Sabbatical Reflections

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First Things First

Before anything else is said, on behalf of my wife Sheri and myself, I want to express our heartfelt thanks to the elders and congregation for making this past summer possible.  Just before our departure a member of our church family came up and kindly quipped, “You have a great group of elders around you.”

How true. I knew it, of course. But now everyone else does. A functioning plurality of elders with shared vision, a shared passion for Christ’s glory and love for His family is the Lord’s design for the church but sadly often not a reality.  What you witnessed this summer was the visible expression of Ephesians chapter four and the fruit of nearly 20 years of ministry.

Christ has given grace-gifts to each Christian and gifted men to the church in order to equip the flock for the work of the ministry. The church grows in maturity and love as each member does his/her part. In this manner, the body faithfully continued along the normal path as sheep were fed, Christ was preached and attention was given to the apostle’s doctrine, the breaking of bread, fellowship and prayer (Acts 2:42). No dog and pony shows. No trickery; just the bread and butter of life together in Christ. He supplies the divine power.

I can honestly say, as I did in my first elder’s meeting this week, I never had an anxious moment about the care and condition of the flock during the sabbatical – not one. I knew true shepherds and not hirelings were lovingly watching over you.

All of this did, however, come at a price. The pulpit ministry and care of the flock was distributed among the remaining elders who each had to carry a heavier load than normal. For this, I will forever be grateful.

Perhaps you developed a new habit of praying for all the elders with an increased sense of urgency. Might I encourage you to make this your new normal? They have always been there.

So how did it go? What did you do?

As you can imagine, we have already had more than a few conversations with individuals and groups of people curious to hear of our ventures and learn if the sabbatical served its purpose on our end. I’ll share just a few personal insights in this post and will let you in on some of the fun stuff in the next few entries.

When all is Stripped Away

Let me begin by reminding you that we were asked to rest, get away with Christ and each other and be refreshed. I was under strict orders (Ha, ha!) not to make this a working sabbatical. I thought I would have no problem with that but low and behold after a few weeks I felt ready to return to the normal rhythm of life. My pulpit preparation and study patterns provide a built-in mechanism for personal spiritual maintenance and growth. When that was stripped away and it became clear that I wasn’t coming back any time soon, I began to feel like I was in a free-fall.

By God’s grace I eventually reached a place of peaceful rest through deep meditation and contemplation of Scripture. This was different. It was not as utilitarian as my normal reading. I’m usually reading with pen in hand, jotting down ways this passage could be taught or applied in the church.

But now all the props were gone. It was time to let the word have its way with my heart alone. It was time to listen long and with the sole purpose of being ministered to and responding in prayerful adoration. I thought of one the songs we sing in corporate worship.

When the music fades
All is stripped away
And I simply come
Longing just to bring
Something that’s of worth
That will bless Your heart

I’ll bring You more than a song
For a song in itself
Is not what You have required
You search much deeper within
Through the way things appear
You’re looking into my heart

The Heart of Worship by Michael W. Smith

The Two-Edged Sword

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 (ESV)

God’s living word indeed searched out corridors and penetrated deeply into my heart. I saw much that needs to change in the mirror of the truth (James 1). I fought with regret. It’s easy to look back on nearly 20 years of decisions and focus on the ones you wish you had again. But mere accusation is the devil’s work. God aims to sanctify through Spirit wrought repentance.

Soon our compassionate Savior buoyed me by the hope found in the promises of the gospel. What God reveals He intends to change and this by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by my striving in the flesh (2 Cor. 3:18). His grace flooded me like the cold snow-melt streams we saw cascading in Glacier national park.

Run, John, run, the law commands, but gives us neither feet nor hands. Far better news the gospel brings:

It bids us fly and gives us wings

John Bunyan

Yes I have been refreshed and renewed. But not without spiritual effort and tears of repentance. My greatest fear now is that I’ll get back in a groove and forget about it all. I’m doing all I can not to. This ground was gained at a great price and I’m unwilling to move backwards. But I need grace for this as well. Pray for me in this regard.

