Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: In the Wilderness

The Pastor’s Perspective
“In the Wilderness”
First Published: April 29, 2007

Since January 3, 2007 we have been studying through the book of Numbers, on and off, on Sunday evenings and Wednesday nights. 46 sermons later, we are almost done. On Wednesday night, May 7, we are due to arrive at the final chapter of the book. I know, Numbers is probably not one of your top ten favorite Bible books (although, I must say, it has really grown on me during this series!), but Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 that the book of Numbers was written for us as Christians and is profoundly practical for us today! In fact, he says more than that. He says that events recorded in Numbers actually happened for us and that God wants us to learn from them how we are to live right now! Our study has certainly proved this out.

Well, the whole book of Numbers looks forward to Israel’s settlement in the promised land, and so it is appropriate that it closes with six provisions of God in relation to the occupation of Canaan. We’ve looked at the first three of these. We’ll look at the last three in the final two sermons.

Meanwhile, on this past Sunday night, we considered the boundaries of the land and the men appointed by God to see to the distribution of it. We saw three things:
  1. God’s generosity in given Israel more land than they ever occupied (this also, nevertheless, highlights Israel’s failure to obey God in fully occupying the land);
  2. The link between God’s blessing and our response, and what this teaches us about the way of sanctification, or growth in the Christian life. We described this using the motto: the Land is yours now take it (see Numbers 33:53 “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.” It’s the Old Testament version of the New Testament principle that “the indicative precedes the imperative.” God gives us what he commands and then commands us.
  3. God’s wise three-part plan for taking the distribution of the land out of the hands of the tribes [lots, proportionate designation, divinely appointed leaders].

If you missed some, most or all of this series, you can read or listen to it online at the church website, or you can order CDs or tapes of it from the Learning Resource Center.

I must say that it is always bittersweet for me when I come to an end of a sermon series through a Bible book with you. This is so for a variety of reasons. 1. I always look back and wish I’d preached the book better. 2. I always look back and am thankful for what I’ve learned, and wished than I’d learned it a long time ago. 3. The thought always crosses my mind that I will not likely pass this way with you again in this book. That is, when I conclude a series, it strikes me that it may be the last time I’ll study that book with you from the pulpit of First Pres. For no matter how long the Lord gives me to minister here at First, it is unlikely that I’ll be able to preach through the Bible twice, or even to preach through many, or any, Bible books twice with you – the Bible is a big book! All these things make the privilege to preaching the Word to you, all the more precious to me.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Monday, December 20, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Think about Deacons and Elders

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Think about Deacons and Elders”
First Published: April 1, 2008

twitter: should we rethink the offices of deacon and elder? No, but made you look.

As you prepare for the very important congregational meeting this Sunday, April 6, after the 11 o’clock service, at which we will act upon a recommendation from the Session to initiate the process of electing new elders and deacons for First Presbyterian Church, perhaps it will be helpful to you to start thinking about what elders and deacons are and do.

In the Presbyterian Church there are two types of officers in the Church: elders and deacons. And within the office of elder are the two kinds: teaching elders (commonly referred to as ministers or preachers) and ruling elders. The elders jointly are responsible for the government and spiritual oversight of the church, including teaching. In conformity to Scripture, the office of elder is open to men only. We are electing Ruling Elders in this election process.

The Bible requires the elders to watch diligently over the flock committed to their charge, to promote sound belief and godly living. What do elders do? Elders teach the Bible, disciple members, exercise government and discipline, and take oversight of the spiritual interests of the particular church. They visit the people in their homes, especially the sick. They instruct seekers, share the gospel, comfort those who are mourning, and nourish and guard the children of the church. They endeavor to set a worthy example to the flock entrusted to their care by their zeal to evangelize the unconverted and make disciples. They pray with and for the people, and are careful and diligent in seeking the fruit of the preached Word among the flock. This office is a great privilege and responsibility. Our elders will one day give an account of their governance to the Almighty.

What are the Biblical qualifications for those who are elders? The Bible is clear about the qualifications for an elder. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 that an elder “must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”

In Titus 1:6-9 he adds that an elder must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”

Thus, to summarize, the Bible specifies godly Christian character, family spiritual leadership, and ability to teach the truth of the Word as indispensable qualifications for the eldership.

What are deacons? Well, the office of deacon, too, is an office to be held by godly men and those who hold this office are jointly responsible for leading the mercy ministry of the church. Our Book of Church Order puts it this way: “The office of deacon is set forth in the Scriptures as ordinary and perpetual in the Church. The office is one of sympathy and service, after the example of the Lord Jesus; it expresses also the communion of saints, especially in their helping one another in time of need.”

What do deacons do? The Book of Church Order supplies this helpful summary: “It is the duty of the deacons to minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress. It is their duty also to develop the grace of liberality in the members of the church, to devise effective methods of collecting the gifts of the people, and to distribute these gifts among the objects to which they are contributed. They shall have the care of the property of the congregation, both real and personal, and shall keep in proper repair the church edifice and other buildings belonging to the congregation.”

What are the Biblical qualifications for deacon? The Bible is clear about the qualifications for a deacon. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:8-10, 12-13 that “Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

Deacons were first appointed in the church by the apostles themselves, in Acts 6. A problem had arisen in connection with church aid given to some of the widows in the congregation in Jerusalem. The apostles determined that it would be wrong for them to neglect their job as elders, but that the ministry of mercy was also too important to neglect. Thus, we read: “So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. "Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. "But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.” (Acts 6:3-6)

This is why our Book of Church Order says: “To the office of deacon, which is spiritual in nature, shall be chosen men of spiritual character, honest repute, exemplary lives, brotherly spirit, warm sympathies, and sound judgment.” Thus, to summarize, the Bible specifies godly Christian character, family spiritual leadership, and firm belief in the truth of the Word as indispensable qualifications for the diaconate.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Four things to think on regarding Elders

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Four things to think on regarding Elders”
First Published: March 11, 2008

Today, I want to consider with you the task of the elder, and how you might go about discerning it in a man. In 2 Timothy 2:1-2, the Apostle Paul tells his protege, the young pastor Timothy: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Paul is telling Timothy to seek out and find and disciple and equip elders, who will themselves in turn seek out and disciple other people in the church.

Notice that these elders, are to be pastors, shepherds, who are reliable or faithful and who are willing and able to teach and disciple others. This is the same thing Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:2 “an overseer [meaning an elder, guide, shepherd, pastor] must be . . . able to teach.” That is, the fundamental thing that an elder must have the desire and ability to do, is to teach, to disciple. To teach the faith, the gospel, the Bible. To edify the flock with the word of life. To equip the saints for the work of service.

So how do you know whether a man has this desire and ability? How would you identify such a person? Well, here are a few ideas (several of them borrowed from my good friend Thabiti Anyabwile, who has written a great series on elders).

1. Note those men who are regularly in attendance at the church’s services (Sunday morning, Sunday evening and at the Mid-week Bible Study and Prayer Meeting), as well as Sunday School, and who are otherwise actively involved in the ministry of the church. Start with those who already show an active commitment to the ministry and who will be models of that commitment to the body.

2. Note the men who already appear to be shepherding members of the church yet without the title “elder” or “pastor.” Who are the men that care for others by visiting or practicing hospitality, giving counsel (being often sought after by others), and who participate in the teaching ministry of the church.

3. Note those men who show respect and trust in the present leadership of our elders, who work to understand the directions leadership pursue, who ask good/appropriate questions in appropriate settings, who avoid creating confusion or dissension in private and in public.

4. Note those men who have evidenced this desire over time. Don’t hesitate to ask a man whether he desires to teach and disciple others as an elder in the church. Ask him how long he has had this desire. What kindled it in him at first. And since in our church the teaching of the elders must be in accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, ask him about his study and understanding of, and commitment to, the theology of the Westminster Standards.

