Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘faith’


When I bought this I thought it was a biography. I was wrong. That’s one of the weaknesses of online shopping.

While it contains biographical information it is really a walk through the gospel from creation to consummation for those who have experienced abuse at the hands (and lips) of others.

The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse (Biography)The book is The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse by Mez McConnell. McConnell is now a pastor in Scotland, a true trophy of grace. He experienced profound abuse from his step-monster and her band of drunken friends. There was also sexual abuse from a baby sitter, and more.

Rosaria Butterfield was right when she wrote “The most disturbing book that I have ever read. I cannot recommend it enough.”

It is a very disturbing read. Through the first half of the book I was wondering, “Where’s his dad?”. In the forward Mez notes that his father was unaware of what was being done to him and his sister. I was wondering how this could possibly be so. He explains how in the second half, very briefly.

McConnell does not dwell on the abuse he suffered. That is probably a difficult thing to do. He does grapple before us with the process of becoming a Christian and then how to think about “her”. He’s honest about the wrong road of dealing with his abuse that led him into prison. It made him an angry and drug-seeking young man who destroyed others and himself in trying to make the pain stop. He glorifies none of this.

The biographical material usually comprises the shorter chapters. The larger chapters tend to be the more theological ones. But none of the chapters is long. They are meant to be read in a short sitting to give you time to think about them. I think he strikes a good balance between the events of his life, the theology to understand it and the existential struggle all this presents. His is not a faith that seeks to hide from the tough questions. It is all here.

He’s also honest about his target audience and goals.

“This book is for the silent sufferers within our churches (and without).”

“However, this book won’t answer all your questions.”

He begins with a definition of child abuse so people understand the breadth and depth of abuse in its various forms. He includes statistics before his conclusion filled with reality and hope. For instance:

“There’s the unexplained rage and frustrations at people around you- especially your loved ones.”

“I think there is real hope to be found, in the middle of our deepest traumas, in the good news about Jesus Christ. … I also think there is a place for us to find hope and community within the church.”

Initially his struggle was with “Doesn’t God see?” Soon he was agnostic, and then an atheist seeking to vent his rage and numb his pain.

This sets us up for brief meditations on Creation, focused on Eden, and then the Fall and Curse. He wants to explain theologically how we got in this mess of abuse. This leads to meditations about Satan and Adam as the prime actors in this sad drama. He answers some objections to the idea that we fell in Adam from Romans 5. This leads into the reign of death as the wages of sin.

“The truly scary thing is that instead of being a book, the Bible is, in fact, more like a mirror. Once we open it up, we begin to see our true nature reflected in it. We begin to realize that we, too, in deep, dark recesses of our souls, are more than capable of untold horrors against the rest of humanity.”

After a brief word about the world to come, he addresses where we live: in the time between the times. After this McConnell focuses on Jesus’ incarnation, compassion, and suffering. He wants victims of abuse to know Jesus experienced incredible betrayal, injustice and abuse. His is not the compassion of an observer, but a fellow sufferer. Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath that we deserved. In the midst of this McConnell defends the biblical view from the recent charges of “cosmic child abuse” in that while it was the will of God to do this, Jesus submitted willingly.

Seeing ourselves as sinners that deserve to drink that cup, but who have received grace can help us turn the corner from demanding justice to extending mercy. The mercy we received meant that Jesus received the justice we deserved. In speaking of justice he moves into a defense of the doctrine of hell. The fact is, as Mez notes, we aren’t just victims but also often victimisers.

With his conversion, McConnell not only learns about forgiveness but also about love. He states that he not only didn’t know how to love, but didn’t know now to process emotions. This is common among abuse victims. Love was a mystery to Mez because the people who were supposed to love him only brought him pain.

“The more I considered Jesus, the less I considered myself. The more I considered His pain, the more my own pain was put into perspective.”

He had to look to Jesus to understand love. He is not alone. Even if you haven’t been abused, you need to look to Jesus to understand what love is and does. And this leads to a discussion of grace: the good we don’t deserve.

He swings back to God’s sovereignty which is a bitter pill for people to swallow, even if they haven’t been abused. He brings us back to Jesus who suffered according to the will of God at the hand of sinners. We see this in Isaiah 53, Acts 2, Acts 4. More generally we see that God brings both good circumstances and catastrophic circumstances like the Covid-19 crisis we currently experience (Eccl. 7:14; Lam. 3:37-39).

“God may have ordained evil in our world, but He does not revel in it. He does not approve of it or take satisfaction in it.”

In answering the difficult question of how God can ordain child abuse, McConnell brings us to the life of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers of all people. Well, they were going to kill him. Joseph who was imprisoned for sexual because the mistress he spurned lied. Years later when Joseph was one of the most powerful men in the world, and his guilty brothers before him he made one of the most profound statements in the Scriptures. “You intended this for evil, but God intended it for good to accomplish the saving of many lives.” Joseph could see the great good worked through the evil of his brothers. Mez sees, at least, that this pain was necessary for him to cry out to God. He doesn’t claim we’ll know all or any of the reasons we suffer. But he does claim that good can come out of our suffering and trauma.

This is not a book that is afraid to say the hard things. He says them clearly and effectively.

This books also has a series of appendices. The first is an interview with a child abuser who became a Christian after turning himself in and going to prison. He was a victim who became an abuser. He talks about how difficult it was to find a church willing to let him worship there. He gets into some of the conditions placed on him. He wrestles with bringing his sexuality back within God’s boundaries. In some ways this has happened, and in others there is still internal struggle. He doesn’t completely trust himself. He is unable to contact his victims, and cannot confess his sin to them and ask their forgiveness. One of the lies the told himself though was that the boys liked it so everything was okay. He doesn’t believe this anymore.

One thing I disagree with him is this: “I think we should teach a child exclusively that it’s their body and their private parts. There is no such thing as good touch bad touch. It is all bad touch (excluding medical professionals).” The recent scandals involving Michigan State and the University of Michigan’s team doctors reveal that bad touch happens too often by medical professionals. Not all touch is bad. Sexual touching of children is, however.

Then there is an interview with the pastor of a child abuser. It focused on how the situation developed and how it is going.

The third appendix is a list of FAQS by child abuse sufferers answered by a panel of 3 pastors who suffered, including the author. There is much wisdom here.

“Do not get married without telling your spouse your history. Otherwise, when and if issues come up, it will prove difficult, although not impossible, to move forward together as a couple. … We want to avoid cases of frustration and anger on the part of the non-abused spouse, which can be misinterpreted by abuse sufferers.”

“People who commit these kinds of offenses are master liars and manipulators. … Often people will confess things to me to mask other, more serious sins going on in the background which they want to keep secret.”

They address the problem of forgiving someone who never asks for forgiveness or is dead. Also addressed is the reality of a tight-knit community that has abuse victims in it and their struggle to accept an abuser as a member.

The book concludes with a response from an abuse sufferer. This person found the book very helpful. They addressed their own struggle to forgive; “I feel that if I forgive, they will have won.” In that way and others the book brought their own sin to the surface. We see this again “I feel by saving abusers, God is hitting me with one last sucker punch. Yet, the gospel is real and changing lives. It changed mine.”

And that is McConnell’s goal, to see the gospel change the lives of those who have suffered childhood abuse.

Read Full Post »


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

My Favorites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mediocre

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

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

The Downright Bad

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

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

Read Full Post »


Image of the works of John newtonThe second volume in The Works of John Newton is even a little more varied than the first volume. The first had a biography, then his memoirs in letter form followed by more letters. This volume begins with the remaining letters of Cardiphoia, followed by some collections of sermons, then his ecclesiastical history and then the Olney Hymnbook. There is clearly plenty of material here.

In one of his books Jerry Bridges talks about the pool hall, and that his parents warned him to not go to the pool hall. He thought there was something wrong with playing pool. As it turned out, the concern was the gambling and unsavory characters associated with that pool hall (and some others).

I wonder if something similar happened with Newton and the playhouse. The first series of letters is to a Miss TH***, and they include his rebuke about her attendance at a playhouse. “I am well satisfied, that if there is any practice in this land sinful, attendance on the play-house is properly and eminently so. The theatres are fountains and means of vice…”.

I agree that the gospel is “a source of purer, sweeter, and more substantial pleasures.” We are invited into communion with God, but does that preclude our viewing stories told on TV, movies and stage? He is helping her wrestle with the impact of holiness on entertainment. Like most I’m probably quick to point out the shows I choose not to watch on account of their content but overlook the ones I do. In seminary one professor recommended I watch Seinfeld and another lamented the horrible choices students were making by watching such shows.

These letter grapple with living one’s faith in their circumstances and choices. They point us to Christ, not just for holiness but also for pardon. “Our sins are many, but his mercies are more; our sins are great, but his righteousness is greater.” He helps people wrestle with God’s providence in light of God’s character. This includes his famous paraphrase of Romans 8:28- “All shall work together for good; everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds.” He’s also very aware of the weakness of the flesh and that hard circumstances draw forth our corruptions.

He also interacts with men in ministry or considering ministry. At times they are men of different opinions than Newton. He tries to gently instruct, and provides a model for such discourses (rather than polemics). Polemics is for books, though even there winsomeness can help, not for personal relationships. He also covers topics like the length and volume of sermons, when to leave a church and more.

He writes about assurance of salvation to William Wilberforce’s aunt. There are letters on “backsliding”. He speaks of the pain of friendship and placing our hope in God alone. He also notes “it is merciful in the Lord to disappoint our plans and to cross our wishes.”

There are also some odd events, adding to the personal character. He writes of a lion they had in town and a discussion with its keeper. He writes of his own frustrations in some of the doctrinal debates, how he doesn’t fit perfectly in any one camp: “I am sort of a speckled bird among my Calvinist brethren … the Dissenters (many of them I mean) think me defective … neither do my dimensions fit exactly with them (Methodists).” So, one will find sorts of things of interest and help.

The sermons begin with a series of discourses that he intended to preach but apparently did not. They cover the deceitfulness of the human heart, Jesus and salvation, the name “Christians”, all things being given to us with Christ, and searching the Scriptures. In some ways they are an introduction to the Christian life. There is much that is very good in these discourses. In the last discourse he seems to discourage the expositional preaching through books. One finds subjects or themes to preach upon. So John and I could possibly have a lengthy discussion on this topic.

“None are so bad but the gospel affords them a ground of hope: none so good as to have any just ground for hope with it.”

Next are 20 sermons preached in Olney. He begins a series of sermons on Matt. 11:25 on the lack of success the gospel ministry may meet due to the mysteries of the gospel being hid from many. He preaches 4 sermons on that text before moving on to verse 26. There he begins to assert the sovereignty of divine grace. In the 6th sermon he moves to the person of Christ in vv. 27. That includes authority. This means that the glory and grace of God are revealed in Christ. After these 3 sermons on vv. 27, he moves to vv. 28 to discuss our labor and heavy load what it means to come to Christ and the rest he provides. Yes, 3 sermons on that before addressing vv. 30. This may be why he didn’t generally preach thru books- he would have died before he finished one with so many sermons on individual verses.

This is, in my opinion, one of the weaknesses of Puritan preaching which he seems to emulate here. The themes can be subtly removed from the context of the larger passage and book if one is not careful. We can be so focused on a word or phrase that we miss the overall meaning of a text.

Newton then moves to Romans 14 to discuss liberty and misconduct. The next sermon offered concerns the 3rd commandment out of Exodus 20. These sermons and those which follow are all disconnected from one another. He then jumps to 1 Cor. 9:24 and running the race. Then he jumps back to Micah 6:6-8 and James 2. You get the point. These were not preached, I imagine, sequentially.

They are good sermons and there are plenty of helpful statements in them. There is often encouragement to be found in them.

His Review of Ecclesiastical History is not quite what I expected. Generally such works begin after the time of the Apostles. His pretty much ends there. He’d hoped to write more volumes, but that is all he got to write. He was a busy many, as his many apologies for delays litter his letters.

“The history of all ages and countries uniformly confirms the Scriptural doctrine, that man is a depraved and fallen creature, and that some selfish temper, ambition, avarice, pride, revenge, and the like, are, in effect, the main-springs and motives of his conduct, unless so far, and in such instances, as they are corrected and subdued by Divine grace.”

His introduction focuses on the resistance of the human heart to the truth and the spread of persecution. He was thankful that the law of England limited the persecution of the church. He begins with the ministry of Jesus.

“We may describe the gospel to be- A divine revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, discovering the misery of fallen man by sin, and the means of his complete recovery by the free grace of God, through faith, unto holiness and happiness.”

He breaks this definition down, phrase by phrase. Then he returns to the subject of opposition, in particular by the religious leaders in Israel. The particular groups represent the basic types of resistance: legalism/self-righteousness, liberals or the self-wise, the worldly-wise or compromising. Newton then contrasts the disciples before and after Christ’s resurrection and ascension. He focuses on the influences of grace, however imperfect.

The second period of Christianity was the work of the Apostles. He retraces much of the Acts of the Apostles. This section is almost like a little commentary with some helpful words on the biblical book. He tries to focus on the needs of his time as he edits the vast history. As he goes he gives the supposed date of the events and the emperor at the time.

As he reports the advice of Gamaliel, I wonder how often we should heed that. Many fads in theology have come and gone, but each time we act like this one is the end of the church as we know it, only for the controversy to die down and the movement or false doctrine to die out (like the emergent church, open theism etc.).

Newton shifts his attention to Paul’s character as an example for ministers. He was a self-righteous and moral man who’s need for a Savior was revealed. Paul was concerned for doctrinal purity as relates to the great doctrines of the faith. He was discerning about which deviations were deadly to the gospel and which weren’t.

“Self is too prevalent in the best men, and the tendency of self is, to exact submission, to hurry to extremes, to exaggerate trifles into points of great consequence, and to render us averse to the healing expedients of peace.”

Paul derived the circumstantials and essentials of religion from the same source- the Scriptures. Newton explains the differences between them. Paul’s zeal was matched by his humility.

Newton moves on to the irregularities and offenses of the Apostles’ days. He brings us to the letters of the Apostles’ (and Acts) to see some of the most important problems they experienced. He addresses the public worship of Corinth, for instance. He still doesn’t give an answer to the supposed contradiction between chapters 11 and 14 on women speaking i the service. One persistent problem was the attachment some Jewish converts had to the law of Moses. We also see early forms of Antinomianism.

The hymnbook contains only titles and lyrics. It provides the text that influenced particular hymns. At times we can see how the form we have now is much different- verses missing or added (particularly with Amazing Grace). There are many hymns whose words should prove of interest to those who update the music of hymns.

I’m finding The Works of John Newton to be worth the investment of my time this year. They would likely be worth your investment too.

Read Full Post »


There aren’t too many book about laziness. There aren’t too many books by Korean pastors in English either.

Busy for Self, Lazy for GodWhen I saw that Westminster Seminary Press translated and released Busy for Self, Lazy for God: Meditations on Proverbs for Diligent Living by Nam Joon Kim, I had some interest based on the subject.

I also had interest based on the author. One should not get stuck in an echo chamber, reading only people from your culture and sub-culture. Nam Joon Kim is a conservative Presbyterian pastor, but he lives in Korea and is part of a very different culture than mine. I wanted to gain a wider perspective on the issue; to see how his culture (or at least he) handles the Scriptures and does theology.

I have served in two denominations that have non-geographic Korean Presbyteries. They are largely Korean-speaking churches so there is not much in the way of interaction with the pastors at General Assembly or Synod. This is clearly unfortunate, depriving both them and us of benefits to be gained by cross-cultural conversations.

Back to the book.

Rev. Kim breaks the book into two main sections: describing laziness and its consequences, and then mortifying laziness. The forward by Peter Lillback, President of Westminster Seminary in PA, notes that Rev. Kim is part of the same theological tradition. As an avid  reader, he has delved deeply into the Puritans. The book is a bestseller in Korea and Chinese-speaking countries. Now we get to benefit from his work.

In his introduction, Rev. Kim notes:

“Also, I began to realize that laziness is not a simple issue to deal with, but is a very complex issue because the root rotting one’s soul is self-love, and self-love is complex matter reaching into every corner of our lives.”

Conversion does not immediately drive out laziness. He does mention that the Christian life is a cruciform life, “built upon our Spirit-empowered, grace-infused efforts to become more like Christ”. Yet there lie the remnants of sin. It manifests itself in laziness among other things.

He reminds us that work is a blessing, and part of our being made in the image of God. It is intended to give us joy, both earthly and eternal.

Image result for the dudeLaziness is a cancer-like sin. Laziness inhibits our spiritual growth & sanctification since it often keeps us from engaging in the dependent discipline necessary for growth to take place. Laziness keeps us from reading the Scripture so our minds are renewed and our lives therefore transformed. Laziness keeps us from prayer in which we engage with God and receive grace. There is a reason laziness, or sloth, is known as one of the seven deadly sins.

Rev. Kim thinks of his own country and church. He laments the lack of integrity of Korean people. He frames this in the context of national income per capita. He sees integrity and holiness as connected. Integrity is being who you say you are. Holiness is being who God says you are. As a Christian, you should say you are what God says you are, and live it. Both find their foundation in trust in God. Kim mentions that doing the right thing includes doing them at the right time.

As a result, Rev. Kim explores how laziness affects the witness of the Church. It also reduces our labors to the money we need to survive instead of the glory of God.

Christians, like other people, often have dreams. They dream of doing great things. As a kid I dreamed of athletic prowess. Dreams, however, are different than goals. Goals are used to accomplish dreams. Without them dreams are just that: dreams. The reason we don’t develop goals to make dreams a reality is laziness.

“A dream is a desire for something. But that is where dreams stop: with desire. A goal, on the other hand, is something that someone burns with passion for and thus strives devotedly to accomplish.”

He notes that laziness can be very busy, and look like diligence. But it is busy with the wrong things. We can tread water in life, but treading water is not to be confused with swimming.

Laziness is not contained to you. You don’t simply ruin your life. Often you ruin the life of those who depend upon you. Think about that for a minute, parents and employees. This is part of the danger of laziness. Perhaps you’ve had to rely on a lazy person as the project falls farther and farther behind schedule. Perhaps you’ve been the one who was fired because people relied on you and you sank the project.

“The influence of one person’s laziness is never neatly contained. It spills over into the lives of others.”

The second chapter, Robbed by a Thief, begins his meditations on the Proverbs. He begins with 22:13. He spends time setting up the context, interpreting and applying this and other proverbs.

IImage result for the break upn this he explores the balance between work and rest. He returns to the theme of self-love as the root of laziness. Like Gary in The Break-up, we say we just want to rest for 20 minutes watching our highlights before helping prepare or clean up dinner. There is always a reason not to help. Your desires are the only ones that matter. Laziness begins to destroy relationships.

“A promiscuous and decadent lifestyle is not merely the result of poor decisions: it is the natural outworking of the rejection of true love- biblical love- along with the direction and sacrifice such love requires.”

As you start to feel the weight of your laziness, and like all you are getting is law, Rev. Kim brings us back to the gospel. As a member of an honor culture, he does focus far more on the effects of laziness on others, particularly your family that most Americans would. He does emphasize discipline and more than many American Christians do. But he does bring us back to the gospel before we suffocate. He reminds us of God’s diligence in fulfilling His goals, including taking responsibility for His children. Grace shapes our discipline rather than substituting for our discipline.

In The Desire for and Development of Laziness Rev. Kim spends time on Proverbs 21:25. He introduces this with some background on the Chinese emperors decadence and excess, contrasted with the plight of the ordinary person. Our quest for “peace” is often like theirs, “a prelude for perversity, and perversity can be linked to laziness.” He rightly addresses the beastliness of laziness as a function of our depravity. Sinners are sensual and driven by desire like animals. For the Christian, laziness often means we don’t seek God diligently and remain spiritually weak and focused on our desires.

“Apart from communion with God, which is fostered by God’s grace but also demands our continual effort, our spiritual epiphanies dwindle and disappear.”

In the midst of this he discusses get rich quick schemes, which are born in laziness. He shifts into the progression of laziness: Not putting fort our best effort ==> abandoning duties and responsibilities ==> carnal passions. Laziness progresses in our lives unless fought diligently. It is the unrelenting downward pull of our flesh. Grace, and grace alone, can overcome this pull. Left to ourselves we drown in envy, discontentment and despair.

He then addresses the Carelessness of Laziness with a focus on Proverbs 24:30-31. He tells of a man who was careless in a public document that cost the company a large sum of money. They lost their job, and their supervisor was also disciplined. Laziness leads to neglecting details that can be costly.

In the midst of this, the translators use some Christianese. Instead of saying “zeal” they use the phrase “on fire”. It is one of my pet peeves. While concepts may be unfamiliar to non-Christians we should speak in understandable words and phrases. We want to stand out for our faith, not our odd use of language. We can be lazy in thinking about how we communicate.

The tendency of laziness to invent excuses is examined in The Way of a Hedge of Thorns (Proverbs 15:19). I thought of some of the people in my life that this applies to greatly. I am not immune, nor are any of us. Excuse-making can eventually cripple us spiritually. We often don’t make excuses in our worldly responsibilities, but do with our God-ward ones. We are busy for self, but lazy and excuse-making when it comes to seeking God and seeking to glorify and enjoy Him.

Having explored laziness and its harmful consequences, Rev. Kim moves to the second part of the book: Saying Goodbye to Your Close Friend. The mortification of sin can feel like that. You’ve gotten comfortable with certain sins, in this case laziness. Putting it to death is painful. You will miss it to some degree.

He begins with two chapters on Laziness and Sleep. Rest is a promise of God with the intended purpose of preparing us to work. Laziness separates work and rest, seeking rest and sleep as a good in itself, to be enjoyed well beyond our need for sleep. The Korean work ethic seems like over-kill to many of us in America or Europe. There needs to be some adjustment. Adam didn’t punch a time clock. In the Garden he would likely take time to enjoy a job well done, a beautiful scene or sunset, and perhaps an intimate moment with Eve. God is not like the Egyptian task-masters and Pharaohs.

In this section the translators note that “Korea follows more of an ‘eight to nine’ lifestyle- no one may leave until the boss leaves.” A hard working person in another culture may be considered lazy by their standards. And by our standards there are likely hard working people what are considered to be lazy. We all tend to make ourselves the measure of all.

He notes that medical conditions can produce the need for extra sleep. What is in his focus is the sleep of laziness that leads to poverty of spirit and wallet.

“There can be no coexistence of the gospel with laziness; we always choose to focus our attention on one or the other.”

He then explores the fact that Laziness Hates Passion from Proverbs 19:24. Our love of sleep and rest must be cast out by the power of a greater love. Laziness hates passion and embraces weak responses to important things. Laziness gives a half-hearted response and doesn’t see things through.

Image result for smoke in the eyesHe then confronts our Boredom. Diligence is not necessarily exciting. Completing projects tests our attention span. So, what happens when you grow bored of a task? He explores the difference between conviction and sheer stubbornness (which is born of laziness and pride).

He returns to the reality that The Sluggard Gives God Grief. Laziness is like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes. It is a constant source of irritation to others, including God. One of the sins Jesus died for is our laziness. The penalty of sloth, which seems so innocuous, is death. It grieved the Father to send the Son to die for laziness.

He then moves into ministry whether pastor, elder, deaconess (his inclusion). Our call is intended to shape our lives. We don’t fit it into a little corner of open space and hope we can fulfill our duties. We are called to make room to fulfill the duties of our call.

“We should consider the gravity of our call from God, whatever it is, and restructure and reorganize our priorities and lives in order to be faithful to that call. … The point is a very simple one: change so that you can serve; adapt and adjust so that you can live out God’s call on your life.”

He concludes with An Image Forever Burned into the Heart as he meditates on Proverbs 24:32-34. The author of this proverb had this image of a neglected field burned in his mind. He knew the circumstances of the owner. It was not illness of disability that kept that field in disrepair. There was no tragedy that produced this effect. This leads to some hard questions about the places in our lives suffering disrepair. Is that a result of laziness or tragedy that has befallen us. Often it is the result of choices we make.

FImage result for abandoned houseor instance, the last two years have seen an abundance of leaks in my irrigation at home. I could choose to let the water puddle in unproductive places each morning. I could choose to turn off the water and allow our plants and trees to die in the desert heat. I could choose to turn it off and water by hand and have less time to spend with God and my family when I’m home. I could choose to repair them when I have time on the weekend and enjoy a beautiful yard with my family and time with God. The more things we push back the more disrepair fills our lives until we are like a broken-down, abandoned house except there we are.

Rev. Kim is calling us to faith and repentance. The echo in the background is the creation mandate. The power to turn from our sluggishness and toward diligence is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is a needful book, though a hard book. It will expose the laziness in your life. It isn’t condemnatory, but is calling people to repentance due to the kindness of God. That is a book worth reading.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


My years working in Ligonier Ministries’ phone room were tumultuous ones for the larger evangelical community. The Promise Keeper’s movement was huge, and divisive among lay people. More importantly, two documents were released: Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) and the subsequent Gift of Salvation (GOS). These caused division among many among evangelical leaders. Some friendships and relationships would never be the same.

“To work toward unity in the gospel is not a matter of ecclesiastical politics: it is a matter that touches the soul of tahe church itself and the souls of all its members.”

This is the old cover.

In response to ECT, R.C. Sproul wrote Faith Alone, a defense of sola fide which interacted with the document. In response to GOS (and subsequent release of The Gospel of Jesus Christ by evangelical leaders) he wrote the recently repackaged Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie that Binds Evangelicals Together.

It is important to keep this context together. In seeking greater dialogue and “unity” with Roman Catholicism, some evangelical leaders were causing conflict and division among Protestants. Here Sproul is once again focusing on the doctrine of sola fide as one that did and should unite Protestants including Evangelicals.

Sproul is clear, and generally irenic. He wants to rebuild bridges, not destroy them. He doesn’t want to forfeit the core of the gospel to gain “unity”.

Part 1 of the book focuses on the context, historically and contemporary respectively, in two chapters. Part 2 of the book is a critical analysis of GOS over the course of 3 chapters. The bulk of the book, 6 chapters, is Part 3 which explains The Gospel of Jesus Christ. The appendix of the book contains GOS and The Gospel of Jesus Christ for reference.

Sproul begins with the historical and theological context of “communion of saints”. As a matter found in the Apostles’ Creed (and for Presbyterians like Sproul and myself in the Westminster Confession) this is an important doctrine to understand. He brings us through the distinctions between the visible and invisible church, the marks of the church, and when it becomes necessary to leave a church that has lost the marks of a true church. He also lays out the shape of unity so we don’t seek the wrong kind of unity.

“When an essential truth of the gospel is condemned, the gospel itself is condemned with it, and without the gospel an institution is not a Christian church.”

He begins the contemporary context with a discussion of how words change meaning. Evangelical is one of those words whose meaning has changed greatly over time. The root of the word pertains to the gospel. Evangelicals were people concerned with believing and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now it means many things, including voting blocs in American politics, which have nothing to do with the gospel. The two defining doctrines of evangelicalism were sola scriptura (including the inspiration of the Scriptures) and sola fide. In the 1970’s the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures were undermined in many historically evangelical circles. In the 1980’s & 90’s it was the latter that was undermined. It became possible to self-identify as an evangelical but not hold to these core doctrines.

He also considers whether or not the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church has changed, thereby making unity possible. The bottom line is that Trent still stands and it condemns both sola scriptura and sola fide. The position of Trent is maintained in the newer catechisms of the Church of Rome. If the Catholics who signed these documents (ECT & GOS) affirm these doctrines they too are condemned by the Church of Rome.

As Sproul notes, there are some understandings of salvation shared by Protestants and Roman Catholics. Sproul has a history of being fair when handling the views of Roman Catholicism. That continues here. He gives credit where credit is due. They do, for instance, affirm grace and faith as necessary for salvation. Here is where distinctions are vastly important and R.C. does continually remind us of them. These distinctions are like the rock on the path you keep tripping over. We cannot ignore these distinctions. Sadly, the evangelicals who signed the documents think they affirm sola fide but it doesn’t. There is fide, or faith, but not the sola. It comes close but never gets there. That last yard is important, vital, necessary as a few Super Bowl teams have discovered. The disagreements over the ground of justification continue (imputation vs. infusion, Christ’s righteousness vs. our personal righteousness, faith alone vs. faith & works, grace received by faith vs. grace received from sacraments, and the list goes on). Similar terms is not to be confused with similar meaning and understanding.

“In summary we believe that imputation is essential to the gospel and that without it you don’t have the gospel or gospel unity. … Evangelicals who signed GOS could still affirm the normativity of a doctrine of justification, but not the normativity of the doctrine of sola fide, which clearly contains the essential ingredient of imputation.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ was written by both evangelicals who signed ECT and GOS, and evangelicals who were critical of the documents, like Sproul. It clarifies many of these issues that were obscured in ECT and GOS using a series of affirmations and denials. What follows is Sproul unpacking the historic Protestant understanding of the gospel.

The document is not perfect. For instance, in denying that the power of the gospel rests on things like the eloquence of the preacher, it does not deny that it depends on the efficacy of the sacraments. But the documents gets to most of the most important issues. Sproul covers plenty of ground in his explanation of the document. He doesn’t go very deep into those matters as a result. But he is clear and continues to make proper distinctions (a seemingly lost art).

Getting the Gospel Right is a good book. It examines important doctrines within the context of a recent theological controversy. For some this may be incredibly helpful. Others, who have not interest in historical theological controversies, may not appreciate how the book is written. R.C. is typically clear and engaging. This is a helpful volume that should not overwhelm the average reading by either its length or depth. I’d recommend it greatly for those trying to sort out the key differences between historic Protestantism and Roman Catholicism on the key matters of salvation.

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

Read Full Post »


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.

 

Read Full Post »


Sometimes “life” just gets in the way of all good intentions.

A few years ago I read Antinomianism by Mark Jones and when discussing the doctrine of assurance he mentioned Anthony Burgess (the Puritan, not the author of A Clockwork Orange). While reading The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson the subject and Burgess came up again in the footnotes. So I bought a copy of recently released version of Faith Seeking Assurance (FSA) by Burgess in the Puritan Treasures for Today.

While I finished reading the book in December, I went on vacation and returned to a crazy schedule that included preparing for a church trial, and presbytery meeting. I came down with “the” cold (I’m still coughing 4 weeks later), experienced a pastoral crisis or two, helped interview a church planter and we hosted a financial seminar. I think I am returning to normalcy and this review is still waiting for me.

That is how my brain works. I need to clear this out so I can move on to the next review of a book I just finished.

The doctrine of assurance is one of those neglected doctrines these days. Recently we’ve seen a spat of books about the Trinity and union with Christ which had been neglected for a long time. Maybe this doctrine will experience a literary resurgence. But until then … we pretty much have this book. Thankfully it is a very good book, but since I just worked thru this subject in the Westminster Standards for a SS class- there is more to be said.

FSA is a typically Puritan book in its style and structure. If you aren’t familiar with the Puritans, one way to describe them would be a dog with a bone, chewing, chewing, chewing. I’d say a cow chewing its cud, but that sounds too “gentle”. Perhaps another way of putting it is drilling down deep into a doctrine, looking at it from a variety of angles.

“… ecclesiastical discipline being to the church what the sword is to the Commonwealth.”

The assurance of which we speak is assurance as a reflex action- the assurance that we are saved by knowing we have believed and depend upon the merit of Christ. As a direct action, faith believes that God actually saves sinners. In this way, following Calvin, assurance is an element of faith.

“In his reflex acts of faith, the confidence that a believer has of the truth of grace wrought in him comes more from God’s Spirit removing his slavish fears and disposition and supporting the soul than it does from the excellence and beauty of grace within him.”

He begins with the necessity of assurance by bringing us to Corinth and Paul’s letters to them. Professing Christians can be quite content in their lusts. Paul advised them to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith rather than continue to exhibit presumption. In this way we differ from Roman Catholicism in which only those who receive a secret revelation can have such knowledge (think the saints, not ordinary Christians). But Scripture indicates we can know, and God generally wants His children to know that they are in fact saved.

Its advantage is likened to the man who has actually tasted honey and knows its sweetness experientially instead of simply theoretically. It provides a security in affliction, rather than a false security in our guilt. It also helps us to enjoy the sweetness of the sacraments, ceasing from useless arguments with others and focusing on your own heart (warning: we can be overly introspective however, and we are supposed to be looking outward to Christ who is our salvation), focusing on obedience and service. What gets in the way? He notes self-love, carnal confidence and the temptation to unbelief. We can also use false standards to determine whether or not we are saved.

“… some Christians rest in knowing the doctrine of the gospel and in the outward use of ordinances without ever feeling the weight of sin.”

From these introductory matters he spends time addressing the reality of hypocrites. Some have an historical faith: “They have the kind of historical faith that the devils possess. It is no real faith at all, but, at most, only a human assent.” There is intellectual agreement of a sort, but no resting in Christ. There are also those, like in the parable of the sower, who are temporary believers. They are part of the visible church, seem to be filled with joy, but eventually return to their sin and unbelief.

True Christians: “These Christians are incorporated into Christ’s body and so receive a vivifying influence from Him as a living branch in the vine or a living member in the body.”

One of the more interesting obstacles to gaining assurance that Burgess mentions is that we can resist the ministry of the Spirit to provide it. The basic notion is that the flesh resists all motions toward holiness, and all reception of spiritual blessings. Other obstacles are guilt over sins committed, temptations experienced and the Evil One who wants to destroy the joy of our salvation since he can’t actually destroy our salvation.

This means a believer may actually be saved, but not have assurance. They may have doubts and fears. But gaining assurance gives us greater peace and joy in our salvation.

Thomas Goodwin spoke of a father and son walking on the road. The father picks up the son, holds him and kisses him. The son was just as much his son when he was standing by the father, or even running from him. But his experience of being a son was better, more nurturing when the father held and kissed him. Assurance is like being held and kissed, our experience of salvation is sweeter. But we may still be saved even when we don’t experience this.

Burgess provides remedies for carnal confidence and directions for those who lack assurance. While God generally wants us to have assurance, it is not all He wants for us. He also wants us holy and humble. If assurance will make you proud or slothful at a given point in time, God may choose to withhold assurance for this greater good.

“We should not so gaze upon ourselves to find graces in our hearts that we forget those acts of faith whereby we immediately close with Christ and rely upon Him only for our justification.”

Assurance starts with the simple question, do you believe in Christ? If you don’t you have no ground for assurance. In seeing if you truly believe or have a counterfeit faith (see Edwards’ Charity and Its Fruits), you look to sanctification and whether common graces are at work in you. You aren’t looking for perfection, but progress. And in this someone else may help for often we see the sin, not the progress. In terms of common graces, is there a desire for worship, prayer, Bible reading, fellowship etc. These are faith at work. The desire for them is a work of the Spirit. The one who has never and doesn’t currently desire them has no grounds for assurance. There can be dry spells, and during them we generally don’t have assurance.

This is not a perfect book. It is a good and worthwhile book. For those who are not familiar with the Puritans, there is a learning curve. There is much to discover here, but I did find myself wanting more when I was done. Sadly, I can’t recall exactly what that more was. At this time, this and the chapters in The Whole Christ are the primary works on this important and often misunderstood subject.

 

Read Full Post »


So far I’ve really enjoyed Crossway’s series “On the Christian Life” having read the volumes on Newton, Bavink and Edwards. I’ve been working my way through the series on vacation/study leave. That all changed when I read Luther.

Oh, I’m kidding. Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom by Carl Trueman is a very good addition to the series. One of the things that Trueman appreciates about Luther was his humor, which is much better than my pathetic little joke there.

One of the strengths of this volume is that Trueman does not try to paint Luther as an “evangelical”. He notes our tendency to repaint our heroes in our own image. He resists this temptation and presents us with the Luther that we both love and don’t quite understand.

Luther’s understanding of the Christian life is very different from that found in “popular” evangelicalism and even in Reformed circles at times. Trueman isn’t here to criticize Luther, but is more to critique us in a round about way.

One of the struggles for a book like this is the sheer volume of material produced by Luther, as well as the development of his thought over time as a pioneer of sorts who came to a greater awareness of the implications, consequences and complications of this ideas over time. Yet, as Trueman notes, evangelicals tend to pull their quotes (sound bytes) from the early Luther.

Trueman begins with a brief biography of Luther so readers can get a lay of the land, so to speak. His life and theology were in near constant interaction. I noticed this tendency in studying some the major psychological theorists, and it is often true for theologians as well. Their theology is an attempt to work out their stuff with God. Unlike one author I read years ago, Luther’s goal was not sexual liberation but rather spiritual liberation.

Luther lived in a time when most people could not read. This greatly impacts his understanding of the Christian life. It is structured around daily worship services to hear the Word of God and to partake of the sacraments. While better literacy rates are a good thing, they have facilitated the individualistic view of the Christian life that actually robs us of maturity. We are meant to live in community, and not just for a few hours on Sunday.

We can’t turn back the clock (this includes rejecting the industrial revolution, modern travel etc. that shapes our lives/lifestyles). But perhaps we can made some different decisions in our own cultural context.

Luther has a strong emphasis on the Word, and Trueman spends time unpacking this. It is tied up on Luther’s understanding of the Word as both God’s revelation and God’s creative power. God’s Word is meant to shape how we think about life and reality. Luther was also concerned about how we approached the Word, and therefore God. We tend to be theologians of glory rather than theologians of the cross. The theologian of the cross sees God and comes to God thru Christ and Him crucified. The incarnation and sacrifice of the Son points to our weakness, sinfulness, neediness and how God is gracious, tender and merciful This shapes a very different life than one focused on God’s power and glory which tends to either drive us to despair (since we are sinners) or puffs us up (due to our pride and self-righteousness). This carries over to Luther’s law and gospel distinction. This is a much misunderstood concept, as if the OT is law and the NT is gospel. As Clapton sang, “It’s in the way that you use it.” The same texts can be used to expose sin, and reveal grace. First comes law to destroy our self-righteousness, and then comes grace.

So we encounter the Word in preaching, singing, meditating, prayer and if possible reading. Luther encourages us to be people of the Word so God will work in us to accomplish His good purposes.

The Christian life is not easy but we struggle with self-righteousness as well as sin. We also deal with anfechtungen, which is difficult to translate into English but could be considered similar to the dark night of the soul. We experience despair and frustration at the trials of life material and immaterial. We are not to look in, but to look out at Christ in the midst of all of this. Faith is looking to the Christ revealed in the Scriptures in dealing with our guilt, self-righteousness, and afflictions. Luther was not an introspective mystic, but one who calls us out of our introspection to look to Christ who is the only One who can help us.

One of the most important chapters is “Luther and Christian Righteousness.” It is written to address some misunderstandings of Luther regarding sanctification. These misunderstandings are found in the books and sermons by Tullian Tchavidjian and Trueman makes a few allusions to Tullian in the chapter. While the Reformation was going swimmingly in its early days, Luther discovered it was not necessarily bearing the fruit it should as he began to visit other areas. He saw that many people calling themselves Christians were ignorant of basic doctrines and lived like pigs.

He made a distinction between alien righteousness and proper righteousness. The former is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us in justification. It is our positional holiness. The latter is righteousness imparted to us by Christ in sanctification. It is our personal holiness. They are distinct but related. The same Christ who justifies us also sanctifies us. First He justifies and then He sanctifies. This order is key to Reformation or Protestant Theology. Luther discovered there was little to no personal holiness, and put forth the need to preach not just alien righteousness but also personal righteousness. This emphasis is seen in The Visitation Articles as well as his catechisms. While Melanchthon is credited with originating the idea of the “third use of the Law” (showing us how to live as Christians) it is actually present in Luther’s writings as well. The Law directs us as justified persons, but it is always grace that empowers us.

Additionally there was the Antinomian Crisis involving Agricola’s deviant theology. Luther notes we are a battlefield between the flesh and Spirit. Preaching only alien righteousness leads to immorality and false assurance of salvation.  So we find the need for pastors to also preach the law for instruction in righteousness.

The Christian life is played out in our vocations of citizen, work and home. Luther rightfully sees the Christian engaged in those spheres. He does not see a secular-sacred divide like the Roman Catholicism of his day (being a priest, nun or monk was seen as a more holy vocation than a cobbler), and some forms of fundamentalism today.

This is one of the shorter volumes in the series, just over 200 pages. There is some theological background that has to go into explaining many of the concepts central to Luther and his theology. Trueman handles that well and in understandable form. In the discussion of sacraments, he doesn’t delve into Luther’s understanding of the Chalcedonian Definition/Formula with respect to how the human nature of Christ is present in a ubiquitous fashion. There also aren’t many Scripture references which is interesting since Scripture was so important to Luther.

It is a worthwhile addition to the series that seems to focus on Reformed pastors/theologians. The fact he isn’t an “evangelical” provides a good corrective to many of us. This book is well worth reading.

Read Full Post »


I’ve been working on a Sunday School curriculum on the Westminster Standards. Among the resources I’m using are commentaries of the Westminster Confession by A.A. Hodge and Robert Shaw. The main resource was Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith by R.C. Sproul.

It is a layman’s guide. It is less technical than Hodge and Shaw. Paradoxically it is much longer than those commentaries. Sproul’s guide is 3 volumes. At times it was repetitive, particularly when he would launch into the elements of faith: content, assent and trust. On one hand I understand since faith plays a big role in the Confession showing up in many of the chapters. It begs to be understood. On the other hand, there is a chapter entitled “On Saving Faith” which addresses this topic. I’m not sure why he didn’t hold off on the discussion of faith until then. It doesn’t bother me, but when I consider those who would greatly benefit from studying the Confession, this may make it more difficult. Many laypeople are busy and don’t have time to read. And some really don’t like to read. A three volume set, while enticing to me, can look daunting to many.

As someone who has read most of his books, this is typical R.C. Sproul. He is gifted in making difficult subjects understandable for average people. It can be easy, in this case, to be overwhelmed with the Confession’s archaic language. But he breaks it down well. There are plenty of illustrations to help people understand.

It is not just for laypeople. I benefited from reading the book as well. There were somethings I hadn’t thought through before.

As a guide to the Westminster Confession, this set is essentially a systematic theology as it moves from the doctrine of Scripture and God to salvation and eventually to the Christian life (including the state, family and the church). It shows the progression of thought in all of this and shows the interconnectedness of these doctrines. This reflects the intention of the Westminster Divines.

While Sproul handles the Confession, the Catechisms are in appendices. This is a good thing in that they have a slightly different emphasis. The Short Catechism begins with the famous notion that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This is how I theologically orient the study. All of this is intended to help us glorify and enjoy God. The Larger Catechism has more of an emphasis on union with Christ. While Sproul does mention this topic, it could use more development (just like it could use development in the Confession).

So, caveats accepted this is a worthwhile set to add to a pastor’s library, a church library and officer training. It will also be of great interest to Christians old and young with an interest in theology.

Read Full Post »


I have a love/hate relationship with pre-marital counseling. I enjoy doing it, and it is important to do. I have yet to find the best material for me to use. I’ve tried a variety of options. I want a balance between structure and freedom (this is generally true of me). I want to be faithful and cover the basics. But I want the freedom to follow what I discover. We aren’t just dealing with topics, but with people who have real histories that need to be uncovered because their relationship is unlike any other.

I feel like I’ve ping-ponged over the abyss as I’ve tried (in my own perfectionistic baggage) to find the perfect balance. I apologize to the many “guinea pigs” I’ve worked with over the years.

With a couple preparing for marriage I’ve waded into these murky waters again. Last time I adapted some of the materials in my “soon-to-be-published” book. I’m sure of of that will hang on, but I wanted to cover some of the standard topics better.

As a result, I purchased two books. One of them was Tying the Knot by Rob Green. This is an attempt to have Christ-centered pre-marital counseling. “Jesus” and “Center” are part of each chapter title. He covers your life, love, problem solving, roles and expectations, communication, finances, community and intimacy. His desire is to see all of these things in light of the object of your faith: Jesus. Each chapter has homework to process the information and apply it in your relationship. It is intended for use with a pastor or mentor in preparation.

A pastor or mentor is important precisely because we need to be pushed. There are things we would rather not talk about. This is the way we are. We want to duck the hard questions. People “in love” don’t want the boat rocked. They think they have arrived, they have found their soul mate. The search is over, but hard questions can question that conclusion. A good mentor will be able to tell a couple there are serious concerns. Struggles are okay- they deepen love or reveal we’re really into self-interest not actual love. So don’t deny struggles, or make too much of them. What matters is what you do with them.

He does start with each person’s relationship with Christ. He wants to encourage them to have Christ as of utmost importance to each future spouse. Too often people cling to a cultural form of Christianity. We treat Jesus as an optional add-on to life as opposed to the most important person in our lives. Jesus is a king, and Christians are part of His kingdom and are to keep that kingdom central. When we don’t, we become more like neighboring nations that continually fight for control. Our kingdoms begin to matter too much and the person who threatens our kingdom must be conquered or eliminated.

Green then distinguishes between a worldly understanding of love and a biblical one. Real love isn’t about epic dates and woozy feelings. It is about sticking together in the midst of adversity, short-term and long-term. God doesn’t bail on us. He enables us to not bail on each other whether it is the flu, job loss, cancer etc. He expounds 1 Corinthians 13, and reveals how we have been loved by Christ.

Problem solving is a problem for many of us because we are “hurt hoarders”: we do keep a record of wrongs which creates long-term problems in a relationship. He focused on recording their wrongs and the growth of bitterness. We can also record our wrongs and withdraw out of a sense of guilt, shame and failure. Both make solving problems increasingly difficult. He covers some of the lies we can believe about problems that create more problems. He then lays out some basic principles to keep in mind. He brings the freedom we should experience due to the doctrine of justification to confess our sin, and to forgive theirs. For couples or individuals who really struggle with this I’d recommend When Sinners Say “I Do”.

With roles and expectations Green briefly delves into the reality of roles as God-given, and the differing expectations we have. I think he does a good job of distinguishing between roles and expectations. Too often they are confused. Expectations are person-relative. Roles are God-established. An overly progressive or liberal view makes roles all person-relative because men and women are interchangeable. Some conservatives try to cram expectations into roles. There are no divine dictates about who cooks, does dishes or takes out the trash. Each couple works through those things in light of the gifts, interests, competing time demands and responsibilities etc. Each person comes from a different family culture and the couple needs to form a new family culture that is faithful in that to which God speaks and loving & wise in that to which He doesn’t.

In communication he focuses on words as the overflow of the heart. We all need renewed hearts. Only Jesus can renew our hearts. Too often we speak in ways that diminish, wound and degrade our spouses. When your kingdom is on the line you will not care about collateral damage. And this is the problem.

In discussing finances, Green wants us to see ourselves as stewards. This means that how we spend our money is tied to our relationship with Christ. His kingdom, not our own, should determine where our money goes. Too many people give little thought to Jesus when they think about cars, homes, vacations, snack food etc. We’ve been trained to think about the environment, or “fair trade”. But most haven’t been trained to think about stewardship. That’s important too! More important actually.

He includes a rarity in pre-marital counseling material- a chapter on church. He talks about community and one of those communities is the faith community. It is one of the ways we keep Jesus in the center, and a manifestation of Jesus being in the center. He loves the Church! It is His Bride. How can we love Jesus and not love His Bride. Oh, unlike Him she is far from perfect. She’s like us, and therefore hard to love at times. Loving the Church is part of how we learn to love like Jesus.

He wraps up with intimacy, or sex. We tend to keep Jesus out of our sex lives. I am reminded of Only the Lonely when he brings her home for dinner together. Mom has gone out and this is going to be the big night when they finally fornicate. In the bedroom there is a statue of Jesus, so he puts a hat over the statue thinking then God won’t see. We fail to see Jesus as the Creator of our bodies and therefore of sex. He has authority over our sex lives and does regulate them. Sex is intended to strengthen the one flesh union as an expression of love, not self-interest. That shapes how we talk and do sex in marriage.

Tying the Knot covers almost all of the essential topics. It is a very readable book and is not verbose. He gets to the point, sometimes a little too quickly.

He could have spent a little more time developing Christ as the Creator and Lord of marriage and His supremacy and sufficiency in all things related to life and marriage. But better a book this size than the size of mine. He was able to stay focused and that is helpful for young couples on the road to marriage.

I’m surprise that child bearing and rearing is not really covered. I say this since “be fruitful and multiply” is part of the creation mandate (and Noahic covenant and Abrahamic promise), and forms one of the purposes of marriage. We live in a culture where marriage and children are increasingly separated as evidenced by more children being born outside of marriage, and more couples choosing to be childless (a national magazine had this as its cover story a few years ago). It is one of the topics I encourage friends to discuss before they are engaged. If you can’t get on the same page regarding children and how they will be raised there will be many conflicts surrounding those topics. I found this to be a glaring omission.

But all together, I thought this was a very good book. I plan to use this book and not the other with the young couple coming for pre-marital counseling this summer. It doesn’t say everything, but what it says it does say well.

Read Full Post »


“A Church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation.” A.A. Hodge

I came across this years ago when reading Hodge’s The Confession of Faith, a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Note: he wrote this in a commentary on a confession of faith.

Since I’m currently putting together SS material on the Westminster Standards I saw the red ink underlining and exclamation points in the margin. John Calvin expresses similar sentiments in his chapter on The Power of the Church in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541). I decided to run an experiment. I put it on my FB page, and in a closed group I belong to connected to Calvinism. I was curious if there would be any difference in responses.

On my FB page, the response was overwhelmingly positive. There were a few questions, but no big deal.

In the group, it was overwhelmingly negative. There were a number of misinterpretations of the quote. People were fairly unreasonable. I know, shocking conduct on the internet.

Here is a sampling:

“I disagree. attendance and membership are two different things. …theology is as important as doxology.. we are there to preserve both.. as a group we draw lines in the sand.. as an open group we do not.

“…maybe we should eliminate membership and just gather together without running church like a business. … If you expect the rent/mortgage on your church’s building to be paid, your pastor to be paid, the facility clean and in good repair, and your favorite ministries to be funded, then yeah, church needs to have a business component to it. Some churches take that too far and forget they’re a church, but churches have to run like a business to some degree.”

I also disagree. The elders are responsible to guard the flock, and you can’t keep the wolves out if you just admit members indiscriminately. Membership lists also have a use in determining who is eligible for church discipline. Just because a person sits in the pews doesn’t mean the church has authority to discipline them.

I would not expect a Pentecostal to accept me as a member since I do not accept their core beliefs about how the Spirit works and manifests itself. There should be some basic doctrinal agreement and some kind of pledge to serve to be a member.

“In order to worship in unity you need to agree on some things that aren’t salvation essentials. I don’t doubt the salvation of my Presbyterian brethren even though I doubt the legitimacy of their baptizing infants. They don’t doubt my salvation either but they would view my refusal to baptize my kids before conversion as disobedience to Christ’s command. Baptism is definitely not an essential doctrine but is practically speaking pretty important in fellowship and worship. …Messianic Christians and seventh day Adventists worship on Saturday, and think we’re misinterpreting the New Covenant when we worship on Sunday. They probably don’t doubt our salvation and in many cases we don’t doubt theirs, but it’d be pretty difficult to worship together weekly because they wouldn’t want to gather on our day nor we on theirs.”

“Nobody has to attend our church regularly in order to be saved, nobody has to agree to our church’s confession and member’s covenant to be saved, even baptism is not a requirement in order to be saved. So obviously this statement as it appears is false. But I wonder if it is explained in context in a way that might show it to have a true meaning.

We see an avalanche of erroneous assumptions, worse-case scenarios and oddities marshaled to reject Hodge’s premise.

What does Hodge mean? What doesn’t he mean?

These words begin that paragraph:

“In all Churches a distinction is made between the terms upon which private members are admitted to membership, and the terms upon which office-bearers are admitted to their sacred trusts of teaching and ruling.”

Hodge is writing a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. He believes in the use of Confessions and Creeds. He believes churches should have and use a Confession of Faith. He held to the Westminster Confession.

So, Hodge is NOT arguing that churches shouldn’t have a confession.

Hodge recognizes the distinction between members and officers. Members are held to a higher standard. He is speaking of the Confession, not extra-biblical conditions (keep reading). The Confession must be accepted, and taught, by the leadership of the church.

What the quote is saying, in part, is that holding to (subscription) the Confession (or any confession) should not be a requirement of membership. There are some denominations, wanting to limit doctrinal controversy. I used to be a pastor in the ARP and the membership questions included: “Do you accept the doctrines and principles of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for far as you understand them, as agreeable to and founded on the Word of God?”  A confusing qualifier to be sure. The URC requires membership subscribe to the Three Forms of Membership. I was surprised upon joining the PCA that there was no similar vow. Many wish there was one, but I tend to think there shouldn’t be.

This does not mean that Hodge didn’t think members didn’t have to believe anything. They had to believe anything necessary for saving faith. The Westminster Confession includes things necessary for saving faith, but has far more in there. The additional topics are for our well-being rather than our salvation. We should require faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as God incarnate & part of the Trinity, who died and rose again. We should also require repentance as well. And baptism as included in the Great Commission. In other words, as far as we can tell, comunicate members should be Christians.

The other thing Hodge is (may be) saying is that membership should not bind the conscience in any way not required for salvation. Some church membership vows include abstinence from alcohol, smoking or dancing. These are not requirements for salvation (or sanctification).

In speaking about “church constitutions” Calvin argues in this way:

“So we must rapidly conclude as we argued earlier that, where God is concerned, our consciences are in no way compelled or obligated by any such constitutions. Their aim is to bind our souls before Go and to lay duties upon us, as if the things which they commanded were essential for salvation. Such today are all those constitutions called ‘church constitutions which they say are necessary if God is to be truly honored and served. They are countless in number, and make for equally countless bonds which keep souls imprisoned.”

If you think it wise not to drink alcohol, or dance or have the occasional cigar, you are able and free to make that decision for yourself. What you are not free to do is to bind the conscience of others to the same extra-biblical command. No church is free to so bind the conscience of its members. The doctrine of Christian Freedom needs to be taught in churches so members won’t fight over these matters (like the discussions I’d had as a young Christian with people who hated Christian rock, or secular music). You don’t resolve the argument biblically by binding consciences. “So you won’t fight about a beer with your pizza, we’ll just prohibit drinking altogether.” Too many churches take this very route and sin against God and their members.

Back to Confessions. Church members should know that the church has a confession, and that the teaching of the church will conform to that confession. I cover this in our membership class. I give them a copy of the Westminster Standards.

Some members will already agree with the Confession. That’s great! But I hope that many members are younger Christians. We are not a Reformed refuge where you need the secret password (John Calvin Owen & Newton). I see holding to the Confession as one of the goals of my teaching. I want people to move toward the Confession, understand it better and increasingly affirm it as a summary of Scripture. We can’t demand that as a condition of membership, however. We should never say to a Christian, you can’t be a member here. We may say, this is what we teach. If you are willing to discover more about this great. But if you fight about it, this may not be where your membership should be. Just as we offer Christ’s Table, this is Christ’s church. We may be Presbyterians, but can’t restrict membership to Presbyterians. I want people to grow in & into their faith in my congregation.

Read Full Post »


I left off my discussion of the law and Calvin on the verge of talking about the uses of the law in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Essentials Edition.

The first function of the law is to convince us of sin. The law comes to us as sinners, and reveals us as sinners. Fundamentally, it reveals the righteousness of God but then necessarily exposes our own unrighteousness. We tend to be blind to our sin. We easily recognize other people’s sin, particularly when we are hurt by other people. But sin has corrupted our hearts, and the law of God written there. As a result we struggle to accurately discern right from wrong. As sinners, we also struggle to see ourselves as we really are. So God gave us the law to address this great need in us.

“For man, who is otherwise blinded and drunk with self-love, must be compelled to recognize and confess both his weakness and impurity.”

We are used to our evil desires. Sin also seeks to deceive us, posing as righteousness through our fear and pride. The law sheds light on the situation, helping us to see through the lies we’ve believed. It reveals that we really are guilty and should feel guilty.

God is not trying to make us miserable, for misery’s sake. “For we know that he never tires of doing good to us, and always heaps blessing upon blessing.” So this knowledge of self thru the law is really for our good, should we repent and believe. The misery is meant to promote our repentance when we see the mercy of God in the gospel. “His purpose, then, is that men, renouncing all belief in their own strength, should acknowledge that it is only his hand that sustains them…”.

Ultimately, of course, we are blessed only in (union with) Christ. “In Christ, however, his face shines upon us full of grace and sweetness, despite the fact that we are poor, unworthy sinners.” Exposed as weak & sinful, we are also driven to Jesus to gain life and contentment. This doesn’t happen without the law.

The second function is to restrain sin. Some people live in fear of punishment. You know, they slow down when they see a police car. The law, which includes sanctions, discourages sin in most people. This is not the same as obedience, since it is driven by slavish fear of punishment, not by faith and gratitude with an eye toward the glory of God. Shame and fear make society more peaceable, but they are not what God’s is aiming for, which is conformance to Christ who obeyed the Father out of love (for Him and us).

As a pastor and parent, there are times I am glad that some sin is restrained in the lives of my congregation and children. I’d rather the congregation, family and individuals involved not have to suffer the consequences of sin. I’m okay with someone avoiding sexual sin out of fear of pregnancy, STDs etc. For awhile. I would like to move them to faith, hope and love as motives for obedience. All things in due time.

The third, and controversial, use of the law is to encourage obedience in Christians. The power of obedience is the Holy Spirit, not the law. The law provides direction: this is what pleases God. The law provides promises to encourage. Sadly, when this is discussed, people opposed to the 3rd use of the law hear us saying that law has power to enable obedience. Reformed teachers don’t say this, but point to the Spirit. Here’s Calvin, “believers whose hearts are already ruled and quickened by God’s Spirit.” It is the Spirit who, in fulfillment of the New Covenant promise, writes the law on our hearts. Further, “led by the Holy Spirit they are moved by the wish to obey” which is also promised in the New Covenant. While we see law and grace as opposing principles with regard to justification, they are not with regard to sanctification. They work together! The law provides direction to grace. Grace provides desire and power to fulfill the law. Meditating on the law (think Psalm 119) is used by the Spirit to stir us toward obedience, “to persevere in obedience and to turn away from his faults.”

We are still burdened with the flesh, which resists obedience. So each of us needs the law to “be a constant goad to him, to stop him growing sleepy or dull.”

Calvin then begins to defend his position. Some people, and theological systems, “rashly reject Moses and would have us ignore the law.” He asserts that we are not bound by random rules and principles, if we want to be holy, but the permanent and unchanging moral law which is a reflection of God’s righteous character. Paul asserts as much in 2 Timothy 3. The OT, which was the Scriptures he was referring to, is useful  to admonish, rebuke, correct and train the righteous man for good works.

“In urging upon us the perfection to which it calls us, it shows us the goal at which we should aim our lives. Provided we persevere in that aim, that is enough. Our whole life is like a race; when we reach its end the Lord will bless us by letting us reach the goal we presently pursue, even though we are still a long way off.”

Calvin argues that the curse of the law, not the law itself, was abrogated by Christ. The Christian is no longer, or should no longer, be fearful of God because Christ has borne the curse for us. We have been adopted as sons, and have the Spirit of sonship not the spirit of slaves. Justified, we are at peace with God and our subsequent sins do not destroy that peace purchased by Christ if we are truly united to Christ. Jesus changes our relationship to the law.

Part of the law, or a type of law, has been abrogated. The ceremonial law has not only fulfilled, but our attempts to keep it are a winding back of redemption. Our redemption’s goal is to make us like Jesus in character, which is reflected in the law. The ceremonial law addresses guilt and pollution, the very things Jesus removed through His propitiation on the cross. To still obey that part of the law (offering sacrifices) is to say that the work of Jesus did not deal with our guilt and pollution. Those Mosaic sacrifices did not really remove their guilt and pollution, but were provisional in nature until the Son came to actually remove our guilt and pollution, and to prepare God’s people for that time.

“Such observances obscured his glory once the gospel had been revealed.”

Read Full Post »


One of the things I appreciate about Sinclair Ferguson is how he combines astute theological thinking with pastoral wisdom. This characteristic is what makes his latest book, The Whole Christ so good, so timely and helpful.

It is also what makes reviewing this book so difficult. I started to review it, describing many of the great insights, distinctions, historical issues etc. that are in this book that the review was becoming a tome. It would be easy to have a short review that just doesn’t do the book justice, that doesn’t really give you a clear idea as to why you should read it. And you should!

The story of the book began decades ago when Ferguson delivered a number of messages on pastoral reflections of the Marrow Controversy at a conference. Over the years people have asked if he would put them in book form (I hadn’t seen him since I heard the lectures, so I just hoped and prayed). As he noted, and I have also discovered firsthand, it is much harder to adapt messages than to just write a book. The last person to ask him was Tim Keller. Ferguson’s retirement provided the opportunity. Having heard the lectures, I am thankful that it has come to pass. Having read the book, I am even gladder he did.

Ferguson brings us back to the Marrow Controversy that troubled the Church of Scotland in the 1700s. It was a controversy prompted, in part, by The Marrow of Modern Divinity by E.F. But it was really a disagreement about legalism, antinominanism and assurance in the Church of Scotland.

He necessarily interacts with the book, written years earlier but discovered by Thomas Boston, and how the controversy played out in the Church. He brings The Westminster Confession of Faith, various Puritans and John Calvin into the fray. Most importantly, Ferguson also writes about the human heart since these are not simply abstract theological ideas, but issues that plague us.

For instance, he resolves an alleged conflict between Calvin and the Westminster Divines on the subject of faith and assurance. Calvin wrote of assurance being essential to faith which is contrary to the Confession. But Ferguson shows that Calvin meant we must believe that Christ is able to save. This differs from assurance of salvation, meaning that Christ as saved a particular sinner. In other words, they were discussing two different kinds of assurance. This is a very helpful distinction, with pastoral implications. The first is an issue of one’s justification, the other is an issue of their subjective confidence before God. You have to identify the proper problem so you give them the proper instruction, otherwise you can do spiritual damage.

This book is rife with such pastoral implications whether for our preaching or our counseling. This is what makes the book so excellent, and a must-read. He gets to the heart of legalism and antinomianism, and presents us Christ and the gospel as the resolution for both (and the issue of assurance as well).

Ferguson asserts that both legalism and antinomianism severe the law from the character of the law Giver. They do it in different way, but come from the same root. He brings us to Eve and the original temptation. Satan got her to doubt God’s goodness and love. She developed a legalistic spirit, which hardened her heart towards God, which resulted in her antinomianism, or rejection of God’s law to the original couple.

He unpacks how both legalism and antinomian manifest themselves. They also appear in how we think of assurance. They also affect how we preach, and how we hear the gospel, or shall I say mishear.

Much of what Ferguson does is bring us back to the gospel and the character of God. Law then finds its appropriate place, and assurance seen aright.

What started this mess that divided the Church of Scotland, and many Christians today. The controversy started over a Presbytery creed that rejected “preparationism”, a form of hyper-Calvinism that taught that the gospel only for those who showed signs of grace, who have repented (yeah, confusing). One thing that becomes evident is that theses Scots wrote questions in a very convoluted fashion. One man had his license to preach the gospel removed by not affirming the creed. The General Assembly reversed the decision and condemned the creed. One frustrated member of the Assembly sat next to Thomas Boston who recommended The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

Some have taken issue with the book. The controversy over the book is not the issue so much as the views of the Marrow Men. The controversy spiraled out of control, and wider.

The first issue was the free offer of the gospel, contra preparationism. The Marrow Men held to limited atonement. They also believed that the gospel was to be freely offered to all sinners. There are no qualifications that must be met before the offer of Christ, and pardon in Him, is made to sinners.

“The fallacy here? The subtle movement from seeing forsaking sin as a fruit of grace that is rooted in election, to making the forsaking of sin the necessary precursor for experiencing that grace. Repentance, which is the fruit of grace, thus becomes a qualification for grace.”

The Marrow Men rejected the notion of separating Christ from His benefits. We receive all of them in Christ, not in isolation from Him. They upheld a robust theology of union with Christ. “This, to use an Augustinian term, is totus Christus, the whole Christ, the person in whom incarnation has been accomplished and in whom atonement, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly reign are now realized.”

In the midst of this, Ferguson sneaks in an application regarding the New Perspectives on Paul. Yes, he says, the Pharisees believed in grace. It was a conditional grace, however. This was the error of preparationism. It is similar to a conversation I had with some Mormons. We obey, and grace covers what lacks. Ferguson brings us back to the nature of God as good, gracious, and loving. This is what the Enemy seeks to keep from us via a legalistic spirit.

From here he discusses the various forms of legalism which essentially sees God as “He-whose-favor-has-to-be-earned.” Just as in preparationism, where repentance is separated from Christ, in legalism the law is separated from God, from “his loving and generous person”, and “not as the wisdom of a heavenly Father.” The solution is not in rejecting the Law, but embracing God as our delight (see WSC #1). He brings John Colquhoun in to remind us of “what the heart hears”. We can mis-hear solid gospel teaching because of our legalistic hearts. “But it is also all too possible to have an evangelical head and a legalistic heart.” This is important to remember in pastoral counseling. But it means that some hear the offer of free grace as antinomianism.

From there Ferguson moves into the “order of grace”. He touched briefly on the ordo saludis before, but now spends more time there. Faith is the instrument of justification. Repentance does not occur before faith (preparationism), nor after faith, but “within the context of faith’s grasp of God’s grace in Christ.” Further, “while we cannot divide faith and repentance, we do distinguish them carefully”. He also moves to the implications of free grace, a life seeking joyful obedience. Grace produces obedience, and not the other way around. The Mosaic Covenant is to be seen this way, not as a republication of the covenant of works that undoes the Abrahamic covenant. Many preachers, sadly, focus on the law’s exposure of our sin to drive us to Christ with a stark law-gospel distinction. For those justified, it shapes our salvation. It provides direction …

Do you see what I mean?

How we think about law and gospel matters. The default of our hearts matters in terms of how we hear discussions of law and gospel. Where we look for our assurance matters. Why we want to obey matters.

This is a book that can have a profound effect on how a pastor, elder or ministry leader goes about ministry. This is why I find this a book that should be in the hands of pastors, elders and ministry leaders. I want them to bring gospel wisdom to the people they serve: not legalism, not cheap grace. But to do so they have to embrace, and preach, the whole Christ.

Read Full Post »


I’ve been reading the new Essentials Edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion since this summer. This is not an edited version, but a new translation of the 1541 edition of the Institutes. I am enjoying it very much. As I’ve been reading, I’ve thought at times, I should blog about this. Unfortunately, for much of the fall I was editing my own book so there wasn’t much time to blog on it. I have a bit more time these days, so I thought I would go back. My desire is to encourage others to read this volume.

It begins with a chapter on the Knowledge of God. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This volume is not broken up into 4 books like the one edited by McNeill. The material is, at times, covered in a different order. Additionally, this edition is not as exhaustive as future editions would be.

The first paragraph is familiar:

“The whole sum of our wisdom- wisdom, that is, which deserves to be called true and assured- broadly consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”

As made in the image of God, we cannot truly know ourselves without knowing God. As we know God, we discover that “he is the fount of all truth, wisdom, goodness, righteousness, judgment, mercy, power and holiness.” The purpose of this knowledge is that we would worship and honor him.

The purpose of knowing ourselves is “to show us our weakness, misery, vanity and vileness, to fill us with despair, distrust and hatred of ourselves, and then to kindle in us the desire to seek God, for in him in found all that is good and of which we ourselves are empty and deprived.” In other words, we see our depravity and the marring of his image that we might seek like in him. It sounds harsh, but it is similar to Paul’s discussion of the purpose of the law prior to conversion, to reveal our sin and drive us to Jesus.

This is why it is wisdom; this knowledge is to be acted upon, not simply studied abstractly. Knowledge of self is intended to encourage us to seek after God, and leads us to find him. Calvin then notes that “no one ever attains clear knowledge of self unless he has first gazed upon the face of the Lord, and then turns back to look upon himself.” This is similar to Isaiah 6, when the prophet saw God in his glory and then finally saw himself as he really was.

Calvin notes that an awareness of God is common to all people. We all have some “understanding of his majesty.” Calvin is quite dependent on Romans 1 as he thinks through all of this. He is not a speculative theologian, but one who seeks to understand what has been revealed to us in Scripture, and its implications. Romans 1 instructs us that people turned from the true God to idols, “exchanging the truth for the lie ” (Rom. 1). In rejecting the truth, we have become perverted by self-will. Instead of seeking all good in God, we have settled for the lie of the Serpent in the Garden and seek it in and by ourselves: for our glory, not his. Instead of seeking to submit to him, people resist and rebel against him. As Paul says in Ephesians and Colossians, people are at enmity with God. We fall prey to superstition and servile fear. People flee from him, as a guilty Adam and Eve fled from the sound of God approaching them.  This servile fear is “not enough to stop them from resting easy easy in their sin, indulging themselves and preferring to give fleshly excess free rein, rather than bringing it under the Holy Spirit’s control.” In other words, pride drives us to think we deserve better, and know better than God what is good for us. Fear leads us to believe that God does not have our best interests at heart and therefore his law is oppressive.

As we discover in the Psalms, he is good and wants good things for us, including trusting him to guard, guide, protect and provide for us. He wants us to trust him to redeem and rescue us.

Calvin briefly discusses the “Book of Nature” or creation which reveals his invisible qualities. If we study nature, and we should, we will discover much that testifies to his wisdom. We also see that he is revealed in his works of providence. We see that foolishness has consequences. (see Psalm 19 for instance)

But, as Romans 1 makes clear our thinking has become dark and futile. We don’t see what we should see, even though it is clear. The problem isn’t the Book of Nature (natural revelation) but how we understand and interpret it. We are without excuse. Instead of believing, we “so obscure God’s daily works, or else minimize and thus dismiss them” so that “he is deprived and robbed of the praise and thanks we owe him.”

We are dependent on God’s special revelation (Scripture) as a result (the second stanza of Psalm 19). We needed a book because we are prone to forget and are easily led into error. To know God we are utterly dependent upon the Scriptures (and the Spirit’s illumination).

Here Calvin reminds us that Scripture’s authority comes from God, as his word. It is not determined by the church (contra Rome). He briefly develops the ideas of the Spirit’s inner witness, it’s wisdom and truth and history of the truth which confirm the authority of Scripture.

“It is therefore not the role of the Holy Spirit, such as he is promised to us, to dream up fresh and original revelations, or to fashion a new kind of teaching, which alienates us from the gospel message which we have received. His role is rather to seal and confirm in our hearts the teaching provided for us in the gospel.”

The chapter ends with a slightly different form of “triple knowledge” than that expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism: “God’s mercy, one which the salvation of us all depends; his judgment, which he daily visits on the wicked, and which awaits them with even greater vigor, to their eternal shame; and his righteousness, by which his faithful people are generously preserved.”

“However, since God does not allow us to behold him directly and up close, except in the face of Christ who is visible only to the eye of faith, what remains to be said concerning the knowledge of God is better left until we come to speak of the understanding of faith.”

 

Read Full Post »


The subtitle to Bavinck on the Christian Life is Following Jesus in Faithful Service. In part 1 John Bolt laid the foundations of creation, law and union with Christ. In part 2 he framed it with imitation of Christ and worldview. In the third and final section of this book, The Practice of Christian Discipleship, Bolt gets to the areas where we follow Jesus in light of a Christian worldview.

For lack of a better term, I’ll use spheres. They could be called vocations, the places were are called. As Christians Bavinck stresses that our faith is not simply lived out in prayer closets and on Sunday mornings. We are to follow Jesus in our marriage, family, work, culture, education and civil service (politics).

In the historical context, Bavinck was often dealing with “the revolution.” It was a time of incredible instability in Europe. The impact of Rousseau and Marx were shaking the foundations of Europe. There were challenges and changes looming  in nearly every arena, sphere or vocation. As a result he was not writing in an Edenic setting or ivory tower. He was not only a theologian and churchman, but also a statesman. In many ways it is a situation that reflects our contemporary situation. Faith does not retreat from cultural challenges, but seeks to imitate Jesus by serving in the midst of such changes. But it always seeks to follow Jesus, not simply embracing change or preserving human tradition. For instance, women’s suffrage was a good thing, a good change reflecting their equal status as made in God’s image in civil society.

As Bavinck wrestled with these changes he doesn’t simply analyze the proposed solution, he brings them back to the real problem. For instance, “inequality” was looked at as the great cultural sin (sounds familiar, right?). He brings us to God’s providence to recognize that inequality is not intrinsically wrong. For instance, God has not distributed resources equally. Some geographic locations are rich in natural resources, and others lack. God has placed each of us in a particular place, to a particular family (with its own resources, or lack thereof).

But this is not the only, final word on inequality. We have to see it in light of the creation mandate as well. We are not to sit fatalistically with our lot in life. If we believe we are called to “subdue and rule” we will seek to maximize the resources and opportunities that do exist. (Either Bavinck or Bolt does not spell this out as clearly as I would have liked.)

Bavinck also brings inequality to sin. Some are motivated by self-love rather than love for God and neighbor. Therefore they oppress, exploit and steal. Some are lazy and refuse to maximize anything at their disposal but live for the present, not the future. There is no eschatalogical pull for them, no deferred gratification for something far greater.

Therefore, the pull toward socialism or the massive re-distribution of wealth doesn’t fix the problem. It fails to address sin (note the gross inequalities in every Communist country we’ve seen). Rather, ways must be found to eliminate oppression, exploitation, theft, laziness and entitlement not “inequality”. Inequality isn’t the problem.

Bolt applies Bavinck’s creational norm to the question of sexuality as well. Marriage is meant to be a reflection of the trinity- unity in diversity. One of the creational realities that must remain in marriage is procreation, unless providentially hindered. In other words, many of our supreme court justices, as well as citizens, don’t really understand the meaning of marriage. The gospel “restores” nature rather than overthrowing nature. It is sin which seeks to corrupt, destroy and overthrow nature.

Because our fundamental problem is sin, Bavinck focused not on social solutions to our problems, but brought us back to the gospel first (not only). People need to be restored to fellowship with God before they can see the real problems in society and apply God’s law to create an increasingly just society (as defined by God’s law which reflects His character). As a result, we must humbly accept the fact that there will be no perfectly just society until the return of Jesus because sin remains. Again, this does not mean fatalism but realistic expectations. It does mean we seek to address the real issues, not just the symptoms.

Bolt ends the book with Bavinck’s only printed sermon “The World Conquering Power of Faith”. This sermon ties a number of these things together. We cannot fix the world with the world’s means precisely because they are part of the world which is in rebellion against God. By faith we are able to “conquer” the world, but only because our faith is in the One who has overcome the world and is currently at work to make His enemies His footstool.

As a result, the Christian life of following Jesus in faithful service often looks foolish to the world. It often feels foolish. It seems so powerless, and the needs presented by the world seem so great: oppression, slavery (sexual & economic), mental illness, terrorism and violence, government corruption, sexual abuse, domestic violence …

People must be united to Christ by faith, seeking to walk in light of the law (justice) and the creation mandate (subdue & rule). This is how Bavinck views the Christian life.

Read Full Post »


In 1973 R.C. Sproul’s first book, The Symbol, was published. It was an appropriate title, but not one that grabs attention. This book is now in its 4th edition, and has its 4th title. In 1982 it was released as Basic Training. And in 1998 it was released as Renewing Your Mind. It has been recently updated and released as What We Believe. This is probably the best title this volume has had because it goes straight to the point. The book is about the Apostles’ Creed and therefore basic theology for Christians.

While I have not read previous editions, which is surprising to me actually, this is not the same book. It is updated and interacts with some newer challenges and has contemporary illustrations. This book is very much what you expect from R.C. Sproul. He presents theology and philosophy (his undergraduate degree is in philosophy) in an understandable and interesting way. His purpose is revealed at the end of the first chapter:

“The following chapters offer a contemporary explanation of its teaching- not to give a historical exposition of each point, but to apply its basic tenets to contemporary faith-issues.”

This means it is not an exhaustive book. It does not get into all the historical controversies that it addresses. This is an introductory book. This is not Herman Witsius’ 2 volume work (my copy seems to be missing) or even Michael Horton’s book We Believe. It isn’t like Rooted by Cannata and Reitano with its missional focus either. This really is basic training. While I would be interested in many of the historical controversies the Creed addresses, not everyone is.

In basic training, a drill sergeant will deconstruct you before building you into a soldier. This book, in some ways, seeks to deconstruct elements of a non-Christian world view to build up a Christian one.

He begins with the words “I believe” to talk about what faith is. He talks about content, assent and faith. Faith is rational, not a leap into the existential dark. Saving faith looks to and delights in Christ. Faith is not superstition either, this is seen most clearly in suffering. Faith complicates life because it brings an ethical system with it. True faith will produce a changed life; an increasingly holy life.

“To say that faith is reasonable is not to confuse faith with rationalism. Rationalism emphasizes the mind’s ability to understand all reality without help.”

This is why R.C. says “Faith involves confessing more than professing; in the final analysis, it is a platform of commitment to the will of God.” The content of our biblical faith should fill our minds and find a happy home in our hearts so we become more like Jesus.

Faith is not faith in faith, but in God. Here Sproul stresses the need for content. He notes a rally by Louis Farrakhan where he was surrounded and applauded by a number of “Christian” pastors. The god Farrakhan believes in is incredibly different from the one “we” do. There is also existentialism’s impact on Christian theology that drove it to liberalism and the Jesus Seminar nonsense that robbed theology of its content.

From there he moves into how we can speak of God, and can’t. He discusses the hidden God who is also the God revealed. In the midst of this he brings out Moby Dick, one of his favorite novels and the subject of his dissertation.

“Our talk of him is legitimate because he has entered into the arena of human activity. We confess not only that there is a God, but that God can be known and that our knowledge of him can be meaningfully communicated.”

One of the challenges that comes up is creation. While he isn’t pushing a 6 24-hour day creation, he focuses on our dignity as a result of creation. The other option is chaos, the loss of dignity and of values. God is both above creation (transcendent) and actively involved in creation (immanent) thus ruling out panentheism and deism respectively.

He then moves into Jesus as the conclusive revelation of God. He briefly interacts with the contemporary attempts to remove Jesus from history or separate a historical Jesus from the church’s theology of Jesus. He focuses on many of the names of Christ to reveal who He is.

His chapter on the virgin birth addresses the challenges presented by the attack on miracles. He also defends the historic Christian view from the common rabbinic (and liberal) view that “alma” in Isaiah doesn’t necessitate a virgin birth. The New Testament, however, clearly does teach that Mary was. “alma” doesn’t exclude virginity, and Matthew’s account clarifies it.

One of the weak links in the book is the chapter on eschatology. He sticks closely to the Creed, but doesn’t really address any of the evangelical views that in competition with one another. Perhaps this reflects his earlier lack of commitment to a millennial position. There are a few other places where I wish he would offer greater clarity.

This is really a book for those who are new to their faith, or the Apostles’ Creed. While not necessarily simplistic, Sproul is introducing concepts to people. More advanced readers will not be challenged enough. But it is one to keep on hand to help those younger in the faith.

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

Read Full Post »


In the last few years there has been an explosion of books on the topic of grace. Some of been excellent. Some have been controversial. Some of those that have been controversial had some significant flaws. Not a fatal flaw, mind you. They were still within the bounds of Christianity but not necessarily within the bounds of the community to which the author belonged (how’s this for vague?).

So, it was with a measure of anticipation and trepidation that I read Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness by Barbara Duguid. I had a sense of anticipation because I have found her husband Iain’s books very helpful. Additionally I saw that she was very dependent on John Newton from whom I’ve also benefited greatly. But I also had sanctification controversy PTSD.

Here is my bottom line: I loved the forest, but some of the particular trees may have issues.

Barbara has some obvious influences, and some that aren’t as obvious. In addition to John Newton, she has a certificate from CCEF, and holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith. When she sticks close to those the book is quite excellent and helpful. When she goes beyond them I found it less helpful and has some of the same issues that troubled me about Tullian Tchividjian’s books on grace. I try to remember what Dr. Pratt taught us: you can’t say everything any time you say anything. Yet a qualification or two saves a world of misunderstanding.

The Good

Throughout the book Barbara Duguid is quite honest about her own struggles, which essentially drive the book. This is nothing new. Many theologians have a doctrinal emphasis that reflects their own personal struggles. Think Luther and his emphasis on justification by faith alone. There is nothing wrong with this, particularly when we consider the providence of God in the matter. Yet we should recognize that we, as sinners saved by grace, can still run off into extremes. Her honesty, to get back to my point, is helpful. She is not writing theoretically, but has walked with God through these difficult places.

“God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin.”

This book is easy to read. It is not a technical book but intends to make theology practical. She does a good job of this. The first chapter, Welcome to Your Heart, easily introduces you to her heart and by extension yours through a story. She shows how pride lurks in our hearts, distorting our experience by trying to make us the center of … everything.

The next three chapters, leaning heavily on Newton, are about the three stages of Christian life: babes in Christ, maturing and grown-ups. Sadly, not many people talk about this. It is helpful to recognize the differences so a person has more accurate expectations. Babes often have few trials and lots of joy. God has merciful on them. There is often, in my experience, significant change almost immediately if one converts as an adult. But then life gets hard. God begins to work more deeply, and most often through hardship and failure. The focus is on developing deeper dependence on God, and the destruction of our pride.

“A mature believer studies all the aspects of a person’s struggle with sin and makes allowances. He never stops calling sin the ugly and evil thing that it is, but he understands how deeply rooted it is in human nature and how helpless every Christian is to stand against it.”

Her book offers hope to all of us who struggle with sin, which is every Christian. She reminds us of the providence of God, the preservation of the saints, and the doctrine of assurance (from the Westminster Confession of Faith) which instruct us that sometimes God does in fact bring us through periods of disobedience. The problem is most Christians don’t talk about with struggles (contrary to James 5) so when we struggle with sin we think we are the only one, or more messed up than everyone else in church.  We have to remember that God is up to something bigger than “sin management.”

Our struggles with sin should translate into greater patience with the sins of other Christians. When we consider how patient God is with us, and how sufficient His mercy is to us, we are able to be patient and extend mercy to our brothers and sisters even (particularly!) when they sin against us.

“The more I see myself as the biggest sinner and the worst transgressor, the more I will be able to step up to love others even when they sin against me time and time again.”

I can see Ed Welch’s (a professor at CCEF)  as well as Newton’s influence in the last chapter. Part of how we strive for holiness is in community and making use of the means of grace (Word and sacrament). We need each other profoundly. Her the individualism of Americans is anti-thetical to the gospel. We need help to see our sins. We need help through the prayers of others not only for our illnesses but our sins. We need to remember that the Lord’s Table is for us as saved sinners who still need grace along the pilgrim road.

Her audience is those who are depressed and overwhelmed by their on-going struggle with sin. These people need to know of God’s extravagant grace toward sinners saved by grace. There is plenty of truth to encourage them so they can strengthen their weak knees and keep moving by the grace of God.

“Although God did not create your struggle or tempt you to it, he has called you to walk with it. He has assigned it to you, and he loves you as he calls you to walk through it. He is not disgusted by you.”

The Questions the Reformed Community Needs to Address

There are some questions that are raised by this book, reflecting problems with other books on grace. The sanctification debates seemed largely focused on the third use of the law. These go deeper and are, I think, more important.

1. Is sanctification monergistic or synergistic? This book seems to give conflicting answers at times. Newton often refers to striving for holiness, and she echos that at times. But she is also critical of unnamed pastors who seem to focus on our responsibility. Philippians 2:13 has been one of the key verses for me to understand the relationship between gospel indicatives (facts) and gospel imperatives (commands). God works in me so I will and work according to His purpose. We can’t focus on only one part of that. Edwards noted that it is “all of God and all of me”. I can only work because He works in me (grace!!). But I actually work. He’s not working for me, believing for me, repenting for me. It is typically a hyper-Calvinist view to minimize the exercise of our wills. At times she comes really close to this.

2. What is the nature, or goal, of sanctification? She frequently criticizes the view that it is “sinning less and less.” This seems contrary to the way it is expressed in the Westminster Shorter Catechism to which she holds as a member of the ARP.

Question 35: What is sanctification?
Answer: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

She doesn’t really qualify or explain what she means. She is correct if she is referring to simply external obedience. The truth is that our “obedience” is often driven by fear and pride instead of faith and love. When we obey out of fear (the fear of getting caught, what people will think etc.) or pride (having a reputation to uphold, a sense of entitlement) we are not really obeying. If this is what she means, I wholeheartedly agree. God is working to address the fear and pride behind so much “obedience.” God also won’t give us “victory” (I hate that term) if it will lead us to spiritual pride. Fear and pride are sins too, but sins that drive other sins as well as counterfeit obedience.

3. What is the Degree of Regeneration?

Our depravity is total, but not absolute. Every aspect of us is affected but we aren’t as bad as we could be. She notes that though saved, we are depraved, weak little sinners. Where is regeneration? To what degree have we changed? Thomas Boston, in the Human Nature in its Fourfold Estate, argues that our regeneration is total in the same way that depravity is. Every aspect of us is affected by regeneration, but not absolutely. While regenerate we still have indwelling sin. We want to be neither triumphalists nor fatalists. She rightly criticizes the former but sounds an awful lot like the later.

4. Does God get angry with us? Can He be pleased by our actions?

She hammers our position in Christ. Indeed there is cause for great rejoicing with regard to our position in Christ as perfectly righteous. This is our hope: union with Christ. But in sanctification does God only see us positionally or does He also see us personally?

She notes the Israelites in the wilderness as the pattern for us in many respects, particularly their failure (she overlooks how many times it does say they did everything the Lord commanded Moses in particular matters). If they were converted (which I think many/most of them were) they were then united to Christ (apart from whom there is no salvation). During the wilderness journey we often see God angry with Israel (with no differentiation between the elect and non-elect). In Hebrews 12 we see that God disciplines us so we bear the harvest of righteousness. He necessarily sees us as less than personally righteous and moves us toward greater personal righteousness. We have Christ’s imputed righteousness in justification, and He imparts Christ’s righteousness to us in sanctification. These distinctions seem to be missing here (and in other some books about grace). If we can’t please God personally, then why does Paul pray for this in Colossians 1.

Love is not contrary to anger, as she seems to argue. Anger is an important part of love to protect the beloved from danger, including the destructiveness of sin. I wonder how much her own anger issues (one of the sins she says she struggles with) influence her views on this. I don’t want God to be angry with me, but I need his fatherly anger at times, as Calvin notes.

“The Spirit of love was given to Christ alone, for the express purpose of conferring this Spirit upon his members; and there can be no doubt that the following words of Paul apply to the elect only: “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us,” (Rom. 5:5); namely, the love which begets that confidence in prayer to which I have above adverted. On the other hand, we see that God is mysteriously offended [wondrously angry] with his children, though he ceases not to love them. He certainly hates them not, but he alarms them with a sense of his anger, that he may humble the pride of the flesh, arouse them from lethargy, and urge them to repentance. Hence they, at the same instant, feel that he is angry with them for their sins, and also propitious to their persons.John Calvin (Institutes 3:2:12)

The Big Picture Problem?

When she moves away from Newton, CCEF and the Westminster Standards, I pick up an organizational principle for salvation that is more Lutheran than Reformed. Lutheran theology (after Luther’s death) made justification by faith alone the organizing principle so union with Christ and sanctification (and all the other benefits) flow out of justification. This, in my opinion, means that justification flattens the other doctrines, our understanding of Scripture and the dynamic rather than static relationship we have with God. This shows up in focusing on the positional almost exclusively.

The Reformed view sees union with Christ as the organizing principle (to borrow Lane Tipton’s terminology, see Calvin’s Institutes, book 3 and the WLC #65-69). Out of our union with Christ we receive all the (distinct) blessings of Christ. We receive the double grace of justification and sanctification at the same time, though they are distinct. We experience definitive or definite sanctification at that point. It focuses on us as positionally sanctified (see Hoekema’s Saved by Grace). Progressive sanctification necessarily focuses on our personal sanctification. He sees us as we are in ourselves (but doesn’t condemn us because of our position in Christ). Reformed Theology has historically held these two in a biblical tension that appears to be lacking here.

Yesterday I looked at some other reviews to make sure I wasn’t missing the boat, or seeing something that isn’t there. Both Mark Jones and Dane Ortland saw the same things or similar things.

Like Dane Ortland I recognize the many good things about this book which includes some things that are rarely taught which need to be heard. But I want to filter out the ways in which she departs from (my understanding of?) Reformed Theology. Enjoy the forest, even if some trees have thorns. Or to use a different metaphor: it is a good meal, but there is some bone and gristle to toss out.

Time for a little Double Cure.

Read Full Post »


In my devotional reading these days I’m in Deuteronomy. Since all Scripture is useful to admonish, correct and train the righteous person to live uprightly (2 Timothy 3) we can learn lessons here about obedience.

Let me say that all of this must be understood in light of being a justified person, one who has experienced the redemption from sin just as Israel experienced redemption from slavery. This should not be seen as an attempt to gain life. The blessing of obedience for Israel was not eternal life, but remaining in the land. Gross apostasy would result in exile. For us it results in excommunication. Gross apostasy reveals a heart that was not transformed by grace.

While we are talking about obedience to the law, let us not think (as many erroneously claim about any such discussion) that we are sanctified BY the law. Just as the law has no power to justify (Rom. 6-7), it has no power to sanctify. The Law is the sign showing us what a sanctified life looks like. The power of sanctification is the Spirit who works in us to apply the work of Christ for us. Read the following in light of that or you will grossly misunderstand what I say.

Deuteronomy is the giving of the law to the generation that was going to enter the land. The last of the adult “rebels” who left Egypt has died for their unbelief and refusal to enter the land out of fear. Moses lays out God’s commands for them before he dies, unable to enter the land for his own unrighteous anger earlier.

And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. (5:1)

This is the process of discipleship which we must follow for ourselves and teach to those under our spiritual care. There is a progression here that we must keep in mind.

Hear => Learn => Do

We cannot do unless we first learn and we cannot learn unless we first hear. The end or goal is to grow in obedience to the One who loved us and gave Himself for us. If you think that is an OT thing, recall the Great Commission includes “teaching them to obey all I have commanded you.” That command is not limited to faith and repentance. Love is vague and Paul reminds us that the Law actually shows us the dimensions of loving God and others (Rom. 12). A desire to obey God rooted in faith, love and gratitude is NOT legalism.

To achieve this final goal, we need to recall the lessor goals or intermediate goals. Hear it! Read the Scriptures and listen to the Word preached and taught. There is no other way to hear.

Don’t “just” listen, but learn. Seek to understand the meaning of the law, what it does and doesn’t require or prohibit. Begin to store it in your heart (and memory) so you have a practical use of it. The Law is not for our times of ease, but the times of temptation. That is when we need God’s moral guidance. There will probably not be a Bible in the back seat of the car when needed, or the corporate boardroom or wherever you find yourself under temptation and in need of God’s moral guidance. You have to learn it.

Then of course apply it, by faith. Work it out knowing that God is at work in you to will and work according to His good purpose. You are not alone. When you struggle, cry out for help.

“Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments.” (5:29)

“that you may fear the LORD your God … by keeping all his statues and his commandments…” (6:2)

There is another ingredient to the obedient life. A healthy fear or reverence for God. At the moment they expressed such a heart, a sincere desire to obey God in all things. Such mountain top experiences don’t last. We obey what we fear (either positively or negatively) most. Obedience is a heart issue, as I recently reminded my children. They didn’t listen to their mother because they didn’t respect her as they ought. They ignore her far too often. They tend to fear missing out on some thing they think better than obedience. We do that too. Or we fear other people, and the list could go one for some time. We are to fear God above all. The measure of that fear appears to be obedience. Reverence isn’t just about showing up on Sunday to sing songs and pray. Reverence is about wanting to please Him all week long: worship thru service.

“And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, …” (6:24)

Moses returns to the question of obedience, and therefore fear. But see what He adds. God’s laws, and our obedience, are for our good. Sin is self-destructive, and often destroys others including the ones we love. Sin destroys relationships. Obedience only destroys relationships when others don’t delight in righteousness. It often takes a great deal of faith to believe this. God doesn’t give me moral guidance to destroy me but to protect me and do good to me. The Law, as Paul said, is good and holy. The problem is always me, or my sinful nature.

We can’t make others fear God. But we can pray God to grant them this fear, and this knowledge that God intends all this for our good. We should walk the path of obedience and talk to others about it. We should also talk about how to return to the path when we wander from it (which we will do). I’m not talking about perfection, but progressive sanctification. While we do not arrive in this life, we make progress as the Spirit teaches us to say “no” to ungodly desires (Titus 2) and “yes” to godly ones. The good purpose God works in you to will and work is faith in Christ, and a faith accompanied by faithfulness or obedience.

Read Full Post »


Thanks to Augustine hope and despair have been on my mind. In the wake of the recent events in Ferguson, I’ve had many thoughts about all if it. Like most people I’ve read lots of musings on the situation, some of them good and some not so good. I find that most commentators hit one aspect of the situation. That is okay as long as we don’t expect them to speak exhaustively. As I’ve turned this over in my mind I see so many angles to it.

On Sunday I used Isaiah 9:1-7 for my sermon text. I’d already planned on that text well over a month ago. It proved very appropriate in the wake of a week like last week.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

The Light arrives in the midst of darkness. Here we see the darkness of injustice and oppression. The Son of David would come to end injustice and oppression. His reign is one of justice and righteousness. We who are Christians affirm the NT teaching that this child is Jesus the Light of the World and the Son of David who sits on his eternal throne now.

Scripture and history point us to an already/not yet understanding of this text. Jesus has already come to redeem His people. Jesus already sits upon the throne. Jesus has not yet removed all injustice and unrighteousness. That awaits His second advent. The kingdom has been inaugurated, continues and awaits consummation or completion.

This means we live in the time between times. We, as Christians, have the capacity to treat others with justice and righteousness. But we live in a society that is marked by injustice and unrighteousness. This should not surprise us. We see this in Hebrews 2:

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.

Nothing, it says, is outside His control even though it may not look like it. There is still rebellion within His realm. Remember, we were numbered among the rebels. It was His role as the Lamb of God that removed the guilt of our rebellion. We, too, deserved the just wrath of God for our part in the unrighteous and injustice of the world. Those who suffer injustice often respond with injustice and unrighteousness as well. There is a dark, vicious spiral involved. It requires the grace of God to break it. First He breaks it in individuals. Those individuals can work to break it in society by seeking just laws or enforcing just laws. Those who have been oppressed need to share in the power, not to bring an opposite form of oppression but pursue righteousness and justice.

Christ holds off His return, as I mentioned Sunday, to apply the redemption purchased to the elect. This is what is going on behind 2 Peter 3:

9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

We see that God is working out a number of purposes, seemingly in conflict with one another. He is bringing grace to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is showing justice to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is working out judgment and salvation, as well as guiding His people into righteousness all in the midst of the darkness of this world.

“Often times the poor man is the oppressor by unjust clamors. We should labor to give the best interpretation to the actions of governors that the nature of actions will possibly bear.” Richard Sibbes

Many of us see this and are tempted to despair. We see these eruptions of injustice and violence and fear that we’ve made no process. Despair can kill us. We can give up and just let the situation continue unabated. We can give up in a deeper sense and either forsake the truth or fight the monster and become the monster in the process.

There is some cause for despair, in a good and not giving up sense. While we have been justified, Christians are not fully sanctified.This means we still sin. We still have blind spots (race issues can be one of them!). The gospel has already begun to transform us into the image of Christ but has not yet finished its work.

Note what Calvin says about us:

Let each of us go on, then, as our limited powers allow, without departing from the path we have begun to tread. However haltingly we may travel, each day will see us gaining a little ground. So let us aim to make diligent progress in the way of the Lord, and let us not lose heart if we have only a little to show for it. For although our success might be less than we would wish, all is not lost when today surpasses yesterday. Only let us fix our gaze clearly and directly on the goal, trying hard to reach our objective, not fooling ourselves with vain illusions or excusing our own vices.

This sentiment found its way into the Heidelberg Catechism.

114. Q. But can those converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with earnest purpose they do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God.

If we cannot act with perfect righteousness and justice how can we expect an unbelieving world to do so. So, we should despair or give up hope in human governments accomplishing this. As Isaiah 9 notes, only the zeal of the Lord will accomplish all this. Hope, as Red noted in The Shawshank Redemption, is a dangerous thing. If our hope is in earthly perfect apart from the return of Christ, we will experience the bad form of despair that resorts to resignation or violence.

“A holy despair in ourselves is the ground of true hope.” Richard Sibbes

Let us set our hope on God’s promises to be fully accomplished upon the return of Christ. This hope can sustain us in the midst of the continuing darkness. It also helps us to rejoice over the modest gains as we see people exhibiting righteousness and justice. We need to remember that God works on the behalf of those who wait for Him. Such waiting is not passive. For instance, William Wilberforce longed to see England free of slavery. He worked for years, first to end the slave trade and then to end slavery. It took decades, and many setbacks, but he saw God bring this about. Yet there was still much work to be done in the human heart which is “naturally” filled with evil and inclined toward unrighteousness.

18 Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
    and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
    blessed are all those who wait for him. Isaiah 30

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him. Lamentations 3

Righteousness and justice do not come easily or quickly. It times waiting for them feels like we are dying. We want everything to change now. A rightly understood hope enables us to wait. And suffer while we wait if need be.

16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. 1 Peter 4

Peter, who watched Jesus suffer unjustly, suffered unjustly. We do well to receive his counsel to the early Church. If we suffer we should entrust ourselves to our Faithful Creator and Redeemer. Instead of a useless rage or foolish resignation, we trust. As we trust, we continue to do good.

Doing good can have many faces. It includes forgiving those who acted with injustice. This prevents bitterness from growing and corrupting your response to injustice. It includes helping those who have been harmed by injustice. You can help them pick up the pieces of their lives. It can mean running for office or seeking a promotion that enables change.

Let us remember that there is a despair and a hope that can kill us. There is also a form of despair and hope that can grant life as we lean upon Christ.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »