Friday, September 16, 2016

"The foolishest thing that men can do," a devotion from Alexander Maclaren

God made a promise to bless Abraham and his descendants, but Abraham and Sarah did not have children of their own. Instead, Abraham had a son, Ishmael, with his servant Hagar. When God reiterated His promise to give Abraham offspring, Abraham responded by asking God to simply make Ishmael the covenant child since he was already alive. Abraham thought he knew better than God, or that perhaps he could make things easier for God. God responded by telling Abraham, "No," and promised to give him a son, Isaac, through his wife Sarah. Abraham saw the difficulty of his circumstances, began to doubt God, and thought he could come up with his own solutions. Do we do the same thing that Abraham did?

The following is from a sermon on Genesis 17 by Alexander Maclaren.


It is often so in regard to our individual lives; and it is so in regard to the united action of Christian people very often. A great deal of what calls itself earnest contending for 'the faith once delivered to the saints' is nothing more nor less than insisting that methods of men's devising shall be continued, when God seems to be substituting for them methods of His own sending; and so fighting about externals and church polity, and determining that the world has got to be saved in my own special fashion, and in no other, though God Himself seems to be suggesting the new thing to me. That is a very frequent phenomenon in the experience of Christian communities and churches. Ishmael is so very dear. He is not the child of the promise, but he is the child that we have thought it advisable to help God with. It is hard for us to part with him.

Dear brethren, sometimes, too, God comes to us in various providences, and not only reduces into chaos and a heap of confusion our nicely built-up little houses, but He sometimes comes to us, and lifts us out of some lower kind of good, which is perfectly satisfactory to us, or all but perfectly satisfactory, in order to give to us something nobler and higher. And we resist that too; and do not see why Ishmael should not serve God's turn as he has served ours; or to think that there is no need at all for Isaac to come into our lives. God never takes away from us a lower, unless for the purpose of bestowing upon us a higher blessing. Therefore not to submit is the foolishest thing that men can do.


God has given us tremendous promises and simply asks us to place our trust in Him, but we often only trust our own understanding and attempt to pursue the fruit of God's promises through our own means. For example, in the church, we understand that God wants us to expand the kingdom, but we're tempted to seek growth through attractional experiences that may fill pews but don't save souls. In our own lives, we believe that God wants us to have joy, peace, and contentment, but we're tempted to seek after them in worldly things. God doesn't need us to take things into our own hands; He simply wants us to take His hand.

God is almighty. He is able to do whatever it takes to deliver on His promises. And God is faithful. He will never abandon the promises that He has made to His people. Our circumstances may seem hopeless, but, with God, there is always hope. Our circumstances may make it seem like God has abandoned us, but He hasn't. If we trust God and follow His ways, he has promised to give us everything we need to faithfully get through this life, and He has promised an eternal life free from all of the effects of sin forever. Circumstances can make that hard to believe, but, in those times, remember that God is God. What He will bring us to is better than anything we can attain without Him. Submit to Him. In the words of Alexander Maclaren, "Not to submit is the foolishest thing that men can do."

Friday, July 8, 2016

Responding to the public battle between those in authority and those under authority

Not long after I woke up yesterday, I stumbled upon a video, which began circulating the day before, of Alton Sterling being shot while laying on the ground under the restraint of two police officers in Louisiana. It wasn't long before a second video emerged of Philando Castile dying after having been shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota. While public awareness of these two videos grew, FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress in Washington D.C. for over four hours, with much of his testimony consisting of responses to the accusations that there is a double standard of justice for political elites. Then, just before going to bed last night, news emerged that at least 12 police officers were shot, with at least 5 of them killed, during a protest in Texas. We saw the evil of injustice yesterday, and we saw the evil of vengeance yesterday.

As I began writing this article today, I wrestled with whether to include the Comey interview in the same context as the other three stories that involved people who lost their lives. They were all major headlines in the news yesterday, but that one is obviously a different kind of story that perhaps doesn't deserve to be mentioned alongside the others. But even though the content and weightiness of the Comey investigation differs greatly from the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas, they reveal a similar problem in our culture. Yesterday painted a cogent picture of the battle between those in authority and those under that authority, and I think it's significant to recognize that the same kinds of problems can be manifested in very different ways. Yesterday was a day filled with public confusion, public injustice, public outrage, and public tragedy.

Some have begun speaking about the need for legislation to accomplish justice in the places they've seen injustice. Some have talked about gun reform. Some have talked about reform within law enforcement. Some have talked about the need to reduce the rates of crime within black communities. Some have talked about those that appear to be above the law, and some have talked about those who appear to be targeted by those who enforce the law.

Political speech will continue today, but today is not a day for politics.

Some have begun talking about the legal backgrounds of the two black men who were killed. They've begun talking about what they could've done differently to avoid being shot. Some have criticized police officers. Some have defended them. Some have defended Comey's conclusion, and some have expressed outrage over it.  Many have talked about what certain people should have done differently to avoid what happened. If there's one thing I've learned while working in violence prevention, it is that, regardless of the facts in any case, blaming a victim or analyzing their mistakes never really justifies or solves anything.

Speculation will continue today, but today is not a day for speculation.

There may be a time to discuss the political and practical implications of what filled the news yesterday, but I don't think this is that time, especially not for Christians.

For Christians, today is a day for prayer. It's a day for recognizing that people are hurting and that suffering and injustice is not unfamiliar to our Lord. Christ bore the weight of suffering and injustice, and he understands every wound. Today is a day for recognizing that, when our black neighbors weep, all of us weep with them. Their lives matter. Today is a day for recognizing that, when police officers weep, all of us weep with them. Their lives matter.

For Christians, today is a day for the gospel. It's a day for recognizing that God is a sovereign God of justice who will right every wrong. It's a day for recognizing that there is a great divide in our nation between those in authority and those under authority and that our God is a God of reconciliation. It's a day for recognizing that sin complicates everything but that there is a simple solution for sin. Sin divides. Sin kills. Sin destroys. But Christ reconciles. Christ gives life. Christ restores.

Make no mistake, it is the sinful flesh that is in all of us that led to all of the tragedies and injustices that we saw in the news yesterday. And while the church needs to be the place that stands firmest against sin, it also needs to be the place where every kind of sinner can find peace and unity in Christ, as well as peace and unity in the body of Christ. There is no room for division in Christ, yet there is a call for every person on every side of every division to come to Christ.

What was made more clear than ever yesterday is that there is a battle in our nation between those in power and those vulnerable to the abuses of that power. Among our black neighbors, there is clearly a fear of police brutality and racial injustice, and we cannot silently ignore their fears. Among our police officers, there is clearly a fear that they have lost the respect necessary to safely do their jobs, and we cannot silently ignore their fears. There will be a temptation for many to let yesterday's events act as a hammer to drive the nails of division even deeper, a temptation for the black community to have an even greater fear of police abuse and for police to have an even greater fear for their safety on the job. No one would blame them for those fears, but, as Christians, we are not a people called to operate based on the fears of this world. In the midst of fear, we are called to be the church. So let us be a people who recognize the real impact of sin that breeds both prejudice and corruption. And let us be a people who proclaim Christ who conquered all sin on the cross. If these events were caused by sin, and they were, then Christians are the people who can make a lasting difference.

Don't fall into the trap of believing that prayer is not effective. You can do far more by praying for everyone connected these tragedies than any political or practical efforts ever will. And don't fall into the trap of believing that these situations need solutions bigger than the gospel. When we are faithful to proclaim gospel truths, the Holy Spirit moves in power. While the presence of sin and Satan guarantees that issues like these will never be fully resolved on this side of eternity, the power of the Spirit guarantees that these divides can and will be reconciled in individual hearts and lives and in communities across the nation when we are faithful to preach the gospel that brings people together in Christ. Every person who sheds a tear in any tragedy deserves the prayers of those who have been redeemed by the One who will wipe away every tear.

