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Posts Tagged ‘C.S. Lewis’


As a new Christian without a clue I stumbled into the Christian bookstore in Kenmore Square, uncertain about what to buy to better understand this new faith I barely understood. Among the various and sundry items I noticed a book that had sold over a million copies and won some award. The title was simply Knowing God by someone by the name of J.I. Packer. I wanted to know God, so I bought it.

That book, which I’ve read a few times since the initial read, has been one of the most important purchases of my life. After finally becoming a certified “Calvinist” I re-read the book and saw all the seeds had been sown by Packer in this book.

While struggling with sanctification and charismatic issues I picked up Keep in Step with the Spirit which also proved to be immensely helpful. While looking at RTS Orlando in 1991, I was able to go to the Ligonier National Conference on The Cross of Christ and Packer’s lectures were profound. He was not the most dynamic speaker in the line up, but his content was amazing. Steve Brown also stands out in my mind as impactful, though he got in “trouble” because people misunderstood him.

I have a long, storied history with J.I. Packer. He’s been one of the most important theological influences in my life, particularly in the early years. He kept me from any number of heresies. I am thankful for J.I. Packer, and was looking forward to reading Samuel Storms book Packer on the Christian Life in the Crossway series. It was time for vacation/study leave and time to read another volume in the series.

Samuel Storms is an interesting choice to write the volume on Packer. Sometimes the editors do that, choose a wild card from outside the person’s theological heritage. Storms is also a Calvinist who loves the Puritans. But Storms falls into the new Calvinist camp (non-denominational, non-confessionalist, baptistic and continuationist) while Packer himself is an old school Anglican who affirms the Westminster Confession (I’m pretty sure) as well as the 39 Articles. He is, therefore, denominational, confessional, paedobaptistic and a cessationist who isn’t too hard on his continuationist brothers and sisters.

“Theology, as I constantly tell my students is for doxology: … Theologies that cannot be sung (or prayed for that matter) are certainly wrong at a deep level, and such theologies leave me, in bot senses cold: cold-hearted and uninterested.”

The subtitle of the book is Knowing God in Christ, Walking by the Spirit, which brings both of the books I’ve mentioned into focus. It also sums up Packer’s understanding of the Christian life. It draws on many of Packer’s numerous books and articles.

As with all the volumes, Storms begins with a short biography of the subject. If you’ve read one of the biographies on Packer, there isn’t much that is new. But if you haven’t, you’ll get a good sketch of the man. One of the key events of his life was an accident as a child that kept him from sports and forced him into the library. Whatever your views of nature and nurture, Packer became an academic that we can’t be sure he’d be if he hadn’t had to wear a metal plate that encouraged the worst out of his peers. One key friendship was with Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, centered upon the Puritans. Both men were key in a Puritan conference and Banner of Truth. Lloyd-Jones’ call to separation from the Church of England at the Evangelical Alliance conference in 1966, along with Stott’s response, created a rift between the men. Packer would be despised by the the non-conformists like Lloyd-Jones (whom Packer still spoke highly of) and despised by the Anglicans who kept moving to the left (Storms credits Carl Trueman for this observation). Trueman thinks this is behind Packer’s move to Canada, far western Canada at that. He was, in a sense, in exile. Eventually the Church of England would go too far, and Packer along with many others would seek refuge among the African bishops. In many ways Packer has been a man without a home, looking for the city whose builder and architect is God.

“Self-denial is a summons to submit to the authority of God as Father and of Jesus as Lord and to declare lifelong war on one’s instinctive egoism.”

In terms of analyzing his view of the Christian life, Storms begins with the cross of Christ. Apart from this, none of what Packer believes about the Christian life makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, to me anyway, is that Storms doesn’t refer to Packer’s famous introduction to an edition of Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. This is one of the few places where Packer draws a hard line in the sand, calling the various alternative theories to particular atonement false gospels. Packer didn’t usually take such hard stances, but for him this was the place to take the hard stand. Packer didn’t normally do polemics, but when he did he did them well.

Packer affirms the necessity of the atonement due to our sinfulness, Christ’s substitution in our place to pay the penalty of said sinfulness and sin, and its propitiatory nature. Packer held to a cross that saved elect sinners, not to a cross that merely made salvation possible to every sinner to which faith must be added.

As a confessional Christian, Packer affirmed the authority of the Scriptures above all else. It is to this that Storms turns next. Here we see why Packer walked out of the synod of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster. It was their acceptance of same-sex unions contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. He, rightly, saw this as no small thing. Authority rests, not in culture, not in my personal interpretation or even the Church and its interpretation of the Bible, but the Scriptures themselves. There ultimately can be no living of the Christian life without an atonement and the Scriptures as our authority. This is not to reject Confessions and Catechisms. Packer encourages the use of catechisms to disciple believers new and old.

“In the New Westminster debate, subjectivists say that what is at issue is not the authority of Scripture, but its interpretation. I do not question the sincerity of those who say this, but I have my doubts about their clear-headedness. The subjectivist way of affirming the authority of Scripture, as the source of the teaching that now needs to be adjusted, is precisely a denying of Scripture’s authority from the objectivist point of view, and clarity requires us to say so.”

The Christian life, entered by faith (self-abandoning trust) in the person and work of Christ, is about holiness. Storms makes great use of Rediscovering Holiness (a hard to find gem in my opinion) in this chapter. He also refers to Keep in Step with the Spirit to discuss Packer’s early struggle with Keswick theology (let go and let God for victory) from which he was saved by discovering John Owen. Missing is Holiness is about the heart that results in actions, not simply outward conformity to rules. From him I discovered the hard truth that the holier we are the more discontent we will be with our holiness. True holiness is empowered by the Holy Spirit, not by us. Packer writes of the opposition to holiness. We are taken to God’s gym and made to sweat as unholiness leaves the body. Holiness involves a life of repentance driven by self-examination (not simply introspection) and the war on pride in our hearts. It isn’t simply a personal and individual thing, but God places us in a community to help us become holy precisely because holiness is about love and without a community we can’t grow in love (and forgiveness).

“Purity of heart is indeed a matter of willing one thing, namely to live ever day of one’s life loving God.”

Having defined holiness, Storms moves into the process of sanctification. Here he leans on Hot Tub Religion, another hard to find gem. You may begin to think that books on sanctification don’t sell well. Storms returns to the influence of John Owen whom Packer called “God’s chemo for my cancered soul.” He address the synergism of sanctification revealed in the God who works in us to will and work according to His good purpose (Philippians 2). It is the transformation of our desires, disposition and motives.

“God’s method of sanctification is neither activism (self-reliant activity) nor apathy (God-reliant passivity), but God-dependent effort.”

The Christian life, as already mentioned, is a struggle. Storms brings us to Romans 7 to discuss the problem of indwelling sin in the life of every Christian. Storms goes through the various views of this passage, but spends particular time explaining Packer’s view that this is the experience of Paul as a Christian (he provides further support for this view in an appendix). Paul affirms God’s law but struggles to do it. In Romans 8 we see that the sinful mind is hostile to the law. If we are honest, our obedience is always less than we desire it to be. We drift. We are prone to wander. This all drives us back to Jesus and Him crucified for our deliverance. And yet we do have the Spirit at work in us to put sin to death (back to Romans 8). We are changed people, but not as thoroughly changed as we ought nor long to be.

In keeping with Romans 8, Storms brings us the Packer’s views on the person of the Spirit who provides the power of Christian living. Like many of the Puritans, Packer held to experiential Christianity, not simply intellectual or rational Christianity. We must be born again, and we must have the Spirit dwelling in us. While personally a cessationist, Packer was not as rigid in addressing charismatics as, say, John MacArthur. But Packer does not limit the work of the Spirit to the gifts of the Spirit. His focus is on the fruit of the Spirit, produced in sanctification. There is that word again. The Christian life is taken up in sanctification; a sanctification that flows out of knowing God in Christ through the atonement we know about through the Scriptures.

“Our lack of love for praying may be an indication of all-round spiritual debility. … Prayer will consume sin, or sin will choke prayer.”

One of the ways this all works out is prayer, which is the next chapter in the volume. He discusses hindrances to prayer as well as the activity of prayer: petition, conversation, meditation, praise, self-examination, and lament. Growth in holiness is produced in part by a commitment to prayer. The same Spirit who works in us to will and work, works in us to draw near to the Father thru the Son to express our hearts.

Connected to prayer (and Scripture) is the role of guidance in the Christian’s life. We do need to discern the will of God. Many of Paul’s prayers for others found in Scripture relate to this need on their part and ours. Packer connects this to the doctrines of adoption and God’s sovereignty. God’s guidance comes primarily from the Scriptures which were written for us upon whom the end of the ages has come (1 Cor. 10). Guidance is not helpful without a commitment to submit to God’s guidance. We must accept His will as our own. As such, Packer rejects fleeces and signs as not normative for Christians. That is not how we ought to seek guidance, though we see some saints of old, who didn’t have the whole Bible, did receive guidance this way.

“Discernment comes through listening to Scripture and those means of grace that relay biblical teaching to us in digestible form- sermons, instruction talks, hymns, books, Christian conversations and so forth.”

Christian living takes place in the context of suffering. We can suffer from unwanted temptations and struggles with sin, our bodies that won’t work right, persecution, and hard providences. Suffering is inevitable. Packer does note that God is particularly gentle with new Christians, so often suffering can become more profound the more we mature. Packer, like Luther, was a theologian of the cross. He rejects the triumphal theology of glory that has capture the heart of so many American Christians. Such triumphalism often points to some failure on our part as the cause of suffering. We need to identity the particular (often unconnected secret) sin so God will restore a suffering-free blessing. Such people aren’t growing in perseverance and character (Rom. 5), but remain immature as they reject God’s purposes in their lives. Packer speaks of our weakness and grief as important in helping us grow.

“… a most painful part of the pain of grief is the sense that no one, however sympathetic and supportive in intention, can share what we are feeling.”

