MacArthur and the Sabbath


I have a great respect for Pastor John MacArthur and am thankful for what God has done through him and his ministry over many decades. While I have several and significant theological disagreements with Dr. MacArthur, it’s hard not to admire the ministry of a man who has preached through every verse of the New Testament with the depth he has. Nevertheless, I am often surprised by what I read from Dr. MacArthur because his faithfulness to the truth does not always translate into sound theology. I’m no fool to think I am a better theologian than a man some 40 years my senior and many, many decades beyond me in studying the Scriptures, and yet we all have our blind spots…

Today I read what has to be the most textually unsupported statement I have ever read from Dr. MacArthur, even taking into account the contents of his now (in)famous sermon about why I should be a dispensationalist. I have heard and read a lot of reasons why people seek to reject the perpetuity of the 4th Commandment, but calling it ceremonial law has got to be the worst argument I’ve discovered thus far. Likewise, Dr. MacArthur comes nowhere near dealing with relevant texts that are chronologically prior to Sinai that covenant theology uses to support the Sabbath as a creation ordinance – he simply waves it all off in a single sentence.

“Although God rested from His creation on the seventh day in Genesis, He didn’t command man to do that until the law of Moses. And seventh-day rest was one of the Ten Commandments. It was ceremonial, rather than moral and thus it is not repeated in the New Testament because it wasn’t a part of the moral law. But it was just a general gift from God to Israel and I think it’s a very wise thing in general, beyond even the nation of Israel, although God didn’t require it before and doesn’t require it in the New Testament. Take a day off, enjoy.”

The burden of proof is on those who reject the 4th commandment as a perpetual, moral command from God to show from the text how it is not a creation ordinance and why it is not binding on New Testament Christians. Richard Barcellos has done a good job explaining how the application of the 4th commandment may look different, but is yet to be observed in the Christian life. Also noteworthy is the language regarding the Sabbath in the vast majority of the historic, reformed confessions of the church.

While Dr. MacArthur is certainly free to disagree on this issue, my hope  is that he would at least provide some biblical basis for doing so.

(By: Nick Kennicott)

The Trellis and the Vine: A Review from a Reformed Baptist Perspective (Part 2 of 2)

Book Reviews, The Church

Having summarized the content of the book, this review will now offer three strengths, one weakness, and then close with some final thoughts.  In truth, much of the preceding summary has included various commendations and concerns already, but it is perhaps helpful to collate them here.

The first strength of The Trellis and the Vine is that it encourages Pastors away from unhelpful models of ministry and towards a more Biblical paradigm.  A Pastor is not a “service-providing clergyman” or a “CEO” (p. 94-8).  Marshall and Payne suggest that “trainer” is a better description (p. 99-102).  While there are inherent problems with all one word summaries of Pastoral ministry it is difficult to argue that this is a Biblical corrective.  Traditionalism and professionalism can both be the enemy of vital Christianity itself, let alone of fruitful ministry.  For encouraging men to lay aside these unhealthy patterns and embrace the personal work of gospel centered discipleship the authors are to be commended.

Second, a significant strength is the manner in which Marshall and Payne unleash the power of the pew.  Laying every aspect of ministry on the ordained leadership of a church alone is a recipe for personal burnout, evangelistic ineffectiveness, and congregational apathy.  It is also not the New Testament vision of the church.  One of the chief purposes of The Trellis and the Vine is to enable and encourage pastors to in turn equip the saints to be faithful participants in God’s unfolding plan of redemption.  Even if it starts in small ways, it is thrilling to consider what the Lord might do with a congregation which is carefully equipped, faithfully supported, and motivated by grace to take up the cause of Christ as their own.   Such a congregation might turn the world upside down.  Our bookshelves are full of testimonies that this has happened before, so why not in our day as well?

