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Posts Tagged ‘J.I. Packer’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the bowels of the Bird and Babe (1999)

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

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

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

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

Some of the bestest friends a man can have!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Doctrine and life should be inseparable;

2. the right order is essential;

3. criticism is inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Sometimes the people you read champion a book that was influential on them. You make note of the book. You buy it and eventually you read it.

Because of R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer and John Piper I began to read the Puritans. Due to Tim Keller I began to read John Newton. Newton has been very helpful for me.

Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching GraceBecause of Keller, and some others, I picked up Harvie Conn’s Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace. It was foundational for them in advocating for what I think is a healthy balance of seeing justice as an implication of the gospel. Transformed people will want to see their world transformed. As we grow in personal righteousness (sanctification) we will act justly and seek to love our neighbors. I seemed like I needed to read this little book when I found it in the internet “discount bin”.

Were my expectations too high? Would it exceed my expectations?

One important thing about when I read a book is how much red ink I use. That could mean either a great book with lots of “money quotes” or big ideas I want to keep track of. Lots of ink could also mean it is a book I take great exception to, as the writing in the margins argues against the authors point.

I didn’t use much ink in this book before I gave up in the midst of his chapter on prayer. It was meh to me. I was underwhelmed and found it too bound to its time.

In his preface he notes that it is not a “how-to” book. “Rather, this is an effort to look at the relation between evangelism and social questions as two sides of the same coin.” He uses the terms holistic evangelism and Lordship evangelism to describe this balance and interdependence. It was written as the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism was doing its work.

Time can prove that many of our fears and expectations are unfounded. History takes unexpected turns. He brought up the United Presbyterian Church’s steep decline in membership. If such trends continued, he anticipated one priest (?) for each communing member by 2000. Well, they were part of the formation of the PC (USA), which while continuing to bleed churches and members still has a fair amount of money and more members than pastors.

He does address the need for contextualization, “how to communicate the relevance of the gospel.” He faults, to a degree, the seminaries’ focus that has seemingly resulted in homogeneous churches instead. We forgot to be all things to all men while presenting the one message in a way those people can get. The doctrine of accommodation should teach us that we must shape our message to the people who are listening.

In his day (and more so ours) there is a skepticism to our message and the stories of those who bear it. Conn notes that Corrie Ten Boom is seen as a “woman with high ideals who showed remarkable resiliency under pressure” rather than recognizing the triumph of grace in her life. You see the times in the skeptical views of reports of the conversions of Charles Colson, Larry Flynt and Eldridge Cleaver. Clearly the 2nd proved false. I chose not to bring up his false conversion in a sermon, thinking it was a bit too edgy. Conn mentions plenty of such things in this book.

IHardcore Postern the context of accommodation and the message he refers to the movie Hard Core about the daughter of a pastor whose daughter leaves home and enters the porn industry. Oddly, I’d recently heard an interview with the writer & director, Paul Schrader, who also worked on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, 1st Reformed, American Gigolo, and Mosquito Coast. He grew up on the Reformed Faith and sees himself as a preacher, but not of faith though the “failures” of faith often show up in his movies. We speak into this skepticism, failure and scandal, whether we realize it or not. If we do, we can speak to it as well.

In the second chapter he moves to what we are calling people to: incorporation, humanization, celebration and justice. Our words should also be backed up with actions. We speak of love, and should show love.

“Evangelism must become gospel show-and-tell, showing mercy and preaching grace.”

This can be difficult for smaller churches, like the one I pastor. I agree there is an evangelistic aspect to diaconal ministry. But our first priority is to our members. With limited resources to help the household of God, the evangelistic bent to diaconal ministry gets lost.

10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5

He then moves into justice; setting things right as part of evangelism. “The doing of justice becomes the distinguishing mark of the people of God before the world.” Instead, we seem to either be afraid of doing justice lest we become social justice warriors, or go so far as to justify the injustice. Yes, there is a real threat to devolve in to a social gospel, which is not gospel at all.

