Scott Corbin

Let the reader understand.

William Cowper & Insanity

In a few weeks I’m going to be giving a “lecture” to aspiring worship leaders going through the Austin Stone Worship Leader Development program. One of the focuses of this talk is going to explore the relationship between John Newton and William Cowper, specifically how their relationship helped to birth the magisterial Olney hymnbook. The collaboration between Newton & Cowper for the Olney hymns has produced some of the most glorious hymns the church has ever known like, “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood,” “I Asked the Lord,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and more. However, the Olney hymnbook is best known for a hymn that has turned out to be one of the most popular songs of all time: “Amazing Grace.”

I’ve long been curious about Cowper & Newton’s relationship. It seems that without their friendship the Olney hymns would never have come to fruition, as Cowper & Newton were muses to one another in a particular way: Cowper for his poetical skills, Newton for his lucid writing. It’s also known that Cowper struggled his whole life with bouts of dark depression and one antidote that apparently prevented him from descent was his work in Newton’s parish ministry. In a very real way, Cowper’s friendship to Newton preserved his life and helped him cultivate some of his finest work. I’m sure there is a lesson here for artists (there is), but I digress.

My favorite of Cowper’s hymns, though, is probably a hymn called “God Moves In a Mysterious Way.” I was first introduced to this hymn, and Cowper, from John Piper’s book The Hidden Smile of Godwhich explores some of Cowper’s life, specifically dealing with his depressive and suicidal tendencies. (As an aside, Jeremy Casella has recorded a wonderful version of this hymn on the latest Indelible Grace record Joy Beyond the Sorrow which I highly encourage you to look into.)

Recently, I came across a passage about the writing of “God Moves…” and Cowper’s final descent to madness in Jonathan Aitken’s biography of John Newton that I found to be particularly striking.

Aitken recounts how, after attending morning worship at Newton’s church, Cowper went for a walk in a nearby field when “he was struck by a terrible premonition that the curse of madness was about to fall on him again. Struggling to make a declaration of his faith in poetic form before his mind was enclosed in the darkness of depression, he struggled home, picked up his pen, and wrote a hymn that many regard as a literary and spiritual masterpiece.” (Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, p. 217)

What came from Cowper’s pen that day included powerful lines like:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face

and:

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ever hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower

Aitken continues:

During the night of January 1-2, he had terrible dreams and hallucinations. In the middle of these nocturnal terrors he came to the insane conclusion that God had commanded him to take his own life in the manner of Abraham wielding his knife against his son Isaac. Apparently ignoring the point that in the Bible God intervened to prevent the fatal blow from being struck, Cowper attempted to obey this imaginary command. . . The scene involved bloodshed, presumably by self-inflicted wounds, and may well have included hysteria. Newton must have tried to calm his friend, but to no long-term avail. In the ensuing days Cowper was tormented by repeated hallucinations and panic attacks. Newton’s diary entries for January 1773 are terse and circumspect, but as these selections show, the pattern of Cowper’s downward spiral into tragic depression is clear.  (Aitken, Amazing Grace, p. 218)

Cowper had made his final descent into madness. Perhaps most tragically though, while Cowper continued the rest of his days as a Christian believer, he never returned to church after this episode. Since he had failed to take his life through many hallucinations he perceived as a “divine command” he felt that he had been separated from God — even dreaming that God had pronounced these words to him on his deathbed: “Actum est de te periisti,” which roughly translates to “It is all over with thee, thou has perished.” His local ministry, pastoral visits, and hymn-writing ended.

Newton would ultimately carry the burden of composing the rest of the Olney hymns, but without this friendship we would never have hymns like “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” or even “Amazing Grace.” I guess God really does move in a mysterious way.

There are numerous things we can learn from this friendship and Cowper’s madness: how to pastor those with mental illness, the seriousness and gravity of mental illness, the role of friendship in discipleship, the need for personal pastoral care, etc. However, I simply want to point out what a disservice we do to ourselves and others whenever we don’t dive into the riches of Christian history and classic hymnody. While the Christian life is full of joys unspeakable, we must also make room for sorrow. The Christian life is holistic, enveloping the happiness, and the sadness, of each pilgrim’s journey to the Celestial City. The grace in the gospel of God is wide enough for the joyful and the depressive, and our sermons, prayers, and songs – especially our songs — should make room for the Christian to come to Lord’s Day worship with sorrow in their hearts and lamentations on their lips.

After all, as another hymn so beautiful communicates, “Oh lift up your heads, for the day is near; we have no abiding city here.” The church’s songbook is the soundtrack for the Christian life. The songs we sing shape us and minister to us such that the word of Christ may dwell richly in life of believers (Col. 3:16). May the next generation of Christian songwriters desire for their songs to take that shape.

