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How to Properly Benefit From The So-Called “Paper Pastors”

April 11, 2011 2 comments

A recent re-post at Pyromaniacs makes a point about people who idolize a “paper pastor” as someone better than their own pastor, because that “paper pastor” is not real but an abstract idea, someone who doesn’t know you from Adam — as flawless as the picture models that men are often attracted to.  The post is good so far as it goes, given several basic assumptions:

  1. You’re going to a church of your own choosing
  2. Your local pastor is biblically grounded, basically of the same doctrinal persuasion as your paper pastor
  3. Your local pastor is a people-caring person willing and able to spend time with you

But what about cases where the above three premises do not fit:  someone who is compelled by another family member to attend a church not to their own liking; the pastor there is not biblically grounded — and of a very different doctrinal persuasion; and furthermore that pastor is not a “people-person” but sees himself as an ideas person, even as a preacher to other preachers.

Since good local connections are cut-off (at least as far as sermons and Bible instruction are concerned), that person must rely on “paper pastors” for good Bible teaching and overall Christian living.  So this post is my attempt to answer that very different situation:  in what ways can the so-called “paper pastors” be of benefit to believers cut-off from the “good local church” option.  These points can also be applied generally to all believers, in how we should approach Bible study and how we learn from good Bible teachers.

First we must consider some overall principles, as embodied in texts such as 1 Corinthians 11:31 (If we judged ourselves we should not be judged), and 2 Peter 1:5-8see this recent post.  I especially note S. Lewis Johnson’s observation concerning backsliding and non-backsliding Christians  (see the longer quote here):

If people will not study the word of God, they are going to need spiritual medicine.  They are going to need a spiritual physician, and I think that through the years the thing that has impressed me in the church is that those Christians who are the least problem to the elders are the Christians who are growing in the knowledge of the Bible.  If you could just get a group of Christians in a church together in which everyone was daily growing in the knowledge of the word of God, the elders could set it out and twiddle their thumbs because it would be a healthy, happy, growing, fruitful body of Christians.  This is so fundamental because the word is powerful and God sees that it accomplishes His purposes.  It is when we neglect the Bible that we begin to drift, becoming indifferent, lose our love, become overtaken and entangled in sin.

The above considerations answer one criticism in the Pyromaniacs post:  “They never persistently probe an area of sin, in you, in person, eyeball to eyeball… nor will they. Church discipline will not be a threat with them. Ever.” For the real issue is the individual’s close walk with the Lord:  continuing to study, to grow and increase in the knowledge of the Lord.  People who are doing so, as SLJ pointed out, are not the people who give problems to church elders or are in need of “church discipline” in the first place.

With that in mind, here are a few more general guidelines and suggestions:

  1. Read and/or listen to several good preachers — find those who are trustworthy and generally reliable, of basically the same doctrinal persuasion yet with many personal variations.  My “paper pastors” include Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, S. Lewis Johnson, Dan Duncan and others at Believers Chapel, John MacArthur and Phil Johnson.
  2. Don’t just collect “quotes,” read popular Christian books on general topics, or listen to special topic church conference lectures.  DO listen to or read entire sermons — preferably exegetical, verse by verse type through a book of the Bible.  Spurgeon’s topical style also works, since he goes into considerable depth in each sermon, in a similar manner to exegetical preachers.  Read the sermons in sequence rather than skipping around to “shut-out” material you might not want to read as much (this is in answer to another of the Pyromaniac post criticisms of paper pastors, that you don’t have to listen to them and “can instantly shut them up, snap!”) This approach compensates for the lack of sermons in the local church situation and provides the biblical teaching and application that at least average-quality preachers deliver.
  3. Read the Bible daily (and good quantity) — I highly recommend the Horner Bible Reading Plan or variations on it.  Read with a Berean spirit, comparing what each preacher says to the words of the text.  J.C. Ryle’s Practical Religion, chapter 5, also has many great thoughts concerning how to read the Bible.

Through this approach, the believer does not look to any one particular “paper pastor” but gains Bible teaching and godly counsel from several.  I read or listen to several good preachers, yet am well aware of “flaws” in each of them (at various minor points), areas where they “do not measure up” and don’t agree exactly with my understanding of scripture.  Thus they are not “picture perfect” idols of pastors that “aren’t real.”

