In Case You Missed It

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1) Over at Canon and Culture, SEBTS Provost Bruce Ashford evaluates the two false religions often at work in environmental ethics.

2) Do you need a mentor or do not know how to find one? SEBTS Dean of Graduate Studies Chuck Lawless provides some help.

3) Thinking about an academic ministry? Consider the advice of Alister McGrath over at bethinking.org.

4) Some really good advice from Thomas Kidd on how to survive graduate school.

5) Michael Kruger describes how the earliest Christians distinguished themselves from the surrounding culture.

6) Finally, over at The Gospel Coalition, Gavin Ortlund reminds us that Jesus did more to save us than die. 

Spiritual Disciplines as Means of Grace

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This past Sunday, I began teaching a class at First Baptist Church of Durham on the topic “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.” The class is loosely adapted from Donald Whitney’s well-known book by the same title, which has recently been republished in a second edition. In the first class meeting, I introduced the topic by discussing some key definitions, explaining the nature and purpose of spiritual disciplines, and expounding some key biblical texts. I also addressed the idea that the spiritual disciplines are means of grace in the Christian life. Let me explain what I mean.

Many people, both believers and non-believers, are tempted to practice the spiritual disciplines in a legalistic way. They are either trying to earn God’s favor or keep God’s favor. This is unfortunate, but perhaps understandable: the language of spiritual disciplines sounds similar to the religious self-help lingo that is so pervasive in American culture. For this reason, Kyle Strobel suggests that “spiritual disciplines” is a well-meaning term put in an unfortunate way in his excellent book Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards (IVP 2013, p. 70).

In part as a reaction to this legalism, other believers do not practice spiritual disciplines in any sort of deliberate manner. Because they live under grace, they consider almost any discussion of the spiritual disciplines to be legalistic. (Though, interestingly, most of them still say we should read the Bible and pray regularly.) As the late Dallas Willard reminded us as often as he could, grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Spiritual maturity is hard work!

We need to remember that we never pursue the spiritual disciplines as ends unto themselves. Instead, we pursue a closer relationship with God through the practice of the spiritual disciplines in the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, one of the ways we live out the gospel is to practice the spiritual disciplines. When we think about spiritual disciplines in this way, we see they are what past generations of Christians called “means of grace” that the Holy Spirit uses to conform us more and more to the image of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). Please don’t misunderstand me. By “means of grace,” I do not mean that the spiritual disciplines contribute to our spiritual standing before God; we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone! Rather, I mean the spiritual disciplines are God-ordained practices that God uses to grow us in godliness.

Near my home is a great city park with a couple of miles of trails. Many of the trails wind through acres of woods. When the city bought the land for the park from a local farmer several years ago, they carved out these trails to help walkers, joggers, and bikers avoid getting lost in the wilderness. The trails are not ends unto themselves; rather, they are the means to help us make progress in our journey of exercise and guide us to the right destination. In the same way, spiritual disciplines are “trails” that God has ordained to help keep us on the right path and make progress in our journey of sanctification.

I want to urge you to practice biblical spiritual disciplines such as Scripture meditation and memorization, prayer, fasting, silence and solitude, service, worship (personal and corporate), and mission. If you want to learn more about the spiritual disciplines, check out Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (NavPress, 2014).

Ant Greenham: Friendship and the Great Commission, Part 3

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[Editor's Note: Dr. Ant Greenahm is Associate Professor of Missions and Islamic Studies at Southeastern. A specialist on the Middle East, he is author of Muslim Conversions to Christ: An Investigation of Palestinian Converts Living in the Holy Land (WICU, 2011), and co-author (with David Black and Allan Bevere) of The Questioning God: An Inquiry for Muslims, Jews, and Christians (Areopagus, 2012). He is also passionate about helping students see the breadth of the Great Commission. To that end, he writes below about the nature of friendship in the Great Commission. This is the first post in a three-part series. Come back next Monday for part two.]

I end this brief series with suggestions on how to move friendliness in the direction of true, Great Commission friendship. Doing what’s right must go hand-in-hand with stopping what’s wrong. I’ve explored the limitations of activity-based friendship and the inadequacy of friendliness in previous posts. And here I have one more friendship inhibitor to consider before I close. It’s the enduring tendency to categorize people.

Miriam Adeney provides telling insights on categorization at the end of a discussion on overseas missions:

We Americans tend to view people in other countries in three categories. They are exotic. They are problems to solve. Or they are good business contacts.

We bring these views into the way we promote mission. Exotic? We make other peoples into an adventure. But they are not exotic, they are sinners, just like us.

Problems? We present internationals as spiritually, physically, and socially needy. But they are not only needy. They are also made in the image of God, with a great deal to give as well as receive.

Business contacts? Internationals are not machines to be treated pragmatically. They are whole persons, as complex and common as we are.[1]

Her focus is on outsiders, but Adeney’s insights apply here in the US too. And if you’ll allow me to slip into a personal mode, I’ve experienced each of her three categories myself.

I’m certainly exotic. As soon as I open my mouth, I’m asked where I’m from (South Africa) and get the friendly assurance, “I love your accent!” I don’t mind this at all, but there are times when folks seem more interested in hearing me talk than listening to what I have to say. I also admit I can be a problem (ask my wife!). However, what if my annoying suggestions that we do things differently proves useful, with some tweaking and deeper consideration? Third, I provide my skills and resources (and you provide yours) to benefit the Seminary as a whole. In other words, much of our interaction in an institutional context is business-related. Business though it is, the Seminary’s imperative to further the Great Commission is ultimately God’s business. And this means that doing Great Commission business must transcend utilitarian pragmatism.

Such pragmatism may be seen when two Christian men express interest in South Africa on separate occasions, get answers from me they say are helpful, then ignore me the next time I see them. Or when a young woman shares lunch with me and her prospective student husband, spends an evening in our home once he is accepted, but now lacks the courtesy to greet me when she passes by. In the same vein, I was saddened when I bumped into “Ricky” at the ETS meeting in Baltimore last year. He asked if I remembered him. Of course I did—we mentored him and his wife, in our home, for over a year. Unfortunately though, his uncertainty rightly shows our culture’s doubt that a long-term friendship might emerge from a past set of activities, regardless of how meaningful they were at the time. So, let’s not leave people in the dust once the business is done!

Finally, here are a few ideas on how we can do better. As before, Jesus is our example. In addition to being with his disciples, over time and across a range of activities, Jesus told his disciples they were his confidants, not his servants, and as such, his friends (John 15:15). As his friends, he would love them by laying down his life for them, but they were to love each other the same way (John 15:12–14). In other words, doing Great Commission friendship (i.e. truly making disciples) means being a vulnerable, sacrificial friend, like Jesus, to others. Ultimately, this enduring demand is always higher than anything we can attain. But we can take a stab at it in the following ways:

  1. Focus on a few. Jesus did. His closest relationship was with just three disciples. I think this is a good guideline; you can’t have deep friendships with everybody.
  2. Be deliberate in establishing close relationships. Eva and I did this with “Dick and Karla.” It started with a few shared meals right before they took a trip to the Middle East. But we agreed we shouldn’t throw the relationship away once the activity was done. And so, seven years later, we are still spending quality time with each other, pretty much on a monthly basis.
  3. Finally, ask Jesus, the Friend of Sinners, to help you as you put his way of discipleship into practice.

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[1] Miriam Adeney, “The Myth of the Blank Slate: A Check List for Short-Term Missions,” in Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right! ed. Robert J. Priest (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2008), 144.