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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

A Prayer for Entering the Unknown Waters of This Year

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An old, but good prayer for the New Year from The Valley of Vision:

O Lord,

Length of days does not profit me except the days are passed in thy presence, in thy service, to thy glory.

Give me a grace that precedes, follows, guides, sustains, sanctifies, aids every hour,
  that I may not be one moment apart from thee,
  but may rely on thy Spirit,
  to supply every thought,
  speak in every word,
  direct every step,
  prosper every work,
  build up every mote of faith,
  and give me a desire
      to show forth thy praise,
      testify thy love,
      advance thy kingdom.

I launch my bark on the unknown waters of this year,
  with thee, O Father, as my harbour,
  thee, O Son, at my helm,
  thee O Holy Spirit, filling my sails.

Guide me to heaven with my loins girt,
  my lamp burning,
  my ear open to thy calls,
  my heart full of love,
  my soul free.

Give me grace to sanctify me,
  thy comforts to cheer,
  thy wisdom to watch,
  thy right hand to guide,
  thy counsel to instruct,
  thy law to judge,
  thy presence to stabilize.

May thy fear be my awe,
  thy triumphs my joy.

 

This He Did Out of Sheer Love

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From Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word of God (2.8). If you’re looking for a profitable spiritual exercise this Christmas, try reading through this and stopping to praise God for the truth described in each sentence here:

But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father's Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own.

Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.

Choose to be Attracted to Your Wife (or Potential Wife)

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Every so often, I have conversations with some single guy or another who has his eyes on a great young lady but is concerned that he’s not “all that attracted to her”. Basically, he’s worried that if he pursues this woman he’s going to wind up spending his life in the nightmarish prison of a long-term, committed love relationship with someone that he doesn’t find to be extremely physically attractive.
I have little patience with this kind of conversation, so I’d like to offer four thoughts that may be helpful to you if you are this guy or if you know someone like him: 

  1. Have you looked in the mirror lately? It’s unlikely that the paunch hanging over the waistband of your cargo shorts represents her idea of masculine perfection. And even if women are less hung up on physical appearances, you’re probably not the romantic and emotional connection she’s been dreaming of her whole life either. We’re all making compromises here, Jack.
  1. It could also be that all of the porn you’re looking at is warping your perception on this matter. You know that women don’t actually look like that, right? The virtuous, godly, stay-at-home wife with the body and moves of a porn star doesn’t exist anywhere except in your mind.
  1. The Bible says if you choose a wife based on appearances rather than character, you’re a moron (Proverbs 31:30).
  1. We can choose to be attracted to our spouse. We don’t need to let beauty be defined by Madison Avenue or the Internet. Just because our culture declares something to be beautiful or unattractive doesn’t make it so. The Bible tells us to delight in our wives and their bodies (Proverbs 5:18). Your wife should be beautiful to you because she is your wife.   

The question “How hot is she?” seems to be one that only single men ask (though I guess the recently departed and little mourned “young-pastor-bragging-about-his-smoking-hot-wife” phenomenon didn’t help). It’s just not that big a deal to well-adjusted married people. If you find a woman who loves Jesus, whose company you enjoy, and who will be a faithful companion through the joys and trials of life… you should probably marry her. If she'll have you.

Sharing the Gospel With Gay People*

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To be honest, sharing the gospel with gay people* can be intimidating. There is an increasing social stigma that comes with believing that homosexuality is a sin. Frankly, you risk being treated like a racist bigot when you tell a homosexual that they have offended God and should repent.

But here are three questions that I have found useful in these types of conversations. They can help clear some of the brush out of the way so that you can talk about Jesus (which is, after all, the point!). One caveat: people are not evangelistic projects. You need to communicate genuine, personal care for them as a person or else you might do more harm than good when you share Christ with them.

1. Can you still be friends with me even if I think homosexuality is a sin? This question helps to take the temperature down a little and put the “intolerance” shoe on the other foot. It makes it clear that you’re willing to be their friend, but you’re not sure if they are able to accept you as you are. If Christians are going to be a persecuted minority, we might as well take advantage of it!

2. Hypothetically, if you knew that God disapproved of homosexual behavior, would you stop and obey him? This gets at a key issue. It’s not usually fruitful to argue about the meaning of Hebrew words and the context of Romans 1. The bigger issue is whether we are willing to conform our lives to God’s will no matter what we want personally. Follow up questions can include:

  • How do you think we can know what God approves of and disapproves of?
  • Knowing what you do about yourself, do you think you are qualified to be the final judge of what is right and what is wrong?
  • Are all of the desires that spring up unbidden in you good and right? How do you know which ones you should act on and which ones you shouldn’t?

