Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Dangers and Delights of Christian Biography

The Dangers and Delights of Reading Christian Biography

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us (Philippians 3:17).


Be imitators of me as I am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).


Dr. John Piper chose the above text from Philippians 3:17 when he gave the first ever “Charles Haddon Spurgeon” lecture at the Nicole Institute of Baptist Studies on the campus of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. I was there to hear the lecture in person. His point was that just as Paul faithfully imitated Christ, and others likewise imitated Paul, so too we ought to continue that long chain of men and women who for generations have trailed after our glorious and Risen Lord.

For seventy minutes I sat in awe listening to one of my favorite living preachers waxing eloquent about one of my favorite dead preachers. This was pure joy to me, because for nearly twenty years I have been consumed with reading the biographies of famous Christians who have gone before me. Curiously and by some divine “coincidence,” I had just read the same biography on Spurgeon from which Piper apparently crafted his manuscript for that electric evening.

I cannot estimate how valuable to my soul these types of biographies have been over the decades, especially as a local church pastor.

During some years, I have chosen one particular man as my focal point and read as much as I possibly could both by and about him. I have especially focused on those from my own theological tradition whose perspective is often close to mine. I went through a Jonathan Edwards phase first, then a year or so in John Calvin, then a Francis Schaeffer period. Spliced in between these times I have grown close to other dead men as well: the Reformers and Puritans always foremost among them.

Strangely, these now-glorified saints have become my “friends.” Sometimes, particularly during seasons of mild depression and apparent ministry defeats, they have become closer to me than my actual friends. Perhaps some others reading these lines will share that strange trans-generational experience.

It is during these dark times that we find one of the most delightful serendipities of reading Christian biographies: we find that the exact same struggles that we have endured are not so terribly unique after all. There is no temptation—either of body or mind—that has not been experienced by another brother come before me. There is no malady of frame or soul that God has not called another believer to trudge through, long before I came along. The ability of previous generations to endure through suffering actually has the strange power of pulling me along through the midst of my own battles.

Too, I find that my unquenchable passion to be in the presence of the Holy One has been shared by a unique breed of men and women in whose footprints I now walk. When I read in 1999 of Hudson Taylor’s passion for the lost souls of China, I found a man who shared—and greatly excelled—the angst I felt for those who don’t know Jesus. Like him, I felt willing to cross land and sea to share the Gospel with even one unreached individual. Hudson Taylor lived and died for the lost!  

When I visited A.W. Tozer’s grave in Akron not far from where I grew up, and just a stone’s throw from my in-law’s home, I felt that I shared the same longing to delight in God’s presence as the man whose several books I had lately enjoyed.

Who would not be moved by the accounts of Edwards’ fiery preaching in the Great Awakening, or be taken up in the Luther’s joyous fear of declaring “Here I stand!” at the Diet of Worms? How could I avoid Calvin’s tender pastoral spirit “rubbing off” on me as he wrote tearful letters to men soon to be martyred for the faith in Reformation-era France? How could I not be stirred within when I read one of Spurgeon’s echoing sermons, still just as alive today as the day his voice dominated the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London? How could I not savor my English Bible more when I learned of all that William Tyndale endured to smuggle New Testaments into England in bales of hay? I wept at 1:00am when I read of Dietrich Bonheoffer’s martyrdom just weeks before the Second World War ended in a Flossenberg prison camp.  

But here is where I find the great danger: the more I try to be like these men, hoping to see the shape of my own life in their ever-lengthening shadows, the more I know I can never measure up.

I find that my very pursuit of “imitation” can be my greatest frustration. Have you ever tried to photocopy another photocopy before? The more generations away from the original we get, the worse the quality of the print becomes. In the same way, some of the biographies that we read tend to make the error of “hagiography,” they no longer produce accurate representations of the man and instead make them into saints: halo, wings, and all.

I must become content—even pleased, if I can be so bold—with the person God has made me to be.

“Hagiography” (literally: saint writings) is the spurious genre of trying to make another man into a complete saint. In the biography of Spurgeon I mentioned above, for instance, the author studiously avoided almost any critique of the man himself. In an almost forced confession to create the veneer of “objectivity,” the author finally admitted that Spurgeon (gasp!) smoked cigars! That was the only fault he could find!

And so as a reader, I am nearly driven to despair. Reading the account of a hero whose ministry only grew—all the time—made me wonder if there wasn’t something seriously wrong with me. My own ministry wasn’t growing at all. By the time we get more than a hundred years away from an historical figure, the more perfect his biographers seem to cast him. His weaknesses are glossed over, especially those which his wife and children probably knew best.  

Yes Calvin and Luther et. al. were geniuses in their times and greatly used of God in their unique age. But if I try to replicate the extraordinary acts of these men and women, I will find myself increasingly frustrated. These men, after all, were extraordinary, not because they were miniature “christs” themselves, but because God in His mercy saw fit to use them extraordinarily.  

It is simply not fair to compare ourselves with the all-time “greats,” or to expect that the unusual outpourings of God’s Holy Spirit ought to become usual in our day.

Yes, there are times when God’s Kingdom advances in very marked ways. The wheat grows quickly after the thunderstorms, but it also grows during more temperate weather as well. Even if more slowly. God is glorified as much by the ordinary, trudging, faithful ox in the field as He is by the brilliant lightning bolts that lead the storm.

To expect to have the computer-like mind of a John Calvin or the preaching unction of a Charles Spurgeon, or the audacity of Martin Luther is simply not a fair. True, we will continue to hope and pray for God to raise up such men that can shake our own generation out of its complacency, but to expect every faithful man and woman to change the world alone is not realistic.  

More realistic (and more Biblical) is to expect God to smack the world out of its lethargy by a thousand thousands of ordinary, unknown, average believers who are sincerely pursing the glory of Christ in their own day and generation.

God grant us to be among their number. Amen. 


The preceding essay is from Matthew Everhard's forthcoming book, Unknown: the World-Changing Power of Ordinary Christians. Matthew is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Why I Still Preach the Old-Fashioned Doctrine of Sin

From time to time, as people are walking out of our services at Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church (hopefully not for the last time!) I am asked why I preach the doctrine of sin so relentlessly. 

Let me briefly share the three most common formulations of this question that I hear.

(1) Isn’t the doctrine of sin hopelessly outdated and old-fashioned? Nobody talks about sin this way anymore, they reason. Shouldn’t modern people find different ways to dialogue about our problems than this old-school “puritan" talk?

Reply: We can answer this question with another question (or a series of questions): Is violence outdated? Is abuse real? Does divorce still happen? Is addiction a problem? Do you know anyone that has ever cheated on their spouse? Do you know anyone that is greedy? Have you witnessed any neighbor kids that are bullies? Have you ever seen a child that is a selfish brat? Do you know yourself to be guilty of any of these things? 

Sin’s devastating effects and consequences are still felt everywhere, both in society and in the individual heart.Therefore the doctrine of sin is not passe either.

(2) By declaring all people to be sinners, don’t Christians have a "low view" of human worth? To say it another way, shouldn’t we be looking for the best in everyone? Doesn't this kind of negativity crush people's self esteem?

Reply: We actually have a very high view of humanity and the value of human life, much higher, I content, than the unbelieving world. This is why, for example we are pro-life, and in favor of traditional marriages, and against such things as pornography. We despise actions and values that deny and degrade humans of their intrinsic worth in Creation.  

However--as high of a view of humans as we have--we have an infinitely higher view of God! We have such an exalted view of the holiness, righteousness, greatness, and majesty of God that all things look like specks of dust in comparison. How much more so, then, the sinful human heart in rebellion against a holy God! It is like comparing 10,000 candles to the light of the sun! 

We preach sin BECAUSE we believe in the holiness of God.

Objection 3: Instead of preaching sin, why don’t you just focus on morality and good works? Wouldn't it be more effective, say, to preach motivational sermons focused on doing good deeds?

Reply: We do, in fact, preach good works, but moralism alone (exhortations toward good deeds and actions) has two inherent problems: First, moralism does not have the power to change the heart. As long as we believe the "answer" is trying harder, or doing better we will continue to trust in ourselves for improvement. Eventually this will exhaust and exasperate us and we will see that a change in actions is simply not enough. We need a change of heart. The Bible calls this regeneration.

Secondly, moralism alone does not drive sinners to the cross of Christ for grace, because it contends that the answer is within oneself. The more we look to ourselves, the less we look to Jesus. The cross of Christ is the only place where sinners can ultimately find grace sufficient for this total transformation.
Driving sinners to the grace of the cross is the ultimate goal of all preaching, and the grounds for continuing to preach the doctrine of sin--even if fewer and fewer are doing this today.

Pastor Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville Florida.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Ask Pastor Matt: Did Jesus Die for All People?

 Pastor Matt, 

I came across 2 Cor 5:14-15 today.  

"For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised."

It seems to indicate that Christ had all of humanity in mind when He went to the cross.  Is our position that the "all" refers only to the elect in this passage, or the whole human race?

Thanks for being the resident theologian.

Great question and thanks for asking!

Yes, there are a handful of passages like this that talk about Christ's death being for "all men" or for "all." 

Of course, those who are not Reformed point to these passages right away to refute our view of the doctrine we call "limited atonement," that is to say, that Christ came purposefully to die to redeem His elect. This doctrine usually separates so-called four-point Calvinists from five-point Calvinists (and of course from Arminians). 

In my view, we ought to understand these passages in one of several ways.

1. First, we ask who is the "all" in view? In the text you cited, a Reformed reader would first point out presence of quite a bit of "we" and "us" language in the chapter. This refers to Christians. "All" does not necessarily need to mean "all men who have ever been born," but can mean "all those being discussed currently in the context."

For instance, if we were to say, "I hope they all come tonight to our party," it is taken for granted that we mean all those on the invitation list. We don't mean all men ever born. If that were the case we probably would run out of food and seating rather quickly. If I say "Don't eat all the potato chips!" it is obvious that I am referring to the bag of chips currently on the table, not all the chips ever produced.

In everyday language, the context of our conversation determines the parameters of the word "all."

2. Secondly, in the passage you mentioned above, 2 Corinthians 5, we might suggest that the "all" specifically refers to all those who are saved. This seems likely to me since vs. 14 seems to limit the discussion to those who have "died" with Christ in some way and vs. 15 seems to point to all who "live not for themselves but for Him."

Personally,  I can't see how those expressions would apply to unbelievers.

3. In some other passages, for instance John 12:32, we understand the word "all" to mean "all kinds" or "all classifications" (that is to say, every tribe, every nation, the rich, the poor etc.) and NOT all individuals, since if we were to take "all" otherwise, we would have to become advocates for universalism, and deny the reality of hell. The rest of the New Testament will not allow us to come to that conclusion.

4. Finally, keep in mind too, that while we who are Reformed believe that Jesus' death is effective and intended only for the elect, we do NOT deny that the Gospel offer is real, and saves whosoever will believe. It is not a fake or duplicitous offer to repent and be saved, but a true offer of saving grace. 

Reformed people like to put it this way, "Jesus' death is sufficient for the whole world, but efficient for those who believe." 
To send a question my way, go ahead and email me anytime! 

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Fl.