Results tagged “faithfulness” from Reformation21 Blog

The Persecution Driven Life

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John Hooper, the English Reformer and pastor, was burned at the stake for his unwavering stand upon the truth of Scripture. In 1555, just three weeks prior to his martyrdom, John Hooper gave the following charge in a letter: "You must now turn all your thoughts from the peril you see, and mark the happiness that follows the peril...Beware of beholding too much the happiness or misery of this world; for the consideration and too earnest love or fear of either of them draws us from God."1

In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul states, "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." Paul was deeply persuaded that conflict is inevitable between the righteousness lives of the saints and those living ungodly lives in the world. This is nothing less than a tension between light and darkness.

In the conclusion of his beatitude statements in Matthew 5, Jesus pronounces divine blessing upon those who suffer persecution because they exhibit the godly characteristics of the previous beatitudes. Jesus defines persecution as arising from two sources:

First, true disciples of Christ are persecuted "for righteousness" (Mt 5:10). The beatitude statements can be divided into two groups of four with each group ending with a reference to "righteousness." The first group concludes in verse 6, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," and the second group in verse 10, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake." The three beatitudes that lead to "hunger for righteousness" are descriptions of a type of holy emptiness--blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn over their needy condition, and blessed are those who are meek and give their cause over to God. These three descriptions of need are fulfilled in the form of mercy, purity, and peacemaking. The inevitable result is persecution for this very righteousness. In other words, the righteousness exhibiting itself in the life of the Christian through the characteristics of mercy, purity, and peacemaking provokes violence in those who do not know Christ. The ungodly observe the righteous lives of believers as a condemnation upon their own unrighteous behavior. In response, they lash out in ridicule and sometimes through severe forms of persecution.

Second, true disciples of Christ are persecuted "on my [Jesus] account," or "because of me [Jesus]" (Mt 5:11). Jesus forewarned his followers of the type of treatment they could expect, "You will be hated by everyone because of my name" (Mt 10:22). In verse 11, Jesus is highlighting a Christological title with which believers identify and are persecuted for. According to Luke 6:2, it is the title "Son of Man," that may have instigated the particular offense of unbelievers. This title identifies Jesus as a King of heavenly origin who will reign over a universal and eternal kingdom and who is worthy of worship by all peoples of the earth. This declaration was regarded as blasphemous and proved to be the key to the final condemnation and death of Christ on the cross. The world is okay when believers identify Jesus as a moral teacher or a great leader, but when a Christian attributes divine authority, kingship, and universal rule to Jesus they become outraged and angry. Jesus was saying, "If you identify with me, if you proclaim me as the Son of God, if you proclaim me to be the rightful king, you will relentlessly face opposition, anger, and persecution from those who disagree." Jesus is saying that identification with him at this vital juncture of confession of him to be the "Son of Man," us what gives the righteousness of the Christian its distinct character.

Jesus proceeds in Matthew 5:11 by offering three expressions of persecution that his disciples experience in this world. First, he says they will "revile you," which means that opponents of Christian righteousness and the gospel will mock and verbally shame you. Second, the word "persecute" in verse 11 means "to run after, pursue, or run out." The idea is that the disciples of Christ may be pursued from town to town with the evil intention of violently abusing them or turning them over to the authorities for prosecution. Third, verse 11 states they "will utter all kinds of evil against you falsely." This means that the persecutors of Jesus' followers will raise false allegations against them that have no basis but are in reality imagined lies.

A life devoted to righteousness and godliness will be persecuted or reviled or spoken against, because your holy life is an indictment against their sinful one. The reason for persecution is holy, hot, blazing righteousness and a committed devoted relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus is blessing those who have identified with him and saying in response, "You are mine!"

Thomas Watson, the great Puritan writer, said of Christians, "Though they be ever so meek, merciful, pure in heart, their piety will never shield them from suffering. They must hand their harp on the willows and take up the cross. The way to heaven is by the way of thorns and blood. Set it down as a maxim, if you will follow Christ, you will see the swords and staves. Put the cross in your creed."