3. Are you happy? This isn’t a foolproof question, but can be quite useful. People in rebellion against God are often miserable. But there’s a certain insanity that keeps us from realizing that following our desires has not paid off at all in terms of personal peace, joy, and happiness. So it can be helpful simply to point out that their philosophy of happiness (do what feels right to me) hasn’t paid off (just as God said it wouldn’t). This opens a door to talk about Jesus who came to give us abundant life.

Ultimately, that is the key. It doesn’t do a person ensnared in sin a lot of good for you to win an argument about homosexuality in the Bible or wider society. They need to be convinced that when God calls them to obey him, he is not taking away the cookies - he’s taking away the poison. When Jesus calls us to lose everything, he’s giving us a far greater treasure in himself.

 

* I don’t particularly care for the term “gay people” or “homosexual” because it transfers the conversation from behavior and inclination to identity. I use it here for the sake of brevity.

Pastors: A Good Way to Eat Your Pauline Vegetables

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Pastors in reformed circles tend to be strong on justification, and how our justification should shape our daily discipleship. But I'm not sure I hear Paul's emphasis on union with Christ, with its massive implications for our day-to-day discipleship, sounding out from pulpits quite as clearly.

With that in mind, I wanted to draw attention to an excellent new resource on Paul that could help balance out our theological diet: Con Campbell's recent book Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study.

No doubt the book requires plenty of crunching, chewing, and patient digesting. But, like eating your vegetables, I'd suggest that engaging this new book more than repays the effort in biblical nourishment. 

Here are a couple ways you might use the book, besides the hardy feat of plowing through the whole thing:

1) Skip to dessert--chapters 10-12--and carefully digest Campbell's work on union with Christ and Christian living, union with Christ and justification, and his theological summary of union with Christ. 

2) When you preach through any of Paul's epistles, check the Scripture index. Add Cambpell's book to the list of exegetical resources you consult. You'll find tons of brief, detailed discussions of specific passages that can help your preaching.

Book review: Baptism--Three Views

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The most recent issue of Foundations: An International Journal of Evangelical Theology has just been released, which is entirely devoted to baptism. Looks like a good issue. See, for example, Mike Gilbart Smith's article on baptizing children.

Here is my review of a three views book on baptism. Spoiler alert: it's a good book!

Review: Baptism: Three Views, edited by David F. Wright, with contributions by Sinclair B. Ferguson, Anthony N. S. Lane, Bruce A. Ware

IVP Academic, 2009, 200 pages

There are two opposite errors that evangelical Christians easily stumble into on the topic of baptism: we treat it with too little or too much importance.

The former error, I assume, is more common these days. The thinking here is, the West is secularizing; we live in post-Christendom now; let’s not divide over non-essentials. Instead we must affirm the main thing we all share—the gospel.

The latter error, more common perhaps in former times, is still found wherever provincial mindsets cannot see that the work of Christ’s kingdom is afoot in denominations beyond their own. My own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in the United States, often succumbs to this temptation. I remember one convention speech where the speaker made some remark about “As goes the SBC, so goes Christianity in America. As goes Christianity in America, so goes Christianity in…” You can guess how this fairly arrogant progression of thought ends.

The solution to the first error is to recognize that baptism may not be essential, but it is important. The solution to the second is to realize that baptism is important, but not essential. In short, Christians need at least three categories for setting theological priorities: essential, important, and unimportant. We often miss that middle category, and act as if everything is either essential or completely unimportant.

Baptism is not essential because it does not save. The word of the gospel alone saves. Yet baptism is important because (i) it proclaims the gospel visibly; (ii) it helps to protect the gospel from generation to generation; (iii) and it serves to publicly identify the people of heaven on earth, both for their sake and for the sake of the nations.

To help us sort through several prominent views on baptism comes the helpful book Baptism: Three Views, edited by the late professor of patristics and Reformation Christianity, David F. Wright. Presbyterian minister Sinclair Ferguson presents the case for infant or paedobaptism (“paedo” for child). Baptist theologian Bruce Ware agues for believers’ baptism or credobaptism (“credo” for creed). And professor of historical theology Anthony Lane offers a dual-practice position.   

My younger sister, who was raised a Baptist like me but now attends a Presbyterian church with her husband and a newborn, recently asked me for a good lay-level book on the topic. I happily commended this one. It is written in a friendly, easy-to-follow way. Each author provides a reasonably compelling defense of his position. And the book’s format is conducive to a fruitful interchange.

