30 by 30

"Ye have not, because ye ask not." James 4:2

It has become a proverb that the last thing we think to do in any situation is to pray. An emergency appears, calling us to immediate action, which we all too gladly answer without first going to God for help and counsel. There seems to be, running alongside of this, a corollary in regards to things that we need. We wonder why we do not have what we need or even righteously desire, and the answer is so easy that we miss it: We have not because we ask not.

I rarely get biographical in these meditations, but I am after all a pastor of a church whose website you are current perusing. This church happens to be called Redeeming Cross Community Church in Minneapolis, MN. We are like any other relatively new church plant: in need of grace and, quite honestly, grace in the form of numbers. We are unspeakably grateful for our members, and yet we also need more.

Rather than spend months wringing our hands over this need, we have decided to take direct aim at the problem with direct prayer to God. Specific prayer. To be perfectly honest, we have already experienced this sort of thing in the annals of our own history. A few years ago we began praying for ten new households to join the church. Much to our surprise (which unmasked our unbelief), both individuals and families started showing up to church. And then they kept coming back. And then they wanted to join. In fact, one of our elders came from this incoming group. We installed a nice group into membership some time later and rejoiced greatly. However, somewhere along the way, we stopped praying.

Well, we are going to start praying again, and this time we're praying for 30 new members by December 30 (which happens to be the last Sunday on our present lease at Anthony Middle School). 30 by 30. This is not an ultimatum; it is the kind of specific request which we believe our most bountiful God delights in. Members, begin praying every day! Friends, would you please pray with us, that we might rejoice together in the Lord's amazing goodness to Redeeming Cross and to all of his churches? Indeed, start praying more specifically in your own life as well.

After all, it may very well be the case that you have not, simply because you ask not.

The Divine Spotter

"Like a father who looks upon his child in a difficult and dangerous business,—knows that he can relieve him when he pleases, but would willingly see him try his strength and cunning,—lets him alone until perhaps the child thinks himself quite lost, and wonders his father doth not help him; but when the condition comes to be such that, without help, he will be lost indeed, instantly the father puts in his hand and saves him. So deals the Lord Jesus with his house,—lets it oftentimes strive and wrestle with great oppositions, to draw out and exercise all the graces thereof; but yet all this while he looketh on, and when danger is nigh indeed, he is not far off." John Owen

I was deeply impressed by these words while reading a John Owen sermon last night. I would like to improve them to us with a comment or two.

Heavenly exercise 

Every trial that the Lord Jesus sends our way is by design. I think we all know that trials are intended by God to conform us to the image of his Son, but I wonder if we've thought about this in specifics. The trial is sent to bring forth fruit in us, the fruit of righteousness. In other words, trials are designed to isolate and exercise areas of grace that would otherwise go unworked and unstrengthened. 

This casts whatever struggle we face in its right light: it is a divinely designed workout, a heaven-sent sparring partner bearing the divine commission to expose and work our weakness. In this way the Lord is our personal fitness trainer to exercise us in specific godliness. Athletes understand working their weakness into strength; artists do as well. We, beloved, are God's soldiers, his workmanship. Perhaps you are lacking in patience, or kindness, or boldness. He is faithful to bring these graces into spiritual exercise and strength by sending you the very opposition you need. And by and by, through a life of battle, we are grown strong in his power.

The Lord stands by

But we need some leverage, some spiritual brace, in order to really trust ourselves to God's work in us, and that belt of truth to support us in trial is that he is always near to us. If we face real danger and real ruin, he stands by to save us. We are safe in his hand and under his tutelage; in fact there is no safer place to be. Rest assured that no matter the trial, he is with us and will strengthen us through it, and will deliver us from any real spiritual danger. There is no space for concern that he will work us to death; he will only work us into life and life abundant. Our heavenly spotter will not allow the weight of trial to crush us; thus we can safely throw ourselves into the exercise.

Owen applies this to the church, both universal and local. And this is the comfort for God's people: he will send us what whatever trials we need and nothing more. He is our heavenly watchman who will not suffer his cause to go untriumhpant in this world. His people will endure, and his local churches will be upheld by his mighty hand. He is not far off. In this we take great comfort, and in this we press forward into whatever he sends our way.

How to persevere in the faith

Long years are a better judge of our beliefs than a statement of faith, for the years are the statement spelled out in blood, sweat, and tears. I am less impressed with flashy theological knowledge than I have ever been. What I look for now—what I long for!—is a life seasoned by God's grace over the long haul. It is to me the true marvel of theology.

The author of Hebrews puts it for us like this: "You have need of endurance" (10:36). Who has need of endurance? We do. Every saint on this side of glory has need of endurance. I would like to answer our question—How can we persevere in the faith?—by putting two or three questions to our text:

What kind of endurance is this?

We might say it is endurance in obedience, for he immediately says, "so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised." We must carry out the will of God, which is our walking with him unto the end. This may come to the new saint with joy, because they are just perhaps finding their legs in the great race. Glory to God! The marathon to them is yet swift. But to the weathered saint, it is perhaps heard more as it should be: as a weighty and intimidating task, even an impossible one. This is the endurance we seek, and every true saint has felt their need of it.

What fuels this endurance?

Faith. It is faith that drives this impossible race. In fact, if we look more closely at the passage we will find that faith is the actual endurance. The obedience will take care of itself. It is a byproduct and fruit of saving faith.

The author says, "Do not throw away your confidence, which has great reward." (v. 35). Confidence is synonymous with faith here, and so we see that it is faith that brings the reward. "The will of God" that promises reward in our verse then appears as it really is, faith, or, confidence. You see, it is faith. He quotes Habakkuk, through whom God says, "my righteous one shall live by faith" (v. 38). He again says, "We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve theirs souls." (v. 39). This is the perseverance that counts.

Have the promises of God lost your confidence? Has your heart begun, ever so slightly though it may be, to doubt that God's word is exactly as he says? The exhilaration of conversion is far behind, and you have settled into what is likely an outwardly very normal life. Perhaps the towering mountain of countless days that stand between you and the finish line have begun to shake your confidence in the God who has promised to get you through to the end. You see, we have great need of endurance.

How to strengthen our confidence in God

The inspired author of Hebrews knows how to strength our confidence in God. He proceeds immediately to one of the most beloved chapters in the Bible: what has been called The Hall of Faith. Saint after ancient saint is placed before us for the consideration of our souls. And their lives all bear one commonality: they were declared righteous by faith in the coming promise of God, who is Christ, and they endured in this faith. They only saw his coming from afar, but they saluted him nonetheless, and went down with their nose to the east.

You may stoke the smoldering flame of your weakening confidence with the lightened coals of Abel and Noah and Abraham. Sarah is there to teach you a thing or two about real faith in the midst of doubt. Moses did great feats, slaying the dragon of worldly pleasure for the treasure of suffering with Christ, for he believed. All of these, and an Old Testament more, are here to encourage us. Did God let any of them down?

And not only this, but we have all the New Testament saints to consider as well. Visit Paul and Silas in their dark dungeon and stand in amazement as they sing mighty praises. What fueled this wonder? For the more adventurous types, go sailing with Luke and suffer shipwreck in a world without satellite or radio. Serve the saints with Lydia and walk on water with Peter. You see, there are worlds of faith in which to spark our weakening faith to flame.

And not only this, but we have each other. Talk to believers and ask them about God's fulfilled promises. Talk to old saints about the long years of faithfulness; ask them if they've ever seen the righteous begging for bread. Talk to the brand new believer about the powerful promises of God to forgive sin and embrace all who flee to Christ as his own children. I challenge you to come out of these strange encounters of the faith kind discouraged.

And so, this is how we persevere in the faith: TOGETHER.

What is family worship? And how to start doing it.

Family worship. It has a nice puritanical ring to it, doesn't it? That's what I like about it. But the Puritans didn't invent family worship; God did.

What is family worship?

Family worship is a nickname for the biblical truth that fathers are to be spiritual leaders in their homes. They are both to wash their wives in the word and bring their children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Family worship facilitates these things.

