Five finalists for the “Blank Valley of Vision”
Scott on The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter
It was my first year in ministry. Three years of formal study and two year-long internships seemed scant preparation as I undertook the pastorate of a church in the plains of South Dakota.
Sure of my calling, yet unsure of myself, I was looking for guidance and I found it in the words of Richard Baxter. At the time my knowledge of the puritans was limited – stereotypical. A friend suggested that I pick up a copy of The Reformed Pastor. It became my constant companion through my first year in ministry.
Literally from the opening page, my eyes were opened to a depth of truth and purpose that were sadly neglected in my seminary education. The chapter on the character of a pastor was one of the most humbling, yet exhilarating moments of illumination. Here was what I was called not merely to do, but to be.
At times challenging, at other times comforting, I found Baxter’s instructions to be what I needed to hear at just the time I needed it. His admonition to watch over myself has served as a corrective to the times when was tempted to take shortcuts or compromise the care of the flock entrusted to me. It’s marked up pages standing as testimony to the struggles and triumphs of my first pastorate.
Now almost 15 years into the ministry it still convicts and corrects me. It lessons on self-examination still drive me to my knees in repentance. His insights into the character and condition of God’s people are as fresh today as they were nearly three hundred years ago. His reminder of the motive for ministry have many times kept me from despair in the face of the pressures of contemporary pastoring. His example drives me to become more the man of God than I presently am. I can honestly say that were it not for this book, I am not sure whether I would have survived my first years in the ministry. And I am sure that it will continue to guide me, Lord willing, for many fruitful years to come.
Pastor Scott N.
Midland Park, NJ
Bill on The Life and Diary of David Brainerd by Jonathan Edwards
It was 1976 that my wife Colleen called and told me to come back home. She said on the phone that she was a changed person and wanted to make our marriage work. A friend had given her a Bible and told her about His grace. She was now a Christian.
I can still remember coming home that week and seeing a different person. So for three years I watched a beautiful Christian young lady trying desperately to show me the love of Jesus despite my wickedness. In January 1979 (I was 32) God softened my heart and after the 5th rendition of “Just As I am”, I walked forward and accepted Christ.
During the following ten years I received a bachelors and masters degree in theology. Here’s the problem, it was all head knowledge from an Arminian perspective. In other words, “I am glad I found you Lord, now what can you do for Me?” A completely self-centered Christian.
During the 1990’s I started drifting away from God. Sure, I still went to church on Sundays but that was it. People served me, I was not interested in serving anyone. Life became increasingly unhappy and unfulfilled; seemingly there was no purpose to it. It was time to reassess why my relationship with Christ was so stale. My pastor had given me a book edited by Jonathan Edwards, “The Life and Diary of David Brainerd.” a few years before and I had just shelved it. In my despair I pulled the book off the shelf in 2002 and started reading.
As I started reading it my eyes were opened to a brand new dimension of Christianity. David Brainerd was serving a sovereign God. God used the book to convict me in such a way that I would almost cry myself to sleep thinking of the kind of courage and sacrifice that this young man endured because of Christ while I was living in the Kingdom like a fat cat proud that I had chosen Him, but not making any sacrifice.
Here is a taste from the book: “May I always remember that all I have comes from God…When I return home and give myself to mediation, prayer and fasting, a new scene opens to my mind and my soul longs for mortification, self-denial, humility and divorcement from all the things of the world” (p. 147). “I delighted to lean on God and put my whole trust in Him. My soul was exceedingly grieved for sin, and prized, and longed after holiness….Yet this was my greatest happiness, never more to dishonor, but always to glorify, the blessed God” (p. 180).
I learned of a Sovereign God. One who loves and sustains my every thought and action. “Faith without works is dead” suddenly meant something to me. God had reached down from heaven and adopted me into His family simply because of His grace and mercy. I had not accepted Him, He chose me. It is not about me, it is all about Him. This understanding hit me like a lightening bolt. It has changed my life. Can one possibly be born again, again? That is what it seems like. I have not been the same since. The last four years has been such a joy in serving others. I am currently on a small team starting a new Sovereign Grace church. God willing, and God providing, I will do whatever is necessary in order for God to receive all the glory. God is good, 38 years of marriage, 6 children, 7 grandchildren, I have never been more satisfied in all my life.
Laguna Niguel, CA
Philip on a sermon by Jonathan Edwards
The Puritan work that most profoundly changed me is the sermon “Ministers Need the Power of God” from 2 Corinthians 4:7 delivered by Jonathan Edwards at his installation as pastor of the Northampton Church in 1729. It was published in Salvation of Souls in 2002. The book is a collection of previously unpublished sermons by Edwards about the call to ministry and most are ordination sermons. The sermon set the tone for following Stoddard’s 57-year ministry and Edwards’ years as a pastor. In classic style, Edwards began with the grandness of God, moves to the insufficiency of men, encourages men to submit, and communicates the great joy that comes from being a weak vessel in the hands of our Lord.
