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Posts Tagged ‘joy’


One of my new study leave traditions is to read one of the volumes in Crossways’ series on theologians on the Christian life. Each volume looks at one man’s thought and tries to identify their contributions and understanding of how we are to live in Christ and in the world. So far I’ve read the volumes on John Newton (whom Sinclair Ferguson repeatedly called “perhaps the wisest pastor of the Church of England” in his series on Romans) and Herman Bavinck. This study leave it was Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards has long been a favorite of mine, in part because he was a favorite of R.C. Sproul’s. In seminary I took a class, The Theology of Edwards’ Sermons, with R.C.. We read so much of Edwards it may have ruined me for a spell. I haven’t read many of his sermons since then, but have gone back to volumes life The Religious Affections and Charity and Its Fruits.

Dane Ortund’s volume Edwards on the Christian Life boils Edwards down to being live to the beauty of God. He begins with the beauty of God, moves to regeneration as to how we become alive to God’s beauty and then focuses on its affects on us (love, joy, gentleness, obedience) as well as how we grow in our knowledge and experience of that beauty in Scripture, prayer and pilgrimage until finally our fullest experience of beauty in heaven.

This is one of the shorter volumes in the series which is ironic when we consider the great length of Edwards’ sermons and how complex his thought can be at times (The Freedom of the Will is a challenge).  In many ways this serves as an excellent primer on Edwards’ and is much shorter than Gerstner’s Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards.

In many ways Ortlund paints an attractive (beautiful?) portrait of the Christian life from Edwards’ view. Who can argue with love, joy and gentleness? What Christian doesn’t want to be loving, joyful and gentle? Yet we cannot separate these fruit of the Spirit from the Word of God, nor the growth in obedience as we live as pilgrims in this world. Yet, missing here is explicit reference to work and marriage. One of Ortlund’s critiques of Edwards was a neglect of the doctrine of creation in favor of redemption. This is one evidence of that neglect. Our life can’t be abstracted out of work and marriage for those are the places we most need the fruit of the Spirit (as well as church life).

One of the ironies that Ortlund points out is that while Edwards’ sermon series on justification was the means for the Northampton revival prior to the Great Awakening, Edwards’ focus seemed to be on sanctification, God’s work in us (subjective), rather than justification, Christ’s work for us (objective). Perhaps this is one reason why the sacraments aren’t mentioned much here or in Edwards’ sermons. This leads to another of Ortlund’s criticisms- that Edwards was overly introspective and more frequently called us to examine ourselves than to look to Christ. Assurance was focused more on Christ’s work in us than for us. He flipped the emphasis. His work for us is the primary source of assurance, with His work in us as the secondary source.

One thing that Edwards focused on that the church tends to neglect is regeneration in which God makes us alive to His beauty. He takes a Reformed position of regeneration preceding, indeed producing, faith rather than the common evangelical view of faith producing regeneration as if that is God’s response to our faith. We need to recapture this more biblical understanding that reflects God’s sovereign grace.

In his criticisms at the end of the book, Ortlund notes that Edwards did have some imbalance in even this. He failed to emphasize that unregenerate people are still made in God’s image, and are not as bad as they can be. They are still capable of civil righteousness even though they are morally incapable of delighting in Christ and the gospel. Additionally, he seems to give “too much” to regeneration this side of glorification. There is a great tension in the Scriptures. It is a total change (every aspect of our being is affected by regeneration) but the change is not total. As regenerate people we want to obey and we grow in obedience but we also feel more acutely our failures to obey. We still, or rather have begun to, struggle with sin. There seems to be a hint of over-realized eschatology in Edwards on this point. But I understand, I think, why. At times I’ve preached like that to get that point across that we have been changed and Christ is at work in us by the Spirit (see Titus 2). Too often we can minimize our need for obedience as a fruit of salvation, and our ability to obey. We live in this tension and it can be easy for us to err on one side or the other. At other times in ministry I note the admission by the Westminster Standards and Heidelberg Catechism that our progress in this life is meager. This is because some people so beat themselves up over their sin. This person needs to hear of Christ’s perfect imputed righteousness and to have more realistic expectations. The lazy and slothful Christian needs to hear the call to obedience. Edwards presumably thought he was preaching to the latter and not the former.

Ortlund puts together a very good volume. He sees Edwards as one worth imitating in many areas. He points out some of his imperfections in the final chapter. One was missing, and that one is particularly pertinent in our particular day. Despite his theological convictions, Edwards (like many in his day) owned slaves. Perhaps the reason why Ortlund doesn’t mention this is because Edwards doesn’t address this in his sermons or writings (at least what I’ve read). Edwards didn’t defend slavery, but did practice it. This should humble us because while we don’t explicitly defend sinful practices, we can certainly practice them (often without realizing their sinfulness). This is one big bone for us to spit out as we consider his life, and it would be great if Ortlund mentioned it.

All in all this is another solid contribution to the series. It should enrich not only my life but my preaching. I am reminded of the need to integrate them more fully.

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It has been 25 years since Dan Allender wrote The Wounded Heart. It has become a staple among Christian counselors, and for good reason. While getting my Master’s degree I compared and contrasted it to another book on recovering from sexual abuse. It was, in my opinion, far superior. I have used the workbook in working with victims of sexual abuse.

After all these years he has written Healing the Wounded Heart. It is not an updated and revised edition. It does not replace it. It really supplements and compliments his earlier work.

He utilizes 25 more years of personal experience in working with clients as well as research to better understand the damage done by sexual abuse, and the general path of recovery for its victims.

“Chopin stirs up the dust.” Special Agent Frank Lundy

Allender’s book is like Chopin, stirring up the dust among the debris produced by sexual abuse in its various forms. Things that didn’t make sense begin to fall into place.

That is one of the things about sexual abuse: there is no one symptom. Most victims live in denial or minimization. They don’t see that the patterns and incomprehensible things are pointers to the can of worms they REALLY don’t want to open.

“But sex is more than sex, and sexual harm is more than a mere violation. It reverberates to the deepest parts of our humanity and returns with an echo that doesn’t stop even decades later.”

He begins by discussing how the “face of sexual abuse.” Technology has advanced greatly, and we have utilized that technology for nefarious purposes. Societal changes have had unintended consequences, resulting in increases in date rape, hook ups etc.., taking advantage of the unconscious etc.

Allender then talks about the role of Evil (a.k.a. the Enemy). His war against God means he wants to destroy those made in His image. One really good way is to mar sexuality and marriage which point us to the great mystery of the gospel. This theme is found in some of his other books. He draws some from his friend and former associate John Eldredge (who in my estimation has gone to some unhealthy extremes). Allender is tentative in talking about this. But he affirms some biblical truths including the reality of the Enemy, the finitude of the Enemy and that he loves to work in darkness and secrecy. Sexual abuse and it consequences are marked by darkness and secrecy.

“Evil doesn’t primarily want to kill us; instead, it wants us to spend our lives in worry or regret. Its design is to take life from life, or in other words, to kill hope.”

In this context he discusses dissociation, a survival mechanism God has given to protect us. Evil twists it by convincing us we can never deal with what happened. A main part of God’s work in us is to face our shame so we can be free of contempt and begin to hope again.

He then delves into the research about the damage done to our bodies. He wrote this chapter with Dr. Heather Mirous who teaches cognitive psychology at Northwestern. Our bodies have a natural response to stress involving our brains, chemical responses and more. Sexual abuse distorts these responses. The more traumatic the abuse, the more damage done to our stress response system. The system is overwhelm (like in combat), and discussing those events trigger similar physical responses. One result is overactivating our immune system leading to autoimmune diseases in some victims.

“The body remembers. It is chronically calling out to us that our allostatic load is too heavy. Often, rather than listening to our body, we sabotage or mute is through activities such as excessive drinking or eating (or not eating enough), exercise, busyness or shopping.”

We then can curse the body that, we think, betrayed us. It betrayed us by being alluring (as if it was our fault, not theirs). It betrayed us by being aroused or feeling pleasure. This adds confusion and shame twisting our sexual desires and responses in unwanted ways. To cover our shame, many victims resort to contempt. They can hate others, or themselves, but they pour out contempt rather than face the overwhelming shame they can experience. The contempt is an attempt to avoid the gaze of others. The contempt leads us to make vows (I’ll never be trust again) which curse us (our hearts are hard to real love).

The chapter on covert abuse is very important. He addresses issues like emotional incest (adulterization of a child, making them your confidant), subtle abuse (those moments that felt weird), and pornography (when you discover it, or are shown it by someone in authority or an older peer as a “rite of passage”.

He then moves to the rare and important chapter on men. The dynamics can often be different in men. I think this is the first chapter I’ve read addressing that. The relational consequences are quite frustrating, for the man and those who relate to him. Power struggles are nearly always present, for to not be in power is to risk violation. Male victims often struggle with rage and a sense of inadequacy.

Allender then moves into the drama of reenactment, the ways in which a victim can relive the event in the course of ordinary life: triggers, addictions, hopelessness, etc. These are some of the ways in which we see the iceberg sticking above the surface. These can be the reasons they seek counseling though they don’t connect them to past abuse.

