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Image of the works of John newtonThe second volume in The Works of John Newton is even a little more varied than the first volume. The first had a biography, then his memoirs in letter form followed by more letters. This volume begins with the remaining letters of Cardiphoia, followed by some collections of sermons, then his ecclesiastical history and then the Olney Hymnbook. There is clearly plenty of material here.

In one of his books Jerry Bridges talks about the pool hall, and that his parents warned him to not go to the pool hall. He thought there was something wrong with playing pool. As it turned out, the concern was the gambling and unsavory characters associated with that pool hall (and some others).

I wonder if something similar happened with Newton and the playhouse. The first series of letters is to a Miss TH***, and they include his rebuke about her attendance at a playhouse. “I am well satisfied, that if there is any practice in this land sinful, attendance on the play-house is properly and eminently so. The theatres are fountains and means of vice…”.

I agree that the gospel is “a source of purer, sweeter, and more substantial pleasures.” We are invited into communion with God, but does that preclude our viewing stories told on TV, movies and stage? He is helping her wrestle with the impact of holiness on entertainment. Like most I’m probably quick to point out the shows I choose not to watch on account of their content but overlook the ones I do. In seminary one professor recommended I watch Seinfeld and another lamented the horrible choices students were making by watching such shows.

These letter grapple with living one’s faith in their circumstances and choices. They point us to Christ, not just for holiness but also for pardon. “Our sins are many, but his mercies are more; our sins are great, but his righteousness is greater.” He helps people wrestle with God’s providence in light of God’s character. This includes his famous paraphrase of Romans 8:28- “All shall work together for good; everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds.” He’s also very aware of the weakness of the flesh and that hard circumstances draw forth our corruptions.

He also interacts with men in ministry or considering ministry. At times they are men of different opinions than Newton. He tries to gently instruct, and provides a model for such discourses (rather than polemics). Polemics is for books, though even there winsomeness can help, not for personal relationships. He also covers topics like the length and volume of sermons, when to leave a church and more.

He writes about assurance of salvation to William Wilberforce’s aunt. There are letters on “backsliding”. He speaks of the pain of friendship and placing our hope in God alone. He also notes “it is merciful in the Lord to disappoint our plans and to cross our wishes.”

There are also some odd events, adding to the personal character. He writes of a lion they had in town and a discussion with its keeper. He writes of his own frustrations in some of the doctrinal debates, how he doesn’t fit perfectly in any one camp: “I am sort of a speckled bird among my Calvinist brethren … the Dissenters (many of them I mean) think me defective … neither do my dimensions fit exactly with them (Methodists).” So, one will find sorts of things of interest and help.

The sermons begin with a series of discourses that he intended to preach but apparently did not. They cover the deceitfulness of the human heart, Jesus and salvation, the name “Christians”, all things being given to us with Christ, and searching the Scriptures. In some ways they are an introduction to the Christian life. There is much that is very good in these discourses. In the last discourse he seems to discourage the expositional preaching through books. One finds subjects or themes to preach upon. So John and I could possibly have a lengthy discussion on this topic.

“None are so bad but the gospel affords them a ground of hope: none so good as to have any just ground for hope with it.”

Next are 20 sermons preached in Olney. He begins a series of sermons on Matt. 11:25 on the lack of success the gospel ministry may meet due to the mysteries of the gospel being hid from many. He preaches 4 sermons on that text before moving on to verse 26. There he begins to assert the sovereignty of divine grace. In the 6th sermon he moves to the person of Christ in vv. 27. That includes authority. This means that the glory and grace of God are revealed in Christ. After these 3 sermons on vv. 27, he moves to vv. 28 to discuss our labor and heavy load what it means to come to Christ and the rest he provides. Yes, 3 sermons on that before addressing vv. 30. This may be why he didn’t generally preach thru books- he would have died before he finished one with so many sermons on individual verses.

This is, in my opinion, one of the weaknesses of Puritan preaching which he seems to emulate here. The themes can be subtly removed from the context of the larger passage and book if one is not careful. We can be so focused on a word or phrase that we miss the overall meaning of a text.

Newton then moves to Romans 14 to discuss liberty and misconduct. The next sermon offered concerns the 3rd commandment out of Exodus 20. These sermons and those which follow are all disconnected from one another. He then jumps to 1 Cor. 9:24 and running the race. Then he jumps back to Micah 6:6-8 and James 2. You get the point. These were not preached, I imagine, sequentially.

They are good sermons and there are plenty of helpful statements in them. There is often encouragement to be found in them.

His Review of Ecclesiastical History is not quite what I expected. Generally such works begin after the time of the Apostles. His pretty much ends there. He’d hoped to write more volumes, but that is all he got to write. He was a busy many, as his many apologies for delays litter his letters.

“The history of all ages and countries uniformly confirms the Scriptural doctrine, that man is a depraved and fallen creature, and that some selfish temper, ambition, avarice, pride, revenge, and the like, are, in effect, the main-springs and motives of his conduct, unless so far, and in such instances, as they are corrected and subdued by Divine grace.”

His introduction focuses on the resistance of the human heart to the truth and the spread of persecution. He was thankful that the law of England limited the persecution of the church. He begins with the ministry of Jesus.

“We may describe the gospel to be- A divine revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, discovering the misery of fallen man by sin, and the means of his complete recovery by the free grace of God, through faith, unto holiness and happiness.”

He breaks this definition down, phrase by phrase. Then he returns to the subject of opposition, in particular by the religious leaders in Israel. The particular groups represent the basic types of resistance: legalism/self-righteousness, liberals or the self-wise, the worldly-wise or compromising. Newton then contrasts the disciples before and after Christ’s resurrection and ascension. He focuses on the influences of grace, however imperfect.

The second period of Christianity was the work of the Apostles. He retraces much of the Acts of the Apostles. This section is almost like a little commentary with some helpful words on the biblical book. He tries to focus on the needs of his time as he edits the vast history. As he goes he gives the supposed date of the events and the emperor at the time.

As he reports the advice of Gamaliel, I wonder how often we should heed that. Many fads in theology have come and gone, but each time we act like this one is the end of the church as we know it, only for the controversy to die down and the movement or false doctrine to die out (like the emergent church, open theism etc.).

Newton shifts his attention to Paul’s character as an example for ministers. He was a self-righteous and moral man who’s need for a Savior was revealed. Paul was concerned for doctrinal purity as relates to the great doctrines of the faith. He was discerning about which deviations were deadly to the gospel and which weren’t.

“Self is too prevalent in the best men, and the tendency of self is, to exact submission, to hurry to extremes, to exaggerate trifles into points of great consequence, and to render us averse to the healing expedients of peace.”

Paul derived the circumstantials and essentials of religion from the same source- the Scriptures. Newton explains the differences between them. Paul’s zeal was matched by his humility.

Newton moves on to the irregularities and offenses of the Apostles’ days. He brings us to the letters of the Apostles’ (and Acts) to see some of the most important problems they experienced. He addresses the public worship of Corinth, for instance. He still doesn’t give an answer to the supposed contradiction between chapters 11 and 14 on women speaking i the service. One persistent problem was the attachment some Jewish converts had to the law of Moses. We also see early forms of Antinomianism.

The hymnbook contains only titles and lyrics. It provides the text that influenced particular hymns. At times we can see how the form we have now is much different- verses missing or added (particularly with Amazing Grace). There are many hymns whose words should prove of interest to those who update the music of hymns.

I’m finding The Works of John Newton to be worth the investment of my time this year. They would likely be worth your investment too.

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I’ve been swamped with reading lately, and this has meant too many books in process. My brain has been pulled in too many directions. To top it off I decided to preach on a series of “hot button” issues from Genesis. This meant reading a bunch of new books to prepare for these varied subjects.

IGod and the Transgender Debaten one case it meant picking up one of those books that I had started but had been languishing in the cabinet in our kitchen in which I keep my Bible and the books I’m currently reading at home. When God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say about Gender Identity? (GTD) by Andrew T. Walker came out I bought it and started to read it. After a few chapters, it sat there waiting while I focused on other reading that was more pressing.

Since I was preaching on gender last Sunday, I resumed my reading of GTD.

The book has evangelical & Reformed street cred with a forward by Al Mohler and book cover blurbs by Rosaria Butterfield, Russell Moore, Sam Allberry, Trevin Wax and (oddly) Rod Dreher. Walker will express a conservative and compassionate perspective on this issue. He avoids extremes that can so often be a trap for us. We tend to pit truth against love. He wants to uphold truth AND express love toward people who experience gender dysphoria.

He begins with Compassion and refers to Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” Jesus is the Truth and therefore spoke the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Yet, Jesus was also compassionate toward the suffering. His is the example for ministry we should follow, but often don’t. In the Gospels we see Jesus healing people with no hope for healing, giving strength to burdened people, and engaging with the outcasts of society (due to disease or sin).

Walker wrote this book because of the cultural changes in the West. “Society is now attempting to help people who experience doubts and struggles with their gender identity, rather than push those people to the margins.” I’d go farther- they are pushing those people to the center. But I won’t quibble too much. He wants to help us think through these issues biblically, and love our friends, children or neighbors who experience these doubts and struggles.

“… remember that the God who speaks to you in the Bible is the same God who loves you so much that he came, lived, and even died to strengthen bruised reeds and fan flickering flames.”

Image result for bruce jennerBringing up Bruce Jenner, Walker then addresses How We Got Where We Are. Due to his cultural & historical stature, you couldn’t avoid media coverage of his dysphoria and going further to transgender. A public discussion ensued that was not limited to adults. Children, thru bathroom laws and sex ed courses, were being dragged into a discussion they are not able to process intellectually and ethically. Relativism has burrowed deep into our cultural understanding so that people with “narrow views” are pushed to the margins. Ours is now a post-Christian culture that doesn’t understand the Scriptures and wants to marginalize those who are still connected with this former majority worldview. Radical individualism and the sexual revolution are turning ethics upside down. We also see the influence of Gnosticism as the body becomes meaningless both in what it says (as part of the Book of Creation) and what we do to it. The person, their feelings or sense of self, matter more than the body (Nancy Pearcey explores this Cartesian dualism in post-modernism in her recent book Love Thy Body).