At the time I read the sermon, I was serving as an associate pastor on a mega-church with 7,000 members and it was very easy to rely on the staff and programs we had in place to keep everything going and growing. I had begun using the book as part of my daily devotions before the Lord. On the day I read it, I was sitting in my safe office surrounded by all the trappings of successful ministry. It was a devastating experience. At one point, Edwards said, “Ministers are not only creatures, but very feeble and infirm, partakers of the same infirmities as their hearers.” I pushed back from my desk, sat back in my chair and wept. I’m not sure for how long I cried but it was a sorrow of soul from which change would spring forth. I renewed my commitment to Christ at the time he called me to the ministry. Then, I was a shy, frightened 17 year old. I had become a hardened, hard-pressing 36 year old. I renewed the beggar’s spirit that leads to understanding our position as an heir to the ministry of the new covenant. It was a day that reset the tone for my ministry – I hope until my last breath.
Since then, the Lord called me to leave mega-world to plant a new church. From the message of Edwards, I learned that relying only upon the power of God is the only manner in which I can properly plant, lead, and glorify my Lord.
Pastor Philip N.
[note: this sermon upon 2 Cor. 4:7 was originally titled: “God is pleased to make his own power appear by carrying on the work of his grace by such instruments as men, that in themselves are utterly insufficient for it.” Apparently it’s only published one time: Ministers Need the Power of God, in Bailey and Wills, eds., The Salvation of Souls, pp. 41-56. – Tony]
Allen on a sermon by Thomas Wilson
As a blossoming church historian, I have taken it upon myself to start reading more of those who have gone before us. I happened across an article that got me interested in reading about the subject more. The article was about Thomas Wilson (1601-1653). He was a pastor at Otham, Kent and was one of the Westminster divines. In the article it focused on the idea of zeal. As one who has also served in the ministry, more zeal is always a good thing! So this summer I took it upon myself to read a sermon that Wilson had preached before the House of Commons called ‘David’s Zeal for Zion.’ In it he wrote a number of things that really hit me about my attitude toward God. He defined zeal as “the earnestness and increase of all the affections, liking or disliking, as love and hatred, grief and joy, desires, delights, fears, and anger, boiled to the highest degree, and to the hottest temper and intention.” I had realized my ministry was often mediocre and lacked the intensity for the glory of God as it should. I was resolved to, in the words of Wilson, “Let zeal eat up all corrupt affections in us, consume our sins, and inflame our hearts toward him.” Since then, even though I am not currently serving in a formal ministry, I have striven to absolutely flood my soul with the grandeur and greatness of God and allow my zeal to grow and display itself in my love and service to God. I hope the copy of the Valley of Vision will allow me to glean from other Puritan writers and allow their godly zeal to continue to influence my personal and public life in such a way that people know my zeal as a fire that “should never go out, but from a spark increase to a most vehement flame.”
Amherstburg, Ontario (Canada)
Jeff on Heaven On Earth by Thomas Brooks
Heaven On Earth by Thomas Brooks has made a difference in my thinking and in my life.
I temporarily relocated to a spiritually dry country, Japan, to teach English. I had much time to read and think about eternity. I brought with me The Pligrim’s Progress, which I consumed quickly. One early morning, I woke up, in fright, from a dream where I was killed in war. I was afraid because I wasn’t sure whether I would be going to Hell or Heaven. I was relieved it was only a dream, but it confirmed to me that such an important issue ought not to be put off any longer.
Some time after this dream, I finished listening to a taped sermon titled “What a Comfort” (based on Question 1 in the Heidelberg Catechism). “How can I be sure that when I die, I will go to Heaven?” was asked. How can anyone rest, believer or unbeliever, until he knows the answer to that question? It isn’t enough to know that God sent Jesus to save His people from their sins. We need to know, Did God send Jesus for me? Do I really believe in Him? The sermon expounded 2 Tim 4: 6-8, wherein the apostle Paul wrote of how he looked forward, with certainty, to Heaven, and some grounds of assurance that we can share with Paul.
“Make your calling and election sure” was ringing in my ears and heart.
These two things above led me to “Heaven on Earth”. Before reading Brooks, I had a very crude understanding of religious experience: “If you feel far away from God, guess who moved?” There is some truth in that, but Brooks opens up the Bible in more depth. This Puritan has a pastoral heart. Brooks writes, “You [Christian] have the next place to Christ in my heart” (9).
Chapter 1 gives proofs that believers can attain a well-grounded assurance of their salvation. For example, as my pastor mentioned, if Paul can attain assurance, we can too. Paul was inspired, but he attained his assurance in an ordinary way. In Chapter 2, Brooks communicates “weighty propositions concerning assurance”. One proposition explains that though salvation is a sure thing (once saved, always saved), assurance is not (one can be assured one day, and lose that assurance the next). Chapter 3 teaches the reader of things that keep someone from enjoying assurance. If ever someone doesn’t enjoy assurance, or (temporarily) loses this joy of assurance, he can know why. Chapter 4 presents reasons why one should make his election sure. Christ’s elect does not need to have nightmares of uncertainty, because assurance will prepare him for death. He will have something to look forward to with great certainty, an eternity with God. Chapter 5 gives instructions on how to build assurance. Chapter 6 is gives the differences between a true and counterfeit assurance.
Reading Brooks motivated me to live carefully, in holiness, in order that I may not quench the Spirit, and so that I may know blessed assurance.
We deprive God of His glory, and ourselves of His comfort, if we neglect to make our calling and election sure. The joy of knowing Him, and the joy of knowing that you are known by Him, is a sweet thing.
This treatise was published because “little well-grounded assurance is to be found among most Christians” (11). This was true in the 1600s, and it is true in this millennium. Dear reader, are you struggling to know whether you are really right with God? Then I gently urge you to read this book.