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Posts Tagged ‘John Stott’


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 distrusted 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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Recently, two of our members decided to join the core group of a church plant in another part of town. I hated to see them go, but we want to support church plants and see our people engaging in mission. As we commissioned them to this task (I didn’t want them to simply change churches but be actively engaged helping grow that plant) I gave them two books. One was a little book by Rico Tice (with Carl Lafterton) called Honest Evangelism: How to Talk About Jesus Even When It’s Tough.

Rico is now Senior Minister at All Souls Langham Place, and founded Christianity Explored Ministries. He used to be the Minister of Evangelism at All Souls when John Stott was alive. He relates some of his experiences as a new Christian sharing his faith while in high school as well. He has decades of experience sharing his faith and helping other share their faith that he brings to the table in this books.

He is honest; about evangelism and himself. For instance, he begins the book this way:

“I find evangelism hard. The problem with being an evangelist is that people assume that you find evangelism effortless; but I don’t find it easy, and never have.”

We see something of his conception of God on the opening page: “God is the great evangelist, the great seeker and finder of people…”. Made in His image, and restored in that image by the work of Christ, we are to be seekers and finders of people too.

In the first chapter he discusses what he calls the painline. To share the gospel we must be willing to cross the painline, willing to risk discomfort and the loss of relationship. Being an evangelist involves grief and loss (as well as gain and joy!). His belief is that this unwillingness to cross the painline is what keeps so many of us from doing evangelism. We don’t like pain. We don’t want to lose friendships. We want to see all of our family and friends slid into the kingdom without us having to risk anything, without us having to enter uncomfortable space with them.

He refers to the parable of the Tenants (Mark 12) in making his case. He moves this from Jesus’ original meaning of Israel to the world. He explains that shift by noting that we share the same DNA as they do. It isn’t as if the scribes and Pharisees had different spiritual conditions from the average unbeliever. Those who threaten the spiritual status quo of rebellion risk being attacked. He notes the context of 1 Peter 3:15 as one of a persecuted church. The church is to be ready to give an answer for hope in the midst of being attacked for its faith in Jesus Christ. Rice is being honest about the hostility we can expect to experience.

Image result for asking a girl outThere are also people who are hungry for truth, love and salvation. He’s honest about that too. There will be gain and joy when we evangelize. When we shrink back we’ll get neither. “Until you cross the painline, you don’t know what response you will meet with.” I thought of my years dating. Or trying to. To ask a girl out you have to cross a similar painline. In many ways it is easier to ask out a girl you just met than risk ending a friendship by asking out one you’ve known for some time. You have to ask, is there more to be gained than lost. Will it be worth it?

And that is the topic of the second chapter. He spends some time pondering the glory of Jesus. The other side of that is grieving over the rejection or denigration of Jesus. Our union with Christ means that when Jesus approached Saul on the road to Damascus, He asks Saul “Why are you persecuting Me?” Conversely when people attack Jesus they are also attacking us (even if they don’t realize it).

“It is because I am one with Christ that I am thus dreadfully wounded.” quoting Henry Martyn

It was this grief over seeing Jesus robbed of glory, not being adored, that caused Paul to cross the painline. This is reflected in the Lord’s Prayer- our desire for God’s name to be hallowed should result in crossing the painline. Here he also discusses the reality of hell, and the motive of love in warning people on the highway there.

The painline is not the only reason we don’t evangelize. He discusses some others too. He talks about idolatry. The fact that we don’t talk about Jesus more than we talk about x, y or z means that we may love those things more than Jesus. Another reason we don’t evangelize is our lack of love for Jesus.

He is honest with us, and that honesty can hurt at times. Most of us should feel some conviction as we read the early portions of the book. May God grant repentance to us.

The second part of the book moves into how to evangelize (I keep wanting to type ‘evangelise’ since he uses the British spelling throughout the book).

“Part of any pastor’s job is to help people proclaim Christ in whatever circumstances God has placed them.”