All three authors give a 30 to 35 page presentation of their position, which is followed by a 5 to 10 page response from the other two, and is then concluded with an approximately 5 page rejoinder by the original presenter. This creates—I dare say—a fun dynamic, allowing the reader to see the different sides on any given point of dispute without getting bogged down in the intricacies of one position. It is an ideal format for this type of topic.

WARE ON BELIEVERS’ BAPTISM

Ware opens the conversation by doing what Baptist theologians typically do: he offers a definition of the disputed term and then marshals a host of texts before the reader. To summarize in bite-sized morsels, Ware, who alone argues for both a particular mode (immersion) and subject (believers) of baptism, presents these challenges:

1.     The root of the Greek word baptō means “immerse” or “submerge” (21).

2.     In terms of usage, the New Testament describes scenes of “going down to the water” or “coming up out of the water” of believers (e.g. Matt. 3:16; Acts 8:38)(21-23).

3.     Every New Testament instruction or command of baptism involves repentance, faith, or something else that presumes conscious belief (e.g. Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38; 2:41; 8:12; 8:35-38; 9:18), including the “household texts” (16:32-34; 18:8)(24-27; 29-35).

4.     No text in the New Testament explicitly mentions the baptism of infants (29-40), and the favorite texts of paedobaptists don’t say what they think they say (e.g. Acts 2:38-39).  

5.     “Only baptism by immersion provides the symbolism of dying to the old and being raised to the new life in Christ” (27).

6.     The old covenant incorporated people at two levels, both the ethnic and national as well as the spiritual or promise; but the new covenant incorporates only those who have been forgiven of the sins and received God’s law on their hearts, i.e. those who have repented and believed. Hence, the people of the new covenant, the church, is not a mixed community—“at least in principle and by structure and design” (emph. orig., 50; 41-47).  There is no category for unbelieving covenant members.

7.     Circumcision, too, functioned at both levels (ethnic/national and spiritual/promise). Which means, there is both continuity and discontinuity between circumcision and baptism. Both are a sign and seal of their respective covenants (see Rom. 4:11), but circumcision had an ethnic/national element that has fallen away. Only the spiritual/promise remains. Hence, the children of believers should not be baptized (45).

8.     Not surprisingly, the only explicit connection the New Testament makes between circumcision and baptism is drawn between spiritual circumcision of the heart and baptism (Col. 2:11-12)(46, 116).  

9.     A growing number of scholars suggest that most churches practiced believer’s baptism in the first four to six centuries of the church’s existence, and when infant baptism was practiced, it was treated as necessary for the remission of sins, hardly a theology most Protestant paedobaptists would welcome (47-49).

10. Believers’ baptism grounds the regenerate nature of the church.

11. Baptists link the objective work of Christ with the subjective response of faith (73).

Ware rests his case lightly on historical grounds, largely on exegetical grounds, but not insignificantly on historical-redemptive grounds.

FERGUSON ON PAEDOBAPTISM

Sinclair Ferguson makes his case mostly in this last historical-redemptive category, which of course is what Presbyterians do so well. He offers these challenges:

1.     In terms of mode, the New Testament baptismal accounts do not require immersion since pouring might have occurred (even in Matt. 3:16 or Acts 8:38) (51-53).

2.     The early church attests to the practice of infant baptism, as with the third century Apostolic Tradition which refers to baptizing children who are not yet able to speak (79-84).

3.     As with Abraham’s circumcision, baptism is a sign and seal of the righteousness that comes by faith. But where believers’ baptism emphasizes what the believer does in responding by faith, the paedobaptist emphasizes what Christ has done (53-55; 86-91; 92-96). It is a Christo-centric emblem, not a fidecentric one. Emphasis is on the movement from objective to subjective, not the opposite.

4.     The household baptism texts demonstrate that the Old Testament’s covenantal understanding of the family continues (56-57). God would not promote the family unit in the Old Testament only to displace it in the new, and nothing in the New Testament suggests the family has been displaced (106-07). The epochal movement from Old Covenant to New presents not a contraction (removing the family) but an expansion (adding the nations, as well as women into the covenantal sign).

5.     Jeremiah includes the “to you and your seed” principle in his exposition of the new covenant (Jer. 32:38-40), as do all divine covenants prior to Pentecost (57-58; 101, 103-04).

6.     The fact that the way of salvation has always been the same suggests that the ordinance which replaces circumcision, which was a sign of that salvation, can also be given to infants (100-01; 104).

