If you would like to read a summary of my conference trips this fall, with accompanying photographs, you may download one by clicking here.
Mary and I drove to our state capital this morning in Lansing, Michigan, as I was invited by our state senator, Dave Hildenbrand, to give the invocation to the senators at the State Legislature. We met with Senator Hildenbrand and the Majority Whip of the State House, Rob VerHeulen, who has been a good friend for many years. After my prayer, we toured the capitol building, and then went out to lunch with Senator VerHeulen. We had a fascinating talk, especially about politics and next year’s election. May God have mercy upon our land and nation. Here is the invocation I gave.
Most High God, we thank Thee that thou art the living Triune God. Grant us to know Thy greatness and to feel our smallness. Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and Thy dominion is from generation to generation. Thou rulest over the kingdom of humanity; the powers that be are Thy servants for the good of mankind.
Therefore, heavenly Father, I thank Thee for these State Legislatures and pray that Thou wouldst grant them in all that they do the holy fear of Thy Name, which esteems the smiles and frowns of Thyself to be of greater value than the smiles and frowns of men. Guide them in all the decisions they make; grant them great wisdom—heavenly wisdom above and beyond their own. Help them to serve Thee and others as men and women of truth, of fairness, and of love. Let them hate sin, and honor Thy Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Let them pursue and promote spiritual, moral, and fiscal righteousness. Grant them the courage and wisdom to show mercy to the needy and to defend the defenseless. Fill them with an over-flowing ocean of compassion. Let the reign of love be their motive and the law of love their rule. Let them strive to be godly men and women, well-known for their integrity; let them be honored for their goodness by the people who elected them.
Lord, we live in troubling, sin-embracing times when many people seem to do that which is right in their own eyes rather than Thine with regard to issues that relate to the sanctity of life and the foundational structures of our society. Oh Lord, deliver us from going our own way. Help us all to humble ourselves before Thee, to repent of sin, and to come back to Thee, for Thou has promised that if we repent, Thou wilt hear us from heaven, forgive our sins, and heal our land. Wash away all of our shortcomings and sins in Christ’s atoning blood. Help us all to remember that Thou, O God, art the Judge of all the earth. Grant us all therefore that we may find mercy from Thy Son when He returns to judge the living and the dead. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
Yesterday my dermatologist removed the basal cell skin cancer from my lower left eyelid. In Mohs surgery, the doctor removes a slice of the affected area. They examine it microscopically and, if there is more cancer, they remove another a slice until the margins are clear of cancer. Usually one or two slices are needed, but in my case he needed to take four layers, as it extended down and to the sides. This involved 60% of the lid. If it had been 30% or less, the plastic surgeon could have just pulled it together, but more extensive surgery was needed. Mary took me from the dermatologist’s office to the out-patient surgery center. God gave us the two best doctors possible. So the plastic surgeon grafted a sliver of skin from the fold of my upper eyelid to repair the lower wound. Then she made a flap of the cartilage from the upper eyelid and stitched it to the wound site. Consequently, my eye is sewn shut, allowing the cartilage to establish a blood supply and grow into the wound site. In three weeks, she will snip the shared cartilage and, aside from missing 60% of my lower eyelashes, the repair should not be noticeable. The amazing thing is how the body repairs itself—we are fearfully and wonderfully made!
I suppose that I am too much of a Puritan not to reflect upon lessons to be learned and to examine myself after going through these surgeries. I hope that such self-examination is a good thing, although it can be painful in itself, and, of course, it can become too introspective if it is not corralled by biblical principles, such as those taught by John Calvin. Calvin taught that self-examination is necessary and profitable so long as it is based on the Scriptures, ends in Christ, and is guided by the Holy Spirit. Here are ten practical reflections the day after my surgery which I hope you will find helpful:
- Unlike God, doctors are not infallible, sovereign, and almighty. They too can make mistakes. I have a very skilled dermatologist with whom I often talk theology—he’s read a number of my books. Despite having a great dermatologist, he wrong diagnosed a wart on my lower eyelid early this year, and told me it was definitely not cancerous. Four months later, it proved to be cancerous, however. “Regretfully,” he said, “I was wrong last time, but you know your theology well enough to know that only God is infallible!” Well, I couldn’t argue with that! Meanwhile, it kept growing until I could finally get the two specialists scheduled back-to-back for yesterday, but I see even more clearly now that this is all, of course, God’s sovereign will for me. (Positively speaking, my dermatologist has been right the other ten times when I’ve had less serious spots taken off by him, mostly on my face. I seem to have inherited this thorn in the flesh from my father. My brothers and nephew have it too.)