Yesterday was a day of tragedy and injustice. Today is a day for us to be the Church. Let us be Christ to everyone who needs Him in this time.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"How Sin Came In," a devotion from Alexander Maclaren

The following is from a sermon entitled, "How Sin Came In," on Genesis 3:1-15 by Alexander Maclaren
It begins with casting a doubt on the reality of the prohibition. 'Hath God said?' is the first parallel opened by the besieger. The fascinations of the forbidden fruit are not dangled at first before Eve, but an apparently innocent doubt is filtered into her ear. And is not that the way in which we are still snared? The reality of moral distinctions, the essential wrongness of sin, is obscured by a mist of sophistication. 'There is no harm in it' steals into some young man's or woman's mind about things that were forbidden at home, and they are half conquered before they know that they have been attacked. Then comes the next besieger's trench, much nearer to the wall -- namely, denial of the fatal consequences of the sin: 'Ye shall not surely die,' and a base hint that the prohibition was meant, not as a parapet to keep from falling headlong into the abyss, but as a barrier to keep from rising to a great good; 'for God doth know, that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods.' These are still the two lies which wile us to sin: 'It will do you no harm,' and 'You are cheating yourselves out of good by not doing it.'

Sin always over-promises and under-delivers, but we so often still succumb to its seductions. Satan wants to draw you away from God. He wants to convince you that, because sin is pleasurable, it is good. He wants to convince you that you can sin without consequence. However, God's will is always good, and sin always has consequences. We have all fallen. We have all sinned against God. However, Jesus crushed the head of the serpent. He defeated the consequences of sin for those who faithfully turn from their sin to Him. Don't let Satan's schemes allow sin to gain a foothold in your life. Trust in God completely, and you will be more satisfied in Him than you would be with anything that sin can offer.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The beginnings of what could potentially become a series of posts based on selections from Alexander Maclaren

"The beginnings of what could potentially become a series of posts based on selections from Alexander Maclaren" It's not exactly the most riveting blog post title, but that's what this is.

I graduated from SBTS a year and a half ago, and, for about that long, I have been casually reading sermons by a pastor named Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910). I actually don't know if that's the proper way of spelling his last name, but that seems to be the most common usage. "MacLaren," with the capital L, is a popular spelling as well. Most of the books I've seen have his name printed in all capital letters, perhaps to avoid the issue altogether. In primary sources from the late 19th century, I found two different spellings — McLaren and M'Laren. Maclaren seems to be what has become the most common reference to him, so I'll go with that for now. But with the spelling of his name aside, he was the president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain twice, and, during his ministry, his sermons were almost as widely distributed and popular as his contemporary Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon was given the title, "the Prince of Preachers," and Maclaren, "the Prince of Expositors," because of his commitment to expository preaching. After their deaths, however, the trajectories of their notorieties couldn't be more different. Spurgeon's sermons are still thought to be the most widely read sermons in the world, while Maclaren's name has been all but forgotten. For a few decades, his works continued to be published. He has an expository sermon set on the whole Bible, and, while you can find them used, they are all out of print now. I originally found his sermons on the Kindle app because most of them are free, and I've become more and more drawn to all of his works, almost like a great band you find that nobody knows about.

To the point of this post — I, like Maclaren, believe very strongly in the power of expository preaching. It's God's Word, not a preachers word, that pierces the hearts of men, so preachers would be best served to prepare sermons that act as a magnifying glass and a bullhorn for the Word of God. Maclaren understood that and did that, and I've been blessed by his expositions. I want to take that blessing and pass it on, so I'm going to begin occasionally posting some devotional-type readings based on selections from his sermons. For this one, I'm not going to be using one of his sermons, but instead a [relatively long] selection from an address he gave about his preaching philosophy. The text below is from his presidential address, entitled "An Old Preacher on Preaching," given to the Baptist Union of Great Britain in 1902. Culture is always going to be at odds with the Church on various issues, and it's only with a commitment to the authority of Scripture that the Church will be able to stand firm against the moral influences of culture. Much of the modern Church has allowed itself to be swayed by those influences, so Maclaren's 114-year-old message still has incredible relevance to us today. When the Church, from a moral perspective, begins to look more like the culture, its purpose is diminished and its light becomes much more dim. This message was addressed primarily to pastors, but I believe it has wisdom for all of us.


I supposed there are some 6,000 to 8,000 sermons delivered every Sunday by the ministers of our two denominations—and what comes of them all? We have covered the land with chapels, and yet do we even keep up with the growth of population? "Ye have sowed much, and brought home little;" and if so much seed yields so scanty of harvest, the sower may we ask himself Why? No doubt there are trends of thought and habits of life to-day which make the preacher's task eminently hard, but we have no such difficulties to face as the first messengers of the Cross had to encounter and overcame. Are the philosophical or scientific tendencies of to-day worse than the front which wisdom-seeking Greece presented to them? Are the habits of to-day more antagonistic to the gospel than was the corruption that honey-combed the luxurious sensualism of Asia? Is the secularising influence of trade and imperialism more hostile than was the self-centred pride of Rome, with its cult of the Emporer? Is the ignorance of our slums more dense than the darkness that wrapped "the regions beyond?" And yet the Message conquered. Why not now? The Message is the same; the Divine power that clothed the messengers is the same. "O thou that art named the house of Israel, is the Spirit of the Lord straitened? are these His doings?" Surely there can be but one answer to the twofold question—an answer which throws us back on ourselves, and bids us look to ourselves as the causes of the loss of power...

...Our message implies that sin is a universal reality, from which there is no deliverance but through Jesus. Has the fact of sin, its reality and its consequences, its due place in modern preaching? I for one very much doubt it. Modern theories of heredity and environment, modern laxity and moral fibre have taken many shades of blackness out of the black thing. Men think less gravely of sin and so they superficially diagnose the world's disease, and therefore they superficially prescribe the remedy. An inadequate conception of sin lies at the root of most theological heresies and Utopian schemes of reformation of society. It is fatal to the earnestness, the pathos and the power of the preacher's work. Unless we have our hearts and minds laden with the burden of men's sins, our voices will not ring out the vibrating notes of the good news of One who saves His people from their sins, because "Himself bare our sins in His own body." We must all confess that, yielding to the "Zeitgeist," the trend of opinion and feeling prevalent around us, and as children of the age, we have been tempted to think less severely, less pityingly of sin, and less solemnly of its certain result, death, than either our Master or His apostles did. We have too much shrunk from the plain speech on the guilt and the danger of sinners. And, just in exact proportion to our failure in these respects has necessarily followed our failure in ringing out the good news of the Christ, the propitiation for our sins and for the whole world...

...A certain minister once told a shrewd old Scottish lady that he was engaged to deliver an address on the power of the pulpit, and asked her what her views on the subject were. She answered, "The power o' the pulpit? That depends wha's in it." Which is a truth to be laid to heart by all preachers...

...The evangelist who is not a teacher will build nothing that will last. And not less one-sided, and therefore transient, will be the work of a teacher who is not an evangelist. He will give husks instead of the bread of life, notions that may rattle in skulls like seeds in dried poppyheads, but not convictions which burn all the more because they are light as well as heat. The true theologian brings his doctrines to bear on the emotions, and then on the will, and then on practice. That "theology" suffers under the imputation of being abstract, dry, remote from life is the fault of the teacher, not of the subject. The preacher is not to duplicate his part, like an actor who sustains two characters in a play, and to come on the stage at one scene as an evangelist, and in another as a teacher. He is to be both at once and to be both always. For the most advanced instruction that can be given or received does not leave the most initial truths behind; it only unfolds them...

...No Christian thought can ever travel beyond the Incarnation, the Sacrifice, and Ascension of Jesus Christ, the Indwelling Spirit, "the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting." To leave these behind is not progress but decadence. Not to get past, but to get more deeply into, these truths is the growth of the Christian life...

...The habit of prefacing a sermon with a text is, no doubt, a survival, and it is sometimes unmeaning enough; but it is a witness that the sermon's true purpose is to explain, confirm and enforce Scripture. Once, the text was followed by a sermon dealing with it. Would that it were always so now! Better to put new life into the old form, by making a text really what it is meant to be, than to break through it in a flight after something "fresh and unconventional."...

...If it was worth His while to give us the Book, it is worth our while to toil to fathom its depth, to saturate our thinking and feeling with its truths, and it is our highest function and office to interpret them to our brethren. We shall "shine as lights in the world" if we "hold forth the Word of Life." There are nebulae, as well as brilliant stars, in the firmament of the Word. It is for the preacher to show men that the stars are suns, and the nebulae are galaxies of light. How unworthy it is for him to direct his telescope from the heaven of the Word to the low levels of current topics...

...A preacher who has steeped himself in the Bible will have a clearness of outlook which will illuminate many dark things, and a firmness of touch which will breed confidence in him among his hearers. He will have the secret to perpetual freshness, for he cannot exhaust the Bible. No pulpit teaching will last as long as that which is given honestly and persistently to the elucidation and enforcement of Biblical truth...

...We have to do the work of Christian teachers under remarkable conditions. On the one hand there is a great ignorance of Scripture and of systematized Christian truth among our congregations, and we are perpetually in danger of over-estimating the amount of knowledge on which we may reckon. Otherwise well-educated men and women have but the vaguest notions as to Scripture facts, and the most confused apprehensions of Christian ideas. I for one believe that a considerable percentage in every congregation in the land is unaffected by our sermons because it does not understand what we are saying. We have to aim at simplicity, not to be afraid of being elementary...On the other hand, we have to speak to people who have considerable education, and some who think they have more than they really have, who have been fed on a miscellaneous collection of scraps, in magazines and handbooks, and it is hard to get an entrance for solid Christian truth into such minds...How are we to discharge our teaching work in the face of all this?...

...We must never forget that what we have to teach is no philosophy for the few, no system of doctrine for trained understandings, but the Gospel for the world...Some of our hearers are educated and can follow our highest flights, but many of them cannot. But all have the one human heart, with its deepest needs identical in all...

...What are we here for but to bring the principles of the Gospel to bear on all life?...

...We have heard would-be taunts which were really tributes, and turned into testimony, about "the Nonconformist conscience." It is the Christian conscience, and to be its voice is no small part of the preacher's duty. He has to direct the searchlight on individual sins, especially those prevalent in the class from which his hearers are drawn. He has to apply the measure of the sanctuary to worldly maxims which his hearers take for axioms, and to practices which they think legitimate because they are popular. He has to witness against the cancerous vices which are eating out the life of the nation. He has to bring national acts to the standard of Christ's teachings, and to insist that politics are but Christian principles applied to national life. A Church which has ceased to protest against the "world" suits the world's purpose exactly, and is really a bit of the world under another name. The true Church must always be remonstrant, protestant, a standing rebuke to the world, till the world has accepted and applied the principles of the Gospel to personal and social life. And the preacher who does not give voice to the Church's protest fails in one of his plainest and chiefest duties. We need brave men in the pulpit who shall speak with freedom what they have learned from God of the evils in the land...

...We need to keep clear of popular currents of thought and practice, suspecting always that truth does not dwell with majorities, and that what the multitudes acclaim, God is likely to condemn...

...But it will be no gain to the cause of Christian morality or of national righteousness if the ethical side of religion is presented exclusively or disproportionately to the other two which are its foundation. Let us have applied Christianity by all means—the more the better—but let us make sure first that there is a Christianity to apply. Let us preach Christ as the Regenerator of society, but let us not omit to preach Him as the Saviour of the soul from sin. Let us begin where the Gospel begins, with "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life,"— and then let us draw forth from the depths of that great word all the teaching which it contains, and all the ethics for single souls, for society and for the world, which flow from it...

...That which cannot be shaken will remain—and what cannot be shaken is the Gospel of the "Kingdom that cannot be moved," and its King, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. "All flesh is grass. The grass withereth, and the flower falleth: but the word of the Lord abideth forever." And this is the word which by the Gospel is preached.


Our culture is a testament of our need to hold fast to the Gospel and to the authority of Scripture. However, the shrinking of the Church and the inconsistency of doctrinal soundness within the Church are testaments of our failure to have done so. I look forward to posting more, [and shorter], selections from Maclaren's sermons, and my prayer is that his commitment to expository preaching would yield fruit from the Word of God moving in my life and anyone who chooses to read along.