Category Archives: William

The best 1600 words on church history I’ve read

I’ve just read a breathtaking summary of 2000 years of church history by Bruce Shelley. It’s from his Epilogue to “Church History in Plain Language”. The way the author flows through the warp and weft of two millennia of Christianity is a sheer masterclass of writing.

I can’t share the whole epilogue here – for that you really should buy the book. It flies through early persecution and heresy, the Imperial age from Constantine, councils and hermits, Eastern Orthodoxy, the fall of Rome, the reconversion of Europe, Charlemagne and Cluny, the church as empire, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment and Evangelical Awakening, the Age of Ideologies – all in the space of 1600 words.

But here is how it ends (emphasis mine):

“Christians can hope because faith always reaches beyond earthly circumstances. Its confidence is in a person. And no other person in recorded history has influenced more people in as many conditions over so long a time as Jesus Christ. The shades and tones of his image seem to shift with the needs of men: the Jewish Messiah of the believing remnant, the Wisdom of the Greek apologist, the Cosmic King of the Imperial Church, the Heavenly Logos of the orthodox councils, the World Ruler of the papal courts, the monastic Model of apostolic poverty, the personal Saviour of evangelical revivalists. Truly, he is a man for all time. In a day when many regard him as irrelevant, a relic of a quickly discarded past, church history provides a quiet testimony that Jesus Christ will not disappear from the scene. His title may change, but his truth endures for all generations.” – Bruce Shelley

Truly inspiring.

Reflections on the modern hymn In Christ Alone

(This article was first published in the NZ Baptist Magazine website: http://www.baptistmag.org.nz/discipleship/in-christ-alone/).


When was the last time you remember singing about God’s wrath? If the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” is in your playlist, then it was probably more recently that you realised.

“In Christ Alone” was the first hymn that writers Stuart Townsend and Keith Getty produced together, and to this day, it remains their most well known. Since its release in 2001, “In Christ Alone” has been referred to as “surely the worship song of the century so far.” The song has been covered by scores of artists including Owl City, David Archuleta, and Natalie Grant, and has been translated into several different languages.

 

The hymn takes a linear approach in unfolding the gospel narrative (the life, death, and resurrection of Christ). The first verse introduces Christ as solid ground, a cornerstone that we can find safety and refuge in. In the same way that stonemasons in biblical times relied on the precise placement of a cornerstone to set the foundation for every other stone, Christ promises to be “a cornerstone chosen and precious” (1 Peter 2:6) that we can rest every triumph and tragedy upon.

The second verse invites us to gaze at the wonder of the incarnation—the fullness of God in human form—before zooming into the life and death of Jesus. Despised and rejected by the people he came to save, the Messiah willingly poured himself out during the drama of the cross, where gruesome death and sacrificial love satisfied God’s righteous anger that our sins deserve (Romans 3:21-26, Romans 5:9).

The third verse begins with gloom of the tomb, but gives way to unabashed celebration of the risen Christ. The melody climaxes alongside triumphant news: Jesus is alive, victorious over death! We can now have the confidence to claim him as our own! The resurrection proves that sin’s death grip no longer remains: “…for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

Powerful stories demand a response. In the final verse, we are invited to sing our reaction to the good news of Jesus. His unmatched power provides assurance that guilt need not plague us, death need not scare us, and hell can never take us: there simply is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). With King Jesus in command of our destiny, we stand with confidence, awaiting the day we finally meet him face-to-face.

Just as a diamond’s brilliance and sparkle depends on the number and placement of its many facets, God’s beauty shines most brightly in light of his many facets. In 2013, one of these aspects came under scrutiny when the American Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song voted to exclude “In Christ Alone” from its hymnal, in light of the words in verse two, which speak about God’s wrath being satisfied. The decision attracted media interest and sparked a firestorm of controversy. There was much wrath about God’s wrath: some criticised the hymn writers for not allowing a change to the lyrics, while others accused the hymn committee of holding an unbiblical view of God.

Talk about God’s wrath brings unsettling images to the minds of 21st century Kiwis. We rightly reject caricatures of God having the uncontrollable anger of Jake “The Muss” from Once Were Warriors, or spewing forth hateful words at protest marches. Yet God’s wrath—revealed in the Bible—means God was willing to confront the cancer of sin hollowing out his beloved image-bearers, and Christ was willing to absorb the consequences of this cancer in our place. Without it, God’s love becomes saccharine and ill-equipped to respond to the horrors of human sin; whether anti-Semitic violence, or our own Samaritan blind spots; whether selfish exploitation of workers, or our own self-absorbed materialism.

That’s why when we sing about the wrath of God, we actually sing about ourselves: sinners in need of the rescue that Jesus willingly offers on the cross. To minimise any one of God’s attributes from our vocabulary is to rob ourselves of the full brilliance of God’s beauty, and to make Christ’s sacrifice less costly.

“In Christ Alone” depicts a God not made in our own image, but as he presents himself in the Biblical story: beyond us yet with us; holy yet gracious; angry yet loving; just yet merciful. And all of it is worth singing about.

 

Five laments your church could sing this week

“What can miserable Christians sing?”

A couple of years ago, pastor and church historian Carl Trueman posed this question in an article. He was reflecting on contemporary worship music and its limited ability to lament. Cries of pain are largely absent from our gathered worship vocabulary, and so in the wake of a terror attack, or terminal cancer, or the loss of a child, we find ourselves mute.

Here’s five songs, written or arranged in the last decade or so, that could help you or your church to cry out in lament.

1. Though You Slay Me (Shane and Shane)

(Lyrics / Sheet Music)

I like this one because it’s raw and honest. For example:

I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You strike down to bind me up
You say you do it all in love
That I might know you in your suffering

The melody is easy to sing along with, and the chorus helps to turn our tears back to trust: “Though you slay me, yet I will trust you…”

2. Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul (Indelible Grace)

(Lyrics and Sheet Music)

This is one of our favourites from the folks at Indelible Grace. Anne Steele’s words give us permission to honestly say to God that sometimes, our hope is fainting, it’s hanging on by a thread. The guys at Capitol Hill Baptist use a different tune, though I prefer this one personally – there’s space to almost “sigh” after each line as we “breathe our sorrows” to the ear of sovereign grace.

3. Darkness – Psalm 88 (Matt Searles)

(LyricsSheet Music)

Matt Searles has been putting out some excellent settings of Psalms, and this is no exception. I like the easy to sing tune, and how it pretty much tracks with each line of Psalm 88.

4. Hide Away in the Love of Jesus (Sovereign Grace Music)

(Lyrics and Sheet Music)

We’ve sung this regularly at Howick Baptist. Each verse talks about a type of person that needs to hide away in the love of Jesus. The first verse in particular helps me put my tired and weak heart into the hands of Jesus:

Come, weary saints, though tired and weak
Hide away in the love of Jesus
Your strength will return by His quiet streams
Hide away in the love of Jesus

5. God Moves (William Cowper, arr. Bob Kauflin)

(Lyrics and Sheet Music)

Veteran worship leader and songwriter Bob Kauflin wrote this arrangement in response to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Cowper’s words were written in the midst of terrible depression. The combination of text and tune has been good for our church to sing over the years:

So God we trust in You
O God we trust in You
When tears are great
And comforts few
We hope in mercies ever new
We trust in You

 


I’m really only scratching the surface here, so please feel free to suggest other laments. I’m particularly interested if you know of songs / psalm settings that are bold enough to stay with the singer in darkness (e.g. Psalm 88, which ends with “darkness my closest friend”).

It Is Well With My Soul

(This article was first published in the Baptist Magazine website: http://baptistmag.org.nz/discipleship/it-is-well-with-my-soul/).


“Saved alone”

These were the first two words that Anna Spafford telegrammed her husband, Horatio, after the ship that she and her four daughters were on sank in a shipwreck that claimed 232 lives – including their four daughters. In the small hours of November 22nd 1873, the transatlantic steamer Ville du Havre collided with another iron sailing vessel. Passengers tumbled and fell. There was darkness and confusion. Within two hours, the entire ship had perished beneath the waves.

As a grief-stricken Horatio sailed across the Atlantic to reunite with his wife in Europe, the ship’s captain called him aside and informed him that they were now passing over the place where the Ville du Havre went down. Overcome with grief, Horatio retired to his cabin and poured out the words which have become one of the church’s most beloved hymns, “It is Well with my Soul.”

The story behind this hymn is retold over and over again by preachers and hymn enthusiasts as an example of firm faith in God during difficult times.

Let’s take a closer look at the hymn…


 

Interview: David talks about memorising scripture

Scripture memory doesn’t save; only Jesus can do that. But I’m convinced that the practice of intentionally memorising the Bible is a habit of grace that is worth cultivating for God’s glory, and the good of His people.

To encourage myself and others with this, I’ve interviewed a few people that I respect and look up to, learning from them what they do, what they don’t, how they struggle, how they persevere with the spiritual discipline of scripture memory.

“I have stored up your Word in my heart
That I might not sin against You.”
– Psalm 119:11

Previously:


One of the things that came to mind when I first met David Chang was: “Wow! Check out that hair!” But crazy hair aside, Cheryl and I have really appreciated getting to know him as a friend over the years. David is currently a member of Trinity Reformed Baptist Church in Hamilton, and works for the Waikato DHB as a Speech Language Therapist. So he thinks about words and speech all day long!

David kindly took some time out of his schedule to chat about the blessings of scripture memory.


1. Share with us a Bible passage you’ve memorised.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and holy lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” – Titus 2:11-14 (ESV)

2. What are some passages that youve committed to memory?

  • Romans 8:1-17
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • Titus
  • Ephesians 1-2
  • 1 John 1-2
  • A few of the Psalms!

 

3. What convinced you to start memorising Scripture?

My first extended passage that I memorised (Romans 8) was because it was such a critical chapter of Christian living. I was really strengthened and encouraged by it and wanted to commit it to heart.

The first book I memorised (Philippians) was because The Resurgence (Christian blog site) posted a challenge in December 2010 to memorise the book of Philippians by Easter 2011. A friend then started a Facebook page to encourage a bunch of friends to take up the challenge.

Since Philippians, I have just sporadically decided to commit texts to memory, both individually and with friends.

4. How do you choose which passages to memorise?

I have not been particularly systematic in selecting passages to memorise. However, here are some reasons that have contributed to picking a text:

  • Passages that are currently being preached through at church.
  • Passages that have been a great reminder/encouragement to me during a season of life.
  • Passages that friends have wanted to memorise together.

And so far, all of the above also meet the vague criteria of not being overly long (e.g. Not the whole Gospel of Matthew/Mark/Luke/John) to memorise.

5. Do you suggest memorising whole books of the Bible or selected verses? What are the pros/cons?

There is a place for both:

Whole Books

+ You revisit the same books over and over and over again, that you become very familiar with the text – the flow of the arguments, the themes, the emphases. At times I have found that I am so familiar with the text that I can identify with the thoughts and emotions of the author as he writes to the point that the way he thinks and his priorities start rubbing off on me.

+ You understand passages in their correct context, and start using/applying them in appropriate situations. 

– Some books are just too big to commit to memory – they will take a very long time.

Selected Verses

+ You can bring verses to mind that cover a range of topics – from verses that address different aspects of theology, to verses/promises to cling to in different circumstances.

– It is easy to accidentally strip these verses of their context.

6. What are some of the blessings youve experienced in committing Scripture to memory?

I have found that while I am memorising a particular text, the text will often very naturally come to mind as I go about my day and I’ve come to see how particular texts are relevant to different situations – even in situations that you have never thought of.

For example, while I was memorising Philippians, Phil 4:6-9 was a great reminder to me when I wrestled with something that made me anxious and stressed. People often think of Phil 4:6 in those situations, but the fact that I had vs. 8 + 9 also committed to memory reminded me that, a lot of what made me stressed/anxious were actually uncertainty of the future or things that “could happen” and helped me to redirect my thoughts to things that were “true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise”.

Also, I’ve grown in my love for some of the ‘less-famous’ passages of the Bible, simply because you see how these texts can be as edifying as the “famous” passages.

Also, during times of memorising scripture, the text that I’m memorising can often just roll off my tongue in my interactions.

 

7. OK – walk us through your step-by-step method of memorising Scripture.

My method has evolved through the years, but if I was to pick a new text to memorise tomorrow, this is what I would do:

  1. Read through the passage twice a day for two weeks. This helps significantly in becoming familiar with the text, the argument and how the author/translators phrase things. While this may initially feel like a waste of time because you want to just get stuck in, I have found doing this helped make the memorising easier and quicker.
  2. Start at the beginning. Cover the text and try and recite as much as I can – if I completed step 1, I am always surprised with how much is already committed to memory.
  3. Uncover and check whether you were correct. If so, repeat again. If not, repeat again.
  4. Once I correctly recite the passage 2-3 times in a row, I add the next sentence to the end and try and recite the whole text from the beginning (Repeat 2-4).
  5. If it is a long passage, I do some chunking. When I reach a natural break (e.g. end of a chapter), I stop adding to the end of what I have already memorised (as in step 4), and just start afresh from the next section.
  6. Once I’ve memorised each “chunk” I try to tie them together by reciting the whole passage.

“… We are often in the habit of filling in these “empty” times with social media, but it can surprise you how much you can achieve in these times.”

8. What are some practical tips you can share that can help us be more successful with Scripture memory?

  • Keep track of verses by counting with your fingers – this avoids awkwardly adding of numbers as you recite passages which can disrupt the flow of the text. While this may not be as helpful (compared to saying the numbers out loud as you recite) when people ask you to immediately recite a specific verse, it is surprising how effective it is. It also helps with recognising if you’ve missed a verse while you’re reciting.
  • Step 1 in the above question – reading through the passage quite a bit before you start is surprisingly effective.
  • Recite together! Find 1-2 other people and do it together once a week. It can take just 30min. I did this before church with two other guys once, and it was very enjoyable.
  • Try and recite in your “empty” times. The good thing about reciting Scripture is you don’t actually have to use your eyes or hands that much – so you can do it when you’re stuck in traffic, waiting at the bus stop, riding the bus, sitting on the toilet, when your eyes are tired and don’t want to look at anything, showering, walking, etc. We are often in a habit of filling in these “empty” times with social media, but it can surprise you how much you can achieve in these times.

 

9. Any other words of encouragement for those of us having a go?

  • Pray, pray, pray. Our God is Sovereign and in control of all things, including our brains. Ask for his help.
  • Just get started – the idea is more daunting and seem more impressive than it actually is. If you commit to it and do it regularly, it is probably not as hard as you think.
  • Take your time – some people are better at memorising than others – but everyone can do it!

 

Resources and helps: