The Preacher’s Doubts

Preachers are just regular people.  We’re not uber-Christians who never struggle with sin or weakness.  I’ve been preaching now for 19 years and I’ve experienced my share of ups and downs directly related to my calling on the pulpit.  A lot of my downs have had to do with doubts.  Let me share what some of those are and how I’ve been led through them so I can carry on.  I’ll divide them into two categories.

Doubts Before the Sermon

Sometimes as I’m preparing my sermons, I’ll be struck with doubts about the message I’m proclaiming.  It’s not that I doubt the truth of it; it’s that I doubt the congregation needs to have it repeated.  I repeat myself so often.  Yes, I try to frame the old gospel message in fresh and creative ways, but I’m always wondering:  will Sunday be the day someone comes up to me and says, “Can you preach something new for once?  Really, it’s always the same old.  You never give us anything new.”

When I hear these thoughts I need to go to 2 Peter 1:12-15,

Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth you have.  I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me.  And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

I know this passage and I have known it since seminary — one of my fellow students gave a memorable chapel message on it.  But, ironically, I forget.  I forget that, in God’s Word itself, the necessity of repetition is laid upon us.  Even for those who know the truth, there is no harm but only benefit from hearing it again and again.

I also need to remember the parishioners who’ve told me about understanding something about the gospel only after I’ve told them ten times or more.  There’s the psychology of listening.  Some people hear something and grasp it instantly.  Others hear it and it doesn’t register until the fifth time, or maybe even the tenth time.  Moreover, there might be children or teens in the congregation who are truly listening to a sermon for the first time — the previous times they may have been present, but weren’t really listening.  What about visitors who might be there for the first time?  Or new members who weren’t there the last nine times you said it?  So, away with you doubts!  I must keep repeating myself.

Doubts After the Sermon

These are the worst.  Sunday evenings after being all preached out I’m often a mess on the inside.   You’ve poured your heart and soul into preparing and preaching and then:  “Was it all worth it?”  “Does it change anything?”  I wonder about the power and efficacy of preaching.

I have two passages that I call my Sunday evening lifelines.  With these words from the Holy Spirit, I get bailed out and I can sleep easy.  The first passage is from 1 Corinthians 15:58,

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.

While that was originally addressed to the Corinthian congregation, it can certainly be taken to heart by preachers too.  Our labour in the Lord is never in vain — it’s never pointless, it’s always worth the effort.

My second Sunday evening lifeline is found in the well-known passage of Isaiah 55:10-11.  God says,

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, and make it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent.

If I’m preaching God’s Word, it is always going to do something.  God always has a purpose behind it, even if it’s not always immediately obvious to me.  My Father promises this and I need to take him at his word.

Moreover, once I get beyond the tunnel vision of Sunday evening, I can see that God’s Word is doing things.  Hearts and lives are being changed.  There is growth in understanding the goodness of the good news in Christ, and therefore also growth in love, joy, and worship.

I’m quite sure I’m not alone in struggling with these kinds of doubts.  In speaking with other pastors, I’ve heard of how Sunday evenings can be the worst time of the week.  If you’re one of those pastors, I hope you’ll find encouragement from the lifelines I’ve mentioned, and maybe others.  If you’re a parishioner, may I encourage you too?  Provide that feedback to your pastor.  Reassure him and let him know concretely how his labours in the Lord are not in vain.  Let him know that his repeating essential truths has borne fruit.  And maybe, just maybe, those moments of doubt will grow weaker and fewer.


Review: The New City Catechism Devotional

The New City Catechism Devotional, edited by Collin Hansen.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2017.  Hardcover, 238 pages.

I’m always on the lookout for new family worship resources.  When I spotted this volume at my local Christian bookstore, I thought I’d check it out and give it a test run at home.  So, for a couple of months recently, this devotional served as the catechetical instruction in our daily family worship.  We read each question and answer, read the Scripture text, and then the contemporary commentary.  There is also a brief commentary by a figure from history, but we skipped over that in the interests of time.

For those unaware, the New City Catechism is a teaching tool written by Timothy Keller and Sam Shammas.  It appeared under 2014 under the auspices of The Gospel Coalition and Redeemer Presbyterian Church.  It seeks to condense and modernize Reformation catechisms — there are clear echoes throughout of both the Heidelberg and Westminster Shorter Catechisms.

I have several observations about this devotional and it seems best to divide them into two parts.  First, I’ll comment briefly on the commentary and then a little more at length on the New City Catechism itself.

Contemporary Commentary

Each question and answer of the NCC has commentary, both historic and contemporary.  Historic commentators include John Calvin and Augustine, but also less orthodox figures like John Wesley.  The contemporary commentators are men such as Tim Keller, John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan.

Because there is such a variety of authors, the commentaries or devotional components are uneven.  That happens with any compilation.  Here too: some are short, some are long.  Some read easier than others.  Some have better illustrations or clearer teaching.  Some were really good, others okay, and some mediocre.

I’m going to make some remarks further down about the New City Catechism and its teaching on baptism.  But already here I want to note that from a confessionally Reformed (i.e. Three Forms of Unity) perspective, the teaching in the commentary on baptism is at best inadequate.  If you are intending to use this devotional to teach your covenant children about the meaning of their baptism, then this book is not going to cut the mustard.  There is certainly nothing here about baptism as a sign and seal of God’s covenant.  Baptists will appreciate it more than anyone.

The New City Catechism

There are some things to like about the NCC.  It generally tracks with Reformation theology.  The NCC speaks biblically about the unpopular doctrine of hell in QA 28.  It draws attention to the cosmic significance of Christ’s redemption in QA 26.  In QA 34, obedience to God’s commandments is motivated not only by thankfulness (as in the Heidelberg Catechism), but also by love for God.

However, there are also some significant weaknesses.  There is one question and answer dealing with the Lord’s Prayer.  There is one question and answer dealing with the Apostles’ Creed.  There is a little more with the Ten Commandments — all ten are covered in four questions and answers.  In trying to keep the NCC to fifty-two questions and answers, all these important elements of Christian catechesis have been given short-shrift.  I’ll gladly take my Heidelberger back, thank you very much.

Were I to write a contemporary catechism (not that I plan to), I would be sure to address contemporary concerns.  The Heidelberg Catechism did that — look at Lord’s Day 18 and its four questions and answers on the ascension.  That was all because of polemics with Lutheran theology at the time.  One of today’s major battles has to do with creation and evolution.  While the NCC has two questions and answers dealing with creation, there is nothing to address the threat of evolution.  It’s not in the commentary either.  Should we be surprised?  Since Timothy Keller is a well-known ally of BioLogos, an organization promoting theistic evolution, I suppose not.

As mentioned above, one of the greatest concerns I have about the NCC is its teaching on baptism.  It’s not only what it doesn’t say — i.e. that the children of believers ought to be baptized.  It’s also what it does say, namely that baptism not only “signifies and seals our adoption into Christ [and] our cleansing from sin” but also, “our commitment to belong to the Lord and to his church.”  Does baptism signify and seal “our commitment”?  Doesn’t the one being baptized already belong to the Lord and, if a covenant child, also to his church?  Again, our Baptist friends might be willing to sign on the dotted line for everything in the NCC, but count me out.

Summary

Our family went once through the NCC Devotional, but that’ll be the last time.  Sadly, it’s not a catechism resource I can recommend to Reformed parents.  Perhaps a married couple with children out of the home might use it discerningly with benefit, but it just isn’t solid enough for families.  My top alternative remains Starr Meade’s resource on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.

Readers can check out the NCC and devotional resources online here.


Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: “Coram Deo”

I don’t remember the exact book, talk, or sermon anymore, but I’m quite sure I first heard the expression “coram Deo” from R.C. Sproul.   It means “before the face of God.”  It’s an expression I don’t hear too often, but the idea should certainly be well-established in the hearts and minds of all believers.

There is a constant temptation for us to compartmentalize our lives.  We have what we do on Sundays — that’s the religious part of our lives.  But that has nothing to do with what we do on Friday nights.  It has nothing to do with what we watch on Netflix on Tuesday.  In this way of thinking, our work, too, is a separate compartment.  In the workplace, there’s nothing that distinguishes us.  For example, when others stand around complaining about the boss, we join right in.  Like everybody else, we hate our job and it’s just a means to a (week-)end.

The biblical concept of “coram Deo” addresses this temptation.  It reminds us that all of life is to be lived “before the face of God.”  We certainly come before the face of God in our public worship on Sundays.  And at the end of our public worship, we often hear the Aaronic benediction from Numbers 6:24-26.  In the ESV, it concludes with:  “…the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.  The NIV has “…the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”  The idea of “coram Deo” is there.  As we depart our meeting with God, he blesses us with the promise that we will continue to walk before his face as we go into another week.

That tells us that “coram Deo” is an objective reality.  Whether you acknowledge it is another thing.  But it is objectively true that all of life is indeed lived before the face of God.  Our thoughts, words, and deeds are always open to him — “no creature is hidden from his sight” (Heb. 4:13).  You might try to compartmentalize in your own mind, but there’s no compartmentalizing in God’s perspective on things.

Acknowledging “coram Deo,” however, is a good thing.  When we have experienced God’s sovereign grace in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit leads us to see this from the Word of God.  Consider Psalm 89:15-16, “Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your face, who exult in your name all the day…”  Our Lord Jesus walked “coram Deo” in his earthly sojourn.  There was no compartmentalizing in his life.  For it he was blessed, and we along with him.  Saved by him, we look to him as our example and desire to live in union with him.  As disciples, we want to emulate our Master.  He always walked self-consciously before the face of God — let us do likewise.

As we do, there is blessing for us too.  Human life was not designed to be lived in compartments.  Adam and Eve were created to live “coram Deo” and so were we.  As James says, a double-minded person is unstable in every way (James 1:8), so how much more unstable would a person be who has multiple minds or compartments?  On the flip side:  stability, blessing, human flourishing — that’s the outcome of acknowledging God in all our ways, consistently living “coram Deo.”


Ries Jansen — A War Criminal Converted

Ries (Marinus) Jansen

The following story comes from a collection compiled and translated by Gilbert Zekveld.  He was a dairy farmer from Lindsay, Ontario.  In his later retirement years, this godly widower spent most of his time translating edifying literature from Dutch into English.  I was privileged to know him as a friend and helped him with a bit of editing.  This story comes from “A Collection of True Life Stories,” most of which were taken from a Dutch book, Honingdroppels (Drops of Honey).  It’s a story of God’s grace for a wicked man, a Nazi collaborator whom many Dutch at one time feared and yes, even hated.

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The name of Ries [Marinus] Jansen was well-known in the Veluwe [a forested region in the middle of the Netherlands] during the winter of 1944-1945.  It was a name that inspired hate.  He was a hunter of men par excellence.

He was wounded in a shoot-out with the underground in Rotterdam.  However, he recovered and continued his lurid business on the Veluwe.

After the liberation of the Netherlands, he faced judgment in a criminal court.  His misdeeds were so heinous that he received the death sentence.  A subsequent request for pardon was refused.

One of his victims was a leader of the underground in the Alblasserwaard polder [in the province of South Holland].  When the mother of that victim read about Jansen’s sentence, she sent him a Bible and admonished him in a letter to seek refuge with the Lord.  What compassion when a mother whose son fell into the hands of that man can do such a thing.  It was an act richly blessed by the Lord.

Ries Jansen repented, not to escape punishment, but to be a witness of God’s love before the firing squad.  He repented to be a witness for the God who took this murderer home.

A certain Mr. Bomhof was an evangelist from Enschede and he was called upon to assist Ries Jansen in his final hours.  He tells the rest of the story:

“Sir, there is a telephone call for you from Arnhem.”  It was the director of the chapel.  He reported that Jansen would be executed next Friday, because his request for pardon was refused.  However, the man wanted to speak with me.

I did not sleep much that night.  The next day was difficult for me too.  Apart from two letters from the condemned man, he was absolutely unknown to me.  And what do you say to a man who only has one more day to live?  It did not appeal to me in any way.  But I had long known the words:  in the hour what you need to speak will be given to you.

After a while, I met Jansen in the waiting room.  He was small and now skinny, but still muscular and had dark hair.  His white face betrayed four years of waiting with no hope of respite.  But his step was sure and he looked me steadfastly in the eye.  He did not in any way look like a man about to be executed.

His hands rested on the table folded.  He looked me deep in the eye and I reciprocated.  Then I took both his hands, pulled towards me and said, “Early tomorrow you will travel to great glory.  I envy you.  Think of it, tomorrow you will be home with Jesus.”

Then he became glad also, and with a happy face he said, “Yes, sir, I also long much for the time they will lead me to the post.  Then, even though I am so unworthy, then I may see him.  I experienced that he forgave all my sins, that is now the faith I live by.  I have already made my peace with the post.  Jesus made it well.”

But then he wept and said, “O, my sins make such a terrible separation between God and my soul.  My guilt is great, but I know that the Lord goes a way of justice with me.  The punishment is just, I deserve all of it.”  It became silent for a while.  Then he sighed and said, “Sir…”

I interrupted and said, “Call me brother, for we are one in Jesus.”

“Brother,” he continued, grateful, “but there is one more heavy load that burdens me.  I did not do a thing for Jesus, nothing…” and again he wept — “I go to him with empty hands.”  I told him, “Brother, take courage.  You don’t come with empty hands.  Your first letter was a great blessing in the place where I live.  Remember the thief on the cross.  After almost two thousand years he still speaks.  He has been a blessing to many.”

Then, suddenly, he was very happy.  His face literally shone.  The truth of the Bible verse, “Death, where is your sting?  Hell, where is your victory?” was sitting across from me on the other side of the table.  I had never before seen such a victory in the face of death.

When his wife arrived, he was composed.  He stood calmly.  He said, “My wife, be strong.  I am not afraid.  I am ready.  There is no more pain for me.  Yes, you will remain behind with the child, but the Lord will be with you.”

That afternoon we spoke some more.  His warm meal was getting cold.  I told him not to let his food get cold.  He ate like a hungry man.  Suddenly he said, “But did you eat?  Come on, let us share.”

Together we finished the meal of potatoes and beans.  Then we discussed Romans 8, his favourite Bible chapter.  “Yes,” he said, “the Bible from which you read was given me by a mother whose son I arrested.  When she read in the paper that I was sentenced to death, she bought a Bible and a hymnal.  She wrote and admonished me to take refuge in Jesus.  Her act brought me to Jesus’ feet.”  He presented this Bible (with an inscription) and the hymnal to his little daughter.

Later in the afternoon, his family were all there.  There were fifteen people meeting with him in the visitors room.  He asked me then to accompany him to the execution post.  It was no more a place of terror for us.  Together we meditated on Hebrews 12:1-15.  The family made a tearful farewell.  He accompanied them to the door.  Then he called out, “Wife, family, look back once more.  Look at me.  See how calm I am.  Remember this.  Listen!  My hope is in the Lord Jesus.  He is my all.  I go with him tomorrow morning to the place I will be executed.  There he will receive me into his everlasting arms.  Farewell wife, farewell family, look to Jesus.  Until we meet…at home!”

Then we continued our discussion on that blessed passage of Romans 8.  The hours passed by without our noticing.  However, at 1:00 AM, he was very tired.  I saw it and ask him if he wanted to rest.  He did.  That’s how we parted.

