On Maundy Thursday I was interviewed on JCN’s “The Platform” by Wendell Jones and Godfrey Eneas. I was asked to explain why Jesus exclaimed “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” while hanging on the cross. The video above provides part of my answer. The audio below is a more comprehensive answer from my Good Friday message, delivered at St. Andrew’s Kirk, “God Forsaken For Our Sake”.
Just before Christmas I had the opportunity to be a guest on “The Platform”, a Bahamian talk show. Given that I’ve only lived in The Bahamas for less than two years, the hosts recognized my limitations in answering questions related to Bahamian culture and politics. Accordingly, to my delight, they asked a series of questions aimed at uncovering my theological convictions.
Providentially, I had the opportunity to explain the gospel—that is, I got to reflect on what the Scriptures say about moral perfection and how it relates to getting into heaven. I think I surprised The Platform hosts when I pointed out that Jesus commands our perfection (Matthew 5:48; Leviticus 11:45). Maybe reading that surprises you as well. The good news is that getting into heaven doesn’t hinge on your efforts to “be a good person”.
As you can imagine, a talk show interview does not offer the opportunity to be as thorough with my answer as I would like to be. A more comprehensive explanation of the Christian gospel can be found in my sermon manuscript, “The Necessity of The Law That Cannot Save“, based on Romans 3.
And, perhaps one of the best gospel explanations within a hymn is in Augustus Toplady’s, “Rock of Ages”:
Not the labours of my hands can fulfill Thy laws demands,
Could my zeal no respite know; could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone; Thou must save, and Thou alone.
During my years at Ridley College, and during my time at the University of Western Ontario (beginning as an English major), I had the opportunity to read a wide variety of excellent novels. Particularly memorable were Wuthering Heights, To Kill A Mockingbird, Gulliver’s Travels, 1984, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Frankenstein (I had a Sci-Fi bent). As good as these books were, none of them changed me.
As I set out below the 10 Christian books which did have a profound affect upon me, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that all “Christian” books transform and all “secular” books fail to transform. I don’t subscribe to that. I love how science fiction books stretch my imagination and challenge me to think outside of the box. I have read “secular” books that have elicited powerful emotions from me. I have also read Christian books that were a complete bore, and some which were utter nonsense. But, at the end of the day, as I consider the books (outside of the Bible) which had the biggest impact on me, it was this group of 10–all of which happened to be written for the benefit of followers of Jesus.
My good friend, Brian K. Smith, introduced me to this book, and John MacArthur, in 1991 when I was a freshman in University. Having become a Christian as a teenager, I struggled to live that out consistently. This book challenged me by sensibly laying out what Jesus requires from His followers. Having understood that Jesus was my Saviour from sin, this book cemented in my mind the necessity of Jesus also being my Lord and Master. My Christian walk has never been the same after reading this compelling book.
Before I even knew what an Arminian was, I was one. I imagined that I was the master of my own destiny. I reckoned that the faith I had in Jesus originated with me. It was again during my University (undergrad) years when a friend’s father encouraged me to read this book. I might say that Pink’s book was the sandpaper that prepared the surface of my heart so that the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereignty (as revealed in the Scriptures) might stick. Pink boldly lays before the reader two alternatives: “God must either rule, or be ruled; sway, or be swayed; accomplish His will, or be thwarted by His creatures.”
I am certain that during my undergrad years of University I read more Christian theology / lifestyle books than I did University textbooks. Jerry Bridges’ book was one that I read a couple of times during those years. I had been lukewarm in my faith for too long. The gap between what I believed and how I behaved was too big. Bridge’s book set me on the path to pursuing holiness. To keep this from becoming a legalistic pursuit, I strongly recommend following this work with Bridge’s Transforming Grace, which I read in 1993.