As I think about things, I struggle with the whole concept of the culture war. Doing justice isn’t about embracing or resisting worldly agendas. We shouldn’t be either SJWs or oppressors/defenders. Our marching orders are from the Scriptures, not culture. We should be walking a tightrope instead of moving toward the extremes which tends to demonize people who commit one sin while excusing others. We need to hear the call to “love mercy and act justly” instead of thinking they are opposed to one another.

One way he puts this is in talking about publicans. Among the people we meet are those who sin and those who are sinned against. Actually, every person we meet is both a sinner and someone who has been sinned against. We should address both sides of that coin.

“A gospel that does not address people as sinned-against pose a lot of problems for the publican, the sinned-against. Either he rejects the gospel or sees it as an opiate.”

The prostitute is not simply a sinner, though we want to reduce her to that. She likely has been sinned against as a child. She is likely being oppressed in the present, a slave to a pimp, as well. (The same is true for male prostitutes though we don’t speak of them often).

We can’t turn a blind eye to past and present oppression of the black community in America. The gospel is often seen as a way to placate them and keep them in submission instead of offering freedom and hope. Doing justice opens the door for the message.

He then discusses a two-dimensional spirituality. We are to obey both the cultural and evangelistic mandates. We are not to pick and choose between them. Love for neighbor means not only proclaiming the gospel but also doing no wrong to our neighbor by our actions (or inaction). Into this he returns to the Lausanne Covenant. It speaks of “sacrificial service evangelism”.

He doesn’t want us to pick one, but to see them as “two stages in God’s covenant relationship with man.” Having failed in the cultural mandate, we now have the added evangelistic mandate. Continuing to fail in terms of the cultural mandate means that those fallen social, economic and political structures hinder evangelism.

At times, this chapter is less than clear. He uses terms without always defining them. Snooze at any point and you get lost. But here are a few parts I underlined:

“This kind of spirituality does not equip us for evangelism by taking us out of the world. It puts a new world into us, the world of the spiritual, that new lifestyle caused by the Holy Spirit, centered in the Holy Spirit, and possessed by the Holy Spirit.”

“Living in the Spirit is not an evangelistic escape from history, but a participation in the new reality of history brought by the redemptive work of Christ and the applying work of the Holy Spirit.”

I’d been trying to read this book alone with my sermon series on Mark. It seemed to fit the idea of following Jesus in terms of what it looks like to submit to the authority of Jesus. We act justly and preach grace. But this short book always seemed to get lost in the shuffle, and was far more theoretical than practical.

And so I started to read the chapter on prayer and gave up. His writing style was less then helpful to me. Perhaps I’m too dull to get it, but I lost my patience for the book. It was time to move on for me. There are other books crying for my attention, and it is time to heed those calls.

I was disappointed. Perhaps it is this particular juncture in my life and ministry. Perhaps it was just bad timing. I don’t want to write off the book as utterly unhelpful, but it was not as helpful as I’d hoped. Conn’s approach seems meandering at times, lacking focus. At least I coudn’t always tell where he was going, and the process of getting there was roundabout-ish.

There is it. Hopefully you get a few good thoughts to move you forward in thinking about justice and grace in the work of the church. Biblically, they are not opposed though we often move toward extremes of either the social gospel or spirituality of the church. This is a conversation worth having as we see the rise of the social justice warriors and their mirror reflection in conservative culture warriors. Jesus, I think, would distance Himself from both.

 

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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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I had never read a biography of anyone I knew before. That changed with Speaking the Truth in Love: The Life and Legacy of Roger Nicole by David Bailey. This is an apt title for a book about our “dear brother” for this phrase from Ephesians really seems to sum up the late Dr. Nicole as a person and Christian.

All who knew Dr. Nicole knew him to be wise and gracious. He knew what he believed, taught what he believed but did it in such a way that was kind. I never heard anyone say anything negative about Dr. Nicole, rather he was beloved by students and colleagues alike. In areas of disagreement, he was gracious and endeavored to understand the opposing position, teaching us to read our “opponent’s” work as a result.