Image result for evangelismHere he brings in God’s sovereignty. I’ve been pushing this in my preaching over the last few years with respect to evangelism. God has placed us in homes/families, neighborhoods and work places for particular reasons. We don’t have to go looking for people to evangelize, He’s already put us in contexts with plenty of people to evangelize. We are also greatly loved. We don’t earn God’s love by evangelism but evangelize because we are greatly loved. Though people’s fleeting affections may fail us, God’s never will. He is with us for the long run. He also reminds us that our job is bearing witness. The hard work, conversion, is God’s work. Success for us is speaking the truth about Jesus, saying enough that they can know who He is, what He’s done and how they can be saved. That might not be a single conversation, but many. And that is the subject to which Rice turns.

But we need to be honest too. People are not to be evangelism projects. We are to enjoy them for who they are, genuinely care about their interests (see Philippians 2). That is revealed in asking more questions of them- listening to them more than speaking to them. We also “chat our faith”, bringing it up in normal conversation when appropriate. That can be discussing what you did on the weekend, why you made particular decisions, address ethical questions at work etc.

In what we say, Rice talks about it in terms of Jesus’ identity (who He is), mission (why He came & what He did) and call (what he wants from us). This could have made for its own book, but he handles them briefly. That is the way we’ll likely have to handle them in our conversations. We need to be focused, and he is in this chapter. Jesus is the Messiah who came to save sinners and calls us to faith and repentance.

Image result for paul on mars hillHe then asks us to be honest about who we are. He identifies four main styles of evangelism personified by Peter, Paul, the formerly blind man and the woman at the well. Some of us confront others, some are more intellectual, some focus on our testimony and others invite people to come and see. One of these likely comes more naturally to you. This doesn’t mean you can’t utilize the other styles. God has made you in particular ways to reach particular people. Others in your life will be reached using other styles or introducing them to people at church who share in that style. We need each other for a church to faithfully evangelize.

Rice then addresses the cultural changes that have taken place in the last few decades that create addition obstacles to evangelism. People are generally ignorant of Scripture now. They don’t have a basic background that includes the Bible. Many have shifted from having objections to faith to thinking faith irrelevant. Current research notes that the average people will hear the gospel for 2 years before coming to faith. That time frame is increasing. Evangelism is a long term commitment to love a person and speak truth to them. They are less likely to visit church or a Bible study now. We need to be willing to bring the gospel, and the Bible to them.

He concludes with two things to do: pray and go.

This book is quite short. That could be a disadvantage if you are looking for an exhaustive volume on evangelism. This is not the book for you. But it is a focused book for people needing motivation and some direction. It is quite helpful in that regard. He accomplishes his goals. He includes enough personal stories to illustrate his points and help you realize this is an ordinary guy wanting to be faithful, like you.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He concludes with an important reminder:

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

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

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

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

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I was confused by the beginning of Mark Bechtle’s chapter, Intentional Sharing, in Evangelism for the Rest of Us. It is a story of unintentional sharing. It was the story of a plane ride during which the passenger next to him kept asking questions. He does make a good point, be prepared and responsive to opportunities that God provides. That isn’t intentional sharing, or at least not what I think about when I hear the term.

“Our job is to genuinely love the people in our lives and share the experiences of life with them.”

He affirms much of what he’s been saying throughout the book. He adds that “we need to be intentional about our efforts” but doesn’t really help us think that through. For him, a large part of intentionality is about the need to be prepared. This is pretty much what I covered in my previous post.

He does mention a job he had in which everyone was asked to develop an “elevator speech.” A concise, thoughtout speech you could give to let people know “What you do?”. He applies this to “What is Christianity?” We should prepare ahead of time by having just such a brief articulation about the heart of Christianity. Or come up with a tweet that captures the essence of Christianity.

Applying triperspectivalism to this we can have three types of prepared messages to draw upon.

Normative: what does the Scripture say? Develop a few as mentioned previously: the Roman Road, The Great Story (a history of God’s dealing w/humanity: creation, fall, redemption, glory), or other.

Existential: how did God work in my life? This is your testimony, however unexciting. You may have grown up in the church, but at some point you owned it even if it was not dramatic. This connects the gospel with your life.

