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Monday Morning Humor

May 26, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

True, it’s Tuesday, but why not get a little humor to start your work week. With Bob Dylan’s birthday over the weekend and all the palindrome dates we had during the middle of this month (5-1x-15), I thought this song would be a fitting choice.

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Remembering Memorial Day

May 25, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

This piece has appeared on Memorial Day before, but I thought it was worth posting again.

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Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, was instituted to honor Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. After World War I, the purpose of the day was expanded to include all men and women who died in U.S. military service. Today, Memorial Day is mainly thought of as the unofficial start of summer–a long weekend with a car race, playoff basketball, and brats and burgers on the grill.

It is always tricky to know how the church should or shouldn’t celebrate patriotic holidays. Certainly, some churches blend church and state in such a way that the kingdom of God morphs into a doctrinally-thin, spiritually nebulous civil religion. But even with this dangers, there are a number of good reasons why Christians should give thanks for Memorial Day.

1. Being a soldier is not a sub-Christian activity. In Luke 3, John the Baptist warns the people to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. The crowds respond favorably to his message and ask him, “What then shall we do?” John tells the rich man to share his tunics, the tax collectors to collect only what belongs to them, and the soldiers to stop their extortion. If ever there was a time to tell the soldiers that true repentance meant resigning from the army, surely this was the time. And yet, John does not tell them that they must give up soldier-work to bear fruit, only that they need to be honest soldiers. The Centurion is even held up by Jesus as the best example of faith he’s seen in Israel (Luke 7:9). Military service, when executed with integrity and in the Spirit of God, is a suitable vocation for the people of God.

2. The life of a soldier can demonstrate the highest Christian virtues. While it’s true that our movies sometimes go too far in glamorizing war, this is only the case because there have been many heroics acts in the history of war suitable for our admiration. Soldiers in battle are called on to show courage, daring, service, shrewdness, endurance, hard work, faith, and obedience. These virtues fall into the “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just” category that deserve our praise (Philippians 4:8).

3. Military service is one of the most common metaphors in the New Testament to describe the Christian life. We are to fight the good fight, put on the armor of God, and serve as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. When we remember the sacrifice, single-minded dedication, and discipline involved in the life of a soldier, we are calling to mind what we are supposed to be like as Christians in service to Christ.

4. Love of country can be a good thing. As Christians we have dual citizenship. Our first and ultimate allegiance must always be to Christ whose heavenly dwelling is our eternal home. But we are also citizens of an earthly country. We will stand before God not as individuals wiped clean of all earthly nationality, but as people with distinct languages, cultural affinities, and homelands. It is not wrong to love our distinct language, culture, or nationality. Whenever I’m at a ball game I still get choked up during the singing of the National Anthem. I think this is good. Love for God does not mean we love nothing else on earth, but rather that we learn to love the things on earth in the right way and with the right proportions and priorities. Love of country is a good thing, and it is right to honor those who defend the principles that make our country good.

5. This may be controversial to some, but I believe the facts of history will demonstrate that on the whole, the United States military has been a force for good in the world. Obviously, as a military power, we have blundered at times, both individually and corporately. But on the whole, the men and women of our armed services have fought and are fighting for causes that promote freedom, defend the rights of human beings, and reject tyranny. War is still hell and a tragic result of the fall. Praise God for his promise to one day end all human conflict. But in a world where people are evil by nature and leaders are not always reasonable and countries do not always have good intentions, war is sometimes the way to peace-at least the best peace we can hope for between peoples and nations this side of heaven.

So thank God for a day to remember God’s common grace to America and his special grace in enlisting us, poor weak soldiers that we are, in service to Christ our Captain and conquering King.

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What Does Jude 7 Mean By “Other Flesh”?

May 22, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

Among those who agree that the Bible prohibits homosexual practice, there is a disagreement about whether the story of Sodom and Gomorr66721_2ah should be used in support of this conclusion. Traditionally, the sin of Sodom has been considered, among other things, the sin of pursuing same-sex intercourse. Hence, the act of male-with-male sex has been termed sodomy. More recently, others have maintained that attempted homosexual gang rape is hardly germane to the question of committed, monogamous gay unions today. Sodom had many sins–violence, injustice, oppression, inhospitable brutality–but same-sex intercourse per se is nowhere condemned in the Genesis account. Some conservative scholars, while still holding conservative conclusions about marriage and homosexuality, have concurred with this line of reasoning, arguing that when it comes to deciding the rightness or wrongness of homosexual behavior, Genesis 19 is irrelevant.

