Category Archives: 2007 SGM LC
Now that all the Sovereign Grace Ministries messages are free, I’m slowly feasting message-by-message in a long and delicious buffet of audio. Today I finally arrived at Dave Harvey’s message from the SGM Leadership Conference this Spring (at the time, I was on the other side of the wall listening to Dever speak on his annual reading schedule).
Harvey, the author of the excellent book When Sinners Say I Do: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage (Shepherd’s Press: 2007), is also an expert church planter and apostolic leader within SGF. This Spring in his session “Watch Your Mission: To Be, or Not to Be, ‘Missional,’” he assessed the strengths and weakness of the missional movement. In part, he argues the MM muddies the Cross-centered focus of the Church and misunderstands the apostolic context of the Great Commission.
Here’s the heart of his outline:
1. What are the Strengths of Missional Churches?
A. Missional Churches Have a Commendable Passion for Evangelism.
B. Missional Churches Have a Laudable Commitment to Engaging Culture.
C. Missional Churches Have a Profitable Impulse for Reexamining Church Tradition.
D. They Also Possess an Admirable Devotion to Social Impact.
2. What are the Weaknesses of Missional Churches?
A. Missional Churches Tend to Be Mission-Centered Rather Than Gospel-Centered.
B. Missional Churches Tend to Have a Reductionistic Ecclesiology.
C. Missional Churches Tend to Confuse Culture Engagement with Cultural Immersion.
D. Missional Churches Tend to Downplay the Institutional and Organizational Nature of the Church.
E. Missional Churches Tend to Have an Insufficient Understanding of Apostolic Ministry.
Update: It should be noted SGM believes in a continuing apostolic gift: “present-day apostles plant and build local churches for the sanctification of the believer, the expansion of the mission, and the exaltation of God.” For more on why they use the term, what it means and does not mean, see the SGM booklet by Harvey titled Polity: Serving and Leading the Local Church (2004), pages 17-26, 49-50.
All photos (c) 2007 by Janelle Bradshaw. Thank you Janelle for sharing!
C.J. Mahaney (Redskins) and R.C. Sproul (Steelers)
Friday evening (4/13/07)
General Session #5
C.J. Mahaney: “Trinitarian Pastoral Ministry”
GAITHERSBURG, MD – The year 2007 will be remembered as an important year in the careful study of John Owen’s theology. With the recent release of Kelly Kapic’s Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (Baker: 2007) and the forthcoming release of Crossway’s retypeset edition of Owen’s Communion with the Triune God, I anticipate an increasingly balanced awareness of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This beautiful Trinitarian balance of Owen was echoed and applied pastorally by C.J. Mahaney in the concluding address of the 2007 Sovereign Grace Ministries Leader’s Conference.
Mahaney began by cautioning pastors from allowing culture to define the model of ministry. The form and substance of pastoral ministry is defined by the character and work of the Triune God. The character and work of the Triune Godhead is displayed in the final verse of 2 Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (13:14). Mahaney detailed each character and work of the Three Persons of the Godhead. The order here (Son, Father, Holy Spirit) seems to be ordered by our experience of Him.
“The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ”
We first meet Christ. The Cross comes first. Paul never assumes the Gospel even up until the very last verse of 2 Corinthians. For Paul, everything comes back to the Gospel.
But to proclaim the grace of the Cross means we must proclaim sin. Proclaiming sin well – without concealing grace – takes a lot of work. Exposing sin is much easier than applying grace and exposing sin should never be done by men who cannot rightly apply grace. Grace is the message applied to sin. We can never take our eyes of Calvary. Once we lose sight of Calvary, we miss our path. In every sermon there will be a sighting of Calvary. That is Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians even as he confronts sin.
“The Love of God”
Secondly, the work of pastoral ministry is to convince others of God’s love, specifically God’s personal love for His children. Verbally and passionately position others to experience the Father’s love personally. Several other passages show the love of God in the salvation of sinners, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8) … “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn. 3:1) … “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). The love of God is displayed in the Cross and in adopting sinners into His family!
It was the Father’s love that motivated the Cross. Christ died because God loved us! God initiated the Cross out of love. Sinclair Ferguson says, “We should almost think God loved us more than He loves His Son.” God persuades us of His love in the Cross.