That’s enough for now.  (Next post: Two are Better than One)

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Praying for Effective Preaching During Summer Sabbatical

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By God’s grace and the loving support of our church elders I have been granted a three month sabbatical for this summer. It will be a welcome respite after 20 years of ministry seeing this local church planted, discipled and multiplied. It will not be a working retreat so I won’t be doing a whole lot of writing and absolutely no preaching (so I’m told). I will take a hiatus from this blog but will be posting some updates on our family time and adventures via Facebook and Twitter (@TonySanelli). You can follow us there. Please pray for deep spiritual renewal, the reinforcing of our marriage and family and a whole lot of good fishing!

While my wife and I covet your prayers for a restful and restorative time I also request your prayerful support of the elders. They, along with a few others, will be fulfilling the preaching responsibilities throughout the summer. The series will be taken from the Gospel of Mark and they have already worked hard at organizing and bringing continuity to the pulpit.

I would like to set before you a portion of a handout we produced several years ago entitled, “How to Pray for Effective Preaching.” It was and remains adapted in part from the Westminster Assembly’s Directory of Worship and an article by David Eby. I’m convinced that all will profit greatly from this summer because the Lord loves His people and is attentive to our prayers.


1. Be careful and persistent to attend every service. Give the meeting of the church a priority over all other human institutions.

2. Listen carefully to the sermon. Take notes of important points.

3. Prepare your heart and pray for yourself and others before you come to worship.

4. Pray for the preaching of the word before, during and after the service.

5. Evaluate what you hear by the Word of God.

6. Humbly receive the truths proclaimed as God speaking to you, not just the human speaker.

7. Think about the sermon. Mull it over and think of ways to apply it in practical terms.

8. Talk about the sermon with others after the service. Discuss the truths with your family. Use the outline as a basis for discussion.

9. Read ahead as each week will cover one chapter of Mark.

10. Seek to obey what you hear. Pray for the grace of God to be a doer of the Word.


Pray to God for your pastors in these specific ways:

1. Help him to realize his absolute dependence on YOU, that apart from you he can do nothing (John 15:5).

2. Help him to pray for his preaching continually and depend on your Spirit for power.

3. Anoint him and fill him with your Spirit for preaching. Bring him under complete submission to you.

4. Enable him to preach the Word with accuracy, clarity, boldness and love.

5. Anoint the ears of listeners to be humble, hungry hearers of the Word.

6. Bring conviction of sins and true conversions by the preached Word to unbelievers.

7. Bring conviction of sin, ongoing repentance, encouragement, edification and growth/sanctification to believers.


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Don’t Become a Fellowship Agoraphobe

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Agoraphobia “is an anxiety disorder characterized by anxiety in situations where the sufferer perceives certain environments as dangerous or uncomfortable.” (Wikipedia)

I actually knew a man who suffered from agoraphobia when I was much younger. He never ventured more than two blocks from his home to his place of employment until one evening a series of events forced him to travel several miles beyond his perceived limits. It was this unplanned experience that helped him move beyond perception to reality – the rest of the world is not necessarily immediately dangerous or uncomfortable.

Fellowship Agoraphobia

I have observed many in the body of Christ who appear to suffer from what we might call a “fellowship agoraphobia.” Fellowship (koinonia) in the New Testament refers to deep partnerships that are akin to marriage or joint business relationships. In the Christian context, fellowship is a spiritual partnership that involves a sharing of the spiritual life believers jointly possess in Christ. Some hesitate to enter into such a shared community life because they believe the relationship to be dangerous to their privacy or at the very least, uncomfortable. This fellowship agoraphobia keeps other believers at an unhealthy distance.

The Necessity of Body Life

The body of Christ is made up of members that are inextricably united to one another as a result of our spiritual communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through our union with Christ. God’s grace flows through each of us to one another. This occurs when one or more of us “speaks the truth in love” to one another. This might take place in a public context or in a very private and personal setting. God’s transforming grace also flows to others when we serve one another with our various spiritual gifts or endowments. But each and every case will involve purposeful interaction with one another – i.e., relationships and some degree of transparency.