7.     Peter’s promise at Pentecost specifically underscores that these promises also go to the seed of believers (Acts 2:38-39)(103-04).

8.     Christ specifically blesses not just children (Mark 10:13-16) but seemingly babies (Luke 18:15-17)(107-08).

No doubt Ferguson exegetes texts, like Ware. But the overall paedobaptist argument depends less on straightforward reading of the texts and more heavily on a canonical framework that informs how one reads the baptism texts. Ferguson calls Ware’s approach “proof-textual” (105), which is always a convenient epithet when the proof-texts don’t immediately work in your favor, at least on the surface.

To be forthright, reading these first two accounts back to back did make me think, “Perhaps this explains why the Presbyterians I know have more education than the Baptists I know.” Yes, that’s a stereotype, but I say that as a Baptist. The credobaptist account, I dare say, is just easier to grab onto for the common Joe (“Look, the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip went down to the water!”). The paedobaptist account, honestly, requires greater theological sophistication and canonical sensitivity, at least if you are not a first-century Jew. That does not mean it is right or wrong. It simply means a person in the twenty-first century who is not accustomed to conversations about Old Testament circumcision has to think harder to see it.

LANE ON MIXED PRACTICE

Anthony Lane, whose position will be less familiar to most readers, treats baptism on the pages of the New Testament not as “believers’ baptism” but as “converts’ baptism.” This subtle shift emphasizes the immediacy of a person’s baptism upon conversion: converts get baptized to show they are converts.

Conversion, Lane argues, consists of four steps: repentance, faith, baptism, and reception of the Holy Spirit. That does not mean baptism is regenerative or a salvific requirement, as such. Lane acknowledges that the thief on the cross was saved. His point is simply that baptism is the flip side of faith. It is how faith expresses itself.  

When it comes to the children of believers—whether infants or not—Lane appreciates the paedobaptist emphasis on the corporate and familial nature of the faith, and so assumes the early Christians would have done something to adapt or modify the practice of convert baptism for their children. Since conversion involves all four steps listed above, some may have concluded that nothing would be lost if baptism comes first, to be followed years later by repentance and faith.

What’s important to recognize, says Lane, is that the New Testament is silent on whether or not infants were baptized. When we look to the data of the first four centuries, however, we find a plurality of practices: sometimes infants were baptized, sometimes not, and for a number of reasons. Then, like seismologists who feel the ripples of an earthquake thousands of miles away, we can make deductions about what was happening in the original apostolic churches, namely, there were a variety of practices happening there as well. In other words, accepting the authority of Scripture means “respecting the silences of Scripture as well as its positive statements” (166).

A second kind of silence is important for Lane’s argument—the silence among the church fathers concerning principled arguments against infant baptism. Tertullian, for instance, offers something like a prudential against it. But that, in itself, is instructive. Apparently infants were being baptized, which is what prompted him to make a prudential argument. But the lack of a principled argument suggests that neither he nor others had principled objections. The first principled arguments against infant baptism don’t occur until one obscure group in the Middle Ages and then the Anabaptists in the Reformation.

Lane concludes from all of this that the contemporary church has grounds for a church to offer more than one practice. Surely adult converts must be baptized, most centrally. But then Christian families should be permitted to baptize their infants or to delay their baptism.    

EVALUATION

Admittedly, I am not an objective reader. I was convinced of the believers’ baptism picking up the book, and I remain convinced of it setting it down, maybe even more so.

What the book did do, however, is enrich my original position by the things I learned from the other two perspectives. Ferguson’s robust presentation of baptism as a sign and seal of the righteousness a Christian gains through faith is worth incorporating and adapting into a baptist framework, as Ware gladly does. And Lane’s insistence on the tight relationship between faith and baptism, even calling it a Christian “passport” (129), reminds us of how important the topic is in the Bible. Faith subjectively expresses itself through baptism, and it is a public marker of entrance into the objective faith. 

Further, the book reminded me of how tough this topic is. Sinclair Ferguson observes at one point that the interlocutors had reached an “impasse,” and most readers will probably feel that. Every position is intelligent, and offers a reasonably coherent explanation for the biblical and historical data. It is like a private detective and a police lieutenant are staring down at the same dead body and same set of clues, but one is convinced the butler did it while the other is convinced the estranged wife did it, and both are adamant. Where do you go from there?

For instance, Bruce Ware offers what I took to be a compelling baptist explanation for the “household baptism” passages in Acts, but Ferguson and Lane are not compelled. What else can be said?! Thank you, folks. Goodnight. That’s all we have.

