Watchfulness Requires Wakefulness

When I was eighteen, I fell asleep at the wheel. My dad was preaching at a church two hundred miles from the farm where we lived in Tokio, Texas. We left early enough that morning to make the three-hour drive and arrive before the hymns began. I was driving while Dad went over notes for his sermon, prayed, and took a brief nap.

We both woke up at the same time, as the minivan careened right, then bounced along the wide shoulder of the straight (and mercifully empty) Texas highway.

Both of us were startled.

No one was hurt.

I’ve never forgotten the experience, and two decades later I’m more cautious, more wakeful, and more alert to the danger of drowsiness—especially when my family of six makes the long trek from Indiana to Texas or Georgia to visit family. I’ll do anything to stay awake: Roll down a window. Chew straws. Eat sunflower seeds. Drink absurd amounts of caffeine. Slap myself in the face. The frightening realization that my vehicle, traveling the interstate at seventy miles an hour, is only a few careless seconds away from a fatal collision makes me vigilant. As long as I’m behind the wheel, sleep is not an option.

Watchfulness demands wakefulness. If the eyes are shut in slumber, they are not open for observation. You cannot be alert and asleep at the same time. When Jesus told His disciples to watch and pray with Him for one hour, He was telling them to stay awake. There is, therefore, a physical dimension to this discipline.

In The Christian in Complete Armour, William Gurnall explains watching in both literal and metaphorical senses. “Watching, literally taken,” he says, “is an affection of the body . . . a voluntary denying of our bodies sleep, that we may spend either the whole or part of the night in pious exercises.” As fasting is temporary abstinence from food, so watching is temporary abstinence of sleep.

This is the sense in which Paul lists “watchings” among his ministerial credentials in 2 Corinthians 6:5: “in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings” (KJV).

We also see the literal aspect of watchfulness in David’s earnest pursuit of God in Psalm 63:6: “When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches.” The psalmists compare themselves to sentinels, entrusted with guarding the city through the long, lonely vigils of night. So we read in Psalm 130:6
My soul waits for the Lord
More than those who watch for the morning—
Yes, more than those who watch for the morning.
And in Psalm 119:148: “My eyes are awake through the night watches, that I may meditate on Your word.”

Jesus Himself observed such vigils, either praying long into the night or rising before dawn to meet with God (Luke 6:12; cf. Mark 1:35), and believers should sometimes do the same. As Gurnall says, “No doubt, for a devout soul, upon some extraordinary occasions—so superstition be avoided and health regarded—thus to watch unto prayer is not only laudable but delectable.”

But wakefulness in Scripture is more often a picture for mental and spiritual watchfulness. Gurnall observes, “Watching is taken metaphorically for the [vigilance] or watchfulness of the soul,” and, in this sense, watching “is not a temporary duty,” but the urgent and ongoing posture of one’s life.

We see this in Romans 13:11, where the apostle Paul reminds believers that the hour has come for them to awake from their sleep. But he is not rebuking them for taking a nap. Paul isn’t against Christians getting their seven hours of sleep or catching a few Z’s on a Saturday afternoon. Siestas are not a necessary hindrance to one’s sanctification. No, Paul writes about spiritual slumber. He seeks to rouse his Roman friends from the moral stupor of sin. Here are his words in full:
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. (Rom. 13:11–14)
Notice the reason for his exhortation. “Wake from sleep,” he says, “for salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Paul was writing to people who were already believers, so why did he refer to salvation as something yet to be obtained? When most of us talk about salvation, we refer to something in the past, something that has already happened to us. Sometimes the Scriptures do this too. Paul elsewhere teaches that we have already been saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). But sometimes the Bible views salvation as a future event. So, here. This salvation is a deliverance we have not yet experienced, a rescue we are still waiting for. And this future salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.

The next verse clarifies and extends the analogy: “The night is far spent, the day is at hand.” The day Paul has in mind is the day of the Lord, the final, eschatological day, the great day of salvation and judgment—salvation for the church, judgment and wrath for the unbelieving, disobedient world. Paul writes with a two-age schema in mind, viewing human history in terms of two eras, the present age and the age to come. The present age is the night, the age of darkness. The age to come is the day, the age of life and light. Believers live in the overlap of the ages. We are children of the future day, children of the light, and yet we live in the present age of darkness, the age of night. But since we are children of the light, we are to “cast off the works of darkness, and . . . put on the armor of light.” We are to throw off the nightclothes and get dressed for the dawning day.

Paul also used this schema in writing to the Thessalonians when he addressed believers who knew that the day of the Lord would come like “a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). Though this day will surprise the spiritually unprepared, who vainly assure themselves of peace and security, believers will not be surprised: “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness” (1 Thess. 5:4–5). How, then, should we live?
Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Thess. 5:6–8)
This is the sobriety, the alertness, and the wakefulness to which we are called. As people who belong to the day, we must be mentally sober and morally alert, dressed in the Christian armor of faith, hope, and love. To be watchful is to be wakeful.


Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline


Here is a brief excerpt from the book, followed by endorsements from Don Whitney, Derek Thomas, Steve Lawson, and others. 

The Value of the Heart 

Watchfulness is needful because the heart is valuable. According to A. W. Pink, keeping the heart is “the great task which God has assigned unto each of His children.”[1] In the words of Solomon: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). Solomon is not talking about the blood-pumping organ in your chest, but the control center of your life. He is talking about your soul. 

Your heart, or your soul (the biblical words are synonymous), is the most important part of you. It is command central. It is the seat of your thoughts, affections, and desires. In The Holy War John Bunyan pictures the heart as the central palace in the city of Mansoul: 

There was reared up in the midst of this town a most famous and stately palace; for strength, it may be called a castle; for pleasantness, a paradise; for largeness, a place so copious as to contain all the world. This place, the King Shaddai intended but for himself alone, and not another with him. . . . This place Shaddai made also a garrison of, but committed the keeping of it only to the men of the town.[2]
Jesus said the soul is more valuable than the world: “What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). He also taught that your words and deeds flow from this central part of your being: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). Who you are in your heart is who you are. The various streams of your life flow from the fountain of your heart. If your heart is not watched, then your life will be a mess.

The problem is that our hearts have become sick, diseased by the deadly contagion of sin. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it? (Jer. 17:9)

Until purified by God’s cleansing power and changed by God’s transforming grace, our hearts are incapable of true godliness. The good news for believers is that God has, in fact, changed our hearts: “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Into the darkness of our benighted minds, God brings light. Into the chaos of our inner worlds, He brings order. The Lord of new creation speaks the words of life and light to our dead, darkened souls. He cleanses our hearts through faith (Acts 15:9). 

But even after new birth, our hearts must be kept. They must be guarded from fleshly desires that wage a relentless guerrilla warfare against our souls (1 Peter 2:11). Sin’s dominion over us is broken, but its seditious influence remains. The heart must be watched, for “the heart hath a thousand wiles and deceits.”[3] Sin still dwells within.

In his book Soul Keeping, John Ortberg compares the soul to a beautiful, crystal-clear stream high in the Alps that strengthened and refreshed a mountain village. The stream was fed by mountain springs, which were tended by an old man called the Keeper of the Springs. His job was to remove branches, leaves, and other debris from the springs, lest they pollute the stream.

One year the village decided to fire the old man and spend their money elsewhere. With no one tending the springs, the water became polluted: “Twigs and branches and worse muddied the liquid flow. Mud and silt compacted the creek bed; farm wastes turned parts of the stream into stagnant bogs.” Though no one noticed at first, eventually the village was affected. Some people got sick. Kids no longer played in the water. Its crisp scent and sparkling beauty were gone.

Finally, the council of the village reconvened and rehired the old man to clean up the springs. After a time, “the springs were cleaned, the stream was pure, children played again on its banks, illness was replaced by health…and the village came back to life.” “The life of a village,” Ortberg writes, “depended on the health of the stream.”

Are you keeping your soul? Is your innermost soul a palace cleansed and prepared for the dwelling of the king? Are the thoughts, words, and behaviors flowing from your heart pure and refreshing? Or have you neglected your watch? “The stream is your soul. And you are the keeper.”[4]

Endorsements 

If you love your Bible, if you love the Puritans, and if you love your own soul, then this little book is a banquet awaiting you to come and indulge your spiritual appetite! Brian Hedges has woven together a wonderfully edifying book on a forgotten spiritual discipline – watchfulness. He has created a tapestry rich in Scripture and the masters of the inner life: Owen, Bunyan, Flavel, Boston, M'Cheyne and others. I can well imagine this little volume sitting next to my Bible to be read along with morning devotions or for family worship. May the Lord Jesus use this wonderful little book to help His people become more watchful.
—Brian Borgman, Pastor of Grace Community Church, Minden, NV | Author, Feelings and Faith: Cultivating Godly Emotions in the Christian Life and co-author with Rob Ventura of Spiritual Warfare, a Biblical and Balanced Perspective

In a sea of antinomian easy believism, Watchfulness is a five-alarm fire bell calling us all to work out our salvation with fear, trembling, and effort. It’s about time. In twenty years of ministry, I have not read a single article, let alone book, that deals with the urgent issue of watchfulness. This book is long overdue and desperately needed.
—Todd Friel, Wretched Radio | Author, Reset for Parents: How to Keep Your Kids from Backsliding

Watchfulness is a book for all types of Christians. Whether you just met Christ yesterday or you’ve been walking with Him for dozens of years, this book is a helpful reminder that we must diligently keep watch over ourselves, and each other. I recommend without hesitation that you pick this up and start implementing it today. Hedges has done the Church a great service with this gem!
—Jason M. Garwood, Teaching Pastor of Cross & Crown Church in Northern Virginia | Author, Be Holy: Learning the Path of Sanctification

Channeling the likes of Owen, Bunyan, M’Cheyne, and Calvin, Brian Hedges cares for the Christian’s soul with the expertise of a seasoned pastor and a wise shepherd. He instructs the reader in the needful and often neglected spiritual discipline of watchfulness. If you would enjoy Christ more, safeguard your soul with greater effectiveness, and live the faith-filled life more intentionally, devour these pages. It will do your soul good and sow seeds for a life of devotion to Christ.
—Jason Helopoulos, Associate Pastor, University Reformed Church, Lansing, MI | Author, A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home

Many Christians today are unaware of one of the most fundamental spiritual disciplines necessary to advance in the Christian life, namely, watchfulness. By drawing from the vast riches of Scripture and the writings of Puritan divines, Brian Hedges shines a much needed light on this often neglected subject. This book will elevate your pursuit of personal holiness as it brings to the forefront of your mind the eternal benefits of watching over your heart and being alert for your enemy.
—Steven J. Lawson, President, OnePassion Ministries, Dallas, Texas | Professor of Preaching and Director of Doctor of Ministry Program, The Master's Seminary | Author, A Long Line of Godly Men series

Doctrine is easier to learn than godliness. Yet true doctrine is according to godliness. Brian Hedges faithfully guides his readers to cultivate godliness through ‘watchfulness’ by answering the questions what, why, how, when, and who. Drawing particularly from the insights of Owen, Bunyan, and M‘Cheyne, he makes the dead speak to us with a fresh voice on a neglected topic for the refreshment of our souls.
—Ryan M. McGraw, Morton H. Smith Professor of Systematic Theology, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary | Author, The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen

We need constant reminders to be watchful lest we fall. And when these reminders come clothed in grace and pastoral sensitivity, they are all the more welcome. Brian Hedges has put together a small gem of a book that urges us to greater care and watchfulness. Gospel-driven exhortation and warning to busy Christians. Timely and necessary.
—Derek W.H. Thomas, Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church, Columbia SC | Chancellor’s Professor, Reformed Theological Seminary | Teaching Fellow, Ligonier Ministries | Author, How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home

In the volume you are holding, [Brian Hedges] has brought together the biblical teaching on watching over our souls and seasoned it with insights from great works by godly men who were both passionate and practical about watchfulness. This book is needed. It fills a space on the subject of the Christian life that has been empty far too long.
—Donald S. Whitney, Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality | Senior Associate Dean for the School of Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky | Author, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life


Notes

[1] A. W. Pink, Guarding Your Heart (Pensacola, Fla.: Chapel Library, 2010), 9.

[2] John Bunyan, The Holy War (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1993), 20.

[3] Owen, The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, in Works, 6:175.

[4] John Ortberg, Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 13–14.

The Best Books I Read in 2017




Flickr/nymo59

The first Evangelical Protestant to catalog a list of what we now call spiritual disciplines was Richard Rogers. This list was found in book three of Rogers’ Seven Treatises — and this third book is soon to be republished by Reformation Heritage Books as Holy Helps for a Godly Life. Rogers divided these “helps” into public and private helps for godliness, and among the private helps, he included reading. The reading Rogers prescribed included the reading of both Scripture and other books.

Reading has been one of the most significant means of helping me grow as a Christian. It began when I was a child, with my parents’ household rule of reading the Bible daily before watching anything on television. We were expected to read three chapters a day, and four on Sunday. As a result of this regimen, I had read through the entire Bible seven or eight times by the time I left home, and many portions of Scripture (especially Psalms, Proverbs, and many of Paul’s letters) dozens of times. My parents also directed me to other good Christian literature, such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, E. M. Bounds’ Power through Prayer, and missionary biographies. 

Having benefited so much from books myself, I’m always glad to find new books to read. (For more on bible reading, see my post 15 Ways to Feed on the Word in the New Year) That’s one reason I enjoy all the book lists that appear at the end of each year. I’ve been providing one of my own for several years, with the hope that others will be helped by some of the same books that have helped me. 

The following books are my favorites from 2017. Keep in mind, these were not necessarily published in 2017 — in fact, most of them were not. They are simply some of the best books that I read (in whole or in part) last year. 

The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation – Michael Reeves. Since 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I devoted a lot of my reading to its history and theology. This is probably the best short introduction to the Reformation.

2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 3: Renaissance and Reformation – Nicholas R. Needham. A more detailed study of the church in the sixteenth century. Needham is a great writer and his narrative almost reads like a novel. Though the book is obviously well researched, Needham doesn’t use heavy footnotes; however, each section includes helpful readings from the primary sources. This is a long book, so includes much more than Reeves.

Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity – Kevin J. Vanhoozer. A helpful book on how the Reformation solas can help steer the contemporary church toward true unity in the gospel. 

Theology of the Reformers – Timothy George. Magnificent study of five key figures from the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simmons, and William Tyndale. Demonstrating an admirable grasp of both primary sources and secondary literature, Timothy George guides readers into the world of the sixteenth century with profundity, verve, and wit. This book is a tour de force in historical theology and was easily one of the best books I read last year. Highly recommended.

Athirst For God: Spiritual Desire in Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons on the Song of Songs – Michael Casey. A rich study on one of the burning, shining lights in the church between Augustine and Luther. 

The Story of Christianity – Justo L. González. An excellent survey of church history. If you read it, get the one volume edition, which has additional material not found in the original two volumes.

Z for Zachariah – Robert C. O’Brien. This was the best novel I read this year (except for the C. S. Lewis books I re-read!). Much better than the movie.

Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way – J. I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett. I’ve been thinking a lot about catechesis this year, partly as a result of Tim Keller’s excellent breakout session at TGC. Packer and Parrett present a compelling case for restoring catechesis to the church. (As a first step, our church will be using The New City Catechism this year, encouraging families to work on the 52 questions together, one question per week.)

Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture – David P. Murray. An excellent treatment of the problems men (especially pastors) face in midlife and the need for intentional rest, renewal, and restoration. Murray relates how his own experience of burnout and resulting health problems in his forties led to serious changes in his lifestyle. This book is, in many ways, like Wayne Cordeiro's Leading on Empty (a book Murray seems unaware of, or at least never quotes). In some respects, it is even better. Cordeiro writes as a mainstream evangelical megachurch pastor. While his advice is often good, his theology is sometimes sloppy and his applications out of reach for ordinary people with limited resources. Murray is more grounded, both in theology (writing from a Reformed perspective) and in real life. Murray covers almost all the bases (sleep, recreation, exercise, diet, life purpose, goal setting, time management, personal relationships, and one's relationship to the gracious God of the gospel throughout) and includes lots of helpful statistics, insightful quotes, personal stories, and practical application. I read the book in less than twenty-four hours and will probably read through again more slowly. Highly recommended.

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way – Michael S. Horton. This is now my favorite contemporary systematic theology. Superior to both Grudem and Berkhof, in my opinion. Horton’s treatment of each loci of theology is philosophically-nuanced, historically-aware, and biblically-grounded. With an eye on the drama, discipleship, and doxology of biblical doctrine, Horton presents a vision of Christian theology that is both catholic and Reformed. For the same material in more condensed form, see Horton’s Core Christianity and Pilgrim Theology. Or, to go even deeper, see his four volumes of dogmatics published by Westminster John Knox.

The Confessions – Saint Augustine (translated by F. J. Sheed). This was my third time through Augustine’s Confessions, this time with Sheed’s translation. The translation itself is good, although I still prefer Maria Boulding’s translation, but Sheed’s notes and glossary are really good and helped me better understand the structure of Confessions. I read it slowly this time, taking notes on most of the books.

Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken – David A. Powlison. This is the best book I’ve read for dealing with sexual sin and suffering. Helpful in both diagnosis and cure, this book is short, deep, thorough, convicting, and drenched in grace.

Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis – Michael Ward. Brilliant. I'll never read The Chronicles of Narnia in the same way again. (I also re-read The Silver Chair this year. Easily my second favorite of the Narnian books, after The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). For a more accessible version of this material, see the author's (poorly titled) The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens. 

Galatians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) – Douglas J. Moo. I probably read 85% of this excellent commentary. Moo is a theologically informed exegete, with Lutheran-Reformed leanings. While he is sympathetic to the New Perspective on Paul, he is not uncritical, and thus defends a nuanced Lutheran reading of the letter. I found this commentary quite helpful this fall, as I preached through Galatians. I recommend it highly.

Who Is Jesus? (Crucial Questions #1) – R. C. Sproul. Sproul, who passed into glory last month, was surely one of the greatest popularizers of the Reformed faith in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I’ve read many of this books over the years, and just read this little booklet last week. I was impressed with both the richness of its content and the quality of Sproul’s writing. A great booklet to give to an unbelieving friend who is considering the claims of Jesus.

The Holy War – John Bunyan. Not quite as good (or readable) as the better known Pilgrim’s Progress, this is still a brilliantly conceived allegory with profound insight into the human heart (Mansoul) and the warfare waged between Christ and Satan for the hearts dominion. As I read, I was wishing that backslidden and apostate Christians I know would read it. Bunyan’s astute observations about the nature of apostasy are frighteningly accurate. No earnest believer should read this without serious soul searching.

Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister Is Called to Be – Sinclair B. Ferguson. This 800-page book just came out a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve already read about half of it. Collecting many of Ferguson’s essays, chapters, and forewords into one volume, this book is worth its weight in gold. Though it is occasionally repetitive, with the same quotes and anecdotes showing up in more than one place, Ferguson’s reflections on the “three Johns” (Calvin, Owen, and Murray), the pastoral theology of the Puritans, and other topics related to preaching and pastoral work is a treasure trove of wisdom. 

The Spoils of War

“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1)

The good news in the story of Jesus’ temptation is that Jesus obeyed God and defeated temptation at every point where Israel, and Adam, and you and I have failed! Jesus was tempted as our brother, captain, and king. Adam, our first representative, was tempted in paradise and failed. Jesus, the second Adam and our final representative, was tempted in the desert and conquered. He reversed every aspect of the fall.

What Jesus won in this initial victory was soon to be completed in his decisive victory on the cross and over the grave. Just as the young David, freshly anointed as Israel’s king, assumed the role of champion and defeated Goliath on Israel’s behalf, so Jesus, anointed by the Spirit in his baptism, assumed the role of our champion, to defeat and disarm the devil.

When an ancient king won a battle on behalf of his people, he shared with them the plunder of the battle. His victory meant wealth for them. So it is with Christ. He has won the decisive battle against sin and Satan, and he shares with us the spoils of war.

The story of Jesus’ temptation has a very practical application, but it is different from what we might first expect. The application is not merely moral exhortation to resist or flee temptation, though Scripture does, of course, command us to both flee and resist. But the Scriptures do so much more. They provide us with rich and wonderful, gospel-laden, grace-infused, Spirit-inspired applications of Christ’s priestly work to our lives.

For example, we learn in Hebrews 2 that Christ shared human nature with us. He was “made like his brothers in every respect” (v. 17). He “partook” of our same “flesh and blood” (v. 14), or had the same basic human nature that we have. As we saw in the first chapter of this book, the eternal Son united human nature to himself in the incarnation. And his union with us in nature becomes the foundation for our union with him in grace. His shared humanity with us equips him to be a “merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17) who “suffered when tempted” and therefore “is able to help those who are being tempted” (v. 18).

Also, in Hebrews 4:14–16, we see that Jesus not only helps us but also sympathizes with our weaknesses because he “has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (v. 15). When you are tempted, Jesus doesn’t stand over you with condemnation and judgment. He stands beside you with understanding and compassion and readiness to give mercy and grace to help in time of need. Do you see what the writer to the Hebrews is doing? He is appealing to Christ’s incarnation and priestly work in order to encourage tempted and suffering believers.

Finally, we see also in Hebrews 4 that the same one who took our nature, endured temptation, and conquered it on our behalf has now ascended to God in human nature. Our great high priest “has passed through the heavens” (v. 14). He is at the right hand of God, interceding for us (Rom. 8:34). Take heart in knowing that you have a brother on the throne.

Married to Christ

"The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh (Eph. 5:31–32). And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage— indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage—it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his . . . Here we have a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom."
—Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray (Book Review)

Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray is an excellent treatment of the problems men (especially pastors) face in midlife and the need for intentional rest, renewal, and restoration. 

Murray relates how his own experience of burnout and resulting health problems in his forties led to serious changes in his lifestyle. 

This book is, in many ways, like Wayne Cordeiro's Leading on Empty (a book Murray seems unaware of, or at least never quotes). In some respects, it is even better. Cordeiro writes as a mainstream evangelical megachurch pastor. While his advice is often good, his theology is sometimes sloppy and his applications out of reach for ordinary people with limited resources. Murray is more grounded, both in theology (writing from a Reformed perspective) and in real life. 

Murray covers almost all the bases (sleep, recreation, exercise, diet, life purpose, goal setting, time management, personal relationships, and one's relationship to the gracious God of the gospel throughout) and includes lots of helpful statistics, insightful quotes, personal stories, and practical application. 

I read the book in less than twenty-four hours and will probably read through again more slowly. 

Highly recommended. 

The Christ-Centeredness of C. H. Spurgeon

One of my heroes is Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the famous Baptist pastor of nineteenth century London. In reading Spurgeon, I am convinced that one of the secrets behind the extraordinary fruitfulness of his ministry and the enduring legacy of his sermons was his relentless focus on the person and work of Christ.


Spurgeon’s Christ-centered focus is evident in the first words he spoke in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which was built to accommodate the multitudes of people who came to hear him preach. Setting the tone of the thirty years of ministry which would follow, he said:


“I would propose that the subject of the ministry in this house, as long as this platform shall stand, shall be the Person of Jesus Christ. I am never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist. I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist. But if I am asked what is my creed, I reply, ‘It is Jesus Christ.’”[1]


Christ-Centered Preaching and Teaching

Spurgeon was Christ-centered in his preaching and taught his students to be the same.


“From every town, village, and little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London… and so from every text in Scripture there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. Your business is, when you get to a text, to say, ‘Now, what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis—Christ.”[2]


Spurgeon did occasionally err in his exegesis, seeing allegories to Christ where better hermeneutics would take the reader to Jesus by a different (and perhaps more lengthy) route. But the aim of his counsel is certainly correct. He certainly felt that his preaching was in sync with the words of the Apostle Paul who determined to know nothing but Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2) and boasted in nothing except the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14). As Spurgeon said of Paul,

“Paul’s harp had only one string, but he brought such music out of it as never came from any other. He found such infinite variety in Christ that he never exhausted his theme; with him, it was Christ first, Christ last, Christ midst, Christ everywhere; so he could never have his pen in his hand without writing something in praise of his glorious Lord and Savior.”[3]

Christ-Centered and Spirit-Blessed

Furthermore, Spurgeon felt that his emphasis on Christ would be blessed by the Holy Spirit who is given to the church to glorify Christ (John 16:14). In fact, he believed the lack of anointing in preaching was due to a lack of Christ-centeredness. He once said,


“Where there is nothing of Christ, brethren, there is nothing of unction, nothing of savour. . . . Leave Christ out of your preaching, and you have taken milk from the children, you have taken the strong meat from the men. But if your object as a teacher or preacher is to glorify Christ and to lead men to love him and trust him, that is the very work on which the heart of God himself is set. The Lord and you are pulling together, and God the Holy Ghost can set his seal to a work like that.”[4]


Christ-Centered Theology 

It is a well-known and indisputable fact that Spurgeon was Calvinistic in his theology. But this never lessened his passion for Christ and never produced indolence in evangelism. He rather saw the doctrines of grace as important only in their relation to Christ. He said:


“What is doctrine after all but the throne whereon Christ sitteth, and when the throne is vacant what is the throne to us? Doctrines are the shovel and tongs of the altar, while Christ is the sacrifice smoking thereon. Doctrines are Christ’s garments; verily they smell of myrrh, and cassia, and aloes out of the ivory palaces, whereby they make us glad, but it is not the garments we care for as much as the person, the very person of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[5]


This emphasis, however, did not lead Spurgeon away from doctrinal teaching. It simply kept doctrine subservient to Christ, as the following passage reveals:

“If I preach Christ I must preach him as the covenant head of his people, and how far am I then from the doctrine of election? If I preach Christ I must preach the efficacy of his blood, and how far am I removed then from the great doctrine of an effectual atonement? If I preach Christ I must preach the love of his heart, and how can I deny the final perseverance of the saints? If I preach the Lord Jesus as the great Head and King, how far am I removed from divine Sovereignty? Must I not, if I preach Christ personally, preach his doctrines? I believe they are nothing but the natural outgrowth of that great root thought, or root substance rather, the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He who will preach Christ fully will never lax in doctrine.”[6]


Christ-Centered Evangelism

Spurgeon’s Christ-centeredness also impacted the way he evangelized and taught people to seek salvation.


“Remember, sinner, it is not thy hold of Christ that saves thee – it is Christ; it is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee – it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ, though that is the instrument – it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore, look not to thy hope, but to Christ, the source of thy hope; look not to thy faith, but to Christ, the author and finisher of thy faith; and if thou doest that, ten thousand devils cannot throw thee down . . . . Let me beseech thee, look only to Christ; never expect deliverance from self, from ministers, or from any means of any kind apart from Christ; keep thine eye simply on Him; let His death, His agonies, His intercession, be fresh upon thy mind; when thou wakest in the morning look for Him; when thou liest down at night look for Him.”[7]



The Roots of Christ-Centeredness: Love for Christ Himself

Spurgeon’s Christ-centeredness sprung from a deep and personal relationship with the Lord. He loved Christ deeply and passionately and his sermons are filled with rapturous exaltation of Christ. He eloquently said,


“If you leave out Christ, you have left the sun out of the day, and the moon out of the night, you have left the waters out of the sea, and the floods out of the river, you have left the harvest out of the year, the soul out of the body, you have left joy out of heaven, you robbed all of it's all. There is no gospel worth thinking of, much less worth proclaiming, if Jesus be forgotten. We must have Jesus as Alpha and Omega in all our ministries.”[8]


Perhaps Spurgeon never put it more succinctly than when he said, “If you take Christ out of Christianity, Christianity is dead.”[9]


Christ-Centered to the End

Near the end of his ministry, Spurgeon said,


“If I had only one more sermon to preach before I died, it would be about my Lord Jesus Christ. And I think that when we get to the end of our ministry, one of our regrets will be that we did not preach more of him. I am sure no minister will ever repent of having preached him too much.”[10]


Notes

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “The First Sermon in the Tabernacle” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 7 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 169.

[2] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “Christ Precious to Believers” in The New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994 reprint).

[3] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “Great Forgiveness for Great Sin” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 49 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint), p. 613. I’m grateful to have discovered several of these quotations in an article by Mark Minnick entitled “First Partaker” available online at: http://www.f-b-f.org/WebMan/Article.asp?ID=4079&Count=true.

[4] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “A Great Sermon by the Greatest Preacher” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 41 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 187.

[5] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “The Love of Jesus, What It Is None but His Loved Ones Know” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 8 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 339. Quoted in Iain H. Murray, Spurgeon v. Hyper-calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), p. 122.

[6]C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “The First Sermon in the Tabernacle” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 7 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 169. Quoted in Lewis Drummond, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1992) p. 291.

[7] C. H. Spurgeon in a sermon entitled “The Comer’s Conflict with Satan” in The New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994 reprint).

[8] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “Alpha and Omega” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 9 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 720.

[9] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “Our Manifesto,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 37 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint).

[10] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “An Exciting Inquiry” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 54 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 149.

Christ All Sufficient


What does it mean to say that Christ is sufficient, and why does it matter? It means that Christ in all of his fullness really is everything we need. And it matters because without him we can do nothing.

To say that Christ is sufficient is to say that there is nothing else in addition to Jesus that we need for salvation, life, satisfaction, or fullness. There are no bonuses or extras. There is no gold membership to be attained only by any elite few. If Christ really is sufficient, then Christianity can do without the extra “-isms”: legalism, mysticism, gnosticism, asceticism, monasticism, sacerdotalism, and so on. If Jesus is all that you need, then you don't need anything else. That's right. Nada, nothing, zilch.

We can go even further. The claim that Christ is sufficient means not only that we need no additions to Jesus, but also that any such additions are actually subtractions. To try to add something to Jesus is to diminish what he has already done. If you say that you need Jesus plus angels, or Jesus plus the law, or Jesus plus moral achievement, or Jesus plus a second work of grace, or Jesus plus anything else – then you take something away from Jesus. To say that Christ is sufficient is to say that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has already blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, in Christ. To say that Christ is sufficient is to say that God has already given us everything we need for life and godliness through his own Son. To say that Christ is sufficient is to say that the only thing the branch needs in order to bear fruit is to be vitally connected to the vine.

Jesus is the vine.

But the declaration the Christ is sufficient should not make us complacent. We need to be careful to not draw the wrong conclusion or make the wrong application. The completeness of Christ's work does not mean that we have no needs. It means that all of the needs we have are met in Christ. It means that we desperately need Christ!

We need Christ in all of his fullness. We need not half a Jesus, but the whole Jesus. We need the intoxicating one-hundred-proof Jesus, not the safe, bland, non-alcoholic watered-down version. We need the authentic Jesus in all of his humble humanity and terrifying deity. We need Christ in his meekness and majesty, his suffering and glory, his crucifixion and resurrection, his incarnation and ascension, first coming and his second.

Jesus is 100% of what we need. And we need 100% of Jesus.

We need Jesus in his redeeming, liberating grace. We need his forgiveness for our sins, his cleansing for our consciences, and his power for our obedience. We need Jesus in his supremacy over all earthly and unearthly powers, whether those powers are angels, principalities, and powers in the heavenly realms, or Caesars, senators, and presidents in the kingdoms of men. We need Jesus as the perfect portrait of the invisible God, Jesus as the true imago Dei, Jesus as the new and better Adam, and Jesus as the greater son of David who in the strength of weakness sets his people free from the monsters of sin and death.

We need Jesus as justifier and sanctifier. We need Jesus as the Savior and Lord of the church, the husband of the bride, and the head of the body. We need him as Lion of the tribe of Judah and as the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world. We need him as prophet, priest, and king. We need him as bread of life and fountain of living waters.  We need him as the door to walk through, the way to walk on, and the goal to which we walk, the prize for which we run, and the Captain for whom we fight. We need Jesus as Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, first and last.

Furthermore, we need Jesus in all of life. We need Jesus informing our minds and we need Jesus forming our hearts. We need Jesus in the closet, the bedroom, dining room, the playroom, the boardroom, and on the street. We need Jesus when we play, when we worship, when we work, and when we pray. We need Jesus in our churches, our classrooms, and our homes.

We need Jesus in and through all the vicissitudes of life. We need Jesus to remove the burden of sin at Calvary and to strengthen us for the long pilgrimage to the Celestial City.  We need him to walk with us through the Valley of Humiliation. We need him to help us make the hard climb up Hill Difficulty. We need him to pull us from the Slough of Despond and to rescue us from Doubting Castle.

We need Jesus for singleness, marriage, parenting, empty-nesting, and grandparenting. We need him college and career, at home and abroad, in our waking and in our sleeping, in our living and in our dying.

We need Jesus. In all that we are, we need all that he is. Our need is great. But his sufficiency is greater.

The whole Bible proclaims the sufficiency of Christ. The Bible is about the Father’s plan to redeem his people and restore the world through the all-sufficient work of his Son through the power of his life-giving Spirit. If the whole of Scripture is a symphony, this is its melodic theme.

This is nowhere more evident than in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. I wrote a little book on Colossians called Christ All Sufficient.  You don’t need to read my book. You need Christ. You need the word of Christ to dwell richly in your heart, and Colossians is part of that word. So you need Colossians. If you would like to grow in your understanding of Colossians (and thus grow in your understanding of Christ’s glorious sufficiency), then perhaps my book will help. But you don’t need another book, seminar, or lecture. You need Christ himself.

Do you have him?



This post was originally written for The Blazing Center

Top Ten Books of 2016


Ever since reading Louis L'Amour's Education of a Wandering Man when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, I've been keeping lists of the books I've read each year. For the past several years, I've also been writing some version of a Top 10 or Best of list. I enjoy reading such lists from other friends and usually discover new titles to read and explore.

These are not necessarily books that were published this year, but rather my favorites from the books I read this year. 

10. The Spirit and the Letter, Saint Augustine. One of my friends and conversation partners recommended this treatise from Augustine for his insights on the relationship between law and gospel, old covenant and new. I read John Burnaby's translation in the  Library of Christian Classics edition of Augustine's Later Works. Very good. 

9. The Road to Character, David Brooks. I actually haven't completed it yet, but after reading most of Brooks' thoughtful commentary on the 2016 Presidential election, I decided to buy his best-selling treatment of ethics. Brooks begins by contrasting two sorts of virtues, what he calls resumé virtues and eulogy virtues, and then builds his study of the latter around biographical sketches of historical figures as varied as George Eliot, Francis Perkins, Johnny Unitas, and Saint Augustine. After an election season where character seemed to matter less than ever before, this is an important book for everyone. 

8. John Owen and English Puritanism: Studies in Defeat, Crawford Gribben. This biography of my favorite dead theologian (or maybe second favorite, see #1 below) is both a study of a man and an era. It was both informative and interesting, providing new insight into the overall character of Owen's life and ministry. Gribben has done for Owen what Peter Brown did for Augustine, George Marsden did for Edwards, and Bruce Gordon did for Calvin. 

7. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’Kempis. There are definitely some theological problems with this pre-Reformation, medieval Catholic devotional classic. But read with discernment, it is helpful in many ways. It made me love Christ more and want to be more like him, and that makes it a book worth reading and re-reading. 

6. Saving Eutychus: How to Preach God's Word and Keep People Awake, Gary Millar and Phil Campbell. This is a refreshing and helpful book on preaching that lives up to its wonderful title! There are many books on preaching that help preachers with theology, exegesis, and exposition. But this book, while refusing to downplay the importance of these things, is particularly helpful on delivery. (And I think I’m preaching a little better now than I was at this time last year.) 

5. The Vine Project: Shaping Your Ministry Culture Around Discipleship, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. Like Saving Eutychus, this excellent book was published by our Aussie friends at Matthias Media. It is, hands down, the best manual on discipleship in the local church I have seen. I plan to use it with our church leaders in the coming months and years. 

4. Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M'Cheyne, edited by Andrew Bonar. I'm pretty sure I've now read every page of this magnificent collection of diaries, sermons, pastoral letters, personal letters, mission reports, poems, communion meditations, and more from this saintly nineteenth century pastor from Scotland. M'Cheyne used to pray, "Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can become" and often counseled people, "For every one look at self, take ten looks at Christ." Few volumes in my library have as consistently nourished my soul as this one. I feel sure I'll return to it again and again through the rest of my life.

3. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith. This is a popularly written, more accessible version of Smith’s earlier book, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith argues that we are embodied beings pulled along by our desires, not just thinking things or "brains on a stick." Christian education and spiritual formation, therefore, require something more than a data dump. Information alone will not a genuine disciple make. We must also attend to our hearts, our desires, our habits, and the liturgies of our culture. I will be reflecting on this book for a long time.  

2. The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, John Owen. This was my second time through Owen's soul-searching analysis of spiritual thoughts and affections. Convicting, yet nourishing. 

1. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin, edited by J. T. McNeill. Calvin's Institutes is profound, lyrical, and worshipful -- devotional theology at it's best. I first started the Institutes back in 2001, but didn't finish it. I picked it up again in 2008 or 2009, working through most of Books 2-3. A couple of years ago, I read about half of Book 4. And I've dipped in and out of the Institutes, reading some sections here and there (especially in Books 2-3) multiple times. But in July of this year, I decided to take the Institutes with me for a study leave. I read most of Books 1-3 in July, then took the rest of the year to finish Books 3-4. I'm so glad I did. Easily my favorite book of the year. And I can hardly wait to read it again.