The Vanity of Jonathan Edwards

I read from Stephen Nichols (in Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Living in Between) that Jonathan Edwards was voted out of his church after moving the church to closed communion. The change backfired in part because Edwards failed to cultivate deep friendships within his congregation that would support him through such a major change. He certainly has such friendships, but they tended to be with other ministers via correspondence.

This struck me profoundly.

I’ve heard it said that some ministers are great preachers, while others are great pastors. The adage contains plenty of truth. While I would never call myself a “great” preacher, I certainly know that I am a better preacher than a pastor. Like Edwards, I am more comfortable around books than people. And while this was an area of failure for Edwards and an area of targeted growth for me, I can’t help lamenting the vanity of it all.

Edwards was a certainly a great writer and preacher. Indeed, he could be called one of the greatest American minds, and the benefit and blessing of his studies continue to endure. In fact, although I have yet to read anything by Edwards, I am a secondhand product of his legacy. Piper’s concept of Christian Hedonism played a significant role in reawakening my faith, and Edwards was a prime influence upon Piper’s development of that idea. Thus, in some ways, the Father used Edwards mightily through Piper to mold my faith.

But Edwards also succeeded in another realm: as husband and father. With eleven children, the Edwards’ home was busy to say the least, yet he made time to lead them in the Word and to open his home in hospitality. Nichols states:

All accounts concur: this was a home where love reigned (p. 42).

In short, Edwards succeeded as a preacher, writer, husband, and father, yet in part, he failed as a pastor. Of course, it is easy to write this off as being simply the will of God. Or we could call it yet another example of the scourge of humanity in a post-Genesis 3 world. After all, even the godliest of men had their failings. We’re broken people in a broken world. What’s new?

But have you ever really let that truth sink in?

Despite his best efforts and successes, Edwards will always be remembered as a flawed man with failures to his name (the owning of slaves being among the most glaring). Life is a balancing of many spinning plates, and some will break. We will never fully practice all of the doctrines that we believe. That inevitability is easy to understand but difficult to make peace with. Our greatest works are never enough to offset our failures because the failures don’t magically cease to exist. We will fail. Our efforts will never be sufficient. We cannot be good enough. We will never be enough. Attempting otherwise is a striving after wind. This is the vanity of life, and it is a grievous evil.

Of course, we say that is why grace is so wonderful. We are failures who cannot hope to truly succeed, but Christ’s death has paid the penalty of our sins while granting us His own righteousness.

This is the gospel, the good news.

Yet how often do we really let that bad news sink in first?

The gospel shines brightly against the backdrop of sin, brokenness, and despair, but I rarely take the time to truly despair of myself apart from Christ. This often leads to an underappreciated gospel.

But why did Edwards’ failure strike me so deeply?

I think it’s the combination of studying through the book of Ecclesiastes and feeling a similarity to Edwards. Like him, I am a husband, father, and pastor. I also feel the pull in my soul to write about the glories that I find in Scripture. And I understand the comfort of a richly composed page juxtaposed against the anxiety of being around others. I feel the same pull for time as him. How can I maximize my efforts as a husband without neglecting my children? How can I be a great preacher without neglecting the necessity of pastoring? How can I prioritize writing without compromising every other arena of life? When my body is laid in the ground, what areas of my life will be remembered as triumphs? Which will be my greatest failures? What actions of mine will stand as an eternal testament to my sinfulness? If Ecclesiastes teaches anything, it’s that this is all vanity, futile and a grievous evil.

As briefly mentioned, stewing in this vanity helps my perception of grace. All too often, I claim that I live for the glory, worship, and exaltation of God, but my motives are all too self-aggrandizing. Cognitively, I know my sin and my need of a savior, but there must be a hole in my heart because that truth continues to leak out.

The glories and exaltation of self are a mirage, careful compositions that are littered with clashing chords. I think of myself as Mozart when I am little more than a toddler slapping the keys. God, however, has been playing greatest masterpiece ever designed, and by His grace, I am given the honor of being used as a single note within that magisterial symphony of history.

In Christ, we become instruments, failures and all, for magnifying His greatness.

O then for grace to see the vanity of self clearly that I might behold more of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ!

 

Thus in recognizing our lowliness, ignorance and vanity, as well as our perversity and corruption, we come to understand that true greatness, wisdom, truth, righteousness and purity reside in God.  – John Calvin

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The Vanity of Injustice Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 8

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 8:2 | I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him.

Ecclesiastes 8:12 | Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. (ESV)

OPENING THOUGHT

The Preacher, who is most likely Solomon, wrote Ecclesiastes in an attempt to describe life under the sun. By wisdom, he searched out everything that he could find on earth and tried every avenue that he could find that might lead to lasting meaning, purpose, and contentment in life. His search led him to give himself wholly over to ever pleasure that came into his line of sight. It caused him to search everything that could be done with having an unprecedented amount of wealth and power. It turned his heart to study how humans are meant for community, even though we constantly attempt to break that community apart with our own selfishness. Ultimately, his conclusion is that everything under the sun is vanity, a striving after wind. Fortunately, not everything in Ecclesiastes is vanity however. The Preacher repeatedly seeks to turn our attention above the sun to the God who alone can give enjoyment and contentment in life.

In chapter eight, Solomon continues to build upon a theme that he has already mentioned before: injustice. Previously, he discussed injustice in terms of how those with authority oppress those who are under them. This chapter is in many ways a continuation of that thought since the Preacher begins by discussing how we should conduct ourselves in the presence of the king. In the end, however, it is God, not the king, who wields final authority, and Solomon expresses his confidence that God will enact complete and total justice one day.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 8 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 8 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. What do verses 1-9 teach universally about governments and authority on earth? How can their principles be applied to us within a democratic government today?
  3. What do verses 10-13 teach about justice under the sun? How does justice relate to both love and wrath? How is justice an essential aspect of the gospel?
  4. With injustice present in this life but the hope of justice still to come, how does Solomon commend us to live?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions about the present text.

  • What has God taught you about Himself?
  • What sin is God convicting or reproving you of?
  • How is God correcting you?
  • How is God training and equipping you for righteousness?

Introduction to Nahum

Are you familiar with the book of Nahum?

Forgive me for assuming, but I imagine not.

The minor prophets are a rather neglected section of our Bible to begin with, but Nahum seems to be spectacularly unmemorable. I’ve read through God’s Word in its entirety multiple times, so I know that I’ve read Nahum. But for the life of me, I still didn’t know anything about it. A lack of knowledge, I think, is as a good of a reason as any for studying a book of the Bible.

It turns out that Nahum is essentially the spiritual sequel to Jonah (the prophet most famous for being swallowed by a fish). God sent Jonah to the Nineveh, a chief city of the Assyrian Empire, at the time when they were the greatest threat to Israel, and though God sent a message of judgment, the people repented and God showed them mercy.

Unfortunately, their repentance did not last long, and within a few decades, the Assyrians had thoroughly destroyed Israel. About a century after Jonah, Nahum writes his message against the Assyrians (probably at the height of their power), proclaiming again that God’s judgment is coming for them.

A quick reading of Nahum will reveal that the book is undeniably filled with the message of God impending wrath. God’s wrath is not a popular topic with people today, but we must also remember that the wrath of God has never been a pleasant topic. People have always preferred to dwell on God’s friendlier attributes (i.e. love and grace), but a sober study of His wrath is both necessary and beneficial.

As we read Nahum, it is important, therefore, to remember that God’s wrath is good. In fact, Nahum says as much: “The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him (1:7).” And in the very next verse, the prophet declares that God will not spare any of His enemies.

How can these things coexist?

God’s wrath is an outpouring of justice; therefore, it is good. The wrath of God is the criminal receiving due punishment. It would be unloving and unjust of God not to avenge those who have been sinned against. We only need to read stories of the Holocaust, of the African slave trade, or of any terrorist organization to understand the beauty found in God’s wrath.

Of course, the problem of God’s wrath is that we have committed sins that put us on the receiving end of God’s vengeance. The promise that “the LORD will by no means clear the guilty (1:3)” is a great promise to those offended by the sins of others, but we have also been the offenders. No one is innocent of committing sin, and no one is exempt from God’s wrath. As Christians, we know that our sin did not go unpunished, but Jesus absorbed the wrath of God upon Himself in our place. Only in Christ, therefore, do we have hope to be spared from God’s fiery and just judgment.

This knowledge should impact our reading of Nahum. Although we may have not committed the level of violence of which the Assyrians were guilty, we are no less deserving of God’s wrath than them.

