Tribulation in the World

‘Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.’ – Revelation 2:10

Zakaria Botros, an Egyptian Coptic priest, born in Egypt in 1934, who was declared by the Arabic newspaper al Insan al Jadeed to be Islamic public enemy number one, has a $60 million bounty on his head from Al Qaeda. Botros, who was named World Magazine’s ‘Daniel of the Year’ winner in 2008, has had an extensive television ministry in the Middle East since 2003. An estimated fifty million Muslims per week listen to and watch the preaching of Botros which exposes the fallacies of Islam and exalts the person and work of Jesus Christ. There have been numerous death threats on Botros’ life and in 2009 authorities in Egypt asked the Egyptian government to strip him of his Egyptian citizenship. Others within Egypt have called for Botros’ arrest for high treason against the Egyptian government for his anti-Muslim rhetoric. An estimated tens of thousands of Muslims have come to saving faith in Christ through the courageous preaching of Zakaria Botros.1 When asked what price he has had to pay for his bold proclamation of the gospel of Christ Jesus, Botros said, ‘Whatever price I have had to pay is cheap in comparison to what Jesus Christ has done for me in shedding His blood for us.’2 His brother, also a preacher, was apprehended by Jihadists in Egypt and had his tongue cut out and a stake put through his head.

Jesus told the church at Smyrna, one which had suffered terribly through persecution and poverty, that testing was coming upon them, that they would have tribulation for ten days (a relatively brief period of persecution). As a result of the suffering and persecution, Jesus was telling them to be faithful, to not turn away from Him, whether to the left or to the right, until the very end of their lives. He told the believers they would gain a great reward-the crown of life.

Believers, living in a hostile world, whether in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, or the United States, can expect persecution from the world. Just hours before Jesus was betrayed, while with His disciples, He said, ‘In the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world,’ (John 16:33). Paul the apostle, in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus, said, ‘. . . serving the Lord will all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews . . . the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God,’ (Acts 20:19-24).

Here’s the big question-are you receiving persecution of some kind from anyone? Now, if you receive pushback or opposition from people because of your politics, personality quirks, or proclivity toward rudeness; then none of these count as Biblical persecution. God is not pleased and will not bless your negative personality traits or the preponderance of harsh words you throw at your spouse, children, or neighbors. He does, however, promise to reward those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:10,11,12). He says that they are to rejoice and be glad for their reward in heaven is great.

Jesus says, ‘Blessed are you when men persecute you, revile you, and say all manner of evil things against you on account of Me.’ The persecution from which Jesus is promising a great blessing, the one from which He is urging the Christians at Smyrna to be faithful until death, is one stemming from faithfulness to Him. If you are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for seeking to move forward the glorious work of the Great Commission, in your community, nation, and world, then you are to rejoice. Your reward in heaven is great. So, if you are persecuted in like manner then those persecuting you are doing you a huge favor. They are guaranteeing you a wonderful reward on the day when you meet your Savior face to face.

Jesus also said, ‘Woe to you if all men speak well of you, for so they spoke about the false prophets,’ ( Luke 6:26). Paul put the same idea another way, ‘Those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,’ (2 Timothy 3:12).

Is there any indication in your life that anyone is upset with you because you are a follower of Christ? Jesus said, ‘If anyone wishes to save his life, he will lose it. If anyone loses his life for my sake, he will save it,’ (Luke 9:24).

You may be suffering persecution for the sake of Christ and His kingdom if:

– you are mocked for seeking to speak to people about the person and work of Jesus

– your friends, in your days before your conversion, no longer include you in their social plans, realizing that you kind of blow up their party with your desire to get Jesus on the scoreboard in your conversations

– you lose a few clients because they now realize you actually believe same sex marriage is an abomination and perversion

– family members avoid you like the plague at Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations

– family members and neighbors go off on you for claiming the exclusivity of Christ, that He is not merely one of many roads leading up to heaven, that in fact He is the only road leading there.

I could go on but you no doubt get the point. You are not to look for trouble. You are not to provoke people to anger or hostility. You are to heed Paul’s admonition to let your speech be with grace, seasoned as it were by salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person (Colossians 4:6). If possible, as far as it depends on you, you are to be at peace with all men (Romans 12:18).

The cross of Christ, however, divides. It humbles. It convicts. It draws people to Christ in repentance or it drives them away as they gnash their teeth at the God who so audaciously calls men everywhere to repent.




  1. When a Nation Forgets God: Seven Lessons We Must Learn from Nazi Germany, Erwin Lutzer page 122.
  2. 2. Ibid.


Martin Luther’s 7 Characteristics of the Church
Luther derived these seven points from the first table of the Ten Commandments

Written by W. Robert Godfrey | Saturday, December 3, 2016

“These are the true seven principal parts of the great holy possession whereby the Holy Spirit effects in us a daily sanctification and vivification in Christ, according to the first table of Moses. By this we obey it, albeit never as perfectly as Christ.”

The Word

“First, the holy Christian people are recognized by their possession of the holy word of God.” Martin Luther always returned to the foundational importance of the Scriptures and the gospel in his approach to any doctrinal question. The church must have and cherish the revelation of God. “And even if there were no other sign than this alone, it would still suffice to prove that a Christian, holy people must exist there, for God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”


“Second, God’s people or the Christian holy people are recognized by the holy sacrament of baptism, wherever it is taught, believed, and administered correctly according to Christ’s ordinance.” The church possessed and administered the sacrament of baptism as taught in the Bible, a visible expression of the gospel.

The Lord’s Supper

“Third, God’s people, or Christian holy people, are recognized by the holy sacrament of the altar, wherever it is rightly administered, believed, and received, according to Christ’s institution. This too is a public sign and a precious, holy possession left behind by Christ by which his people are sanctified so that they also exercise themselves in faith and openly confess that they are Christian, just as they do with the word and baptism.” Again, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper must be treasured by the church as Christ has taught it in the Bible.