In a sense, Storms brings us back to the beginning by talking about the theocentricity of the Christian life. Eternal life is knowing God, and Jesus whom he sent (John 17:3). It isn’t Christian living without Christ as the center of it. We are to believe in Christ, love Christ and hope in Christ. Christianity isn’t just doctrine, intellectual commitment. Christianity is personal commitment to Christ about whom the doctrines speak. It is vital union with Him, and experiential.

“Again, Christianity is Christ relationally. If there is a center or hub to all of Packer’s thought on the Christian life, it is here. Christian living is conscious, joyful, trusting relationship with Jesus of Nazareth.”

The book ends with a chapter on ending well. When Storms wrote the book, Packer was 88. He is still alive, and still writing (though much shorter books). He is increasingly weak, but still has a sharp mind. He is a model of using one’s faculties and energies to live and serve as long as one has them. One may retire from a vocation, but not from living as a Christian.

Overall this was a good and thorough contribution to the series. Storms made ample use of Packer’s writings. As I noted above there were some glaring omissions; not just his introduction to Owen’s book (he wrote introductions galore, actually), but also Faithfulness and Holiness which introduces the read to (and includes) Ryle’s classic Holiness. This is a hard to find volume, but of immense help. I blogged through this in April of 2007 for those who are interested.

In the bowels of the Bird and Babe (1999)

Storms did mention the need for community, but as I get older I see the need for friendship. Jesus had the 12, and the 3. He enjoyed the closest of friendships with Peter, John and James. When I visited England with friends, we spent a few days in Oxford. We had meals and drinks at the Eagle and Child. We went to the Inklings exhibit as well. Friendships are a part of community, but the special relationships that we enjoy that extend beyond our worship communities by geography and time in many cases.

As I go through an extended period of loss, I’m seeing the lack of friendships I have as a pastor. I don’t have enough. Storms mentioned Packer’s friendship with Lloyd-Jones (interrupted by controversy) and John Stott. I’m curious about his friendship with Sproul, which seemed to end with Evangelicals and Catholics Together. What is missing is Packer’s long time relationship with another of the important men in my life, Dr. Roger Nicole. Even Nicole’s biography seems skimpy on this account.

We think of these theologians’ writings, but often don’t think of their friendships (except for C.S. Lewis, it seems). These friendships, and sometimes how they end leave their mark. I know this is true in my life. If the Christian life is largely about love, and it is (!), then there should be more about the long term relationships with the people they loved (including spouses!) in these volumes.

Don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoy this series and that is why I read a volume on each vacation. I’m just pointing out a weakness in the series, and one in my life and in the lives of many men. At a time I find I need my friends, they seem busy. And I can’t point a finger at them for I realize I have not pursued them in their similar times of need and loss. Friendships matter.

Some of the bestest friends a man can have!

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Christmas means vacation. And vacation means reading a book from the Theologians On the Christian Life series by Crossway. I wasn’t sure which volume to read although my options were diminishing. I chose D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

The Doctor, as he is often called, is a favorite of Tim Keller (who is also deeply influenced by John Newton, C.S. Lewis and Richard Lovelace). I’ve found his books very helpful when I’ve read them. That can be tough in sermon preparation though because he’d preach multiple sermons on a text for which I’ll allot one. That means lots of reading. It is beneficial reading but time consuming.

I borrowed the documentary, Logic on Fire, from an elder in the congregation I serve. I found it funny that he would watch pro wrestling with his grandsons. It seemed “beneath” a man of his stature. It humanized him for me, actually. (Remember, this is 1970’s England not the jacked up sexualized WWE that arose in the 90’s).

The subtitle of Lloyd-Jone on the Christian Life is Doctrine and Life as Fuel and Fire. The premise of author Jason Meyer is doctrine is the fuel for life as a fire. Lloyd-Jones on the Christian Life: Doctrine and Life as Fuel and Fire (Theologians on the Christian Life) Meyer, Jason C. cover imageDoctrine is necessary to have a life on fire, a life alive and vibrant for the glory of God. Where there is no fire there is no doctrine. Doctrine hasn’t done its work until a life is on fire. Lloyd-Jones is not advocating for dead orthodoxy, mere intellectualism. We watch life and doctrine closely because Jesus joins them together.

This was what stood out about Lloyd-Jones’ preaching. The doctrine he preached “set him  on fire” so to speak. He was moved by it. When you are preaching, the greatest moments come when you are caught up by the doctrine. It produces holy affections in you (to borrow from Jonathan Edwards, a kindred spirit of Lloyd-Jones). The doctrine you preach affects you, filling you with a zeal and passion which is often called anointing or unction.

Jason Meyer is another interesting choice to contribute to this series. He is the “new” pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church and an associate professor of New Testament at Bethel College and Seminary. He has literally stepped into John Piper’s shoes. He’s not the first contributor connected to Desiring God ministries/Bethlehem. Tony Reinke’s volume on John Newton remains my favorite. I’m not sure if Meyers shares Piper’s charismatic leanings but it is interesting that he writes about a charismatic English congregationalist. In the second appendix on the Secession Controversy, Meyer notes he does approach that with a bias (more on this later).

The volume begins with a forward by CavFavorite Sinclair Ferguson. He relates receiving a letter from The Doctor while he was a young pastor serving in the Shetland Islands off the north coast of Scotland. He was amazed that The Doctor knew who he was. And so began a correspondence that encouraged this young pastor-theologian. He suspects that Lloyd-Jones was behind the invitation to give 2 addresses at a minister’s conference in Wales (among his first?) since the other speaker was in fact Lloyd-Jones. The Doctor was concerned with Christ’s church, and this meant mentoring and encouraging younger men like Sinclair Ferguson. Ferguson affirms Meyers’ thesis for this volume.

Meyer begins his volume in this series with this thesis. “The combustible combination of doctrinal precision and experiential power creates an explosion called the Christian life.” He then lays out 3 points for clarification:

1. Doctrine and life should be inseparable;

2. the right order is essential;

3. criticism is inevitable.

In explaining the first he notes that “Doctrine should start in the head, catch fire in the heart, and create a life aflame with true obedience in the will.” Christian life begins with doctrine, not experience (regeneration excepted, obviously). Like Paul, we follow what Ferguson calls the gospel logic of first gospel indicatives and then gospel imperatives (yes, toss some Ridderbos in there too). Criticism is inevitable, and inevitably from both sides (or extremes) if you are walking the line, to borrow from Johnny Cash. True gospel preaching is called legalistic by the antinomians and cheap grace by the legalists, as an example. If you only get criticism from one side, you have likely lost your gospel balance. As Charlie Peacock sings, “there’s no insult like the truth.”

He begins with a brief account of Lloyd-Jones’ life. Meyer frames it from his birth in South Wales to Barts, from London to his return to Wales as a pastor, and his return to London as the pastor of Westminster Chapel. When he was 10, his father’s store went up in flames. His father threw Martyn from the living space above the shop into the arms of men on the street. All lived but financial problems plagued them for years. Four years later his father declared bankruptcy.

Martyn began to take his studies more seriously and excelled. He did so well that he was accepted into St. Bartholomew’s Medical School (aka Barts) at the age of 16. As a student there he stood out and he caught the eye of the king’s physician. He was known for his diagnostic skill and soon was Sir Thomas Horder’s junior house physician. Lloyd- Jones began to note the connection between the presenting symptoms and “moral emptiness and spiritual hollowness” experienced by the royal family and other dignitaries of the land which resulted in “wickedness, excess and jealousy.”

Disillusioned, Lloyd-Jones began to attend Westminster Chapel. Dr. John Hutton’s preaching was powerful in his life. He became convinced of God’s power to save and change lives. Now a Christian, he wanted to get to the root of people’s problems. He spent over a year, losing over 20 pounds wrestling with whether or not to leave medicine for ministry. In early 1927 he married Bethan and moved back to Wales to begin a new career as a pastor among the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists.

In a time that de-emphasized preaching, Lloyd-Jones removed the drama society, musical evenings and preached Christ. In the eleven years of ministry there, it is estimated that 500 people were converted and joined the church.

Vocal problems caused him to leave Wales for London. Dr. Campbell Morgan, the pastor of Westminster Chapel, invited him to come and share the pulpit. He agreed thinking it a temporary situation. Within a few months, World War II broke out. Eventually the congregation and giving dwindled so they could only support one pastor. Morgan retired in 1943 and after the end of the war, rebuilding the congregation began. From London he gained great prominence as a preacher. He retired in 1968 after a diagnosis of colon cancer. His retirement allowed him to travel and preach until 1980. He died on March 1, 1981. His final recorded words were, “Do not pray for healing. Do not hold me back from the glory.”

What is interesting is that Lloyd-Jones is technically not a theologian. He was a prominent pastor. His books are collections of his sermons. They contain theology, but we tend to think of “theologians” as men who teach in seminaries, write books of theology and often make some significant theological contribution. That isn’t what he did, but he was one of the most significant men of the 20th century as far as the church is concerned.

Meyer then walks us through Lloyd-Jones’ doctrine. The Doctor did a series to theological/doctrinal lectures on Friday nights. His lectures seemed to loosely follow the pattern of the Westminster Confession. Meyer covers God the Father Almighty, Christ and Him Crucified, the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, Redemption Applied: Justification and Sanctification, the Church and Last Things. This section takes up about 70 pages. There is nothing too surprising here. He does explore Christ as Prophet, Priest and King which is a pet doctrine of mine. In each of these Meyer addresses how to apply the doctrine.

There is a confusing section on the Holy Spirit, however. Meyer writes:

“The Scriptures reveal that the Spirit is subordinate to both the Father and the Son.”

This sounds like a new and different ESS with the Spirit taking the place of the Son. But I don’t know, it is unclear if Meyer is speaking of the ontological or economic Trinity. With the swirling ESS controversy (which includes Crossway due to the ESV Study Bible notes) you’d think this would be crystal clear. Meyer does hold off the questions regarding the baptism of the Spirit for the first appendix.

Lloyd-Jones was a Congregationalist, yet in the chapter on the church Meyer says “The Doctor lays great stress on regenerate church membership because he believes he was not regenerate when he became a member at his local church.” And then, “The names on the local church membership roll should be names that are already written in heaven.” This is Meyer not Lloyd-Jones and I wish there was a citation or two.

Most Congregationalists hold to infant baptism. For The Doctor to reject infant baptism would be unusual. For him to reject it based on his personal experience would be eisegesis. I find the idea of “regenerate church membership” to be an example of “over-realized ecclesiology.” We can’t know who is regenerate and who isn’t. This is a misnomer at best. It is covenant promise denial at worst.

The book then shifts from doctrine to life. Each chapter he offers a definition, a diagnosis and prescriptions. He begins with the Word. Meyer starts with Lloyd-Jones’ doctrine of the Word (inspired, propositional, superintending work of the Spirit). He moves into why we find it difficult to read the Bible and then a number of prescriptions to cure our ailment.

Additional chapters in this section are on prayer, faith working through love, life in the Spirit at home and work, spiritual depression and the hope of glory as an acid test. There are discussions about the flesh, the world and the devil as part of the diagnoses of our spiritual ailments. We are not simply supposed to be “on fire” at church but also at home and work. He talks about emotionalism and counterfeits of love.

There is plenty of good material here, particularly in the chapter on spiritual depression. Here we see Lloyd-Jones’ advice to stop listening to yourself and talk to yourself; his version of preaching the gospel to yourself. While reading this chapter I synthesized a thought found there for my sermon that week.

“You can’t glory in Christ and salvation if you minimize your sinfulness and corruption.” CavPastor

Lloyd-Jones consistently pointed people back to Jesus. Our hope is found only in Christ. We receive Him, and His benefits, only by faith. As he addresses hope and assurance, Meyer essentially describes a three-legged stool: doctrinal test, experience test, and the morality test. None is sufficient in themselves. They are all held together, so to speak, by what he called the acid test, the hope of glory. This is where we sit when times are difficult.

Meyer than writes about the legacy of The Doctor. It is quite a legacy. You can still listen to some of his sermons on line. But his books which worked through books of the Bible are plenty and beneficial. At times one can forget that those books have sermons from various points in his ministry. As a result there may be multiple sermons on the same text with different concerns.

The books reflect his commitment to expositional preaching. He was important to the re-emergence of expositional preaching (working thru books). Anyone wanting to learn how to preach expositionally is well served to read his books.

Lloyd-Jones was also one of the key figures in reintroducing the Puritans to the Church. He was involved in the formation of Banner of Truth Trust, and sponsored a regular conference on the Puritans.

The first appendix covers a controversy surrounding The Doctor and one of the places where he seems inconsistent. Meyer notes some possible instances of eisegesis. At the very least his views are idiosyncratic on this issue. He doesn’t really fit in the common categories. He’s not Pentecostal, and not an ordinary charismatic (which has gotten more confusing for the rest of us with each successive wave). He does depart from historic Reformed Theology in separating the baptism of the Spirit from conversion. Reformed Theology generally affirms subsequent filling of the Spirit. MLJ seems to speak of those fillings as baptism. At times he used baptism to refer to the witness or sealing of the Spirit.

Lloyd-Jones rightly connects Word and Spirit throughout his theology. He also connects doctrine and experience. He thought, at least in this issue, Reformed Theology separated doctrine and experience. He thought they focused on doctrine while the Charismatic movement focused on experience. Where he errs (or is it Meyer’s interpretation) is thinking this was in asserting the Reformed intellectualism is a response to Charismatic fanaticism. This neglects the fact that the Reformed view predates the rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements.

On the one hand the baptism of the Spirit is to be sought, and on the other it is given sovereignly by God’s secret will. Seems a bit inconsistent. Does God only grant it if we seek it? Or does God grant it, like regeneration, so we receive blessings? A bigger problem is this could be considered not only as creating 2nd class Christians but also dividing Christ as though I can get some benefits and you get other benefits.

The second appendix is on the Secession Controversy begun with a sermon of his in 1966  at the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals. Lloyd-Jones was reacting to the ecumenical movement’s emphasis on unity in structure. Lloyd-Jones believed (rightly) that our unity rests in doctrine (and, I’d add, union with Christ). As a Congregationalist, Lloyd-Jones understood the Church differently than his Anglican friends J.I. Packer, John Stott and Philip Edgecomb Hughes. They wanted to see reform within the Church of England, not removal of faithful congregations from the Church of England. Lloyd-Jones saw denominations as fundamentally flawed and unnecessary. Faithful churches should form loose associations. The others saw denominations and state churches as part of the providence of God and sought to work in and thru them.

While relationships were strained, they seem to have recovered. But much damage was done in congregations and other relationships. As I read this appendix I thought of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. It struggles with groups seeking purity, and withdrawing from the denomination. It makes sense, we were born of such a thing. But the stakes, in my opinion, are significantly lower. Like the Secession Controversy, relationships are broken and bitterness sets in. I lament this.

Overall, this is a very good book. Meyer has done good work here in helping us understand Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ understanding of how we are to live. It is generally well written, aside from the instances mentioned above that lacked citations. This volume in the series is well-worth your time.

 

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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.

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TWashed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexualityhe controversy over the Revoice Conference is producing plenty of heat. For me it is a frustrating conversation because of the heightened emotions, quotes that may or may not be taken out of context, a lack of civility and the presence of shibboleths. It is hard to work through the maze of opinions to identify actual facts.

One of the key note speakers is Wesley Hill. This seemed like a good time to take his book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality off of my shelf and read it. It is only about 150 pages, and slightly larger than mass market paperback pages at that. Therefore the book reads quickly. I read it in my spare time over about 3 days.

He lays out the book like this:

Prelude: Washed and Waiting

1. A Story-Shaped Life

Interlude: The Beautiful Incision

2. The End of Loneliness

Postlude: “Thou Art Lightning and Love”

3. The Divine Accolade

Wesley grew up in the Church. As a member of the Anglican communion, he holds to general biblical orthodoxy. Wesley also struggles with same sex attraction, and has as long as he remembers.

“I have never found a book I could resonate with that tries to put into words some of the confusion and sorrow and triumph and grief and joy of the struggle to live faithfully before God, in Christ, with others, as a gay person.”

Wesley notes that his homosexuality has hindered his life and flourishing spiritually. It has not helped him. If I could put words into his mouth, he wishes God would flip a switch so he would no longer be a homosexual. Homosexuality is one of the many ways human nature has been distorted by sin “and therefore that homosexual practice goes against God’s express will for all human beings, especially for those who trust in Christ.”

“So this book is neither about how to live faithfully as a practicing homosexual person nor about how to live faithfully as a fully healed or former homosexual man or woman.”

He has concluded that it is healthier to live as one whose struggles are known to close friends than to live in the dark. He admits that he is young (late twenties at the time of writing it). He is in need of growth, knowledge and wisdom. He is writing as a homosexual Christian to homosexual Christians about being a homosexual Christian.

And here we come to one of the shibboleths! Some disagree with the use of that term. Rosaria Butterfield, for instances, argues against using it in her book on the basis of the fact that our identity is in Christ. Our identity shouldn’t be in our sin. Others have put for “sexual sufferers” as a suitable option in light of that. This too, however, focuses on our sin or at least the thorn in our side.

A novel idea might be to ask people what they mean by the phrase before we jump to conclusions and indicate we are not a safe person to talk to. Hill offers what he means by this phrase. In the introduction he mentions that “gay” or “homosexual” is an adjective because the main idea is the noun, Christian. That is his identity. Homosexuality is part of his life. A stubborn, painful part of his life.

In his prelude he focuses on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6.

“Washed and waiting. That is my life- my identity as one who is forgiven and spiritually cleansed and my struggle as one who perseveres with a frustrating thorn in the flesh, looking forward to what God has promised to do.”

He’s a Christian with a struggle. We all have a struggle. His makes him feel like “damaged goods”, something he mentions periodically in this book. I want to take this seriously as a pastor. To continually remind someone who feels like damaged goods that they need to repent for this disordered desires is like rubbing salt in the wound. They already feel damaged, broken, like a misfit. Some seem to want to exacerbate this loneliness and isolation even more. They know they are messed up- they need to know they are loved by a holy God.

It is hard to think that all your life will be an attempt to struggle well, not to actually succeed. Most homosexuals don’t experience a change of sexual attraction. This is due to the remnant of sin. Hill paints a picture of this struggle as he tells his story throughout the book. Many of us conservative Christians would be wise to listen. Not to excuse, but to exercise empathy. Too often we act like we’ll catch a disease.

Image result for island of misfit toysAt times it would be easy to dismiss him. Some of us have also felt profound loneliness for extended periods of time. Some of us have felt like misfits for most of our lives. We identify with the Island of Misfit Toys. He’s not saying only homosexuals experience this profound loneliness. Only that they do in fact experience it.

In A Story-Shaped Life he explains why he resists his same sex desires. He accepts the Story, not just some texts. I mean the story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. Those texts reflect the creation. We were not designed for same sex relationships. They are part of the fall brought about by sin. We all have disordered desires, and disordered sexual desires. Sin is living out of accord with how God made us to live. The Story includes redemption too. He’s a forgiven sinner, not a condemned sinner. He was washed, justified as Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 6. It is not our sin that defines us, but Christ in our justification.

“I abstain from homosexual behavior because of the power of that scriptural story.”

And so should we abstain from our deviant sexual desires. This story is a balm for our often raw soul.

“The gospel resists the fallen inclinations of Christian believers.”

While not explicitly calling his same sex desires sin, he frequently uses similar phrases. He doesn’t delight in them, or ask others to delight in them. He groans because it is difficult to be faithful in the face of such desires. But this is his goal, and the purpose of the community. These desires are an unwanted burden.

