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Image result for medicine cabinetWhen I was in seminary, Richard Pratt told us that the wise pastor gets the right medicine out the cabinet to help the church member. To give someone the wrong medicine could be toxic for them.

The ministry cabinet matters. It should be well-stocked. Before you head to a well-stocked ministry cabinet you need to make the correct diagnosis. If you can’t/don’t diagnose the issue correctly, then you will likely give them the wrong medicine.

Paul makes this point in 1 Thessalonians 5:

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.

He identifies three different ailments (there are more, obviously): idleness, fainthearted or timid, weakness. He does call the Thessalonians to be patient with them and all others. So, everyone needs patience. But each diagnosis requires a different medicine.

Idle ==> Admonishment

Fainthearted ==> Encouragement

Weak ==> Help

What do you think happens when you admonish the fainthearted or weak? They become increasingly disheartened! In addition to being fainthearted or weak, you are now making them feel guilty.

What happens when you encourage or help the idle? You enable them to remain in their sin.

TRelated imageoo often we can be “one-trick ponies”. We are really good at admonishing (or tend to see people needing admonishment everywhere). Our ministry  becomes toxic. We beat down the timid and weak. Those with a prophetic gift can be guilty of admonishing people they should encourage or help. “Repent” is not the answer for all that ails us, and we shouldn’t act like it is.

Some people or churches are gifted at encouragement and see every issue as one needing encouragement. They enable the idle to remain idle, but they also leave the weak to pull themselves up by their bootstraps instead of assisting them.

Other churches or people are gifted at helping and seek to help all who struggle. They enable the idle. The fainthearted are helped but their discouragement isn’t really addressed.

It is so important to properly assess the issue and then apply the proper gospel-medicine. Then we will help people grow and mature. If we don’t we’ll not only not help them but damage them further.

 

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Considering On the Brink


I found it in a “clearance bin” online. It was discounted, but I was intrigued.

The title was On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor. I wasn’t sure if I was burned-out but I was certainly discouraged, folded, spindled and mutilated (or so I felt). The last few years of ministry had been very difficult and were taking their toll on me. I was a ripe candidate for this book by Clay Werner.

“It is much needed because pastors experience loneliness and discouragements, even depression and despair, more often than most church members (and even other pastors) realize.” Dennis Johnson in the Forward

In the midst of ministry we can often lose sight of God. Our God awareness suffers. This is where he begins. He spends time looking at Moses and Israel in the wilderness journey to help us understand the pressures at work. We work with people who are prone to forget God’s grace & goodness, grumble & complain (we are in that mix too). We see Moses at times strong and wise and at other times foolish and worn out. At times we are up for the challenges, and sometimes they eat our lunch. Moses never gave up and ran away. But Werner reminds us that Moses was simul justus et peccator, and so are we.

Image result for pressureHe looks at both external and internal pressures upon pastors. We face the challenges of balancing ministry and family, leadership, administration and management. We face the isolation of leadership (people may know some of what troubles us, but rarely the whole picture and we can’t necessarily share all of it). Compassion fatigue can hit us as wave after wave of difficulty hits us. That has been the last few years with a steady stream of high involvement crises, deaths, conflicts and other losses sent me tumbling like a toy boat caught in high tide at a set of breakers.

Into this he addresses the futility of our work. Ministry has been complicated by Adam’s disobedience and the curse that came as a result. There are lots of thorns and thistles, and not as much fruit as we’d like.

This shifts us into the internal pressures to perform and produce. We struggle with idolatry and establishing our kingdom and not His.

“… there are times when walking away from the community to which God has called you to minister seems to be safer than staying.”

God gives us the gift of disillusionment. He quotes Eugene Peterson who’s simplifying Bonhoeffer: “The church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have.” We have a longing for Eden though we live east of Eden. All pastors will wrestle with this if they have any ambition: godly or selfish. God works to expose the “utopian concept” most Christians experience. Growth is intended to take place (for the pastor and the congregation) in the midst of this very imperfect community. The community is “at the same time just and sinner” too. We live in a tension between loving the community as it is and yet longing for it to change (and working for it).

Werner moves to the great crisis of his faith. If the resurrection wasn’t true, he was done with ministry. And so he took a retreat to the woods to read and pray. In this chapter he also discusses the reasons were are “on the brink” or the injured list: prolonged exhaustion, delight turned to duty, discouragement ==> depression, older-brother mentality, anger, self-indulgence and the list goes on. If the resurrection is true, why do we experience these and why is the church so slow to change? This is where it hits, and hurts.

In the midst of this (and so many other areas) he turns us to John Newton. He warned of listening to yourself. He warned of comparing your place with that of others, particularly those that seem to be flourishing. Newton points us to God and his sovereign faithfulness.

He has a short transitional section on the cross as the remedy. God addresses our needs in Christ and Him crucified. We see His love and commitment as well as our stubborn sinfulness.

This brings him back to the resurrection: the resurrection of Christ, our hearts, our hope, our joy and endurance. Here he also applies the already-not yet to the reality of ministry.