He then moves to The Language. He provides the working definitions he will use in the book for:

  • sex
  • gender
  • gender identity
  • gender dysphoria
  • transgender

This helps dispel any confusion about what he means going forward. I wish more people would do this. I was frustrated yesterday with a page in Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered where she didn’t define a key term in a discussion of temptation & sin.

The next chapter, On Making a Decision, focuses on how we can or should sort thru these issues by asking three important questions.

  • Authority: who has the right to tell me what to do?
  • Knowledge: who knows what is best for me to do?
  • Trustworthiness: who loves me and wants what is best for me?

Relying on ourselves is not the best answer to these questions. We have all followed our hearts (desires, feelings, great ideas) into disaster. He points us to the Bible which tells us a different, better, all encompassing Story that makes sense of our stories.

“A crucified Creator is a God who has the authority to tell us what to do, who has the wisdom to know what is best for us, and who has proved that he can be trusted to tell us what is best for us.”

He then discusses creation in Well-Designed. He covers the Story in declaring us made in God’s image, made with care. The blueprint for humanity is two complementary genders. God had a good purpose in created humanity this way. Our bodies, as part of creation, declare His praises (Ps. 19). He does caution us against baptizing cultural stereotypes in our discussion of gender. Sometimes we create dysphoria because of extreme views of masculinity and femininity. There will always be outliers. They don’t cease to be their biological gender. Jesus affirmed the creational design in a discussion of divorce in Matthew 19.

DRelated imageue to the fall & curse we see Beauty and Brokenness. We are glorious ruins, as Francis Schaeffer said. All of creation is a glorious ruin. Therefore we are beautiful but also broken. Adam & Eve’s Story is ours as well. We suffer from darkened understanding, futile thinking and disordered desires. We also suffer from broken bodies. There are people with genetic disorders. There are also people who due to darkened understanding experience real distress about their gender identity. “But experiencing that feeling does not mean that feeding it and acting on it is best, or right.” (pp. 67) In other words, some experience dysphoria, but some who experience it also act on it and try to live as the opposite of their biological sex. Dysphoria is a manifestation of our brokenness just like the rest of creation. We leave out God and creation from our thinking and people can live as if the dysphoria is speaking truth instead of lies to us.

Jesus offers us A Better Future than following our sometimes shifting and creation denying feelings and thoughts. Faith in Christ as our Savior unites us with Jesus who makes us a new creation. In sanctification we are renewed in God’s image, a process which is not completed in this earthly existence. Therefore we all wait for freedom, including many who struggle with gender dysphoria. With all of creation, we all groan. In Romans 8 the Spirit of Jesus groans with us in prayer as we struggle with the futility of creation due to the curse. We have the hope of the resurrection, the redemption of our bodies, when the futility will be removed from creation and our  bodies.

He then shifts to Love Your Neighbor. We should not use the truth as a club. Our attitude toward those who experience dysphoria or are transgender matters. Just like us, those people are made in God’s image and have dignity. We are therefore called to love both our neighbors and our enemies. We are to love truth and people. Often we love truth but are motivated by self-righteousness, pride, fear or a desire to win.

Walker admits that there are No Easy Paths for those who are transgender or experience gender dysphoria. The more boundaries you’ve broken, the more difficult it will be. Some are content to change clothing and names. Some use hormones to change themselves. Others change their body with surgery. Coming to faith and sorting out what next becomes increasingly complex. They require great wisdom and a loving community of faith. There are two aspects to this. First, all Christians will bear crosses. Some are heavier than others, but all are to deny themselves as part of the ordinary Christian life. Second, this cross bearing is not forever. The resurrection will resolve all these outstanding issues we experience in an already/not yet salvation.

This is Challenging to the Church. We will need to face our own self-righteousness and fear to become welcoming toward people who believe but still struggle. They don’t want to. Just like we may not want to struggle with anger, pride, passivity, pornography etc. While set apart and devoted to Christ, we are not perfectly sanctified. We will need to listen to other people’s struggles and groan with them. We bear their burdens with them.

Walker continues with Speaking to Children, and then Tough Questions to wrap up the book.

This is a readable book. It is not overly technical but accessible to people who aren’t scientists or doctors. He offers clear, biblical truth. He also calls us to compassion in how we speak to people. This is not a “these people are bad” book. But one that wrestles with the reality of our fallenness (original sin), and the sufficiency of Christ. He unfolds this in a Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation paradigm. This is a book deserving to be read by pastors and laypeople alike. I bought an additional copy for our library. Perhaps you should too.

Here is the sermon on the subject.

 

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The first section of Organic Outreach for Churches by Kevin Harney covered motivation: love for God, the world and the congregation. He calls this the heart of the congregation. In the second section he addresses the mind of the congregation. The focus is on the administrative structure expressed by the heart that seeks to reach out with God’s love to the world around it through the congregation. Put another way, the first task of leadership is to cultivate love for God, the lost people around us, and our congregation. Until this is done, the administrative structure should not be changed. To borrow terminology from another book on ministry, there needs to be a vine before you put up the trellis.

“When our hearts are filled with love for God, for our community, and for the church, we are ready to strategize about outreach.”

