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I was planning for my vacation reading. I felt the need to be refreshed, renewed. I had recently purchased the Puritan Paperback Christian Love by Hugh Binning. It was short (105 pages), and on love. What could possibly go wrong?

The doctrine of concurrence indicates that two or more persons will the same event for different reasons. I chose this book because I thought it would be encouraging. God chose this book because I needed to be challenged- to wrestle more deeply with the realities of love.

If only I’d looked at the table of contents! The first chapter is “Love and Self-Love”. Binning began his treatise with the problem of self-love which inevitably exposes the selfishness of one’s own heart. At least if you are regenerate (unconverted people being more easily blinded by their self-love).

Sin is the threat to true love. It cuts thru the bonds of love that are intended to hold us together, so that we can have our own way. Sin is contrary to love which is how Jesus summarizes the law of God.

All is not lost. Binning reminds us of Jesus who is our peace. He restores the bonds of love between us and God and one another.

Binning then moves us to the “Excellence of Christian Love”. This is the key here: Christian. It is the love we experience and manifest as Christians. Having the love of God poured into our hearts, we are enable to love others better and better. Eventually we are able to love others well. This, of course, means putting our self-love to death.

“Self-love is the greatest enemy to true Christian love, and pride is the fountain of self-love. … Self-denial and true love are inseparable. Self-love makes a monopoly of all things to its own interest, and this is most opposite to Christian affection and communion …”

The next chapter is “Motives to Christian Love” since he has commended love to us as excellent. He works thru the various motives we have to manifest love. He rightly begins with God’s love for us as revealed in Christ. Christ, who had all things, became as nothing out of love. He humbled himself in order to love us, and as an act of love to us. We see as well the forgiveness and grace of God toward us, that we are now intended to extend toward others. Having knowledge of our own sinfulness, pride and tendency toward self-love, should move us with compassion toward others who also struggle.

The next logical subject is “Christian Love in Practice”, focusing on what it looks like for us to love. There is more here about forgiveness. To love is to forgive our brother 70 x 7. It is to not tell tales (gossip) concerning our brothers. These are the two aspects that draw the most of his attention, or at least caught the most of mine.

Image result for whack-a-mole arcade gameBack we go to “Humility and Meekness”. Binning resumes his gospel-centered assault on our self-love. Pride dies hard. It is like that Whack-a-Mole game. Every time we pound it down, it pops back up again in a slightly different form. He provides some positive ways to cultivate humility in us.

The book concludes with 3 sermons from Binning’s series, the Sinner’s Sanctuary. This was a 40 sermon series on Romans 8:1-15. I can’t conceive of such a long series on 15 verses of Scripture. The focus of these three sermons is the promise of God and our need to live by them; the practical aspects of the doctrine of adoption and prayer. These are largely encouraging.

While this is a short book, the sentences are long. One sentence, a whole paragraph, took up 9 lines of text. Another 7. These are long, complex sentences that moderns (post-moderns) in the age of texts and blog posts often struggle to understand. People familiar with the Puritans understand. Those who haven’t read them will have to work harder. Don’t give up for the struggle thru the complexity will yield gold. The best treasures aren’t found lying on the ground, but must be dug out of the ground.

This was difficult to read existentially. Every page, it seemed at times, was a jab to my self-love. So much for light, encouraging vacation reading. But it was important reading about an important subject. And if God is love (and he is) then there is no more important subject. This is the whole enchilada of the Christian life.

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In addition to Tim Keller’s book on preaching, I decided to read a booklet by J.C. Ryle entitled Simplicity in Preaching. I will confess that at times I struggle with being clever. I suspect that at times my preaching could use a little more (or a lot more) simplicity.

Ryle obviously thought many of his peers could also stand to exhibit more simplicity in their preaching. This is why he wrote the pamphlet (what is the difference between a booklet and a pamphlet, if any?).

It was interesting reading this on the heels of Keller’s book on preaching. He exhibited some of what Keller said, and advocated some of the same things. There was overall harmony here. He quoted from a number of “respected” non-Christian voices in the area of oration (Quintilian, Cicero, an Arabian proverb, a painter named Turner), as well as some respected preachers.

Rather than a manifesto, as Keller wrote, Ryle confined himself “to one point”. “That point is simplicity in language and style.”

“Unless you are simple in your sermons you will never be understood, and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those who hear you. … Of course the first object of a minister should be to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’.”

So, we see the same goals in preaching. We see a different emphasis on how to achieve that goal. We can do all Keller (or Stott or any other author) encourages us to do, but if we aren’t understood it doesn’t matter who awesome it looks on paper.

Simplicity is not to be confused with simplistic or childish preaching. The pastor shouldn’t be talking down to them. He should be speaking so they understand. Ryle is not speaking about using coarse or vulgar speech. Understandably, but as a gentleman is a lesson Mark Driscoll needed.

Ryle then goes ahead to note five points toward simplicity. The first is “Know your subject.” I simplified that for him. It the subject of the sermon isn’t clear to you, it will be even less clear or more obscure to the congregation.

“Never choose a text of which you do not quite know what it means.”

There is much wisdom here. We grow into some texts. I did not preach through Colossians until my mid-late 40’s. There is a spiritual maturity necessary to preaching some portions of the letter well and wisely. While I’ve preached texts in Hebrews and Romans, there are still some I am only now feeling mature enough to preach wisely. It isn’t simply about understanding the commentaries but being able to evaluate them and communicate the truth.

He also warns against “fanciful subjects and accommodated texts”. By the latter he means a whole lotta eisegesis, or reading into a text so that you make it say something it never tries to say. Chose texts that are clear so your point is clear and simple.

Secondly, use simple words. Or, as Keller says, define more complex terms. I rarely use a theological term without defining it for the congregation. Ryle argues that short words are often the “most powerful and forcible words.”

In the midst of this point he gets caught up in a controversy about Saxon words rather than words of French or Latin origin. It seems to be a bit of a hot button issue of his day. His focus is not on the origin of the words, but words people understand.

Thirdly, use a simple style. You can’t preach like John Owen wrote. Keep sentences short rather than complex with a series of colons and semi-colons. He notes to “take care to write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath.” This is because you aren’t writing a book and they aren’t reading a book. The congregants can’t rewind the sermon to hear that phrase until they get it, you keep moving merrily along.

“A hearer of English hears once for all, and if he loses the thread of your sermon in a long involved sentence, he very likely never finds it again.”

In addition to simple style, use proverbs and epigrammatic sayings. They are brief but pointed. This means they communicate well and can be remembered easily.

Fourth, use a direct style. Use “I” and “you” while avoiding “we”. I often use “we” to communicate it applies to me as well as to them. But he has a point in that the composition of “we” is unclear. Whom does it signify? If you clarify that periodically, use “we” as I do. But if you don’t clarify they won’t know what you mean- that they are part of “we”. The directness is for clarity as well as forcefulness. “This applies to you”, not some vague Anybody. He notes that Whitefield was well-known for such directness. It was a large part of his effectiveness.

Fifth, use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. They are “windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” He advocates reading the Puritans, among others, to see how they use illustrations. He lauds Moody’s use of them.

He notes that a preacher with an eye for them is a happy preacher. Such a man finds them in books, movies, music and real life. He sees how these seemingly ordinary things communicate spiritual truth. Unless you are a good story teller, keep them short. Make sure you aren’t obscuring the truth you want to communicate by a lengthy or poorly told illustration or anecdote.

After repeating his points in summary, he adds a word of application (he’s essentially following the Puritan sermonic pattern). Simplicity is attained with much hard work and trouble.

“You must not think that God will do work for you, though he is ready to do it by you.”

God illuminates the Scriptures as we work in them. He doesn’t bypass our study of the grammar, history, context etc. Likewise, as we put sermons together we are to work hard. Exercise your brains in preparation and putting them together.

