Three Pastoral Reminders From Three Dead Guys
John Bolt. Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service. Crossway, 2015, 266 pages.
Dane Ortlund, Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God. Crossway, 2014, 207 pages.
Tony Reinke, Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ. Crossway, 2015, 285 pages.
As a young pastor, I find myself in constant need of wisdom. So what a joy it was to slowly work my way through three volumes in Crossway’s excellent Theologians On the Christian Life series. I found these books to be brimming with sage pastoral counsel and searching application. Jonathan Edwards helped reorient my thinking about beauty. John Newton recalibrated my heart by calling me to look, and look again, at an all-sufficient Christ. And Herman Bavinck reminded me of the power of speaking courageously for Christ in this world with meekness. So instead of a typical book review, what follows are three brief pastoral reminders that I gleaned from spending time with a Congregationalist, an Anglican, and a Dutch Reformed scholar. Though dead, they still speak.
First, Jonathan Edwards reminds pastors that we have a beautiful calling in beckoning sinners to look to a beautiful savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. In Edwards on the Christian Life, Dane Ortlund argues that beauty is the integrating theme of Edwards’ entire theology. Edwards saw “a universe brimming with beauty” (15) and the pinnacle and source of all true beauty is the beautiful triune God. God’s infinite beauty, his holiness, is the supreme value in the universe. But tragically, before God gives us life, the eyes of our hearts are blinded, unable to see this life-transforming beauty. But through his Word and by his Spirit, God makes us alive to see the beauty of God in Christ. As pastors we have a front-row seat in witnessing this beautiful miracle of the new birth. The sinner who is raised to new life in Christ becomes “alive to beauty.” (23)
The Christian life, then, consists of enjoying and reflecting upon the beauty of God in our beautiful Savior. (16) In the gospel we behold his divine beauty by faith, and we become, more and more, like that which we behold: “Sinners are beautified as they behold the beauty of God in Jesus Christ.” (24) So how does God’s beauty in Christ intersect with our pastoral calling? Ortlund writes: “A pastor, above all, is to provide for people a glimpse of the radiant loveliness of Christ. All their preaching, discipling, counseling, and administrating are channels through which divine luminosity is beheld. The fundamental calling of leaders of God’s people is not only to be under-shepherds of the chief Shepherd but also under-beautifiers of the chief Beautifier.” (32) We are to point sinners and saints, every week, to the beauty of God in Jesus Christ.
Second, John Newton reminds pastors that our beautiful Savior is also an all-sufficient Savior. If God’s manifold beauty is seen in Christ, then we are to make it our daily duty and life-long quest to look to Jesus by faith because to live is Christ. Newton writes: “Looking unto Jesus— the duty, the privilege, the safety, the unspeakable happiness of a believer, are all comprised in that one sentence.” (69)
In Newton on the Christian Life, Tony Reinke writes: “Looking to Jesus makes the beginning of the Christian life; looking to Jesus is the end goal of the Christian life; and looking to Jesus is the daily privilege of the Christian life.” (69) Reinke ransacks Newton’s writings, especially the rich mine of his pastoral letters, and demonstrates how much of his biblical counsel consisted of faithfully pointing others to the fountain of life that is Jesus Christ. “The more you know Him,” Newton writes, “the better you will trust Him; the more you trust Him, the better you will love Him; the more you love Him, the better you will serve Him” (Works, 2:141). It doesn’t take a very long time in the ministry to realize, “I am not sufficient for these things.” But we’ve been made sufficient by God’s Spirit, who has mercifully opened our eyes to the all-sufficiency of Jesus. Newton reminds us that pastoral ministry, in its essence, is helping our people look by faith to Jesus so that they may know him, and trust him, and love him and serve him. So, pastor, your duty and privilege and unspeakable happiness this week, and every week, is to look to Jesus and to call others to do the same.
Third, Herman Bavinck reminds pastors that we are to speak of God’s beauty and sufficiency in Christ with courage and with meekness. If we’ve been given eyes to behold Christ in all his beauty, then we must live for him in the world.
Here’s Bavinck: “The faith that Jesus is the Christ is not a musty tranquility. It does not withdraw into quiet solitude. Instead, this faith is living and powerful and courageously ventures out into the world. Faith not only enjoys, but it also works; faith says something and does something. It bears witness and it delivers. It speaks and it acts. . . . One who believes cannot be silent. In the midst of the world they sound the testimony that Jesus is the Christ” (248). We cannot remain silent. Living for him requires us to speak for him. This will take courage.
But how do we speak on his behalf to the world? Our manner of engagement with others should be marked by meekness. Every person you will ever have a disagreement with in pastoral ministry is made in God’s image and, therefore, enjoys a “royal dignity” (53). In Bavinck on the Christian Life, John Bolt notes that Bavinck was known for his “genial and fair-minded approach” with his theological opponents (33). “I strive,” Bavinck wrote, “to appreciate what is good where it is found” (138).
When you interact with those who disagree with you, do you strive to first appreciate the good in their criticisms? Before pointing out the bad, do you first look for something good? Instead of rash public outrage, Bavinck expended his energy in trying to fairly understand and best represent the positions of those with whom he disagreed. Our response to those who oppose us should not be berating them in person or blasting them on social media. Even our staunchest theological opponents, as God’s image bearers, are worthy of our respect and care and love. Open his Reformed Dogmatics anywhere and it’s obvious that Bavinck was a brilliant man of great learning. Few of us have a mind like his. But in God’s mercy, each one of us who are in Christ have the mind of Christ. And our pastoral polemics afford us the opportunity and privilege to model the mind of Christ to a watching world (131). In humility we ought to count others more significant than ourselves. So, fellow pastors, let’s speak fearlessly of God’s beauty. Let’s herald the sufficiency of the only savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. But when we speak, Bavinck reminds us, let’s do so with meekness, a meekness that flows from our Master (Matthew 11:29). If given the chance to correct our opponents, let’s do so with gentleness.
Sometimes the lessons we need the most are the reminders of glorious truths that you already know (2 Peter 3:1). I am grateful to the Lord for his grace in the lives of men like Edwards, Newton, and Bavinck and I happily commend each of these splendid volumes.