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Posts Tagged ‘Prayer’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the bowels of the Bird and Babe (1999)

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

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

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

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

Some of the bestest friends a man can have!

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Rules for Walking in Fellowship - Puritan Treasures for Today (Owen)Last month I was talking to an old friend about membership issues. Since he loves the Puritans, I mentioned that he might want to read Rules for Walking in Fellowship by John Owen. I did this because I had begun reading it and thought it might be pertinent in our current discussion. His response was that the church plant he belonged to studied it as they considered their membership vows.

This is a VERY short book that begs to be taught as a Sunday School class. I’m not sure I’d use it for membership vows, but it clearly is helpful in communicating the responsibilities to the pastor, the church and one another.

In his introduction to the reader Owen lays out his presuppositions about the church, laying some things on the table. He lays out an observation that “men for the most part spending their strength and time more to oppose things they disagree with than to practice the things they and others agree are most necessary.”

Owen divides his treatise into two parts. The first, Rules for Walking in Fellowship with Reference to the Pastor or Minister who Watches Over Your Souls, covers 7 responsibilities for church members. The second part, Rules to Be Observed by Those Who Walk in Fellowship, to Remind Them of Their Mutual Duties toward One Another, covers 15 responsibilities for members to one another.

Each of these rules or responsibilities expresses the rule, provides some proof texts, a brief explanation and a list of motivations. They are about 4-5 pages so this book could be used for devotional reading over the course of a month. If you take time to address each of the proof texts, this could easily be converted into a Sunday School curriculum for study and discussion.

Some of these rules seem obvious but in his day and ours they are obviously not obvious to everybody. For instance, the first rule could be stated as: show up! In a small church your absence is easy to notice. When attendance is low it can be very discouraging for a pastor especially if he doesn’t know why you are absent. Some people are good about communicating (letting you know about vacations, travel etc. that may affect attendance). When someone or a family is absent for a few weeks, past experience and the fiery darts of the Evil One can create fear and suspicion: have I offended them, are they looking for a new church etc.. Pastors are humans, and have wounds from the past too. If you get to know them you will likely discover those wounds and act accordingly.

He also reminds people to pray for their pastor. I’ve been often encouraged to know that people are praying for me, especially in difficult seasons. At General Assembly in 2018 someone told me about pastor prayer teams, so I developed one and update them periodically. I mention important meetings or events as well as some personal things. I want to help people know how to pray for me.

“This is a burden that congregations often lay on the shoulders of ministers, that they may not leave their post under any circumstances whatsoever, while those who lay the burden on them will often freely leave the pastors and their ministry without any cause at all.”

He reminds them to pay their pastor. I’ve heard some people say their job is to keep their pastor humble, and they often try to do that financially. Enable your pastor to care for his family in a way enjoyed by most of your members. They don’t need to join the jet set but they should only be eating beans and rice every day if the rest of the congregation is too.

“Prayer is the great engine by which to prevail with the Almighty and the sure refuge of the saints at all times, both on their behalf and also of others.”

People also need to pray for their church, as well as the afflicted. Pray for the congregation, that the programs would accomplish God’s purposes for the people. We should pray for the peace, purity and prosperity of the local church. On a personal level we should also pray for those afflicted by illness, financial problems, relational difficulties, being victims of crimes and more.

People should not simply pray for the unity of the church, but work (make choices) that preserve unity and peace in the local congregation. Sometimes that means submission on secondary matters. Sometimes that means bearing with other’s faults (another rule). This also means being wary of those who divide the church.

People shouldn’t simply pray for the afflicted but may also have opportunity to bear their burdens, particularly the poor. They should be willing to associate with the lowly instead of using church to climb the social ladder.

“Let pity, not envy; mercy, not malice; patience, not passion; Christ, not flesh; grace, not nature; pardon, not spite or revenge be our guides and companions in our life’s walk.”

We see many practical ways to be involved with one another here. These are practical ways to study the peace, purity and prosperity of the church.

Sadly, many take a very low view of church membership vows in our day. Some churches don’t even have church membership, meaning that people aren’t explicitly agreeing to walk together. There are times when changing churches is wise, and even necessary. But people are often influenced with a consumerist mindset and push aside the obligations the have taken upon themselves. I’ll be reminding our congregation of those vows at our upcoming congregational meeting.

 

1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?

2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?

3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?

4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?

5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

Every member of our congregation has confessed to being a sinner in need of redemption in Christ. This means each member can and does sin, and some of those sins are against members of the church or harm the church. Those sins put the peace, purity and prosperity of the church at risk. They need restoration, reconciliation and repentance. This means that some people may be disciplined, but all have promised to submit themselves to the government of the church while studying purity and peace. These vows are intended to shape how we live or walk together in Christ’s church. More churches should be talking about these things.

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Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love Welch, Edward T. cover imageWhen we think about ministry to one another we probably think of Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands. There is a new book to consider in training people to be involved in people’s lives. Side By Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love by Edward Welch.

Side By Side is shorter and less technical. It is less structured around counseling. It is about being a friend and being able to talk about the big or important things in life.

It is structured around need. The first part is We Are Needy, and the second part is We Are Needed. Each of us will gravitate to one of those two sections. We tend to be aware either of our needs or others needs. Truth is we are needy and we are also needed.

Welch begins with the fact that life is hard. He helps us to know (or remember) that our needs are of different kinds. Life is hard in God’s kingdom (while we are still on earth), our work, our relationship and our bodies. At the center of it all is our heart which interacts with the hardness of life. Scripture indicates that our hearts are busy places. The heart produces both good and bad desires (due to our regeneration). Our hard circumstances intersect with our busy hearts.

One persistent problem, though hardly the only one, is sin. Sin and temptation plague us. We tend to hide our sin. We’ll talk with people about our suffering (we love to complain) but struggle to talk to people about our sin. As he will say in the second part, this is often the last thing we talk about. But that I mean we need to develop sufficient trust and intimacy.

This means we need help from the Lord. We need to pray, asking for grace, and exercise trust. We need to read the Word to hear God’s promises and warnings. We also need help from others, at least one other. They can speak those promises and warnings to us. They can hold our hand and weep with us as necessary.

“The goal is to become transparent and humble friends who are at ease with our neediness.”

As we become engaged in one another’s lives through mutual care the church moves forward. Welch reminds us that we have the Spirit to empower us in this mutual ministry. We don’t engage in this alone.

God moved toward us in our sin and misery. As we become like Him thru the gospel we begin to move toward others in their sin and misery. Moving toward them we begin to have thoughtful conversations. We don’t force them to open up, but display honest interest in them. It is basically just beginning a relationship and slowly deepening that relationship. This includes seeing the good in them, and enjoying them. This is done as we share stories, the stories that shaped us. Perhaps we ask some questions about those stories to understand more about how they responded or felt.

As the relationship deepens, you express compassion in trouble. Your theology of suffering will affect how you express compassion. One expression of compassion is prayer. We help one another become aware of Satan’s devices. Eventually you should be talking about sin and helping each other. These are two of the longer chapters.

Though we talk about our stories, Welch reminds us to connect them to the Story. Effective mutual ministry reconnects people to the Story. This means we need to know the Bible’s story line.

Caring for One Another: 8 Ways to Cultivate Meaningful Relationships By Edward T. Welch cover imageHow’s that for a brief summary of a brief book? Welch also has Caring for One Another which examines the material covered in the second section in a study guide.

I plan to use this book in my re-formatted officer training class. I want our officers to grow in mutual ministry so our members can begin to grow in mutual ministry. I want our officers to practice and model ministry to one another.

Unlike Instruments, this is not a long and complex book. Welch keeps it very simple so any church member can develop these mutual care relationships. To develop a good working knowledge of Scripture to address this sin & suffering you may want to add Mike Emlet’s Cross Talk: Where Life and Scripture Meet. Ed Welch gives us a great place to start.

 

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While at General Assembly, I spotted a book in the exhibit hall that I was curious about from online. I like to actually flip through a book. Yes, sometimes you can download a sample for a book. But like the one I just did, you just can’t flip through it. You scroll thru blank pages to get to the table on contents. You don’t flip to random pages. It’s just … different.

Caring for One Another: 8 Ways to Cultivate Meaningful Relationships By Edward T. Welch cover imageAnyway, that book is Caring for One Another by Edward Welch. It interested me as a small group discussion guide. It seems to be a companion to his book Side By Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love. It seems to track with the second part of that book.

It has 8 lessons:

  1. With All Humility
  2. Move Toward Others
  3. Know the Heart
  4. Know the Critical Influences
  5. Be Personal and Pray
  6. Talk About Suffering
  7. Talk About Sin
  8. Remember and Reflect

The goal here is developing vibrant community among Christians. His intention is that the lesson be read, and the questions at the end of the lesson be discussed. There are not so many questions that you will feel the pressure of time constraints.

Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love Welch, Edward T. cover imageWhere some will struggle is way Scripture is used. There are often references to Scripture to support a point. But it isn’t the development of a text or two in the course of the lesson. As a one off, I can live with that. As a steady diet, it would be problematic.

In thinking about my own church context, this series would likely be a hard sell though the overall subject would likely be quite helpful and what I want to develop. I want them to learn how to talk about these things with one another so they can care with one another. Like most sinners, we struggle with the superficial and the common ground: jobs, sports, hobbies etc.

One of the great needs is to connect a person’s particular needs with Scripture. It does take a growing knowledge of Scripture (it will always get back to that). Welch wants people to see that their problems are addressed by Scripture, and Scripture is one of the primary means of ministry to one another. Another is prayer, as he covers in another lesson.

He wants people to be able to understand more of their heart and begin to address the heart in their conversations- evaluating desires and longings, demands and expectations by Scripture. Ministry becomes more personal and powerful as we do.

At times Welch could utilize some important distinctions. For instance, in the lesson on sin he writes “Suffering, for example, cannot separate us from the Lord, but hard hearts and persistent sin break our relationship with God.”

I would address this in terms of the distinction between union and communion or fellowship. If we are truly united to Christ, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not suffering and not even sin because were are fully justified in Christ. It can break our fellowship or communion with Christ. God may seem distant, and He will discipline us like a father should his son. Our relationship is strained, but not broken.

That is quite a mouthful, and he’s trying to be brief in this book. He can’t say everything, but those distinctions are of great importance. The book could use a few more of those.

This book would be helpful for training small group leaders so they can begin to model this to their people. It would also be helpful for a small group so their subsequent studies are more impactful because they know and care for each other. That is what the church should be engaged in because God has cared for us in Christ Jesus, and makes us into people who care for others.

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In this, the Year of Newton, I’m trying to also read some shorter books. At the end of last year I bought a pair of books by Christian Focus. I’ve already reviewed the one on the ascension of Christ. Over the last week or so I’ve read the second- In Christ: In Him Together for the World by Steve Timmis and Christopher de la Hoyde.

In Christ: In Him Together for the WorldTimmis is generally known for his other work with Tim Chester, particularly Total Church and The Gospel-Centered Church. Those are both books I’ve benefited from in the past (here’s one blog post). He is an English pastor/church planter who is generally Reformed. I hadn’t heard of de la Hoyde before.

As the book indicates it is about union with Christ, which until recently was a greatly neglected theological subject. There are a number of newer titles looking at it from more academic and popular perspectives. This short book (90 pages) is an introduction in some ways. It doesn’t look at the subject exhaustively. What it does say is good and helpful, but keep in mind they aren’t trying to say everything.

The introduction prompts our thoughts in terms of what a church plant needs to learn and believe. This is not a surprise in light of Timmis’ role in Acts 29 Europe. They threw out a few options, like ecclesiology. They then bring up John Calvin, asserting that he was believe that a church plant needs to learn what it means to be united to Christ.

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ … This union (with Christ) alone ensures that, as far as we are concerned, he has not unprofitably come with the name of Savior.” John Calvin

This book, beginning with this quote from the Institutes, is drenched in Calvin’s thought. They are also dependent on theologians like John Owen. The organizing principle in Paul’s thought on salvation is union with Christ, or being “in Christ”. Rather than simply define it, they address it in terms of its benefits.

The first chapter is Safe in Christ. United to Christ we are safe from God’s wrath, but outside of it we are subject to it. The opening illustration is a house in the storm: in the house is safety, warmth and nurture. Outside is rain, wind, lightening and danger.

They do bring us back to Genesis 2 and humanity’s first home, the Garden of Eden. It was full of provision and peace. Adam and Eve lacked for nothing, except clothes but they didn’t need those. But then came sin and their exile. The curse means that our work is not as fruitful. Yet God held out hope for a new city, a new land.

As the story line of redemption develops we see that to be in the land is seen as enjoying prosperity and protection. To be removed or excluded from the land is a picture is a picture of judgement. Between Malachi and Matthew there were 400 years of silence, something of a 2nd Egyptian captivity where they are in the land but under the thumb of the Greeks and then the Romans. They are “exiled in the land” as a conquered people.

In comes Jesus, entering the land from the Jordan to begin a new conquest of the land. Jesus as the head of the new covenant is our representative. He bore the curse for us, and obeyed for us. We are now safe if we are “in Him.”

They develop this idea of representation with the illustration of Olympic athletes and, more importantly, Romans 5. Adam was our initial representative. All human beings from “ordinary generation” (human parents) are born “in Adam”: guilty of his sin and corrupt so we are also guilty of our own sins. If, by faith, we are “in Christ” His obedience is our obedience, we died and rose with Him. In other words, sin has no hold on us. We have already suffered its penalty with Christ. We have been raised to newness of life with Jesus as well.

“The gospel is God’s command and invitation for us to come out of Adam: out of sin and judgment. The gospel is also God’s command and invitation for us to come into Christ. The good in Christ is so much better than the bad in Adam.”

Then they move to Connected in Christ. Our union with Christ is a relational union. They begin to delve into the work of the Spirit who unites us to Jesus, and to one another. The Spirit unites us directly to Jesus thru faith, not through ritual. It is mediated by the Spirit, not the Church as in medieval Roman theology.

Connected to Christ we are in the presence of God. As we see in Ephesians 2 we’ve been made alive with Christ AND raise and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. We therefore have unlimited access to God in Christ.

They then talk about Growing in Christ. Christians, and congregations, become more like Christ. They grow through their union with Christ. Calvin notes that in Christ we receive the ‘double grace’ of justification and sanctification. We are accepted and righteous in Christ. His righteousness is imputed to us. But it is also imparted to us in sanctification.

While our union does not change, it is a dynamic union through which Jesus changes us. This brings them into discussions of progressive and definitive sanctification. It is important to remember that we don’t become more or less acceptable to God even though we can be more or less conformed to the likeness of Christ.

In Christ we are dead to sin, and need to think of ourselves as so. They bring us to Romans 6 to unpack this. But we are not only united to Christ in His death, but also in His resurrection. We’ve been raised to newness of life, and need to think of ourselves that way. We grow into our identity in Christ. Sin is not inevitable for us. We are not indebted to sin. We are indebted to Jesus.

In Romans 6, their credobaptist colors show a bit. This is one of the few points of disagreement I have with them. What we see in Roman 6 is what baptism signifies as a sign and seal of God’s promise. They take this as necessarily signifying what we have already received. Our disagreement is more about sacramental theology than union with Christ. But while our union with Christ is mediated by the Spirit, baptism is a sign & seal of our ingrafting to Christ. Paul speaks of them receiving this in baptism because as fruit of missionary work they believed, coming out of paganism, and were baptized.

They begin to unpack our mutual union in Together in Christ, bringing us to Ephesians 4 and 2 “for we are members of one another.” A great reunification has taken place because Jesus has removed the wall of hostility. But that does not mean that church life is easy.

“Church life is messy. It’s tough, it’s long and it’s often ugly. That’s why we need to help each other to regain God’s own view of His church: we are a people reconciled in Christ to display His wisdom  to the universe.”

They return to Ephesians 4 to address the practices that help and hinder membership in the one body. Not only do Christians grow in godliness, but churches are to as well. We are a light in the darkness.

They shift to Mission in Christ. Joined to Jesus we share in His mission. God’s mission becomes our mission because we are united to Christ. They discuss identity (who I am), purpose (why I am) and function (what I am). Then they have a few case studies to explore these concepts.

The final chapter is Everyday in Christ. They admit “the Christian life can be frustrating.” Our temptation, in frustration and boredom, as they note is to look outside of Christ for help. They bring us to Colossians to look at some of the things we look to in addition to Christ. They call us back to the gospel.

“We need more of Christ, not more than Christ.”

Christ, who lived for us, defines how we should live. This is not intended to be an abstract doctrine. For Paul, it was a doctrine that shaped our daily lives. They direct us to a few areas: prayer and marriage. There could have been more, and I wish there were more (at the least singleness).

This makes a great introduction to the subject. They take a biblical theology approach, viewing union from the perspective of the history of redemption (creation, fall, redemption & glorification) rather than a systematic approach. They also try to bring out the connections to church planting and other practical aspects. For this they are to be commended. Just as they aren’t saying all they could theologically, they aren’t saying all they could practically or in terms of implications/applications. They want this to be short and sweet. In light of this they also avoid lots of technical terms so ordinary people can understand what they are saying.

All this to say it was a good little book that I wish was a little longer.

 

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From the 20th century, Francis Schaeffer cast a long shadow that is still seen in the 21st. L’Abri and his disciples like Os Guinness, Jerram Barrs, and Nancy Pearcey continue his work. I enjoyed his book True Spirituality, but got bogged down in He is There and He Is Not Silent. I’ve been meaning to read some of his other books.

As a result, I decided to read Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality by William Edgar on my study leave. Reading a book in this series has been my practice for the last few years. As I consider our changing place in American culture, I thought this would be a helpful read. In some ways it was. In other ways it wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped.

The book was written by one of his disciples: William Edgar. Edgar was a college student seeking truth when he visited L’Abri and met with Schaeffer. Francis was instrumental in his conversion and growth as a Christian. He teaches apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

He begins the book with that personal reflection of his experience with Fran, as close friends like Edgar called him. This volume is not hagiography, however. He’s honest about Schaeffer’s shortcomings. He tries to present a balanced volume, and I believe he succeeds.

One of the flaws that Edgar mentions is his interaction with Cornelius Van Til, who was his professor for a time. Their apologetic method was very similar, but they seemed to dwell on their differences. In Edgar’s opinion they often talked past one another, as is often the case in such debate.

He then moves to Schaeffer’s life in two parts. The first is his early life, and life after the beginning of L’Abri. Little is known of his ancestors prior to his grandfather’s arrival in America in 1869, after the Franco-Prussian War. He apparently burned all of the family records.

His father only received a 3rd grade education. He apparently was a thoughtful man, as Fran would later reflect that working-class people could be deep intellectually. He worked hard, including time in the Navy. They attended a Lutheran church and believed the gospel. They would struggle financially even as they tried to leave behind the poverty of their parents. As a result, they only had one child (Francis). No books were in the house. The only vacations were trips to nearby Atlantic City.

In addition to this obstacles, Francis likely had dyslexia. Despite this he had a thirst for knowledge. He was driven by consistency. He wanted it to all fit together. He had an interest in Greek philosophers. He read the Bible through so he could reject it with integrity. Instead he became convinced that it was the most consistent way of looking at life that answered all the big questions.

At college he met Edith, who grew up in China because her parents served as missionaries with the China Inland Mission. This experience may have influenced L’Abri’s position as a “faith mission” (not sharing financial needs with others but simply praying for them). They both attended a meeting at First Presbyterian Church to hear a Unitarian attempt to refute Christianity. She responded to him citing J. Gresham Machen and Robert Dick Wilson from the new seminary down the street. This caught Francis’ ear and attention. He walked her home and requested she break off a date with another young man to go out with him. They were well suited for each other and complemented each other well.

Francis would end up at the new seminary, Westminster, as a student. There were two issues that the seminary left open: the millennium and Christian liberty. This would become a big issue in the also new Orthodox Presbytery Church in addition to the seminary. The last exam that Machen administered was to Francis, at his bedside.

Some in the community forming around Westminster and the OPC were historic premillennial and abstained from Christian liberties. They struggled with those who weren’t so inclined. It was not enough for them to separate from the Presbyterian Church in America (the liberal northern denomination that no longer exists and not to be confused with current PCA), and they separated from the OPC to found the Bible Presbyterian Church.

This was pertinent for his spiritual crisis. Schaeffer realized that he was not gracious and kind to those with whom he disagreed. He realized he was wrong. Hopefully most of us come to this understanding as we age in years and mature in Christ. That is counter-cultural in this age of outrage. It is one thing Edgar probably could have spend more time.

While the pastor of a church in St. Louis, God seemed to be calling Schaeffer to Europe. When he left St. Louis, his friend and one of my former professors Elmer Smick took over his responsibilities. At this time Schaeffer met Martyn Lloyd-Jones who similarly called evangelicals to leave the Church of England. He also met C. Everett Koop (who treated his daughter) and Hans Rookmaaker who would become life-long friends.

Image result for L'AbriSchaeffer talked much culture and was often critical. His views were not the conservatism of, say, D. James Kennedy, but those of the revolutionary. While they may have overlapped at points, Schaeffer wanted Christians to buck the trends and lived in a counter-cultural fashion. This was to exhibit the reality of Christianity.

His spiritual crisis in 1951-52 resulted in True Spirituality. It was about living in the reality of Christianity. We are really guilty, and Jesus has really made atonement for sin. Schaeffer stressed the authority of Scripture. “Wherever it touches upon anything, it does so with true truth, but jot with exhaustive truth …” He focused on propositional truth as conveyed by the Scriptures. The Bible spoke about how things really were.

A large part of his apologetic was to point out to people how their worldview didn’t match up with their lives, and often couldn’t. He looked for the inconsistency, the borrowed capital (as David Bahnsen calls it) of their view. He wanted to bring people to square with reality.

“All of us battle with the problems of reality … Reality is not meant to be only creedal, though creeds are important. Reality is to be experienced on the basis of a restored relationship with God through the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.”

This brings freedom to the Christian. We are free from the bonds of sin and the bonds of legalism to live free in Christ to live godly lives of faith and love as expressed in the Ten Commandments. That is because we’ve been delivered from the Law’s loud thunder. Still sinners, we have both died with Christ and die daily. Self-denial is a central reality in the Christian life.

As subversives we sometimes have cobelligerents: people with whom we agree on a particular issue but do not share the Christian faith and worldview. This seems to be his view of common grace. We both see the truthfulness of this issue and work together even though we don’t see all of life the same way.

Prayer was an important and ordinary part of life at L’Abri. Edgar draws heavily here from Edith’s writings. He often does this since her writings were more about the practical aspects of their lives while Francis was looking at the bigger pictures. This was one of the ways their writings complemented each others’. Prayer is one of the ways we show we believe in God- we rely on Him in prayer. The cross invites us to ask for His help.

In terms of guidance, Edith writes that they didn’t really have a long range plan for L’Abri. They responded to the challenges that came their way. As finite people, making grand plans we can’t actually accomplish didn’t seem to make sense to her. As I face the realities of pastoral ministry, this seems to be what happens no matter how much I want to plan long-range. Cavman plans and God laughs.

Edgar then moves us into the topic of affliction which will surely come upon Christians in various forms. He addresses how Schaeffer dealt with Albert Camus’ dilemma as expressed in the plague. Do you fight against God to seek a cure or against humanity by rejecting one? Schaeffer sees this as a false dilemma. God loves humanity and to fight for a cure would be to fight on God’s side. In Camus’ atheistic world, there is no way to evaluate good and evil, there is no standard of justice.

Schaeffer had a complex relationship with the Church. He loved the Church as Christ’s bride. But he was critical of the ways the evangelical church strayed from its calling. Many who spent time at L’Abri would struggle in church life as a result. Schaeffer would not point to external problems like modernism or liberalism as the Church’s biggest threat, but to trying to fulfill its calling the power of the flesh. The middle class evangelical church is also risk adverse. We don’t want to risk our middle class life and compromise as a result.

