Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Tough Roots of Habitual Tenderness 1

It seems to me that we are always falling off the horse on one side or the other in this matter of being tough and tender—wimping out on truth when we ought to be lion-hearted, or wrangling with anger when we ought to be weeping. I know it's a risk to take up this topic and John Newton in a setting like this, where some of you need a good (tender!) kick in the pants to be more courageous, and others of you confuse courage with what William Cowper called "a furious and abusive zeal."   Oh how rare are the pastors who speak with a tender heart and have a theological backbone of steel.
I dream of such pastors. I would like to be one someday. A pastor whose might in the truth is matched by his meekness. Whose theological acumen is matched by his manifest contrition. Whose heights of intellect are matched by his depths of humility. Yes, and the other way around! A pastor whose relational warmth is matched by his rigor of study, whose bent toward mercy is matched by the vigilance of his biblical discernment, and whose sense of humor is exceeded by the seriousness of his calling.

I dream of great defenders of true doctrine who are mainly known for the delight they have in God and the joy in God that they bring to the people of God—who enter controversy, when necessary, not because they love ideas and arguments, but because they love Christ and the church.

It is possible and necessary to be as strong and rugged for truth as a redwood and as tender and fragrant for Christ as a field of clover.

So now, with the help of the life of John Newton, I want to say it again. And make no mistake: our heroes have feet of clay. There are no perfect pastors. Newton himself warns us:

In my imagination, I sometimes fancy I could [create] a perfect minister. I take the eloquence of –, the knowledge of –, the zeal of –, and the pastoral meekness, tenderness, and piety of –: Then, putting them all together into one man, I say to myself, "This would be a perfect minister." Now there is One, who, if he chose to, could actually do this; but he never did it. He has seen fit to do otherwise, and to divide these gifts to every man severally as he will.

So neither we nor Newton will ever be all that we should be. But oh how much more like the Great Shepherd we should long to be. Newton had his strengths, and I want us to learn from them. At times his strengths were his weakness, but that too will be instructive. Our theme is "the tough roots of John Newton's habitual tenderness." His great strength was "speaking the truth in love." As you listen, listen for what you need, not for what the pastor across town needs. On which side of the horse are you falling off?

I begin with a brief telling of his life, because for Newton, his life was the clearest testimony to the heart-breaking mercy of God he ever saw. Even at the end of his life he is still marveling that he was saved and called to preach the gospel of grace. From his last will and testament we read:

I commit my soul to my gracious God and Savior, who mercifully spared and preserved me, when I was an apostate, a blasphemer, and an infidel, and delivered me from the state of misery on the coast of Africa into which my obstinate wickedness had plunged me; and who has been pleased to admit me (though most unworthy) to preach his glorious gospel.

This is one of the deepest roots of his habitual tenderness. He could not get over the wonder of his own rescue by sheer, triumphant grace.

(The first of several excerpts from a lecture for pastors by John Piper; the full text and audio can be found here.)

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