More soon. Your friend,
Ligon Duncan

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Another New Year

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Another New Year”
First Published: January 8, 2008

In the beginning of a new year, we often devote ourselves afresh to important principles and goals for our lives and families. We also look back, reflecting on and reassessing the events of the year past: happy and sad, triumphant and tragic, and asking ourselves “where is our treasure?” C.H. Spurgeon has some wise words for us along this line. He is meditating on the words of Song of Solomon 1:4 (“We will exult and rejoice in you”), and applying them to Christ. He says:

"We will be glad and rejoice in thee. We will not open the gates of the year to the dolorous notes of the sackbut, but to the sweet strains of the harp of joy, and the high sounding cymbals of gladness. “O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise unto the rock of our salvation.” We, the called and faithful and chosen, we will drive away our griefs, and set up our banners of confidence in the name of God. Let others lament over their troubles, we who have the sweetening tree to cast into Marah’s bitter pool, with joy will magnify the Lord. Eternal Spirit, our effectual Comforter, we who are the temples in which thou dwellest, will never cease from adoring and blessing the name of Jesus. We will, we are resolved about it, Jesus must have the crown of our heart’s delight; we will not dishonour our Bridegroom by mourning in his presence. We are ordained to be the minstrels of the skies, let us rehearse our everlasting anthem before we sing it in the halls of the New Jerusalem. We will be glad and rejoice: two words with one sense, double joy, blessedness upon blessedness. Need there be any limit to our rejoicing in the Lord even now? Do not men of grace find their Lord to be camphire and spikenard, calamus and cinnamon even now, and what better fragrance have they in heaven itself? We will be glad and rejoice in Thee. That last word is the meat in the dish, the kernel of the nut, the soul of the text. What heavens are laid up in Jesus! What rivers of infinite bliss have their source, aye, and every drop of their fulness in him! Since, O sweet Lord Jesus, thou art the present portion of thy people, favour us this year with such a sense of thy preciousness, that from its first to its last day we may be glad and rejoice in thee. Let January open with joy in the Lord, and December close with gladness in Jesus."

There will be many within our congregation for whom 2007 was filled with inexpressible grief. These may have been private griefs known to few (or none), but which have broken the heart, or public griefs, in which we found support in the midst of our losses and crosses from friends and family. Surely, these folk must be wondering what the future holds for them.

Others in our church family may recount the victories and blessings of 2007 among the sweetest in life: answered prayers for which we had never dreamt how wonderful God’s answer would be, the gift of children, or marriage, or meaningful vocation, or financial prosperity, or family love and tranquility. And those blessed, too, will be wondering: what next in God’s plan?

For most, however, 2007 was somewhere in between: filled with favors and difficulties, but neither the best nor the worst of times. Whatever our individual circumstances may be, all of us do well to reconsider our Spiritual priorities in the dawn of this new year. And while we do so, we also do well to reevaluate our dependence on God’s grace.

Many years ago Robert Hawker said: “I am every day more and more convinced that the lack of living wholly upon Christ is the sole cause why so many of God’s children go lean from day to day.” In your prosperity or poverty are you going lean? Are you finding joy in the midst of hardship, because of the sense of Christ’s presence? Are you unimpressed with the best of the world’s treasures because your treasure is hid away in Christ? You see, one key to joy and contentment is complete dependence on Christ.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Now Thank We All Our God

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Living up to our Theology”
First Published: January 15, 2008

2008 is going to be a huge year for us at First Presbyterian Church. In our nation, we will elect a President. In our church, we will elect new elders and deacons. For the future life and ministry of our congregation, the latter will almost certainly more important than the former. I do not say this to minimize in any way the significance of our faithful participation in the public life of our city, state and nation. Not at all. Nor do I say it to detract from the significance of the office of the presidency – without challenge the single most influential governmental post in the history of the world. No, I say this because the officers of this church are so vital to our well-being and witness. Please begin praying now about whom you will nominate. Consider the qualifications of the office. And pray for God to raise spiritual leaders for the future in the present.

As we have worked through Philippians together, I’ve been struck again by the practicality of Christian doctrine, by the usefulness of Bible truth. If one thing rings loud and clear in the little letter of Philippians it is the down-to-earth, day-today, applicability of theology in the Christian life.

And that reminds me of one of my most favorite quotes. One of my professors, Donald Macleod, Principal of the Free Church of Scotland College, in his excellent little book The Humiliated and Exalted Lord is talking about the section in Philippians that we are presently studying (Philippians 2:5-11, the Christ Hymn). And he begins to reflect on how Paul employs this high-powered, mind-blowing teaching on the person and work of Christ for very simple, common, and practical purposes. Here is what he says:
“Paul uses [this] teaching precisely because of its relevance to the pastoral problems in the church at Philippi. That is enormously instructive, because it reminds us that theology does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the interest of [pastoral ministry]. It exists in order to be applied to the day-to-day problems of the Christian church. Every doctrine has its application. All scripture is profitable and all the doctrine is profitable. Similarly all the application must be based on doctrine. In both the Philippians example-passage and the Corinthian example-passage, Paul is dealing with what are surely comparative trivia, the problem of vain glory in a Christian congregation and the problem of failure of Christian liberality. As a Pastor one meets with these difficulties daily. They are standing problems. Yet Paul as he wrestles with both of them has recourse to the most massive theology. It's not only that you have the emphasis on the unity between theology and practice but you have the emphasis on the applicability of the profoundest theology to the most mundane and most common-place problems. Who would ever imagine that the response to the glory of the incarnation might be to give to the collection for the poor? Who might imagine that the application of the glories of New Testament Christology might be to stop our quarreling and our divisiveness in the Christian [church]? That is what Paul is doing here. He is telling them: You have these practical problems; the answer is theological; remember your theology and place your behaviour in the light of that theology. Place your little problems in the light of the most massive theology. We ourselves in our Christian callings are to be conscious of this. We must never leave our doctrine hanging in the air, nor hesitate to enforce the most elementary Christian obligations with the most sublime doctrines”.

Ah, but to live up to our theology, there’s the rub.
Your friend,
Ligon Duncan


Thursday, December 09, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Now Thank We All Our God

The Pastor's Perspective
"Now Thank We All Our God"
First Published: October 15, 2007

One of my very favorite hymns is Now Thank We All Our God, written in 1636 by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), who was a Lutheran minister in Eilenburg, Saxony. “During the Thirty Years’ War, the walled city of Eilenburg saw a steady stream of refugees pour through its gates. The Swedish army surrounded the city, and famine and plague were rampant. Eight hundred homes were destroyed, and the people began to perish. There was a tremendous strain on the pastors who had to conduct dozens of funerals daily. Finally, the pastors, too, succumbed, and Rinkart was the only one left—doing 50 funerals a day. When the Swedes demanded a huge ransom, Rinkart left the safety of the walls to plead for mercy. The Swedish commander, impressed by his faith and courage, lowered his demands. Soon afterward, the Thirty Years’ War ended, and Rinkart wrote this hymn for a grand celebration service. It is a testament to his faith that, after such misery, he was able to write a hymn of abiding trust and gratitude toward God.”

This was one of the first hymns I sang with you as your minister. I wept then as I sang and I never fail to be moved when I sing it with you still. It is one of the best in our hymnal. Let’s walk together through its glorious text.

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

The first stanza has us sing, roughly: “Let us now all thank our God, with everything we are (heart, hands, and voices). He has worked wonders and the whole world rejoices in him (if we don’t, the stones will cry out!). He has shown us his favor from the first time we were held by our mothers, and all along on the way. He has blessed us with innumerable gifts flowing from his love, and he is still our God today.

