Archive for the ‘Evangelism’ Category

Scottish pastor-theologian Eric Alexander has said this about Our Sovereign Saviour: The Essence of the Reformed Faith by Roger Nicole: “I could not speak too highly of this book.”  That is an apt summary of my sentiments as well.

All the more reason for me to wonder why this delightful little book is so unavailable.  It seems downright difficult to find in the places it should be easy to find.  Dr. Nicole is one of the pre-eminent theologians of the 20th century.  In the words of ‘King Arthur’, “You make me sad.”  But to the book!

In 184 pages Dr. Nicole summarizes and explains the distinctives of the Reformed Faith, and its implications on other doctrines.  Here is a chapter outline:

  1. The Meaning of the Trinity.  He establishes the 3 truths we hold in balance, and how the various heresies exalt one truth at the expense of the others.
  2. Soli Deo Gloria– or to God Alone be the glory.  This is a chapter on the glorious extent of God’s sovereignty, including individuals and the Church.
  3. Predestination and the Divine Decrees.  He explores what is meant, and not meant, by God’s sovereignty.  It does not mean we are puppets, for as the Westminster Confession notes, “nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures (III, 1).”  God ordains all things in keeping with our nature/character and how he plans to work to change our character.  He also briefly explains & critiques supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism.
  4. Calvinism: the Five Points.  He briefly explains the 5 main ideas of Calvinism, and dispells some common misunderstandings based on poor terminology.
  5. Particular Redemption.  He explains and defends the doctine of definite atonement, summarizing John Owen’s arguments from The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
  6. The Doctrines of Grace in the Teachings of Jesus.  He shows that these are not doctrines of John Calvin, or Paul but taught by Jesus Himself, particularly in the Gospel According to John.
  7. Reconciliation and Propitiation.  He explores the use of these terms in Scripture and how they fit best with an understanding of definite atonement.
  8. Justification: Standing by God’s Grace.  He explores the 3 main illustrations of justification in Scripture to understand it fully.  In this chapter he mentions students who ‘made a virtue of being poorly attired’ hoping they learned to dress better before candidating for a position.  Sadly, I was one of these immature slobs who thought so little of themselves.
  9. Sanctification: Growing unto God.  He explains what it means negatively (mortification) and positively (vivefication).  Whereas justification is something done for us, sanctification is something done in us.
  10. Predestination and the Great Commission.  He shows, primarily through the example of William Carey, that election and evangelism are not at odds with one another if properly understood.  He defends the free offer of the gospel from misunderstandings.
  11. When God Calls.  Shows from God’s call of Paul and Barnabas that God is mission-minded in a way that ought to challenge us all to become engaged.  Without using the term, he builds a quick case for missional living.
  12. Freedom and Law.  He addresses the issue of what freedom really is, against some silly misconceptions, and how the Law fits into freedom.
  13. Prayer: the Prelude to Revival.  He addresses prayer as an established means for revival.  He also talks about some fundamentals of prayer in relation to sovereignty.
  14. The Final Judgment.  He defends the doctrine of the final judgment.

In these chapters you find typical Dr. Nicole.  Though humble and irenic, you find him quite knowledgable and more than capable of dispelling any misunderstandings or strawmen opposed against the truth.  He is brief, not laboring his points.  He uses illustrations from everyday life, and history.  I’m not sure if he’s ever seen a movie.  But this means that the book is not bound in time unnecessarily.  How I wish he wrote more!  This is a book that often moved me to prayer- gratitude and petition.  That is what good theology does.  This is a book that can encourage those who understand the distinctives of the Reformed Faith.  It is also a great, winsome book for those who do not yet understand and embrace them. 

Here are a few choice quotes:

“Thus, the sovereignty of God immediately crushes man as sinner into the very just of the ground, for he is unable to rise in God’s presence but must be the object of his fearful condemnation. … When we talk about the sovereignty of God we emphasize the sovereignty of God the Holy Spirit who works in the lives of men and does not await some consent that would be coming fron unregenerate sinners but who himself transforms at the very depths of their personality lives that are disrupted, distorted and destroyed by sin.”

“There is no circumstance of life that should be totally disconcerting, because God has ordained it and is at the back of it.  His loving and gracious purpose is fulfilled even in the events which may appear quite contrary to our wishes.”

“The grace of God does not function against our wills but is rather a grace which subdues the resistance of our wills.  God the Holy Spirit is able to accomplish this.”

“Authentic Calvinism has always confessed particular redemption and at the same time insisted on the universal offer of the gospel.”

“God cannot punish a sin twice.  He cannot punish it once in the person of the Redeemer and then punish it again later in the person of the perpetrator.”

“The Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  He is not going to allow his sheep to wander away.  That, in fact, is expressly stated.  He gives them eternal life.  They shall never perish.”

“It is only when we consider how grievous a thing sin is and how greatly displeased God is with it, that we are in a position to understand what it means to be reconciled to him.”

“The very fact that you know this person- the very fact that you are in contact with this person, the very fact that there is a burden upon your heart for this person- ought to be an indication that quite possibly, even probably, he or she has been picked by God.”

“There is no Christian who can say, ‘I am not a missionary.’  There are places that you can reach that nobody else can reach.  There  are people for whom you can work that nobody else can invite in the same way in God’s name.  We have a task to accomplish.”

“What people fail to understand is that the spiritual laws that God has established are equally binding. … They think they can violate the moral laws that God has established at the root of the universe and not bear the consequences. … To disregard the laws of God is not to achieve freedom; it is to sink into futility.  It is to break oneself against the structure of the world in which we live.”

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The final section of Dan Allender’s The Healing Path calls us out of our individual journey to embrace the redemptive community.  Though God works in us as individuals, he also brings us into relationship with one another so we can growth through mutual ministry, and engage in mission.  We are not on the healing path for purely selfish reasons, but to love God and love our neighbor as Jesus has loved us.  This last section calls us out of our narcissism.  This is a message far too many of us need to hear.

“A radical life begins with the premise that I exist for God and for his purposes, not my own.  … A radical life has eyes and ears for the deepest purposes of God.  Yet to live for his purposes it not to forsake the passions and burden of our daily life; rather, we are to give them to him for his glory.”

The first is Christianity, as well expressed in the first answer of the Westminster Shorter Catchism; Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.  The second is the kingdom of me, where God exists to fulfill my agenda.  And when we are suffering, it easily becomes all about our agenda.

I often talked about this in my ministry at Good Shepherd/Cornerstone.  God is not asking us to add more to our list of things to do so much as seeing those things as part of his purposes to redeem people.  We purposefully & creatively engage the people with whom we interact that we might enter into their stories.


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Sunday afternoon I sat on the back porch to continue reading The Reason for God while enjoying a rainstorm.  The chapter, Religion and the Gospel, that I read first is probably one of the best chapters of a book I have read in some time.  No, he didn’t say anything new, but the way he expressed it was fresh.  It didn’t hurt that he illustrated all this with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which I’ve been wanting to read for some time) and Les Miserables (one of my favorite stories, the musical excepted).

The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me.  This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time.  It undermines both swattering and sniveling.  I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone.

This is the existential reality that should be produced as we more fully grasp the objective reality of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.  I am humbled because it has nothing to do with any merit on my part, quite the opposite actually.  But it also frees me from the game of “one up-manship” that frequently gets played out.  We no longer have to validate our existence and prove ourselves.  We become free from the clamoring of our flesh (sinful nature) which wants to be validated and glorifed, to prove its worth and superiority over other people.

His grace both humbles me more deeply than religion can (since I am too flawed to every save myself through my own effort), yet is also affirms me more powerfully than religion can (since I can be absolutely certain of God’s unconditional acceptance).

It is only grace that frees us from the slavery of self that lurks even in the middle of morality and religion.  Grace is only a threat to that illusion that we are free, autonomous selves, living life as we choose.

The Christian message is that we are saved not by our record, but by Christ’s record.

Keller explained biblical and theological concepts in everyday language.  He did not use the language of theology.  He never said “justification” and yet he proclaimed and explained it.  He never said “substitution” or “imputation” and yet proclaimed and explained them.  He is not speaking to “us”, the church so much as those who are not in the church, or who are trapped in religion without realizing it.

These are the things we need to preach to ourselves everyday that we might be both humbled and lifted up.  We are humbled because we continue to wander from God and cannot save ourselves from the slightest sin.  We are lifted up because Christ is more than able to save us and restore us.  We need not fall into despair but look to a Great Savior of big sinners.

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This will be my final post on Revival & Revivalism, I think.  Although this is a very long book, clocking in at about 400 pages, it is a very good book that blends historical narrative and theology to tell the story of a major shift in American Evangelicalism.  It was more than a pragmatic shift, but a theological shift.  Iain Murray also notes some of the cultural shifts that paved the way for the other shifts.  Christianity is not isolated from the surrounding culture, but often begins to echo it, sometimes in very negative ways.

In the 12th chapter Murray follows the Baptists in Transition.  Their experience was quite different from that of the Presbyterians and Methodists.  The Presbyterians experienced some difficulties and conflict with the new measures and new theology.  But many of those for the new measures and theology ended up leaving for a less confessional expression of the church.  The Methodists easily embraced the new measures and didn’t agree with the old theology from the get go.  The Baptists prior to this time were largely Calvinistic.  This transition left Baptists in America largely Arminian and often supportive of the new measures popularized by Finney.

One of the things that struck me about the early American Baptists was there “catholicity of spirit”.  They emphasized common ground with other Christians, rather than the differences.  Murray notes that a Presbyterian minister preached at Richard Furman’s funeral, and no one batted an eye.  Or that J.P. Boyce wasn’t attacked for calling the Westminster Confession “our confession”.

The thing that shouldn’t surprise any of us is that they arguments used against Calvinism then are the same as those used to argue against the resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC today.

1. Calvinism and Hyper-Calvinism were confused and considered as one.

2. Calvinism was viewed something that stifled evangelism and revival.

The first is a sign of either ignorance or an uncharitable spirit.  The ‘strawman’ argument is unloving to the brother with whom you disagree.  The second argument is clearly disproved by history, as Murray repeately shows in his book.

With regard to the new measures, the conflict was not regarding the use of means, but which means.  The old theology, largely Calvinistic, argued that God appointed the means to evangelism and revival in His Word.  We are to use those means and trust Him to fulfill His purposes in our generation.  The effectiveness of those means is under His control, not our.  The new theology, supporting the new measures, placed the efficacy of means under our control, not His.  The new measures also used new means that are not mandated by Scripture.  There is nothing inherently wrong with many of those practices, but to mandate them, or use them as the signposts of revival is wrong.  To rely on them rather than God to produce revival (or treat them like magic, God will send it if we do these things) is wrong.

These new measures led to some other new practices from which Baptistic groups like the SBC today have been unable to entangle themselves despite the best efforts of their Calvinistic contingent.  They took a low view of membership, often baptizing people immediately upon walking the aisle.  People were not well instructed and examined to see the validity of their profession of faith.  Many soon wandered away after the excitment was gone.  It is not uncommon today to find SBC churches (and some Presbyterian churches too, to be fair) with rolls that far exceed attendence.  Low expectations of membership runs rampant today.  These are human problems, not Baptist problems.  But they find a welcome home in many Baptist churches because of this transition in both theology and practice.

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I have been making my way through The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller since Saturday.  I’m only through part 1 in which he looks at the objections commonly raised against Christianity.  Keller utilizes a kindly Van Tillian approach.  Greg Bahnsen, for instance, would often use a scorched-earth, win at all costs, type of approach that made many Christians rejoice, but left unbelievers feeling totally minimized and victimized.  Keller models a kind hearted manner, one which is willing to acknowledge where those he disagrees with have a valid point.  He also models a method of gently showing them their own “defeater beliefs”, beliefs that are just as unproveable as those they criticize (self-defeating) or that borrow intellectual or moral capital from Christianity (or at least theism).

The chapters are relatively brief, but have plenty of footnotes.  One interesting thing he often does is bring in the ideas of other unbelievers to undermine the ideas of the most scathing skeptics.  Keller’s goal is always engagement to lovingly persuade.  He wants people to examine their own beliefs (especially their presuppositions) and see if they measure up the criteria of proof they demand of ours.  His goal is not to pummel people into submission.

Toward the end of the section a light bulb went on.  I felt like saying, “Steve, you fool.”  Tim Keller talks about a Stepford God who will never say anything that upsets your intellectual or moral applecart.  It is built on an idea found earlier:

“For sake of argument, let’s imagine that Christianity is not the product of any one culture but is actually the transcultural truth of God.  If that were the case we would expect that it would contradict and offend every human culture at some point, because human cultures are ever-changing and imperfect.  If Christianity were the truth it would have to be offending and correcting our thinking at some place.”

In thinking about culture and Christianity before, I noticed that our cultural discomfort points to the cultural idols.  What I mean is that when a Christian is uncomfortable with an aspect of culture if often points to an idol of that culture.  For instance, I am uncomfortable with sexual immorality (I pretty much endorsed it before becoming a Christian), and it points to how our culture has made an idol or savior of sexual immorality.  Freedom is said to be found in freedom of sexual expression.

In talking to someone about Christianity, their discomfort with a particular biblical teaching (or their misunderstanding of it) reveals their idols (this was the lightbulb moment).  God is not a Stepford God, affirming all their progressive and civilized notions.  Rather, He insults them and they are truly offended.  Rather than face the fact that they might have wrong notions, they argue that the Bible is wrong, misguide, archaic and out-dated.  John Frame, in his more technical Apologetics to the Glory of God, calls this the flight from accountabilty.

These flights from accountability show where that person is seeking life.  For example, some people really find complementarianism (male headship) offensive and somehow demeaning to woman (when used to abuse and dehumanize women it is evil).   They have revealed that they seek life in the modern notion of ‘equality’ not just of essence but of function.  So when God talks about authority figures, which impinges on our functional equality, they become angry.

We should not do battle on that particular issue, but deal with what Keller calls the “deep end of the pool”.  We are not trying to convert them to a particular belief of Christianity, but to Christ Himself.  Should they be so converted, they may begin to realize that they have been enslaved to falsehood.  But we can contextualize our discussion by affirming the fact that God made men & women together in His image.  Both have dignity!  We have met them halfway as far as truth is concerned.  Now let’s look at the Creator and how He seeks to restore what we have destroyed by our rebellion.

Tim Keller consistently models this approach.  More Christians need to read this book, perhaps we might more consistently ensure that the Cross is the offense they find, not a peripheral view or how we try to whack them over the heads as verbal opponents.  And if we cannot do that (yes, we are sinners) perhaps offering them the book would be helpful.

Update: Joshua Harris also liked the Stepford God idea.

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My copy of Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Yes, I am a bit behind on new books. This happens when you don’t have a book allowance anymore. I had to pick up some resources to do some pre-marital counseling and decided to pick it up.   WTS Books has a reader’s guide available on PDF.  I am looking forward to spending some time learning from someone with far more experience than me in this area (among others).

I have to travel out of town for business next weekend. Flight time should give me some time to read good chunks of it. So I hope to have some thoughts about it when I get home.
I also need to go buy a notebook/journal. I want a place to put down my thoughts on ministry & more. I want to make some of my responses to things like Keller’s work on contextualization, gospel incarnation & communication, and thoughts from various sermons & sermon lectures. I have these ideas stuck on post-it notes in my office. Not quite the most efficient way. And I don’t want it on computer. I have too much on computer and would like to spend LESS time on the computer. It is too easy for me to feed my spirit of procrastination on the computer. A handy notebook could go with me anywhere to get those brilliant and not-so-brilliant thoughts down.

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The laptop is in the shop, so my on-line time is limited to office time.  While I’m in the office the next few weeks I’m working on sermons.  I’ll be preaching on the “presbyterian” son, actually the 2 ways to run from God (yes, I’ve been listening to a lot of Tim Keller as I’ve driven to supply pulpits the last 3 Sundays).  I see Winter Haven as an older son kind of town.  People are generally good and decent and this obscures their perception of any need for Christ and His righteousness.  But we tend to preach as if they are all reckless, rebellious sons.  Perhaps this is why the Reformed churches here are not bearing a whole lot of fruit (in addition to the consumer-mindset-satisfying churches).  There are a few other projects I’m working on as well, which limit my time in the office.  One of these days I’ll replace the resistor for the A/C fan in my car too.

Posts will come, as time permits for the next week or so when the Geek Squad either fixes the laptop or decides to replace it.  I say “Praise God for extended warrenties!”

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