“Fourth, God’s people or holy Christians are recognized by the office of the keys exercised publicly. That is, as Christ decrees in Matthew 18[:15– 20], if a Christian sins, he should be reproved; and if he does not mend his ways, he should be bound in his sin and cast out. If he does mend his ways, he should be absolved. That is the office of the keys.” For Luther, the real church exercised discipline over its members. This element of Luther’s understanding has often been missed, but he was crystal clear about it.

Biblical Offices

“Fifth, the church is recognized externally by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices that it is to administer.” Luther recognized that the Bible established office in the church—not the sacral caste of priests—but the minister who faithfully preached the Word and administered the sacraments.

Luther’s focus on the simplicity and importance of the congregation came to quite radical expression, for his day, in his belief that in principle the congregation has the right to call its own minister. As early as 1523, he had written a treatise titled That a Christian Assembly or Congregation Has the Right and Power to Judge All Teaching and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proven by Scripture. Ministers were not a mysterious order created and imposed by a hierarchy, but were to emerge from the congregation.


“Sixth, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God. Where you see and hear the Lord’s Prayer prayed and taught; or psalms or other spiritual songs sung, in accordance with the word of God and the true faith; also the creed, the Ten Commandments, and the catechism used in public, you may rest assured that a holy Christian people of God are present.” The church was visible in its simple, Word-centered worship.


“Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh.” Since the servant was not greater than the master, as Jesus had taught, the church would suffer in this world as it served Christ faithfully.

Luther derived these seven points from the first table of the Ten Commandments and recognized that, though these elements were never perfect in the church, they were truly present: “These are the true seven principal parts of the great holy possession whereby the Holy Spirit effects in us a daily sanctification and vivification in Christ, according to the first table of Moses. By this we obey it, albeit never as perfectly as Christ. But we constantly strive to attain the goal, under his redemption or remission of sin, until we too shall one day become perfectly holy and no longer stand in need of forgiveness.”

These seven characteristics were only the beginning of what could be said about the church. He said:

In addition to these seven principal parts there are other outward signs that identify the Christian church, namely, those signs whereby the Holy Spirit sanctifies us according to the second table of Moses… . We need the Decalogue not only to apprise us of our lawful obligations, but we also need it to discern how far the Holy Spirit has advanced us in his work of sanctification and by how much we still fall short of the goal, lest we become secure and imagine that we have now done all that is required. Thus we must constantly grow in sanctification and always become new creatures in Christ!


Robert Godfrey is President and Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary California. This article previously appeared on


More Mercy in Christ than Sin in Us

In his book The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes famously wrote, “We have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.” Here is one of those oft repeated statements of Gospel assurance with which believers love to comfort one another. The context, however, is one that has been almost entirely overlooked. Sibbes actually wrote, “If we have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us, there can be no danger in thorough dealing.” In context, Sibbes was seeking to encourage believers to make a concerted effort to mortification of sin (i.e. thorough dealing). He wrote, “A set measure of bruising [i.e. spiritual humiliation] of ourselves cannot be prescribed, but it must be so far as (1) that we may prize Christ above all, and see that a Savour must be had; and (2) that we reform that which is amiss, though it be to the cutting off of our right hand, or pulling out of our right eye.”

Many believers struggle with the assurance of salvation on account of their sin. The Westminster Confession of Faith, in the final paragraph of the chapter on “Assurance of Grace and Salvation”” (Ch. 18), states this so well:

“True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God’s withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never so utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair.”

John Owen, in his magnificent work on Psalm 130, set King David forth as the example of one who understood this soul-wrestling with God over his sin and longing for the assurance of God’s love and favor. David understood, better than any, the multifaceted way in which God’s grace worked in his life with regard to his ongoing battle with sin and his experience of a guilt-laden conscience. Owen wrote:

“Under the Old Testament none loved God more than he; none was loved of God more than he. The paths of faith and love wherein he walked are unto the most of us like the way of an eagle in the air,–too high and hard for us. Yet to this very day do the cries of this man after God’s own heart sound in our ears. Sometimes he complains of broken bones, sometimes of drowning depths, sometimes of waves and water spouts, sometimes of wounds and diseases, sometimes of wrath and the sorrows of hell; everywhere of his sins, the burden and trouble of them. Some of the occasions of his depths, darkness, entanglements, and distresses, we all know. As no man had more grace than he, so none is a greater instance of the power of sin, and the effects of its guilt upon the conscience, than he.”

Owen went on to set out seven soul-experiences from David’s prayers in the Psalms. These serve as typical experiences of one who is already the object of the love and grace of God and yet who feels himself or herself “in the depths.”

1. The loss of the wanted sense of the love of God, which the soul did formerly enjoy. Owen explained: “A sense of God’s presence in love is sufficient to rebuke all anxiety and fears in the worst and most dreadful condition; and not only so, but to give in the midst of them solid consolation and joy…This is that sense of love which the choicest believers may lose on the account of sin. This is one step into their depths. They shall not retain any such gospel apprehension of it as that it should give them rest, peace, or consolation.”

2. Perplexed thoughtfulness about their great and wretched unkindness towards God is another part of the depths of sin-entangled souls. “So David complains: Ps. 77:3, “I remembered God,” saith he, “and was troubled.”

3. A revived sense of justly deserved wrath belongs also to these depths. “This is as the opening of old wounds. When men have passed through a sense of wrath, and have obtained deliverance and rest through the blood of Christ, to come to their old thoughts again, to be trading afresh with hell, curse, law, and wrath, it is a depth indeed. And this often befalls gracious souls on the account of sin: Ps. 88:7, ‘Your wrath lies hard upon me.'”

4. Oppressing apprehensions of temporal judgments concur herein also; for God will judge his people. And judgment often begins at the house of God. ‘Though God,’ says such a one, ‘should not cast me off for ever,–though He should pardon my iniquities; yet He may so take vengeance of my inventions as to make me feed on gall and wormwood all my days.’ Ps. 119:120, says David, ‘My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments.’ He knows not what the great God may bring upon him; and being full of a sense of the guilt of sin, which is the bottom of this whole condition, every judgment of God is full of terror unto him.”

5. Prevailing fears for a season of being utterly rejected by God, of being found a reprobate at the last day. “Jonah seems to conclude so, chap. 2:4, ‘Then I said, I am cast out of Your sight;’–‘I am lost for ever, God will own me no more’…This may befall a gracious soul on the account of sin. But yet because this fights directly against the life of faith, God doth not, unless it be in extraordinary cases, suffer any of his to lie long in this horrible pit, where there is no water, no refreshment.”

6. God secretly sends His arrows into the soul, that wound and gall it, adding pain, trouble, and disquietness to its disconsolation: “Ps, 138:2, ‘Your arrows stick fast in me, and Your hand presses me sore.’ Ever and anon in his walking, God shot a sharp piercing arrow, fixing it on his soul, that galled, wounded, and perplexed him, filling him with pain and grievous vexation. These arrows are God’s rebukes: Ps. 139:11, ‘When You, with rebukes, do correct man for iniquity.'”

7. Unspiritedness and disability unto duty, in doing or suffering, attend such a condition : “Ps. 40:12, ‘My iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up.’ His spiritual strength was worn away by sin, so, that he was not able to address himself unto any communion with God. The soul now cannot pray with life and power, cannot hear with joy and profit, cannot do good and communicate with cheerfulness and freedom, cannot meditate with delight and heavenly-mindedness, cannot act for God with zeal and liberty, cannot think of suffering with boldness and resolution; but is sick, weak, feeble, and bowed down.

Owen concluded the section on the soul-experience of believers in the depths of sin with this summary:

“Now, I say, a gracious soul, after much communion with God, may, on the account of sin, by a sense of the guilt of it, be brought into a state and condition wherein some, more, or all of these, with other the like perplexities, may be its portion ; and these make up the depths whereof the psalmist here complains.”

While these are “the depths” that believers often find themselves in on account of their sin, they turn to the One to whom David said, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Concerning this appeal to God’s mercy and forgiveness, Owen explained that believers must keep these things in view:

“1. The gracious, tender, merciful heart and will of God, who is the God of pardons and forgivenesses; or ready to forgive, to give out mercy, to add to pardon.

2. A respect unto Jesus Christ, the only ἱλασμός, or propitiation for sin, as he is expressly called, Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2. And this is that which interposes between the gracious heart of God and the actual pardon of sinners. All forgiveness is founded on propitiation.

3. Actual forgiveness itself, as we are made partakers of it; comprising it both actively, as it is an act of grace in God, and passively, as terminated in our souls, with the deliverance that attends it. In this sense, as it looks downwards and in its effects respects us, it is of mere grace; as it looks upwards to its causes and respects the Lord Christ, it is from propitiation or atonement. And this is that pardon which is administered in the covenant of grace.”

Believers, as we struggle in our souls for nearness to God, a restored sense of His favor and delight and new manifestations of His presence and power, we must learn to cry out to God from the depths–acknowledging God’s holiness, our sin and rebellion, what our iniquities deserve and the great mercy of God in Christ that he continually shows us as we turn back to him from the depths. It is, in this way, that we will repeatedly experience in our souls the truth that there is “more mercy in Christ than sin in us”–as the Apostle boldly declared when he said, “Where sin abounded, grace did abound much more” (Rom. 5:20).



ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set

Arthur J. Fox

ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set, English Standard Version (ESV 2001), Six-Volumes Permanent Text Edition. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016, $199 cloth, $499 cowhide.

This is not a review of the Bible but of a magnificent edition of the Bible. Crossway has taken us back centuries to enable us to read the Bible, albeit in English, as it was read long ago. According to scholars, the chapter divisions we are accustomed to were developed by Stephen Langton, an Archbishop of Canterbury who published around AD 1227. The Wycliffe English Bible of 1382 was the first Bible to use this chapter pattern. Since then, nearly all Bible translations have used Langton’s chapter divisions. The Hebrew Old Testament was divided into verses by a Jewish rabbi by the name of Nathan in AD 1448. Robert Stephanus was the first to divide the New Testament into standard numbered verses in 1555. He also used Nathan’s verse divisions for the Old Testament. When the Geneva Bible adopted Stephanus’s divisions, it began a pattern followed to this day.

But there is a problem. Many Christians are unaware that the chapter divisions are not inspired. One unintended result is that inspired thoughts are divided mid-thought in many places. Read Romans chapters 10–11 and you will find that Paul had one fluid thought from 10:1–11:12, and perhaps beyond that. But many believers reading a chapter a day will miss the whole thought and think he is saying two unrelated things in the two chapters. Examples of this could be multiplied many times over in both testaments. The result is a poverty of theological and devotional thinking because readers will read only part of an argument or narrative in one sitting.

Now comes the ESV Reader’s Bible. Using the English Standard Version text, it is made up of six well constructed and beautifully bound volumes (Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetry, Prophets, Gospels and Acts, Epistles and Revelation) that simply present the text of Scripture without chapter or verses marked out, and with minimal section headings to indicate the flow of a book of Scripture. The reader is thus reading the Bible as he or she would any other book, and, because there is just the text without division, may well get caught up in the story of redemption and the fullness of redemptive history along with the application of it. Imagine getting lost in the drama of Jeremiah’s prophecy or the story of Esther and wanting to read just a bit more in order to know how it ends. One is then reading Scripture, if I may say so, the way it was designed to be read! Yes, you will need to use your normal Bible to follow a Bible study or a sermon, or for detailed study. But such studies will be enhanced if you know the full context of the portion being studied.

