For Whom Did Jesus Die?

I was recently asked to speak at a Men’s Conference at a nearby church in Nassau. Initially I was told that the theme would be the “Solas” of reformed theology and that my assignment would be to teach on “Soli Deo Gloria” (to God alone be the glory). Shortly after receiving this assignment, the conference theme changed to: “What Is The Gospel?”. I then came to understand that I was to attempt to answer the question, as best as I could, while staying with my assigned “Sola”.

The audio message below does not provide a comprehensive answer to the question: “What Is The Gospel?”, but it does make the assertion (based on Romans 3) that Christ did not merely die for our sake, but that He died for the sake of His Heavenly Father, and His righteousness.

I am indebted to Pastor John Piper who was the first to highlight for me the God-centredness of the Gospel in his best selling book, “Desiring God”.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I Need Thee, O I Need Thee

As a part of our congregation’s desire to promote theological education, we produce a recommended reading list for our congregation a few times a year. The list of 9 books that we recently recommended were all about the church. (Transformational Church, Simple Church, The Irresistible Church, The Purpose Driven Church, Being The Body, Nine Marks Of A Healthy Church, Onward Christian Soldiers, The Trellis and The Vine, 7 Practices Of Effective Ministry).

All nine of the books we recommended have been helpful in shaping me as a pastor and as a leader of a local congregation. I am grateful for these resources and for those who have produced them. One of the common features you’ll find when reading books about the church is there often is a prescribed number of activities or habits—“9 Marks”, “7 Practices”, “12 Traits”, 5 steps, and so on.

I recognize that such numbers are intended to focus our effort, rather than serve as an exhaustive list of things needed for ministry. Allow me then to weigh in with this brief post, offering but one trait to pursue: desperation.

Yes, desperation.

Of all the things that have served me well in my 15 years of ministry, desperation for God’s presence in my life has been the most vital asset.

That’s not to suggest that nothing else matters. Leadership matters. Good preaching is a must. There is value in strong administration. Wise delegation is critical. A mission emphasis is needed. The list is long. I get why some want to boil the list down to 12, 9, 7, etc.

There are times, however, when it has been helpful for me to focus on one thing. The pressure of pastoring effectively can be intense, and the responsibilities set before us are often numerous. What keeps my anxiety at bay is the notion that “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

Accordingly, I find that the one thing I must do is seek God with all that is within me. I am quite literally desperate for His help, remembering the words of Jesus, “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

I’ve been reading the Book of Exodus lately and I’ve found myself resonating with Moses who, by every appearance, was also desperate for the presence of God. Moses is struggling to lead the Hebrew people through the desert and is constantly coming to God for assurance of His favor. Accommodating Moses’ desperation, the Lord replies, “My presence will go with you” (Exodus 33:14).

I love Moses’ response: “If Your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here” (Exodus 33:15).

Moses understands that it would be a complete waste of time to attempt to lead, or do anything, without God’s help.

I long for every Christian pastor to come to that same realization. That, before we seek to implement our 24 step plan, before we launch that new outreach program, before we seek to do anything…we seek God first.

Friend, I urge you: Be desperate for God.

Few hymns capture such a spirit the way the hymn, I Need Thee Every Hour, does.

I need thee every hour; stay thou nearby;
temptations lose their power when thou art nigh.

I need thee every hour, in joy or pain;
come quickly and abide, or life is vain.

We want our efforts to count for something. We don’t want anything that we do to be in vain. There is a way to make things count. There is a particular way to go if we want to make a lasting difference. We need to go with God…Every step of the way.

As a pastor, one of the best things I can do for the congregation entrusted to my care is to model desperation. Model desperation for the One “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).

Stay desperate my friends!

How To Fight Discouragement

despair and depressionI know what it is like to be discouraged. I know what it is like to feel as if I’m being pushed to the brink. Thankfully, I also know what it is like to be rescued by a God who promises, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble and I will rescue you, and you will honour Me” (Ps. 50:15).

I delight in the reality that we worship a God who helps the helpless. I rejoice that when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, there also walks my God, an ever present help in times of trouble (Ps. 23:4; Ps. 46:1).

If you’ve ever battled the giant named Discouragement, I want you to know that this is a common war. As you survey the Scriptures you’ll see that many fought this same giant.

Discouragement emerges when certain conditions exist. Recently, I’ve been leading the worshippers at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk through the Book of Nehemiah. Here we discovered that discouragement emerges when we focus on what is lacking rather than on what has been accomplished.

Those attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem were singing a sorrowful song: “So much rubble for us to haul! Worn out and weary, will we ever finish the wall?” (Neh. 4:10).

At this point in the story the wall was already halfway built. But instead of celebrating their progress, the builders were focused on the work which remained. They began the work with a “glass half full” optimism, but it had been replaced with a “glass half empty” pessimism. The rubble which once inspired their efforts to rebuild had now become the thing which inspired their complaints.

The second condition which invites discouragement is when our strength fails.

Think about it. When your energy tank is full, discouragement struggles to take hold of us. “Rolling with the punches” is much easier to do at the beginning of the round than it is at the end of the round.

It was said of those rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall that they had become “worn out and weary“.

It’s not as if we like being discouraged. Most of us don’t mean to be pessimists, it’s just that when we’re exhausted—when our strength fails us—the natural drift is towards discouragement.

Along similar lines, the third condition which invites discouragement is when our confidence fails.

The lament being sounded by Nehemiah’s countrymen was, “Will we ever finish the wall?

Again, this is a shift from a former way of thinking. Surely the work would have never begun unless they believed the wall could be rebuilt. Having set out on what they once thought was an obtainable vision, they now found themselves doubting whether the job could even get done. Moreover, the builders were aware of the opposition—they were mindful of those who not only wanted to hinder the work, but wanted to also inflict harm on them. With a growing number of factors working against them, the builders began losing their confidence.

A focus on what is lacking, failed strength, and a loss of confidence—add those components together and you have a recipe for profound discouragement.

How do we fight this giant? What is the remedy?

Quite simply, the remedy is GOD.

I agree with John Calvin who has said, “Whatever we need, whatever we lack, is in God.”

Focusing on God changes our perspective, and calling upon God brings increased strength and confidence.

I think of David, the shepherd boy, who did not consider the size of the giant before him, but the size of the God behind him. Similarly, Nehemiah counters the discouragement of his workers with a call to “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome” (Neh. 4:14).

If God is the remedy, then prayer is the means to applying that remedy.

Consider the words of the prophet Isaiah, “(God) gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Even the young grow weary and tired and vigourous young men stumble badly, but those who wait upon the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:29-31).

If you are exhausted, if you are doubtful, if you are afraid, I want you to know that a sufficient remedy is within your reach.

The Lord, “who is great and awesome” stands ready to help you.

Fight discouragement with constant prayer. “Call upon the Lord in the day of trouble and He will rescue you, and you will honour Him.

God Will Change You

I am currently experiencing a number of changes in my life that I’m not real happy about. My daughter recently pointed to an old photograph of me and commented on how much hair I used to have. Over the past year I’ve noticed a subtle emergence of gray hair. I’ve also noticed that my body is not coping with the rigors of sport as well as it used to. I spend far too much time with my physio therapist.

Sensing my frustration with these changes, you can imagine my delight as I read about the positive transformation spoken of by the apostle Paul in 2Corinthians 4:16. Here Paul assures us, “Though outwardly, we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2Cor. 4:16).

What’s this transformation about? What are we being transformed into?

Paul answers, “(we) are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, with ever-increasing glory” (2Cor. 3:18).

We know from Romans 12 that there are things for us to do–there are things prescribed for us as we pursue Christ-likeness. In other words, growing in Christ-likeness requires our participation. But here’s the awesome thing: Growing in Christ-likeness does not depend upon your participation alone. The reason we can be confident in our spiritual progress is because God promises to help us along.

When Paul says that we “are being transformed into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory“, he says in the same sentence that this “comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Cor. 3:18).

Now, someone might ask, “Why do I need to change? Doesn’t God accept me the way I am?”

Yes, God receives you as you are, but He does not leave you the way He finds you.

Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you” (Ezek. 36:25, 26).

By His grace, God saves impoverished souls, and in His love He does not leave us as impoverished souls.