E‘er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wound supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
And shall be til I die, and shall be till I die;
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.

-William Cowper, There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood

“Nothing But the Blood” Theological Reflection for Austin Stone Worship

The other day I posted my Theology Paper on “Jesus Is Better” for Austin Stone Worship. Here’s what I wrote for the American classic, “Nothing But the Blood.” Enjoy.

——————–

NOTHING BUT THE BLOOD

“Whom have I in heaven but you?

And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”

- Psalm 73:25

Written by Baptist minister Robert Lowry in 1876, “Nothing But the Blood” is a great American hymn. For those who have grown up in church, no matter the tradition, there is likely to be at least a certain degree of familiarity. Some hymns are as American as apple pie, boycotts, or denominational infighting. “Nothing But the Blood” is an American classic.

It is easy, though, to become callous to what it is we’re singing. How many churches sing theologically rich psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs out of their hymnals yet have departed from those very doctrines generations before? How many church’s confessions and statements of faith have gone through innumerable changes influenced by the culture while the hymnal sits in the pew collecting dust? It’s easy to cast theological fidelity to the winds while white-knuckling our old time religion.

But in order for us to appreciate this hymn, we have to appreciate the theology behind it. This is a fairly simple task, for a look at the verses will quickly reveal the theological center of “Nothing But the Blood.” What can wash away my sin? Make me whole? What is my righteousness? My hope and peace? Answer: Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

It is a curious paradox of the Christian gospel that the redness of Christ’s blood is what makes the Christian white as snow. Washed in the blood of the Lamb, our everlasting righteousness is established. Christ’s suffering, our reward.

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 73:25 “Whom have I in heaven but you?” For the Christian, Christ is our hope and peace. If there were no mediator in heaven, we would still be dead in our sins. If there were no substitute to suffer our punishment on our behalf, we would be doomed. If there were none to drink every last drop of the wrath of God in our stead, we would be condemned.

Whom do we have in heaven but Christ? There is none.

But we do have Christ! For the Christian, Jesus is our treasure. There is nothing on earth that the Christian desires besides Christ because if they only had Christ, they would still have all things. Jesus is the pearl of great price. Anything else compared to Jesus is dross. The basis for this gift? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

“Jesus Is Better” Theology Reflection for Austin Stone Worship

 

If you’ll remember (or scroll down), I blogged last year about a cool initiative that my church has started: Austin Stone Worship. The idea is to produce Christ-centered songs for the local church – not only ours, but local congregations all over the world. They’ve got lots of cool stuff coming up including an album release, a conference, and all sorts of other goodies. If you have a passion for worship in the local church, check them out here. And don’t forget to buy the record October 22nd! 

One of the things that I love the most is that ASW not only desires to make aesthetically good records, but theologically rich records as well. To aid listeners, they’ve commissioned some folks in our body to write “Theology Papers” on each one of the songs. I wrote one for last years Christmas record on the classic hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and have been fortunate enough to write a few for the upcoming record “King of Love.” 

Over the next few days, I’ll post the others, but for now here is a little something I wrote for the song “Jesus Is Better.” I pray it is a blessing. 

——————–

JESUS IS BETTER

The story of Jesus healing a boy with an unclean spirit is one of the most powerful encounters recorded in Mark’s Gospel.  Found in chapter 9, the writer tells us about a violent spirit that has tormented a young boy since birth.  The account is graphic, and it’s difficult to read the story and not feel compassion for the disturbed boy.

However, hidden in the narrative is a curious phrase that has provided encouragement to saints throughout the ages.  Tucked away in verse 24, the father cries out “I believe; help my unbelief!”  In five words, a first-century father captures the wonderful tension of Christian living.

When we gather for corporate worship, “I believe; help my unbelief!” is the same tension in which we find ourselves living.  We hear sermons, read Scriptures, and sing songs where our hearts are often cold to the truth we proclaim.  Verses like “at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” sound grand, but are they actually true?

We are driven by our loves.  For our loves, we’ll give and fight.  The husband who loves his bride lays his life down for her.  The father who loves his child will give whatever he must for their good.

There is no other, so sure and steady… upon this Rock I will stand.

“Jesus Is Better,” then, is a hymn of praise in the midst of lament.  The song starts with confession: Because of Christ’s work, I am upheld.  In a clear allusion to Matthew 7, we confess that we stand on the Rock of Ages.  We have been given citizenship to the Kingdom of Christ – the kingdom that will never fail – and now we confess that we submit to His lordship alone.

Your kindly rule has shattered and broken the curse of sin’s tyranny.

Even still, the same Christ who is our sure foundation is also the victorious King who has shattered the regime of all false, tyrannical lords.  While these false lords – idolatry, sin, Satan – rule oppressively, the ruler of the Kingdom of light rules by His everlasting kindness.  His kindness is so rich that He lays His own life down for His people.  His blood has been shed – His head has been crushed – in our place.

These realities are glorious — this King is better than all.

Jesus is better – make my heart believe

And that’s what makes these last verses so powerful.  When we sing that “Jesus is better,” we are both testifying to something that we believe, while confessing just how much we don’t.

Make no mistake: Jesus is better than the frailty of riches.  Jesus is sovereign over my sorrows.  Jesus supplies more comforts in His eternal rest than any vacation home could promise.  But my heart is sick, and as long as I am in this corrupted body, there will always be that little morsel of doubt hiding away in the crevice of my heart.

This is why we need songs that operate both as testimony and confession. We need songs that shape the contours of our heart, but also attempt the impossible by verbalizing the groans that are in fact “too deep for words.” (cf. Romans 8:23)

We need new loves. We need new hearts. There is only one who can change that. Thankfully, by the power of His Spirit, He can make our feeble hearts believe. He did it for the father in Mark 9. He’s done it for saints throughout the ages. And as long as He tarries, He will continue to do it until we finally behold that kind face breaking through the clouds. Jesus, you are better – please make our hearts believe. 

Top 10 Books of 2012

As the “end of the year” lists begin streaming down our Twitter & Facebook feeds, I inquired whether anyone would be curious about my top 10 for books. Since I regularly agitate my Twitter followers with Goodreads reviews, I was a bit surprised to find that, generally speaking, people were curious. So, here we are. You. Me. My blog. And a list of 10 books that I found to be exceptionally enjoyable. I hope that this list finds you well and you are spurred on to reading in 2013 (speaking of which, I’ve thought for a while of drawing up a list of thoughts, encouragements, and strategies toward reading more, but that will have to be for another day).

A few caveats are in order. First, I love theology, history, & general nonfiction, so this list will generally lean toward books that fall under those categories. It’s not that I don’t like fiction (I do), it’s just that I’m still cultivating an appetite for it. My only recommendation for the fiction realm would be this–read P.G. Wodehouse.

Second, the books are in no particular order. That’s not to say that some books on the list were better than others (some certainly were), but more so that I don’t want to spend more time than this post is deserving. It is a blog post after all.

Let’s get to the list, shall we?

We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry by G.K. Beale

I love books that have me think more holistically about the overriding themes in the Bible. GK Beale is one of the best scholars in the arena of Biblical Theology and in this book he argues from Isaiah 6 that, in the passive wrath of God, we “become like what we worship.” Especially interesting was his argument that the Jews of Jesus’ day still were blinded by their idolatry, though instead of the horrific deeds in the prophets, their idolatry was in food laws and prohibitions. Similarly, our idolatry today doesn’t have to be wood pegs, but can instead be anything that we fashion.

Beale is heady, but if you are a theological nerd, then you’ll find this book stimulating and encouraging.

Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars

All Things For Good by Thomas Watson

Romans 8 may very well be my favorite chapter of the Bible and especially verse 28 where Paul talks about how all things work together for good for those who are in Christ Jesus. As a history major, I’ve also loved studying the Puritans, so when I heard about this book last January, I made sure to grab it. This also was my first introduction to Thomas Watson and what a delight to read him! Often times Puritans can be tough to read (i.e. Owen, Edwards) but Watson is totally different–he often uses really clear examples and illustrations of the things that he says. If you haven’t ever read anything by Watson, I’d encourage you to pick up this book. (As a side note, Watson is one of the contributors to the Valley of Vision.)

If you are looking for a stirring, short read, you should read this book.

Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be a Confident Believer In An Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes, PhD

This was a really fun book. Stokes is a contemporary of Doug & ND Wilson (ND actually titled this book) who I love. Not only that, but Stokes got his PhD under Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame so he is well versed in philosophical theory and the history of ideas. In this book, Stokes manages to explore claims from the New Atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.) and help to equip believers in such a way that they would see that no worldview is neutral, and that the Christian one is not insufficient to answer troubling questions. Stokes manages to do this with wit and humor, and could thus qualify this book as “Plantinga Lite” in its readability–but not its content!

If you have philosophical questions about Christianity, or want to rebut cantankerous atheists, get this book.

Goodreads review: 4 out of 5 stars

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

There is not much I could say about this book that’s not already been said, so I’ll say this: this book was encouraging, world-tilting, and hilarious. I sometimes wish Chesterton lived in the age of Twitter because he’s so spectacular at one-lined wit.

I would not have “got” Chesterton as a younger man, and in many ways probably don’t fully “get it” now, and thus will be revisiting this book until I’m dead. One of the finest works in the Christian literary canon.

Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

My Life for Yours: A Walk Through the Christian Home by Douglas Wilson

I read alot of books by Doug Wilson this year, so to pick one has been a bit of an arduous task. However, this one stuck out to me in particular because of what a fun idea it is. First off, the Wilson’s have published a series of books pertaining to the family, marriage, child-rearing, etc. and this one in particular focuses on the Christian home. So in each chapter, Wilson talks about things like the dining room, the kitchen, the bedroom, and even the bathroom, and explores theological & pastoral wisdom that comes along with each. Reading my description, it sounds a bit strange, however, it was an absolute joy to read! Even (especially?) for a single guy like myself.

If you are a Christian who wants to develop a “theology of the home”, then you’ll profit from this book. I’d especially recommend this to married folks.

Goodreads rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Fools Rush In Where Monkeys Fear to Tread by Carl R. Trueman

I’m treading lightly on how I describe this book because I enjoyed it so much that I don’t want to set some unrealistic expectations–which Trueman himself would despise. So I’ll just say this: Carl Trueman is a professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Not only is he knowledgeable about Reformation history, but he can flat write. This book is simply a collection of his essays, each clocking in at around 5 pages a piece, where he–as the subtitle indicates–takes aim at everyone. Seriously. Not only is it hilarious to see him poking at the idiocy of culture, but it’s also convicting. As I get older, I’ve noticed that sometimes the best treatment for someone is to laugh at themselves and the vanity of the world. Trueman will you give you a guided tour on how to do that.

If you want to read really good Protestant writing and laugh alot, read this.

Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars (though I wish I could’ve given it 6!)

Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World by David Wells

I also did alot of reading this year on culture and worldview. One of the books that was most instrumental in helping me understand doing ministry in an American context was this book by David Wells. While this book is one of 4 other books in a series, this one has seemed to have the greatest impact on western Evangelicalism. After its publishing in 2005, Desiring God did a conference on Christ in a Postmodern World via the stimulation from Wells’ book. Wells argues about the downstream effects of Postmodernism both from the history of ideas and engagement with culture. This book was illumining and has further shaped the course for how the Church will engage culture from here on out.

If you want to learn more about Christ and culture, read this book.

Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark

I first heard about Rodney Stark through some training that our church goes through, and then heard about this book winning WORLD Magazines book of the year sometime last year. Stark is a scholar who is well-versed in both history and sociology, and in this book he essentially condenses arguments he’s made in some of previous works. You’ll get to read about the spread of early Christianity, the Medieval period, the Inquisition, the Crusades and much more. Stark’s main goal is to inform the reader and demolish myths that may have been perpetuated over time–and in plain English! While there are some things I disagree with, and this isn’t really a survey of the the Christian church (i.e. Bruce Shelley’s “Church History in Plain Language”), I had a hard time putting this book down.

If you’re looking for a fun “beach read” that will inform you on the history of the church, get this book.

Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflection of Tom Carson by D.A. Carson

Many people have heard of Don Carson, but not many have heard of his father, Tom Carson. Tom Carson’s story is late of an “ordinary pastor” shepherding a small flock of people for over 4 generations. However, Tom Carson never got on the conference circuit, nor was published, nor held tremendous power, but he was who he was because of his powerful Savior. His story was both convicting, encouraging, and challenged me to think about my own calling to the ministry. God bless Tom Carson.

If you are a young man thinking of going into the ministry, you need to read this book. If you are a pastor and want to be encouraged and challenged, you need to read this book.

Goodreads rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction by Jonathan T. Pennington

Jonathan Pennington is a professor at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY who also got his PhD under Richard Bauckham, a brilliant scholar who has done much work on Jesus & the Gospels. There is much to be gleaned from this book. Are you curious about how to read the Gospels better? Or what type of genre they are? Or the history of interpretation? All of these themes and more are covered in this book.

Are you a student of the Bible and want to have a greater love for the Gospels? Read this book.

Goodreads rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Did you have any favorites in 2012? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

I hope that my picks for the year hopefully spur you on to reading more in 2013. My prayer is that you would be encouraged and challenged to pick up more books and that it would be so.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” at Austin Stone Worship

Now that the tryptophan hangover is finally nursed, and the dust has settled from Black Friday, it means one thing: Christmas is officially upon us. And with that, time for Christmas music. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved Christmas music, and especially holiday hymns sung exclusively on the Sundays leading up to the 25th.

Once I started attending the Austin Stone, those hymns took on a new life and I’ve maintained for some time that our versions of classic hymns like “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World” are unmatched.

Which is why it is with much joy to see that our wonderfully talented worship leaders and pastors have decided to put out a record of Christmas tunes, both old and new. The record is called “A Day of Glory” and I’d encourage you to buy it for yourself, and your loved ones. Trust me, it’s better than a pair of socks or undershirts.

What is also particularly neat about the Austin Stone Worship project is that our leaders desire to equip other churches so that they might be able to lead their congregations in praise. At the website, they have video tutorials for each instrument, song background, and other resources for equipping. I’d encourage you to check out the site and enjoy a guided tour through Christocentric songs and stories.

Along with videos, there is also a little blurb about some of the theology behind the songs. I was fortunate enough to write a little blurb about one of my favorite hymns of all time, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. You can read it below.

One of the distinguishing marks of Adam’s relationship with God prior to the Fall is God’s imminence, or nearness. The Scriptures portray this intimacy by noting that God spoke directly with Adam (Genesis 2:16) and walked with Adam “in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). God was intimately involved with His creation, and likewise with his son Adam. But when sin entered through Adam’s disobedience, that perfect fellowship was ruptured.

What seems to be an insignificant trespass in Genesis 3, only begins to unravel the horrors of evil in the heart of man—first, a cataclysmic nibble of a forbidden fruit, and then bloodshed amongst brothers, all in the span of one chapter—and as man’s wickedness increases, so God’s fellowship amongst him begins to wane. While God walked with Adam in the cool of the day, Moses is only able to see his backside lest he die. While God spoke directly and presently with Adam, it’s only through the prophets in later Biblical literature that Israel hears Yahweh’s voice.

As the history of Israel continues to develop and their idolatrous sin only grows more and more profane, it seems that God’s presence is totally withdrawn. However, in the midst of the chaos of their sin, there is a prophetic whisper in the book of Isaiah that points to a day when God will be near once again. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) “Immanuel” literally means, “God is with us”. There is coming a day when God will once again be near!

“O Come, O Come Immanuel” captures the longing anticipation of exilic Israel for the day when God will draw near to His people once again. However, what Israel did not know was not only that God would draw near, but would also clothe himself in flesh and dwell amongst men. What Israel did not know was that Immanuel was coming to be born of a woman, live the perfect, obedient life that his people could not live, and die a horrific death, crushed under the weight of God’s wrath. Immanuel was going to draw his people near by suffering in their stead.

Therefore, the end of each verse perfectly captures the response of those who have seen Immanuel—rejoicing. What’s more is that as Christians we no longer have to wonder if God will ever again draw near: God has drawn near in the person of His son Jesus, the second Adam. And because of Jesus, the church now responds not out of a longing for Immanuel to come, but jubilant rejoicing. Immanuel—God with us—has come in the person of Jesus. Rejoice!

“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” Romans 5:10-11

Don’t forget to buy the record here.

Sojourning in a Land of Loneliness

One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is not only that man can be reconciled back to God through the imputed righteousness of Christ, but also that through Christ, man is adopted into a universal family called the Church. It’s not simply that man has a broken relationship with God because of Adam’s disobedience in Genesis 3, man also has a broken relationship with other men and thus, like Adam, he spends his days sojourning in a foreign land marked by loneliness.

This is why one of the greatest attractions to Christianity is community. At the core of the heart of man is a desire to be wanted, a desire to be known and loved, a desire to find a Home and a Family. This is why the existence of so many small groups, self-help groups, scenes, clubs, etc. exist—they are banking on the longing in every human heart for genuine community.

David Wells’ “Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World” captures this sense of aloneness perfectly.

This sense of aloneness, of disjointedness, of disconnectedness, of anomie, is most immediately related to the loss of human community in the modern period. Indeed, Wuthnow has developed the thesis that the reason that small groups are playing so large a role in America today – twelve-step groups, Bible study groups, recovery groups, and so on – is that they are attempting to provide substitutes for this lost community. And yet this sense of aloneness is deeper and more profound than that. At its root is a sense of being alone in the universe, not merely our geographical location, of not being able to connect up the fragments of our experience to anything larger than ourselves. It is the sense of emptiness which comes from thinking that nothing we do ever has any cosmic significance. This yearning for a significance which does not change is what Russell thinks produced the belief in God and immortality, but the Christian confession is that it was God who so made us that we yearn for what is eternal and unchanging, for the One against whom life’s diversity and difference can be understood and disciplined.

If you are a Christian and attempting to make disciples without the context of the family of God, you are simply doing it wrong. This world is a world full of orphans sojourning in a land of loneliness. What they don’t need is a new idea with which to base their hopes—no, they need to meet a Person and the eternal family with which He has purchased by His very own blood.

The Foreigner & The Eunuch: Promise-Fulfillment in Acts 8

Why is it that when reading the Scriptures the Biblical authors will place a seemingly insignificant detail within the narrative that seems to rupture the flow of the text? Do they want to be overly meticulous? Is it because the detail seemed important to them then but may have no relevance to us today? Or is there something more?

