Spurgeon: The Kings of the Earth Are in the Hands of God

The kings of earth are in the hands
Of God who reigns on high;
He in their council-chamber stands,
And sees with watchful eye.

Though foolish princes tyrants prove,
And tread the godly down;
Though earth’s foundations all remove;
He weareth still the crown.

They proudly boast a godlike birth,
In death like men they fall;
Arise, O God, and judge the earth,
And rule the nations all.

When shall Thy Son, the Prince of Peace,
Descend with glorious power?
Then only shall oppression cease:
Oh haste the welcome hour!

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Posted by on June 26, 2015 in Society


The Necessity of Church Membership

A sound church must be committed to meaningful church membership.

This is not a popular topic in our day, for at least a couple of (related) reasons. The first is the widespread individualism of our society. Many factors of life today have turned people inward: it is not unusual for people to barely know their neighbors. So much of life today is customizable: not only your burger, but also your news sources, your entertainment, and your shopping are designed to let you have everything your own way.

And so, second, this individualism spills over into people’s view of religion, and churches have often encouraged people to think just this way about Christ. Many (a majority of?) folks today believe that their religious beliefs are simply between them and God. The common suggestion that Christianity is primarily, or even exclusively, about one’s “personal relationship with God” has fed this idea. Church, for most people, is considered to be an optional tool to aid a person’s spirituality—if that person thinks that it might be helpful. Membership in a church, on this view, is entirely irrelevant to true spirituality.

To begin, then, I need to make an argument for the biblical importance of church membership. I want to acknowledge, right up front, that there is no one clear and obvious text in Scripture that teaches church membership, but I do think that the idea is definitely found in the Bible.

Let’s begin with a couple of simple assertions. In the book of Acts, Luke observes that after Peter’s initial gospel message, “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). On this point, see also Acts 2:47 and 4:4, which express the same kind of idea. This suggests (but obviously does not demand) that the early church was tracking, in some way, those who had become followers of Jesus.

Another indication of this is 1 Timothy 5:9. There, Paul gives instructions about the care of widows in the church, and says, “Let a widow be enrolled if” she meets certain qualifications. The idea here is that the church is to keep records of specific widows in the church who meet certain qualifications, so that they can be cared for. Thus, the notion of official lists of “who’s in” is not foreign to the Bible.

As I say, these passages do not prove church membership; they only suggest it. The stronger argument for the biblical importance of church membership works backwards, from the passages that speak of church discipline. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to make my outline here very obvious, so that it can be easily followed.

The Biblical Case for Membership

1. There are some cases in which a church is biblically obligated to remove a person from the church.

Consider two key passages. The first, from Jesus’s own teaching, is in Matthew 18:15–18: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

The second passage, in 1 Corinthians 5, has to do with an issue of immorality in the Corinthian church. The situation concerned a man whose immoral relationship with his stepmother was known to the church. Paul, in no uncertain terms, tells them what they must do: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” These passages reward additional study, but their basic message is clear enough for our point here: there are occasions that call for certain people to be removed from the church.

2. It doesn’t seem that being removed from the church meant being barred from attendance.

But what does it mean to be removed from the church? Jesus’s teaching in the passage above is our clearest indication: the person removed from the church is to be considered “a Gentile and a tax collector.” In the Jewish context in which Jesus was teaching, this would mean that the person would be considered outside the people of God. In the broader New Testament, it is clear that these kinds of people are always welcome to attend to the church. For instance, 1 Corinthians 14:23 gives specific instructions about unbelievers who come to the church. Thus, the kind of “removal” outlined above does not demand that a person be barred from attending the church.

3. If we can “remove” a person without barring him from attending, we must have some other way to say who is “in” and who is “out” of a church. That is church membership.

This should be mostly clear at this point. If we can say that someone has been put “out” of the church, it follows that we must know who is “in” the church. It can’t simply be attendance, because anyone can attend, even those put “out.” Therefore, because church discipline is clearly biblical, church membership is clearly implied by the Bible.

The Purpose for Membership

Let’s conclude, then, by discussing two reasons that membership is important.

Membership is important because church discipline is designed by God as a way for you to grow spiritually. As we have already seen, discipline only makes sense if membership exists. Your theology might be deeply opposed our church’s, and your decisions might violate our church covenant at every point, and yet I won’t be coming to your house to ask you about it—if you are not a member of our church. And while you might think that it would be better not to have that kind of accountability, the Bible says otherwise.