“Schaeffer taught the general principle of form within freedom, an freedom within form- especially in the church.” They were not antitheses but needed on another to be meaningful. Jesus has set us free and life finds form within this spiritual freedom. We have patterns that emerge. Within those forms we are able to enjoy a measure of freedom. As one who needs to know the boundaries but wants to play within them rather than be straitjacketed by them, I grasp this. Form is meant to be a guide, not stifling.

“Unlimited freedom will not work in a lost world; some structure and form are necessary.”

He then moves into engagement with the world. This is the application of a revolutionary Christianity to a fallen world. His expectations were not perfectionism- either in the Christian life nor in society. The historical (having taken place in space & time, not simply the belief of the Church) Christianity has historically changed the cultures in which it has taken root like yeast affects dough. It speaks to the issues of any day, calling society and individuals to forsake sin.

As I noted, this book stirred up an interest to read more of him. I saw ways that I had been greatly influenced by what I have read of his. Or picked up from professors who read him.

I tended to see this book as more like Schaeffers views on a variety of subjects than how to live as a Christian in this world. It seemed less than helpful in this regard. It seemed too philosophical at times. Perhaps it was just how Edgar structured the book, and the big themes he addressed. I was left without it making a big impression on me as other volumes in this series have. Interesting? Yes. Impactful? We’ll see.

“I have never met anyone anywhere like Francis Schaeffer, who took God so passionately seriously, people so passionately seriously, and truth so passionately seriously.” Os Guinness

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As a former Particular Baptist, as they used to be called, I had an appreciation for Charles Spurgeon. While in seminary I did a paper in one of my history classes examining his sermons during the revival of 1859 to see how the doctrines of grace (aka Calvinism) were prominent and therefore consistent with revival.

I’ve found Michael Reeves’ books, Delighting in the Trinity and Rejoicing in Christ, to be engaging and informative. The former helped (re)shape my grasp of missions (including a critique/weakness of Christopher Wright’s tome, in other words, where is the love?).

So, imagine my pleasure in seeing that Reeves wrote the new book Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ. I decided I would read it during my vacation ritual this summer.

Reeves had no easy task in trying to put this together. The vast majority of Spurgeon’s writing are the transcriptions of his sermons. Not quite something you can easily read and grasp a comprehensive understanding of how he understood the Christian life. He is an unenviable position as he writes this book.

One of the interesting things about this series is that often the volume is written by someone outside of the subject’s tradition. Trueman, a Presbyterian, wrote the volume on Luther. Here Reeves, an Anglican, writes about the Calvinistic Baptist.

The sections cover the themes of Christ the Center, The New Birth and The New Life. As you might imagine, regeneration seems to be the central motif in Spurgeon’s view of the Christian life as understood by Reeves. We must become new people with new passions and all of that happens in Christ. Or thru Christ since the focus is not quite union with Christ. Explicitly, anyway.

He begins with a very brief biography of Spurgeon. He was a man of great passion, who felt greatly. He was known for a great sense of humor. While he used some humor in the pulpit, he was not a comedian as some pastors seem to think of themselves. Like Jonathan Edwards, Spurgeon loved creation and allusions and illustration to trees, flowers, animals and more filled his sermons. Spurgeon also grew up reading the books in his grandfather’s library. Many of these were Puritan books, and he developed a great fondness for Bunyan, particularly Pilgrim’s Progress.

Christ the Center

He viewed the Bible as the Word of Christ about Christ. As a result, the Bible did not compete with Christ for our affections, but is the revelation of Christ for us to know Christ. To not love the Bible is to not love Christ. The Bible is living and active as a result. Jesus changes lives through the Bible.

In terms of translations, he held the KJV in high esteem, but not without criticism. There were times the translation frustrated him (as happens with me concerning other translations at times).

Spurgeon affirmed that not only did the OT point us toward Christ, but that OT saints are our brothers and sisters. We shared the same faith. We just know more of the faith. Christ is the center of our faith, and all doctrines find their proper orbit around Christ.

“A Christless gospel is no gospel and a Christless discourse is the cause of merriment to devils.”

He was fully Trinitarian. But we must remember that Christ alone is the Mediator between God and man. It was Christ who became human, obeyed, died and was raised for our salvation. We come to the Father thru the Son, so Spurgeon preached Christ.

As I mentioned before, he grew up reading Puritans. His theology was Puritan. Aside from the issue of baptism (and the ecclesiology that flowed from that)he was “Reformed”. He had a great appreciation for Calvin and understood Calvinism to be a shorthand for the gospel. He understood them as they were intended to be: Christ-centered.

Though he was a Baptist, he affirmed (and perhaps exceeded) the WCF concerning elect infants dying in infancy being saved by the work of Christ. In one place he extended this to all infants dying in infancy. I’m not sure we have biblical warrant for this extension, though I’d like it to be true.

Spurgeon was not dogmatic about Calvinism however (not a Gnostic Calvinist). He would affirm other preachers as long as they preached Christ. Reeves noted a sermon Spurgeon heard by a priest in Belgium. The priest preached Christ, much to Spurgeon’s delight.

Preaching was more than informing people about Christ. He saw his goal to draw people to Christ. While you have content, the target is the heart. This, in some strange way I’d love to talk to him about, was why he discourage sermon series. I was scratching my head. Sermon series can’t be used by God to transform lives?

The New Birth

Spurgeon was baptized as an infant. Like many new converts today, he read the Bible and believed he should be baptized after he believed. Spurgeon held on to his baptistic convictions despite the fact that many of the theologians he loved and respected practiced infant baptism. Reeves places this within the context of baptismal regeneration and a return to Roman Catholicism. Reformed paedobaptists don’t hold to baptismal regeneration. But it seems the fear of Roman Catholicism was strong in Spurgeon (I once was there too).

We see there the disconnect, or at least I do. He held that we are brothers and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and the rest. The covenantal principle seen in the sign of circumcision is that children receive the sign and seal of “righteousness by faith” (Rom. 4). Abraham had the faith, and the sign called his children to the faith. But Spurgeon breaks faith, so to speak, on this principle. He viewed baptism as a sign of our faith, not God’s promise. At times he warned of the baptismal font being a rival of Christ’s for paedobaptists. The same could be said for many of the credobaptists I’ve heard. So there seems to be another inconsistency.

I mentioned about the covenantal principle of visible and invisible church in the OT (and NT). Rather, he holds to the impossible prospect of the “pure church”. Credobaptism doesn’t create a regenerate church, as the rolls of many baptist churches indicate. Baptism doesn’t mean one possesses the reality to which the sign points, whether one holds to paedobaptism or credobaptism. The promise of the new covenant is isolated from how the NT actually speaks about the church (wheat & tares, for instance).

The new birth is necessitated by human sinfulness. We are not merely weakened by sin, but dead in sin and trespasses. We are hostile to Christ and the law in the unregenerate state. People are not neutral. God must grant new life for people to believe. Regeneration is a grace we receive, not because we’ve met any conditions but in order that we may believe. The Spirit uses the Word to give us this new life. He enlightens our minds; He shines His light into our hearts.

Without the cross, there is no regeneration. There is no salvation apart from atonement, by Christ. His focus on Christ’s death meant that he advocated for weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The message that saves is Christ crucified. It is also about the mortification of our sin in the present. Jesus aims to mortify our sin and give life to graces.

The New Life

The new birth necessarily creates a new life. The Spirit doesn’t give us new life and walk away. We are increasingly drawn to Christ and away from the sin that so easily entangles.

Another aspect of our new life is prayer as an expression of our union with Christ. Our communion with Christ doesn’t pull us out of the world but calls us into the world just as Christ went into the world.

“… nobody mixed with sinners more than our Lord.”

Reeves then returns to sanctification. Spurgeon held to the blood of Christ as the “double cure”: free from sin’s guilt and power. Christ’s blood removes our guilt, but in Christ we also died to sin. Saved by grace thru faith, we also begin to walk in the good works prepared for us. This new life is a gift, but we live it. The Spirit isn’t living for us.

Spurgeon made much of joy. It reveals that we serve a great Savior. It is the strength for our service to Him. Complaining and despondency rob us of joy, strength and vitality. But Spurgeon knew this first hand, as Reeves points out later.

As we grow into Christ, we increasingly hate our sin. And increasingly see our sinfulness. We become more sensitive to sin and recognize our sinful motives and not simply actions.

“As the man loves God more, and becomes more like Christ, he takes greater delight in prayer.”

Reeves then returns to prayer with its own chapter. Spurgeon saw prayer as essential, not only to the Christian life, but to ministry. The Monday Prayer meeting was attended by over a thousand people each week. He saw it as the engine of the ministry. It is the battlefield between faith and unbelief. Spurgeon, who didn’t like planned out sermon series, also didn’t like planned out prayers either. He preferred spontaneity. I think this is a more a matter of preference and personality instead of principle.

Reeves then shifts to Bunyan’s influence. We are pilgrims. But we are not solitary pilgrims. We are a community of pilgrims. But we are engaged in warfare- an army of pilgrims. The warfare motif wasn’t reserved for sermons, but Reeves shows that it influenced his private prayer journals. His was an active faith. Spurgeon oversaw “the Pastor’s College, the Stockwell Orphanage, seventeen almshouses for poor and elderly women, the Colportage Association, and a day school for children.” This was just the tip of the iceberg. He didn’t expect the government to solve his society’s problems. He expected the church engage them, and led the charge.

But life is not all flowers and sunshine. Afflictions come and spirits falter. Depression can come home to roost whether by circumstance or medical conditions. Spurgeon fought with depression. The incident in Surrey Gardens, a “joke” that panicked the crowd resulting in 7 dead and 28 severely injured, resulted in clinical depression. Spurgeon also suffered from “a burning kidney inflammation called Bright’s Disease, as well as gout, rheumatism, and neuritis.” At times he would be unable to preach for extended periods of time.

One reason we suffer is that Jesus suffered. The cross comes before the crown for us too, according to Paul. It is a sign of our adoption and union with Christ. We also learn to depend on Christ rather than ourselves. God also prepares us for greater ministry thru humility and empathy.

He wraps up with the hope of glory. This is not our best life now. Spurgeon likely was a premillenialist, but clearly not a dispensationalist. He was not into speculation. He was into focusing on Christ.

Summing Up

Perhaps it was my high expectations, but I finished the book thinking “That’s it?”. At no point was I stopping to ponder something more fully. This is the first volume in the series that disappointed me. This is not a volume I would be inclined to recommend to anyone (my favorite remains the volume on John Newton). This was more theoretical and geared toward the pastor, in my opinion. It also seemed to skim the surface.

As I mentioned above, the source material is so vast but due to his habit of not systematically preaching through the Scriptures. It is seemingly impossible to sort through and “systemize” the material. This is still unfortunate.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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So far, I can safely say this was my least favorite chapter of Introverts in the Church.

Possibly most dangerous book in the chapter.

How introverts approach their faith will be different, generally speaking. These are not absolutes, hermetically sealed chambers we are considering. I’d say tendencies.

Introverts will tend to shun the public expressions of faith for the personal or private expressions of faith. They buy the worship music and listen to it alone for private worship. They are more likely to meditate upon Scripture. I like to play my guitar, listening to the words of the song in my head, expressing my heart to God. These are things extroverts do too, just differently.

But that isn’t where Adam McHugh took us. He took us to monasticism. Yes, I think introverts are more drawn to monasticism. I’m not convinced that is a healthy thing. But more disconcerting was he took us to mysticism.

I’m not one to go “that’s Catholic” to write off an ancient practice that may be helpful. But I’m leery of mysticism precisely because it bypasses the mind. Bypass the mind and there are not boundaries to protect yourself from false and destructive spiritual experiences.

I’m no “devil in every bush that rustles” guy, but I do believe there are unclean spirits willing to deceive people who separate Word and Spirit.

God spoke to us. He used words, precisely because He wanted to be understood and not simply experienced in some vague way. I agree with guys like John Calvin and John Owen that the Spirit works and speaks through the Word. And so we should be engaged with the Word, asking to Spirit to work, as we read it, meditate on it, sing it, pray it, listen to it etc..

McHugh, following Benedict, wants to eschew words. Yes, there may be times of silence but I’m thinking words. Silent prayer, meditation, singing, etc. But he says “Words, rather than issuing from a well of reverence and wisdom, often betray ignorance and immaturity.” “Often” is the caveat, but still. Jesus, the Word Incarnate, used words in His personal devotion to the Father. This we know.

Yes, there are dangers to technology and their effects on our brains. How we think, process and live. We are overstimulated. His critique here is warranted.

In discussing contemplative spirituality he contrasts apophatic spirituality from kataphatic spirituality. Those are two terms you don’t hear often. “Apophatic spirituality focuses on what cannot be grasped about God through rational thought, words or images. It emphasizes the hiddenness of God.” As such, it seeks to go beyond what God has revealed.

Calvin very much emphasized Deuteronomy 29:29 in his theology and practice.

29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

The secret or hidden things belong to God, not us. What He has revealed belongs to us to ponder and enjoy. In other words, we should reject speculation in such matters. We recognize there is mystery, there are boundaries to our knowledge. But we respect that rather than trying to penetrate the veil. This is why “evangelical theology is grounded in revelation”. This is a good thing, not a bad thing like McHugh seemingly wants to make it. Yes, it can only take us to the borders of mystery. But that is only as far as we are supposed to go!

He encourages the examen, or spending the end of the day considering the day. This is helpful as we compare our decisions, actions and affections to God’s commands and ask for forgiveness. It is helpful as we see our weakness & ignorance and ask for strength and wisdom. It is processing your day, and this is generally a good thing. We should consider our desires and what lies beneath them more.

People tend to live on the top of the iceberg. We experience desires but rarely consider what drives those desires. Often there is a legitimate longing at work that we are seeking to fulfill illegitimately if legitimate avenues are blocked. This is about ourselves, not God. This is about self-understanding. For Calvin the knowledge of God and self are connected. If I know God better, I’ll understand my longings better and how my corrupt heart distorts legitimate longings.

I know I largely live within routines of rhythms of life. When I get outside of my pattern I’m uncomfortable, discombobulated. For instance I just had 3 “short” weeks. Labor Day made for a short work week. The next week I went to a ball game with another pastor on a Thursday, shortening my week. The 3rd week was Presbytery. I felt very much like I haven’t had time to do my work. Tasks have been left undone and that bugs me tremendously.I can agree that when my rhythm suffers, I suffer. I’m irritable and confused.

So he advocates an introverts’ rule to create such rhythms or routines. He doesn’t advocate one for all, but offers questions to help you sort out one that works for you so you are regularly engaging with God to equip you for life in His world.

While he makes a few good points, I find some of what he says here dangerous because any spirituality, introverted or extroverted or ambiverted, should not deviate from a biblical spirituality.

 

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Another vacation means reading another volume in the “Theologians on the Christian Life” series of books. So far I’ve read the volumes on Newton, Luther, Bavink and Edwards. I enjoy these books tremendously as they interact not just with their theology but also their practice.

This summer I chose Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever written by Michael Horton. I had some hesitancy about this volume. I haven’t read any Horton in years having grown weary of polemical theology, and not finding his expressions of two-kingdom theology all that helpful. I always seemed to be left saying “And?” when he talked about it.

This book was a pleasant surprise. It was a little more weighted toward theology than some of the others, but that theology was a necessary background to understanding how Calvin viewed life in Christ. There was a good progression of thought throughout the book. There were no exceedingly long chapters. There were plenty of quotes from Calvin and others who have produced volumes on his life and thought to make Horton’s points. I found it to be an edifying and encouraging volume in this series.

As he notes, Calvin’s was a very different time. The Reformation had been spreading throughout Europe and nation-states were gaining some measure of independence from the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor. Like today there were many political and religious refugees in Europe, and many of them made their way to Geneva. In the religious reforms they were still in the process of sorting out how to implement what they believed. Calvin was one of the people working to bring the Protestants together as some differences seemed to be driving them apart.

Church was a central part of life with daily services part of many people’s routine or rhythm of life. It was a less distracted time, even if sin still found its way to manifest itself abundantly. As a result of this, some of how Calvin viewed the Christian life is anachronistic, or at least seems to be to us with personal devices, long commutes, mass media and more. Christian living, while personal, was far more public than we see today.

As one of the great figures in the Reformation we tend to think he was a parochial as we can be. There was no “Reformed tradition” or heritage for Calvin to draw upon. He drew upon the larger tradition of the Church, eastern and western. He was influenced, not only by Augustine, but also by Chrysostom, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and Bernard of Clairvoux among others. He interacted with Luther and Melanchthon to find common ground. He was not impressed with Zwingli. He spent time during his exile with Bucer and found that a great benefit. He influenced many of the next generation of leaders, like John Knox. Calvin was not an innovator but a man who lived as part of a theological community that exceeded his geography and time.

Horton begins where the Institutes begins: the knowledge of God and self. We were made to be in relationship with God and to reflect or reveal His glory as His image. So, to know God is to know ourselves in greater measure even if we see what we are not. Calvin was no fan of speculative theology. We cannot know God in the abstract, but know Him in Christ who came in the flesh to exegete the Father. We know God through His works, and so we recognize the divine drama or great Story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Glorification. All of Scripture reveals this larger Story. We see some differences between how the Reformers and Roman Catholicism viewed general revelation and common grace. He saw our depravity going deeper so that no one was neutral when examining our world and/or doing theology. The pursuit of truth is distorted by our depravity. General revelation is not simply a “dimmer light but a different light than special revelation” because it does not speak of redemption.

Like Luther, Calvin was a theologian of the cross rather than a theologian of glory. God is known through Christ, and Him crucified. We do not seek to climb “ladders of speculation, merit and mystical experience” to gain union with God. Rather we are united to Christ crucified and resurrected for us to gain knowledge of God.

In this great drama there are actors and a plot. Here Horton explains that for Calvin the solas of the Reformation were a fabic, not independent statements. Similar to TULIP which was formulated long after Calvin’s death, they stand or fall together. Scripture is our final authority because it is God speaking to us about the Son through the inspiration and illumination of the Spirit. The great actor is the Triune God, not merely dogma but “the heart of reality in which we live and move and have our being.” The Incarnation of the Son reminds us that matter is good, not evil. That there is nothing inherently sinful about humanity itself despite its weakness and limitations. Our sinfulness is tied to being “in Adam” not simply being human. So Calvin did not hold to a Spirit-matter dualism as did medieval Rome and early Anabaptists. Rather, God made matter and uses it to His good purposes. One application of this is that the Spirit works thru the Word, contrary to the views of the Anabaptists and other fanatics.

The other actors in this are people, and so Horton moves quickly through Calvin’s anthropology. He is always contrasting this with the views of Rome expressed through the medieval church. This brings us to providence and grace as God works to redeem fallen humanity. Horton contrasts providence with the Stoic notion of fatalism. We see a God at work to redeem us, not a people who seek to redeem themselves. We see people who are lifted up by a Redeemer, not who lift themselves up by their bootstraps. We see people who are sought (and found) by God though they hide in the bushes, not people who seek after a God who hides. When we grasp both providence and grace, our circumstances are not punishment from a Judge but instruction from a Father who seeks to mold and shape us.

“Properly speaking, God is not angry with his elect, whose diseases he cures by afflictions as it were by medicines.”

From here, Horton proceeds to Christ the Mediator who came to us and for us. He uses a phrase that will be used often within the book, here with reference to His two natures: “distinction without separation”. This is a difficult formula to maintain but it was the heart of the Chalcedonian formula which made its way through Calvin’s theology. This formula, and how it is understood, was a key in the disagreements about the Lord’s Table that separated the Protestants. Horton’s comments on this are quite helpful.

As the Mediator, Jesus does not merely provide assistance to us but saves us to the uttermost. Yet, we live in the gap between inauguration and consummation, the already and not yet tension is at the heart of Calvin’s spirituality. Our salvation is received in union with Christ. We don’t receive His benefits so much as Christ Himself. He brings all those benefits with Him. They are distinct but without separation because we don’t have a divided Christ. Horton distinguishes these benefits in another chapter. They include effectual calling, justification, sanctification, and adoption. He always distinguishes the Protestant view from the Roman view, particularly as expressed in the Council of Trent.

With this heavier theology out of the way, Horton moves into life in the Body of Christ. Our Christian living is not a private thing, but one that is lived in the context of the Christian community. This is important for our individualistic society to hear so we can be freed from the shackles of a privatized faith. For Calvin it was corporate worship (Word, sacrament & prayer) that fed our personal worship (Word & prayer), and not the other way around. Corporate worship is where we learn how to read the Word and pray. We apply that in our personal and family worship. Community has precedence over individual. This is a radical statement today. Yet at we look at love and the fruit of the Spirit we see they all require others. The Trinity is an eternal community or fellowship of love. We have been made in God’s image to be a community or fellowship of love, not simply a periodic gathering of saved individuals.

This plays out in seeking grace in public worship, not medieval spirituality. We do not ascend to God, but Christ descended to us. We do not seek seclusion like the monks and nuns, but live in Christ in the midst of the world. Horton speaks of Calvin’s views of the preached Word, baptism, confession of sin (a good thing in worship!) and the Lord’s Table.

“The only way to serve God well is to serve our fellow believers. Since our good deeds cannot reach God anyway, he gives us instead other believers unto whom we can do good deeds. The one who wants to love God can do so by loving the believers.”

Horton continues with worship, discussing visual representations and music. These are some of Calvin’s more controversial views regarding worship today. While I want to keep the images of Christ out of our worship, I don’t want to keep the instruments out. I don’t see how they are part of the shadows and ceremonies. I see instruments in the heavenly visions of Revelation. If they are symbolic, what do they symbolize (it notes the singing, so….)? Music seems circumstantial to me. We don’t have any “authorized” tunes. So we waste our time, energy and breath arguing over such things. I’m sure God is more concerned with whether I strummed my guitar for him or myself, or if you listened to the instruments for his glory or simply your pleasure, than whether or not the corporate worship used instruments or not. But I digress.

Horton then brings us to Calvin’s view of prayer as the chief exercise of faith. Horton notes “true worship consists not in outward rights but in casting ourselves on the Father’s gracious care in Christ and by his Spirit.” He interacts with God’s providence and prayer so that prayer is one of the instrumental means of God’s providence. For Calvin prayer was “to the Father, in the Son and by the Spirit.” Our union with Christ also means that we do not pray alone but that Christ is praying not just for us, but with us. Our prayers are an echo of His prayers for us, we are following His lead because of the work of the Spirit in us resulting from our union.

You can’t talk exhaustively about Christian living without touching upon the Law of God. Horton brings in Calvin’s views in the tenth chapter. Like Luther, Calvin utilized a law and gospel distinction. “Calvin also appropriated Melanchton’s threefold use of the law.” The Law drives us to Jesus as He is presented to us in the Gospel. As justified people, the law shows us the pattern of holiness the Son wants to create in us by the Spirit. Law and gospel are distinct but not separate. Christians hear the law as the words of a Father, not a Judge; wisdom and guidance, not condemnation; and cry out to the same Father to help them walk in this way that pleases Him. Horton then summarizes Calvin’s view of these “house rules” expressed in the Ten Commandments.

Horton then addresses this new society, the church, as a theater of God’s fatherly care. Christian living includes finding a faithful church and making disciples. In church we are fed and guided by pastors and elders. We receive God’s hospitality from the deacons. Horton explains Calvin’s view of elements and circumstances regarding worship and how legalism turns circumstances into binding elements. License turns elements into circumstances. “Thus, the Reformer could see even among elements a ranking order, prizing unity over polity. Here we see a man of principle, to be sure, but among the principles was love. While wanting to obey everything that Christ commanded, he realized that not everything was equally clear or equally important.” And so my comments on music.

“Even when the church lies in ruins, we still love the heap of ruins.”