May Nahum’s vision of Nineveh’s doom remind us, therefore, of the great salvation we have received in Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

Joseph Tests His Brothers | Genesis 44

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

And Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and he also in whose hand the cup has been found.” (Genesis 44:16 ESV)

Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. (Genesis 44:33 ESV)

OPENING THOUGHT

As the first book of the Bible, Genesis sets up the story and themes for the rest of God’s Word. It opens with the account of God creating the world good, but humanity quickly ruins paradise by rebelling against the LORD. In order to save humanity, God narrowed His focus upon one man’s family, Abraham. Though Abraham is called the man of faith, he was not humanity’s savior, nor was his son Isaac or grandson Jacob.

The story now focuses upon Jacob’s twelve sons, particularly Joseph. Being his father’s favorite, Joseph’s ten older brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. As a slave, Joseph displayed the favor of the LORD… until he was wrongfully accused and thrown into prison. But God’s providence worked to move Joseph from prison to Pharaoh’s right hand man. As second-in-command of Egypt and with a severe famine ravaging the world, God ordained that Joseph’s brothers would travel to Egypt for food, meeting their lost brother.

For two chapters, Joseph has tested the hearts of his brothers to see whether they have changed for the better. With Jacob’s beloved son, Benjamin, in Egypt, Joseph is now ready to orchestrate the final test. By framing Benjamin for stealing from him, Joseph gives his brothers a chance to betray one of their brothers again. Most notably, we are able to see the change God has worked in Judah’s heart, when he passionately pleas to be a slave in Benjamin’s place.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read chapter 44 and discuss the following.

  1. When Joseph’s servant finds the cup in Benjamin’s sack, all of the brothers tear their clothes in anguish. This quite a change from when they torn off Joseph’s coat and felt no remorse. Likewise, a softened conscience is a distinctive mark of being saved by God. What examples have you seen in your life of God’s work in softening your heart?
  2. When the brothers stand before Joseph for stealing the cup, Judah admits guilt even though they did not steal it. What guilt is weighing on Judah? Why is guilt a blessing from the LORD?
  3. How does Judah’s offer to take the place of Benjamin reflect the gospel? Why is Judah’s speech such an important development in the story of Joseph and his brothers?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions.

  • What has God taught you through this text (about Himself, sin, humanity, etc.)?
  • What sin has God convicted or reproved you of through this text?
  • How has God corrected you (i.e. your theology, thinking, lifestyle, etc.) through this text?
  • Pray through the text, asking God to train you toward righteousness by conforming you in obedience to His Word.

Books Read in January

I’ve decided to take the 2017 Christian Reading Challenge… kind of.

My aim is for the 52 books of the Committed Reader path, but I’m not fully implementing the various categories this year, just reading a book a week.

So in an effort to give greater accountability, I plan to provide a list of the books I’ve read at the end of each month.

Here goes nothing.

incarnationOn the Incarnation by Athanasius

To be fair, I started this one at the end of December and finished it the first week of January. I’m still counting it though. It was great to finally read this classic book that has been sitting on sitting on my shelf for two-plus years.

Also, C. S. Lewis’ introduction about the reading of old books is a great read in and of itself.

grootGroot by Jeff Loveness and Brian Kesinger

Okay, I’ll admit it. Reading comics is kind of my guilty-pleasure pastime. I won’t be regularly listing them here, but this six-issue miniseries is so good that I needed to write something about it. The art is cartoony and fun. Groot is a fully-realized character, even while he only says three words. Surprising, hilarious, and heart-warming twists happen throughout, making it easily the most enjoyable comic book I’ve ever read.

witgcWhat Is the Great Commission? / Can I Trust the Bible? / What Is the Church? by R. C. Sproul

These short (and free!) ebooks have been helpful reads during my current sermon series. There are twenty-five books in the series, and my hope is to read most, if not all, of them this year.

 

gw

The Gospel’s Power and Message by Paul Washer

This is the first book in Washer’s Reclaiming the Gospel Series, and I have owned it for some years now, without having ever read it. Washer effectively presents the message, meaning, and necessity of the gospel. My heart certainly needed this thorough and passionate study of the good news of Jesus Christ.

lfLiving Forward (audiobook) by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy

I love audiobooks. I typically listen to audiobooks or podcasts whenever I’m in the car or doing a task that does not require much mental focus. This book is all about developing a life plan, an idea that I already agree with. I very much enjoyed their thought of beginning your life plan by considering your own eulogy. We are not likely to seize the day without first understanding that we have a limited number of days to seize.

youandme

You and Me Forever (audiobook) by Francis & Lisa Chan

I listened to this on audiobook as well. While I certainly enjoyed Crazy Love, Forgotten God, and Erasing Hell, I’ve never been deeply impacted by any of them, but this book was different. Francis and Lisa Chan have brilliantly written a marriage book that is not about marriage; rather, it is about something far, far more important. You can read or listen to the book for free via the You and Me Forever smart phone app, but it’s worth buying.