The Healing Path is the title of the final section of the book. It is “therapy proper” so to speak. He handles the main themes of therapy rather than the nuts and bolts, precisely because each client and their story is different. They need kindness so they can begin to learn to trust. This isn’t to be confused with wimpiness. We delight in them so they can learn to delight in themselves (and God). As we offer, and cultivate, kindness and joy we enter their story. The difficulty is we enter that story many times discovering more each time. This is not an easy process, and recovery is not quick. You don’t address the damage of rape or grooming and molestation in 6 sessions.

“The truth is sexual abuse, like all trauma, must be engaged again and again as the heart matures and has new awareness, insight, and freedom.”

He describes the process of entering and caring for the other person’s story as similar hiking to a remote river to fish, and out again. There is an unknown time element, unexpected danger, and potentially great reward. We help them to connect ( or re-connect) their story with God’s Story. Along the way we will meet barriers as they protect their abusers, hide in shame and contempt and generally try to push you away using every strategy they have developed to protect themselves. You will discover the vows, and bring all these things into the light so God can deal with them. We point them out, but our job isn’t to carpet bomb them (though we will be sorely tempted to do so). Another landmine is arousal. These are sexual stories, and it is normal for the client to also experience arousal along with the shame and contempt. It is their original arousal that drives the shame. The counselor must remember that he/she may also experience this response, but is not to respond. Helping the abused is good, necessary and dangerous business.

“… spouses choose each other to some degree because their way of being in the world complements their spouse’s. … We find a partner who doesn’t threaten or disrupt the attachment history we have learned to unconsciously manage. This is what must change for both spouses.”

Allender is honest about the difficulty in this process for all involved (including spouses). There is a chapter on the latter subject as well. While past abuse will hinder the relationship, there is a reason they have chosen one another, and addressing the abuse destabilizes the relationship. When one spouse embraces greater health, there is no guarantee the other will.

Allender includes an appendix written by Linda Royster called The Implications for African-American Women. Like the chapters on men and marriage, this is one aspect missed by many authors. A helpful addition.

“Ignoring our stories of sexual abuse will not undo the harm we have suffered. The debris of our abuse will surface eventually. It affects our memories, aspirations, and relationships.” Linda Royster

This book itself is a helpful addition to The Wounded Heart. They work well together. Each has important information not found in the other. This is a great addition to the toolbox of those who help people who have been sexually abused, and for the people themselves and the ones they love. It can help them better understand what they experience. And the road forward.

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

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I have long been an admirer of John Newton. He has written many letters and hymns that not only address my mind but also my heart. He was not a “speculative” theologian but an practical or pastoral theologian. He is one of my “long distance” mentors- stretching across both time and geography thanks to God’s providential gift of the printing press. While I am surely not the pastor (and Christian) I want to be, I am a better pastor because of John Newton.

Tony Reinke has done people like me a great service with his contribution to Crossway’s series Theologians on the Christian Life. This is the first book I’ve read in the series. It makes me want to read more. But let’s look at Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ.

As Reinke notes at the end, he doesn’t say everything Newton does, nor cover every topic Newton covered. It would therefore be larger than the 4 volume Works of John Newton I also purchased recently.

In about 240 pages, Reinke summarizes Newton’s view of the Christian life and then examines key areas like Christ’s All-Sufficiency, the Daily Discipline of Joy in Jesus, Gospel Simplicity, the Discipline of Trials and so much more.

As the subtitle notes, the focus is on Christ, who as is noted above is All-Sufficient. Our Christian life is lived in union with the all-sufficient Christ. That does not mean he held to a view of Christian perfectionism. Newton made much of the reality of indwelling sin (there is an excellent chapter on the subject here). Too few pastors and theologians address this constant hindrance to our movement towards obedience. It is also the source of a steady stream of temptations. Any book on Christian living that makes little of this reality is fundamentally flawed.

One of Newton’s other contributions is the stages of Christian life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Wise pastors should consider this as they preach and structure discipleship programs. This is one of the chapters in which Keller is mentioned often, as he is nearly as dependent on Newton as he is on Lewis. We need to help people see their own immaturity and what it looks like to become more mature in Christ and how Jesus brings us there.

He includes a very convicting chapter on Seven Christian Blemishes. These are “respectable” sins that hinder our gospel proclamation and witness. He isn’t saying we aren’t Christians, but these attitudes and practices are sub-Christian. They are frequently a turn off to others. For instance, he mentions the one who quarrels about politics (I told you this was convicting). He was not against political involvement for he encouraged Wilberforce to stay in politics to put an end to the slave trade. The problem is people who are in no position to change anything (they are not politicians) and often lack sufficient information. Many people’s never-ending stream of political FB posts would fit here. These are rarely calls to prayer, or to contact your elected officials. This is one reason why some non-Christians are offended by our “politics”- not that we have views but how we express them or when we are ill-informed.

The chapter on the Discipline of Trials is also quite important. Too few pastors really spend time talking about this. We then fail our congregations in preparing them for suffering well, with an eye to Christ above all. It is a lengthy chapter, and really needed to be lengthy. We all experience trials, and unless we have a solid theological understanding of the ways God uses them we will be mired in immaturity and grow bitter against God.

The chapter on Christ-Centered Holiness was frustrating at points. I don’t disagree with what he said. I wish there was more. The focus is on beholding Christ as our Savior as well as our Pattern or Example. This is a very biblical idea (see 2 Cor. 5). Newton also talked about straining toward or agonizing toward holiness. He could have written more on this aspect of the pursuit of holiness.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. It is much like Newton’s ministry in that it is profoundly focused on Christ. It is filled with quotes from Newton to illustrate his points, many great encouraging quotes. He brings in some others too via quotes. This produces a very encouraging book.

This is not just a book for pastors. Nor is it intended to be. Most Christians would benefit from this book. They will grow in their understanding of the Christian life, and therefore what God is up to in your life and how to grow up in Jesus. These are important things and Newton is a gentle but faithful pointer to Jesus.

 

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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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I guess it was the Super Bowl that reminded me of a gift I once got for Christmas. It was a Patriots’ uniform, with pads, helmet, jersey and pants. It wasn’t really designed for a real game. But in my young mind I looked cool. I would put it on and play in our finished basement. I would toss a football to myself, trying not to skid it off the suspension ceiling. I imagined playing in the big game (at this point in time the Patriots hadn’t even been to a Super Bowl, much less won one). In my fantasy, I never failed.

It was the same when practicing baseball or basketball. I always caught the final out. If I missed the jump shot, miraculously there were another few seconds to hit the game winner. I suspect I was no different than any other kid growing up. That is the nature of fantasy- you always win the game. As we grow up the fantasy changes- you always get the girl or the really cool job.

But real life was different. When you were playing for real you were afraid you would strike out, miss the shot, or drop the ball. Not all of us are as crippled by that fear as one of the kids in the movie Parenthood. Steve Martin’s character was vexed by his son’s struggles, probably because he didn’t want his son to grow up like him- living in fear of failure and settling for a life of minimal risk.

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This weekend our Community Group wrapped up our study of Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands by Paul Tripp.  In that final chapter Tripp talked about self-identity and accountability.  I thought them an odd choice.

That was until we met together, I showed a few clips from Cool Runnings to illustrate the points and it all began to click as we talked together.

“We always live out some kind of identity, and the identities we assign ourselves powerfully influence our responses to life.”

Often our sins or our afflictions define us.  “My name is Fred, and I’m an alcoholic.”  You could substitute sex addict, bulimic or any number of sins.  We begin to identify ourselves with the patterns of sin in our lives.

We can also identify ourselves with our afflictions.  For some time I assigned myself “Failure”.  The church had “failed” and many seemed all too quick to assign that to me.  I began to own it.  Sometimes it starts with others assigning us the identity, but eventually we own it for ourselves.  I could be “loser”, “wimp”, “handicapped”, “divorced”, “single parent” or any host of self-identities.

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I just finished Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology after laboring over it far too long.  I just haven’t had as much time to read as I like (this may shock some of you who think I read too much).  It is a collection of messages from one the Together for the Gospel conferences (sample pages).

I found it to be a very uneven book.  There was a great disparity in the length of the chapters, as though some speakers were given far more time than others.  Some of the shortest chapters were from those I most wanted to hear.  Yet, some of those (while good) sounded an awful lot like other messages they’ve done.  Since I don’t preach on the conference circuit, I am probably expecting too much for them to come up with a new message to fit the occasion.  When I was ‘only’ doing pulpit supply during my transition, I would preach the same text a few times, tweaking it depending on the congregation.  But no one travels hundreds, or thousands, of miles to hear me speak.  This was a tad disappointing.

The book kicks off with a rather long chapter on Sound Theology by Ligon Duncan.  He defends systematic theology as necessary for the life of the church.  It is popular today (and most days) to decry systems, but we should be able to summarize doctrine to promote understanding of the whole.  Preaching and teaching should be both expositional and theological, and Duncan notes.   This is, in part, because our theology must be biblical.  Yet, you don’t build a doctrine on only one text.  That is a HOV line to heresy.

“Systematic theology is tied to exegesis.”  John Murray

Duncan notes some problematic views that have popped up.  His charity is on display in that he doesn’t name names.  His goal is not to stigmatize anyone, but point out flaws in certain positions which tend to be anti-theological.

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