Thank You, Thank You, Thank You

An Open Letter to the Council of Elders and the People of Bethlehem Baptist Church Summing Up Our March - July, 2006 Sabbatical

This is long. You might want to run your eyes down the headings and only read what is interesting to you. No pressure. It’s just good to be back, and I am brimming with thanks for the sabbatical.

Where Were We?

On the eve of packing to leave Cambridge, England, I sit, computer in lap, on the squishy sea-green sofa with the cool breeze of the southern Fens blowing through the bay window of flat #8, Tyndale House, 36 Selwyn Gardens, CB3 9BA. The window overlooks the garden with its roses and trees and grassy lawn, where on Friday nights we have enjoyed “sausage seminars” with the other inhabitants of Tyndale House. That means a cookout with all invited and typically a lot of good conversation.

Tyndale House is an evangelical study center made up of a 40,000+ volume library focusing on Biblical Studies (which cannot be checked out but only used on site), fifty-four study cubicles and desks for rent, chapel, lounge, office, seminar areas, and living quarters for a limited number of residential scholars and pastors. It was founded over sixty years ago and has been part of the evangelical scholarly resurgence in the post-World War II era.

Seven Gallons of Tea

It has been an honor and a privilege to live here for almost five months and to have desk #8 in the library where I spent most of every day, except the Lord’s Day and when we were traveling and having guests. One of the great benefits of this environment is that people are going and coming all the time, and at the 11 A.M. and 4 P.M. “tea times” I was able to meet and mingle with people from around the UK and the world. These were times of vision shaping, relationship building, and idea sharpening. I was enough a part of the community that I inherited the Tuesday afternoon tea-making job. (I think I have probably drunk about seven gallons of hot tea since I came.)

I want to personally thank Bruce and Lyn Winter for their hospitality. Bruce is the Warden of Tyndale House and was kind enough to welcome Noël and Talitha and me to live and study here for five months. He is retiring from this post after nineteen years and moving on to a new ministry. Christ’s kingdom has been well served by his leadership in these crucial years. May the Lord raise up another warden with joyful faith in Christ, strong conviction concerning the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, a solid reformed and complementarian vision of reality, and a clear sense of the strategic place of faithful biblical scholarship in God’s purposes for the world.

Devotions Unhurried and Sweet

These months and this place have been a time of spiritual refreshment. For this I am deeply thankful. I do not take for granted that I love Jesus more than life and that I want to be with him. That is a gift, and he warns us that our spiritual life can be “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). I met him in his word and prayer for about an hour each morning before my work. There were no external pressures and so these felt unhurried and sweet. I pray in concentric circles: for my own soul, then my family, then the staff and elders of Bethlehem and Desiring God, then all of Bethlehem, then the wider concerns of the mission of Christ and the needs of the world. Noël and Talitha and I read the Bible aloud and sang together both mornings and evenings each day. O how good it is when a family can joyfully hear from their King and pray to him and sing to him with one heart!

I kept the Lord’s Day free from work and enjoyed worshiping at Eden Baptist Chapel under the ministry of Julian Hardyman and Marvin Wong. The afternoons were unpressured, and I was able to read spiritually enriching things. I read two biographies on this sabbatical, one about Andrew Fuller, an English Baptist pastor born in 1754, and the other about David Livingstone, the explorer and Christian missionary to Africa. And with all this spiritually enriching fellowship with God and his (dead and living) saints, there were the conversations about substantial doctrinal matters that take the meditations of the heart deeper and give fiber to the tree of faith.

Leisure and Labor

I am thankful for both the leisurely and laborious aspects of this five-month sabbatical. Let me take them in that order, though they were intermingled.

London, Churchill, and Les Mis

There were two significant times of sight-seeing and relaxation in London. Benjamin and Melissa and Oscar came to visit in May, and Abraham and Molly and Orison came in July. Both times we went to London together. One of the highlights for me was the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. These are the rooms where Churchill and his War Cabinet lived and worked underground during parts of World War II when it was too dangerous above ground. The Rooms have been preserved as they were in those days, with historical recollections that impart a sense of what it was to have, as it were, the weight of the western world on your shoulders as Hitler was advancing.

