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Song of Songs (Reformed Expository Commentary)About 4 years ago I taught a SS lesson on The Song of Songs. One of the resources I used was Iain Duguid’s new (at the time) commentary on the Song in the Tyndale Old Covenant Commentary series. It was one of the more helpful commentaries I used. At the time, there was also notice of his Reformed Expository Commentary series volume on the Song. I had hoped it would come out in time, but it hadn’t.

When the volume was finally published, I bought a copy. While on vacation/study leave I decided to read for reasons I’ll lay out in the follow-up post.

The Reformed Expository Commentary series is rooted in expository sermons on the subject at hand. They are a popularization, so to speak, of the material he presents elsewhere. He’s making it accessible and applicable to his congregation. So, in addition to some background and linguistic material there is a focus on application not as readily found in his commentary.

In his preface, Duguid notes that this was the first sermon series for the church he planted in Philadelphia. In addition to being a professor he has also planted churches near the schools in which he’s taught. When we re-started our church in FL eons ago, we had been in Ephesians and I decided to begin our newly renamed and relocated congregation with a series on marriage which would end up in Ephesians 5 where I’d left off. I thought it would be an “attention getter” in the flyers we handed out. It got no one’s attention, apparently. But Christ Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia is still going so it was moderately effective for him.

The Introduction covers issues of interpretation. This seems shorter than in his TOTC volume, which is understandable. It is Hebrew poetry and this must be taken into consideration when interpreting the text.

“Poetry is the art of condensation: expressing maximum meaning in the minimum number of words. … Poetry tends to be open ended, leaving us pondering and wondering rather than tying up every loose end with a watertight argument.”

As a result, what it means is not always very clear especially due to the great distance in time and culture. There are plenty of times you need to toss out caveats and address varying interpretations.

He briefly discusses and rules out the allegorical method which so many reject in every book of the Bible except this one. An allegory is typically a story in which everything represents something else. Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory. There was no real Christian and all that transpired was intended to be a picture of the Christian life. There are lions, giants and more that represent something else. In the case of The Song of Songs, this is to avoid discussion of … sex. This is because we somehow think Christians should not talk about the beauty of sex. Or something like that.

The way many Christians who use an allegorical interpretation for this book makes it incomprehensible for the original audience. The original meaning is not about God and His people. Duguid sees The Song as a love poem which does have a typological function in pointing us to Christ and the Church (iow God and His people). There is an original meaning with application to people about marital love which must be reckoned with first.

He also addresses the issue of Solomon. You really have to stretch things to make Solomon the hero or the Beloved. Solomon is viewed as a contrast to the Beloved. He has many wives and concubines and cannot know them like the man and woman here know each other.

“For these reasons I take the Song of Songs to be a poem by an unknown and anonymous author about two idealized people, a man and a woman, whose exclusive and committed love is great but, like all loves in this fallen world, is far from perfect. … Thus, the Son is designed to show each of us how far short of perfection we fall both as humans and as lovers, and to drive us into the arms of our true heavenly Husband, Jesus Christ, whose love for his bride is truly perfect.”

This is the understanding behind these twelve sermons that work through the Song. He speaks often of romantic love as friendship on fire. The Song begins before marriage as they express their longing for on another but also maintain boundaries. In many ways it was counter-cultural in that it begins with her desires and longings. She is interested in him physically, not just emotionally. She is neither a feminist nor a traditionalist. She communicates her desires, and those include him providing leadership and direction. She wants him to kiss her, but isn’t kissing him first.

One of the things that Duguid stresses often is the connection, in the Song, between sex, marriage and children. This couple wants to possess one another, when the time is right, and sees its logical and desired end in having children together. He also stresses the role of family and community that is found in the Song. At times it is negative (like her brothers) but also often positive.

The Song functions to correct our fallen views of sex and relationship. Each culture should experience correction. While, for instance, purity is prized here it is not an idolatrous pursuit as can often happen. Duguid explains this in terms of beams and bombs. We find sturdy beams of truth upon which to build a biblical worldview, and bunkerbusting bombs that explode our false notions and worldviews. The Song reminds us that we need to positively teach the good things God says about sex, including in the Song. Duguid reminds us that one of Satan’s biggest lies is that God is a cosmic kill-joy and that His law is repressive rather than the law of love and freedom. God designed our bodies to enjoy sex. On the other hand, our desires are disordered so not all we want to do sexually is good and conforms to God’s law.

He speaks much about purity. We see the couple refusing to act on their desires until they are married. They still have desires for connection that are person specific. Purity is not simply a good unto itself. We can make an idol virginity losing sight of it as a faithfulness designed to minimize our sexual baggage that disrupts and corrupts the marriage bed. We are mirroring His fidelity to His people.

In his application Duguid regularly addresses single adults and those struggling with same sex attraction. The Song is for them too, as God re-orders their disordered desires (however slowly at times) as well as pointing them to Jesus.

The twelve chapters bring us from the awakening of their love to marriage, the reality of struggles in marriage and ending with the power of love. While the Song is not a relational handbook, it does teach much about fidelity and passion in a love that moves toward and continues in marriage. Duguid applies this in chastising those who put off love for careers when in reality love finds us at unexpected times. Putting off marriage at the height of sexual desire sets many up for failure. Yet neither should we make an idol of marriage as if it will satisfy. No one person can meet all our needs. The limitations of human love are intended to drive us to Jesus, not serial monogamy. Or polygamy/polyamory.

Love is powerful, as the Song warns us. It can make us crazy. There is the repeated warning not to arouse or awaken love until it is time. We can’t give full reign to our desires until the right time and context.

All in all this is a great book. Because it is a series of sermons the focus is on the relationship between them and our relationship with God. It is a volume I’d recommend to the single adults in my life so they can develop godly and realistic expectations. He dispensed plenty of wisdom without trying to advance the norms of some bygone culture. He brings us to Jesus in each sermon (providing great examples of Christ-centered sermons). I appreciate this book as a pastor & preacher, husband & father.

In part 2, I will compare this expositional commentary with his other commentary. I’ll try to see the differences in how he handles the text for those different audiences.

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I’Related imagem focused on the books I’ve read this year. So this isn’t a best and worst list of releases in 2019. There are books new and old, but these are books I read in 2019. Some of these might be helpful to you, faithful reader, and I might provide fair warning on lesser books not worthy of your time.

My Favorites

The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God by Tim Chester & Jonny Woodrow. The ascension is a much neglected doctrine by Protestants, and this is a very good introduction to the subject, and necessity, of the ascension of Jesus. Jesus is the forerunner, the first man to enter the heavenly temple in the flesh. He does so as our covenant head, so we will surely follow. He currently intercedes for us as our Great High Priest for us. He’s also our King who pours out His Spirit and exercises His rule in providence. This is a Christ-exalting and encouraging book.

On the Brink: Grace for the Burned Out Pastor by Clay Werner. This was a timely read for me as a prolonged conflict had me on the brink. While the conflict continued well into the year, I was invested in making some of the changes I needed to make (though perhaps not everyone agreed about that). This book helped me not only stay in ministry but where I was called. I’m thankful for this book.

Habakkuk: The Expectant Prophet by John Currid. This was an expositional commentary that I found particularly helpful while preaching through Habakkuk. It addressed many of my exegetical questions and provided some great ANE background to help me preach the text better.

In Christ: In Him Together for the World by Steve Timmis and Christopher de la Hoyde. This comes from the same biblical studies series as the book on the ascension. This is a good introduction. It doesn’t answer every question you may have. They do approach it from the vantage point of church planting. In Christ we are safe from the wrath of God. Here they focus on our salvation in union of Christ. Our union with Christ is also relational, we are connected to Christ and now in the presence of God. We also grow in Christ as a focus of our sanctification. They then discuss the communion of saints, the relational realities of our union. They also discuss our mission and the realities of our struggles. This is a helpful addition to the recent spate of books on this important doctrine.

Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story by Christopher Yuan. Christopher himself has a very moving testimony. Here he brings the gospel to bear on our sexuality, interacting with many of the issues currently being discussed and debated thanks to ReVoice and the continuing cultural push to normalize homosexuality (please, don’t confuse the two). His book is applicable not just for people who struggle with SSA (he still does) but also single adults and married people. The fall affected everyone’s sexuality, desires and relationship. If anything, I wish this book was longer.

Busy for Self, Lazy for God: Meditations on Proverbs for Diligent Living by Nam Joon Kim (translated by Charles Kim) is a rare book on sloth. At times it reflects his culture, which most wouldn’t accuse of laziness. As he keeps to the proverbs, there is much good and challenging material for us to consider so we forsake our laziness. He does have a gospel focus, so this is not simply moralistic and guilt-producing.

A Journey to Wholeness: The Gospel According to Naaman’s Slave Girl by Mark Belz. This is an excellent addition to the Gospel According to the Old Testament series. As I stated in my review, if a book stirs up a desire to preach a portion of Scripture it must be an excellent book. At times he puts too many words in people’s mouths, or thoughts in their heads but he helps us to see the gospel clearly through this OT event.

Grace Defined and Defended by Kevin DeYoung is a treatment of the Synod of Dort (or Dordt) on its 500th anniversary. It is a helpful explanation of this important document seeking to resolve the conflict between the church and the Remonstrants. His focus is on how Calvinism is put forth, but includes how Arminianism is laid out in the series of questions by Jacob Arminius’ followers. This is not overly technical and would be helpful for laypeople.

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How it Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn. I loved this book which provided lots of information about the part of the country I live in today. There is plenty of background on the Earps and the conflict which gets simplified, reduced and distorted in movies. This will be of great interest to history buffs or people interested in the Old West. And it is very interesting.

The Wholeness Imperative: How Christ Unifies Our Desires, Identity and Impact in the World by Scott Redd. This is a timely book for our time with its discussion of desires and identity. He deals with already/not yet realities as he unfolds a vision of progressive sanctification moving us toward whole heartedness. It isn’t simply about the mortification of sin but more the vivification of virtue and devotion. This flows from the implications the Shema and our response to the God who is one or united.

Faith. Hope. Love. The Christ-Centered Way to Grow in Grace by Mark Jones. This excellent book is in three parts, as you might imagine. Hope is the shortest, and love the longest because he explores the law as an expression of God’s love to us and our love to God and others. The section on faith explores the nature of saving faith. There is plenty to stir the soul here.

The Blessing of Humility: Walk Within Your Calling by Jerry Bridges. This is one of the last books he wrote. In this short book he describes humility using the beatitudes. As I noted in my review, this is a gospel-drenched book. The beatitudes describe who Jesus is for us, and who He is in the process of making us.

Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land by Eliot Clark. This is a meditation on 1 Peter thru the lens of mission. He plays off Peters theme of exile as he writes to a church in America that has been losing cultural power for decades. We increasingly feel out of place, like exiles. This should shape how we live, serve and make Jesus known. When we are grounded in gospel hope we don’t live in fear of what happens in our culture.

Leading with a Limp: Turning Your Struggles into Strengths by Dan Allender is one of my favorite books on leadership. Struggling this year, I read it again. It is still a great book about how God uses us, not in spite of but because of our flaws. We are jars of clay and the treasure is the gospel. You are the great leader, Jesus is. As we embrace our flaws and weaknesses we become better leaders.

Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God’s Unfolding Promises to His People by Jonty Rhodes. This is a great introduction to Covenant Theology. It is easy to understand, doesn’t get bogged down in minutia, has helpful diagrams so you can visualize the theology, and talks about how this matters to us today. His chapter on Jeremiah 31 is helpful in the intramural debate with New Covenant Theology to grasp the continuity and expansion of the covenant.

The Works of John Newton by … you guessed it, John Newton. This contains his letters, an autobiography, sermons, short treatises a brief history of the church among other things. I find so much pastoral wisdom in John Newton. He’s not profound like John Owen, but he is incredibly helpful in shaping the pastoral heart, and the Christian heart. He’s worth the investment of time.

The Mediocre

Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem by Robert Jones. This was not a bad book. It was not as helpful as I’d hoped. Jones failed to make some important distinctions and connections flowing from (perhaps) his different presuppositions. His goal was “getting rid of anger” rather than becoming slow to anger (like God), and how to “be angry and sin not.” As a result, there are biblical helps that are ignored by the author.

A Theology of Mark: The Dynamic between Christology and Authentic Discipleship by Hans Bayer. I bought and read it based on the subtitle. He does make some excellent points about it but I found the structure of the book to get in the way of really benefiting from this book as I’d hoped. I was left wanting more. It did, however lead me into preaching through Mark, so there is that.

The Downright Bad

Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace by Harvie Conn. I appreciate the thesis of this book. It’s delivery is so dated and non-linear I just couldn’t finish it. I deemed it not worth my time and effort despite its influence on some people I respect greatly.

There are more I could have put here. There are other good books I read, but these are the best, and the most frustrating. Enjoy or stay away, as the case may be.

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The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set) Newton, John cover imageI’m moving toward the end of The Works of John Newton. There are a few items in the 4th volume I want to address separately. The one that seems pertinent to me existentially is Thoughts on the Government of the Tongue.

We are in the midst of political polarization as a nation. As a denomination, we are in the midst of theological polarization. As I think about my own words they are not always what they should be. I also feel kicked around, misunderstood and attacked at other times. I’m beginning to make more use of the FB snooze function. However, I am not looking forward to 2020 because this election looks to be even more polarizing and spiteful than 2016 was.

Newton begins his thoughts this way:

There is perhaps no one test or proof of the reality of a work of grace upon the heart, more simple, clear, and infallible, than the general tenor of our language and conversations; …”

He is applying James 3 in light of Jesus’ words “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” James warns us of the danger of the tongue. It can burn down families, churches and nations. We can build up or tear down with our kids, spouses or friends.

The last year or so has been an exercise in holding my tongue. Some people may not believe it, but they didn’t hear all that is in my heart because I don’t want to damage relationship in my anger. James warns that the one who can’t bridle his tongue has vain religion.

“It is not the restraint of the heart, the apostle requires.”

While it is our duty to watch and mortify the sinful desires of our hearts. But “he supposes that the grace of God in a true believer will check the evils of the heart, and prevent them from breaking out by the tongue.” This means that a husband won’t light into his wife (or a wife her husband) when they disagree. This means that you don’t attack your neighbor who votes differently than you but perhaps seek to understand their perspective. We note the hatred and anger arising in our hearts and refuse to give vent to them.

Newton notes that restraining our tongues is not to be taken so strictly that we think a Christian never speaks unadvisedly. We see godly men like Job and Jeremiah cursing the day they were born. While godly people frequently restrain their tongues, James also notes that we all sin in many ways, including our speech. This is part of the sanctification process.

I don’t know if Trump is a genuine Christian. Taken strictly, one would be tempted to say “No way, Jose.” But if his reported conversion a few years is genuine, we should not be surprised if it takes time for a man who used speech sinfully in many ways to begin to restrain his tongue (and his tweets). If grace is in his heart, “it will so regulate and control the tongue, that it shall not customarily offend.” People need time to change, and it is frequently incremental. This should give most of us hope. We see change, but long for more (if we are honest).

But the counterfeit Christian cannot bridle his tongue because there is no grace in his heart. He may learn theology, help out around the church but the tongue will persist in gossip, slander, unwholesome speech and verbal assault.

Newton moves to what it means to bridle the tongue. One aspect is their language toward God.

“So likewise the hearts of believers teach their mouths to speak honorably of God under all their afflictions and crosses, acknowledging the wisdom and mercy of his dispensations; and if an impatient word escapes them, it grieves and humbles them…”

In affliction the sinful heart wants to curse God, blame God. The Spirit of grace works to restrain that sinful desire. When we do accuse or curse, the Spirit of grace convicts us so we are grieved.

It also restrains our prideful speech of ourselves. That tendency we have to assert we alone are right and good, and those who disagree with us are singularly evil, stupid or blind. We speak as though we have all the answers. Instead, the Spirit moves us to speak of ourselves as unworthy, needy creatures.

“In what they say of or to others, the tongues of believers are bridled by a heartfelt regard to truth, love and purity.”

Not just truth. Not just love. Our tongues are bridled by truth and love. And purity. Truth and love restrain our tongues so we don’t speak falsehood or hatefully. We begin to have an internal restrain, which is the key. That restraint is truth, love and purity. It isn’t fear.

Newton recognizes that we can unwittingly speak untruths. We can speak from ignorance, forgetfulness. We aren’t speaking to deceive. But we are wrong. Sometimes your opponent is just plain wrong, not lying. Keep that in mind as the election draws near.

The tongue is bridled by truth because God is the God of truth. Jesus is the truth. It is bridled by love because God is love. God is light, and in Him there is no darkness. As a result we are restrained by purity. We are holy because He is holy.

“… though true believers may, on some occasions, speak rashly, and have great cause for humiliation, watchfulness, and prayer, with respect to the government of their tongues…”

Yes, we have a goal and a motive but we have not arrived. This is cause for humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand. This is cause for watchfulness when in disagreement with another. This is cause for prayer that God will guard our mouths and tongues.

Newton provides us with some helpful, edifying thoughts and direction for governing our tongues as manifestation of grace. It is well worth heeding as we move into an election year, as we continue in denominational debate and engage in everyday conflict.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In my typical vacation mode, I’m reading another in the series “on the Christian life.” This vacation I’m reading Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ by Michael Reeves. Reeves’ goal is to communicate about Spurgeon’s views, not offering correctives or counter-points. While I agree with much of what Spurgeon held regarding preaching, there were enough things I wanted to offer a counter-point to that this merited its own blog post.

Spurgeon began to preach as essentially a newly converted person. Prior to his conversion he’d read much from his grandfather’s library. This is where his love of the Puritans came from. Spurgeon did not preach like a Puritan.

For instance, I’m also reading Christian Love by Hugh Binning. After his treatise on the subject there are 3 from his sermon series on Romans 8:1-15. They are taken from his 40 sermons on that passage. Yes, 40! The better part of a year on 14 verses, by a man who would die at 26.  Spurgeon did not do such lengthy series.

“The special work of our ministry is to lay open Christ, to hold up the tapestry and unfold the mysteries of Christ.”

“It is the end (goal) of our calling to sue for a marriage between Christ and every soul. We are the friends of the bride to bring the church to him; and friend of the church, to bring Christ to them.”

In this regard, Spurgeon is spot on regarding the goal of preaching. We are to so reveal Christ as to present a Savior worth trusting, and encourage them to trust in Him for all things as revealed in the Scriptures.

In this way, preaching is not simply an information dump. Information is conveyed. We must explain the text, and explain Christ to them. But we are to preach for personal and congregational transformation.

“The object of all true preaching is the heart: we aim at divorcing the heart from sin, and wedding it to Christ. Our ministry has failed, and has not the divine seal set upon it, unless it makes men tremble, makes them sad, and then anon brings them to Christ, and causes them to rejoice.”

The rub is in some of the opinions he had about how that takes place.

Reeves notes a common criticism, that I have mentioned to others, that he wasn’t very exegetical. Reeves notes that prior to his sermon, in another part of the service he would give “a separate verse-by-verse exposition on the portion of Scripture from which his preaching text would be taken.” Or at least what he thought he would be preaching. At times he would admit to changing his text on the fly. This would disconnect the text from the exegesis. If it was a late, not last second change, then he wouldn’t have much time to do proper exegesis of the text. He’d inevitably have to do that on the fly. The prep work he’d done (and he did do plenty of that) would not be used, at least that week.

Spurgeon discouraged his students from preaching series. He didn’t plan out his sermons in advance. I often have my sermon texts lined up a few months out. He thought few preachers had the gifts to preach a series and engage the congregation’s attention for the duration. Spurgeon notes that even the gifted Joseph Caryl preached his congregation from 800 to 8 over the course of his series on Job. No mention is  given on how many sermons this included. I’m not advocating 5-6 years (or 16) in a series on a book of the Bible.

He believed that such sermon series didn’t address the immediate situation of the congregation.

When I plan a sermon series, I consider the “immediate” needs of the congregation and choose a book that addresses those things. Their immediate needs often include long-term needs that need more than a sermon by an extended period breaking up the ground, sowing and watering seed that it may bear the fruit we long to see. Some of those immediate needs may be met by a short book like Jonah, or a longer book like Romans.

I want to model Bible study as a collateral benefit of preaching. They begin, I hope, to see how thoughts flow through a book of the Bible. They aren’t seeing a text arise from the ether but in the overall theme of its authors, human and divine.

Surely the Holy Spirit is not bound by the time frame of a week to know what any congregation needs. As God who has eternally decreed whatsoever comes to pass, He can lead and guide me well in advance, not just on the spur of the moment. In my preaching, I frequently illustrate in ways I had not prepared, or go on an unplanned trail. So the Spirit is not stifled, but neither am I investing hours each week figuring out what text to preach. Rather I’m grappling with the text to discern what it means and how it applies to this group of people.

Christ can be just as preeminent in a series as in a weekly discerning of a text to preach. As he famously noted, just as all towns in England had a road leading to London, all text lead to Christ.

As pastors, we do well to remember that we “are not only laboring for Christ but in His stead.” As the Reformed Confessions indicate, the word preached is the Word of God. Christ is addressing His people thru us. He indicated (as another book I’m reading, Preaching to a Post-Everything World) we must love the people, the sinners, to whom we preach. We do not exercise a ministry of condemnation. We are not to provoke or exasperate them. But we are to plead with them so they turn from their sin to Christ in both conversion (justification) and consecration (sanctification).

He also indicates that we are to embody that which we preach. Here I think is an issue as well. We are to preach joy in Christ, joyfully. But this implies that in God’s providence we are not preaching to ourselves as well as to them. Often I can struggle because God brings me to the “school house” through the text.

For instance, I’m currently preaching through Philippians. While joy is a theme of Philippians, so are partnership in the Gospel particularly in the context of persecution and some level of congregational strife. They were to stand together, but apparently they weren’t.

In our congregation this has been a year filled with change. Change inevitably brings conflict. There has been some disagreement among us. I’m a sinner and struggling to not take it personally at times. I’m challenged to abound more and more in love toward people with whom there is disagreement. My preaching, therefore, is not bound to my emotions. I’m not being deceitful as I say these things, but am also in the struggle to define my life by God’s great Story rather than I own feelings, thoughts or story. I’m in process just like they are.

We do not preach as perfected men. We preach as men being perfected. God’s living and active sword cuts us too, in a surgical way, as we prepare and preach. I agree we should not be disingenuous, but neither are we to search for a text or subject we’ve mastered or that suits are emotions on a particular day. God is in control over the text, and our circumstances even leading up into that moment we walk into the pulpit (many a preacher gets a disheartening text, call or email while writing the sermon, Saturday evening or Sunday morning). We are called to bring the Word of God to bear even as we wrestle with our own sinfulness and need for the gospel.

So, I find these views of his to be driven by subjectivity. As we think of his life, as a man who struggled with depression, this seems particularly out of place or idealistic. It can crush a man instead of helping him trust that God uses even him, a jar of clay, to reveal the treasure of the gospel.

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