It is such a simple concept and yet how profound! The whole set is available in well constructed cloth covered volumes (the less expensive choice) and in a leather bound set (more expensive), and are least expensive when purchased from someone other than the publisher. The paper is sturdy and much thicker than those of most Bibles, so the pages will not tear so easily. Crossway has done a craftsman-like job with this publication. Many Christian book sellers are already discounting them. Either way it is worth the investment to give more undistracted attention to God’s Word.

Now here is its value for a minister or teacher of the Word: When working through a book of Scripture, either for a sermon or Bible study series, it is very important to get the “big picture” or flow of the book. This allows the preacher to see the author’s plan and locate the individual stories and ideas in their proper context. That big picture is better seen if you read the book in one sitting and even better if you are not distracted by chapters and verses. The ESV Reader’s Bible is ideal for this purpose.


Arthur J. Fox is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a member of the Presbytery of Central Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, December 2016.


Six Anti-Church Evangelical Trends

Shane Lems; NEW HORIZONS; Dec. 1, 2016

Church attendance in the United States has always waxed and waned. It is not accurate to say that church attendance in America was excellent around the turn of the nineteenth century and has declined ever since. Instead, there have been various tendencies in attendance: sometimes attendance trended upwards, sometimes it trended downwards.

R. Kent Hughes, pastor, author and professor, wrote a helpful list of anti-church Evangelical trends back in 2003. These developments, he said, show that many who call themselves Christians have a very low view of the church and of church membership. Hughes’s discussion of this topic is very insightful; below I’ll summarize, explain, and expand on his insights since they are still relevant today.

1. The Hitchhiker Mentality

A hitchhiker is a person who wants a free ride for a limited amount of time. He doesn’t take ownership of the car, maintain it, or help with its repairs; he simply wants a ride and will bail if anything goes wrong or if he’s finished riding. This is how many people think of the church and church membership:

You go to the meetings and serve on the boards and committees, you grapple with the issues and do the work of the church and pay the bills—and I’ll come along for the ride. But if things do not suit me, I’ll criticize and complain and probably bail out. My thumb is always out for a better ride.[1]
Many Christians today have the mindset of just coasting in a church for a time and then leaving when they feel like it. They don’t get involved in the life of the church; they don’t donate their time and energy; they never ask what they can do to help; and they don’t invest their lives in the church. They are irresponsible and immature in this aspect of their lives, and have little concept of duty or service.

2. Consumer Christians

These are

ecclesiastical shoppers [that] attend one church for the preaching, send their children to a second church for its youth program, and go to a third church’s small group. Their motto is to ask, “What’s in it for me?”
The consumer mentality “encouraged those who have been influenced by it to think naturally in terms of receiving rather than contributing.”[2]
These are the kind of people who want to take from the church but never give. Church for these types of people is a commodity that exists to offer them something they want or need.

This view—a consumer view of the church—is a characteristic of the entitlement mindset of our culture. Everyone—especially younger Americans—believes they are entitled to certain rights and benefits, as if they are royalty to be served. The customer is king! This view has crept into the church: “If the church doesn’t serve or suit me, I’m out. If my needs are not met, I’ll go somewhere else.” Church shopping, consumerism, and entitlement all go together to be part of this anti-church Evangelical trend. To be sure, there are churches that make this trend worse by using consumer-centered church growth methods.

3. Spectator Christians

Spectator Christianity feeds on the delusion that virtue can come through viewing, much like the football fan who imagines that he ingests strength and daring while watching his favorite pro team. Spectator sports and spectator Christianity produce the same things—fans who cheer the players on while they themselves are in desperate need of engagement and meaning.[3]
These are the people who like sitting lazily in the bleachers, but do not want to get in the game. The bleacher seat is good enough for them, thinking (implicitly or explicitly) that the Christian faith can be “caught” by watching from the stands and not committing oneself to stepping on the field. In other words, these are the people who are content with watching others follow Christ, but never really doing it themselves. They watch others to feel good about life or themselves, but not to learn how to die to self and live for Christ.

4. Drive-Through Christians

The fast-food drive-through means you can get (unhealthy) food in no time and with no effort. Since we’re in a hurry, we just want to quickly eat something that tastes good and then get on with our urgent business. The result of this kind of lifestyle is not good: it leaves unhealthy and typically overweight people who are stressed out because they have such busy lives.

Something similar happens when a person views the church like a fast-food restaurant: People with this view

get their “church fix” out of the way by attending a weeknight church service or the early service on Sunday morning so that the family can save the bulk of Sunday for the all-important soccer game or recreational trip. Of course there is an unhappy price extracted over time in the habits and the arteries of a flabby soul—a family that is unfit for the battles of life and has no conception of being Christian soldiers in the great spiritual battle.[4]

5. Relationless Christians

Despite the Bible’s emphasis on Christians regularly assembling to worship and fellowship, today some people say “the best church is the one that knows you least and demands the least.”[5] This goes hand in hand with the trends already mentioned. People want to hitchhike through church life—making small talk with the driver but never really getting to know him personally. To many people, the soccer game or vacation are more important than the people at church, so why bother to start relationships within the church?

This becomes evident when people balk at the idea of membership. Few people appreciate church membership today because it goes against their selfish desire to be on their own, it means they are accountable to others, and it means they need to share their lives and help others when needed. For most people, it’s much more fulfilling to go to a movie Friday night than help the needy church family move into an apartment down town.

6. Churchless Worshippers

This trend is also common, since many people today think that they can worship God alone, on their own, when it is most convenient and beneficial to them. Why wake up early on Sunday and go to a place where there are strange people when I can just sleep in and worship God while I watch the football game alone? Although this line of thought is completely unbiblical, it is quite common today. Hughes put it this way:

The current myth is that a life of worship is possible, even better, apart from the church. As one person blithely expressed it, “For ‘church’ I go to the mall to my favorite coffee place and spend my morning with the Lord. That is how I worship.” This is an updated suburban and yuppie version of how to spend Sunday, changed from its rustic forebearer [namely, Emily Dickinson, who said 100 years ago], “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—I keep it staying at Home.”[6]
Hughes is right-on with these trends; I’ve seen them myself since I became a pastor some years ago. The ethos of American culture (consumerism, individualism, narcissism, dislike of authority, lust for entertainment and fun, busyness, and so forth) directly contradicts the ethos of the biblical view of the church. They are quite at odds.