But relationships can become very messy. Not everyone is as easy to get along with as others. Not everyone is as welcoming of the loving concern of others. Not everyone likes to “air their dirty laundry” and disclose their need of someone or something. We are surrounded by a culture built upon a spirit of independence and self-sufficiency. There is a lot of good to be found in this American ideal. But it is not entirely biblical through and through. God has designed us for community. He has designed the individual members of the body to NEED one another so as to reflect the inner-relationships of the Holy Trinity.

Take a Step – Give a Nudge

Many in the body of Christ are not sufficiently convinced of the necessity of deep fellowship and will require a nudge to encourage them. The author of Hebrews tells believers to “not neglect our meeting together” but to be sure to “consider how to stir one another to love and good works” and “encourage one another.”

Where are you in respect to true Christian fellowship? Let me urge those on the fringe to take a step towards this level of community and those already experiencing community to nudge the others along. God’s family can feel uncomfortable at times, as with any family, but its through this very vehicle of interdependent relationships that God’s grace transforms people into the image of His beloved Son.


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“In Christ” Jesus

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Obviously I have been remiss in posting to this blog. The pace of ministry accelerated like a high speed train following the T4G conference right on up and through Easter (Resurrection) Sunday. Thanks especially to all who visit from our congregation who have come looking for reflections pertinent to our life together and thanks also to friends who have stopped by. 

“In Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In Ephesians 1 the apostle Paul states that all Christians have been blessed by God with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” – IN CHRIST. This little formula “in Christ” is something that Paul utilizes in one form or another 164 times in his letters. From Paul’s perspective Jesus is the source of every blessing given to believers in what we commonly call our “salvation” and all that is His becomes ours when were are united to Him or, as Paul states, placed “in Christ.” This is referred to by theologians as the doctrine of “union with Christ.”

Chosen from Eternity

Bonhoeffer’s quote reminds us that God’s saving grace reaches back into eternity past. And this blessing, God’s election of the people He would give to His Son, also takes place “in Christ.” Paul writes “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). In other words, before we were experientially united to Christ through the new birth in time and space, the Father contemplated believers redemptively as being in or belonging to His Son. Much like some cultures where those who are betrothed to one another in an arranged marriage are seen as already belonging to their spouse.

Accepted in Time

These blessings become the believer’s experientially when he/she is united to Jesus by God’s act of saving grace. As Paul puts it a little later in Ephesians 2, even while we were spiritually dead in our transgressions and sin it is God who “made us alive together with him.” This is a reference to regeneration or the new birth. Paul appears to have coined this compound verb as there is no evidence of this in any extant extra biblical documents. The apostle knits together  the components: made alive – together with – him in order to depict the transformation of the new birth that involves nothing less than resurrection life – the dead become alive when joined to He who alone gives life (cf. Col. 2:13).

It is then that our union with Christ confers all the benefits of His perfect and glorious salvation. We are guilty sinners who need righteousness – in Christ we are justified because He is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). We are lost in a sea of fallen human beings – in Christ we are sanctified (set apart) because He is our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). We are outside the heavenly family devoid of an inheritance – in Christ we are adopted sons for He is the Son par excellence (Eph. 1:14; Rom. 8:15).

United for Eternity

So many of our human unions end in separation. While it is difficult, if not next to impossible, to calculate the true mortality rate of marriages in America (its not as simple as counting marriages and divorces in any given year), it is clear that most of us have been touched by divorce at one point or another. But our union with Christ is an unbreakable and indissoluble marriage. It was designed in eternity past, realized in time and held together forever by God’s grace. The reason for this permanence lies in the fact that all that is needed for our salvation, including its permanence, lies “in Christ.” He is the unchanging and unfailing groom. He has loved us with an unending and unfailing love. Even when we are faithless, He “remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 10:28

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Together for the Gospel 2014: Day Two thoughts

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Unashamed of the Gospel

Day two was a day full of preaching, panels, breakout sessions and worship. It spanned from 9 am to 10 pm. In the words of Matt Chandler (speaker for the last of three plenary sessions), today was “kid day.” He was humorously referring to the fact that the first plenary message was delivered by Kevin DeYoung (no pun intended here), the second by David Platt, both of whom join Matt as some of the younger voices of what is being called the “New Calvinism.” Waiting in the batter’s box were John Piper, Ligon Duncan and John MacArthur, three of the more, shall we say, “seasoned” heralds of our time. I suppose that means tomorrow will be “grown-up day.”

It is worth noting that while this younger generation of preachers may have a less formal tenor in the pulpit than the previous generation, when the word is handled with integrity it can have power and divine effectiveness due to the faithful ministry of the Holy Spirit. Kevin preaches in a manner deliberate, textual and closer to what we will hear on “grown-up day” but sprinkled with a few nods to pop-culture (that’s iota not “Yoda”). While Matt and David preach with more youthful angst, informality and a gritty “emo” like emotion that appears to me to be common among many of the newer Calvinists. What matters is that each is a vessel of the Lord – merely clay pots through whom God must choose to do His work.

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6)

Whether one enters the pulpit as a gritty Amos (the only prophet who was formerly a “fig-picker) or an erudite Paul, in the end, its not the T-shirt and grit nor the suit and composure that will determine the extent of divine effects in those sitting under the preached word. There must be respect and confidence in the infallible and sufficient word of God as evidenced in a faithful Christ-exalting exposition of the text. That’s all we can do (along with pleading prayer – hear David Platt’s message). God must choose to magnify His glory by infusing the preaching event with His divine blessing. Oh, may He do so in all our pulpits. Well, enough of my own thoughts. Suffice to say, it encourages me and glorifies God when he uses a faithful Amos and a faithful Paul in such close proximity. 

Day-Two Takeaways

(These aren’t always exact quotes as I’m typing on my iPhone of all things as fast as I can. They do, however, capture the essence)

If you think that you can magnify grace by shrinking truth you make them (listeners) blind to both.” Kevin DeYoung. What a temptation – make God seem more “gracious” (in a truly unbiblical sense) by softening the rough edges of divine truth. In the end, you end up with neither grace nor truth. Be bold with ALL the truth – I reminded myself.

“Am I pleading for God’s mercy upon sinners?” – David Platt.  I was disturbed by my capacity to not palpably feel the horror that awaits unbelievers. My pleading may not alter the Lamb’s book of life but it is part of the fabric of God’s sovereign method of grace in redeeming the elect.

Panel Discussion: The morning’s panel discussion focused on the doctrine of progressive sanctification and the necessity of holiness. This is a topic I teach at the Cornerstone Seminary and one dear to my heart. In this panel John Piper stated that “glorification is conditional” (that is an exact quote). The panel was addressing the apparent lack of interest (to put it mildly) that some of the newer Calvinists have in the necessity of personal effort in the pursuit of holiness. If one speaks of this, it was noted, you may be labeled “legalist.”

Now, we Reformed types major on the essential truth that salvation is all of grace and all of the Lord. It’s easy to hear a statement like Piper’s and take it out of context. He did not say “justification is conditional.” Though, that itself would be true – ONLY in this sense – Christ has MET all the conditions on my behalf. But, glorification is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of salvation and this blessing of God is given to all believers who have persevered and borne the fruit of justification (i.e., progressive sanctification or practical holiness). In other words – true believers. The nuance here is that these “works” are NOT meritorious but evidential. The panel did not state it exactly in these terms but I believe this was their target conceptually. It is a conversation worth listening to and one which will continue to disturb the church. Let’s face it, it’s difficult to maintain the balance between law and grace and positional and progressive sanctification in your own conscience and a local church – let alone everyone else’s books.

On the Lighter Side

Am I getting started to soon?

Am I getting started to soon?

We walked to the Louisville Slugger factory during break and I bought three mini-bats for each of my three grandsons. I had all of them engraved. As Grandpa it’s now my right and privilege to do stuff like this. I dare you to stop me. P.S. I’m keeping the BIG one!Large Slugger

TR's Bat

TR’s Bat

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Together For the Gospel 2014: Day One Thoughts

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Today was the first day of T4G 2014 (Together for the Gospel). I want to introduce the conference, its founders and its focus to those of you who have not heard about it (especially members of our congregation). You will find more complete helpful information at their website. I also want to share a few thoughts and reactions to the first day. This is my third T4G but my first since I began this blog.


