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Posts Tagged ‘Evangelism’


11001532_10206025186488500_1318611866669102824_oMy mother has Alzheimer’s. She was diagnosed in the Fall of 2013, if I remember correctly. That’s because I went to visit my parents in the summer of 2014 and she was to the point that she didn’t know who I was.

I never got to say ‘good-bye’, at least so she’d know what was happening. It is hard to see a person who looks like your mother, but who doesn’t remember the last 60 or so years of her life. She doesn’t know who my father is, and calls him “The Boss”. The woman I knew is gone.

She lives in fear. She’s always been a fearful person, but there is less of a capacity to deal with her fear. When I visited with the kids she nearly panicked if they were even remotely near the road. But having them play outside was better than having her not letting them play inside (as happened on a previous visit).

It is tough to consider her life. In many ways she had a hard life as a kid. In some ways this made it difficult for her to be a mother, and to be her son. Nothing like Mommie Dearest, but difficult.

She was born in 1936, shortly before WWII. She was the eldest of 9 kids, and the only girl. That had to be difficult. I think that she, as a kid herself, raised some of her brothers. In some ways I’m not sure she had a childhood, or really knew how to be a mature parent. She did the best she could.

That was actually her understanding of life: God expected you to do the best you could. At least that is what she told the Mormon missionary who came to our door when I was a young Christian. I wish this were so since she was a nominal Catholic who did her best to raise us in the Church. I, her last son, was the only one to be confirmed. Having fulfilled her commitment, I was now free to choose whether or not I went to Mass. I didn’t.

As a teenager I felt like the Gerry Cooney of our family- the last Great White Hope. All my parents hopes seemed to be set on me. That is only my perspective. They never said that. But I was the one who went to college. I am the one with advanced degrees.

She also carried secrets. When I graduated from high school we all went out for dinner. She had a little too much wine, and the next thing I knew I heard about a miscarriage. The woman who had 8 brothers, and at the time had 2 sons lost a little girl. If that girl had been born, I wouldn’t have. I know of a few more, but who knows how many secrets she carried until she lost them all.

I struggled as I fell into the family’s sins. There was warning, but no apparent capacity to help me untangle myself from those sins. One of those sins was her sin- she was an angry person. At times my friends and I took a hellish delight in provoking her to anger.

My real struggle was with her apparent lack of boundaries, or at least her inability to respect mine. She thought she was being helpful. I thought she was being intrusive. I loved her, but I wanted her to realize I was an adult. I think she figured that out by the time I got married, when I was 36.

I think this desire to still parent kids drove her for years. She would baby sit for teachers at the school down the street.

Oh, there were positives. She was the saver in the family. She tried to pass that frugality on to us. She made me save my money from the paper route to pay for driver’s education. When I had it all, she only made me pay half of it. That was a bit frustrating, since I could have taken driver’s ed earlier.

Relationships with parents can be complex. As I tried to sort ours out, I didn’t always handle it well. As a young Christian I wanted something better for them than “doing their best.” I wanted her to know the freedom of forgiveness, to stop having to protect those secrets. I was probably disrespectful. At times I pushed. I didn’t understand how authority affects evangelism. They probably had not idea what to do with me. Thankfully they didn’t cast me out after my conversion like a few of my friends did.

Later, while in a counseling degree program I was angry. I withdrew. It was my relationship with my eventual wife that changed it. Family is important to her. I also knew I had plenty of baggage and I didn’t want her to suffer for the sins of others. I began to address my own anger. I began to realize that my parents didn’t have the capacity to understand or own up to certain things. I couldn’t wait for an apology before forgiving them.

I think CavWife was the only daughter-in-law she liked and respected. I think. It was hard since she really didn’t reach out to CavWife. I’m glad she got to hold her granddaughter. I’m glad she got to visit us here in AZ. My kids did not get her sense of humor. Oh, well.

I still deal with the debris, but I’m choosing not to hang on to things.

Another incremental step in her decline presses in. I’m not sure the best path for my father to take. I’m not sure how to support him from 2,000 miles away.

It still makes it difficult to process her absence because it was a complicated relationship. As a result my desire to mourn seems complicated too. And not just because she is here but also isn’t. I reach for thoughts and words but they seem so slippery.  I’m left with memories, conflicting and confusing (at times) memories.

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There are not many contemporary books on the on-going persecution of Christians so when I had the opportunity to get a review copy of The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution I took it. This is an important book and I encourage American Christians to read it, but it is not without its weaknesses. It is helpful for American Christians to understand what their brothers and sisters in many parts of the world experience. This is not a book about what American Christians experience. It goes outside of our experience and this is important to do. This is why I think they should read it. They need to pray for their siblings in Christ, and also themselves because such persecution may not be too far away for us.