Notice how the first line reminds one of Romans 12:1 (present your body, the whole of your self, as a living sacrifice). This whole first stanza is both thanks and praise, but did you catch how the hymn gives us reasons to praise God (unlike many songs written for use in worship today)? In fact, in just this first stanza, Rinkart gives you five reasons to praise God: (1) He has done wondrous things; (2) the World rejoices in him; (3) he has blessed us from the time we were first in our mothers’ arms; (4) with unnumbered gifts of love, (5) and he’s still ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessPd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

In this second stanza we are exhorting one another to worship and prayer, like this: May our generous God always be nears us all life long. May we have always joyful hearts and God-given peace to cheer us on our way. May God keep us, preserve us in his grace and give us guidance when we are baffled. May God deliver us from evil, now here and forevermore in the world to come.

So, this second stanza is a petition, and a glorious one. We pray for God’s constant presence or nearness, for joyful hearts, and God’s peace, for perseverance in grace, guidance in perplexity, and for deliverance from evil, both in this world and the world to come.

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

The third stanza returns us to praise: God the Father, we give all praise and thanks to you now. And to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as you all reign in heaven. Three, yet one eternal God, adored in heaven above and here below. For thus, the Triune God, was, is and ever shall be blessed, forever.

Notice how adoration is given to Father, Son and Holy Spirit (in beautiful English verse!). The end of the hymn, indeed, reminds one of the “Gloria Patri” (with “it” referring to the Holy Trinity).

Sing it with joy and understanding next time we sing it!


Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Read More

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Read More”
First Published: December 18, 2007

Twitter: are you really going to spend 2011 watching television?

This is our last First Epistle for the Year of our Lord, 2007. Our faithful editor will take a brief break and we’ll have the new year’s first edition out for you in the second week of January. In the meantime, allow me to leave you with a thought to ponder over of the holidays.

Read more in 2008! That’s it. Think about it, and do it. I was recently with a friend who had been briefed by some high-level officials in the publishing industry who were commented on how few people finish books (especially big ones!) anymore. Well, Christians ought to be readers. So are you reading enough? I don’t mean glossy magazines or professional rags or sports pages. I mean substantial Christian literature.

Maybe TV is one barrier to this. I love John Piper’s article on this subject – “You Have One Life: Is TV Too Big a Part of It?” Here’s what he says: “If all other variables are equal, your capacity to know God deeply will probably diminish in direct proportion to how much television you watch. There are several reasons for this. One is that television reflects American culture at its most trivial level. And a steady diet of triviality shrinks the soul. You get used to it. It starts to seem normal. Silly becomes funny. And funny becomes pleasing. And pleasing becomes soul-satisfaction. And in the end the soul that is made for God has shrunk to fit snugly around emptiness.”
“This may be unnoticed, because if all you’ve known is American culture, you can’t tell there is anything wrong. If you have only read comic books, it won’t be strange that there are no novels in your house. If you live where there are no seasons, you won’t miss the colors of fall. If you watch fifty TV ads each night, you may forget there is such a thing as wisdom. TV is mostly trivial. It seldom inspires great thoughts or great feelings with glimpses of great Truth. God is the great, absolute, all-shaping Reality. If he gets any air time, He is treated as an opinion. There is no reverence. No trembling. God and all that He thinks about the world is missing. Cut loose from God, everything goes down.”

“Just think how new TV is. In the 2000 years since Christ, TV has shaped only the last 2.5 percent of that history. For 97.5 percent of the time since Jesus, there was no TV. And for 95 percent of this time there was no radio. It arrived on the scene in the early 1900’s. So for 1900 years of Christian history people spent their leisure time doing other things. We wonder, what could they possibly have done? They may have read more. Or discussed things more. For certain they were not bombarded with soul-shrinking, round-the-clock trivialities.”

Pretty hard-hitting, huh? The whole area is worth reflection.

Want some suggestions? Okay, here are twelve books to read in 2008 (one fore each month). 1. John Stott, Basic Christianity (IVP). 2. R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Tyndale House). 3. John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Crossway). 4. Don Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation (Baker). 5. J.C. Ryle, Holiness (Evangelical Press). 6. J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Eerdmans). 7. J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Crossway Books). 8. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans). 9. David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Eerdmans). 10. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway). 11. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans). 12. Westminster Confession of Faith (Free Presbyterian Publications).

Happy reading and Merry Christmas!

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Monday, December 06, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Lessons and Carols

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Lessons and Carols”
First Published: November 27, 2007

Derek and I will begin our sermon series on the famous “Nine Lessons and Carols” from King’s College, Cambridge, this Lord’s Day. Derek will start off in the morning services with the First Lesson: “God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head.” The reading is from Genesis 3 and I think Derek is titling the message something like “Christmas from afar.” The point is that the Christmas story begins with “the Fall” and the first promise of God. Until we understand our sin and need we can’t understand the glory of grace and the gift of Christ.

Then, on Sunday evening, we’ll consider the Second Lesson: “God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” The reading is from Genesis 22, in the beautiful old King James Version. Actually it is just verses 15-18.

“And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply
thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.”

These are hugely important words. As far as we know, the last words God ever spoke to Abraham. In them, the Lord emphatically reaffirms his covenant promises to Abraham in order to give him assurance. Indeed, the passage makes clear that one consequence of Abraham’s heroic obedience in being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac was God’s special word of assurance to him. The reward of Abraham’s obedience is assurance, and the Lord honors him by reaffirming and expanding his covenantal commitments to him.
Specifically, God reiterates four things.
  1. “I will greatly bless you.” God confirms his unchanging covenantal favor.
  2. “I will greatly multiply your seed.” God confirms his promise to make Abraham a father of nations (cf. Genesis 22:20-24).
  3. “Your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies.” God forecasts the conquest of Canaan and the church’s inheritance of the world (Romans 4:13, Matthew 5:5).
  4. “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” God reaffirms his purpose in blessing Abraham: that Abraham might be a blessing.
In this word of confirmation, the Lord employs shocking language: “I swear by myself.” He must witness to himself for there is none higher. Hebrews 6:13-18 explains and applies the meaning of this glorious Old Testament passage in detail. The great stress of the passage is the certainty of God’s promise and thus of our assurance.

“For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, "Surely I will bless you and multiply you." And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”

Come expectantly this Lord’s Day as we prepare to feast, all month long, on the grand story of our redemption.

Your friend,
Ligon Duncan


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Looking Back on Balaam

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Looking Back on Balaam”
First Publshed: November 6, 2007

[editorial note: all of Dr Duncan’s sermons on the book of Numbers may be found HERE]

I am loving preparing for and delivering the Sunday evening messages on Numbers. We are now in a very exciting section of this amazing (and undeservedly overlooked) book. In fact, the three chapters we are currently in (22-24) some of the most gripping history and powerful theological teaching found in the whole book. The stories concerning Balaam, Balak and the attempt to curse Israel are spellbinding and subtle.

To help us prepare for this coming Sunday night sermon on “Balaam’s Ass” let’s remind ourselves of what we have learned. The whole account is filled with humor (sometimes hilarious satire and irony), and also deadly serious encounters and truth. It has unexpected twists and turns and leaves hanging on the edge of our seat to find out what is going to happen next, and often wondering why what has already happened happened!

The whole story serves to highlight God’s sovereignty and the unshakeable certainty of his gracious blessing on his covenant people. Let’s recount the scenario.

1. Israel is within sight of the promised land now, and news of their victories have spread throughout Moab.
2. Balak, the Moabite king, decides to call on supernatural help in defending himself against Israel.
3. He calls for the region-wide famous Balaam of Mesopotamia. He asks this prophet/sorcerer to curse Israel, offering him an impressive fee to do so.
4. Surprisingly, especially to the first time reader or hearer of this story, this pagan eastern prophet/magician inquires of the Lord (yes, the one true God, the God of Abraham, the God of Israel) as to whether he can do this. God says no - emphatically.
5. Balak is undeterred but a little miffed, so he sends another even more impressive embassy to Balaam, with an offer of more cash.
6. Balaam is again told by God that he can’t curse Israel, but is given permission to go.

One of the big issues that commentators and readers struggle with in this passage is what to make of Balaam. For instance, even though he is approached by Balak to curse Israel, he insists on praying to the Lord, the true God, to ask him what he ought to do. And then later in the passage he serves as an oracle to reveal the message of the true God. So, does Moses want us to view him in a positive light? Do we view him as basically a good prophet gone bad (because of the bribes of Balak)?

Well, last Sunday night we argued no! For two reasons. First, it is the uniform testimony of the rest of Scripture that Balaam was a hireling, socerer and enemy of God’s people. Deuteronomy 23:4-5, for instance, speak of Balaam being “hired” to curse Israel (not a flattering depiction of a religious figure!) And of God thwarting his curse. Joshua 13:22 accuses Balaam of practicing “divination” – which was forbidden by God’s Law. 2 Peter 2:15 speaks of Balaam . . . “who loved gain from wrongdoing” and Jesus condemns members of the church in Pergamum in Revelation 2:14 for holding to “the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.” So the Bible does not think kindly of Balaam.

Second, there is evidence within the story itself, for how we are to think of Balaam: (1) Balaam is offered and seems to be interested in receiving money for his skills [22:8, 19]. (2) Balaam resorts to omens [24:1], an abominable practice forbidden in Israel in Deut 18:10. (3) Balaam’s donkey shows more awareness of and sensitivity to the presence of the Lord than does Balaam! [22:23, 25, 27, 33] (4) God declares his will through both the donkey [22:27-30] and Balaam, lest we think the messenger here is holy! So, Balaam doesn’t actually come off looking so good as he may appear to at first.

Join us on Sunday night as the story continues.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Another Favorite Hymn

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Another Favorite Hymn”
First Published: November 13, 2007

One of my very favorite hymns is “What Wondrous Love Is This.” The lyrics, sometimes attributed to Alexander Means, run like this:

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb Who is the great “I Am”;
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing;
While millions join the theme, I will sing.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on.

This is an old hymn, dating from the famous shaped-note songbook The Southern Harmony (1835). If you grew up in Dixie, you probably had Grandparents who sang songs (or at least remembered hearing songs) from that hymnal. The tune is a simple but haunting folk tune.

The focus of the hymn is the love of God. As we grasp the love of God, we learn to love, and are constrained by his love to share it with others, all others. His love is too great to be hidden in silence in the hearts of his people. It must be told out and sung out, and that’s what this song celebrates.

There are but three stanzas of this hymn included in our hymnal, and they each focus on very simple but profound themes. Basically, the song asks us to think about, or rather, to be lost in the glory of the love of Christ. Then it brings home two practical applications of that love: (1) the desire to exalt the Lord for that love, and (2) the comforting truth that we’ll sing this song forever and never tire of it.

In the first stanza we ponder: what kind of love would move Christ, the Lord Christ, to die for me? Indeed it is a wondrous love that moved our Lord to “bear the dreadful curse” for our souls. These words point us to reflect upon the sheer extravagance of God’s love and grace. His love is unexpected and overwhelming and incomparable. And the more we ponder it spiritually, the more baffling and comforting it is.

The second stanza is a response to the realization of Christ’s love as expressed in the first stanza. It proclaims that his love moves us to praise God and the Lamb, along with millions of others who are also beneficiaries of Christ’s devotion.

Finally, in stanza three, the hymnist reminds us that our song of praise will not end in this life. When we cross over to the other side, it will continue and increase. It is a song of joy that will go on for eternity. That truth has comforted many a weary Christian pilgrim, traveling in valleys of trouble and despair.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Monday, November 29, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Presbyterianism in Mississippi

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Presbyterianism in Mississippi”
First Published: October 9, 2007

As we approach our dedication services on Sunday, and remember the Lord’s kind providence over us these past 170 years, it is appropriate for us to recount some history here. Presbyterianism came to Mississippi long before Mississippi became a State (on December 10, 1817). One immediately thinks of, for instance, the old Salem [now Pine Ridge (PCA)] Church in Natchez that dates from 1807 - the oldest extant Presbyterian congregation in the State. Within twenty years of the first Presbyterian missionaries in the territory, the Synod of Kentucky constituted the original Presbytery of Mississippi on March 6, 1816.

But there were Presbyterians and Presbyterian churches here even earlier. For instance, the Presbyterians of the New York Missionary Society (of the Presbyterian Synod of New York) had sent missionaries to work among the Choctaw Indians while Mississippi was just barely a territory (established April 7, 1798), in 1799. In 1801, the Synod of North Carolina sent three missionaries who came by way of Nashville, and down the Old Natchez Trace. They established Presbyterianism in the Natchez area (the Bethel [1804], Salem and First Natchez [1817] churches all resulted from their ministry).

In general, Presbyterianism in Mississippi has spread eastward and north out of the southwestern corner of the old territory, from what is now Adams County. Meanwhile, back in the east-central region of the State, the early influence of Presbyterians from North and South Carolina can be seen in the name of the Carolina Presbyterian Church (1841) in Neshoba County.

Presbyterian churches existed in Edwards and Clinton before Jackson. In 1826, the Bethesda Presbyterian Church was founded in Edwards, and the old Mount Salus Church was established in Clinton, prior to the organization of First Church in Jackson. The Bethesda Church is the oldest church in the Mississippi Valley Presbytery (PCA).

The congregation of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson began its history on a Saturday afternoon, April 8, 1837, by the Rev. Peter Donan and four persons: Mrs. Margaret E. Mayson, Mrs. Susan Patton, and John Robb and his wife, Marion. The organizational meeting was held in “the Old State House,” Mississippi's first capitol, a small two-story structure on the northeast corner of East Capitol and North President Streets.

The organizing pastor (what today we would call a “church planter”) was Peter Donan. Donan studied at Princeton Seminary under Charles Hodge and Samuel Miller, continued as the church’s pastor for four years. There were no elders for two years, no deacons for six years, and no meeting house for nearly nine years. In the first two years of its existence, the church had but three new members.

We’ll continue to tell the story of the history of Presbyterianism in Mississippi, and the history of our congregation, in this column in weeks to come. Meanwhile, I am looking forward to worship services with you here on Sunday morning and evening with R.C. Sproul and Jim Baird preaching. And don’t forget, Jimmy Turner will preach the following Wednesday night (Oct 17). See you here!

Your friend,
Ligon Duncan


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Singing in Trial

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Singing in Trial”
First Published: September 18, 2007

This coming Lord’s Day, then, we’ll be looking at the moving words and music of the great hymn, “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee.” It is a glorious and realistic and emphatically Christian and spiritual meditation on God’s providence. It is also worth memorizing.

The Cyber Hymnal™ (a resource you really should bookmark on your web-browser favorites – at www.cyberhymnal.org) says: “It was composed in 1641 with the heading ‘A Song of Comfort. God will care for and help everyone in His own time,’ under the text Psalm 55:22. The author was robbed by highwaymen near Magdeburg as a student and left destitute with no prospect of earning a living. At last he unexpectedly received an appointment as tutor in the family of a judge, ‘which, he says, . . . greatly rejoiced me, and on that very day I composed to the honor of my beloved Lord [this] hymn.’”