Over the past year, I’ve had the joy of doing a study of the intertexuality of the canon of Scripture. More specifically, investigating how the Old Testament authors viewed the fulfillment of their prophecy and conversely how the New Testament authors viewed themselves within the scope of redemption history. Remembering that the writers of the NT were not simply men with intellectual “clean slates” and no presuppositions but actually men who grew up hearing the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings taught week in and week out in the synagogues helps us to understand where the writers were coming from and why they sourced so many OT passages both explicitly (e.g. Matthew 3:3) and implicitly. Which brings me back to my original question, Is there something more to these details?

This past weekend while working the worship slides for our Kids Ministry, I idly sat and listened to the speaker teach on Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8–a text that surely falls under the category of “unfortunate insignificant details”. However, while listening to the story read aloud, something struck me that I had never noticed before. In the text, Philip is guided by the Spirit south to a “desert place”. On the way, the Spirit leads Philip to go meet an Ethiopian eunuch and as Philip drew near, he heard the eunuch reading Isaiah. The passage that the eunuch was reading was Isaiah 53: 7-8. It reads:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter

and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,

so he opens not his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.

Who can describe this generation?

For his life is taken away from the earth.

Isaiah 53 is in the midst of a beautiful portion of Scripture that many in the church now know as fulfilled in Christ. Chapter 53 speaks of the suffering servant bearing the sin of many (53:12), chapter 54 speaks of a covenant of peace whereby the barren shall sing (54:1), and chapter 55 exclaims the inclusiveness of this covenant of peace by calling all those who are thirsty to come and drink (55:1).

Yet, the part that stuck out to me most was what came next–knowing that the eunuch was reading Isaiah 53, knowing that the spirit of God drew Philip to the eunuch, knowing that Luke, a disciple of Paul (Colossians 4:14) would be well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is astonishing what we find in chapter 56 of Isaiah. The text reads:

    Thus says the LORD:
“Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my righteousness be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,
        “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
        “Behold, I am a dry tree.”
    For thus says the LORD:
    “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
        who choose the things that please me
        and hold fast my covenant,
    I will give in my house and within my walls
        a monument and a name
        better than sons and daughters;
    I will give them an everlasting name
        that shall not be cut off.
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
 for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
The Lord GOD,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.”

In a society that praised children, being a eunuch was nothing less than a curse–there would be no hope for a eunuch to establish a long standing name for themselves because there would be no progeny to carry on the family name. So whenever the Lord looks upon the foreigner-eunuch who holds fast the covenant of God in this coming glorious age, He gives him a promise: “I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” The coming age that Isaiah prophecies about will be a glorious time whereby those on the dregs of society will be welcomed into the house of God and promised an everlasting name better than the glory of children.

With all of this in mind, it’s no wonder then that Luke highlights that the Ethiopian is a eunuch. Luke knows what it is he’s doing. Luke knows that just 3 chapters later from the very text the Ethiopian is reading, he’ll come to see the promises that are his in Christ. Luke knows that this eunuch is going to leave rejoicing because Luke knows the far-reaching love of God. Luke knows that that Isaiah 56 is about to be fulfilled because Luke knows that all of Scripture is ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

The Bible is glorious–meditate on every word, every jot, and every detail knowing that it is the very word of God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. Wrestle with the genealogies, the imprecatory Psalms, the tough passages that beckon you to think because it is there in the seemingly insignificant details that you’ll meet with God and, like the eunuch, go your way rejoicing.

3 Thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount (& Why It Makes Me Nervous)

The Sermon on the Mount makes me nervous. Seriously.

A few months ago, a few teachers from our church decided to put on a Teaching Lab whereby any interns that wanted to exercise teaching the Bible could do so in a controlled environment and receive helpful feedback afterward. The exercise was thus: pick a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, teach it in 5 minutes, and hit every facet of learning (aka “head, heart, hands”). Not exactly the easiest task in the world, but alas, we gave it our best shot.

Intern after intern would go up, teach, and then stand bare before all while the rest of us would wince as our teachers would, ever so graciously, absolutely rip them to shreds. (Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but some of our lessons were pretty bad with “yours truly” being up there with the worst.)

As I sat and watched us try and fail at teaching three of the most marvelous chapters in the Bible, I noticed a trend: we weren’t actually teaching the Sermon on the Mount.

Here’s what I mean: we would take verses like “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt. 5:8) and say things like “Jesus tells us that unless we’re pure in heart then we won’t see God, but what he REALLY meant was…

And this wasn’t an isolated case. Almost all of us would look at the text, read it aloud, and then proceed to explain how it didn’t mean what it actually said. The principle feedback given to all of us was usually “You said this, but what that text actually says is…”

This brought me to some thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount, and why, generally speaking, it makes me nervous.

1. The Sermon on the Mount is structured in such a way to reveal that you cannot live it perfectly.

The first utterance of Jesus lays the foundation for how the following statements ought to be rerceived: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? Having an “impoverished spirit” means looking at God and seeing glory and then looking at self and seeing spiritual bankruptcy. This is the essence of the Sermon on the Mount. It only compounds the guilt of a life that cannot be lived perfectly.

The fallacy of our lessons in the teaching lab wasn’t that we didn’t realize this. No, we certainly realized this. The central problem was that we ran to the “filling” aspect of the gospel before properly meditating on the “emptying” first. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says it best: “we cannot be filled until we are first empty… there are always these two sides to the gospel; there is a pulling down and a raising up.”

In as much as you are aware of the bad news will inform how good the good news actually is. The Sermon on the Mount reminds us that we can’t run to good news if we weren’t aware of the bad news first.

2. The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be lived.

After my first point, this may seem like a contradiction but it’s not. If you are in Christ, you are a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) with a “new heart” (Ezek. 36:26) and new desires (Gal. 5:24) which means that if you’re in Christ, you can actually live this. The Sermon on the Mount is not meant to be observed from afar, but to be lived, known and felt.

Lloyd-Jones:

Any one of us, every one of us, whatever we may be by birth and nature, is meant as a Christian to be like this. And not only are we meant to be like this: we can be like this. That is the central glory of the gospel. It can take the proudest man by nature and make him a man who is poor in spirit.

3. The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be both comforting AND discomforting to Christians.

The Sermon on the Mount looks you and I straight in the face with the perfect standard of God and reveals our deficiencies. It exposes the dark places and leaves no stone uncovered. No man can read the great Sermon and walk away with a grin on his face and a pat on his back. In many ways, the great Sermon reads you and I right down to our very bones. This is why the Sermon on the Mount makes me nervous.

But that discomfort is meant to hit you and I and turn us toward the One who lived the Sermon perfectly.

Realizing that I haven’t loved my enemies, or that the slight sign of traffic makes me angry, or that I have forsaken “saltiness” for the feigning sweetness of this world–all of these and more reveal my spiritual bankruptcy. In those moments, I am truly poor in spirit. And in those moments, Jesus says that I am blessed.

That is the good news of the gospel. You didn’t but Jesus did and now because of him, you actually can.

So the next time you approach the Sermon on the Mount, don’t try to spin it to mean something it doesn’t. Sit in the discomfort. Then maybe after being uncomfortable for a while you can arise and go to Jesus singing the words of “Come, Ye Sinners” with Joseph Hart:

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.

Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

View Him prostrate in the garden;
On the ground your Maker lies.
On the bloody tree behold Him;
Sinner, will this not suffice?

Lo! th’incarnate God ascended,
Pleads the merit of His blood:
Venture on Him, venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Not of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.

God’s Sovereignty & Temptation

Recently, our church has been going through a series exploring the life of Joseph. It has been incredibly encouraging for our body to see the grand purpose of God over things like suffering and evil, yet it’s not without its questions, confusion, or need for clarification. This is a most godly attribute as we see in scripture (Acts 17), and if there is ever confusion about the text, one should pray, seek wise counsel, and ultimately explore what it is that God himself is trying to communicate through his word. So if you yourself are facing similar questions, don’t hesitate to seek wisdom from others!

Anyway, below is a question I received from a brother this week about a statement said from the pulpit in regards to God ordaining sin. After I typed a response I figured it may help others who are wrestling through similar questions and decided to post here as a resource. If you find this helpful or have similar questions, please feel free to contact me.

I podcast your sermons and listened to the recent one on God’s sovereignty over good and evil. The speaker drew a conclusion that because God is sovereign, He ordains sin, even though He Himself does not sin. How is that to be interpreted in the light of James 1:12-15 (or visa versa)?

Regards,

Brother

Brother,

Thanks so much for your question. Admittedly, since we’re talking through email the answer I’m going to give you won’t be comprehensive, but I hope that it helps answer your question. Also, I’ve attached some resources below in the event that you want to do some further reading on your own.

First, let’s lay down a few fundamental truths from the Scripture about the nature and character of God specifically as they relate to your question.

1. God is sovereign over all things.
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” (Psalm 115:3)

2. God ordains sin.
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:22-23)

3. God himself does not sin.
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)

Now, after taking those three presuppositions into account, let’s look at how they relate specifically to your question; namely, how does the nature of God being sovereign over all things account for James 1:12-15. First, let’s look at what James 1:12-15 says.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

From the text we see that 1. Man has responsibility and a call to persevere under trial 2. God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one 3. The nature of temptation is that it is birthed in the heart of man.

Now, the question that naturally arises is how do we understand the nature of the relationship between God being sovereign over all things, while at the same time understanding sin and temptation to be birthed in the heart of man? I think the answer lies in a couple of passages. Consider the following.

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
Genesis 50:19-20

In the above text, we see something that is affirmed by all of the presuppositions. First, the evil that is done was done by man, from the heart of man. Secondly, God meant (or, ordained) it for the purpose of bringing about good. God did not tempt the brothers to do the evil against Joseph, but God was ultimately orchestrating it for good.

We see this tension (God’s sovereignty/man’s responsibility) most fully in the life and mission of Jesus.

Let’s look again at Acts 2:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.

The most heinous act to ever be committed is the murder of the only righteous and truly innocent man who has ever walked the face of the earth. Did God ordain it according to his plan? Acts 2 and other passages seem to say yes. Yet, how did it happen? By the hands of lawless men. God is sovereign. Man is responsible.

I admit that this is a difficult tension to try to comprehend, but Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has no problem affirming it in Acts 2. The same can be said for the apostle Paul as well, but here is not the place to explore due to space constraints.

I hope that this was helpful and encouraging. Ultimately, the sovereignty of God over suffering and evil is a doctrine that should lead us less toward heady philosophical discussion and more toward worship of the sovereign God who works all things for the good of those who trust in Him.

For resources that explore this issue and other issues related to the sovereignty of God, check out:

-Suffering and the Sovereignty of God by John Piper & Justin Taylor
-Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer
-Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul
-Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension by D.A. Carson

Changes

I have purposely forgone blogging for the past couple of weeks in part because life has been crazy (school + support raising + part time job + church) but also in part because some things have been shifting and until now have been pretty “hush hush”. However, with the end of the semester approaching I am thrilled to be able to be finally announcing some exciting changes for my residency next year.

First thing: I will no longer be working with the College Ministry.

As I said, some things have been changing a bit and with that I will no longer be working with the College Ministry. This is a little bit bittersweet because I have been working as an intern with the College Ministry for the last two years and have seen a presence of Missional Communities (or, communities of people, similar to small groups, that exist for the advancement of the gospel in their community) in San Marcos go from virtually myself and a few friends to four thriving M/C’s, lots of lives changed by Jesus, and lots of hearts with affection for the advancement of the gospel at Texas State in San Marcos. It has been a joy to serve alongside so many faithful servants of Jesus and to be able to say that within these communities exist some of my closest and best friends.

However, I am thrilled about the future of the College Ministry and the leadership that will continue to labor for the supremacy of Christ on the campuses of UT, Texas State, Concordia, ACC, St. Edwards and more.

With that being said, I am thrilled to announce what it is that I will be doing next year. There are three things specifically and I’d love for you to take some time to read and rejoice with me.

First, I will be working alongside the Central Area Missional Communities team toward fostering growth and development of M/C’s in Central Austin.

This is actually very similar to what it is I would have been doing with college students, except now it will be with Austinites in the central portion of Austin. This is exciting because central Austin is awesome and I am excited to be able to work with and minister to men and women in various life stages. I love college, but I am thrilled to be able to be working with families and adults across a myriad of backgrounds toward the flourishing of our great city.

Secondly, I will be working with our Equipping Ministry to help train our church body so that they will be more equipped to herald the gospel in our city.

This is yet another thing that I could not be more excited about. More details on this will be shared with time, but the heart of what I will be doing is developing content for the betterment of the church so that they may be transformed by the renewal of their minds (Rom. 12:2). I have the firm belief that the study of the word of God increases worship in the hearts of believers and it is a high honor to help the church of Christ behold him as he has revealed himself in the word of God. I could not be more excited.

Thirdly, development.

Simply put, not only will I be working, but I will be working alongside some very great men who care about my character and want to see me grow in godliness. This is probably the most valuable thing about this next year and also something I very much look forward to. “For wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” (Prv 8:11)

All in all, I am a very, very blessed man and thrilled about the upcoming year; God’s grace to me has been extravagant. Regardless of all these things, it is an excellent thing to be loved by Jesus.

How you can help.

I am currently in the midst of the support raising process and by God’s grace am no longer where I was when I wrote my first blog post. That is, I actually have a percentage on my board! Thank you to all of you who have so far supported me financially. My gratitude for you is great and I am extremely blessed by your loving kindness. If you are reading this and would like to support me financially, please send me an email as I’d love to hear from you and thank you.

A few prayer points:
-that my support network would expand and my fundraising goal would be swiftly met
-that upcoming transitions would be smooth for all involved
-that God would continue to richly bless and multiply our church for the flourishing of Austin

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Jude 24-25

Every blessing,
Scott

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