The author, John Allen Jr., is a senior news correspondence and has many connections around the world to gain access that others may not have. He also draws on the research of a number of government and private agencies that track these things. As a result he will talk about bigger picture systematic persecution as well as more personal stories. These stories are not pretty and they can be difficult to read. For instance, in the introduction he talks about the Me’eter military camp and prison in Eritrea ( a country I hadn’t even heard of before) that is pretty horrifying to consider. Here the one-party nation, ironically called the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, continues to imprison, torture and rape its citizens who are without legal representation and often without medical care in this desert prison. Though their actions are well-documented this has not been a matter of concern for the press, the UN or any nation.

The weaknesses of the book are obvious in some ways. It is hard to write a book like this. Due to the number of narratives it often feels disjointed. While they all follow a similar theme they aren’t connected by characters. This is not the author’s fault, but just the nature of the type of book he’s chosen to written. The reader can feel overwhelmed at times. At others confused as he will make mistakes in how he communicates this material. There are paragraphs in which he shifts from one event to another when there is no specific connection between the events except what all of them have in common.

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One of the things I don’t like about buying books on line is that you really can’t flip through it (Amazon is trying) and see if it is what you are looking for in the first place. The Walk by Stephen Smallman is one of the books I wish I’d been able to flip through. It was recommended in another book about discipleship. Since he’s in the same denomination in which I serve it, unlike the book I had read, would come from a more consistently covenantal perspective. This is not to say this is a bad book, because it isn’t. It just isn’t the book I had thought it would be. I was looking for a more theoretical book that had application. This is a book intended to actually be used to disciple new and renewed followers of Jesus. I guess I should have noticed that subtitle. But I do have a good resource to recommend to those, or use with those, who want or need to be discipled. One of the strengths is the progression that he uses from basics to discipleship thru the gospel on to mission. The goal is not information accumulation, but growth in grace, sanctification into greater obedience and maturity to disciple others and join Jesus in His mission (2 Cor. 5).

“If ‘going to heaven’ is the key objective of evangelism, perhaps that begins to tell us why discipleship is viewed as optional by so many ‘converts.'”

It is a 12 lesson course that could be used in SS, or throughout a year in a small group. He has a reading plan that goes with each lesson which he refers to often (largely Mark and Romans). He also has a reading plan in an appendix that can be used afterwards. We aren’t talking a verse to proof text. These are longer chunks that coincide with the material in the chapter. They build on one another to develop the context of the larger text. It gets people reading the Bible, since this is a large part of discipleship. (more…)

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It isn’t every day that you read a book that received its title from the liner notes of a classic jazz album. John Coltrane used it to explain A Love Supreme. Tim Keller borrows the phrase, and idea, to talk about work in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.

If I could summarize the book oh so briefly I’d say: If you like his other books, you’ll like this book. If you don’t, you probably won’t. If you haven’t read any of Keller’s books, what are you waiting for?

Tim Keller is pretty consistent in his writing approach. This book is another testament to that consistency is approach. That means that he seeks to bring together various threads of Christian tradition to show us the richness of our biblical heritage, he makes it accessible to ordinary people (including non-Christians), and keeps the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center in a winsome way.

He begins with God’s Plan for Work, pulling together the various emphases of different parts of the church. He wants us to recognize there is no one view of work, but that Scripture has a broader, deeper understanding of work. Various groups emphasize one or two aspects of that broader, deeper understanding. So, he is not trying to play them against one another, but they are different perspectives or aspects on the one whole. He brings in the Lutheran concept of vocation, and therefore the dignity of work. He brings in the ideas of work as cultivation, we produce something beneficial to others as well as ourselves. Work is also intended to be loving service to others. Holding all of these together is our creation in God’s image such that we are designed to work just as God works in creation and providence.

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Certain titles attract your attention as a pastor. Jonathan Dodson’s Gospel-Centered Discipleship has one of those titles. There is a discipleship crisis in the American Church. We too easily lapse into moralism or legalism instead of pursuing a healthy biblical vision of holiness. Or, some churches barely pursue any form of discipleship. Wanting to strengthen our discipleship, I was drawn to this book.

It is hard to live up to the hype. This is an inconsistent book. There are some very good, even excellent sections. And then there are sections, even chapters, that were frustrating, confusing and not very helpful.

Dodson is heavily dependent on Keller, Owen, Edwards, Lovelace and Piper. The best portions of the book bear their mark. Those sections focus on how the gospel keeps us from both legalism and license. The gospel calls us to holiness- godly character and actions- but also provides the proper motivation and power for that holiness. Our sinful hearts default to trying to be good according to our own wisdom and power. So, we slip into legalism, rules and try to obey in the power of the flesh. Dodson does a good job of stressing the importance of the gospel for sanctification.

“The gospel is necessary for getting right and doing right with God, for salvation and sanctification.”

One of the strengths of the book is the chapter on Gospel Motivation. There is explores how the gospel produces “religious affections” which are the motivation for godly living. He also discusses the role of confession and repentance in the process of sanctification.

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Our personal history can help us, or hinder us.  I don’t recall my childhood being one filled with affirmation and praise.  I seem quite capable of affirming the kids, but struggle at times when I need to affirm adults.  I’m not sure why that is.  Perhaps because they don’t often learn new things, and much of my affirming the kids comes as they gain new skills.

Many kids today are growing up in an era of “fake affirmation”.  They are affirmed so much for so many things they probably wonder if they can do any wrong.  Maybe I had a graduation ceremony for elementary.  I can’t remember.  But today every little milestone is celebrated so that those that actually have meaning have their meaning minimized.

So there are two errors that can take place: the neglect and over-use of affirmation.  One aspect of over-use is the man-centered aspect of affirmation.  It is into this context that Sam Crabtree has written his long-needed book Practicing Affirmation.  He believes that Christians should practice commending others to the glory of God.   In other words, we commend them for character, attitudes and actions that reflect the character, attitudes and actions of God.  As a result, we are praising God as we commend them.  This keeps us from what he calls idolatrous commendation, and failing to commend (just as sinful as the other extreme).

This is a fairly short book that seeks to facilitate the practice of affirmation.  It is not just defending the practice, though he does do that.  And there are some questions or arguments he spends more time on.  For instance, he spends much time refuting the argument that non-Christians should not be commended.  He rightly asserts that such a conclusion neglects two very important biblical truths.  First, as James 3 notes, people still bear God’s image.  Though unregenerate, non-Christians still bear some testimony to the God whose image they reflect.  Second, due to common grace even non-Christians can grow in relative character and act in ways that are commendable.

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Yes, the Cavman is getting ready to leave the country.  Have no fear, it will only be for a week.  We’ll be going about 30 minutes south of Yuma, AZ to San Luis Rio Colorado.  We are working with BEAMM to assist a local congregation.

While we are they, we will be doing:

  • Light construction to finish an addition to a local congregation’s facility.
  • A backyard Bible Club to evangelize and edify children from the community.
  • Assist the host church with an evangelistic outreach.

If you would like to help me leave the country, you can donate to our team through Razoo.  I hope you’ll help us strengthen another congregation as they seek to make Christ and His gospel known along the border.

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When I’m talking to people about a pastor’s work, I try to communicate the necessity and differences between public ministry (mostly Sunday morning) and personal ministry.  The first is more general, but the second more specific.

In his book, The Work of the Pastor, William Still addresses the former in his first chapter and the latter in his second chapter.  Perhaps I am not as stupid or crazy as I am prone to think I am.

It is the public ministry that sets the stage for the personal ministry.  It flows out of the ministry of Word (and sacrament, which he left out).  The average person, with normal spiritual sickness, merely needs a solid, balanced diet of the Word and some disciplined routine, says Still.  I wouldn’t disagree.  Often it is the neglect of the means of grace, or disciplines of grace, which produce so much spiritual lethargy, dullness and weakness in temptation.

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0a5b8d457c3755711406e2dd6c4dac8aRadical by David Platt is one of the books that has been enjoying lots of word of mouth among American Calvinists (mainly neo-Calvinists) since its release.  When I had the opportunity to get a review copy, I took it.  I wanted to read it to see what the buzz was about, and the topic interests me.

“I am convinced that we as Christ followers in American churches have embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe.”

Years ago, I preached my Advent series from Revelation.  One of those sermons was on the dual strategies of the Evil One to destroy the church.  The Beast represents governments that persecute the church.  The Prostitute represents seduction, as the world seduces the church such that she slowly becomes like the world.  In some countries the church experiences persecution, but here in America we face the Seductress.  It goes without saying that the message was not well received by some.  So, that being said, I get what David Platt is trying to say in his book.

This is not a new subject.  Michael Horton has written numerous books on the subject of how American Christianity has been warped by American values (instead of the influence going the other way).  People like Ron Sider, Francis Chan and a host of others have tackled this subject in the 25 years since Christ rescued me.  In fact, this book is part Horton (he stresses some theological ideas contrary to American thought- Calvinism), part Francis Chan (a ‘radical’ approach) and part Ron Sider (“pack your bags, we’re going on a guilt trip).  Which makes this a difficult book to review.

“A command for us to be gospel-living, gospel-speaking people at every moment and in every context where we find ourselves.”

Radical is not as good as the hype nor as bad as most (poorly informed) critics make it out to be.  But let me start with some good things, because there are things I appreciate about the book.  There are things the American Church needs to reckon with regarding how we’ve been seduced by our corner of the world.

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I am reading a very popular book right now.  I agree with some/much of what the author is saying.  I think he’s omitting some very important things (the review will be forthcoming).  My beef lies more with how he is saying it most of the time.

As I was reading one chapter today, he was lamenting about his blind spot- repeatedly.  Which led me to believe that he is writing out of guilt, not necessarily faith.  He writes like a guilty man to other guilty people.  What do I mean?

Part of what I mean is confused logic.  He sees the problem, but does not quite seem to grasp the root or the solution.  The solutions seem far more grounded in moralism (try harder) than the gospel (Jesus changing our affections).  To show the seriousness of the problem (a sin of omission), he compares it to an on-going sin of comission.

Part of what I mean is the guilt manipulation.  Again, he seems to miss the gospel solution and resorts to unbiblical arguments to motivate people toward obedience.

In a word, he’s making people guilty.  It feels very much like a guilty man trying to make others feel guilty as though this is how we change.  When we write, or preach, as guilty men we produce guilty people.  We lose sight of heart sins, specific hearts sins, and use a shotgun approach instead of a strategic strike with gospel truth.

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It is really strange that maturity would be considered a neglected aspect of discipleship.  I know I mention it regularly in preaching.  But, seeing as how the evangelical world is fairly shallow spiritually, John Stott is probably wise to bring it up in The Radical Disciple.

Stott begins by lamenting the explosive growth of the Church in the non-western world because it is about as superficial as the Christianity of the West.  Thanks to satellite and the internet we get to share our ignorance with them.  The world over, the Church is lacking depth in biblical knowledge and therefore character, or maturity.

The Scriptures, on the other hand, instruct us that such immaturity is “unnatural”.  Babies are meant to seek milk and grow up.  There are many Scriptures like 1 Corinthians 3, Ephesians 4 and Hebrews 6 that remind us that it is natural that we move toward maturity.  If we aren’t, there is some sort of dysfunction taking place- just like a teenager who doesn’t get taller and stronger.

The end of Colossians 1 is my “mission statement” as a pastor.  I strive to present everyone mature in Christ.  Since we are “in Christ” or vitally united to Him, “to be mature is to have a mature relationship with Christ in which we worship, trust, love and obey him.”  One of the problems we face is that people tend to create a Jesus in their own image (based on ethnicity, politics or ethics) rather than becoming conformed to the likeness of the real Jesus.  This is what idol factories do.

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  Jerome

Instead our “image” of Christ must also be shaped by Scripture.  It, not our preferences or vain imaginings, must determine who we worship.  That is because, according to Scripture, we become like what we worship (this is one of the problems with idols revealed by the prophets).

Back to Colossians 1, unlike many pastors or evangelists, Paul was not content with conversions.  He saw evangelism as leading directly into discipleship.  We are not to merely make converts, but disciples (Mt. 28).  We are to strive in His power to present the as mature in  Christ by proclaiming Christ to everyone.  We have lots of work to do.

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One of the hot books among Reformed pastors these days is The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.  If you haven’t heard of them, it may be because they are Australian.  The fact that these brothers are from “down under” shows up in some of the words and spellings utilized in the book.  But that does not mean the material is irrelevant to churches here in the States, or elsewhere.

My friend Morgan had an extra copy and passed it along to me.  I’m glad, I’m reading it as I prepare for my new call in Arizona.  The subtitle is The Ministry Mind Shift that Changes Everything.  That is a mighty bold claim, but how we think about ministry determines how we go about ministry.  Marshall and Payne are noticing some wrong ways of thinking and going about ministry.  Their goal is to reorient the church to a more biblical understanding and therefore practice.  In other words, orthodoxy leading to orthopraxy.

What did they notice?  One of them spent some time pondering their landscaping.  There they noticed a beautiful trellis and a meager trellis.  What was more important than the relative beauty of the trellises was that one had a thriving vine on it, and the other didn’t.  One trellis was beautiful, but it’s purpose was not to be beautiful, but to support a thriving vine.

Ministry has become, for many, more about having a beautiful trellis than a thriving vine.  This is the opposite of what ministry is about in Scripture.  This is there thesis.  Just as the vine needs the trellis, churches need the proper structure and support for the church to grow.  But a good vine dresser spends most of his time on the vine, not the trellis.  Most pastors spend most of their time on the structure instead of the Body.

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Yes, I can’t believe I had to type in 2010.  Only one more year to go, or is it 2?  I plan to be preaching for some time as God displays His patience and graciously calls people to repent and believe the Great New about His Son and Jesus’ work on the behalf of sinners.

January 17 Desert Springs Presbyterian Church Colossians 1:28-29  Messiah is the Message

January 24 Frostproof ARP Church  Colossians 1:28-29  Messiah is the Message

February 7 Morning Star Reformed Presbyterian Church, Vero Beach,  Colossians 1:28-29  Messiah is the Message

February 14 Morning Star Reformed Presbyterian Church, Vero Beach, Jonah 1  The Runaway Prophet

February 21 Morning Star Reformed Presbyterian Church, Vero Beach, Jonah 2  The Grateful Prophet

February 28 Morning Star Reformed Presbyterian Church, Vero Beach, Jonah 3 The Repentant Prophet

March 7 Desert Springs Presbyterian Church  1 John 5:21

March 14 Morning Star Reformed Presbyterian Church, Vero Beach, Jonah 4  The Angry Prophet and the Gracious God

March 21 Morning Star Reformed Presbyterian Church, Vero Beach, John 15:1-16  No Pain, No Gain

March 28 Morning Star Reformed Presbyterian Church, Vero Beach  1 Corinthians 5  Christ- the Passover Lamb

(Subject to change in accordance with the providence of God)

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Another painful phone call

Back when I worked for Ligonier ministries, I often talked with the “Born Again Guy”.  This was my name for someone who often called to discuss what it meant to be born again.  I did not like talking with him.  He was convinced that his novel ideas were true, and refused to ground those ideas in a sound, reasonable interpretation of Scripture.  I had many a painful, pointless conversation with him.

I wish I had a copy of Finally Alive then, because I could have sent it to him.  Perhaps John Piper would have made more progress with him than I did.  In his recent book , John Piper sets out to explain and apply the doctrine of regeneration.  He has a valid concern that the term “born again” has been removed from its biblical moorings.  There is a great ignorance about the biblical concept, and this misunderstanding has lead to many problems within the church.  It is at the root of much of the church’s problem with sin.  Piper’s desire is for this book to clear the air and restore the glory of God in regeneration.

Don't judge it by the cover!

Piper approaches this subject by exegeting and explaining the key passages that this subject.  The key passage is John 3, and this takes up much of the book.  He also spends significant time in 1 John and 2 Peter as he unpacks the implications of this significant doctrine.

The chapters in the book are short.  This is not a bad thing.  I was able to read a chapter during my 30-minute lunch break each day, slowly working through the book.  So while the material is not easy, John Piper provides enough for people to digest at each sitting.  He does not overwhelm people with lengthy chapters.

There are far too few books that cover this material.  I agree with 98% of what Piper says in this book.  The one thing I disagreed with him on was the meaning of “water and the Spirit”.  He thinks the “water” is a reference to the cleansing we receive (of which baptism is a picture) in regeneration (he argues this point from Ezekiel’s promise of the New Covenant).

I take an approach more akin to Leon Morris’ in that it refers to physical birth.  I think this due to the parallelism I see between verses 5 & 6.

5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.  6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

To be born again, we must be born the first time, in the flesh.  Jesus is speaking of water and birth.  The interpretation that makes most sense to me is water referring to birth, being born of the flesh.  This is insufficient for us to see, or enter, the kingdom of God.  We are powerless, but utterly dependent upon the work of the Spirit to give us life in Christ.

This difference is fine tuning, and has little/no difference in application.  But this text and others are clear to both of us that regeneration precedes faith rather than follows faith.  Piper labors to show the truth and significance of this truth.  Scripture teaches the regeneration is a significant change that produces faith in us, grants us the power to resist temptation and so please God.  It does not just produce a relational change, but also a spiritual, moral change.

Regeneration is mysterious, but that does not mean it is irrational.  Scripture connects it with the ministry of the Word.  As Calvin often noted, Word and Spirit are joined together.  The Spirit grants us new life through the ministry of the Word so that we then believe the Scriptures.  We then begin to obey the Scriptures as well.

Not only that, but we begin to make the Scriptures known that others may be born again.  Scripture is clear that God’s appointed means for faith is hearing the Word, through others.  We are responsible to engage in evangelism.

John Piper’s book is theology at its best.  By that I mean:

  • It is Scriptural.  It seeks to understand Scripture in a cohesive way.  He’s not proof-texting, but seeking to examine texts in their context.
  • It is gospel-centered.  All sound doctrine is in accordance with the gospel.  This means it is connected, in some way, shape or form, to the gospel.
  • It is practical.  He shows the implications and applications of the doctrine.  As John Frame has oft said, we do not truly understand a text until we apply it.  Piper does just that.

Once again John Piper has written a book that many won’t like but need to hear.  It is not just about theological minutia, but reminds me of Charles Simeon’s criteria for a sermon: Does it humble the sinner?  Does it exalt the Savior?  Does it promote holiness?  This book achieves all three of these goals.

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Two years ago (June 2007), I began a series on “church killers” after someone asked me why churches close (lack of prayer, evangelism & love).  This morning I pondered such matters again.  Perhaps it is because a sister church is closing this month.  I was reminded of a number of seemingly unrelated situations that had a common thread.  That thread was fear- the great “what if?”

In many ways our congregation was in bondage to that question.  It blocked attempts at outreach.  It blocked attempts to “think big” and plan for the future.  People were often afraid we’d be sued because of this, that or the other thing.  Ideas were shut down, and no alternative ideas were offered.

The reasons were sometimes dressed up in spiritual garb- “we cannot test God”.  This was used to try to keep us from trusting and applying God’s Word to our particular context.

We often misunderstand what it means to test God.  The Israelites tested God through their sin- grumbling.  They essentially tested God’s unfailing love by denying He loved them to justify their sin.  Satan wanted Jesus to put Himself in mortal danger, and Jesus responded with this command from Deuteronomy.

We were not putting ourselves in mortal danger, or certain danger.  Expanding the budget is not the same as jumping off a cliff unless the increases are too great a percentage of the current budget.

Fear actually does test God by thinking He won’t help us to obey Him or protect us when we obey Him (Jesus would have been obeying Satan, not the Father had He jumped).  We tested God by thinking He’s sustain us in our disobedience to the Great Commission (among other things).

Fear kills churches by stifling faith.  This lack of faith limits giving & budgets, outreach & evangelism, discipleship, church discipline and more.  The congregation in bondage to fear doesn’t do anything because of the “what if” (what if someone gets hurt, what if someone gets mad, what if someone leaves the church, ….).

In some ways, I also lived in fear- the fear of losing my job if I ticked off enough people by challenging their lack of faith and exposing their fear for what it was.  See, there was a silent conspiracy of fear operating to slowly, silently kill the church.

Fear is one of the leading causes of church deaths in America today.

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Jonah 4 seems to be the key chapter of the book (yes, hard to say for such a short book).  Everything has been pointing to this showdown between God and Jonah.  Yet both Ferguson and Estelle cover this in far too pages.  Ferguson takes 3 (short!) chapters to address it, while Estelle takes one longer one.  What they do say is good, I just hoped for more in light of the multiple chapters written on the other chapters in Jonah.

Here we get to why Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah in the first place- he was afraid God would be merciful!  He didn’t want mercy for the Ninevites?  Is there some person or group of people you don’t want mercy to find?  We all struggle with that.  But Jonah 4 reveals that mystery that Paul discusses in Romans 9-11 which was earlier unveiled in Genesis and Exodus.  God is sovereign in His distribution of mercy- He has mercy upon whom He has mercy, and shall harden whom He shall harden.  Despite Jonah’s fears and misgivings, God has had mercy upon Israel’s enemy!

But it is not just about God’s sovereign mercy toward Ninevah.  It is also about God’s continuing pursuit of Jonah’s heart.  Jonah 4 contrasts God’s responses with Jonah’s.  They are at odds, but God moves toward the once again retreating Jonah.

“But God was not willing to give him up.  That was why, in all likelihood, his misery was so miserable.  Jonah was caught between the vice of his own self-will on the one hand, and and the strong hand of God on the other. … He was bound to remain miserable until either he or God let go.  He knew that God had no intention of giving up!”  Sinclair Ferguson

God illustrates the problem for Jonah.  He provides a vine to provide some needed shade from the sun and the hot east wind (which God also appointed).  It may have been his companion, much like Wilson in Castaway.  The Lord gives …. and the Lord takes away!  He appointed a worm to eat the plant.  Jonah was ticked about the demise of this plant.  The word of the Lord came to Jonah a 3rd time!  Jonah was again confronted with the need to either commit himself to God’s purposes or to disobey.

Ferguson continues with this internal struggle in Jonah, relating them to the common missionary experience.  Proper doctrine is not enough, and is not the same as love for Christ.  Jonah had orthodox doctrine, but his heart was not in line with God’s.  Like the commom missionary experience, the pressures of the task brings out the worst in them.  Ferguson quotes a missionary-

“I never knew what a heart of stone and filth I had until I went overseas.”

The key, for Ferguson, is how we react to hardship.  This is a better barometer of where we are.  How do we react to failure, rejection, affliction etc.?  He then talks about success from the life of Martin Luther.  After seeing the progress of the gospel in significant ways “the devil rode his back.”  He experienced great temptation and affliction.  Dan Allender talked about this on a visit to RTS Orlando some years ago.  Elijah experienced a deep depression after his showdown with the prophets of Baal.  Our reaction reveals how much more progress the gospel needs to make in our own hearts.

Another issue Ferguson takes up is the rise in nationalism.  Sadly, Christians (and denominations) are often more American, or British or Kenyan than they Christian.  They are shaped more by their culture and national agenda than by the gospel.  We can care more about how our country propers than about whether or not the gospel prospers around the world.  Like Jonah, we can be more concerned with our comfort than the salvation of anyone.

I was reminded of this last night and this morning.  I returned home from vacation to discover I had no phone (digital), no internet and no digital cable.  A power surge had wiped out my cable modem and DVR.  A minor inconvenience, even the DVR’d movies I’d planned on watching while the family was away.  This morning I discovered my old laptop was also knocked out by the surge.  I had not backed it up before leaving, so months worth of photos, updates to resumes, questionaires were lost.  I can’t apply for a position from home now.  I was surprisingly non-apopyletic.  I was reminded- the Lord gives, the Lord takes away…

I need to remember that many people like the Ninevites are around me.  They are trapped in sin, and don’t know how to get out.  They need people like me to instruct them in all Christ has done to save sinners like us.  We must keep in mind that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and that He now sends us out to tell other sinners of His saving acts.

Sinclair Ferguson ends his book with a bit of a surprise.  He notes, again, that Jonah is biographical.  What we read here really happened.  But he says it operates like a parable (he calls it a parable).  What he means is that the story ends without Jonah’s response to God.  It is ambiguous precisely because Jonah represents us all.  We struggle with the same issues he did.  The point becomes, what will you do?  Will you embrace all that Christ has done for you both in His earthly ministry, and the special providences of His heavenly ministry has He pursues us?  Will we embrace His call and Commission?  Or will we  remain blinded by our selfishness and prejudices?  The ambiguous ending of Jonah puts the ball back in our court, so to speak.  Having heard, what shall we do?

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Jonah miraculously survived 3 days in the belly of the fish/whale.  There he was humbled, submitting himself to God who then had the sea dwelling creature spit him up on the shore.

Then the Word of the Lord came to Jonah again.  He is again sent to Ninevah, the difference in wording being “the message that I give you.”  He is still to call out against it, warning the people to prompt repentance.

Some have argued that it could not have been a genuine revival.  How, they argue, could these coverted Ninevites then resume their conquering ways resulting in the defeat and exile of the Northern Kingdom?  Students of revivals will notice that often revivals last but a generation.  The effects are not permanent.  For instance, barely 100 years after the Welsh revivals, Christianity is nearly extinct there.  This shows how long their declension has lasted.

“People who experience mighty revivals may be all the more hardened against God in the generations that follow.  The presence of the Spirit of God is a far more delicate matter than we are prone to imagine.”  Sinclair Ferguson

This is illustrated in the life of Jonah, and repeatedly in the history of Israel and Judah.  So we mich take Paul’s warning against greiving the Spirit seriously.  We cannot be sure we will repent of any sin we are tempted to commit.  But such disobedience will produce spiritual declension at the least, if not be evidence that the person was spiritually dead to begin with.

God’s evangelistic sovereignty is revealed in this passage, as Ferguson notes.  God sent a messenger in Jonah.  He authorized the message Jonah would declare.  It is good to pray for revival, but we must also evangelize for revival.  The God-declared end has a God-ordained means.  He sent an evangelist AND He opened their hearts to the message.  This is the very reason He sent Jonah in the first place.

The message was simple, but the effect was profound.  Historically the Spirit works in 2 ways.  The first is in the messenger or preacher, and is called unction (anointing has also been used but this term has recently been hijacked by televangelists like Benny Hinn to mean something quite different).  The message is delivered with power and conviction.

“That word can only come with power to our hearers when it has come with power to our own hearts.”  John Owen

The Spirit also works in the hearers to illumine them.  Paul describes this in 2 Corinthians 3-4.  God sheds His light into our hearts that we might see the glory of Jesus.  Suddenly people see their need AND the sufficiency of Jesus’ work on behalf of sinners.

(more…)

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I’ve been working through Jonah, using Man Overboard! by Sinclair Ferguson, and Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy by Bryan Estelle.  It is a challenging book of the Bible in terms of understanding it, and then how convicting the book is when you understand it.

Sinclair Ferguson, as usual, makes some penetrating observations in his preface and introduction.

“Jonah was thus trained in the gymnasium of God’s special providences to be an obedient servant.”

As I prepare a sermon on Deuteronomy 8, we see the same thing.  God is humbling and testing Israel that they might be obedient to Him.  The same thing is in the background of Romans 8 as He works all things for our good- to be conformed to the likeness of His Son.  So, God’s work in Jonah- though it contains extraordinary events- is part of the normal pattern for Christians.

“Jonah was forced to learn in his flight from God that God is sovereign.  He rules over all things.  He also learned that the pulse beat of God’s heart has an evangelistic rhythm.  He loves men and women and he will pursue them with his love in order to bring them to repentance and faith.  … But the marvel of the biblical teaching is that God’s sovereignty and our evangelism are married in beautiful harmony- as Jonah himself discovered at the most personal level.  Few sections of Scripture emphasize so clearly that God is sovereign in all evangelism, and he is evangelistic in the exercise of his sovereignty.”

That is a gem!  It stressed God’s missionary heart, which culminated in sending the Son to lay down his life for those he’d save.  It also stressed how God works in history to accomplish this evangelistic task.  He must work in Jonah to create an evangelist.  To do this he must first pursue Jonah, that through Jonah he might pursue the Ninevites.  We run, and He catches us and redeems us to accomplish His purposes.  This is what happens in Jonah.