Situational: how has God sustained me? This connects the gospel message (normative) and your life (existential) with circumstances in the life of the person you are talking with. It can be as simple as “the political chaos drags me down at times, but then I remember ….”. Or it can be a story of finding hope in the midst of loss, affliction etc. Be honest about your struggle with sin and/or misery. What you are looking for here are entry points for the gospel.

Bechtle wants us to make friends intentionally. Apart from making friends with non-Christians you’ll be limited to talking with people on the plane or clerks at stores. It bears repeating: genuine friendships, not repent or I won’t be your friend pseudo-relationships. We had friends in FL with whom we’d share the gospel when opportunities arose. The change in our friendship came because we moved, not because they didn’t repent and believe like we’d hoped.

So…

  1. Choose to be around non-Christians. They aren’t lepers! And you shouldn’t be a Pharisee (see Luke 15 and the parables of the lost things).
  2. Remember it is a team effort. If they are in your life they may meet others who are in your life who will also communicate the gospel to them.
  3. Build trust. You aren’t a salesman, so consistently love them before offering the gospel in a way which comes off as weird and unnatural. Don’t try too hard. “This pretzel reminds me of the Trinity….”.
  4. Be patient. It may take years of faithful witness. It will also take time for you to develop skills in evangelism. I tell my kids, every good thing takes practice. You don’t master anything in 3 hours. It takes thousands of hours.
  5. Find your own voice. I tell  this to young preachers too. You aren’t x, y or z. You are you. God made you to speak truth, and who you are will shape it to some degree. I believe it was Stott who called preaching “truth through personality.” Your personality & experiences will also shape your evangelism. But if you’re using Chick Tracts, repent.
  6. Be involved in community life, not just church community life.
  7. Leave a trail of bread crumbs. Don’t hide that you are a Christian. When appropriate mention church. “My pastor loves that restaurant.” “Our community group at church was discussing that last week.”
  8. Point people to Jesus. We are like floodlights, helping people see the One who matters. He is the hero of the story, not you.

One thing I’d like to add. Ask permission. Don’t just launch into your gospel presentation at any opportunity. Try something like “I’ve struggled with that too. My faith in Christ helped me through that struggle. Can I tell you about that?” You are respecting their boundaries, loving them. They will be more likely, from a human perspective, to listen than if you force the message on them.

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ThessaloniansThis weekend our community groups begin our study of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. We will be utilizing the study guide by John Stott, but I tend to supplement those study guides. Due to procrastination on many fronts and by many people, the guides are not in. That is okay because I’ve got my other resources, and this is a great opportunity to talk about the background to the letters, meaning the 2nd missionary journey and some info about Thessalonica.

Here are the resources I’m using:

The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians by John Stott in the Bible Speaks Today series. This was a no brainer since we are using Stott’s study guide. I love this series as well. A good balance between the academic and the practical marks this series. I’ve rarely been disappointed by any volumes. Stott’s commentaries themselves are often among my favorite accessible commentaries.

Epistles to the Thessalonians (now 1 & 2 Thessalonians) by Leon Morris in the Tyndale Bible Commentary series. This series has meaningful and concise commentaries. Leon Morris is another of my favorites from the same generation of scholars as Stott. I am currently using his big commentary on John for my sermon series.

1-2 Thessalonians by G.K. Beale in the IVP New Testament Commentary series. I bought this because of his commentary of on Revelation. This is not nearly the size, but I anticipate some of the same OT background to help understand Paul’s theology. (It is not in the picture. I must have mistakenly given it to one of the elders instead of the new copy of Morris.)

Teaching 1 & 2 Thessalonians (From Text to Message) and Introducing 1 & 2 Thessalonians: A Book for Today by Angus MacLeay. This is part of the “Teaching …” series. I found the volume on Isaiah very helpful for the study we just completed. I was disappointed by the volume on John.  This looks more like the former, and not the later (very short).

Since this is for community group, I didn’t want to read a very technical commentary. I would if I were preaching. I also wanted resources accessible to the other men leading our community groups.

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The other day a congregant asked me a question about tongues since someone was encouraging them to “use their gifts.” Today I was turning to Augustine’s Homilies on the Gospel of John for my sermon. I neglected to read it last week and decided to play catch up instead of skipping over it since it was a great text.

37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7

In the course of Homily 32, Augustine moves in a direction I did not anticipate: tongues. He went there because he clarified that the Spirit was given at Pentecost. The point was should we expect a similar experience as they had. This is a question that continues 1,600+ years later.

Just because nowadays those who are being baptized in Christ and who believe in Christ do not speak in the languages of all nations, is it to be assumed that they have not received the Holy Spirit? No such lack of faith should tempt our heart. We are certain that everyone receives him; but whatever size vessel of faith you bring to the fountain is filled up.

First, let us note that “speaking in tongues” was not common in Augustine’s day. He understood the languages which they spoke to be human languages the speaker did not know. These were not “heavenly languages” as some seem to teach. Speaking in tongues, he says, is not the or a sign that someone has received the Holy Spirit.

Early Pentecostals, believing that the tongues in Acts 2 were earthly languages, believed they would receive this gift while on the mission field. It didn’t happen. Now Pentecostals and Charismatics typically believe they speak in a heavenly language taking Paul’s hypothetical in 1 Corinthians 13 as reality.

“Well, since then he is received nowadays too,” somebody may say, “why is no one speaking in the languages of all nations?” Because now the Church speaks in the languages of all peoples. Previously the Church was to be found in one people, when it was speaking in the languages of all. By speaking with the languages of all it was signifying what was going to happen, that by growing among peoples, it would speak everyone’s language.

His argument was that only one people at the time, Israel, had the Gospel. The Church was comprised on one nation, Israel. The Gospel was about to go to the nations, and they could come into the Church (grafted in and joining, not replacing!). At that time the Church needed the gift of tongues, Augustine is arguing, to speak to the nations represented in the crowd there. With the Gospel and therefore the Church spreading to the known world in Augustine’s time, it now spoke all those languages. God no longer needed to give the gift of tongues.

The Church spread throughout the nations is speaking with all tongues; the Church is the body of Christ, you are a member in this body; so then, since you are a member in his body, which is speaking with all tongues, confidently believe that you are speaking with all languages.

Since you are united to the body, he argues, you therefore speak in all languages.

There is much to like about his overall argument. But it is not perfect.

The main weakness is that there are many unreached groups that we have since learned about. No one in the Church speaks their language. One would think that the gift would be “revived” in order to reach these groups. Many a linguistic missionary wishes it was that easy. But we have not seen this happen. We cannot anticipate how Augustine would answer this development after his death. It is an interesting view held by one of the great theologians and during the early centuries of the Church.

Other books of interest on this matter would include Gaffin’s Perspectives on Pentecost and Stott’s Baptism and Fullness. On my shelf is a copy of Anthony Hoekema’s What About Speaking in Tongues? that I’ve been meaning to get to for years. Maybe soon.

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Love Into Light: The Gospel, the Homosexual and the Church cover image

Earlier in his book Love into Light, Peter Hubbard talked about change. There he talked about unrealistic expectations for change. Change is an internal thing.

Discussion of change for a homosexual (as well as for any sexually immoral person, like addicts) eventually gets to the issues of celibacy and marriage. How you understand yourself if important to this discussion. If you view yourself as the world labels you (“homosexual”, “pervert” “misfit” or “dirty”) you will live out that reality. If you view yourself as God views you if you are in Christ (beloved, holy, son) you will begin to live out of this new reality. No, not perfectly. It is a process. But God’s labels for those in Christ provide something of the goal.

He notes that we struggle with this notion of an “assigned” life or label. Deep down most of us suspect that God doesn’t have our best in mind. Deep down we think that we know the path to a fulfilling life better than God does. We forget that this is what got us in the deep hole we were in in the first place.

Additionally, Matthew Vines, he notes, talks about how homosexuals often feel left out as their friends marry and have kids. This is not something particular to homosexuals. I didn’t get married until I was 36, and a father until 39. I saw so many friends get married and have kids. I felt left out, forgotten and as if it would never happen to me. That’s the funny thing about sin, it deceives us into thinking we are the only one who feels this way. We don’t realize that others who don’t share our reasons also feel the same kinds of things. Marrying late wasn’t really MY choice. I wanted to get married, but experienced that frustrating reality that the people I wanted to marry didn’t want to marry me. And the people who wanted to marry me were not ones I wanted to marry.

I, like many in my state, wondered “what if God is calling me to be single, forever?” It seemed a fate worse than death at times. I wasn’t struggling with SSA. This is a human problem, not merely a SSA problem. My wife and I have many older friends who have never been married.

There are a number of people in the Bible who were never married or were widowed and remained single and alone with no outlet for their sexual desire. Jesus is pretty prominent there. As fully (hu)man, He would have experienced sexual desire. He would have found particular people attractive. But he never acted upon such desire. He mission trumped all those internal feelings and desires, such that His food was to do the will of His Father.

We also see Paul (probably widowed since he was a Pharisee of Pharisees). Paul was a sinner, like the rest of us. Paul lived in a culture with few if any sexual boundaries. There was temptation without and within. Surely there was loneliness and frustration. As the head of her household, Lydia was single or widowed as well. As that head of household, there would have been slaves or servants she could use to satisfy her sexual desires, as was common. But every indication is that she lived a faithful, obedient life that flowed out of her faith and love for Christ.

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The Salton Sea is one of my favorite Val Kilmer movies. It is quirky and an odd sense of humor. In addition to Val Kilmer you find Vincent D’Onofrio, B.D. Wong, Peter Sarsgaard, Anthony LaPaglia, Luis Guzman and more. It is a crime drama that takes place in the midst of the tweaker culture of Southern California. Since I was home alone for a week, I decided it was a good opportunity to enjoy the movie again.

"Look in the mirror and tell me what you see."

One of the central questions of the film is “who am I?”. It is a movie wrestling with the question of identity. The movie begins with Val’s character(s) lying gut shot on the floor of a burning apartment playing the trumpet. “Am I an avenging angel, or a rat who got what he deserved?” The movie tells the story of how he ended up there so you can decide.

After the murder of his wife, Tom Van Allen assumes a new identity in order to discover the identity of her murders. His plan, initially, is to take revenge. To do so, he becomes a police informant, and an addict. Every so often he goes to a locked trunk in his room. Inside is his true identity: papers, pictures, clothes, hat and trumpet. He puts them on, and plays. He’s trying to keep who he is in mind. He’s losing his grip on his identity. He’s losing… himself. In the midst of the lies he tells others, he’s beginning to believe those same lies. The lines between Tom and Danny are beginning to blur. He’s not sure if he’s still Tom or if he’s become Danny. But while Tom seeks revenge, someone else is seeking revenge against Danny the Rat.

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I did something I rarely do yesterday.  I checked my Facebook via my semi-smart phone (or is it quasi-smart?).  I was traveling with the family all day and decided to do a status update for some reason.  That’s when I saw that one of my friends mentioned John Stott’s death.  If the death of His saints is precious in His sight, it should also be in ours.

Acts says that David served God’s purposes for his generation.  The same, I think, can be said for John Stott.  Oh, some will lament his views on annihilation (as do I), but overall he was a faithful servant of Christ and was a key figure among British evangelicals, as was J.I. Packer.  His impact was not limited to England.  In the late 90’s I went on 3 mission trips to assist Armonia, a ministry in Mexico City committed to urban transformation.  Saul Cruz had studied under John Stott, and their ministries were linked in some way if I remember correctly on this sleep-deprived day.

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Today I was working on Romans 3:21-26.  It is a fascinating text with all kinds of “glorious grammar.”  If I remember correctly, we did translate this in seminary, but that was some time ago.  So I was in awe of what Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit, put down there.  Lots of parallelism, and many of my questions about key genitives were answered in the text.  But there are some difficult phrases. There is alot on the line, so to speak, as this passage is central to many a theological controversy.

The specifics are not important at the moment.  What is I want to focus on is my response to these difficult questions about the meaning of the text while I weigh legitimate options.  I took a walk to pray about it.  And there I wrestled with both humility and confidence.

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aka, the Virgin Birth.

It is listed as one of the 5 fundamental beliefs during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 20th century.  Is it a fundamental belief?  It is necessary for Jesus to be conceived in this way if he is to be fully divine?

There are a surprising number of people who are saying it isn’t necessary.

Emergent (revisionist) pastor Rob Bell, in his book Velvet Elvis, stated that while he personally affirmed the virgin birth, it was not a necessary belief.  You don’t need the ‘spring’ of the virgin birth to ‘jump’ (cue the Van Halen please), so he says.  He includes some shoddy exegesis and historical context to make his point about why you might think Matthew doesn’t mean what we thought he meant.  Got that?

Easy for me to disregard Rob Bell; he doesn’t have conservative street cred.  But Michael Green, another story.  He wrote the commentary on Matthew in the Bible Speaks Today series edited by John Stott.  I’m reading this for my sermon series from Matthew this Advent.

Green covers the standard arguments against the virginal conception, and counters them pretty well.  Like Bell, he personally holds to the virginal conception.  But he didn’t stop there, and I was a bit shocked.

“However, it is only proper to say that there is nothing necessary about the virgin birth.  The deity of Christ is not inextricably tied to it.  God might well have entered  this world in the normal manner, or chosen some unprecedented way of becoming one of us.  He need not have come through a virginal conception.  The documents, however, assert that he did.”

This precisely where a good biblical and systematic theology save you from a mass of heresy.  Adoptionism (the view that God adopted the human Jesus to be his divine son) would be a denial of the Trinity.  Any other method would presumably include Joseph or other male.  If an ordinary man is involved, Jesus is born “in Adam”.  All who born of 2 human parents are born under the covenant with Adam (Romans 5) and are therefore subject to sin and death.  Jesus, in order to save other, must be free from sin and death.  He must not be “in Adam” as his covenant head.  He becomes the 2nd Adam, the head of a new covenant so that all who are in him by faith are delivered from sin on account of his obedience, death for sin and resurrection on our behalf.

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Life has a way of becoming complex.  And people have a way of accumulating stuff.  It isn’t just the hoarders you see on TV.  All of us are prone to collect something.  I collect books and music.  Okay, I used to collect music until I got married and my disposable income had different uses.  I may start again, but at least it take up more space in my house, only my hard drive.  I’m sure you collect something: stamps, baseball cards, coins, dolls, coke logo items ….

In the 5th chapter of The Radical Disciple, John Stott talks about Simplicity.  He returns to the discussion of materialism from the first chapter here.  He tells a far too uncommon story of a man whose life was unencumbered by the possessions he could own, but rather he lived a life of great generosity.

I often say that government abhors a vacuum.  All left over revenues will be spent.  Rare is the government official who cuts a budget.  I remember someone is an organization saying “we’d better spend it or they’ll cut our budget for next year.”  It becomes about power and status.  This is who we are.

The followers of Jesus should be committed, not to power and status, but to simple lifestyles.  This does not mean living in a cardboard box, but recognizing God does not give us all He gives us for us to spend on us.  Did you get that?  I know, it doesn’t roll off the tongue.

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The second neglected aspect of discipleship John Stott addresses in The Radical Disciple is Christlikeness.  This, in my mind, is the very goal of discipleship.  So I guess that if there is actually neglected, we don’t even have discipleship.  That is a radical concept.

Stott lays out 3 texts that are foundational to this concept of Christlikeness.  The first is from Romans 8.

28And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (ESV)

Here the process of becoming conformed to the likeness of Christ (instead of the world) is largely passive on our part.  It is God who is working all things in our lives (including our sin) for this purpose.  His love resulted in election with this purpose of being conformed into the image of Jesus.  God’s goal, as C.S. Lewis put it, is perfection and He will not rest until He is done.  It will often be an arduous process for us.