He cleanses us. He imparts new qualities to us. In short, God changes us.

And so, even as I mourn the breakdown of my physical body, I rejoice at the inward transformation that is taking place. And as I struggle to help this process along with my imperfect devotion to Christ, I am consoled by the fact that God is nevertheless changing me.

As the hymn writer well puts it, “Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Amazing Grace!

The Blessing Of Friendship

LtoR: Cliff Cline, Duncan Macgregor Jr., Bryn MacPhail, Matt Pomeroy, Dave Terry, Ric Jacka

The popular proverb states that “You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends.”

I think this cliche is meant to console those of us who have to cope with challenging family dynamics. Our family—our parents, our siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins—may cause us stress, but we have an opportunity to surround ourselves with individuals who impart energy to us by the manner of their friendship.

I don’t mean for this post to sound anti-family—I deeply love my imperfect, idiosyncratic, family of which I am a part. My aim here, rather, is to highlight the blessing of friendship. I say “blessing” as a way of qualifying the notion that we “choose our friends”. Of course we choose our friends, but I also strongly believe that God has positioned certain people in our life in order to facilitate the fostering of friendships that bring us encouragement and draw us closer to Him.

I’ve just returned from 28 days in Ontario, Canada (where I was born and raised), and the theme which continues to linger in my mind is the theme of friendship. Having been away (living in Nassau, Bahamas) for 13 months, there were many that I was eager to reconnect with. While it proved impossible to see all of our friends, we did get some meaningful time with some of our best friends.

In Proverbs we read, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). I feel so blessed to say that there are men in my life who, by every appearance “stick closer than a brother”.

One friend, whom I met as a 12 year-old at camp (Muskoka Woods), along with his wife Sandee, hosted us for three nights and treated us to gourmet food and poolside fun. Twenty-six years later, Duncan Macgregor continues to stick closer than a brother.

My former clerk of Session from St. Giles Kingsway, Don Taylor, and his wife, Lois, hosted a dinner party for us. When I was Don’s pastor, he was my always-supportive colleague and wise friend. Seeing Don again reminded me how blessed I was, and am, to have such a loyal and generous friend.

After some time at our our cottage in Eastern Ontario we returned to the Greater Toronto Area where we would spend a night at the home of Dave & MaryAnne Terry. Dave was my “best man” from my wedding day, 17 years ago, and has been among my very best friends for two decades now. Our friendship overflowed into ministry support when David served as an elder at St. Giles Kingsway during my time as Senior Pastor there.

The next evening took us to Ric & Andrea Jacka’s home. Andrea, a dental hygienist, kindly cleaned all of the MacPhail’s teeth—a luxury for us since we have yet to procure a dental plan in The Bahamas. Ric & Andrea have been one of our closest “couple” friends since we connected at the church of my student ministry (Good Shepherd Community Church) 17 years ago.

Our final night was spent in Beeton, ON–the town where I began ordained ministry 14 years ago. We stayed at the home of Jim & Fiona Allan. Jim was one of my elders from Fraser Presbyterian Church in Tottenham, ON, and in that ministry season there was no one I leaned on more than Jim (outside of my wife, Allie, of course!). I remember reading in 1Samuel how Jonathan made an oath to David “because he loved him as he loved himself” (1Sam. 20:17) and thinking that Jim and I had a friendship like that. No, we still have a friendship like that!

I missed seeing one of my closest friends, BK Smith, who now lives in Victoria, BC, where he was recently called to pastor. BK’s Christian integrity has inspired and challenged me for two decades. Time with BK, reminds me of the Proverb, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17).

I could go on—as there are other men that God has used over the years to provide me with profound encouragement (Heb. 10:24,25) and comfort (2Cor. 7:5,6). There are also the new friends I have made since transitioning to Nassau, Bahamas. God appears to be repeating His gracious pattern of surrounding me with loyal, God-fearing, friends.

As I consider the blessing of friendship I have received, I am immensely grateful. I am also challenged by the generosity of these friends. I don’t know that I can ever match, or repay, their kindness to me. But I am nonetheless inspired to attempt, in my own small way, to give myself to others so that they too may know the blessing of friendship.