While family discipleship should happen as we go here and there together (Deut. 6:7), there is great value in dedicated time together before God. A gifted minster and teacher in our own day has gone so far as to say that family worship is the most important thing he does.

How to start doing it

Family worship sounds intimidating but it really isn't. It consists of four or five simple elements that any of us can begin to practice immediately. It will be awkward at first, but you and your kids will quickly fall in love with it.

1. Read the word.

Start in Genesis, or start in Matthew. Or start anywhere. Read through books of the Bible, a chapter a day or so. Pray before you read and ask God to teach you.

2. Talk about the word.

If anything stuck out to you as you read, talk about it. Ask your wife if anything stuck out to her. Ask your kids if they have any thoughts or questions. Sometimes we talk for a few minutes; sometimes we don't talk much at all. 

3. Pray together.

Pray in line with the chapter you just read. Pray for God to apply its truth to your hearts, and form your children by it. Take requests. Here is also a great opportunity to keep consistent requests before God. It is wonderful to be able to tell people, "We are praying for you as a family."

4. Sing.

Keep it simple. If you have little ones you may begin by singing the doxology. You are free to introduce other songs or spice it up with Psalms. 

5. Catechism. 

Some folks do catechism with their kids during family worship; others do it separately. There are wonderful first catechisms to begin working through with your children (we use the Prove It Catechism). It's a great discussion piece as you are out and about or just sitting around. These truths will stick with your children for life.

Ten minutes or so later, and that's it! There is a desire in you as a Christian man to lead your family spiritually. Family worship is a simple and most excellent way to begin; it also serves as a launch pad for doing so in all your family life. If you are a single mother, this is a perfect way for you to lead your children as well. Do it after dinner, do it before bed. In any case ...

Start family worship today!

What Pastor Luke is reading: The Works of John Owen

'Whenever I return to read Owen I find myself at least in part wondering why I spend time reading lesser things." In these few words I think Sinclair Ferguson has gathered up the sentiments of all who have spent serious time reading the Prince of Puritans. There are racier, more colorful, pithy penmen, but there is none who is more substantial. If theology is art, John Owen is a stark realist, producing vivid, I almost said living, writings. 

Anyone who knows me knows I'm an Owen head. There is no doubt he was one cool cat, strolling from his firearm-stocked apartment in thigh-length Spanish boots and freshly powdered hair. A dangerous dandy, it seems. He saw the ups and downs of that older world and of the Puritan era. His bride Mary bore eleven children, ten of whom died in infancy. He served as chaplain to Protector Cromwell and delivered sermons to high officials from the midst of political upheaval.

The complete works of John Owen stretch 24 sizable volumes, including his massive commentary on Hebrews and perhaps an Arkenstone among the many gems of his works, what is commonly called his Biblical Theology, which mined the material from which later men like Geerhardus Vos matured the theological discipline by that name. While he is most well-known in our day for his Mortification of Sin, a most excellent and mature, experiential, searching work, his Glory of ChristCommunion with God, and Exposition of Psalm 130 are truly remarkable. Word counts would fail to speak of The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, A Dissertation on Divine Justice, Animadversions on 'Fiat Lux', and even A Review of Annotations of Grotius. Heavy-sounding titles; heavy indeed, and filled with light. 

I have skipped around a bit in my reading of these old books and recently picked up volume 8 which is a compilation of sermons delivered on various occasions. I'm reading slowly and meditatively. By spending time with Dr. Owen over the years, my grasp of the administration of God's grace has been mightily enlarged and enriched. In my opinion, young preachers--indeed, Christians of all ages--can make no greater theological investment in their lives and ministries than to buy and read Owen's works. For Christ-centered, gospel-saturated, Spirit-empowered, even-handed, mature-minded experiential Christianity, Owen is second to none, save the inspired penmen themselves. 

Tolle lege!

Slipping through the cracks: What is local church accountability?

God is in the habit of making technology serve the interests of his Son. The invention of the printing press seems calculated almost entirely to make Luther's Theses go viral. The onset of the internet seems another wave in this trend, as it has been mightily used to give voracious expositional preaching a wider listenership--and with the arrival of online video streaming, a wider viewership as well.

