Tuesday, August 16, 2011


(One’s level of piety, whether devotional or practical, depends much on knowledge being either learned or misconceived. In these analyses we have made mention, occasionally, of books that either help or hinder the grand object of piety. It seems natural, consequently, to supplement the analyses, now and again, with correlating book reports.)


John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (1678; Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 221 pp.

Good, solid food for the soul. That is what you get. This is a Puritan work by a Nonconformist (to the Church of England) who strove to unite Presbyterians and Congregationalists. The book reflects that balance: Flavel is loyal to Scripture, loving to his brethren. But his love is not that flabby love that gives only the positive side of Providence. No. Flavel scares you to stiff obedience by unfolding the negative side too. There is an anecdote borrowed from Foxe about Nightingale, who "fell out of the pulpit and broke his neck, while he was abusing that Scripture (1 John 1. 10)" (p. 38.) True stories of Providence become farther between as you read on. For this reason things are  livelier at the start than near the finish. But where the anecdotes drop, the exposition picks up, and all through there is balanced instruction for the good of each one.

There are many new lessons to take in here. This book should be read slowly and thoughtfully, with pencil and ruler in hand to mark the epigrams to be rehearsed and obeyed. About contentment we read, "O what would the damned say if they were but put into your condition once more! What! and yet fret against God because everything else does not suit your desires!" (p. 136.) About leaning on your own understanding, "Nothing is more plausible, nothing more dangerous" (p. 142.) On true love to God, "Every man loves the mercies of God, but a saint loves the God of his mercies" (p. 146.) About the Christians' inheritance, "All things are ours upon no other title but our being His" (p. 161.) Of our need of adversity, "The earth does not need more chastening frosts and mellowing snows than our hearts do nipping providences" (p. 209.)

Because he ministered to a seafaring people: in Dartmouth, England, by the English Channel, there are well ordered meditations to bring before the worshipers the roiling sea and the faith that ought to walk upon it. Makes me want to read The Seaman’s Companion, in which Flavel works up a favorite passage of mine from Psalm 107. Copious appeal to Scripture, then Scripture's appeal to the congregation­—this is a Puritan mark, ubiquitous in The Mystery of Providence. Whatever your circumstance or station in life, Flavel weds a Providence to it. No one is left untouched. And what skill to be able to repeat the word Providence that often without irritating!

Michael Boland tells us, in the Publisher's Introduction, that an aged farmer was converted by the memory of a sermon preached by John Flavel eighty-five years before! This gives us some idea of John Flavel’s preaching power, strong enough to leave a lasting and effectual impression. Read, and hear something of Flavel's anointed preaching yourself. Whether you live by the sea or not, this sermon will have you reaching for the “Preserver.”

Content: A (He has you searching Scriptures to confirm Providences.)
    Style: A (Moments of obscurity are rare, and no need for a dictionary.)
    Tone: A (His many pretty word pictures are not just for show.)

Grading Table: A: a keeper: reread it; promote it; share it.
                       B: an average book: let it go
                       C: read only if you have to.

Monday, August 1, 2011


May 2011

The sermon being reviewed this time is by a Plymouth Brethren pastor. The date of its delivery seems to be Thanksgiving Sunday, 2010.

Mr. Lane, Balmoral Bible Chapel, The Incarnate Word.