It is tempting for me to throw my two cents into the argument, perhaps observing that both Jeremiah and Jesus very much do annul the ethnic “and to your seed” covenantal principle (Jer. 31:29-30; Matt. 12:50; 19:29; cf. Matt. 3:9; 10:35).

Further, the paedobaptist idea of the covenantal inclusion of infants only works because of a vagueness surrounding which covenant they are included within—the theologically conceived covenant of grace? The exegetical new covenant? I honestly find it impossible to stare at the words of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and understand how exactly an infant is included in its promises, unless one wants to say that baptism guarantees such inclusion because it effectually implants the Holy Spirit, like the passages discusses.  

Or, Ferguson is surely right to affirm the continuous nature of salvation from old covenant to new. But I would argue that he, like paedobaptists generally, can only equate circumcision and baptism by smothering the institutional distinctions within the text, such as (Ware observes) the two layers of meaning behind circumcision (national/ethnic and spiritual/promise).

 But instead of hearing my own arguments, a reader does well to jump into the book’s responses and rejoinders. What he or she will discover, I contest, is that the different positions depend upon subtly different theological methodologies. One author emphasizes the exegetical, one the historical-redemptive, and one the historical. The impasse exists on this topic, in part, because of these differing assumptions about which kinds of data and methods are most persuasive.

Finally, there is only one right explanation for who should get wet, a point our relativistic age likes to overlook. And obedience to Jesus means searching for it. Paying closer attention to methodology, I believe, will help. A solution is not essential to faith, but it is important.

Jonathan Leeman, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, is the editorial director for 9Marks and is the author, most recently, of Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012).

This article was originally published in Foundations: An International Journal of Evangelical Theology

Jonathan Leeman audio on Membership, Discipline, Love, and the Word

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Jonathan Leeman recently preached several messages on church membership, church discipline, God's love, and the power of God's Word at the People of God Conference in Sacramento, CA. 

You can go to 9Marks' Media page to download the talks and Q&A sessions from the conference, or click the links below:

Session 1: The Idolatry of Love 

Session 2: The Display of Love

Q&A session on Love

Session 3: A Vision of Membership

First Q&A session on Membership

Session 4: The Submission of Membership

Session 5: The Discipline of Membership

Second Q&A on Membership

Session 6: The Power and Preaching of the Word

Session 7: The Reverberation of the Word

Q&A session on Authority

Satan's Real Interest in Your Sin

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Hath Satan any more friendly aim and intention towards thee, who is a sharer in every temptation? To beguile thee as a serpent, to devour thee as a lion, is the friendship he owes thee. I shall only add, that the sin he tempts thee to against the law, it is not the thing he aims at; his design lies against thy interest in the gospel. He would make sin but a bridge to get over to a better ground, to assault thee as to thy interest in Christ. He who perhaps will say to-day, "Thou mayst venture on sin, because thou hast an interest in Christ," will to-morrow tell thee to the purpose that thou hast none, because thou hast done so.  

                                    -- The Works of John Owen, vol 6, page 135.

In case you missed the new 9Marks Journal...(for Kindle too)

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In case the 9Marks Journal that got released last week happened to get misplaced behind a bag of turkey leftovers, allow me to set it on the table again. It's on lay elders--that is, men who help shepherd their churches while holding down a full time job. 

Jonathan Leeman writes in the editor's note, 

"I am talking about the men who remain in their careers, but who begin to shepherd anyway. These are the men I admire so much. They move from the big prestigious firm to the small peripheral firm; they take the pay cut; they let themselves get passed over for promotion. Why? Because they love the sheep, and they cannot help but spend the time it takes to shepherd sheep."

You can start with Jeramie Rinne's helpful job description for lay elders and Mike McKinley's "I learned this the hard way" piece on how to raise up elders

Also, after an unexpected delay, the version for Kindle is now available. 

Keep an eye out for part 2 in this Journal series on lay elders, which will address the relationship between staff and lay elders, building unity and friendship among the elders, and other practical matters.

Together For the Gospel Live II - Out Today

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One of the best things about the Together for the Gospel conference is the singing. It's quite moving to worship God in song with thousands and thousands of other believers. There's something about having that many voices expressing praise at the same time that is more than the sum of its parts.

 

Today Sovereign Grace Music releases Together for the Gospel Live II, a new album with 16 songs recorded at the 2010 and 2012 conferences. If Bob Kauflin leading a choir of thousands in singing beautiful hymns of priase sounds like your cup of tea, then you should definitely check it out. My personal favorite is "I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow", with "Come Praise and Glorify" coming in a close second.