I would hardly minimize the exquisite fruit that has come of it. I myself owe much to the preaching of men I've never met. However, while these resources serve as great supplements to the spiritual health of believers, they can never, by themselves, be the full course meal of heavenly nourishment that God has prepared for you and I.

Preaching itself was primarily designed to take place at the local church level, where the preacher, to one extent or another, knows the people he's preaching to. As we've said before, preaching becomes more exactly the word of God to his people when it takes place within these communities, also known as local churches.

Another way of looking at this is to say that, in the local church ideal, no one slips through the cracks. You can rock out to Paul Washer sermons all you like but at the same time be living in sin (yes, even such a shocking arrangement is possible). However, you cannot be a real member of a local church and do so. This brings us to the importance of accountability within the church.

One of our Lord's parting commands was as follows: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another." John 13:34. This one another language hits a keynote that is carried through the New Testament and expresses the ever-important idea of the community of God's people. That's what we are.

In fact, if you trace out the one another commands in Scripture, you will find that it is quite literally impossible to fulfill them if you are not part of a local church. Every such apostolic command comes to us within the context of a local church, for that is to whom the great majority of Letters were written. These commands to love one another (that is in fact what they all come to in the end) help protect the individual believer from slipping through the cracks. Speaking the truth to one another, stirring one another up to good works, admonishing one another, all of these prods of grace (and many more) come not only from the pulpit but from the community itself (Ephesians 4:15, 25; Hebrews 10:24; Colossians 3:16). This aspect of accountability will serve not only to steer you out of sin but also encourage you to press forward, taking hold of the eternal life to which you have been called.

Do you, dear friend, have such accountability in your life?

What Pastor Luke is Reading: The Puritan Hope

I'm not opposed to reading plans but, for my part, there are few things powerful as a book in season. Even a merely good book is transformed into a great one by such timing. A mighty book read in season becomes nearly inspired. 

Last week I finally bought a book I've been wanting to read for some time now: The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy by Iain Murray, founder of Banner of Truth. Murray is hands down my favorite living author and his books have ever been words in season to me. They have formed me as a young preacher and raised my expectations to the biblical ideal of gospel ministry. I'm only a few dozen pages into the present work but already I feel its pages stirring my soul to greater zeal in proclaiming Christ.

Thus far Murray is laying the foundation of the Puritan understanding of eschatology. It was largely what may perhaps in some ways be termed #datpostmil, but of a vastly different sort than our modern "theonomy" movements. The belief in great global gospel success in general and sweeping future revivals prior to the return of Christ in particular was shared by men with names like John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon, and for that reason alone it must not be casually dismissed out of hand. Does Scripture prophesy a future revival on massive scales? According to a vast majority of Puritans, it does.

While only just getting into the material, my affections for Christ and desire to make him known and expectation of blessing upon the gospel work in our own day has already been greatly revived. I look forward to seeing more of the Puritans' Christ-exalting expositions of Old Testament prophecy as well as the ways in which their great hope of dramatic gospel success in the world fueled their own courses. Without controversy, what we do today matters for tomorrow. Let us be found as faithful stewards of the eternal gospel.

Biography Teaser: Martin Luther

The reading of Christian biography seems almost a means of grace. Indeed, if true fellowship is so, this form of fellowship with saints of old must be something of a shadow cousin of a means of grace. In any case, the crumbs that fall here from the Master's table are gladly devoured by his lowly servants.

The following excerpt is from Martin Luther: The Iron Pen, a short biographical sketch of Martin Luther from my Wrath and Grace Biographies series. It may be cliché to call Luther one's favorite Reformer, but it is not so to call him the Reformer. The Reformer is my personal favorite Reformer. The following introduction may betray something of my reasonings. Enjoy!

As one not entirely unacquainted with the judges, I fancy Luther as the Samson of the Reformers. He knew as well how to throw down his foes as to boast over them in the Lord. His words will speak for themselves. He took up, not the jawbone of a donkey, but the feather of a goose and forged it into an implement of great power, a pen of iron. Ink from this pen continues to bleed into our own day; may it be that many pens continue to spring forth from it. Were a lone preacher equipped by this little volume to thunder the truths of God in the plain speech of the people, I shall be forever grateful unto God. The Lord Jesus Christ is worthy of such unassuming servants in dark hours of great need.