In this hymn, we profess our confidence in God’s goodness and guidance, even in the midst of trial. As noted above, the author wrote it after being robbed of almost all his possessions (except a prayer book) and enduring extended unemployment, so when you sing it, you are singing with a fellow Christian who personally understands about destitution and hard circumstances. How encouraging a thought that is. We are never alone in our hardships, and even when we come with great burdens and fears to church, we can sing in a fellowship of suffering, with brothers and sisters from over the ages, who personally understand what we are going through. Isn’t God kind to us?

Here’s a taste of the first stanza, and my translation of it. The song is written in the form of a testimonial (like so many of the Psalms), but is utterly God-centered.
If thou but suffer God to guide thee
If you will only trust God to guide you
And hope in Him through all thy ways,
and hope in Him in every circumstance
He’ll give thee strength, whate’er betide thee,
He’ll give you strength no matter what happens
And bear thee through the evil days.
And he’ll carry through bad times
Who trusts in God’s unchanging love
The person who trusts in God’s unchanging love
Builds on the rock that naught can move.
Builds on a the one Rock that no one can move.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Monday, November 22, 2010

The Pastor's Perspective: Considering the Atonement

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Considering the Atonement”
First Published: July 31, 2007

twitter: some books to help us recognize the fullness of Christ’s death and sacrifice

I have been working on a bibliography on the meaning of the death of Christ, or on the atonement, for a book soon to be published. I thought you might like a peak. These book suggestions are intended for Christians who are thirsting for more good material that will aid them in deepening their understanding of the meaning and significance and consequences of the death of our Savior, Jesus Christ. I hope that these reading suggestions will be helpful to all interested layfolk (not only as a “must-read” list on the atonement for themselves, but also as a list that could also be recommended by them for the use of others).

If you have no idea where to start, look at the following lists of suggestions. If you are looking for a good starting point into the vast riches of sound teaching available on the doctrine of the atonement, and you’d like to read something accessible that would give you a feel for the lay of the land and be edifying at the same time. Try the following.

  • John Piper, Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006). Designed for evangelistic use, this book is an easy read. Chock full of devotional worth.
  • C.J. Mahaney, Living the Cross-Centered Life (Sisters: Multnomah, 2006). Nobody applies the truth like C.J. Want the atonement worked into your bones? Read this.
  • Ian J. Shaw and Brian H. Edwards, The Divine Substitute: The atonement in the Bible and history (Leominster: DayOne, 2006). In under 150 pages, Shaw and Edwards provide a sound biblical and historical introduction to the doctrine of the atonement.
  • Tom Wells, A Price for a People: The Meaning of Christ’s Death (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992). Wells’ book focuses on the biblical material. He is a Baptist pastor in Ohio.
  • Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (Leicester: IVP, 1983). Though more challenging that the other books on this list, this is a worthy shorter volume.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Praise to the Lord the Almighty

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Praise to the Lord the Almighty”
First Published: July 17, 2007

twitter: “One of my favorite hymns”

One of my very favorite hymns is Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (#53 in our hymnal). Indeed, it is widely recognized as one of the very best hymns (thinking of the combination of text and tune) written in the last three hundred fifty years, and so it is no surprise that it is also a favorite of our congregation. The text of the song is based on Psalms 103 and 150. In the Scottish Psalter and Church Hymnary of 1929, it finds itself aptly located in the section delineated “God: His Being, Works, Word.” The song’s author was Joachim Neander, the grandson of a musician and the son of a teacher. He studied theology at Bremen, Heidelberg and then Frankfurt, where (at the age of 23) he met the great German Pietist scholars Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) and Johann Jakob Sch├╝tz (1640-1690). Neander died at the young age of 30, perhaps of the plague, having served in his short life as a school principal and as a minister. He wrote this hymn when he was 20!

Julian, the great hymnologist says “A magnificent hymn of praise to God, perhaps the finest production of its author (the German hymn-writer, Neander), and of the first rank in its class.” “Praise to the Lord” is the opening phrase of each stanza of this song that draws on Psalms 103 and 150. It was translated by the remarkable Catherine Winkworth who “lived most of her life in Manchester, England. The notable exception was the year she spent in Dresden, Germany. Around 1854, she published Lyra Germanica, containing numerous German hymns translated into English. She went on to publish another series of German hymns in 1858. In 1863, she came out with The Chorale Book for England, and in 1869, Christian Singers of Germany. More than any other single person, she helped bring the German chorale tradition to the English speaking world.” (Cyberhymnal.org)

Each stanza begins with “Praise to the Lord.” Stanza one praises the almighty Lord who is the Creator God for his blessings of both health and salvation. It begins with a self-exhortation, as we speak to our own souls (“O my soul, praise him”), echoing Psalm 103:1-2, exhorting our own selves to praise the Lord, and concludes with an exhortation to all within earshot (“All ye who hear”) to draw near to God with joyful adoration.

Stanza two openly, gladly and unapologetically acknowledges God’s sovereignty over all things, especially as it is seen in his protective care of us (“Shelters thee under His wings,” “gently sustains us”). By the way, notice how we are still talking to ourselves – “Shelters thee,” thee being you talking to your own soul! It reminds you of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ suggestion that Christians ought to argue with and preach to themselves! The second stanza concludes with a self-reminder that God has often granted our heart’s desires in his providential unfolding of his plan in our lives.

Stanza three again recognizes that it is the Lord who “prospers the work of our hands” (see Psalm 90:17) and who protects us from our enemies. Once again, this stanza has us exhorting our souls to give praise to God because of his blessings to us (“Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee”). The third stanza acknowledges that “His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee” (reminding one of Lamentations 3:22-23), and then goes on to exhort our heart to “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do, If with His love He befriend thee.” That is, just think of what God can do, if He pours out his saving love on you?

Stanza four acknowledges God has our own maker, the giver of our health, the loving providential guide and support of our life. It’s powerful language crescendos with the bold and believing declaration: “How oft in grief hath not he brought thee relief, spreading his wings to o’er shade thee!” I have often sung this phrase in tears of trust, in the bonds of suffering, in confident peace, in our congregation.

Stanza five, once more, asks our self to give God our all in praise (“O let all that is in me adore Him!”), and then transitions to the words and exhortation of Psalm 150:6 “All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him,” concluding with a call to God’s people to add their “so be it,” their “Amen,” to the praise, and to continue this happy praise forever.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Come and Worship

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Come and Worship”
First Published: July 10, 2007

I am reminded that several of you wrote to me asking for the Sam Storms quote that I used for preparation for worship on July 1. Here it is (and I want to here record my thanks to Justin Taylor who brought it to my attention on his excellent blog “Between Two Worlds” – which all of you can read online at http://theologica.blogspot.com/).

Okay, here it is, from Sam Storms, Signs of the Spirit, pp. 204-205: “Here, then, is how we must come to God, whether to serve him or worship him or enjoy all that he is for us in Jesus: Come, confessing your utter inability to do or offer anything that will empower God or enrich, enhance, or expand God.

“Come, with heartfelt gratitude to God for the fact that whatever you own, whatever you are, whatever you have accomplished or hope to accomplish, is all from him, a gift of grace.

“Come, declaring in your heart and aloud that if you serve, it is in the strength that God supplies (1 Pet. 4:10); if you give money, it is from the wealth that God has enabled you to earn; if it is praise of who he is, it is from the salvation and knowledge of God that he himself has provided for you in Christ Jesus.

“Come, declaring the all-sufficiency of God in meeting your every need. Praise his love, because if he were not loving, you would be justly and eternally condemned. Praise his power, because if he were weak, you would have no hope that what he has promised he will fulfill. Praise his forgiving mercy, because apart from his gracious determination to wash you clean in the blood of Christ, you would still be in your sin and hopelessly lost. So, too, with every attribute, praise him!

“Come, with an empty cup, happily pleading: ‘God, glorify yourself by filling it to overflowing!’

“Come, with a weak and wandering heart, joyfully beseeching: ‘God, glorify yourself by strengthening me to do your will and remain faithful to your ways!’

“Come, helpless, expectantly praying: ‘God, glorify yourself by delivering me from my enemies and my troubles!’

“Come, with your sin, gratefully asking: "God, glorify yourself by setting me free from bondage to my flesh and breaking the grip of lust and envy and greed in my life!"

“Come, with your hunger for pleasure and joy, desperately crying: ‘God, glorify yourself by filling me with the fullness of joy! God, glorify yourself by granting me pleasures that never end! God, glorify yourself by satisfying my heart with yourself! God, glorify yourself by enthralling me with your beauty . . . by overwhelming me with your majesty . . . by taking my breath away with fresh insights into your incomparable and infinite grandeur! God, glorify yourself by shining into my mind the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ!’”

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Monday, November 15, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: The Presbyterian Meeting House

The Pastor’s Perspective
“The Presbyterian Meeting House”
First Published: June 26, 2007

What a glorious Lord’s Day of worship of the Triune God we enjoyed on Sunday, June 24, 2007, our first day of worship services in our new sanctuary. People were here early and lingered long afterwards. I received several encouraging calls before the service from dear friends of our congregation (including a very special message from Claude McRoberts which I’ll share with you later). Both morning services were full. The 11 o’clock service was filled on the floor and balcony, and the 8:30 service was almost as full. Your singing in the morning was heavenly, and what a joy to be able to hear one another again as we sing! Derek’s preaching on Sunday evening was powerful, and you filled up the 800-something seat floor of the meeting house, and sang with gusto!

In my remarks prior to the mornings services, I shared the following. On Sunday morning, October 9, 1853, Dr. Benjamin Morgan Palmer (then the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC, later the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, New Orleans – who incidentally preached the dedication of our second sanctuary here in Jackson in 1892) said in his sermon dedicating the new church building for First Columbia – “As for this building, beautiful as it may be in our eyes, let it please us to call only a plain Presbyterian meeting house. The glory we see in it, let it not be the glory of its arches and its timbers; not the glory of its lofty and graceful spire, pointing ever upwards to that home the pious shall find [with] God; not the glory of this chaste pulpit, with its delicate tracery and marble whiteness; not the glory found in the eloquence or learning of those who, through generations, shall here proclaim the gospel; nor yet the glory traced in the wealth and fashion, refinement and social position of those who throng its courts. But let its glory be The Glory of the Lord Risen Upon It! Let its glory be the promises of the covenant engraved upon its walls, which are yea and amen in Christ Jesus. Let its glory be found in the purity, soundness, and unction of its pastors; in the fidelity and watchfulness of its elders; in the piety and godliness of its members. Let its glory be as a birthplace of souls, where shall always be heard the sobs of awakened penitence and the songs of newborn love. Let its glory be the spirituality of its worship, its fervent prayers, its adoring praise, and the simplicity and truth of its ordinances and sacraments. Let its glory be the communion of saints, who here have fellowship one with another and also with the Father and his son, Jesus Christ. Let its glory be as the resting place of weary pilgrims toiling on toward the heavenly city—the emblem of that Church above—Where congregations ne’er break up, And Sabbaths never end.”

Amen! May the glory of the Lord be so manifest in your hearts and lives and public worship, through the grace of Christ in the Gospel, that those who gather with us to join in his praise will ever say, surely God is among you (1 Corinthians 14:25), and surely the Lord is in this place (Genesis 28:16).

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Pastor's Perspective: Faithful Response to Federal Vision

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Faithful Response to Federal Vision”
First Published: June 19, 2007

The 35th General Assembly of the PCA met last week in Memphis, with just over 1,200 commissioners present. We heard informational reports from all our denominational committees and agencies, all of which were encouraging. This year the formal business meetings took less than two days to finish. This efficiency was (at least in part) due to the new organization of GA that we passed last year.

The Moderator of GA alternates each year from Teaching Elder (or a Minister) to Ruling Elder. The Moderator this year was a Ruling Elder from Colorado, named E.J. Nussbaum, who was nominated by Jospeh Wheat (Pastor of our daughter church – Highlands). Mr. Nussbaum was very good at procedure. He kept things from getting personal and moved everything along on or ahead schedule. No easy thing to do with a room full of preachers!

The main event at this years GA was the debate over a study committee report that dealt with a new theological movement within the church known as the “Federal Vision.” The “Federal Vision,” sometimes called the “Auburn Avenue Theology” (after one of the key churches teaching it) along with what has been called “The New Perspectives on Paul” have been controversial in the PCA the last few years.

To make a long story short, the Study Committee report was adopted overwhelmingly – something like a 95% majority affirmed it. Well it means that in the strongest possible terms the 35th PCA General Assembly is asking presbyteries and local churches to distance themselves from this teaching.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Three Timeless Traits for Worship

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Three Timeless Traits for Worship”
First Published: April 24, 2007

Quick note: this Sunday, we begin a new expository series in the book of Philippians on Sunday mornings. The series title is Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility, Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians. I had been thinking of another series, but I think it is time for Philippians at First Presbyterian. More on that soon.

Meanwhile, like many of you, I’ve been thinking of our worship in the new sanctuary. Anticipating it with great longing, actually. I want us to make our first year in this beautiful meeting house a deliberate exercise in learning again what it mean to worship God together. As such, I think that three traits (among a dozen others) ought to mark our public worship. Our worship should be word-based, God-centered and Christ-delighted. Here’s what I mean.

We want our worship to be word-based, biblical, ordered by God’s own Word. One of the distinctives of Presbyterian worship is that it aims to be completely guided by Scripture. It is, in fact, worship that is according to Scripture. This is known as “the Regulative Principle.” Since our worship is for God, our first question is not, “What do we want to do?” or even “What would others like to do?” but “What does God want us to do?” For direction we look to the Bible where God directs by command or approved example how to worship Him. In the Bible we find God accepting these acts of worship: Singing, praying, reading the Bible, preaching, celebrating sacraments, giving offerings, confessing the faith, and making holy vows. We want to assure that our corporate worship is Bible-filled and Bible-directed, that the substance and structure are biblical, that the content and order are biblical. To put it slightly differently, we want to worship “by the book” in two ways: so that both the marrow and means of worship are according to Scripture. We want the form and substance of corporate worship to be suffused with Scripture and scriptural theology.

Second, we want our worship to be God-centered. Christian worship is all about God. He is the object of our worship, the focus of our worship. We gather as a congregation, not to seek an experience but to meet with God and give him praise. The whom of worship is central to true worship (see John 4:22, 24). It is what the first commandment is all about. We aim to worship the God of the Bible. Many Christians leave Sunday services asking the “what did worship do for me?” Yet it is more helpful and biblical to think just the opposite. “What did I give to God in worship?” “How did I encourage the brothers and sisters to praise Christ for his grace?” “How did I take advantage of the means of grace in order to glorify God?” Ask not what this service will do for you, but what you will give to God through this service B the rest will take care of itself. Don Carson puts it this way: “Should we not remind ourselves that worship is a TRANSITIVE verb? We do not meet to worship (i.e. to experience worship): we aim to worship GOD. ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’: there is the heart of the matter. In this area, one must not confuse what is central with byproducts. If you seek peace, you will not find it; if you seek Christ, you will find peace. If you seek joy, you will not find it; if you seek Christ, you will find joy. If you seek holiness, you will not find it; if you seek Christ, you will find holiness. If you seek experiences of worship, you will not find them; if you worship the living God, you will experience something of what is reflected in the Psalms. Worship is a transitive verb, and the most important thing about it is the direct object.”

Finally, we want our worship to be Christ-delighted. That is, we want to worship together in a way that is totally consumed with delight for Christ, passion for Christ. Does that sound un-presbyterian? Well it’s not! True Christian worship is filled with delight—the delight of the believer’s heart in God himself. The congregation delights in God because he is God. Jonathan Edwards put it this way: “True saints center their attention on Christ, and His beauty transcends all others; His delight is the source of all other delight; He in Himself is the best among ten thousand and altogether lovely. These saints delight in the way of salvation through Christ, because it demonstrates God’s perfection and wonder; they enjoy holiness, wholeness, while they take no pleasure in sin; God’s love is a sweet taste in their mouths, regardless of whether their own interests are met or not. They rejoice over all that Christ has done for them, but that is not the deepest root of their joy. No, they delight merely because God is God, and only then does their delight spill over onto all God’s works, including their own salvation.” John Piper puts it this way: “The authenticating, inner essence of worship is being satisfied with Christ, prizing Christ, cherishing Christ, treasuring Christ. . . . [This] is tremendously relevant for understanding what worship services should be about. They are about ‘going hard after God.’ When we say that what we do on Sunday mornings is to ‘go hard after God,’ what we mean is that we are going hard after satisfaction in God, and going hard after God as our prize, and going hard after God as our treasure, our soul-food, our heart-delight, our spirit’s pleasure. Or to put Christ in His rightful place—it means that we are going hard after all that God is for us in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.”

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Monday, November 08, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Twin Lakes Fellowship 2007

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Twin Lakes Fellowship 2007"
First Published: April 17, 2007

Well, I want to give you all a report on the 2007 edition of the Twin Lakes Fellowship (TLF) – because it was nothing short of extraordinary. The TLF is a ministerial fraternal that promotes church health and planting here and around the world. It is sponsored by our Session here at First Presbyterian.

What a blessing it was to welcome to our Twin Lakes Conference Center faithful ministers from all over North America and the world – from the PCA, ARP, PCUSA, OPC, RPCNA, Church of Scotland, Free Church of Scotland, and other Presbyterian/Reformed bodies, as well as from Baptist churches, Bible churches, et al. Dr. Dominic Aquila, the current Moderator of the PCA was with us, as was Dr. Guy Richardson, President of RTS-Jackson, and Brad Bradley of the Southwest Area Church Planting Network.

Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Peter Jones, founder and executive director of Christian Witness to a Pagan Planet and Scholar in Residence (and former Prof of NT) at Westminster Seminary California, gave a stellar lecture on Christianity and the New Spiritualities. Then we enjoyed an interview with Dr. Phil Ryken, Senior Pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA concerning the forthcoming Literary Study Bible and the Reformed Expository Commentary Series (by P&R). This commentary series is designed to provide a comprehensive exposition of the text that is doctrinal (committed to the Westminster Standards), redemptive-historical (committed to a Christ-centered view of the Old Testament), and practical (committed to applying the text to people today). Co-editors with Phil are Rick Phillips, Iain Duguid and Dan Doriani.

Tuesday night, Dr. Doug Kelly (Jordan Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC) preached a powerful message on forgiveness, and hit us all right between the eyes. Jay Harvey remarked to me afterwards that Dr. Kelly has this amazing way of disguising his own intellect, learning and profundity behind the simplicity and clarity of his sermons. Dr. Kelly's hallmark emphasis on prayer and the importance of unseen, supernatural reality was everywhere evident. Dr. Harry Reeder of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham led the service, and his prayers (in particular) were exceedingly powerful.

On Wednesday morning, The Reverend David Robertson (Senior Minister of St. Peter's Free Church, Dundee, Scotland and Church Planting Consultant to PCA MTW Europe) gave a brilliant address on Robert Murrary M'Cheyne drawing applications from the life and ministry of that famous 19th century Scottish inner city Pastor and using them to inform church planting and ministry today. Later Wednesday morning, the Reverend Brian Habig, PCA church planter, former RUF campus minister and now Pastor of the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina brought a tremendously convicting and challenging word to us to be more intentional in our Gospel witness as pastors, right in our own contexts. This worship service was ably led by the Reverend Kevin Smith, a self-identified "recovering church planter" and currently the Senior Pastor of the Pinelands PCA Church in Miami, Florida.

On Wednesday afternoon, we enjoyed a scintillating conversation with Wy Plummer, Lance Lewis, Kevin Smith, Erwin Ince and Thabiti Anyabwile about Reformed outreach to the African-American community. These dear friends gave us tremendous insights about the most important things for the PCA to do in its witness to African-Americans. Hearing their own testimonies of how they came to Christ, to the doctrines of grace and to the PCA (except for Thabiti -- who said his name meant "token Baptist on the panel" in Swahili!) was hugely inspiring. They also spoke forthrightly and helpfully about obstacles to African-Americans embracing reformed theology and becoming members of PCA churches. Then we enjoyed interviews with Dr. Don Carson Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago and leader in the Gospel Coalition; and Dr. Mark Dever, Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and head of IX Marks Ministries. Don told us about his upcoming book Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans) and about the Gospel Coalition meeting in May. Mark told us about a number of his current and forthcoming writing projects, and kindly answered our questions about how Presbyterians could benefit from the ministry and resources of IX Marks.

Wednesday night, the Reverend Thabiti Anyabwile, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands preached a powerful message on Ephesians 2. His introduction was riveting, his exposition solid and his final four applications were penetrating. He was ably assisted in the worship service by the Reverend Jay Harvey.

Thursday morning, our own Dr. Derek Thomas preached a gloriously encouraging message on the Benediction. So many of the men told me how they anticipate hearing Derek each year. What a joy to my heart! The Twin Lakes staff spoiled us all rotten, fed us well and generally waited on us hand and foot. Of course, an annual highlight for me is singing with and hearing the men sing. I'd come just for that!

A friend wrote me just the other day and said: "thanks for another wonderful Twin Lakes Fellowship oasis in the sometimes-desert of solo pastoral ministry. Once again, TLF was a Providentially-appointed blend for me of encouragement, instruction, rebuke, and inspiration. It was a particular treat for me to bring a Ruling Elder with me this year. After the introduction to the TLF on Tuesday afternoon, he turned to me and said, 'I understand you so much better now.' The singing, as always, nearly reduced me to tears several times and the readings from Alexander Whyte have whet my appetite for a new vicarious friend."

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Thinking again about the Supper

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Thinking again about the Supper”
First Published: April 10, 2007

We are just over two months away from moving into the new sanctuary, and I have an update for you all on our first Sunday services. God willing, Sunday, June 24, 2007 will be the date our first services in the sanctuary. The construction on the sanctuary will have been completed early that month, but the organ builders will need to occupy the building for three weeks (with large organ pipes and pieces strewn all over the main floor of the sanctuary) before we can occupy it ourselves. I visited the premises this afternoon, and I must say it is strikingly beautiful. I am not sure that I have ever seen a more handsome Protestant meeting house in all the world. Well, you and your family will want to be here that fourth Sunday in June, when, by God’s grace and provision, we will be worshiping together in this extraordinary facility.

Now, to an important matter at hand. This coming Sunday we celebrate communion. As we prepare for the Lord’s Supper, an act of public worship and a precious privilege for believers that displays our union and communion with Christ, let’s meditate on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper with the help of J.I. Packer, who says:

“The Lord’s Supper is an act of worship taking the form of a ceremonial meal, in which Christ’s servants share bread and wine in memory of their crucified Lord and in celebration of the new covenant relationship with God through Christ’s death.

Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein he was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper; to be observed in his church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death; the sealing of all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further encouragement in and to all duties which they owe unto him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other as members of his mystical body. (Westminster Confession 29.1)

“The passages dealing with the Supper on which the above statement is based are the four institution narratives (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25) and 1 Corinthians 10:16-21; 11:17-34. Jesus’ sermon (John 6:35-58) about himself as the Bread of Life, and the need to feed on him by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, was preached before the Supper existed and is better understood as being about what the Supper signifies (i.e., communion with Christ by faith) than about the Supper itself.

“At the time of the Reformation, questions about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper and the relation of the rite to his atoning death were centers of stormy controversy. On the first question, the Roman church affirmed (as it still affirms) transubstantiation, defined by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Transubstantiation means that the substance of the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood so that they are no longer bread and wine, though they appear to be. Luther modified this, affirming that was later called “consubstantiation” (a term that Luther did not favor), namely, that Christ’s body and blood come to be present in, with, and under the form of the bread and wine, which thus become more than bread and wine though not less. The Eastern Orthodox churches and some Anglicans say much the same. Zwingli denied that the glorified Christ, now in heaven, is present in any way that the words bodily, physically, or locally would fit. Calvin held that though the bread and wine remained unchanged (he agreed with Zwingli that the is of “this is my body . . . my blood” means “represents,” not “constitutes”), Christ through the Spirit grants worshippers true enjoyment of his personal presence, drawing them into fellowship with himself in heaven (Heb. 12:22-24) in away that is glorious and very real, though indescribable.

“On the second question, all the Reformers insisted that at the table we give thanks to Christ for his finished and accepted work of atonement, rather than repeat, renew, reoffer, re-present, or reactivate it, as the Roman doctrine of the mass affirms.

“The prescribed ritual of the Supper has three levels of meaning for participants. First, it has a past reference to Christ’s death which we remember. Second, it has a present reference to our corporate feeding on him by faith, with implications for how we treat our fellow believers (1 Cor. 11:20-22). Third, it has a future reference as we look ahead to Christ’s return and are encouraged by the thought of it. Preliminary self-examination, to make sure one’s frame of mind is as it should be, is advised (1 Cor. 11:28), and the wisdom of the advice is obvious.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Monday, November 01, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Rejoicing over an Installation

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Rejoicing over an Installation”
First Published: March 20, 2007

We are just over two months away from moving into the new sanctuary. Earl gave me a quick tour the other day, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. You will want to be here that first Sunday in June when (we hope to) be worshiping together in this handsome facility.

I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the installation service of the Reverend Kenneth A. Pierce, as the new Senior Minister of Trinity Presbyterian Church here in Jackson, this past Sunday evening. Ken was a Thornwell scholar (a Teaching Assistant) for me at Reformed Theological Seminary many years ago. He has grown into an outstanding preacher and pastor. What a blessing he will be to that church, and what a delight to have him in this presbytery.

The service was joyful, with good rousing hymns and psalms. Dr. John R. De Witt (onetime professor of Theology and Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary here in Jackson, then Senior Minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, then Senior Minister of Seventh Reformed church in Grand Rapids, MI, then Senior Minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC) preached the induction sermon. I had the privilege of delivering the charge to the minister. Dean Rydbeck of Northpark PCA delivered the charge to the congregation, and Dennis Watts, an elder, who is now part of the new Madison Heights Church in Gluckstadt chaired the presbytery commission and administered the vows to Ken.

Our own congregation was instrumental in planting Trinity Church back in the early 1950s. Indeed, Reed Miller was the church planter/founding pastor of Trinity Church, before he came to First Presbyterian (while he was still teaching philosophy at Belhaven College). Let’s pray God’s rich blessing on the work at Trinity Church.

Now, by the time you are reading this, we will be in the midst of the PCRT (that is, the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology) here at First Presbyterian Church. The theme of the conference is “The Word: Above All Earthly Powers.” The PCRT is a conference designed for Christian laypeople, to enrich us with the deep and practical truths of the Bible. And this year’s PCRT is focusing on the Bible! On Sunday morning, Jerry Bridges will be preaching both services and we’ll have well over a hundred visitors from all around the region and country joining us (editorial note: The audio from this sermon may be found here).

Jerry Bridges has a special connection to our congregation, in that he is related to our former pastor, Reed Miller. For those of you unfamiliar with Jerry and his writings, he is a widely read and respected author and Bible teacher. His most popular book, The Pursuit of Holiness, has sold well over a million copies. As a full-time staff member with The Navigators for many years, Jerry has served in the collegiate ministry and community ministries. For 15 years he was the vice president for corporate affairs for The Navigators. He has also written: The Fruitful Life, Growing Your Faith, The Gospel for Real Life, Trusting God, The Chase, You Can Trust God, The Practice of Godliness, Transforming Grace, The Joy of Fearing God and more!

Don’t miss this soft-spoken but powerful and much beloved godly man bring the word. And bring some friends to hear him too.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Remembering the Reformation

Remembering the Reformation
First Published: “Reformation Day” October 31, 1997

480 years ago an event occurred that shook the Christian Church and has shaped the world ever since. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther (an Augustinian monk and professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany) nailed his now-famous “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Church. This event is often marked as the beginning of the great sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. One Baptist minister has recently asserted that: “The Reformation was the greatest revival of Biblical Christianity since the days of the Apostles.”

Martin Luther, who had been troubled by the Roman Catholic theology of salvation for some time, posted these “95 Theses” as a way of challenging someone to a public debate. He could never have foreseen the effect they would have, nor the chain of events that their posting would set in motion. Though there were several great men in the years prior to Luther whom we might call forerunners of the Reformation (such as John Wycliffe and John Hus), the Reformation proper began with Luther (who lived 1483-1546). Key to his theology was the Biblical truth: "The just shall live by faith."

There had been previous attempts to reform the morality of the Roman Church, which had sagged significantly during the late Middle Ages. But Luther wanted to do more than clean up the poor behavior of pope and priest and amend the institutional abuses of Rome. Luther wanted to recover the Gospel! Though Luther was enraged by the manipulative sale of indulgences (certificates or tokens granting the bearer amnesty or absolution for venial sins), his real target was the Roman system of salvation, and particularly her doctrine of justification by faith and works.

Though Luther originally wanted to work for the reform the Catholic Church according to Scripture, Rome utterly rejected his concerns and excommunicated him on January 3, 1521. We call the early Protestant leaders “Reformers” precisely because they desired to reform the Church and return her to the teaching of Scripture. We call the movement they led the “Reformation” because it produced a renewal of Christianity in accordance with Scripture. The Reformational churches were more faithful to Biblical authority and doctrine than the medieval Catholic Church.

Luther's theology focused on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which he called “the article of a standing or a falling Church.” He taught, contrary to Rome, that we are justified (accounted righteous before God) by the means of faith alone, apart from the works of the Law. Rome, on the other hand, taught that in justification we are “made righteous” via faith and obedience. Luther’s teaching was but a recovery of the Pauline doctrine of justification. Luther stressed imputed righteousness rather than infused righteousness. That is, God justifies sinners by crediting Christ's righteousness to their account, not by implanting righteousness into them and thus justifying them. Our spiritual forefathers were willing to die for this distinction, for the Gospel was at stake.

This doctrine became known as Sola FideFaith alone” (justification by faith alone in Christ alone -- not by faith and works). The other four points of what we might call the "Five Points of the Reformation" are: Sola ScripturaScripture alone” (the Scripture as the sole ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice -- not the Pope, the Church, reason or feelings), Sola GratiaGrace alone” (salvation by God's grace alone, not human merit), and Solo ChristoChrist alone” (salvation by the mediation and merits of Christ alone, not the intercession of priests nor the merits of saints), and Soli Deo Gloriato God alone be the Glory” (life lived for God’s glory alone).

We presbyterians are singularly thankful for the godly Martin Luther. Indeed, our favorite Reformer John Calvin, regarded Dr. Luther as a spiritual father. And so we all are grateful to God for the great service Martin Luther rendered to the whole of Christendom. Soli Deo gloria.

your friend,

Ligon Duncan