In his preface to this book, Dr. Nicole noted:

“But this is a biography, not a eulogy. I am a Christian, which means that more than eighty years ago and ever since, I have confessed with tears that I am a miserable sinner”born in iniquity, inclined unto evil, inecapable by myself of any good thing, and who transgresses every day in several ways God’s holy commandments.” This is what I was saying every Sunday and a very realistic summary of the biblical doctrine of sin. I know myself as a disobedient sinner, proud, selfish, unbelieving, deceptive, lustful, lazy, insensitive, a ‘lover of pleasure rather than a lover of God’. I have even now not yet begun to plumb the abyss of wickedness from which I desperately needed salvation- how it is that none of these things is very apparent in this biography?”

Most of these sins were not as apparent to us as they were to him (and Annette). He was a godly man. This means that he was outwardly very much like Christ, but that, like Paul, knew the sin no one else could see. We don’t need to know the particular sins of this brother unless they directly impact his story.

David Bailey focuses on his work. That is good in my eyes. I don’t need to know his sins. Many of us wish (selfishly?) that Dr. Nicole wrote more since he was such a wealth of wisdom and knowledge for the church he loved and spent his life edifying.

As I read this book I wished I knew him better than I did, but in reading this book I understand why I didn’t. I met him during his ‘semi-retirement’ when he was a professor at RTS Orlando. He was my first academic adviser and I was fortunate to take 4 courses with him. I didn’t just learn theology from Dr. Nicole but also lessons about how to do theology (which I am still struggling to apply due to my own sinfulness) and live in community.

Our beloved professor didn’t arise in a vacuum. He was very much a product of his family. He inherited a legacy of godly, brilliant people who lived long lives. I see God keeping his multi-generational covenant in the Nicole family.

I was also encouraged to read how God provided for him in unexpected ways. In the early days of Gordon-Conwell professors were not paid well, but due to the gift of land from the seminary he was able to retire comfortably and continue his life of ministry in theological education.

Theological education was not just a job to him. In his “off time” he would teach at other seminaries, particularly in Canada. Dr. Nicole’s students fill the world enriching the church. He also served God’s people as a pastor and interim pastor to a number of churches. In God’s providence, he and Annette had no children and this freed him up to spend more time engaged in these various duties.

His story is one of God’s grace and faithfulness. Therefore this was a very encouraging read. Here we read of the formation of Gordon-Conwell, its struggles and the formation of other seminaries, like Fuller. He was instrumental in the formation of the Evangelical Theology Society. He was also one of the main contributors to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. His was a rich legacy on behalf of the church.

Of note to me was he words regarding the church that nursed me in my early years as a Christian. He had been an interim pastor in that church years earlier. As a result we knew some of the same people. He left them a legacy of covenantal and Calvinistic theology that unfortunately was ebbing away while I was there. Without nurture a church can easily begin to fall into step with more common (and less vibrant) theologies.

There were some subjects that I wish were addressed in greater depth. One that comes to mind was his friendship with Jim Packer (J.I. to you and me). I suspect that is more a function of Dr. Nicole than Mr. Bailey. He struck me as a man of his age, more private than people today. As a result he may have seen that friendship as more for each of them than one for our instruction (I don’t think McGrath touched on it much in his biography of Packer). Due to his involvement in so many organizations Dr. Nicole had friendships and associations with many of the leading figures in the American church in the 20th century. I suspect there would be much for us to learn from those friendships.

There is still much here of interest for those who were his students, or are students of 20th century evangelicalism in America. I would recommend this for all who love Dr. Nicole, and the church.

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Three centuries before Desiring God there was The Pleasantness of a Religious Life. Clearly the former has a better title, but Matthew Henry’s book is in some ways better than John Piper’s. While it is much shorter, it is tougher reading in that venerable Puritan style that is so different from our dumbed down prose. The sentences are longer and more complex. For those who stumble over such things this book is a worthy investment of time and energy.

J.I. Packer wrote a brief introduction to the book, in part, to explain the change in meaning of “pleasantness” over the centuries since Matthew Henry wrote this book. It had a much deeper, richer and more significant meaning that we typically give it today. We think of a pleasant day as one with nice weather, few distractions, some good conversation. They saw far more joy involved. We’d say a great day or an awesome day. The meaning of pleasant has weakened over the centuries. And of course there is the problem of “religious” in our day and age. It seems quite the dull prospect this book, but Packer wants to set us straight.

“Henry’s aim is to make us see that real Christianity is a journey into joy, always moving us from one joy to another and that this is one of many good and strong reasons for being excited and wholehearted in our discipleship.” J.I. Packer

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If you are going to write a book on the Apostles’ Creed these days, you need to come up with some novel aspect to the book because there are many books out there by the likes of Witsius, Packer, McGrath, Horton and others. I’m not talking about novel theology, for that would be problematic.

Ray Cannata and Joshua Reitano, in their book Rooted, have come up with a specific and significant addition that makes their book very much worth reading, and studying. They added a missional element to the book so we can think through how our catholic (universal) theology leads us to mission (this article is essentially an excerpt).

“You can believe that God is mighty to guide you as you go out and recklessly pursue his mission to love and serve your neighbors, even when the mission seems impossible. You can believe that God is mighty enough for you to put aside your obsession with being “safe” and move toward the pain of those in need.”

Ray and Joshua currently serve in very different places. Ray used to pastor a church in NJ (near NYC), and is known in the PCA as “the Pastor Who Ate New Orleans.” Joshua is the pastor of a church in Cincinnati. These are 3 very different contexts so their idea of mission is not limited by particular contexts.

“The Kingdom expands when you lay down your life, when you sacrifice your desires and your comfort for the good of others.”

The book is comprised of 13 chapters, or studies, that work through the Apostles’ Creed. Each chapter begins with a Scripture text and ends with the focus on mission and some questions for group discussion. It is intended to be used over the course of a quarterly study. The chapters are short enough to be read in 20-30 minute time frames. Any book that brings up the Three Stooges and Ted Williams has to be interesting in my estimation. There are the obligatory references to The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia and U2 (my potentially published book has some of those) but they fit and aren’t the standard references you might expect. They also draw on a number of personal and historical events to illustrate their points. As a result the book is accessible (not over people’s heads) and interesting as well as meaningful.

“Belief in the resurrection of the dead enables you to live a big life. It allows you to take up your cross and move toward pain and suffering.”

I might use this with our men’s group or community group next year. It is sound, convicting and (as I said above) interesting. Like many churches we struggle with that idea of mission- being part of God’s great, big story in order to invite others into that story. There have been recent books that come to mind that offer a similar call to a radical life. This is far more gracious, warm and balanced. I found the others lacking a gospel foundation and motivation. They seek their motivation in great theological truth, not guilt. Pastorally, this is very important. I want holy affections, as Edwards called them, to arise as a response to biblical truth. This book seeks to do that very thing.

[I received a free copy from my friend who works with the publisher Doulos, not necessarily for the purposes of review.]

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I’m reading a book on sermons by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on John 4 in preparation for my sermons on that chapter coming up. The book is only 750ish pages. I have plenty of work ahead of me. But some of the sermons are well worth it, like one entitled Spiritual Dullness and Evasive Tactics preached in October, 1966. Think about that for a moment, 1966. Amazing to me how much of what he says fits our contemporary situation.

He begins with noting the essence of Christianity: “we have within us a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” The Christian life is a spiritual life under the power and direction of the Spirit. This great salvation “is to enable us to live in the world and to look forward to the glory that is to come.” This positive beginning shifts as the Dr. begins to lay the smack down. He gets quickly to exposing the sins of his time in England that mirror those of ours here in America.

“We face national prejudices, class prejudices, race prejudices, and so on. There is almost no end to them. What harm they have done in the life of the individual Christian, and what harm they have done in the life of the church throughout the centuries- the things we cling to so tenaciously simply because we have been born like that!”

He was addressing the Jewish-Samaritan prejudice. Later in the sermon he brings us to the problems of Apartheid and the Civil Rights struggle in the U.S. The people in England were denouncing the white South Africans and Americans. He admits, obviously, the sinfulness of racism, but takes this as evasiveness. The woman at the well used this prejudice to evade Jesus, and the Dr.’s contemporaries were using those prejudices in other nations to evade the truth about themselves.

“You see, in denouncing somebody else, you are shielding yourself. While you are denouncing these people or friends in America or somewhere else over this racial problem, you are full of self-righteous indignation. That is very clever, but you are just evading the problem of your own life, the running sore of your soul.”