Luther, like Samson, was not a sinless man. Lest I be accused of hagiography, I hasten to remind my readers that this short biography is written in the not unbiblical spirit of Hebrews eleven. I intend to visit Luther’s particular weaknesses in the next volume, Lord willing. For now, let us stand in wonder at what God did five centuries ago.

As we take up the tale of the Protestant Reformation once again, the reader will recall that the winds have wafted the spirit of the martyr John Huss to the paradise of God, while they have scattered the seeds of truth across Bohemia. Years have washed over the Bohemian believers as they await the expected day of deliverance. Wars have raged, blood has been shed, peace has been realized, and all seems to indicate some sort of awakening at the very threshold. The world is hushed and stilled, poised for some great happening. It was now that Martinus Luther was born. “We may say without exaggeration that the Re-formation was embodied in Martin Luther, that it lived in him as in no one else.”[1]

It is with great joy that we come now to what may be termed the sweet stuff. All has led to this. Just as the weary journey makes the sight of the destination that much sweeter, the long sweep of the Dark Ages makes Luther’s appearance as a breath of heavenly-fresh air.

Luther was destined for hardship. He has been compared to the eagle—Huss forecasted him as such—and even his youth bore this likeness:

"Let us mark the eagle and the bird of song, how dissimilar their rearing. The one is to spend its life in the groves, flitting from bough to bough, and enlivening the woods with its melody. Look what a warm nest it lies in; the thick branches cover it, and its dam sits brooding over it. How differently is the eaglet nursed! On yonder ledge, amid the naked crags, open to the lashing rain, and the pelting hail, and the stormy gust, are spread on the bare rock a few twigs. These are the nest of that bird which is to spend its after-life in soaring among the clouds, battling with the winds, and gazing upon the sun… It was thus [Luther] came to know that man lives not to enjoy, but to achieve."[2] 

God seemed to hand-pick the Reformers, much like the apostles, from the working classes of society. Although Luther was raised in a tough, disciplinary home, he was also taught the doctrines of God’s love. “The atmosphere of the family was that of the peasantry: rugged, rough, at times coarse, credulous, and devout.”[3] While the scholastic leaders of the Church sank into sophist niceties and speculations, a form of living religion dwelt on in the homes of the people. Veiled as it was, it was imparted to the Reformers in their childhood homes. While mixed with much false and evil superstition, it is not perhaps untrue that the truths they encountered in their youth “were what Luther and Zwingli and Calvin wove into the Reformation creeds and expanded in Reformation sermons.”[4]

Young Martin was a bright boy, sharp of wits, and the firstborn son of a miner. His father toiled and saved to send his promising son to law school. This would secure him prestige and a somewhat easier situation than his father had enjoyed in life. In this way “it fell to Martin Luder to advance his family’s standing.”[5] His family’s standing was to be greatly advanced, though not in the manner envisioned by the patriarch. In a twist of fate, the son was destined to take up the career of the father, but the heir would be a miner of truth.

You can find Martin Luther: The Iron Pen and my other biographies at Wrath and Grace.

[1] Thomas M. Lindsay, A History of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 1.193.

[2] James A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism (London: Cassell Petter & Galpin, 1899), 1.232.

[3] Ronald H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950), 10-11.

[4] Thomas M. Lindsay, Luther and the German Reformation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1900), 14.

[5] R.C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols, The Legacy of Luther (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2016), 16.

5 Key Benefits of Attending a Small Church

There is no inherent merit to a being a small church. It could even be the fruit of spiritual atrophy among the members. The pride of being "the only solid church in town" may in fact be the narrowness of legalism and the ingrown hair of introspective obsession rearing their hideous, devouring heads.

And yet, a small church may also be the sign of healthy congregational life and strong doctrinal preaching. There are distinct benefits to attending a church on the smaller side. I think we will even be surprised to find that these benefits will be shared by any truly biblical church (small is, after all, a relative term). The key is intentionality.

It seems to be the day of small churches. Nominal Christians are leaving churches in droves as Christianity is pushed further to the fringes of society. It's not a bad thing. Smaller congregations of heavyweight disciples are beginning to shine forth, as they have throughout history.

1. It's biblical

By small we mean to indicate small enough for accessibility to elders and knowledge of the flock from the pulpit. While this can be probably be done on large scales, it is much better achieved in smaller fellowships. According to the Bible, churches must be of such a size as to allow elders to give an account of the flock. It is insanity that men would want to give an account to the living God for people they don't know on any real spiritual level. In addition to this, it must be admitted that most early churches were probably smaller in number.

2. Fellowship

It's a strange phenomenon that the more people attend a church, the harder it is to get to know any of them. This inverted correspondence tilts in favor of small churches. Smaller fellowships are easier to get plugged into, to get to know people, to pursue meaningful membership, to serve. Knowing all your fellow members by name enables you to pray for them and pursue fellowship with them all, to one degree or another. You benefit from their gifts even as you benefit them. As the flock knows and grows together, corporate discipleship's effect is more readily felt.

3. Accountability

Attending a smaller church means you will get noticed, and you will be pursued. It's much harder to fall through the cracks at a small church. If you begin to isolate yourself your elders and fellow members will be more likely to seek you out. Relationships with other members who are held accountable will form more readily and more accountability will be the fruit. Hands-on discipleship is more easily facilitated at smaller churches.

4. Your presence more heavily felt

Your presence will not only be noted, it will be felt. Your membership will mean more to the people and to the elders. The impact of your weekly presence, to say nothing of your service, will be greatly multiplied. This is perhaps what scares people away from smaller churches because they know if they commit they will be expected to serve! Small churches are no place for lazy Christians.

5. Access to elders

God has appointed elders to shepherd his flock, to administer God's word and sacraments. Attending a smaller church means you can have elders in your life. Are members of larger churches able to spend any time with their elders? These are the men God has equipped to watch over your soul, and a smaller church allows you to have a relationship with them. This also means that the preacher will prepare with you and your struggles in mind. Lord's Day sermons become more exactly God's word to his people, and that is exciting. It means you can pick up the phone and call your elders for counsel and encouragement. They are to be your own personal theologians, and small churches allow this good gift to flourish.

I contend that any local church where these five benefits are possible is indeed "small" enough. But if you're looking for a church on the smaller side, I know of one in Minneapolis.

What is a Reformed Church?

While some would greatly expand and others may somewhat reduce the following characteristics, in general a Reformed local church has these several prominent features:

A Reformed Church Emphasizes the Means of Grace

The means of grace are the God-appointed ways that his saving and sanctifying grace comes to us. They are found in Acts 2:42: "And the disciples devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." These means of grace might be called the raw elements of corporate worship.

The Reformers defined the church as the place where the word of God is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. God's transforming grace clusters about these elements of worship. Reformed churches not only prioritize the biblical means of grace, they conform their public worship exclusively to them. Preaching is central in Reformed churches and flanked by the Lord's Supper, baptism, and public prayer. 

A Reformed Church Emphasizes Preaching the Most 

The pulpit in a Reformed church is placed front and center, for the preaching of God's word is the chief means of grace. God's creative voice goes forth in the opening of his word to his people by the living preacher. Books are good and studies are helpful, but it is in the formal, Lord's Day, public exposition of the Bible that God speaks most clearly to us. 

In fact, preaching is so central to Reformed churches that they believe the preaching of the word of God is the word of God. In other words, the live preaching of God's word is not commentary upon the text but unleashing of the text upon the hearts of present hearers. The Bible was designed by God to be cut by faithful, called expositors who bring the text to bear on his people every Lord's Day. And it is there, at the sacred desk, that we hear God remind us week in and week out that our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone.

More may be added but in my estimation, these are the marrow elements of Reformed assemblies. If I added anything it would be that Reformed churches are confessional: they hold to a confessional standard of one sort of another (Westminster Standards, Savoy Declaration, 1689 Second London Baptist Confession). Here I have lighted more so upon what a Reformed church looks like.