This is one of the positives of his approach. He is talking about outreach as a (church) community project rather than focusing on preparing individuals to share their faith.

The first step in this process is the mind-shifts Harney believes need to take place so we can be productive. Here they are:

  • From random to strategic outreach
  • From famine to funding (making money available for LOCAL outreach)
  • From believing to belonging (as the first step in the process)
  • From us to them (regarding focus)
  • From programs to praying
  • From mush to clarity (regarding your beliefs)
  • From fatalism to faith

These are important shifts, though I would be hesitant to fully embrace the 4th one (us => them) for reasons I will develop below.

I will throw out a reminder. This all takes time. This morning I read about the building of the temple by Solomon. It took 7 and a half years. Just as the temple wasn’t built in a day, neither will a congregation’s outreach ministry. People are often harder to mold than stones. This is about cultural change, and that takes time, and undetermineable period of time.

He then develops the idea of from famine to funding, because you’ve gone from random to strategic outreach. Many churches provide money for missions, elsewhere. By someone else. Funding missionaries is a great thing. The point is not to eliminate funding to foreign (and even local) missionaries and ministries. The point is to add funds for your congregation to reach the people around you.

This also means that everyone is getting involved instead of paying surrogates to do the work for you. Not everyone will have the same role; the different gifts of God’s people will be engaged. This is one of the mind shifts he neglected: from them to us. No longer should outreach be the work of a chosen few who work on behalf of the rest of us (surrogates). An outreach committee would lead the strategies that involve everyone in various ways (even if all you can do is pray because you’re home-bound).

One common problem Harney experiences is that ministry leaders see outreach as an optional thing that competes with their ministry instead of being something that their ministry also participates in. As a result, they can ignore events, schedule competing events etc. The goal is for each ministry to see their place in outreach. To see it as part of their mission. The Outreach Team is then viewed as influencers. He finds it most helpful if all the ministry leaders comprise the Outreach Influence Team.

Harney then moves into the 6 Levels of Influence. It all starts with God. As a loving, eternal community (Trinity) God is a missionary God who has been sharing His love with people since the beginning of time. Between God and the world, Harney lists the Outreach Influence Team Leader, the Outreach Influence Team, ministry workers, and ministry participants.

To put it simply, the team leader encourages the team to maintain focus and develop the ways their ministry participates in outreach. The team provides training for workers in outreach, which helps instill the vision for outreach to participants so they begin to engage in praying for others, inviting people to events or ministry functions etc.

Then he moves into raising the evangelistic temperature utilizing the one degree rule. This is about accountability. And while it can be helpful, knowing the perversity that remains even in Christians, it can easily lapse into legalism and self-righteousness (self-condemnation if you aren’t doing enough). It is here that he starts to sound more seeker-driven than seeker-sensitive. It was here that I began to grow frustrated.

Why was I frustrated? The easy answer would be my flesh is resisting the call of God to engage in this process. I don’t think that is is (though he did talk about lots of meetings and I’m currently have meeting fatigue).

The other answer is a glaring lack of ecclesiology in the book. It is assumed, and you know what happens if you assume. Part of ecclesiology is the mission of the church. When there is no clearly developed mission of the church, an author’s emphasis becomes the mission of the church. There are subtle statements in this section that indicate that he thinks outreach trumps the rest, shapes the rest. Like most books on a particular goal of the Church, it becomes out of balance and begins to veer down dangerous roads.

Let me explain. I take a tri-perspectival view of worship (and most things, to be honest). I express this as worship is intended to exalt God, edify the Church and evangelize the world (in terms of unbelievers present). Worship cannot focus simply on evangelism as in the seeker-driven model. I think we should be sensitive to “seekers” (I don’t really like that word). By that I mean we explain things. We periodically explain some of what we do in worship. In preaching we explain “big words” and call people to faith for both conversion (justification) and sanctification.

Our mission, as expressed in the Great Commission, is not to simply make converts but disciples. We are to present people to Christ in maturity. Yes, you have to start with conversion but that is not the end all and be all of church life. Outreach is a part of our mission, not the mission.

If we are asking about outreach temperature, we should start asking about your marriage (if you are married), parenting, sex life, work life etc. because all of these are about being faithful to Christ in our context. Suddenly we have a long list, and even more opportunities to become self-righteous Pharisees boasting of our outreach righteousness, or parenting righteousness.

Taking part of the mission as the mission is just plain dangerous. No one comes out and says that, but it is expressed in terms of the “most important” part of our mission, or main emphasis requiring “inordinate amounts of time”.

So, while I agree that outreach should permeate all of our programs so it is an organic thing for the congregation, I don’t agree that it supplants or overwhelms all of the other ministries of the church. Our discipleship ministries should be welcoming to outsiders (and people should invite others as well as pray for the lost), should connect everything to the gospel (including calling people to faith as well as expressing that faith) as well as prepare people to share their faith (preferably in a tri-perspectival way, which is a separate blog post). Our worship should not be reduced to altar calls, “love songs” to Jesus with a great beat etc. I’m still a “Word & Sacrament” guy. Evangelism as well as exaltation and edification take place as we sing the Word, pray the Word, listen to the Word (preaching) and see the Word (sacraments). God works in that to bring people to faith as well as build people in their faith. We explain things, we don’t eliminate them precisely because worship is also for God and His people, not just the people who don’t believe yet.

