Sovereignty in Times of Trial

My wife had to run our youngest, Nicholas, to the emergency room last night. He had a weird rash and we were afraid of a severe allergic reaction. We thought his breathing sounded bad and we flipped out. The doctor said he was OK though.

While I was waiting for them to return, I was reading some old issues of Modern Reformation that a friend from church loaned me. I came across a quote from Spurgeon that I really appreciated.

When you go through a trial, the sovereignty of God is the pillow upon which you lay your head.” – Spurgeon

I wrote earlier about the past year and some of the trials (miscarriage, cancer) that we faced. Towards the end, I wrote “God has bound up the wounds He made.” Someone challenged that sentiment in the comments, and he contended that God did not send these trials, but only used them.

I guess some people comfort themselves in times of trial by saying that God is not behind it. I am not one of those people.

If God is not in the author of all the things that happen to me, who or what is? Fate? Chance? Satan? Me?

It’s challenging to accept that God says

“I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7).

But really, it’s terrifying to contemplate living in a universe where things just happen and, while He will help you pick up the pieces, God isn’t in control.

I can accept anything that happens, provided I know it is from the hand of God. I know that He does all things for His glory and my good. If I know that He is in control and He loves me, then how bad can it be? Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him (Job 13:15).

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I’m Back – What a Year!

I don’t know if I’m still on anyone’s RSS feeds, but I thought I’d put out an update just in case.

It’s been around a year since I last blogged.  Ironically, I had more to blog about in 2006 than in recent years – not all of it good.  We’ve had lots of opportunities to experience God’s faithfulness in the last year, through a miscarriage, moving, and cancer.

Leandra conceived our fourth child in January 2006.  The ultrasound showed that everything was good.  Then in late March, at about 14 weeks, she went in for a routine checkup.  There was no heartbeat.  We were totally blindsided by this – she’d had no signs that anything was wrong.  Our baby died at around 12 weeks after conception.  Leandra had a D&C the next day.

We put our house on the market in June.  We believed that God would continue to bless us with children and we were outgrowing our house.  There were several other houses for sale on our street, and summer is the time to sell.

Leandra conceived again a few weeks later (she’s due in early March 2007).  We chose not to find out if it’s a boy or a girl.  This drives me nuts.

In August, our contract to list our house expired.  We were getting nervous about re-listing it.  At the time, we were strongly considering building a house and knew that it wouldn’t be ready by March.  So we thought maybe it would be best to sit tight and try again next year.  But we listed it for another month.

A few days later we got an offer.  We accepted the offer literally as we were leaving town for a vacation.  I mean, literally – we swung by the realtor’s office on our way to the beach.
We went out looking at houses a couple days after we got back from vacation.  We fell in love with the 5th house we looked at.  We made an offer which the seller accepted.
There were a couple of last-minute scares (e.g., our buyers ran into a snag selling their house at the last minute) but we closed on the sale of our home at the end of September.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t close on the home we were buying until the end of October. So we put most of our stuff in storage, and moved in with my in-laws, who just moved to Texas and live about 45 minutes away.  They had not yet unpacked their house, since they had only closed on it two weeks earlier.  That was a little bit difficult – e.g., there was no washing machine for the first week – but we got through it well.
Although we hired movers to load our stuff up and take it to storage, there was still quite a bit of work for me to do.  I managed to give myself a hernia.  I went to the doctor about it, and he found something far more serious than a hernia.  I have testicular cancer.  I had surgery in mid/late October and am now considering treatment options.  I started a blog at robertwilliams.wordpress.com to keep family, friends, and co-workers up to date.  I won’t be cross-posting updates to here.  Briefly, there’s an excellent (75%) chance that the surgery removed all of the cancer, and I’ll be going in monthly for CT scans, chest X-rays, and blood work.  If I do relapse, it will be chemo and probably surgery.  The long-term survival rate is 95-99%.  I’m in really good shape, considering.

We closed on our new home about a week after my surgery.  Because of the surgery, I’m not allowed to lift anything over 20 pounds (not even wayward 2-year-olds – but I forget that sometimes) so I have not been able to do much to unpack or fix things around the house.  And there are lots of things to fix – our “new” house is over 100 years old.  It’s enormous (5 bedrooms, 3000 square feet).  And I have about one million little projects.  I’m having to hire a bunch of work done (e.g., I can’t carry a piece of sheetrock, let alone hang it) but we’ll get there eventually.

All’s well that ends well.  God has bound up the wounds He made.  He took an unborn child from us, and has given us another.  He gave me cancer, and has healed me.  And He has provided a wonderful house for us.

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Hanging it up for now

I’m not going to be blogging for a while. Not that I have been blogging much recently, but I thought I should make it “official”. I don’t have any inspiration, or a whole lot of time that I want to devote to blogging.

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Why Study Church History

I have begun teaching an adult Sunday School class called Faith of Our Fathers. This is a brief (12-ish weeks) overview of the history of the church from Pentecost until now.

I was surprised to have about 10 folks show up for my class; I didn’t figure there would be much interest in it.

So why study church history? Why am I teaching it, and why should people take the class?

The Bible tells us to look to our history. In Jeremiah 6:16, God tells us “ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” Again in Isaiah 51:1, God says “Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.” And of course there is the famous Hebrews 11, where the writer runs through a litany of great heroes of the faith. He follows that up by saying that since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, we should run the race before us.

Other than a handful of prophecies, I don’t think God every tells us to look to the future for matters of godliness. We always find rest for our souls in the old ways. Because of the inspiration and instruction from the past, from those who have already run the race, we are better able to run _our_ race.

History gives us a sense of identity. Church history is not about other people. It is _our_ story. It’s our legacy, our birthright. We should not read church history and think “this is what _they_ did”, but “this is what _we_ did”. We are part of the same company of believers that we read about in Acts.

This sense of identity also helps us not take ourselves too seriously. It is the antidote for chronological snobbery. Generations of Christians have lived, struggled, and died before me. There is nothing new under the sun. The world is not at a crossroads. This generation is not unique.

But on the flip side, as we see how the past impacted us and realize that we have this legacy of faith, it should cause us to take ourselves even more seriously in some ways. What the church does now will impact the future. The stands we take, or refuse to take, will have real consequences for the Christians in the future. What would have happened if there had been no council of Nicea? What if the early fathers urged a “generous orthodoxy” towards Arianism? Where would we be now? Where would the faith be?

I am dismayed at the recklessness some Christians treat the faith with. So now we have _new_ kinds of Christians and _generous_ orthodoxies. Or neo-orthodoxy. But maybe those are too extreme examples. How about the way we treat those who absolutely deny the Trinity in favor of modalism? I’ve yet to hear the church denounce TD Jakes. How about those who throw out our traditions in order to attract more yuppies to church? We hold history in contempt. A study of church history ought to help correct some of these errors.

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Dealing with the Tyranny of Email

This is somewhat old (in Internet time, I mean – it’s like almost a _whole year_ old) but is helpful if you haven’t read it.

The Tyranny of Email

My notes:

  1. Turn your email client off. Check your email 2-3 times per day (when you get to the office, at lunch, and at the end of the day).
  2. Never criticize anyone in an email. Use the phone, or (better) a face-to-face meeting. Email leads to flame wars.
  3. Do not get into _long_ debates via email. Resort to the phone or meetings. Email polarizes people.
  4. Fewer recipients is better.
  5. Do not use BCC (blind carbon copy).
  6. Assume email is public and permanent. It won’t go away, and it usually won’t remain private.
  7. A little formality is good. Check your grammar and spelling, particularly.
  8. Revise and edit important messages before sending them.

I have been implementing the first point for a few weeks now. It’s funny how people expect you to constantly read email. It’s also interesting how many things sort of take care of themselves if you don’t check your email every five minutes. By only checking it periodically, and then taking my time to respond, it gives my work day a more measured, deliberate pace.

I cannot count the number of times points 2-6 would have helped me in my career so far.

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Tower in Siloam Falls; 18 Killed

Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Luke 13:4-5

A friend of mine said something yesterday about Katrina being the wrath of God on New Orleans, a la Sodom and Gomorrah. I suspect many Christians entertained this thought to some extent. After all, New Orleans is known for immorality, licentiousness, sensuality, greed, voodoo, crime, etc. There’s a reason people go to Mardi Gras, and it has nothing to do with little plastic beads.

Whether or not Katrina was the wrath of God does not, IMHO, mitigate any Christian duty we have to alleviate the suffering of those hurt by it. I don’t know that God every warns His people to first think real hard about _why_ a particular thing happened to a particular person. We’re called to do good as we have opportunity. In fact, it is possible that one purpose God had in this is for the church to care for those in need.

I’m not sure that my friend was wrong in his assessment of this hurricane. But if we focus on trying to figure out why God sent this destruction, we’ll miss a more important point. In comparison to the holiness of God, my town of Bells, TX is not significantly less wicked than New Orleans, Las Vegas, or San Francisco. I deserve this judgment, and worse, for my own sins. The question is not why God destroyed New Orleans, but why He chose not to destroy us all.

God sent this. “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7, ESV). A Christian response is to recognize that God is behind this, comfort those we can, and call ourselves and others to repentance.

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Evangelism is a Corporate Responsibility

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. — Matthew 28:18

With this commission, followed by Pentecost, Christ authorized His church to proclaim the gospel, and that is what we are to be about. But we have misunderstood this verse.

Along these lines, AW Pink writes

our Lord’s words to Peter and Andrew, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19) do not apply to the rank and file of His disciples, but only unto those whom He calls into and qualifies for the ministry. That is evident from the fact that in none of the Epistles, where both the privileges and the duties of the saints are specifically defined, is there any such precept or promise. Thus, on the one hand, we must ever beware of unwarrantable restricting the scope of a verse; and, on the other hand, be constantly on our guard against making general what is manifestly particular.

I believe we have generalized the “Great Commission”, to our hurt. The commission Christ gave was to the church corporately, not Christians individually. It is a specific commission to the apostles, pastors, and teachers. It is not a grant of authority to, or a responsibility of, individual “rank and file” Christians.

The Great Commission is “teach and baptize”. If Jesus meant by this to bestow the authority and responsibility for evangelism on individual Christians, He must have also bestowed authority and responsibility for performing baptisms on individual Christians. We cannot separate His commission into “evangelism”, “baptism”, and “discipleship”, and insist that we all have a right and responsibility for the first, but the duty of the second and third part is somehow restricted.

I suppose there are some who would think it proper for individual Christians to perform baptisms. At least they are being consistent. But I think a more typical view is to realize that there are restrictions on who can baptize. It’s a responsibility of the corporate church, and falls to the elders. Similarly, we know that discipleship is a function of the church corporately, and is carried out as the elders, and those who they authorize, carry out the work of preaching and teaching.

This is also supported by Ephesians 4:11: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;” Evangelist, just like preacher or teacher, is a distinct office and gifting. It is not a general gift or calling.

Matthew Henry wrote about the “Great Commission”:

This commission is given, (1.) To the apostles primarily, the chief ministers of state in Christ’s kingdom, the architects that laid the foundation of the church. … (2.) It is given to their successors, the ministers of the gospel, whose business it is to transmit the gospel from age to age, to the end of the world in time, as it was theirs to transmit it from nation to nation, to the end of the world in place, and no less necessary. … Christ, at his ascension, gave not only apostles and prophets, but pastors and teachers, Eph. 4:11.

John Gill asserts “though there might be so large a number as before observed, yet the following words were only spoken to the apostles“.

There are ways in which we are all called to some form of proclaiming the gospel and even discipleship. Fathers are to disciple their children (Ephesians 6:4). We’re all to be ready to tell others about Christ when it’s appropriate (Colossians 4:5-6, 1 Peter 3:15, Acts 8:4). But this does not, and cannot, mean that the “Great Commission” was given to us individually. Taking the gospel to the lost is a corporate responsibility for the church, not an individual responsibility.

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Think Small

How does one set about advancing the kingdom of God? I’m only one guy. I can’t do that much.

I think the strategy is to think small and deep. I am responsible for what God has sovereignly and providentially put in my life. My responsibility is greatest for those closest to me, which is also where I’ll have the most ability to preach Christ in my words and life.

The most obvious sphere of influence is bounded by four brick walls. It’s my home. I have three boys to bring up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and a wife to love as Christ loved the church and sanctified her.

If I blow it with my kids, I don’t really care if I have any other ministry. I won’t make Eli’s mistake. If my kids don’t grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and if they don’t bring my future grandchildren up that way, then I’ve blown it. How appropriate that one of the requirements for an elder is that he is doing a good job with his family! Deuteronomy 6:7 and Ephesians 6:4 lay out my responsibility clearly – teach my kids God’s law, to love and fear Him.

Ephesians 5 tells me to love my wife as Christ loved the church. That means more than “a whole lot”. Finish the passage. He gave Himself up for the church to sanctify and cleanse it, to present it to Himself holy and without blemish. That is how a godly man should love his wife. It has nothing to do with chocolate, roses, date nights, and romance per se. It has to do with my wife’s sanctification. That is my responsibility.

I am aiming small. I’ve got four people so far that I have a tremendous responbility for. I will err on the side of seeing to their spiritual growth at the neglect of any other sort of ministry.

My primary strategy is to create a tiny little culture, just five people big, that will propagate from one generation to another. Like an Old Testament patriarch, I want to raise up a godly seed (Malachi 2:15) that will be faithful to God for “a thousand generations”. I don’t want to say as an old man “My wife and I served the Lord, and I hope my kids do a good job.” I want to be able to say with confidence that my house will serve the Lord. God honored Abraham because God knew “he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD” (Genesis 18:19). I want to be a man like that.

This is why we are homeschooling. This is why I have some bit of family worship (and I’m working towards more). It’s why my kids sit with me in church. It’s why my wife doesn’t run off to every women’s ministry event, and I don’t go to every men’s ministry event. It’s why I blow off programs and events and activities, secular or otherwise.

After my immediate family, the next responsibility I have is to the church. God put me in a local church where I can build the other members up, and they can build me up. They bear my burdens, and I bear theirs. I exercise my gifts for that body, and the other parts of the body reciprocate.

I also have a responsibility to my extended family – parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, cousins, etc. (I’m not exactly whether this goes before or after my responsibility to my church, but it’s close.) I have a responsibility to care for them, to live a godly life before them, to provide for them when needed.

At this point, I’m pretty much full. If I’m discipling my wife and kids, taking care of my extended family, and serving in even a small way at church (e.g., I teach theology), taking care of my extended family, and taking care of those closest to me in church, then I’m booked. There’s not a lot of excess there. I’ve fulfilled my responsibilities, and oddly enough, God gave me just the right amount.

But what of the rest of the world? I believe I do have a responsibility to them. But this responsibility decreases the further out you go. The most important point is that I will not sacrifice a higher responsibility for a lesser, but more glamorous, one.

I earlier mentioned this idea that has been called “incidental evangelism”. It seems so foolish to say that I’d focus so small. But one time I counted up – your results will probably be similar – all the people that I was related to or worked with that I was reasonably acquainted with. I left out cousins that I only see at Christmas and Thanksgiving, and I left out all the co-workers that I don’t interact with on at least a weekly basis. I don’t remember the exact number, but I had a list of between 30 and 50 people. I’m going to be around them anyway. They can see my life better than strangers can. This is my secondary “mission field”, behind my immediate family. These are the people who will see my life and either wrongly berate me or glorify my Father who is in heaven.

I do care about the rest of the world, and pray nightly that God’s kingdom would come and the nations would be saved. But I am not called as a missionary to them. I’ll do what I can for the world, but my focus is going to be in those circles where God sovereignly placed me.

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Victory Through Separation

I earlier mentioned the two commandments Jesus gave us about the world. One, we are supposed to come out from among them and be separate. Second, we are supposed to make disciples of all nations. We might think at first that there is a tension or contradiction here. But God’s commands do not conflict with one another, when they are rightly understood.

I wonder if, prior to Christ, Jewish scholars ever got into arguments about the nature of the Messiah. “I tell you, he will be a suffering servant!” “No, he will be a glorious king!” “Servant!” “King!” “Servant!” How could they have possibly known they were both right? And is it possible that the same goes when we argue “Separation and holiness!” “Evangelism!” “Separation and holiness!” “Evangelism!”

God is a God of paradoxes. Want to gain your life? Lose it. Want to be great? Humble yourself and be a servant. The meek shall inherit the earth. The King was born in a manger. Pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you.

It should come as no suprise, then, that we win the world by separating from it. This is how we fulfill the two mandates of “come out from among them, and be ye separate” and “go ye therefore to all nations”.

A city set on a hill cannot be hidden, because it is on the hill and not on the plain. It’s set up, separated, from the plain around it. The lamp is visible because it’s on the lampstand. Take a candle or an electric lantern into a dark room. Hold it up and notice how much light it gives off. Then set it on the floor and compare. The actual output in lumens is the same, but when the lantern is lifted up and set apart from what it’s illuminating, the light is far more visible.

We live separated, different lives out of loyalty to Christ. The contrast between our lives and the rest of the world is what makes us visible. We walk in wisdom toward them that are without. We are separated from the wicked in our relationships (2 Corinthians 6:14) and the way we live our lives (1 John 2:15-16).

Jesus said that the world would believe the gospel because of how believers treated one another (John 17:22-23). There’s little in the Bible to suggest that the world will believe because of how we interact with the world. The only thing that comes to mind is Paul’s admonition to be kind, gentle, and patient with unbelievers (2 Timothy 2:24-26). But primarily, as a friend of mine puts it, Christians ought to treat each other so well that the world gets jealous.

Of course, total isolation or segregation from the world is impossible and undesirable. We would have to physically leave the world. We will interact with the world as we go about our daily business, and of course there are certain relationships (e.g., family, co-workers, neighbors) that we will have with unbelievers. For example, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10 that it’s perfectly appropriate for us to accept invitations to eat with unbelievers (although even then he warns us to be careful). That is why we must “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15), to “walk in wisdcom toward them that are without, redeeming the time”, and to “let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Col 4:5-6).

This has been disparagingly referred to as “incidental evangelism”. But I think it is Biblical.

Some people are called as missionaries, to take the gospel to other peoples and lands. Praise God for them! We are not all called to be missionaries in that sense, though. For most of us, we sanctify God in our hearts, be ready and willing to answer questions about our faith, and expect to be reviled for it (1 Peter 3:14-17). Jesus said the world would hate us.

We must separate from the world because the world is an enemy to God. Friendship with the world is enmity to God. Worldliness – appropriating the values and customs common to people ruled by Satan – is not compatible with building the kingdom of God. So we must separate from it.

But this also means that we will be visible by virtue of being separated. The distinct lives we live will be obvious. They must be, if there is any difference between serving Christ or serving Satan.

Separation from the world is the only way to effectively build up the kingdom of God, and is the only way to let our light shine before men.

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It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Eschatology is important in answering the question of what we are here to do. It particularly matters if you think we are living “in the last hours of the last days” or not. If the world will end soon, then let’s not waste time. But if the earth will be around for many more generations, then that’s different.

I grew up as a dispensational premillenialist. I read the first few Left Behind books, and stopped only because I found them boring, not due to any theological objections. In that school of thought, the end is really at hand, and every event in Israel, every political and economic alliance in Europe, every new UN program, is a clear sign that the end is near.

But as I studied eschatology a bit, I realized that there is no compelling reason to believe Jesus will come back soon. RC Sproul, Jr writes

Here’s where the soon return of Christ runs into problems. God promises to bless those among the children of Israel who obey this command to a thousand generations. A generation is roughly forty years. This promise was made roughly 4,000 years ago. Do the math. We have another 36,000 years to go. Oh, it may not be exactly that. 1,000, after all, could be a symbolic number, or a round one. But if Jesus comes back tomorrow, 1,000 symbolizes 100.

Whether or not we have 36,000 years to go, there is no reason for me to believe Christ will return in my lifetime. Despite what the preachers from my youth said.

For my purposes, it doesn’t much matter if there will be a rapture or not. A-, pre-, and postmillenialism all sort of converge if you assume Christ is not returning in the near future. Perhaps we are living in the millenium now and the conflict between good and evil will only intensify. Perhaps the world will get worse and worse, with ups and downs. I might as well do what I can to make this one of the “ups”. Or perhaps the postmillenialists are correct, and the kingdom will grow until Christ returns to consummate it. In any case, I have a responsibility to help build the kingdom of God. But what does that mean?

In Genesis 1:28, God tells man to take dominion over the earth. Reformed folks have referred to that as the “dominion mandate” or the “cultural mandate”. Dispensationalists point out that in Genesis 9:1, God tells Noah to be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth (echoing the original commandment to Adam) but does not say anything about taking dominion. Arguments from silence are weak, but still, there is a point there.

My question, then, is if we aren’t supposed to be “taking dominion” over the earth, then just what are we supposed to be doing until Jesus comes back?

One answer is that we are supposed to be winning souls. True, but what else? And what are we winning them to do? Win more souls? Are we only self replicating Von Neumann machines?

To put it another way, when Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations, what was He telling us to do?

Someone (I have seen it attributed to Henry Van Til, RJ Rushdoony, and George Grant) has said that culture is religion externalized. A simple thought experiment can demonstrate this. Imagine taking 100 committed Christians and dumping them on an uninhabited island, then taking 100 unbelievers (with similar characteristics as the first group in terms of politics, race, class, intelligence, etc) and dumping them on another uninhabited island. Over time, would they not develop two radically distinct cultures? If Christianity actually means anything, the answer has to be yes.

Or on a smaller scale: is it not generally true that a devout man and woman will have a very different (better!) home than unbelievers? Won’t parents who understand their authority and responsibility under God create a different sort of home than parents who don’t?

Unless Christianity is objectively meaningless, Christianity must produce some sort of culture (and I use culture in a broad sense). Something different from what Satan’s children will produce.

We can look to the Old Testament to see this. God’s laws were not restricted to morals and sacrifices. He regulated what Jews ate. He regulated what they wore. He ordained several festivals. He dictated significant economic policies. His laws, to a large extent, explicitly dealt with Jewish culture.

I cannot think of any signficant part of life that God has not addressed in His law. Not everything is perfectly spelled out for us, but God has at least given us criteria that we can use to evaluate elements of our culture.

I believe that Christians are to be about advancing the kingdom of God. This includes evangelism, because unless a man is born again He can’t see the kingdom of God. But it’s more than evangelism – or at least, more than preaching justification by faith. It includes externalizing our religion, and bringing all things under the authority of Christ. You might even say we are to be busy discipling the nations.

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