It’s helpful to think about the above trends for these reasons: 1) so we ourselves don’t get caught up in them, 2) so we can understand the mindset of those who are caught up in them, 3) so we can patiently dialogue, discuss, teach, rebuke, and preach to those struggling with these trends, 4) so we can help keep the church from catering to these trends, and 5) so we can better preach the gospel that frees people from all these “isms” (narcissism, consumerism, individualism, etc.). Since this is the cultural air we all breathe, every one of us needs to be constantly reminded of the biblical view of the church, and of the loving, patient Savior who is her head, husband, and redeemer.


[1] R. Kent Hughes, Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 128.

[2] Ibid., 129.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 130.

Shane Lems serves as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hammond, Wisconsin. Ordained Servant Online, December 2016.


I remember every member of the congregation who stayed for a few services, or maybe a few years, and then grew disillusioned with my life and preaching and drifted off disgruntled. But that is not of first priority in my areas of failure. None left to hear more of Jesus Christ or a better gospel than the one they heard sitting at my feet. I thank God for that. They had another agenda hidden from me and the congregation, different ecclesiastical, social and philosophical convictions, and some of them moved on to where they could find their own prejudices gently rearranged on Sundays. It happens. But my regrets are more substantial than the dynamics of the movement of people into and out of a congregation.

i] I am sorry that I have not done more personal evangelism The times I have defended the faith with a critic have been rare. Occasions on which I have gone back to a non-Christian’s home and explained the faith, answered his objections and spelled out the nature of Christianity have been too infrequent. I could have made a rule for myself that for every occasion on which I had preached publicly I would seek to speak to one unbeliever about the Lord Jesus, and then to seek and pray for such opportunities.

The occasions on which I have spoken to sinners have been fruitful. Some of them have come to church and become Christians. Their objections were paper thin, no weighty considered arguments – not at all. They had read an article or briefly heard a sentence or two, and all their complaints about the Christian religion were hanging on that. For example, that ‘most of the wars in the history of the world have been fought over religion.’ They were the ones to be believing myths; my life was rooted in the history of the Sermon on the Mount, the cross and the empty tomb. I said a few words to them and they agreed with me instantly. When they said half smiling, ‘Who made God?’ I said ‘He is eternal and uncreated,’ and they nodded their heads satisfied. They changed and would hear more. Why haven’t I put myself in places where those sorts of exchanges could take place? I love to speak about Jesus Christ to people, more so these days than ever before. May God guide.

A mother from Swansea asked me to visit her son at the University in Aberystwyth. I was happy to do so, but he was resistant and embarrassed and did not want to hear of the claims of Christ. It seemed an unfruitful tense time, but his room mate sitting on a bed in the room was listening to all the conversation and the next week he turned up in church, became a Christian and married a girl in the congregation. I had not even been talking directly to him and yet the word was effectual.

The most fruitful evangelism in our church has been done by members of the congregation showing friendship to people to whom God has led them. I should have been more of an example in this. I should be explaining to them each week the people I was seeing, and encouraging these new arrivals to feel at home in the Sunday congregation. It has been a failure in my life; my life has been consumed in preparing two sermons for Sundays. I pray that my last years will be my most fruitful years in personal evangelism.

ii] I am sorry that I did not do a Spurgeon on Sunday nights for the first five years of my ministry. In other words I wish I had given myself to the great texts of the Bible once a Sunday for that period. Consider these famous words of Jesus in Luke chapter 9:

Then he said to them all: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels (Luke 9:23-26).
There are three or even four great texts there: The Cost of Discipleship, Losing your Life in order to Save it, The Folly of Gaining the World and Losing your Soul, and Who will be those Whom the Lord will be Ashamed of when He Comes Again? These sorts of texts have been honoured by God to the salvation of hearers for twenty centuries. They are plain and they focus on the heart of the Christian message. These themes are what Ryle and Spurgeon and Whitefield and Wesley preached on. Those of us who listened to Dr. Lloyd-Jones on his visits around the United Kingdom heard him preaching on such passages as those with a heavenly anointing. Today there are entire and influential preaching movements which are cold towards such mighty texts being declared on single occasions. The followers of those schools regard those four verses of Luke 9:23-26 as a sub-section within a single sermon on the whole of Luke 9. They would make a few comments on each of those texts, moving on and on restlessly to their goal of completing their studies of the entire gospel of Luke in six months. Such sermons are mere glorified Bible studies.

There are mighty texts of Scripture which are gems of truth, summaries of the gospel. They are in the Word of God to be preached; their power is to be felt by a congregation, by the young and the old. If the Christian religion is divided into three sections – its devotional emphases, its ethics and its teaching – then the usual method of expounding the devotional is to take the Lord’s prayer and go through it clause by clause. The customary way of expounding the ethical is via the ten commandments and seeing it expanded in Matthew six and Romans twelve. It is a commendable expository approach. However, how have the divines dealt with the third section, the nature of the Christian faith? They have turned away from the big texts and mightiest passages and built the exposition of the faith on the Apostles’ Creed or the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism, admirable helpful statements, sure, but the great passages from Genesis 1, Genesis 3, Isaiah 6, Isaiah 53, John 1 and 3, Romans 1, 5, 6 and 8, Ephesians 1 and Ephesians 2 are those which present the heart of Christianity more naturally and winsomely.