Precisely because there is no explicit eccesiology, Harney is beginning to slip down this road though he may not realize it. There are some things that slow it: being clear about what you believe. He hasn’t gutted the faith like some do. But I find him beginning to move out of balance in this second section. In the third section, we’ll see where his trajectory leads us.

 

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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 the third chapter of The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung looks at the pattern of piety found in Scripture. It is not enough to know we are called to holiness, but we also need to know what it looks like, and doesn’t look like.

Holiness means separation. That is the bottom line. God sets us apart from the rest of humanity in two ways. First, we are definitively set apart at justification. We are set apart as Gods’ people. So, every Christian is sanctified. But God continues to set us apart from the world morally. This is progressive sanctification. You don’t have one without the other. Both of these are a result of grace.. The first is an act of grace (one time event) and the second is a work of grace (a process) according to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

What Holiness is Not

It is not rule keeping. Holiness certainly includes obedience. People often get off course by thinking about non-biblical rules. We are set apart for God. We are to obey his law. Jesus was not too keen on the Pharisees for neglecting God’s law from man-made traditions. It is not about dancing, whether or not you drink a beer with dinner, or have the occasional cuss word slip out when you smash your thumb with a hammer. It is about gentleness, not getting drunk, and having lips used to edify and express gratitude.

“Holiness is more than middle class values. … checklist spirituality is highly selective.”

It is not generational imitation. Some people think it is having the standards and practices of an earlier generation. It could be the 1950’s in Amercia, Calvin’s Geneva or the Puritan’s England. This is what got the Amish in trouble. DeYoung notes that the 50’s may have had a better standards of sexual decency. But when it came to race relations, not so good. Just an example. We are trying to apply the timeless law in our time, not recreate another time.

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Paul Tripps’ What Did You Expect? hits on the reality of our defensiveness and self-righteousness.  He expressed it in a way that I find is very helpful.  He talks about our inner lawyer that rises to our defense.

“All of us carry inside ourselves an inner lawyer who is easily activated and quickly rises to our defense.”

Don’t you notice this when you become engaged in a disagreement.  That desire to defend and/or to accuse quickly comes to the surface.  We start to parse words, shift the discussion to their failings and point the finger (even give the finger).

This was so clear to me one day in the minivan.  CavWife and I have a long-standing philosophical disagreement on whether or not the emergency brake is necessary whenever you are parked on a hill.  Her source of authority on this matter is her father.  My source of authority is Car Talk (Tom was a professor of mine at Boston University).

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This afternoon I was re-reading a chapter from Paul Miller’s A Praying Life in preparation for Community Group.  He was talking about child-like faith.  One aspect of that is an “as you are” quality.  Kids come as they are: dirty, selfish, excited.  Kids are fully present, even if it isn’t what you want them to be fully present in.

Too often we try to put on a face- like we have things together.  We act ‘religious’ instead of as a child with their father.

It is all about praying as a justified person.  When we are justified (pardoned and declared righteous by God on account of Jesus’ substitutionary obedience and atoning death), we don’t have to pretend with God.  He knows where we are messed up, confused or distracted.  He accepts us despite our messiness because of Jesus.  We don’t have to try and impress with our words and attitudes.

The self-righteous person tries to impress God, to gain God’s approval on the basis of prayer performance.  They think they have to think they have it all together to come into God’s presence.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The self-despairing person isn’t resting in their justification either.  They beg God (or run from Him).  They are depending on their tears, pleading, ‘passion’ etc. to gain God’s ear.  They refuse to rest upon Christ as well.

We will confess sin in prayer.  But we must not think we lose our justification when we sin (remember, it is all about what Jesus has done!).  We even confess as justified people owning up to our failings, resting in Christ’s death for our pardon.  That doesn’t mean we are casual, but neither are we in doubt as to whether or not the Father pardons His children.

Perhaps so many of us struggle in our prayer lives because we struggle in our understanding and experience of justification.  Our access in prayer is a function of our justification.  Prayer is a means to our sanctification.  But we must never make our access to the Father in prayer rest upon our sanctification.  As we understand and experience our justification, we should have a more meaningful, honest prayer life.

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I’m nearly finished with reading The Letters of John Newton.  It is a great, humbling and encouraging read that is focused on the gospel.  The reason I bought the book was for a letter that ended up not being in the book.  It is a letter he wrote to a young pastor.  It is suitable for many of us.

Your understanding of the gospel is intellectually sound, but there is much legalism in your experience of Christ, and that perplexes you.  You are very capable of giving advice to others, but I wish you could apply more effectively what you preach.

Did he meet me?  Part of what is scary here is that we can intellectually “get it” but still have a heart bound by legalism.  We still try to relate to Christ with a legal spirit.  We seem quite capable, but don’t seem to live in light of what know intellectually.

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

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

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

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

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Here are some of the quotes I ran across as I looked at this parable.  The parable is simple, yet humbling in so many ways.  It exposes our tendency toward self-righteousness, and points to God’s incredible disposition towards mercy toward the humble.