Summary: (Mr. Lane begins by chatting about something called sermon-based life-groups; then he reads a few Bible verses.) The verses for this morning make me feel as though I’m standing on holy ground. Stand with me as I read them. Our passage is from John 1. (He reads from there.) The word became flesh. No other verse can be more appropriate for Thanksgiving Sunday. We can thank God for many blessings, but Jesus being bestowed to us is the best one. The eternal Word, Almighty God, the Creator came to dwell among us and to restore us to a right relationship with God. The word ‘flesh’ is a crude word that John used to convey the reality that Jesus became one of us. The eternal God became Man while not ceasing to be God. That ‘he dwelt among us’ means that he pitched his tent, or tabernacled, with us. The tabernacle was the symbol to Israel that God was among them. Jesus is the fulfillment of the glory of God revealed to mankind. John says that we have seen his glory. The glory of God was revealed through Jesus in the transfiguration, his miracles, and his character. He came to show us the true picture of the Father by living a perfect life. Much more than that, the glory of God was revealed in his death and resurrection. This exemplified the glory of God in his love for us. He came from the Father, full of grace and truth, or life and light. Part of your challenge this week is to think about this expression. I read that grace without truth would be deceit; truth without grace would be condemnation. Jesus came to show us the real picture of the Father; but also, in his truth he revealed our sinfulness. It’s not a pretty picture. But along with truth, he is grace. Grace is unmerited favor. Jesus’ message was that he found a way, by applying a righteousness to us that was not our own. The law was to show us our need. The fullness of what Moses taught came in Jesus. I want to dwell on verse 16. (He reads it.) This is a picture of endless blessing available to us through Jesus Christ. (He reads Philippians 4.19.) I want to talk about three areas of blessing that come from the fullness of his grace. (A) Forgiveness, 1 John 1.9. It is a great gift from God. And this involves the ability to forgive others. You will never be asked to forgive more than you need to be forgiven. (He references Psalm 32, then quotes Corrie ten Boom.) (B) Peace. Peace follows forgiveness, peace with God. (He reads Romans 5.1.) To live without peace is to live a kind of hell on earth. Jesus came to release us, to give us that peace. (He reads John 14.27.) Can you say that it is great to live without fear of death? As Christians we can have peace about death because of what Jesus has done. (C) Significance. When you have no sense of self-worth, it’s hard to live a worthwhile life. God gives us significance. He calls us his children once we believe in Jesus. And we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. Do you consider yourself a child of the King? We became that way because of the price of the blood of Jesus Christ. We are valued. People need to know they are loved and cared for. When you come into relationship with Jesus Christ, you are God’s beloved. Talk about significance! If you don’t know that, if you don’t have the sense of forgiveness, peace, and significance, thank God for bringing you here to speak that into your life. I urge you to respond to his invitation. God says to choose life instead of death, light instead of darkness. (He introduces the Communion table, invites everyone to partake, then finishes with prayer.)

Remarks: This message stands out from, and is above, most of the others we have reviewed so far. There are no silly, tactless stories in it. There is no reference made to television or movies. Computer lingo is not used to speak of sacred matters. The articulation runs on without stumbling in and out of broken sentences. There is no pretence in the delivery nor pride. At least one heresy is put down. Lots of Scripture verses are appropriately quoted (so many that we did not fit them all in the summary.) The congregation is asked to stand while the main portion of Scripture is read, which is good and reverent. The sermon is Christ-centered. In fact, there is nothing in it that isn’t about Jesus Christ in some way. This is orthodox Fundamentalism; in other words, basic truths prevail, and no heresy is committed.

You would think, that given all this praise, nothing can be left to criticize. But there is a fair bit that needs to be said to the negative. This sermon may be up near the best that a Red Deer pulpit can produce. Comparatively speaking; that is, as it compares to sermons by other pastors in the city, this one is near the top. But in light of what a sermon is and should contain, this sermon is poor, even very poor. There are people who will dig their heels in upon hearing this; they will maintain against clear evidence, that Mr. Lane’s preaching contains nothing but gold. Those who think that this is an excellent sermon perhaps have no experience of what could be justly appraised as excellent. Instead of digging in to defend, it would be better to dig out and reach for better. Only the unbiased mind and teachable spirit can be brought to a consideration of criticism that will be a pain to read. To such persons alone do we make our appeal.

Why doesn’t Mr. Lane’s preaching compel the listeners to take up his challenge to meditate on Scripture and to share the gospel with others? It is much the fault of Mr. Lane that (according to his survey) there is such wide-ranging spiritual inactivity among his people. It is surpassing odd but pitifully true that a pastor will do hard labor year after year to produce change among his people, all the while neglecting instead of incorporating, the elements of ministry that the Bible so clearly teaches are essential for an effectual outcome. This is a teaching sermon; it is not preaching per se. But even the teaching sermon must have some spiritual force in it by which the people may be compelled to active obedience and improved character. There is an attempt by Mr. Lane to cause a compelling influence; but the people remain unmoved. Deliberate enunciation of Scripture through the conduit of an elevated voice is something, but still something less than passion, pathos, and unction. The people are not moved to reform and share for this reason at least: the minister asking them to preach does not do it himself. ‘Part of your challenge this week will be to think about these words’—this is not preaching—this is not going to get anyone going. Neither will ‘points to ponder’ drive anyone into a pondering state of mind. The repeated exclamation, ‘Talk about significance!’—this would be more significant if it were prefaced with some preaching on insignificance. Light would better appear by a contrast with darkness, would it not? There is nothing here to pierce the conscience, no cutting law, nothing to cause so much as a nudge of guilt for sin. Until this happens, people will not care to take up a challenge. The minister should strive to make each person fear God in some way. Will this sermon make anyone fear God as an imminent Judge? Will it make a Christian fear him as a chastising Father? We don’t think so. When the sermon is all about pronouncing spiritual graces to people (many of whom probably possess none), what’s left for the people to do? They have absolute forgiveness, unshakable peace, and even stirling significance; but nothing is said about anyone’s shortcomings in knowledge, holiness, or goodness. Shall we expect people who are told about nothing but the blessings they ostensibly possess to go out and become self-made scholars and street gospellers? There is not one particular sin mentioned by this pastor that the people he addresses might need to repent of. What if many of these persons are lying and cheating during the week (and what fool will deny that this is a fact), only to come here on Sunday to be told they are entirely forgiven, that peace is assured, and that personal significance is a reality? Will affirmations alone help them to move forward in religion or relationship? Will preaching like this move people to get involved in the graces and helps of Faith? Everything is fine; and so what need is there to improve or perform? Does this pastor think there is no sin, even wicked sin, to expose and uproot among his listeners? All he says about sinfulness is that ‘it’s not a pretty picture.’ Is that being specific and forceful enough? Or is this what one might call the soft-peddling of truth? Mr. Lane, your description of sinfulness being ‘not a pretty picture’ is a little too pretty. Try this instead: “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like” (Galatians 5.19-21.) And how about preaching it, like this: “of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (verse 21.)

Does Mr. Lane think that not one among this whole body of souls in front of him is really an unforgiven sinner on his way to hellfire? Far from preaching as if some might be unsaved when they think they’re safe, he does not even say a word from God about anyone needing discipline! Certainly there is a place to speak of the significance of a person in Christ. But is it not just as important, and more biblical, to emphasize unworthiness? Mr. Lane’s unbalanced concern for a sense of significance in people is imported from his years in social work. He admits as much in this very sermon (though he would not admit, we think, the ‘unbalanced’ part.) He does not balance significance with the other side of the coin: contrition, or sorrow for sin. And for the good of those who might be attending as unbelievers, he should balance human significance with the more important truth of condemnation, which he does not do. (This is a Thanksgiving service, remember; visitors are present, unchurched people.) What do sinners need to hear most, that they are significant, or that they stand condemned to hell, according to God’s word in John 3.18? Modern psychology would call sinners significant. The Bible just calls them sinners. Modern psychology issues challenges without speaking of consequences. The Bible pronounces guilt that must, without the grace of repentance, bring on the fruit of condemnation, which is hell forever.

