A Roundtable with Alistair Begg, Sinclair Ferguson, and Rico Tice
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A Roundtable with Alistair Begg, Sinclair Ferguson, and Rico Tice

Selected Scriptures  (ID: 3665)

In this bonus roundtable session, ‘Truth For Life’ cohost Bob Lepine talks with the Basics 2024 speakers about the joys and challenges in ministry brought to mind by Paul’s last recorded words, in 2 Timothy. Alistair Begg, Sinclair Ferguson, and Rico Tice reflect on the origins and benefits of their friendships and on the lessons they’ve learned during decades in ministry. At the root of it all is a love for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Series Containing This Sermon

Basics 2024

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23522

Sermon Transcript: Print

Bob Lepine: It was interesting, ’cause when I heard you introducing Sinclair and Rico today, I thought about—as you took us through 2 Timothy 4 and Paul’s list of those—I thought these would both be guys who would be in your list if you were writing your final letter, wouldn’t they?

Alistair Begg: Well, yeah. Whether they’re in my list—hopefully I’ll have to wait until my final letter! But yeah, for different reasons. I think very much the way that Paul handles that at the end speaks to that kind of relational aspect of what it means to be brothers in Christ.

Bob: How did you first come to know Sinclair?

Alistair: I think when Sinclair was at St George’s Tron in Glasgow, and he was there, I think, as the assistant to George B. Duncan. And I had gone to Hamilton Baptist Church. And I’m not sure how our lives were actually brought together, but I remember going to the Tron, listening to Sinclair preach, and somewhere in the mix of that, we actually met one another.

Bob: Do you remember meeting Alistair?

Sinclair Ferguson: Yeah. I have a pretty vivid memory of my first meeting. I’m not sure what the year was, but I was speaking at a conference of, for some reason, the United Free Church ministers, and—I think it was the Baptist Union. And Donald English was the other speaker.

Alistair: Oh, yes. Okay.

Sinclair: And I remember at the end of one session that I’d spoken at, Derek came walking down the aisle, and you were behind him.

Alistair: Okay.

Sinclair: And I think we may have engaged—like, “Hello.” And I think I have a memory of thinking, “Oh, so this is Alistair Begg.” So I must have known who you were. But I don’t know whether that was… I assume Derek was there because he knew Don English. And I don’t know if that was when you were still at Charlotte Chapel.

Alistair: Well, it could have been even as early as that, yeah.

Sinclair: So, I mean, my guess would be about 1976-ish. Is that possible?

Alistair: That could be right. Yeah, ’cause I went there in ’75.

Sinclair: Did you? Yeah. So maybe ’76 or so. So, we’ve kind of known each other, man and boy, or boy and man, for—that’s almost fifty years now.

Alistair: It’s a strange relationship in many ways, but it’s an expression of genuine affection that has been, you know, interlocked because of different things—you know, the death of my father, the fact that Sinclair had met my dad, the letter that he wrote to me on the occasion of my father’s death. These are endearing things, and they’re of lasting value.

Bob: Is there a book or a theological principle from Sinclair that stands out above others that you’ve picked up?

Alistair: Oh, well, I have recommended The Christian Life to more people than probably any other book that Sinclair has done, including to the young lady who has just been released from jail, and she’s so excited; she wants to hear Sinclair for herself. And she was in touch with some of the folks that are still incarcerated to make sure that The Christian Life was still going around the jail. And so, yeah. That I found just profoundly helpful. And it’s a good book to continue reading.

Bob: How did you first meet Rico Tice?

Alistair: Well, that was this thing, whatever it was, in Skegness. I mean, even the name is scary.

Rico Tice: Yes, it is!

Alistair: I remember that I showed up there one night, coming from wherever I was. And when I arrived, I was supposed to stay in a caravan, in a trailer. And when I opened the door of the trailer, there was a big plastic bag that had sheets and towels in it.

Rico: Oh, that’s right.

Alistair: And I was supposed to make my bed and do the thing. And I remember I felt so wretched, you know. And then it blew like fury, and the caravan waggled, you know, in the night. I was delighted to meet a friendly face. And yeah, we were together in that context. I don’t remember much else about it except that I met Rico.

Bob: Had you heard of Alistair prior to meeting him?

Rico: Yeah, I’d first heard Alistair on Thessalonians at a Proc Trust conference.

Alistair: Really?

Rico: And I remember you talking about the people you’d been at college with. And you said it was the fire in their hearts which had defined their ministries, as you looked back. They may have had different levels of a gifting, but it was their hearts, and—which was “[The Lord] … tests our hearts,” the 1 Thessalonians 2.[1] So…

Alistair: That is funny you should say that, because that’s the occasion when Sue and I were with Dick in his flat the night before.

Bob: With Dick Lucas?

Alistair: With Dick Lucas, yeah. ’Cause he was the Proclamation Trust man. And so he said to me, he said, “Tell me, brother: What are you doing in the morning?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to do, you know, that the gospel did not come simply in word but in power and in, you know…”[2] And there was a long pause, and he said, “Well, just as long as you’re not giving us any of that unction stuff.”

Rico: Well, I remember you doing an impression in that. I mean, you can do great… It really made me laugh. And you said, “Old man Begg! Did he ever do anything for the gospel?” You were doing an impression, and it was—it just… Yeah, I warmed to you. It was great. So, it worked. It had unction for me, brother, just to say. Yeah.

Bob: You emphasized, as you took us through the last part of 2 Timothy 4, the importance of having close relationships in doing gospel ministry. I guess it’s true for all of us, whatever we’re called to: we’re not meant to do this alone. But to have these people that you can call, that you can reach out to—this has been valuable for you throughout your ministry.

Alistair: Well, of course. I mean, it’s just a long line that goes… And it would be true for all three of us sitting here—I mean, the lives that have marked us, who continue to mark us, either by their books or whatever it might be. Yeah! And I like the fact… I don’t know why I really wanted to do the end of 2 Timothy, except for the fact that I was struck in just going through it, when I did it at Keswick, that Paul was not a one-man band—not even close to being a one-man band. And the diversity of people with whom he was involved, and also the way things were reconciled—I hope I was accurate in saying the things I did about Mark and so on—that, I think, is very important, and the ability to acknowledge disagreements and move on from disagreements. I think it’s very important.

Bob: Sinclair, have you had times in ministry where you have been discouraged, dispirited, where you have needed the support of others?

Sinclair: I would be really strange if I hadn’t.

Bob: Yeah.

Sinclair: You know, I think that’s true. I think that when Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4—twice—“We do not lose heart,”[3] he’s really indicating that he has been at the cliff edge. And he knows how not to lose heart because there have been so many things in his life that would have caused him to lose heart. It’s not that there are no reasons to lose heart; there are greater reasons not to lose heart.

And so then, I don’t know that it’s even always talking to someone else, but the knowledge of that other person is such a strength—that they are there, that they are with you. When I became a Christian, I had been reading the Bible for about five years, from the age of nine to the age of fourteen. And when I was very close to the kingdom, I thought, “If I enter the kingdom, I’m pretty sure I’m going to lose friends at school.” But I knew enough of the Bible to know that you didn’t lose anything without gaining, even “a hundredfold.”[4]

But looking back (I’m looking back sixty years), the thing that overwhelms me is not just the number of them, the hundredfoldness of them, but the quality of the hundredfold—and, you know, just as we move among people. I don’t have Rico’s cell number yet, but I know how to get him. I have Alistair Begg’s cell number, and many other brothers’, that I know there are so many people who would give an arm and a leg to be able to spend fifteen minutes with them, and I feel that I have had this amazing privilege, really, of having access not only to men whose ministry I admire but the fact that they’re friends of mine. And I know I can go to them and that we pick up where we left off.

Bob: Yeah. I was struck as you took us into Paul’s relationship with Timothy. And I don’t know that I’d ever noticed 1 Corinthians 16:10, that verse where Timothy is—where they’re told to treat him with care.

Sinclair: Yes.

Bob: And I’ve always known he was timid, but I think I saw that in a clearer light as you were preaching through that. And I thought, “Here was a weak young man who desperately needed his relationship with Paul just to sustain his courage in ministry.”

Sinclair: Yeah, well, when you’ve been that weak young man…

Alistair: We are all that weak young man.

Sinclair: And I think you spot those things.

Bob: Yeah.

Sinclair: They’re always there. But sometimes experience opens your eyes to the depth of what has been said in Scripture—that there’s more than just words. It’s not just a, you know, “See you later” comment at the end but “When Timothy comes to you, make sure you put him at his ease.”[5] This may sound a little critical: I imagine most people in most churches do not know that verse exists in the Bible.

Rico: I didn’t know it—till you preached on it last night.

Bob: Yeah!

Sinclair: But, you know, it’s like that list at the end of 2 Timothy and the analogous list at the end of Romans: that you realize just how… And Paul’s writing to the Romans—never been there—and he has these connections with all these people.

Bob: Yeah, I had somebody preaching through a passage last year point out in 2 Corinthians 11 where Paul says, “I’m anxious daily for all the churches.”[6] And I thought, “I’ve never seen that before. Paul anxious? He’s told us to be anxious for nothing,[7] and yet here he has anxiety for all of the churches.” So to see the humanity of these men… When Paul writes to Timothy and says, “God has not given you a spirit of fear,”[8] he’s not talking to all of us. He’s talking to Timothy about his own spirit of fear, isn’t he?

Sinclair: Yeah. And you know, what Alistair brought out this morning about Mark—that is melting, that here was a young man…

Bob: Yeah.

Sinclair: And Luke kind of is very gentle about what happened, but clearly, something happened that caused what Luke calls a paroxysm between Paul and Barnabas. And at least as I read it, Paul then replaces Barnabas with Silas, an older and tested servant of God, and then he goes and looks for Timothy to replace Mark. And in that sense, it’s not just that Mark has gone, but in a way, he’s been replaced, and Timothy becomes—well, everything! He’s, you know, Paul’s “beloved son.”[9] And yet in this letter to his beloved son, this melting comment about Mark and that he is “useful” for him,[10] for the ministry—it’s really wonderful.


Bob: I think what’s significant in all of this is that people in the pews or other pastors who are here can look at the three of you and somehow think, “They are at a different level of human existence than I am and don’t have the same insecurities, doubts, the same fears, the same… They don’t second-guess their sermons. They don’t walk away going, ‘Did that go over well?’” And yet we read the Scriptures, and we see the apostles had these feelings. You men have to wrestle with the humanity of this, right?

Rico: Yeah, and I think that with my closer friends… I’m in a group from theological college. I was at college from ’91 to ’94, and a group of five of us have remained friends, and then we meet three times a year on Zoom or in person. But actually, what I find—I mean, at the moment, when I’m talking to them at the moment—is a comment at the start of Tom Brown’s School Days, where it says, “The boy is the father of the man.”[11]

Bob: Yeah.

Rico: And I’m trying to work through my losses of temper over that comment. I think I can suddenly feel myself—like, under pressure, I can return to the fourteen-year-old, who can be a bit punchy if I don’t get my way. And with my wife’s pushing, she’s saying, “You’ve got to talk to them about that.” So I think that the fellowship comes as, actually, you battle the enemy within. I think it’s battling the sinful nature together that almost is—you know, that’s a safe place where I can say, “Look, I’ve got this battle, and I can lose my temper, and that’s actually ministry-severing.” And so, you know…

Bob: A lot of men in ministry don’t have a safe place like that, or don’t feel like they have a safe place like that.

Rico: Well, I was thinking: With that little group, I think that we call ourselves “Josiah,” ’cause at theological college, to my total shame, I said he was a theological fiction in order to pass an exam. And so we then had to renounce that. And we called it Josiah so that we would never do that again as a five.

Anyway, it’s called the Josiah group. But actually, talking about “The boy is the father of the man” is what I’m thinking about at the moment, in terms of… And I have to get the man to speak to the boy in situations when I can… But they know me well over thirty-five years. And it is great to have them help me unpick that immaturity in working that through. And I think we all find these different things come up as the Lord sanctifies us. But we’ve got a place to chat about that.

Bob: I was struck by the fact, Alistair, that you started this taking us to 2 Timothy 4 and the priority of the faithful preaching of the Word as this exhortation in the last page of what Paul is writing to Timothy, the last letter. I’m wondering: Your appraisal of how we are doing in our faithful exposition in general in the American church as you see it today?

Alistair: I’m not sure I’m qualified to talk beyond the immediacy of things: that most of the people that I am surrounded by, the young fellows that are with me, they’ve decided that they believe this—that they actually believe that the Word of God does the work of God; that one can plant, and another can water; only God can make things grow.[12] As I move from place to place, I keep coming on young men who are convinced of the absolute vitality of Scripture and the necessity of making it known.

With that said, the comment that I made yesterday—and I wasn’t seeking to be unkind, but it was from a very, very good couple who had been with us for a number of years. And they said that going out further west, that they’d gone to, they said, ten different churches. And just going into a place where you have the sense that it is the Scriptures that provide the tiller that is guiding the vessel of the church to navigate the waters—that doesn’t necessarily become apparent unless it is front and central.

And part of that, I think, has to do with the way in which people understand what is happening. That’s why I mentioned Deuteronomy 4, you know: “Assemble the people so that they might hear from me.”[13] If you ask the average person why it is they go to a local church, I’m not sure how many actually will begin by saying, “We go there in order that we might listen to God speak to us through the Bible.” And the pew will never rise higher than the pulpit.

Bob: Pulpit. Yeah.

Alistair: So that the challenge is to those of us who have been entrusted with the responsibility of teaching the Bible.

Bob: Sinclair, it seems to me I often hear pastors using Bible verses or illustrations to try to illustrate a point they’re trying to make rather than using the illustration to say, “Here’s what the Bible is saying.” In other words, they come in with “Here’s the message I want to deliver, and I’ll use the Bible to support that message,” rather than saying, “Here’s what the Bible’s telling us, and now how can I illustrate that?” Those are two very different approaches to how we come at the Scriptures, aren’t they?

Sinclair: Yes. I remember I was doing something in Northern Ireland once, and the minister I was with went to a hospital visit. And he told me when he came back, he had bumped into a man who was quite a well-known minister, and they’d asked each other what they were preaching on. And the other man was really excited about what he was preaching on and told my friend. And he said, “Well, what passage are you preaching from?” “Oh!” he said. “I haven’t found a passage yet.” And that’s an extreme example of that.

But, I mean, I would think that among our friends, by and large, there is a lot of high-level commitment to expounding the Word of God to the people of God. But what we sometimes find with people who move away from our congregations to other places is it can be very difficult for them in some places to find that.

Bob: For those who have that high-level commitment as pastors, are there common mistakes we’re making as we handle the Word that are not—we’re committed to the authority of the Word, to the sufficiency of the Word, and yet we’re not delivering it as effectively as we could? Is there anything you’d exhort those who are committed to the proper teaching of the Word: “Here’s how we can make it even better, plainer, clearer”? I’ll throw that to any of the three of you who want to comment.

Rico: I’m not speaking before those two, but I’ll just say one thing: I think the great issue with my preaching was I didn’t start preparing early enough. I think it is the law of the field: so, you plow, you sow, you wait, you water. You know, and then the application comes to your own life. And particularly if you’re a younger man, they don’t really need you to apply it to the sixty-five-year-old if you’re thirty. But they do want to know you’ve already applied it to yourself, and they’ve got to see that authenticity. And quite often, because we’re just busy, we’ll start preparing on Friday, Saturday, and it just hasn’t had time to get the application of what that part of God’s Word—and uniquely it’s been put there—means. And I think the sermon that’s really been thought about, you can see the law of the field at work.

Alistair: Yes, I mean, both these men have had a huge impact on our psyche at Parkside, and for good. I mean, in one of Rico’s previous visits, a new orthodoxy arrived in our prayer meetings, and that is the reminder to one another that only God softens hard hearts, and only God opens blind eyes. That we learned from Rico, and it really has become embedded in our culture.

Sinclair, that can be multiplied on a number of occasions. For me, there are many standouts. I always want to steal from his understanding of the way in which the providence of God works and the address that he gave in relationship to that—that God works in a variety of ways, in a variety of circumstances, in a variety of lives, and so on. It was comprehensive. And then on the evening that he preached on the Lord’s Supper, it proved, especially for us on the pastoral team, to be, you know, profoundly helpful.

And, you know, I think that when people at least try and teach the Bible, they create a hunger. They create an expectation. And the congregation can tell whether you are learning things. And, you know, when I went through 1 and 2 Samuel—that I should never really have embarked upon—it was a huge journey of discovery for me. And that was apparent to the congregation, because they knew that I was, like, about one week ahead of them in actually learning what was going on. And I think there’s a freshness that comes out of that and the sense that we’re together in this great investigative journey as, ultimately, it’s the Lord himself who’s unpacking it for us.

Bob: If you had a word to faithful expositors, Sinclair, to how they could just sharpen the saw a little more, anything you’d say?

Sinclair: Well, a few things. One is: personally, I’ve been, I think, very struck and helped by the way Jesus in the upper room says to the apostles, “I’ve many things to teach you, but you’re not yet able to bear it.”[14] Because I think, looking back on my very earliest days, when I was assistant at the Tron, you know, I look back, and some of the folks who were there, you know, I would still regard as people who have loved me. And I think, “How can you have loved me when I dumped some of the stuff I dumped on you?” And I think that’s such a—especially when you’re younger, to think that the Lord Jesus understood that principle, the Master Teacher: that you have to feed people’s appetite in order for it to grow.

And that, I think, is why in Alistair’s passage last night, when Paul says to Timothy, “Exercise patience and careful teaching,”[15] those two words have been to me… Now, I don’t know what any congregation might have thought about my ability to put it into action, but they’ve been very much in my mind: that patience is required—which, you know, speaks to Rico’s illustration of we are farmers, really. We’re throwing seed around. We have responsibility to plow the ground appropriately. But we are no more than sowers of seed. But we need to learn to be wise farmers in the way we do it.

Another thing I think I would say is: I am not sure that people in our congregations realize how significant their role is in our preaching. And I think it makes a tremendous difference. And to see people who might say when we come, you know, when you’re preaching relatively short sermons, “I can’t believe how long he preaches,” and then ten years later say, “I looked at my watch when he finished, and I had no idea how much time had passed.” And it’s—you know, they might think it’s because we’ve become better preachers. And God grant that we may! But the essence is, really, they’ve become better listeners.They’ve been enjoying the meal.

Bob: I think for all of us, the tension is in understanding that the power is in the Word and the faithful teaching of it, and yet we want to be as good as we can be in our setting the table and preparing the meal, right? So how do we balance out knowing that the power is just in the faithful proclamation of the Word, but we’re called to be good at what we do?

Alistair: Well, Rico knows. I mean, one of the keys is you have a rugby ball…

Bob: I knew the rugby ball was going to come out of here.

Rico: Oh, it’s so juvenile. Please forgive me.

Bob: You used—for those who don’t know—you used a rugby ball as an illustration. And I was telling you before we started: I thought it was a very effective illustration.

Rico: Brother, look: I’m afraid it was a homage. Opposite me are two Scotsmen, and the English have twenty times more rugby players, and in the last six years, we’ve lost four games and drawn one. It is an utter humiliation. And they’ve very kindly not mentioned it, but…

Bob: You used it as a prop to share the principle, which is…

Rico: Yes, that’s right. Well, look, I really do—I do use it a lot. Because I’m trying to say to people that life without Christ is like a game without a ball. And the non-Christian can get that. They see the idiocy of a Calcutta Cup match—which is the oldest rugby match, which is England against Scotland—and, you know, starting off, and Finn Russell, who is a brilliant Scottish fly-half—imagine him not having a ball! Imagine Mahomes not having a ball in the Super Bowl final—which, I may say, I stayed up until 4 a.m. to watch and was then ill for two weeks as a consequence.

But, you know, I think it is trying to engage people, but it is going, “The power is in the Word.” Now, one thing I do before I preach—actually, I’d love the opinion of my brothers on this—but I say to myself before I preach, “Rico, this could be the last time you preach. This could be the last time.” So, when you stand up to preach: “Maybe this is the last time you’ll have the honor of opening God’s Word. You’re so depraved, yet he’s given you this privilege.” And I don’t know what the thoughts of Alistair and Sinclair are on that, but I do find that: “I think this might be my last preach. So how do I want to just conduct it if this is the last time I can open up God’s Word and Jesus can walk off the pages?” So I don’t know whether that is…

Bob: That sounds like unction to me. I’m afraid Dick Lucas would not approve.

Rico: But I find it makes me… I don’t know whether that sounds… I don’t know. Is that immature? I don’t know whether it is, but it just gives me a sense of…

Sinclair: Well, it may be the last time you preach, of course. It may actually be. You may go in the middle of the preaching. I knew a man who went in the middle of the preaching. And his last two words were, “Glory, glory.”

And I think that underlines our need. Because, you know, we are marred by the ephemeral nature of the world in which we live. And it is a struggle for us to really take in that it’s the things that are eternal that are substantial. And so we need these reminders—like, again, with Alistair’s passage yesterday, “I charge you in the presence of God and … Christ Jesus”[16]—to have that, as it were, on your forehead as you preach; that you…

I once—I think I’ve told Alistair this—I once, when I was a young man, naively accepted an invitation to go and speak at a ministers’ conference in Wales and only when I was going realized that the other speaker was Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones. And he sat right in front of me.

Alistair: No pressure!

Sinclair: Right in front of me! And I thought, “This is the occasion I learn that I am preaching in the presence of God, and he is not this little Welshman”—but the sense that you were preaching before, you know, broadly acknowledged, a preacher of, you know, once-in-a-century level.

Alistair: Well, welcome to our world! That’s how Rico and I feel!

Sinclair: Yeah, sure, sure.

Alistair: Yeah, no. Seriously! This is…

Sinclair: Sure.

Bob: You mentioned, Sinclair, last night, as you were looking at 2 Timothy chapter 1, the reality of the “holy calling”[17] that both Paul and Timothy had been called to. I thought about Rico’s book Faithful Leaders and the Things That Matter Most. And I wondered if you think we are—in general, those of us who are leading local churches—are we aware, are we sobered enough by the holiness to which we are called in the execution of our responsibilities?

Sinclair: I think probably the answer has got to be no. In fact, Rico and I were—we weren’t quite talking about the book, but I said to Rico, “That’s really what your book is about. That’s not its title.” But it is about, I think, a response to a sense that the significance of holiness has diminished. And, I mean, I guess we all keep going back to Isaiah chapter 6. And the thing that has often impressed me is that these creatures in Isaiah 6 have never sinned. They are perfectly holy. But in the presence of the manifestation of the holiness of God, they veil their faces,[18] and that there is an intensity in the holiness of God that, you know, apart from our Lord Jesus Christ, would just consume us. And in some ways, it’s in the mercy of God that there is only so much of that that we’re able to take in. But if we are going to be his ambassadors, we have got to take in who he is.

And I think that that does impact the atmosphere of the preaching. I don’t mean that in any spooky sense, but the weight of it. That doesn’t mean… I mean, one of the things I admire so much about Alistair’s preaching is that he is able to speak about serious things without being lugubrious. Because lugubriousness is not only a difficult word to say at this time of day, but it’s a bad thing to communicate in your preaching, because it is ungodly. But it seems to be easy to equate lugubriousness with seriousness. God is serious, but he’s not lugubrious. He’s holy, but he’s not lugubrious. And I think one of the benedictions that should impact us in our knowledge of the holiness of God is that that reflects on our preaching and comes across to people—that…

You know, John Owen said something, wrote something, that has always been helpful to me. He said, “I have found that the sermons that go with most power from me are the ones that came with most power to me.” And I think it’s probably true of all of us that when we preach the Word, we are as much under that preaching as anyone else. Because what we are looking for is the Word to do its work in us.

And I think, by God’s grace, we probably all discovered this relatively early in our ministry: that the reason we so often felt so wretched was only partly due to the fact that we hadn’t done all that well but was also substantially due to the fact that God will not allow us to have the glory and that if he is going to deal with our people, then he also needs to deal primarily with us.

Bob: I wrote down, as I listened to you last night, “It is not special gifting in the minister that God uses as much as his likeness to Jesus.”[19] And I thought to myself, “That’s what I need to remember: that the more that my life looks like Jesus, the more effective I will be in ministry, regardless of how my gifting plays out, right?

Rico: I was always very struck by Jack Miller’s quote—Jack Miller, who so mentored Tim Keller—“If the pastor’s not the chief repenter, then sin becomes a theoretical issue for theoretical sinners, should there be any present that Sunday morning.” And I think it is making sure that, you know, we’ve allowed the passage to really examine us.

And if I can talk about the conservative evangelicals in the South of England over the last ten years, where it’s been a terrible experience of one failed leader after another: it is the blind spots that we fail to confess and repent, you know. And we have valued people for gifting, not godliness. And that’s been said again and again, but it needs to go on being said.

You know, that book, Faithful Leaders, came out of me not being able to get out of bed in 2017. I rang in and said, “I can’t get up.” I was so upset about the failure of a leader who’d mentored me. And as I lay in bed, I thought, “This is because we have an inadequate view of sin and of God’s holiness.” You know, it goes back to that. And so how do we—particularly amongst our young men—how do we root out the blind spots?

I remember Hugh Palmer doing a devastating staff day where he mentioned three people—not by name—but he described three people and how, thirty years before, he and Claire had seen issues (his wife) in their ministry that hadn’t been rooted out, and they’d now brought them down. And he said, “We saw it thirty years ago. We saw the seeds of it.” And so I just think if we’ve learned anything from the horrors of the last few years, it’s that we need to allow people to go after those things and help others with them—particularly the young men—so they’re rooted out. ’Cause they just become a basis for Satan to get in and exploit but also for the Bible to be undermined and dishonored if someone preaches, but we know they’re not repentant.

Bob: We often think of pastors who fail as falling to sexual sin. There are other snares that pastors can fall into, right?

Rico: Yes, and we’ll have blind spots on it. And often that’ll be the culture around that. But, you know, I think listening is a massive… You know, to what degree do we really give ourselves to listening, to hearing? And John Stott certainly was amazing at… And if you were with Uncle John, he would just pepper you with questions. He had this amazing capacity to give himself to listening. And, you know, he really had taught himself to do that. It was a very humble thing. So, you know, whatever it is, I mean, our wives can tell us or others can tell us that “that’s your blind spot. Now, work on it, my brother.”

Bob: I noted as well, in the passage last night, one of the things Paul charges Timothy to do is to “endure suffering.”[20] I’m presuming all of you have been through seasons of significant suffering in ministry where you have had to say, “This is what I’m called to endure, and I have to figure out how to continue in the midst of the grief and the sorrow I’m going through”?

Alistair: Stony silence!

I mean, I’ve read about suffering, and I’ve seen suffering, and I’ve read about it in missionary books. I would have to say that in the goodness of God, this is a realm that I have only skirted on the fringes of. That closing hymn this morning I absolutely hold to—you know,

Unnumbered comforts to my soul
[Your] tender care bestowed
Before my infant heart conceived
From whom those comforts flowed.[21]

And I marvel at the fact! I mean, I don’t glory in it, but I don’t… I’ve entered in… I know sadness. I know loss. I know loss of loved ones. I know the pain of dealing with people in their lives and seeing them fall apart. We’ve done the funerals for the drug addicts. We’ve done all those things. But by and large, I wouldn’t want to hold up myself as someone who has really entered into the depths of very much.

Bob: Not many sleepless nights or anxiety over critics who are calling you to task?

Alistair: Uh… No! Quite honestly. It’s a very surprising thing to me. When I was diagnosed with cancer, and the blood tests came back, and the guy said, “This is what it is, and this is what needs to happen,” and then he said, “And we’ll set the surgery for such and such a day,” I was never awake in the night over that issue. Never! And I take that as the mercy of God. Because I do wake up. But I wake up annoyed at myself. I wake up disappointed by things that I’ve said. I’m usually the culprit in the scenario, as opposed to being on the receiving end of something that has come my way.

But I do think that the whole idea of thorns in the flesh and that 2 Corinthians thing[22]—it is in the mercy of God that he allows things into our lives in order to save us from some of the things that Rico’s referencing here that live in the realm of blind spots, so that, whether it is a child that doesn’t fully embrace the gospel, whether it is something that you wish could be markedly different and you have no control over it to fix, it’s not something that makes you joyful, it’s not really a basis for huge suffering, but it’s a governor, and it’s a corrector. And it helps you—it helps me, at least—to deal with people in extremities that are far worse than anything that I’ve ever known.

I think, for example, looking back on my life, when Derek Prime gave me the chance to go and work with him… This is why I love the guy so much. Talk about taking a risk! Johnny told somebody the other day, he said, “Hey, by the way, Alistair had a really ugly brown suit.” And I said, “Well, thank you for that.” And not only did I have a brown suit, but I had long hair. And the first funeral that I ever did, people thought it was Saturday Night Live or something. They couldn’t believe—“Who is this child that has walked out here with a clerical collar on?” And they thought, “Well, how can this twenty-three-year-old boy enter into this?” Well, because as a twenty-year-old boy, my mother was taken from me at the age of forty-six. And then I stood at a graveside, and suddenly this is a different experience.

Now, would I like that to have been different? To this day, yes. In the providence of God, did it mark my life? Has it marked my life? I think so—and given me, then, an opportunity to be to other people what I otherwise probably could have never known or done.

Bob: Rico, you’ve been through a difficult season in the last year with having to withdraw from the Anglican Communion.

Rico: Well, I have, but again, I would… I mean, I think I have had a very strong church, All Souls, behind me, and they have—you know, I’ve had great support in that decision. I think it’s when having to make decisions alone that it’s hard. But I think it has been heartrending to see that people who have come from good evangelical roots are preaching Jesus but not as Lord. And they’re not preaching repentance or wrath, which I think are the two marks, at the moment, of faithfulness—that God is hostile to sin, and it will be paid for in hell unless it’s paid for at the cross. And repentance is trusting Jesus to know what’s best. So, you know, what he’s for, I’m for; what he’s against, I’m against.

Bob: But when people who have been friends and allies are now your opponents…

Rico: Yeah. Well, it is, then, trying to go and see them and talk. You see, it’s interesting, Uncle John—John Stott—was always “Win people back.” So I think that is what is hard: it’s trying to engage with those people. I did an interview, and I’ve sent it to people that I’m trying to engage with now. Because Uncle John did that. He was amazing at trying to win back people who declared themselves his enemies. And indeed, John Hick, who wrote The Myth of God Incarnate, I mean, famously wrote Uncle John a letter six months before he died (before John Hick died), saying, “You know, I think I’ve been wrong, and thank you for being in contact.” And I never saw that letter, but his secretary, Frances Whitehead, told me about that letter. And I think that was a testimony to John wanting to win people back. But at the same time, there’s some we have to flee from. There’s a balance there.

But yeah, I think what’s heartrending is watching faithful people with all these resources that they’ve piled into the Church of England and seeing those resources, I’m afraid, stolen by a constituency. They’re going to be stolen away, those resources, I fear, and amazing places where you can preach the gospel from. But I’ve got to trust the Lord to raise that up. And the big lesson of it goes back to holiness. In the Church of England, for over a hundred years, we have recruited people without clear church discipline. So I got ordained with people—looking back, I should have never have got ordained with them. I should have refused to kneel at the altar, because they weren’t orthodox. But I thought, “Well, it’s a broad church, and I’ll go and do my bit there.”

Actually, church discipline’s important, and that you root people out who are not sitting under God’s Word before they start ministry is important. And the Church of England has never done that, and now it is being handed over to the fact that those people now are saying, “We want as part of orthodoxy our unrepentant lifestyles. We’re not repenting, and that’s now going to be part of prayers.” So, yeah, I think that has—you know, it has caused me to weep at times. But what’s saddest is the people who were faithful who, in order to be popular, have gone with the culture. And you just think, “Well, how can you possibly do that for the Lord Jesus?”

Alistair: “Certain men” have “crept in.”[23] Jude.

Bob: Yeah.

Rico: Yeah.

Bob: Have you experienced seasons of suffering in ministry?

Sinclair: Well, you know, we all suffer as Christians. It’s part and parcel of being a Christian. We’re united to Christ, and we will experience tribulation. I don’t think the Scripture teaches us the nature or intensity of it is our choice. It’s the Lord’s choice. But it is the way in which he chips things off us—makes us, I think, more amenable to live together in the body of Christ. And I think probably what we would—the three of us—would want to say is that we have all had the privilege of meeting people who have very evidently suffered and have that sense that we’re not really worthy to untie their shoelaces.

But the privilege of being part of the body that suffers in one part has at least touched us in such a way that some small element of the fruit of suffering has been embedded in our lives too. We’ve been near enough people to have learned sympathy. We’ve been near enough people to press into Christ more. So I think there is no doubt that when one member suffers, the whole body suffers.[24] But in God’s providence, I think one of our tasks, often, in our churches is to help other members of our congregation see that although we have this privilege of very public ministry, it’s often little Jane in the backseat that very few people know that we want to say to the younger people in the congregation, “Go sometime, and ask Jane to tell you her life story,” so that suffering is a gift to the whole body of Christ, and we share in it in various ways, and we experience it to different degrees. But because it is a providential gift, we’re all able to grow in trusting Christ, love for Christ, mutual sympathy.

Bob: After many years on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, you have relocated back to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. And for a long time, we in America had looked at the church in America and said, “We’re about ten years behind where the UK is. So if there’s a slide in the UK, we’re just kind of drafting in the wind of where the UK is.” Is that still the case, do you think? And are things looking better in the UK that can give us hope in the US, or not?

Sinclair: Well, in some ways, I think, we need to go even lower in the UK—just in terms of the generality of the churches. Although the Church is almost rushing into the water like lemmings, it still displays an extraordinary arrogance. I think in the mainstream church in Scotland, which is just disappearing, the public speech is “these wonderful new strategies that God is giving us,” and it’s really a load of baloney. And I think probably the same is true in England.

But one of the things I think that emerges in that context is that real churches are becoming real churches. And for myself, I feel that that is where the energy of ministry needs to go: into building our churches as families of families that are committed to the gospel. Because in a culture where the whole of the culture is dysfunctional and families in particular are dysfunctional, my own conviction is that Christian families may be one of the strongest evangelistic bridges that we will have in the future.

And you see little indications of this. In our family (if I may be personal for a moment, which my family never allows me to be), one of our children has five children, and the last two are twins. And in their elementary school, their teacher decided they should have a party to display what they’d been doing in school during the term. And they were each allowed to invite a family member. And because my daughter has twins, she was invited by one, and my wife was invited by the other.

My wife fell into conversation with the teacher, who has taught all five of the children. And she said, “You know, when I had the first one, I thought,” about our daughter, “‘You are a very lucky mother.’ But now that I’ve had all five of them, I realize it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with luck.”

Now, she’s not crossed the border into understanding why. But I think that subliminal reality in Christian family life, in a world in which parents have no idea what to do—and they’re fed a line by governments and by social media—that where you see a Christian family emerging, they will be like cities set on a hill and lights, you know, that just will not be able to be put out. And I see that as a major responsibility of our churches—and for the church itself to be a family, so that when people encounter the church, they think, “Where did this come from? This feels like, somehow or another, the way life ought to be: old and young, rich and poor, wise and simple; love, devotion, giving place to one another; healthy, safe.” You know, warts and all. We’re very poor, and we know that. But, you know, the church is God’s instrument. It’s what Christ promised he will build, and he is building it. And so, I think that’s our hope—at least, you know, in the context in which I am.

Bob: Living as a faithful remnant. Alistair, any thoughts about how we do that as, increasingly, we become minority voices?

Alistair: Well, just to pick up on what Sinclair is saying, I think that as we think of our church, if we are prepared to take seriously the idea of a family… You know, I love what Chistopher Ash says when he says, you know, the church is not made up of a group of people that you would automatically want to go on holiday with.[25] That’s not who’s there. You’ve got strange uncles, and you’ve got, you know, somebody else in the context. But it’s in the diversity of all of that that then people are able to come into that environment, and it’s not a cookie cutter kind of feel, you know. They’re aware that these people are not the same as each other. I mean, I love it when I look out on the congregation and see a guy who’s the head of the cardiothoracic unit for the number one heart hospital in the world, the Cleveland Clinic, talking to a fireman over coffee. The two of them would never even know each other unless his house burned down or he needed heart surgery. So why are they together?

I just sidled into the church the other day before I went up to preach, and I was singing, and I was standing next to a guy from South America, and I was standing next to an African American sister. And I said to the guy, I said, “How do we get you and me and this lady sitting here at ten past nine on a Sunday morning, apart from Jesus?” Apart from Jesus!

Bob: Right.

Alistair: Only Jesus! Not that we’re interested in the same kind of singing or even… But we’ve actually been united with Christ. And if we’re prepared to get to grips with what that actually means in real terms, then I think the disenfranchised world—the upside-down, chaotic environment out of which single people are coming and married couples are coming and confused-gender people are coming—in that kind of context, they might be prepared to tell you straight up, “I need help.” And the only people who will be able to offer them help are people who know themselves to be helped by Jesus.

So, I concur with that. I mean, I think you want to take your children out and sit in a restaurant and it’s not a hullabaloo, you know, people are going to come over and say, “What’s up with you people?” And they don’t all have cell phones, and they’re actually interacting with each other. “What is this phenomenon? Why are you like this?”

Rico: I’ll never forget: as I got converted, Christopher Ash was running the little Christian group at my school, and there was a talk on Ephesians 2:1–3, and the talk was “You’re dead, you’re led by the devil, you’re satisfying the cravings of the sinful nature, and you’re in a world that’s organized without reference to God.” And I remember walking out of that meeting elated, because someone at last had explained the problem. I remember thinking, “At last! I knew it was this bad!” I just was… And I think, you know, as we talk about our own sin and our own battles in a culture where…

It’s very interesting. I was brought up where they said, “Rico, the problems are internal,” like that talk. But the school I was at still had an Anglican tradition of orthodoxy. “The problem’s internal: you’re a sinner. And the solution’s external: Jesus can rescue you.” But now, people think the problems are external—so, “I’m a victim of your behavior. It’s not me. It’s all of you behaving like that. I’ve got to cut you out.” And then the solution’s internal. I mean, I have had eleven young men commit suicide the last seven years, one way or another, in the London environment I’m in. And if they had one thing in common, all of those deaths would have in common “I’m alone.” “I’m alone.” And, you know, what amazed me about coming to faith was, in that little group, they explained my sin, and I wasn’t alone, and they presented the Lord Jesus. And we mustn’t forget that that is the “pearl of great price.”[26]

[1] 1 Thessalonians 2:4 (ESV).

[2] See 1 Thessalonians 1:5.

[3] 2 Corinthians 4:1, 16 (ESV).

[4] Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:30 (ESV). See also Luke 18:29–30.

[5] 1 Corinthians 16:10 (paraphrased).

[6] 2 Corinthians 11:28 (paraphrased).

[7] See Philippians 4:6.

[8] 2 Timothy 1:7 (paraphrased).

[9] 2 Timothy 1:2 (KJV).

[10] 2 Timothy 4:11 (ESV).

[11] Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), chap. 2. Paraphrased.

[12] See 1 Corinthians 3:6–7.

[13] Deuteronomy 4:10 (paraphrased).

[14] John 16:12 (paraphrased).

[15] 2 Timothy 4:2 (paraphrased).

[16] 2 Timothy 4:1 (ESV).

[17] 2 Timothy 1:9 (ESV).

[18] See Isaiah 6:2.

[19] M’Cheyne to Daniel Edwards, Dundee, October 2, 1840, in Andrew A. Bonar, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Minister of St. Peter’s Church, Dundee (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844), 258. Paraphrased.

[20] 2 Timothy 4:5 (ESV).

[21] Joseph Addison, “When All Thy Mercies, O My God” (1712).

[22] See 2 Corinthians 12:7–10.

[23] Jude 4 (KJV).

[24] See 1 Corinthians 12:26.

[25] Christopher Ash, Teaching Romans, vol. 2, Unlocking Romans 9–16 for the Bible Teacher (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2009), 163.

[26] Matthew 13:46 (KJV).