He explores Lewis’ comments on temptation from Mere Christianity.

“Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. … A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know that it would have been like an hour later.” C.S. Lewis

Before his extended reflection on loneliness, he has an intermission focused on Henri Nouwen. He kept his homosexuality a secret shared only with a few of his closest friends. He lived faithfully to the biblical sexual ethic. He was wracked with self-doubt, despair, loneliness and insecurity. In desperate need of intimate relationships, he seemed to also keep them at arms length fearing they would turn into something they shouldn’t. Here is one of the push-pulls of homosexuality: the need for healthy same sex relationships but the fear of sinful attraction. Like Nouwen, Hill longs to feel at home in the Father’s embrace.

In The End of Loneliness Hill focuses on the need for community. This is the very thing most people with sexual disorders fear. They don’t want to be exposed, revealed. In the gay community there is no need to keep your attractions and desires secret. This is part of the big attraction- feeling like you fit in. The Christian community feels threatening to homosexuals, and I fear we don’t help ease this fear. It is often a place of hardship, particularly since you likely can’t find someone to share the rest of your life with. It’s not just that you haven’t found a spouse, but that your desires run in the wrong direction.

The longing for love is human. But in this case it is disordered, bent and twisted. One can begin to curse the longing that reflects our humanity.

“They are trading what seems to be the only satisfying relationships they have or could have for ones that will prove to be at once more painful (because of all the myriad effects of sin) and most life giving.”

In Thou Art Lightning and Love Hill introduces us to Gerard Manley Hopkins. This section included a rather uncomfortable quote from Frederick Buechner about Hopkins. A quote about “a beautiful boy in the choir” and “some street child” when moves closer to pedophilia. Yet Hopkins struggled to remain faithful despite his isolation and despair. Hopkins eventually saw this struggle as part of God’s loving purposes.

There is also a quote from Dallas Willard which distinguishes between temptation and sin: “But temptation also is not wrong, though it should not be willfully entered.” This seems out of place with the rest of his comments on same sex desire, so I’m a bit confused. It is temptation to sin, and must be rejected. We are tempted by our inordinate desire, or desire for something inherently sinful. Jesus was also tempted, though not by inordinate desire. He was tempted by others to commit sin. This the splitting of a theological hair: is it sinful to have a sinful desire? Or is the sin in letting the desire bear fruit? This is not a topic Hill takes up, which is unfortunate.

At the end he refers to Martin Hallett, a celibate homosexual Christian. Hallett speaks of his sexual orientation as a “gift”. Not that homosexual is a gift in itself, but that the struggle was a gift “because, under God’s sovereignty, it can lead to blessings.” In other words, God works good out of it that He couldn’t work in any other way. As John Newton noted, there is nothing given that is not needful and nothing needful that is withheld. God uses this struggle to humble, and to reveal the greatness of His grace and redemption.

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray,
    but now I keep your word.

75 I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous,
    and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. Ps. 119

Because this is a book, and a short one, of reflections it is not a book of theological exposition. Some may criticize it for that. There are other books for that. This is a book explaining why & how Wesley Hill struggles with his desire rather than following his desire. It is a window into the struggle for those of us who are heterosexual. You could treat this as the conversation you need to have but don’t have a friend with whom you feel comfortable having it.

CavWife and I both have had friends who punted on the faith to live in homosexual relationships. We have friends who left families too, to satisfy the sexual desire they told practically no one about. Some of us may have suspected, but there were no conversations about the struggle until they gave it up. I wish they’d shared this with friends. Maybe it would have turned out differently. But maybe it isn’t too late, God may grant repentance.

 

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No, not the C.S. Lewis novel.

There is a history book called The Last Battle by Stephen Harding. As WW II was ending in the European Theater, there was a battle which saw U.S. and German soldiers fighting together against SS troops to free some French honor prisoners imprisoned in a castle in Austria.

Historically, this is a very interesting event. As one reviewer noted, this would make for an excellent movie.

Much of the book is setting the scene for the battle. The first chapter, A Mountain Stronghold, gives the history of Schloss Itter, a castle at the entrance to Austria’s Brixental valley. It’s location provided strategic advantage and it was a fortified site before a castle was built. As a result, it had a storied and often bloody history. After Nazi Germany took control of Austria, they decided it would be a good location to house “honor prisoners”. They had to transform it from a schloss-hotel and art gallery into a prison. In between it served as a headquarters for the German Alliance for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco. Yes, the Nazis were pioneers in the anti-tobacco movement.

Prisoner-workers were sent to Schloss Itter to transform the building. Although secure, they wanted the prison to also be comfortable for the “honor prisoners”. These were generally political prisoners from other countries who were held for leverage. They were treated to far better conditions than ordinary prisoners. One prisoner-worker who transformed the castle was Zvonimir “Zvonko” Cuckovic. He was a captured resistance fighter of Croatian origin. He would remain at the castle performing maintenance, and would play a key role in the events surround the last battle of the European Theater.

“To put it simply, SS-Captain Sebastian “Wastl” Wimmer was a nasty piece of work.”

He then moves into the background of the warden of this political prison, the brutal SS-Captain Wimmer. He seemed an odd choice for these prisoners, especially considering his background in concentration camps. Here he was to keep them alive, not eliminate populations. He role in all of this was to abandon his post as the war was ending. This opened the door for their rescue. Had he been there, the prisoners would have just been killed.

The next two chapters focus on the honor prisoners themselves. He tells their stories, and many of them are interesting. What is particularly interesting is how many of them hated each other. They seemed unable to put their differences aside “for France.” They acted as if the others, not Germany, was the enemy. I am reminded of American politics today as so many politicians seem more afraid and critical of one another than the “enemies outside the gates.” So, while their stories are interesting, you don’t particularly gain affection for them. There was one exception for me, The Bounding Bask, who stayed in shape from his professional tennis playing days in the hopes of escape. He escaped, and was recaptured, three times. This came in handy when it was time to “escape” and find allied forces to rescue them. Borotra’s knowledge and stamina saved the day for the others.

Harding then describes the unfolding series of events that put the prisoners in peril. As the front lines collapsed in on Germany, the Allied forces were about 15 miles from Schloss Itter. You have Austrian resistance groups in the area. There were even some German soldiers, seeing the writing on the wall and disillusioned, were assisting the resistance groups. But there were SS groups with a dual mission. They were to make Allied advance difficult by blowing up bridges and created blockades. They also executed “defectors” and resistance fighters. The fear, which proved to be valid, was that an SS group would come to execute the honor prisoners housed in Schloss Itter.

Escape would be just a perilous. They knew they needed to be rescued. And so Cuckovic and then Borotra went in search of Allied soldiers (or at least Austrian resistance). The Allied troops joined with Austrian resistance and some German defectors to form the rescue party that made its way to Schloss Itter. The rescue party arrived shortly before a number of SS troops, setting up the final battle.

After the account of the actual battle, Harding briefly tells of the survivors after the war. Sometimes heroes in war struggle in life. That seemed to be the case here.

This is an interesting read. Unfortunately other obligations (work! kids!) meant that I read this over the course of about 6 months. History buffs, particular WW II buffs, will want to read this book. They won’t be disappointed.

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Many years ago, C.S. Lewis was not the only prominent Christian to do a series of radio addresses. J. Gresham Machen gave a series of addresses on the person of Jesus in 1935. These are collected in The Person of Jesus: Radio Addresses on the Deity of the Savior.

When he gave these, he had already resigned from Princeton Seminary to form Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. Having set up an independent missions board, Machen was battling in the church courts. In 1936 he would be suspended and found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He would fall ill and pass away on January 1, 1937. As a result, these are among the last public words from Machen whose most important works had already been written.

In the course of the addresses, Machen lays out the objections of liberal theology and secularism to the deity of Christ, and positively puts forth the case for Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. Machen was at the forefront of the struggle against liberalism as evidenced by his books Christianity and Liberalism, and The Virgin Birth of Christ. He lays out all of this in a very simple, understandable manner. In other words, he doesn’t come across as an academic, but one addressing the common man that they may believe. This was his goal, that people would believe that Jesus was God the Son and Savior.

While interacting with liberal views, you’d think such a man might sound bitter, but he doesn’t. He succinctly addresses their presuppositions, and brings us back to Scripture to show that the Jesus of liberalism is a fiction.

There are seven addresses presented here. The first is on the Triune God, explaining briefly the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. He covers a lot of ground in a short time, including God’s communicable and incommunicable attributes. He does recognize mystery in that finite man can’t comprehend the infinite God, but that we can understand what God reveals to us. For him, the OT assumes the Trinity while it is taught in the NT. He gives a few of the places we look to in order to understand where we find this doctrine.

He then moves to the deity of Christ. The problem he addresses is the differing understanding of this phrase. People have different definitions so you may think you are in agreement when in reality you aren’t. His personal and denominational history does arise here as men with a liberal understanding of this phrase entered the ministry and subverted congregations and denominations. We must have a biblical understanding of God to understand what it means that Jesus is God.

He continues with whether or not the Bible teaches the deity of Jesus. In discussing the meaning of Messiah, he brings the audience to Daniel 7 to show that the Son of Man is a representative of the people but not also a supernatural figure. He connects Malachi’s coming of the Lord with the angel’s words to Zachariah about John the Baptizer. He precedes Jesus who is Jehovah coming to His people.

Machen then turns to the Sermon on the Mount to address another way people try to avoid the divinity of Christ to focus on a great teacher. He shows how the sermon both assumes the deity of Jesus, and reveals this authority. Jesus has authority as law giver and judge of humanity. He isn’t just a rabbi. He pronounces blessings on those who obey Him and curses on those who don’t.

In What Jesus Says About Himself, Machen brings us back to Daniel 7 to understand the Son of Man sayings of Jesus. This covers some similar ground as the previous chapter. It focuses on the more explicit sayings.