T4G is a biennial (every 2 years) conference for pastors that began in 2006. While most of the attendees continue to be pastors there are also other ministry leaders and wives in attendance. The conference meets in Louisville, Kentucky and has steadily grown to 7 thousand in attendance this year. The basis of unity is found in a document that states their affirmations and denials in regards to the gospel. Efforts at promoting partnerships in the gospel despite differences in secondary areas are exemplary of the nature of the gospel itself and profoundly needed in our time. This is what I appreciate the most about this partnership.


“Together for the Gospel began as a friendship between four pastors (Mark Dever, C. J. Maheny, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler). These friends differed on issues such as baptism, polity and the charismatic gifts” but sought to unite around the gospel. Ligon is a Presbyterian, Al Mohler a Southern Baptist, Mark Dever a Baptist and C. J. Maheny (who has since withdrawn from the conference) is an independent “Reformed Charismatic.”


The stated purpose of the conference is:

“…to encourage other pastors to stand together for the same gospel. In the years since, faces have changed, the culture has shifted, and churches have encountered new challenges. Yet the conference has grown, and more and more church leaders have discovered they share this same gospel-centered ambition.

T4G is convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been misrepresented and marginalized in many churches and among those who proclaim the name of Christ. Therefore, the goal of these friendships and conferences is to reaffirm the central doctrine of the Christian faith and to encourage local churches to do the same.”

Reflections on Day One 2014

It’s been a long couple of days with travel, little sleep and work that goes on via remote tools so my thoughts will be brief at this hour (11:45 pm Eastern).

At t4g with Pastor & friend Dave Mikulsky

At t4g with Pastor & friend Dave Mikulsky

Worship – One forgets how wonderful the human voice sounds in unison praises of our Lord. Hearing 7 thousand exalt Christ with only a minimal amount of piano accompaniment is a “heavenly” experience in itself. If I remember correctly, the founders have chosen to keep musical accompaniment to a minimum since this is one of the areas of disagreement. But upon this we all agree – the sound of thousands exalting Christ in a large basketball arena is deeply encouraging.

Books – Books, books and more books. Today we were graciously given 12 free books to take home. I already owned 6 of them (same heartbeat?) so I plan on giving those to my seminary student son upon return. The selection of books for purchase is astounding.

Preaching & Topics – Today we heard from Mark Dever (who has spoken at our own church for a 9Marks conference), Thabiti Anyabwile and Al Mohler. Mark’s message on “The Certain Victory of Christ’s Church an Encouragement to Evangelism” was based out of Isaiah chapters 36 & 37. He traced the historical situation faced by Israel and God’s awesome deliverance as demonstration of both His sovereignty and faithfulness. Both attributes which find their fullest expression in the cross of Christ and which continue to be true in His relationship to the church. This truly lifted up the spirit of a weary pastor (me). My memorable takeaway from Thabiti’s message on repentance was: “Sin is living that ends in death. Repentance is dying that ends in life” (slightly paraphrased). It stirred my spirit to be thankful for God’s gift of repentance to me and to pray for those who need gospel repentance.

More thoughts to follow as the week unfolds. 

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April 8, 2014 · 8:12 PM

Christcenteredness: The Difference Between the Ideal and the Practice

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What’s in a slogan?

Most churches and ministries have a slogan to sum up their core values or commitments. The “slogan” of our congregation, Grace Bible Church of Pleasant Hill, is: “Growing Together in the Grace and Knowledge of God.” The slogan of our affiliate ministry, Grace School of Theology and Ministry is: “A Christ-centered biblical education for life and ministry.”

 To be honest, just about every Christian institution and ministry would gladly employ “Christ-centered” as descriptive of its focus. This would be true of those within the pale of orthodoxy and those far beyond the fringes. A brief search on Google under “Christ-centered” turned up Christ-centered Mormons, Christ-centered yoga, magic with a Christ-centered flair, a Christ-centered plan for weight loss—you get the picture.

So what’s the difference? The difference lies in the disparity between the ideal and the practice. Frankly, for most of the links I just mentioned, Christ-centered does not really even represent the ideal. It is simply a label or crass marketing tool. But, assuming the ideal is genuinely embraced, the rubber meets the road in practice. How so?

In the simple and broadest sense, Christocentricity is an approach to ministry in which the person and work of Jesus Christ play a determining or controlling role. It is a question of His authority and influence.  Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, is the supreme revelation of God the Father (Jn. 1:18; Heb. 1:1) and has been given all authority as the only being who fully unites both natures forever (Mt. 28:19). His person and work must therefore have a determining and controlling influence upon all of life, including but not limited to a biblical education. In the words of the apostle Paul, Jesus Christ is the head of creation and the new-creation “so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.”

Picture the sun’s gravitational influence upon the planets in orbit. There is no escape. Picture the pain staking decision-making process of a family when a child has a severe chronic disease. Nearly every decision is influenced by the well being of the child. To be a Christ-centered church or educational institution is to actively and consciously acknowledge the authority of the person and work of Jesus Christ at every point of theology and practice. It is to submit to His all-encompassing Lordship at every turn. As Dane Ortlund states, “Jesus is the integrative North Star of all Christian doctrine and practice.”

Christ is the controlling center of theology

Consider the words of Paul F. M. Zahl, in his Short Systematic Theology.

“…the prism through which all light concerning God is reflected is Jesus Christ. This means that Christology is the beginning and the end, better, the starting point and summary, of all Christian thought. Christology is Paul’s theme when he writes, “For it is the very God who said. ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6)… Christology is the subject of theology. More precisely put, Jesus Christ is the subject of theology.”

Christ is the controlling center of the Scriptures

Our Lord Himself said that He is the central topic of discussion of the entire Old Testament (Lk. 24:27, 44).  Consider the words of John Calvin, from his commentary on John 5:39

“We ought to read the Scripture with an expressed design of finding Christ in them. Whoever shall turn aside from this object, though he may weary himself through his whole life in learning, will never attain the knowledge of the truth; for what wisdom can we have without the wisdom of God.” 

I could go on with examples of the centrality of Christ in every field of study and Christian ministry. The ever-present challenge to which we continually seek to attain is to move beyond the ideal to the practice. This ought to be the goal of every local church ministry, ever local church and every Christian. May God graciously enable us to rise above ideals in order to submit to the gravitational influence of Jesus as the North Star of all. The words of Augustine, which I include in the header of this blog, may then almost become a life slogan:

“Christ is not valued at all unless He is valued above all.”

(This blog entry emerges from the intro to a course I teach for the Cornerstone Seminary)

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April 3, 2014 · 7:48 PM

Can’t God Speak to me Like Siri?

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Isn’t There an App for That?

It’s a tremendously encouraging experience to have the living God speak directly to you in order to tell you exactly what you should do next. Wow! The blueprint for my life revealed and communicated to me via concise verbal revelations and I didn’t even have to “click” a link or say “Siri can you…” It’s also quite a claim. Great and godly Christian men and women down through the ages have never had the benefit of such direct, unmediated and unfiltered communication from God. There must have not been an App for that back then. Reformed smart phone

Direct or Indirect?

Not that God is mute and unable to care for His children by leading and guiding them. Far from it. The Lord is my shepherd and He still “leads me beside quiet waters.” But direct and indirect are two very different things when it comes to verbal communication. I can walk into the next room and speak directly to my wife. I can express my wishes, opinions and provide input on a decision she is making. These are all newly organized fresh words spoken directly to her. I can also seek to shape her decision indirectly by placing certain objects and people in her path without saying a new word.

I can leave a letter on the kitchen counter I wrote to her in the past in which I express my opinions on matters she is considering. I know her well enough to make a pretty good guess as to how she will respond. Just today I guessed what she was thinking about making for dinner by virtue of just one thing she said! I could also leave my favorite cook-book opened to my favorite recipe. I could even turn off the electricity and the gas with the hope of going out to dinner together! (I think you get my point. All illustrations break down at some level.) While my influence was immediate, that is, I’m the one doing these things; the words that are suddenly formed in her mind as she interprets my actions are indirect– I did not speak them. 

