Returning to Romans: An Epistle of Faith, Hope, and Love

kelly-sikkema-GPoh17DxqdM-unsplashIn the Fall of 2019 our church began a Bible study in the book of Romans. It ran through the first seven chapters of Paul’s magnum opus, but in March 2020, when the world shut down, we pushed pause on this book. When we returned to church, our Bible study shifted to Leviticus. But with that study completed, we are now returning to Paul’s largest letter. And for those interested in following along, they can find previous lessons here. New lessons will also be posted on the same page each week through the Spring.

For this blogpost, I want to offer a brief sketch of the book and how Paul’s triad of Faith, Hope, and Love organize his magnificent exposition of the gospel. For those studying Romans (again), this will help acquaint you with the book as a whole. And it also will provide a way of seeing the gospel, and what the gospel achieves, in this whole letter. Additionally, this approach to Romans may also remind us of how Paul brought unity to the church of Rome, when it was facing divisions. Today, we face the same. And thus, we need to learn as much from Paul as we can about what the gospel is and what the gospel does.

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Doctrine and Life: Let Us Not Divorce What God Has Joined Together

jonathan-simcoe-pSjwUXBMnlc-unsplashKeep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [doctrine].
Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
— 1 Timothy 4:16 —

Doctrine and life. Life and doctrine.

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he calls his pastoral protegé to embrace both and not let go of the other. And for anyone who cares about life or doctrine, we must also care about the other also. For doctrine without life is dead and life without sound doctrine is leading to death.

In truth, when doing theology, if it does not lead someone to the giver of life, it is dead theology. But simultaneously, life that downplays doctrine is equally deadly. This is why Paul repeatedly refers to sound doctrine in his Pastoral Epistles. He knows that sound (lit. healthy) doctrine does not give life; the Spirit of God does. But anyone born of the Spirit needs to know and grow in the life-giving doctrines of God. This is why he says that by paying attention to doctrine, “you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

Simultaneously, because he knows that knowledge by itself can puff up (1 Cor. 8:1), and that not all studies in the Law are lawful (1 Tim. 1:3–11), he calls for Timothy to guard his life and his doctrine. Too many are the knowledgable theologians who did not guard their lives. And too many are the false professors who have general sense of theology but no life. Thus, we must always pursue doctrine for the sake of knowing the life-giving God. To expound this idea further, let me turn to two theologians who knew both doctrine and life. Continue reading

Brother-Theologians: Preach the Word!

samuel-zeller-432101A few years ago I wrote this article on David Prince’s website. As I go to teach Systematic Theology 1 this week, I am reminded of it, and the need for theologians to be preachers.

In theology, we are not just called to study and store up knowledge of truth. We are called to study to show ourselves approved so that we may preach—or teach, or write, or counsel, or anything else that qualifies as heralding the good news—sound doctrine. To that point, I repost this article, in hopes that God may continue to raise up men sound in doctrine who will preach the Word.

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When I came to seminary, I wanted to study the Bible and theology. Having never “preached” a Sunday morning message, I was uncertain as to the role preaching would have in my life. Ten years later, through a combination of providential opportunities and willingness to preach whenever I was asked, I have finished my theological education  (Yes, it took a decade!) and have preached more Sundays than not.

For nearly five years I have filled the pulpit at my current church—first as a supply preacher, then an interim pastor, and last as the senior pastor. In the lustrum before serving at our church, I like so many of my seminary peers preached in nursing homes, urban missions, country parishes. It was a wonderfully painful time, one where precious little flocks like Corn Creek Baptist Church endured my preaching and helped me learn how to preach.

During that time, preaching was a priority, but so was theology. By training, I am a systematic theologian, or at least, that’s what my degree says. Therefore, as a pastor and a theologian, I feel a measure of familiarity with both vocations. And I feel a fraternal affection and responsibility to exhort aspiring theologians with what Paul commanded Timothy: Preach the Word! Continue reading

Who Can Stand Before His Cold? A Biblical Meditation on God’s Snow

black wooden fence on snow field at a distance of black bare trees

“He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs;
who can stand before his cold?”
— Psalm 147:17 —

As we sit in Northern Virginia under blue skies and a blanket of snow, we wait for roads to be cleared and power to return. Yesterday, in less than six hours our warm Sunday turned into a cold, icy, snowmaggeddon Monday. And as of Tuesday, many were still waiting to be freed from the accumulated ice crystals on I-95. Let’s pray for them.

For those who do have power, though, but no place to go, perhaps it would be worthwhile to redeem the extra time today with a brief meditation on God’s Word and the power of God’s weather. As Job 37:13 says, “Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen.” What does God cause to happen? Everything in creation. And as this verse implies, nothing happens on the earth that God did not intend in heaven.

Such sovereignty demands our respect. And more than respect, it calls for us to tremble before the One who is our Maker, Sustainer, and Engineer of every snowflake. To aid in that proper response to God, I wrote up this devotion a few years ago, when we were inundated with thirty inches of snow. Today, as we sit waiting warmer days, and praying for the care of those who are suffering cold, we would do well to reflect on the God who made the world and who designed cold to be a means by which we would tremble—physically tremble—before him.

He is God. And we are not. And may our dependence on him in this day and in every snowy (or sunny) day help us to respond to him with reverence and adoration. If you have time, here’s the meditation that traces the theme of snow through the whole Bible. Continue reading

A Grace That Endures: Eleven Words of Comfort in Times of Crisis (Psalm 119:25–32)

boat out at sea at dusk

Amazing grace, How sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I am found, / Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, / And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear / The hour I first believed.

These lyrics are the opening words to John Newton’s famous hymn Amazing Grace. And they recall his miraculous conversion from a trader of slaves to a slave of Christ. And if you have tasted the grace of Christ  in your life and experienced the forgiveness of sins, the regenerating work of the Spirit, and the undeserved love of the Father, then his lyrics are precious beyond words. For in Newton’s hymn, we find a testimony of grace that recalls our salvation as well.

Yet, Amazing Grace is not only a hymn of salvation, it is also a hymn of preservation. For it continues . . . Continue reading

The Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan: January Resources for Genesis, Isaiah, and Matthew

Jesus washing the feet of Saint Peter on Maundy Thursday

This month the Via Emmaus Reading Plan is looking at Genesis, Isaiah, and/or Matthew. (See below for the tracks). If you are following this plan, or looking for a new reading plan, you can find helpful resources on the following pages. 

Track 1: Genesis

Track 2: Isaiah

Track 3: Matthew

If you have other resources on these books, please feel free to share.

May the Lord bless you and keep you and make his face shine upon you as you draw near to him in his Word.

The Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan

Tracks[1] Old Testament 1

Law + Prophets

Old Testament 2

Prophets + Writings

New Testament
January Genesis Isaiah Matthew
February Exodus Jeremiah Mark
March Leviticus

Psalms

Ezekiel Luke

Psalms

April Numbers The Twelve[2] John
May Deuteronomy Psalms Acts
June John Proverbs Romans
July Joshua

Judges

Job 1–2 Corinthians
August 1–2 Samuel The Five Scrolls[3] Galatians–

2 Thessalonians

September 1–2 Kings

Proverbs

Daniel Pastorals

Proverbs

October Ezra-Nehemiah 1–2 Chronicles Hebrews
November Psalms Mark General Epistles[4]
December[5] Matthew Luke Revelation

As I have explained before

The idea of this plan is simple. Read, re-read, listen, study, memorize, and meditate on one (or two or three) books per month. If you do multiple tracks, you could read them sequentially, together, or at different times of the week (e.g., morning and evening, or week and weekend, etc.). However you plan your reading—and you should have a plan for reading that includes a place and time(s) to read—these tracks can guide you as you swim in the Bible. Then, over the course of 1, 2, or 3 years (depending on how many tracks you do), you will have read the whole Bible once, the Gospels twice, and the Psalms and Proverbs three times.

Let me know how this approach is going and if you have any feedback.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Raising Oaks of Righteousness: Ten Public Disciplines to Consider in the New Year

victoria-palacios-dfo06_DqxpA-unsplashAt the beginning of the year, we should be considering habits and practices that will build our most holy faith (Jude 21) for the next 365 days. Such disciplines begin with personal habits that enable us to commune with God. And books on practicing spiritual disciplines typically have about a dozen habits to consider.

For instance, Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life lists ten: (1) Bible intake (in two parts), (2) prayer, (3) worship, (4) evangelism, (5) serving, (6) stewardship, (7) fasting, (8) silence and solitude, (9) journaling, and (10) learning. Whitney also has another book on corporate disciplines. Similarly, but more mystically, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline enumerates twelve disciplines under three orientations: inward disciplines include (1) meditation, (2) prayer, (3) fasting, and (4) study; outward disciplines involve (5) simplicity, (6) solitude, (7) submission, and (8) service; and corporate disciplines consist of (9) confession, (10) worship, (11) guidance, and (12) celebration.

Because Scripture does not publish an authorized list of disciplines, an exhaustive list cannot be produced. Even a cursory reading these two lists invites comment on the best way to think about practicing the habits Jesus commanded. Is worship only corporate? How is solitude outward? Does solitude have to be silent? Whitney and Foster discuss these questions in their books with different emphases based on their different theological and ecclesial backgrounds. (As a Reformed Baptist it’s not surprising that I find Whitney’s book, full of Puritan Spirituality, the better book).

But what makes both of these books the same is their challenge to individuals to grow in personal godliness. Indeed, both books highlight the personal model of Jesus, a man who  undeniably practiced the spiritual disciplines and taught his followers to do the same. In short, personal spiritual disciplines are part and parcel of faith in the Lord.

That said, personal disciplines are not private disciplines. As Foster rightly identify, there is an outward and corporate aspect to the Christian’s spiritual life. Understanding this interpersonal dynamic, Donald Whitney wrote a companion volume, Spiritual Disciplines within the Church to correct the hyper-individualism  fostered by an unbalanced concern for personal, spiritual disciplines.

A Third Horizon in Spiritual Formation

Still, I wonder if there is something more that ought to be stressed in the spiritual formation of a believer? Is it possible that those who attend regularly to Bible intake, prayer, worship, evangelism, and even fasting may be incomplete in their spiritual development? In addition to personal disciplines and church practices, could it be that there is a third horizon that must be developed in order for a disciple to walk worthy of the gospel?

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From Death to Life: How Joshua Gives Us Resurrection Hope in the Midst of Loss

photo-1416958672086-951aa7064010 2Moses was dead to begin with.
— Joshua 1:1 —

Marley was dead to begin with.
— Charles Dickens —

When Charles Dickens wrote the opening line to A Christmas Carol, he touched off one of the most wonderful Christmas stories ever told. Marley, the miserly associate of Ebenezer Scrooge, was dead and now all eyes turned to his living partner. Though the story begins in the darkness of Scrooge’s heart, by the end the light of Christmas opens the heart of this old sinner.

Something similar occurs when we read the opening line of Joshua. The titanic figure of Moses, the servant of Yahweh—the prophet, priest, and leader of Israel; the one who led Israel out of Egypt, received the Law, and stood before the wrath of God to seek Israel’s pardon—this incredible Moses was gone. Now, all eyes were set on Joshua, Moses’s Spirit-filled associate. Would he be able to lead the people into the light of the Promised Land?

Strikingly, both A Christmas Carol and Joshua are comedies. Meaning, that both find resolution and good cheer by the end of the book. In Dickens’ case, Scrooge is “converted” through the three Christmas spirits. In Joshua’s case, the Spirit of God is promised to Moses’s successor, such that Joshua’s glory, by the end of his life, is arguably greater than that of Moses. While Moses brought Israel out of the land, he died in the wilderness because of his sin. But Joshua, who contributed to Israel’s flight from Egypt, added to his credentials the successful deliverance of Israel into the land. Continue reading

Listen, Read, Study, and Repeat: Bible Intake for the New Year

andrik-langfield-1-YQiOijio8-unsplashIn his must-read book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald Whitney offers two chapters on Bible Intake. In the first of those two chapters he lists (1) hearing, (2) reading, and (3) studying as three key ways to imbibing, ingesting, and embracing God’s Word. With those disciplines in mind, let me offer a few verses to support them and then apply them to the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan (or any other plan).

Listen to the Word

Maybe it seems like reading the Bible should begin with the discipline of reading. But this read-first mentality only shows how literate our society is. To be sure, literacy is nothing but a blessing, and Christian missionaries have always brought schools with them to help converts read the Bible. But still, such literacy may actually obscure what Scripture says about hearing God’s Word. Additionally, it tends to forget that countless (most?) Christians have heard, not read, God’s Word. And actually, it is hearing that Scripture most frequently commends and commands. Consider a few verses.

First, Romans 10:17 says that faith comes by hearing and hearing from the word of Christ. Second, Jesus declares in Luke 11:28, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Third, Revelation 1:3 describes the blessing of the book in terms of reading God’s Word “aloud,” not just reading it in the quiet of our dens. Certainly, there is blessing in reading the Bible in our prayer closets, but God’s Word is given to be read aloud with the people of God. And this means it is meant to be heard. Continue reading

Reading for Scripture Saturation: Renewing the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan in 2022

Jesus washing the feet of Saint Peter on Maundy Thursday

How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.
10  With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!

11  I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
12  Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!
— Psalm 119:9–12 —

With 2021 ending and 2022 approaching, you may be thinking about how to read the Bible in the new year. I hope so. The Word of God is not a trifle; it is our very life (Deut. 32:47). Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4). With that in mind, we should aim to read the Bible and to read it often!

Truly, the Bible is not a book to read once, or even once a year. It is meant to be imbibed and inhabited, adored and adorned, studied and savored. Mastery of the Bible does not mean comprehensive understanding of Scripture; it means ever-increasing submission to the Master who speaks in Scripture. This is why in the closing days of the year, it’s good to consider how we can saturate ourselves with Scripture in the next year.

Personally though, I wonder if our daily reading plans help us with this idea of Scripture saturation. Often, such plans call for reading single chapters from various parts of the Bible. And the daily routine can invite checking the box without understanding the book. So my question has been: Does such reading help us or hinder us in our Bible consumption and consumption? Continue reading