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Posts Tagged ‘Christian Living’


Another vacation means reading another volume in the “Theologians on the Christian Life” series of books. So far I’ve read the volumes on Newton, Luther, Bavink and Edwards. I enjoy these books tremendously as they interact not just with their theology but also their practice.

This summer I chose Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever written by Michael Horton. I had some hesitancy about this volume. I haven’t read any Horton in years having grown weary of polemical theology, and not finding his expressions of two-kingdom theology all that helpful. I always seemed to be left saying “And?” when he talked about it.

This book was a pleasant surprise. It was a little more weighted toward theology than some of the others, but that theology was a necessary background to understanding how Calvin viewed life in Christ. There was a good progression of thought throughout the book. There were no exceedingly long chapters. There were plenty of quotes from Calvin and others who have produced volumes on his life and thought to make Horton’s points. I found it to be an edifying and encouraging volume in this series.

As he notes, Calvin’s was a very different time. The Reformation had been spreading throughout Europe and nation-states were gaining some measure of independence from the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor. Like today there were many political and religious refugees in Europe, and many of them made their way to Geneva. In the religious reforms they were still in the process of sorting out how to implement what they believed. Calvin was one of the people working to bring the Protestants together as some differences seemed to be driving them apart.

Church was a central part of life with daily services part of many people’s routine or rhythm of life. It was a less distracted time, even if sin still found its way to manifest itself abundantly. As a result of this, some of how Calvin viewed the Christian life is anachronistic, or at least seems to be to us with personal devices, long commutes, mass media and more. Christian living, while personal, was far more public than we see today.

As one of the great figures in the Reformation we tend to think he was a parochial as we can be. There was no “Reformed tradition” or heritage for Calvin to draw upon. He drew upon the larger tradition of the Church, eastern and western. He was influenced, not only by Augustine, but also by Chrysostom, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and Bernard of Clairvoux among others. He interacted with Luther and Melanchthon to find common ground. He was not impressed with Zwingli. He spent time during his exile with Bucer and found that a great benefit. He influenced many of the next generation of leaders, like John Knox. Calvin was not an innovator but a man who lived as part of a theological community that exceeded his geography and time.

Horton begins where the Institutes begins: the knowledge of God and self. We were made to be in relationship with God and to reflect or reveal His glory as His image. So, to know God is to know ourselves in greater measure even if we see what we are not. Calvin was no fan of speculative theology. We cannot know God in the abstract, but know Him in Christ who came in the flesh to exegete the Father. We know God through His works, and so we recognize the divine drama or great Story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Glorification. All of Scripture reveals this larger Story. We see some differences between how the Reformers and Roman Catholicism viewed general revelation and common grace. He saw our depravity going deeper so that no one was neutral when examining our world and/or doing theology. The pursuit of truth is distorted by our depravity. General revelation is not simply a “dimmer light but a different light than special revelation” because it does not speak of redemption.

Like Luther, Calvin was a theologian of the cross rather than a theologian of glory. God is known through Christ, and Him crucified. We do not seek to climb “ladders of speculation, merit and mystical experience” to gain union with God. Rather we are united to Christ crucified and resurrected for us to gain knowledge of God.

In this great drama there are actors and a plot. Here Horton explains that for Calvin the solas of the Reformation were a fabic, not independent statements. Similar to TULIP which was formulated long after Calvin’s death, they stand or fall together. Scripture is our final authority because it is God speaking to us about the Son through the inspiration and illumination of the Spirit. The great actor is the Triune God, not merely dogma but “the heart of reality in which we live and move and have our being.” The Incarnation of the Son reminds us that matter is good, not evil. That there is nothing inherently sinful about humanity itself despite its weakness and limitations. Our sinfulness is tied to being “in Adam” not simply being human. So Calvin did not hold to a Spirit-matter dualism as did medieval Rome and early Anabaptists. Rather, God made matter and uses it to His good purposes. One application of this is that the Spirit works thru the Word, contrary to the views of the Anabaptists and other fanatics.

The other actors in this are people, and so Horton moves quickly through Calvin’s anthropology. He is always contrasting this with the views of Rome expressed through the medieval church. This brings us to providence and grace as God works to redeem fallen humanity. Horton contrasts providence with the Stoic notion of fatalism. We see a God at work to redeem us, not a people who seek to redeem themselves. We see people who are lifted up by a Redeemer, not who lift themselves up by their bootstraps. We see people who are sought (and found) by God though they hide in the bushes, not people who seek after a God who hides. When we grasp both providence and grace, our circumstances are not punishment from a Judge but instruction from a Father who seeks to mold and shape us.

“Properly speaking, God is not angry with his elect, whose diseases he cures by afflictions as it were by medicines.”

From here, Horton proceeds to Christ the Mediator who came to us and for us. He uses a phrase that will be used often within the book, here with reference to His two natures: “distinction without separation”. This is a difficult formula to maintain but it was the heart of the Chalcedonian formula which made its way through Calvin’s theology. This formula, and how it is understood, was a key in the disagreements about the Lord’s Table that separated the Protestants. Horton’s comments on this are quite helpful.

As the Mediator, Jesus does not merely provide assistance to us but saves us to the uttermost. Yet, we live in the gap between inauguration and consummation, the already and not yet tension is at the heart of Calvin’s spirituality. Our salvation is received in union with Christ. We don’t receive His benefits so much as Christ Himself. He brings all those benefits with Him. They are distinct but without separation because we don’t have a divided Christ. Horton distinguishes these benefits in another chapter. They include effectual calling, justification, sanctification, and adoption. He always distinguishes the Protestant view from the Roman view, particularly as expressed in the Council of Trent.

With this heavier theology out of the way, Horton moves into life in the Body of Christ. Our Christian living is not a private thing, but one that is lived in the context of the Christian community. This is important for our individualistic society to hear so we can be freed from the shackles of a privatized faith. For Calvin it was corporate worship (Word, sacrament & prayer) that fed our personal worship (Word & prayer), and not the other way around. Corporate worship is where we learn how to read the Word and pray. We apply that in our personal and family worship. Community has precedence over individual. This is a radical statement today. Yet at we look at love and the fruit of the Spirit we see they all require others. The Trinity is an eternal community or fellowship of love. We have been made in God’s image to be a community or fellowship of love, not simply a periodic gathering of saved individuals.

This plays out in seeking grace in public worship, not medieval spirituality. We do not ascend to God, but Christ descended to us. We do not seek seclusion like the monks and nuns, but live in Christ in the midst of the world. Horton speaks of Calvin’s views of the preached Word, baptism, confession of sin (a good thing in worship!) and the Lord’s Table.

“The only way to serve God well is to serve our fellow believers. Since our good deeds cannot reach God anyway, he gives us instead other believers unto whom we can do good deeds. The one who wants to love God can do so by loving the believers.”

Horton continues with worship, discussing visual representations and music. These are some of Calvin’s more controversial views regarding worship today. While I want to keep the images of Christ out of our worship, I don’t want to keep the instruments out. I don’t see how they are part of the shadows and ceremonies. I see instruments in the heavenly visions of Revelation. If they are symbolic, what do they symbolize (it notes the singing, so….)? Music seems circumstantial to me. We don’t have any “authorized” tunes. So we waste our time, energy and breath arguing over such things. I’m sure God is more concerned with whether I strummed my guitar for him or myself, or if you listened to the instruments for his glory or simply your pleasure, than whether or not the corporate worship used instruments or not. But I digress.

Horton then brings us to Calvin’s view of prayer as the chief exercise of faith. Horton notes “true worship consists not in outward rights but in casting ourselves on the Father’s gracious care in Christ and by his Spirit.” He interacts with God’s providence and prayer so that prayer is one of the instrumental means of God’s providence. For Calvin prayer was “to the Father, in the Son and by the Spirit.” Our union with Christ also means that we do not pray alone but that Christ is praying not just for us, but with us. Our prayers are an echo of His prayers for us, we are following His lead because of the work of the Spirit in us resulting from our union.

You can’t talk exhaustively about Christian living without touching upon the Law of God. Horton brings in Calvin’s views in the tenth chapter. Like Luther, Calvin utilized a law and gospel distinction. “Calvin also appropriated Melanchton’s threefold use of the law.” The Law drives us to Jesus as He is presented to us in the Gospel. As justified people, the law shows us the pattern of holiness the Son wants to create in us by the Spirit. Law and gospel are distinct but not separate. Christians hear the law as the words of a Father, not a Judge; wisdom and guidance, not condemnation; and cry out to the same Father to help them walk in this way that pleases Him. Horton then summarizes Calvin’s view of these “house rules” expressed in the Ten Commandments.

Horton then addresses this new society, the church, as a theater of God’s fatherly care. Christian living includes finding a faithful church and making disciples. In church we are fed and guided by pastors and elders. We receive God’s hospitality from the deacons. Horton explains Calvin’s view of elements and circumstances regarding worship and how legalism turns circumstances into binding elements. License turns elements into circumstances. “Thus, the Reformer could see even among elements a ranking order, prizing unity over polity. Here we see a man of principle, to be sure, but among the principles was love. While wanting to obey everything that Christ commanded, he realized that not everything was equally clear or equally important.” And so my comments on music.

“Even when the church lies in ruins, we still love the heap of ruins.”