The Bible makes it clear that our pursuit of Christlikeness is not supposed to be an individual endeavor. That’s exactly why discipline passages like Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 exist: they teach us how to help one another be faithful to Christ. That’s why we are told to “stir up one another to love and good works,” and that this is to occur as we meet together (Hebrews 10:24–25).

Membership creates accountability; to become a member of a church is to agree that allow the other believers in the church to hold you to your confession of faith. We often seek to avoid that kind of responsibility, but let’s be honest: our avoiding accountability simply shows us how much we need it.

Membership is important because it demonstrates that God’s plan in salvation is always bigger than individuals. This is the kind of truth that only becomes apparent when we spend time in the Bible, trying to see the big picture. The Bible as a whole tells a story; it is not simply a collection of random bits of inspiration or wisdom for living. The story of the Bible always involves God saving a people. I say it this way to make a distinction: God is not merely saving people, but he is saving a people.

In the Old Testament, for instance, it is obvious that the nation of Israel is God’s people. And a major point of the New Testament is the people of God has now expanded to include those of us who are not Jews. Paul spends a lot of time on exactly this point in Ephesians chapters 2–3. His point there is that one of the most important things that God is doing in this day is building a church that includes every kind of people. If we get his point here, it should become apparent that we can’t say that we’re Christians if we’re quite opposed to the very thing that God is doing in this world.

For those unconvinced, I offer this challenge: read Paul’s letters, and see how often he talks about the church. What you’ll find is that, for him, being part of a church isn’t an optional part of being a Christian; it’s essential. Furthermore, nearly every letter Paul wrote is addressed to a particular local assembly. Despite the cliché, the Bible is not a love letter to individual believers.

In this matter, as in all things, Christians must follow the teaching of their professed Lord. To intentionally do otherwise is to draw into question the robustness of that very profession.

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Posted by on June 17, 2015 in Pastoral



The Resurrection in music: an exercise

Here are two attempts to picture the power of the Resurrection in music. The first takes a bit longer to develop; give it about a minute and a half. The second is quicker; give it about thirty seconds.

Both begin with a measure of solemnity, attempting to portray the death of Christ, then both build to a triumph in the Resurrection.

The question: are they doing the same thing? Are there differences in what they communicate?


Posted by on April 16, 2015 in Music, Worship


Love: feeling or choice?

Against my better judgment and normal practice, I involved myself in a Facebook theology discussion last night. Because I maintain a view that, for those participating in that discussion thread, is more than a bit outside the norm, I felt it worthwhile to offer a clarification and expanded defense of my position.

The debate question was of the basic nature of love: is it a feeling or a choice? I offered a briefly sketched defense of the view that love is a feeling. As expected, my position was a distinct minority in that thread, but as my theological convictions aren’t formed by counting Facebook affirmations, I remain undaunted.

Let me begin here by commending what I take to be the core concern of those who define love as a choice. Characteristic of our time and place is a lack of loyalty to anything outside a decidedly rosy image of self. This is a narcissistic astigmatism, a self-love that sees no real faults in the hero of our autobiographical epic. People thus afflicted value other people only inasmuch as they reinforce their narcissism. Unsurprisingly, then, relationships ride surges of passions.

Those who insist that love is a choice rightly understand that love grounded in this way is no love at all. There is no constancy here; commitment exists only insofar as the one loved affirms the lover. That is to say, then, that commitment doesn’t exist at all. And if commitment doesn’t exist, biblical love doesn’t exist there, either.

This, I say, is an admirable critique of a certain kind of distorted feeling. However, the reduction of love to mere choice and pure volition is an unbiblical overreaction to a real problem. I say reduction here because there are many who will flatly say that love is a choice and not a feeling.

Let’s begin with a point of clarification: the word feeling, like the parallel term emotion, is far too broad to be useful here. Love, biblical love, is more properly an affection. The distinction is important, even in this discussion. First, let’s let Jonathan Edwards sketch the difference, and then we’ll apply it to our present topic:

The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same, and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference. Affection is a word that in the ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination, but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more over powered, and less in its own command.

First, note that Edwards defines affections as “lively actings of the will.” Already, the distinction between love as a feeling and as a choice is blurred here, and rightly so. But even more that this, Edwards wishes to distinguish affections from passions; the latter are the kind of sudden and overwhelming feelings that overrun the mind. Because many people do not distinguish between affections and passions, lumping them together as emotions or feelings, and because living by passions is in fact decidedly unbiblical, the assumption is that feeling is itself suspect. This is a category mistake.