Does this describe you? Are you ready to face opposition and persecution in order to identify with the Lord Jesus Christ in every way? For those who are free in Christ and joyful in persecution are indeed the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world."


1. John Hopper, "A Letter Which Master Hooper Did Write to Certain of His Friends," The Church of England Magazine (London: James Burns, 1836) p. 382 

 
In 1869, the German physiologist, Friedrich Goltz, published a series of conclusions from tests he performed on frogs. In his book, Beitrage zur Lehre von den Functionen der Nervencentren des Frosches (Contributions to the Theory of the Functions of the Nerve Centers of the Frog), Golz revealed that he had put a number of frogs in a pot of water and heated it to 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the frogs obviously made efforts to get out. Golz then slowly turned up the temperature until the frogs died of at 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When he ran the experiment on decerebrated frogs, Golz discovered that the decerebrated frogs remained calm until they were fully cooked in the boiling water. I relay this story at the risk of offending both PETA and little boys who love frogs, in order to draw an analogy. In "late modernity," believers are in danger of becoming just like decerebrated frogs in the kettle. As the temperature of cultural wickedness increases around us, we remain motionless--until it's too late. While we silently tolerate and seek to negotiate with a culture in which abortion, sexual immorality, idolatry, materialism, abuse and every other form of wickedness runs ramped, we are being cooked. I am not suggesting that we become bombastic cultural warriors. I am, however, suggesting that we need to wake up to the reality of the wickedness in the culture in which we live and be willing to live as the faithful, God-honoring, sin-hating, righteousness-loving, truth-speaking believers Christ has redeemed us to be--no matter the cost. 

Jesus teaches us that there will be evidences of God's grace in the lives of those he redeems. The recipients of God's grace are marked as being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, merciful, peacemaking, pure in heart and hungering and thirsting for righteousness (Matt. 5:3-9). They will also be those who are "persecuted for righteousness sake" (Matt. 5:10).  Righteousness is not a culturally defined concept--something determined by statist ethics or media-driven agendas. As one theologian rightly explained, "What God says is right is right because he says it and He says it because it rests on his holy nature."1 This means that we must have our ethics shaped exclusively by Scripture. 

Recent exposés related to Rachael Dehollander, and other victims of sexual abuse, have served to prove how willing society--and, regrettably, even the church--has been to tolerate, cover and accommodate wickedness. If we have learned anything from this tragic situation, it is that we must wake up to the reality of wickedness in the world in which we live; and, be willing to call sin what it is. In order to do so, it is incumbent on us to defend the "straight line" of righteousness. Denhollander appealed to C.S. Lewis' reflections in Mere Christianity on the "straight line," as she faced her abuser: 

"I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else's perception, and this means I can speak the truth...without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good."

What a powerful word there is in this for us. We must seek, by a diligent use of Scripture, to appropriate into our own thinking, consciences and lives the "straight line" of righteousness. When we cease doing so, we will inevitably begin to accommodate evil. This is not simply a call for us to stand up for victims. It is a call for us to reject all unrighteousness. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that something is wrong only because it hurts someone else in a perceptible manner. Sin is, first and foremost, rebellion against the King of Heaven. As R.C. Sproul put it, "Sin is cosmic treason...against a perfectly pure Sovereign." When King David finally acknowledged his sin of adultery and repented of it before the Lord, he confessed, "Against You and You only have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight" (Psalm 51:4). Accommodating culture on the horizontal plane is the inevitable result of downplaying the severity of sin on the vertical.

By nature, men and women approve those things that they know are abhorrent to God. The Apostle Paul--after opening the catalogue of natural depravity ranging from sexual immorality to unmercifulness (Rom. 1:29-31)--explained the science of cultural accommodation. "Who knowing the righteous judgment of God," he wrote, "that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them" (Rom. 1:32). Our natural instinct is not only to tolerate but also to practice and to approve evil in the lives of others. Accommodation can happen either explicitly (through vocal support or active engagement) or implicitly (by downplaying its severity or covering it up). When we accommodate societal sin in these ways we become just like the decerebrated frogs in the kettle. 