To be right with God (justified) is a great thing, so too is being adopted by God the Father. Read Sinclair Ferguson’s Children of the Living God, J.I. Packer’s Knowing God (on adoption) and Trevor Burke’s Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor.
How do I leave my people on Sunday? Do they walk away with a deep sense of God’s love towards them?
“The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit”
There is a life of participation with the Holy Spirit. We are dependent upon the Holy Spirit and so we pursue His presence and His power with eagerness. We are called to grow, desire and pursue the power of the Holy Spirit as governed by the authority of Scripture. There is a tremendous breadth and diversity of this fellowship.
(It was at this point C.J. explained why he prefers the term “continuist” over “charismatic”). The power of the Holy Spirit is broader than the miraculous. We should understand the Holy Spirit in this broad diversity. In the Corinthian church, as evidenced in the two Pauline letters, there was a minimizing of some of the Holy Spirit’s work. The Corinthians held a fascination with the gift of tongues. And so on the list of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:29 Paul places tongues last on the list of gifts. The spectacular does not happen every day and because of this we need to avoid the Corinthian error of being fascinated with some gifts and the minimizing of others. We need to celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit in its broad diversity without exaggerating the significance of one particular gift.
It’s important to become more perceptive to the work of the Holy Spirit in this diversity. For example, there is a proneness to placing authority in the prophetic gifts over Scripture. Beware of emphasizing one gift at the exclusion of the others.
The ultimate priority of the Holy Spirit’s work is to reveal the Savior and the blessings of the Gospel! The work of the Holy Spirit cannot be understood apart from the message of the Cross. As D.A. Carson writes, “To be spiritual is profoundly tied to the Cross.”
This final message from the Leader’s Conference left us with much for further meditation. The encouragement to work at presenting the Father in His love is a good challenge. It is easy to display God solely in His holy vengeance, so that for the Christian to think of Him as a loving, tender Father becomes (practically speaking) a foreign concept. I need to let my adoption by God capture more of my affection and experience, like the doctrine of justification has in the past. Mahaney’s statement that ‘exposing sin is much easier than applying grace, and exposing sin should never be done by men who cannot rightly apply grace’ continues to echo in my thoughts. It is a true statement and very humbling for this aspiring preacher. This message was a great challenge to define pastoral ministry within the balanced context of God’s Triunity.
I’m not sure who talks faster, C.J. or John Moschitta, so to get the full details I would once again suggest this message from the 2007 Sovereign Grace Leader’s Conference as worthy the sacrifice of a venti Americano.
Overall, the conference was an incredible experience. The content and structure of the breakout sessions and the general sessions were excellent. And to spend three nights being led in worship by Bob Kauflin, singing songs like “Before the Throne,” was certainly a glimpse into the eternal worship around the throne of the Lamb! Speaking of heavenly things, the bookstore was well-stocked and efficiently run. The conference carried an excellent blend of Bibles, theology, pastoral counseling, biography, children’s books and music. For me personally, the conference provided a great opportunity to grow closer to our friends who also traveled from Minneapolis and to see the generousness and loving care our church in Minneapolis continues to pour out on my wife and family! I can summarize the words of others, but trying to summarize the experience of the conference is really not possible. Thanks for reading the updates! -Tony
Related 2007 SGM LC sessions:
Friday morning (4/13/07)
General Session #3
David Powlison: “‘In the Last Analysis…’ Look out for Introspection”
GAITHERSBURG, MD – Reformed and always reforming. This sentence encapsulates the desire of the reformed church. Our confessions and doctrine should be structured by biblically accurate reformed theology. And — without taking our eyes off these doctrines — the church continues pressing on in diligent reformation.
From my personal perspective, no aspect of the reformed church has more reformed over the past 20 years than its handling of biblical counseling. And in this modern reformation of the church, away from secular psychology and superficial proof-texting towards a community of believers that are God-centered, heart-conscious and biblically-informed; few have played a more important role than Dr. David Powlison, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary.
