Packer’s Dusty Puritan Discovery Still Guides and Helps

During J. I. Packer’s second year of undergraduate studies at Oxford, he was invited to serve as the junior librarian at the Christian Union student organization. Having been converted only a year earlier, Packer was new to the Union but, as he would soon discover, so were a recent donation of books. An octogenarian clergyman had recently concluded that he could no longer make use of his library and thus gave them to the Union who, upon receipt, proceeded to pile them in the basement of their meeting space in North Gate Hall for an unknown future.[1] Thereafter, as is now famously told and retold, Packer discovered, as a nineteen year-old, the works of the Puritan John Owen—and the evangelical world has not been the same since.

At the time of this discovery, Packer would later relate his life “was all over the place” emotionally and thus “God used [Owen] to save my sanity.” More than just sorting out Packer, his literal “recovery” of the Puritans would start a movement that not only would bring great and good revived interest in these evangelical forebears, but also would help provide an anchor to the Word of God during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s in the United Kingdom and abroad.

From this discovery, Packer would later help recover a more faithful understanding of Puritanism. He summarizes “the Puritanism of history” well in A Grief Sanctified (2002), “It was, rather, a holistic renewal movement within English-speaking Protestantism, which aimed to bring all life—personal, ecclesiastical, political, social, commercial; family life, business life, professional life—under the didactic authority and the purging and regenerating power of God in the gospel to the fullest extent possible.” [2]

Even more, Packer would spend a lifetime underscoring how the Puritans of the past can help Evangelicals of the present. As one example, Packer explains how reading the Puritans can correct the hyper-individualism and anti-thinking perspective that pervades Evangelicalism. In A Quest for Godliness (1990), Packer offers that the Puritans have these seven points of wisdom for present day Evangelicals:

  1. The stress on God-centeredness as a divine requirement that is central to the discipline of self-denial.
  2. The insistence on the primacy of the mind, and on the impossibility of obeying biblical truth that one has not yet understood.
  3. The demand for humility, patience, and steadiness at all times, and for an acknowledgment that the Holy Spirit’s main ministry is not to give thrills but to create in us Christlike character.
  4. The recognition that feelings go up and down, and that God frequently tries us by leading us through wastes of emotional flatness.
  5. The singling out of worship as life’s primary activity.
  6. The stress on our need of regular self-examination by Scripture, in terms set by Psalm 139:23-24.
  7. The realisation that sanctified suffering bulks large in God’s plan for his children’s growth in grace. [3]

One could argue, that had not Packer discovered that box of books, his tremendously influential and life altering works, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958) and Knowing God (1973), may never have appeared—not to mention the republishing of the Works of John Owen themselves as well as many other volumes in the Puritan canon readily available today. [4]

Even more, Packer’s discovery in Oxford proved vital for helping Evangelicals strengthen their theological foundation, and still is helping. May a new generation continue to follow Packer to make new discoveries like his of their own.

At Midwestern Seminary, we currently have several PhD students reading and writing on the Puritans and Puritan influence. From John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Jeremiah Burroughs, to the Puritan influence on the English Baptists, Jonathan Edwards and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and then also, of course, the influence of the Puritans on Charles Spurgeon, explored uniquely through his Puritan collection in The Spurgeon Library.

In brief, if you are interested in the Puritans and their legacy, continue the discovery work of J. I. Packer by coming to study them with us at Midwestern.

[1] The location where this took place is North Gate Hall, St Michael’s St, Oxford OX1 2DU, UK

[2] J. I. Packer, A Grief Sanctified (Crossway, 2002), 19.

[3] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Crossway, 1990, 2010), 31.

[4] Leland Ryken, J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway, 2015), 265-267. This key event in Packer’s life is also told in Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography (Baker, 1998).

The Theological Educator as Sherpa

In 1943, C. S. Lewis gave three lectures in Durham later published in one volume as The Abolition of Man. [1] The first of these lectures he titled “Men Without Chests,” aimed as a critique of a recent volume that argued for the subjective nature of meaning in a book for school children. [2] The authors of that book, Lewis summarized, likely were attempting to “fortify the minds of young people against emotion.” [3]

However, Lewis countered, the challenge of the day for young people is not restraining or starving them of emotion, but rather awakening it and directing it toward what is just and true. The authors of the children’s book, Lewis concludes, are trying to build the intellect, but carve out the heart. In the end, what they create are men with minds but no heart. Men with intellect, but without chests, and yet we “expect of them virtue and enterprise.” Herein Lewis posits his corrective, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” [4]

For the theological educator, the task is no different. In the twenty-first century there are jungles of competing worldviews, arguments, and approaches to theological education. In as much as the theological educator attempts only to cut these down as an intellectual exercise apart from understanding how theological instruction is a matter of the heart, he is only cutting that which will grow back. The question to ask, rather, is how should the theological educator irrigate the dry hearts of his students and stir their affections to that which is just and true?

In a recent article published in Permanent Things, I give a long-form presentation on the two ways I think theological educators can answer this question: that is by serving as shepherds and sherpas. What follows is the second half of that essay.

The Theological Educator as Sherpa

In Kathmandu, Kami Rita owns the record for scaling Mt. Everest at 22 times.[5] Rita is a climbing Sherpa employed by elite mountain climbers to aid them in their ascent of the world’s most treacherous peaks. Growing up in a village near the base of Mt. Everest, Rita and his siblings learned early the trade of guiding and surviving the feats that many often start but do not complete. The task of the theological educator in caring for and leading students to survive the feat of their educational goals mirrors the task of a climbing Sherpa in several ways.

