the work of the Lord by systematic and proportionate giving made through the local church (Mal 3.8-10; 1Cor 16.1-2; 2Cor 8 and 9). Whether or not you take tithing as helpful principle, it is certainly indicative of the attitude of God’s people concerning giving to God’s kingdom. And what of gifts and offerings made according to one’s ability and willingness of heart (Gen 14.18-20; 2Cor 8.1-5; Ex 36.2-7)? Has there been no blessing from God, perhaps directly through the church and its ministry, for which a thank offering might not form part of an appropriate response?

And what of other churches? Do you know of congregations that are seeking to support missionaries or plant churches or erect or purchase buildings? Are there churches that struggle to support their pastors? If you have given all that you might and all that you could to your own congregation, might you suggest to the deacons that this could be a worthwhile investment? If your church is already involved in such support, and you have more in your pocket, why not pass it along independently and anonymously?

If, after that, you have discretionary funds or wish to make further sacrifices, then by all means go ahead. Might I suggest that you save those shekels for work that lies outside the remit of the church, rather than investing it in something that is replicating or replacing that work without a divine mandate? And, unless and until you find such a need, then look nearer at hand and, I hope, nearer at heart. Christ loves his church. It was to a church that Paul wrote concerning the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich (2Cor 8.9). It is in and through the local church that the first response to this example ought to be made.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 30 December 2016 at 16:25

Posted in Ecclesiology

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“Grace Alone” – a Sicilian report

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People gathered from all over Sicily, Italy, and beyond for the opening of the new church premises of Chiesa Cristiana Evangelica “Sola Grazia” in Caltanissetta, in the heart of Sicily. The building itself is beautiful, though it remains – in some of its details – a work in progress. Every major part of the whole is intended to communicate something of the truth of the church and its biblical convictions.

You enter the building as you reach the seventh step – hints of a Sabbath rest. The visitor walks through four ‘Gospel’ pillars into an octagonal meeting room, reminding us that the Lord Jesus met with his people on the day of resurrection, and eight days afterward. You come in from the west, leaving the darkness behind you. On the eastern side of the church, the pulpit is the focal point, and there the light of God’s Word is shining. Behind the pulpit are two windows, suggesting the Old and the New Testaments. Opposite the pulpit are three windows in front of one window. The light shining through the one also beams through the three, giving at least an inkling of the God whom we worship. On each side of the main hall are a further twelve windows, a nod to the patriarchs and the apostles reminding us of the church of all the ages, and the great cloud of witnesses about the church militant. All the light coming in shines from above. Simple decor and wise use of space indicate that the light of nature has also taught the people one or two things.

The grand opening began on the evening of Friday 2nd December 2016. The particular focus of this night was the immediate community, a good number of whom were represented in the crowd who filled the building, along with several local dignitaries. The first act of the evening was to go back outside for the unveiling of the stone plaque bearing the church’s name and the five key Reformation solas. Underneath, a bronze plate records thanks to the God of all grace, and to his people – known to himself – whose generosity has contributed to the erection of the building. Pastor Reno Ulfo spoke simply as the green cloth dropped from the plaque, and we all filed back inside.

The strains of “Amazing Grace” in Italian filled the building before Pastor Leonardo de Chirico (Chiesa Evangelica Breccia di Roma) opened proceedings. He spoke briefly and pungently of the purpose of the church, addressing the local authorities plainly, and broadening his gospel applications to all those gathered. It was both instruction in and an example of the priorities of the people of God. The local mayor responded, followed by one of his predecessors. Both spoke as politicians, but I thought that in both a note of personal respect and some interest could be detected. Certainly, this opens up a door of opportunity for the church. The fact that the building has been constructed without draining local civil funds – unusual for this part of the world – is a testimony in itself. Already this is established as a congregation that gives more than it takes.

Professor Bolognesi of Padova then briefly outlined the theological implications of the architecture. Pastor Reno went on to identify several people and groups who had made particular contributions to the building project. After this, a video history of the church was shown. Minor technical problems, typical of life in new premises, somewhat curtailed that exercise. I don’t believe anyone was too bothered, though, as it ushered in refreshments. Light and sweet Sicilian snacks paved the way for the heavy stuff – rice balls and varieties of pizza providing enough carbohydrates for the most demanding athletes, and with enough leftovers to keep many small armies on their feet for a week or two. One is tempted to suggest that a good twelve baskets of hefty fragments could have been gathered.

Notable on this first evening and over the whole weekend – and highlighted in Pastor Reno’s thanksgiving – was the investment of the whole church, both local and beyond. The tireless and generous contributions of God’s people were evident even before attention was drawn to them. The fruits of the work were often more evident than the workers themselves, but it was clear how much had been given by so many, in terms of time, energy, and expertise. The living stones have not been neglected for the sake of the concrete blocks. Particularly moving was Pastor Ulfo’s brief tribute to his family. Few will appreciate that, for all the pastor’s sacrifices, those made by his wife and children can often be greater. In some measure, they sacrifice him as well as for him and for the Lord. Giovanna Ulfo and the children deserve credit for the work that Reno Ulfo does, and it was good to see that publicly recorded. We pray that the fruit of Reno’s gospel labours might shine as brightly in his family as it does anywhere else.

As the night wound down, we drifted back to our various rooms and guesthouses. The Saturday began fairly slowly. The overseas preachers gathered again: Pastor Alan Dunn (Grace Covenant Baptist Church, Flemington, New Jersey, who was travelling with his wife, Patricia), Pastor Gordon Cook (Grace Baptist Church, Canton, Michigan), and myself. We met with a number of the key men at Caltanissetta, including all those involved in various church planting endeavours. We also chatted with our translator, Damion Wallace, to prepare for the next couple of days’ work. After the usual generous hospitality, we went back to our lodgings and prepared for the evening.

As we gathered, we discovered that some of our preparations had been less helpful than others. Damion was losing his voice. Alan Dunn had adopted a non-traditional way of arresting an unpremeditated act of violent genuflection he had undertaken in Reno’s home, viz. bringing his forehead into vigorous contact with a very hard object. Butterfly stitches and plasters had somewhat repaired the damage. Add in Gordon Cook’s travails in travel, and our fighting capacity was sliding badly. We forged ahead.

The focus of the ministry that night turned to the broader church, represented among us by various believers from around the island and further afield. With that in mind, we began to address the solas of the Reformation. I began with sola Scriptura, followed by Gordon Cook on solus Christus and Leonardo de Chirico on sola fide, before Alan Dunn closed the evening dealing with sola gratia. All the ministry seemed warmly appreciated, and fellowship over further piles of food was very profitable. There was clearly much intelligent and heartfelt engagement with the truth, and several men and women spoke thoughtfully and earnestly about what they were hearing.

The Lord’s day started early, and added to our catalogue of outward woes. Reno’s voice started to get croaky, and I had a blithe journey with a man who was late even before he casually announced that he did not know the way to the church building.

Despite all this, we started at a reasonable time. I completed the series on the solas with a study of soli Deo gloria. A brother called Jose was stepping in to assist with the translation, and did a cracking job. This day we were speaking more to the local church, and so I tried to make this a particular emphasis. From there we moved straight into the formal dedication of the building to the worship of the true and living God, and Pastor Reno preached the Word of God, giving us a wonderful survey of the concept of God’s temple throughout the Scriptures. He ensured we got and kept our eyes fixed on God’s presence among his people, rather than mere buildings. God also strengthened Damion’s voice and restored him to his duties, further assisted by Jose and Giovanni Marino, one of the faithful and gifted deacons in Caltanissetta. Several brothers – local pastors – stood and pleaded earnestly with God for a blessing on the church and its work in the new premises. Gordon Cook represented the visitors in this season of intercession.

Lunch followed before we turned, for the balance of the day, to the doctrines of grace. I opened on the depravity of fallen man, and was able to finish before the effects of our latest abundant feeding were too well-advanced. Pastor Dunn followed with redemptive-historical studies on the election of God and the redemption that Christ accomplished. The weight of these sessions was, for me, relieved by a delightful older lady doubtless using headphones for the first time. This meant that she regularly bellowed at her husband at a volume which ensured that she could hear her own voice. She also cackled loudly at anything humorous about fifteen seconds after it was spoken, as the translation caught up.

Given Reno’s other duties and to preserve his voice, I had the unexpected opportunity to address the irresistible grace of the Spirit’s work in the heart. By this stage, the folks were flagging, and several had been obliged to leave, so I kept it to about thirty minutes. Pastor Cook finished the public ministry by highlighting the perseverance and preservation of the saints, admirably demonstrated on one level by the fact that most of them were still listening to us after three days of intense teaching and preaching. Gordon’s focus on the double grip of divine power and love from John 10 was a fitting end. As Pastor Ulfo said, “dulcis in fundo” – “the sweet stuff is at the bottom.”

There seems little doubt that God’s strength was made perfect in our weakness on this occasion. Weariness, illness and injury in us was outmatched by grace and goodness in him and in the patience and earnestness of those hearing.

Monday morning saw Reno and I have a brief opportunity to explain the gospel to a couple of people at my lodging house. Attempts at trilingual (English, Italian, French) evangelising leave me half-wishing that the gift of tongues remained extant. Would it not be wonderful if these brief contacts bore gospel fruit?

We drifted toward Catania for Pastor Cook’s last preaching engagement and my flight home. Along the way, we stopped at a city set on a hill, Calascibetta. Unfortunately, far from being an enlightened and enlightening place, it was wrapped in fog and sunk in spiritual darkness. A visit to the Roman Catholic church building confirmed the vacuity of the question driving one hundred conferences in the next year: Is the Reformation over? That so much genuine spiritual ugliness could be communicated in a place of undeniable architectural beauty answered that question, for these falsehoods if not for many more. Flagrant Mariolatry vied for the laurel of ungodliness with statues of the church ‘patron’, Peter, decked out in all the regalia and symbolic power of the pope. From the position of the building to the message of the decor to the arrogance of the priest (it became clear as we spoke that he was an old-school Catholic and personally godless), it all shouts a message of carnal dominion that Islam itself can only rival.

Walking back down the damp streets, we paused at the prison from which a man called Francesco Giovanni Porcaro was taken by the Spanish Inquisition to his death by burning. His crimes? Denying Christ in the sacrament, indulgences, and the pope, as well as propagating the doctrines of Luther and other errors, and continuing in the above with all obstinacy. It is good to know that the light once shone in this now-gloomy city. We should pray that it would prove true once more – post tenebras, lux! Reno’s promise that there would be open-air gospel preaching on this spot in the coming year was some consolation that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ would again beam forth. But who knows what price this and coming generations must pay for such faithfulness?

Sobered, we entered Catania and found some food at Fud, a delightful restaurant where options included horse and donkey. I opted for a more than bearable and not too risky buffalo, joined by Reno. Patricia Dunn, afflicted throughout the weekend by the presence of all the men, and having worked like a Trojan alongside the friends at Sola Grazia, opted for a ladylike salad. Alan had something fittingly but reliably cheesy, and Gordon got himself outside of a sandwich that may have involved a fairly safe chicken.

Our conversation over lunch centred on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the churches we love and serve. As ever, hard questions rarely produce easy answers. Still, they are better than empty questions carelessly shrugged off.

It was with joy and sorrow that we arrived at the airport. It had been sweet fellowship in Christ and his service, and there was more work for us all to do already looming. With mutually renewed promises of communication and prayer, information to exchange and promises to keep, I strolled through security. They drove off into the sunset, and I flew off into the darkness.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 12 December 2016 at 14:38


with 7 comments

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.

oak and acornAnd 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.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 25 September 2015 at 07:11

Posted in Ecclesiology

Tagged with ,

Baptist covenant theology

with 8 comments

1689 covenant theologySome 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 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.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 10 September 2015 at 15:20

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