As an aside, I recall reading Powlison’s excellent book, Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (P&R; 2003). On a red-eye flight I read these words,
“You will not go wrong if you plunge into Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Master it. Be mastered by it. Work Ephesians into your thinking, your living, your prayers, and your conversation. The Bible is vast and deep, and human life is diverse and perplexing. But in a pinch you could do all counseling from Ephesians. It’s all there: the big picture that organizes a myriad of details” (p. 17).
Powlision is not just talking about the later chapters of Ephesians and how they relate to marriage. He is arguing that God’s electing grace of the early chapters is essential to understanding marriage. This is why Powlison has, in another place, said that the solas of the reformation and the doctrines of Calvinism “will prove to be the redemption of counseling” (The Practical Calvinist, p. 504). Powlison’s reforms have been seen in moving away from proof-texting “biblical” counseling that has prevailed for so many years in the church. Large biblical contexts are essential for biblical care towards one another. This is why I love Powlison. Now, back to the introduction…
Powlison serves as editor of The Journal of Biblical Counseling (a quarterly publication no care group leader or pastor should be without). Justin Taylor has written more on Powlison’s impact on to the church (see his blog).
Sovereign Grace Ministries is a family of churches marked by excellence in ministering within care groups and equipping their congregations to handle many of the counseling sessions previously thought could only be handled by pastors. In a show of great leadership, C.J. Mahaney invited Powlison to address the family of churches over a potential emphasis on “excessive introspection,” of trying to find the root-of-the-root-of-the-root of every sin in one’s heart without moving beyond this.
Powlison began by restating the potential problem: an overemphasis on the cravings of the heart (idols and lusts) rather than on identifying the sin and moving on to simple obedience. The danger is “getting caught into a vortex of self-introspection.” Instead, analysis should be the doorway to obedience, repentance, and joy.
“Self-analysis leads to paralysis.” The goal of biblical self-knowledge is to push us outside ourselves into prayer and action (love, forgive, etc). Contemporary counseling emphasizes the idea that our actions are determined by the way others have hurt us in the past. Endless introspection — or “idol hunts” — are just as dangerous as the secular “hurt hunts.”
We know that the heart is filled with a deep darkness. In the corporate world there is a glass ceiling. We look up and see there is more without the ability to reach it. In the human heart there is a glass floor. We can see a darkness that goes deep, but without Scripture there is no way of discovering the depths. Hebrews 4:12-13 is the true MRI of the heart. But nowhere in Scripture does this understanding of the heart lead to an endless self-analysis. So the problem is a danger towards “excessive introspection.” An idol hunt in the heart is not the end goal. I know, Powlison said humbly, that at my death there will remain sin that has not been completely removed. I will die as a sinner in need of further purification/glorification.
Scripture helps us to see evil in relationship to our rebellion towards God Himself. Every sin is related to a turning away from God and turning inward to ourselves. In our sinful nature we have a centripetal force (pulling us back into ourselves) rather than a centrifugal force (pushing us outside ourselves). Biblical self-knowledge points us outside of ourselves and away from the “excessive introspection.”
“An accurate description of my sin is the doorway to God’s revelation of who He is.” This was incredibly helpful. Every sin leads us to understand God. If I seek to control things and become overwhelmed or nervous this shows a lack in my understanding of God’s sovereignty. If I struggle with idolatry, it shows a failure to see God’s preciousness. Powlison demonstrated this in two primary texts.
1 Timothy 6:9-16 and Jeremiah 17:1-14
So how do we avoid this “excessive introspection?” Starting from a biblically informed self-knowledge, we take those sins, “drown them” in God’s glory, and then act. This paradigm is shown in 1 Timothy 6.
9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. 11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will display at the proper time — he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
Biblically informed knowledge leads us to acknowledge the idol of money (v. 10: “love of money”). This idolatry is drowned in the glory of God (cf. vv. 15-16 “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen”). This picture of God’s glory leads to action (vv. 11-12: “flee these things, pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life”). The sinful temptation to “love money” is drowned by the glory of God! The affections set on money are now affections turned to the beauty of God’s majesty. Biblical self-knowledge leads us to drown our sins in the glory of God and this leads towards God-centered action. Be a man of God not a man of money.
The “love of money” here can be replaced with the love for any sinful lust. The love of entertainment, pleasures, excitement, food, good health, status, power, self-agenda, self-righteousness or a love of other’s affirmation, approval, love and worship.
Sin points us away from ourselves. As M’Cheyne reminds us, for every one look at our own sin, we ought to take 10 looks at the Cross!
In other words, let introspection lead into the depths of God. See Jeremiah 17:1-14. The heart is desperately wicked (v. 9), but specific sins are recognizable (vv. 1-6). Jeremiah rests in the majestic God for the change (vv. 7-8, 14). This is a picture of a faith that is not excessively introspective and one that leads to a joyous faith.
This session was very powerful to me personally. In addressing this potential problem and choosing the right man for the task, it showed the tremendous sensitivity of leadership by C.J. Mahaney over his family of churches. It’s also a testimony to how well this family of churches has taught their people to identify sinful cravings, an evidence of God’s grace. Powlison has helped me to view my own sinful cravings as having the potential — like that of a systematic theology — to open a doorway into the character of God. There is a distinct connection between my sin and my misunderstanding of God. It’s a great reminder that when I see my sin, I need to take that sin, drown it in God and His glorious Cross, and then act in love, repentance, pursuit, fight and joy.
Again, this is another session from the 2007 Sovereign Grace Leader’s Conference worth sacrificing a venti Americano.
Related 2007 SGM LC sessions:
Thursday morning (4/12/07)
Breakout seminar #2
Mark Dever: “Watch the Past: Living Lessons from Dead Theologians”
GAITHERSBURG, MD – Being one who loves to read the books of dead theologians and preachers, Mark Dever’s session was a personal highlight. The point was to encourage us to broaden our theological and biographical reading to at least 12 different authors, each to be read for one month annually. Dever himself uses a yearly reading plan where he reads a specific author each month of the year (like Augustine in February). Then every April he moves on to John Calvin, reading a new biography or theological work. Each year the reading plan starts over.
For readers of the Together for the Gospel blog, this will sound familiar. On February 1, 2006 Dever wrote a short post titled “An apostolic agenda” outlining this very thing. On Thursday morning at the Sovereign Grace Ministries Leader’s Conference, Dever filled out the details.
Dever began with a lengthy quote from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation which outlines some reasons why old books are important. Lewis writes,
There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. …
The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
With this introduction, Dever launched into his “canon of theologians.” He encouraged us to read on theological issues that are not a particular struggle at the time. Let the theologians talk about what they want to talk about. Dever then outlined his own personal reading plan.
The ‘canon of theologians’
January – Early church writings (1st-3rd centuries). Recommended reading: Many and various works and authors were mentioned like the Epistle of Dionysius, The Didache, Clement, The Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Penguin paperback, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (0140444750). When asked if he used the early church writings in his expositional research, he said ‘no.’ He is familiar with the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture but has not found them exegetically beneficial. [This helps answer an important question we asked earlier this year]. Dever’s use of the early church fathers is predominantly theological and historical.
February – Augustine (354-430). The most influential extra-biblical theologian in the West. Recommended: City of God and The Confessions (Henry Chadwick edition). Dever’s disagreement: That the church is the conduit of salvation. “Augustine got it bad wrong on ecclesiology.”
March – Martin Luther (1483-1546). Lessons learned: 1. Justification is by faith alone, all of sheer grace. Luther “cleanses the church from the barnacles of traditionalism.” 2. Luther’s boldness. Read biography Here I Stand. Recommended reading: 95 Theses and Bondage of the Will. You can read Bondage of the Will out loud to children and they will be engaged because of the vigorous prose and Luther’s name-calling towards Erasmus (Dever is very funny). Best bio being Here I Stand by Roland Bainton (0452011469).
April – John Calvin (1509-1564). The greatest theologian of the Reformation period. Lessons learned: 1. God’s glory at the center of everything. The world is the “theater” of God’s glory. 2. Centrality of man’s depravity, shown especially in the heart’s perpetual idol production. 3. He was careful with Scripture. Calvin had a very rare combination of gifts that balanced the theological, linguistic, pastoral, and exegetical. 4. He filled both the offices of pastor and scholar. 5. The diligent training of his spiritual children even as he knew sending these pastors back into France would mean certain death [see the concept of “Calvin’s School of Death”]. Disagreements: That the state is responsible for the church. He confused the church and state, a distinction we take for granted today. Recommended: Sermons on the Ten Commandments, commentary on 1 Cor. 12-14, The Institutes of the Christian Religion and anything written by T.H.L. Parker. He does not recommend modern bios of Calvin and especially warned against McGrath.
May – Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). Lessons learned: 1. The tenderness of Christ. The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax a great example of Jesus’ tenderness and it makes for a great read together with your spouse. Sibbes was able to point out evidences of grace very well. 2. “Diagnostic evangelism.” Sibbes continued to hold out the biblical truth of what a genuine Christian looks like and, by consequence, sorted out those who nominally professed faith. By authenticating the Christian life he naturally separated the sheep from the wolves and goats. He was clear that one’s salvation does not come through assurance but rather assurance comes from genuine salvation. Sibbes pointed those who were never converted to run to grace in the Cross. Disagreement: Infant baptism. Recommendations: Sibbes stuttered in his preaching so he kept his sentences relatively short and this makes him easier to read than his contemporaries. Start with the sermons in volume seven of his collected works.
June – John Owen (1616-1683) and John Bunyan (1628-1688). John Owen is known for his argument on limited atonement in Death of Death. It’s a good book to scare Arminians, but there exist better exegetical ways to argue for limited atonement. Lesson learned: Linger with Scripture. “Diligent meditation reaps great rewards.” Dever especially recommends the Owen volumes by Kris Lundgaard (The Enemy Within and Through the Looking Glass) and those by Kapic and Taylor (Overcoming Sin and Temptation). … John Bunyan was a “pot-repairer with extraordinary preaching gifts.” Bunyan clearly expresses himself without the use of long, Latin sentences. His life was marked by a sincere pastoral concern. Recommended: Saint’s Knowledge of Christ’s Love, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (autobiographical) and The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Pilgrim’s Progress being a “great systematic theology” built around the “centrality of heaven.”
July – Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). There are many lessons and warnings from the life of Jonathan Edwards. Lessons learned: 1. Diligent meditation. “Edwards can stare at an idea” and has “a powerful ability to think out and illustrate” that idea. An excellent example of this is Edward’s sermon The Excellency of Christ. 2. Edwards demonstrates a zeal for the purity of the church. 3. Understands the connection between his ministry and his congregation. In his Farewell Sermon, after Edwards was fired, he tells his congregation “I’ll see you before the throne.” Disagreements: 1. Infant baptism. 2. The logic of God’s centrality seemed a bit philosophical rather than always biblical. 3. He shows some pastoral carelessness especially with the “young folks’ Bible” controversy [see chapter 18 in George Marsden’s biography]. Nevertheless, Edwards demonstrates a powerful ability to think out and illustrate. Read his sermons and especially his sermon The Nakedness of Job which he wrote when he was 18 years old! As an interesting side note, Dever has preached an Edwards sermon to his congregation. On October 5, 2003 he took Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, marked up the manuscript as he would his own and preached it. You can listen to the final product here.
August – C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892). Lessons learned: 1. Evangelism. Spurgeon preached the gospel from any and every text. “More than anyone else, I think of Spurgeon when I prepare my sermons.” Preach each sermon as though someone may be converted. 2. His life is filled with stories of God’s kindness upon his ministry. Read Spurgeon’s autobiography and be amazed at the stories. Spurgeon’s autobiography “may be the most fun thing to read apart from Scripture.” It will encourage you to see that we have a glorious God. 3. He had a lively faith. Spurgeon had “a heightened God-consciousness.” Even in the midst of a prolonged depression, Spurgeon shows that depression drives a faithful Christian to God. Read his Morning and Evening devotional.
September – B.B. Warfield (1851-1921). “Warfield strengthens my faith.” Like John Calvin, Warfield had a wonderful mix of scholarship and piety. Disagreements include infant baptism and Presbyterian polity.
October – Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981). Not much in disagreement. Lessons learned: 1. Gave his life to preaching and lived confident in the power of God’s Word. 2. Deadly earnest. It was no light thing for him to preach. The pulpit was the “desk of God.” Recommended: Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Preaching and Preachers, Spiritual Depression and his biography by Iain Murray.