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Churches promote themselves in a variety of ways: web sites, signs, brochures etc. You want to present yourself in a good light, and reflect your values and priorities. Every church does this. It is a good thing, generally speaking.

I got a postcard in the mail this week for the “new” “progressive Christian church of Northwest Tucson.” I say “new” because they recently moved into a new facility just down the street from our facility.

The vast majority of their material proclaims them as a “spiritual community”. This is the first time I’ve seen the word “church” used to self designate. I’ve wondered about them, particular when one Sunday their sign said “A Faith like Lynyrd Skynyrd”.

The flip side of the card is most interesting, declaring “Love is our religion.”

They then explain:

“Love. Period. is our way of saying that faith is about how we live and how we love. Faith is not about what you believe. It’s not about believing the “right” things. It’s about relating to God and those around you with an expansive, inclusive love- and putting that love into action. Although beliefs are important; love is essential.”

This is one of those times I go… “Aaah.” There is some truth there. And there is some error.

Love is essential. Based on 1 Corinthians 13, you could say that “if I have the most accurate doctrine but have not love, I have nothing.” Love is one of the signs of regeneration in 1 John. In Galatians Paul says this:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (ESV)

Notice, the only thing that matters is not love. It is faith working itself thru love. And what is faith? Faith is trust and belief in someone and something. What you believe matters! The point in Galatians was that religious rituals save NO ONE. Paul places it all on faith. We do not only believe is a vague Jesus, but a particular Jesus (as John’s Gospel continually revealed). We must believe the content of the gospel regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ. If we don’t believe those things, we don’t have saving faith. Right belief is essential.

“Faith is self-abandoning trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ.” J.I. Packer

This will appeal to those who value experience over truth. Particularly those who think there really is no such thing as truth. So, this half truth they present is actually dangerous.

Love is the necessary effect of right belief or true belief. The Beatles were wrong, you need more than love. But if you don’t have love ….

 

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

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

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

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

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I’m currently preaching thru Colossians 3, addressing matters of sanctification. I’ve been hitting the “vice list”. But there is another type of sin hidden there.

11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV)

The church there was in danger of splitting along ethnic, socio-economic and other lines. This tendency has not been extinguished. It is part of our fallen condition that stubbornly refuses to die despite redemption. Racism in the church is NOT a new thing, and not just a “white thing”.

“We humans have never had the resources in ourselves to love each other well across ethnic lines. There is too much selfishness in all of us.”

I’ve had more conversations about race and socio-economic issues (those 2, I find, are often confused). I’m trying to read more about this, and have far more to read (perhaps Perkins, Ellis, Bradley, Noll and others). I long for our congregation to reflect biblical realities (the good ones), and for our denomination to make concrete, meaningful strides in this area. It is not easy. I’m often frustrated: by myself and others. I also have adopted an Asian child and 2 African children so now they have the hyphen. So this is both a personal and professional issue for me.

As a result, I decided to read John Piper’s recent book Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian. This book is essentially an exposition of the gospel that is applied to the issue of racism (though I find that term less than accurate, thinking we are all of one race, descended from Adam via Noah).

Piper starts with his own story of growing up in Greenville, SC. He admits to his racism, and rejoices in Christ’s redemption that includes the putting to death of that racism. He is not blind to the on-going issues within the evangelical church that mirror the world in this regard. That is why he wrote the book to reveal what the gospel says about all this.

If we start with the bloodlines, we see that we all have a common ancestry. It may not be 7 degrees of separation, but if you go back far enough we are connected. I recently saw a question about the table of nations in Genesis 10. Why are they there? I believe they anticipate the promise given to Abram in Genesis 12. Those nations still mattered to God and He would bless them through Abram’s seed. The distinctiveness of Israel was temporary! God’s people will come from all the nations, as we see in Revelation 5.

What we see in Revelation 5 is that the cross purchased people from every nation, tribe, tongue and language. Redemption from bondage. Purchased to set free, not purchased to enslave. Christ, as the seed of Abram, fulfills that promise. This fulfillment brings us all into one body, a new man as Paul says in Ephesians 2.

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In the past year so there, a discussion (not a conversation!) has been going on about the nature of sanctification. Much of this as taken place on the internet, among people who are (or seem to be) friends or at least acquaintances. One of those men was Kevin DeYoung. He believed that he should write a book examining the Reformed Tradition’s view of sanctification. I, for one, is glad he did. The Hole in Our Holiness is that book.

Kevin avoids the temptation to write a polemic against other views. Instead, he is more positive approach, instructing people line upon line. He generally writes concisely, making the book accessible for lay people. He is not overly technical either. The most technical chapter is “Be Who You Are” because it covers our union in Christ. He does a good job explaining what it is, and how our sanctification flows out of that union.

DeYoung begins by addressing the odd gap that exists in broader Reformed circles. We speak much of being gospel-centered, but we don’t seem to be making as much progress in our sanctification as we would think. Isn’t the gospel sufficient? Yes, it is. And yet God has appointed various means of grace.

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In the 6th chapter The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung shifts gears to talk about the process of sanctification. He had been addressing the need for holiness, the motives and the patterns of holiness in Scripture. So, what is supposed to happen so that we become holy? What is God’s part? Do I have a part in all this?

Years ago I read Hannah Whitall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life. DeYoung mentions it at the end of the chapter. It was part of the Higher Life teaching that used to characterize Keswick teaching. It is passive in sanctification. It assumes consecration is the only part we play in growing in holiness (Packer talks about this at length in Keep In Step With the Spirit). Sadly, some people today seem to hold a similar position.

“It’s possible to be completely biblical and still less than helpful- especially when it comes to pursuing holiness.”

Consecration is necessary, but insufficient for our growth in holiness. This chapter is about the effort we exert. But it is not a do-it-yourself project. The chapter is largely about the Spirit, the Gospel and faith.

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It has been awhile since I have blogged through a book. But, based on the amount of red ink I used underlining things in the first chapter of Kevin DeYoung’s new book, The Hole in Our Holiness, I thought it might be a great time to do that.

“Any gospel which says only what you must do and never announces what Christ has done is no gospel at all.”

The first chapter is about the gap in our holiness. He builds an analogy in the beginning. He doesn’t like camping. Just didn’t grow up in a camping family, doesn’t talk about camping and has no interest in camping. What would happen if we thought that way about holiness? Some people do think this way, as though holiness is an optional recreational activity.

“My fear is that as we rightly celebrate, and in some quarters rediscover, all that Christ has save us from, we are giving little thought and making little effort concerning all that Christ has saved us to.”

What is particularly disturbing to DeYoung (and should be for us) is that this holiness gaps in a time of gospel-centeredness. We are rightly enthused about forgiveness and justification. We are not as enthused about sanctification.

He brings up 3 questions from Packer’s Rediscovering Holiness (a great book!). These questions should alert us to a problem.

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I first read Desiring God in the late 1980’s after hearing about it from someone I knew. I was a young Christian at the time. Like Knowing God, it would be one of the books to lay the foundation for my life as a Christian.  But not all books hold up over time. So I am reviewing the revised edition from the perspective of an older Christian who has read this book a few times. Does it hold up? Why should I bother with a revised edition? Those are the questions I come to the book with.

Does it hold up? Classic books stand the test of time. There are books that are very popular when they are released, but 10 or 20 years later people won’t point to them as significant long term. This is a book people still talk about. This book is chock-full of good theology. Piper not only defends his assertions regarding Christian Hedonism, but he lays out lots of good theology. In other words, his theological distinctive (you can actually see similar teaching in Calvin, Burroughs, Owen and other Reformed pastors, not just Edwards) does not exist in a vacuum.  Piper has to work through the sovereignty of God, the character of God and the nature of salvation. I think I used more ink in my new copy than in my old one.

People often misunderstand his position based on the name. But the point is that a Christian Hedonist seeks their pleasure in God, one of the many things were are commanded to do in Scripture. Piper shows how Scripture not only teaches but feeds Christian Hedonism. He unpacks the doctrine to see how it plays out in marriage, money, missions and more. One subject that is missing would be work (perhaps in the 30th anniversary edition). This is a very practical theology book, but one that is rooted in theology.

