General Session 1 > 2007 Sovereign Grace Leaders Conference

It was a wonderful week with friends at the 2007 Sovereign Grace Leadership Conference in Gaithersburg, Maryland (close to DC). The conference was well-attended and the hospitality was beyond comparison. … But it is also good to return home and let the swirling thoughts settle. This week I’ll be going back over the sessions I attended with some reflections.


Wednesday night (4/11/07 PM)
General session #1
R.C. Sproul: “The Holiness of God”

GAITHERSBURG, MD – C.J. Mahaney gave one of his trademark warm introductions to R.C. as a man committed, not to the advancement of the academy, but to explaining theology to simple folk. “No one has more advanced, explained and defended Reformation theology more than R.C.” Later he said Sproul is “Luther-like in his defense of justification by faith alone.” C.J. went on to voice his appreciation specifically for the book The Holiness of God. When R.C. came to the stage C.J. had one more display of thankfulness for by presenting Sproul with a Steelers football helmet. C.J. also pulled out a Redskins helmet. [The next night Sproul would joke that he needed the helmet to protect his head from C.J. flailing arms during worship.]

After knocking the worship music of Sovereign Grace Ministries (!), Sproul began the first general session by explaining that the holiness of God has captivated his attention since 1957 when a study of the Old Testament brought the holiness of God to the forefront of his attention. Seeing God’s holiness in Scripture was a “virgin experience” because for years this God had been “concealed” to him even in the church! It was in 1957 Sproul came to realize that “God plays for keeps” and “I must give him everything I have.”

In seminary, Sproul’s understanding of God’s holiness continued to develop. As he studied Augustine, Anselm, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Edwards the common thread that “clearly gripped each one of these titans was an overwhelming sense of God’s transcendent majesty.” They were “intoxicated by a sense of the majesty of God.” There is nothing more important than a rediscovery of the character of God as His Word is expounded.

Sproul then launched into an exposition of Isaiah 6:1-8.

1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts / the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”

Sproul built a picture of the holiness of God in a period of personal duress for Israel. Uzziah the king reigned for 52 years and made many improvements to the nation. The nation was strong although their king turned arrogant and turned away from the Lord (2 Chronicles 26). The Lord struck Uzziah with leprosy and he died as an unclean outcast. At this time of national concern, God revealed Himself to a man named Isaiah.

This scene is the disclosure of the preincarnate Jesus Christ in His holiness. In His presence the seraphim angels covered their feet (showing their creaturliness) and covered their eyes from His holy presence. The thrice repeated “Holy” reveals God’s infinitely holy character.

This earth is filled with His glory. The world and all of creation displays the “theater” of God (Calvin). We walk blindfolded to this glory. While sinners are cold to the holiness of God, the very foundation of the temple quakes in His presence.

When Isaiah saw a glimpse of the holiness of God he immediately understood who he was – a sinner (v. 5). “Woe is me!” was a pronouncement of an oracle of doom upon himself. We don’t treat God as our “buddy” but as a holy and righteous God. No longer does Isaiah have it all together. He unravels in the presence of God’s perfection. We too must be undone before we are saved.

The seraphim angel takes a burning hot coal from the altar (so hot the angel could not touch it). The scorching coal was placed on Isaiah’s lips – not to torture – but to cauterize the wound of sin and cleanse from further corruption. This is no cheap grace. Repentance hurts and heals. Don’t cheapen grace! Here Isaiah found justification, the gift of being declared righteous in God’s sight. This became the basis of his prophetic ministry. He closed with the idea that “None of us are qualified to speak for God unless we have experienced God’s justification.”

At a leadership conference like this, it would have been great to hear an emphasis on the correlation between the holiness of God and the ministry of the Word. But overall the first general session was no disappointment. It was a great reminder of the centrality of the holiness of God for the church. We, too, must have hearts, preachers and churches that are “intoxicated” with God’s holiness.


Related 2007 SGM LC sessions:


1. 2007 Sovereign Grace Ministries Leadership Conference

2. R.C. Sproul: “The Holiness of God”

3. Rick Gamache: “Watch Your Devotional Life”

4. Mark Dever: “Watch the Past: Living Lessons from Dead Theologians”

5. David Powlison: “‘In the Last Analysis…’ Look out for Introspection”

6. C.J. Mahaney: “Trinitarian Pastoral Ministry”

7. 2007 Conference photographs

Review: Breathing Grace by Harry Kraus, M.D.

tsscertified.jpgBook review
Breathing Grace by Harry Kraus, M.D.

It’s a nice surprise to find contemporary books that clearly define the true gospel and insist I look again at the cross for spiritual refreshment. None have done it better than C.J. Mahaney’s Living the Cross Centered Life (my review was posted at today). This weekend I discovered a new release from Crossway with a similar purpose.

Harry Kraus is a surgeon (currently a missionary surgeon in Africa) who has authored eight novels. His latest is a non-fiction book titled Breathing Grace. Kraus uses the metaphors from his medical background to illustrate the centrality of the cross and our need for daily grace. “Just as every cell (one hundred trillion in one human body!) requires a constant supply of oxygen, so every spiritual, emotional, and social aspect of our lives need a constant saturation with the gospel of grace” (22). Hence the title Breathing Grace.

Kraus presents the gospel clearly and accurately, using medical terms and exciting surgical situations. The medical stories are intense and, at points, a bit technical (“An arterial blush clouded the area lateral to the internal carotid artery, an indication of bleeding, a serious injury that was partially contained, a situation that needed stat attention before the artery free-ruptured, ensuring exsanguination and death”).

He argues that after conversion, believers continue discovering deeper levels of God’s holiness and their own sinfulness but often without a similar growth in the gospel. “When our understanding of the adequacy of the gospel doesn’t keep pace with our appreciation for God’s holiness or our own need, gospel debt results” (38). This “gospel debt” is then filled in with “false gospels” like trying to downplay our own sinfulness or making ourselves look better than we are. In other words, when we take our eyes off the gracious gospel in the Christian life we open ourselves to pride, man-pleasing and a host of other spiritually deadening diseases. The solution to these “false gospels” is a fresh return to the gospel. This excellent book points our focus back towards the love of God, to daily feed upon His life-giving grace.

Early on Kraus provides this concise purpose:

“This book is all about moving our concept of the gospel from grace notes to the major chord of our lives, something that undergirds the melody every day, every hour. This book is about moving our understanding of grace from one of God’s minor attributes to the central feature of his posture toward his children, the quality that governs his every action towards us on the road of redemption” (15).

This book contains references to the teaching of John Piper, many biblical references from the ESV and a study guide for personal reflection or group discussion. If you are looking for an excellent (and at times exciting) tour through God’s graciousness I would recommend Breathing Grace. Your spiritual life will be resuscitated by a renewed sense of God’s unconditional favor and — at the very least — you’ll more fully appreciate the dangers of acute arterial occlusions.

Title: Breathing Grace
Author: Harry Kraus, M.D.
Reading level: 2.0/5.0 > easy
Boards: hardcover (baby blue with silver embossing)
Pages: 170
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: yes
Binding: glue
Paper: normal
Topical index: no
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Crossway
Year: 2007
Price USD: $19.99 from Crossway (available as an audiobook)
9781581348583, 1581348584

‘Tell them that again’

‘Tell them that again’

Frequently, I like to close out the week with some encouragements for preachers. Recently I came across this interesting story from the life of Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892). In the sermon “All of Grace” on Ephesians 2:8 (#3479) he recounts an early preaching experience with his grandfather and reminds us to “tell them that again.”

I am led to remember this by the fact that a somewhat singular circumstance, recorded in my memory, connects this text [Eph. 2:8] with myself and my grandfather. It is now long years ago. I was announced to preach in a certain country town in the Eastern Counties. It does not often happen to me to be behind time, for I feel that punctuality is one of those little virtues which may prevent great sins. But we have no control over railway delays, and breakdowns; and so it happened that I reached the appointed place considerably behind the time.

Like sensible people, they had begun their worship, and had proceeded as far as the sermon. As I neared the chapel, I perceived that someone was in the pulpit preaching, and who should the preacher be but my dear and venerable grandfather! He saw me as I came in at the front door and made my way up the aisle, and at once he said, ‘Here comes my grandson! He may preach the gospel better than I can, but he cannot preach a better gospel; can you, Charles?’

As I made my way through the throng, I answered, ‘You can preach better than I can. Pray go on.’ But he would not agree to that. I must take the sermon, and so I did, going on with the subject there and then, just where he left off. ‘There,’ said he, ‘I was preaching on ‘For by grace are ye saved.’ I have been setting forth the source and fountainhead of salvation; and I am now showing them the channel of it, through faith. Now you take it up, and go on.’

I am so much at home with these glorious truths that I could not feel any difficulty in taking from my grandfather the thread of his discourse, and joining my thread to it, so as to continue without a break. Our agreement in the things of God made it easy for us to be joint-preachers of the same discourse. I went on with ‘through faith,’ and then I proceeded to the next point, ‘and that not of yourselves.’

Upon this I was explaining the weakness and inability of human nature, and the certainty that salvation could not be of ourselves, when I had my coat-tail pulled, and my well-beloved grandsire took his turn again. ‘When I spoke of our depraved human nature,’ the good old man said, ‘I know most about that, dear friends’; and so he took up the parable, and for the next five minutes set forth a solemn and humbling description of our lost estate, the depravity of our nature, and the spiritual death under which we were found.

When he had said his say in a very gracious manner, his grandson was allowed to go on again, to the dear old man’s great delight; for now and then he would say, in a gentle tone, ‘Good! Good!’ Once he said, ‘Tell them that again, Charles.’ and, of course, I did tell them that again. It was a happy exercise to me to take my share in bearing witness to truths of such vital importance, which are so deeply impressed upon my heart.

While announcing this text I seem to hear that dear voice, which has been so long lost to earth, saying to me, “TELL THEM THAT AGAIN.” I am not contradicting the testimony of forefathers who are now with God. If my grandfather could return to earth, he would find me where he left me, steadfast in the faith, and true to that form of doctrine which was once delivered to the saints.

When we preach, the testimony of faithful Gospel preachers stand behind us, pulling our coat-tails and whispering, “Tell them that again.” A great reminder for preachers to stick closely and return frequently to the fundamentals of the Gospel! In reminiscing over the 30-year history of his church, C.J. Mahaney writes, “We never assume that there’s already sufficient understanding, appreciation, and experience of ‘Jesus Christ and Him crucified'” [Living the Cross-Centered Life, p. 19].

Take it from C.H. or C.J.: “Tell them that again.”

See you Monday, Tony.

A battle-axe for the New Year’s Resolutions

It’s an American tradition to make promises for the New Year and Christians sanctify the tradition by using this opportunity to commit themselves to bible reading, prayer and killing sin. This year I, like many of my friends, have resolved to kill (or ‘mortify’) personal sin. Spurgeon gives us a fitting reminder to focus on the mortifying power of the Cross.

“Some, I fear, use the precious blood of Christ only as a quietus to their consciences. They say to themselves, ‘He made atonement for sin, therefore let me take my rest.’ This is doing a grievous wrong to the great sacrifice. … A man who wants the bloodaxe.jpg of Jesus for nothing but the mean and selfish reason, that after having been forgiven through it he may say, ‘Soul, take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry: hear sermons, enjoy the hope of eternal felicity, and do nothing’ — such a man blasphemes the precious blood, and makes it an unholy thing. We are to use the glorious mystery of atoning blood as our chief means of overcoming sin and Satan: its power is for holiness. See how the text puts it: “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:11): these saints used the doctrine of atonement not as a pillow to rest their weariness, but as a weapon to subdue their sin. O my brothers, to some of us atonement by blood is our battle-axe and weapon of war, by which we conquer in our struggle for purity and godliness — a struggle in which we have continued now these many years. By the atoning blood we withstand corruption within and temptation without. This is that weapon which nothing can resist.”

– C.H. Spurgeon sermon The Blood of the Lamb the Conquering Weapon (#2,043, Sept. 9, 1888)

Confess your sins to one another (part 1)

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” – James 5:16

If he had the opportunity to revise his famous book (The Enemy Within), what would Kris Lundgaard add? At the final session of The Enemy Within conference in Omaha, he said he would add a chapter on sanctification within the community, specifically the importance of confessing sin to one another. (Listen to session 4 of the Lundgaard audio here).

He opened session four by reading large sections of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s parable, The Minister’s Black Veil, a story of a pastor who lives out the end of his life under a black veil seeking to hide his own personal sin from the rest of the church.

But I was especially interested in Lundgaard’s reference to a small book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer by the title, Life Together. I was not familiar with this book and so the following quotes hit me.

“Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation… This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted. But God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107:16)…”

“The root of all sin is pride… I want to be my own law, I have a right to my self, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death. The mind and flesh of man are set on fire by pride; for it is precisely in his wickedness that man wants to be as God … In the confession of concrete sins the old man dies a painful, shameful death before the eyes of a brother. Because this humiliation is so hard we continually scheme to evade confessing to a brother. Our eyes are so blinded that they no longer see the promise and the glory in such abasement.”

“Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother… Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

These quotes remind me of C.J. Mahaney’s presentation at the Together for the Gospel 2006 conference where he encouraged pastors to be (discreetly) willing to confess sin from the pulpit in a way that builds honesty and openness with our hearers.

Likewise, it reminds me of the Psalmist. Asaph in Psalm 73 openly declared and confessed sins (sin that would otherwise remained hidden from sight). In fact he says, I almost went public with my confession (v. 15). But he didn’t. He was willing to lay his heart sins open and compose one of the most cherished of all the Psalms.

Asaph, Mahaney, Lundgaard and now Bonhoeffer have taught me much about the dynamics of Christian community. By hiding our sins under a black veil, our Christian lives are un-authentic and sin grows unhindered. We must work to be more open, to lay bare the heart, to confess “concrete sins,” build communion with our brothers and sisters, to be freed from the sinful pride that veils our personal sin. By the graciousness of God, if we can die to self here we will build a “fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.”

O, that God, while seemingly blessing our age with great doctrine, will also open our hearts to bless our communities and pulpits with pride-killing honesty and humility.

Personal sin and pastoral motive

Over 350 years ago a Christian named Anthony Burgess wrote a powerful book entitled Spiritual Refining, volume 2. It’s a book about the deceitfulness of sin (Jer. 17:9). I like it so much I began re-typesetting and updating the references. (So far the first three chapters are available here, more to come as time allows).

In it Burgess challenges his readers to take time to be still, and learn what is in their own hearts. This is how he put it,

“… the deceitfulness of the heart appears in those frequent and many commands to search the heart, to try it, ransack it and get to the bottom of it. Now if the heart was plain and open, if it had no depths, no secret windings, why would we need all these commands? You are commanded to make a private search as if for thieves and spies in your own heart. How often are these exhortations: ‘Let us test and examine our ways’ (Lam. 3:40); ‘Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith … test yourselves’ (2 Cor. 13:5). A mining expert is careful to bring gold to the touchstone to see whether it is good or bad, so also Psalm 4:4, ‘ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.’ Dig into the heart and sweep it out with diligence just as the woman took a candle and swept her entire house to find her lost silver coin (Luke 15:8-10). Oh, the lusts and corruptions of the heart that do not appear at first but only appear after the second or third search. The lusts of your heart may lie in your heart like Achan’s wedge of gold, covered in earth and hid among other stuff (Jos. 7:21). You may live forty or more years and yet be a great stranger to your own heart, not knowing what sins lie there and what corruptions prevail over you. Therefore, Scripture presents as the first initial and preparative work of all commands to search our hearts. We must take time to be still, with much meditation and quietness making analysis and search into our hearts that those snakes and worms which lie underground may be brought to light. But how this duty is neglected! … To understand the motions of the planets and not of your own heart, or to know the natures and operations of herbs and plants, or to measure the dimensions of oceans but not study the depth and length and breadth of your own heart, is but a barren knowledge. We may say, ‘physician, heal yourself,’ ‘astronomer, measure your own heart,’ ‘philosopher, understand your own nature.’”

Surely, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). It has been said of Sovereign Grace Ministries founder and leader, C.J. Mahaney that he is known for teaching his people to always be suspicious of their own hearts. We would do well to search the depths and remain suspicious of our own pastoral motives.