November – C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Carl F.H. Henry (1913-2003). Because time ran short, Dever simply finished off his list of writers he reads in November and December without further comment or recommendation.
December – Contemporary authors like John Stott, J.I. Packer, Iain Murray, R.C. Sproul and John Piper.
This breakout session encourages me to pursue the study of the early church writers, although I’ve become more convinced that they will not prove as helpful in my expositional research and sermon preparation as others. It also encourages me to narrow my focus to a handful of great writers and focus attention on their writings each year. I’m in the process of creating my own “canon of theologians” for annual study.
Thursday morning (4/12/07)
Breakout seminar #1
Rick Gamache: “Watch Your Devotional Life”
GAITHERSBURG, MD – Over the past few months I have come to see my pastor Rick Gamache as the most gifted leader and preacher I have had the privilege of seeing up close. And although I see him all the time, I wasn’t about to miss his breakout session in the Pastors College classroom. No regrets.
As he and associate pastor Mark Alderton preach through Acts on Sunday morning at Sovereign Grace Fellowship (Minneapolis, MN), they have especially pointed out the correlations between the Apostolic church and the contemporary Sovereign Grace church. Recently a sermon on Acts 6 outlined the role of deacons and thus the role of pastors. Acts 6:1-7 also became the primary text for Gamache’s breakout seminar, Watch your Devotional Life: The Pastor’s Communion with God. The text reads,
1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
Pastors are mainly devoted to preaching and prayer. So the exhortation is for pastors to watch their preaching and prayer. This particular session was an exhortation for pastors to guard their prayer life.
Only three out of 10 pastors pray for 15 minutes each day. But here in Acts “the twelve” call out seven Spirit-filled deacons to care for the widows. This would free the Apostles to “devote” themselves to their leadership/pastoral task. The term “devote” (προσκαρτερησομεν) here is a strong word in the text. Even at the expense of other ministry opportunities, they were to “devote” themselves to a narrowed focus.
This priority is especially astonishing given the importance needy widows occupy in the New Testament. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). By finding deacons to care for the widows highlights the significance of prayer in the pastoral life. The feeding of the widows was a threat to the Apostles — not because it was intrinsically a bad ministry — but because it hindered their primary duty. This reveals that the early leaders of the church did not have short prayer times in mind since it demanded a clearing of the schedule. They spent a lot of time at preaching and public/private prayer. This made it necessary to say “no” to other ministry opportunities. For example, being devoted to my wife does not mean I spend all my time with her. But it does mean she is a chief priority and because of this I must say ‘no’ to many good things. The same is true of prayer in the pastoral life.
Not only does Scripture call us to be “devoted” to prayer (Acts 1:14, 2:42), but Paul commands us to prayer (Rom. 12:12, Col. 4:2). A life devoted to prayer is the call of all Christians, and especially pastors. We need to watch it! Good ministry opportunities crowd in and demand time, but we must not let ministry become its own worst enemy. C.H. Spurgeon once said in a sermon,
“Sometimes we think we are too busy to pray. That is a great mistake, for praying is a saving of time. You remember Luther’s remark, ‘I have so much to do today that I shall never get through it with less than three hours’ prayer.’ … If we have no time we must make time, for if God has given us time for secondary duties, He must have given us time for primary ones, and to draw near to Him is a primary duty, and we must let nothing set in on one side. You other engagements will run smoothly if you do not forget your engagement with God” (Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. 18).
It would not be a Sovereign Grace conference unless every session was connected to the Cross. Gamache reminded us that our access to God in prayer comes through the work of Christ alone (Heb. 10:19-22). We must confess our inability to draw near to God based upon our own merits. The holiness of God does not consume us because of the Cross!
Neglecting the invitation is spiritual foolishness. We are called to ask, seek and knock (Luke 11:9-13). God promises to act when we pray. There is a cause-and-effect relationship to prayer. God says, “I will let your prayers effect My universe.” Amazing! Spurgeon writes: “We do not bow the knee merely because it is a duty, and a commendable spiritual exercise, but because we believe that, into the ear of the eternal God, we speak our wants, and that His ear is linked with a heart of feeling for us, and a hand working on our behalf. To us, true prayer is true power” (An All-Around Ministry, p. 13).