He then reminds us of the love of God for us, the transforming love of God. This love enables us to forgive others and love them in their weakness and sinfulness.

This also allows us to dive into the difficulty of ministry. Jesus didn’t pull back from ministry with such flawed disciples. He calls us to join Him in working with such people.

He then deals with our desire to run away, the selfish desire to have our own life. We are curved inward, which is precisely why Jesus had to come and rescue us. He reminds us of the Suffering Servant again, who didn’t run away from the demands of ministry to difficult people like you and me.

He also calls us to fight for the unity of the church. The Prince of Peace came to bring unity to the church. The gospel is necessary for us to pursue peace. We also need character formed by the gospel to pursue peace. Additionally we need gospel competency.

God is our God for the long haul. He calls ministers to work with their congregations for the long haul. He ends on this note.

This is a brief book (about 130 pages) which is good for pastors who are “on the brink”. They need succinct help, and Clay Werner provides it. He draws on Scripture, John Newton, John Calvin and Francis Schaeffer throughout this book. They provided him with wise advice that he wants to pass on to others.

Image result for in case of emergencyThe chapters are similar to sermons. There is an opening illustration to frame the chapter. He returns to illustration to wrap up the chapter. It is a well put together book. It is a book that pastors are well advised to keep on their shelf. At some point they will need it “in case of emergency” because one day that emergency will come. The pastor who reads it can receive help and survive the inevitable emergencies. Maybe you’ll even find a copy in a clearance bin. Don’t confuse that with its worth.


It’s that time of year to root thru the archives and put together the list of the best book I read in 2018. Yes, the focus is on those I read not those that were released. Perhaps you will find a book worth reading, one that strikes your fancy. I’m not including the commentaries I read. I seemed to have less time for additional reading this year, but maybe that was just my distorted viewpoint.

Sing!: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family and Church by Keith and Kristyn Getty. This is a short book about the importance of singing. My interest was congregational singing. I’m grateful to be part of a congregation that loves to sing. Many don’t have this blessing. This book wants to help such congregations understand the importance of congregational singing.

Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality by Nancy Pearcey. This was a great and challenging book to help Christians think through the many changes taking place in our society. Some might question some of the philosophical presuppositions, but I found her analysis helpful. I was prompted to preach about some of these topics in the summer.

Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop M.D. is written at a everyday person level to help people understand the process of patients with various forms of dementia. He looks at it in terms of medicine as well as faith. He helps people walk through this from both perspectives. He includes end of life issues. As one who has a parent with Alzheimer’s I found this helpful.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield. In this volume Rosaria focuses on intentional hospitality. She ties this in with the gospel. It is well worth reading.

God and the Transgender Debate by Andrew T. Walker takes on a difficult subject from a biblical perspective. He balances truth and compassion which (sadly) seems to be a rare combination. Due to the fall we are sinners and broken. He addresses both the rebellious and those who are struggling with unwanted feelings thanks to the fall. There was plenty of wisdom in this book.

Sexual Morality in a Christless World by Matthew Rueger examines the claim that Christian sexuality is regressive. He looks at the context for Christian sexual morality and how it confronted Greek, Roman and Jewish sexual mores. He then examines, briefly the biblical view of homosexuality and same sex marriage. As a Lutheran pastor, he often bring the law and gospel distinctive to bear on these matters. As confusing as our days might be, this book will make you glad you weren’t born then.

Hit By Friendly Fire by Michael Milton is about how to cope with the damage done by other Christians. It is short and to the point. It is also helpful for all who’ve been hurt by other members of the family.

Honest Evangelism by Rico Tice is an honest book about the challenges of evangelism. Much of this focuses on the painline. Like a guy trying to decide whether to ask a girl out, we must decide to cross the pain line. This is one of the main reasons we don’t engage in evangelism: a refusal to cross the painline.

The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and Mystery of God’s Mercy by Tim Keller. He uses Jonah to expose us all. This is another great book by Keller that applies the gospel in winsome fashion to both our younger brother waywardness and older brother bitterness. Yes, he connects Jonah’s ministry to the parable of the two sons at times. This book poked and prodded me in a difficult time.

Puritans:

Christian Love by Hugh Binning. This is part of the Pocket Puritan series. This was a challenging little book focused on how God loved us and how we are then to love one another. There was plenty here about self-denial. This is not about emotions but the responsibilities of love.

The Fading of the Flesh and the Flourishing of Faith by George Swinnock came at a good time for me. I’m struggling with getting older and those realities pressing in. The flesh will fade, but will faith flourish? The foundation of the book is a funeral sermon he preached. Good and encouraging material from the Puritan.

History:

The Last Battle is about the final battle in the European theater of WWII. It actually took place after Germany had surrendered. A group of Allied soldiers, resistance fighters and German soldiers joined forces to free some French political prisoners before the SS executed them. This is a very interesting story that could be well served by a movie.

2000 Years of Christ’s Power by Nick Needham. This is a great 4-volume (so far?) church history set. In the first volume he includes the African church, which is often overlooked. Each volume includes substantial material on the Eastern church. A result you have a more balanced church history instead of a Europe-centered history. Some of the themes that run thru the volumes are: the doctrine of the Eucharist, the state-church relationship or struggle for power, and how the different branches of the Church related to one another. I was generally encouraged by this set.

The First Heroes by Craig Nelson is about the Doolittle Raid. This is a great piece of history. He spends time giving the background of the raid including the attack on Pearl Harbor, the training, how participants escaped the Japanese or endured their capture as well as how they fared after the war. Their is personal history as well as world history. It made for very interesting reading.

 


The fourth, and currently last volume, in Nick Needham’s history of the church (2000 Years of Christ’s Power) is entitled The Age of Religious Conflict. This volume covers the 16th to 18th centuries. Just as the early church struggled with conflict within, so the post-reformational church struggled with conflict within. This book still includes some conflict between the branches of the church (particularly in the section on Eastern Orthodoxy).

This volume acknowledges the help of old friend Keith Mathison. It does change the format slightly which threw me off when approaching it. The major sections of chapters are numbered and start on new pages as if they were themselves chapters. This briefly messed with my reading schedule. A tiny, inconsequential thing.

He addresses these conflicts in Lutheranism, the Reformed Church (continental), England, Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church (centered on France) and the Eastern Orthodox Church (centered on Russia). The focus is on England which occupies two chapters in the volume. Throw in Scotland and you have 3 chapters on the British Isles. He does have 2 chapters on Roman Catholicism as well. We see the book is heavily weighted toward Protestantism and particularly light on Eastern Orthodoxy. Thankfully he does cover EO, which so many histories seem to neglect after 1054.

One conflict that runs throughout the book is the relationship between church and state. We’ve seen this conflict before, particularly between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Now it unfolds in a number of nations as various kings and tsars want to control the church and various popes, patriarchs and archbishops want to either be free from state control or control the state. It seems that no good equilibrium could ever and can ever be achieved. The conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman will always be played out on this field of battle until King Jesus returns to set all things right. To those willing to listen, there is much that applies to their particular situation. The quest for power and control exacts a great toll.

A second conflict that runs through much of the book is the place of Augustinian theology in the life of the church. The questions of human depravity and election rise in each of these church bodies. I think this illustrates for us the importance of this question as one that should captivate the church.

In Lutheranism, the death of Luther meant it lost its earthly center, the figure who drew all the strands together. The theological tensions, understandably, began to pull the church apart. Such a focus on theological controversies led many to view them as falling into dead orthodoxy. Pietism rose to call people to faith and sound practice, not the pursuit of theological subtleties. In the midst of this was the Thirty Years’ War which ravaged northern Europe. The root of the war was state control of the church. In one of those ironies of real life, Catholic France supported the Protestants against the Holy Roman Emperor in order to weaken him and gain power for France. War can create strange bedfellows and alliances.

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Synod of Dort

In the Reformed church there were two theological controversies that occupied most of the energy: Arminianism and Amyraldianism. Surprisingly he didn’t trace the shifts in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper very much. I say surprising because it was a frequent topic in the 3 previous volumes. The first of these controversies had some sort of settlement at the Synod of Dort. This did not put an end to Arminianism, of course. Much of Protestantism is Arminian today.

The lesser known and understood conflict was a result of the teaching of Moise Amyraut: Amyraldianism. He was the son of Huguenots. He was no stranger to controversy. Some political (refusing to kneel before King Louis XIII since Roman clergy didn’t have to) and some theological. At a time when the Huguenots were an oppressed minority, the battle over his theology split them as a kind of civil war. This civil war spread to England and other branches of the Reformed church.

Since this controversy is less known I will try to briefly summarize. Amyraut was distressed that many in Reformed theology held to double predestination and the idea that God created much of humankind for the purpose of damnation. Being in France, he was sensitive to the (mis)characterizations of Calvinism by French Catholics. He saw himself as rescuing the Huguenots from this caricature of God as “capricious, unjust, and unloving.” He viewed election in light of the cross instead of the cross in light of election. Therefore, Jesus did not die to save the elect, but died for all humanity. Salvation was conditioned upon faith. Since faith is not possible for fallen sinners, God elected some to salvation. In some ways this is a quibble about the order of decrees (which in my opinion is part of the secret things referred to in Deut. 29:29). In my opinion he presents a very confused God. This view is sometimes called the hypothetical atonement. He’s trying to walk a mediating position between Augustinianism/Calvinism and Arminianism. To me it seems an untenable position- logically unstable and unable to stand long before lapsing into greater problems.

In England there would be a literal civil war as various kings sought to control the church. England has some who wanted an Episcopal church, whether of Arminian or Calvinist leanings, some who wanted a Presbyterian church of England with a solid Calvinist bent. The Independents wanted religious freedom so that England could have Episcopal, Presbyterian and Congregational churches who held to Arminian or Calvinist views. As mentioned, Needham spends two chapters laying out the groundwork for the civil war, the war itself, life under Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy which again ruled the Church of England too. In many ways this is a sad tale as so much blood was spilled to accomplish essentially nothing. Christians should be wary of taking up arms for the sake of faith (see the Thirty Years’ War as well).

Scotland had a similar struggle between the Crown Rights of Jesus (church over the state) and the will of a king who wanted to rule the Church of Scotland. We see the rise and fall of the Covenanters who pursued the rights of Jesus and desired a free church in Scotland. At times the Presbyterians won in Scotland. At times kings introduced an episcopal form of government which led to a watering down of the theology of the church. As you consider Scotland’s history of being occupied, any English influence was offensive to them.

Blaise Pascal Versailles.JPG

Blaise Pascal

Needham focuses on France for Roman Catholicism since at this point it had become the most powerful Catholic nation, supplanting Spain. Most of the movements within the Catholic church had their center in France. One of the main controversies was the Jansenist controversy. In a very Jesuit nation which was therefore not friendly toward the influence of Augustine’s view of salvation, a view that was dependent on Augustine would be controversial. The Jansenists were essentially Catholic Calvinists. They still submitted to the Pope and held to the doctrines of transubstantiation and purgatory. But they held to total depravity and election. The most famous Jansenist was French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. The fortunes of Jansenism were often tied to politics. The more power the Jesuits had, the more the pressure on them. When a French king wanted to establish his own power the Jesuit influence waned and Jansenism was able to grow.

What Jacobitism was to the churches in the British Isles, Gallicianism was to France. It was the view that the king of France, not the Pope was the head of the church in France. While there was not outright war, it saw political maneuvering and persecution.

Another controversy that can’t ultimately be separated from the political situation was the growth of Quietism, a form of mysticism that flourished in France for a time. It would fall in and out of favor with kings, surging and shrinking as a result.

In this section he also mentions Jesuit missions to eastern Asia. We see early versions of the Insider Movement as missionaries struggled to be all things to all men. Sometimes they allowed all men to remain in their paganism. Sometimes they required converts to become western. These are struggles that still take place in missions.

Cyril Lucaris 1632 Geneva.jpgAs Needham turns to Eastern Orthdoxy we see various splits form in the church. Some feared the power of the Pope and unification with Rome. They were haunted by the Union of Florence. Seeing the success of Protestants in separating from Rome, some like Cyril Lucaris began to use their methods and some theological distinctives. Cyril is controversial, to say the least. He clearly adopted “total depravity” which affected his view of salvation. His critics claimed he was corrupted by Reformed theology. A quite Protestant sounding confession that bears his name (whose authorship is questionable) was condemned and he was too, if he held to those views expressed that confession.

Others fearing the Protestant leanings or reform of men like Cyril, used the theology and methods of the Jesuits to reform the eastern church. So we find the main reformers in Eastern Orthodoxy at this time drawing on western methods and articulation of doctrine, whether Protestant or Catholic. They weren’t trying to become either but trying to protect Orthodoxy from the corruption of the other.

Since Constantinople was now under the control of the Ottoman Empire and called Istanbul, the Patriarch of Constantinople was under the control of muslims, Moscow grew in power as the “defender of the faith.” We see the same struggles there. Who would be in control: the tsar or the patriarch? With the rise of Peter the Great this was answered once and for all in favor of the state. Peter would also seek to westernize Russia, and the church. We also see a worship war that was far more bloody than ours since it got wrapped up in politics. With the advent of the printing press in Moscow, they discovered variants in liturgies. Their assumption was there was ONE way to worship. So, which was it? Some stuck with the way the Russian church worshiped while others argued they should be worship in accordance with the older Greek liturgies. Our sinful quest for power again corrupts the worship of God and splits the church.

In some ways this was the most difficult volume in the set for me to read. I was familiar with the material covered regarding England and Scotland, so I didn’t learn as much. Due to my existential realities, reading about all the conflict was less than pleasant. One thing is clear is that the Church desperately needs Christ. She so quickly lapses into conflict, splitting over points great and small. She is ceaselessly attracted to power.

This is not to say this wasn’t worth reading. It is an excellent series and this is a very good volume in this set. This is helpful reading for pastors and lay leaders. It is good reading for anyone with an interest in history. Written by a Protestant, this much more information about Eastern Orthodoxy than you are used to seeing. It helps balance our perspective on the Church, and that is a great thing.


I’ve been slowly updating my officer training material after discovering some gaps in the material I covered. Unfortunately (?) this has been more of a side project which fills in open spots instead of a priority matter. I was hoping there would be a book that covered all this stuff to make my life more efficient.

I got an my monthly email offering copies of books to review. The New Elder’s Handbook by Greg R. Scharf and Arthur Kok caught my eye. I’m open to ideas about how to do this better, preparing men more fully for the task that God has called them to.

