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As you read the afterward, you get the sense that writing this book was like building Swamp Castle. The first two manuscripts burned down, fell over and fell into the swamp. But Tim and Kathy Keller had a contract for a devotional based onĀ  Psalms.

The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the PsalmsBut they did not give up, and eventually there was a manuscript that stood. That manuscript became The Songs of Jesus.

Also in the afterward, the Kellers give credit to Derek Kidner, Alec Motyer and Tremper Longman for their commentaries on the Psalms.

As the title indicates, the goal is to see these as songs by and about Jesus. They are by Jesus because we see in 1 Peter 1 that Spirit of Messiah was at work in the prophets, including those who wrote these songs. They are about Jesus in light of Jesus’ instruction to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The Kellers keep bringing us back to Jesus on a daily basis.

IGod's Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbsn 2017 I read their devotional on Proverbs, God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life. Reading The Songs of Jesus after that may have been a mistake. I found God’s Wisdom to be an excellent devotional. I had high expectations for his devotional. It didn’t meet them.

That doesn’t make it a bad devotional. There is some very good material in it. Often the devotions were shorter than expected. There was frequently lots of white space at the bottom of the page. The page isn’t very big either. I, for one, was wanting more from this devotional.

So, if you buy both of these devotionals you might be wisely served to read the one on Psalms before the one on Proverbs.

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I was a reluctant Rush fan.

There were kids like Johnny Atkins in our school, sporting the 2112 and Moving Pictures t shirts. But most of them seemed to be among the pot heads. I heard Rush on the radio but like Erica Goldberg, I just didn’t get it. Yet.

John Graves (aka Jolly) prevailed upon me about the time Signals came out. Many of the songs were about things I thought about or expressed the longings and frustrations of my suburban teen heart. I was hooked.

Rush onstageI went as far back as Permanent Waves in terms of my enjoyment of their music. 2112 was just not my bag. Grace Under Pressure, despite the rather muddy mix, was also filled with great songs. I listened to them quite a bit. I began to appreciate their musicianship.

My favorite drummer remained (and remains) Ian Paice of Deep Purple fame. But Neil Peart was one of the great drummers. He was one of the first with the massive sets and he made great use of it. He was perfect for a power trio. He continued to learn and grow as a drummer, picking up new styles to incorporate into the music even within the last decade.

He wasn’t just the drummer but the chief lyricist. I didn’t get into his mythological beginnings. When he started to address contemporary views I was engaged. It was intelligent progressive rock.

Somehow Jolly and I never saw Rush live. I’m not sure why. I guess they didn’t tour in our senior year when we saw Rainbow, Yes, Van Halen, and the Moody Blues. I never saw them live, which I regret.

After I became a Christian, Peart’s lyrics began to reflect his own atheism and not just Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I began to be turned off to Rush’s music around time of Roll the Bones.

Two things happened.

First, I got robbed. My entire CD collection with the exception of what was in the CD changer was gone.

Then CavWife and I decided to adopt. My vinyl collection was offered up to raise funds. I no longer had my stereo equipment anyway.

This meant I didn’t have any Rush music left.

About 5 years ago I saw Moving Pictures as a Black Friday special on Amazon. Such an incredible album. Then I started picking up live albums on iTunes. I love working out to Rush live. YYZ is just a tour de force. The Grace Under Pressure live album in particular brings back plenty of memories of home and growing up. I remember old friends that I miss and times we had together.

I considered going to see them during the last few tours. But when you have 4 kids, it can be tough to justify that ticket price.

Now the reality sinks in, they are done and I’ll never get to see them live. A man’s life is over. He was a man who brought joy to many with his incredible musical skills and his intelligent lyrics. Yet, some of those lyrics, in my opinion, were the product of a darkened understanding filled with futile thinking of a man led astray leading others astray. And so I feel sad for him, not just for his fans.

 

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Song of Songs (Reformed Expository Commentary)About 4 years ago I taught a SS lesson on The Song of Songs. One of the resources I used was Iain Duguid’s new (at the time) commentary on the Song in the Tyndale Old Covenant Commentary series. It was one of the more helpful commentaries I used. At the time, there was also notice of his Reformed Expository Commentary series volume on the Song. I had hoped it would come out in time, but it hadn’t.

When the volume was finally published, I bought a copy. While on vacation/study leave I decided to read for reasons I’ll lay out in the follow-up post.

The Reformed Expository Commentary series is rooted in expository sermons on the subject at hand. They are a popularization, so to speak, of the material he presents elsewhere. He’s making it accessible and applicable to his congregation. So, in addition to some background and linguistic material there is a focus on application not as readily found in his commentary.

In his preface, Duguid notes that this was the first sermon series for the church he planted in Philadelphia. In addition to being a professor he has also planted churches near the schools in which he’s taught. When we re-started our church in FL eons ago, we had been in Ephesians and I decided to begin our newly renamed and relocated congregation with a series on marriage which would end up in Ephesians 5 where I’d left off. I thought it would be an “attention getter” in the flyers we handed out. It got no one’s attention, apparently. But Christ Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia is still going so it was moderately effective for him.

The Introduction covers issues of interpretation. This seems shorter than in his TOTC volume, which is understandable. It is Hebrew poetry and this must be taken into consideration when interpreting the text.

“Poetry is the art of condensation: expressing maximum meaning in the minimum number of words. … Poetry tends to be open ended, leaving us pondering and wondering rather than tying up every loose end with a watertight argument.”

As a result, what it means is not always very clear especially due to the great distance in time and culture. There are plenty of times you need to toss out caveats and address varying interpretations.

He briefly discusses and rules out the allegorical method which so many reject in every book of the Bible except this one. An allegory is typically a story in which everything represents something else. Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory. There was no real Christian and all that transpired was intended to be a picture of the Christian life. There are lions, giants and more that represent something else. In the case of The Song of Songs, this is to avoid discussion of … sex. This is because we somehow think Christians should not talk about the beauty of sex. Or something like that.

The way many Christians who use an allegorical interpretation for this book makes it incomprehensible for the original audience. The original meaning is not about God and His people. Duguid sees The Song as a love poem which does have a typological function in pointing us to Christ and the Church (iow God and His people). There is an original meaning with application to people about marital love which must be reckoned with first.

He also addresses the issue of Solomon. You really have to stretch things to make Solomon the hero or the Beloved. Solomon is viewed as a contrast to the Beloved. He has many wives and concubines and cannot know them like the man and woman here know each other.

“For these reasons I take the Song of Songs to be a poem by an unknown and anonymous author about two idealized people, a man and a woman, whose exclusive and committed love is great but, like all loves in this fallen world, is far from perfect. … Thus, the Son is designed to show each of us how far short of perfection we fall both as humans and as lovers, and to drive us into the arms of our true heavenly Husband, Jesus Christ, whose love for his bride is truly perfect.”

This is the understanding behind these twelve sermons that work through the Song. He speaks often of romantic love as friendship on fire. The Song begins before marriage as they express their longing for on another but also maintain boundaries. In many ways it was counter-cultural in that it begins with her desires and longings. She is interested in him physically, not just emotionally. She is neither a feminist nor a traditionalist. She communicates her desires, and those include him providing leadership and direction. She wants him to kiss her, but isn’t kissing him first.

One of the things that Duguid stresses often is the connection, in the Song, between sex, marriage and children. This couple wants to possess one another, when the time is right, and sees its logical and desired end in having children together. He also stresses the role of family and community that is found in the Song. At times it is negative (like her brothers) but also often positive.

The Song functions to correct our fallen views of sex and relationship. Each culture should experience correction. While, for instance, purity is prized here it is not an idolatrous pursuit as can often happen. Duguid explains this in terms of beams and bombs. We find sturdy beams of truth upon which to build a biblical worldview, and bunkerbusting bombs that explode our false notions and worldviews. The Song reminds us that we need to positively teach the good things God says about sex, including in the Song. Duguid reminds us that one of Satan’s biggest lies is that God is a cosmic kill-joy and that His law is repressive rather than the law of love and freedom. God designed our bodies to enjoy sex. On the other hand, our desires are disordered so not all we want to do sexually is good and conforms to God’s law.

He speaks much about purity. We see the couple refusing to act on their desires until they are married. They still have desires for connection that are person specific. Purity is not simply a good unto itself. We can make an idol virginity losing sight of it as a faithfulness designed to minimize our sexual baggage that disrupts and corrupts the marriage bed. We are mirroring His fidelity to His people.

In his application Duguid regularly addresses single adults and those struggling with same sex attraction. The Song is for them too, as God re-orders their disordered desires (however slowly at times) as well as pointing them to Jesus.

The twelve chapters bring us from the awakening of their love to marriage, the reality of struggles in marriage and ending with the power of love. While the Song is not a relational handbook, it does teach much about fidelity and passion in a love that moves toward and continues in marriage. Duguid applies this in chastising those who put off love for careers when in reality love finds us at unexpected times. Putting off marriage at the height of sexual desire sets many up for failure. Yet neither should we make an idol of marriage as if it will satisfy. No one person can meet all our needs. The limitations of human love are intended to drive us to Jesus, not serial monogamy. Or polygamy/polyamory.

Love is powerful, as the Song warns us. It can make us crazy. There is the repeated warning not to arouse or awaken love until it is time. We can’t give full reign to our desires until the right time and context.