- Under God, doctors are invaluable and important. We don’t put our trust ultimately on earthy physicians but in our heavenly Triune God, but even as we do so, we recognize that the Ultimate Cause of all things (our fatherly sovereign God) normally carries out His fatherly will through secondary causes (like earthly doctors). Therefore it is not wrong but actually important to ask meaningful questions and seek for highly qualified physicians in whose abilities you can have confidence on the human, secondary level. The doctors God appointed me are both well-known as being highly skilled and gifted—and I took some comfort in the fact that several of my friends who are physicians concurred strongly with this. I regard this as a significant act of God’s grace in the larger picture of what I experienced yesterday.
- Faith versus sense and unbelief wages a fierce war at times. That already began early this month when the plastic surgeon told me in a pre-op appointment that though it was rare (5 per cent chance, she said), there are times that if more than 30 percent of the lower lid needs to be taken, then the surgery becomes “messy and complicated,” and the eye must be stitched shut for about three weeks. Knowing how long this cancer had been growing, I was immediately afraid. A week later that fear was compounded by speaking with someone else who went through this surgery and developed severe problems such that another surgery was needed three months later. So, when my dermatologist yesterday said that a second surgical extraction needed to be made because the cancer was both deeper and wider than thought and the first extraction made was like mush, I asked the doctor if that means he’d have to take more than 30 percent of my eyelid, and that I would have to go through the more difficult plastic surgery route. When he said, “I’m afraid that it is looking that way,” my immediate thought was, “But Lord, didn’t the last person who prayed with me at the seminary this morning ask that Thou wouldst do exceedingly abundantly above all that we could ask or think—which was exactly my prayer the day before”—and isn’t this prayer being refuted now? The battle of faith versus sense was enflamed. My only recourse was to consciously discipline my mind to fly to Christ.
- Faith and pity can far too easily coexist. After the dermatologist took a large chunk the second time, I felt confident that the cancer was all removed, but the report came back that there was still cancer on both sides, which meant that even more of my eyelid had to go. For a few minutes faith receded and self-pity rose it’s ugly head. Again, my only recourse was to think about Christ—specifically that beautiful first question of the Heidelberg Catechism that my only comfort in life and death is that I belong to Him.
- Faith and false submission are often hard to discern apart. When word came back that I would need a nearly unprecedented fourth extraction, I felt nothing but submission, but it was a mixed submission. On the one hand, I felt like I could surrender all into Christ’s hands but at the same time I felt rather numb and stoical. I gave up the battle but that surrender was not pure in its motivation. Once more I had to flee to Christ for help and forgiveness in all my unworthiness.
- Despite faith’s activity, God’s deliverance is often like a beautiful surprise. The one time I expected the nurses to come back into the waiting room and say, “You still need more taken,” was when she said, “You can go to the plastic surgeon now!” I was so surprised that I had to ask her to repeat it. God’s goodness overwhelmed me, though I knew the road before us was not an easy one.
- Meditating on Christ is by far our most important help in days of affliction. The fact that He has suffered and died for me, is always interceding for me, never allows me out of His perfect high priestly eye, and has perfect plans and goals for me so as to wean me from this world and ripen me for glory helped more than anything else to make me submissive throughout this day more than anything else. Most helpful of all was this thought: if Christ was submissive while going through far worse sufferings for me as an unworthy sinner, why should I not be submissive to Him when His providence is leading me through trials for His glory and my good?
- A God-fearing spouse to support you and help you pray your way through a day of surgeries is a priceless gift. My Queen’s prayers with me throughout the day’s waves of disappointment, together with her periodical comments, “It is going to be OK, honey,” and “God will help you through this,” together with meant more to me than sermons at this point.
- The prayers of believers are also a remarkable support, both in person and through electronic media, particularly when they briefly stress one or two of God’s sweet and powerful promises. Each time we would go back to the waiting room after another layer of cancer was removed, we would pray, meditate, and then open up email and Facebook to find new prayers waiting for us. The love and help we felt from this—often coming from people who I have often visited in time of need—is beyond words. The communion of saints is sweet.
- Kindness, touch, and clear communication are significant human helps in distress. In both offices, the doctors and nurses were remarkably kind and empathetic, and also used touch in a non-flirtatious way, such as rubbing the shoulder empathetically while speaking to me. Their clear, honest communication was also a great help. For example, just before I went into surgery, my plastic surgeon, whom I had only met once before, assured me that though the stitched procedure was necessary and not pleasant, she had done a goodly number of these and believed it would turn out well long-term. She did a great job of encouraging me to meditate on long-term benefit rather short-term discomfort. She also gladly let me pray for her and thanked me warmly for doing so. After the surgery, she was very reassuring again, and told me exactly what to expect, and made clear she was available at any time to address any complications that might arise.
In conclusion, let me say that it is good for a minister to be on the receiving end of surgeries. Over the last four decades, I have had the privilege of visiting more than 5,000 parishioners in the hospital. Being on the receiving end makes one realize more strongly than ever how important bedside manners and words and prayers are on the part of physicians, ministers, and nurses.
It also gives me renewed respect and love for those who have had to face larger, more life–threatening illnesses and to reflect on their acquiescence. Their trials have a way of making us face our own mortality and the need to prepare to meet our God.
Well, the 20-minute ice-packs on and 20-minute ice-packs off over the next few days should give me more time for reflection, but I pray that these ten reflections may be of some help to all of us now.
An interview that Mortification of Spin did with me is now available on their podcast. Topics include holiness, backsliding, and why read the Puritans.
(This blog post was written by my wife, Mary.)
On Thursday evening we flew to Atlanta, then to Ashville, NC. Pastor Mike Thompson and his wife Robin picked us up. We bonded immediately, talking about family and scriptural convictions. Joel was pleasantly surprised to learn that Faith PCA is the church where dear friends Olin and Jean Coleman were members before they went to be with the Lord. Olin was a leader of the Puritan Project in Brazil. As an elder, he mentored Mike and had a profound impact on him.
Our home for these days was a log cabin on a dirt road in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It is really dark in the country at midnight. After trying a couple wrong driveways, they were quite sure they found the right one. The code worked, and an autographed welcome sign confirmed we were in the right place. Phew!
Our favorite recreational activity is hiking, so we accepted with pleasure their invitation to come a day early to hike the Shortoff Mountain Trail. Dr. Howard Hall picked us up. About 25 folks of all ages came along, ranging from toddlers and babes in arms to a Superior Court Judge of North Carolina! We climbed 1,321 vertical feet in 4.5 miles. Aside from a rain shower, it was beautiful weather.
When some of the group arrived at the top, they realized they had not seen nine-year-old Emmett. Several of the men retraced our steps. The rest of us prayed. He had taken a wrong trail with others in the group, but when they had turned around, they didn’t realize he was out ahead of them. He eventually realized he was alone, and returned to the vehicle just as the men came looking for him. Relief and gratitude! We had a beautiful view of Lake James and the Linville Gorge—called the Grand Canyon of the East. It is always so refreshing to exercise in God’ amazing creation!
The conference began that evening and continued Saturday. The theme was “Parenting by God’s Promises.” The church has been studying Joel’s book on the subject. In six addresses, he spoke on many aspects—bringing our covenant children to Christ; parenting as prophet, priest, and king; encouragements and practical steps. We met some very special people, some who have huge challenges in their everyday life, such as a family with nine children, three of whom have a condition in which they are going deaf and blind. The dad is an orthopedic surgeon; the mom has a degree in psychology and homeschools the children. They drive a cheerfully painted mini-bus. Another couple has a daughter with a severe seizure disorder.
Pastor Thompson’s oldest daughter has a chromosome disorder. At 20 years of age, Ginnie can walk but not talk, except “Mama.” She has a constant smile and shows love to everyone. She doesn’t understand personal space, so she gets very close. She has certain favorites in the church. She adores her dad’s preaching. When the music plays, she stands in front of her dad or mom, and moves her arms up and down. All of these parents with special needs children have had their times of feeling they could hardly go on, but they all say they are so very blessed to have their special children! So much love! What a testimony of God’s grace working through trials! They ministered to us more than we ministered to them!
On Sunday, Joel preached on “Coping with Affliction in a Christ-centered Way,” “To Live is Christ and to Die is Gain,” and “The Utopian Marriage.” We had lots of fellowship over a soup and chili lunch the church shared. Friends formerly from Grand Rapids, now from Charlotte, NC, Leo and Marilyn Markwat, attended. This church has some very special, yet everyday people—doctors, a judge, businesspeople, teachers, nurses, factory workers, etc. We had wonderful fellowship, and they expressed much gratitude for Joel’s ministry. Soli Deo Gloria!
I am so grateful that the second volume of The Works of William Perkins is now out. Paul Smalley did a fine job editing this exposition of Galatians. Derek Thomas and I are grateful to be general editors of the Works. What wisdom our Puritan forefathers had!
The Works of William Perkins fills a major gap in Reformed and Puritan theology. Though Perkins is best known today for his writings on predestination, he also wrote prolifically on many subjects. His works filled over two thousand large pages of small print in three folio volumes and were reprinted several times in the decades after his death. However, his complete works have not been in print since the mid-seventeenth century. This modern, typeset edition of the Works includes four volumes of Perkins’s expositions of Scripture, three volumes of his doctrinal and polemical treatises, and three volumes of his practical writings.
The first volume, edited by J. Stephen Yuille, contains Perkins’s chronology of biblical history, his exposition of Christ’s temptation (Matt. 4:1-11), and his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
This second volume contains Perkins’s Commentary on Galatians. Perkins preached on Galatians each Lord’s Day for over three years. Ralph Cudworth obtained Perkins’s handwritten notes and edited them to publication. Because Perkins did not complete the commentary, Cudworth supplemented the manuscript with his own comments on chapter 6.
This commentary of Perkins and Cudworth on Galatians first appeared in print in 1604, two years after Perkins’s death. Perkins’s other writings had already begun to be gathered and published. When the three-volume edition of his collected works first appeared, Galatians occupied over 320 large folio pages in the second volume (1609). It continued to appear as a part of several editions of the Works through their final 1635 reprint. Evidently, interest in the commentary warranted its publication again as a separate volume in 1617.
Following the model taught in his treatise The Art of Prophesying, Perkins’s pattern in commenting on Galatians is to explain the text, deduce a few points of doctrine from it, answer objections raised against the doctrine, and then give practical uses of what the passage teaches.
J. I. Packer writes, “On the broad shoulders of William Perkins, epoch-making pioneer, stood an entire school of seventeenth-century Puritan pastors and divines, yet the Puritan reprint industry has steadily bypassed him. Now, however, he begins to reappear, admirably edited, and at last this yawning gap is being filled. Profound thanks to the publisher and heartfelt praise to God have become due.”
What would it be like to follow the apostles Paul and John as they traveled the ancient world to preach the gospel? In May 2016, I will be leading a tour with Dr. George Kroeze through areas of Turkey and Greece to visit the very sites where the apostles once ministered.
Dr. Kroeze, former professor of Biblical Studies at Kuyper College, writes,
You will love seeing the site of ancient Corinth where Paul preached for a year and a half as well as visiting Mars Hill where Paul addressed the Athenian philosophers. We will see the places where early Christians received letters of Christ through the revelation to John. You will thoroughly enjoy this trip as it stimulates your faith and lends further insights into biblical teaching.
The tour will take place from May 18 to June 1, and will visit the sites of the ancient cities Athens, Corinth, Berea, Thessaloniki, Philippi, Troas, Pergamum, Smyrna (Izmir), Philadelphia, Sardis, Laodicea, Colossae, Ephesus, and Constantinople (Istanbul). Along the way we will see impressive ruins of the Greek and Roman civilizations, and meet faithful Evangelical and Reformed Christians persevering in Greece and Turkey.
There is also an optional cruise on the Aegean Sea aboard the Celestyal Olympia beginning on May 13 to 20, leading up to the land tour.