There are many important considerations to weigh when trying to make sense of Sodom and Gomorrah. Obviously, the Old Testament context matters. Knowing something about the Ancient Near East may help too. Looking at literature from Second Temple Judaism is also important. Most critical, however (at least for those with an evangelical view of Scripture), is how the New Testament understands the sin of Sodom. Which is why Jude 6-7 is so important.

And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire (sarkos heteras), serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 6-7)

There is a case to be that Jude’s comment about sarkos heteras (“other flesh”)  is a reference to sex with angels not sex with other men. Verse 6 is likely an allusion to the sin of the angels in Genesis 6:1-4, which according to Jewish tradition, involved angels having sex with the daughters of men. So it is not far fetched to think that the “other flesh” in verse 7 is a reference to the men of Sodom trying to have sex with Lot’s angelic visitors. If this interpretation is correct, it makes it less likely (though not at all impossible) to see the sin of Sodom as being, at least in part, the sin of homosexual practice. Which, of course, would do nothing to invalidate the other verses that speak on the subject, but it would set aside the most infamous account of homosexuality in the Bible.

Having said all that, I still see good reasons to accept the traditional interpretation and conclude that Jude 7 is a reference to the sin of homosexual behavior.

1. This interpretation is in keeping with prevailing Jewish norms in the first century. Both Josephus and Philo not only condemn relations that are “contrary to nature,” they explicitly understand Genesis 19 as referring to homosexual acts.

2. As a striking example of sexual immorality, it would certainly be more relevant in a first century Greco-Roman context to warn against homosexual behavior as opposed to the non-existent temptation to have sex with angels (cf. 2 Peter 2:6).

3. It would be strange to refer to attempted sex with angels as pursuing other “flesh.” Of all the ways to reference angels, the very physical, human, and earthly sarx seems an odd choice.

4. The men of Sodom did not know they were trying to have sex with angelic beings. Even if sarkos heteras could be taken to mean a “different species” (and I don’t think it does), the men of Sodom had no idea that that is what they were pursuing. Isn’t it more likely to think they were guilty of pursuing sex with other men (as they saw them), then that they were guilty of pursuing sex with angels (which they did not understand)?

5. If pursuing “unnatural desire” is a reference to seeking out sex with angels, how do we make sense of the beginning of verse 7 which indicts Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities of this sin? Were Admah and Zeboim guilty of trying to have sex with angels? It makes more sense to think that Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities all had a reputation for sexual immorality and that one flagrant example of such sin was homosexual practice. This is why the parallel passage in 2 Peter 2:7-8 can depict Lot as greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of these cities. They had a reputation for lawlessness which did not rely on angels to be manifested.

In short, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah and the whole region was not just a one-time attempted gang rape of angelic beings, but, according to Jude a lifestyle of sensuality and sexual immorality, at least one aspect of which was exemplified in men pursuing the flesh of other men instead of the flesh of women.

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Of Justice and Generosity

May 20, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

8th-commandment-thumb13562983“Thou shalt not steal.” Seems like a relatively safe command.

We know the third commandment is going to trip us up, because we’ve all lost control of our tongue from time to time. The commands against adultery and murder, when they are considered matters of the heart, are certainly going to bring some conviction. Even the command to rest will probably cause a squirm or two. But the eighth commandment seems pretty safe. In a Barna survey taken several years ago, 86% of adults claimed they are completely satisfying God’s requirement regarding abstinence from stealing. “Look, I don’t break into people’s homes and I don’t shoplift,” we think to ourselves. “Here’s a commandment I can feel good about.”

But as the Heidelberg Catechism points out, the eighth commandment forbids more than outright robbery. In God’s sight, theft also “includes cheating and swindling our neighbor by schemes made to appear legitimate, such as: inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God. In addition he forbids all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts” (Q/A 110).  In simplest terms, the eighth commandment prohibits taking anything that doesn’t belong to us. That means kids swiping toys in the nursery to plagiarism in papers and sermons to online piracy. But that’s not all that can be filed away under this prohibition.

You can add chattel slavery to the list. It’s true that the Bible regulates slavery and doesn’t outlaw it. But some people make it sound like the Bible is one big pro-slavery book. It isn’t. In fact, chattel slavery like the kind that prospered in the new world was outlawed in the Bible as a violation of the eighth commandment. Exodus 21:16 says, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death” (cf. Dt. 24:7). Likewise, 1 Timothy 6:10 denounces “enslavers.” The Bible may not condemn every form of slavery, but the images of rounding up Africans and herding them into squalid ships to cross the Atlantic where they would be bought and sold in the New World are images the Bible rejects outright as sin.

The eighth commandment forbids injustice of any kind. The Bible has a lot to say about cheating scales and false measures, or any means by which you get more from a transaction than you deserve. One quickly thinks of current day accounting scandals or ponzi schemes. Especially grievous is swindling the poor, by obvious oppression, or by exploiting a lack education (think predatory loans), or by making false promises that hurt the people you are claiming to help (think casinos and the lottery). As Luther puts it, the eighth commandment is violated by “a person steals not only when he robs a man’s safe or his pocket, but also when he takes advantage of his neighbor at the market, in a grocery shop, butcher stall, wine-and-beer cellar, work-shop, and, in short, wherever business is transacted and money is exchanged for goods or labor.”

The eighth commandment is also broken when we are wasteful and lazy. Slacking off at work, fudging expense reports, stealing out of the warehouse, taking money from petty cash, falsifying sign in sheets, giving merchandise away, writing bottle return slips to yourself—all these rob our employer of his money and are offensive to God.

God laments our slothfulness too. We ought to be “doing honest work with our hands” (Eph. 4:28) and learn to live independently (1 Thess. 4:11-12). When able bodied men take handouts instead of doing all they can to work, they are robbing from others to feed their own laziness (2 Thess. 3:10).

Finally, and most poignantly, the eighth commandment forbids greed, stealing with the eyes of our heart. The biblical view of wealth and possessions is not simple. On the one hand, the poor seemed to be on much safer ground around Jesus than the rich. But on the other hand, we see all throughout the Bible examples of godly rich people (Job, Abraham, well-to-do women following Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea).

On the one hand, riches are a blessing from the hand of God (e.g., patriarchs, Mosaic covenant, Proverbs, Kings). But on the other hand, there is almost nothing that puts you in more spiritual danger than money (“it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” is how Jesus put it).

On the one hand, Jesus and the prophets have very little positive to say about the rich and sympathize more with the poor. On the other hand, God put the first man and woman in a paradise of plenty, and the vision of the new heavens and the new earth is a vision of opulence, feasting, and prosperity.

And then you have the famous “middle class” passage: “Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:5-6). It is impossible to give a one sentence summary of the Bible’s perspective on money.

But it is possible to give a one sentence summary on what God thinks about loving money. The love of money is a very, very bad thing. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). “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” (1 Tim. 6:10). “Keep yourself free from the love of money” (Hebrews 13:5). If Ecclesiastes teaches us anything it’s that the love of money does not satisfy, compromises our integrity, produces worry, ruins relationships, provides no lasting security, and does nothing to accomplish anything good for us in eternity. When we are greedy, it is bad for others and worse for ourselves.

The opposite of the love of money is generosity. Instead of hoarding our money, we hand it over. Instead of building bigger barns, we nurture bigger hearts. Instead of looking to take, we seek to give. We who have been given everything—life, food, family, freedom, new birth, forgiveness, redemption, the Holy Spirit, the promise of an unimaginable inheritance—surely ought to give something to those who need our help. Gospel people know that to whom much is given, much is expected. Or as Heidelberg puts it: God asks that “I do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need” (Q/A 111).

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Book Briefs

May 19, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

It’s been awhile since I’ve jotted down a few notes from my reading pile. The stack has gotten a bit tall, eclectic too.

Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). Based on the author’s famous (and extremely popular) political philosophy course at Harvard, this book examine rival conceptions of justice, exploring “isms” like utilitarianism and libertarianism and thinkers like Aristotle, Kant, and Rawls. What makes the book so effective is Sandel’s easy prose and how liberally he peppers the book with striking illustrations, dilemmas, and examples. Speaking of liberal, Sandel’s own view of justice leans in that direction, but the book is still worthwhile for readers of any perspective.

Fred Siegel, The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class (Encounter Books, 2013). Decidedly not leaning in the direction of contemporary liberalism is this book by Fred Siegel, an author, essayist, former editor, and what some might call a “public intellectual.” Don’t let the title and packaging of the book fool you. This is not a fly by the seat of your pants political hit job. In a little more than 200 pages, Siegel takes the reader through the last 100 years of American political and literary history, arguing that modern liberalism has been built upon “a spirited critique of Americanism, a condition [it] understood as the mass pursuit of prosperity by an energetic but crude, grasping people chasing their private ambition without the benefit of a clerisy to guide them” (105-106).

Shelby Steele, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (Basic Books, 2015). One of the most fascinating, thought-provoking, “I really want to talk to someone about what I’m reading” kind of books I’ve read in the past few years. This is a personal book in which Steele’s own experiences with racism (Steele is black) often take center stage, along with his frustration with white liberals who gain cultural currency by distancing themselves from the Bad more than doing anything to effectively promote the Good. Steele laments that older notions of the Good–hard work, virtue, loyalty, honesty–have been replaced by contemporary notions of the Good that are obtained simply by rejecting America as a fundamentally hypocritical society. The upshot: “This formula–relativism to dissociation to legitimacy to power–enables post-1960s liberalism to present itself to the American people not as an ideology or even as politics, but as nothing less than a moral and cultural imperative” (156).

William VanDoodewaard, The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins (Reformation Heritage Books, 2015). This important book is not for the faint of heart.  True, the book is scholarly and dense, but that’s because Bill (a friend of mine) has done his homework. If you want to understand how the church, through the centuries, has understood Adam and Eve, you cannot ignore this book. Read the introduction, the first and last chapter, and the epilogue if you want this big book’s big idea.

Gloria Furman, The Pastor’s Wife: Strengthened by Grace for a Life of Love (Crossway, 2015). I love Gloria’s writing because my wife–who is busy with six kids and doesn’t get to read as much as she would like–loves to read Gloria’s writing. Here’s what we say on the inside cover: “This book is a breath of fresh air, not because it’s personal (which it is), or because it is practical (which it is), but because it is profoundly biblical. We found Gloria’s Scripture-saturated counsel to be eminently realistic and deeply encouraging. Her wit and wisdom will be good for the pastor and good for the pastor’s wife, which is good news for those in ministry and good news for the church.”

Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life (Crossway, 2015). When Carl writes on church history I make sure to read it. Read this book and you’ll go past the boilerplate Luther that is sometimes clumsily trudged out for sermon illustrations and slipshod theological wrangling. Here’s my blurb: “Carl Trueman has pulled off a tremendous feat: he’s not only given us a volume that is scholarly and historically nuanced while still accessible and refreshingly contemporary; he’s also managed to capture the brilliance and boldness of Martin Luther in a relatively short space. Trueman is to be commended for presenting a Luther who is so unlike us in so many ways, and yet a Luther from whom we can learn so much.”

Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, Donald C. Guthrie, Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving (IVP Books, 2013). There are better books for inspiration and edification in pastoral ministry. Sociological studies can come off dry and detached. But there are still many good reminders in these pages. The topics are what you might expect in a book on healthy pastoral ministry: self-care, conflict, spiritual formation, community, involvement, family life, stress, leadership. Most helpful for me was reading what the many quotations from the actual pastors in the study. I resonated with many of their struggles and weaknesses.

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Banner of Truth, 2015 [1869]). Banner is to be commended for publishing this crucial study, and for doing so in a sturdy, handsome, one volume hardcover. I know it’s cliche, but every Presbyterian pastor really should have this book on his shelf. Here’s what I say on the back cover: “I am thrilled to see this classic work on Presbyterian polity being reissued. And if you think ‘thrilled’ and ‘Presbyterian polity’ don’t belong in the same sentence, that’s just one more reason we need Bannerman’s book. In a day when the doctrine of the church is often thought obscure, irrelevant, and even divisive, Bannerman reminds us just how much our forefathers thought about this topic and just how much the Bible has to say on these issues. This big book on the nature and order of the church is more helpful, more contemporary, and more important than you might think.”

Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Ten Speed Press, 2014). Yes, I actually read this book. And yes, parts of it were helpful. Kondo, who seems to have been a natural tidying prodigy all her life, offers a number of common sense suggestions (e.g., get rid of lots of your stuff, discard then organize, tidy up your life and you’ll feel better) and some ideas you may not have thought of (stack your clothes and socks vertically, try to tidy up your house in one whirlwind cleaning spree, throw everything on the floor before you tidy it up). I could have done with 20 pages on tidying up instead of 200, and less of the infomercial “everything will get better!” pitch would have been nice. But still, if you get inspired to pitch (or give away) a bunch of stuff, that book will have served a useful purpose. One big caution: Kondo’s Shintoism comes through in pronounced ways toward the end of the book.

 

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Monday Morning Machine

May 18, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

I wasn’t alive when it happened, but every year I go to YouTube and watch it again: Secretariat’s run at the Belmont Stakes. Now that American Pharoah has won the Derby and the Preakness, come June 6 all eyes will be on the long New York track to see if we get our first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

I’m the most casual of horse racing fans. I try to watch about ten minutes every year-the three races in the Triple Crown. My wife and kids now actually enjoy watching the three races too. And once they show themselves a tad bit interested, I make them watch the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

I’ve seen it dozens of times, but I’m still mesmerized by Secretariat’s amazing feat. The large chestnut colt they called “Big Red” didn’t just destroy the field by 31 lengths (1/16th of a mile), he so completely demolished the track record-a record that still stands-that he would have beaten the previous record holder Gallant Man by 13 lengths. Chic Anderson got it right in his famous call: Secretariat was moving like a tremendous machine.

Lost in the unsurpassed greatness of Secretariat is how good his competitor Sham was forty years ago. As Joe Posnanski pointed out in an excellent article a couple years ago, Sham’s run at the Kentucky Derby should have been one for the ages. He finished 8 lengths in front of the rest of the field, with a blistering time of 1:59.8, still the second fastest time in history. Sham was the best horse that day and the best horse to ever run the Derby–except, of course, for Secretariat who beat him by two and a half lengths. And then there’s Secretariat’s move at the Preakness, going from last to first in a matter of seconds. It’s almost as famous as his Belmont run. Just like Clyde Drexler and Patrick Ewing might have been great champions had they not played in the age of MJ, Sham might be remembered as one of the greatest horses of all time, if he hadn’t been born in the wrong year.

Without getting too spiritual about a horse, I think we can find echoes of the divine in our fascination with Secretariat. We love to watch greatness. We love to re-live and re-watch the impossible made possible. We love to see the greatest there ever was. And I think we love Secretariat all the more because he was just a horse. He never said the wrong thing, never was caught at the wrong party, never disgraced his fans or family. More than forty years later he is still a unique champion, without scandal or controversy, frozen in history with nothing but power, greatness, and grace.

Yes, even a horse reminds us we were made for something more.

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6 Reasons Why Membership Matters

May 14, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

“Why bother with church membership?”

I’ve been asked the question before. Sometimes it’s said with genuine curiosity-“So explain to me what membership is all about.” Other times it’s said with a tinge of suspicion-“So tell me again, why do you think I should become a member?”-as if joining the church automatically signed you up to tithe by direct deposit.

For many Christians membership sounds stiff, something you have at your bank or the country club, but too formal for the church. Even if it’s agreed that Christianity is not a lone ranger religion, that we need community and fellowship with other Christians, we still bristle at the thought of officially joining a church. Why all the hoops? Why box the Holy Spirit into member/non-member categories? Why bother joining a local church when I’m already a member of the universal Church?

Some Christians–because of church tradition or church baggage–may not be convinced of church membership no matter how many times “member” actually shows up in the New Testament. But many others are open to hearing the justification for something they’ve not thought much about.

Here are just a few reasons why church membership matters.

1. In joining a church you make visible your commitment to Christ and his people. Membership is one way to raise the flag of faith. You state before God and others that you are part of this local body of believers. It’s easy to talk in glowing terms about the invisible church-the body of all believers near and far, living and dead-but it’s in the visible church that God expects you to live out your faith.

Sometimes I think that we wouldn’t all be clamoring for community if we had actually experienced it. Real fellowship is hard work, because most people are a lot like us-selfish, petty, and proud. But that’s the body God calls us to.

How many of Paul’s letters were written to individuals? Only a handful, and these were mostly to pastors. The majority of his letters were written to a local body of believers. We see the same thing in Revelation. Jesus spoke to individual congregations in places like Smyrna, Sardis, and Laodicea. The New Testament knows no Christians floating around in “just me and Jesus” land. Believers belong to churches.

2. Making a commitment makes a powerful statement in a low-commitment culture. Many bowling leagues require more of their members than our churches. Where this is true, the church is a sad reflection of its culture. Ours is a consumer culture were everything is tailored to meet our needs and satisfy our preferences. When those needs aren’t met, we can always move on to the next product, or job, or spouse.

Joining a church in such an environment makes a counter-cultural statement. It says “I am committed to this group of people and they are committed to me. I am here to give, more than get.”

Even if you will only be in town for a few years, it’s still not a bad idea to join a church. It lets your home church (if you are a student) know that you are being cared for, and it lets your present know that you want to be cared for here.

But it’s not just about being cared for, it’s about making a decision and sticking with it-something my generation, with our oppressive number of choices, finds difficult. We prefer to date the church-have her around for special events, take her out when life feels lonely, and keep her around for a rainy day. Membership is one way to stop dating churches, and marrying one.

3. We can be overly independent. In the West, it’s one of the best and worst thing about us. We are free spirits and critical thinkers. We get an idea and run with it. But whose running with us? And are any of us running in the same direction? Membership states in a formal way, “I am part of something bigger than myself. I am not just one of three hundred individuals. I am part of a body.”

4. Church membership keeps us accountable. When we join a church we are offering ourselves to one another to be encouraged, rebuked, corrected, and served. We are placing ourselves under leaders and submitting to their authority (Heb. 13:7). We are saying, “I am here to stay. I want to help you grow in godliness. Will you help me to do the same?”

Mark Dever, in his book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, writes,

Church membership is our opportunity to grasp hold of each other in responsibility and love. By identifying ourselves with a particular church, we let the pastors and other members of that local church know that we intend to be committed in attendance, giving, prayer, and service. We allow fellow believers to have great expectations of us in these areas, and we make it known that we are the responsibility of this local church. We assure the church of our commitment to Christ in serving with them, and we call for their commitment to serve and encourage as well.

5. Joining the church will help your pastor and elders be more faithful shepherds. Hebrews 13:7 says “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” That’s your part as “laypeople”. Here’s our part as leaders: “They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” As a pastor I take very seriously my responsibility before God to watch care for souls. At almost every elders’ meeting the RCA Book of Church Order instructed us “seek to determine whether any members of the congregation are in need of special care regarding their spiritual condition and/or not making faithful use of the means of grace.” This is hard enough to do in a church like ours where there is constant turnover, but it’s even harder when we don’t know who is really a part of this flock.

To give just one example, we try to be diligent in following up with people who haven’t been at our church for a while. This is a challenge. But if you never become a member, we can’t tell if you are really gone, because we might not be sure if you were ever here! It’s nearly impossible for the elders to shepherd the flock when they don’t know who really considers them their shepherds.

6. Joining the church gives you an opportunity to make promises. When someone become a member at University Reformed Church, he makes promises to pray, give, serve, attend worship, accept the spiritual guidance of the church, obey its teachings, and seek the things that make for unity, purity, and peace. We ought not to make these promises lightly. They are solemn vows. And we must hold each other to them. If you don’t join the church, you miss an opportunity to publicly make these promises, inviting the elders and the rest of the body to hold you to these promises-which would be missing out on great spiritual benefit, for you, your leaders, and the whole church.

Membership matters more than most people think. If you really want to be a counter-cultural revolutionary, sign up for the membership class, meet with your elders, and join your local church.

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How Do I Know I’m a Christian?