This new society exists, just as our original parents did, for a mission. For the creation mandate to be fulfilled, the Great Commission must be fulfilled. The church exists to make Christ as He is presented to us in the Gospel known, and to teach people to obey Him. The circumstances of the day meant that the Roman Catholic nations controlled the seas. But Geneva sent missionaries throughout Europe, many of whom died in France. The church brings Christ to the world.

We not only live in the church, but we live in the world. Here Horton explores Calvin’s view of the relationship of church and state, and Calvin’s understanding of the two kingdoms. There is discussion of moral law and its reflection in natural law. Christians don’t retreat from the world, nor do they think they can save the world (or creation) through “social justice”. This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t seek justice within our spheres of influence, but we have realistic expectations, goals and agendas. It also makes no sense to focus on race relations in society unless we are addressing them in the church. We don’t focus on sins in one kingdom while ignoring them in God’s kingdom. (My thoughts there)

We offer our gifts and abilities to the world, and the church, in terms of our vocation. The sacred-secular distinction has minimized the value of a layperson’s work in the world. Work that helps others survive or flourish is valuable work, not merely legitimate work. Jobs have value not simply as opportunities for evangelism, but for loving others by providing goods that enrich life. This is a big part of Christian living.

Lastly Horton ends with contemplation of glorification. We are not escaping the material world, but longing for freedom from sin; ours and others against us. We live in the not yet with regard to sin. This is intended to shape our lives in the already.

Horton lays before us a very thorough look at Calvin’s understanding of the Christian life. We exist for God, and to enjoy God. This means we live before the face of God at home, at work and at church. We live before the face of God and experience His grace because of Christ our Mediator in whom we experience all God’s blessings. Christian living is not about trying to attain God’s grace, but receiving it so we can glorify & enjoy Him. This was a great addition to the series.

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Most bloggers focus on the best books of the year. I’m not competent to rank books I haven’t read. I am often a little behind as I read based on needs not just desire. So I focus on the books I read in the last year. It was a light year as I spent more time than I wanted reading my own book to edit it. So, here we go!

The Creedal Imperative (ebook) by Carl Trueman. This is the first Trueman book I’ve read. Okay, only one so for. It was a very good book arguing for the use of creeds and confessions. It is not a very big book but it covers some important territory.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller. It starts off a bit dry and philosophical as it examines the ways various cultures have trying to answer the problem of suffering. He then argues that only Christianity has a satisfying answer to this problem. Then he goes into proactive mode in addressing how we can prepare the spiritual reserves, so to speak, to survive pain and suffering.

The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame. I started this book in 2012 or 13 but finished it in 2014. It is an extremely long book, but I thought an extremely helpful book I will return to as I consider various ethic issues (I recently returned to his material on the Sabbath in light of a discussion in Presbytery). I appreciate how Frame looks at things.

Against the Gods (ebook) by John Currid. This is another short book . This one focuses on the relationship between biblical material and ANE material. Currid argues for a polemical approach to understand similarities. It is helpful for helping to defend the faith from attacks based on archeological findings.

Antinomianism (ebook) by Mark Jones. I think this is a very important book that helps us make some important distinctions as we think about both grace and law. Jones focuses on the strains of antinomianism that arose during the age of the Puritans. He does make some modern application.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English Professor’s Journey into the Christian Faith by Rosaria Butterfield. The best part is the story of her conversion as a lesbian “gay theory” professor. There is much to learn about how homosexuals view the Christians. She found many of those views to not be necessarily true as Christians loved her and she read the Word. She also had to face how much life would change. I could do without the argument for exclusive psalmody, but there is much to benefit from otherwise.

Taking God at His Word (ebook) by Kevin DeYoung. This is a short, solid defense of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures. It is quite accessible to the lay person. Well worth reading, and keeping on hand to let others borrow.

Song of Songs by Tremper Longman III. I read this commentary for an upcoming series in Sunday School. It was a very helpful commentary on a quite, at times, confusing book.

Rooted by Raymond Cannata and Joshua Reitano. This is a great little book on the Apostles’ Creed designed to either be read alone or with a group. What is distinct about this book is the missional bent of the material. They don’t just want to help you expand your knowledge and understanding to to see the call to bring these truths into the world to the glory of God.

unPlanned by Abbey Johnson. This is one woman’s story about life as a Planned Parenthood director who comes face to face with the truth about Planned Parenthood. It is a very interesting story from a former insider. Part of the story involves the love she experienced from the majority of the pro-life protesters she saw on a regular basis. This is in stark contrast to the paranoia and fear so many PP people had when thinking about them. Eventually the dissonance grew to great after operating a sonargram during an abortion.

The Closer by Mariano Rivera. This was a very interesting book about the Hall of Fame (future) reliever. You can clearly see the providence of God. His faith is often in the background, but it is a great story even if you are not a Yankees’ fan.

Resisting Gossip (ebook) by Matthew Mitchell. There are not many books about the sin of gossip. This is one of the few, and it is a good, gospel-centered one. This book deserves a reading.

The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life by Ralph Davis. The former OT professor looks at Psalms 1-12. Excellent material with a very practical focus.

The Good News We almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung. This is another excellent book by Kevin DeYoung. This time he tackles the Heidelberg Catechism. It is accessible for younger Christians and filled with pastoral wisdom.

Parcells: A Football Life by Bill Parcells and Nunyo DeMasio. This is a very interesting book about Parcells’ life, football and the many people he worked with. It is fascinating from a leadership perspective, and will build most people’s understanding of football and how teams should be built.

The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism (ebook) by Gregory Beale. This is another important book addressing a contemporary problem. It is far more technical than DeYoung’s. It is geared more to pastors, but well-read lay persons would appreciate it.

Shame Interrupted by Ed Welch. This is an important subject for Christian growth. Shame is experienced by all, but can be crippling to many. It is a hidden root for many symptoms. Welch unpacks the gospel to show the ways it moves us from shame to honor.

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I’ve done a few posts on A Gospel Primer for Christians: Learning to See the Glories of God’s Love by Milton Vincent already.  This would be my review of this great little book.  As the title indicates, the focus on the book is on the gospel for Christians.  In the final part- Surprised by the Gospel- Pastor Vincent relates how he finally grasped that the gospel is ALWAYS the basis for our acceptance before God.  It is not just about our initiation to Christianity, and then we work our tails off to stay in God’s good graces.  He was at the end of his religious rope when he spent time meditating on Romans 5 and it all clicked for him.

The book includes a series of meditations on the gospel to rehearse or preach the gospel to yourself each day.  Then he includes 2 gospel narratives, one prose and the other poetic (see the Table of Contents and Forward). 

The heart of the book is really the meditations.  I recommend going through one a day, spending time to mull over the truth of what he is saying.  The goal is not to finish the book, but to sink the gospel and its implications increasingly deeper into your heart.  The gospel is not just about our justification, but about how Jesus severes the root of sin and is the power of godliness. 

“Never be content with your current grasp of the gospel.  The gospel is life-permeating, world-altering, universe-changing truth.  It has more facets than a diamond.  Its depths man will never exhaust.”  C.J. Mahaney

So this little book is intensely practical.  I highly recommend getting a copy and keeping it handy to drink deep of the gospel.

I’ll close this with a quote from Horatio Bonar that he includes:

“Terror accomplishes no real obedience.  Suspence brings forth no fruit unto holiness.  No gloomy uncertainty as to God’s favor can subdue one lust, or correct our crookedness of will.  But the free pardon of the cross uproots sin, and withers all its branches.  Only the certainty of love, forgiving love, can do this.”

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Tim Keller is coming out with another book, this one with the provocative title of The Prodigal God: Christianity Redefined Through the Parable of the Prodigal Sons.  I’m not sure how that makes God the prodigal, but I’d love to find out.  Keller’s work on the parable of the prodigal sons has been very helpful for me.  This will be a more exhaustive work on the subject.  From the WTS Books website.

This short book is meant to do no less than lay out the essentials of the Christian message, the gospel. It can therefore serve as an introduction to the Christian faith for those whoa re unfamiliar with it or who may have been away from it for some time.

This volume is not just for seekers, however. Many lifelong Christian believers feel they understand the basics of the Christian faith quite well and certainly don’t think they need a primer. Nevertheless, one of the signs that you don’t grasp the unique, radical nature of the gospel is that you think you do. Sometimes long-time church members find themselves so struck and turned around by a fresh apprehension of the Christian message of grace that they feel themselves to have been essentially “reconverted.” This book, then, is written to both curious outsiders and established insiders of the faith, to both the people jesus calls “younger” and “elder” brothers in his famous Parable of the Prodigal Son.

This is due out in October, so save your change!  (Update: the subtitle was changed to the Heart of the Christian Faith.) 

Due out much sooner, June, is John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Christian Life, part of his Theology of Lordship series.  I really like this series, and this would appear to be his course on ethics.  From the WTS Books website:

The third volume of Frame’s Theology of Lordship series, this book focuses on biblical ethics, presenting a method for ethical decision-making, an analysis of biblical ethical teaching focusing on the Ten Commandments, and a discussion of the relation of Christ to human culture.

“John Frame’s magnificent work on the Christian life fully endorses the authority of Scripture and practically addresses the need to consider the situations and people involved in ethical decisions.”
-Richard L. Pratt Jr., President of Third Millenium Ministries

Can’t get better than that!

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