1. Don’t idolize your pastor. Don’t expect him to be able to do what only God can do. Don’t make a savior of him.
2. Don’t criticize your pastor, unless he departs from the truth, and then do it with tears. And please don’t expect perfection. He is a mere man—a weak, sinful man at that, just like you. His office is divine, but his person is human. He sets before you treasure in an earthen vessel. If you don’t remember that, you will cry hosanna today, but will crucify him tomorrow.
3. Don’t avoid your pastor. Go to him, tell him your needs, open your soul, but don’t waste his precious time. It is your duty and privilege to go to him with your questions and spiritual troubles—and that will be to his encouragement and joy.
4. Do pray for your pastor. Pray for his soul, that he may be kept humble and holy. Pray for his body, that he may be kept strong and spared for many years. Pray that he may be a burning and shining light. Pray for his ministry that it may be abundantly blessed. Pray for his wife, his family, his sermon preparation, his delivery, his counseling. Pray your minister full and he will preach you full.
5. Do be a good listener to and doer of the sermons your pastor preaches. Listen to and obey your pastor. As long as he preaches the Scriptures, receive it as the very word of God. Remember, he is Christ’s gift to you.
6. Do be interested in your pastor. Don’t let all your conversation with him be focused only on you. Be kind to him. Show interest in him, his life, and the life of his family; he is human too!
7. Remember to appreciate your pastor’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses, always reminding yourself that your next pastor may not have your present pastor’s strengths. Don’t compare pastors to each other, but learn to appreciate each pastor whom God sends you for the peculiar gifts that God has given to that pastor.
8. Look above and beyond your pastor. Look to Him whom your pastor sets before you.
9. Do be coworkers with your pastor and the consistory. Be self-forgetters, Christ-exalters, and co-laborers. Covet humility, wisdom, peace, unity—and put on charity.
10. Keep an eternal perspective under your pastor’s ministry. Ask God that your pastor may give a good account of your soul on Judgment Day. Remember you don’t have to give an account of your pastor’s blemishes and strengths on the Day of days, but you do have to give an account of what you have done with the word that he will bring you. If you are as yet unsaved, look on his ministry as one more major opportunity God is giving you to receive with meekness His engrafted word. Through his ministry, the Lord is saying that He has more people from your church to be gathered into His eternal harvest—and why should it not be you? Oh, that you would know the day of your visitation under your pastor’s ministry!
1. Give priority to your personal communion with God. Put your own soul first: your maintaining communion with God is a prerequisite for being an effective pastor to your people. “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers” (Acts 20:28).
2. Give priority to prayer and holiness. Undertake no sermon, no pastoral work, no task of the ministry without seeking God’s face in Jesus Christ. Follow John Bunyan’s advice, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” Personal holiness is not only a necessary pursuit but a joyful one and is usually inseparable from divine success in the ministry.
3. Be bibline all your life. Be like Bunyan, of whom Spurgeon said, that if you pricked any vein, the blood that would flow out would be bibline. Read the Word, study the Word, believe the Word, pray over the Word, love the Word, live the Word, memorize the Word, meditate on the Word, sing the Word, and practice the Word.
4. Remember that preaching is the primary task of the ministry, and that to do it rightly, you need the Holy Spirit two times for every sermon: once in the study and then again on the pulpit.
5. Be profoundly thankful and humbled for the honor of being an ambassador of Jesus Christ. Remain convinced all your life that you have a crucial vocation, for you are dealing with never-dying souls for a never-ending eternity.
6. Preach Christ to the full. Be determined to know no man after the flesh—including yourself—and to glory in nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified, exalted, and coming again! Be a self-forgetter and a Christ-preacher. You can never preach Him enough. Devote the best energy of your life into preaching Him biblically, doctrinally, experientially, and practically. Resolve, like Thomas Boston, to leave the savor of Christ behind in all that you do.
7. Love the triune God; love your wife and children; love people; love your work.
8. Maintain a radical sense of dependency on the anointing of the Holy Spirit in all that you think, say, and do. Lean upon the Spirit at all times.
9. Ask God to give you a few, very close pastoral friends with whom you can hold each other accountable. Love your brethren in the ministry, and do not compete with them.
10. Live every day with an eternal perspective that fuels evangelistic urgency for the lost and pastoral love for the saints’ maturation. Keep eternity in view in all that you do, so that on the great day you may give a good account of your ministry and may hear your Master say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant… enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matt. 25:21)