All in all this is a great book. Because it is a series of sermons the focus is on the relationship between them and our relationship with God. It is a volume I’d recommend to the single adults in my life so they can develop godly and realistic expectations. He dispensed plenty of wisdom without trying to advance the norms of some bygone culture. He brings us to Jesus in each sermon (providing great examples of Christ-centered sermons). I appreciate this book as a pastor & preacher, husband & father.

In part 2, I will compare this expositional commentary with his other commentary. I’ll try to see the differences in how he handles the text for those different audiences.

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Confession: I have a love-hate relationship with the culture war.

I’m torn in two. I have strong convictions on some things that I think are important. But I’m weary of how we as a culture, including the church, discuss these matters. I’m becoming more concerned with ministering to struggling people than trying to be right. I do want to explore nuances on some issues.

The subtitle of one of Scott Sauls’ books interested me. That book is Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides. Sauls is a PCA pastor in Nashville who used to work with Tim Keller in NYC. In many ways he is like Keller, making distinctions and exploring nuance. He tends to tick off both the left and the right. If the Bible is true, Keller notes, it will critique every culture and every person. That means that everyone will be annoyed by something it says. The same will be true for faithful pastors. The left thinks you are too right and the right that you are too left.

In his introduction Sauls puts it this way:

“Are we known by what we are for instead of what we are against? Are we less concerned about defending our rights- for Jesus laid down his rights- and more concerned about joining Jesus in his mission of loving people, places, and things to life?”

While we believe in truth, we also believe in grace and peace. This means a Christian should be pursuing all of them, not just one. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he calls them to end what we’d call their tribalism in light of the fact they’ve been baptized into Christ. Their union with Him and one another takes precedence over the divides that kept people apart in their culture. In light of this we keep truth and love together, as Paul notes in Ephesians 4. Sauls wants us to see beyond the polarization to affirm what is true about each side of an argument in the process of finding the truth in the middle so we can love both sides and hopefully bring them together.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first addresses issues between the various “Christian tribes”. The second addresses some of the issues that polarize the church and the world.

The first issue he addresses could be in both sections of the book: politics. Reflecting Keller he argues that no political system or party is fully aligned with Jesus and therefore subject to critique. Politics is like a religion in America. There seems to be no middle ground.

God has instituted government, and raises up and casts down leaders. Those governments and leaders don’t serve Jesus. In our own context the two parties grab hold of part of what Jesus says. As Christians we can think they have the whole (or none in the case of THEM). We each have agendas and choose the candidate or party that best represent them. And one of those agendas tends to be political power. It is not just the evangelical right that courts earthly power, as the evangelical left would have you believe. Both sides have made compromises to gain cultural power so the current dust ups are largely disingenuous to me.

“Kingdom politics reject the world’s methods of misusing power and manipulating the truth.”

As we consider politics we should recognize that Christians should be involved in terms of voting and also holding office. Yet we should do this understanding the limitations involved. No candidate or platform is perfect. We are not electing pastors, and being a Christian doesn’t necessarily make one wise or beyond corruption. This is another way of saying that politics is not a means to usher in the kingdom of God. It is, however, a means to help human flourishing so the work of the kingdom can take place in and through the church.

Sauls notes that Christianity tends to be healthier when it is part of the minority, not the majority. As the minority we are generally less conformed to the world, and less likely to trample other groups. As the majority we tend to cling to power and can abuse it. We are fallen humans after all.

He also notes that “Christianity embraces both conservative and progressive values.” It is neither. Christianity teaches that women are made in the image of God. As such it should embrace equality for women. Christians have long had a prevailing ethic of life contrary to many an earthly government and culture. If we treat women well, the pro-life movement is not assumed to be a war on women.

I don’t want to spend as much time on the other polarizing viewpoints. But in discussing politics with some from the evangelical left recently I’ve heard the accusation that I’m actually pro-birth and don’t care about the poor. That’s a nice talking point, and the second chapter: For the unborn or the poor? Oddly, I’ve found many conservatives at the forefront of care for the poor through groups like the Salvation Army, Compassion International and through funding soup kitchens, pantries and homeless shelters.

It is difficult to discuss this topic without getting back into red state-blue state. But the question is not a new one: who should care for the poor, the church or the state? Calvin argued that church should, and Luther thought it was the state. We have a similar divide between the evangelical right and left. It isn’t really about whether to care for the poor but who and how. Our problem is we tend to see the other side not caring because they don’t do it the way we think it should be done.

Sauls brings us back to the reality of both the unborn and the poor bearing the image of God. This should lead us to have a comprehensive ethic of life. Mine would go something like this: The state should protect the unborn while the church/Christians should provide for the unborn and the poor. The state should protect the living by bearing the sword against the wicked who forfeit their lives for certain heinous crimes.

The section also addresses personal faith or institutional church, money guilt or money greed, racially the same or racially diverse, and him or her. These are important issues that we tend to take extreme positions on and fight about in the church. These, of course, are false dilemmas for the most part. We should value both personal faith and the institutional church. One tends to be dead without the other. Sauls notes that the early church was FAR from perfect, so the problems of our churches shouldn’t mean we reject “organized religion”. Rather, the church is a place where we learn to love people who are very different from ourselves. As he argues, we need the church and the church needs us.

In discussing money he reminds us that the underlying issue is contentment. Most people are not content with their wealth. This can manifest itself in either hoarding or spending. We inevitably have to see the God-man who was rich but became poor to enrich others. As we consider Him He makes us people who also enrich others.

Racial questions are difficult because we have such a hard time moving beyond our experience. We tend to normalize our experiences and can’t see other people’s experience (especially minorities) as valid or true. People in the majority need to begin listening to minorities. Privilege, I’ve found, doesn’t have to do with having an easy go of things so much as there are things you never have to think about. For instance, when I get in my car I never wonder if I’m going to get pulled over by the police. Many blacks and Hispanics do, and that is because they are pulled over far more frequently than me. When I get pulled over I don’t think that I’d better record it just in case things go south. I’ve always been treated with respect by the police. But many blacks and Hispanics are viewed with more suspicion by police than I am. Their experience is so different than mine. There are negatives I don’t experience due to my race, social status or both.

The same is true regarding men and women. I don’t go for a jog (when I used to) and wonder if I’ll get jumped and raped. I don’t pay attention to the cars on my walk to see if the same one keeps going by. I don’t pay more for a car or repairs because of my sex. Studies show that women are often taken advantage of by sales and repair men.

Where Sauls goes is inequality in the church in both chapters. Minorities often feel forced to fit in with the white culture of a church. They feel like a token instead of someone who has a seat at the table with decision-making power. Women also have decisions made for them without seeking their wisdom and counsel. God gifts women for ministry too. They don’t have to hold office to exercise those gifts like egalitarians think. Some complementarians need to remember that this is true and not unnecessarily restrict the ministry of women.

In the second section he discusses affirmation or critique, accountability or compassion, hypocrite or work in progress, chastity or sexual freedom, hope or realism, self-esteem or God-esteem and then provides some quick pointers on living outside the lines in the epilogue.

He spends time discussing our need for affirmation and encouragement. He also distinguishes critique and criticism helpfully.

“Because an affirming critique always comes from the motive of restoring and building up, unlike criticism, which aims to harm and tear down.”

We all been victims of criticism. You feel worthless, humiliated and exposed. Critique is not focused on fault-finding and assigning blame. It is concerned with how we can do better. Affirmation should not be devoid of critique, but it should be devoid of criticism. In this context he shared a story of a bad relationship with another pastor that brought out the worst in each of them, and how it turned the corner into a healthier relationship when they considered how God was sanctifying each thru the other.

He invites to consider both the justice and compassion of God that is revealed in the cross of Christ, as well as the final judgment. This is not a book whose message is “can’t we just get along.” It brings us often to the gospel while reminding us that divine truth is not simplistic. Our positions may have elements of the truth but not the whole truth. As we interact with people of differing opinions we may discover they have some of the truth too. Sauls is not selling relativism, but is reminding us that the truth can be more complex than we want to make it in our quest to be right. Seriously, who wants to be wrong?

There is much to make you think and move beyond the false dilemmas we find in life. There are also some great stories. I loved the story about Doug and how Scott struggled with a competitive spirit with a man he hadn’t been in contact with for over a decade. Scott is vulnerable in this book. He’s not the hero who has it all together. He comes across to me as a guy who’s trying to figure all this out and shares a few of the things he’s learned. See this as critique instead of criticism and you’ll benefit from the book. See it as criticism and you’ll just get ticked and retreat to your own tribe within the lines. It might feel safer, but then so is a prison cell sometimes.

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I’Related imagem focused on the books I’ve read this year. So this isn’t a best and worst list of releases in 2019. There are books new and old, but these are books I read in 2019. Some of these might be helpful to you, faithful reader, and I might provide fair warning on lesser books not worthy of your time.

My Favorites

The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God by Tim Chester & Jonny Woodrow. The ascension is a much neglected doctrine by Protestants, and this is a very good introduction to the subject, and necessity, of the ascension of Jesus. Jesus is the forerunner, the first man to enter the heavenly temple in the flesh. He does so as our covenant head, so we will surely follow. He currently intercedes for us as our Great High Priest for us. He’s also our King who pours out His Spirit and exercises His rule in providence. This is a Christ-exalting and encouraging book.

On the Brink: Grace for the Burned Out Pastor by Clay Werner. This was a timely read for me as a prolonged conflict had me on the brink. While the conflict continued well into the year, I was invested in making some of the changes I needed to make (though perhaps not everyone agreed about that). This book helped me not only stay in ministry but where I was called. I’m thankful for this book.

Habakkuk: The Expectant Prophet by John Currid. This was an expositional commentary that I found particularly helpful while preaching through Habakkuk. It addressed many of my exegetical questions and provided some great ANE background to help me preach the text better.

In Christ: In Him Together for the World by Steve Timmis and Christopher de la Hoyde. This comes from the same biblical studies series as the book on the ascension. This is a good introduction. It doesn’t answer every question you may have. They do approach it from the vantage point of church planting. In Christ we are safe from the wrath of God. Here they focus on our salvation in union of Christ. Our union with Christ is also relational, we are connected to Christ and now in the presence of God. We also grow in Christ as a focus of our sanctification. They then discuss the communion of saints, the relational realities of our union. They also discuss our mission and the realities of our struggles. This is a helpful addition to the recent spate of books on this important doctrine.

Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story by Christopher Yuan. Christopher himself has a very moving testimony. Here he brings the gospel to bear on our sexuality, interacting with many of the issues currently being discussed and debated thanks to ReVoice and the continuing cultural push to normalize homosexuality (please, don’t confuse the two). His book is applicable not just for people who struggle with SSA (he still does) but also single adults and married people. The fall affected everyone’s sexuality, desires and relationship. If anything, I wish this book was longer.

Busy for Self, Lazy for God: Meditations on Proverbs for Diligent Living by Nam Joon Kim (translated by Charles Kim) is a rare book on sloth. At times it reflects his culture, which most wouldn’t accuse of laziness. As he keeps to the proverbs, there is much good and challenging material for us to consider so we forsake our laziness. He does have a gospel focus, so this is not simply moralistic and guilt-producing.

A Journey to Wholeness: The Gospel According to Naaman’s Slave Girl by Mark Belz. This is an excellent addition to the Gospel According to the Old Testament series. As I stated in my review, if a book stirs up a desire to preach a portion of Scripture it must be an excellent book. At times he puts too many words in people’s mouths, or thoughts in their heads but he helps us to see the gospel clearly through this OT event.

Grace Defined and Defended by Kevin DeYoung is a treatment of the Synod of Dort (or Dordt) on its 500th anniversary. It is a helpful explanation of this important document seeking to resolve the conflict between the church and the Remonstrants. His focus is on how Calvinism is put forth, but includes how Arminianism is laid out in the series of questions by Jacob Arminius’ followers. This is not overly technical and would be helpful for laypeople.

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How it Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn. I loved this book which provided lots of information about the part of the country I live in today. There is plenty of background on the Earps and the conflict which gets simplified, reduced and distorted in movies. This will be of great interest to history buffs or people interested in the Old West. And it is very interesting.

The Wholeness Imperative: How Christ Unifies Our Desires, Identity and Impact in the World by Scott Redd. This is a timely book for our time with its discussion of desires and identity. He deals with already/not yet realities as he unfolds a vision of progressive sanctification moving us toward whole heartedness. It isn’t simply about the mortification of sin but more the vivification of virtue and devotion. This flows from the implications the Shema and our response to the God who is one or united.

Faith. Hope. Love. The Christ-Centered Way to Grow in Grace by Mark Jones. This excellent book is in three parts, as you might imagine. Hope is the shortest, and love the longest because he explores the law as an expression of God’s love to us and our love to God and others. The section on faith explores the nature of saving faith. There is plenty to stir the soul here.

The Blessing of Humility: Walk Within Your Calling by Jerry Bridges. This is one of the last books he wrote. In this short book he describes humility using the beatitudes. As I noted in my review, this is a gospel-drenched book. The beatitudes describe who Jesus is for us, and who He is in the process of making us.

Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land by Eliot Clark. This is a meditation on 1 Peter thru the lens of mission. He plays off Peters theme of exile as he writes to a church in America that has been losing cultural power for decades. We increasingly feel out of place, like exiles. This should shape how we live, serve and make Jesus known. When we are grounded in gospel hope we don’t live in fear of what happens in our culture.

Leading with a Limp: Turning Your Struggles into Strengths by Dan Allender is one of my favorite books on leadership. Struggling this year, I read it again. It is still a great book about how God uses us, not in spite of but because of our flaws. We are jars of clay and the treasure is the gospel. You are the great leader, Jesus is. As we embrace our flaws and weaknesses we become better leaders.

Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God’s Unfolding Promises to His People by Jonty Rhodes. This is a great introduction to Covenant Theology. It is easy to understand, doesn’t get bogged down in minutia, has helpful diagrams so you can visualize the theology, and talks about how this matters to us today. His chapter on Jeremiah 31 is helpful in the intramural debate with New Covenant Theology to grasp the continuity and expansion of the covenant.

The Works of John Newton by … you guessed it, John Newton. This contains his letters, an autobiography, sermons, short treatises a brief history of the church among other things. I find so much pastoral wisdom in John Newton. He’s not profound like John Owen, but he is incredibly helpful in shaping the pastoral heart, and the Christian heart. He’s worth the investment of time.