If there was ever a book that I wished I had read before graduating from seminary, it is this one. It wasn’t until I was in my second charge as a Presbyterian Pastor that I was introduced to this excellent work. Recommended to me at a conference at Alistair Begg’s church, Lectures To My Students helped me to recalibrate my personal walk with Christ in a way that it overflows into the ministry entrusted to me. Before reading this work, I fear that I had compartmentalized my private faith from my public faith. A must read for every pastor and soon-to-be pastor.
This is another work that I picked up at the recommendation of Alistair Begg. In my mind, this is the best book ever written on preaching. Why do I include it in a list of the books that helped “change my life”? Because one of the strengths of this work is Lloyd-Jones’ understanding that preaching and the preacher can’t be separated. The one inevitably affects the other. One of my favourite quotes from the book: “The preacher’s first, and the most important task is to prepare himself, not his sermon.”
I think it was 1999 when I first heard John Piper preach at Moody Pastors Conference. I’ll never forget the main point of his message: “Stop serving Jesus…as if He needed you!” Piper was addressing then, and does so thoroughly in this book, our tendency to want to “pay God back” for the grace we receive in Jesus. Piper makes the compelling argument that we cannot live the Christian life today fuelled by yesterday’s grace. We need grace today! Furthermore, we need grace in the future in order to do that which we are called to do.
Having come to accept the doctrines of grace, as revealed in the Scriptures and explained by the Reformers, what remained for me was to understand how God’s sovereignty affects every aspect of our everyday life in a most positive way. Hearing R.C. Sproul speak on this over a weekend of lectures at a Ligonier Conference in Toronto, and reading this work, hugely advanced my understanding of God’s sovereignty and what it means for Him to work “all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28). One of my favourite quotes from the book: “The Providence of God is our fortress, our shield, and our very great reward. It is what provides courage and perseverance for His saints.”
The turning point within my first pastoral charge (1998-2002) was hearing Piper preach at Moody, and reading this book. I feel like there is a huge difference between the Bryn MacPhail who pastored and preached before reading this book, and the Bryn MacPhail who has laboured since, guided by the compelling principle that “God is most glorified in me, when I am most satisfied in Him.” Members of my congregation at the time even noted the change in my preaching, which had shifted to a new focus: magnifying the supremacy of Jesus in all things. The other distinguishing mark was learning to labour as a delight rather than as a duty. I imagine that this book makes a lot of Christians’ Top 10 lists.
I read Crazy Love in 2009, in the final year of my pastoral charge in Toronto. This book challenged and changed me on so many levels I don’t even know where to start. Using this space for any kind of review won’t do this book justice. You’ll have to read it for yourself. Disclaimer: This book will make you squirm. I highly recommend the accompanying video curriculum (which I have done with 4 groups in the last 2 years). Chan has a endearing, sensible, manner to him which helps immensely as he lays out some intense biblical principles for us to apply. One of my favourite quotes from the book: “God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.”
I was 19 years old when I first read the Institutes. If that sounds young, remember that Calvin wrote the first edition of the Institutes in his mid 20s! I confess to first reading Calvin in order to understand this mysterious doctrine of election. It’s as if I went mining for one gem, but found a myriad of gems. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once described preaching as “logic on fire”–that is exactly how I would describe Calvin’s work in the Institutes. To reduce the Institutes to a treatise on election is to entirely miss the boat. Nowhere else have I found such a rich Christology, such a profound description of the majesty of God, and such a compelling description of how the church should conduct itself. For a book loaded with complex theological statements, one of my favourite quotes from the Institutes is beautifully simple: “Whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God.”
If we’re honest, we’ll likely confess that what Jesus does to the man born blind is actually quite disgusting.
John reports that Jesus mixes some dirt with His saliva and rubs it on the blind man’s eyes (John 9:6).
Sheer curiosity makes me wonder what the blind man’s initial response to this sensation was. I don’t think we should imagine the man immediately saying, “Oh, I get it, spit and dirt on my face—you’re going to heal my blindness!”
I wonder if the man’s initial response was one of disgust. I wonder if Jesus offended him. I wonder if the man’s initial response was one of doubt and scepticism.