It’s Still Your Decision in the End

Now whether she actually chooses to make such and such for dinner will be her decision in the end. My strategic culinary influence will not absolve her of personal responsibility or her moral freedom. Nor will I be responsible for what she eventually chooses. She must still process the information and objects before her and analyze them in order to make a decision. In other words, all my influences must still be filtered by her memories and mental functions. This will inevitably effect what she “thinks I’m saying.”

The idea here is that God, who has decreed all things that come to pass, who doesn’t need to guess my reactions, and who unlike me, does control all details and influences in my life is thus perfectly capable of getting His point across to me without direct new revelations in verbal form. He still speaks to us today in His all-sufficient words of Holy Scripture. He brings the truth of Scripture to bear upon our mind and conscience without bypassing our memory. He illumines the meaning and implications of Scripture (1 Cor. 2:14-15). He produces conviction and repentance (John 16:8) and enlivens the faith He has planted in us (Eph. 2:8). He controls all of life’s providential events.

All of these activities of the Holy Spirit have directional effects that can lead me in my decision making. And He does all this without the use of fallible prophets speaking new direct fallible prophecies and without a Siri-like voice in my head delivering today’s blueprint for my life. But, when it’s all said and done, I have to still process all of His influences with my fallen and imperfect memory and mind. Thus, there’s no wonder I can sometimes erroneously conclude what “I think the Spirit is saying to me” and cook the wrong dish for dinner.   

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)

More on the Spirit’s communication to come in upcoming posts.

P.S. I must confess I’ve tried influencing the evening’s dinner selection and succeeded! All without saying a word.  

photo by: Kartik Malik

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The High Price of Spiritual Speculation

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It Sure Looks Like Solid Ground

According to the Oxford dictionary one of the meanings of speculation is “the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence.” 

Theories can often serve the process of interpreting Scripture as one sifts through the data and weighs the possible meanings of a text. A theory presents a possibility that can be examined from many angles until it is demonstrated to be either the best possible interpretation with the least problems or an unacceptable interpretation in light of the evidence and rules of interpretation. In other words, a theory is like a model one can fabricate, hold in your hands and test before investing in building the real thing.

All theories in biblical interpretation and theology must be thoroughly evaluated and the goal is always to seek more and better evidence to support it. But speculation is forming a theory without firm evidence. The question is whether one should then take the next step and make decisions upon the ground of speculation. This, to me, seems to go against the better part of wisdom and is akin to building on top of sand without an engineering report with the hope  that the ground won’t shift.

House falling over

Speculating on “Fallible Prophecy” 

The now widespread belief in “fallible prophecy” involves just such conjecture. What part of the prophecy is from God and what part isn’t? How much did the fallible prophet get wrong? One might form an opinion but that will always amount to conjecture because there is no real way of knowing and hence testing prophecies that are not dealing with direct scriptural or doctrinal claims. Nor is there any way to determine the degree of mixture as to the source.

Prophecies about relationships, jobs, financial decisions, etc., may be weighed against biblical principles in regards to their wisdom but the percentage of purity cannot be traced. How do you know God told you this? Proving the unverifiable is impossible. One cannot have real and absolute assurance because that’s the definition of fallibility – you can be wrong!

Speculating about tomorrow’s weather is one thing but speculating about what percentage of a “prophecy” is from God and what part the prophet got wrong is something altogether different.  And yet people make choices every day on the basis of fallible prophecy. 

Wandering from Green Pastures

This is a dangerous, lamentable and often destructive way to live the Christian life. Sometimes very directly, as in decisions to leave careers or sell homes because of a “prophecy.” But there is also the quiet almost imperceivable drift away from the solid ground of God’s all-sufficient word. Like many forms of mysticism, confidence in fallible prophecy casts doubt on the adequacy of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16). I’ve seen too many well-meaning Christians, to quote J. I. Packer, “Wandering out of the green pastures of God’s word into the barren flats of human speculation.” The pastures of God’s word are green with nourishment because they bring us into contact with the all-sufficient Christ. In Him are hidden “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).

The slow prayerful process of sanctified reasoning with the truth of Scripture may not be as direct and exhilarating as a prophecy that suddenly invades your life with an immediate word from the living God just for you, but it is based on a more solid foundation. Consider this beloved, you will still have to apply prayerful sanctified reason to the prophecy– after all it’s fallible. Now what would you rather prayerfully examine, meditate upon and consider– unverifiable fallible prophecy or the infallible word of the Lord that will stand forever?

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A Good Smelling Kitchen doesn’t Necessarily Mean a Healthy Kitchen

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A Further Application from Sunday’s Message “Christ the Giver of Gifts Pt 2″

Pie, discernment, spiritual condition

Reading the ingredients on food products and restaurant menus is starting to bum me out. Now that my certified nutritionist brother has made me aware of what ingredients are truly health promoting and which ones are not, I’m wise to the fact that not all that smells good is truly good for you. It’s a trap that churches and Christians can also easily fall into.

We see others doing many and somewhat significant things among the people of God. We find ourselves involved in a growing variety of church related ministries and activities. All of this is OK… right? Intrinsically, yes. Take each activity on its own merit and they are good and healthy things. But don’t confuse busyness with spiritual vitality or even spiritual life. When it comes to our spiritual health you have to read the label and not just rely upon your God-given olfactory sense.

People can have visible gifts and effectiveness outwardly but inwardly they are experiencing a slow death. In fact, it is possible that inwardly they remain quite spiritually dead. Judas, Demas and King Saul were all examples of gifted individuals among the people of God who were self-deceived and devoid of spiritual life. How is this possible?

God Can Cook Great Meals Through Anybody

In our last point this past Sunday we noted that God can use whom he wants for whatever purpose he wants. He even spoke through a donkey. There have always been people in the visible church repeating biblical statements and concepts moved by a variety of motives and inner idolatries who are not even converted– and some very eloquently. John Wesley testified to the fact that he spoke powerfully on certain matters at the beginning of his ministry yet there was something missing. It was some time after he met with Moravians and saw something of their true spiritual life that he experienced the new birth by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus concludes the powerful Sermon on the Mount with the soul-searching truth that some will remain self-deceived to the very end. At the judgment some will come to him and say, “Lord, lord did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name and do many mighty works in your name?” As if to say “surely these spiritually dynamic activities are evidence of eternal life.” But the Lord’s piercing response is “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:22).

We Judge by the Outside but God Sees the Heart

Herein lies a helpful truth and a warning. When Samuel the prophet sought to identify which of the sons of Jesse God had chosen to be the king following Saul, and he began to fall into the same trap of smelling something good in the kitchen, the Lord retorted, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
The heart. This is where one finds the ingredient list. The heart is that part of us that shapes and controls our character.  The teacher of wisdom writes, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). The heart is the “mission control center” of human beings. In Hebrew biblical theology the heart encompasses the mind, emotions and the will. This is where the Holy Spirit begins to transform believers until we yield the outward fruit of love, joy, peace, and self-control, etc. (2 Cor. 3:18, Gal. 5:22).
Get Past the Smell and Check the Ingredients

From this we concluded that character formation is a mark of grace not gifts, abilities or busyness. The trap for believers is thinking that because you are busy for the Lord all is well with the Lord. This was one of the problems with the church at Corinth. They were enamored with the gifts at the expense of the fruit. This is a trap I know all too well. The ministry is a mine field full of this subtle deception. It’s often easier to study than to reflect with the Lord on the direction of my inner life.

To be sure, when it comes to our position in Christ all is always well. There is no being “less justified” in Christ from one day to the next. But our walk with Jesus is not only about unchanging positional realities promised in the gospel. It is also about devotion to the Lord. He is our living and personal Savior. Our walk with Him involves relating to Him with a heart and life of worship and submission. It includes listening to Him in His word, adoration, repentance, mind renewal and the intimacy of prayer. This is not the same as busyness, activity and even — visible effectiveness.

So is this a healthy church? The only way to really know is to do more than smell. We have to read the ingredients. We have to get past evaluating what we are “doing” and consider what we are “becoming” by God’s grace. The fruit of the Spirit is the goal of the gifts of the Spirit. We can’t pursue the latter at the expense of the former.

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