There are three main sections to the book, or possibly two depending on how you look at it. They break it up into Vision, Training and Two Additional Discipleship Resources. 2 and 3 are similar enough that they could be considered one part. But, that’s not really important.

Before we look at the content, we should consider the authors. I hadn’t heard of either man before and perhaps you are in the same boat. Greg Scharf is an Evangelical Free Church pastor and professor emeritus at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He focused on preaching and pastoral theology. This is right up his alley. Arthur Kok trains lay leaders, pastors, planters and missionaries through the Orchard Network. Both men have a tremendous amount of experience in training men for ministry.

Theologically they are at the very least open to Reformed Theology (this matters since I am writing and serving in a Reformed context). You pick this up from some statements, but most often from the books they recommend including Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith, Robert Shaw’s The Reformed Faith and many others. They try not to drive people theologically. For instance, on the question of baptism they recommend both Grudem and Horton noting that the former is a credobaptist and the later a paedobaptist. They want you to sort it out rather than sort it out for you. The same is true for millennial views, though there was no representative for the postmillennial position. There were more references for the historic premillennial position in keeping with their theological context however.

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One Big Matzoh Ball

At times this is an issue. I’m not sure how much of Grudem’s eternal submission of the Son convictions show up in his systematic theology (one of the resources listed under the Trinity). They recommend Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism in a variety of places. It isn’t a bad book, meaning I don’t necessarily find error in it. For me it has the baggage of being connected with a number of authoritarian cults. I understand; they used and abused it. That is not Coleman’s fault, but … it hangs out there like a big matzoh ball for me.

Another big matzoh ball is The Bondage Breaker. I have grave theological concerns about Neil Anderson’s work. I also know of missions organizations in which this book became a big, divisive problem. I’ve discussed the book with people who like it and it has never gone well. They tend to be dogmatic and run counter to what I think is the sound Reformed & biblical heritage on sanctification. Ironically Scharf and Kok recommend Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices on the previous page. Later they refer, positively, to Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in its Four-fold State which is the book I used to express Anderson’s errors (perhaps I should blog this material). So this puzzles me.

One thing that may interest some is a confessional context. The EFC is not a confessional body like the PCA is, so I am looking for a confessional context. They do have a few quotes from the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. The resource by Shaw is a commentary on the Westminster Confession so men can read the pertinent chapters in the confession as they go along. We do need to be careful to communicate that the Standards are helpful in understanding the Scriptures, but do not have the same authority as the Scriptures.

I do think this is a very helpful book.

One of the strengths, as laid out in the first part, is the intentional community. This book can be used on your own, but they want to have men go through the questions together. They want iron to sharpen iron, and there to be a mentor (pastor or current elder) who works with them. This is a lengthy process. They anticipate this group meeting for 1-2 years as they work through the 75 questions (2nd part of the book).

One of the strengths of the 75 questions is that they are both theological and practical in nature. They want you to be able to apply your theology in the context of the local church. It is not merely an academic exercise.

“Doctrinal accuracy is indispensable for elders, but it is not enough to preserve the health of the church. Truth must shape life, and truth must be taught to others.”

The view of church elders they communicate is grounded in the pastoral epistles. There is a great concern for holding to the deep truths of the faith, living on the basis of those truths and teaching them while inviting imitation as well. Sound doctrine produces sound living. Both are necessary for a healthy church. And therefore healthy elders.

They also bring us back to Ezra to understand that the real power at work is God. They pick up on the oft used phrase in Ezra “the good hand of the Lord was upon him”. God was at work for Ezra to fulfill his calling to “study, do and teach” the Law to God’s people. They offer a God-centered approach to training (and being) elders.

In the chapter Making Progress, they offer seven foundational principles. You could boil them down to God produces growth in those He gave spiritual life through the appointed means as the Spirit works over time in the community of God.

They are also honest about the challenges and obstacles on will likely face, particularly the world, the flesh and the devil. Community is intended to help us by seeing in us what we can’t see in ourselves due to blind spots.

There is also a chapter on identifying potential elders. They affirm exclusively male eldership (later they mention deaconnesses as an option, not a mandate). They briefly cover the character of the men. They encourage current leaders to pray, watch potential officers and challenge them in growth and service (like studying the 75 questions). Not rocket science, but too often we forget to take our time. We can feel the burden of needing new elders (especially if you have a rotating Session, one that has time limits for terms).

The second section moves into the questions. Each question will have a series of biblical passages to look up, resources for further study and often a few questions to flesh out some aspects of it. I found no discernible pattern to the questions (like we see in the subject matter of a confession of faith). There are questions about the Scripture and how to use it in ministry to others, worship services, counseling others, resisting sexual temptation, legalism, prayer, the atonement, the person of Christ, the Trinity and more. The questions are similar to those we’ve begun to use in our presbytery.

In addition to the supplemental questions, sometimes they provide some instruction on a question. It is concise and typically good. For instance, knowing sound doctrine, the patterns to recognize in false doctrine and how to defend sound doctrine. They continue to focus on theology applied. They discuss same-sex practice to distinguish those who struggle with SSA and those who “embrace and actively engage in same-sex activity”. This, I believe, is how the Bible discusses the issue. They are not buying into the extra-biblical concept of orientation.

Image result for learning to crawlThe first additional resource for discipleship is a tool for a “basic introduction to the Christian life.” It is sort of a “now what” after a person believes. They offer some basics to bible study and then lay it out like how a child grows: eating, walking, talking (prayer), trusting etc. There are lots of verses to look up in each section but it does provide a good process for new believers similar to the old Navigator study guides I used after my own after my conversion.

The second one is a series of lessons from 2 Peter. This is helpful in teaching people the systematic, consecutive reading of Scripture. It helps provide balance.

I would envision using this as part of a small group to develop future leaders over the course of 2 years. This could be followed with the course I’ve been updating. These parts could balance each other out well and make for prepared and godly elders.

As a result, this is a book that pastors and sessions should definitely take a look at as they seek to train men. It could also be used for continuing “education” of elders. They  shouldn’t stop learning and growing and this and the books by Thune and Timmis could be helpful in that regard. While the book itself is not long or difficult to read, the Scripture references and resources make the material meaningful and as deep as time and energy permits.

[As noted above, I received a complimentary copy for the purposes of review.)


Often Philippians is called “the Epistle of joy.” There is much there about joy. But as I preach through it, I’m discovering it is also “the Epistle of conflict.”

On Sunday I preached on Philippians 4:1-3. It was a short week of preparation, and a busy few days for the holiday. After I preached the sermon, I wish I had developed a few things more thoroughly. I needed to meditate on this text more thoroughly (more so than usual, I suppose).

Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

This passage begins with a reference to the conflict without. Paul calls on them to “stand firm”, applying the realities of gospel humility and discipleship he’s been discussing since the 2nd chapter of this letter. They are to stand firm against the Gentiles who persecute them, and the Judaizers who seek to lead them astray into ritual. Both are enemies of the cross.

They were to stand together as “my beloved brothers (a better translation of the phrase), whom I long for, my joy and crown … my beloved.” Philippi was a Roman colony. Many of the people gained their Roman citizenship by their service in the military. They were familiar with fighting formations requiring them to stand firm together. Now they stand no simply as fellow soldiers but people bound in love by Jesus.

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Our conflict with them is about the claim of the gospel. It is about the contrast between living as good citizens of Rome versus living as citizens of the heavenly city (1:27; 3:20).

In this conflict we are truly enemies, citizens of two different and warring kingdoms. They may use earthly weapons against us, but we are not to use earthly weapons (material or immaterial) against them. We’ve been given the armor of God (Eph. 6).

We can find points of commonality with the surrounding culture. We won’t disagree on everything. Those points of commonality are windows of opportunity for the gospel (to borrow Rick McKinley’s terminology).

What we cannot do is compromise. Acknowledge common ground, but not compromise. There are also windows of opposition we must contend with. They must be converted, which includes changing their views that are out of accord with sound doctrine. Stand firm in the face of an intimidating enemy though outnumbered. Our God will be faithful.

But remember that at the moment, they are your enemy, not your brother, and should be treated as one.

Paul then addresses conflict within the congregation. You can’t stand firm together if you are at odds with one another. Internal conflict distracts us from mission, even if it is about how to carry for the mission.

Paul urges both women to work it out, come into accord. First this indicates that women are important and do important things. They were gospel partners with Paul. Their conflict was not incidental to church life but threatened it. No conflict between siblings in Christ is insignificant. They must be worked out, and both parties bear responsibility to do so. It was not just Euodia’s responsibility. Not just Syntche’s responsibility.

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If we think of this in terms of the slippery slope of conflict these women were likely “peace-faking” by engaging in flight. They were avoiding each other, operating on opposite sides of the room, refusing to acknowledge each other. Perhaps there had been times of peace-breaking, fighting. There may have been verbal assault. Nothing as serious as Cain deciding to kill Abel, but still attacks upon one another.

Image result for cain and abelThey weren’t living like people who were beloved brothers & sisters. Instead they were treating one another as enemies. They needed help to begin treating one another as beloved siblings. They needed help to get on the same page when it comes to worship, discipleship or evangelism. Those are things that matter, but frequently we act like our way is the only way. The need to agree with one another is even more important when we are fighting about things unrelated to the gospel (carpets, paint, loans or which property to buy).

Paul calls the “true companion” to act as a mediator to make peace, a peace rooted in Christ’s dying on the cross for our sin. Unity was to be restored by repentance and reconciliation, which are impossible apart from the gospel which makes us sons of God in the first place. Because of the gospel we treat the sins of our brothers differently than the sins of our enemies. This is important because of how we engage in conflict. The issues we disagree on are likely not sinful. What is sinful is our peace-faking and breaking. That sin is contrary to our status as brothers. In the conflict with the world it is in keeping with our status as enemies.

We are to once again find the common ground, the places we agree. Stand firm in your agreement. Then find a place of principled compromise among options that fit within biblical boundaries. You don’t compromise with the enemies of the cross, but you do with your beloved brother.

Sadly we often reverse this. We compromise with the world and stand our ground with our brothers as if they were our enemies.

Paul wants gospel partners to sort it out, as much as it depends on them. He knew the pain of a sharp disagreement that dissolved his partnership with Barnabas (Acts 15). We know he reconciled with Mark. We don’t know about Barnabas.

Paul recognizes that we engage in two different conflicts: within and without. How we respond is different. Don’t reverse them or you’ll really mess it all up. Get it right and you’ll see the gospel work powerfully in your community.

 


Last year at this time I was preaching through Jonah. I wish I had Tim Keller’s latest book at the time. The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy should raise any controversy with the title. I’m sure there will be plenty to annoy some. But I loved reading this book.

The book is dedicated to John Newton whose life and ministry made a big impact on Keller. Those familiar with Newton’s writings will find his influence in many places.

He makes two passes through the book, exploring the themes that are found there. The first pass (9 chapters) handles the text sequentially. The second goes back through thematically to address our relationship to God’s Word, God’s world and God’s grace.

It is in Keller’s typical winsome style that points out where we tend to go wrong whether to the left or the right. He’s an equal opportunity offender, but it is so gentle I don’t understand how people get so mad at him. He’s generally right.

In the introduction he alludes to one of his other books. In the first half of the book Jonah is like the younger brother who goes to the far country to avoid his father. In the second half he’s like the angry older brother who is upset about the Father’s joy in repentance.

Jonah stands out as the willfully disobedient prophet to a willfully disobedient people. He is the representative Israelite. Jonah doesn’t trust God. He doesn’t trust that God has his best interests in mind. He is so like, … us.

“And that is the problem facing Jonah, namely, the mystery of God’s mercy. It is a theological problem, but it is at the same time a heart problem. … The story of Jonah, with all its twists and turns, is about how God takes Jonah, sometimes by the hand, other times by the scruff of the neck, to show him these things.”

Keller starts with the storms of life. “All sin has a storm attached to it.” (btw: I read people who claim Keller never talks about sin, or uses the word. What are they talking about?!) Jonah’s disobedience brought a literal storm not only into his life but the lives of the Gentile sailors. Sin’s storms don’t remain isolated to the particular sinner in question. “Sin is the suicidal action of the will upon itself.” He does clarify that most storms are from the condition of sin, meaning that we live in a fallen world and we don’t need to find the particular sin/sinner behind each hurricane, flood or drought. But know that when we sin, there are often earthly consequences.

For the Christian, the storms of life (afflictions) are meant to produce good. He is at work in this storm to bring Jonah to Ninevah for them to receive mercy. For example, I saw a recent interview with Donna Rice who experienced a storm of publicity due to her affair with Senator Gary Hart. She said that the storm brought her back to her Christian faith.

Next Keller explores the idea of who our neighbor is. These Gentiles are better human beings than the prodigal prophet. God is using the disobedient prophet to lead Gentiles to faith and repentance through his disobedience. Jonah only wants to see himself as an Israelite, as part of a faith community. He needs to also see himself as part of humanity, the broader community. Frankly, Christians have the same problem. We don’t have much concern with those around us as long as our lives are going okay. And so Keller explores common grace.

He then moves into the “other”, the question of identity and those who have a different identity than we do. Jonah’s national identity blinded him in many ways. The early church would struggle with the same problem. We use that identity to exclude other people unnecessarily. We dehumanize people who don’t share our ethnic, national or political identities. We’ve seen this as one of the early steps in the holocaust and other genocides (Rwanda, Armenian etc.). This was very helpful as I preached thru Philippians 3 and the false identities we can boast in.

Keller moves to the pattern of love, and the heart of the gospel with substitution. Jonah is a type of Jesus who would die for our sins instead of sins of his own. The storm of God’s merciful wrath (the phrase I used in my sermons, adapted by a phrase of Luther’s) is stilled.

“To deny God’s wrath upon sin not only robs us of a full view of God’s holiness and justice but also can diminish our wonder, love, and praise at what it was that Jesus bore for us.”

In this context he connects wrath with love too. God’s wrath is directed at actions (and people) who harm what He loves. He again clearly articulates the gospel contrary to what the discernment blogs claim about him.

The Gentile sailors end up offering praise and sacrifices to YHWH after the storm is stilled. Keller notes the irony in that Jonah sought to avoid bringing truth to Gentiles, aka wicked pagans, but actually does anyway.

Image result for jonahHe then delves deeper into grace as Jonah wrestles with God in the belly of the fish. He’s gone as low as he can go (the literary irony) because he didn’t go up to Ninevah. Jonah “does business” with God only when he can no longer run from God. He’s trapped and finally admits the ugly truth. Often God has to bring us to similar places before, like addicts, we admit we’ve made a complete mess of things by our disobedience and can’t fix it.

With Jonah finally going to Ninevah, the discussion moves to repentance. They repented of their injustice, and moved toward justice. They were a violent, oppressive people. Repentance meant turning away from their violence and oppression. When the gospel calls us out of sin, it also calls us out of injustice. This is Keller’s connection between the gospel and “social justice”. He’s not preaching a social gospel, but the gospel of Christ’s penal, substitutionary atonement with implications for justice in society. He’s not preaching a privatized faith nor a civil faith or religion. Personal faith is lived out in society as well as the community of faith.

With God relenting another storm arises, this time in Jonah’s heart. He’s beyond angry. In Jonah’s mind, relenting from destruction means the inevitable destruction of Israel. He’s blind to Israel’s sin, apparently, just as we tend to be to our sin and the sin of our communities.

God responds with patience and instruction. He is not only concerned about Israel, but all these people who also bear His image. He even cares about the livestock. That’s who He is. Unlike Jonah, Jesus wept over Jerusalem over the impending destruction for its wickedness.

“They want a “God of love,” but a God of love who does not get angry when evil destroys the creation he loves is ultimately not a loving God at all. If you love someone, you must and will get angry if something threatens to destroy him or her.”

Both God’s righteousness and His love are functions of His goodness! We don’t play them against one another but embrace them both as grounded in His goodness. So, this same God can justify the wicked because He loved them in sending His Son as a propitiation for their sin. Jesus satisfied His righteousness and His love. He didn’t satisfy His righteousness so God was then free to love.

Keller then moves to the three final themes of his book. Like Jonah (following Adam and Eve) we struggle to believe God’s Word is good for us. We minimize His wisdom and magnify ours. We trust our word over His.

“Sin always begins with the character assassination of God. We believe that God has put us in a world of delights but has determined that he will not give them to us if we obey him.”

Keller defends the substitutionary atonement from the charge of “divine child abuse” as infamously made by Steven Chalke. That charge does damage to the Trinity, not simply atonement. The one God in three persons works to save us. Jesus is not some lesser being offered to change the mind of an angry deity.

IImage result for dodo birdn terms of our relationship to God’s world he returns the question of our neighbor. Calvin, he notes, reminded us that all our neighbors bear the image of God and we must remember that. Keller applies this to politics. We must find a way between the erroneous beliefs that we should just preach the gospel and avoid politics, or that politics is all-important. The two party system tries to push a “package deal” on us instead of allowing us to vote “a la carte”. Pro-life Democrats are going the way of the dodo. But this doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Republican. They have anti-Christian views too. The gospel of the One who died for us when we were His enemies, calls us out of our partisanship and demonization of the other side. Loved by One we hated, we can begin to love ones we hated.

Keller moves into how privileged status can play out in perverting justice. The same laws should apply to all within a society. He mentions “citizens over immigrants” without any mention of their legal or illegal status as immigrants (I think this matters in light of Romans 13). But immigrants and other vulnerable groups should not be taken advantage of by the powerful. Christians, who worship a just God, should care about justice.This is not at the expense of the God but on account of the gospel.

“We must realize that since all our social problems stem from our alienation from God, the most radical and loving thing you can do for a person is to see him or her reconciled to God.”

IImage result for c.s. lewisn our relationship to God’s grace Keller clearly puts a changed life as a result of salvation, not the cause of salvation. In this it differs from every other religion. Here he explores Lewis’ The Four Loves to discuss our attachment to our people and culture. Lewis affirms a love for our people, but notes “We all know now that this love becomes a demon when it becomes a god.” Love of country is not the same a fascism or racism. Lewis rejects anti-patriotism as extremism just as he rejected any nationalism that begins to denigrate and destroy those who are different. [It is important to understand what is meant when someone uses the term ‘nationalism’. It can simply refer to the love of country that is normal for most people, and not the political movement used to justify the supremacy of a nation.] When do you know love of country has gone toxic? When it ignores the blemishes of its past. EVERY country has very ugly blemishes in its past. In the present, every country is full of “good” and evil people (law abiding vs. criminals). Lewis notes that when a country begins to intentionally suppress or erases its misdeeds they begin to express racial/national/ethnic superiority. We then find ourselves on the doorstep of racism and oppression. This is a very helpful section. This is pertinent because it helps us to understand what Jonah experienced in himself. Turning from grace he was in the throes of a toxic nationality that wanted to withhold God from other people groups.

Jesus purchased people from every tribe, tongue, nation and language. The gospel mission focuses on loving other people groups, not just your own. This is the heart of Jonah’s struggle and ours. Will we embrace the mystery of God’s mercy or will we try to bottle it up as exclusively for people just like us? Jonah doesn’t resolve that question in his life, because it isn’t fully resolved in the readers. The question is, what will you do next knowing that God cares about those people too?

In the future I hope to read Anthony Carter’s book on Jonah,Running From Mercy: Jonah and the Surprising Story of God’s Unstoppable Grace, which was released at about the same time.