Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Sometimes “life” just gets in the way of all good intentions.

A few years ago I read Antinomianism by Mark Jones and when discussing the doctrine of assurance he mentioned Anthony Burgess (the Puritan, not the author of A Clockwork Orange). While reading The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson the subject and Burgess came up again in the footnotes. So I bought a copy of recently released version of Faith Seeking Assurance (FSA) by Burgess in the Puritan Treasures for Today.

While I finished reading the book in December, I went on vacation and returned to a crazy schedule that included preparing for a church trial, and presbytery meeting. I came down with “the” cold (I’m still coughing 4 weeks later), experienced a pastoral crisis or two, helped interview a church planter and we hosted a financial seminar. I think I am returning to normalcy and this review is still waiting for me.

That is how my brain works. I need to clear this out so I can move on to the next review of a book I just finished.

The doctrine of assurance is one of those neglected doctrines these days. Recently we’ve seen a spat of books about the Trinity and union with Christ which had been neglected for a long time. Maybe this doctrine will experience a literary resurgence. But until then … we pretty much have this book. Thankfully it is a very good book, but since I just worked thru this subject in the Westminster Standards for a SS class- there is more to be said.

FSA is a typically Puritan book in its style and structure. If you aren’t familiar with the Puritans, one way to describe them would be a dog with a bone, chewing, chewing, chewing. I’d say a cow chewing its cud, but that sounds too “gentle”. Perhaps another way of putting it is drilling down deep into a doctrine, looking at it from a variety of angles.

“… ecclesiastical discipline being to the church what the sword is to the Commonwealth.”

The assurance of which we speak is assurance as a reflex action- the assurance that we are saved by knowing we have believed and depend upon the merit of Christ. As a direct action, faith believes that God actually saves sinners. In this way, following Calvin, assurance is an element of faith.

“In his reflex acts of faith, the confidence that a believer has of the truth of grace wrought in him comes more from God’s Spirit removing his slavish fears and disposition and supporting the soul than it does from the excellence and beauty of grace within him.”

He begins with the necessity of assurance by bringing us to Corinth and Paul’s letters to them. Professing Christians can be quite content in their lusts. Paul advised them to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith rather than continue to exhibit presumption. In this way we differ from Roman Catholicism in which only those who receive a secret revelation can have such knowledge (think the saints, not ordinary Christians). But Scripture indicates we can know, and God generally wants His children to know that they are in fact saved.

Its advantage is likened to the man who has actually tasted honey and knows its sweetness experientially instead of simply theoretically. It provides a security in affliction, rather than a false security in our guilt. It also helps us to enjoy the sweetness of the sacraments, ceasing from useless arguments with others and focusing on your own heart (warning: we can be overly introspective however, and we are supposed to be looking outward to Christ who is our salvation), focusing on obedience and service. What gets in the way? He notes self-love, carnal confidence and the temptation to unbelief. We can also use false standards to determine whether or not we are saved.

“… some Christians rest in knowing the doctrine of the gospel and in the outward use of ordinances without ever feeling the weight of sin.”

From these introductory matters he spends time addressing the reality of hypocrites. Some have an historical faith: “They have the kind of historical faith that the devils possess. It is no real faith at all, but, at most, only a human assent.” There is intellectual agreement of a sort, but no resting in Christ. There are also those, like in the parable of the sower, who are temporary believers. They are part of the visible church, seem to be filled with joy, but eventually return to their sin and unbelief.

True Christians: “These Christians are incorporated into Christ’s body and so receive a vivifying influence from Him as a living branch in the vine or a living member in the body.”

One of the more interesting obstacles to gaining assurance that Burgess mentions is that we can resist the ministry of the Spirit to provide it. The basic notion is that the flesh resists all motions toward holiness, and all reception of spiritual blessings. Other obstacles are guilt over sins committed, temptations experienced and the Evil One who wants to destroy the joy of our salvation since he can’t actually destroy our salvation.

This means a believer may actually be saved, but not have assurance. They may have doubts and fears. But gaining assurance gives us greater peace and joy in our salvation.

Thomas Goodwin spoke of a father and son walking on the road. The father picks up the son, holds him and kisses him. The son was just as much his son when he was standing by the father, or even running from him. But his experience of being a son was better, more nurturing when the father held and kissed him. Assurance is like being held and kissed, our experience of salvation is sweeter. But we may still be saved even when we don’t experience this.

Burgess provides remedies for carnal confidence and directions for those who lack assurance. While God generally wants us to have assurance, it is not all He wants for us. He also wants us holy and humble. If assurance will make you proud or slothful at a given point in time, God may choose to withhold assurance for this greater good.

“We should not so gaze upon ourselves to find graces in our hearts that we forget those acts of faith whereby we immediately close with Christ and rely upon Him only for our justification.”

Assurance starts with the simple question, do you believe in Christ? If you don’t you have no ground for assurance. In seeing if you truly believe or have a counterfeit faith (see Edwards’ Charity and Its Fruits), you look to sanctification and whether common graces are at work in you. You aren’t looking for perfection, but progress. And in this someone else may help for often we see the sin, not the progress. In terms of common graces, is there a desire for worship, prayer, Bible reading, fellowship etc. These are faith at work. The desire for them is a work of the Spirit. The one who has never and doesn’t currently desire them has no grounds for assurance. There can be dry spells, and during them we generally don’t have assurance.

This is not a perfect book. It is a good and worthwhile book. For those who are not familiar with the Puritans, there is a learning curve. There is much to discover here, but I did find myself wanting more when I was done. Sadly, I can’t recall exactly what that more was. At this time, this and the chapters in The Whole Christ are the primary works on this important and often misunderstood subject.

 

Considering Good and Angry


We all struggle with anger. It is part of the human experience. Some of us struggle more than others. And our struggle may be different. Some people struggle to show anger. Others are always a road rage incident waiting to happen. Books about anger are varied in their approach and their quality.

Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness by David Powlison is a new book about anger. It is one of the better books on the subject of anger.

He begins by identifying our problem with anger. It isn’t simply the guy with the red face, huffing and puffing while he yells at everyone. Anger is more nuanced than that. It is also expressed in irritation, frustration, complaining and arguing. When we have a more appropriate, more encompassing definition we see that we all have anger issues. He describes the various relationships we have with anger, and the lies we can believe about our anger. He spends time explaining that this book really is about you, and everyone else.

He then explains anger as a function of love. If you never get angry you really don’t love anything or anyone. This is why God gets angry: He loves. He loves His people. He also loves all that is good and holy. Anything that harms His people or violates His goodness is subject to His anger. He responds with anger. Because He is righteous, His anger is always in the proper measure and about the proper things. Ours? A mixed bag. Sometimes we are angry because our “rules” are broken, our kingdom threatened; not God’s. Or our anger is too much or too little for the sin in question.

This means that anger is “natural”, a part of being in the image of God. But like that image, it is now distorted because of our sinfulness.

Powlison moves into the constructive displeasure of mercy. It “holds out promises of forgiveness, inviting wrongdoers to new life.” Anger can motivate to destroy sin. But it can also motivate us in constructive directions like patience and forgiveness. Anger isn’t always given the final word, sometimes that word is forgiveness.

“God is love, and God is slow to anger. He intends to make us like himself. To be slow to anger means you are willing to work with wrong over time.”

He distinguishes, quite helpfully, between attitudinal forgiveness and transacted forgiveness. The first is about you. It does not require the other person to ask for forgiveness. It is about letting them off the hook, absorbing the loss so you no longer want to destroy them. This enables you to approach them to reconcile which is the essence of transacted forgiveness: reconciliation. You can forgive without being reconciled (with an abuser for instance). Remembering that it requires two to be reconciled, you can forgive even though the other person doesn’t want to be reconciled or admit they’ve done anything wrong.

“The attitudinal forgiveness means you can always deal with things that poison your own heart. Transacted forgiveness and actual reconciliation are desirable fruits, but not always attainable.”

He then moves into two other aspects of constructive displeasure: charity and constructive conflict. Charity is, in some ways, hard love or love in hard times. You continue to seek what is best for the other person. Constructive conflict moves toward the person to do that hard work of not simply reconciling, but addressing the sin that sabotages the relationship.

The chapter entitled Good and Angry? focuses on God and His anger. His anger fills the Bible because the Bible is filled with humanity’s rebellion. Our anger does not need to be suppressed, but remade, redeemed. He then moves to James 4 to help us explain why we get angry. We are looking out for ourselves and our kingdoms. I noted in my margin that “we are all Frank Underwood building our own house of cards.” He then moves us to the reality that God gives more grace and what change looks like.

Powlison than proposes 8 questions to take your anger apart so you can be put back together. These questions are attempts to apply what he’d been talking about from James 4.

He then has a series of chapters on tough cases: forgiving unspeakable sins, the everyday angers, being angry with yourself and angry with God. This was, in my opinion, some of the best material in the book. He addressed topics that aren’t often addressed, at least helpfully.

While this is a very good book, I thought the real strength was in the second half of the book. He uses questions at the end of each chapter to help you process and apply the material. I need to go back over those questions. Since anger is such a common problem this would be a helpful book for pastors, elders, parents and just about everyone. It is accessible, easy to understand and helpful. It is a helpful addition for your library.

Considering War Room


The divisional round of the NFL playoffs are over. In many ways the legacy of Bill Belichick was on display. The Patriots, led by Belichick took their division and won a bye week yet again, for a long streak of dominance among a division filled with the futility of other teams leading to frequent turnover. Once again the Patriots are in the AFC championship game. Either they are the Steelers will go to a record 9th Super Bowl.

The team the Patriots beat, the Texans, has a coaching staff stacked with former Patriots’ coaches and players (O’Brien, Crennel, Larry Izzo, and Mike Vrabel). The team the Steelers beat, the Chiefs, had former Patriots’ Director of Player Personnel Scott Pioli as their GM for 4 years. While the Chiefs struggled during his tenure, many of the key players for this team were acquired by Pioli.

Pioli is currently the assistant GM for the Atlanta Falcons who also won their division, got a bye week and defeated the Seahawks to advance to the NFC conference championship against the Packers. The Falcons’ GM is Pioli’s old friend from the Browns and Patriots (both under Belichick), Tom Dimitroff.

Half of the teams in the divisional round came from the same organizational roots!

This organization is the subject of Michael Holley’s book War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building the Perfect Team. Holley spent a year with the team researching his earlier book, Patriot Reign. He wanted that book to be about Belichick. It has paid off for a growing number of books. Contrary to common opinion, Belichick isn’t self-absorbed and keeps wanting Holley to write not about him but about the organization.

In this book, Holley focuses on Belichick, Pioli and Dimitroff. He provides some biographical information, particularly as he introduces Piolo and Dimitroff, and traces their relationships, how they achieved great success together, and how they’ve been building teams since (when this was written, Pioli was still with the Chiefs).

There is plenty of interesting information about football as Holley retells how some key seasons unfolded. It covers some key drafts as well, bringing you into the process to better understand it. It isn’t just about successes. You see that in drafting disappointments Laurence Maroney and Chad Jackson, Belichick tuned out the scouts who were raising red flags. You discover Belichick is not the man you see or typically hear about, but that is rather is “stage personae”. Behind the scenes and to his friends he is seen as having a great sense of humor and caring about the people he works with, often providing them with advice.

Reading this book you get a better sense of why so many organizations flounder, or lack consistency. Their organizational games of musical chairs, approach to scouting, focus on the short-term instead of the long -term too, are here to see.

I think this book extends beyond football. There are some principles to appropriate for other organizations. While it is about football, it is about more than football. Success begins with people, identifying people with both skills and character. This is not simply players but the whole organization. Belichick, for instance, hired Pioli to a low level position and watched. He saw a guy driven to know more, do more. Pioli quickly rose as Belichick tested him and he passed those tests. Belichick largely develops staff from within instead of importing people from elsewhere. This way you know if they can actually do the job, not just interview well (a problem not just in football but in most organizations). Evaluating players is not just about skill, but character (the flaw in the Maroney and Jackson picks for instance). Players are not evaluated in the abstract, but in comparison to current members of the team. The idea is whether or not they make the team better in both the short-term and long-term.  The focus is not on “stars” but depth, spending your money so you can survive the attrition of an NFL season instead of floundering because a few key guys are hurt.

I don’t want to give it all away. I want you to read the book. It is interesting as well as informative. There is more here than just the “inside story” on some draft picks (though that is interesting too). There is organizational wisdom for those with ears to hear.


So far I’ve really enjoyed Crossway’s series “On the Christian Life” having read the volumes on Newton, Bavink and Edwards. I’ve been working my way through the series on vacation/study leave. That all changed when I read Luther.

Oh, I’m kidding. Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom by Carl Trueman is a very good addition to the series. One of the things that Trueman appreciates about Luther was his humor, which is much better than my pathetic little joke there.

One of the strengths of this volume is that Trueman does not try to paint Luther as an “evangelical”. He notes our tendency to repaint our heroes in our own image. He resists this temptation and presents us with the Luther that we both love and don’t quite understand.

Luther’s understanding of the Christian life is very different from that found in “popular” evangelicalism and even in Reformed circles at times. Trueman isn’t here to criticize Luther, but is more to critique us in a round about way.

One of the struggles for a book like this is the sheer volume of material produced by Luther, as well as the development of his thought over time as a pioneer of sorts who came to a greater awareness of the implications, consequences and complications of this ideas over time. Yet, as Trueman notes, evangelicals tend to pull their quotes (sound bytes) from the early Luther.

Trueman begins with a brief biography of Luther so readers can get a lay of the land, so to speak. His life and theology were in near constant interaction. I noticed this tendency in studying some the major psychological theorists, and it is often true for theologians as well. Their theology is an attempt to work out their stuff with God. Unlike one author I read years ago, Luther’s goal was not sexual liberation but rather spiritual liberation.

Luther lived in a time when most people could not read. This greatly impacts his understanding of the Christian life. It is structured around daily worship services to hear the Word of God and to partake of the sacraments. While better literacy rates are a good thing, they have facilitated the individualistic view of the Christian life that actually robs us of maturity. We are meant to live in community, and not just for a few hours on Sunday.

We can’t turn back the clock (this includes rejecting the industrial revolution, modern travel etc. that shapes our lives/lifestyles). But perhaps we can made some different decisions in our own cultural context.

Luther has a strong emphasis on the Word, and Trueman spends time unpacking this. It is tied up on Luther’s understanding of the Word as both God’s revelation and God’s creative power. God’s Word is meant to shape how we think about life and reality. Luther was also concerned about how we approached the Word, and therefore God. We tend to be theologians of glory rather than theologians of the cross. The theologian of the cross sees God and comes to God thru Christ and Him crucified. The incarnation and sacrifice of the Son points to our weakness, sinfulness, neediness and how God is gracious, tender and merciful This shapes a very different life than one focused on God’s power and glory which tends to either drive us to despair (since we are sinners) or puffs us up (due to our pride and self-righteousness). This carries over to Luther’s law and gospel distinction. This is a much misunderstood concept, as if the OT is law and the NT is gospel. As Clapton sang, “It’s in the way that you use it.” The same texts can be used to expose sin, and reveal grace. First comes law to destroy our self-righteousness, and then comes grace.

So we encounter the Word in preaching, singing, meditating, prayer and if possible reading. Luther encourages us to be people of the Word so God will work in us to accomplish His good purposes.

The Christian life is not easy but we struggle with self-righteousness as well as sin. We also deal with anfechtungen, which is difficult to translate into English but could be considered similar to the dark night of the soul. We experience despair and frustration at the trials of life material and immaterial. We are not to look in, but to look out at Christ in the midst of all of this. Faith is looking to the Christ revealed in the Scriptures in dealing with our guilt, self-righteousness, and afflictions. Luther was not an introspective mystic, but one who calls us out of our introspection to look to Christ who is the only One who can help us.

One of the most important chapters is “Luther and Christian Righteousness.” It is written to address some misunderstandings of Luther regarding sanctification. These misunderstandings are found in the books and sermons by Tullian Tchavidjian and Trueman makes a few allusions to Tullian in the chapter. While the Reformation was going swimmingly in its early days, Luther discovered it was not necessarily bearing the fruit it should as he began to visit other areas. He saw that many people calling themselves Christians were ignorant of basic doctrines and lived like pigs.

He made a distinction between alien righteousness and proper righteousness. The former is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us in justification. It is our positional holiness. The latter is righteousness imparted to us by Christ in sanctification. It is our personal holiness. They are distinct but related. The same Christ who justifies us also sanctifies us. First He justifies and then He sanctifies. This order is key to Reformation or Protestant Theology. Luther discovered there was little to no personal holiness, and put forth the need to preach not just alien righteousness but also personal righteousness. This emphasis is seen in The Visitation Articles as well as his catechisms. While Melanchthon is credited with originating the idea of the “third use of the Law” (showing us how to live as Christians) it is actually present in Luther’s writings as well. The Law directs us as justified persons, but it is always grace that empowers us.

Additionally there was the Antinomian Crisis involving Agricola’s deviant theology. Luther notes we are a battlefield between the flesh and Spirit. Preaching only alien righteousness leads to immorality and false assurance of salvation.  So we find the need for pastors to also preach the law for instruction in righteousness.

The Christian life is played out in our vocations of citizen, work and home. Luther rightfully sees the Christian engaged in those spheres. He does not see a secular-sacred divide like the Roman Catholicism of his day (being a priest, nun or monk was seen as a more holy vocation than a cobbler), and some forms of fundamentalism today.

This is one of the shorter volumes in the series, just over 200 pages. There is some theological background that has to go into explaining many of the concepts central to Luther and his theology. Trueman handles that well and in understandable form. In the discussion of sacraments, he doesn’t delve into Luther’s understanding of the Chalcedonian Definition/Formula with respect to how the human nature of Christ is present in a ubiquitous fashion. There also aren’t many Scripture references which is interesting since Scripture was so important to Luther.

It is a worthwhile addition to the series that seems to focus on Reformed pastors/theologians. The fact he isn’t an “evangelical” provides a good corrective to many of us. This book is well worth reading.


I find it hard to believe we’ve been married for 15 years of mostly bliss. Every marriage has difficulty, and plenty of sin. Hopefully there are plenty of good times, and laughter as well. Yesterday I was pondering some of the “memorable” moments, not necessarily highlights, of our marriage. We took a walk before the snow started to fall, and talked about some of these moments.

The First 5 Years:

The other day CavWife mentioned to someone we did Sonship as newly weds. I took a week of Study Leave and we went to Orlando, staying in someone’s house. It was an intense time as she struggled with suddenly going from hyper-thyroid to hypo-thyroid and I was dealing with some conflict/opposition in the church. But the conference laid a good, gracious foundation for our lives together. We’d need it over the years.

Our 1st Valentine’s Day together was something of a disaster. I had these great romantic plans- steak for dinner, homemade cheesecake and later…. Around 4 pm I ended up getting sick. Thoughts of romance went down the frequently flushing toilet.

Our 1st Christmas: she flew to upstate NY ahead of me since she wasn’t working and I had to Christmas Eve service to perform. The weather report said snow in Albany, but they’ve never closed the airport. We seemed to endlessly circle the airport in a holding pattern. They finally announced an open window, and we were third in line to land. Finally we started our descent … and then pulled up. They announced our window closed and we had enough fuel to go to Baltimore. So I spent the night in a hotel room in Baltimore and flying standby the next day. Being Christmas Day, just about everything was closed and I’d barely eaten. Thankfully a friend recently moved to Baltimore, and close to the airport. They fed me Christmas dinner leftovers while we caught up.

In 2004, while she was pregnant we experienced the “triple hurricane” extravaganza. The paths of 3 hurricanes crossed not far from our home after no hurricanes entering the county for 40 years. We were not in town for Charley. Morgan, who rented a room from us, was watching our dog and house. He and Huck headed to Jacksonville since the power went out. We lost 2 freezers full of food. We returned to a sea of blue-tarped roofs, and another hurricane coming our way. It hit the day Morgan was supposed to be out. We didn’t lose power which is great because we needed to dry a large number of towels. During the 3rd, our power went in the wee hours, prayed and sang hymns while water came in through our vent. Our neighbors let us have some electricity from their generator so we could run the refrigerator during the day and a fan at night. We’d drive during the day to enjoy the A/C.

One of the most difficult days was when CavWife was pregnant. We had an appointment for an ultrasound. The baby was too small. We needed a higher level ultrasound, so an appointment was made with a specialist… the next day. We both had a sleepless night anticipating the worst. Thankfully, while growth was inhibited it was not something serious. Which leads me to …

The birth of CavDaughter #1. CavWife was induced and things were “fast and furious” until they gave her the epidural. But that evening we were holding our daughter. It was awesome.

The Middle 5 Years:

Adopting was quite the process. In the midst of it, God was faithful. We adopted CavSon #1 without any debt despite the church closing. CavWife went to China while I stayed behind to take care of our daughter. Thankfully CavWife’s parents were in town because I was floored by a bad case of bronchitis. We would talk, using a cheap phone card, and a disaster was amazingly averted when her finger prints showed up at the consulate in the nick of time.

There was the argument in the Philadelphia airport on a quasi-candidating trip. It was my second trip to meet with the search committee. She recognized it wasn’t a good fit, but I saw the severance package which was about to end and this was the only egg I had in the basket. So, naturally our flight was delayed. They ended up turning me down, which was really good since it probably wouldn’t have gone well.

One of the saddest days was the day I put Huck down. He was a great dog, particularly with the kids. It broke my heart.

One Thanksgiving Eve I was working on our painting project and CavWife was calling me from the kitchen. I was close to finishing and didn’t want to be interrupted. But she put a knife thru a finger trying to pit an avocado (for Jamie’s Mexican salad?). She didn’t want the kids to freak out from the blood. Shortly thereafter she was trying to fly cross country with it bandaged, with 2 kids and their car seats on the plane.

We are still amazed at how God preserved us through a 2 1/2 year transition period between pastoral calls. At times I worked 3 jobs (one was as an EKG tech which may deserve its own post), but it was never enough. We used up the car fund, borrowed money from my parents, a friend paid for our health insurance … We had great friends who kept us sane, loving us well through the transition. This included meals together, Catan night, and watching our kids while we flew out to Arizona for my examination. They filled in for my in-laws since Daddy D was in the ER with renal failure. Thankfully we’ve been in AZ now for nearly 7 years and he’s still alive and kicking.

The “Last” 5 Years:

Adopting again, without incurring debt (again). Oh, the IRS made things interesting at times. But CavWife flew to the DRC this time. We are thankful for CavKids #3 & 4.

One day CavWife called from the Y parking lot. She’d tripped over the youngest and landed on her elbow. Contrary to my advice she didn’t go to the Urgent Care to get it x-rayed. With it in a sling, she flew to NY with the 4 kids. While there she decided to get it x-rayed to discover it was broken. It was not casted at that point, but there was plenty of time in therapeutic braces to regain extension.

In February 2014, she left late in the afternoon to go to the chiropractor in my car. The kids were playing in the back yard so I was in the hammock, listening to music, reading and enjoying a cigar. As a result, I missed the first phone call. She was t-boned in front of the chiropractor’s office and so began our long, disappointing experience with the civil legal system. The opposing counsel is the only person who has ever called CavWife “reckless”. We were amazed.

I love those moments when the 4 kids are all together, laughing and playing. I love the moments they give of themselves to one another.

When CavDaughter #1 became a communing member of the church.

CavWife and I both say her hysterectomy was “the best surgery ever!”

That one time one of our kids said “You’re the best parents ever!”


As I’ve noted in the past, I focus on books I read in a given year, not books published in that year.  So, here we go.

The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson. This is the best, possibly most important book, that I have read in a long time. I also highly anticipated this. He looks at the Marrow Controversy to develop some pastoral theology regarding legalism, antinomianism and assurance. I think it is mandatory reading for pastors and teachers.

The Imperfect Pastor by Zach Eswine. This is one of the best books about pastoral ministry. He discusses our limitations and the temptation to ignore those limitations. It reminds me very much of Eugene Peterson’s books on pastoral ministry.

Spurgeon’s Sorrows by Zach Eswine.  This is a great little book on depression that uses Spurgeon’s depression following the tragic accident at the Surrey Gardens as a case study. He is compassionate in discussing its causes and cures.

Institutes of the Christian Religion: The Essentials Edition translated by Robert White. This is a translation of Calvin’s 1541 edition. This is a shorter edition of the Institutes. It is readable. It is interesting to see how his thought developed over time.

Edwards on the Christian Life by Dane Ortlund. Edwards suffers from a serious PR problem outside of Reformed Christianity. People think, thanks to their English professor, that Edwards was a mean man who focused on hell. In reality he focused on God’s sweetness and excellency. Ortlund focuses on Edwards’ understanding of the Christian life as growing in love.

For a Continuing Church by Sean Michael Lucas. This book traces the roots of the PCA in the PC (US) in the conflict between liberals and conservatives over subjects like subscriptionism, the authority of Scripture, women’s ordination and more.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. They tell the story of the Tripoli Pirates on the coast of north Africa during our nation’s infancy. Our need for trade was threatened by them. Jefferson built a navy and began a process of pressuring the Muslim pirates to accept our terms instead of us accepting their unreasonable and ever-changing terms.

To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Gardner. This is the “untold” story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. It was very interesting. Approximately half the book takes place after Garrett killed Billy the Kid. He, too, was a complicated person.

Jesus, Justice and Gender Roles by Kathy Keller. This is more of a booklet than a book. She argues for complementarianism. She explains her own journey from egalitarianism to complementarianism. She interacts with 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy to sort out her understanding of the phrase “I do not permit a woman to teach and hold authority over a man.” She sees this as one thing, not two: to teach with authority. This is because women seem to be permitted to prophesy in the public assembly but not the assessment of prophecy (1 Corinthians). She also distinguishes between gifting and roles. For instance, a woman may have a gift to shepherd or teach others. She may not have the role of pastor, yet still exercise these gifts in the church.

 

Considering Faithful Presence


In January I’ll be starting a sermon series on 1 Peter currently entitled “Living Faithfully in Babylon.” Recently Daniel Wells mentioned a book by David Fitch called Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. It looked like something that may help me think through some things as I preach through 1 Peter. In 2010 James Davidson Hunter released a book called To Change the World, in which he talks about the church maintaining a faithful presence. Dr. Anthony Bradley, before he dropped off Facebook, was highly critical of the book. Having not actually read it, his point seemed to be a lack of missional presence by the church but rather a retreat to a ghetto. Fitch refers to Hunter’s book in the introduction:

“Hunter proposes that Christians changes their tactics for engaging culture and changing the world. He asks Christians to turn away from grabbing power in the broader culture through traditional political means. Quit trying to win the battle of ideas through political rallies, voting schemes, cultural confrontations, and campaigns of persuasion in churches and political forums. Instead let Christians commit to a “new city commons” free from the power struggles and culture wars. He calls for Christians, shaped by an alternative covenant community of the kingdom, to humbly inhabit the places where they live and work with a new on-the-ground presence that dialogues and interacts with those around us and the institutions we are a part of.” (pp. 12-13)

Fitch seeks to flesh out more of what this looks like. Anthony Bradley did a blurb for this book, so I thought I’d read it. I’ll confess I can struggle with reading more “broadly evangelical” books. They often lack a sense of history and theological depth that leads them into trendy ideas that are often gone in a few years, as well as a rather shallow understanding of things. But I don’t want to live in a Reformed echo chamber either. This was one of the times I ventured out.

I think I found some helpful ideas in the midst of the trendiness. There were some challenging thoughts in the midst of the, from my perspective, theological weaknesses and problems in the book.

David Fitch is a professor at Northern Seminary (an American Baptist Seminary) and pastor of Vine Christian Community (affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance) and Peace of Christ Church in Illinois. I did not know of his denominational affiliations until I just looked it up seconds ago. Reading the book I thought he came from a more Anabaptist or Brethren background. He frequent refers to John Howard Yoder, for instance. There is also an emergent, or whatever it is called now, influence with guys like Scott McKnight and Leonard Sweet. To make matters interesting he tosses in some Herman Ridderbos. In other words, Fitch is kinda broadly evangelical with some Anabaptist leanings.

So, where to begin?

He wants us to practice 7 disciplines, as the subtitle notes, to shape the church for mission. He looks at each of these 7 disciplines in 3 contexts. His terminology is fairly idiosyncratic at this point so I’ll use more common terminology. First is the church gathered or public worship. Second is essentially missional communities where Christians are gathered but expect to invite non-Christians to join them on “our territory” for lack of a better term. Third is outreach where we enter “their territory” in the hopes of dialoguing, discussing and building relationships that may or may not result in them eventually being part of the church gathered.

He notes that often churches can focus primarily on the church gathered and fall into maintenance ministry. In reaction to this, they can focus primarily on outreach and fall into exhaustion. Churches should be committed to all three.

The 7 disciplines are: The Lord’s Table, Reconciliation, Proclaiming the Gospel, Being with “the Least of These”, Being with Children, the Fivefold Gifting (Eph. 4) and Kingdom Prayer. Nothing terribly novel here. Sadly, many churches have lost sight of these disciplines. When we lose sight of them, our churches become unhealthy and eventually die. For instance, too few churches seem actually committed to practicing reconciliation. Members just leave in a huff or conflict spirals into church splits. It starts with the little things, and so should reconciliation. We don’t just practice it among the church gathered, but in our missional communities and relationships outside of the church with neighbors, co-workers and people who share our hobbies and interests. I agree we should value children, and avoid the lure of glitzy programs in place of actually spending time with them.

So, in terms of big picture as well as some cultural critique there are some positives here. There were some good challenges.

But I also struggled while I read this book, largely because it was “broadly evangelical.”

It was trendy, and annoyingly so. Since the book is about presence, I can understand the very frequent use of the term. “Space” on the other hand…. It was nearly as frequent as the very “to be” (yes, some hyperbole). In one paragraph it was used 5 times, and frequently used 3 or 4 in a paragraph. I started circling it. Often the sentence was quite understandable if you removed the word or the clause around it. I feel like the Knights Who Til Recently Said Ni- “Stop saying the word!” As we will see in a moment, there were also some theological concerns connected to it.

His ecclesiology and sacramental theology were problematic. He speaks as if these disciplines are a set of new post-Christian sacraments. He uses the term sacraments in connection with them. My inner Inigo Montoya kept saying “I do not think it means what you think means.” Taking the concept of the Lord’s Table to missional communities and outreach is difficult for me to process. We should take hospitality into those arenas, but not an actual sacrament. I see a similar issue with the Fivefold Gifting. Does every missional group need each of the 5 gifts to work effectively? How does this work in terms of outreach? In his stories of sitting a McDonald’s it is just him, not with 4 other people exhibiting the other gifts. So this was confusing.

“The sacrament of being with children is a social sacrament that brings together the community in its withness with the child.” (pp. 139)

He repeatedly talked about miracles happening. Here comes Inigo again. As a seminary professor I expect him to use this loaded term technically, not simply for unexpected and extraordinary events that took place. In Scripture it is used to refer to healing of prolonged and disabling medical conditions without ordinary means (medicine), raising the dead, walking on water etc. It is not used of reconciling long-broken relationships or a homeless guy getting a job.

His view of God’s sovereignty is problematic. He says, in one place, that God is sovereign over all. But he sounds very much like an Arminian throughout the book. Often he notes God does not coerce or force his way. He may be arguing against a Calvinist strawman here since the Westminster Confession (and London Baptist Confession) affirm that while God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, he also does “no violence to the will of the creature.” Fitch does more than maintain human responsibility. He frequently speaks of “creating space” for God to work. That sounds like more than human responsibility to me, but that we really control whether God is at work or not. There is no sense of Him working with, without, above or against means. There is no sense of God initiating all this as the One who “works in us so we will and work according to His good purpose” (Phil. 2:11).

“He is still ultimately sovereign and in control of the world. But as for actually using his power and authority, he will not oppose our grabbing and pushing for control. He refuses to steamroll our wills in order to dictate his will in our lives and in the world. … God’s power can only work through us as we submit to him, let him work, open up space for him.” (pp. 168)

A text from Proverbs comes to mind, one that is quoted by both James and Peter in the context of our grabbing and pushing for control: God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. God does use his power and authority to actively oppose the proud. Yes, He is love and is patient but He’s also righteous and wise.

His polity is rather vague. He is clearly against hierarchy. This is good to a degree. But his ideas of mutual submission, particularly in the discipline of the Fivefold ministry, is quite unclear. Here is where Presbyterianism is a really good thing. We don’t believe in pastor as “pope” or bishop. We believe in the plurality of elders leading together in submission to Christ through His Word, and summarized in our Confession, in mutual submission to other churches in our presbytery. While not perfectly lived out (we are sinners!) is seems to be a good and biblical model based not just on an isolated proof-text but the whole of Scripture.

“For Jesus, authority in the kingdom would be exercised in no other way. There would be no hierarchy, no coercive power, no one person ruling over and above another person. His model, as we will discover, is mutual, shared leadership under one Lord.” (pp. 152)

Jesus’ point is not simply hierarchy, but motive. Church leaders are to be about Christ’s kingdom, not their own. Yes, there power is limited and there authority is to be exercised in love. But we see hierarchy in Heb. 13, 1 Peter 5, 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1 and Acts 15 among other places. Christians are told to obey their church leaders. Church leaders are overseers. It is how they fulfill this that is the issue.

As a result, this really is a book for mature leaders who can pick through the book, tossing out the suspect theology and trends while retrieving the good ideas that are present (and they are there). We should consciously work to maintain not only the church gathered, but missional communities of some sort and recall God’s presence with us even as we are present to the world in outreach. We should be committed to the Lord’s Table and hospitality, prayer, biblical leadership with stewardship, children (not just children’s programs that entertain), relationships beyond our socio-economic class, reconciliation, and gospel proclamation. When we do we are engaging the world, and engaging it positively, not just as a critic.

I will add that reviews say something not just about the book, but also the reviewer. While I can learn from broader evangelicalism (some Reformed people fall into the stereotypical arrogance and think they have nothing to learn from other parts of the church), I do evaluate it from my theological heritage rather than just accept whatever is said. I hope I am being fair in my criticisms.