Preaching depth to a shallow generation, part 1

Deep part 1

It began in late April 1998.  It ended 8 years, 7 months and 28 days later, on Christmas Eve 2006.

It is John Piper’s sermon series on Romans, presented to his church during Sunday services.  225 messages.

Romans is probably my favorite book in the Bible, and I have been listening off and on to this remarkable series, especially his treatment of chapters 5-9.  I have repeatedly been amazed at Piper’s willingness to tackle tough theological issues and go deep into the text, sometimes spending three or four weeks on a particular passage.

But there’s something even more amazing.

His church let him do it.

A generation accustomed to the shallow end

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” –2 Timothy 4:3-4

It’s been well documented that “content” has been in decline all across the spectrum of our culture. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has pointed out in his book The Knowledge Deficit, “Disparagement of factual knowledge as found in books has been a strong current in American thought since the time of Emerson.” (p.9)

Unfortunately, this “disparagement of factual knowledge” is not exclusive to the mainstream; it has also infected the church. The modern church by and large has become a purveyor of practical principles and applications with a few Bible verses tacked on (from whichever translation or paraphrase says it just the right way) to give them credence. Some pastors have come to embrace the cultural disdain for content by discarding even the attempt to teach doctrine from the pulpit.

Thus, my amazement that Piper’s church stuck around for over 8½ years of deep, theological teaching from Romans. Many an elder board would have asked him to “tone it down,” or worse, asked him to leave and then counseled the next pastor to “keep it simple” or “be more practical.”  To be fair, Piper himself addresses this from time to time by intentionally bringing his current text to bear on the practical implications for the Christian life, or by frequently tying it to how it fits with the great “Therefore” of Romans 12. But he never shies from the hard truths of his text, even when there’s not an immediate “application.”

As a result, what we have in this archive of sermons is a true gift to the Church at large. Whether you agree or disagree with Piper’s theology is beside the point.  What he created there was not only a blessing for his congregation, but also a platform of influence to Christians everywhere.

May more pastors have the desire and the courage to go deep and take their flock with them.  And may many more congregations demand it.

[In subsequent parts of this series, I’ll examine the common approaches churches take on this matter, and how God uses his Word in our lives. Stay tuned.]

My Sin, My Sin – O Savior!

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Poetry by Mark Knox

My Sin, My Sin – O Savior!

My sin, my sin – O Savior!
Is not a trifling thing;
My sin is vile rebellion
Against my rightful King.
The holy God is justified
To banish me from him
And wrath is stored against me
For all my wretched sin.

My sin, my sin – O Savior!
Caused not my God to hold
His love forever from me,
His mercies to withhold.
He sent his Son, now emptied
Of glory, as a child,
And raised him up to seek and save
One such as I, defiled.

My sin, my sin – O Savior!
Sent Jesus to the cross.
Submitted to the bitter cup;
Sustained the crushing loss,
Until, the Father satisfied,
He cried out, “It is done!”
And with his final dying breath
Declared salvation won.

My faith, my faith – O Savior!
This cross I now embrace.
Enabled by the Spirit,
I’m saved by sovereign grace.
He overcame my waywardness,
Subdued my heart so wild,
And drew this former enemy
Who now is reconciled.

What words, what words – O Savior!
Could I justly bring
To aptly praise my Jesus,
Adore my glorious King?
Rejoice in God through Jesus Christ
Through sufferings untold;
With certain love he’ll carry me
Safely into the fold.

Doctrine divides

BibleDoctrine divides. Sound doctrine divides us from error and from those who espouse it.  False doctrine divides us from God. I’d rather divide from false teachers than from God.

<thanks to RC Sproul for the core idea for this post>

Observations of a guest at the Ritz-Carlton

by Mark Knox, Director of Guest Experiences, Chick-fil-A, Hendersonville

2017-05-17-10-23-38There’s a reason that “puttin’ on the Ritz” is a saying. Dating back to the 1920s, this saying – and the Irving Berlin song of the same name – draws its inspiration from the Ritz Hotel. The Ritz has become synonymous with high living, fashion, and hospitality.

I had the opportunity to spend a night and the better part of a day at the Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Part of my purpose as a Director of Guest Experiences was to observe their operation for signs of great customer service.  They were not hard to find throughout my visit.  My wife, who regularly and often stays in hotels as part of her job, was along, and I was interested in getting her perspective as well.