I am pleading that texts that present the essence of the faith should not be dealt with en passant in the flight to ‘finish the book,’ even made more cerebral by being dissected on a screen from a PowerPoint projection. Where is the prophetic declaration? Where is the excitement of digging a hole in a field and discovering that the spade has struck the lid of a treasure box; ‘Look at this…and consider this diamond…and here is gold dust…’ The preacher, upheld by God, brings these themes to bear on the consciences of his hearers. Do they see this beauty? Do they feel the weight of these truths? Are they almost crushed? Do they feel they are teetering on the brink of a precipice almost falling off…’O the depth…’ not hitting the buttons on the laptop built into the pulpit and bringing up the next coloured box with its three points on the screen. This is an exercise in addressing the intellects of the congregation. The atmosphere is one of the classroom rather than Pentecost. The doxology is diluted, and God himself in his power, holiness and grace beseeching men by one he has appointed and gifted is marginalized.

I wish I had learned early on how to preach the gospel from those vivid verses that sum up the plight of man and the power of God to save. Consecutive expository preaching at both services on a Sunday when you are actually beginning your ministry is an unwise self-imposed burden. You are forced to consider passages that do not readily lend themselves to popular preaching, and there is no greater need in our pulpits today. Now that I have learned my craft I preach evangelistically morning and evening, intermingling the emphases of my role-models, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones. I love to sit under expository, consecutive evangelistic ministry.

iii] I am sorry that I did not rest in a routine of personal devotions early on. Settled into a place at a time and seeking the face of God sounds natural, like morning ablutions, but it is a living holy world you are entering and so there is bound to be dark spiritual resistance. It is the Holy One, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, whose face you are seeking. What a struggle for some of us, to impose upon the flesh a spirit of contrition, penitence and hunger for the divine, yet how essential to gain some progress there. How many pitfalls would have been avoided if only one had prayed more faithfully about issues and people. It was an issue spotted by the apostles themselves. They were the busiest of men; they had the grandest of concerns, to keep alive and joyful in God the holy widows, both Hebrew and Greek, of the persecuted congregation. They came to the conclusion that their balance of the ministry of mercy and the ministry of the word and prayer was askew to the detriment of the kingdom of God. They concluded that their priority as church leaders was this; ‘We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’ There is no explanation of how they worked this out, 50% praying and 50% the word? The latter could not have been study solely; it must have been declaration, the defence of the faith, pastoral visitation and so on. How did they spend their time dedicated to praying? In praise, in corporate prayer, in praying with the dying, in private devotions? Those elements are all present in the later chapters of Acts and in the epistles. The effect of this decision is indicated a few verses later; ‘the word of God spread.’ There is no possibility of that without the prior commitment to prayer and the word. No spiritual growth, no conversions, no impact on a community, no revival of religion, no victory over temptation, no Christ-likeness without the word and prayer. Prayer is simply impotence stretching out to omnipotence. Did Jesus pray? Was there any man who less needed to pray, humanly speaking? He was full of the Holy Spirit, beloved by God, overcoming every temptation and sin, yet he prayed. How much more ourselves, especially before the big events that rise and advance irresistibly towards us.

When I mention prayer I’m not thinking about rolling on the floor, but about simple earnest praying regularly, and praying all the time. A young theological student named Prichard made an appointment with the greatly loved Rev. Henry Rees of Liverpool. He recounted his interview some years later. He never forgot that time together. He was taken upstairs to the study and they sat each side of the fire. Henry Rees spoke to him; ‘So your mind is bent on preaching the gospel. That is the most serious and solemn duty any man can ever engage in.’ His hands were on his knees and he rocked slightly to and from as he spoke. ‘Praying…praying…praying…praying…praying…praying…praying…praying…praying…’ repeating it many times, and then adding, ‘We are not aware of the thousandth part of the power praying has upon preaching…’ Then, again slightly rocking back and for he went on repeating that word, ‘… praying…praying…praying…praying…praying…praying.’ Then he paused for a moment and said, ‘If I were called upon suddenly to preach on any great occasion, and had only two hours of time to prepare for it, I should spend them every moment in praying…praying…praying…praying…praying.’ He wept a great deal as he spoke. Then he regained his composure and said, ‘I cannot tell you what are the best books to read. I don’t know much about books, but try to read those books which will be most likely to nourish and strengthen the spirit of prayer in you. The great thing with preaching is praying…praying…praying…praying…praying.’ Soon the interview came to an end and Prichard went away convicted thinking that these were the most awesome moments he had experienced. If you want to humble a minister then ask him about his praying.

iv] I am sorry that I did not meditate more on the Word of God. Of course that goes with prayer. Where I do meditate is over a passage of Scripture I am to preach upon. It seems a holy word to employ for such a functional task. I am talking about looking at a section of Scripture from as different an angle as I can envisage, putting it in different settings, seeing it from the perspective of different states and conditions of man, placing it in the context of the whole of redemptive history. But I have heard, as all of us have, of men who have spent hours in prayer. Some of that must have been in meditation. It must have been. They have considered a word that they read that day and then they looked at it word by word in the presence of God and responded to him…God (who is he? What has he done? What is he doing now? What will it be when I come into his presence?) commands (the God who spoke and it was done, who commanded and all things stood fast, the God who brought all things into being by his fiat, the God who gave his law on Sinai, the God who will judge the world by his law&hellipo;) all men (without any exception at all, the greatest and the least, the people with learning difficulties, the scientist, the most moral of men…) everywhere…to repent. And so on, thinking about the words individually and in their structure, each one breathed out by God. To taste the cordial of heaven in what the Lord has written for our good. Our preparation for preaching overwhelms our personal communion with the Almighty. It is serving another end rather than the drawing near to God himself.

v] I am sorry that I did not learn to disciple people. I hear people talking about it, maybe more in the USA. I would like to have been there, unobtrusive, tucked away in a corner, watching and learning, seeing how they did that, the mechanics of it, the programme, the length, the homework, the expectations and the fruit. Where do men get the time to disciple? They have more discipline and so they can disciple, I guess. Every disciple I have met who announced he was seeking my input into his life ended up showing his own agenda and wanting confirmation. At first it had been hidden and I was naive, but then it came out and there were tensions.Is there a generally recognized approach to discipling? Is there a book to advise us that everyone else knows and uses? ‘I was greatly helped being discipled…’ men say. Tell us how. It is to my loss that I know so little about discipling.

vi] I am sorry to be the frequent prisoner of circumstances, though kept sane by my assurance of the holy, wise and powerful providence of God, ruling and governing all his creatures in all their actions. The life of a minister is hazardous, dealing with events that are unpredictable and problems met for the first time and intractable. No book gives any assistance; fellow ministers shake their heads. Normally the minister feels he is not in control. He would like a five year plan, a year plan, a monthly plan and one for each week, the wheels of which are silently turning without any human involvement. You could tell the time by them. Such a minister envies the fixed routines of a monk. He would preach away a certain number of neatly spaced out Sundays, read through a dozen classic books a year, visit the members in turn and have six weeks’ annual writing time to produce a book on a topic no one else has written upon.

It is not like that, except for cult leaders; it has never been like that. There are the phone-calls that make you sit down. There are the e-mails with their questions and invitations, the books that have to be read because the congregation is reading them, the queries from people whose marriages are breaking up for the most bizarre reasons, people who are leaving the church for undisclosed reasons (they never say, do they? They just write that they are leaving). The local group of gospel churches need a reassuring elderly presence; there are also committees. Then there is the family and one’s delightful duty to nourish and cherish one’s wife and not provoke one’s kids to wrath. In theory one seems to have loads of spare time, but one never has enough. So one makes lists, and the tough neglected issues are copied onto the next list, and onto the list after that. But in all these things we are more than conquerors. Its diversity and challenge is fulfilling.

My own conviction is that people come first, not study, not preparation, not writing, not further degrees, but people. I can say that so confidently because I am not disturbed by a host of folk knocking on my door or lining up to discuss something with me after the services. What a rare delight that someone actually wants to talk to you and ask your opinion and advice. At the end of many a day I write in my journal something like, ‘Nothing much happened…not much done…loads of little things.’ One deals with people at the old people’s home, one sits with the students on a Sunday night, one is going across to the hospital, one is compiling the church newsletter or drawing up the agenda for the church meeting or answering one’s correspondents. One would not want it to be different, asking, ‘Choose Thou for me my time, my friends, my ministry, my days, my priorities.’ God save us from being locked into book-lined studies with a Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob, protected by a secretary or two in outer offices, emerging for graciously given interviews with favoured people. Tell them often, ‘The doors of this church are always open to you, and the door of the Manse.’

vii] I fear I have watched too much TV. TV is like fire, necessary for warmth and washing and cooking, but also able to burn and destroy. It is present in our own house like some fascinating knowledgeable uncle whom yet we can shut up in a moment when he gets too garrulous. He can present live rugby 6 or 7 times in a year when Wales is playing. He can show us reports of snowfalls and tsunamis and planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York and revolutions on the streets of Iran, all unmissable spectacles. Then he comes closer to home and he shows us farming programmes about Welsh rural communities in the Welsh language which are a personal delight. He has documentaries about history and science and medical breakthroughs. He has programmes about antiques, and quizzes between various universities. I can thank God for TV; if I could not I would not tolerate it in the house. I am not interested in films and comedy programmes and soaps and cooking and political discussions and motor cars and music and most of what is on the box. It leaves me sad and cold to glance at the announcements of what is going to be shown in fifty channels. ‘No thanks, Uncle. Not in this house.’

One night in 1962 we students were watching some TV programme in the lounge at Westminster Seminary, just four of us having popped in from different corridors for a break of ten minutes or so before making ourselves some chocolate and going to bed. There were always that kind of number briefly watching an extract of some trivia on a black and white screen, but usually no one at all was there. Dick Van Dyk’s programmes were popular I think. Then into the room came John Murray and he watched it for a half minute and finally said, ‘Sometimes you’d like to put your fist through the screen,’ and left. Quite so. I want to watch what is good-humoured and edifying, but feel that over the years I have found myself drifting into grey areas. Then shutting up uncle is not so straightforward. A pastor friend of mine decided to read Latourette’s fat volume of church history at the end of the day rather than watch the TV the news programme, and he completed the book. Good for him. I do not want to watch any of the grey area and even keep the true, just, holy and praiseworthy firmly under control, not always successfully. Let redeeming grace triumph over common grace always. That phrase in a succinct Latin quip would be memorable…

viii] I am sorry that my love for Jesus Christ is cool and shallow. ‘Weak is the effort of my heart and cold my warmest thought.’ It was true for Newton and it is true for us today. Sometimes I think, ‘Do I love him at all?’ Where is the affection, the glow, the delight and anticipation of meeting with him? M’Cheyne wrote in his diary, ‘Rose early to meet him whom my soul loves. Who would not rise early to meet such company?’ I wish that that reflected my own heart’s longing for the Saviour. I wish I could give myself to him anew each Sunday, thinking, ‘I am going to go where the Lord Jesus is.’ When I have nothing else to think about I wish my mind naturally gravitated to him. Here is someone who laid down his life for me. This is the one who delivered me from hell. Behold my Saviour who is taking me to glory for ever. Here is my beloved and here is my friend who is working all things together for my good. This dear Lord of mine is going to do an eternal makeover on my whole life. The Lord Jesus is my personal teacher and personal trainer and personal counsellor and personal bodyguard. He can protect me from the biggest devil in hell. Christ is so fascinating a personality, wise, caring, fresh, creative, stimulating, patient and so kind to me. It is my chief complaint, that my love is weak and faint. I who encourage others to love him am amazed that I can love him so little, but what is more amazing is the fact that I love him at all.