There happens to be a very grave sequel to Mr. Lane’s unwillingness to preach to men as sinners: perilous confusion. Near the end, because he will not plainly state that some persons in the crowd might not be saved, he ends up mixing an invitation to be saved with a presumption of salvation. He speaks of being in relationship with Jesus and being God’s beloved. But then he adds, “But if you don’t know that already [that you’re God’s beloved], if you don’t have that sense of forgiveness, if you don’t have that sense of peace, if you don’t have that sense of significance, thank God that he brought you this morning to hear him speak that into your life. And I urge you to respond to his invitation. Because as we said a few weeks ago, the Bible is full of times when Jesus says and God says, ‘I put before you light and darkness, I put before you life and death.’ And he says, ‘choose life.’ And I urge you to come and see me after if you don’t know how to get into that relationship where you can have that blessing….” We have had to quote at considerable length to show that there is no question about this being intended as an invitation to salvation. Since when is a right relationship with Jesus arrived at simply by knowing you have it? What kind of a cowardly, nonsensical invitation is that? to express that people who need salvation might just not sense forgiveness? A sense of forgiveness is not the matter to be concerned with when giving an invitation. What a pastor should be concerned with when giving an invitation is the getting of sins forgiven through faith in Christ. To speak of a sense of forgiveness instead of sins needing to be forgiven is to miss the mark, and badly! If this is not clear enough on what’s wrong with this invitation, surely everyone will see what nonsense it is to ask persons to thank God for bringing them to church to speak a sense of forgiveness into their lives and then to ask them to choose life instead of death! Here they are asked to thank God for the blessing of assurance even before the preacher urges them to choose life! What hurtful presumption is being foisted on these poor souls! The error would be just as bad if the people were asked to thank God for actual forgiveness, which is what is meant. Why does this pastor speak so strangely? Raising the possibility that persons might not know they are God’s beloved and that they might not have the sense of forgiveness is his way of suggesting that maybe they’re not in a saved state, but in a condemned one instead. But the biblical form of speech would be too rough for him to use. He’s so scared that all he can speak of is the ‘sense.’ And so we have this unbiblical and perilous confusion. The persons before him are told they might just be missing the sense of forgiveness; then they are told to thank God for bringing them to church to have that sense spoken into their souls; and finally they are told to choose life instead of death. What are they to think? Do they need assurance of salvation? Must they thank God for infusing a sense of forgiveness? Or should they choose life? This is a miserable, soul-confusing invitation. This is what happens when you’re afraid to call sinners what they are; and that they are, in truth, presently condemned sinners who need to repent for admission into God’s kingdom. This is no mere slip on Mr. Lane’s part. He falls into this fault by avoiding the truth about sinners being condemned to hell. And this can help no one; it just confuses the very people you are inviting to be saved. By this sermon, they cannot know whether they are safe or whether they stand condemned. As confirmation that this avoidance of negative truth is no mere slip on Mr. Lane’s part, pay attention to his use of Scripture. Usually when he reads from the Bible, he gives the location also. But this time, in the interest of not getting caught being tricky, he reads but gives just a general location; that is, 1 John. He does not want people, especially the unsaved sinners who are there, to know what he is up to. Philip Yancey (one of Mr. Lane’s favorite authors) does the same thing in one of his books. Here is that intentional fault: Mr. Lane reads (without telling us from where exactly) from 1 John 3.1, and we quote from his NIV: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are!” That’s all very positive. But what about the rest of the verse? “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” Mr. Lane does not want the visitors to know they are outsiders looking in. No, he wants to be ‘inclusive.’ What good will this do? Sinners will not want in until they know and feel that they are out. Mr. Lane, however, would try and beat the Bible’s own system. He’s wiser than that! We’re so convinced of his treachery in this that we have not resorted to leaving any question about it. We speak dogmatically. We know what he is up to. He’s scared of being exclusive. He stops reading mid-verse for the very personal reason that he fears the exclusivity that the rest of that verse pronounces. It is not wrong to quote half a verse and leave it at that. But when what we leave out testifies against us as it does here against this pastor, it proves a grave sin. Can it be improper, after this review, to suggest that this man might be guilty of the blood of men’s souls? (Ezekiel 33.6, 8.) But he’s such a nice man. Does being nice mean the Scriptures are not in force? Does being nice mean the Scriptures don’t apply? We hear that he will retire some time during the summer of 2011. This kind of preaching would be a sorry note to finish on!

Have we been too bold in reproving this pastor and too certain about him being tricky and sly? Suppose we’ve hit him a little hard. His motives we do not question. We believe that he believes he must preach without preaching. But should we soft-peddle our criticism of that which soft-peddles the truth? No humble pastor would balk at a stern criticism if he were even a little guilty of preaching off-center. He would thank the critic for being hard on him and for sparing him nothing. When reproved by a certain poor man for preaching above his head, Thomas Manton vowed never to preach like that again. “Friend,” he said, “if I did not give you a sermon, you have given me one” (The Works of Thomas Manton, Vol. 1, pp. xiii, xiv.) On the significance of unbelievers, everyone should read The Chaff Driven Away by C. H. Spurgeon. This would be an apt corrective for Mr. Lane and this sermon’s message. Creatures made in the image of God have significance. But that’s not the whole truth. Finally, Mr. Lane invites anyone to Communion who is willing to partake; he does this without warning anyone of what this involves, contrary to the decree in 1 Corinthians 11. He did not learn this oversight from his Plymouth Brethren textbooks! What can freewheeling invitations like this do but encourage those who are hypocrites or who would be, to partake of a sacred ordinance to their own hurt? And this incompetence also subjects disobedient Christians to the discipline of God, for it is by unmortified participation in sacred things that many Christians are made sick or put to ‘sleep’ (killed) by God before their time, as it were (1 Corinthians 11.27-32.) He even mentions participation in Communion as God’s command at one point, but without specifying to whom! This is extremely harmful negligence on the part of this pastor. And what brings all of this ecclesiastical error about? Is it not a weak-kneed fear of man? Fear, not ignorance, must be the cause of his terrible faults at the Communion Table, for ministers in the Plymouth Brethren camp know better; they used to, anyway.

 Conclusion. Mr. Lane chooses to read from a translation (usually the NIV paraphrase) that conveys less power than other translations (like the KJV and NKJV) do. This adds to the sermon’s weakness. There is so much skipping lightly from verse to verse that nothing gets delved into, and we get, instead of a direct, searching, probing sermon, just a point-form outline that closes with a few points to ponder. A sermon should not recommend that you ponder. It should compel you to self-examine and to seek after God, if haply, or in consequence, he might be found (Acts 17.27.) If no title had been given to the sermon, we wouldn’t know what to call it, for there is no central lesson in it to be gleaned. The gnostic heresy is spoken against. But what about addressing heresy in the practical and useful sense of what it looks like here on the ground? Mr. Lane should be aware of how heresy is being preached and practiced before his eyes and by his peers. Then his preaching against it might actually help someone escape it. Do ministers in the Ministerial not share with each other the gospels they believe? the sermons they preach? the issues to be on guard against? What do they do over there, if not such ministerial communication? Has Mr. Lane attempted to expose ‘doctrines of devils’ in order to be, like pastor Timothy, ‘a good minister of Jesus Christ?’ (1 Timothy 4.) Speaking out against heresy generally when you are in league with ministers who preach heresy particularly and regularly is hypocrisy, and without any semblance of a redeeming factor to color or gloss over the sin. One of the easiest heretics to spot is Mr. Huizing. Should it be left only to laymen to expose a heretic? Or should that pastor who is an orthodox Fundamentalist do it? Has Mr. Lane ever confronted heresy among members of the Ministerial? Is the notice from Galatians 1.9 too intimidating for a pastor to use towards a heretic? When did this change? Have we received further Revelation that forbids this being done? Since Mr. Huizing preaches the mammon-centered gospel, why couldn’t Mr. Lane tell him, as Peter would, the words of Acts 8.20? Is the Bible no longer applicable in those places where it seems unkind and harsh? Whatever these sermon-based life-groups are that Mr. Lane speaks of in his introduction, we pray that Berean-like scrutiny will prevail there so that better sermons will result. Hopefully, the collected sermons of someone like Spurgeon will be used for a guide as to what a sermon should be. Then progress will be possible. It is unlikely that such a holy standard will be used as a benchmark, though, for pastors seem to think that to reach high is to reach above one’s ability. So would it be better to use inferior sermons for a prototype? Before pondering the few points that are carefully selected by a pastor, it would be wise to go over his whole sermon with a fine-toothed comb to find out what’s actually going on in it and to see whether the sermon swims more than it sinks. Nonetheless, the adoption of the sermon-based life-group, we hope, will at least mean the death of that mushy, cartoony, ecumenical-oriented, politically correct Alpha course for this one church. The salvation of souls should not be made to depend on whether or not you can trick sinners to repent through offers of free food!