What follows are some of my observations.

Focus

From beginning to end, every encounter with every Ritz employee was focused on me as the guest.  Burned into my mind is the image I saw as I drove up to the door…four valets, facing forward, ready to spring into action.  Prior to my pulling up, they were idle and waiting, but not clumped together carrying on their own conversation.  Their appearance was one of welcoming and readiness, in short, focus.

Every employee of the Ritz shared this trait. As my valet who wheeled my bags to the room waited for me to check in, he kept his attention on me. He drew me into conversation, asked if we were there for “the concert” (Neil Diamond that night; yes, we were), discovered where we were from.  Again, while he was waiting on me, he did not divert his attention elsewhere.

I also noticed this in the restaurant. As we were dining, the sommelier came to table next to us to pour wine.  At one point, he took a step back to allow their server to remove some plates.  I thought he might turn to greet us, but instead he kept his focus on his guests at hand, ready to pour the wine when ready.  His attention did not divert.

My wife and I normally stay at decent, clean mid-line hotels.  While I generally have no complaints about the level of service we receive – and sometimes it can be exceptional – it rarely rises to the level of focus that we saw at the Ritz.  For example, it’s not uncommon to walk into one of these mid-line hotels and not see anyone at the front desk; they are in the back office.  Oh sure, they come out promptly and are friendly, but it’s not the Ritz.

Courtesy

During our entire visit, not once did any employee cross in front of me.  This was so pervasive that it became impossible not to notice.  If I was walking through the restaurant, every server who was moving about in my area would stop to let me pass.  The same was true for every valet, housekeeper, and spa employee I encountered.

I often think about how I sometimes bounce around my restaurant, rushing here and there on various important matters.  Do I sometimes cut in front of a guest? I’m sure I do.  I need to look at this.

It was always, “Mr. Knox” and “Mrs. Knox.” There was never the familiarity that has somehow crept into modern 21st Century customer service.  I’ve never been a fan of the “Hey, how are you guys?” model when my wife and I are being served. Our experience at the Ritz was friendly and conversational (“How do you like this Jeep you drove, sir?”), but never presumed to be overly familiar.

While we were at the Spa getting massages, an alarm sounded in the area where my wife was being attended.  The therapist placed a towel over her head and ears to shield her from the sound while she looked into what the alarm was. Having discovered it was not anything that required action, she then asked my wife if it would be permitted to go back to working on the massage. Simple courtesy.

Over the Top

The Ritz is known for its opulence and “beyond the basics” care.  It is, after all, just a hotel, a place to sleep.  But it is so much more.

We were offered champagne upon arrival in the lobby. There’s a TV screen within the bathroom mirror.  After returning from dinner, we found our robes and towels had been replaced and the bed turned down with the next day’s forecast on the pillow.

In my business, we look for ways to “Connect, Discover, and Respond” to our guests.  At the Ritz, when they’d connected with us and discovered that we were going to the Neil Diamond concert, they responded by presenting us with cupcakes after our massages with the message “Enjoy Sweet Caroline” written on the plate in frosting. Truly, good times never seemed so good.

While in my work context, we are not the Ritz, it makes me wonder, are there things we could be doing to go “over the top” for our guests? Things that would create such an experience that they can’t wait to come back? I’m sure there are. We just need to discover them.

Leadership questions from the battlefield: Antietam

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Why would you stick with outmoded tactics when the technology had advanced and called for a new plan?

by Mark Knox

Antietam is one of the best-preserved battlefields of the American Civil War, and as I walked its pastoral settings, I thought on the wisdom of the massed charge, which had been the standard battle tactic for some time – line up a regiment of your men and march them toward the enemy en masse. This worked for a time when muskets had a short range and were highly inaccurate.  But by the mid-1800s, the rifled shot had made gunfire much more accurate and deadly.  Yet the generals continued to use the outmoded tactic of throwing wave after wave of men at the entrenched positions of the enemy, often to catastrophic loss of life.

You see this at Antietam at the Sunken Road (pictured), which became known as Bloody Lane because of all the devastation there. This tactic was also used futilely to horrible loss at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.  After Gettysburg, generals were less likely to order the massed charge, and tactics began to change, but far too late for the many men who died to their allegiance to tradition.