(I’ll address the question of the genre & historicity of Jonah in a separate post.  I had to consider this recently as a candidate to transfer into a local Presbytery raised this issue.)

In his introduction, and through the book, Estelle explains and utilizes a Christocentric method of interpretation.  He instructs, at one point, the proper use of typology.  In his chapter on orientation, he discusses the purposes of the book.  We can get lost in this question at times, or think there is simply one purpose.  Utilizing a triperspectival model we can see that it reveals God as a “sovereignly evangelistic God” (normative), that we must repent of our own covenant unfaithfulness to experience His mercy (existential), and proclaim His mercies to unbelievers (situational/circumstantial).  Israel, like Jonah, had fled God’s presence in disobedience.  Part of that disobedience was failing to be a light to the nations.  What I ponder is if Jonah acts much like part of Jeremiah does, to prepare the Northern Kingdom for their coming exile that they might seek the well-being of their new ‘home’ and bring them the message of reconciliation.

(more…)

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After the introductory chapters on gospel and community, Total Church authors Chester and Timmis begin to practically work them out in a variety of important areas.  They start with evangelism and social involvement.

“Our conviction is that Christian are called to a dual fideltiy- fidelity to the core content of the gospel accompanied by fidelity to the primary context of a believing community.  To ignore or minimize either is not merely to hamstring the task of evangelism; it is effectively to deconstruct it.”

Their thesis is that evangelism focuses on the gospel word within the gospel community.  A phrase often attributed to Francis of Assisi, (apparently falsely) “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary” has wrongly separated gospel preaching and words.  The gospel is a message, so words are necessary.  Sometimes actions are too!

Too often we think of our need to do evangelism individually.  We all have a personal responsibility.  But we all have strengths and weaknesses that should be balanced out in the context of the community.  Not only that, but as the gospel community “incarnates” the gospel, people have an easier time grasping the power of the gospel.

Their vision is to have people bringing people to social events where the gospel is lived and proclaimed by the community.  This takes some of the burden off of us to think we have to answer all questions, address every concern and close the deal like some cold call salesman.  Some are better at building relationships with others and inviting them into the community.  Others are better at discerning the particular gospel issues that need to be addressed.

Does this happen automatically?  No, but the goal is to create a culture of gospel intentionality where the community works together to proclaim the gospel.

“If church and mission are redefined in relational terms, then work, leisure, and family time can all be viewed as gospel activities.  Ordinary life becomes pastoral and missional if we have gospel intentionality.  Watching a film with friends or looking after a burdened mother’s children can simultaneously be family time, leisure, mission, and church.”

The gospel is also about the marginalized (economically, socially, racially etc) experiencing acceptance in the community because of the gospel.  This means that the gospel community is involved in society’s problems.  It does not merely do good, but connects it with the gospel.  We show love because God is love.  We show compassion because God is compassionate.  We offer acceptance because Christ has torn down all dividing walls to create a new living temple.  The grace of God is at stake, as we see in places like James 2.  The church is to be an economically, socially and racially diverse community.

“If our congregations are full of respectable people, then it may be that we have not truly grasped the radical grace of God.”

They make three assertions:

  1. Evangelism and social action are distinct activities.
  2. Proclamation is central.
  3. Evangelism and social action are inseparable.

As with evangelism, Chester and Timmis advocate a healthier, more biblical approach to social action.  We act together, rather than as individuals.  In this way people are connected to the community, and not just an individual.  As a result, the full reality of the gospel is make known from the outset- God saves us into community.  This also protects us from creating a disconnect between evangelism and social action.  The social gospel movement merged the two, losing the distinction and usually the gospel.  Fundamentalism separated the two, often abandoning social involvement in a knee jerk reaction to the social gospel.  We are to distinguish them, but ultimately not separate them as we do the 2 natures of Messiah as well justification and sanctification.

Total church is on the right track here.  It is here they lean on their Reformed heritage rather than the Anabaptist influence which has been more characterized by retreat from society (understandable since they were persecuted greatly in Europe).

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Jerram Barrs strikes again!  His book The Heart of Evangelism is a fantastic look at evangelism that truly gets to the heart of the matter.  He brings the same humble, gracious style to the subject of prayer with The Heart of Prayer: What Jesus Teaches Us.  He addresses topics that often seem to be guilt-inducing.  But he recognizes the internal and external obstacles to both evangelism and prayer.  He writes as a fellow struggler sitting at the feet of Jesus instead of as an expert practicioner.

Jerram focuses on Jesus’ teaching on prayer, so this book serves as a nice counterpart of D.A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation, which focuses on Paul’s prayers.  These 2 men are very different, and both books are excellent though different.  This book is very accessible to lay people.  He tackles issues like public and private prayer, fasting, persevering in prayer, and Jesus’ prayers for His people.  He includes an appendix on mysticism.

This is an encouraging book.  It is also a humbling book.  That is a great combination.

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