Paul returns to the process in Romans 12.  Again, we are the objects of transformation.  This time it is not through our circumstances (God’s providential working in our lives), but the renewal of the mind.  This won’t happen unless we actually read the Scriptures, but God is at work when we do to transform us so we are no longer conformed to the likeness of the world.

From Romans we see, in part, that God is ultimately in control of the process not us.  One of the strengths of the Puritan’s theology was providence, and seeing sanctification as taking place (in part) through those providentially arranged circumstances.  Instead of avoiding hardship, they wanted to be shaped by it through the gospel.

Where Stott errs is in limiting this text (Romans 8) to the past.  Our election takes place in the past, but God is working now to conform us to the image of Jesus.  That is a small problem, not a big one.

The second is 2 Corinthians 3:18.

6But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (ESV)

One again we are passive.  At conversion, God removes the veil that covers our faces when we read the Old Covenant.  Interesting, the problem is not the Old Covenant but the veil which is removed.  Now we are being transformed from glory to glory.  When?  When we we behold the glory of the Lord in the face of Jesus (4:6).  Once again Scripture is central to our sanctification, for it is there that we behold Jesus (not in some mystical experience).  After all, Paul was talking about reading the Old Covenant to see the glory of God.  But we do see the present work of God to remake us in the image of Jesus.

(more…)

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In his (possibly last) book, The Radical Disciple, John Stott addresses the 8 characteristics of discipleship that he believes are most lacking in western forms of Christianity.  So, I’ll spend a little time going over what he says about them.  The first is non-conformity, but before we get there a few words from his preface.

“For genuine discipleship is wholehearted discipleship … Our common way of avoiding radical discipleship is to be selective.”

This is the nature of the human heart.  We think that we are obedient if we keep some of this demands.  But Jesus’ call to discipleship requires that we follow with all our heart, and all that we are.  We do not pick and choose the ways we will love Him any more than we should pick and choose how to love our spouse.

“Escapism and conformism are thus both forbidden to us. … We are neither to see to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world.”

This is the point of Jesus’ statement about us being “in the world, but not of it.”  Stott summarizes it well.  He specifies a few challenges we face as we try to live this out.  The first is pluralism.  While maintaining humility, we need to affirm his uniqueness in incarnation, atonement and resurrection.  As a result, Jesus is “uniquely competent to save sinners.”

Materialism is another challenge.  We are not to be like some obscure philosophers who denied the reality of the material world.  Materialism is a “preoccupation with material things”.  In the parable of the Sower, Jesus mentions how such a preoccupation stifles spiritual life.  We are not to live for this life.  We are to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel- self-denial.

The next challenge is ethical relativism.  Postmodernism’s attack on absolute truth has seen a reject of absolute moral standards.   One of those is the attack on “traditional marriage”.  Some churches are even beginning to question this.  They say that Jesus never addressed homosexuality.  Jesus did address marriage, and in a way that eliminates non-traditional marriage.  He quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 in discussing marriage.  God made men and women in His image, and then gives the biblical definition of marriage: a man united to his wife.  Jesus affirms this view of marriage as God’s view of marriage (Mt. 19).  One of the key elements of true discipleship is the Lordship of Jesus.  He, not culture, defines right and wrong for us.

“To confess Jesus as Lord but not obey him is to build our lives on a foundation of sand.”

He also notes narcissism as a serious problem that we face.  The church has often bought into the therapeutic pseudo-gospel which advocates self-love (thank you Robert Shuller).  The point of agape, as he mentions, is sacrificial love.  Self-love, on the other hand, is a sign of the last days (2 Timothy 3:2).  Self-love actually sabotages the love of community that is a reflection of the gospel (God is love, an eternal community of love).

These are some important trends and pattern which challenge us.  We cannot risk conforming to the materialism, pluralism, relativism and narcissism of the culture.  True disciples are conformed to Christ, not the world.  But they don’t escape the world in a holy huddle either.

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WTS Bookstore has some good books on clearance.  Check out some of these deals!

The Letters of John Newton– I need to get this.  The one I’ve read was incredible, gospel-drenched wisdom.

Charity and Its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards.  If you don’t own this- now is the time!  This is a great book by a great theologian.

Revelation by Leon Morris.  From the Tyndale Commentary Series, this small book is by one of my favorite biblical theologians.  Also 1 & 2 Thessalonians.

The Letters of John by John Stott.  Also from the Tyndale Commentary Series.  John Stott is one of my favorite exegetes.

Matthew by R.T. France.  The excellent commentary on Matthew from the same series.  His treatment of the Olivet Discourse was greatly influential in my thinking.

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Hermeneutics is one of those words that people shut down upon hearing.  It is just the science of interpretation.

Here are some of the best books I’ve read about how to interpret the Bible:

  • Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation by Graeme Goldsworthy.  I’m just about done with Part 2 of the book.  The second section is very technical.  But the book is great in explaining why and how we are to look at every text through the lens of the gospel.
  • He Gave Us Stories by Richard Pratt.  One of my seminary professors wrote this, and made us read it.  It was great.  It takes a literary approach that balances author, text and audience.  Too bad more people haven’t read this- it is great.  I still utilize his approach.
  • Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul.  Another of my professors wrote this laymen’s guide to interpreting Scripture.  In typical Sproul style, he’s able to put the cookies on the counter for all to enjoy.  Not long either, so it’s manageable for a SS class.
  • Paying by the Rules by Robert Stein is similar to Sproul’s book in that it is geared for lay people, not scholars.  I don’t agree with everything he says, but it is a very good book.  Also easily adaptable to SS.
  • God-Centered Biblicial Interpretation by Vern Poythress.  Not for the intellectually queasy.  It is a great book, but slow reading to digest what he’s saying.  It is not overly technical, but some of the subject matter is quite heady.  He does a good job addressing our subjectivism in approaching Scripture such that he opens us up to the fuller meaning of the text.

Here are some titles I might read some day:

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I’m excited to be studying Galatians for the next 3 months.  It is a controversial book these days- particularly in the dispute over the meaning of justification.  I take the historical, Reformed Protestant view as espoused in the Westminter Confession of Faith where we are declared righteous because God imputes Jesus’ righteousness to us.  Anyway, here are some of the resources I’ll be using and some I wish I was using.

What I’m using:

  • Commentary on Galatians: Modern-English Version by Martin Luther (The link is for the Crossway version, sorry).  Classic!  There is some great stuff in here from the man who recaptured the doctrine of justification triggering the Reformation.
  • Commentary on Galatians by John Calvin from his Commentary set.  Have to use it!
  • The Message of Galatians (The Bible Speaks Today series) by John Stott.  Tried and true, this will be my 3rd go round with Stott.  Great stuff, and not overly technical.
  • Galatians and Ephesians (New Testament Commentary) by William Hendriksen

What I Wish I Had Handy:

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I missed this catagory on Steve McCoy’s Big 5 Books list- Big 5 for Seekers.

The idea is what books would you give to someone who is seeking to understand Christianity, or address a question keeping them from Christ.  Here goes!

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  It is a classic which is best for those skeptics with a more “modern” view of the world.

The Reason for God by Tim Keller.  The Mere Christianity for this generation.  Keller addresses many of the objections he hears in his ministry.  It interacts with contemporary and classic skeptics.  Love it.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.  There is something to be said for humor lowering defenses.  Miller gives a good, winsome, broader understanding for the younger crowd.  He moves beyond seeing salvation of individuals without neglecting that.

Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller.  See above.  Miller talks about how we are all searching for redemption, somewhere, even if we don’t realize it.  Something about that imago dei thing.

The Prodigal God by Tim Keller.  I love the book, and think it would help many people make sense of the core message of the gospel.  Maybe I’m crazy.

Basic Christianity by John Stott.  Short and to the point.  I used to keep these as a give-away.

Knowing Christianity by J.I. Packer.  I haven’t read it, but knowing Packer it is solid.  This covers the basic doctrines of the faith.

I need to find more of these………

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“…there is ‘cheap evangelism’ also, namely the proclamation of the gospel without the cost of discipleship, the demand for faith without repentance.”  John Stott in The Message of the Sermon on the Mount.

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