The Invisible Sherpa Who Serves and Points

The theological educator cares best for his students when he adopts the lowly posture of a Sherpa. With this identity in mind, the educator can serve without conceding any ounce of experience or rank. The Sherpa, as the result of his years of experience, is the best one fit to serve. Just as the Sherpa comes alongside his clients and helps organize, direct, assemble, and lead, the theological educator does the same for students. The Sherpa is not a drill instructor or dictator leading by bravado or instilling fear in his clients, rather he educates and serves (Mark 10:45).

One of the prime ways the theological educator, in and out of the classroom, has the opportunity to serve students as a Sherpa is by taking time with them and by making time for them. Often this is as simple as modeling patience and understanding with any question asked in class or in public. When students see that even the most mundane of questions are taken with seriousness and without smirk in public, they are more willing to ask their vital questions in private. The theological educator serves students well when the student feels and knows they have an audience and a sincere ear in their professor and are not a burden or waste of time.

In my classes, I make a point early in the term to let students know that their questions and interests are not only a high priority for me, but also something I enjoy and value. As many are aware I have a full schedule of meetings and faculty concerns, sometimes they shy away from approaching me. I work to preclude this conclusion by telling them that time with students for me is like an intravenous reviving of my calling and outlook in the midst of several other tasks and meetings. I try to convey that I need them to approach me and ask me questions as a help for balance in my life.

Related to this, the theological educator can serve and assist his students well by working hard to ensure he is communicating often and with clarity to them. Just as clear communication from the Sherpa to those he is assisting is vital for a successful ascent, the theological educator must not assume he is connecting with his students. To put it another way, while relying upon “It says it in the syllabus” might be enough to deflect claims of professorial malpractice, it is not enough if the professor desires to serve and lead students toward growth and development. The theological educator as Sherpa assists students best when he strives to communicate in multiple ways, many venues, and with repetition to ensure that even that one student, who seems to care the least, comes to appreciate the course and subject matter.

In addition to serving, the Sherpa also accomplishes his task with excellence when he does so in a decreasing fashion (John 3:30). When a climbing Sherpa leads his client up the path to take his final few steps to the summit, the climber, in one sense, should be celebrating to the degree that he forgets the Sherpa is even there. He has mastered the mountain, followed the instructions, implemented his training, and accomplished something rare and significant. In the end, yes, the Sherpa assisted him up the mountain, but the climber did the climbing. Perhaps this is most evident in the moment when the climber poses for a photo at the summit. The Sherpa often is the one, as his job, to take the photo, not to be in the photo. For the Sherpa has done this many times before and will soon again lead others to this very point on another trip. For now, it is the climber’s moment and accomplishment.

Such it is for the theological educator who cares for students as a Sherpa. The educator’s posture is that of one who is gladly decreasing in presence and influence with time. As Jim Hunt counsels, the theological educator should think of himself like instructional gravity. “If you think of the qualities of gravity, then you have a fairly good image of what you should do in your position. You help hold things in place so that they do not escape the institutional orbit and you are invisible.” [6] The theological educator serves, assists, prepares, and instructs the students—i.e. holds them together, but it is the students who do the work and who fulfill the requirements for graduating with their degree.

The theological educator, in this sense, should, at some point in the student’s life and career, be forgotten, even while what was taught and given to the student remains. The theological educator’s legacy is not that he is remembered, but that the students have adopted what was taught and are changed by it for the service of others. At graduation, the theological educator should be the one taking the photo for he has done this before and will soon again lead others to that point after another semester.

Yet, though striving for invisibility, the theological educator also cares well as a Sherpa by his pointing. The climbing Sherpa cannot do his job with success if he does not point his client up and down the mountain. Sometimes this pointing involves directing the climber away from danger or leading them to pause with patience while a storm clears. Sometimes this pointing is designed to motivate the climber to persevere or renew his perspective so as not to drift from the task in action or thought. Sometimes the Sherpa points at himself so the climber can see how to climb or what he should do next.

The theological educator who seeks to care for students as a Sherpa should also take care to point in these ways. However, the danger for the instructor is that he can spend too much time pointing at himself. This can be inadvertent, but without care, the theological educator can easily view himself as Auteur and the students as a fan club. Instead, like the Sherpa, the theological educator should point outward most and for a purpose. The theological educator, in this sense, is like a poet, about who C. S. Lewis reminds, “The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him.” [7]

The Value of an Experienced Sherpa

The theological educator is able to carry out the task of caring for students as a Sherpa only through the knowledge and wisdom that comes from experience. The climbing Sherpa spends a lifetime learning his trade from others more experienced. He ventures on climbs several times a year throughout his life and, only thereby, does he build up stamina and experience. This discipline, and investment in his craft is what allows him to come to see the most challenging things as routine. The climbing Sherpa is an expert in his field, and this status is something he has earned over time.

Such it should be with the theological educator. Rare should it be that a brilliance alone equals readiness. For even the sharpest of climbing Sherpas are not ready to bear the weight and responsibility of leading a climb without tested and proven experience. The theological educator should welcome mentorship in teaching, writing, serving, and caring for students. His posture should be that of deference to those who have been “climbing” for years. The theological educator is an expert in his field only when he has mastered the content and also spent time teaching, writing, and putting that content into practice.