This new society exists, just as our original parents did, for a mission. For the creation mandate to be fulfilled, the Great Commission must be fulfilled. The church exists to make Christ as He is presented to us in the Gospel known, and to teach people to obey Him. The circumstances of the day meant that the Roman Catholic nations controlled the seas. But Geneva sent missionaries throughout Europe, many of whom died in France. The church brings Christ to the world.

We not only live in the church, but we live in the world. Here Horton explores Calvin’s view of the relationship of church and state, and Calvin’s understanding of the two kingdoms. There is discussion of moral law and its reflection in natural law. Christians don’t retreat from the world, nor do they think they can save the world (or creation) through “social justice”. This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t seek justice within our spheres of influence, but we have realistic expectations, goals and agendas. It also makes no sense to focus on race relations in society unless we are addressing them in the church. We don’t focus on sins in one kingdom while ignoring them in God’s kingdom. (My thoughts there)

We offer our gifts and abilities to the world, and the church, in terms of our vocation. The sacred-secular distinction has minimized the value of a layperson’s work in the world. Work that helps others survive or flourish is valuable work, not merely legitimate work. Jobs have value not simply as opportunities for evangelism, but for loving others by providing goods that enrich life. This is a big part of Christian living.

Lastly Horton ends with contemplation of glorification. We are not escaping the material world, but longing for freedom from sin; ours and others against us. We live in the not yet with regard to sin. This is intended to shape our lives in the already.

Horton lays before us a very thorough look at Calvin’s understanding of the Christian life. We exist for God, and to enjoy God. This means we live before the face of God at home, at work and at church. We live before the face of God and experience His grace because of Christ our Mediator in whom we experience all God’s blessings. Christian living is not about trying to attain God’s grace, but receiving it so we can glorify & enjoy Him. This was a great addition to the series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In moving thru 1 Corinthians we’ve affirmed the reality of covenant relationships, and therefore covenant heads. This reality needs to be reflected in our worship. Paul addresses this when women pray and prophesy.

We went back to this in terms of prayer and prophecy. Does this refer to women covering their heads when the pastor prays, or the congregation recites a prayer; or is the issue (as most Knight and others thought) a wife or woman praying extemporaneously? The question of ancient liturgies like St. James’ and St. Mark’s emerged. They had many prayers recited. While closer in time to the worship of the early church than ours, it might look more like their worship. Maybe.

Since it is connected to prophesying, the issue seems to be when a woman stands out among the congregation and therefore wearing a symbol of their submission to their covenant head or the created order. Those ancient liturgies didn’t offer room for these practices. The worship in Corinth seems to be different than that reflected in ancient liturgies, and our own worship today.

The question arose about prayer meetings. When women pray (pray aloud, differentiated from everyone else) she should continue to honor the created order and her covenant head.

Here in the U.S. the wearing of head coverings was throughout the whole service. That might be easier than putting it on and taking it off, but doesn’t seem to be required by the text. This practice seems to have declined with the rise of evangelical feminism and liberal theology.

Personally, I still lean toward these coverings being applications of the principle of honoring your covenant head. I struggle with trying to merely mimic what we think the practice was. This could be a remnant of my own cultural captivity. I don’t know. But I don’t want to major on a minor (this is only found once and seems far less significant as a result).

Now we move along in 1 Corinthians.

ESV NASB NIV
For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

Barnett believes Paul brings them back to the marriage of Adam and Eve here to establish the created order. At the very least vv. 12 is about Adam and Eve based on context.  It is odd that Paul doesn’t use their names which would have made this easier for them and use to understand exactly what is going in here.

Some questions quickly come to mind.

  1. Why does the ESV use “wife” instead of “woman” in verse 10? Why no consistency in usage based on the context?
  2. Why do most translations add phrases (see the words in italics in the NASB)? Clarity matters, yes.  Adding “a symbol of” can change the meaning as we’ll see below.
  3. How do the angels fit in?

vv. 7

For a man/husband ought not to cover (infinitive) the head, for he is the image and glory of God but the woman/wife is the glory of man

This includes some incomplete parallelism. She’s also in the image of God (Gen. 1). But Paul wouldn’t deny this. What is he getting at? This is still in the context of honoring and dishonoring your covenant head. Or better, the created order. Earlier Paul said Christ was the head of man. But in the created order we see Adam was created for God’s glory. We also see that Eve was created for Adam’s glory. The concept of “helpmate corresponding to him” matters. Men bring glory or dishonor to God by their actions. Women not only bring glory or dishonor to God but also their husbands by their actions. We see a glimpse of this in Proverbs 31 where her husband and children rise up and call the valiant woman blessed in the city gate.

“… for it is a great honor that God has appointed her to the man as the partner of his life, and a helper to him, and has made her subject to him as the body is to the head.” John Calvin

“She is related to man as his glory, a relationship that somehow appears to be jeopardized by her present actions.” Gordon Fee

“She is his ‘glory’ since she fulfills him at his deepest wellsprings of companionship, sexual fellowship and shared procreation.” Paul Barnett

vv. 8-9

For a man/husband is not out of a woman, but woman out of man, and man was not created through the woman, but woman through the man

Paul is obviously addressing creation here! The submission of a wife to a husband is rooted in creation, not the fall. The fall makes it a contentious and often abusive matter so headship is marked by sin and misery. The problem is the people involved, not the fact of headship. Eve was created ‘out of’ Adam, from his rib (Gen. 2). She was created for Adam, so he could fulfill God’s mandate. He could not fulfill God’s mandate alone.

“Man by himself is not complete; he is alone, without a companion or helper suitable to him.” Gordon Fee

vv. 10

Therefore the woman/wife ought to have authority upon/on/over her head on account of the angels/messengers.

This is one of the more difficult sentences that we come across. As we noted above, “symbol” is typically added.

“It is possible, however, that the major translations have erred by inserting the words ‘a sign/symbol of.’ It is more in keeping with the Greek original to translate the verse ‘the woman ought to have authority over her head,’ meaning that women ought to exercise authority over their physical heads. This understanding indicates that Paul wanted women to act responsibly and on their own in the matter of head coverings. This more literal reading is confirmed by the next statement, ‘However, woman is not independent of man’. This clause appears to qualify an assertion of the women’s authority encouraged in 11:10.” Richard Pratt

As a result, it can be taken more literally as taking authority over her physical head, or being responsible. The idea is she should take responsibility for her actions, not that the husband should “make” her do this. This would be similar to Ephesians 5. The husband is not told to make his wife submit. He is told to love her like Christ loves the Church.

“But finally we must beg ignorance. Paul seems to be affirming the ‘freedom’ of women over their own heads; but what that means in this context remains a mystery.” Gordon Fee

Calvin seems to affirm that the token of her submission is at best unclear. He may also seem to be noting some level of contextualization for that token. This makes me feel better about not being certain what exactly the wives of Corinth were expected to do, and therefore what my wife might be expected to do.

“… for he means a token by which she declares herself to be under the power of her husband; and it is a covering, whether it be a robe, or a veil, or any other kind of covering.” John Calvin

Unfortunately Calvin does affirm a form of partriarchy in his comments on this passage. Sometimes I disagree with Calvin, and this is one of them. I reject that notion that women are subject to men. In the Bible I see the command to be in submission direct to wives toward their husbands, not men. That is a very important distinction. For instance, as an American I submit to the government of the United States including our President. I don’t care what Castro and Cuba say. I obey their laws while I may travel there since I don’t want to dishonor God and end up on a Cuban prison. But I don’t submit to all governments at all times.

“It is however a mistake (to limit this to wives), for Paul looks beyond this- to God’s eternal law, which has made the female sex subject to the authority of men. On this account all women are born, that they may acknowledge themselves inferior in consequences of the superiority of the male sex.” John Calvin

Angels can refer to supernatural beings or human messengers. In 1 Peter 2:9, for instance, the word commonly translated “proclaim” is a verbal form of angel.  Pratt for instance thinks this might refer to earthly visitors from other churches. These messengers, like those who bore this letter, could be scandalized by the women’s behavior. This could break the peace of the churches. Our they could wrong import the wrong practice of Corinth back to their home church or other churches and corrupt them.

Calvin notes that priests are called “angels” in Mal. 2:7. He thinks pastors were not referred to in this way, but this may be what is happening in Revelation 2-3. The angels of the churches could refer to their pastors, not angelic beings.

Another option  is presented by Fee: that this reflects the argument of the “liberated” women in Corinth who think they are now like the angels and need no such sign. This brings us back to the over-realized eschatology but doesn’t quite fit the grammar. He also notes it may also include the idea that they already speak in the tongues of angels. That reference in 1 Cor. 13 is probably rhetorical. The tongues in Corinth would be the same as the tongues in Acts 2- known languages understood by others.

“The apostles do not argue just for some authority in marriage, but explicitly and particularly for man’s authority and headship over woman and woman’s submission to man.” George Knight

vv. 11-12

however neither is (the) woman/wife apart/separate from (the) man/husband, nor is (the) man/husband apart/separate from (the) woman/wife in the Lord. For as the woman/wife (is) out of/from the man/husband, so also the man/husband through the woman/wife and all things out of/from God.

In union with Christ, spouses are not independent or separated from one another. Independent is probably not the best sense of the word. In the marriage union we are ‘one flesh’. We can wrongly act independently of our spouse, as if we aren’t married but this seems to go deeper.

Redemption does not undo creation. Redemption does not undo the marriage union until glorification. Yet men cannot preserve themselves (as a race) apart from women. We should not throw off the various yokes God has placed on us. We should also affirm our interdependence in the state of marriage. We may have different roles, but we very much need the role fulfilled by the spouse. This is not suspended while you are in public worship. You remain married, and need to continue honoring that marriage, your spouse and God’s order while in worship.

independent (cwris) adv. Separate, apart, without any, besides

 

“To be sure, a woman is that glory of a man, being created from him and for him, and therefore bearing the make of his authority on her.” Paul Barnett

“Husbands must not think that their headship implies independence from or superiority over their wives. Their dependence on their wives qualified their roles as heads. … To be sure, husbands have a headship role, but this role does not eliminate the need for wives to cultivate their own relationships with Christ.” Richard Pratt

Take Aways:

  • We can’t reject the possibility that feminism has infected/influenced many conservative churches in this matter. Perhaps the lack of coverings in our churches comes from this.
  • There may be worship practices that make a woman stand out. If she does, her goal should be to honor God and her head rather than herself.
  • Married women who serve in the church are not independent of their husbands but should continue to honor them in how they serve. This means involving him in decisions rather than willfully making decisions since they may affect family life in unintended or unanticipated ways.

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So far I’ve really enjoyed Crossway’s series “On the Christian Life” having read the volumes on Newton, Bavink and Edwards. I’ve been working my way through the series on vacation/study leave. That all changed when I read Luther.

Oh, I’m kidding. Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom by Carl Trueman is a very good addition to the series. One of the things that Trueman appreciates about Luther was his humor, which is much better than my pathetic little joke there.

One of the strengths of this volume is that Trueman does not try to paint Luther as an “evangelical”. He notes our tendency to repaint our heroes in our own image. He resists this temptation and presents us with the Luther that we both love and don’t quite understand.

Luther’s understanding of the Christian life is very different from that found in “popular” evangelicalism and even in Reformed circles at times. Trueman isn’t here to criticize Luther, but is more to critique us in a round about way.

One of the struggles for a book like this is the sheer volume of material produced by Luther, as well as the development of his thought over time as a pioneer of sorts who came to a greater awareness of the implications, consequences and complications of this ideas over time. Yet, as Trueman notes, evangelicals tend to pull their quotes (sound bytes) from the early Luther.

Trueman begins with a brief biography of Luther so readers can get a lay of the land, so to speak. His life and theology were in near constant interaction. I noticed this tendency in studying some the major psychological theorists, and it is often true for theologians as well. Their theology is an attempt to work out their stuff with God. Unlike one author I read years ago, Luther’s goal was not sexual liberation but rather spiritual liberation.

Luther lived in a time when most people could not read. This greatly impacts his understanding of the Christian life. It is structured around daily worship services to hear the Word of God and to partake of the sacraments. While better literacy rates are a good thing, they have facilitated the individualistic view of the Christian life that actually robs us of maturity. We are meant to live in community, and not just for a few hours on Sunday.

We can’t turn back the clock (this includes rejecting the industrial revolution, modern travel etc. that shapes our lives/lifestyles). But perhaps we can made some different decisions in our own cultural context.

Luther has a strong emphasis on the Word, and Trueman spends time unpacking this. It is tied up on Luther’s understanding of the Word as both God’s revelation and God’s creative power. God’s Word is meant to shape how we think about life and reality. Luther was also concerned about how we approached the Word, and therefore God. We tend to be theologians of glory rather than theologians of the cross. The theologian of the cross sees God and comes to God thru Christ and Him crucified. The incarnation and sacrifice of the Son points to our weakness, sinfulness, neediness and how God is gracious, tender and merciful This shapes a very different life than one focused on God’s power and glory which tends to either drive us to despair (since we are sinners) or puffs us up (due to our pride and self-righteousness). This carries over to Luther’s law and gospel distinction. This is a much misunderstood concept, as if the OT is law and the NT is gospel. As Clapton sang, “It’s in the way that you use it.” The same texts can be used to expose sin, and reveal grace. First comes law to destroy our self-righteousness, and then comes grace.

So we encounter the Word in preaching, singing, meditating, prayer and if possible reading. Luther encourages us to be people of the Word so God will work in us to accomplish His good purposes.

The Christian life is not easy but we struggle with self-righteousness as well as sin. We also deal with anfechtungen, which is difficult to translate into English but could be considered similar to the dark night of the soul. We experience despair and frustration at the trials of life material and immaterial. We are not to look in, but to look out at Christ in the midst of all of this. Faith is looking to the Christ revealed in the Scriptures in dealing with our guilt, self-righteousness, and afflictions. Luther was not an introspective mystic, but one who calls us out of our introspection to look to Christ who is the only One who can help us.

One of the most important chapters is “Luther and Christian Righteousness.” It is written to address some misunderstandings of Luther regarding sanctification. These misunderstandings are found in the books and sermons by Tullian Tchavidjian and Trueman makes a few allusions to Tullian in the chapter. While the Reformation was going swimmingly in its early days, Luther discovered it was not necessarily bearing the fruit it should as he began to visit other areas. He saw that many people calling themselves Christians were ignorant of basic doctrines and lived like pigs.

He made a distinction between alien righteousness and proper righteousness. The former is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us in justification. It is our positional holiness. The latter is righteousness imparted to us by Christ in sanctification. It is our personal holiness. They are distinct but related. The same Christ who justifies us also sanctifies us. First He justifies and then He sanctifies. This order is key to Reformation or Protestant Theology. Luther discovered there was little to no personal holiness, and put forth the need to preach not just alien righteousness but also personal righteousness. This emphasis is seen in The Visitation Articles as well as his catechisms. While Melanchthon is credited with originating the idea of the “third use of the Law” (showing us how to live as Christians) it is actually present in Luther’s writings as well. The Law directs us as justified persons, but it is always grace that empowers us.

Additionally there was the Antinomian Crisis involving Agricola’s deviant theology. Luther notes we are a battlefield between the flesh and Spirit. Preaching only alien righteousness leads to immorality and false assurance of salvation.  So we find the need for pastors to also preach the law for instruction in righteousness.

The Christian life is played out in our vocations of citizen, work and home. Luther rightfully sees the Christian engaged in those spheres. He does not see a secular-sacred divide like the Roman Catholicism of his day (being a priest, nun or monk was seen as a more holy vocation than a cobbler), and some forms of fundamentalism today.

This is one of the shorter volumes in the series, just over 200 pages. There is some theological background that has to go into explaining many of the concepts central to Luther and his theology. Trueman handles that well and in understandable form. In the discussion of sacraments, he doesn’t delve into Luther’s understanding of the Chalcedonian Definition/Formula with respect to how the human nature of Christ is present in a ubiquitous fashion. There also aren’t many Scripture references which is interesting since Scripture was so important to Luther.

It is a worthwhile addition to the series that seems to focus on Reformed pastors/theologians. The fact he isn’t an “evangelical” provides a good corrective to many of us. This book is well worth reading.

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In January I’ll be starting a sermon series on 1 Peter currently entitled “Living Faithfully in Babylon.” Recently Daniel Wells mentioned a book by David Fitch called Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. It looked like something that may help me think through some things as I preach through 1 Peter. In 2010 James Davidson Hunter released a book called To Change the World, in which he talks about the church maintaining a faithful presence. Dr. Anthony Bradley, before he dropped off Facebook, was highly critical of the book. Having not actually read it, his point seemed to be a lack of missional presence by the church but rather a retreat to a ghetto. Fitch refers to Hunter’s book in the introduction:

“Hunter proposes that Christians changes their tactics for engaging culture and changing the world. He asks Christians to turn away from grabbing power in the broader culture through traditional political means. Quit trying to win the battle of ideas through political rallies, voting schemes, cultural confrontations, and campaigns of persuasion in churches and political forums. Instead let Christians commit to a “new city commons” free from the power struggles and culture wars. He calls for Christians, shaped by an alternative covenant community of the kingdom, to humbly inhabit the places where they live and work with a new on-the-ground presence that dialogues and interacts with those around us and the institutions we are a part of.” (pp. 12-13)

Fitch seeks to flesh out more of what this looks like. Anthony Bradley did a blurb for this book, so I thought I’d read it. I’ll confess I can struggle with reading more “broadly evangelical” books. They often lack a sense of history and theological depth that leads them into trendy ideas that are often gone in a few years, as well as a rather shallow understanding of things. But I don’t want to live in a Reformed echo chamber either. This was one of the times I ventured out.

I think I found some helpful ideas in the midst of the trendiness. There were some challenging thoughts in the midst of the, from my perspective, theological weaknesses and problems in the book.

David Fitch is a professor at Northern Seminary (an American Baptist Seminary) and pastor of Vine Christian Community (affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance) and Peace of Christ Church in Illinois. I did not know of his denominational affiliations until I just looked it up seconds ago. Reading the book I thought he came from a more Anabaptist or Brethren background. He frequent refers to John Howard Yoder, for instance. There is also an emergent, or whatever it is called now, influence with guys like Scott McKnight and Leonard Sweet. To make matters interesting he tosses in some Herman Ridderbos. In other words, Fitch is kinda broadly evangelical with some Anabaptist leanings.

So, where to begin?

He wants us to practice 7 disciplines, as the subtitle notes, to shape the church for mission. He looks at each of these 7 disciplines in 3 contexts. His terminology is fairly idiosyncratic at this point so I’ll use more common terminology. First is the church gathered or public worship. Second is essentially missional communities where Christians are gathered but expect to invite non-Christians to join them on “our territory” for lack of a better term. Third is outreach where we enter “their territory” in the hopes of dialoguing, discussing and building relationships that may or may not result in them eventually being part of the church gathered.

He notes that often churches can focus primarily on the church gathered and fall into maintenance ministry. In reaction to this, they can focus primarily on outreach and fall into exhaustion. Churches should be committed to all three.

The 7 disciplines are: The Lord’s Table, Reconciliation, Proclaiming the Gospel, Being with “the Least of These”, Being with Children, the Fivefold Gifting (Eph. 4) and Kingdom Prayer. Nothing terribly novel here. Sadly, many churches have lost sight of these disciplines. When we lose sight of them, our churches become unhealthy and eventually die. For instance, too few churches seem actually committed to practicing reconciliation. Members just leave in a huff or conflict spirals into church splits. It starts with the little things, and so should reconciliation. We don’t just practice it among the church gathered, but in our missional communities and relationships outside of the church with neighbors, co-workers and people who share our hobbies and interests. I agree we should value children, and avoid the lure of glitzy programs in place of actually spending time with them.

So, in terms of big picture as well as some cultural critique there are some positives here. There were some good challenges.

But I also struggled while I read this book, largely because it was “broadly evangelical.”

It was trendy, and annoyingly so. Since the book is about presence, I can understand the very frequent use of the term. “Space” on the other hand…. It was nearly as frequent as the very “to be” (yes, some hyperbole). In one paragraph it was used 5 times, and frequently used 3 or 4 in a paragraph. I started circling it. Often the sentence was quite understandable if you removed the word or the clause around it. I feel like the Knights Who Til Recently Said Ni- “Stop saying the word!” As we will see in a moment, there were also some theological concerns connected to it.

His ecclesiology and sacramental theology were problematic. He speaks as if these disciplines are a set of new post-Christian sacraments. He uses the term sacraments in connection with them. My inner Inigo Montoya kept saying “I do not think it means what you think means.” Taking the concept of the Lord’s Table to missional communities and outreach is difficult for me to process. We should take hospitality into those arenas, but not an actual sacrament. I see a similar issue with the Fivefold Gifting. Does every missional group need each of the 5 gifts to work effectively? How does this work in terms of outreach? In his stories of sitting a McDonald’s it is just him, not with 4 other people exhibiting the other gifts. So this was confusing.

“The sacrament of being with children is a social sacrament that brings together the community in its withness with the child.” (pp. 139)

He repeatedly talked about miracles happening. Here comes Inigo again. As a seminary professor I expect him to use this loaded term technically, not simply for unexpected and extraordinary events that took place. In Scripture it is used to refer to healing of prolonged and disabling medical conditions without ordinary means (medicine), raising the dead, walking on water etc. It is not used of reconciling long-broken relationships or a homeless guy getting a job.

His view of God’s sovereignty is problematic. He says, in one place, that God is sovereign over all. But he sounds very much like an Arminian throughout the book. Often he notes God does not coerce or force his way. He may be arguing against a Calvinist strawman here since the Westminster Confession (and London Baptist Confession) affirm that while God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, he also does “no violence to the will of the creature.” Fitch does more than maintain human responsibility. He frequently speaks of “creating space” for God to work. That sounds like more than human responsibility to me, but that we really control whether God is at work or not. There is no sense of Him working with, without, above or against means. There is no sense of God initiating all this as the One who “works in us so we will and work according to His good purpose” (Phil. 2:11).

“He is still ultimately sovereign and in control of the world. But as for actually using his power and authority, he will not oppose our grabbing and pushing for control. He refuses to steamroll our wills in order to dictate his will in our lives and in the world. … God’s power can only work through us as we submit to him, let him work, open up space for him.” (pp. 168)

A text from Proverbs comes to mind, one that is quoted by both James and Peter in the context of our grabbing and pushing for control: God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. God does use his power and authority to actively oppose the proud. Yes, He is love and is patient but He’s also righteous and wise.

His polity is rather vague. He is clearly against hierarchy. This is good to a degree. But his ideas of mutual submission, particularly in the discipline of the Fivefold ministry, is quite unclear. Here is where Presbyterianism is a really good thing. We don’t believe in pastor as “pope” or bishop. We believe in the plurality of elders leading together in submission to Christ through His Word, and summarized in our Confession, in mutual submission to other churches in our presbytery. While not perfectly lived out (we are sinners!) is seems to be a good and biblical model based not just on an isolated proof-text but the whole of Scripture.

“For Jesus, authority in the kingdom would be exercised in no other way. There would be no hierarchy, no coercive power, no one person ruling over and above another person. His model, as we will discover, is mutual, shared leadership under one Lord.” (pp. 152)

Jesus’ point is not simply hierarchy, but motive. Church leaders are to be about Christ’s kingdom, not their own. Yes, there power is limited and there authority is to be exercised in love. But we see hierarchy in Heb. 13, 1 Peter 5, 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1 and Acts 15 among other places. Christians are told to obey their church leaders. Church leaders are overseers. It is how they fulfill this that is the issue.

As a result, this really is a book for mature leaders who can pick through the book, tossing out the suspect theology and trends while retrieving the good ideas that are present (and they are there). We should consciously work to maintain not only the church gathered, but missional communities of some sort and recall God’s presence with us even as we are present to the world in outreach. We should be committed to the Lord’s Table and hospitality, prayer, biblical leadership with stewardship, children (not just children’s programs that entertain), relationships beyond our socio-economic class, reconciliation, and gospel proclamation. When we do we are engaging the world, and engaging it positively, not just as a critic.

I will add that reviews say something not just about the book, but also the reviewer. While I can learn from broader evangelicalism (some Reformed people fall into the stereotypical arrogance and think they have nothing to learn from other parts of the church), I do evaluate it from my theological heritage rather than just accept whatever is said. I hope I am being fair in my criticisms.

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In my personal Bible reading I’m currently in Jeremiah. Though it is not a happy book, joy breaks through. But mostly it is “Jerusalem is going to fall to Babylon, and the people will go into exile.” There is a stubborn refusal to listen to Jeremiah (and therefore God) as he reminds them of the covenant curses from Deuteronomy that they deserve because they have forsaken the Lord their God.

Today I read chapters 37 and 38. Jeremiah is still standing though yet another Davidic King has fallen due to disobedience. Now it is Zedekiah, the uncle of the previous king Jehoiakim. The person-specific curse for Jehoiakim was that he would die at the hands of Babylon, and there would never be a son of his on the throne. Zedekiah is on the throne precisely because the word of the Lord through Jeremiah came to pass. Let that one sink in.

You might think this would prepare Zedekiah’s heart to listen to Jeremiah. You would be wrong.

Zedekiah the son of Josiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made king in the land of Judah, reigned instead of Coniah the son of Jehoiakim. But neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the Lord that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet. Jeremiah 37

But Zedekiah does not completely ignore Jeremiah. In the next paragraph we read:

King Zedekiah sent Jehucal the son of Shelemiah, and Zephaniah the priest, the son of Maaseiah, to Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “Please pray for us to the Lord our God.” Now Jeremiah was still going in and out among the people, for he had not yet been put in prison.

The King won’t listen, which means he refuses to repent. He doesn’t want to change direction, to change how he views this, to return to the Lord with all his heart. His circumstances are that Babylon has been laying siege to Jerusalem and the population is hiding there while the food runs out. Jeremiah says that repentance means surrendering to Babylon so the people will live. There is the promise, based on Deuteronomy 30, that God will restore them to the land and give them a heart for him (also expressed in the promise of the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 and 32). He’s having none of it. He is steadfast in his sin. Soon he would put Jeremiah in prison.

But he wants prayer. Egypt has given them a temporary reprieve. He wants it to be a permanent one. But Babylon is going to defeat Egypt and return to the siege of Jerusalem which will result in Jerusalem’s walls being breached, the city burned, many of the people dying and the rest being carted off to Babylon (except the poorest of the poor, and Jeremiah).

How like us that Zedekiah is. We sow sin and reap the whirlwind. Our lives can be in a complete mess because of our lousy choices, our refusal to listen to God in the first place. In those circumstances God still speaks to us through the Word, “Return to me!” But we often refuse. Yet we ask people to pray for us. We ask for prayer about our circumstances. Our circumstances, not us. We want our circumstances to change, but we don’t want to change no matter how messed up we are.

In other words: we want to live at ease in our sin.

We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful intervention of God who gives us a heart for Him. We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful working of the Holy Spirit to give us a longing to change, to become different people, ones who are godly. We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful union with Christ who does restore His image in us.

What do you want to see changed today? While your circumstances matter, they matter because it is through them that God works for the good of those who love Him, which is making them like His Son. Pray for your circumstances to change. But also pray for God to change YOU in light of your circumstances. We need to change, and only He can change us, so pray.

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Thursday and Friday was our stated Presbytery meeting in Flagstaff, AZ. This was the 3rd “short” week in a row thanks to a holiday, my son’s surgery and now Presbytery. Usually this means compressing the sermon preparation, but this week I have a friend from out of town preaching for us on Sunday. He was coming back to Tucson, in part to attend the presbytery meeting.

So he spent two nights at our house and was going to drive up with me. This also meant that I didn’t get my usual exercise. I was planning on leaving between 6-6:30, but the night before decided that 6:30-7 might work better for us, so we could get a little extra sleep in the morning.

I tried. We left shortly after 7 and were on the road for the approximately 3 1/2 hour trip to Flagstaff. I had kidded him about loading up my iPod with Deep Purple since he thinks Smoke on the Water is the only song they are known for. We ended up not even using my iPod as we talked most of the way up. We talked about the issues to be discussed in our meeting, the shooting accident that resulted in his hearing loss, church opportunities he is pursuing, the morality of football, and the Pope’s visit. Before getting on the highway we stopped so he could get a Coke to drink with his medicine. With no parking in front I dropped him off and then, without his realizing it, drove into the connector between the lots for Circle K and Wendy’s. It was a long line, and I was waiting thinking about having to make up time. When I saw him come to the door I pulled into the lot and toward the door. He missed me, and thought I’d parked around the corner. Though he knew I wouldn’t abandon him, he was still confused. So I honked at him, he got in and off we went.

We made one stop, on the north end of Phoenix. It is a new to me car and I wasn’t sure if I could make it to Flagstaff on one tank of gas. While I pumped gas, he went in. For another Coke. When he had come out, I had moved the car to a parking space. I kind of enjoyed messing with his mind. This resulted in a story of how they used to do this to one of their friends who was always the last one out of the store.

We actually made great time, and arrived into Flagstaff on time. (One oddity of the new congressional districts in AZ is that I drove 3 1/2 hours and ended up in the same district I live in.) When we had been looking at maps online it looked like I needed to get off 17 onto 40 and get of the first exit. Since Siri does not like me (to put it mildly), I asked him to use his phone to get the directions. Siri responded quickly to him. Unfortunately we were brought through the NAU area which gets clogged due to low speeds, pedestrians and buses. So much for being on time. We then discovered that Siri brought us to the old address, from like 2 years ago. We quickly pulled up their website to get the address and now were on our way again. We finally got to the church, and arrived about 20-25 minutes late for the committee meeting. The new building was pretty much at the intersection of 17 & 40. We wasted that whole trip thru town. I don’t like Siri- it is a mutual thing.

The big news for the balance of the meeting was simply the time frame for re-starting an RUF ministry at the UofA. We, the churches in Tucson,  have until 2017 to get the initial money together and hire a campus director.

We didn’t eat here.

After the meeting, we went cruising for a restaurant without any assistance from Siri. We settled, rather quickly, on Freddy’s Steak Burgers. Ed had eaten Italian food for lunch and dinner the day before. Olive Garden was out It was the first time either of us had been to Freddy’s even though there is one near my house in Tucson. The burger was good- mine was the double with bacon and cheese. I prefer Five Guys, and I had known there was a Smash Burger not too far away I would have wanted to eat there.

We began with a time of prayer. We focused on our marriages, and the physical, emotional and spiritual health of our members. We heard a report from our RUF campus minister in Las Cruces. The part of the committee meeting I’d missed. He told three stories of people impacted by the ministry since last we met. Their large group meeting has been running at about 75 students. Things are going well there.

Much of the afternoon was spent examining a candidate for ministry. He had received a call to one of the churches in Tucson, but was coming from a non-PCA and non-Reformed context. So we wanted to be thorough. And fair. His English Bible exam was very good (though I prefer more than one reference when possible), as was his history exam (though I mentioned that he never mentioned the ARP in his history of Presbyterianism). There were some small blips in theology w/regard to the 3-fold division of the law and the 3rd use of the law but nothing that appeared significant. He would preach later during our worship service that evening.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in executive session. So I can’t tell you about it. Those sessions are often very personal and painful, or they wouldn’t be in private. They are draining periods of time. We didn’t finish that work when the time for dinner arrived. It had been a busy 5 hours.

Dinner was Italian. I thought it might be Olive Garden since it was cheese tortellini, a Caesar salad, rolls and tiramisu, but it was catered by NAU food services (good to build that connection). I spent some time talking with one of the assistant pastors from Tucson and getting to know the new director of youth and family ministry at the host church. Since the latter will eventually come before us for ordination, he had a few questions.

Theirs is a new building, two stories built into a hill. The sanctuary seats about 150, has the high ceilings (like an A-frame) with a library above the foyer overlooking the sanctuary. The furnishings often looked like they came from the Adirondack’s: knotty limbs and blocks of wood for horizontal surfaces. Downstairs was the kitchen, nursery and classroom space. This is where we ate dinner.

In the week before the meeting I’d developed a boil on the underside of my arm in the pit. I’d soaked it the night before to try and get whatever was causing the swelling out. It was tender in the morning, and had grown increasingly uncomfortable as the day wore on. I checked on it in the men’s room after dinner and saw that my work had been successful and hoped to attend to it when I finally got to my hotel later that night.

One of things I usually like about presbytery is worshiping in other churches. You get to see how they worship. Often I am able to borrow confessions of sins, additional verses from songs etc. They had the lyrics up on a large flat screen above the pulpit area. Most of them were also in the Order of Worship, except the one we sing which had an additional verse I wanted to bring home. Sometimes a worship service will be a bit outside of your comfort zone. That’s okay, generally speaking. This was a bit outside of mine in some ways. The sermon by the candidate was generally good, but it hit me as focused a bit too much on the imperative at the expense of the indicative. As it turned out, I was not alone in that impression.

As we prepared for communion I noticed that my sleeve seemed to keep sticking to my arm. Wondering what was up, I looked and saw it was covered in blood. After partaking of the body and blood, I slipped into the men’s room to tend to my now-exploded boil. I’ll spare you more of the gory details. But it sure felt better.

After the worship service we tied up a few loose ends, including a task for me, in the executive session. Then it was time for fellowship. Of course we got turned around a few times trying to read those road signs. Finally we asked Siri for directions to the Beaver Street Brewery. She-who-hates-me was useless. Back to Google and we were soon there. Thankfully we passed my hotel, so I now knew how to get there.

We had a great turnout, and only a few other people were in the restaurant. The music was too loud, and sadly they had just run out of the steamed mussels in a thai curry sauce. But I had a glass of their stout (which was good) and what they call Bowl of Goodness, fries sprinkled with cheese and herbs with a dip. It was very good and a few guys “helped” me eat it. It is good being able to get to know guys you don’t ordinarily spend time with because they work hours away. Josh, who organizes these events and I’ve decided to call “the Party Starter” decided we should play a pool game. Everyone threw a dollar into the kitty and the one who took the fewest attempts to get all three balls in a pocket won. I managed to get one in, semi-acquitting myself, before exceeding the best thus far.

Soon 11:30 was creeping up, and I still needed to check-in to my hotel. Ed was staying with other friends, so I was on my own. I’d picked the Econo Lodge University. The price differences between hotels were fairly large. I paid only $50 since I was basically only going to sleep and shower there. The room was clean, so I was content. I was delighted to see that the shower head 1. was not for Hobbit-sized people, and 2. of the rain fall variety.

I cleaned up my armpit, again. Resisting the urge to watch TV I went to bed about 11:45. I woke up around 3:30 in the morning. I’m not sure why. But I had a hard time falling back asleep. The pillow wasn’t very comfortable being overly fat and fluffy, and there were unusual noises (the refrigerator?), and the room was a bit stuff. So eventually I turned up the fan and read. I finished 1 Chronicles, and then a chapter in a book on missions I’ve been reading. At 5 I tried to sleep again, and slept until about 7 when CavWife called.

From my trip there in 2010

I showered and dressed. The continental breakfast, and the lobby, didn’t look appealing so I went next door to Chick-Fil-A. I noticed 2 other guys from presbytery and ate with them talking about various aspects of the meeting and ministry in our respective cities. Afterwards, having finished my sweet tea, I went next door to Dunkin’ Donuts for a vanilla chai.

The air pressure warning had gone off the night before, and was still on when I started the car. I figured that if I filled up with gas, and had the air checked, I’d be ready to go once the meeting was over. I knew, due to the ideal gas law, that the pressure would drop due to those refreshing cooler temps at 7,000 feet. But I’d been having some trouble with air pressure and didn’t want a tire to go flat on the long ride home. I didn’t have my new digital gauge with me so I wasn’t sure which one was low. I spotted a Discount Tire and took advantage of their free air pressure check. Only a pound light, but I guess the sensors don’t work well at such elevations and read as if about 3 pounds light. They put a little extra in and I was good.

The rest of the meeting was mostly reports and prayer. We didn’t handle the proposed changes to the Standing Rules of Presbytery. This was good because the proposed “radical” changes had been replaced with some minimal changes. I’m not excited about the status quo which seems mostly maintenance not pressing the kingdom forward. We will talk about them at our next meeting.

There were lots of opportunities for congregations and individuals to be involved in missions connected with our presbytery, like:

  • Helping with church planting in Hondoras w/the Pettingills.
  • Teaching local pastors in Uganda.
  • Helping Barrio Nuevo, a mercy ministry in Phoenix
  • Helping Crossroads Ministry, a mercy ministry in Las Cruces
  • Supporting interns with the Hispanic Leadership Initiative
  • 2 Church Plants in Albuquerque.
  • Possible prison ministry in Phoenix/Tucson
  • Native American ministry east of Flagstaff
  • Ministry across the border in Juarez

The best line of the meeting was when one presbyter was disagreeing with the Parlimentarian about a particular section of the Book of Church order, to whom he replied “I wrote it” and therefore knows what it means.

After some good-byes, Ed and I were off for another largely uneventful ride home. I did spot 2 elk along the side of the highway that had been hit. They were actually quite huge so I wondered what the vehicles looked like. My ears popped repeatedly as we went from 7,000 feet to under 2,000 feet. We stopped for a late lunch in Phoenix at Pappadeaux which I’ve wanted to do for 5 years. It was excellent, though a bit more expensive than I was hoping. I was also surprised to see so many people with grey hair because it was a loud restaurant with lots of background noise that can make hearing difficult. We continued to talk family stuff, transitions in ministry and how my book is coming since he works for the publisher.

Still Deep Purple and iPod-less we arrived at my house at 4 pm. I think I will sleep well tonight.

[I meant to take some pictures of the building and sanctuary, but forgot.]

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James notes something quite important about the effects of faith:

27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1

James is merely applying the message of the Old Covenant to the church. These priorities are there. Protestants have typically focused on the last of these, sanctification. In the 19th century a number of orphanages were built by leading figures like Charles Spurgeon and George Mueller. In recent days we’ve seen the focus on adoption arise, in part because of this verse.

But what about widows? We haven’t focused on that very much which is to our detriment in my opinion. Though I’ve been a pastor since 1998 and a number of congregants have become widows in that time, I surely haven’t cared for them as well as I ought to have. The subject really isn’t talked about much.

Recently our men’s study went through 1 Timothy and we spent a night talking about this. At about the same time one of our members became a widow. There just don’t seem to be any books on caring for widows.

Thankfully Crossway has just released Caring for Widows by Brian Croft and Austin Walker. It is not a very long book, and it is filled with very short chapters. In this way it can quickly help pastors, deacons and ministry leaders know why they should care for widows and provide some practical ways of caring for the widows in your midst.

The first section is written by Austin Walker. Austin focuses on the precepts, principles and examples found in Scripture to communicate that widows should be cared for and how they were cared for. As a result, he focuses on God’s love and concern for widows since they were among the most vulnerable members of society. Jewish law made provision for them (tithing, gleaning, Levirate marriage) so that poverty would not destroy them or tempt them to use sinful means to survive. God demanded justice and compassion for the widows, and if they failed He would hear their cries and bring curses on Israel.

Austin also points us to God’s work to provide for particular widows. There is a chapter on Ruth and Naomi. He also reminds of of the widows that Elijah and Elisha ministered to in miraculous ways to demonstrate God’s loving compassion. Jesus also cared for widows, raising one’s dead son and making sure His own mother would be cared for prior to His death. We also see how the early church provided for widows in the book of Acts.

As noted above, the chapters are short. Walker doesn’t waste much time. There is no fluff there, but he does a fairly thorough job making his point. Any church officer or ministry leader can’t avoid his point: we need to care for the widows that God has placed in our care.

Brian Croft writes the second section of the book which focuses on some particular ways we can and should care for widows. These include the private ministry of the Word, equipping the congregation to come along side them, what it means to visit in various situations (home, hospital and nursing home),writing notes and cards, and celebrating holidays with them.

Their needs are not simply financial. He could have spent a little more time on this, at least in helping churches evaluate which widows need financial assistance or working them through the process of downsizing so they can care for themselves. Ideally, husbands provide for their spouses through savings and life insurance. Here in America, Social Security provides some benefits. But these may be insufficient should health problems arise. The family should care for them, and then the church.

The church needs to show them compassion even if they are not helping them financially. They have emotional, relational and practical needs that used to be met by their husbands which are no longer being met. Particularly if family is not nearby, the church becomes important in meeting these needs. It could be as simple as a deacon coming by to change A/C filters to fixing leaky faucets or other repairs. It is also a ministry of friendship by men acting like sons to her, or younger women acting like daughters.

In terms of visitation, I was a little surprised by how short his hospital visits were. I’ve often found people in the hospital to be quite bored and willing to visit unless they were in great pain or other distress. He is right in that the dynamics change when someone is in the hospital. But whenever we visit it is important to include the ministry of the Word and prayer.

There are also times when a widow’s loneliness is more profound: anniversaries, holidays and birthdays. These are times to send notes and cards reminding them that they are loved by God and you.

He “caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy” (Job 29:13). That should be the aim of the church in ministering the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ to widows. It is not only the ministry the church should undertake, but it is an integral part of that biblical religion which James defined as “pure and undefiled … before God and the Father” (James 1:27).

Taking care of the widows among us does not make for a dynamic program. But it is an important part of church ministry. This little book helps equip us for this important ministry. This is a book pastors, deacons and leaders should read, and implement.

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Our women’s ministry is called WOW- Women of the Word, indicating our desires for them to be women in whom the Word of Christ dwells richly. So when Crossway sent me a copy of Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds by Jen Wilkin (ebook), I was a little intrigued.

Last year I brought our men through Bible Study so they would learn how to study and teach the Bible. WOW is much shorter, and seeks to address things from a woman’s perspective (lots of illustrations I wouldn’t understand) while also offering some warnings against “feminizing” it. She does want them to remember it was written to both men and women.

Overall I thought it was a good book to help women dig deeper into the Scriptures. She was quite clear, succinct (I could learn from this) and interesting (probably more so if I were a woman and was familiar with things like rhumba tights). Her study plan is really about depth and she makes some wise warnings about how this all takes time. Her goal is for women to use this method in their personal study or when studying a book of the Bible as a group.

She starts with what she calls a series of “turn arounds” or ways in which she was reading things wrong and needing to begin reading them. She also realized that the Bible is primarily about God (and secondarily about us), the mind matters because it transforms the heart. These are two important things to know or you will make the Bible into a self-help book meant to make you feel good. This is the ever-present danger of therapeutic moral deism.

“But our insecurities, fears, and doubts can never be banished by knowledge of who we are. They can only be banished by the knowledge of ‘I am.'”

Her second chapter is “The Case for Biblical Literacy”. She wants women to develop a working knowledge of the whole Bible, how it all fits together, instead of a patchwork understanding (similar to one developed by children’s SS lessons and a steady diet of topical preaching).

“Sound Bible study transforms the heart by training the mind and it places God at the center of the story. But sound Bible stud does more than that- it leaves the student with a better understanding of the Bible than she had when we started. Stated another way, sound Bible study increases Bible literacy.”

She lays out a few bad methods. In the Xanax approach, you are looking to take away bad feelings, and look for just the right passage. It makes the Bible about you instead of to you. There is the Pinball approach in which you bounce around like a pinball without any thought to the context and purpose (and therefore the meaning) of a text. There is the Magic 8 Ball approach where we simply look for what to do in a crisis rather than learning who we are to be in Christ. The Holy Spirit transforms us.

Bible literacy, she rightly argues, keeps us from falling into error. If we know the whole of Scripture we can notice if someone is abusing a part of Scripture. We will also be better prepared to answer the charges of our critics. Bible literacy is not developed overnight. It takes time to read for both breadth (devotionally) and depth (study). It takes reading the whole Bible repeatedly to see patterns, references and allusions to other passages. It takes years, and in our microwave society most people don’t want to invest that kind of time unless they grasp how important it is. Perhaps I’m weird, but no one told me to do this. I just did it.

Her plan or method is to study with the 5 P’s: Purpose, Perspective, Patience, Process and Prayer. Much of what she lays out is what a pastor regularly does in sermon preparation minus the crafting of said sermon.

Purpose is important. It is about understanding the purpose of the Scriptures AND the purpose of that particular portion of Scripture. As a whole the Bible is about redemption, a redemption story. Particular passages are stories of redemption within the story of redemption. They progressively reveal God’s greatness and the greatness of His plan. We begin to look for how each text fits into the whole text instead of viewing it as an isolated, independent text.

Perspective is asking questions of the text to understand its purpose which will help you understand its meaning in due time. This is the process of understanding the historical and cultural context of the particular book. We want to see it, as best we can, as the original audience did instead of just putting our 21st century American presuppositions and experience on the text. We did much of this in English class as we studied literature. Who wrote it? When? Why? To whom was it written? What genre or style?

Patience remembers that digging deep takes time and effort. It is applying the concept of delayed gratification to Bible study. We remember that our efforts have a cumulative effect. We will have to be patient with ourselves. We will fail. We will find reasons to not study on a particular day. We will discover we have grossly misunderstood texts. We will have to be patient with the process, refusing to take short cuts. There will be patience with our circumstances which may present hindrances to study. There will be plenty of reasons for patience.

“Could it be that feeling lost is one way God humbles us when we come to his Word, knowing that in due time he will exalt our understanding?”

Process is the main portion of the larger plan. This is the nitty-gritty. She wants women to own the text through lots of hard work. Owning it means understanding its original meaning, attempting to interpret it and then make application from it. She wants you to read it repeatedly so you notice the flow of the argument or story (depending on the genre). She wants you to break out the colored pencils/pens (on a copy of the text) to note verb tenses (yes, they matter), subjects and all that grammar jazz. Yes, she wants you to outline the passage and put notes in the margin of that copy of the text. She wants you to compare different translations and see why they differ (when they do). She wants you to crack open a dictionary to understand words that are used that you don’t commonly use. Yes, this is hard work and not always exciting but if we want to understand a text’s original meaning (what it says) it is necessary work.

We then move to interpretation or what the text means. She wants you to hold off on the commentaries until you develop your own interpretation. I’ve seen others say the same thing. Generally that is a good idea. But sometimes you do struggle with “what it says”. Commentaries aren’t just interpretations, but also help us get what it says because sometimes the text is hard to discern, or parts of it. It is important to read 2-3 commentaries so you don’t fall into a cult of personality (“well, Bultmann says” repeated ad nauseum). There is more hard work here: looking at cross references, paraphrasing and just plain thinking. Yes, sometimes you just sit there and think (also known as meditating on the Word of God).

Once you know what it says, and what it means you can ask how it applies. What am I to believe about God? What am I to believe about myself? What does God call me to do in dependence upon Him? This takes thinking about the text, myself and my circumstances.

Prayer is a short chapter. The point is we are to pray all through the process, knowing that we need the Spirit’s help to illuminate the Scriptures so we can understand the Word, ourselves and our circumstances (yes, I’m adding a little Frame to her thoughts).

She then has a chapter in which she demonstrates her process using James 1. This way you can see it in action and have a better idea of what she has been talking about. The book concludes with some encouragement for teachers in how to bring the fruit of this into a group setting, and then a call to seek God. The purpose of all this is to know God, not just gather information.

This is a good introduction. I would quibble with some of the books she recommends because of the theological commitments and method of interpretation used which I think distorts the Scriptures. Yes, I’m talking Dispensationalism. I’m not saying she is a dispensationalist particularly since focusing on the whole story is more of a covenantal perspective of Scripture (which focuses on the unity of Scripture). Just one of those weird things that passes through my mind.

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