Two other highlights were the plays Les Miserables and The Mousetrap. The first is an opera based on a famous novel by Victor Hugo with a plot about the power of forgiveness and mercy. The matinee performance we saw with Ben and Melissa was the best of anything on stage I have ever seen. The second was written as a mystery play with a surprise ending by the mystery writer Agatha Christie and is the longest running play of any kind in the world, starting in 1952. They warn you at the end never to divulge to anyone who did it. This was a special date with Noël, who is a Christie fan.

Besides these, we rode the London Eye (the biggest Ferris wheel in the world and an anachronism—some would say blight—in historic downtown London), took a boat ride on the River Thames, crossed the once-famous “London Bridge” (that according to the song “is falling down”), had our picture made with John Wayne, the Beatles, President Bush, Tony Blair, and a few other notables at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, took an inspiring walking tour of Christian historical sites, and made our way around on the “tube” with an “Oyster Card.” Farewell, London.

Noël, Talitha, Stonehenge, and All That

Noël and Talitha took more sightseeing trips than I did (Stratford, Ely, Stonehenge, Bath, and Torquay on the southwest coast). But together we visited Karsten and Shelly and family in St. Andrews where Karsten was on sabbatical for the year doing a Masters degree in poetry at the University. The town of St. Andrews is small. You can walk from one end to the other in twenty minutes. But there is a great old castle-ruins with deep caves and great stories about attempted underground invasions. I went down as far as they let people go.

Glasgow, the Highlands, and Psalm Singing in the Cemeteries

On another trip to Scotland, we visited Glasgow and took one of the official tours to see the history of the city from the top of an open bus. Karsten and Shelly and the children joined us for this, and we enjoyed watching the children enjoy a great old sailing ship and a hands-on science museum. Karsten and I splurged and climbed into a time machine that flew us back thousands of years and did a kind of Star Wars propulsion through the halls of the Great Pyramids.

My favorite trip was the one we made to Inverness and the Scottish Highlands. William and Carine MacKenzie, the founders of Christian Focus Publications, which is located on the coast of the North Sea, gave us two days of their busy lives and showed us churches and graves and battle fields and mountains and Lochs (lakes). Loch Ness is so deep that it contains more water than all the rest of England’s and Wales’ lakes combined (740 feet at the deepest). William took me to the grave of John Murray, who wrote Redemption Accomplished and Applied and taught at Westminster Seminary for years—the most beautifully located little cemetery I think I have ever seen for a man’s rest, a man whose book deeply helped me about thirty years ago. I recommend the book to you all. We toured the Christian Focus Publishing House and trekked down a beautiful cliff to the seaside to eat lunch in a stone bothy (cottage) on the water. Best of all, everywhere we went William read from biographies or Scripture, and we would sing a psalm to give thanks for the faithfulness of God in those parts. It was the most spiritually enriching tour we had in our five months in the UK.

Cambridge: Walking, Walking, Walking

Of course, living in Cambridge, we saw that town from several different sides. It was home, and so we saw the commercial side as we shopped for what we needed. We saw it almost entirely from on foot. We did not drive a car at all while in England—afraid we might kill somebody driving on the wrong side of the road. So we walked. O how we walked. The church walk on Sunday was about thirty-five minutes each way. The walk downtown was about twenty minutes. We learned how to live without a car and I loved it. How I wish we could live without a car in Minneapolis.

Cambridge is a university town. The University of Cambridge has thirty-one colleges that have about 10,000 students, the largest being around 800. Each college has its own campus, and the older ones (that go back about 725 years) have beautiful old buildings and immaculate grassy courts inside the walls—picture the square in Chariots of Fire where Harold Abrahams ran as the clock tolled twelve times. That is what they look like. Besides walking through these campuses on our own, we had two excellent tours—one given unofficially by Mark Dever when he was here. He is a fountain of information because of his years here when studying and working at Eden Chapel. We also took the Christian Heritage tour sponsored by Christian Heritage at the Round Church—an evangelical ministry aimed at helping visitors to Cambridge discover the city’s Christian past and, by that means, to give a witness to the Lordship of Christ.

One of the most famous parts of Cambridge is the River Cam, (from which the town gets its name). It runs along the “Backs,” meaning the back of the ancient colleges. You have officially “done Cambridge” when you punt along the Backs. We punted twice, once with Ben and Melissa and once with Abraham and Molly. Punting means standing on the back of a long flat boat and pushing down the Cam with a very long pole (like a simple gondola). Ben and Aber and Molly and Talitha and I all tried our hands at the pole while others rode.

Friends over Lunch

I put in the category of leisure the many lunches I enjoyed with old and new friends while in England. I crossed paths with Todd Wilson who had come back to receive his degree which he finished last year. Stephen Witmer married Emma Hutchinson while we were there, and we enjoyed good times with them. The Tyndale Community is close, and so we shared meals often with those we met while there.

Biographies, Documentaries, Novels

Besides the two biographies that I mentioned earlier, I read one novel on sabbatical—historical fiction by Nigel Tranter about Robert the Bruce and his ascent to the throne of Scotland 700+ years ago: The Steps to the Empty Throne. I would have gladly read the next two novels in this Bruce trilogy, but I found it so enthralling I could scarcely put it down, and so had to swear off fiction to complete my other work.
Besides reading for leisure, I watched a series of three historical documentaries on the life of Winston Churchill. I was inspired mainly by the indomitable perseverance of the man. The number of mistakes he made and the number of defeats he endured make his successes all the more remarkable. One must admire with discrimination when admiring anyone but God. He was not, as far as I can discern, a believer in Christ. He was full of self-confidence and was bent on making a name for himself. His resolve did not flow from humble faith in a great Redeemer. He would not have said, “Some trust in chariots, some trust in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” His life, on the eternal spectrum was, I think, a tragedy. Nevertheless, as with Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus, God used him to accomplish his purposes. And those purposes were amazingly gracious to all of us who love freedom.

Squash, Jogging—a Little Value

There was ample leisure and exercise for the body in Cambridge. Besides walking more than I have ever walked, I played squash once with Stephen Witmer, Benjamin, and Karsten, mainly so I could say I tried it. Squash is racquetball with an unresponsive smaller ball and a smaller racquet. I didn’t win. Usually, I pay my dues to being “in body” by jogging. So three mornings a week I would run along the Backs and through the colleges and the town praying for God to move with power in a great awakening here.
And of course there was playtime every night after supper with Talitha. Whatever game she wanted to play, or DVD she wanted to watch, we did it together. Then came family devotions and bedtime with Daddy’s blessing and song.

Forty Years of Knowing Noël: It’s My Pleasure

Unprecedented and never to be repeated was the event of 6-6-06. This day marked the 40th anniversary of the day I met Noël at Wheaton College in 1966. So I arranged for Talitha to visit friends, made arrangements at Brown’s Restaurant, bought forty long-stemmed daisies (you would have to know our history to understand this), and came and knocked on the door. Without any rehearsal we acted the script I have described in a hundred sermons: Hi, Noël, Happy anniversary! O Johnny, their beautiful. Why did you? Hand up: It’s my duty. Door slams. Better try again. Knock, knock. Hi, Noël, happy anniversary. O Johnny, they’re beautiful. Why did you? Nothing makes me happier than getting you flowers and being together tonight with just us. (Talitha was in on this and helped me by recording it all on video.)
On our last night in Cambridge, I faced Noël as we were about to fall asleep and asked: Any regrets or disappointments in the sabbatical? She said, None. I said, I married the right woman. Not every wife would feel the same if her husband spent ten weeks of his sabbatical working in the library eleven hours a day, six days a week.

Jesus and Justification: Two Topics and Two Books Written

Which brings me to the labor side of the sabbatical. I was able to finish writing the main body of two books. One is called What Jesus Demands from the World, which will be published by Crossway Books in late September (Lord willing). It is a 365-page book on the commands of Jesus, in an attempt to obey Matthew 28:19, “Teach them to observe everything I commanded you.” Not just to know everything, but to observe (obey!) everything. How do you handle the Gospels in such a way that the teaching results in obedience? That was my goal. The other book is a response to N. T. Wright on the doctrine of justification. I have no immediate plan to publish it until I get the feedback from critical readers. My motivation in writing it is that I think his understanding of Paul is wrong and his view of justification is harmful to the church and to the human soul. Few things are more precious than the truth of justification by faith alone because of Christ alone. As a shepherd of a flock of God’s blood-bought church, I feel responsible to lead the sheep to life-giving pastures. That is not what the sheep find in Wright’s view of Paul on justification. He is an eloquent and influential writer and is, I believe, misleading many people on the doctrine of justification. I will keep you posted on what becomes of this manuscript.

A New Book Built from an Old One

Multnomah Press (which, by the way, has been sold to WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House) is planning to take the eight application chapters of my book Future Grace and make a new smaller book out of them called Battling Unbelief. So I wrote a new introduction and conclusion for that book and worked with my assistant, David Mathis, to make those chapters work in this new format.

Three Forewords: Penal Substitution, John Owen, and African American Leaders

I wrote forewords for three books. 1) For a book by Andrew Sach, Steve Jeffery, and Michael Ovey to be published in England by Inter-Varsity Press in defense of the penal substitution of Christ in dying for our sins—that God’s wrath is really against us apart from Christ, and in dying he becomes a curse for us and endures the wrath that we deserved so that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. There are those today who are calling this view of the work of God in Christ “cosmic child abuse”—a statement I regard as blasphemy. 2) For a new edition of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, On Temptation, and Indwelling Sin edited by Justin Taylor and Kelly M. Kapic. I love John Owen and count him a great doctor for my sin-sick soul. 3) For a book on three African American pastor-leaders from American history. The book is compiled from their writings with extensive introductions to their life and work by Thabiti Anyabwile. I was moved to write this foreword because of the extraordinary nature of this book. There is nothing like it that I am aware of. We will all be served well by discovering this history of theological richness in the African American heritage. Besides these three forewords and two books, I wrote one article for World Magazine for Father’s Day.

Three Countries, Three Conferences

As far as speaking goes, I spoke at three conferences: 1) The Evangelical Ministry Assembly at St. Helen’s in London, sponsored by the Proclamation Trust, 2) The Scottish Ministers Assembly at St. George’s Tron Church in Glasgow, and 3) New Horizon in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, an interdenominational “camp meeting” with 3,000 folks under a big blue tent to hear preaching and to sing their hearts out. In addition, I spoke at three churches on Sunday mornings (once each): Eden Baptist in Cambridge, St. George’s Tron in Glasgow, and St Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Coleraine. There was one other speaking engagement to the Global Connection, a missions leadership gathering in London. There were two small student gatherings for food, fellowship and Q & A in Cambridge.

A very joyful highlight was flying back to the States in April to be a part of Together for the Gospel, a conference in Louisville, Kentucky. I loved the fellowship with Mark Dever, C. J. Mahaney, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, R. C. Sproul, and John MacArthur. These are precious brothers that I admire. Our hearts beat together on the great and glorious gospel of God in Christ. I also visited my Dad in Greenville, South Carolina on that trip back to the States.

Now I am coming home and have in front of me a sermon preached by Andrew Fuller 200 years ago entitled “The Christian Ministry, a Great Work.” In fact, the work is so great the apostle Paul says, “Who is sufficient for these things? . . . Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5). That is how I feel coming back. Please pray for me. That there is a pastoral staff in place who served with such amazing faithfulness and skill in my absence is grace upon grace.

Thank you, elders! Thank you, Bethlehem! Thank you, Tyndale House! Thank you, Father.

Pastor John

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