Psalm 50 shows the relationship of a breathtaking God and our drawing near to Him. In the first 14 verses we see a glimpse of the power and majesty of God. In verse 15 we are summoned: “and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” When we pray, we get the help and God gets the glory.
Pursuing the ministry without prayer is pride. Pastors are called to labor to “save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). The harvest is ready but the workers are few (Luke 10:1-8). Without God working in me, I will watch sinners run headlong to hell and my heart will be unmoved. God must be at work in our ministry and affections. Pastors are called to “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24) and work for “your progress and joy in the faith” (Phil. 1:25). These callings make the pastor feel really needy! We are incapable of eternal fruit without the work of God. Thus, “Prayer is a means of crushing my self-sufficiency.”
“My life as a pastor is a life of war.” Seasons of blessing can lull us into a peacetime mentality. We can easily forget our dependence. “We will not drift into prayer but we will drift into prayerlessness.”
Gamache concluded with some practical advice for watching our prayer lives.
1. Structured and unstructured prayers. Sometimes we should just spill our hearts out to our Daddy. And there are times prayers will be shaped by prayer folders. Structure your prayer around Scripture as you are reading. There is a connection between prayer and the abiding Word in our hearts. Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Also, there is a connection between knowing His will in Scripture and praying according to that will: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14). Also, the Word and prayer are interconnected because the Word produces faith (Rom. 10:17) and that faith is essential to prayer (Matt. 21:22).
2. Expressing deep needs and high joy in prayer. We praise God in prayer as He meets us in our darkest despair and when He meets us in our delights!
3. Long and short prayers. Quick outbursts of prayer throughout the day and longer prayers that “linger.” Spurgeon says, “pray until you pray.” Linger in prayer until you enter into the spirit of prayer. Pray for prayer.
4. Spontaneous and scheduled prayers. Learn to pray throughout the day and also plan your prayers.
In all, it was an excellent breakout session and I was blessed to be there. Prayer is no strength of mine and I’m better encouraged and equipped to pursue prayer more faithfully. I’m motivated to excel, not out of guilt or condemnation of failure, but because prayer is our access to the fountain of God’s blessing!
But what most comes to mind when I recall this session is that prayer is the means of “crushing my self-sufficiency.” And prayer seems to be an excellent gauge of my understanding of the immensity of the pastoral task and my own utter dependency upon God.
Related 2007 SGM LC sessions:
It was a wonderful week with friends at the 2007 Sovereign Grace Leadership Conference in Gaithersburg, Maryland (close to DC). The conference was well-attended and the hospitality was beyond comparison. … But it is also good to return home and let the swirling thoughts settle. This week I’ll be going back over the sessions I attended with some reflections.
Wednesday night (4/11/07 PM)
General session #1
R.C. Sproul: “The Holiness of God”
GAITHERSBURG, MD – C.J. Mahaney gave one of his trademark warm introductions to R.C. as a man committed, not to the advancement of the academy, but to explaining theology to simple folk. “No one has more advanced, explained and defended Reformation theology more than R.C.” Later he said Sproul is “Luther-like in his defense of justification by faith alone.” C.J. went on to voice his appreciation specifically for the book The Holiness of God. When R.C. came to the stage C.J. had one more display of thankfulness for by presenting Sproul with a Steelers football helmet. C.J. also pulled out a Redskins helmet. [The next night Sproul would joke that he needed the helmet to protect his head from C.J. flailing arms during worship.]
After knocking the worship music of Sovereign Grace Ministries (!), Sproul began the first general session by explaining that the holiness of God has captivated his attention since 1957 when a study of the Old Testament brought the holiness of God to the forefront of his attention. Seeing God’s holiness in Scripture was a “virgin experience” because for years this God had been “concealed” to him even in the church! It was in 1957 Sproul came to realize that “God plays for keeps” and “I must give him everything I have.”
In seminary, Sproul’s understanding of God’s holiness continued to develop. As he studied Augustine, Anselm, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Edwards the common thread that “clearly gripped each one of these titans was an overwhelming sense of God’s transcendent majesty.” They were “intoxicated by a sense of the majesty of God.” There is nothing more important than a rediscovery of the character of God as His Word is expounded.
Sproul then launched into an exposition of Isaiah 6:1-8.
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts / the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”
Sproul built a picture of the holiness of God in a period of personal duress for Israel. Uzziah the king reigned for 52 years and made many improvements to the nation. The nation was strong although their king turned arrogant and turned away from the Lord (2 Chronicles 26). The Lord struck Uzziah with leprosy and he died as an unclean outcast. At this time of national concern, God revealed Himself to a man named Isaiah.
This scene is the disclosure of the preincarnate Jesus Christ in His holiness. In His presence the seraphim angels covered their feet (showing their creaturliness) and covered their eyes from His holy presence. The thrice repeated “Holy” reveals God’s infinitely holy character.
This earth is filled with His glory. The world and all of creation displays the “theater” of God (Calvin). We walk blindfolded to this glory. While sinners are cold to the holiness of God, the very foundation of the temple quakes in His presence.
When Isaiah saw a glimpse of the holiness of God he immediately understood who he was – a sinner (v. 5). “Woe is me!” was a pronouncement of an oracle of doom upon himself. We don’t treat God as our “buddy” but as a holy and righteous God. No longer does Isaiah have it all together. He unravels in the presence of God’s perfection. We too must be undone before we are saved.
The seraphim angel takes a burning hot coal from the altar (so hot the angel could not touch it). The scorching coal was placed on Isaiah’s lips – not to torture – but to cauterize the wound of sin and cleanse from further corruption. This is no cheap grace. Repentance hurts and heals. Don’t cheapen grace! Here Isaiah found justification, the gift of being declared righteous in God’s sight. This became the basis of his prophetic ministry. He closed with the idea that “None of us are qualified to speak for God unless we have experienced God’s justification.”
At a leadership conference like this, it would have been great to hear an emphasis on the correlation between the holiness of God and the ministry of the Word. But overall the first general session was no disappointment. It was a great reminder of the centrality of the holiness of God for the church. We, too, must have hearts, preachers and churches that are “intoxicated” with God’s holiness.
Related 2007 SGM LC sessions:
Hello everyone! The conference has been wonderful but a reliable Internet connection and free time have not been available so I’ll give more detailed updates later. All I can say now is that Gamache, Dever and Sproul have been wonderful. When I return to MN I’ll take time to reflect on each session individually. Mark Dever’s presentation this morning on reading old theologians answered some key questions I’ve asked about whether the church fathers are useful exegetically or not. I’ll update later, but time is short and I want to spend more time in the details. Blessings from Maryland! Tony
2007 Sovereign Grace Ministries Leadership Conference
Made possible by the overwhelming graciousness of our church family here in Minneapolis, my wife and I with some close friends head off to Maryland tomorrow afternoon for the annual Sovereign Grace Ministries Leadership Conference. I’ve anticipated this conference since October.
On Saturday nights my wife and I have been reading with our children through R.C. Sproul’s excellent book, The Holiness of God. It will be nice to hear the topic from the man himself. And although he is one of my favorite contemporary authors, I’ve never heard David Powlison speak. Of course there is eager anticipation to hear from C.J. Mahaney. Every time I look at this picture taken at Together for the Gospel I recall him reading (and weeping through) 1 Corinthians 4:7 … “What do you have that you did not receive?” He embodies this humility.
As if that were not enough, my pastor Rick Gamache will be speaking on Watch Your Devotional Life: The Pastor’s Communion with God (Thursday, 9:00 AM). I plan on attending that. And — like a true Puritan nerd — I plan to attend Mark Dever’s seminar Watch the Past: Living Lessons from Dead Theologians (Thursday, 11:30 AM). I’m hopeful Dever will help me better use Puritan literature and give greater details about the life of Richard Sibbes (I bought Dever’s biography of Sibbes at Covenant Life Church about a year ago but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet).
I’m no live-blogging Tim Challies so don’t expect immediate updates, but I’ll write as time allows (probably in the morning) and pass along interesting notes. If you’re attending the conference just look for a tall, handsome young man dressed in the latest threads. If you find him, say hello. And then come find me, too.
Related 2007 SGM LC sessions: