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Sharpening the saw

I wanted to share several resources that have helped me to grow theologically and ministerially. The following podcasts provide a weekly diet that stretches my thinking, keeps me more up-to-date on world Christianity, and provides me answers for skeptics and saints.

Unbelievable? Radio Program. This is my favorite program to listen to each week. Based in London, Justin Brierly expertly moderates a weekly discussion or debate between non-believers and Christians or between different Christian viewpoints. The topics range widely, but I have found about 80% of the shows fascinating. I find myself using snippets from Unbelievable? in my teaching and preaching ministry, often without even thinking about it.

Christ the Center. This weekly podcast is produced by a group of former Westminster Seminary students. The show focuses especially on Reformed theology and ministry. I have broadened my understanding of theology through this show. I would say that the participants have their particular interests, which may or may not coincide with mine or yours. For example, they love talking about Jonathan Edwards (me too), historical theology (amen), Cornelius Van Til (okay), Karl Barth (a little) and Geerhardus Vos (nope). If you want to hear a fascinating episode on Baptists to get a taste of the show, listen to this episode.

The Dividing Line. I enjoy James White’s debates with just about anyone. He has debated more than 100 people on topics such as the Trinity, the faithfulness of Scripture or Islam. I first ran across his ministry through the Unbelievable? show, but since then I’ve started to listen to his podcasts occasionally. I especially like how he analyzes positions of people who are confronting the faith.

I just thought I’d share these links with you, since some of you may not be familiar with these programs. I feel like I’ve continued to attend seminary with these shows, and best of all, they’re free!


Excellent church history lectures

Brilliant. In one word that describes the lectures on church history by Nick Needham. I’ve listened to almost all of them, and each one has been fascinating and helpful. For example, if you want an amazing crash course in English history, check out his lecture on “The Puritans and the English Civil War.”

Historical Lectures Given by Dr. Nick Needham


A Great Introduction to Luther

lossy-page1-220px-Martin_Luther_by_Cranach-restoration.tifMartin Luther (1483-1546) has had a huge influence on the way we understand the Christian faith. A couple of years ago, I spent a year slowly working through some of his works. I enjoyed the time and learned a lot.

If you are interested in getting an overview of Luther’s life and ministry, a great place to start would be the new interview with Dr. Carl Trueman on Reformed Forum. He is one of my favorite church historians and has written several works on Luther. In the interview they especially focus on his ministry as a pastor, but the conversation serves as a good introduction to his life and work.

Understanding Luther goes a long way towards understanding the main differences between Catholicism and biblical Christianity. As much as things change in this world, Luther’s main theological vision remains relevant to life and ministry in the 21st century.


The state of Catholicism

I just read an interesting, although unsurprising, review of the state of Catholicism in Latin America. If you’re interested in the religious climate in which we work, this article will help you understand better. You can find it at: Latin America is Losing Its Catholic Identity.

Another helpful perspective is that of Leonardo de Chirico, an Italian Reformed Baptist who lives in Rome. He writes a series called “Vatican Files,” which you can access at Reformation21. He has recently been focusing on how Pope Francis may appear friendly to an evangelical perspective, when in fact he continues to firmly hold Catholic positions diametrically opposed to the gospel.


Hebrews 13:12-14 (ESV) So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.

I’ve been working on a new sermon from this passage. In the course of working on it, I’ve pondered this question: “What does it mean for me to go outside the camp for Jesus?” What does it mean for you? How often do we actually go outside the camp? Are we comfortably bunkered down in a Christian ghetto? Trust me, I feel the force of these questions. One small step I took was to volunteer at a place here in Ames. I’ve done three shifts already, and I’m sure that many of the workers wonder why I’m there, since I don’t have a court order to do community service or a scholarship requirement either. I’m praying that I can be salt and light while volunteering.

This question makes me think of Jonathan Edwards. I’m reading the standard (excellent) biography on Edwards by George Marsden: Jonathan Edwards: A Life. I highly recommend it!

edward13Edwards (1703-1758) was willing to go outside the camp for Jesus. If you don’t know his story, he was perhaps the greatest theologian that North America has produced. God used him to promote the first Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s in the colonies. He was the pastor of one of the most important churches of the time. But then things went sour with his church. They eventually voted to dismiss him.

What would he do? He looked at various options, such as starting another church in the same town, or pastoring an established church, or moving to Scotland. After a period of over a year, God opened the door for him to be a missionary to the Mahican Indians in Stockbridge, MA. He labored for about seven years there, preaching the gospel and writing. Some have thought that this was his only option, but a careful examination of his testimony bears out the fact that he wanted to be a part of reaching the Native Americans for Christ, in spite of the dangers and difficulties he and his family would face.

Would I be willing to do that? Would you? Based on Hebrews 13, we should be. May the Lord give us wisdom and courage to “go outside the camp” for Jesus.



Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg in their book, Becoming a Contagious Christian, provide a great formula for evangelism:

Close Proximity + High Potency + Clear Communication = Maximum Impact

Let’s briefly unpack this formula. In order to effectively evangelize today, you usually need to be in close proximity to someone in order to have the most impact. I find this true in the U.S. and in Colombia. Sure, people may listen to you if you share the gospel on the street, but I’ve seen that usually God uses a relationship in order to bring someone to Christ. How many non-Christians do you regularly meet with in order to build a relationship?

“High potency” in their book speaks about living a life of personal holiness and integrity. If you have friendships with non-Christians but are just like they are, you will not have any impact for Christ. You can even preach the gospel, but if you don’t live it, you’re just another hypocrite.

“Clear communication” of the gospel message is also vital. Many Christians think they can “live” the gospel without speaking it. Nope, that doesn’t work. We are called to preach/share/testify about Christ and about his gospel. Christ died for sinners, was buried, and rose again. The only way to be saved is to believe in him.

Now, Hybels and Mittelberg may have wanted to include prayer in “High Potency” (my copy is in Colombia so I can’t check on that), but I think the formula would be even better if we included another element, giving us this final formula:

Close Proximity + High Potency + Clear Communication + Focused Prayer = Maximum Impact

If we are not praying for growth in evangelism, for help to live holy lives, for wisdom to share the gospel clearly, and for specific unsaved people to be saved, I doubt very highly we will see Maximum Impact. Let me know if you have seen maximum impact without prayer, but I have not.

Now, this formula would be a great reference point for praying for missionaries. For example, based on Close Proximity you could pray, “Father, help our missionary build a new relationship today.” “Give them wisdom to find new contacts. Give them wisdom to know how to draw nearer to the contacts they already have,” and so on. I won’t parse that out any further, but I think the idea is clear.


What is a furlough?

JasonWe’re back on furlough, and the question comes up, “What is a furlough anyway?” That’s a good question, and I think I have a slightly better answer than in 2009 when we were last on furlough. In a biblical sense, a furlough fulfills a similar purpose to that which Paul exemplified in Acts 14:27-28 (ESV) “And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they remained no little time with the disciples.”

Nowadays this involves visiting all of your supporting churches, which in our case are sixteen. Our schedule is starting to fill up with missions conferences and weekend visits. We’re thankful for each of these churches. During our time with them, we report what God has done over the course of the last four years. We also renew our friendship with the people, and encourage them to continue to have a Great Commission mindset. Missions is not just something we do in another country but should be el pan de cada día (our daily bread).

We also use this time to renew our relationship with family members. It’s very important for our kids, who really are a mixture of at least two cultures, to know their grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. If they end up back in the U.S. for college, they will surely benefit immensely from these months here.

It’s also a time of personal reflection. What is my identity? If it’s tied too closely to a specific country or to a ministry, rather than to Jesus, I’m in trouble. I think that’s what happened to me last time. I felt out of place, inútil (lit. un-useful), and frustrated with almost everything. This furlough I’ve been more proactive and will be working here in Ames with our international student ministry. Our pastor also graciously invited me to attend the weekly staff meeting. Little gestures like that make a furlough a lot better!

We give God thanks for the opportunity to be back in the U.S., not because we like it better than Colombia, but because we’re learning to be content in whatever situation we are in (Phi 4:11).


Omalleytrent93I just finished reading an interesting book that is very relevant to working in Colombia: Trent: What Happened at the Council by John O’Malley, a Catholic scholar from Georgetown University.

My previous exposure to Trent was the occasional look at its doctrinal affirmations in preparation for teaching on various topics, like justification by faith for example. I really had no idea about the history of the Council. This books gave me a helpful understanding of the context of the council and its major debates. For example, why did the Council start in 1545 and not conclude until 1563? Or, why did the Council meet over the course of three periods (1545-47, 1551-52, 1559-63)? The author explains the political and religious reasons for this curious distribution of the Council.

I’m not going to do a formal review this book, but I did want to mention a few impressions that struck me from this book.

First, this book is another reminder that the Roman Catholic Church has not been as monolithic as many would have us believe. I had previously thought that Trent was a unified reaction against the Protestant Reformation, but O’Malley shows that the Council was actually the result of a three-way conversation (might I say struggle?) between the popes (a different one in each period), the bishops, and the monarchs. In the debates about almost every topic, these three players pushed and pulled for the position that would most benefit them. Charles V wanted reform of the moral aspects of the papacy, whereas the popes pushed for decrees on the doctrinal aspects.The popes tended to fear the power of a free council, so they controlled the agenda through the official legates they sent. These legates were the only ones who could propose items for the agenda.

Another interesting factor was that the attendance varied greatly over the course of the Council. This was in part due to the difficulties of traveling to Trent, located in the north of Italy, and to the tedium of attending a council that would last for more than a year at a time. The result of this varied attendance led to a rehashing of many issues over the course of the 18 years. At times, clergy from a given country could not attend certain sessions due to political reasons (the French for example). This again points up the eclectic nature of the different sessions.

The Council of Trent focused on two main issues: doctrinal and moral. These two issues were tackled in tandem. A given doctrinal point was determined and its practical outworking in the moral sphere was discussed at the same time. The main doctrinal points discussed were justification and the sacraments. The main moral issues were the abuses in the administration of bishoprics and parishes and the moral failure of many of the clergy. Many bishops had various bishoprics under their care and became rich as a result. The same happened with the priests and their parishes. Trent encouraged them to live in their region of pastoral care and dedicate themselves to their people. The issue of the marriage of clergy also came up. As others have mentioned, Luther’s teaching and example challenged the Roman Catholic Church’s position on celibacy as much as on the doctrinal issues. Sadly, the Council did not offer any reform towards the possibility of a married clergy, in spite of the desire of a number of bishops who attended. It’s no wonder that the RCC continues to struggle with moral failure on the part of their clergy.

I was also interested in the varied care that was given to various topics. For example, O’Malley says that the bishops took seven months to determine their position on justification. In contrast, they only spent several days on some of the last articles that dealt with marriage, veneration of the saints, and purgatory. These sessions were rushed because the pope wanted the Council closed by the end of the year. This fact left me wondering again about the pragmatism of the Council.

The book also offered a few historical tidbits that I found fascinating. For example, in the debate on the Apocrypha, the bishops were in disagreement. Some wanted to affirm the Apocrypha, while others didn’t. In the final decree, the Apocrypha was affirmed but no justification for its inclusion was given. Another interesting historical detail came as result of the Council’s discussion on the need to revise the Vulgate. Pope Sixtus finally had the Vulgate revised in 1590, but because of the poor quality of the work, Pope Clement VIII had another revision published in 1592 after Sixtus’s death. Since Sixtus had declared that his version could not be altered, Clement had Sixtus’s name placed on the cover page!

If you are interested in a review of this book, see Reformation21.




The Bible and Its Roots course

Biblia y sus raices

I’m three weeks into an eight-week course I’m teaching on “The Bible and its Roots in Modern Times.” We’re covering such areas as the organization of the Bible, the manuscripts of the Bible, textual criticism, the canon, and supposed errors in the Bible. Attendance of our church people has been a little down, but we’ve been blessed to have three pastors from different churches here in Santa Marta attending.

I wanted to mention two sites that I had not seen before. Internet has truly revolutionized studies of ancient manuscripts.

The first site has a copy of the Isaiah scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls: . The first time I visited the site you could click on each Hebrew word and see a transcription on the right side, but that feature is currently down. At any rate, the resolution is incredible!

The second site does essentially the same thing for Codex Sinaiticus, which includes the oldest copy of the complete New Testament. This site provides a transcription of the Greek on the right when you click on a word in the Greek text. I’d previously been daunted by reading Greek with an older script, but using this site I have improved my understanding of the way they formed the letters and also of the abbreviations they used in ancient manuscripts.

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Learning, in a different way

Laurentius_de_Voltolina_001Last year I began a ThM program in Baptist history, which later turned into a New Testament focus. I had wanted to do the coursework this year and the thesis next year during our furlough. As the months have continued to move along, I finally realized that I would not have the time necessary to complete the program. As a result of much prayer, I have realized that I have often struggled to pour myself into the ministry in which I am serving because I’m distracted by the “next thing,” which in this case were further studies. I contacted the seminary to let them know of my desire to focus fully on the church planting ministry here in Santa Marta and discontinue any further plans of study with them. This decision was not easy, but I believe it will be a blessing for my family, our people here, and me. I also decided to stop studying French, as that was motivated by the ThM.

I wanted to mention that these detours have proven to be blessings. For example, I learned a lot about John Gill and the 18th century Baptists through my studies in church history. I learned more about the glory of Christ in Luke-Acts through my initial research towards the thesis I was to write on that topic. In three months of study, I reached a point in French where I can understand about 70% of your average journal article in that language. Nothing goes to waste in the ministry.

Now the question remains, how should I continue to learn in a non-formal way? I wanted to mention two new resources that have proven to be very helpful.

First, I’ve been listening to many lectures and debates in which James White has participated. He can be found on www.sermonaudio.com, if you search for his name. His lectures on Islam are very helpful! (Just a note to our prayer warriors out there… after our last prayer letter I met the first Muslim I have known in Colombia, and he already sat in on one Bible study!) You can also listen to many of his debates on youtube. I think that listening to debates is a great way to learn about theology and different religions. Plus it’s almost always interesting.

Second, I wanted to point your attention to Justin Brierley’s British radio show Unbelievable? His show is dedicated to debates between Christians and non-Christians and also between different Christian positions. Brierley does a great job of moderating these debates, and if you look at the topics I’m sure you’ll find some that will interest you.

Why do I mention these resources? So that you too can continue learning about our faith and how to engage with people of other worldviews. May the Lord help us to make an impact in the world through a clear, loving, and insightful presentation of the gospel.