A graduate of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, Pastor Geoff Thomas pastored Alfred Place Baptist Church in Aberystwyth, Wales for over50 years, retiring in 2016. His beloved wife and co-laborer, Iola, went to be with the Lord just a few weeks ago. He is the online Editor of Banner of Truth. He originally wrote this personal confession five years ago.



A Cross-Shaped View of God’s Attributes

Talk of God’s attributes that is not tethered to concrete stories of God’s dealings with his people in history tends toward abstraction (and so away from doxology, where all talk of God should end). The same is true, of course, of talk about any person’s attributes. It’s one thing for you to tell me that your spouse is kind and forgiving. I understand the meaning of those words, and, at least in theory, I applaud the virtues thus named. But those descriptors, so long as they remain divorced from stories of specific instances of spousal kindness and grace, don’t grip me — they don’t move me to wonder and admiration at your spouse and his/her virtues. It’s a whole different thing to tell me stories about how your spouse supported you in concrete ways during a rough spell at work or when your father passed away, or to tell me how quickly and freely they forgave you after you said or did that thing you shouldn’t have said or done. Tell me stories, and I gain a more robust appreciation for the positive qualities of your husband or wife. Stories give teeth to adjectives that might otherwise fail to impress as fully as they should.

So too with God. Descriptions of God as just, merciful, wise, and true are accurate. But those words as such, no matter how artfully defined or movingly recited, don’t grip us the way that concrete stories demonstrating God’s justice, mercy, wisdom, and truthfulness do. And no story — that is, no historical event — puts God’s attributes more vividly on display than the Cross. If pressed to define the Cross, our first inclination might be to unpack it in terms of what it has accomplished for us. And not without good reason. But we should also strive to unpack the Cross in terms of what it reveals and demonstrates about God. Who he is. What he is like.

Robert Howie does just that in his late sixteenth-century work On Man’s Reconciliation with God. Howie was a Scottish born student of Caspar Olevianus and Johannes Piscator at Herborn. He returned to Scotland around the same time that his book on reconciliation was published on the continent (1591). Back home, he became the first principal of Marischal College in Aberdeen following its founding in 1593, and in 1606 succeeded Andrew Melville as principal of St. Mary’s College in St. Andrews.

“In the reconciliation of God and man, God’s supreme justice, mercy, wisdom, and truth shine.” Thus Howie introduces the second chapter of his book on reconciliation. He proceeds to explain how each named characteristic of God is made conspicuous upon the Cross. With regard to God’s justice, for instance, he notes how the Cross upheld God’s own insistence regarding himself in Exodus 23:7 that he “will not acquit the guilty.” God’s justice was not compromised in the least by the Cross. Sin received its full due. God’s righteous indignation at violations of his perfect law was exhausted. His wrath was poured out completely — poured out on His own Son in the place of those whom God purposed to save from all eternity.

God’s mercy, however, is equally conspicuous on the Cross. “God himself sent his only-begotten Son to die for those who were his enemies. And the Son suffered that wrath to fall on him that rightly should have been poured out on us.” There was, Howie notes, no residual virtue in man that moved God to act thus. “God purposed to have mercy upon us entirely according to his own infinite grace, being moved by the indignity and misery of his creatures.” Howie concludes his discussion of God’s mercy vis-à-vis the Cross by noting several considerations that highlight the extent of that mercy. So, for instance, he points out that “God had mercy upon us, not upon the Angels [who rebelled against him], even though they were more excellent creatures than we.” God’s saving compassion towards particular sinners likewise exalts his mercy: “Even if all men had remained in the state of original intregrity and just one of those predestined for salvation had fallen, the Son of God still would have come down from heaven, and, leaving behind the ninety-nine sheep, would have sought the one who had gone astray and carried him home on his shoulders.”

God’s infinite wisdom, Howie notes thirdly, is conspicuous upon the cross. God’s wisdom manifests itself in that way that perfect justice and perfect mercy meet upon the cross. “God remained just to the highest degree because he punished our sins with eternal death, not remitting any of them. He was merciful to the highest degree because he did not exact punishment for those sins from us, but from our surety, whom he himself had given to us, and thus he forgave all our sins.” Reflection upon the wisdom revealed in justice and mercy’s marriage on the cross prompts Howie to both praise and humble intellectual restraint. “Herein lies the astonishing wisdom of God, which transcends all knowledge. The minds of men are not sufficient to obtain exact understanding of these things. Angels rejoice to probe the same. Indeed, this wisdom is of such magnitude that we and the Angels will dwell upon it for eternity – there is much to learn from it, and much to weigh carefully in it.”

“God’s supreme truthfulness, finally, is conspicuous in our redemption.” God’s truthfulness, Howie argues, is seen in the fulfillment of God’s own threats and promises in salvation history — threats and promises that, upon the surface, may seem at odds with one another. So, for instance, God’s insistence to Adam and Eve in the Garden that “you will surely die” (Gen. 2:7) finds fulfillment on the cross. Death for sin is realized in our substitute. Simultaneously, God’s promise from the beginning (Gen. 3:15) of one who would come to conquer sin, death, and hell finds fulfillment on the cross. “God is found to be true in both the threats and promises he made,” at that very moment when profound justice and profound mercy, in keeping with God’s profound wisdom, meet. “For in the fullness of time, God sent the mediator into the world, and that mediator… absorbed for us that death which God had threatened.”

Other attributes of God demonstrated upon the cross could be noted. Howie himself hints as much when he subsequently notes that God’s “omnipotence never shone more brightly than when coupled with God’s justice, when he determined to free us from death and the Devil… by a course that in itself seemed most impotent (for never did God constrain his omnipotence more than when he died in the flesh).”
In sum, then, we should as Christians regularly turn our thoughts to the cross. And may the cross, in addition to providing peace and hope to us, richly inform our sense of what God is like (our sense, that is, of his character), and so inform our praise.