The third and final strength to be noted is the general manner in which this book reestablishes Kingdom priorities.  While few would say it out loud (at least in conservative evangelical circles), there is in most of our hearts a desire for a uniquely large and influential public ministry, characterized by dramatic mass conversions and attended with the security and accolades such success brings.  If the Lord is pleased to give such things, and if the conversions are true works of grace, then may He do it; although men may find that which they pined for brings unexpected trials.  Yet the question must be asked- what if the Lord saw fit to save just as many, and to use a man to bless as many as he would in the above scenario, but without the personal recognition and publicity?  What if we are called to pour ourselves into other individuals, to building them up and then sending them out to in turn minister to others?  What if God is calling us to work behind the scenes rather than on center stage?  Marshall and Payne would have us embrace such a calling.  They candidly state

We must be exporters of trained people instead of hoarders of trained people…The goal isn’t church growth… but gospel growth.  If we train and send new workers into new fields (both local and global) our local ministry might not grow numerically but the gospel will advance through these new ministers of the word (pp. 25-6).

The struggle with this is that it robs us of personal glory, which our flesh craves.  Trainer is not a glorious title.  The Trellis and the Vine does not call men to glamorous ministry; it calls them to do hard, time consuming, behind the scenes labor.  This is a much needed soli Deo gloria realignment, and it is perhaps the book’s signature strength.

It should be clear from what has already been written that this is a very positive review.  It does however remain to point out one weakness, although it is not at all clear that this particular shortcoming could have been avoided.  The Trellis and the Vine is a self-consciously broad book, in that it is written to be beneficial and applicable across various denominational lines and evangelical traditions.  This is a laudable pursuit, but it is not without cost.  The result is a general vagueness in regards to ecclesiology which leaves The Trellis and the Vine feeling somewhat incomplete.  One quote is particularly representative:

 Issues concerning how churches are governed often dominate local ministry.  At one level this is to be expected, because all denominations are partially defined by their distinctive understanding of church government, and it’s important for a church to be faithful to its evangelical heritage.  However, inflexible commitment to a particular polity can destroy training (pp. 23-4).

This quote raises legitimate concerns but fails to address them in a satisfactory manner.  It is indeed important that polity disputes not monopolize local churches at the expense of gospel ministry.  Such a situation is highly dysfunctional.  However, Marshall and Payne are not particularly helpful at this point.  Saying that “It’s important for a church to be faithful to its evangelical heritage,” and then to immediately qualify that statement by saying “However, inflexible commitment to a particular polity can destroy training” is extremely problematic.  The phrase “evangelical heritage” used in this context is unsettling- it has the strong aroma of sepia-toned nostalgia and seems to imply that convictions regarding polity are really more about the traditions of men than the Word of God.  The next sentence tells us that we must be “flexible” about polity or it can “destroy training.”  Even read with great charity, it is hard not to take this as a low view of ecclesiology as it relates to ministry.  This sort of counsel is likely to foster the very sort of thing the authors are trying to encourage their readers away from- clinging to unbiblical elements of the trellis for reasons of simple heritage and tradition

The real issue may be that Marshall and Payne do not go far enough.  It would be better to say that as we seek to be always more and more reformed in belief and practice to the Word of God, there will be elements of our evangelical heritage which we will have to give up.  This can be an emotionally wrenching process (and should never be precipitous), but when our heritage and our Biblical convictions collide, God’s Word must win out.  Faithfulness to an unbiblical heritage for heritage’s sake is rank traditionalism.  Furthermore, the last sentence would read better if it said “inflexible commitment to unbiblical polity can destroy training.”  If the principles of discipleship, evangelism, and training described by the authors are inseparable from faithfulness to the Great Commission, then any polity which is the enemy of these things needs to be reexamined.  It was to the church that God gave His commission, and he was not silent about the polity of that church.  God does care about His trellises also.

What is left to the reader then, is to take the principles of the book and to apply them to his own particular ministry context.  Perhaps this is the intent of the authors, to be intentionally vague on the particulars of various denominational contexts so that their readers will be forced to do the work of specifically integrating these ideas into their own local church.  Reformed Baptists, for whom issues of church polity are a key distinctive, are left with much to ponder.  It would seem that the emphasis on plurality in leadership and lay-ministry which already exists in our confessional identity would make The Trellis and the Vine a natural extension of Reformed Baptist praxis (see the Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 26:8, 11).  If a stronger commitment to personal discipleship and to Monday through Saturday ministry carried out by the church body could be incorporated into the current Reformed Baptist emphasis on the administration of the appointed means of grace on the Lord’s Day by the ordained officers, the fruit could be rich indeed.