It is a travesty of the highest order when ministers publicly castigate fellow ministers for speaking out on such things as abortion, marriage, homosexuality and gender identity, while silently refusing to speak out on them. Appealing to kindness and ecclesiastical procedure--in attempts to censure vocal denunciation--is often nothing less than a smoke screen for fostering cultural accommodation. Rhetorical sophistry is par for the course, these days, for those who--wishing to blur the "straight line" of righteousness--silently promote ethical compromise.  

Believers are not to be zealous to uphold the "straight line" because we are better than others. God only justifies "ungodly" men and women (Rom. 4:5). Rather, we do so out of a desire to glorify the God who redeemed us and to reflect His image in a wicked and perverse world. We do so also for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus died for sin. It is impossible to hold out the abundant and lavish grace of God in the Gospel unless we first uphold God's holiness and standard of righteousness (Rom. 5:20). The law makes sin exceedingly sinful so that men and women will see their need for the forgiveness and reconciliation that is only found in Christ (Rom. 7:13; Gal. 3:22). 

There will, of course, be a cost if we decide to do what is pleasing to God and stand for the "straight line" of righteousness in a world that approves and promotes wickedness. Rachael Denhollander learned that painful truth. Though the cost may be great, we must remember that there is true blessedness in upholding God's standard of holiness. After all, Jesus didn't say, "Blessed are the cultural accommodationists, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." 

 

1. Van Til, C. The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008).

What You're For, What You're Against!

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"Be known for what you're for rather than what you're against." This statement--in various forms--has become something of a Christian cliche over the past decade. Nearly every time I hear it, I wonder if those who so often state it understand the irony of the potential false dilemma that they have inadvertantly created for themselves. Insisting that we should want to be known for what we're for rather than for what we're against includes being known for being against being known for what we're against. You may actually be making a statement akin to that which almost every unbeliever makes when they, in opposition to the Bible's condemnation of sin, misuse the only verse in the Bible that they know, "Judge not..."--which, ironically, is a quite judgmental response.

To be fair, I strongly sympathize with the well intentioned sentiment behind the adage, "Be known for what you're for." I want to be known as a pastor who is for the gospel, for the church, for the Kingdom of God, for life, for marriage, and for a whole list of other God-ordained, and spiritually beautiful things. I'm also for gourmet food, all natural ingredients, and fancy restaurants. But for the good of humanity, I'm against kale chips and turkey bacon. Likewise, for the good of souls and for the good of the church, I'm against false gospels, false worship, false doctrine, and false teachers. Being for biblical things means that we must necessarily be against non-biblical ideas and practice.

Some people have made a career out of controversy. Watch blogs, conspiracy theory websites, and gossip media are all the rage. While the feel-good news stories get circulated around social media with comments such as, "THIS is real news," or "It's about time we see something positive," anyone looking at blog statistics can tell you the most read articles aren't filled with heartwarming testimonies or affirmations of true doctrine. Humans like drama, and even if we say we don't, our Netflix history proves otherwise. It's why the Bible warns us to, "Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths" (1 Timothy 4:7). Those who devote the better part of the life determining what everyone else is doing wrong and saying improperly are a danger to their own soul--and, I would add, aren't much help to others. More often than not, the controversies we allow into our hearts don't serve the great end of conforming us to the image of Christ.

However, in 2017 we celebrate 500 years of protest--something for which I and deeply thankful. The Protestant Reformation was perhaps the most important era of church history since the founding of the church, and it was an era of incredible opposition. Just as the Apostle Paul wrote, "If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:9), it was good and right that men like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli took on the Roman Catholic Church with its false gospel and practice in order to recover the truth. Yet, the writings of the Reformers weren't entirely polemical. Today, the five Solas of the Reformation are positive affirmations of truth thrown against the background of falsehood. There were certainly times when Luther needed an editor (for instance, the time he wrote against some of his opponents with words like, "For he is an excellent man, as skillful, clever, and versed in Holy Scripture as a cow in a walnut tree or a sow on a harp"1) Nevertheless, the best the Church has offered throughout history has rightly balanced being for what we're for with being against what we're against--rather than to the exclusion of one or the other.

Those who believe that Christians too frequently voice opposition often make reference to the tone or manner in which certain matters are addressed. We cannot forget the biblical imperative to, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted..." (Ephesians 4:32) and to remember that our speech (and writing) should be, "Good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Ephesians 4:29). We must speak "the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). I confess that I have hammered out emails, blog articles, and social media posts that--while even today I can say were true in content--were a far cry from living up to what Paul exhorts in Ephesians 4. This is the case not just in how I wrote what I wrote, but more grievously, in the intentions of my heart.

The Bible is filled with warnings and prohibitions, and sometimes the best way to understand what is true is to understand and reject what is false. The Church has solidified much of orthodoxy by standing against false teachers and their doctrine. While the Western world moves further down the road of insisting that tolerance (read: "as long as you agree with me") be our battle cry, the growing temptation for Christians is going to be to win friends and influence people by only stating what we're for. However, faithful, God-glorifying Christianity isn't frilly and soft, and our spokesmen aren't supposed to be motivational speakers pumping us full of positive sunshine. I love preaching peacetime sermons full of true, positive affirmations from God's Word. But sometimes the reality of war is present in the text, and if we don't get in the trench and fire back, we're going to die.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 41: Church and Ministry III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 41 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 219.

To Be A Diaper Changer

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I recently happened across a picture online, in which a group of young adults were linking arms at a well attended Christian Conference. The person who had posted the picture wrote a caption underneath it that said something along the following lines: "I don't just believe in these young men and women; I believe that they can change the world." A few days later, I came across the self-designation of a girl who termed herself a "world changer" in her Twitter bio. One doesn't have to look far these days to see how ready the better part of young Christians are to embrace grandiose visions about their futures. On one hand, this seems so very noble. After all, as image bearers of God, shouldn't we desire excellence and seek to be a blessing to as many people in the world as possible? On the other hand, it comes across as supremely naive and somewhat narcissistic to think that I am so important that the entire world needs me and that I will most certainly be a change agent for the entire planetPerhaps we need a reevaluation of our own personal worth and calling. 

A "change the world" mentality often ironically serves as a catalyst for discontentment or undue guilt. The common failures and frustrations experienced in the mundane day-in and day-out aspects of life tend to leave those--who had hoped for more importance--jaded or callused as the years progress. Like the person who gains weight over the years and cannot seem to lose it (I know this so well experientially!) has the peculiar temptation of thinking back to the days when they were younger and thinner, the disappointments embraced by those who have misplaced expectations about their own influence can lead to a nostalgic paralysis in later years. 

Such a mentality also has the adverse effect of inadvertantly leading others to dismiss the importance of the work of the mother who faithfully changes her children's diapers, drives them to sporting and music practices, takes them to the doctor, keeps up the organizational aspects of life at home and serves with her husband in many unnoticed capacities at church. It tells the man who humbly hangs a sign for a church plant each and every Friday night and takes it down every Sunday night that what he is doing is insignificant. It implicitly disrespects the man who gets up at 5:30 every morning and who comes home at 7:30 every night (and who then repeats that process 6 days a week for 25 years) from his job in a factory.

A friend once told me the story of a Christian garbage man whose hands were worn from his work. Someone once asked him about his callused and blackened hands. The man responded, "I'm thankful for these hands because they serve as a reminder to me that I believe that I have been called to do the work that I do and that I can pick up garbage to the glory of God." This is what a "change the world" attitude misses. It fails to embrace Paul's admonition, "Whatever we do in word or deed do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him" (Col. 3:17). 

To be a diaper changer to the glory of God is a glorious thing. Jesus said, "He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much" (Luke 16:10). Among the many things that I regret in the early years of marriage is that I was far to eager too be out with people "doing ministry" and was not home enough helping my wife change diapers and put the kids to bed. I say this without any hesitation whatsoever: Any fruit I have in ministry is directly correlated to my wife's faithfulness in doing what is least to the glory of God.  

The reality is that there was only one true and lasting world changer; and, He had to be mocked by men, nailed to the cross, subject to the powers of hell and fall under the wrath of God in order to bring about permanent and lasting change in the world. Whenever we are tempted to want to "think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think," we must remember that the way up is the way down, that he who would be greatest must become least and that the way to the crown is the way of the cross. We must seek to become a "will of God doer" rather than a "world changer"--even if that means changing dirty diapers for the glory of God.   

Faithfulness and Fruitlessness in Ministry?

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A couple of weeks ago a friend asked a question: "How would you encourage a faithful brother who had been pastoring for several years and has not, in that season, seen a conversion directly from his preaching, though the church is growing and health with saints being built up and believers joining the church?" 

It is a good question, and one which many faithful men might face. In itself, the question makes a number of what are good and proper assumptions, as well as wrestling with some significant issues that cannot be avoided. Here are some thoughts for pastors and preachers in such a position: 

1. Do not underestimate the work of building and equipping, for this is fruit, and it can be - as well as an end in itself - a means to the end of reaching others with the gospel. 

2. Do not presume that what you are preaching is not the gospel, but do not presume that you are preaching that gospel as clearly and pointedly as you might. Go back to your Bible to ensure that you are preaching truths rooted in the person and work of Christ, but also preaching the person and work of Christ in themselves - preach Christ, not just about him! 

3. Are you preparing the way by a thorough and plain explanation of the problem of personal sin and impending judgement? Are you preaching the law in the good old-fashioned sense? 

4. All your preaching should be evangelical, but consider whether regular and specific evangelistic sermons might be an extra avenue of pursuing this end. 

5. Is the church actively and specifically praying for conversions in its public meetings (Lord's days and prayer meetings) and its private occasions (personal and family worship)? 

6. I think it is worth considering whether or not there is any sin in your life or the life of the church that might be a reason for God to withhold a blessing. I say this not to cripple you in conscience, but because it is worth taking into account. 

7. Do not fall into the mentality that 'the nation is under judgement' and that therefore, in effect, your labours are doomed to failure - the gospel remains the power of God to salvation for those who believe. Preach it in that confidence. You must cultivate this confidence actively. 

8. Consider whether and to what extent these growing members are personally engaged in making Christ known in their families and among their friends and neighbours and colleagues. 

9. Consider whether there are specific evangelistic avenues that could be pursued e.g. home and personal (1-2-1) bible studies, door to door, open air preaching. As we engage in such, the Lord sometimes sends blessing by another route. 

10. Are you setting a personal example of evangelistic endeavor (not merely pastoral-professional duty)? 

11. Are you equipping the saints for this work in your public ministry? Is this one of the areas in which they are being built up? 

12. Are you giving the impression that the church is a place for those believers to come and rest (it is) but not also to work (that too)? Some believers who seek out a faithful ministry do so because of weariness. They need, under God, to be healed, equipped, stirred up and sent out.

13. Are you yourself given to prayer for God's blessing upon your ministry in all these respects? 

14. Consider that Satan will particularly assault the church and ministers who particularly pursue this. Expect it to be hard, and to bring hardships. 

15. Are you prepared to accept that this could be a testing time in which the Lord is challenging your faith as to whether you believe God's promises, and so will go on relying upon God's means to accomplish God's ends in God's time? Such patient persistence is one of the hardest things to maintain. 

In offering such counsels, I convict myself over again. None of them are accusations, but examples of the kind of questions I would ask and continue to ask myself. When you do so, preach in the prayerful expectation that God will bless his gospel.

Press on for the "Well done!"

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Another snippet from Fuller, this time from an ordination sermon from Matthew 25.21, concerning the work and encouragements of the Christian minister. As he does often in such writings, Fuller fixes his eye on the last day and the great prize:
Place yourself in idea, my brother, before your Lord and Master, at the last day, and anticipate the joy of receiving his approbation. This is heaven. We should not study to please men so much as to please God. If we please him, we shall please all who love him, and, as to others, they are not on any account worthy of being pleased at the expense of displeasing God. It is doubtless gratifying to receive the "Well done" of a creature; but this in some cases may arise from ignorance, in others from private friendship; and in some cases men may say, "Well done," when, in the sight of Him who judges the heart, and recognizes the springs of action, our work may be ill done. And even if we have done comparatively well, we must not rest satisfied with the approbation of our friends. Many have sat down contented with the plaudits of their hearers, spoiled and ruined. It is the "Well done" at the last day which we should seek, and with which only we should be satisfied. There have been young ministers, of very promising talents, who have been absolutely nursed to death with human applause, and the hopes they inspired blighted and blasted by the flattery of the weak and inconsiderate. The sound of "Well done" has been reiterated in their ears so often, that at last (poor little minds!) they have thought, Surely it was well done; they have inhaled the delicious draught, they have sat down to enjoy it, they have relaxed their efforts, and, after their little hour of popular applause, they have retired behind the scenes, and become of little or no account in the Christian world ; and, what is worse, their spirituality has declined, and they have sunk down into a state of desertion, dispiritedness, and inactivity, as regards this world, and of uncertainty, if not of fearful forebodings, as to another .... My brother, you may sit down when God says, "Well done!" for then your trust will be discharged; but it is at your peril that you rest satisfied with any thing short of this. Keep that reward in view, and you will not, I trust, be unfaithful in the service of your Lord. (Complete Works, 1:499-500)

Faithfulness, Shame, and Where the Wind Blows

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I don't pretend to be an expert in Bunyan's classic Pilgrim's Progress. I doubt I've ever mentioned it in a sermon. But quotes like the one below (passed along to me by one who recalled it from memory) make me want to reread it with a fine-toothed comb. 

To set the context, Christian has just reunited with his fellow townsman, Faithful, who reports on his earlier encounter with a certain Shame (who attributes to the truly churched what he should feel about himself). It was Shame, Faithful recalled, who

"objected against religion itself. He said it was a pitiful, low, sneaking business for a man to mind religion. He said that a tender conscience was an unmanly thing; and that for a man to watch over his words and ways, so as to tie up himself from that hectoring liberty that the brave spirits of the times accustomed themselves unto, would make him the ridicule of the times. He objected also, that but a few of the mighty, rich, or wise, were ever of my opinion; nor any of them neither, before they were persuaded to be fools, and to be of a voluntary fondess to venture the loss of all for nobody knows what. 1 Cor. 1:26; 3:18; Phil. 3:7-9; John 7:48. He, moreover, objected the base and low estate and condition of those that were chiefly the pilgrims of the times in which they lived; also their ignorance and want of understanding in all natural science. Yea, he did hold me to it at that rate also, about a great many more things here than I relate; as, that it was a shame to sit whining and mourning under a sermon, and a shame to come home sighing and groaning home; that it was a shame to ask my neighbor forgiveness for petty faults, or to make restitution where I have taken from any. He said also, that religion made a man grow strange to the great, because of a few vices, which he called by finer names, and made him own and respect the base, because of the same religious fraternity: And is not this, said he, a shame?"

From an emphasis on science to sermon apathy, from an affinity for social acceptance to an adjustment of sin, this pretty well captures the prevailing currents of our age, even within many quarters of the church. 

I am both comforted and stunned that Bunyan wrote these words in 1638. Comforted because it is more evidence that there is nothing new under ther sun and that 1 Cor 10:13 spans ages, not just continents. Stunned because of how so many--including me--fail to "imbibe" (to borrow from Dr. Oliphint's article on this site) what Bunyan is delivering. 

All of which brings me to some wisdom I once heard from a real Faithful that may fortify those confronted, or perhaps tempted, by the "hectoring liberty" of the "brave spirits of the times": though all be with you, you may still be wrong; though all be against you, you may still be right.