Further, the climbing Sherpa is seen as a professional only when he matures to the point of no longer seeking the praise of his clients or is enamored by the allure or fame or status. The theological educator as Sherpa, likewise, should not live for the approval of students even while he seeks to serve and assist them. The students need to be led and guided by a professional, not simply a friend who decided to join them for a “climb.” The theological educator as a professional is not impressed by knowledge alone or the fame of another scholar. Rather, over time, he has gained the virtue of discernment that comes only after seeing many other professors and scholars come and go.

The best of climbing Sherpas are marked by their wisdom that comes with creativity and longevity. Sherpas who climb year after year gain knowledge, but also experience. The experience of serving many different clients in a variety of conditions builds a storehouse of wisdom that cannot be taught or purchased. Further, many of the technological advancements that aid mountain climbers today are the direct result of Sherpas providing insight and ideas due to what they have seen and endured. For the experienced Sherpa has endured much, including sometimes, the tragedy of people falling.

The theological educator as Sherpa, too, is rewarded with wisdom that only comes with creativity and longevity. Years of serving and caring for students yields an opportunity for theological educators to grow and improve if they are willing to learn. The longer they serve, the theological educator can help shape the future of his field by sharing what he has learned and how he has adapted over the years to improve his craft. Innovation in instruction, educational delivery methods, and the use of technology, can all benefit from the influence of wisdom from seasoned theological educators. Further, the theological educator with earned wisdom can care for students the most, simply because of what they have seen and heeded. For longevity in serving brings wisdom to aid their students from falling (Jn 16:1).

Read the full article in the latest issue of Permanent Things.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Harper Collins, 1944).

[2] Lewis referred to the volume anonymously as The Green Book, but the volume was Alec King and Martin Ketley, The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing (New York: Longmans, Green, 1939). See Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol 2 (Harper Collins, 2004), 561n59.

[3] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 13.

[4] Ibid., 13-14.

[5] “Sherpa guide Kami Rita climbs Everest for record 22nd time” The Guardian, May 16, 2018.

[6] Jim Hunt, “10 Years as a Provost,” Inside Higher Education, August 24, 2009.

[7] C. S. Lewis, “The Personal Heresy in Criticism,” in The Personal Heresy: A Controversy (Oxford University Press, 1939), 11.

The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead — Fall 2019 Chapel Message

In my house, my children have started calling me The Lorax as I like nature, the outdoors, trees, and often lead my children in their direction.

The Lorax, of course, is a famous Dr. Seuss character that speaks in defense of nature (in anapestic tetrameter no less), saying:

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues” [1].

But, the funny thing is, in our world, in so much as trees represent all that God has created, they do have “tongues” or at least they can speak and do speak for themselves. As one example, Psalm 19:1 explains that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

The English poet, John Keats, another Lorax-type, said in a poem reflecting on noise made daily by grasshoppers and crickets in summer and winter, said, “The poetry of earth is never dead” [2].

Indeed, God’s poem of creation speaks, but there is a limit to what creation can say. Yet, if what God created speaks to the world something about God, to what end does it speak, or why? And, most importantly, why does this revelation matter?

In a recent chapel message it was my aim to answer that question, for the answer is more important to living the Christian life than we might think. Using the Apostle Paul’s explanation in Romans 1:18-21, I examined the special value of General Revelation.

Basil of Caesarea (330-379), known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers or “Basil the Great,” said that God has given humanity two books to read. The Bible and “the whole world is as it were a book that proclaims the glory of God” [3].

As Christians have studied the Bible and developed theological terminology over the centuries, these two “books” have been classified as general and special revelation.

  • General Revelation is what God has revealed generally in creation about himself, his attributes, and his moral law.
  • Special Revelation is what God has revealed specifically in words about himself, his attributes, the gospel, the way of salvation, and much more in the Bible.

As I walked through Romans 1, the text makes clear that General Revelation has limits and Special Revelation is needed. From what God has revealed in creation, the peoples of the world can know that God exists, that he is holy and mighty, and that they’ve broken his moral law.

But without Special Revelation, they cannot know that he has provided a way for reconciliation, for forgiveness, for the transfer of his own righteousness to them through the substitutionary sacrifice of his own Son, Jesus, through his life, death, burial and resurrection.

Therefore, the special value of General Revelation is that it calls the believer simultaneously to praise God and proclaim God.

To put it another way, we as believers in Christ Jesus are like the Lorax. We are commissioned to go to the ends of the earth and “speak for the trees”—adding to the knowledge revealed to the world in creation by proclaiming the glory of God and the good news of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, until Jesus returns, the poetry of earth is never dead. Yet, the peoples of the earth won’t know Jesus without a preacher (Rom 10:14).

To hear the entire message you can watch this video:


[1] Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (Random House, 1971).

[2] John Keats, “On the Grasshopper and Cricket,” (1884).

[3] Hexaemeron, 11.4. See also Stephen M. Hildebrand, Basil of Caesarea (Baker, 2014), 37.

Thankfulness Always: Reflections on Five Years as Provost

August 1, 2019 marked my 5th anniversary of service at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Spurgeon College. At our annual faculty workshop, President Jason K. Allen asked me to take a few minutes to offer reflections on my time of service, which I’ve reproduced here as a brief essay.

To begin my time of reflection on five years as Provost at Midwestern Seminary, I’d like to start with a brief meditation on thankfulness as I think, as one old liturgy states, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” I’ve organized my thoughts on thankfulness around three simple headings.

First, it is God’s will to be thankful, always.

As the Apostle Paul instructs, believers are to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16–18).