Collin Marshall and Tony Payne have done the evangelical church a great service by writing The Trellis and the Vine.  Even if not all of their reasoning is convincing (it isn’t) and not all of their ideas are fully developed (they aren’t), it is difficult to imagine anyone seriously disagreeing with the central themes of their book.  Our churches are indeed a mixture of trellis and vine.  Failure to recognize this distinction can lead to significant frustration and malaise.  Furthermore, God is not silent in regards to how He would have us cultivate His vine.  He would have us stand and preach the Word; He would have us break the bread, drink the wine, and submit to the waters of the sacraments; He would have us kneel together in prayer; He would have us make personal investments into people and equip them to minister to others; He would have us speak to our friends and neighbors about the hope of the gospel.  He would have us do all these things and more, because He is busy accomplishing his plan of redemption- both locally and globally.  Perhaps the highest praise which can be given to a book is that implementing the principles it lays out will be profitable towards that end.  This praise is due to The Trellis and the Vine.   

(By: Nicolas Alford)

The Trellis and the Vine: A Review from a Reformed Baptist Perspective (Part 1 of 2)

Book Reviews, The Church

Ours is a life of certain absolutes: water is wet, summer follows spring, and every year or so a new book will appear which will claim to be both revolutionary and definitive in regards to evangelical ministry.  The inability of most readers to recall the specific titles (let alone the content) of these voluminous offerings within five years of their appearance is telling.  Although its subtitle (The Ministry MindShift That Changes Everything, emphasis mine) might give the impression that The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne is just one more addition to the ministerial literature heap, this is the rare book which actually comes close to delivering on the promises of its own hype.   While it most likely won’t actually “change everything,” it certainly does push the humble reader committed to the principles of sola Scriptura and semper reformanda to consider significant “mind-shifts” in regards to the elements, emphasis, and evaluation of his ministry among the people of God.  This review will first summarize the content of the book and then, in a second post, offer three strengths, one weakness, and some final thoughts which it has occasioned in the mind of this reviewer.

Chapter one begins with an illustration which explains the relevance of this book’s unusual title to Christian ministry.  Two trellises are described, one which is well built and pleasing to look at yet totally devoid of any living vine to scale it’s perfectly proportioned latticework; and another which is so overtaken by an aggressive, thriving jasmine that the trellis itself is barely even visible.  Through these two trellises the reader is introduced to the picture which will be the constant backdrop of all that Marshall and Payne have to say regarding ministry in the Church.  They write

As I have sat on my back verandah and observed the two trellises, it has occurred to me more than once that most churches are a mixture of trellis and vine.  The basic work of any Christian ministry is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of God’s Spirit, and to see people converted, changed and grow into maturity in that gospel.  That’s the work of planting, watering, fertilizing and tending the vine.

However, just as some sort of framework is needed to help a vine grow, so Christian ministries also need some structure and support.  It may not be much, but at the very least we need somewhere to meet, some Bibles to read from, and some basic structures of leadership within our group.  All Christian churches, fellowships or ministries have some kind of trellis that gives shape and support to the work (p. 8).

The fundamental distinction of the book is therefore between trellis work and vine work, and their respective focus and priority.  The heart of ministry is vine-work, the Spirit empowered proclamation of the gospel in a variety of setting and through a variety of means.  Trellis-work, while it is crucial to the support of the vine, should not be confused with or allowed to overshadow this “vine-centric” understanding of ministry and mission.  However, rather than being vine-tenders first and trellis-minders second, in many churches the pastor is consumed with the upkeep and management of the trellis at the expense of his time for the cultivation of a healthy and growing vine.

The authors seek to correct this tendency by returning to the fountainhead of Christian ministry during this current period from Pentecost to Parousia- the Great Commission.  Their exegesis of this text emphasizes the announcement of the absolute dominion of Christ (All authority in heaven and on Earth has been given to me –Matthew 28:18) and the primary mission the church is charged with- namely the making of disciples in all nations.  Marshall and Payne understand the Great Commission to be rooted in the total Lordship of Jesus over all creation, to be just as much local as global in its emphasis, and to be the particular responsibility and privilege of all Christians.  They write “It’s a commission that makes disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple” (p. 13).  Indeed, the entire book can be summarized using that one word (albeit multiplied and inflected): disciples discipling disciples.  This theme is the true heart and soul of the book- a gospel centered vision for a culture of intentional discipleship to take root among the people of God.

Chapter two takes the fundamental trellis/vine distinction already established and lays out exactly what sort of “mind-shifts” the authors are proposing.  Eleven transitions are proposed, most of them encouraging a change in focus from more organizational and institutional (and therefore trellis related) activities and thought patterns to those more relational and organic (and therefore vine related).  For example, the first mind-shift listed is a shift “From running programs to building people” (p. 17).  Most of the mind-shifts proposed will simply encourage church leaders to reevaluate priorities and emphasis, but there are a few which are truly transformative to local church ministry.  The encouragements to shift “From clinging to ordained ministry to developing team leadership” (p. 22), “From focusing on church polity to forging ministry partnerships” (p. 23), and “From relying on training institutions to establishing local training” (p. 24) have the potential to radically change not just the way a pastor uses his time, but the nature of his ministry itself.

In Chapter three the authors seek to build a Biblical Theology structure to support the arguments they have been making.  They trace the redemptive historical patterns of creation, fall, and restoration from Eden to Israel to Calvary; and then they place the New Testament church into the process of God’s ongoing saga.  They write

 In fulfillment of his ancient plans, God has brought salvation by sending Christ to pass through suffering to glory.  He is now announcing this momentous news to the world by his Holy Spirit working through human evangelists, and by this method he is saving people, bringing them to new birth, and granting them an eternal, unshakable, incorruptible inheritance in his eternal kingdom… This is what God is now doing in this world: Spirit-backed gospel preaching leading to the salvation of souls (p. 35).

 By setting gospel ministry into this context Marshal and Payne effectively lift the readers head up from the stifling claustrophobia of not being able to see beyond your own patterns, traditions, and expectations; reminding us that our ministry is about what God is doing.  He is pleased to use weak vessels in the proclamation and propagation of His mission, but it is His power and His providence which is guiding the trajectory.  The reminder that this trajectory ends in glory and consummation is both liberating and invigorating.

Having presented their argument in broad terms and having couched their principles in the context of God’s redemptive plan, Marshall and Payne turn in the rest of the book to working through some of the details and particular challenges which accompany the implementation of this sort of vine-centric ministry in the local church.  In most offerings in the Practical Theology genre, this is the point where the well runs dry and the filler chapters begin; where books that should have been published as pamphlets get milked for an extra hundred pages or so.  Happily, this is not the case with The Trellis and the Vine.

Chapter four (Is every Christian a vine-worker?) deals with the issue of every member ministry and with the possible objections which could be raised by those who prefer to restrict the concept of ministry exclusively to the prevue of the ordained man of God. Ministry, it is sometimes said, is exclusively descriptive of what the Minister does, and then sometimes even restricted further to what that man does in his official capacity as Pastor from the pulpit on Sunday.  While it is true that the office of Pastor/Elder/Bishop carries unique responsibilities, the sort of hard line drawn between the pulpit and the pew which some men espouse in regards to ministry doesn’t stand up well to the Biblical arguments of Marshall and Payne.  Readers who take a more restrictive view of ministry will most likely be surprised that that Ephesians 4:12 is only mentioned briefly, and that the authors actually sound like they prefer the older reading (p. 44)!  Rather, their argument is based in the universal call of Christian discipleship (p. 42); copious examples of ministry among those other than the church’s official agents in the New Testament (pp. 44-9); and the radical, missionary nature of the gospel and conversion to Christ (pp. 49-53).  As the authors write on page 52, “The Christian without a missionary heart is an anomaly.”  Several examples are included to show what this may look like in practice, such as the example of Alison, who writes an encouraging letter to a friend emphasizing Biblical truth; and Geoff, who is intentional in conversations with co-workers to turn their talk to the gospel.  Skeptical readers who are wary of creeping egalitarianism in the church and the suspected degradation of the official means of grace would do well to read these examples (pp. 54-55).  They are hardly radical.  Every member ministry in The Trellis and the Vine is nothing more than trying to get Christians to understand what a Christian is, and then act like one- a cause to which all God’s people should say Amen.

An important addendum to the arguments previously stated is chapter 5, entitled “Guilt or grace?”  Here it is shown that this sort of vision for ministry among all the people of God is not the result of heavy handed guilt laid on them by their Pastors, it is the fruit of grace sweetly tasted and rightly understood.  Again, the authors run to Scripture and point out the utter normalcy of involvement in the work of the gospel among the Christians in the New Testament (p. 65).  This is a very short chapter, but its value proportionately outweighs its brevity.

Chapter six marks a transition from dealing with broader principles to laying out practical steps for implementing a ministry which shifts its focus from the upkeep of the trellis to the health and propagation of the vine.  This theme will dominate the rest of the book.  The authors spend the last six chapters developing in great detail a program of personal discipleship and training.  They are quite specific about both what sort of qualities ought to be prerequisite in the life of any potential trainee (p. 140-1), and what form this training should take.  They even provide a helpful chart of what a regular training session could entail (p. 121).

This review will not seek to summarize all that Marshall and Payne have to say about training, other than to simply note that it is both comprehensive and very helpful.  It is also worth noting that this second half of the book contains some material sure to raise those eyebrows not already raised by some of the authors’ earlier assertions and counsel.  They argue on pages 109-11 that rather than focus primarily on those most hurting in the congregation or those most ripe for evangelism, Pastors ought to pour the bulk of their time into equipping the more mature believers so that they can in turn minister to and evangelize others, thus multiplying gospel effectiveness.  Also, the title alone of chapter eight (Why Sunday sermons are necessary but not sufficient) is surly enough to make many readers double check the sterling list of men who have contributed blurbs of endorsement to the back of this book (Dever, Duncan, Mohler, et al)!  However, a bit of an open mind and charity in understanding will show that once again (no matter what their subtitle may say) Marshall and Payne aren’t actually out to change everything.  The chapter referenced above does after all explicitly state that sermons are necessary.  The authors are simply pointing out some of the ways our own traditions and assumptions have become the enemy of effective Biblical ministry, even when those traditions and assumptions are wrapped around  something as central and necessary as preaching.

Good books challenge our assumptions and make us think, an exercise never completely free from discomfort.  The Trellis and the Vine certainly fits this description.  It is well written, timely, and deeply challenging.  On a literary level, the only minor annoyance is the constant referencing of materials available for purchase from Mathias Media, which has a tendency to make certain points feel like sales pitches.  Even this sin can be forgiven because of the generally excellent nature of most of what Mathias Media offers (at least in this reviewers experience and estimation).  Marshall and Payne have written a work which is clear, Biblically grounded, balanced, and extremely practical.  This is a rare achievement, and the evangelical community is in their debt.

Click here to read part 2

(By: Nicolas Alford)

The Hole in Our Holiness

Book Reviews, The Gospel

I cannot express how excited I am for Kevin DeYoung‘s new book, The Hole in Our Holiness (You can also Pre-order the Kindle Edition). DeYoung addresses what I have been having an ongoing conversation about for a few years with several brothers, namely the relationship between justification and sanctification, or perhaps more appropriately stated, the law and the gospel (and of course, I realize this has been an ongoing conversation for much of the church’s history). It seems to me that there are very few men who have been associated, either willingly or unwillingly, with the “gospel-centered” movement who are talking about the use of God’s law in the lives of Christians. I’m thankful for the recovery of the gospel in much of what can be seen in quasi-Reformed evangelicalism today in some respects, but I am also concerned that without a recovery of the right uses of God’s law, we have not truly recovered the gospel. In fact, some men seem almost scared to give any validity to the use of God’s law in the life of a Christian at all. Based on what I’ve heard and read, methinks Kevin DeYoung is providing a valuable addition to the very necessary conversation – perhaps we could soon see brothers linking arms Together for the Law and Gospel.

A sermon by DeYoung excerpted from one of the chapters in his new book:

(By: Nick Kennicott)

Pride: Sin’s Sinister Seed (Part VI- Its Vital Remedy)

Christian Living

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V

There is danger is posting a series on something like the Christian’s battle against pride.  That danger is that the reader take away the impression that the Christian life is a moralistic struggle to merit God’s favor or smile.  Lest these be any misunderstanding, let me me perfectly clear: Not only is that sort of legalistic program contrary to what I have been trying to advance in these posts, it is an anti-gospel and hopeless pursuit which will get you nowhere.

While the battle must be waged, and we must be gaining ground, the fact is that pride is too great an enemy for any of us to kill off.  Moralism and legalism are dead-ends because they always end in failure.

Our only hope is grace.  That grace is found in Jesus Christ.  He is the vital remedy we seek.

In the Christian’s battle against pride, Christ is both our pattern for success and our only hope in failure.  He is our example and our redemption.

In Christ we find the ultimate pattern of humility, and the antithesis of pride.  This in the one who is our eternal God, who is the second person of the Holy Trinity, who was not created and had no beginning and will have no end, very God of very God; and yet this is the one who became a man, who said in essence “I the Creator will enter my own creation, I will humble myself by taking on the flesh of men, I will walk among them and live among them and I will be one of them and I will do this to save them from their rebellion against me.”

Jesus Christ is the God who became man without ceasing to be God and the one who humbled himself to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

When we seek a pattern of humble living, there is none to look to other than Christ.

But that’s not enough!  We need more than a pattern; we need more than an example, because we’ve already failed.  And we’re going to keep failing.  Even with his perfect picture of the life we should lead we don’t lead it.  Our rebel hearts are too in love with themselves.

But Christ came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28)

The ultimately humble one has done that which our prideful hearts would have never considered, let alone gone through with.  He has taken our sins, even the sin of pride, the sin which rejects him and spits in his face and scoffs at his love, he has taken all of those sins and he has endured an unthinkable level or torment on our behalf.

I wrote in an earlier post that the final effect of sin is an eternity in hell.  I write now that Christ suffered on the cross what it would have taken you an eternity to suffer for.  He has taken all the weight and pain and anguish of your hell for you.  That is what the cross is.  The cross is Jesus Christ suffering the pains of hell so that sinners like us will never have to go there.

And the perfection of his sinless life has been offered out to us in exchange for our filth.  The gospel is that Christ takes all your sin away, having paid for it on the cross, and he gives to you his perfection, so that when you stand before God on the day of judgment, he will not see the angry, petty, vindictive,  dishonest, and ruined life you’ve led.  He won’t see your pride.  He’ll see only the perfections of Christ.

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. 2 Corinthians 5:21

Jesus Christ is the vital remedy, not only for our pride, but for all our sins.  There is no hope without Him.  He is the resurrected, living Lord, he is King, it is his rule to which we crucify our pride and submit in humble worship, devotion, and total reliance for salvation.

Look to Him as your example as you seek to put this sin of pride to death, be serious, be tenacious, give it no rest as you seek to grow as a Christian, but never, never, never, never forget that only the blood of Christ can cover this or any other sin.  Forgetting that will not only lead you away from the gospel, which is the very lifeblood of your faith, but it will cultivate in you that which you seek to battle against.

Forgetting Christ in this battle against pride will simply make you more prideful.

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

But the very fall pride leads to can be a powerful means of grace.  It weans us off of our false self-sufficiency.  It exposes our pride and teaches us to rely on God.  It corrects our view of reality, that it is not we who sits at the pinnacle of our universe, it is the Lord alone.

It brings us back to the cross as our only hope.

Nebuchadnezzar, after his pride led him to total destruction, after he had looked down on everyone and everything and had sought to look down even on God, after his destruction, he lifted his eyes to heaven, and blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever.  He repented.

And the Lord gave Him grace.  And there is grace for us in Christ.

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,

But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(By: Nicolas Alford)