May 12, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

Whenever counseling Christians looking for assurance of salvation, I take them to 1 John. This brief epistle is full of help for determining whether we are in the faith or not. In particular, there are three signs in 1 John given to us so we can answer the question “Do I have confidence or condemnation?”

The first sign is theological. You should have confidence if you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God (5:11-13).  John doesn’t want people to be doubting.  God wants you to have assurance, to know that you have eternal life.  And this is the first sign, that you believe in Jesus.  You believe he is the Christ or the Messiah (2:22).  You believe he is the Son of God (5:10).  And you believe that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (4:2).  So if you get your theology wrong about Jesus you will not have eternal life.  But one of the signs that should give you confidence before God is that you believe in his only Son Jesus Christ our Lord (4:14-16; 5:1, 5).

The second sign is moral. You should have confidence if you live a righteous life (3:6-9).  Those who practice wickedness, who plunge headlong into sin, who not only stumble, but habitually walk in wickedness-should not be confident.  This is no different than what Paul tells us in Romans 6 that we are no longer slaves to sin but slaves to righteousness and in Galatians 5 that those who walk in the flesh will not inherit the kingdom.  This is no different than what Jesus tells us in John 15 that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  So if you live a morally righteous life you should have confidence (3:24). And lest this standard make you despair, keep in mind that part of living a righteous life is refusing to claim that you live without sin and coming to Christ for cleansing when you do sin (1:9-10).

The third sign is social. You should have confidence if you love other Christians (3:14).  If you hate like Cain you do not have life.  But if your heart and your wallet are open to your brothers and sisters eternal life abides in you. One necessary sign of true spiritual life is that we love one another (4:7-12, 21).

These are John’s three signposts to assure us that we are on the road that leads to eternal life. These are not three things we do to earn salvation, but three indicators that God has indeed saved us. We believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God. We live a righteous life. We are generous toward other Christians.  Or we can put it this way: we know we have eternal life if we love Jesus, we love his commands, and we love his people.  No one of the three is optional.  All must be present in the Christian, and all three are meant to be signs for our assurance (see 2:4, 6; 4:20; 5:2).

John belabors the same points again and again. Do you love God?  Do you love his commands?  Do you love his people?  If you don’t, it’s a sign you have death.  If you do, it’s sign that you have life. And that means confidence instead of condemnation.

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Hymns We Should Sing More Often: God Moves

May 08, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

This is part of an intermittent series I’ve called “Hymns We Should Sing More Often.” The aim is to remind us (or introduce for the first time) excellent hymns that are probably not included in most church’s musical canon. A few hymns–like Holy, Holy, Holy or Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing—are familiar to many congregations and get sung in conferences and other large gatherings. Unfortunately, for a growing number of churches, there are no hymnals in the pews (or on the chairs), and consequently there is little opportunity to draw from the deep well of Christian hymnody. Most of the hymns in this series are not unfamiliar, just underutilized. I hope you will enjoy learning about these hymns as much as I have and enjoy singing them even more.

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Psalm 88 is surely the gloomiest of all the psalms of lament and a fitting description of poet and hymn writer William Cowper’s life (1731-1800). Verse 15 says, “Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.” This verse describes much of his experience, even as a Christian. Cowper is regarded as one of the best early Romantic English poets and also wrote some of the best English hymn texts, often in collaboration with his friend and mentor John Newton. But despite his literary success and friendship with one of the most warm-hearted pastors in church history, Cowper struggled with severe depression most of his adult life. Despite a powerful conversion he never enjoyed a continuous assurance of salvation and often struggled with thinking himself under God’s wrath. His life is a testimony to God’s sustaining grace and willingness to use weak vessels to glorify himself and bless others.

Cowper wrote “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” in 1773 before he fell into a deep depression. In the mysterious providence of God this hymn has brought comfort and hope to countless believers who, like Cowper, struggle through the long dark night of the soul. In this way Cowper fulfills what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:12, “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” The hymn lyrics remind us that God’s ways are not our ways and that things are often not the way they seem. He often works most powerfully in apparent weakness, those who may feel abandoned by God may in fact be beloved children, and there are wise and loving purposes in the suffering he ordains for his people. As Cowper writes,

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour.
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

I am highlighting Bob Kauflin’s arrangement of Cowper’s hymn. Bob, director for worship at Sovereign Grace Ministries, wrote new music and added a refrain after the tsunami disaster in 2005. He wanted to proclaim the truth of God’s sovereignty in the midst of catastrophes and help the church to respond in faith. May Cowper’s life and this hymn encourage you to trust in God’s sovereignty in your life and to cling to Christ in all your trials and sufferings.

VERSE 1
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm
Deep in His dark and hidden mines
With never-failing skill
He fashions all His bright designs
And works His sovereign will

CHORUS 1
So God we trust in You
O God we trust in You

VERSE 2
O fearful saints new courage take
The clouds that you now dread
Are big with mercy and will break
In blessings on your head
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust Him for His grace
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face

CHORUS 2
So God we trust in You
O God we trust in You
When tears are great
And comforts few
We hope in mercies ever new
We trust in You

VERSE 3
God’s purposes will ripen fast
Unfolding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste
But sweet will be the flower
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain
God is His own interpreter
And He will make it plain

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13 Tips for Leading the Congregation in Prayer

May 07, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

1. Prepare. Some traditions use set prayers. Others rely on extemporaneous prayers. Both have their place. But I believe what our congregations need most are studied prayers. These prayers may or may not be read, but will be thought through ahead of time. Public prayer is often boring because little thought is put into it. There’s no training for it, no effort put it into it. An hour or two is not too long to spend in preparing a long, pastoral prayer.

2. Use forms with freedom. Learn from The Valley of Vision or Hughes Oliphant Old or the Book of Common Prayer. But suit their prayers to your own purposes. The Didache, after laying down set prayers for Communion, also allows “the prophets to give thanks however they wish.”

3. Pray Scripture. Don’t just ask God for what we want. Let him teach us what we should want.

4. Don’t footnote. Spurgeon: “It is not necessary in prayer to string a selection of texts of Scripture together, and quote David, and Daniel, and Job, and Paul, and Peter, and every other body, under the title of ‘thy servant of old.'” The Lord already knows who said everything so don’t tell him again in your prayers.

5. Leave the preaching for the sermon. Don’t exhort. Don’t explain texts. Don’t unpack complex theology. Spurgeon again: “Long prayers either consist of repetitions, or else of unnecessary explanations which God does not require; or else they degenerate into downright preachings, so that there is no difference between the praying and the preaching, except that in the one the minister has his eyes shut, and in the other he keeps them open. It is not necessary in prayer to rehearse the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism.”

6. Share some details of congregational life, but not all.
A good shepherd will often mention by name various sheep that need special care. But don’t try to cover every engagement in the last three months or surreptitiously announce the youth retreat in your prayer (“Lord, be with our young people gathering this Friday at 5:00pm with their Bibles and a sleeping bag…”). Spurgeon one more time: “As I have said before, there is no need to make the public prayer a gazette of the week’s events, or a register of the births, deaths, and marriages of your people, but the general moments that have taken place in the congregation should be noted by the minister’s careful heart.”

7. Pray so that others can follow you easily. The goal is edification (1 Cor. 14:17). So don’t let your sentences get too long, too flowery, too ornate. If you write out your prayers, write for the ear not for the eye. On the other hand, don’t use distracting colloquialisms like, “Lord, you’re so sweet.”

8. Keep it relatively brief. Better to be too short than too long. Five minutes is plenty in most North American churches. Seven to ten minutes is possible if you are experienced and have trained your people well.

9. Remember you are praying with and on behalf of others.
Use “we” and “our” (like in the Lord’s Prayer). This is not the time to confess your personal sins or recount your personal experiences.

10. Order your prayer. Make sure there is a flow and direction. Don’t get too wordy. Keep a good pace. It often makes sense to work from the inside out, praying first for concerns of the congregation and then moving out to the community, the global church, and the world.

11. Beware of verbal ticks. For example: popping your p’s, smacking your lips, sighing, ums, mindless repetition of the divine name, unnecessary use of the word “just” and “like,” an over-reliance on the phrase “we pray” or “we would pray” instead of simply praying.

12. Show proper reverence, confidence, and emotion. Pray like you mean it, like God is God, and as if he really hears us.

13. Pray before you pray. Ask God for help as you prepare. Ask him for humility and grace as you go up to pray.

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