Today you may find yourself wrestling with contentedness, discerning God’s will, or your present circumstances. You may be limping into the start of the semester. Or, you may be overjoyed with the blessings of God and so enthused that you cannot wait until Monday.

Regardless of where you find yourself today, it is God’s will to be thankful always.

Second, there is a reason to be thankful, always.

Listen to the 17th century Puritan Thomas Watson from his extended work on Romans 8:28:

“See what cause the saints have to be frequent in the work of thanksgiving. In this Christians are defective; though they are much in supplication, yet little in gratulation. The apostle says, ‘In everything give thanks’ (1 Thess 5:18). Why so? Because God makes everything work for our good.

“We thank the physician, though he gives us bitter medicine which makes us sick, because it is to make us well; we thank any man that does us a good turn; and shall we not be thankful to God, who makes everything work for good to us? God loves a thankful Christian.

“Job thanked God when He took all away: ‘The Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21). Many will thank God when He gives; Job thanks Him when He takes away, because he knew God would work good out of it.

“We read of saints with harps in their hands (Rev. 14:2), an emblem of praise. We meet many Christians who have tears in their eyes, and complaints in their mouths; but there are few with their harps in their hands, who praise God in affliction. To be thankful in affliction is a work peculiar to a saint.

“Every bird can sing in spring, but some birds will sing in the dead of winter. Everyone, almost, can be thankful in prosperity, but a true saint can be thankful in adversity. A good Christian will bless God, not only at sun-rise, but at sun-set.” [1]

Because God is good and he does not change, there is a reason to be thankful, to God, for God, always.

Third, thankfulness is key to walking in the Spirit and defeating the evil one, always.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Tolkien shares how the names of weapons the heroes used were so named because they described how they defeated evil. [2] Biblo Baggins names his sword “Sting” after defeating the spiders in Mirkwood. Thorin Oakenshield’s sword is named Orchrist, meaning Goblin-cleaver, and Gandalf’s sword is named Glamdring, meaning Foe-Hammer.

God has given us a similar weapon named Thankfulness that functions with the armor of God to extinguish the flames of the evil one and aids us in putting sin to death.

For example, Paul ends his beautiful teaching of what the believer should “put off” and “put on” in Colossians 3, with the phrase “and be thankful.” He then concludes in verse 17 with the summary admonition, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Therefore, when facing temptation, the believer should go on the offensive and “Set your minds on things that are above” and be thankful. When blessings come, the believer should “give thanks to God” rather than think highly of himself. Or, as is my task today, when thinking back on 5 years, we should start with thankfulness.

My Reflections of Thankfulness

Therefore, it is good and right to give thanks, always. And when thinking about serving five years as Provost, I have a few reflections. But this is more than mere nostalgia. It is a time of intentional thanksgiving and “setting our minds on things above” for offensive warfare against the one that would steal our joy or cloud our minds or distract our hearts. Giving thanks today is a way of taking captive thoughts at the start of the school year for good and God’s glory.

Thus, for five years, I have five general categories for which I am thankful. And as I work through these categories, I invite you to think through the last year or five years or 20 years and think of things for which you are thankful as well. For, in one major sense, I am merely a representative of all of us who have the privilege of serving here at this great school.

  1. People – I am thankful for the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the people who make up those churches. I am thankful for our President, Jason K. Allen, from whom I have learned much in five years. I am thankful for our faculty, colleagues, students, and staff. On the horizontal plane of service here on earth, people are more important than anything. I like systems, I like improvements, I like winning, but none of those are made in the image of God. None of those are eternal beings. None of those can love and be loved. I am thankful most for the people I have encountered over the last five years.
  2. Progress – I am thankful for the revitalization, growth, advancement, and goal achievement we have seen here. Those who care to read of the history of institutions will enjoy reading about God’s work at this school in recent years. But more important than that is what the progress represents in terms of Kingdom advancement. I am thankful for the progress and enjoy celebrating wins with the people.
  3. Provision / Providence – I am thankful that through the challenges that have come, God has been faithful to work all things for good. God gives and takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
  4. Protection – I am thankful that God has protected us from catastrophic errors, from foolishness, from sin, from conflict, from the unseen and unknown. Midwestern Seminary is a happy place. It is a human place, to be sure, but I am thankful for how God has protected us.
  5. Pointing – C. S. Lewis said, “The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him.”[3] I am thankful that Midwestern Seminary and Spurgeon College are places that point for the church and for the kingdom. How refreshing and joyful it is to serve at a place that does not ask the world to “look at us” but rather is consistently saying, “look at that” and the more people follow our pointing the more they love the gospel, love the church, love the kingdom, love the nations and most of all, love God.

Thankfulness always is the way out.

In one of my favorite television shows, an older character tells a younger character, who has been struggling and stumbling, this story to encourage him and remind him he is not alone. He says:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole.

Our guy says, ‘Are you crazy? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'” [4]

Or to summarize in another way from 1 Corinthians: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13).

When in doubt or whatever your circumstances, pursue thankfulness, for thankfulness is always God’s will, there is always a reason to be thankful, and it is an effective weapon against the schemes of the evil one. Whether you’ve served here for 5 years, 1 year, 20 years, or one day, remember this:

You can always trust Him and give thanks to Him, for he’s been down here before and He knows the way out.


[1] Thomas Watson, All Things for Good [1653] (Banner of Truth, 2013), 62-63.

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter VIII, “Flies and Spiders.”

[3] C. S. Lewis, “The Personal Heresy in Literary Criticism” (1939).

[4] The West Wing, “Noel.”

The Christian, Art, and Rediscovering John the Baptist

One of the more memorable experiences I have had in an art museum occurred seven years ago. My doctoral supervisor, and then colleague, invited me and one of his soon-to-graduate PhD students [1] to the Kimbell Art Museum to view Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness” (1604).

As a part of a study abroad program, the three of us had toured museums in England where our mentor had shown us the merits and benefits of how to enjoy art, and the relationship of Christianity and the arts. Thus, when the invitation came to go to the Kimbell, I was glad to accept though I had not seen before anything by Caravaggio.

My professor explained that this was a painting he could spend an extended amount of time just appreciating its magnificence. While I appreciated art, I had not built up the stamina or skills to spend much more than an instructional time in observation, so I was not sure what to expect.

When we arrived at the Kimbell, my professor led us to the painting. There was a large crowd milling about as Caravaggio’s work was there on loan as a part of a larger exhibit. My professor made some helpful instructional remarks and I read the accompanied description. We positioned ourselves to observe the painting from a short distance as the crowd lilted around, before, and behind us.

And then as if trapped in a time-lapse video, we, in silence, just gazed.

The more I looked and fought off distraction and a shortening attention span, the more I began to see things I had not before seen. The more I settled in and helped my mind to realize there was “nothing next” and that I wasn’t soon leaving, the more I saw the brilliance of what was painted. I noticed choice of color, positioning of the figure, background detail, and, of course, the wonderful use of light and shadow.

This was not a mystical experience nor was there anything mysterious about the painting that revealed itself only to those who could stare the longest. No, the reward came, like in any discipline, in giving one’s mind and heart uninterrupted time to reflect and appreciate.

Through this experience and others, as a Christian viewing works of art, whether art specifically designed to illuminate truth revealed in the special revelation of the Bible or truth revealed generally in creation, I’ve come to develop a few questions to guide my reflection and observation.

  • How does this work glorify God? Whether through the gifts given to the artist or to the works or attributes of God depicted in the art itself, this is a helpful question to search for the answer. For not all art glorifies God nor is edifying to review or contemplate. And often, God-glorifying art is created by flawed artists–the artist need not always have pure motives or an impeccable life to produce God-glorifying art.
  • What is good, true, and beautiful about this work? [2] And how does this work point to truth revealed in general revelation and special revelation? Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake remind that God made things beautiful, and reveals beautiful things, “to reflect his own beauty. And if God is beautiful, and if his creation is beautiful, then there is an objective measure for beauty, and we can think critically about it” [3]. To be sure, there is a subjective element to the evaluation and appreciation of art, and what one calls good, another may disagree. However, the Christian knows there is an objective standard to goodness, truth, and beauty and thus should evaluate all art by that basic standard.
  • What can I appreciate about the talents and techniques used by my fellow human being, the artist? Philip Ryken expounds on God’s giving skill and gifts in “all kinds of crafts” in Exodus 31 as evidence that God loves art and artists [4]. Just as we appreciate the skill of a spectacular soloist, or an elite athlete, or simply a brilliant coworker, we can appreciate the work of an artist.

When these questions are applied to Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” there is much to observe and much to learn.

  • Caravaggio’s work glorifies God in his portrayal of the humanity of John the Baptist, and thus his faithfulness to the biblical account. This is not iconography or an attempt at a image designed to replace the reading of the Bible. It is an instructive piece.
  • Caravaggio’s specific depiction of John the Baptist evokes thoughts of what is good, true, and beautiful about John’s life and ministry. Here one sees John as contemplative, as one living among the discomforts of the desert and his camel’s hair clothing, “crying in the wilderness” (Mt 3:3-4), and fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. One sees the depiction of a man bearing a cross-shaped reed, as one who is like a reed not shaken by the wind (Mt 11:7). This is a painting of a man who knows he is not worthy of untying the sandals of the Messiah (Jn 1:27). This is a “holy and righteous man” (Mk 6:20) of whom Jesus said there is “no one greater” (Mt 11:11), yet he is one who would prefer the shadow to Christ’s light. The arrival of John marked the end of the Law and the Prophets (Lk 16:16). He, filled with the Holy Spirit, came “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk 1:17). The Baptist was one who aimed to decrease, not increase (Jn 3:30). This painting shows a man who will lose his head for proclaiming truth (Jn 6:27).
  • Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow is captivating as, though it is easy to forget in our digital age, this was painted long before the invention of the photograph. Further, his choice of color, his positioning of his figure, and the life-like size of the painting are all aspects of Caravaggio’s genius that make this painting “worth seeing” in person.

The wonders of my experience seeing Caravaggio’s “John the Baptist” for the first time returned to me, in a surprise rediscovery, this week. As I was making some notes for a family trip to the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City, I found that the permanent home of Caravaggio’s painting was, in fact, the Nelson-Atkins. The painting that my professor led me to as a special event to see in person several years ago, resides here in my town.

Thus, I can now venture out to see that “reed in the wilderness” and share with others what my professor shared with me.


For my visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, I made these quick notes that I am happy to share with any interested in seeing some of the collection. There is much more to see than this list.

[1] My doctoral supervisor was Malcolm B. Yarnell III. Our friend and colleague who joined us was W. Madison Grace II.

[2] Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2011), explains that the triad classification of the true, the good, and the beautiful originated with Plato and Plotinus. Yet, Christian thinkers recognized this formula as consistent with biblical truth as well. Scruton states that Aquinas regarded these as “‘trancendentals’ — features of reality possesed by all things, since they are aspects of being, ways in which the supreme gift of being is made manifest to the understanding.” See also, John Levi Martin, “The Birth of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful: Toward and Investigation of the Structures of Social Thought,” in Reconstructing Social Theory, History, and Practice 35 (2017): 3-56; and Harry L. Poe, “The Good, the True, and the Beautiful,” in See No Evil: The Existence of Sin in an Age of Relativism (Kregel, 2004).

[3] Paul Munson & Joshua Farris Drake, Art and Music: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2014).

[4] Philip Graham Ryken, Art for God’s Sake (P&R, 2006). See also Jerram Barrs, “How Do We Judge the Arts?,” in Echoes of Eden (Crossway, 2013), and Clyde S. Kilby, The Arts and the Christian Imagination (Mount Tabor, 2016).

On First Looking into Spurgeon’s Sermons

In 1816, poet John Keats wrote a sonnet to describe the delight and awe he experienced when reading the works of Homer in English for the first time. While Keats knew Latin, he did not know Greek and thus had no access to Homer until a friend introduced him one night to a translation by the Elizabethan author, George Chapman.

Keats and friend spent the evening reading Homer aloud and by morning, Keats had written, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” to capture the wonder he felt with what he had read. [1] Keats wrote, in part:

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;

Rare is the work that causes the reader to feel like an astronomer who discovers a new planet, but that was Keats’s experience reading Homer.

As one who reads a variety of books, papers, and articles, I, too, have had this experience from time to time while reading. Of course, it goes without saying that reading the divine, living, and active Word of God (Heb 4:12) allows the believer in Christ, filled by the Holy Spirit, to experience this awe and illumination on a supernatural level. Yet, rarely, have I experienced what Keats’s describes when reading a human author. But, when I have, it is life changing.

Over the last year, I have had such an experience whilst reading the earliest sermons of Charles Spurgeon. Written during 1851-1854 during the time of his first pastorate in Waterbeach, near Cambridge, these sermons are more than the early “trial-runs” of a young preacher. Yes, Spurgeon was 16-19 years old at the time, but even then his God-given gifts of genius and zeal were on display.

The sermons I have been reading are those he recorded in notebooks that are only recently seeing publication. Spurgeon had desired to publish these sermons himself as early as 1857, but the “pressure of rapidly-increasing work” kept them from wider reading.[2]

In 2017, B&H Academic started what will become a nine volume series to publish all 400 of Spurgeon’s “lost sermons.” I’ve been asked to edit the fourth volume of The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon (due out from B&H Academic in November 2020) and through this process I’ve come to know again how Keats’s felt when reading Homer.

Waterbeach was a rural community that Spurgeon described as “a village notorious for its drunkenness and profanity.”[3] As Spurgeon continued to preach his sermons and record them in his notebooks, he discerned a significant spiritual roadblock within the congregation, Antinomianism.

He relates, “In my first pastorate, I had often to battle with Antinomians,–that is, people who held that, because they believed themselves to be elect, they might live as they liked. I hope that heresy has to a great extent died out, but it was sadly prevalent in my early ministerial days.”[4]

As a result, many of the sermons in this volume address topics related to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and sanctification, perseverance, holiness, and hypocrisy. As one example, in his 210th sermon, Spurgeon declares:

“This will touch those who are the most moral. Religion is attended to because it is respectable and helps business. But we ought to have a single eye to God’s glory. Business, the world, are followed so hotly and religion too cooly. Surely this is God and Baal. But no. God must be our aim. His service, our delight. When we are too anxious or too elevated by our affairs, there is much danger. Hands too full make a heart too dull. May God make us wholly his.”[5]

He then continues, showing that the path to sincere and pure devotion to God is through Scripture alone:

“We must not have a creed partly founded on Scripture and part on Man. It must be wholly what the Bible says and not at all what John Calvin, John Wesley, John Gill, or any mortal man says. Not the Bible and the Prayer-book, nor the Hymn Book.

“No arguments must be allowed from tradition for infant sprinkling or believer’s immersion either. No pope, no canons, no synods, decrees, Nicene creed, or Athanasian creeds. If experience, so called, opposes Scripture, throw it away. We must not aim so much at consistency with ourselves as with the Word of God.”[6]

During his years at Waterbeach, the Baptist Church grew and many from the town came to hear Spurgeon and were converted.  As Spurgeon’s Autobiography relates, “it pleased God to turn the whole place upside down. In a short time, the little thatched chapel was crammed, the biggest vagabonds of the village were weeping floods of tears, and those who had been the curse of the parish became its blessing.”[7]

As I have wrapped up my editorial work of these sermons, I can only join Susannah Spurgeon in her assessment that these earliest sermons “are valuable, not only because of their intrinsic merits, but also as the first products of the mind and heart which afterwards yielded so many discourses to the Church and the world, for the glory of God and the good of men.”[8]

Indeed, like Keats, on first looking into Spurgeon’s sermons, I have found joy and awe in the work of Spurgeon, the man, but also in the work of Spurgeon’s God to whom Spurgeon’s sermons point on every page.

To learn more about The Lost Sermons project or Charles Spurgeon, see the home of The Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Seminary, which houses 6,000 volumes from Spurgeon’s personal library in Kansas City, Missouri.

In a Field in Williamstown, the Wittenberg Door of American Evangelical Missions

In the summer of 1806, several dedicated young men attending the Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, began to gather regularly to pray and read reports of the burgeoning work of Andrew Fuller, William Carey, and the new Baptist Missionary Society in England.

On one occasion, while meeting in a field adjacent to the college campus, the students, trapped by a thunderstorm, took shelter in a haystack. Haystacks in 1806 were not the manicured and tightly bound variety that are arranged neatly as viewed from the 21st century roadside.

Rather, these were the versions piled as high as a human could assemble with only a pitchfork and a sundown deadline. Thus, like a quickly assembled snow fort, the young men of Williams dove into and carved out a hay-lined shelter to continue their meeting. What they found, though, was far more rewarding than had they discovered a missing needle.

The “Haystack Prayer Meeting” resulted in the dedication of these young men to personal participation in the global missions task, and the ensuing years led to the entry of a formal American participation with the sending of Adoniram and Ann Judson along with several others to the East.

Herein, we can see a dotted line from 1806 to the present, for the Haystack Prayer event is, in many ways, the Wittenberg Door of American evangelicalism’s awakening to the need and universal call for all believers to support, organize, and send many for global gospel proclamation.

Famously, the Judsons would change from Congregationalists to Baptists en route to Burma, and through them and the aid of Luther Rice, the Baptist Board for Foreign Missions was formed. Now mobilized toward sending and supporting world evangelism, Baptists in America saw and had a need to form a national denomination, and did so in 1814, in what would become known as the Triennial Convention.

This is no small point for our denominationally averse age to miss: the reason why Baptist churches sought to cooperate at a national level, with all of its necessary machinery, politics, stresses and strains, was for the purpose of uniting to send the gospel to those who have never heard (Rom 15:21).

Three decades later, due to the tragedy of many Baptists in the South defending the practice of slavery, this national denomination divided in two, and the Southern Baptist Convention began and, eventually, also the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board). But, even through tragedy, the connection to the Haystack remained.

Likewise, many other evangelical denominations can trace their entree into global mission advocacy back to that meeting in the fields behind Williams College, and that is what makes that location and that moment in 1806 so meaningful. For, in that sense, it is right to connect the sending today of any American evangelical missionary to those college students praying during a thunderstorm 213 years ago.

Recognizing the significance of that 1806 prayer meeting, later missions supporters dedicated in 1867 The Haystack Prayer Monument on the grounds of Williams College, where it still resides in the College’s Mission Park. [1]

And this week, the Midwestern New England Study Tour convened in Williamstown to see the monument and to reflect on the 1806 event and to consider the idea of the Haystack Prayer Meeting as the Wittenberg Door for Amercian Great Commission engagement.

In recent years, we have rightly remembered the 500th anniversary of the actual Reformation events the door in Wittenberg helped to launch, events that would encourage the later formation of Williams College and many Protestant churches in New England.

Therefore, in the spirit of the Reformation’s gospel recovery, it is good and right also to consider the impact of a group of praying students, heirs of Wittenberg themselves, on the modern missions movement of global gospel proclamation.

Here we stand (and pray) with them.

The Midwestern Seminary & Spurgeon College New England Study Tour gathered at Williams College, May 14, 2019.

Photos: Ronni Kurtz.

[1] The monument reads, “The Field is the World. The Birthplace of American Foreign Missions.” The selection of the phrase, “The Field is the World,” is an intriguing one, but not unique given the time and missionary context. Taken from Matthew 13:38 and the Lord Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Weeds, the correlation of the harvest field to the world appears first as merely background information, a description of the stage on which the parable would take place. However, as many would rightly note, the acknowledgement that the boundaries for the proclamation of the gospel are global is good and significant news for all dwellers in time and space distant from the land of Israel in the era of the New Testament. An example of how a missionary minded preacher interpreted and applied Matthew 13 in the mid-nineteenth century is Gardiner Spring (1785-1873), and his sermon “The Extent of the Missionary Enterprise” (1840).

The Particular Baptists’ Most Important Convert

Henry Jessey (1601-1663) rose to prominence as pastor of the “Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey church” [JLJ] in Southwark in early seventeenth-century London during the time when Baptists in England were undergoing their initial formalization.[1]

Jessey never married, wrote extensively, played key political roles during the Interregnum, and preserved the early history of the English Particular Baptist movement, which would grow to shape Baptists around the world.

Further, as the pastor of the church out of which the early English Particular Baptist movement would form, Jessey was a late adopter of the Baptists’ practice of believer’s baptism by immersion.

This immersion came better-late-than-never given his growing prominence and influence as the sustainer of these early Baptists. So much so, many have dubbed Jessey “the most important convert won by the Particular Baptists” in the seventeenth century. [2]

Yet, rarely has Henry Jessey been the subject of dedicated study, despite his mention in almost every text devoted to Baptist history.[3]

This need is why I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to contribute a chapter on Jessey in the revised edition of the recently released first volume of The British Particular Baptists.

My chapter examines one aspect of the life and thought of Henry Jessey for the purpose of  providing further understanding of the historical and theological development among seventeenth-century English Baptists.

To accomplish this, I provide:

  • A survey of Jessey’s conversion and his later adoption of believer’s baptism.
  • An exploration of how Jessey’s understanding of baptism affected the rest of his ecclesiology, or what I call his “mixed” ecclesiology, which would influence John Bunyan and then, even, C. H. Spurgeon.
  • An evaluation of Jessey’s mixed ecclesiology and those it influenced.

Here is more information about this new book:

The British Particular Baptists, Vol 1, Revised Edition

Edited by Michael A. G. Hayin & Terry Wolever
Particular Baptist Press, 2019.