At 3:30 AM, there was a knock at the door which woke me up.  Jansen did not sleep, but he was visibly rested.  He spoke with his brother, who was also a Nazi collaborator.  His brother had come from the mines to say his farewell.  Ries admonished him to repent and the brother wept when we left.

The rest of the time we discussed Psalm 23, where it deals with the valley of the shadow of death and where it speaks of not fearing any evil, and God’s nearness in all this.

Peace was visible in this man’s heart.  But around 6:00 AM this peace retreated into the background.  A little later he called out, “O, that post, that post, that post!”

I said, “Brother, you must learn another lesson.  That post is the devil.  He shows you that post.  Don’t look at it, but in faith look only to Jesus.”  And with my arm pointing up to the sky, I said, “Jesus’ sacrificial death is all my hope and rest.”

In the meantime, my soul was at prayer.  Thanks be to God, the brightness of heaven could once again be seen on his face.  A moment later, he called out, “O brother, the post is gone.  Jesus’ sacrificial death is my hope and all my rest.  There is victory, victory in the blood of the Lamb.”  Everyone cried, but me.  I could not cry, for my soul was jubilant.

In the dawn we  prayed together.  After the “Amen,” I asked him to pray.  He prayed in silence.  When I asked him to do it out loud, he hesitated for a moment because he was not used to that.  But after a moment, he prayed.  I heard him pray for his parents, his wife, his child, his family, the prison warden, the guards and himself.  Finally he asked the Lord to receive him into his open arms.

They called us.  We saw many authorities in the hallway.  The guards came to shake hands with Jansen.  In a closed jeep we sat down, facing each other, flanked by four police officers.

The jeep stopped at an open spot in the forest.  Silence reigned all around.  A fog hung between the trees.  After we walked around the jeep, we saw twenty young men with red berets, military police.  They stood there in a semi-circle.

Altogether I counted forty people present.  Together we went to the post.  He was very calm.  A police officer tied a thin rope around his waist.  We stood there, hand in hand, and I said, “Brother, until we meet in glory with Jesus.”

I then stepped backward, looked at him, and stopped beside the firing squad.  He looked up to heaven and his arm pointed upward.  Slowly, for everyone to hear, he called out, “Jezus, uw verzoenend sterven, blijft het rustpunt van mijn hart” (“Jesus, thy propitiating death is the resting place of my heart”).

They blindfolded him.

His hand pointed forward and he said, “Men, you are all my friends.  You are not my enemies, but my friends.”  He thanked me for the support I gave him in his last hours.  Again he pointed to heaven and everyone heard his jubilant cry, “Lord Jesus, through the blindfold I see you, nailed to the cross for my sins.”  And still louder, he cried out triumphantly, “Yes, Lord Jesus, I come!”

Shots were heard, echoing through the forest.  The angels carried him into paradise.

The Inspector of Police was beside me.  He said, “I’m amazed about what that man said.  I don’t know him like this.  He was always as hard as a stone.  Did he really mean what he said?  I used to know him.  He was terrible.  What he was, and now this.  I don’t understand.”  I said, “Did you not hear his last words?  No one is a comedian in the face of death.  I have his last letter here.  Do you want to hear it?”  I read the letter to him.  He answered, “Sir, I say nothing.  My mouth is closed.”

Some people came and shook hands with me.  It made a deep impression on everyone who was there.  May the Lord give his blessing to all who read this story.

 


Pastoral Q & A: The Morning After Pill

Can a Christian woman use the “Morning After Pill” as emergency contraception?

Let’s first be clear what we’re talking about.  The “Morning After Pill” is often marketed under the name “Plan B,” though there are other drugs and brands.  This is not RU-486 (mifepristone), a drug that causes abortion typically later in pregnancy.  The MAP is regarded as a form of emergency contraception — it’s for when other ways of preventing a pregnancy have either failed or been neglected.  The question is whether this is something Christian women can take advantage of.  To answer that, let’s imagine two scenarios.