Practical Sermons, Spurgeon, and Reading Good Sermons

July 26, 2010 Leave a comment

In a recent post over at Pyromaniacs, Dan Phillips discussed different types of sermons, and noted a weakness in C.H. Spurgeon, that Spurgeon always preached on the doctrinal portions but never on the practical Christian living texts (such as in Ephesians 5, etc.).  I can certainly see that point:  even when Spurgeon chose such texts he would turn the subject away from the part dealing with, say, a husband’s duty, and focus instead on Christ.  Yet in my own reading through Spurgeon’s sermons, I have found many great treasures of wisdom for practical life:  the exhortations and practical advice included within the context of an overall doctrinal sermon, much as the New Testament epistles often begin with chapters of doctrine, followed by chapters of practical application.

Grace Gems well points out the great benefits from reading good sermons, benefits I have only begun to appreciate in my reading through the early Spurgeon sermon volumes:

The reading of good sermons is the most underrated kind of Christian literature on the market today. In former centuries, the reading of sermons was the bulk of the mature Christian’s reading diet. Most Puritan books, for example, are sermons edited for print. Sermon reading keeps believers in the Word, matures the soul, and whets the appetite for good preaching. It promotes Christ-centered thinking, healthy self-examination, and godly piety in every sphere of life.

Consider the following practical words from Spurgeon:

  • continuous exhortations to study the Bible for oneself
  • advice to pray for those who do not understand some of the Bible’s teachings as we do, instead of trying to win them by mere words

Says one, “How can I do God’s business? I have no talent, I have no money. All I earn in the week I have to spend and I have scarce money enough to pay my rent. I have no talent. I could not teach in a Sunday-School.” Brother, have you a child? Well, there is one door of usefulness for you. Sister, you are very poor. No one knows you. You have a husband and however drunk he may be, there is a door of usefulness for you. Bear up under all his insults, be patient under all his taunts and jeers and you can serve God and do God’s business so.

“But, Sir I am sick, it is only today I am able to get out at all. I am always on my bed.” You can do your Master’s business, by lying on a bed of suffering for Him, if you do it patiently. The soldier who is ordered to lie in the trenches, is just as obedient as the man who is ordered to storm the breach. In everything you do you can serve your God. Oh, when the heart is rightly tuned in this matter we shall never make excuses and say, “I cannot be about my Father’s business.”

“How, then,” says one, “am I to make my calling and election sure?” Why, thus—if you would get out of a doubting state—get out of an idle state. If you would get out of a trembling state, get out of an indifferent lukewarm state. …Wherein shall you be diligent? Note how the Scripture has given us a list. Be diligent in your faith. … And when you have given diligence about that, give diligence next to your courage. Labor to get virtue. Plead with God that He would give you the face of a lion, that you may never be afraid of any enemy—however much he may jeer or threaten you but that you may with a consciousness of right, go on, boldly trusting in God. And having, by the help of the Holy Spirit, obtained that, study well the Scriptures and get knowledge. For a knowledge of doctrine will tend very much to confirm your faith. Try to understand God’s Word. Get a sensible, spiritual idea of it.  Get, if you can, a system of divinity out of God’s Bible. Put the doctrines together. Get real, theological knowledge, founded upon the infallible Word. … And when you have done this, “Add to your knowledge temperance.” Take heed to your body—be temperate there. Take heed to your soul—be temperate there. Be not drunken with pride. Be not lifted up with self-confidence. Be temperate. Be not harsh towards your friends, nor bitter to your enemies. Get temperance of lip, temperance of life, temperance of heart, temperance of thought. … Array yourself with patience, that you may not murmur in your sicknesses.  That you may not curse God in your losses, nor be depressed in your afflictions.