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The book arrived unbidden. Unexpected.

This was my first Advance Reading Copy, and I was not sure why I got one. Perhaps I’ll never get another one.

The book is the story of 5 Mexican fishermen who ran out of gas after a fierce storm. The current pulled them westward until the 3 men still alive were picked up by a fishing trawler out of Taiwan.  They had spent nearly 10 months at sea spending their days looking for ships and food, gathering rainwater and reading the Bible one of them had brought with him.

The book is also the story of the author who was quite successful selling syndication rights, but very much adrift and lost himself. After his life falls apart, he leans of the fishermen who’d just been rescued and feels called to tell their story to the world.

There are parts of this book that are VERY interesting. I was fascinated by the story of the Mexican fishermen. I want to know more about their story. It sort of reminds me of 127 Hours, which I recently watched.

Joe Kissack’s story was interesting, but not nearly as interesting. I hate to say that- as though how God brings a sinner to saving faith is not interesting. But it is clearly more ordinary- I know hundreds, thousands of saved sinners. But I’ve never met anyone who survived adrift on the Pacific for 10 months. Unlike the people near the end of the story who encouraged Joe to see the 2 stories as one, I was not as enthused by the process. It distracted me. I understand the contrasts, but they just didn’t work for me like they did for others. That’s okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In the 3rd chapter of Recovering the Reformed Confession, R. Scott Clark tackles the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience.  In this chapter he addresses inroads of mysticism into Reformed practice.  It was here that I learned that I am part of the problem.  He lays much of the problem at the feet of … Jonathan Edwards.  As a result, people like Tim Keller, John Gerstner and R.C. Sproul (under whom I studied the Theology of Edwards’ Sermons in seminary) are unduly influenced by this quest and part of the problem.

But first, he mentions Reformed people seeking God’s moral will through listening for the “still small voice.”  It seems illegitimate to make a crisis out of a few people who might do this.  I’m more familiar (though not supportive) with people “listening” for God’s will in matter upon which Scripture does not speak: this person as a spouse? this job or that one?  I would disagree that this is a widespread problem in Reformed Communities.  There are no data to substantiate his view of the “crisis”.

“If someone asks, ‘What is God teaching you these days?’ one has the sense that the expected answer is not to be a summary of this week’s sermon or reflection on the significance of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but an insight derived from a special experience or private experience.”

This troubles me.  First, because it unfairly represents the person who asks this question.  Second, it neglects one of the ordinary means of grace- personal reading of the Scripture (I also find prayer conspicuously absent from his discussion).  He bases his criticism on what “he feels”, subjectivism.  From my subjective experience, when I ask someone this question, I mean “what is God teaching you from His Word.  When someone asks me this, that is how I answer.  As we read God’s Word, the Spirit is at work.  Themes emerge from Scripture that we need to pay attention to.  This is not private revelation, but the illumination of the Scriptures (which we see in WCF I).

He then lets his personal agenda take control regarding the worship service.  Since the Scriptures contain 150 Psalms, there should not be a problem with a church that wants to sing to God (I’ve never been anywhere where there was not some introduction, Scripture or liturgical element to break up the songs).  Is there something wrong with Power Point in a context in which people don’t read music?  Must we cling to the form of hymn books and paper when the point is to actually sing?

Where are all these Reformed churches with dramatic presentations?  Where is the liturgical dance?  Have they happened?  Yes, these examples happen.  But I find no reason to think that they are now common place among Reformed Churches.

While I agree that the quest for an unmediated encounter with God is illegitimate, I’m not convinced how prevalent this is in our community.  But that is because of how differently we view revival.  He seems to  equate revival with revivalism.

I have been influenced by Iain Murray’s book Revival and Revivalism ( which Clark criticizes).   Murray argues that revivalism is grounded in Pelagianism and the use of illegitimate means for coerce a “decision” and the focus on the subjective experience.  Many people, like Murray, use “revival” to describe what Clark terms reformation.  Revivalism is a technical term for a movement which has been, and should continue to be, rejected by the Reformed community.  But Reformed Communities have witnessed, and affirmed, revivals.    Clark’s unfortunate use/change of terminology clouds the issue.  But he also takes issue with how a large segment of the Reformed Community, through Jonathan Edwards, has seemingly been bewitched into holding a type of mysticism.

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I’ve been reading Paul Tripp’s War of Words: Getting to the Heart of Your Communication Struggles.  [It is also available in a video series with workbook]   One of the issues he addresses is improper motives for following Jesus.  It is not a modern problem, but one that we see even in the ministry of Jesus.  Tripp takes us to John 6.  The people followed Jesus because they wanted to be fed, again.  They failed to look past the miracle (John uses the term sign) to the thing is signified.  They were unhappy when Jesus didn’t meet their expectations.

Tripp asks about your great “if only.”  “If only  … I would be happy.”  That would be your dream- the fountain from which all happiness would flow.  But now all that flows is a steady stream of disappointment and bitterness.  We think that Jesus has let us down, because he has not fulfilled our dream.

“Their pursuit of Christ was born instead out of a love for self and the hope that Christ would be the one who would meet their felt needs.  … What moves and motivates everything we do is not a submission to God’s will and a burning desire for is glory, but our own set of personal desires and dreams.”

Sign of the Bread of Life

Our dreams motivate us.  Often into self-destruction.  Witness all those misguided people who end up on the first 2 episodes of American Idol.  They had a dream for themselves that was out of step with reality (and no one loved them enough to say ‘you can’t sing’- I’m not sure why since no one has a problem telling ME I can’t sing).

What is God’s dream for us?  If you are a Christian that is simple: that Christ would be your life, and that you’d have a deeper, stronger, more mature faith (self-abandoning trust as Packer says) in Christ.  Tripp develops this from John 6 and 1 Peter 1.

Any material blessings we experience are merely signs- and those signs point us to Jesus who is Life.  When they become the whole enchilada we lapse into idolatry.  When we don’t have them, watch out!  We will be filled with anger, bitterness, depression and a host of other vile things.

“In my opinion, in the heart of every sinner is a desire that life would be a resort.”

Probably, Las Vegas.  All you can eat buffets.  Lots of attractions to keep you occupied.  Comp rooms if you gamble (a lot).  Lots of eye candy, which really isn’t helpful.  But no mess, no fuss and party all the time.

But life is not like that.  And we take it out on others.  They may be blocking our desires, or merely ‘innocent’ bystanders.  Either way we become one of the thousands slain by hardship (though hundreds of thousands have been slain by affluence).

“If we are living for earthly bread and see it as our source of life, we are going to be in for big trouble when we don’t have it.  But if we are living for spiritual bread, for a deeper communion with Jesus Christ, then our lives (with all of their problems) become wonderful places to know and grow in fellowship with the One who is life. … If he is what your heart craves, there are wonderful opportunities to grow in grace and knowledge in the midst of all kinds of difficulty.”

Is that how you face difficulty?  Or are you miserable, whiny and petulant?  At that moment you are not craving Jesus, but something or someone else.  Your response to trouble matters.  It is a sign to the condition of your heart.

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The second section in Andrew Farley’s The Naked Gospel is called Religion is a Headache. I couldn’t agree more.   The idea that our relationship with God is dependent upon us, and our works, is not only burdensome but untrue.

The nature of justification is that it is an act of God’s free grace in which He imputes the righteousness of Christ to all who receive Christ as He is presented to us in gospel.  It is not increased nor decreased by our works, good or bad.

The trouble is, Farley never defines justification.  Farley never defines sanctification, and never distinguishes between the two.  This is at the root of the problem.  Like Roman Catholicism, he does not distinguish between the two.  Unlike Roman Catholicism which then declares that faith AND works are necessary for justification, he says that the law has NO role in our sanctification.

He continually makes two appeals.  The first is that “legalism” as he defines it, makes Christianity look unattractive to non-Christians.  Our lack of joy and satisfaction resulting from our misunderstanding of Christianity drive people away.  The second is to say that if we are to follow the Law we must follow ALL of it, and how absurd it would be for us to follow the 600+ laws given in the Pentateuch.

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