The last two chapters focus on miracles. The first focuses on miracles in general and the second on the resurrection. Miracles are often a stumbling block for people. If we removed them, like Thomas Jefferson did, “It would be far easier to believe, but then, you see, it would not be worth believing.” We don’t need another teacher; we need a Savior. Machen then spends some time on the subject of David Friedrich Strauss’ book Life of Jesus as an attempt to find the “real” Jesus. Strauss argued against finding rational explanations for accounts of miracles, as liberals had been doing. He asserted they were myths, pure and simple. Now skepticism about the whole Bible emerges. How can you find the real Jesus? How can you find the source to sort this out? We can’t escape a supernatural Jesus. If we follow Bultmann we get to a Jesus we can’t believe in, a phantom of sorts.

The greatest miracle is the resurrection of Jesus. Without this none of the others really matter. While the resurrection is often debated, what is not debated is the effect on the disciples. They changed from people hiding for their lives. to people who spread Christ’s message around the world often as the expense of their lives. It spread peacefully, not at the edge of the sword like some other religions. What changed these men and woman?

The only coherent answer is what the New Testament claims, that Jesus rose from the dead. He also mentions some of the ways the reality of the resurrection is denied, like the “vision theory”: they all had a similar vision of Jesus. Machen notes that this “means that the Christian church is founded upon a pathological experience of certain persons in the first century of our era”. He also brings up the “spiritual resurrection” theory. But Christianity is based on an event, recorded in Scripture with eyewitnesses who could be questioned at the time of its writing.

“What we are trying to establish is not the resurrection of any ordinary man, not the resurrection of a man who is to us a mere x or y, not the resurrection of a man about whom we know nothing, but the resurrection of Jesus. … It is unlikely that any ordinary man should rise; but it is unlikely that this man should not rise; it may be said of this man that it was impossible that he should be holden of death.”

These addresses by Machen are a handy apologetic tool for people wondering who Jesus really is. It is not technical, but for the average person. It does not presuppose much knowledge of the Bible. It is brief, not overly complex, and to the point.

“The direct evidence for the resurrection must be taken together with the total picture of Jesus in the Gospels, and then that must be taken in connection with the evidence for the existence of God and the tremendous of man which is caused by sin.”

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Rejoicing in Christ (entitled Life in Christ in the UK) is the follow-up to Michael Reeves’ excellent Delighting in the Trinity. The titles indicate that Reeves takes the answer to WSC #1 seriously. These books are not meant to simply satisfy your intellectual curiosity but inflame your religious affections.

“Let your soul be filled with a heart-ravishing sense of the sweetness and excellency of Christ and all that is in Him.” Robert Murray M’Cheyne

This book is very much like its predecessor. It is brief (just over 100 pages), it has brief sections within chapters that focus on an historical figure or idea, and it has some artwork. This last one may prove a problem to some. Some of this classic artwork includes what many would consider a 2nd commandment violation. I see these as instructional, not doxological, thought the point of book is to feed doxology. It is a tough line that perhaps requires more consideration.

Reeves has chapters focused on Christ’s pre-incarnate work, the Incarnation, the death & resurrection, our union with Christ and the return of Christ. This is done with succinct historical reviews, quotes from theologians of days gone by representing the eastern and western churches, pre- and post-reformational. His work is not caught in a moment of historical theology. He also has a Keller-esque way with words as he unfolds contrasts revealing the sweetness and excellency of Christ to help us rejoice in Jesus.

The OT, according to Jesus, teaches us about Christ and His sufferings. Reeves draws on people like Charnock and Calvin to remind us that we only know God as we know Christ. Even in the beginning we see the Word, God speaking as He works. This Word, John tells us is Christ, a God who reveals Himself through His works. The eternal Word indicates to us a God who communicates, who wants to be known, can be known. He also does some apologetics with regard to myths and stories similar to those we find in Scripture. Often they are used to undermine the uniqueness and authority of Scripture, as though it copies them. He relies on C.S. Lewis to flip this; these myths are corrupted reflections of the true Story, they are derivative. This is similar to Currid’s argument in Against the Gods.

The Father is fully delighted in His Son, and for Reeves this transforms our understanding of the gospel. The Father shares His treasured Son with us.

“If the Father can be infinitely and eternally satisfied in him, then he must be overwhelmingly all-sufficient for us.”

Christ, the One through whom the Father created, is also the One through whom the Father redeems or saves. Reeves spends time examining Original Sin and applies the concept of firstfruits to the subject and that of redemption. Adam was the firstfruit of sin & death. Jesus is the firstfruit of resurrection & righteousness & life. Here was find one of those historical reviews on Irenaeus who saw Jesus as undoing all that Adam had done, restoring creation and humanity from the ravages of sin.

“In a garden, Adam fell down into death; in a garden tomb, Christ rose up from it.”

As Incarnate, Jesus becomes the perfect Man for us. He becomes the perfect image of God to give this status to us. We are called sons of God, whether male or female, because Jesus shares His Sonship with us. Jesus was conceived by the Spirit and fulfilled His ministry in dependence on the Spirit gives us the Spirit so we can walk as He did in newness of life.

“Christ shows what it is to be a human, fully alive in the Spirit. And he is the head of a new, Spirit-filled humanity; all in him share in this anointing of his.”

Christ is our only hope for salvation. His righteousness for us. His death for us. His resurrection for us. We face an Accuser who wants us to look to our unrighteousness, our condemnation etc. True assurance of salvation is found in Christ in whom we believe, not in ourselves. He explores this in terms of our being clothed in Christ’s righteousness as Adam & Eve were clothed in the first sacrificial animal, as Jacob received the blessing clothed in Esau’s clothes, etc. He also moves into the Christ entering the true sanctuary for our salvation as foreshadowed in the High Priest entering the earthly copy.

Our salvation and reception of spiritual blessings is “in Christ”, a result of our union with Christ. Reeves doesn’t focus on the union itself so much as the benefits we receive in the union and its focus on Christ. Salvation is a participation in the life of Christ through our union with Him (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20 for instance). Because of His life we bear fruit. Our identity is derived from Him, not one we gain for ourselves. We may suffer spiritual amnesia, forgetting our identity in Christ, but God never forgets our identity in Christ.

“Where self-dependent efforts at self-improvement must leave us self-obsessed and therefore fundamentally unloving, the kindness of God in Christ attracts our hearts away from ourselves to him. Only the love of Christ has the power to uncoil a human heart.”

In addressing Christ’s return Reeves contrasts Jesus with the Dragon and the beasts in Revelation. He helps us to focus on the return of Christ, not all the other stuff people focus on in eschatology seminars. Christ’s return completes the restoration of creation. It will be new and improved. Our future includes a physical and earthly existence. Gnostic views of creation are to be rejected.

“Where the Lamb has suffered death for others, the dragon only seeks to inflict death on others. The one gives out life; the other sucks in life. … where the Lamb speaks for God, the beasts speak against God; where the Lamb rises from the dead to give life to others, the beast rises from its mortal wound only to take life. Where the Lamb goes out to conquer evil, the beast goes out to conquer the saints. Here are two utterly opposed approaches to power and judgment.”

With some books you can be glad you are done. Reeves once again leaves me wanting more. I look forward to reading more from Michael Reeves in the future.

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Tim Keller says “This is the best book for laypeople on this subject.” This book is Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. I think he is right.

Union with Christ is one of the more neglected doctrines in the contemporary church. This neglect has been addressed with a few releases in the past few years like the books by J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham. These tend toward the more academic or pastoral in nature. Wilbourne’s book is written for the lay person and is easy to understand, though the topic can still stretch our minds. He provides a number of good illustrations to help us understand this rather nebulous concept. Or perhaps enchanted, for in his introduction he relates this to our disenchanted (materialistic) culture, and to understand union we need our imaginations again.

“Coming to see your union with Christ is like finally putting on a pair of desperately needed glasses- Wow!”

He begins with reality of a gap between what the Bible says and our experience of that reality. We can often feel exhausted by our efforts and discouraged by a lack of “progress”. The gap is real and must be acknowledged. But God’s answer to all this is union with Christ.

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore … he had to become ours and to dwell within us.” John Calvin

Calvin, particularly his Institutes of the Christian Religion, is very present in this volume. United to Christ we have all the blessings of God (Eph. 1). Christ also dwells in us by the Spirit so we are empowered by Him to enjoy these many blessings. While this was understood by many in history (he quotes from Edwards and Goodwin, for instance) such talk is like a foreign language to many/most western Christians.

“If it ‘s true that nothing is more central or basic than union with Christ, and this book aims to show that it is, then it is fair to ask this: Why is union with Christ neither central nor basic to so many of us? Why, rather, is union with Christ, if it is talked about at all, reduced to some vague or optional aspect of Christian living…”

The only way we partake of the gospel promises is …. union with Christ. When we neglect this, the work of Christ for us is separated from the person of Christ in us and the gap between beliefs and experience begins to increasingly widen.

He moves on to what it actually is. One aspect of union is imputation: what happened to Him happened to us; what He earned we receive; and what we earned He paid the price for. Paul frequently uses the term “in Christ” to talk about how we live before God. Christ represents us so His death is our death to guilt & sin (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20). His resurrection is our newness of life (Rom. 6; Eph. 2; Gal. 2:20). His obedience becomes our obedience. We have even been seated with Him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2).

“Faith is how union with Christ becomes operative and powerful in your life. Faith is a God-given gift that allows you to take hold of God’s having taken hold of you. … Your life, your story, becomes enfolded by another story- Another’s story.”

As Paul says in Colossians our life is hidden with Christ in God. United to Christ, Calvin says, we receive the double grace of justification and sanctification. Though distinct they are a package deal given simultaneously. We partake of His redemption because we are united to Christ, covenantally and spiritually. We enjoy our salvation as He works in us to transform us. Our faith is not simply in Christ’s work for us, but also that Christ continues to work in us and through us. He became like us to make us like Him so we look to Him to accomplish these things that are so beyond our doing.

Union with Christ also holds together some of the tensions that tend to tear God’s people apart. For instance, he mentions extravagant grace and radical discipleship. We see them both in Calvin’s double grace, but our tendency is to separate them. Apart from discipleship extravagant grace lapses into Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. Apart from extravagant grace discipleship degenerates into legalism. This conflict that has periodically emerged in the church is resolved in union with Christ. These two songs, as he terms them, meet in harmony in Christ. They cannot be separated because Christ cannot be separated (Ferguson makes the same argument in The Whole Christ). Wilbourne then explains and applies the “double grace”.

“Because we are relentless in trying to justify our lives, because we will use anything, even our virtue, to keep God at a distance, we can’t hear this song of grace too loudly or too often. … That hit home because that’s exactly what I had been doing- using grace as an excuse not to follow Jesus. … Undiluted grace and uncompromising obedience meet in the person of Jesus. He is always full of both.”

Rankin then spends a chapter showing us where all this is in the Scripture, a chapter on where it pops up in Church History (Augustine, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Owen and Lewis) and then what happened that we have fallen to this low estate. As mentioned, there is the disenchanted or materialistic worldview, the increase in self-centeredness (due to the eclipse of the gospel), our poor pneumatology, sound-bite culture, and pragmatism.

“Paul is saying union with Christ not only gives you a new identity; it gives you a new mindset, a new grid through which to filter everything that happens to you. For it’s not so much what happens that defines you, as how you interpret what happens to you.”

From there he delves into the problems union with Christ solves. We have a new identity, new destiny, new purpose and new hope. So many of the stories we love focus on people seeking to discover their identity. We think we have to establish our identity so we are insecure and exhausted. Many famous musicians (interviews with Madonna and John Mayer come to mind) feel the need to re-establish themselves, prove themselves. In Christ, we receive an identity we neither win or can lose. We don’t have to prove ourselves. This identity also shapes how we live, providing appropriate boundaries for us. We have a new destination too- not simply to decompose in the ground or simply cease to exist. Our destiny is to be what Adam and Eve once were, the image of God. Jesus, in His humanity, the perfect image of God restores God’s distorted image of us. We don’t lose our sense of self (just as in a healthy marriage we are one flesh but don’t lose your sense of self). You become more fully you with the unique gifts and experiences but without the sin and weakness.

“The purpose of the gospel [is] to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.” John Calvin

“Because love was central in the life of Christ, love is at the heart of the image of God. Your win is learning how to love. And your greatest losses are your failures to love.”

We are here for holiness, which for many of us, as he notes, is like broccoli. Good for us but …. (personally I like broccoli). Holiness is good, beautiful and attractive. It is something we only pursue properly in union with Christ (see Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification).  We are positionally holy due to our union with Christ, and dwelling in us He works to make us personally holy. These two tensions are brought together in harmony in Christ. The more holy we become the more we enjoy communion with God, in part because we now find His holiness more attractive and a greater source of joy.

“God wants us to grow in holiness, not as some sort of test or punishment, not even just as preparation for the future, but because he wants us to enjoy life with him more. The more we grow in holiness, the more we can enjoy his presence. He wants us not simply to press on but to soar. He wants holiness for us, for our joy.”

Our hope is life in the presence of God where Jesus currently is. This is unattainable for us apart from our union with Christ. He is there now, seated and interceding for us (Heb. 7:25). This means that our continuing sin does not separate us from God. We don’t have to look to our circumstances to gauge if God is pleased with us, we look to Jesus and know He is. Union with Christ holds the facts that God with for us and with us together.

“John Calvin said, ‘Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us.’ John Owen added, ‘Labor, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ.’ And Jonathan Edwards exhorted, ‘We should labor to be continually growing in divine love.'”

Wilbourne then moves into our daily life as people united to Christ. He begins with abiding. He brings up the illustration of sailing. Sailing depends on the wind, but you still need skills to get where you want to go in the power of the wind. This is communion with Christ, the subjective or experiential aspect of our union with Christ. We cannot be more or less united to Christ. But our sense of communion with Christ grows or diminishes. Faith always precedes our sense of communion for faith lays ahold of Christ. He warns us of our tendency to drift (pride, complacency etc.). If we are not manning the sail and the tiller we will not go where we long to go. He moves into the means of abiding, or the means of grace. Our sense of communion is tied to prayer, meditation on Scripture, and worship including the sacraments (signs of our union). This does not mean all will be exciting. There will be doldrums, just like in sailing. There will be times when all seems stagnant, and no progress is made.

“Jesus lived a perfect life and terrible things still happened to him. Jesus was the only one who ever trusted and obeyed God perfectly, yet he nevertheless was made to walk the way of suffering unto death…”

We are united to the Christ who suffered. As a result we should expect to suffer (Rom. 8; Phil. 1 & 3; 1 Peter 2-4). Because He suffered, He is able to comfort us in our suffering. He also provided an example for us in suffering, to continue to do good and entrust ourselves to our Creator. Will our suffering drive us from God, or deeper into God?

He then moves into the fact that each of us is united not only to Christ individually but also to one another. In Christ we are the people of God. Here, in a footnote, he surmises, that the tension revealed by the New Perspective of Paul finds reconciliation. In Christ we are justified by the imputation of His righteousness AND we are part of the community of God; soteriology and ecclesiology are united in Christ. Another tension that tends to tear the church apart is also reconciled in Christ: we declare and demonstrate the love of God to the nations. Many conservatives so fear the social gospel that they deny the social aspects of the gospel (and throw accusations at any who do). This is because Jesus not just declared God’s love but demonstrated it (see 1 John 3-4) and calls us to do the same (see also 1 Peter 2).

I found this to be a very encouraging book. He had a number of helpful ways to explain our union and its implications. I heartily recommend it to pastors, elders and ordinary people who want to grow in grace. He makes a difficult subject understandable, interesting and practical.

 

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Last night I spent the two and a half hours watching The Revenant. It was a bit plodding, and at times it was clearly brutal, and confusing. It was also oddly theological.

It begins with an attack on a trapping party in a northern wilderness in the 1820’s. You aren’t sure why they are being attacked, but as the story unfolds, it seems to be connected with a missing young Souix woman. Or that could be a different tribe of Native Americans that comes along. Hence my on-going confusion. Little did I realize that this search for Powaqa was so central to the story line as Glass keeps coming close to being killed by this driven group of men.

Glass was a tracker and woodsman with a Native American son. He was the guide for the (illegal?) trapping party which seeks to make its way back to their fort after the attack.  It is along the way that Glass encounters an angry momma bear who mauls him horribly.

This is the other key event of the movie. Captain Henry, who values Glass, returns to the fort while leaving the nearly dead Glass in the care of 3 other party members, including Glass’s teenage son. Fitzgerald is a man who fears death, and the Native Americans who he believes are on their trail. Unable to move under his own power, Glass is slowing them down. He wants to abandon Glass and digs a grave. Glass’s son refuses to leave his father. Glass is able to watch but unable to stop as Fitzgerald kills his son, buries Glass alive and leaves. He deceives the other young man who didn’t witness all of this.

Glass pulls himself out of the grave, driven by his thirst for vengeance. Ans so he crawls toward the fort using only his arms through the frozen wilderness. Eventually he is able to walk and continues his trek despite only having a canteen and the bear skin. He faces the threats of cold, animals and the party searching for Pawaqa.

Amazingly he avoids death and comes across a young Pawnee man eating raw buffalo meat. He receives mercy from this man whose tribe was killed by the Souix. He is moving south to find more Pawnee. The subject of revenge comes up, as you imagine it might from a man who is only alive to gain revenge. “Revenge is the Creator’s.” I’m not sure from whence his notion came, but it is an echo of Romans 12.

19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

The two men travel together as the Pawnee cares for the still healing Glass. That is until he stumbles upon a French group who kill him while Glass sleeps during a storm. Glass discovers these Frenchmen have a young Native American woman. He decides to assist her while she is being raped (yet again). While they are distracted by Glass who takes the Pawnee’s horse to escape, Pawaqa is able to escape. In the distance Glass hears the battle as the Souix gain their vengeance on the Frenchmen who abducted Pawaqa. Glass, however, had left his distinctive canteen behind.

The lone remaining Frenchman has this canteen when he stumbles into the fort. This prompts Captain Henry to gather a search party to find his friend. While he is gone, Fitzgerald steals the Captain’s money and literally heads to the hills. After discovering this, Henry and Glass pursue Fitzgerald into the mountains.

It is as Glass is on the brink of gaining his revenge that two things happen. First, he sees the Souix hunting party. Second, he remembered that “Revenge is God’s.” He pushes Fitzgerald into the water and the current takes him to the Souix who kill him.  As the Souix ride by Glass, you see Pawaqa which explains why Glass is the only white man they don’t kill.

What it was over I thought “God must be a group of angry Souix”.

As I thought more, I was reminded that God often used “the nations” to bring judgment on His people. He used the Assyrians to judge the northern kingdom. It was equally ungodly Babylon who was used to judge Judah.

In Romans 13 (don’t forget, the chapter divisions are note original) we see that the State bears the power of the sword to bring His vengeance upon the wicked.

In The Revenant we see this Souix hunting or war party as the instrument of vengeance upon a variety of wrong-doers. While uncertain about the original battle, clearly the Frenchmen (murders, woman-stealers and rapists) and Fitzgerald (murder, betrayal and deceit).

24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. 1 Timothy 5

Sometimes what seems like chance or coincidence is God working to bring the truth to light, to bring people to judgment. C.S. Lewis notes that “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Perhaps The Revenant is more than vaguely theological, but theologically driven. For eyes that see it is, as God works through this series of coincidences to bring a number of wicked men to judgment. This judgment was not “traditional”, but in disputed territory it can come in unexpected ways. And when the legal authority is part of the problem it may come in unexpected ways.

In the words of Steve Brown, “you think about that.”

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Jared Wilson’s new book is a bit of a departure for him. He has written mostly for the church and its relationship to the gospel. With Unparalleled he seeks to talk to the world about the gospel. The subtitle is How Christianity’s Uniqueness Makes It Compelling. That is Wilson’s goal in this book, to reveal this compelling uniqueness.

This is not an evidentialist kind of book like Evidence that Demands a Verdict. It is more in the tradition of Mere Christianity and The Reason for God. Wilson covers the territory in different ways but it winsome rather than confrontational. He adds some humor. He removes some of the philosophical sophistication of Lewis and Keller’s books. But he is speaking to a similar skeptical world to the ones they did.

He begins with how the God of Christianity is different and cycles through the following: the Trinity, Human Dignity as the Image of God, Human Depravity as Fallen in Adam, Jesus is God, His Substitutionary, His Resurrection, Salvation, Mission and Eschatology. So he treats the major doctrines of Christianity, in a good logical order, He does this with an eye toward showing not simply the reasonableness of Christianity but how it is profoundly different (and better) than any other faith tradition.

This is really the important thing- that profound difference in what we teach about God, man and salvation. As he does this, he often brings us into conversations with cab drivers like Omar and (the midnight) Tokar. There are dying church members, high school friendships and a boss. The questions and comments of skeptics and atheists often move the discussion forward.

“The deepest, most profound evil I will ever face is that which is found in me.”

This is a book I would commend. It isn’t perfect, obviously. Perhaps because I was studying the Trinity shortly before reading the chapter I found it took abit too long to get to the crux (as least for Augustine and Michael Reeves); God is love. This is what makes the God of Christianity profoundly different from the god of Islam or any other faith. He gets there near the end of the chapter, but dabbles in some unsatisfying material first. The incomprehensible nature of the Trinity isn’t really what matters, though it is true. That people want a God of love is important. Not just loving, but love as central to His essence and character.

“Think about it: A solitary god cannot be love. He may learn to love. He may yearn for love. But he cannot in himself be love, because love requires an object.”

The Christian understanding of mission is very different. It is not a self-salvation project. It is a response to grace received. It is also about offering grace instead of demanding change. Christianity thrives as a minority faith, and one that serves the ones deemed unworthy by society. While he notes the great things Christians do he also notes we don’t have cameras following us to show the world. This is why the new atheists can get traction with the claims of religion causing so much harm. They ignore the damage done by atheistic regimes, but more importantly the many hospitals, schools, poverty agencies etc. founded by Christians.

His chapter on eschatology isn’t what many might think. Like many, he heard about “heaven”. I’m guess he also heard about the rapture and great tribulation. But the focus here is not on these, but on the new heavens and earth. There is a physical, as well as spiritual, hope for Christians. While the world seems to be running down, these groans are birth pains for the renewed or restored creation in which all God’s people will spend eternity. We don’t have a faith that hates this world, but one that hates sin and misery while longing for the removal of the curse from creation.

“All of our attempts at orchestrating community cannot keep our self-interest at bay. The vast injustice of the world- in everything from slavery to racism- is the result of our failure at community. Sin messes up our souls; sin messes up our societies.”

As you read you do find a comprehensive world and life view that makes sense, and better sense of the world than any other. The tension between the dignity and depravity of man helps us understand why we see glory and why we experience evil. The gospel of grace is fundamentally different than the salvation offered by other faiths. Grace and glorification leave the others in the dust. It is a faith for real people, real sinners, as I listen to Johnny Cash’s American VI which was largely about his hope in Christ.

This book if for the real people in your life. The ones who would find C.S. Lewis dry or Tim Keller a little intellectual. It is for the skeptics in your life. The power to change their hearts and minds lies not in Wilson’s words. Like Tokar they may just shrug. But God may use it to see and delight in Christ for their salvation as a result.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of review.]

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I have long been an admirer of John Newton. He has written many letters and hymns that not only address my mind but also my heart. He was not a “speculative” theologian but an practical or pastoral theologian. He is one of my “long distance” mentors- stretching across both time and geography thanks to God’s providential gift of the printing press. While I am surely not the pastor (and Christian) I want to be, I am a better pastor because of John Newton.

Tony Reinke has done people like me a great service with his contribution to Crossway’s series Theologians on the Christian Life. This is the first book I’ve read in the series. It makes me want to read more. But let’s look at Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ.

As Reinke notes at the end, he doesn’t say everything Newton does, nor cover every topic Newton covered. It would therefore be larger than the 4 volume Works of John Newton I also purchased recently.

In about 240 pages, Reinke summarizes Newton’s view of the Christian life and then examines key areas like Christ’s All-Sufficiency, the Daily Discipline of Joy in Jesus, Gospel Simplicity, the Discipline of Trials and so much more.

As the subtitle notes, the focus is on Christ, who as is noted above is All-Sufficient. Our Christian life is lived in union with the all-sufficient Christ. That does not mean he held to a view of Christian perfectionism. Newton made much of the reality of indwelling sin (there is an excellent chapter on the subject here). Too few pastors and theologians address this constant hindrance to our movement towards obedience. It is also the source of a steady stream of temptations. Any book on Christian living that makes little of this reality is fundamentally flawed.

One of Newton’s other contributions is the stages of Christian life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Wise pastors should consider this as they preach and structure discipleship programs. This is one of the chapters in which Keller is mentioned often, as he is nearly as dependent on Newton as he is on Lewis. We need to help people see their own immaturity and what it looks like to become more mature in Christ and how Jesus brings us there.

He includes a very convicting chapter on Seven Christian Blemishes. These are “respectable” sins that hinder our gospel proclamation and witness. He isn’t saying we aren’t Christians, but these attitudes and practices are sub-Christian. They are frequently a turn off to others. For instance, he mentions the one who quarrels about politics (I told you this was convicting). He was not against political involvement for he encouraged Wilberforce to stay in politics to put an end to the slave trade. The problem is people who are in no position to change anything (they are not politicians) and often lack sufficient information. Many people’s never-ending stream of political FB posts would fit here. These are rarely calls to prayer, or to contact your elected officials. This is one reason why some non-Christians are offended by our “politics”- not that we have views but how we express them or when we are ill-informed.

The chapter on the Discipline of Trials is also quite important. Too few pastors really spend time talking about this. We then fail our congregations in preparing them for suffering well, with an eye to Christ above all. It is a lengthy chapter, and really needed to be lengthy. We all experience trials, and unless we have a solid theological understanding of the ways God uses them we will be mired in immaturity and grow bitter against God.

The chapter on Christ-Centered Holiness was frustrating at points. I don’t disagree with what he said. I wish there was more. The focus is on beholding Christ as our Savior as well as our Pattern or Example. This is a very biblical idea (see 2 Cor. 5). Newton also talked about straining toward or agonizing toward holiness. He could have written more on this aspect of the pursuit of holiness.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. It is much like Newton’s ministry in that it is profoundly focused on Christ. It is filled with quotes from Newton to illustrate his points, many great encouraging quotes. He brings in some others too via quotes. This produces a very encouraging book.

This is not just a book for pastors. Nor is it intended to be. Most Christians would benefit from this book. They will grow in their understanding of the Christian life, and therefore what God is up to in your life and how to grow up in Jesus. These are important things and Newton is a gentle but faithful pointer to Jesus.

 

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The time was ripe for Rosaria Butterfield’s recent book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. The time is ripe because everyone seems to be talking about homosexuality and same sex marriage. The church, or at least some of it, is struggling to be faithful to both the call to mission and a biblical morality. Some parts of the church focus on only one and lose sight of the other.

“I often wonder: God, why pick me? I didn’t ask to be a Christian convert. I didn’t ‘seek the Lord.’ Instead, I ran like the wind when I suspected someone would start peddling the gospel to me.”

While the subtitle focuses on Rosaria’s work as an English Professor, the first chapter makes clear that as an English professor she was a gay activist and lesbian who taught Queer Theory. Hers is an interesting story in many regards. It seems difficult to try and squeeze the first 36 years of a life into a chapter, albeit a long one, but that is what she does.

She was not looking to become a Christian. She felt no spiritual need. She was actually out to get Christianity or at least the Religious Right as part of her need to publish for her job. As she began to read the Bible things slowly changed. Just as important was a new friendship with one of those conservative Christians who happened to be the pastor of a local church.  It is an engaging journey as she is confronted with the truth of Christianity.

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Do you struggle with preoccupation with yourself? Do you find yourself caring too much about what others think about you? or what you think about you?

Perhaps this is the booklet for you. Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is adapted from a sermon of his on 1 Corinthians 3. As a result, this is a relatively short treatment of a particular question. As such it can’t say everything there is to say about the subjects with which it deals. Someone I know raised some questions about this booklet, and I hope to address them briefly toward the end. I will also make a short application for pastors (something Keller does elsewhere).

He introduces the passage with the stark difference between traditional and modern thought about people’s problems. Traditionally, pride (hubris) has been identified as one of our problems that creates other problems. Criminals think more of themselves than others, for instance, and this justifies their crimes. Something odd happened in the Western world in the not too distant past. The prevailing notion, still prevalent in education, is that people actually suffer from low self-esteem. If only they would have a better view of themselves they wouldn’t be criminals, poor etc. We now, statistically, have students who are progressively worse but feel better and better about themselves despite failure. Thankfully, this view regarding self-esteem is finally being challenged academically.

The passage Keller is handling is addressing the divisions that have been plaguing the church of Corinth. The factions have allied themselves to particular teacher. The factions are filled with pride and boastful of their relationship or adherence to their favorite teacher (Paul, Peter, Apollos etc.). I know, we would never do anything like that. This leads us into contemplating the ego.

The natural state of the ego, Keller argues, is that it is inflated. Paul does not use hubris, but a word he uses often in the letters to the Corinthians and in Colossians 2. It isn’t used elsewhere in Scripture. It does have that idea of over-inflated or bloated. This means that the human ego is empty (just filled with hot air), painful (stretched too far), busy (looking to fill that emptiness) and fragile (not this is not a special award). He draws on (surprise!) C.S. Lewis, Soren Kierkegaard and Madonna.