Doing What Pleases God — and the Consequences

July 22, 2010 Leave a comment

A recent post over at Pyromaniacs includes an insightful list, from scripture, of the types of things that may result from doing what pleases God:

  • Getting murdered by your brother for honoring God in faith  (Genesis 4:1-8)
  • Being hated by the most powerful in the land for telling God’s truth (1 Kings 18:17, 22:8)
  • Having people run away from your preaching (i.e. a small congregation) because you preach the truth straight (2 Tim. 4:2-4)
  • Being out of sync with your spouse for remaining faithful to God  (Job 2:9)
  • Being framed, slandered, and killed for remaining loyal to your family  (1 Kings 21)
  • Seeing your good name destroyed because of your love for Christ  (Matt. 5:11)
  • Having co-workers start a vicious slander-and-ouster campaign because of your godly excellence  (Daniel 6:4-5)
  • Being abused, even physically, for doing right in God’s eyes  (1 Peter 2:20, 3:14, 3:17, 4:19)
  • Enduring a life of persecution, deprivation, and temporal misery  (Hebrews 11:36-38)

As Dan Phillips said, these are only a sampling.  A few more scriptures I would add to the above:

These are great reminders, that doing what’s right and following God does not always mean great material blessings in this world.  Yet the Christian has the true happiness that goes beyond our circumstances in this world, as J.C. Ryle also describes (Practical Religion, chapter 10: Happiness):

Give a man a sensible interest in Christ, and he will be happy “in spite of abounding public calamities.” The government of his country may be thrown into confusion, rebellion and disorder may turn everything upside down, laws may be trampled underfoot; justice and equity may be outraged; liberty may be cast down to the ground; might may prevail over right: but still his heart will not fail. He will remember that the kingdom of Christ will one day be set up. He will say, like the old minister who lived throughout the turmoil of the French revolution: “It is all right: it will be well with the righteous.”

The “Mark Dever attitude”: Confusing Revealed Biblical Doctrine with Food and Drink

July 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Recently the local preacher, in a message supposed to be an exposition of 3 John, expressed a Mark Dever kind of attitude (and see further discussion at this post also) in his inability to distinguish between true lesser matters such as eating and drinking, and the oft-classified “second-order” and “third-order” biblical doctrines.  Specifically, he lumped one’s view of eschatology into the same category as the disputable matters of eating meat sacrificed to idols and one’s view of food and drink, as something that people should not divide over or even break fellowship over — and he even laid the charge that those who would divide over something so unimportant are really the divisive ones.

Not surprisingly, he did not put forth as an example the difference between Calvinist and Arminian doctrine — something of which Christians do have different understandings, and do separate over.  Believers also separate over ideas concerning spiritual gifts — cessationists and continuists.  They also divide over modes of baptism and the Lord’s Supper — all matters which the Bible reveals far less information about than it does concerning Christ’s Second Coming.  Regarding creation, another supposedly “less important” doctrine, the Grace to You and Pyromaniacs blogs have done an excellent job of pointing out the importance of that doctrine and overall biblical inerrancy and authority.

God has given us a vast amount of revelation and teaching concerning the Second Coming — far more than the New Testament has to say concerning these other doctrines over which, as we all know, Christians have “divided” into differing fellowships.  See, for instance, S. Lewis Johnson’s statement concerning the number of times baptism and the Lord’s Supper are mentioned in scripture, as compared to mentions of the Second Coming.  Eschatology is not something obscure or hidden from us and thus to be equated with food and drink.  Eschatology is not a minor thing that begins in Revelation or even Daniel — it begins in Genesis (with the Abrahamic covenant).

To quote Matt Weymeyer again:

many Christians are self-proclaimed, sometimes even proud, agnostics when it comes to their view of the end times, and unfortunately, many of them seem to be content to remain in the dark when it comes to what God has revealed about the future… God has revealed too much about this issue for us to be content with being agnostic.

I’ll also add here my agreement with Expository Thoughts’ latest blog:   “I told my students to believe that the text was written by God – if you can’t understand something written in the text, it’s your fault, not the author’s.”

The person who classifies eschatology as something on the level of food and drink (and charges those who think differently with sin and divisiveness) only reveals his own lack of understanding, his own neglect of the study of scripture, and arrogance in presuming to stand over God’s word and decide which doctrines are and are not important.  As Caleb Kolstad pointed out in reference to this similar attitude from Mark Dever:

“I also don’t think he takes into account the point that not everyone agrees on what second-level matters are and what third-level matters are.  For Pastor Dever’s church family, eschatology is a “Third-order issue” …  Fine, but if another pastor or local assembly decides this is a second-level matter for their particular church body don’t call it “sin” brother.”

And now to what the Bible does have to say regarding the specific doctrine of eschatology.  The same apostle Paul who emphasized getting along and doing no harm to the less mature brother regarding meat sacrificed to idols, also went to great lengths to warn the Gentiles against arrogance regarding the natural branches (Romans 11:18-20) and to teach the truth concerning the status of Israel now and in the future (Romans 9 through 11) — and throughout his teaching in Acts and the epistles continually affirmed the future hope for his people Israel.  The same apostle John who spoke out against Diotrephes in 3 John, also delivered the clear premillennial teaching, a Revelation from God, in his final contribution to the New Testament canon — a teaching so well understood in the early church that it was affirmed by John’s successors in the second century, and Justin Martyr in the late 2nd century would also affirm that all who were right-minded (true believers) also held to this truth, the future thousand year millennial reign of Christ.

In closing, I turn to much more edifying words, the great wisdom of C.H. Spurgeon.  From sermon #123, “Particular Election” — on the matter of making one’s calling and election sure:

do what the Scripture tells you—“Give diligence to make your calling and election sure.” … study well the Scriptures and get knowledge. For a knowledge of doctrine will tend very much to confirm your faith. Try to understand God’s Word. Get a sensible, spiritual idea of it.  Get, if you can, a system of divinity out of God’s Bible. Put the doctrines together. Get real, theological knowledge, founded upon the infallible Word. … And when you have done this, “Add to your knowledge temperance.” Take heed to your body—be temperate there. Take heed to your soul—be temperate there. Be not drunken with pride. Be not lifted up with self-confidence. Be temperate. Be not harsh towards your friends, nor bitter to your enemies. Get temperance of lip, temperance of life, temperance of heart, temperance of thought… Get temperance and then add to it by God’s Holy Spirit patience. Ask Him to give you that patience which endures affliction, which, when it is tried, shall come forth as gold. Array yourself with patience, that you may not murmur in your sicknesses.  That you may not curse God in your losses, nor be depressed in your afflictions. Pray, without ceasing, until the Holy Spirit has nerved you with patience to endure unto the end.  And when you have that, get godliness.

S. Lewis Johnson and “Calvin and Hobbes”

May 26, 2010 Leave a comment

On the Pyromaniacs blog, a recent post highlights a popular show (Lost) and a Christian perspective of our God that has far better planning than human writers of entertainment.  As usual, some of the bloggers in the meta have missed the point of Dan Phillips’ original blog.

In many ways I see the reference to the show “Lost” as similar to sermon illustrations that appeal to our popular culture — which brings me back to S. Lewis Johnson and the comic strip illustrations he often used in his Bible teaching.

In listening to S. Lewis Johnson’s “Lessons from the Life of David” series, I’m enjoying (again, as with his other messages) the little time-period references he often made.  Johnson did this series in 1990, later than most of his teaching, and I can especially relate since by that time I was a young Christian; I only wish now that I had known about S. Lewis Johnson at that time, to get better instruction in those early years–but now I’m playing catch-up.

Several times in his teachings, Johnson mentions his enjoyment of the funny pages, the comic strips in the newspaper.  Often he mentioned Peanuts — but now we’re in 1990, and so it was interesting to learn that SLJ also liked and read “Calvin and Hobbes,” which had started publication in the late 1980s.  I had not heard of S. Lewis Johnson at that time, but like him I read and enjoyed Calvin and Hobbes.  Anyway, SLJ mentioned a particular strip of C&H, in reference to our fallen nature and the character of King Saul — the character like so many people, that plots and schemes, thinking he’ll get away with something and thinking he can fool God.  Then, even when things don’t work out so well, he doesn’t learn his lesson and just keeps on doing the same things over and over again.  The specific incident is the one where Calvin steals Susie’s doll, tries to offer it back for ransom, dreams about what he’s going to do with the money — and then Susie gets back at him.  But Calvin, like King Saul and so many others, will never learn the lesson.   Here is the actual message from S. Lewis Johnson.  Here is the Calvin and Hobbes strip he referenced, from late August and early September 1990.  (Note:  it’s the last comic series story on the first link, and top part of the second link.)