From Turning Your World Upside Down by Richard Phillips

“Pride is one of the greatest and most deeply embedded sins in human nature.”  Richard Phillips

“Pride is the worst viper in the heart … nothing is so hateful to God, contrary to the spirit of the gospel, or of so dangerous consequence…”  Jonathan Edwards

“The Pharisee is self-righteous because his standard of comparison is other people, and especially those who stand out in depravity.”  Richard Phillips

From Love Walked Among Us by Paul Miller

“Self-righteousness is like bad breath.  Others can smell it but you can’t.”

“Getting in touch with your inner tax collector makes room for God’s energy in your life.”

Jerram Barrs’ book The Heart of Prayer provided this great one.

“The most basic of all sins is seeking to live independently of God: to live pretending that we do not need him, to live as if we owned the world, to live as if we could make happen whatever we desire, to live as if we were in full control of our lives.”

And lastly there is this gem from Concerning the True Care of Souls by Martin Bucer.  It bears much meditation and attention, though it is quite simple.

“Thus the health and life of the inner man consists in a true living faith in the mercifulness of God and a sure confidence in the forgiveness of sin which Christ the Lord has acquired and earned for us.”

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I’ve got to stuff all of Galatians 2 into one sermon.  Oh the madness and folly of it all!  One of my favorite works on Galatians is Luther’s commentary.  I don’t agree with all he says, but there are some great things in there.  He had … a way with words.   Let’s see some of it.

“The truth of the gospel is that our righteousness comes by faith alone, without the works of the law. The corruption or falsehood of the gospel is that we are justified by faith but not without the works of the law.

I like how he reminds us that most false gospels do not deny the need for faith, or Jesus.  What they deny is the sufficiency of Jesus’ work for us.  This is why they are so dangerous, there is an element of truth to be found in them.  Satan uses a little truth to float big lies.

“…we will suffer our goods to be taken away, our name, our life, and all that we have; but the gospel, our faith, Jesus Christ, we will never allow to be wrested from us.”

Martin points to how precious this gospel is- it is more valuable than our possessions, reputations, and even earthly life.  This is why Paul fought so vigorously for the “truth of the gospel”.

“We therefore make this definition of a Christian: a Christian is not one who has no sin, but one to whom God imputes not his sin, through faith in Christ. That is why we so often repeat and beat into your minds, the forgiveness of sins and imputation of righteousness for Christ’s sake.”

Imputation is a necessary element of the gospel.  Our sins are no longer imputed (or accounted) to us AND Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us.  We must remember both.  We cannot bring both our own righteousness and Christ’s to God.  It is one or the other.  We need constant reminders of this truth because our default mode is to try and earn SOMETHING.  We want to contribute something (besides our sin) to salvation.  Jesus, save us from our pride.

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I finished reading Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus by Paul Miller just before heading off to New York for a week.  Paul is the son of C. John (Jack) Miller, and has a ministry, See Jesus,  that offers 2 helpful small group programs.  The Person of Jesus is based on this book, and PrayerLife.  Both are interactive studies that come from a strong grace-orientation.  But, back to the book.

One of the things I found interesting was the variety of endorsements.  It does my heart good to see Tremper Longman, Steve Brown, Jerry Bridges, Dan Allender and Joni Eareckson Tada endorsing the book.  Max Lucado … not someone whose opinion really matters to me.  Brian McLaren … interesting choice.  Glad he endorsed it, it may mean he’s keeping his toe within the bounds of historic Christianity.

That last sentence is indicative of why a guy like me needs to read this book.  It reveals just how little I love like Jesus.  I can see why Brian McLaren would like most of the book- but he probably struggled with the last few chapters.  You’ll see why.

Paul’s 2 main premises is that Jesus alone shows us what true love looks like in action, and that we can only love well because we have been loved perfectly (including thru his penal substitutionary atonement- which is something McLaren has discounted publicly).  To bring us along, Paul uses numerous incidents from Jesus’ life to show us the richness of variety in his love, and the many barriers we have to showing love to others.  So this book is often convicting as our judgmentalism, self-righteousness, legalism and more are put on display as violating the 2 great commandments upon which all the Law and the Prophets hang.

But the emphasis is positive- love shows compassion, speaks the truth, depends on God and is energized by faith.  Miller weaves those biblical accounts from the life of Jesus with personal stories (he is not the hero of any of them), and some great quotes by various figures from history.  So you will find that it is an easy book to read, even if it hits you hard at times.

But it is not a self-help, try harder book.  The book ends with a section on how love moves from life to death.  It is about the centrality of Jesus’ sacrificial death, and how our lives are intended to follow that same track.  He is our model as well as our Substitute (see 1 Peter for plenty of that tension).  As a result, the book challenges those of us who err toward Phariseeism AND those who err toward a more “liberal” view of Jesus that maximizes his Incarnation while rejecting his finished work.  Miller does a great job of maintaining that tension of a suffering Savior whose love is rich and varied, perfectly suitable for the differing needs of its object.   So the book is biblical, accessible and applicable.  I heartily put my name up there with the other endorsees (even McLaren).  See, God’s using it in my life too.

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I’m struggling with my sermon for Sunday.  I’m struggling because I know the sinful, legalistic tendencies of our hearts.  I’m struggling with communicating the truth in such a way as to reveal our idols/substitutes in a more concrete way without establishing “man-made” rules which we use to attack others or exalt ourselves.

In Nehemiah 13, Nehemiah returns from Susa to discover that Israel has broken all the promises and oaths they had made to God.  They were once again becoming like the nations, being assimilated, instead of honoring God with their money, time and relationships.  They were not providing tithes & offerings for the worship of God, they were breaking the Sabbath, and they were taking foreign wives.  They had lost their saltiness.

And so have we.  The Church in America struggles with assimilation- being squeezed into the world’s box, conformed to their values rather than conformed to Christ and His values.  We start to worship self and success.  Here’s a chart I put together to summarize it:

 

Love God

Love of Self

Money

Joy in Christ => simplicity + generosity

Covetousness => status symbols + luxuries

Time

Boundaries + balance

Excess to fulfill my agenda

Marriage/Family

Kingdom building + character

Focus on beauty or economic advantage

Church Leadership

Biblical (gospel) principles

Business models (control)

We have a tendency to want to make this clearer so we can better know (we think) if we are being obedient.  This way we can establish our righteousness over our less obedient brothers and sisters.  This permits us to criticize them.  Sometimes they need to be confronted by their own worldliness- but I can’t be the standard by which they are measured.

We also do this so we can play the martyr.  I think of this primarily financially.  We can point to our simplicity- “see what a junky car I drive because I love Jesus”- to show how much more we love Jesus than our brothers.  We aren’t content to say “don’t covet, be generous and keep your treasure in heaven.”  We want to know what that looks like, and we start this Pharisaical process to gain credit instead of relying on Jesus, His work for us, and to work in and thru us.  Or am I the only one whose heart is so twisted by indwelling sin?

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Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith is a much needed book.  I needed to read it, and I can see how many in the churches I’m familiar with need to read it as well.  It is short, well-written, well-illustrated and keeps pointing the reader to Christ.  What more could you want?

Tim uses the Parable of the Lost Sons to examine the heart of the the Christian message.  He examines the Parable in the context of his audience in Luke 15.  He also compares and contrasts it with the parables that precede it (the lost sheep and the lost coin), to get the message ‘right’.  And that message is that both sons were lost- one thru license and the other thru legalism.  While we see the licentious brother return home (much like the sinners how heard Jesus and placed their trust in Him), while the elder brother resents the father’s grace (much like the Pharisees who were listening).  We just aren’t sure how he responds, so the question bounces back on all those elder brothers- will you enter the joy of the Father or maintain your ‘rights’ and sit alone and angry?

In this process Keller redefines both sin and lostness (as I’ve addressed in a previous post).  He doesn’t redefine so much as deepen our understanding of these concepts, expanding them so we can recognize how easily we can sin and appreciate our tendency to wander back into self-reliance.

Keller points us to the True Elder Brother, Jesus, who left the Father’s side to seek and save the lost.  We can only return home because He left, and lost His life.  This helps us to redefine, or deepen our understanding of, hope.  This hope culminates in the Feast of the Father- a picture of heavenly celebration.

In the process, Keller draws upon the thinking of Jonathan Edwards, C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther among others.  The last is particularly important since Luther understood too well that legalism is the default mode for most of us.  We quickly lapse back into the sins of the elder brother (pride, self-righteousness, lack of compassion).  He illustrates with movies (both popular and obscure) as well as novels that have captured people’s attention through the years.

So I found the book to be both convicting and comforting, humbling and encouraging.  Yes, big sinner.  Yes, bigger Savior who continues to change my heart so it resembles His.  This quote is one from the final chapter gives us something to chew on:

I have explained in this book why churches- and all religious institutions- are often so unpleasant.  They are filled with elder brothers.  Yet staying away from them simply because they have elder brothers is just another form of self-righteousness.  Besides that, there is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers.  You can’t live the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place.

This is Keller’s hope- to transform the church and society as we recognize our frequent relapses into self-righteousness and rely more fully and completely on the only Savior- Jesus.  I think this is must reading for pastors, church leaders and ordinary Christians.  It is accessible to all- so don’t shilly-shally (as Steve Brown would say) and drink deep and drink often.

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Started in on The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller tonight.  I couldn’t wait.  I’ve heard his sermons on the Parable, but I like books.  So much easier to interact with the content. 

So I found this at the end of the first chapter:

“Jesus’ teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day.  However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. … The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church.  That can only mean one thing.  If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.  If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.

Hard to hear, but I suspect it is more true than we want to believe.  Many churches hear messages of moralism and self-help.  The broken remain broken, unable to discover the balm of the gospel.

I have ministered in “Elder Brother-ville” for lo these many years.  I know I have a tendency to be an older brother (though in my family I’m the one who wandered off the reservation only to be discovered by Jesus).  Grace just doesn’t seem to register to most church folks here.  It’s like “that’s nice, but can you give me something to do?”  They refuse to see themselves as lost and in need of rescue- they think they just need some direction and maybe a little assistance.  As a result, most churches are filled with smug, “we’re okay,” living in denial, self-righteous people.

I ponder those I “ran off” in my years of ministry here.  They fall into 2 categories: those who wanted cheap grace- acceptance without any need to change, justification with no sanctification- and those who didn’t understand how grace applied to them- the self-righteous looking for tips on being a better person, sanctification without justification.  But there was a group who “got it,” recognizing grace was for them, that God loved them despite their sin AND wanted to remake them in his image.

Pastors who play into the hands of cheap grace are often called liberals.  Pastors who play into the hands of the self-righteousness look like conservatives.  Both are missing the point of ministry, and offer people partial or false gospels.  We have to start realizing that our churches are filled with lost people- and some of that is our fault.

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I expected more from American Gangster.  It stars two first-rate actors, and personal favorites, in Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.  It is directed by Ridley Scott.  The acting and direction were very good.  The story was interesting too.  So, I’m not quite sure why I’m not content, or as content, with this movie.  Perhaps my expectations were too high.  Perhaps it was that the story takes place over such a long period of time, but offers no time line to better understand its development.  And I thought it would have more action.

It is the story of 2 men whose lives intersect, and are very similar.  Denzel plays Frank Lucas, a body guard for a Harlem mob boss.  He watches his boss, and after his death decides to step into his shoes as the neighborhood’s beneficent dictator.  He must remove some competition, and convince the Italians that he is their equal.  His is a story of dogged determination and perseverence.  He had a good head for business, but decided to use his abilities for evil instead of good.  But he justifies it based on the good he does for his family (whom he’s brought up from NC to work for him) and the community.

Russell Crowe is Ritchie Roberts, a clean cop who also displays dogged determination and perseverence.  As head of a drug task force, he hunts Lucas for years.  In the meantime, he passes his bar exam.  He cares about his son, but has trouble relationally.  He’s a womanizer, so his wife left him.  One of the subplots is the fight for custody of his son.  Since he refuses to take any bribe money or steal evidence, he drives a beat up junker through most of the movie.  It is his conflict with his wife that opens up one of the most amazing lines of dialogue.

“Don’t punish me for being honest.  Don’t take my boy.”

“You don’t take money for one reason: to buy being dishonest about everything else. … You think you’re going to heaven because you’re honest, but you’re not.  You’re going to the same hell as the crooked cops you can’t stand!”

Wow!  What an apt description of how self-righteousness functions in our lives.  We narrow God’s law down to a few things- in this case being a clean cop.  As long as we do that- we are righteous in our own eyes.  We neglect the rest of God’s commands which would condemn us, and use the ones we keep to condemn others.  He blinds himself to just how messed up he really is, and feels a martyr for suffering for his one area of obedience.  This is a great window into our souls!

Those crooked cops stand between the men for years.  Lucas hates the fact that he has to pay them off.  In another great line of thought I couldn’t find again to copy- he compares their love of money to an addict.  The crooked cops (and the hangers on in his life) can’t get enough- they are just as addicted.  Another great window to our souls!  They also hinder Roberts’ efforts to bring Lucas down.  When Roberts get the goods on Lucas, he uses him to bring them down.

The movie ends with Lucas getting out of prison to be met by Roberts who is now his lawyer.  Oh, the irony of it all.  Roberts is essentially on the take as a defense attorney, but probably sees himself as defending men from the crooked cops.  He, too, is now addicted to money.

American Gangster is what you’d expect of a gangster movie- plenty of bad language, shocking violence and a bit of nudity.  But as a morality play, it does offer us some insight into human behavior.  As a morality play, it doesn’t offer us insight into how to change and be free of our self-centeredness and addictions.

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In his chapter on The Cost of Holiness, J.C. Ryle builds on the idea of Luke 14:28 about counting the cost.  He laments the “easy-believism” that marked his day, and ours.  He mentions that there is little cost associated with the nominal Christianity that fills many of our churches.

The point is not that we can in any way earn our salvation- only Jesus could do that.  The point is that if we truly believe, there will be a cost we will pay.  We had better count that cost.

1. It will cost us our self-righteousness.  We must forsake all our boasting in the practices that we think may bring us life.  Ryle quotes a Puritan, “it is harder to deny proud self than sinful self.  But it is absolutely necessary.”  The doctrine of free grace is an affront to the flesh.  As Luther has written, there is a little religious zealote in each of us clamoring to earn a part of our salvation.

2. It will cost us our sins. There is a willingness to forsake our sins, particularly our pet sins.  “Our sins are often as dear to us as our children: we love them, hug them, cleave to them, and delight in them.”  We enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.  Yes, they have their pleasures.  Otherwise we would not commit them.  But, “he and sin must quarrel, if he and God are to be friends.”  God hates sin, and to enjoy his fellowship we must begin to break with sin.  As we grow more like God, we will hate sin more and more.

3. It will cost us our love of ease.  Following Jesus will mean a new carefulness to life.  We are more concerned with our use of time, treasures, tongue.  Most of us avoid difficulty, unless there is a sufficient payoff.  The time line on our payoff is pretty long.  We must expend lots of energy first, and this “cuts against the grain of our hearts.”  This is why people drop away so quickly when following Jesus introduces difficulty in their lives.  They love X more than him.  We must don’t want trouble with our faith.

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