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Posts Tagged ‘grace’


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.

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Confession: I have a love-hate relationship with the culture war.

I’m torn in two. I have strong convictions on some things that I think are important. But I’m weary of how we as a culture, including the church, discuss these matters. I’m becoming more concerned with ministering to struggling people than trying to be right. I do want to explore nuances on some issues.

The subtitle of one of Scott Sauls’ books interested me. That book is Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides. Sauls is a PCA pastor in Nashville who used to work with Tim Keller in NYC. In many ways he is like Keller, making distinctions and exploring nuance. He tends to tick off both the left and the right. If the Bible is true, Keller notes, it will critique every culture and every person. That means that everyone will be annoyed by something it says. The same will be true for faithful pastors. The left thinks you are too right and the right that you are too left.

In his introduction Sauls puts it this way:

“Are we known by what we are for instead of what we are against? Are we less concerned about defending our rights- for Jesus laid down his rights- and more concerned about joining Jesus in his mission of loving people, places, and things to life?”

While we believe in truth, we also believe in grace and peace. This means a Christian should be pursuing all of them, not just one. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he calls them to end what we’d call their tribalism in light of the fact they’ve been baptized into Christ. Their union with Him and one another takes precedence over the divides that kept people apart in their culture. In light of this we keep truth and love together, as Paul notes in Ephesians 4. Sauls wants us to see beyond the polarization to affirm what is true about each side of an argument in the process of finding the truth in the middle so we can love both sides and hopefully bring them together.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first addresses issues between the various “Christian tribes”. The second addresses some of the issues that polarize the church and the world.

The first issue he addresses could be in both sections of the book: politics. Reflecting Keller he argues that no political system or party is fully aligned with Jesus and therefore subject to critique. Politics is like a religion in America. There seems to be no middle ground.

God has instituted government, and raises up and casts down leaders. Those governments and leaders don’t serve Jesus. In our own context the two parties grab hold of part of what Jesus says. As Christians we can think they have the whole (or none in the case of THEM). We each have agendas and choose the candidate or party that best represent them. And one of those agendas tends to be political power. It is not just the evangelical right that courts earthly power, as the evangelical left would have you believe. Both sides have made compromises to gain cultural power so the current dust ups are largely disingenuous to me.

“Kingdom politics reject the world’s methods of misusing power and manipulating the truth.”

As we consider politics we should recognize that Christians should be involved in terms of voting and also holding office. Yet we should do this understanding the limitations involved. No candidate or platform is perfect. We are not electing pastors, and being a Christian doesn’t necessarily make one wise or beyond corruption. This is another way of saying that politics is not a means to usher in the kingdom of God. It is, however, a means to help human flourishing so the work of the kingdom can take place in and through the church.

Sauls notes that Christianity tends to be healthier when it is part of the minority, not the majority. As the minority we are generally less conformed to the world, and less likely to trample other groups. As the majority we tend to cling to power and can abuse it. We are fallen humans after all.

He also notes that “Christianity embraces both conservative and progressive values.” It is neither. Christianity teaches that women are made in the image of God. As such it should embrace equality for women. Christians have long had a prevailing ethic of life contrary to many an earthly government and culture. If we treat women well, the pro-life movement is not assumed to be a war on women.

I don’t want to spend as much time on the other polarizing viewpoints. But in discussing politics with some from the evangelical left recently I’ve heard the accusation that I’m actually pro-birth and don’t care about the poor. That’s a nice talking point, and the second chapter: For the unborn or the poor? Oddly, I’ve found many conservatives at the forefront of care for the poor through groups like the Salvation Army, Compassion International and through funding soup kitchens, pantries and homeless shelters.

It is difficult to discuss this topic without getting back into red state-blue state. But the question is not a new one: who should care for the poor, the church or the state? Calvin argued that church should, and Luther thought it was the state. We have a similar divide between the evangelical right and left. It isn’t really about whether to care for the poor but who and how. Our problem is we tend to see the other side not caring because they don’t do it the way we think it should be done.

Sauls brings us back to the reality of both the unborn and the poor bearing the image of God. This should lead us to have a comprehensive ethic of life. Mine would go something like this: The state should protect the unborn while the church/Christians should provide for the unborn and the poor. The state should protect the living by bearing the sword against the wicked who forfeit their lives for certain heinous crimes.

The section also addresses personal faith or institutional church, money guilt or money greed, racially the same or racially diverse, and him or her. These are important issues that we tend to take extreme positions on and fight about in the church. These, of course, are false dilemmas for the most part. We should value both personal faith and the institutional church. One tends to be dead without the other. Sauls notes that the early church was FAR from perfect, so the problems of our churches shouldn’t mean we reject “organized religion”. Rather, the church is a place where we learn to love people who are very different from ourselves. As he argues, we need the church and the church needs us.

In discussing money he reminds us that the underlying issue is contentment. Most people are not content with their wealth. This can manifest itself in either hoarding or spending. We inevitably have to see the God-man who was rich but became poor to enrich others. As we consider Him He makes us people who also enrich others.

Racial questions are difficult because we have such a hard time moving beyond our experience. We tend to normalize our experiences and can’t see other people’s experience (especially minorities) as valid or true. People in the majority need to begin listening to minorities. Privilege, I’ve found, doesn’t have to do with having an easy go of things so much as there are things you never have to think about. For instance, when I get in my car I never wonder if I’m going to get pulled over by the police. Many blacks and Hispanics do, and that is because they are pulled over far more frequently than me. When I get pulled over I don’t think that I’d better record it just in case things go south. I’ve always been treated with respect by the police. But many blacks and Hispanics are viewed with more suspicion by police than I am. Their experience is so different than mine. There are negatives I don’t experience due to my race, social status or both.

The same is true regarding men and women. I don’t go for a jog (when I used to) and wonder if I’ll get jumped and raped. I don’t pay attention to the cars on my walk to see if the same one keeps going by. I don’t pay more for a car or repairs because of my sex. Studies show that women are often taken advantage of by sales and repair men.

Where Sauls goes is inequality in the church in both chapters. Minorities often feel forced to fit in with the white culture of a church. They feel like a token instead of someone who has a seat at the table with decision-making power. Women also have decisions made for them without seeking their wisdom and counsel. God gifts women for ministry too. They don’t have to hold office to exercise those gifts like egalitarians think. Some complementarians need to remember that this is true and not unnecessarily restrict the ministry of women.

In the second section he discusses affirmation or critique, accountability or compassion, hypocrite or work in progress, chastity or sexual freedom, hope or realism, self-esteem or God-esteem and then provides some quick pointers on living outside the lines in the epilogue.

He spends time discussing our need for affirmation and encouragement. He also distinguishes critique and criticism helpfully.

“Because an affirming critique always comes from the motive of restoring and building up, unlike criticism, which aims to harm and tear down.”

We all been victims of criticism. You feel worthless, humiliated and exposed. Critique is not focused on fault-finding and assigning blame. It is concerned with how we can do better. Affirmation should not be devoid of critique, but it should be devoid of criticism. In this context he shared a story of a bad relationship with another pastor that brought out the worst in each of them, and how it turned the corner into a healthier relationship when they considered how God was sanctifying each thru the other.

He invites to consider both the justice and compassion of God that is revealed in the cross of Christ, as well as the final judgment. This is not a book whose message is “can’t we just get along.” It brings us often to the gospel while reminding us that divine truth is not simplistic. Our positions may have elements of the truth but not the whole truth. As we interact with people of differing opinions we may discover they have some of the truth too. Sauls is not selling relativism, but is reminding us that the truth can be more complex than we want to make it in our quest to be right. Seriously, who wants to be wrong?

There is much to make you think and move beyond the false dilemmas we find in life. There are also some great stories. I loved the story about Doug and how Scott struggled with a competitive spirit with a man he hadn’t been in contact with for over a decade. Scott is vulnerable in this book. He’s not the hero who has it all together. He comes across to me as a guy who’s trying to figure all this out and shares a few of the things he’s learned. See this as critique instead of criticism and you’ll benefit from the book. See it as criticism and you’ll just get ticked and retreat to your own tribe within the lines. It might feel safer, but then so is a prison cell sometimes.

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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.

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Last year at this time I was preaching through Jonah. I wish I had Tim Keller’s latest book at the time. The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy should raise any controversy with the title. I’m sure there will be plenty to annoy some. But I loved reading this book.

The book is dedicated to John Newton whose life and ministry made a big impact on Keller. Those familiar with Newton’s writings will find his influence in many places.

He makes two passes through the book, exploring the themes that are found there. The first pass (9 chapters) handles the text sequentially. The second goes back through thematically to address our relationship to God’s Word, God’s world and God’s grace.

It is in Keller’s typical winsome style that points out where we tend to go wrong whether to the left or the right. He’s an equal opportunity offender, but it is so gentle I don’t understand how people get so mad at him. He’s generally right.

In the introduction he alludes to one of his other books. In the first half of the book Jonah is like the younger brother who goes to the far country to avoid his father. In the second half he’s like the angry older brother who is upset about the Father’s joy in repentance.

Jonah stands out as the willfully disobedient prophet to a willfully disobedient people. He is the representative Israelite. Jonah doesn’t trust God. He doesn’t trust that God has his best interests in mind. He is so like, … us.

“And that is the problem facing Jonah, namely, the mystery of God’s mercy. It is a theological problem, but it is at the same time a heart problem. … The story of Jonah, with all its twists and turns, is about how God takes Jonah, sometimes by the hand, other times by the scruff of the neck, to show him these things.”

Keller starts with the storms of life. “All sin has a storm attached to it.” (btw: I read people who claim Keller never talks about sin, or uses the word. What are they talking about?!) Jonah’s disobedience brought a literal storm not only into his life but the lives of the Gentile sailors. Sin’s storms don’t remain isolated to the particular sinner in question. “Sin is the suicidal action of the will upon itself.” He does clarify that most storms are from the condition of sin, meaning that we live in a fallen world and we don’t need to find the particular sin/sinner behind each hurricane, flood or drought. But know that when we sin, there are often earthly consequences.

For the Christian, the storms of life (afflictions) are meant to produce good. He is at work in this storm to bring Jonah to Ninevah for them to receive mercy. For example, I saw a recent interview with Donna Rice who experienced a storm of publicity due to her affair with Senator Gary Hart. She said that the storm brought her back to her Christian faith.

Next Keller explores the idea of who our neighbor is. These Gentiles are better human beings than the prodigal prophet. God is using the disobedient prophet to lead Gentiles to faith and repentance through his disobedience. Jonah only wants to see himself as an Israelite, as part of a faith community. He needs to also see himself as part of humanity, the broader community. Frankly, Christians have the same problem. We don’t have much concern with those around us as long as our lives are going okay. And so Keller explores common grace.

He then moves into the “other”, the question of identity and those who have a different identity than we do. Jonah’s national identity blinded him in many ways. The early church would struggle with the same problem. We use that identity to exclude other people unnecessarily. We dehumanize people who don’t share our ethnic, national or political identities. We’ve seen this as one of the early steps in the holocaust and other genocides (Rwanda, Armenian etc.). This was very helpful as I preached thru Philippians 3 and the false identities we can boast in.

Keller moves to the pattern of love, and the heart of the gospel with substitution. Jonah is a type of Jesus who would die for our sins instead of sins of his own. The storm of God’s merciful wrath (the phrase I used in my sermons, adapted by a phrase of Luther’s) is stilled.

“To deny God’s wrath upon sin not only robs us of a full view of God’s holiness and justice but also can diminish our wonder, love, and praise at what it was that Jesus bore for us.”

In this context he connects wrath with love too. God’s wrath is directed at actions (and people) who harm what He loves. He again clearly articulates the gospel contrary to what the discernment blogs claim about him.

The Gentile sailors end up offering praise and sacrifices to YHWH after the storm is stilled. Keller notes the irony in that Jonah sought to avoid bringing truth to Gentiles, aka wicked pagans, but actually does anyway.

Image result for jonahHe then delves deeper into grace as Jonah wrestles with God in the belly of the fish. He’s gone as low as he can go (the literary irony) because he didn’t go up to Ninevah. Jonah “does business” with God only when he can no longer run from God. He’s trapped and finally admits the ugly truth. Often God has to bring us to similar places before, like addicts, we admit we’ve made a complete mess of things by our disobedience and can’t fix it.

With Jonah finally going to Ninevah, the discussion moves to repentance. They repented of their injustice, and moved toward justice. They were a violent, oppressive people. Repentance meant turning away from their violence and oppression. When the gospel calls us out of sin, it also calls us out of injustice. This is Keller’s connection between the gospel and “social justice”. He’s not preaching a social gospel, but the gospel of Christ’s penal, substitutionary atonement with implications for justice in society. He’s not preaching a privatized faith nor a civil faith or religion. Personal faith is lived out in society as well as the community of faith.

With God relenting another storm arises, this time in Jonah’s heart. He’s beyond angry. In Jonah’s mind, relenting from destruction means the inevitable destruction of Israel. He’s blind to Israel’s sin, apparently, just as we tend to be to our sin and the sin of our communities.

God responds with patience and instruction. He is not only concerned about Israel, but all these people who also bear His image. He even cares about the livestock. That’s who He is. Unlike Jonah, Jesus wept over Jerusalem over the impending destruction for its wickedness.

“They want a “God of love,” but a God of love who does not get angry when evil destroys the creation he loves is ultimately not a loving God at all. If you love someone, you must and will get angry if something threatens to destroy him or her.”

Both God’s righteousness and His love are functions of His goodness! We don’t play them against one another but embrace them both as grounded in His goodness. So, this same God can justify the wicked because He loved them in sending His Son as a propitiation for their sin. Jesus satisfied His righteousness and His love. He didn’t satisfy His righteousness so God was then free to love.

Keller then moves to the three final themes of his book. Like Jonah (following Adam and Eve) we struggle to believe God’s Word is good for us. We minimize His wisdom and magnify ours. We trust our word over His.

“Sin always begins with the character assassination of God. We believe that God has put us in a world of delights but has determined that he will not give them to us if we obey him.”

Keller defends the substitutionary atonement from the charge of “divine child abuse” as infamously made by Steven Chalke. That charge does damage to the Trinity, not simply atonement. The one God in three persons works to save us. Jesus is not some lesser being offered to change the mind of an angry deity.

IImage result for dodo birdn terms of our relationship to God’s world he returns the question of our neighbor. Calvin, he notes, reminded us that all our neighbors bear the image of God and we must remember that. Keller applies this to politics. We must find a way between the erroneous beliefs that we should just preach the gospel and avoid politics, or that politics is all-important. The two party system tries to push a “package deal” on us instead of allowing us to vote “a la carte”. Pro-life Democrats are going the way of the dodo. But this doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Republican. They have anti-Christian views too. The gospel of the One who died for us when we were His enemies, calls us out of our partisanship and demonization of the other side. Loved by One we hated, we can begin to love ones we hated.

Keller moves into how privileged status can play out in perverting justice. The same laws should apply to all within a society. He mentions “citizens over immigrants” without any mention of their legal or illegal status as immigrants (I think this matters in light of Romans 13). But immigrants and other vulnerable groups should not be taken advantage of by the powerful. Christians, who worship a just God, should care about justice.This is not at the expense of the God but on account of the gospel.

“We must realize that since all our social problems stem from our alienation from God, the most radical and loving thing you can do for a person is to see him or her reconciled to God.”

IImage result for c.s. lewisn our relationship to God’s grace Keller clearly puts a changed life as a result of salvation, not the cause of salvation. In this it differs from every other religion. Here he explores Lewis’ The Four Loves to discuss our attachment to our people and culture. Lewis affirms a love for our people, but notes “We all know now that this love becomes a demon when it becomes a god.” Love of country is not the same a fascism or racism. Lewis rejects anti-patriotism as extremism just as he rejected any nationalism that begins to denigrate and destroy those who are different. [It is important to understand what is meant when someone uses the term ‘nationalism’. It can simply refer to the love of country that is normal for most people, and not the political movement used to justify the supremacy of a nation.] When do you know love of country has gone toxic? When it ignores the blemishes of its past. EVERY country has very ugly blemishes in its past. In the present, every country is full of “good” and evil people (law abiding vs. criminals). Lewis notes that when a country begins to intentionally suppress or erases its misdeeds they begin to express racial/national/ethnic superiority. We then find ourselves on the doorstep of racism and oppression. This is a very helpful section. This is pertinent because it helps us to understand what Jonah experienced in himself. Turning from grace he was in the throes of a toxic nationality that wanted to withhold God from other people groups.

Jesus purchased people from every tribe, tongue, nation and language. The gospel mission focuses on loving other people groups, not just your own. This is the heart of Jonah’s struggle and ours. Will we embrace the mystery of God’s mercy or will we try to bottle it up as exclusively for people just like us? Jonah doesn’t resolve that question in his life, because it isn’t fully resolved in the readers. The question is, what will you do next knowing that God cares about those people too?