The Narrow Gate | Matthew 7:13-14

Week 14 | Sermon

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)

OPENING THOUGHT

Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount to His disciples in order to teach them what citizenship within the kingdom of heaven should look like. He began the sermon with the Beatitudes, which defined the characteristics that ought to mark Christ’s followers. He then clarified the Christian’s purpose on earth and explained how we are supposed to relate to the Old Testament’s laws and commandments. In chapter six, Jesus taught how we give to the poor, pray, and fast incorrectly. He also encouraged us to store our treasure in heaven, not on earth, and when they are secure with God, we can truly live without anxiety, knowing that God is in control.

In chapter seven, Jesus warned us against hypocritically judging others, telling us to first take the log out our own eye before getting a speck out of our brother’s eye. He then encouraged us to petition the Father in prayer. He explains that our heavenly Father will lovingly give to us what we need, so long as we first recognize our dependency upon Him. Furthermore, once we know the loving-kindness of the Father, it will transform how we love and treat the people around us.

Today, we will cover just two small verses, yet they are loaded with meaning and impact. Here Jesus commands His disciples to travel down the difficult path, entering into the narrow gate, which leads to eternal life and to avoid the easy road with a broad gate, which leads to destruction. Our Lord is describing in metaphor the only two ways of living that are available to us. Either we will follow Christ down the narrow road or we will take whatever path pleases us, which ultimately is all a part of the broad path to destruction.

Read verses 13-14 and discuss the following.

  1. Jesus tells us that there are only two paths with two gates, the narrow leads to life and the broad leads to destruction. What is the narrow gate of which Jesus is speaking?
  2. Why is the gate narrow and the path hard that leads to life?
  3. Is God righteous by only providing one way of salvation?

ACTIONS TO CONSIDER

  • Obey. Consider Jesus’ command: enter by the narrow gate. Take time to prayerfully meditate upon the gospel, coming to God in repentance once again.
  • Pray. Pray for friends and family in your life who are traveling down the broad and easy road toward destruction that they may come to know the truth of the gospel.

Storing Treasure | Matthew 6:19-24

Week 10 | Sermon

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness, how great is the darkness!  (Matthew 6:22-23)

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. (Matthew 6:24)

OPENING THOUGHT

As followers of Christ, we are citizens of God’s kingdom, and the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ guide for living in the kingdom of heaven. This means that the Beatitudes are not pretty and encouraging words from Jesus; they are Jesus’ characteristics for His followers. Christ’s statement on being the salt of the earth and the light of the world tells us our purpose. He then addressed heart-level obedience God’s commandments within the kingdom.

So far in chapter six, Jesus has addressed the topic of religious actions, specifically giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. Though we might consider giving alms, praying, and fasting to be inherently good works, Christ explains that whenever we do them to be seen by others they are no longer good works. If we do religious works for others to notice, then we have already received our reward for doing them; instead, we should seek the reward from the Father.

Jesus now addresses the topic of reward. He warns us not to store up our treasures on earth, since those treasures cannot be destroyed or lost. Instead, we should seek the treasures of heaven, which are eternally secure. Key to this passage is understanding that we cannot do both. Our heart will always be with what we treasure, whether on earth or in heaven. If we store up treasure here, we will find ourselves serving money as our master, but if God is our treasure, we will be devoted to Him instead.

          Read verses 19-21 and discuss the following.

  1. What does it mean for us to be the salt of the earth?
  2. Christ warns against salt losing its saltiness. Does this mean that Christ is saying that a Christian can lose his or her salvation?

          Read verses 22-23 and discuss the following.

  1. Jesus claims that the eye is the lamp of the body. What does this statement mean? How is it connected to verses 19-21 and verse 24?Read verse 24 and discuss the following.
  1. Here Christ explicitly claims that we will serve a master, but we cannot serve two masters. How can we evaluate which master we serve?

ACTIONS TO CONSIDER

  • Obey. Prayerfully evaluate whether God is your master or if you serve another master, considering whether you store earthly or heavenly treasure. Does your life display the characteristics of the kingdom of heaven?
  • Pray. Ask the Lord for the grace to serve Him alone, laying up your treasures in heaven.