Whatever the man’s initial response was, it eventually gave way to obedience. Jesus instructs the man, “Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam” (John 9:7). The man born blind complies. John says that the man went and washed and came way seeing.
I think there is an obvious analogy to the Gospel here.
The apostle Paul explains to the Corinthians that to some people the Gospel is foolishness, and to others it is offensive.
The Gospel describes how God takes on human flesh, lives a perfect life, and yet is arrested as a criminal and is executed upon a Roman cross. The Gospel tells us that by trusting in this God-man, and in His death, we gain salvation.
To some that sounds about as plausible as healing a blind man with dirt and spit.
Some hear the Gospel and are sceptical… “This sounds too easy—this sounds too good to be true.” Some hear the Gospel and are bothered by it. They are bothered by all the talk of sin and judgment. They are bothered by the notion that salvation is only possible by trusting in the gruesome death of Jesus. But, thankfully, some hear the Gospel message and believe it and, as a result, come away seeing.
It is a huge deal for a man born blind to be able to see. So we’re likely not surprised to see this miracle become “the talk of the town”. And we’re probably not surprised to read that the religious leaders of the day wanted to investigate this miracle. The Pharisees ask the man how he had received his sight. I love the simplicity of the man’s reply: “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see” (John 9:15).
Again, this is an excellent analogy for how salvation comes:
God does something (He initiates healing / Regeneration)
We do something (We believe in the Gospel / Faith)
And then we see
The healing of a man born blind is massively significant. And yet, this healing is not the main point. This healing demonstrates the will and the power of God to heal spiritual blindness. It is fitting then that Jesus and this man meet up again in verse 35.
35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” 38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
The man who was healed of his physical blindness now gets healing for his spiritual blindness.
At first identification, the man born blind refers to his healer as “the man they call Jesus” (John 9:11). During their second encounter, however, the man confesses “Lord, I believe” and proceeds to worship Jesus.
Permit me to draw out one final aspect from this analogy of sight. Though the man’s sight was perfectly restored, there would have been many things he would have been incapable of identifying. The man would need help comprehending what he was now seeing. He would need someone to help him to identify landmarks and the various species of animals, insects, and birds. He could see, but the work of discovery still lay ahead.
Friends, if the Lord has healed your spiritual blindness, remember that the work of spiritual discovery remains.
Perhaps there are some who share my experience of reading the Bible before becoming a Christian and then reading it again after receiving Christ. I recall reading many passages after becoming a Christian and asking myself: “How did I not see that the first time?”
The answer: I was blind. I needed a cure for my spiritual blindness before I could see what the Bible was saying.
Now, it’s also possible that you don’t regard yourself as a seeing person, but rather you regard yourself as someone looking to learn more about Jesus and His claims. It’s possible that you are cognizant of your impaired vision and you are seeking healing. And maybe the Gospel looks like the intellectual equivalent to putting mud on your eyes….
But I want to encourage you: This is how Jesus heals. God uses humble means and a simple message to initiate healing. What is left is for us to wash the mud off of our eyes—what is left is for us to believe this Gospel.
Once we place our trust in Jesus, we will be able to confess with the man born blind, “I was blind, but now I see.” (John 9:25). And with new vision, the privilege of discovery awaits.
I don’t imagine that this healed man continued to beg for alms at the Temple gates. I don’t imagine that he went home and sat around his living room all day. I imagine this man became engrossed in discovering what he had missed seeing all of these years.
Similarly, if we are “seeing people” in the spiritual sense, we ought to be seeking to discover the beauty of Christ that we were previously missing. And so my challenge to you is to dig into the Scriptures with a view to discovering all that God is for us in Jesus.
If I were to generalize I would say to you that those who go to the Scriptures with impaired vision see religion, and those who go to the Scriptures with restored sight see a relationship.
Let’s engage in that relationship. Let’s go to Jesus. Let’s worship Him.