In the future I hope to read Anthony Carter’s book on Jonah,Running From Mercy: Jonah and the Surprising Story of God’s Unstoppable Grace, which was released at about the same time.

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I read this as a son, and a pastor.

My mother has Alzheimer’s Disease which is a form of dementia. As a pastor, I have had and will have some older members with dementia. A wise pastor won’t stick his head in the sand. Even if you pastor a young congregation, they will have parents who are diagnosed with this horrible disease.

Into this, Dr. John Dunlop wrote Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia. He is a Geriatrics physician. He is too familiar with dementia as a son and a doctor.  He writes as a physician with great bedside manner. He’s informative, and gentle. He’s honest but not despairing. He sees God’s sovereignty in a way that calls us to trust His character, His goodness as we suffer.

“All shall work together for good; everything is needful [necessary] that he sends, nothing can be needful [necessary] that he withholds.” John Newton

When God brings dementia into our lives, He has a good purpose. Much of this has to do with trusting Him more fully, finding strength in our union with Christ. His purpose is to mature us, not destroy us. That is how the Enemy wants to use dementia.

Theology bookends this book in many ways, and permeates it. He gets into the nuts and bolts of dementia at a lay level. He addresses diagnosis and whether or not the disease can be prevented and how it can be treated. He addresses both what it is like to have dementia in its various stages, as well as what it is like to be a caregiver in various stages. He offers some helpful hints for caregivers.

He views those who suffer as image bearers which is counter-cultural. In our culture’s human (objective)/person (subjective) dichotomy those who suffer from dementia can be seen as no longer of value since they have no apparent sense of personhood. Dunlop encourages us to remember that they remain image bearers and therefore have value despite diminished capacity. He speaks of some ways to respect that dignity even as the disease strips them of dignity.

He does have a chapter on the church. Dementia isolates people, particularly the caregiver. I’ve seen this with my father as his world shrunk to match my mother’s shrinking world. Churches should be engaged providing familiar faces for relief and encouragement. Faith can also be sustained, or comfort provided by listening to the pastor’s sermons (a familiar voice) or Scripture read by a friend or loved one. Songs from worship can be played ad infinitum and enjoyed by the patient (as the caregiver returns to the early years of parenting).

The toughest chapter is the last, End-of-Life Issues. It was also the most helpful for me in light of my mother’s recent admission to a memory-care facility. She became more than my father could handle. Her world continues to shrink. She has a terminal disease. That shapes, or should, how other diseases are treated. We should keep in mind that “the patient’s quality of life as perceived by the patient may be far better than that perceived by loved ones or the medical establishment.” We project our fears as a person without dementia upon them. None of us would like to be a baby again, but babies don’t mind being babies. People with dementia may not have an awareness of all they have lost, but enjoy life much like infants and toddlers do.

He addresses feeding tubes. They are used because the patient has stopped eating. They often cause more problems than they prevent or address. They often “stop eating because they are dying; they don’t die because they stop eating.” We have to make sure we are doing what is in the patient’s best interest, not ours. There are times to prolong life, but as the disease gets more severe you don’t want to be as aggressive and put them thru a long, lingering death artificially extended. It is heart-breaking and hard.

Dr. Dunlop has provided a good resource for pastors, elders and caregivers (as well as potential victims of this family of diseases). It is succinct and not overly technical. There is a strong focus on how God is graciously at work through the experience of dementia. I found it very helpful, and one of my congregants who read it has as well.

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What does evangelism have to do with grace? Obviously we want the other person to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ. But why do we want this? Mike Bechtle ponders this in the short, next chapter of Evangelism for the Rest of Us.

Let’s be honest. We often feel guilty about not sharing our faith. I feel it at times. As I prepare a sermon that touches on evangelism I can feel it. I want to produce conviction, surety of thought, on having it as a priority. But I’m sure it is often heard through the filter of failure and my words produce far more guilt than I’d like.

Evangelism often seems like one more obligation of the Christian life. The type A persons around us (or in us) have it on their To-Do List. It’s about obedience, for the love of Pete.

Yeah, but ……

We miss the point if it isn’t about compassion. The Father didn’t send the Son to save sinners as part of His To-Do List. “Oh, yeah. Time to save some sinners!” We see God’s great compassion for sinners in Scripture. This is most clear in Jonah, particularly chapter 4. Jonah’s compassion was limited to the plant that grew up overnight without any help from Jonah to provide Jonah with shade lacking from his lousy lean-to. Jonah was there hoping God would smite those lousy Assyrians. God, on the other hand, had compassion for this great city filled with people and animals that He made. God sent Jonah to them, not out of sense of obligation, but out of compassion. This is also why He sent the One greater than Jonah. “For God so loved the world…”

Too often we are about obligation, obedience, checking stuff off our list (or growing our church to satisfy our selfish ambitions or pay off our mortgage- ouch!!!!). We simply lack compassion.

He tells of a car salesman who paid him and his family so much attention. He felt connected to this guy who seemed interested in them. But the next day the salesman didn’t pay any attention to them when they came to pick up the van. It was simply the sale he cared about.

As we evangelize, or bear witness, we can be all about “closing the deal.” We can communicate that in unexpected ways. This mentality, not just its manifestations, is wrong. But that is what happens when our motivation isn’t compassion.

What we need more of to bear witness more consistently is compassion and love.

“But the more we love people, the more we will want to share with them. The focus will be external- on them, not us.”

As we grow in love our evangelism will be rooted in grace rather than guilt.

God uses weak people. The treasure of the gospel is in jars of clay. He didn’t remove Paul’s thorn but said “My grace will be sufficient.” He didn’t give Paul super-human strength, but enabled Paul to persevere despite that distracting, disabling thorn. The thorn seems to have become a means by which Paul gained opportunities to bear witness.

We hate pain. We’d rather be pain-free than experience sufficient grace. And that means we’d rather enjoy ease (like Jonah) than be channels of grace by pointing people to Jesus. Graceful  evangelism bears witness from reality, who we really are and out of our circumstances, not out of some fantasy land where Christians have it all together, have plenty of cash on hand, and never deal with sickness and tragedy. God often reaches people dealing with tragedy or illness through people who have or experienced something similar.

As Christians, Bechtle argues, we are to be bilingual people. The language of faith is our second language if we’ve come to faith in adulthood. We are speaking to people who don’t know or understand the language of faith. We are communicating to unbelievers. Graceful witness means speaking their language (I’m not talking about dropping “f” bombs), translating our faith into words they can understand as best we can. We connect it to their world, their needs, rather than keeping it abstract. Graceful witness doesn’t expect them to learn our language so we can share the truth (if they come to faith they will learn it).

This will happen if we genuinely care about people. If we love them and have compassion on them, we won’t expect them to buy a theological dictionary so we can evangelize them.

If we genuinely care about people we will listen to them.

“If I learn what’s important to him, I can find out where Christ might fit in his life.”

The above statement isn’t meant to somehow limit Christ, but to identify the points of entry for the gospel. Because you genuinely care! We want them to come to faith for their well-being, not so you can boast about it, ease your guilty conscience or feel better about spending time with them.

Graceful witness keeps in mind that it doesn’t all depend on me. I’m not just talking about my theological commitment to “the efficient call”, meaning God converts the person. I’m also talking about the fact that God may be using a variety of people in this person’s life. I can show them grace because it isn’t about my timetable for them or somehow showing my methods are superior to yours like some kung-fu showdown. (Yeah, I’m not sure where that came from.) We genuinely care and so wait on the process and players God is using. It isn’t about my airtight arguments. It not about winning the debate. It is about loving another person.

 

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It has been a while since I invested in one of the “dead guys”. When I saw Keeping the Heart: How to Maintain Your Love for God by John Flavel, I thought I should read that. I am glad that I did buy it and read it.

This relatively short book is only comprised of 4 chapters. The great bulk of the book is the 3rd chapter. I read the book “devotionally”, after my daily time in Scripture. In the large chapter on the special seasons in life I would read one of the 12 at a time.

This is a typical Puritan work. This means Flavel looks at the subject from a variety of angles, dissecting it to pieces. If you aren’t used to this, it can feel wearisome but the repetition is important to driving the point home. This particular edition doesn’t give all the Scripture references to his quotes and illusions. That is unfortunate since it isn’t always obvious to the modern reader. This edition does have an introduction by J.I. Packer prior to Flavel’s own introduction.

If you think of the Christian life as one of dependence and discipline, this book focuses on the discipline while assuming the dependence. He does make some comments about our utter dependence upon God but you need to keep this in the forefront of your mind or you’ll take a very man-centered, fleshly approach to what he says. His focus is on our devotion, and at times he could do a better job reminding us of our gospel dependence or the gospel context that he assumes.

He begins with What the Keeping of the Heart Supposes and Imports. Since Adam’s rebellion humanity has been a rebellious creature prone to self-deception. Even the Christian, though regenerate, is still a sinner and prone to wander as the song goes. Keeping the heart presupposes regeneration. You can’t keep a heart of stone. It must be a heart of flesh. “Yet sin often actually discomposes it again; so that even a gracious heart is like a musical instrument” that needs to be tuned. This presupposition of regeneration is why I say he assumes the gospel thru much of the book. It is like the first verse of Exodus 20 which must not be forgotten while you read the rest of Exodus 20. Regeneration sets the gracious framework we are so easy to forget.

Keeping of the heart includes observing the frame of our heart, humbling ourselves for our sins and disorders (including our sinful desires), persistent prayer for purification, the making of vows to walk more faithfully, a constant zeal for the condition of our hearts and knowing that we live before the face of God.

The second chapter deals with some reasons why we should keep our hearts. Such reason include the glory of God (would he be a Puritan without starting here?), the assurance of salvation (tied to the sincerity of our profession of faith), the beauty of our conversation or sanctified living, and a different focus on the assurance of salvation focusing on the witness of the Spirit. God doesn’t assure wayward hearts. Implied here is the distinction between union (unchanging) and communion (changing). Keeping the heart is also essential to the improving of graces in our lives (seeing our need we pray and grow, for instance), and greater stability in times of temptation and testing.

As I said, the bulk of the book is concerned with particular seasons in life when keeping the heart is most difficult and yet necessary. Our circumstances do matter. We live out our faith in changing circumstances. Some of these circumstances require more attention on our part. Each of us is prone to greater weakness in some circumstances than others. Those circumstances include prosperity, adversity, trouble among God’s people, public distraction, outward deprivation, and more. 12 of them to be exact. He also lays out reasons why we should take heart in the midst of these circumstances, as well as the dangers presented by them. We often live like all seasons are the same. They aren’t. Differing seasons uncover different sins in our hearts. We need to engage our hearts in these circumstances to know the graces we need in our times of trouble or ease.

When in the midst of our circumstances, we would benefit from going back to that section of the book to remind ourselves of our great need and danger in those circumstances.

The final, and brief, chapter focuses on “improving and applying” the subject. He laments the weakness of the church of his day (what would he say about ours?), which indicate the great need of this book and its message. He largely focuses on revealing our need for grace so we will seek it from Jesus, the fountain of grace.

Modern writers don’t write books like this. And it is a shame. So it is important to read these older books that do address these spiritual subjects our time neglects (at its peril). This is a book most living Christians should read. They would find it helpful for keeping there heart before God, seeking His gracious Son.

 

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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.]

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I’ve been reading Jared Wilson’s blog on and off since his days in TN. I’ve read some of his books and found them profitable. So when the opportunity arose to read & review his latest, The Imperfect Disciple, I took advantage.

Chapter 1 begins with a quote from John Newton which sets the tone for what is to come: “In short, I am a riddle to myself, a heap of inconsistence.” This book is a neo-Calvinist version of Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality. As Wilson notes in his introduction, this is for the average Christian who just plain struggles and feels like a total loser when reading books on discipleship, if they ever dare to. The focus here is certainly not “try harder and get your act together”. The emphasis is that God works immeasurably beyond what you manage to do because He’s rich in grace and you are united to Christ. How’s that for a nutshell?

“A message of grace will attract people but a culture of grace will keep them.” This is at least the 2nd book he’s used this in. But it is a great quote.

Jared Wilson’s style is decidedly in the popular vein. It is conversational, and not concerned with sentence and all that jazz. Each chapter begins with “My gospel is…” followed by a story that generally doesn’t portray him in a positive light. He’s not looking down at you (us). He is not the Tony Robbins of discipleship (or the David Platt/Paul Washer intent on making you feel guilty for being an ordinary person).

He addresses many of the ordinary disciplines or means of grace from a different point of view than usual. He uses some unusual terminology at times. One of the strengths is that he focuses on the reality simul justus et peccator, at the same time we are just and sinners. We do not, and cannot get our act together this side of death or Jesus’ return. We will continue to struggle with sin (including sloth), temptation and spiritual drift. In talking about this in chapter 1, he addresses some people’s tendency to blame their spiritual problems on their church upbringing. This is particularly common among progressives who grew up in more fundamentalist or even evangelical churches. While our family and church backgrounds may have been messed up and wounded us, we were all born in Adam and are sinners. We are all messed up even with others messing us up more. We never escape Romans 7, yet we always have the hope expressed in Romans 8.

“So while the storm of Romans 7 rages inside of us, the truth of Romans 8 has us safe and sound. Within the spiritual ecosystem of God’s saving sovereignty, in fact, our struggle is like the little squall stirred up in a snow globe.”

In the second chapter he calls discipleship followship. We follow Jesus and help others follow Jesus. This is true, but we also learn and teach others and are therefore … disciples. Often we can make it difficult, he says, for others to follow Jesus by confusing wounds and sins. Both persist, but the gospel addresses them in different ways. We forgive those who wound us, and God heals us with the balm of the gospel. Sins, which sometimes flow from wounds, are forgiven and God calls us to repentance and self-denial at times.

The third chapter focuses on beholding Jesus glory as opposed to seeing Him as a life coach or self-help advisor. Jesus changes us as we behold His glory (though this is not the only way He changes us). We are on a quest to discover glory, often in the wrong places like porn, wealth accumulation etc. I look for glory in sports. Not my glory but the athletes’. So he encourages us to look to Jesus and His unchanging glory.

He then addresses time in the Scripture to hear the rhythm of the gospel. We are immersed in the rhythm of our culture and need to be renewed by the rhythm of the gospel in Scripture. It isn’t just the details, but beginning to grasp the big picture of Scripture. It took him some time to get to the point of the chapter, listening to the rhythm. This another way God transforms us as He renews our minds.

There is another rhythm he mentions next, that of spilling your guts: prayer. We live in a busy culture and often suffer from hurry sickness. We don’t have time to pray (or read, or …). Prayer is how we process His words to us, and our circumstances (hopefully in light of His Word). Even better, Jesus lives forever to intercede for us in order to save us to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25).

Then Wilson discusses a much-neglected aspect of discipleship in our culture: community. While we are personally saved, we are joined to Jesus into a community, the Body of Christ. We need one another to grow into maturity. Sanctification is not a self-help, or do-it-yourself, project. Community is also where self-denial, humility, considering the needs of others becomes necessary as we follow Jesus.

“The Christian life must be walked within the encouragement, edification, and accountability of Christian community. … To abide in Christ necessitates embracing the body of Christ as God’s plan for the Christian life.”

In a strange turn of events, he puts forth “Nine Irrefutable Laws of Followship”. He throws out some biblical imperatives that are part of healthy Christian living: be loving, be joyful, be peaceful, be patient, be kind, be good, be faithful, be gentle, and be self-controlled. This is a description of what Jesus is making you because it is a pretty good description of Jesus. These are also the fruit of the Spirit.

He then moves into our union with Christ. We are not who we will be, and still struggle with something of an identity crisis. There is much we don’t like about ourselves. Thankfully, our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). In the midst of this he talks about idolatry via Genesis 22. We lay down all our idols to pick up Jesus. Our idols can’t make us what we want to be, only Jesus can. Our idols can’t give us life (they steal it), only Jesus can.

“You may see yourself as worthless and faithless, but God never has to look for your righteousness, because since you have been raised with Christ and since Christ is seated at God’s right hand, your holiness is also seated at his right hand.”

He then moves into a discussion of suffering. We often feel forgotten or abandoned by God when we suffer. Jared is honest about a deep, suicidal depression he experienced. There is no pit too deep for Him to reach us, but He also lifts us higher than any idol can or than we can imagine going. There is grace in the pit, and grace lifts us to God’s presence in heaven.

“It’s true that sometimes God doesn’t become our holy hope until God becomes our only hope.”

The final chapter, Lurv Wins, is rooted in a scene from Annie Hall and reminds me of Rob Bell’s book. He never mentions Bell’s book, and the content isn’t the same as Rob’s book. He’s not advocating “Christian Universalism” but talking about heaven. The point of heaven is Jesus. He’s not an add-on, a bonus or merely a means to the end. What we experience there will be more than words can express. In Scripture, when people go to heaven they are overwhelmed, struck down as if dead and filled with dread. Our hope is not an earthly hope, but one that can only be satisfied in the unmediated presence of God. Earthly hopes keep unraveling, but that one will be greater than we can imagine.

“Grace is all-sufficient for glory. Grace doesn’t just go all the way down to our weakness and suffering; it goes all the way up to our deliverance, all the way up to the throne of God, where our Savior is seated at the right hand of the Father and where, because we have been raised with him, and seated with him in the heavenly places, we also have a place.”

While this, and the book, is generally good, at some points this casual or conversational style makes for some “sloppy” theology. One is something I noticed in Unparalleled as well regarding justification. “It’s not just that God wipes our sinful state clean (justification); he also writes onto the slate of our heart the perfect righteousness of Christ (imputation). (pp. 166)” Actually the first is “pardon” and justification includes both pardon and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

He also hit one of my pet peeves: “He predestined this very circumstance. If I believe that, I can be patient.” (pp. 160) The word he wants is ordained. Predestination refers to salvation/damnation, not ordinary providence. Just one of those things that bugs me since technical terms exist for a reason and sloppy usage ends up changing the meaning and makes theological discourse more difficult (as Sproul notes in a book I am currently reading to review). While not an academic book, I’d hope he could communicate the proper use of technical terms.

He also makes a false distinction between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant on page 122. “The old covenant was made with God’s chosen people, and the new covenant is made with God’s called-out people.” Was not Abraham called out in Genesis 12? Was not Israel called out of Egypt? Was not Israel called out from the nations to be a people of God’s own possession? Are not we chosen (Eph. 1, 1 Peter 1 for starters)? The word ecclesia, which he might be basing this on, is used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, to refer to the assembly of the Israel. Israel was …. the church! The OT was largely written to the community of faith called Israel, which so often struggled to believe. The NT was largely written to the community of faith called the church which was grafted onto the vine of the True Israel- Jesus.

Another head scratcher was on page 40: “We are idiots when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount.” I won’t get into the nature of the beatitudes and the 3 uses of the law at this point (he could use some brushing up there too), but just the use of idiots to refer to us. It strikes me as contrary to another part of the Sermon on the Mount.

Being a Baptist, he also leaves out the sacraments as a part of the rhythm of grace God has given to us. Baptism begins our discipleship (based on the grammar of the Great Commission). But we are imperfect disciples, and that includes Jared. His book isn’t perfect but it is a very good and helpful book. It is worth reading and is accessible to those who are struggling with the fact they are quite imperfect.

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

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If our wills are in bondage to our desires, which are corrupt, if there any hope for us?

This is the question we resume with from Calvin’s Institutes, the Essentials Edition. There is no hope in ourselves. Our hope has to be with God. The remedy is grace.

“Thus the Lord begins his work in us, inspiring in our hearts a love, desire and eagerness for what is good and righteous- or, more properly, inclining, training and directing our hearts to righteousness; he completes his work by giving us strength to persevere.”

This is not the same as a general removal of our depravity that leaves us in a state of neutrality that we find in some forms of Arminianism. This is the fulfillment of the promise of the new covenant (Ez. 36:26-27). This must precede faith, or we wouldn’t believe. The “human will must be wholly remade and renewed.” He aligns himself with Augustine that ‘grace precedes every good work.’ Grace is not a response to our will, but our will works in response to grace.

Calvin shifts back to Scripture, noting Jer. 32:39-40; Ez. 11:19; 1 Kings 8:58. These all address the stubbornness of our hearts, and the grace that overcomes that stubbornness. In other words, this is no ‘philosophical’ matter but one of life & death; salvation. This is not an Old Testament idea, but we see Paul also teaching this. We see this in Phil. 2:13 and 1 Cor. 12:6; 15:10. Jesus affirms this in passages like John 6:45.

“We must indeed teach that God’s kindness is open to all, without exception, who seek it. But because no one begins to seek it until he is inspired from heaven, nothing here should be allowed to diminish God’s grace in any way.”

He goes back to Augustine. “In yet another place he states that grace does not destroy the will, but changes it from bad to good, and that once it has been made good it receives help. By this he means only that God does not push man by outward force, unfeeling, as if he were a stone, but that he is impelled in such a way that he willingly obeys.” And again, “the human will does not obtain grace through its own freedom, but that it obtains freedom through God’s grace.”

Calvin shifts to the problem of continuing sin in the believer. Calvin, following Paul (Peter, John, James …), notes that our deliverance “is never so complete that no part of us remains under sin’s yoke”. Regeneration does not end conflict in our hearts, but initiates it (Rom. 7 & Gal. 5). There is a new principle moving us toward love and righteousness, and a retention of the natural inclination toward apathy and unrighteousness.

“This produces a conflict which sorely tries the believer throughout his life, because he is raised high by the Spirit but brought low by the flesh. In the Spirit he yearns fervently for immorality; in the flesh he turns aside into the path of death. In the Spirit he purposes to live uprightly; in the flesh he is goaded to do evil. In the Spirit he is led to God; in the flesh he is beaten back. In the Spirit he despises the world; in the flesh he longs for worldly pleasures.”

Our heart and will become a battle ground. The regenerate person mourns their sin, which pains him or her. They affirm and delight in God’s law as we see in Psalm 119.

Even in his day, there were people claiming a form of Christian perfectionism. Some of the Anabaptists advocated this position. They think that regeneration is complete, and we have no more fleshly appetites.

He returns to the idea of man as sinner in bondage to Satan. He mentions Augustine’s analogy (also utilized by Luther in Bondage of the Will)of the will as a horse subject to the rider’s control. Calvin finds it sufficient in the  absence of a better analogy. “What is meant is that the will, being deceived by the devil’s tricks, must of necessity submit to his good pleasure, although it does so without compulsion.”

He then discusses the doctrine of concurrence with reference to the story of Job. In concurrence, more than one person wills the same action but for different reasons or goals. God, Satan and the Chaldeans all willed the theft of Job’s herds, but for very different reasons. We see this as well in the story of Joseph. God’s intention was very different from his brothers’ even though both willed Joseph’s servitude in Egypt.

“Accordingly, it is not improper to attribute the same deed to God, the devil and man. But the disparity in both intention and means ensures that God’s righteousness always appears blameless, while the wickedness of the devil and of man is revealed in all its shame.”

The bottom line for Calvin is fidelity to Scripture, for the Scriptures reveal the sovereignty of God over events big and small. He brings up a number of passages to illustrate his point. Satan, much like Assyria and Babylon in the prophets, is His agent to unwittingly accomplish His purpose. They serve His righteous purposes, even as they pursue their unrighteous purposes. Calvin notes God’s sovereignty over the “mundane acts of life.” He held to a meticulous providence, as God brings about “whatever he knows is needful, but also to bend men’s wills toward that same end.”

Calvin then addresses a series of common objections. First, necessary sin is no longer sin. While they “necessarily” have to do it, since God ordained it, it is still voluntarily chosen by them. He does not force them to sin, but they want to commit that particular sin at that particular time. Second, reward and punishment no longer apply. God is so kind that he rewards the graces which he bestows on people. The voluntary nature of sin makes punishment just. Third, good and bad are no longer distinguishable. If this were so, it would be so for God who does good “by necessity” or in keeping with his immutable nature. Fourth, exhortation and reproof become superfluous. They are, rather, the means God uses to help shape our choices. He not only ordains what will happen, but how and why.

“God is active in us in two way: within, by his Spirit, and without, by his word. With his Spirit enlightening the mind and training the heart to love righteousness and innocence, he makes man a new creature by regeneration. Through his word he moves and encourages man to desire and to look for this renewal.”

Calvin then notes a variety of Scriptural evidences including, the law and its commands, the command to repent, God’s promises & reproofs, his punishments and more. In many ways Calvin rightfully goes back to Philippians 2:13- For God works in us to will and work according to His righteous purpose. We are to believe that we are dependent upon God, but also that being gracious and powerful he consistently works in us to accomplish his purposes, which are good. This is an important doctrine which humbles us, and grants us confidence.

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In his chapter on Local Knowledge in The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine uses the unusual phrase “the gospel waltz”. He is talking about theological culture of your congregation before they got there. This could be when you arrive to a new congregation, but it is also seen when a new person shows up. I found his concept helpful, even if the phrase didn’t quite connect.

The waltz speaks of “three movements in gospel life:

  • confessing our mess (sinning and being sinned against),

  • receiving Christ’s love (turning to Jesus as forgiven and dearly loved children),

  • walking his paths (conforming our lives to obediently following Jesus).

Eswine notes that individuals, and congregations, can miss steps. As a result their whole theological perspective is warped. One of the results is that they avoid talk about the movement they have not embraced. He notes that congregations have various two-step emphases. Conflict revolves around the third. This helps shape the pastor’s teaching and personal ministry.

  • Some are trying to confess and walk without receiving. These folks work hard. They frown on grace, joy and rest. When you talk of grace, they get concerned about you.

  • Some are trying to receive and walk without confessing. These folks stay strong. They frown on appearing needy for forgiveness or imperfect. So when you talk about humility, sharing burdens, feeling emotions, and not trying to keep up appearances, they get concerned about you.

  • Some are trying to confess and receive without walking. These folks want to relax. They frown on obedience. When you talk about the change in direction that Jesus’ grace makes upon our actions and way of life, they get concerned about you.

Their concerns are well worth noting. This gives direction to pastoral ministry. It may not necessarily make it easier. Note the sanctification debate in Reformed circles a few years ago. The “grace guys” were leaving out the 3rd movement (in my opinion). They were reacting against those who left out the first movement. Leaving out either of these three movements leaves your Christian, or gospel, life unbalanced, distorted and less fruitful than it should be.

It is important to note that you, as a pastor or layperson, have a default. There is one you tend to neglect.

mushroom cloudI have found that congregations are generally concerned if the pastor confesses his mess. There are sins a pastor can confess publicly, like impatience. Generally people don’t want to know that their pastor struggles with the same kinds of sins they do: lust, greed, profound self-centeredness etc. Sin stays underground. There it can fester until it eventually explodes in a huge mess.

The other night a member and I were commiserating that as a congregation we weren’t very vulnerable. This is not just about sin, but also burdens. I find that people have been struggling with horrible things but not reached out for help. I have to help us put all these things together: confess, receive and walk. The gospel is our only hope in this. We need to see the goodwill of God toward sinners so we confess; the sufficiency of Christ so we receive His fullness; and the power of the new life the gospel produces so we can walk in a manner pleasing to Him (though imperfectly).

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I have really appreciated The Gospel According to the Old Testament series. Since I’m preparing to teach on Hosea, it was time to read the volume on Hosea: Love Divine and Unfailing by Michael Barrett.

Based on the previous volumes I had high expectations. Perhaps too high. Perhaps unfairly. But this volume didn’t meet my expectations.

This is a good an helpful book. It was expecting, or hoping for, a great book.

Why I was disappointed may be explained by his comments in the conclusion:

If you picked up this book expecting an expositional commentary, you have been disappointed. … My concern was to put in focus the big picture that will ultimately help us understand the details and grasp the significance of Hosea’s message.

I was hoping for a volume that tracked with the flow of Hosea, particularly since I’m teaching it in that way. I did not expect a commentary since this is not a commentary series. But I wanted it to work through the book. Barrett handled it from a more thematic approach. He said many helpful things, but it was not as “user friendly” for the teacher.

In the first part he focuses on “just the facts” of Hosea. This begins with Hosea as a Messianic Man. Hosea is a shortened form of Joshua (or vice versa) and means “salvation.” Joshua is the Hebrew name translated into Greek as Jesus. Hosea was anointed as a prophet which is a “messianic occupation.” Barrett spends some time explaining the role of the prophet in the life of Israel. He also puts him in his time and place: the northern kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II.

The second chapter expands on the historical context of Hosea. It was a time of declining power and prosperity. Assyria was gaining strength and was a looming threat that is addressed in the book.

In the third chapter, His Creed, the focus is on Deuteronomy’s influence on what we read. The prophets viewed their circumstances through the covenant and declared the appropriate blessings and curses according to the covenant. Hosea makes no sense if you aren’t familiar with Deuteronomy. Barrett spends some time explaining how the Mosaic covenant points to, anticipates and explains the ministry of Christ.

The second part of the book focuses on his life, particularly his marriage. His marriage to a wayward wife named Gomer was a living sermon intended to reflect God’s marriage to Israel. It is viewed as an analogy. There are points of correspondence, but not complete identity. Barrett points in particular to the exclusivity of relationship. This means that apostasy, or syncretism, is like adultery: Gomer’s adultery in particular.

Christianity parallels the ANE process of marriage. The Father gave a people to the Son to be His Bride. The Son has paid the bride price with His blood. The Spirit establishes the covenant union between the Son and the Church (invisible).

Then Barrett goes into Hosea’s marriage. Hosea was not the only prophets who undertook prophetic or symbolic actions. Some of them were strange, like Isaiah walking around naked and barefoot (Is. 20) to symbolize the coming exile. You have Ezekiel laying on his side all day, cooking over dung, to symbolize the siege upon Jerusalem. In this case Hosea’s whole life became symbolic or prophetic. His marriage and kids pointed Israel (and Judah) to deeper realities.

Sin and rebellion will be met with covenant curses. The northern kingdom hRedemptionad strayed, stepped out on their covenant lord, with other gods and nations. The consequences were coming. But God’s purpose was not to ultimate destroy His people but to bring them back. The third section, The Sermon, lays this all out.

Too often people think of the Mosaic Covenant as grace-less. They are wrong and Barrett explores that gracious element for us. He helps us to understand the role of law in the covenant, not for gaining life but how God’s redeemed people are to live to bring Him glory. He then moves into the (re)new(ed) covenant and some of the ways it is “new and improved” rather than completely new. He also brings in the horrible price to be paid for their rebellion. But rebellion, and misery, is not the final word.

Therefore, as disgusting as Gomer may appear, every Christian must admit the Gomer that is his or her own heart.

Barrett ends with the way home. He talks about the gospel more exhaustively in this chapter. He speaks of repentance. Hosea’s message was not given to take away all their hope but to call Ephraim back from the abyss.

Barrett consistently points out the gospel connections and message to be found in Hosea. There are some exegetical questions that are not discussed sufficiently, particularly the use of “Adam” (8:1). He does have a helpful appendix discussing Matthew’s use of “out of Egypt I called my son”.

While not a book that met my admittedly high expectations, it was a good and helpful book to read as I prepare to teach Hosea. If you are planning on preaching through it, or teaching on it, I would recommend reading this book.

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“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Some people don’t need to enter anywhere to abandon hope. Some people can’t seem to abandon hope no matter how bad the circumstances.

I was listening to an interview with a former career Navy Seal. Part of the unspoken agenda of “Hell Week” is to bring the candidates to the point of despair, the point of giving up or thinking they are going to die. For him it was the pool. When you face death and lose your fear of death you build a wise soldier (not a reckless soldier). This builds the attitude of hope, so to speak, the idea that any problem or situation can be solved when we work together. Even if it means you or your team mate may die in the process.

There is something there to help us understand what is should mean to be a Christian. We have faced death & condemnation and been delivered by Christ. We should no longer fear death and live in hope thru the living Christ who has overcome the world.

But … just as not everyone is wired to be a Seal, not every Christian is wired to, or called to be, a martyr.

Augustine hits on this. Sort of.

In Homily 33 on the Gospel of John he said this:

“The Lord is gentle, the Lord is longsuffering, the Lord is tender-hearted; but the Lord is also just, the Lord is also true. You are being granted time for correction; you, though, love putting it off more than putting it right.”

We all tend to fixate on one or two attributes of God, the ones that fit our general temperment. This puts us at risk. Augustine posits this in the fact that God is more than the attributes we fixate on. He is longsuffering AND just; tender-hearted AND just. The true God shocks us at times. He’s not what we want Him to be. He isn’t less, but more than we want Him to be (to steal a Kellerism).  When God revealed Himself to Moses (Ex. 33-34) He revealed both His abundant mercy and His persistent justice.

“Because God is tender-hearted, God is good, God is gentle. These people are endangered by hope.”

Those fixated on God’s gentleness are often endangered by hope. They forget God’s justice and holiness and think they have forever and a day to repent.

“Endangered by despair, however, are those who have fallen into grave sins, thinking that they can no longer be forgiven, even if they repent, and see themselves as certainly destined for damnation. They thus say to themselves,’We are already going to be damned; why not do whatever we want?'”

They are fixated on the justice and holiness of God and do not see His mercy, goodness, compassion and patience. They veer into despair when they sin as if they have exhausted God’s mercy.

“Despair kills these, the others are killed by hope. The mind, the spirit, fluctuates between hope and despair. Be on the watch lest hope kill you and, while pinning your hopes on mercy, you come under judgment; be on the watch as well lest despair kill you, and, while assuming you cannot be forgiven for the grave sins you have committed, you refuse to repent and run into the judgment of Wisdom, who say, I too will laugh at you ruin (Prov. 1:26).”

While we must embrace hope, we should beware of of any hope that says I don’t need to repent. At times we must despair, but beware of any despair that says “there is no grace left for me.”

Each of us have a tendency toward hope or despair. This is not absolute. Hopeful people can experience despair and despairing people can experience hope. But you will have a tendency toward one that poses a danger to you as you face your sin. As a result you will have to spend more time meditating on the opposite attributes of God. Those who despair need to consciously fixate on God’s mercy and patience. Those who “indulge” in excessive hope (one that puts off repentance presuming on mercy) need to fixate on God’s justice (not to the exclusion of mercy).

Perhaps this is part of the current debate over law and gospel with regard to sanctification in Reformed circles. Perhaps some are fixating on mercy. Perhaps others, fixated on justice, emphasize the role of the Law. Some are abounding in hope, and others while not despairing, warn against a superficial view of grace that forgets God’s justice as also revealed in the Gospel.  Just a thought.

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The final view of sanctification addressed in Christian Spirituality is that of the contemplatives. The Church has a long history with contemplatives, or mystics, that transcends geography and denominations. Some well-known names were contemplatives: Bernard of Clairvoux, St. John of the Cross, Teresa Avila, Thomas Merton and more. In my younger days as a Christian I read Brother Lawrence and The Great Cloud of Unknowing. How does E. Glenn Hinson describe contemplative Christianity?

Contemplatives try to balance the inner and outer life. They usually assert that being will result in doing (which is a far more biblical idea than doing will result in being). They do spend most of their time addressing the inner life: being. Its focus is on communicating, communing and contemplating with God internally. Like Wesleyian sanctification the focus is on one’s love for God. Instead of gaining this thru a second blessing, one pursues it, so to speak, through a series of activities that leads one thru the stages of increasing communion with God. I’m trying to do this justice on its own terms.

“Contemplation has to do with this loving attentiveness to God.”

In contemplation there is an assumption that God is immanent in the created order. He is inescapably near to us. There is no disputing this, the question is “how is He near?”.

In Hinson’s description, there is a “naturalness” to this pursuit of the Divine Lover. He does not clarify and it can sound awfully Pelagian to many ears. Since contemplatives typically eschew theological distinctions, lots of things are vague enough to be misunderstood. Or properly understood.

At the very best, it is typically Arminian. God is a gentleman who never knocks our door down but respects the freedom He gave us. There is a resistibleness to this “grace.” Let me clarify: in Reformed Theology God does not violate the will of the creature, but in regeneration changes the character/nature of the creature so the person’s will is changed. We cannot thwart God’s purposes and plan. In most contemplative theology we, not God, are in the driver’s seat.

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In the book blurbs C.J. Mahaney (please don’t make DeYoung guilty by association based on what you think or suspect Mahaney has done) notes:

“I’m sure this will be the best book on the Heidelberg Catechism I’ve ever read. I know it will be the first.”

Sadly I think this would apply to most American Christians. Most have probably never even heard of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC), much less a book on it. While my own denomination holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith, we hold the HC in high esteem as an expression of Reformed Theology. Each has their strengths. One of the strengths of the HC is its pastoral tone (the Westminster is more theological in tone, thought it does express some pastoral concerns) and it’s structure. It is not structured like a systematic theology but is structured largely around the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. It uses these three as guides to instruct us in basic theology and Christian living. It was designed for children but is suitable for adults. The questions are broken into 52 sections so the whole catechism is covered in the span of a year.

“We need the gospel to remind us that we are still practicing sinners whose only hope for both eternal life and today’s blessings from God are ‘Jesus’ blood and righteousness.'” Jerry Bridges in the Foreward

The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism was taken from Kevin DeYoung’s weekly articles in the church newsletter. This is an introduction to the HC so the chapters are not long or exhaustive. Don’t mistake that for shallow or superficial. DeYoung usually does a good job of identifying the main points he must stress in a given week. He is not overly technical, so less theologically-oriented or experienced Christians can understand and benefit from what he has to say about the HC.

DeYoung properly notes that the structure of the HC is important (as does Bridges in the Foreward: guilt => grace => gratitude). He brings this up when talking about the Law. The purpose of the Law for Christians is to show us the way of gratitude, how we please God and what it looks like to become like Christ. As Israel receive the Law AFTER being redeemed from Egypt, we must remember that as Christians we have already been redeemed and do not seek to redeem ourselves by our obedience. This is not just an Old Testament idea, but as Bridges notes it is also the pattern of Romans (and Paul’s other general letters).

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I’ve begun reading Unplanned, the autobiography of Abby Johnson. Abby used to be the director of a Planned Parenthood office. That she ended up in this position is understandable on one hand, and on the other hand it makes no sense. There was a disconnect between what she believed and what she did.

“I’d been part of a small community and a close and loving conservative family. Growing up, I’d attended church weekly, loved God, and cared deeply about my friends and community. I’d been taught that sexual intimacy was for marriage, and I had embraced that as a value. But my behavior hadn’t followed my values, and I knew it. … I simply avoiding thinking about these issues, about whether they were right or wrong. And somehow, any tensions between what I had been raised to believe and value and what I actually did, I managed to keep hidden in a box buried deep within me. A box I had so far managed to never open, never examine.”

She is not alone in this, but she is one of the few  people realizes she was doing this. After the damage was done. It actually took her longer to live contrary to her values than it took some of us. I remember talking with a friend’s mother about my values. I hadn’t even gotten to college yet and I’d lived contrary to most of them and the rest were soon to follow. I wasn’t a Christian yet, but I had some values. But my actions showed otherwise. My true values were the love of self above all.

We all have areas of disconnect that operate under our radar at times. Often this is because we don’t think through our values: why we believe this and think we should do that. It is when the contrary desire arises that we begin to disconnect beliefs from actions.

Abby, according to her story, started slowly. After starting college she was a party girl until her grades suffered. Then in community college while rehabilitating her grades she met a guy. Sexual desire was too great, and they were engaged so ….

All of this made her vulnerable to the greater disconnect of first volunteering at and them working for Planned Parenthood. She was unable to see through the wrong application of good desires (to help women in trouble). The process that led her there is a very common process. We see it among many church-raised kids who go off to college. We see it among adults at work.

How do we deal with the disconnect? This is one reason, among many, that we spend time in the Word of God. There we receive the values we should have. We can’t stop there, we have to think and ask ourselves: Do I live this way or do I make the choice to live contrary to this? When we see particular disconnects we need to confess it and ask God for forgiveness through Christ. He is willing to grant pardoning grace to all who come through Christ. We also need to ask for grace to change, to begin living consistently with God’s good will and purposes for us. We cannot change in our own power, but need His power. Purifying grace will come as we change, usually incrementally.

We all deal with the disconnect? Will you continue to go with the flow or will you begin to investigate your own disconnect?

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Publishing is an odd thing. Some topics are flooded with titles and other topics are almost impossible to find. When a book like Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? is published you have to take notice because books on this subject are exceedingly rare in this day and age. Think perhaps for any other title on this subject published in the last 50 years? You can think of plenty on the subject of legalism, but its mirror image antinomianism is quite rare.

Mark Jones doesn’t quite lay out the book as some people might hope. That can breed some minor frustration. For instance, he really doesn’t try to define antinomianism, or better the types of antinomianism until the end of the book.

“Antinomianism must not be confused with the etymological meaning of antinomian (i.e., “against the law”). There is some overlap, of course, but the historical debates focused on more specific areas of the Christian life.”

This is not a systematic theology, but a volume on  historical theology. The primary focus on his research is the antinomian movements in Puritan England and in 1640’s New England. The reason is two-fold. First, these were disputes among people laying claim to the Reformed heritage. Second, there is a revived dispute among those laying claim to the Reformed heritage in our day. Most people I would consider to have an antinomian theology deny having such a view, usually based on the etymological meaning of the term. But when you look at the strains of antinomianism you can begin to see more clearly that some who claim they aren’t really are.

Jones works through a variety of topics in which historically antinomians have departed from mainline Reformed thinking and formulations. Jones’ main point though is not that antinomians’ error comes primarily with regard to the law but their Christology. This is similar to how Sinclair Ferguson addressed these twin errors of legalism & antinomianism in lecturing on the Marrow Controversy. The answer to both errors is the gospel in its fulness.

“Discussions and writings on holiness often lack a strong Christological basis and center.”

Part of me is tempted to expand more fully on some of the topics that Jones works through. I may “think” through a few here. But for now I will be content to lay them out very briefly.

Jones begins with the imitation of Christ. Peter notes that Christ, in addition to being our Savior, is an example to us. Much of what is written in the gospels is there for our imitation. Jesus models for us how to live by faith as fully human. Jesus lived in the power of the Spirit as an example to us as well (here Jones is similar to Sinclair Ferguson in his series Who is the Holy Spirit?). The way of holiness, Jones notes, is that is pursued by faith and in the power of the Spirit. Many of the antinomians, as Jones and Packer in his brief but excellent forward assert, limited our activity in sanctification. They essentially make sanctification monergistic like justification is. As a result they talk about Christ not only obeying for us, but in us. They sound like some hyper-Calvinists I’ve talked with who limit the use of our will. Both groups don’t have much room for Philippians 2:12-13 in their theology. There we see God works so I will will and work resulting in obedience. Both God and I will and work: synergism! In other words, Christ does not act immediately but mediately. Jones is careful to guard the difference between Christ’s impretration (redemption accomplished) and impartation (redemption applied). We see here, and elsewhere that antinomians tend to conflate justification and sanctification.

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We had a really great vacation with family over the holidays. They went up on the 17th and I followed behind on Christmas Day. There was plenty of time with family as 4 of CavWife’s 5 siblings were there for New Year’s and the annual White Elephant Gift exchange which gets more interesting as the kids get older and start participating. For the 2nd year in a row I got the Taylor ham- a NJ breakfast meat that I have grown to love.

One sibling built a pond this summer and this winter it was a skating pond. So our daughters learned how to skate. The boys were not so inclined, though the youngest enjoyed playing on the ice and with a hockey stick by the time we left. There was a guys night out as the 4 of us went out to Bar Vino for a few beers and appetizers. I like for us to get away and talk: sometimes serious and sometimes not.

There were a few snow storms, including Hercules who dumped over a foot of powder on us. As a result there was some sledding. On the downside, I didn’t have a good window of snow-less driving to visit my parents. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease this fall. Since I haven’t driven in snow much in the last 20 years I really didn’t want to get stuck in the mountains of VT in a snow storm. Another factor was the older CavGirl’s birthday and our 12th anniversary. Not really the days I want to be away from family to visit my parents.

Since we had an early flight home, my in-laws used some of their points to get us a hotel room for the night before we left. Sunday night, after one last get together and skate party the snow turned to rain as the temperatures soared. Monday was the great meltdown before the temperatures plummeted as a result of the arctic blast that crippled the country. It was slippery near the house but after we got off the hill the roads were much better. The only problem was our rear tire. While loading the Envoy I realized the tire was nearly flat. Usually my father-in-law is all over these things. This winter I was the one to catch 3 really low tires. The other 2 were on our lunch trip to Glens Falls. Up there in the mountains, there are no gas stations right around the corner. I thought I could get to Warrensburg and inflate the tire. The last 100 yards or so I could hear the thump-thump-thump because it had moved past low to officially flat. I filled it and off we were to meet our in-laws in Albany for dinner and they would drive both vehicles back to their home.

While driving we learned that our friend who was going to pick us up had his own flight home canceled and was re-booked to arrive home Wednesday. He’d be stranded in Dallas. So we left a message with another friend to see if they could pick us up.

I made a big mistake though. There was no sun on the way to Warrensburg so I kept my sun glasses in my briefcase. By the time we got to Glens Falls the sun was relentlessly beating into my right eye as we drove south to Albany. As we drew closer a migraine began to set in. I felt pretty lousy. It was also much colder in Albany as we unloaded the Envoy at the hotel.

We heard from our friend that she was willing to pick us up, but the other friend had gotten a flight from Dallas to Phoenix so he would be home in time to pick us up. He would have to go to the airport anyway since his bags were going to Tucson.

CavWife had inadvertently started the movie for the kids that we rented from iTunes. It was now going to expire the next morning before we got on the flight. So the kids started to watch Despicable Me 2 while I napped. Around 4:30 we left to meet with my in-laws for dinner at Moe’s. We didn’t want to eat too late since we didn’t want the roads to freeze on their way home. We love Moe’s and wish there was one in Tucson. CavWife got her usual John Coctostan, while I got the Home Wrecker which I re-dubbed the Hotel Wrecker. Then it was time for good byes in the cold.

The kids were going to shower before they finished the movie. Still feeling the effects of the migraine, I sat in front of the TV. That was when two things happened.

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Friday I had an interesting encounter with 4 Mormons on my doorstep. It reminded me of my previous encounters with Mormons. This would take me all the way back to college.

My freshman year room mate in college was named Mark. He was from Salt Lake City. If I remember correctly his father was a Muslim and living in Bahrain at the time. His American mom lived in SLC. He spent much of his freshman year seeking the truth. During the course of the year he professed faith in Christ. Being a nominal Catholic engaging in a variety of sins at the time, I didn’t really care. He would borrow my tiny Gideon’s NT (the “littlest Bible” he’d call it) that I received years early while in elementary school, during school time (yes, the Gideons visited our public school!).

In addition to a 4 Spiritual Laws tract that ending up just wasting away in my desk drawer, he gave me a 10-12 page handout comparing the Bible, the Book of Mormon and Mormon doctrine. For some reason I didn’t throw it away.

Approximately a year after his conversion I was converted. As a new Christian I started taking some religion electives and one was about Religion in America. Our prof brought in some guest speakers to share with us and answer questions. When I knew the President of the Boston Mission was coming I dug up that handout and studied it.

I asked a lot of questions, most of which went unanswered. What I did get was an offer of the Book of Mormon if I would read it. I took it with the best of intentions, but fell asleep each time I started to read it. Let’s just say I never finished it. It was a frustrating encounter because I really didn’t get satisfying answers. He was one slippery kind of guy. If you ask me what I believe I’ll point you to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Mormons and Masons point you to obscure and confusing books and then when you summarize them they say “I don’t believe that.”

Fast forward about 15 years during my pastoral ministry in Winter Haven. I had a congregant named Tod who grew up in Wyoming and hasn’t met a Mormon ad he hasn’t responded to. One of his “ministries” is inviting them into his home to present them with the gospel. I think he’s been black listed so it might be time for him to move. Well one day he gave them my phone number. Thanks, Tod.

Mid-afternoon a sweet young lady called me as a result of Tod’s request. She may still remember he phone encounter with the Presbyterian pastor. What quickly became apparent to me was that she had never really read the Bible. While she encouraged me to read the Book of Mormon, I encouraged her to read the Bible to see what it really said and see if the BoM was consistent with it. Like the President of the Boston Mission, she pretty much avoiding giving me direct answers to questions. In her case it was not so much being slippery, but (I think) ignorance.  She was in way over her head but wouldn’t admit it. It ended with a “would you pray to God to see if the BoM is the Word of God?” My answer was that I knew it was not on the basis of what the Bible teaches. Tod was ever so delighted to learn that the Mormons had actually called me.

Fast forward another decade and another part of the country. For the first time they rang my doorbell. There were 4 of them so it must have been a training team. There was one woman, who was largely silent. One guy spoke most of the time, but the guy in the back seemed to be the trainer and evidenced some disapproving frowns at times.

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No, this is not about climate change.

This is about a different kind of climate change. This is about the current climate in churches regarding homosexuality. Peter Hubbard is not only concerned about how individual Christians interact with homosexuals, but how congregations interact with, talk about and treat homosexuals. As a result, there as a chapter in Love Into Light: The Gospel, the Homosexual and the Church called Climate.

He begins by building a good analogy. In Revelation Jesus is revealed as the Lion who is a Lamb. He is a King as well as a Priest who sacrifices Himself. There is both strength and tenderness, righteousness and compassion. The Church is intended to reflect His glory and His character. Churches are tempted to focus on only one side of Christ and present a false face to the world, and homosexuals about who Christ is and what He thinks about them.

“When we talk as if homosexuals do not belong in the church, we misrepresent the gospel in at least three ways: “We are not sinners, you are,” “Sin comes in acceptable forms and unacceptable forms,” and “You will belong here only after you get your act together.” Each of these assumptions denies the power and process of the grace of Christ for real and lasting change.”

As an example of a “church” (and I use this term quite loosely) that is fixated on Christ as Lion, Hubbard gives Westboro Baptist Church. They stress the righteousness and justice of God, rightly calling sin sin. But they have no gospel (which is why I use the term church loosely). They think they have the ministry of condemnation, when we’ve actually been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5).

This kind of church, or Christian, focuses on the sinfulness side of things. There is an “us vs. them” mentality as though all homosexuals were militant activists seeking to destroy the Church. He recalls a time when a guest began to talk about homosexuals using stereotypes as though he’d get some laughs. He didn’t. This kind of church likes using the labels to ostracize people, keep them out because we don’t like “them.”

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