The Mediocre

Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem by Robert Jones. This was not a bad book. It was not as helpful as I’d hoped. Jones failed to make some important distinctions and connections flowing from (perhaps) his different presuppositions. His goal was “getting rid of anger” rather than becoming slow to anger (like God), and how to “be angry and sin not.” As a result, there are biblical helps that are ignored by the author.

A Theology of Mark: The Dynamic between Christology and Authentic Discipleship by Hans Bayer. I bought and read it based on the subtitle. He does make some excellent points about it but I found the structure of the book to get in the way of really benefiting from this book as I’d hoped. I was left wanting more. It did, however lead me into preaching through Mark, so there is that.

The Downright Bad

Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace by Harvie Conn. I appreciate the thesis of this book. It’s delivery is so dated and non-linear I just couldn’t finish it. I deemed it not worth my time and effort despite its influence on some people I respect greatly.

There are more I could have put here. There are other good books I read, but these are the best, and the most frustrating. Enjoy or stay away, as the case may be.

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One of my congregants was born in another country, and another branch of the family of faith. When they moved to America and joined our congregation there was much that was new to her. One thing in particular was Covenant Theology.

Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God's Unfolding Promises to His PeopleShe and her husband were listening to Ligon Duncan’s lectures on the subject but was wondering if there was a book I could recommend. Months earlier I had picked up Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God’s Unfolding Promises to His People on sale. It came highly recommended by others. I hadn’t read it yet but lent them my copy. It turned out to be one of her favorite books of the year. As a result, I read it (at the time we were thinking of writing a middle school curriculum on Covenant Theology).

The book is appropriately named. To be fair I’ve read many of the key books on the subject, but Rhodes does keep it simple. He doesn’t duck controversies, but neither does he get bogged down in them. He doesn’t use technical language because this is intended to be for the average person in the pews. He succeeds, as indicated by the many recommendations I’ve seen online. The book includes a number of helpful diagrams (not charts!) to illustrate his point in a given chapter. These visual aids supplement the text nicely.

Covenants are often misunderstood. They are about relationships. One of the more famous definitions is O. Palmer Robertson’s “bond in blood”. The problem with that is it doesn’t work for the first covenant in Scripture. Nor the eternal covenant between the Father and Son if you hold to that (I do). Jonty Rhodes seeks to get at covenants through a series of questions (good questions) that bring us to the ultimate questions of how can I know God’s promises are reliable.

He begins in the Garden with what is commonly called The Covenant of Works. But he begins that chapter in the Upper Room and Jesus’ mention of the blood of the covenant. We can’t really understand Jesus’ death if we don’t understand covenants. Covenants are throughout Scripture, and Rhodes rightly notes “Covenant is the theme that links the different books of the Bible to make them one united story.” But, you might say, the Bible is about Jesus. Yes, and He reveals what He’s going to do through those covenants.

The word occurs more than 300 times. While it is connected to the word “to cut” we see from its use and context that “a covenant is a conditional promise.” Or to flesh it out some more, he says “A covenant is an agreement between God and human beings, where God promises blessings if the conditions are kept and threatens curses if the conditions are broken.” This doesn’t mean there aren’t covenants between nations or individuals (David and Jonathan made a covenant of friendship) but our focus is on the biggies that shape the Scripture.

Now Rhodes goes back to the Garden. God has created, separated and filled creation. He made Adam and Eve in His image to fill, subdue and rule it. These creation mandates involve marriage & family, work and study, arts and sciences. In addition to these positive commands about how they are to spend their time, we see the provision of food to sustain them. There was one negative command, that one tree whose fruit they couldn’t eat. Keep the commands and this Garden temple will grow to fill the earth to God’s glory, but break them and they ruin everything. The Bible never mentions that this comprises a covenant but we see commands, prohibitions and sanctions anyway (as well as the historical prologue of creation). We also see, Rhodes notes, the reality of Adam as a covenant or federal head in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. How can we properly understand how all humanity fell in Adam apart from a covenant? If we rule that out, we rule out the means of salvation with Jesus as the head of the new covenant.

As Rhodes notes, plenty of people don’t like the term covenant of works. Other terms used are covenant of life or covenant of creation. There doesn’t seem to be any grace in works. Adam did receive all kinds of benefits in creation without initially earning them. Continuing in them was a different story. But this intramural debate doesn’t interest him much.

The greatness of the Garden didn’t last long. Adam ruined it for himself, and all of us. His actions have affected every single human being who has lived, is living and will live. He is literally the most (or 2nd most) influential person ever. The second chapter engages us in Satan’s assault on God through His image, Adam. When he sins, the curse breaks out. God is applying the sanctions of the covenant, not having a conniption of divine proportions. The curses affect the creation mandates: our filling, subduing and ruling. Each is not attended with futility and failure, pain and problems.

Yet we see mercy as well. God did not simply execute these traitors, he let the live. But He also have them a promise that someone would come to set things right again. Rhodes also gets to the more “theological” aspects of the curse that need to be dealt with: guilt, grime (internal corruption) and the grave.

His third chapter brings us back to the reality of covenant conflict, or rather the conflict in the OT seen through the lens of the covenant. Satan continues his war on God’s people in an attempt to thwart the seed of the woman. The conflict is frequently one of words, with the false messages of the Evil One continuing. Here he address the covenant with Noah. He slips in a little about common grace since this covenant is not specifically about salvation but provides the stage for redemption. It also mirrors the creation mandates and promises. Like Adam, this “second” Adam sins and fails to bring comfort to God’s people.

This brings Rhodes, and us, to the covenant with Abraham (his new name by virtue of the covenant). The seed of the woman will come through Abraham’s line. God promises a great name (unlike Babel which sought to make a great name for itself), great people and to bring a great blessing to the nations. God will repair the damage done by Adam, but through Abraham’s promised seed. The covenants progressively reveal God’s promises to His people. They are rightly seen as building upon one another rather than disconnected from one another.

The Mosaic covenant is one that continues to perplex people today. Is it reflective of the covenant of grace, the covenant of works or does it have elements of both?

It arises because God has been keeping His promises to Abraham about a great nation, and is about to fulfill His promise about the land. Their redemption from slavery helps form a gracious background to this covenant. Yet, like the covenant of creation it seems very much about how to remain in the land, or be removed from the land for prolonged & persistent disobedience. We should see the sacrifices as provisional until the Seed comes. This covenant doesn’t lay aside the promise, and like Abraham they were accounted righteous by faith. Like Abraham they were also to walk uprightly before Him (Gen. 17). To think that conditions, or holiness, reflect back upon the covenant of worship seems to be mistaken. Rhodes puts it this way, the covenants with Abraham and Moses are the same girl in a different dress. To put it another way: while obedience doesn’t produce salvation, salvation produces obedience.

The next development is the covenant with David. God narrows down the line for the seed further. The skull crusher will come from David. We see here, as well, God’s conditionality. If a particular son disobeys, he will be disciplined. But there is the son who will set all things right. Just as David disobeyed at times, Solomon gets distracted by girls, gods and gold. David’s line is more failure than faithfulness until the Babylonian exile.

In the chapter of the New Covenant, Rhodes addresses the newness of the covenant. He also draws out the consistency of the New Covenant with the previous ones. It has the same promises, not different promises. He also develops and already-not yet approach to this covenant. We see forgiveness as well as holiness. We see the promise of a new heart and the Spirit. We see the familiar promise that “they will by My people and I will be their God.” Like the earlier covenants, they are all about salvation, not simply forming a nation with land. Those served the purposes of redemption and the boundaries are about to be expanded. The Gentiles doesn’t replace the Jews, but are grafted onto the vine (or more properly, Vine). We are admitted into the true Israel.

It is here that he finally addresses the question of the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son. This is alluded to in many Scriptures, particularly in John’s Gospel. The Father makes a conditional promise to the Son: He will give Him a people for His pain. Jesus fulfills the covenant of works for their salvation. It will not be wasted work based on the promise of people given to Him. This brings us to the doctrine of election. It also brings us to double imputation and union with Christ. The covenants are not an isolated doctrine but inform a number of doctrines.

He further explores these in covenant salvation which explores the role of each member of the Trinity in salvation, previously agreed upon. The Father chooses, the Son dies & intercedes, and the Spirit applies that salvation to the people chosen by the Father at the appointed time. This brings us to the doctrine of limited or particular atonement. It is best understood with the framework of the covenant. He brings this forward to the question of assurances. Aside from this covenantal understanding of salvation we lose the grounds of assurance.

Rhodes then explores the covenant people further with a view toward church government. He provides an interesting approach. Congregationalism is like a bunch of self-governing circles, lots of churches but seemingly no Church. The Presbyterian form of government sees a chain, self-governing congregations that are joined to for a Church. The Episcopal form is a pyramid with all under the authority of one head on earth who mediates that power through bishops to pastors and congregations. From here he moves into the visible and invisible churches and then into the question of infant baptism. The covenant is essential for understanding the church and sacraments properly.

The last chapter returns to covenant life, how the covenant informs our experience of life in the Church and the church. We receive the promised Holy Spirit (promised explicitly in the New Covenant but discussed by Paul in terms of the Abrahamic covenant in Galatians) who produces obedience in us. This is because the Spirit unites us to Jesus. He briefly touches upon the law and gospel distinction.

We discover that this book about covenants brings us to consider much of theology. They are not isolated but form the structure of Scripture and therefore theology. This is a book well-worth studying. It is worthy of recommendation to your people. It may not dig as deep into some controversies as someone may like, we see the breadth of issues that may interest people. This is not a plunge into the deep end but like wading into the pool while inviting people to swim in the deep end when they choose.

 

 

 

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The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set) Newton, John cover imageI’m moving toward the end of The Works of John Newton. There are a few items in the 4th volume I want to address separately. The one that seems pertinent to me existentially is Thoughts on the Government of the Tongue.

We are in the midst of political polarization as a nation. As a denomination, we are in the midst of theological polarization. As I think about my own words they are not always what they should be. I also feel kicked around, misunderstood and attacked at other times. I’m beginning to make more use of the FB snooze function. However, I am not looking forward to 2020 because this election looks to be even more polarizing and spiteful than 2016 was.

Newton begins his thoughts this way:

There is perhaps no one test or proof of the reality of a work of grace upon the heart, more simple, clear, and infallible, than the general tenor of our language and conversations; …”

He is applying James 3 in light of Jesus’ words “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” James warns us of the danger of the tongue. It can burn down families, churches and nations. We can build up or tear down with our kids, spouses or friends.

The last year or so has been an exercise in holding my tongue. Some people may not believe it, but they didn’t hear all that is in my heart because I don’t want to damage relationship in my anger. James warns that the one who can’t bridle his tongue has vain religion.

“It is not the restraint of the heart, the apostle requires.”

While it is our duty to watch and mortify the sinful desires of our hearts. But “he supposes that the grace of God in a true believer will check the evils of the heart, and prevent them from breaking out by the tongue.” This means that a husband won’t light into his wife (or a wife her husband) when they disagree. This means that you don’t attack your neighbor who votes differently than you but perhaps seek to understand their perspective. We note the hatred and anger arising in our hearts and refuse to give vent to them.

Newton notes that restraining our tongues is not to be taken so strictly that we think a Christian never speaks unadvisedly. We see godly men like Job and Jeremiah cursing the day they were born. While godly people frequently restrain their tongues, James also notes that we all sin in many ways, including our speech. This is part of the sanctification process.

I don’t know if Trump is a genuine Christian. Taken strictly, one would be tempted to say “No way, Jose.” But if his reported conversion a few years is genuine, we should not be surprised if it takes time for a man who used speech sinfully in many ways to begin to restrain his tongue (and his tweets). If grace is in his heart, “it will so regulate and control the tongue, that it shall not customarily offend.” People need time to change, and it is frequently incremental. This should give most of us hope. We see change, but long for more (if we are honest).

But the counterfeit Christian cannot bridle his tongue because there is no grace in his heart. He may learn theology, help out around the church but the tongue will persist in gossip, slander, unwholesome speech and verbal assault.

Newton moves to what it means to bridle the tongue. One aspect is their language toward God.

“So likewise the hearts of believers teach their mouths to speak honorably of God under all their afflictions and crosses, acknowledging the wisdom and mercy of his dispensations; and if an impatient word escapes them, it grieves and humbles them…”

In affliction the sinful heart wants to curse God, blame God. The Spirit of grace works to restrain that sinful desire. When we do accuse or curse, the Spirit of grace convicts us so we are grieved.

It also restrains our prideful speech of ourselves. That tendency we have to assert we alone are right and good, and those who disagree with us are singularly evil, stupid or blind. We speak as though we have all the answers. Instead, the Spirit moves us to speak of ourselves as unworthy, needy creatures.

“In what they say of or to others, the tongues of believers are bridled by a heartfelt regard to truth, love and purity.”

Not just truth. Not just love. Our tongues are bridled by truth and love. And purity. Truth and love restrain our tongues so we don’t speak falsehood or hatefully. We begin to have an internal restrain, which is the key. That restraint is truth, love and purity. It isn’t fear.

Newton recognizes that we can unwittingly speak untruths. We can speak from ignorance, forgetfulness. We aren’t speaking to deceive. But we are wrong. Sometimes your opponent is just plain wrong, not lying. Keep that in mind as the election draws near.

The tongue is bridled by truth because God is the God of truth. Jesus is the truth. It is bridled by love because God is love. God is light, and in Him there is no darkness. As a result we are restrained by purity. We are holy because He is holy.

“… though true believers may, on some occasions, speak rashly, and have great cause for humiliation, watchfulness, and prayer, with respect to the government of their tongues…”

Yes, we have a goal and a motive but we have not arrived. This is cause for humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand. This is cause for watchfulness when in disagreement with another. This is cause for prayer that God will guard our mouths and tongues.

Newton provides us with some helpful, edifying thoughts and direction for governing our tongues as manifestation of grace. It is well worth heeding as we move into an election year, as we continue in denominational debate and engage in everyday conflict.

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