This causes the effective leader to ask when it’s right to move on and move forward from outmoded techniques of leadership. The inability to leave the past behind cost dearly in the battlefield and costs greatly every day in the marketplace. A great leader ought to be striving for continuous improvement and should challenge the process at every step.  What could make this better? It’s not just, if I were in charge, what would I do differently? It’s also, since I am in charge, what should I do differently?

Don’t be afraid of innovation and change…not simply change for change’s sake. Effective innovation wins battles and limits casualties along the way.

Insufficient worship

by Mark Knox

God is not the greatest high to get you through the night; He’s not the means for you to reach your potential; He’s not a cosmic boyfriend/girlfriend…He’s the Almighty and Sovereign God. King of kings and Lord of lords. And it’s time our worship songs start taking that seriously.

You cannot love Christ enough…

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You cannot love Christ enough, you cannot believe in him enough, you cannot bend your will strong enough, and you cannot keep your heart pure enough to assure your eternal salvation from this day to the next. “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” A thousand times, no! The only reason I trust in God today, and will trust in him tomorrow followed by an eternity of tomorrows, is that God in his grace and by his eternal purpose and for his glory has set his heart on me.  Having believed in him as a gift of grace, how do I know I will believe in him tomorrow? Because He. Holds. Me.

Leadership questions from the battlefield: Gettysburg

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The North Carolina Monument on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg

Leadership questions from the battlefield: Gettysburg

by Mark Knox

How is it possible to lead men to likely injury or death, and have them follow you…willingly?

As I hiked across the farmland outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, generally following the path of the men who assaulted the fortified Union position in what has become known as Pickett’s Charge, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of leadership would create such a following. While there is a world of difference between leading men into battle and leading people in the marketplace, there are some factors that apply.

Let’s not forget the strong pull of military rank and order. It’s a hard thing to disobey a direct order. And I suppose in the world of business, leadership by position does have its effect. But if a leader depends on that, it will be an ineffective leading.

Then there’s the value of the “cause.” Everyone will pull together and follow a leader who has a cause to believe in. This will sustain a leader’s influence for a time. But it’s not enough.

I believe that when you break it all down, people will follow a person more than a cause. And there is evidence that Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate forces that day, had been able to engender an intense personal loyalty from his men. Not only did they march to their peril in support of their leader, they also wanted to “hit them again” after the failed attempt because of their strong belief in their leader. In the marketplace, this happens when leaders believe in and invest in their people.

People might obey a leader’s position; they might persevere for a time when they believe in the cause; but they will be intensely loyal to a leader in whom they believe…and who believes in them.

When God’s sovereignty intersects with time, Part 1

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by Mark Knox

What follows is part of an ongoing series of articles that discuss places in Scripture where the sovereign plan and working of God are clearly seen to intersect with time.  Rather than trying to fit these descriptions into a pre-determined theological understanding, I aim to let these revealed descriptions stand for themselves.

“…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” – Acts 2:23 ESV

Acts 2:23 contains one of the clearest expressions of God’s sovereign working in history, yet ascribes guilt and responsibility to those committing those actions. As we let this passage speak for itself, what exactly is being said?

  1. It was God’s eternal plan to deliver his Son Jesus to be crucified. “…according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” By pairing these two powerful nouns (“plan” and “foreknowledge”), we know that the writer is not referring to a simple fore-seeing by God of what will take place, but is referencing his sovereign plan and determination of what will take place. This comes out clearly in other places in the book of Acts as well, notably 4:28.
  1. Those who, in time, committed these acts are held as responsible and guilty for them. “this Jesus…you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” This is an indictment on both the Jews (represented by their leaders) and the Roman authorities (“lawless men”). If you read the context in the early chapters of Acts, you will take note of this recurring theme in the Apostles’ preaching. It is highly accusatory, though not for the sake of stirring up guilt for guilt’s sake, but to bring them to the realization of their sin and Jesus’ status as the Anointed Messiah, so that they would repent and believe.

So then, this could lead us to a very perplexing question. How could a just God lay blame and pronounce judgment on men for an event that he pre-determined would happen?

What I find most interesting is that the passage doesn’t attempt to answer that question at all.  It simply moves on with the narrative, leaving the tension unanswered.

And I think that is the key to how we should treat passages such as this. Let the Bible speak, even as it affirms truths that are difficult for us to reconcile.

Later, Paul addresses this very question in the book of Romans, but even there, does not give an intellectually reconciling answer. After a discussion on the electing choice of God, he raises this objection,

“You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault (human responsibility)? For who can resist his will (human choice)?’”

And then notice Paul’s response to these questions:

“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” – Romans 9:19-20a

In other words, let God be God! The correct, humble response to tensions like this in Scripture is to let the Bible speak for itself. The fact that there is tension in our understanding should drive us to our knees in humble submission before the God whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours.

4 rhythms to keep your mind sharp

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by Mark Knox

As I’ve grown older, I worry a bit about keeping my mind and thinking processes sharp.  Of course, there are always the small lapses in memory that seem to creep up, when I forget where I’m at in a conversation or why I left one room to go into another.  That’s not what I’m talking about, though.

I have always enjoyed thinking deeply about things, whether theology, cultural phenomena, history or politics.  Heck, I even minored in Philosophy! (I only minored in it because it wasn’t offered as a major.)  I can ask the deep questions like: Why do you want fries with that? So when I encounter a group of young theology students, I want to continue to be able to converse with them at a high level. I want to analyze and be able to discuss cultural trends on more than just a surface level.

As a result, I’ve become very intentional about keeping an active mind.  Here are some ways I’ve found to be helpful.

  1. Read deeply.

It’s far too easy to browse the Internet and “read” the material you find there. Who among us hasn’t gotten sucked into that black hole?  It’s also really easy to read the literary equivalent of a blockbuster movie that is simply escapist reading. Not that there’s anything wrong with an occasional escape, mind you.

But if you really want to sharpen your intellect, read something that stretches your thinking, that causes you to ask questions, that teaches you something.  Read a variety of books…books that are practical for work and life, books that are technical, biographies, old classic books, new modern books, books you disagree with. Underline and mark up your books if they’re yours.  Set some goals and keep track of your reading. Read a book with someone and discuss it over coffee. Nothing will keep your mind as fresh as a healthy diet of books and great articles.

  1. Have substantial conversations.

We are social people.  But most of us are all too satisfied to restrict our conversations to a how’s-the-kids, how’s-your-fantasy-football-team level.  But if you want to challenge your thinking, then start seeking some deeper conversations. If you’re in a church, get in a small group.  And don’t just settle for a group that wallows in cliché-ridden banality.  Find a group that’s not afraid to go deep and leave things unsettled for now.  If you really want a conversation that keeps your mind going, make some friends of people who don’t agree with you.

I am thankful that God has given me a wife with whom I can go deep.  She’s not afraid to challenge my assumptions and inconsistencies.  She’s my best friend, and most of the time, we’re on a how-was-your-day mode.  But oh, there are times when we can have some pretty intellectual conversations.  Seek these out – from the spouse, from your kids, from your friends.

  1. Memorize long passages (Bible passages, speeches, poetry).

I was fortunate to attend the Desiring God National Conference in September of 2014, which was centered around the great chapter of Romans 8.  At the beginning of his second address, John Piper quoted from memory the entire chapter.  [You can watch him do it here – just watch the first 7 minutes to get the quote.] I had already attended a breakout session giving some instruction on how to memorize long passages of Scripture, and when I watched Piper recite this immense chapter with great feeling and inflection, just as if he were arguing the points as Paul had done, I was stirred in my soul and I determined to memorize the chapter myself.

It took me a little longer than 3 months to complete this.  But when I was done, not only was there a feeling of accomplishment, but a real sense of “OK, what’s next?”  So I started to memorize the book of Ephesians.

I highly recommend this discipline.  If you’d like to give it a shot, here’s the link to Jon Bloom’s session that helped get me started.

  1. Turn off the media and let your mind think.

Why are we so afraid of silence? With the rise of social networking, at-your-fingertips media and the portability of our technology, most of us spend woefully little time with our own thoughts.  We have trouble falling asleep as we begin to process all the stimuli of the day that we haven’t allowed our minds to access until we turn out the lights.  And even then, we resort to light music or white noise in the room to silence our thoughts.

We all need quiet time.  The research is clear on the benefits of silence. So do yourself a favor and turn off the radio, the TV, the Spotify and let your mind breathe.

We all need our minds to be sharp.  The mind is like a muscle, and the more you use it, the stronger it will be.