Archive for July, 2016

Like many Americans (and many Christians) I have been shaking my head for the last year or so as the primaries have shaken the list of Presidential candidates down to (essentially) two. I feel very much in a quandary. Like many people I feel like I have to choose between two unsavory choices. Both main party candidates have baggage, and lots of it.

The Libertarian candidate is getting a bit more press than usual. I know more people than usual are considering voting for Johnson. While I agree with many elements of the libertarian ethos, particularly those about the size of government. In this regard I prefer the Libertarians to the Donkey and the Elephant. But there are the social issues, and I don’t have an affinity for laissez-faire morality. So the quandary continues.

I did consider playing the part of obstuctionist. Since Johnson doesn’t actually have a chance to win, voting for him my help him get enough votes to mess up the electoral college so that neither Hillary nor Donald win. That, however is hedging a huge bet.

So … what should I do? I should do what everyone should do whether they are a Christian or not. Here is what I think we should all do:

  1. Read the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There is plenty of rhetoric in the campaigns. Some promises I’ve heard would seem to be contrary to the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
  2. If you are a Christian (or other person of faith) read your Bible (or the book for your faith). Actually it is a bit late for that, but perhaps look up pertinent passages as needed to sort through the moral issues that present themselves.  This is because I want you to …
  3. Read their political platforms. After deciding to write this post, I saw Joe Carter’s post on the Gospel Coalition. He notes that Republicans vote according to the platform 89% of the time and Democrats 79% of the time.  This is a very good indicator of how they will vote, more so than the speeches candidates may give. Here are links for the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian platforms. They can be lengthy but don’t listen to Nancy Pelosi’s famous statement about the ACA: “You can read it when we pass it.” Know what you are getting yourself into!
  4. Weigh their platforms by your values. Don’t expect to agree with everything, or disagree with everything. For instance, I think most of us believe that the lives of minorities matter too. You will have to differentiate between meaningful/significant differences and less meaningful/significant differences. For instance, I’m not a one issue voter, but one of the significant issues for me is abortion. If a political party celebrates abortion, and wants to force everyone to pay for abortions (repealing the Hyde Amendment), that is huge for me. May not be huge for you.

In other words, don’t vote for a candidate so much as for a platform. Take out the “who do you like factor”. This isn’t a popularity contest. Take out the sex o f the candidate, whether your vote for or against someone because she is a woman it is sexist. Get beyond the sound bytes, and memes, and get to what they actually stand for, in writing. Maybe there will be less nose holding, and more voting for something instead of against someone.

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The Gospel-Centered Family: Becoming the Parents God Wants You to Be by Ed Moll and Tim Chester is another in a series put together by Tim Chester. I started reading this volume over 2 years ago, but when I packed up my office during the remodeling and expansion it sat in a box for over a year. When I unpacked in the new office it sat on a shelf until last week. I realized that I only had a few (short) chapters to read.

“Families offer security, acceptance, safety, love. But they also can be places of conflict, defiance, suspicion.”

It fits the layout of the other volumes in the series: 1 page intro based on a story, some Scripture to read, about 4 pages of material and a page of questions for reflection and ideas for action.

It is a very easy book to read, and the focus is on applying the material. Their goal is to help parents see themselves as under the rule of God through the gospel. He has made His enemies into His friends, His own children through the work of Christ.

“Parents are to model God’s good, liberating, just rule in the way they bring up their children. We’re to show that it is good to live under authority.”

While we want to see our children confess Christ, we can’t make them convert since regeneration is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. This provides us with responsibility and realistic hopes and expectations for our kids. The address the fact that grace and discipline are not opposed to one another since the Father disciplines us because He loves us. We discipline our kids because we love them. Often discipline is short-circuited by our selfish and sinful hearts. As a result parents need to live by grace too.

“The source of all actions- both good and bad- is the heart. And that means changing hearts matters more than controlling behavior.”

They remind us that children are a gift, something we forget when they won’t let us sleep in (or sleep period), won’t pick up anything, need new clothes etc. They provide some of the ways in which we can help our kids enjoy being in our families.

They move to a section about being a Word-centered family. We learn about grace from the Word. This also means we teach children to sort out the other voices they hear- friends, media etc. We also teach them to pray the Word.

“A family that’s turned inwards is not a gospel-centered family.”

The major contribution and what may be a big rebuke to many families is being a mission-centered family. Too many families are essentially ingrown (like churches). They idolize family instead of seeing family w/in the context of Genesis 1-2 and the creation mandate a.k.a mission. Instead of protecting your family through isolation, invite people into your family events, serve as a family, reach out as a family.

All in all this is a helpful little volume that many will find helpful.


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Tim Chester has a number of books in a Gospel-Centered series. The latest I have read is Gospel-Centered Marriage: Becoming the Couple God Wants You to Be. It follows the same formula of the other books. It is short and has very short chapters. It begins with a page relating a scenario in marriage to introduce the need for the material. There is some Scripture to read, a short chapter and then some questions for discussion.

In some ways I was reminded of my book (hopefully to be released this fall). I cover some of the same ground though I develop a different theological orientation, and in more depth. I probably try to say too much. Here he seems to say too little at times. Being succinct is generally a good thing. But at times things beg for qualification.

For instance, in the 3 chapters on sex in marriage he talks of serving one another by being willing to have sex even when you aren’t interested (addressed primarily to women). This is not really qualified, and while the problem of pressuring is mentioned, the emphasis clearly is on serving. There are legitimate reasons for a spouse to say “not today”, and they shouldn’t feel guilty about it. But that really isn’t addressed. Brevity can create problems at times.

He covers more than sex. He addresses love and submission, grace, conflict and resolution and forgiveness. He rightly places marriage in the context of mission (or creation mandate). There are some subjects that are not covered directly: leaving & cleaving, honoring dignity, and finances for instance.

The majority of the material is very good. I’m not sure if I would use it for pre-marital counseling. But it does serve as a good check-up and could be used by counselors to supplement counseling sessions by providing some instruction and aiding discussion. A chapter can be read in less than 15 minutes.

It is a worthwhile book to read, but remember that Tim Chester isn’t trying to say everything, or even close to it.

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One of my new study leave traditions is to read one of the volumes in Crossways’ series on theologians on the Christian life. Each volume looks at one man’s thought and tries to identify their contributions and understanding of how we are to live in Christ and in the world. So far I’ve read the volumes on John Newton (whom Sinclair Ferguson repeatedly called “perhaps the wisest pastor of the Church of England” in his series on Romans) and Herman Bavinck. This study leave it was Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards has long been a favorite of mine, in part because he was a favorite of R.C. Sproul’s. In seminary I took a class, The Theology of Edwards’ Sermons, with R.C.. We read so much of Edwards it may have ruined me for a spell. I haven’t read many of his sermons since then, but have gone back to volumes life The Religious Affections and Charity and Its Fruits.

Dane Ortund’s volume Edwards on the Christian Life boils Edwards down to being live to the beauty of God. He begins with the beauty of God, moves to regeneration as to how we become alive to God’s beauty and then focuses on its affects on us (love, joy, gentleness, obedience) as well as how we grow in our knowledge and experience of that beauty in Scripture, prayer and pilgrimage until finally our fullest experience of beauty in heaven.

This is one of the shorter volumes in the series which is ironic when we consider the great length of Edwards’ sermons and how complex his thought can be at times (The Freedom of the Will is a challenge).  In many ways this serves as an excellent primer on Edwards’ and is much shorter than Gerstner’s Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards.

In many ways Ortlund paints an attractive (beautiful?) portrait of the Christian life from Edwards’ view. Who can argue with love, joy and gentleness? What Christian doesn’t want to be loving, joyful and gentle? Yet we cannot separate these fruit of the Spirit from the Word of God, nor the growth in obedience as we live as pilgrims in this world. Yet, missing here is explicit reference to work and marriage. One of Ortlund’s critiques of Edwards was a neglect of the doctrine of creation in favor of redemption. This is one evidence of that neglect. Our life can’t be abstracted out of work and marriage for those are the places we most need the fruit of the Spirit (as well as church life).

One of the ironies that Ortlund points out is that while Edwards’ sermon series on justification was the means for the Northampton revival prior to the Great Awakening, Edwards’ focus seemed to be on sanctification, God’s work in us (subjective), rather than justification, Christ’s work for us (objective). Perhaps this is one reason why the sacraments aren’t mentioned much here or in Edwards’ sermons. This leads to another of Ortlund’s criticisms- that Edwards was overly introspective and more frequently called us to examine ourselves than to look to Christ. Assurance was focused more on Christ’s work in us than for us. He flipped the emphasis. His work for us is the primary source of assurance, with His work in us as the secondary source.

One thing that Edwards focused on that the church tends to neglect is regeneration in which God makes us alive to His beauty. He takes a Reformed position of regeneration preceding, indeed producing, faith rather than the common evangelical view of faith producing regeneration as if that is God’s response to our faith. We need to recapture this more biblical understanding that reflects God’s sovereign grace.

In his criticisms at the end of the book, Ortlund notes that Edwards did have some imbalance in even this. He failed to emphasize that unregenerate people are still made in God’s image, and are not as bad as they can be. They are still capable of civil righteousness even though they are morally incapable of delighting in Christ and the gospel. Additionally, he seems to give “too much” to regeneration this side of glorification. There is a great tension in the Scriptures. It is a total change (every aspect of our being is affected by regeneration) but the change is not total. As regenerate people we want to obey and we grow in obedience but we also feel more acutely our failures to obey. We still, or rather have begun to, struggle with sin. There seems to be a hint of over-realized eschatology in Edwards on this point. But I understand, I think, why. At times I’ve preached like that to get that point across that we have been changed and Christ is at work in us by the Spirit (see Titus 2). Too often we can minimize our need for obedience as a fruit of salvation, and our ability to obey. We live in this tension and it can be easy for us to err on one side or the other. At other times in ministry I note the admission by the Westminster Standards and Heidelberg Catechism that our progress in this life is meager. This is because some people so beat themselves up over their sin. This person needs to hear of Christ’s perfect imputed righteousness and to have more realistic expectations. The lazy and slothful Christian needs to hear the call to obedience. Edwards presumably thought he was preaching to the latter and not the former.

Ortlund puts together a very good volume. He sees Edwards as one worth imitating in many areas. He points out some of his imperfections in the final chapter. One was missing, and that one is particularly pertinent in our particular day. Despite his theological convictions, Edwards (like many in his day) owned slaves. Perhaps the reason why Ortlund doesn’t mention this is because Edwards doesn’t address this in his sermons or writings (at least what I’ve read). Edwards didn’t defend slavery, but did practice it. This should humble us because while we don’t explicitly defend sinful practices, we can certainly practice them (often without realizing their sinfulness). This is one big bone for us to spit out as we consider his life, and it would be great if Ortlund mentioned it.

All in all this is another solid contribution to the series. It should enrich not only my life but my preaching. I am reminded of the need to integrate them more fully.

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We really weren’t sure of what to make of the 2016 Red Sox coming out of Spring Training. There were a large number of unknowns to consider. It would have been a very good year, or yet another really bad year. So far it has been a good but frustrating year for the Red Sox. They are only 2 games out of first place, and in some ways it could be worse, but in others it could be better. That has been the story of this season so far.

The Kids Are Alright!

The Killer B’s have been producing for the Red Sox at a very good pace to say the least. JBJ had one of those months in May, but after a slow June is still hitting .296 with 22 doubles, 6 triples, 14 HRs and 55 RBI. Bogaerts has been mostly steady, and was hitting over .340 for a long time. He’s down to .329 with 22 doubles, 10 HR and 56 RBI. Betts started slowly but has come on strong lately to clock in at .304, 23 doubles, 4 triples, 18 HR and 59 RBI. Toss in 15 stolen bases and Betts is worthy of his All-Star selection. All of them are worthy of the All-Star selection. Their defense has also been excellent (aside from a few off games for Xander).

The Old Man Keep Rolling

Big Papi seems untouched by time. It is an illusion of sorts as he gets extra games off to protect his feet/Achilles’. But his production has been amazing: .332 with 34 doubles, 22 HR and 72 RBI. Toss in 2 SB and 48 walks.

These 4 guys have been largely responsible for a potent offense which has sustained the team, flashing dominance at times. Pedroia has had a very good year so far as well. He’s been healthy and hitting like he used to hit.

The Fair to Middling

Shaw started the season strong, but slowed down. He’s been largely underwhelming. We are not in Will Middlebrooks territory for a sophomore season. He’s had some nagging injuries but still has 48 RBI despite a .269 average and only 9 HRs (not enough for the mayor of Ding-Dong City).

Ramirez has done a good job at first base. Capable might be a better word. His defense will only make you forget how horrible he was in left field last year. Offensively, he has only shown glimpses of his former self at .288, 19 doubles, 8 HR and 48 RBI.

The big problem in the everyday line up has been left field. Brock Holt started strong, and the Red Sox are far above .500 with him starting in left. But he did have a slump in May followed by a concussion that kept him out much of June and sprained his ankle stealing a base shortly after coming back. This has created a revolving door in left. Blake Swihart took over, seemed to start hitting and promptly destroyed his ankle hitting a wall. They are pleased with his recovery but we probably won’t see him until August at best. Enter Chris Young who really started stroking the ball until he too fell victim to an injury: a hamstring. So left fielder #3 went down too. Currently Bryce Brentz, who played right field in the minors, has been playing the majority of left and hitting well in a small sample size. If this position can become consistent, things will be better for the Red Sox.

The injury to Holt, and the nagging injuries to Shaw and Ramirez as well as Pedroia’s extra days off due to age create a need for utility infielders. A number of minor leaguers have been called up to fill that role, but Dumbrowski finally made a trade for Aaron Hill. This should help stabilize the infield in case of injuries and for pinch hitting.

The Really Frustrating

Catching! Swihart started out of the gate and was sent down to AAA as soon as Vazquez was healthy enough to play most of the time. He wasn’t much better as pitchers started to wave him off too. Hanigan hurt himself catching Wright so we had to turn to Sandy Leon. Last year Sandy was a solid defensive pitcher and an offensive black hole. So far Sandy has been stroking the ball (small sample size) as our 4th catcher. When Hanigan was reactivated, it was Vazquez who got sent down to AAA, not Leon. In a CSNE report, he credits a change in his stance and better plate discipline- he’s not chasing pitches out of the zone.

Pitching! Steven Wright and Rick Porcello have been the outliers here. Wright won a spot on the All-Star team and his knuckle ball has been dominating except in rain or very humid conditions like in Texas. Porcello has had the occasional bad inning, but overall has been worthy of his contract.

Price has had some problems. He’s been fixing his delivery, had some really bad innings, and outings. He’s also had some good and outstanding outings. He’s been inconsistent which really isn’t David Price. We hope the real David Price shows up for the rest of the season because DD wants this team 1) in the playoffs and 2) deep into the playoffs. With this offense we just need a passable rotation. So far it hasn’t been.

Rodriquez got hurt and missed Spring Training. He has yet to get his mojo back and was sent to AAA to get his mechanics sorted out. He’s a question mark. Crazy Clay has been at his frustrating best, which is bad. He’s been sent to the bullpen, twice because he lacks confidence and gives up big innings, frequently. Too frequently. Especially for a guy so incredibly talented.

Joe Kelly is also incredibly talented but just can’t seem to get that whole starter thing down. The end of last season provided hope, sadly a false hope, as he has struggled this season with the exception of one start. He’s been to AAA on rehab assignments twice and has been banished to the bullpen.

The bullpen …. inconsistent. Carson Smith was injured early and had Tommy John surgery which really messed things up. Then with large leads the wrong guys were pitching late so Kimbrel didn’t get the work he needed. That led to some non-save situations mishaps and even some blown saves. At other times he’s been dominating. He’s currently on the DL after knee surgery after a mishap shagging fly balls. Uehara is just plain old and can’t be overused. Tazawa has been over-used in the last few seasons and currently has some shoulder issues we hope don’t become a big issue.  Barnes has pitched well, but trusting him with a vital role is still a risk due to his lack of experience. Any number of guys have been rotated through from AAA to little or no avail.

In deep need to save the pen, DD traded for the D’Backs closer Brad Ziegler. He should help stabilize things until Kimbrel is ready to pitch in late August. To save both the rotation and the pen, DD dropped the bomb by trading much-heralded prospect Anderson Espinoza for Padres’ All-Star starter Drew Pomeraz. It has risks. Drew has yet to throw 200 innings, and is setting new career highs in innings pitched with each start. He was helped by the hitters’ hell they Padres play in. He is under control for 2 more seasons though. This year his job is to help the Sox get to the playoffs. Hopefully Price, Porcello, Wright and Rodriquez can carry you then. Espinoza has been struggling this year, and we see that prospects don’t always pan out. Guys with great stuff don’t always become great pitchers (see Crazy Clay and Joe Kelly).


John Farrell drives many of us crazy. Early on it was pinch hitting Young for Shaw. Shaw was hitting well at the time, including against lefties. So it made no sense. He leaves Wright in when it rains, knowing it destroys his bread & butter pitch. He makes this really strange moves on a consistent basis. Thanks to DD he no longer has to play the high priced guys, but can play the best guys, but his in-game moves leave many people scratching their heads, frequently. If we are scratching our heads, are the players? I’m ready for him to be gone, but the Red Sox are more successful than they have been in since winning the World Series.

What will the rest of the season bring? Depends on health, and whether or not Price and Rodriquez can be the pitchers we know they can be.

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On a previous vacation I read Shot All to Hell by Mark Lee Gardner which was about the final robbery of the James-Younger Gang. Having enjoyed it greatly, this year I decided to read his book To Hell on a Fast Horse: The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett.

This is a slight misnomer since Billy the Kid is dead by page 175 of 260. The last 90 or so pages deal with the remainder of Garrett’s life with the positives and negatives of having been the one who killed Billy the Kid.

It is also appropriate in that Billy, a horse and cattle thief and murderer, was dispatched without notice and apparently unrepentant. To adapt a popular phrase, he who lives by the gun shall die by the gun. Garrent, an atheist, was ambushed and killed, also apparently unrepentant. I don’t think Gardner intends to make a theological statement, but does nonetheless.

It is a good read and I enjoyed it. Billy the Kid is largely a ghost prior to the Lincoln County War. We can’t even be positive of his given name. Gardner tracked it all down as best he could. He portrays Billy as an oddly charismatic person for whom ordinary life found no allure. He was content to steal from others, manipulate others, and if he couldn’t charm his way out, kill others. Like the book on the James-Younger Gang, I thought it would make the basis for a very interesting movie, as long as they don’t give it the Young Guns treatment.

Pat Garrett was another man who found no allure in the ordinary life. He ended up with a badge and developed the reputation of a man hunter. He was a gambler and adulterer who, while parlaying his fame into high positions including a tax collector on the border under Theodore Roosevelt (perhaps I’ll read Gardner’s book on the Rough Riders next year), died deeply in debt. He was a polarizing man who appeared to have a hard time maintaining friendships. Some, based on rumors, thought him cowardly for never giving Billy a “fair shot”. Would you give such a man a “fair shot”?

This the story of two men on different sides of the law, but the same side of sin & grace. If you have any interest in the old West, this would be a great read for you. Gardner is not trying to glamorize these men, but does acknowledge our nation’s propensity to do that. It has done it with Billy the Kid, and he mentions that one of the biographies of Billy was found in the back seat of Bonnie and Clyde’s car after they were shot to death.

These two books did make me wonder about the influence of the Civil War on this period in history. It was very clear in the book about the James-Younger Gang since they fought in the war as guerilla fighters. The connection is less explicit in the events surrounding Billy the Kid. There may be more of a “spirit” that affected the post-war generation. Some of the minor figures in this book served. But there was a brutality that could not help but affect the larger society, particularly those who moved west. It makes me wonder about our society today, and the effect the Post-9/11 conflicts have had on us. Is that part of why we see an increase in violence? I don’t know but it is worth considering as a part of the picture (there is also the reality of Romans 1:18ff that weighs heavily).

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While on vacation/study leave, I typically read a book for personal growth. This year I chose Slogging Along in the Paths of Righteousness Psalms 13-24 by Dale Ralph Davis. In light of current events is was clearly appropriate.

I forgot I had this book when preaching through this section of the Psalms recently. To my congregation, I apologize. This book most likely would have made those sermons better, even if just a bit.

Davis has written a number of helpful Old Testament commentaries. This is not a commentary on the Psalms, but seems to have been taken from sermons or lessons on the Psalms. As a result, this is not an academic book. It is not highly technical. The occasional discussion of Hebrew is easily understood. He has many understandable illustrations to help along the way.

This is his second volume on the Psalms. The first, The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life, covers the first 12 Psalms. I hope he continues this series because the first two volumes have been quite encouraging.

The point of these Psalms, illustrated in the title is that we may walk along paths of righteousness but they do not lead us through a righteous world. We walk through a fallen, sinful world that hates the righteous. We walk through a world that rejoices in sin, at least of particular kinds depending on your time and place. We walk in a world filled with injustice. This week we’ve seen a presidential candidate not charged after repeatedly breaking the law because she supposedly didn’t intend to, even though she has been less than honest in interviews, hearings and with law enforcement. We’ve seen a black man being restrained by officers shot and killed by them. We’ve seen another black man pulled over for a broken tail light, presumably obeying the law and officer, still get shot 4 times with a 4 year-old in the back seat. We’ve seen officers ambushed or attacked at a protest in Dallas. We’ve seen law restricting abortion struck down. I just can’t go on or I’ll be hear all day. But this is the world in which we live.

This is also the world in which the Psalmists wrote and lived. Walking the paths of righteousness is not easy. The Psalms continually point us back to God as Redeemer, Defender and more.

Davis understands the Psalms, and communicates the Psalms well. This is book worth reading in these days when social media, on top of the media, keep putting these ugly realities in our face. You don’t have to walk in the path of unrighteousness, if you are in Christ. We have hope in this world, in Christ.

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Mid-Life Crisis.

Often this conjures up images of old men in sports cars, newer & younger trophy wives, and perhaps even trips around the world in an effort to “find oneself.”

I’m not talking about any of those things. I can’t afford a sports car, I love my wife and kids and I know who I am.

When you’re 50, I suppose it is normal to look at you life and go, “this is it?”

Things didn’t turn out quite the way I thought they would. Academically I was a 5%er. Years ago I had plans, dreams: successful pastor, successful author, Ph.D. and shaper of young men for ministry.

The reality isn’t quite any of that. I’ve been a largely faithful pastor of an average church hoping to break the 100 “barrier” in the near future.But I’m already seeing that ministry looks different than it does with 50-60 people. I’ve survived a building project, but thought the church would be bigger by now. It is a me thing? As a sinner, is there something I’m not doing that I should, or am doing that I shouldn’t? Is there something about my personality that rubs too many people the wrong way? I’m neurotic, so I have these thoughts even though I know I can’ t be all things to all men (and women) at the same time.

I hope that my first book will be published this year.  It has been an excruciatingly long and painful process. I have this fear that I’ll sell about 100 copies, and I’ll never get the chance to write again even though I have a few good ideas I want to work on (and even a few books written though on obscure subjects).

I love my kids but there is no indication that any of them is an outlier academically, athletically, artistically or any other way, although they sure are beautiful. My kids are amazingly average (and I’m not pushing them to excel- one perfectionist in the family is enough).

My mid-life crisis seems more about the disparity between my dreams as a younger man and my reality as an older man. Largely the problem is my dreams, the dreams born of a younger, more arrogant man.

The road to humility is not chosen, but thrust upon you by One who loves you too much to leave you in your arrogance. He opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore He makes me humble to pour grace out upon me. Humility is born of the failure and frustration of life. Even the ordinariness of life if you start with a big head.

So, what am I to do? I’m called to find myself right where I am, in my marriage and family, in the church I serve. Christ has placed me there and is sanctifying me there. I’m not to run away, and have no inclination to (most days- sometimes the kids make we want to run away).

Years ago I had an electric guitar. A candy apple red Ibanez Roadstar with a Floyd Rose locking tremelo, Seymour Duncan humbucking pick ups and 5 position switch. I left it behind when I went to seminary. I didn’t play much guitar while in seminary after a rather humiliating experience when there where no other guitars to mask my mistakes. My plan was to return home after seminary, and that never happened. Rather than bring the guitar to Florida, I needed money and sold it to a friend.

I’ve been thinking about that guitar. In the intervening years I’ve been playing guitar in our worship services and gotten better. Though maybe it is my playing that runs people off. I wondered if my friend still had it and would sell it back to me.

Well, I have her back. My mid-life crisis will be shaking the house with electric guitar. Just another way to embarrass my kids. It’s time to master those power chords.

I forgot how heavy it was.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Ecclesiastes 8

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Visual Theology by Tim Challies and Josh Byers is an attempt to present basic doctrine for the purpose of growth in godliness using not only the written word but also diagrams so people can see the connections that Challies and Byers want them to see.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive systematic theology. It is meant to help you “see and understand the truth about God”. They avoid academic issues but focus on the issues and doctrines that promote godliness.

I purchased the book for two reasons. These reasons direct my review of the book. The first was an interest in materials for discipleship, particularly of men. Many of the men I work with are very busy (and often have tons of books already in their queue). So the prospect of a relatively short book that has diagrams is appealing.

I also wanted access to the diagrams, or at least some of them, for SS lessons since I often use Power Point. Some of the diagrams are quite helpful. I found some of them to be “over-stimulating” or too busy. Some just didn’t connect with me. Overall the diagrams are a help to the book.

I don’t envy Challies & Byers, or their editor. I’m sure there were difficult questions about what doctrines to discuss, and which ones to leave out.  In the introduction they lay out the purpose and methodology. They offer the material in four sections: Grow Close to Christ, Understand the Work of Christ, Become Like Christ, and Live for Christ. Under the first they cover the Gospel, Identity and Relationship. The second covers the Drama, or Story of the Bible, and Doctrine. The third covers sanctification: putting off the old life and putting on the new life. The last section hits Vocation, Relationships and Stewardship.

What isn’t here is any meaningful discussion of doctrines like the incarnation and theories of the atonement, which I think would be considered central to “the work of Christ”. But there are topics often missing in discussions of discipleship,  like vocation and stewardship. This meant there were times I was frustrated, and times when I was grateful they addressed something. It is not meant to be a theology book so much as a book about how to grow which includes some theology. So, in a sense, the book’s title doesn’t really help you understand what the book is about.

Much of what is written is good, if perhaps too brief. Challies is part of the neo-Calvinist movement. He’s Calvinistic in his soteriology (doctrine of salvation), but baptistic in his understanding of ecclesiology and sacraments. I suspect he is also in the New Covenant Theology camp based on some recommended books, and from his blog. As a result, at times there were ideas I thought were incomplete, lacking or just too baptistic.  In terms of the latter, on the first page of chapter 1 in discussing our need for regular reminders of the gospel we see this:

“The reason we celebrate the Lord’s Supper is to remind ourselves of what Christ has done and what he has promised to do.”

That is certain one of the reasons, but not the only reason (which is implied by the definite article). It communicates a memorial view of the sacrament that I find less than fully biblical. It is not less than that, but thankfully so much more. I found a similar sentiment later in the book as though “take and eat” and “take and drink” are unimportant. We need Christ like we need bread and wine. In his section on “ordinances” (pp. 25-26) this plays out in a focus on us, and then Christ in the sacraments. Historically, Reformed Theology has pointed to Christ and then us in the sacraments. The objective is the grounding the subjective elements. Instead They focused on the subjective elements first. The real issue in the sacraments is union with Christ, not the pledge of a good conscience. God’s work produces any work on my part, even in the sacraments. The section ends saying “In the celebration, Christ is present, you are present, and your shared relationship grows.” In the margin I wrote, “So, what does that mean?” It is a profound but largely unexplained statement.

In an otherwise very good chapter on identity, they discuss justification. They don’t do it justice: “You have been declared innocent.” Not less than that, but more. We have been declared righteous!! Innocent people still need positive righteousness. Merely innocent people aren’t accepted by God, righteous people are. I don’t think I’m nitpicking. This is something young Christians need to know precisely because it is intended to shape their life in the face of God. I am always and only acceptable because of Christ and His righteousness imputed to me. It is humbling and yet provides confidence. It frees me from my own paltry attempts at self-righteousness.

One disconcerting note was a relative absence of the Holy Spirit and His work, particularly in sanctification. This shows up in the chapter on the Bible, and the chapters on putting off and putting on. Their thesis on page 53 is “The Bible makes you godly.” To explain they say “To be godly is to be God-like in your character. The Bible enables you to live according to God’s standards and to reflect his character.” I wrote two things in the margin: “What does this mean?” and “Necessary but insufficient for sanctification.” The Holy Spirit makes us godly, and He uses the Bible to do it. The power (what I’d mean by “enables”) is the Spirit. He is the engine car to the Bible as tracks. This is fodder for the “radical grace” guys. Clarity matters, and sometimes the quest to be succinct means important distinctions are left out, distinctions that can create other big problems down the road.

Nothing downright heretical here. Just some troubling imprecision that would lead me to not accept these answers on an ordination exam. If given to a younger Christian, I would strongly suggest they read it with a more mature Christian who can fill in some of the gaps.

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