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There are few subjects guaranteed to raise a ruckus like that of modesty. This subject tends to bring out the worst in us. We often act immodestly when discussing modesty.

There have apparently been many books written on this subject. Many of them very bad. Or so I hear since I’ve only read one other book on the subject, Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. As a result, I am no expert on such books. I decided to read Tim Challies and R.W. Glenn’s book Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel precisely because it seemed to take a gospel-centered approach (which it does).

What they have done is write short, but important, book on the subject at hand. They begin with the obvious, and the most common objection to such a book.

“Discussing modesty among Christians is challenging because the subject typically has not been handled well. … And when a man is the speaker or the author or the discussion leader, women brace themselves, fearing an assault on their fashion sense and wondering if they are about to be blamed for all male struggles with sexual lust. Does he think I have to be ugly to be godly?

This is not like many of the books I’ve heard about: there are no lists, calls for the ruler, blaming of women etc. They recognize that many calls for modesty are not motivated by the gospel, but legalism. This has led to, in many circles, a neglect of the subject. Or a very narrow view of the subject, making it all about women’s clothing when it encompasses far more than that.

“When we build theology without clear reference to the gospel, we begin to take refuge in rules. … Indeed, in this particular area, the regulations become our gospel- a gospel of bondage rather than freedom. … Modesty without the gospel is prudishness.”

They then begin the hard task of defining modesty. They note the dictionary definitions. But they then do something that may surprise some people, they talk about one’s situational context. Modesty is partially a function of your circumstances. They give the illustration of a bathing suit. Appropriate by the pool or beach, but not appropriate for a worship service or funeral (and maybe even Wal-Mart). It would be modest in one context, but immodest in another. Your situation matters.

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Weakness is not something we tend to spend much time thinking about. We usually spend time avoiding it or trying to get out of experiencing weakness. Thankfully there are men like J.I. Packer who don’t (or can’t) run from it. Recent health problems have provided him with the opportunity to consider his own weakness. More importantly it gave him the opportunity to consider 2 Corinthians and how Paul, when faced with his own weakness, found strength in Christ.

The fact that weakness is not option is found in the title of the book that resulted: Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength. This is a short book with only 4 chapters. Size should not be confused with significance. This is no Knowing God, but it is a balm for the soul plagued by weakness, which will eventually find all of us.

“The memory of having fallen short in the past can hang like a black cloud over one’s present purposes and in effect program one to fail.”

Many of us live with such black clouds. It could be moral failure. It could be vocational failure. I was the pastor of a church that closed. That black cloud hung about me for years. It still shows up  at times seeking to distract & deceive me. For Packer, his childhood accident and its consequences have hovered over him his entire life: weakness, alienation, left out…

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We’ve had a number of events recently that have shaken many Americans to the core. The reality of evil was pressed home in painful fashion. Sadly, most Americans aren’t prepared to face the reality of evil. If people are considered basically good, then we essentially think such things should not happen here where we are educated and prosperous. Those things only happen there, wherever there may be. But not to us, not on our shores.

There are a number of books that have tried to tackle this problem. Some good. Some bland. And some quite horrible, like the sadly popular book by Rabbi Kushner about the God who wants to help but really can’t. He also assumes there are good people.

“To come to grips with the problem of evil and suffering, you must do more than hear heart-wrenching stories about suffering people. You must hear God’s truth to help you interpret those stories.”

Randy Alcorn has released The Goodness of God: Assurance of Purpose in the Midst of Suffering for this reason. It is a shorter version (120 pages) of his book If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering. It makes a readable, meaningful book that you can hand out to people who are suffering, or struggling with the suffering of others. He covers lots of ground in succinct fashion, including illustrations and examples to help people understand his point. It is not dry and academic. He writes of his own suffering and how he had to make sense of it. He believes any faith that doesn’t prepare you for suffering is not a biblical faith, and our churches must do a better job teaching biblical theology to prepare people for suffering.

“The pain of suffering points to something deeply and unacceptably flawed about this world we inhabit.”

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Yes, I’ve already reviewed The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller. I thought I would go back to something that I think is important. It is something that we tend not to learn easily. People tell us about, but the cultural pull can be so difficult to escape.

The quest for marriage, or the search for a marriage partner, must include developing your own relationship with Christ. Since our hearts are factories of idols (Calvin), we quickly make idols of marriage itself, or particular people.

We make an idol of marriage when we think we MUST be married. We sound like Rachel, who said she must have children or die (Gen. 30). We get angry with God because he hasn’t provided a spouse. Marriage won’t fix all your problems or address all your felt needs.

We can also fixate on particular people. We end up like all the men in There’s Something About Mary. We pursue a relationship in an unhealthy manner, rule out other relationships and harm other people who stand in our way. But that is extreme. Think of Jacob, who made an idol out of Rachel. He had to have her, and nobody else but her. Or John Newton whose journals reflect his constant temptation to make an idol out of his wife, Polly.

Without a deeply fulfilling relationship with Christ now, and hope in a perfect love relationship with him in the future, married Christians will put too much pressure on their marriage to fulfill them, and that will always create pathology in their lives.

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Earlier this year I made a sad discovery.  I discovered that I have no books on the Trinity.  I have plenty of Systematic Theologies with sections on the Trinity.  The closest thing to a book on the Trinity in my library was probably J.I. Packer’s Knowing God.  While not on the Trinity, as an heir to the Puritans he was quite Trinitarian in his theological approach.  So, in the words of Uncle Duncan in Braveheart, “We’ll have to rectify that.”

“Forget the Trinity and you forget why we do what we do; you forget who we are as gospel Christians; you forget how we got to be like we are.”

One of the books I bought to remedy that was Fred Sanders’ book The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything.  I’m on a combination of vacation and study leave, so I thought this was a good time to read it.  I’d have a bit more time to think on it.

Prior to leaving on vacation the guy who lives with us commented “he keeps talking about evangelicalism”.  Sanders’ point is that Trinitarian thinking has long been foundational to evangelical thinking.  This foundation has been cracking of late as the implicit has been largely forgotten or at least seen as non-essential.  His goal is limited to evangelicalism.  This is the Christian heritage of which he is a part and which he wants to be healthy and growing.  He’s not trying to evaluate and critique other traditions in the visible church.

These means that while Sanders uses Scripture, he’s not putting forth a biblical-theological defense of the Trinity.  He’s more concerned with how our Trinitarianism plays out in our understanding of our faith and practice.  So the reader must keep this focus in mind and not expect something profoundly different.

Sanders does draw on the writings of earlier evangelicals of different stripes to illustrate how deep the heritage runs (and how shallow our present experience).  So you find sections looking at Francis Schaeffer, Susanna Wesley, C.S. Lewis, Adolph Sahpir, Henry Scougal and more.

“A gospel that rearranges the components of your life but does not put you personally in the presence of God is too small.”

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This week I’m working through Matthew 1:1-17.  In part I’m grappling with the incarnation.  The Eternal Son, who was fully God, became man.  This is pretty much how one of the children’s catechisms puts it.  Simple, but utterly incomprehensible.

We have a tendency to keep Jesus in the cradle.  My kids love “baby Jesus” and are excited to see the holiday (a compound word meaning holy day btw) lights and manger displays.  But we run the risk of trying to keep him baby Jesus, meek and mild.

One of the funniest scenes in Talladega Nights is the debate over which Jesus to pray to- grown up Jesus or the  8 lbs. 6 oz Christmas Jesus with his little baby Jesus powers.  And it gets worse.  “I want to be formal, but I’m here to party.”  “I like to picture Jesus as a ninja, fighting off samari.”  It is a guilty pleasure, teetering on blasphemy (If you watch the clip, it does contain foul language and violations of the 5th commandment).

They have domesticated Jesus in order to serve their own interests.  They grapple with the mystery of the incarnation, but don’t bow before it.  A domesticated Jesus.  A made in their own, or preferred image Jesus.  A counterfeit Jesus!

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The second neglected aspect of discipleship John Stott addresses in The Radical Disciple is Christlikeness.  This, in my mind, is the very goal of discipleship.  So I guess that if there is actually neglected, we don’t even have discipleship.  That is a radical concept.

Stott lays out 3 texts that are foundational to this concept of Christlikeness.  The first is from Romans 8.

28And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (ESV)

Here the process of becoming conformed to the likeness of Christ (instead of the world) is largely passive on our part.  It is God who is working all things in our lives (including our sin) for this purpose.  His love resulted in election with this purpose of being conformed into the image of Jesus.  God’s goal, as C.S. Lewis put it, is perfection and He will not rest until He is done.  It will often be an arduous process for us.

Paul returns to the process in Romans 12.  Again, we are the objects of transformation.  This time it is not through our circumstances (God’s providential working in our lives), but the renewal of the mind.  This won’t happen unless we actually read the Scriptures, but God is at work when we do to transform us so we are no longer conformed to the likeness of the world.

From Romans we see, in part, that God is ultimately in control of the process not us.  One of the strengths of the Puritan’s theology was providence, and seeing sanctification as taking place (in part) through those providentially arranged circumstances.  Instead of avoiding hardship, they wanted to be shaped by it through the gospel.

Where Stott errs is in limiting this text (Romans 8) to the past.  Our election takes place in the past, but God is working now to conform us to the image of Jesus.  That is a small problem, not a big one.

The second is 2 Corinthians 3:18.

6But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (ESV)

One again we are passive.  At conversion, God removes the veil that covers our faces when we read the Old Covenant.  Interesting, the problem is not the Old Covenant but the veil which is removed.  Now we are being transformed from glory to glory.  When?  When we we behold the glory of the Lord in the face of Jesus (4:6).  Once again Scripture is central to our sanctification, for it is there that we behold Jesus (not in some mystical experience).  After all, Paul was talking about reading the Old Covenant to see the glory of God.  But we do see the present work of God to remake us in the image of Jesus.

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