Oddly, he notes not to spend time reading the Fathers. They are interesting and sometimes helpful, but he doesn’t want us to read for the sake of reading. Read wisely. Read people who not only provide good information but who model such simplicity (today we’d include listening to podcasts that model it for us).

He also notes that part of your “study” is talking with your people. Keller says something similar in terms of expanding your bubble and getting out of the echo chamber. He noted that his time in Hopewell was helpful because he was able to talk to his congregation about his sermons- what connected and what didn’t. Ryle is essentially saying the same thing. He uses an interesting illustration about a pastor asked about the Fathers noting he usually meets with the mothers when he visits because the fathers are at work.

“We must talk to our people when we are out of church, if we would understand how to preach to them in church.”

The goal is to hit their hearts with the truth. Talking with them means you’ll learn to talk to them and the concerns of their hearts.

He concludes with an important reminder:

“All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If Christ crucified has not his rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe and be, and do, your preaching is of no use.

He also reminds us that simplicity is not a replacement for prayer, particularly for the Spirit’s work. Simplicity, though important, is not a magic bullet that covers a multitude of pastoral sins.

“… let us never forget to accompany our sermons by holy living and fervent prayer.”

Ryle provides preachers with a brief treatise that is helpful and often needful.

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I’m not wild about books about preaching. I often feel overwhelmed; how can I fit all that into a sermon? I already feel like I’m trying to do too much in my sermons.

But I know I can become better at my craft. This year during study leave, I decided to read some books on preaching. One of the books was Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller. I want to do a better job of reaching those who aren’t “fully on-board” in addition to communicating the Reformed faith to those who already believe. I think Tim Keller is pretty good at that.

This book is not so much about the nuts and bolts of sermon preparation (there is an appendix that addresses much of that). It focuses on the bigger issues of preaching- how to communicate with people.

The introduction talking of the three levels of the ministry of the Word. The ministry of the Word is not the exclusive province of pastors. The ministry of the Word extends far beyond the sermon. Every Christian should have a ministry of the Word in that they should be able to communicate basic Bible knowledge and teaching to others. This is a very informal level of ministry. If the Word dwells richly in us, this is doable.

In between this informal ministry and formal ministry is those who have a gift of teaching but who are not ordained to preach. It is a formal setting, but doesn’t entail formal education or an office. Small group leaders, SS teachers, personal exhortation, counseling, and evangelism are examples of this second level of teaching. This book would be helpful for people in the 2nd and 3rd levels of ministry.

In the midst of this, Keller defends preaching from the attacks of those who want it done away with in our day. While God transforms churches through all three levels of the ministry of the Word, preaching is still an important part of that transformation. We see preaching as normative in the New Testament. It should be normative for us as well. He positively quotes Adam in saying the gospel ministry should be “pulpit-centered, but not pulpit restricted.”

Good preaching is faithful to the text, and the people to whom God calls you to preach. Great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the preacher and the listener. Later he’d refer to Martyn Lloyd-Jones talking about “logic on fire”. I recently watched the documentary on him and can identify with those moments during preaching when you are caught up in the truth you are preaching. A shift takes place in you as you preaching becomes worshipful, for lack of a better term. You are lifting up Christ to them, and yourself.

“Spiritual eloquence should arise out of the preacher’s almost desperate love for the gospel truth itself and the people for whom accepting the truth is a matter of life and death.”

Great preaching preaches Christ to the cultural heart. The preacher connects with the heart of the culture to challenge its conclusions and point to Christ for the fulfillment of its legitimate aspirations. Keller is an advocate of redemptive-historical preaching, connecting each text with the central message of the gospel for the justification and sanctification of those who listen.

He starts with preaching the Word. He explains the difference between expository and topical preaching. He advocates for focusing on expository preaching. He doesn’t think you should never do a topical sermon, but that it should be the exception, not the rule. He cautions against some forms of expository preaching which spend so much time in one text that book studies take 5+ years. The people will not hear the whole counsel of God this way.

“Preaching is not only explaining the text but also using it to engage the heart.”

I am generally an expository preacher. I have one text and preach it. During Advent, Lent or Reformation Day I may do some topical or thematic sermons. My goal is to preach the text, and point them to Christ through that text. I’ve spent about 2 years in a book like Genesis or John, but I try to balance that out with shorter series like Esther, Jonah or a summer series in Psalms. In my 7, nearly 8, years at my current congregation I’ve preached on Genesis, James, Colossians, John, Esther, 1 Peter, and Jonah. In addition to the summer series on Psalms, there have been series on the sacrifices, Advent Songs in Luke, the dreams in Matthew, prophecies of the Messiah and others I can’t recall at the moment.

I pick series based on my perception of the congregation’s needs. Expository preaching will drive us to preach on difficult texts and subjects we’d prefer to avoid as well as keeping us from our hobbyhorses and pet issues.

In the second chapter he focuses on our need to preach the gospel every time. We need to connect our text with the context (paragraph, chapter, book, Testament, whole Bible). We don’t want to merely provide moralistic “biblical principles” or generally inspire them. We need to show them Jesus because He is the One they need generally and in the particulars of their lives. I’ve heard too many sermons that never get us to Jesus.

Keller talks about law and gospel. He relies much on William Perkins who doesn’t divide the Bible or texts into law and gospel. It is more helpful to see law and gospel as uses of texts rather than categories of texts. Therefore we use the text to reveal the law and therefore need for the gospel, and how Christ fulfills that need. In this context he points us to Ferguson’s work (from the Marrow Controversy) on legalism and antinomianism. Both have the same root in the lie of the serpent that God is not good but withholds good from us. If you read only one chapter in this book, this is the chapter to read. This should filter into our preaching so that we bring the gospel to bear against both legalism and antinomianism. Both miss God’s loving grace, the loving grace we need to present to them each week. We can trace their idols down to these roots and show that Christ is the real answer.

Keller, without really saying it, indicates what gospel-centered preaching isn’t. He mentions two dangers to avoid. I have actually heard sermons that said “gospel” 50 times but never actually explain the gospel. Such a sermon is NOT gospel-centered preaching. Keller warns us to avoid preaching without preaching the gospel. You can mention Jesus frequently without mentioning His substutionary obedience, death, resurrection and ascension. You can mention Him without talking about imputed righteousness, union with Christ, His humiliation and exaltation etc. We can also preach Christ without actually preaching the text. Spurgeon did this sometimes. We need to know the main point of the author and spend time with it and going from their to Jesus. Spurgeon tells a story of a Welsh pastor telling a young pastor that every city in England had a road leading to London. Not every road led there, but one did. Every text has a road to Jesus (sometimes more than one), find it and go down that road with the people.

In the next chapter, he spends some time showing how to do this.

The section I really had interest in was about preaching Christ to the culture. This had much to do with proper contextualization so you are connecting too as well as challenging the culture. This is a hard balance. Antinomians accommodate the culture and legalists tend not to connect to the culture because they are overly critical. While culture is the produce of sinful humans, it is also the product of people made in God’s image and necessarily has some remaining connection points.

“We adapt and contextualize in order to speak the truth in love, to both care and confront.”

He notes a shift in Edwards’ preaching after he left Northampton. He took the Native Americans’ experience of suffering into consideration in his preaching. He used more narrative as well. He adapted his preaching style in order to connect with a different culture, a different audience.

“If you over-contextualize and compromise the actual content of the gospel, you will draw a crowd but no one will be changed. … You will mainly just be confirming people in their present course of life.”

He advocates for using respected cultural authorities to strengthen your thesis. Just as you may drop a few Calvin quotes for a Reformed audience, you may want to consider quotes from non-Christians or others who are generally respected by the non-believing members of your audience. Additionally you want to demonstrate you understand doubts and objections. Address the resistance instead of simply ignoring it and plowing through it. He brings up “defeater beliefs” people hold, that if true Christianity can’t be true. Acknowledge them and address them or people will just tune them out if they have those beliefs. He advocates affirming cultural narratives in order to challenge them. Often the aspirations are good but the means are not biblical. Affirm them as on the right track, but point them to Christ and His work as the real means to fulfilling those aspirations.

In the next chapter Keller addresses preaching to the modern and late modern mind. He talks about the impact of individualism, the web of secularity and the borrowed capital used by atheists. He tries to help pastors move from the cultural narratives into idols and true freedom and fulfillment in Christ.

Keller than addresses preaching to the heart. You preach the text (normative), addressing the culture (situational) and the heart (existential). We have to exegete all three and preach to all three. Each of us finds one of these easier and another harder. Tim is great at the culture in my opinion. The text must impact the heart of the pastor to help him impact the hearts of the congregation. He again draws on Edwards and his work on the affections. Truth produces holy affections. We are passionate and imaginative when we address the heart. We want to show them that Jesus is greater than the things they love. This is gospel motivation; more love to Thee.

One of the keys is getting out of the echo chamber. He doesn’t use that term, but we need to listen to a diversity of opinions. That can come from friendships, social media, sources of information and more. But don’t just listen to people you agree with. This will help you have broader understanding of the application of texts.

The book ends in discussion the demonstration of the Spirit and power. This includes the call to holiness. Giftedness will get you only so far. Holiness is essential to great long-term preaching. We are more convincing if we actually find Him to be great, not just assert He is great.

This is a very good book for covering the big picture of preaching which affect how we say it more than what we say. It is a challenging and encouraging book. I’d highly recommend this contribution to the science of preaching.

 

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For quite some time I’ve been utilizing triperspectivalism to understand, apply and communicate the Scriptures and theology. I have wished that John Frame would release an introductory book for people. It is tough to invite everyone to read books like The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. His shorter systematic theology, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, has a section on triperspectivalism. But a small book that I could hand out to those intimidated by big books would be great.

If you read that first sentence and thought “what in the world is triperspectivalism?” this book is for you.

“Triperspectivalism is simply a teaching tool to help us grasp some of the deep things in Scripture. It highlights a pervasive pattern of three-fold distinctions, or triads, in the Bible.” Don Sweeting from the Forward

Theology in Three Dimensions: A Guide to Triperspectivalism and Its Significance is incredibly short (about 90 pages) and each chapter has review questions to help people process the information. It is therefore a relatively quick read. Frame has chapters on:

  1. Perspectives
  2. Perspectives and the Trinity
  3. The Threefold Gospel
  4. Perspectives in All of Life
  5. The Normative Perspective
  6. The Situational Perspective
  7. The Existential Perspective
  8. What to Do with Perspectives

“A perspective, literally, is a position from which a person sees something. … Ultimately, all this knowledge comes to me through my own body- through my senses and the operations by which my brain organizes my sense impressions into knowledge.”

While Frame speaks of three perspectives on truth, these perspectives are distinguished but not separated from one another. They include each other. The normative has to do with authority. God possesses all authority and gives His Word to us as a source of authority. The Word does not simply give norms, but describes our situation and ourselves. God exercises His authority in controlling our situations (circumstances). These circumstances reflect both His norms and our influence as sinners. God exercises His authority and control as He is present in creation and with His people. He is not to be confused with creation, but is present. This provides a brief example of where John Frame goes with this.

“These are multiple perspectives, but they all are part of the general personal perspective that constitutes my experience and assessment of the real world.”

I will come back to blog on the Trinity and his understanding of God’s simplicity in particular. This has been the subject of a recent controversy. I will also come back to blog on apologetics and how he things triperspectivalism can rescue use from the tribalism that divides the church in terms of apologetics. He lamented this tribalism after the death of R.C. Sproul last week. He and Sproul were born in raised around Pittsburgh, had a love for philosophy and studied it, and both taught systematic theology. He expressed that the fact that he and R.C. were on different apologetic teams may have been part of why they didn’t become friends. The fact that spent most of their time teaching in different parts of the country (before the days of the internet) didn’t help either.

It is hard for me to fully judge this volume. I tried to suspend my knowledge and view it as one who doesn’t think triperspectivally. But I ultimately couldn’t. I enjoyed the volume and thought he communicated his material clearly. But I didn’t arrive to the book with contrary presuppositions or “innocence”. My presupposition was that he is on to something very helpful and illuminating.

So, if you aren’t familiar with triperspectivalism and read this let me know how clear it is. I’m not so much concerned with whether he convinces you but if you understand it when done with reading the book.

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Making All Things New by David Powlison is largely a view of sexual brokenness and renewal from 20,000 feet.

The book is unusual in that it addresses both groups of the sexual broken, those who sin and those who’ve been sinned against. And the truth of the matter is that those groups have a large overlap. The addicted and the abused not only share a soiled view of sexuality, but the abused can often become addicted in response to their abuse. The time, unfortunately, is not evenly divided. More focus is given to the addicted when he does pull in for a closer look at the problems.

“Our sexuality was designed to be a willing servant of love. It becomes distorted by our willfulness or our fear. It is being remade into a willing servant of love.”

My use of “the addicted and the abused” points to vast amount of similar alliteration in the early chapters. He uses a few literary devices like that to help people get the point. Perhaps adapted from lectures, this stands out early on.

“There is one gospel of Jesus Christ, who came to make saints of all kinds of sinner-sufferers and sufferer-sinners, whatever our particular configuration of defections and distresses.”

Powlison does focus on the big picture of God’s work of renewing our sexuality. This doesn’t mean there isn’t practical advice. There is plenty of that as he swoops down for closer looks.

Some of the most helpful material is in chapter 4 which is appropriate entitled Renewal is Lifelong. There is often pressure, internal, relational and ecclesiastical, to be renewed in short order. While abuse may have taken place in an instant (in some circumstances), the patterns we developed as a result have been developing for years. Patterns of sexual license have developed and been in place for years. These things don’t change overnight.

This is not to be soft on sin, but realistic about sanctification. As a conservative Presbyterian, I’m often discouraged by how often our confessional views are ignored in this area. While God may grant great change at conversion, or thru sanctification, we never arrive to where we should be until glorification. It isn’t just our sexual renewal that will take the rest of our lives but our renewal, period. Therefore, it is more helpful to think of sanctification as a direction. As we think of ourselves, or talk with a congregant, we should focus on direction. Are they wandering or continuing to fight the good fight? Setbacks happen and treating them like the end of the world is one of Satan’s devices to discourage toward depression and despair.

He also is particularly helpful in the next chapter, Renewal is a Wider Battle. We are prone to focus on the sex, the visible sin. His metaphor of a movie theater is helpful. There are other things going on in our lives that, unknown to us, are resulting in sexual temptation or sin. Often sex isn’t just about sex. For instance, we can be disappointed or angry with God and act out sexually. Tracking patterns is one of the useful things he discusses in that chapter and the one that follows, Renewal is a Deeper Battle.

The tendency of individuals and churches, is to focus so much on the sexual aspect that the larger issues in the person’s life go unaddressed. Sex is only the tip of the ice burg. Beneath the surface lie bitterness, envy, anger, betrayal and more.

One thing that isn’t here (it is a short book!) is how early sexualization thru either abuse or chosen experiences inhibit emotional growth. The person suffers relationally as a result. They will often struggle with anger, boundaries etc. Until these areas are addressed they can come across as the children they may be emotionally.

This is a great little book to prompt discussion and help in some big picture items. If you want to get into the trenches resources like The Wounded Heart (and workbook), False Intimacy or Breaking Free are a good place to turn.

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We just finished our community group series on Judges. It seems to be a good time to review the strengths and weaknesses of the resources I used for this study.

First, we used Judges: The Flawed and the Flawless by Tim Keller. It is from the Good Book Guide series and taken from his commentary on Judges. Keller keeps moving from the flaws judges, or saviors, of God’s people to the Flawless One. The study brings you back to Jesus early and often.

It only has 6 lessons to cover 21 chapters. We ended up breaking each lesson in half so it took us 12 meetings together. This affected some of the cohesiveness but increased the comprehension. We were able to spend more time talking through material. There is no way we could have completed the material in one meeting unless we planned to meet for 3 hours. Not many small groups meet for 3 hours at a shot.

We did like the overall approach of the study guide. We ended up deciding to continue with the series and move to 1 Samuel (Tim Chester wrote that commentary and study guide).

Keller’s commentary, also published by the Good Book Company, is called Judges for You. I believe it is adapted from a sermon series on Judges. It is more homiletical than exegetical. Keller tends to deal more in themes than nuts and bolts exegesis. Keller is great at connecting the text with its place in redemptive history and the gospel. Its weakness is that he sometimes takes a position that is not necessarily clear from the text, and doesn’t spend much time going over the rationale for and against his position. This is a result of the material being adapted from the sermon.

If you are familiar with Keller’s sermons you will find it typical of those sermons. He’s easy to understand, winsome in his approach and gospel-centered. While there may not be enough exegetical work to satisfy most pastors preparing for a sermon, there are sufficient gospel connections to make it useful in conjunction with a more exegetical commentary. This is precisely why I read more than one commentary at a time. I want a technical commentary, a popular one and one that helps me see how the gospel is laid out by the book. This is one of the latter.

I also read Judges: Such a Great Salvation by Dale Ralph Davis. Davis’ volumes in the Focus on the Bible Series (published by Christian Focus) are well-known and respected (at least in the circles I move in). It is not an exhaustive commentary. It is from a literary analysis approach. He looks at how it was written as well as what was written. He has some elements of grammar and vocabulary to keep the message grounded in the text. He also does a great job connecting the text to the gospel. This was also a helpful volume to read.

The wild card, so to speak, was Right in Their Own Eyes: The Gospel According to Judges by George Schwab. I love the Gospel According to the Old Testament series. I am generally unfamiliar with Schwab though I used to be in the ARP (he teaches at Erskine, the ARP seminary). In addition to being an Old Testament scholar, he has a counseling degree which adds an interesting flavor to things. This is a bit more exegetical than other volumes in this redemptive historical/biblical theological series. Schwab went to places that Keller and Davis did not dare to go. He’s not the crazy counseling guy but ties his out of the ordinary views in the nuts and bolts of the text. One of my elders and I really appreciated Schwab.

For instance: Eglon may have been a homosexual and Ehud takes advantage of this by pretending to want sex in order to be alone with him. The placement of his long knife furthered the deception. This provides a number of ironies that the original audience may have found quite humorous (they were probably not a serious as some of us).

We find similar sexual themes in other stories in Judges. But Schwab isn’t all about sex. He’s mostly about the gospel. He, like the others, helps the reader to see how gospel themes play out, anticipating the true and final Savior, Jesus. In some ways it has a more academic feel than the others, but certainly not a boring feel. This book will make you think and consider the purpose of Judges.

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In Sunday’s sermon I mentioned John Irving’s novels, and particularly The Cider House Rules. I have a love/hate relationship with John Irving.

I often appreciate his sense of humor (though this probably reflects poorly on me), his New England settings and the “God-haunted” quality of his work. God is seldom absent from Irving’s work, even if He is rejected, scorned or ignored by characters. You get the impression that Irving wrestles with his own religious upbringing.

Back when The Cider House Rules was made into a movie John Irving did an interview in which he said it was a defense of abortion on demand. At the time I remember thinking, “has he lost his mind?” I still do. But let’s ponder the plot for a few minutes.

The book begins in an orphanage located in Maine. Homer, played by Tobey Maguire, is an older orphan there. Among the staff is Dr. Larch, played by Michael Caine. He loves the kids, who are often in his care too long. There aren’t enough couples willing to adopt. There is a touching scene as a young couple arrives and all the kids are doing their best to appear adoptable. It is heartbreaking that they only choose one, and to see the disappointment sink the rest of the kids. Except like those like Homer who is older and slightly cynical. This is part of the reason why Irving has his views, I think.

Yet, he does not portray this orphanage as a place of abuse. There is love. Homer has been well-loved by the staff and loves the younger kids well. The Dr. has taken Homer under his wing and believes Homer can take his place one day.

Soon another young couple shows up. Not to adopt, but to abort. Dr. Larch raises extra funds for the orphanage by performing abortions. Homer is torn. He loves and hates the orphanage. Part of him wants to escape and find his own way in the world. This young couple perhaps senses this. He also seems to be attracted to her. He ends up leaving with them, having a conflicted relationship with her while he goes off to war. He also works in the apple orchard.

As a result he lives in the cider house with the migrant workers. Here we see the crux of the movie in two ways. First, the workers chaff at the list of rules on the post of the Cider House (hence the title). They were made, the workers argue, by people who don’t work or live in the Cider House. They feel like someone who doesn’t understand them, their circumstances, needs and desires is forcing these rules upon them. This is a metaphor for God’s law, and the common human response to it. “Who is God”, people think, “to tell us what to do? He doesn’t walk in our shoes! He doesn’t understand what it’s like and the pressures we face.”

Homer soon finds himself in another bind; another complicated relationship. There is sin in the camp, so to speak. He is friends with the workers, especially Mr. Rose and his daughter Rose (yeah, Rose Rose). He has thrown off God’s law (and social convention reflecting it) and had an incestuous relationship with his daughter who is now pregnant. What can Homer do?

Homer, using the skills learned from Dr. Larch, performs an abortion for Rose. In a sense, he gains clarity on how he wants to spend his life. He wants, so he thinks, to relieve misery. In particular the misery caused by sin. So he returns to the orphanage to learn more from Dr. Larch and take his place.

Soon though, Dr. Larch dies from an overdoes of the ether he uses to get to sleep. Though he, like the migrant workers, has rejected the rules, he still wrestles with guilt over the lives he has taken. So, while we see abortion as an attempt to relieve the misery of sin it actually creates more misery because it too is sin.

Is Irving right? Do we have a right to toss out the rules? Is life in an orphanage a fate worse than death/non-existence? Is abortion the best answer to rape & incest?

Let’s start with Jesus. To stick with Irving’s metaphor, Jesus entered the Cider House, lived in the Cider House. The accusation of an absentee deity doesn’t work with Jesus. He not only made the rules, but also lived under the rules He made.

Though He never broke the rules, Jesus suffered the penalty for law breaking for others. Though He never sinned, He tasted the misery produced by sin. He lived in poverty, and suffered injustice for others. This is the essence of the gospel, which refutes Irving’s cry in the mouths of the migrant workers.

We see this same God loves orphans, the abandoned. He loves them so much He calls His children to welcome and care for orphans. Christians have a long history of doing just that. When it was still an illegal religion, Christians were well-known for taking in the children abandoned by their parents. Many pastors, famous and unknown, have established orphanages to care for orphaned and abandoned children (Spurgeon and Mueller for example). Today many pastors in Africa still do. In the west orphanages are seen as passe. We have the foster care system and adoption. Christians are among those most likely to foster or adopt children. My wife and I are thankful for orphanages since 3 of our children were adopted out of orphanages.

Pregnancy as a result of rape or incest is a real problem. It seems as if we are punishing the woman. I understand a traumatized woman wanting to abort the child.

That doesn’t mean it is the right thing. Or the best thing. Remember, the gospel centers on Jesus who suffered for the benefit of others. The gospel calls us to suffer with, and sometimes for, others. A life transformed by Christ’s work will choose to suffer at times. A woman could carry the child to term and give him/her up for adoption. Or raise the child. I’ve known of people who did this. It seems impossible. It happens only by the grace of God.

Jesus doesn’t just pardon our sin after the fact. He can help us to say ‘no’ to unrighteousness. Our moral code is not to be a lowest common denominator kind of thing. Jesus works in us to do the right thing, the best thing not just for us but for others.

Irving’s argument works in a world without God, or the world of an absentee God. But it doesn’t really work in a world where Jesus is God Incarnate, the Lamb of God and reigning king.

What was John Irving thinking?

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