Scenario 1

A young unmarried woman has been having sex with her boyfriend.  On one occasion, they forget to use their normal method of contraception.  She’s concerned that she may get pregnant, so she goes to the pharmacy for “Plan B.”  She takes the tablets and does not become pregnant.

Scenario 2

A woman in her 30s (with four children already) believes it would be unwise for her to have any more children.  She and her husband normally use a barrier method of contraception.  On one occasion, they forget and she’s concerned that she may get pregnant.  So “Plan B” is the answer.  As in the first scenario, no pregnancy results.

In both situations, the MAP/Plan B seems to prevent an undesirable pregnancy.  In both situations, the woman claims to be a Christian.  In both situations, the woman first goes to the Health Direct website of the Australian government (or equivalent) and is relieved to read that the MAP does not cause an abortion.  Instead, it simply stops or delays ovulation and it may also prevent sperm from reaching the egg.  But “if the sperm has already fertilised the egg, it is too late and the pill won’t work.”  So, going with the official information, neither scenario has caused an abortion.  No life has been taken.  Therefore, there is apparently no ethical issue with the Sixth Commandment (“You shall not kill”).

We need to think about this more carefully.

The first thing we need to reflect on is the actual facts regarding the MAP/Plan B.  The Health Direct website (and others like it) does not tell the full story.  The truth of the matter is that there are studies which suggest that the MAP can have an abortive effect (even the Wikipedia article acknowledges this — with sources).  If an egg has been fertilized, the MAP can prevent that human life from continuing to live in the womb.  No one can categorically say with 100% certainty that the MAP never causes early abortions.

That should change the way we look at this.  In pro-life circles, we sometimes use the illustration of a building about to be demolished.  Before a demolition company levels a building, they have to make absolutely certain there are no people in the building.  If there’s a shred of doubt about whether somebody’s still inside, you don’t level the building.  Similarly, if there’s any doubt about whether the MAP can cause an abortion, we would not take want to take that risk.  We would never want to have blood on our hands, even by accident.

So, let’s go back to those two scenarios.

The first one is the most ethically problematic.  If the young woman in the first scenario claims to be a Christian, she is almost certainly self-deceived about her spiritual status.  You cannot be a true Christian and be actively engaged in any premarital sexual relations (Hebrews 13:4, etc.).  That would be living unrepentantly in sin — “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).  And if a woman in a scenario like that takes the MAP, she could be adding sin against the Sixth Commandment to her sin against the Seventh Commandment.  If she really wants to be a Christian, she must turn away from her life of sin, seek God’s forgiveness in Christ, and follow the Lord.  That will include accepting the consequences for her sexual sin, including, if it so happens, any pregnancy which might result from it.

The second scenario is somewhat more challenging.  I believe married Christian couples can have lawful reasons for using certain methods of contraception.  For example, a woman may struggle with severe postpartum depression which may leave her incapacitated for months after a birth.  She may feel suicidal or even homicidal.  In such cases, couples are wise to limit the size of their family using lawful means God has made available.  However, what if those means fail?  One thing we can say with certainty:  abortion of any sort or the possibility of an abortion is out of the question for Christian couples.  The MAP is not the answer in this scenario.  The couple has to prayerfully accept what God may bring.  If he brings them the conception of a child and they cannot see themselves clear to caring for another child, then adoption (to another Christian family) may be the best option.  But here again, using the MAP and possibly sinning against the Sixth Commandment must be ruled out.

Let me conclude with what I would say to someone who has taken the MAP.  I’ll be direct:  you may have caused an abortion.  Perhaps you did it ignorantly, working only with the information provided on official government websites and so on.  Perhaps what led you to take it was what the Bible describes as “sin with the uplifted hand,” deliberate and intentional living in sin (i.e. premarital sex).  But, whatever, the case may, if you did cause an abortion, this is not an unforgivable sin.  God’s grace in Jesus Christ is available for all who repent and believe.  God’s grace is big enough to cover this too.  However, let us respond to his grace with a hatred for all sin and a love for all life, even at its earliest stages.