Why then did I take the side that love is a feeling? Because it was a discussion on Facebook, which as a medium is unserious and discourages nuance. Do you see how many paragraphs I’ve already written here? I skip Facebook comments that look like this, and so do you.

Let’s begin to cash this out. I was asked, “On that inevitable day when the feelings just ain’t a-coming with respect to your wife, will that mean you have stopped loving her?” We now have categories to clarify, first, what is meant by feelings in this question. If we’re talking about an absence of fluttery butterflies in the belly, something rightly identified as a passion, then I can certainly love my wife without those. In fact, mature love isn’t characterized by passions.

But if we frame this in terms of the affections, the question (I think) becomes more revealing: “So on the day in which you no longer cherish your wife, you do not value her, you do not wish her good, have you stopped loving her?” The only answer I can see to this question is “Yes, if that accurately describes my case, I could not be said to love her.” And what must I do if I were to reach such a deplorable situation? I must repent, because I have covenanted to have that affection for her; I have vowed to cherish her. The choice that I have made (and continue to make) isn’t the love, but it establishes the obligation to love. This is the point of Bonhoeffer’s aphorism, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

To illustrate this further, allow me to bring it into the realm of sanctification. The first and greatest commandment is love for God. Is love for God merely volitional? If I obey God by rote choice, have I loved him?

I think we all recognize that, in our progress in sanctification, we have truly advanced only to the degree that our values have been re-inclined. Suppose I decide that I have been slacking in daily Bible reading, and purpose to rise each morning a half-hour earlier than usual to read the Word. When the alarm sounds, I grumble, but drag myself out of bed and read the Word. And it is better to have chosen to do so, even absent any positive inclinations, than to be unfaithful in this matter. But suppose my reaction to my time in the Word remains similarly bitter and loathsome to me for decades. We might admire the persistence involved in such a life, but there is something deeply amiss here. Such a person could never rightly affirm Psalm 119, what Kevin DeYoung calls a “love letter to Scripture.” Do we not see that the Psalmist here not only chooses the Word, but delights in the Word?

One more Scriptural appeal:

Philippians 1:9–11

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Here is a prayer of Paul for the Philippian church. The climax of the prayer suggests its importance: if his prayer is answered, the Philippians will be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” It’s hard not to read this as a summary of the entire goal of the Christian life.

What might accomplish this goal? Paul’s prayer is that the Philippians would abound in discerning love, so that they give their approval to truly excellent things. Does it not seem evident that Paul’s prayer is for a certain inclination of heart, and not merely a set of choices?

Once again, I understand the suspicion attached to love as feeling, especially if we make no effort to distinguish kinds of feelings. But to advocate a definition of love that is absent feeling is to run counter to what it is that we must pursue.


Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Pastoral, Theology


Preaching wisdom to the Greeks

In recent weeks, my thoughts have been coming back time and again to the opening chapters if 1 Corinthians. The church at Corinth was quite a piece of work. The church was founded by Paul, but after Paul left to continue his ministry elsewhere, the Corinthian believers were apparently joined by a motley group of false teachers. This introduced all kinds of divisions into the church, with different factions pledging their loyalty to this or that teacher—and not just the false teachers, but Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, or even Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 1:12).

So Paul begins 1 Corinthians by addressing these divisions. His key idea is this: the gospel of Jesus Christ runs completely contrary to worldly wisdom. You see, the message of this world has always been the same: seek to get ahead. Winners conquer. The message of the gospel turns this on its head, and this inversion is seen most clearly at the cross. At the cross, we see the great King dying. Let that sink in: God comes to earth in human form, and is put to a shameful death by his own creatures. Could there be a more humiliating defeat?

The application to the factionalism at Corinth is this: true ministers of Jesus Christ don’t operate according to the worldly wisdom of self-promotion. To the degree that they are driven by ambition, they are evidencing that they aren’t following their Lord, who humbled himself to death. Thus, the notion of “celebrity” pastors is directly counter to the gospel, and the Corinthians who aligning themselves as followers of men are missing the point of the faith rather badly.

And so worldly wisdom and the gospel are directly opposed to one another. Paul illustrates that by talking about his own gospel preaching. He observes that unbelieving Jews want to hear about a conquering Messiah, and unbelieving Gentiles want to hear about a great wisdom teacher. Now get this: Jesus is in fact a mighty conqueror (read Revelation) and he is a great wisdom teacher.

But Paul realizes that if he preaches Jesus as a conqueror to the Jews or a wisdom teacher to the Greeks, he will simply be propping up their idolatries. So he preaches Jesus as the opposite of their expectations. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22–24).

There is much to say here, but let me offer you one reflection: Paul’s example of ministry indicates that we should avoid allowing the values of those who don’t believe Jesus to determine the shape of our preaching. We should be uneasy about an approach to ministry that asks what people want to hear, and then preaches Jesus as the answer to their desires. To do so, according to this passage, is to make worldly wisdom and the gospel compatible with each other—and they never are.

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Posted by on January 5, 2015 in Newspaper Article


Obamacare and me

I’m not prone to political rants, especially online. To say this, however, obviously means that a political rant is forthcoming.

It is a sign of a deeply broken system that a relatively tech-savvy person could inadvertently enroll his family in public assistance. I created an Obamacare account last year to check prices for health insurance. Our family was among those who liked its coverage, but couldn’t keep it. Because of the requirements of the new law, our monthly premium was going up about $150, which was beyond what we could swing. Thus, the visit to (which remains broken; when I log in, I invariably am greeted with “Error ID:500.000888,” which allows me to do nothing else).

All things considered, we opted to go without coverage this year. In nearly every scenario, we would come out ahead financially. This remained true even with the birth of our third child, who was delivered (quite expertly, with the aid of a midwife) at home.

Here’s my complaint: apparently, the process of creating a account (with financial information, etc.) is also counted as an application for public assistance, if you qualify. And I created my account in the early days of Obamacare, when you were required to enter your information even to be able to see the prices. So my wife and children are now enrolled in Medicaid.

This was never my intent. I’m not debating the merits of these programs themselves, but simply asserting that, by the kindness of God, our family is not in position to need this help, even if we meet the qualifications. It simply shouldn’t happen that a person can acquire a DHS case worker for his family by accident. That is a bad system.

It further occurs to me that we are likely among the statistics of those who have been helped to get insurance because of Obamacare, despite the facts that 1) we had workable insurance prior to that law and 2) I didn’t even realize that we had been enrolled in Medicaid and 3) that I never wanted to be enrolled in Medicaid.

OK, just wanted to get that off my chest.

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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in Personal, Society


Salvation in the Church

I have a weekly column in our local newspaper. What follows is this week’s essay.

There’s no point in avoiding the obvious: I’m biased in favor of the church. For the cynical reader, the reason for my bias is obvious: I draw my paycheck from the church, and so promoting the church is in my own interest. But may I suggest another, less insidious reason that I love the church? I believe that I love the church because Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). If I love Christ, I will love what Christ loves.

In our day, the church is a suspect institution. Some of this is of her own doing. But some of it is in our national DNA. We Americans are an independent people. And as I’ve told our church before, many of us who live here in the UP do so because we’re especially independent people. Generally speaking, you don’t live in New York City if you like to be left alone, and you don’t live in the Upper Peninsula if you like the constant buzz of society.

This independent streak shows up in how people view the church. For many professing Christians, the church is thought to offer a service. The church provides help to people with spiritual needs. And therefore, if these folks don’t view themselves in particular need of that assistance, they don’t feel any need to connect themselves to a church. They can love God on their own, thank you very much.

The problem I see with this approach to Christianity is that it is strikingly unbiblical. Let me point you to one passage that highlights this.

In Ephesians 2, Paul talks about our salvation in two ways. The first is very familiar to us. In verse 1–10, he reminds us that, before we came to Christ, we were “dead in the transgressions and sin” in which we once walked. But God intervened in mercy, and because of Christ’s work (received by faith alone), those of us who were once dead have now been made alive by grace. This is salvation viewed individually.

In verses 11–22, Paul talks about our salvation again, but this time corporately. Here, he reminds us that before we were saved, we were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.” Why does this matter? Because, in biblical terms, to be cut off from the people of God was to be cut off from God himself.

So here Paul observes that Christ’s work makes us “no longer strangers and aliens, but…fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Again, this is simply another way for Paul to talk about our salvation. In one metaphor, we were dead but are now alive. In another, we were foreigners to God’s people, and now we have been made part of the people of God.

The bottom line is this: we cannot rightly understand the work of Christ in our salvation while intentionally cutting ourselves off from the people of God. To do so is to reject one of the major reasons that Christ came to die: so that we, who once were far off, could be brought near. Therefore, come near to God’s people!

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Posted by on October 13, 2014 in Newspaper Article, Theology


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