  • British Particular Baptist Biography by Michael A. G. Haykin
  • Thomas Patient (1591-1666) by Dennis Bustin
  • John Spilsbury (1593-ca.1662/668) by James M. Renihan
  • Benjamin Coxe (1595-ca.1676) by Samuel Renihan
  • Hanserd Knollys (ca.1599-1691) by Barry H. Howson
  • Henry Jessey (1601-1663) by Jason G. Duesing
  • Christopher Blackwood (1605-1670) by Malcolm B. Yarnell, III
  • William Kiffen (1616-1701) by Michael A. G. Haykin
  • Edward Harrison (ca.1618-ca.1673) by Jeremy Walker
  • Henry Danvers (ca.1619-1687/88) by Tom James
  • Thomas Delaune (ca.1635-1645-1685) by Andy Compton
  • John Bunyan (1628-1688) by Ben Rogers
  • Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) by Tom J. Nettles
  • Andrew Gifford, Sr. (1641-1721) by Robert Strivens
  • Hercules Collins (a.1647-1702) by Steve Weaver
  • David Crosley (1669-1744) by Jonathan Arnold
  • John Piggott (ca.1670-1713) by Steve Weaver

[1] The JLJ church is common designation for London’s first congregational church established in 1616. It received this name after the first initial of its first three pastors, Henry Jacob (1562-1624), John Lathrop (1584-1653), and Henry Jessey.

[2] Murray Tolmie, The Triumph of the Saints: The Separate Church of London 1616-1649 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 59.

[3] In the centuries following Jessey’s death, many have labored to preserve his legacy, in part, as various accounts of his life were recorded soon after his death. For an analysis of these works see Jason G. Duesing, ed., Counted Worthy: Readings from the Life and Writings of that Ancient Servant Henry Jessey (Memphis, TN: Borderstone Press, 2012) and Jason G. Duesing, Henry Jessey: Puritan Chaplain, Independent and Baptist Pastor, Millenarian Politician and Prophet (Mountain Home, AR: Borderstone Press, 2016).

Coming in 2021: Historical Theology for the Church

I am delighted to share that in 2021 the great team at B&H Academic will publish a new volume called Historical Theology for the Church.

I have the joy of working again with Thomas White and Nathan A. Finn as co-editors and, together, we are joined by a stellar lineup of contributing authors.

What is Historical Theology for the Church (HT4C) ?

HT4C is intended to be used primarily as a general textbook suitable for Historical Theology, Systematic Theology, and Church History classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Pastors with a college or seminary education will also be helped and may decide to use the textbook as a resource for teaching historical theology to their congregations.

HT4C will treat the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook intends to show the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations.

Here is an excerpt from my introduction to the volume that presents a retrospective survey of the history of historical theologies with a view toward articulating the prospects of the pursuit of the task of crafting historical theology for the church.

Who are the contributing authors for HT4C?

Introduction – Jason G. Duesing
Theology in the Patristic Era, AD 100-500
Chapter One – The Trinity, Luke Stamps
Chapter Two – Jesus Christ, Steven A. McKinion
Chapter Three – Scripture and Tradition, Stephen Presley
Chapter Four – Salvation, Dongsun Cho
Theology in the Medieval Era, AD 500-1500
Chapter Five – The Church, Zach Bowden
Chapter Six – Salvation, W. Madison Grace II
Chapter Seven – Scripture and Tradition, William M. Marsh
Theology in the Reformation Era, AD 1500-1700
Chapter Eight – Scripture, Matthew Barrett
Chapter Nine – Salvation, Stephen Eccher
Chapter Ten – The Church, Thomas White
Theology in the Modern Era, AD 1700-2000
Chapter Eleven – Scripture and Authority, Nathan A. Finn
Chapter Twelve – Creation and Humanity, John Mark Yeats
Chapter Thirteen – The Trinity and Jesus Christ, Matthew J. Hall
Chapter Fourteen – The Holy Spirit and Salvation, Owen Strachan
Chapter Fifteen – The Church, Jeremy M. Kimble
Chapter Sixteen – Last Things, Malcolm B. Yarnell III
Conclusion – Editors

When will HT4C be available?

Our projected date of publication is February, 2021. Check back here for updates and more information in the months ahead.

Christian Living–In Our Heads, In Our World

This week I had the opportunity to spend some time with faculty, students and friends at the great Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. In addition to meeting with students to talk about what it would look like for them to continue their education at Midwestern Seminary #forthechurch, I spoke twice in chapel.

In two messages, I aimed to help students think through (1) how to live the Christian life when we face internal challenges and temptations in our minds and then (2) how to live when we face external challenges and temptations in the surrounding culture.

The answers to these questions are ones I first learned, in part, as a new believer in my undergraduate years, but, candidly, am still learning. In part, these were two messages I needed to revisit and review this week, and I am glad Cedarville gave me the opportunity to do that.

Here is the first message, “The Most Important Discipline I Learned in My 20s: Conquering Sin by Remembering and Reminding” (Ephesians 2:11-13).

Here is the second message, “Is this a dream? No, It’s far worse … and better” (Psalm 73)

I’ve been thinking through these themes for a few years and, thus, you can read some earlier thoughts in article form on each message here and here.

Cedarville University has risen to the top as one of the best schools in Christian Higher Education in their theological commitments, integration of the Bible throughout the curriculum, and overall campus community and campus life. In addition, they have a near 100% job placement rate for graduates to career employment. Cedarville University is a wonderful place for future students to consider for their undergraduate studies.