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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Keller’


Rejoicing in Christ (entitled Life in Christ in the UK) is the follow-up to Michael Reeves’ excellent Delighting in the Trinity. The titles indicate that Reeves takes the answer to WSC #1 seriously. These books are not meant to simply satisfy your intellectual curiosity but inflame your religious affections.

“Let your soul be filled with a heart-ravishing sense of the sweetness and excellency of Christ and all that is in Him.” Robert Murray M’Cheyne

This book is very much like its predecessor. It is brief (just over 100 pages), it has brief sections within chapters that focus on an historical figure or idea, and it has some artwork. This last one may prove a problem to some. Some of this classic artwork includes what many would consider a 2nd commandment violation. I see these as instructional, not doxological, thought the point of book is to feed doxology. It is a tough line that perhaps requires more consideration.

Reeves has chapters focused on Christ’s pre-incarnate work, the Incarnation, the death & resurrection, our union with Christ and the return of Christ. This is done with succinct historical reviews, quotes from theologians of days gone by representing the eastern and western churches, pre- and post-reformational. His work is not caught in a moment of historical theology. He also has a Keller-esque way with words as he unfolds contrasts revealing the sweetness and excellency of Christ to help us rejoice in Jesus.

The OT, according to Jesus, teaches us about Christ and His sufferings. Reeves draws on people like Charnock and Calvin to remind us that we only know God as we know Christ. Even in the beginning we see the Word, God speaking as He works. This Word, John tells us is Christ, a God who reveals Himself through His works. The eternal Word indicates to us a God who communicates, who wants to be known, can be known. He also does some apologetics with regard to myths and stories similar to those we find in Scripture. Often they are used to undermine the uniqueness and authority of Scripture, as though it copies them. He relies on C.S. Lewis to flip this; these myths are corrupted reflections of the true Story, they are derivative. This is similar to Currid’s argument in Against the Gods.

The Father is fully delighted in His Son, and for Reeves this transforms our understanding of the gospel. The Father shares His treasured Son with us.

“If the Father can be infinitely and eternally satisfied in him, then he must be overwhelmingly all-sufficient for us.”

Christ, the One through whom the Father created, is also the One through whom the Father redeems or saves. Reeves spends time examining Original Sin and applies the concept of firstfruits to the subject and that of redemption. Adam was the firstfruit of sin & death. Jesus is the firstfruit of resurrection & righteousness & life. Here was find one of those historical reviews on Irenaeus who saw Jesus as undoing all that Adam had done, restoring creation and humanity from the ravages of sin.

“In a garden, Adam fell down into death; in a garden tomb, Christ rose up from it.”

As Incarnate, Jesus becomes the perfect Man for us. He becomes the perfect image of God to give this status to us. We are called sons of God, whether male or female, because Jesus shares His Sonship with us. Jesus was conceived by the Spirit and fulfilled His ministry in dependence on the Spirit gives us the Spirit so we can walk as He did in newness of life.

“Christ shows what it is to be a human, fully alive in the Spirit. And he is the head of a new, Spirit-filled humanity; all in him share in this anointing of his.”

Christ is our only hope for salvation. His righteousness for us. His death for us. His resurrection for us. We face an Accuser who wants us to look to our unrighteousness, our condemnation etc. True assurance of salvation is found in Christ in whom we believe, not in ourselves. He explores this in terms of our being clothed in Christ’s righteousness as Adam & Eve were clothed in the first sacrificial animal, as Jacob received the blessing clothed in Esau’s clothes, etc. He also moves into the Christ entering the true sanctuary for our salvation as foreshadowed in the High Priest entering the earthly copy.

Our salvation and reception of spiritual blessings is “in Christ”, a result of our union with Christ. Reeves doesn’t focus on the union itself so much as the benefits we receive in the union and its focus on Christ. Salvation is a participation in the life of Christ through our union with Him (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20 for instance). Because of His life we bear fruit. Our identity is derived from Him, not one we gain for ourselves. We may suffer spiritual amnesia, forgetting our identity in Christ, but God never forgets our identity in Christ.

“Where self-dependent efforts at self-improvement must leave us self-obsessed and therefore fundamentally unloving, the kindness of God in Christ attracts our hearts away from ourselves to him. Only the love of Christ has the power to uncoil a human heart.”

In addressing Christ’s return Reeves contrasts Jesus with the Dragon and the beasts in Revelation. He helps us to focus on the return of Christ, not all the other stuff people focus on in eschatology seminars. Christ’s return completes the restoration of creation. It will be new and improved. Our future includes a physical and earthly existence. Gnostic views of creation are to be rejected.

“Where the Lamb has suffered death for others, the dragon only seeks to inflict death on others. The one gives out life; the other sucks in life. … where the Lamb speaks for God, the beasts speak against God; where the Lamb rises from the dead to give life to others, the beast rises from its mortal wound only to take life. Where the Lamb goes out to conquer evil, the beast goes out to conquer the saints. Here are two utterly opposed approaches to power and judgment.”

With some books you can be glad you are done. Reeves once again leaves me wanting more. I look forward to reading more from Michael Reeves in the future.

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Tim Keller says “This is the best book for laypeople on this subject.” This book is Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. I think he is right.

Union with Christ is one of the more neglected doctrines in the contemporary church. This neglect has been addressed with a few releases in the past few years like the books by J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham. These tend toward the more academic or pastoral in nature. Wilbourne’s book is written for the lay person and is easy to understand, though the topic can still stretch our minds. He provides a number of good illustrations to help us understand this rather nebulous concept. Or perhaps enchanted, for in his introduction he relates this to our disenchanted (materialistic) culture, and to understand union we need our imaginations again.

“Coming to see your union with Christ is like finally putting on a pair of desperately needed glasses- Wow!”

He begins with reality of a gap between what the Bible says and our experience of that reality. We can often feel exhausted by our efforts and discouraged by a lack of “progress”. The gap is real and must be acknowledged. But God’s answer to all this is union with Christ.

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore … he had to become ours and to dwell within us.” John Calvin

Calvin, particularly his Institutes of the Christian Religion, is very present in this volume. United to Christ we have all the blessings of God (Eph. 1). Christ also dwells in us by the Spirit so we are empowered by Him to enjoy these many blessings. While this was understood by many in history (he quotes from Edwards and Goodwin, for instance) such talk is like a foreign language to many/most western Christians.

“If it ‘s true that nothing is more central or basic than union with Christ, and this book aims to show that it is, then it is fair to ask this: Why is union with Christ neither central nor basic to so many of us? Why, rather, is union with Christ, if it is talked about at all, reduced to some vague or optional aspect of Christian living…”

The only way we partake of the gospel promises is …. union with Christ. When we neglect this, the work of Christ for us is separated from the person of Christ in us and the gap between beliefs and experience begins to increasingly widen.

He moves on to what it actually is. One aspect of union is imputation: what happened to Him happened to us; what He earned we receive; and what we earned He paid the price for. Paul frequently uses the term “in Christ” to talk about how we live before God. Christ represents us so His death is our death to guilt & sin (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20). His resurrection is our newness of life (Rom. 6; Eph. 2; Gal. 2:20). His obedience becomes our obedience. We have even been seated with Him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2).

“Faith is how union with Christ becomes operative and powerful in your life. Faith is a God-given gift that allows you to take hold of God’s having taken hold of you. … Your life, your story, becomes enfolded by another story- Another’s story.”

As Paul says in Colossians our life is hidden with Christ in God. United to Christ, Calvin says, we receive the double grace of justification and sanctification. Though distinct they are a package deal given simultaneously. We partake of His redemption because we are united to Christ, covenantally and spiritually. We enjoy our salvation as He works in us to transform us. Our faith is not simply in Christ’s work for us, but also that Christ continues to work in us and through us. He became like us to make us like Him so we look to Him to accomplish these things that are so beyond our doing.

Union with Christ also holds together some of the tensions that tend to tear God’s people apart. For instance, he mentions extravagant grace and radical discipleship. We see them both in Calvin’s double grace, but our tendency is to separate them. Apart from discipleship extravagant grace lapses into Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. Apart from extravagant grace discipleship degenerates into legalism. This conflict that has periodically emerged in the church is resolved in union with Christ. These two songs, as he terms them, meet in harmony in Christ. They cannot be separated because Christ cannot be separated (Ferguson makes the same argument in The Whole Christ). Wilbourne then explains and applies the “double grace”.

“Because we are relentless in trying to justify our lives, because we will use anything, even our virtue, to keep God at a distance, we can’t hear this song of grace too loudly or too often. … That hit home because that’s exactly what I had been doing- using grace as an excuse not to follow Jesus. … Undiluted grace and uncompromising obedience meet in the person of Jesus. He is always full of both.”

Rankin then spends a chapter showing us where all this is in the Scripture, a chapter on where it pops up in Church History (Augustine, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Owen and Lewis) and then what happened that we have fallen to this low estate. As mentioned, there is the disenchanted or materialistic worldview, the increase in self-centeredness (due to the eclipse of the gospel), our poor pneumatology, sound-bite culture, and pragmatism.

“Paul is saying union with Christ not only gives you a new identity; it gives you a new mindset, a new grid through which to filter everything that happens to you. For it’s not so much what happens that defines you, as how you interpret what happens to you.”

From there he delves into the problems union with Christ solves. We have a new identity, new destiny, new purpose and new hope. So many of the stories we love focus on people seeking to discover their identity. We think we have to establish our identity so we are insecure and exhausted. Many famous musicians (interviews with Madonna and John Mayer come to mind) feel the need to re-establish themselves, prove themselves. In Christ, we receive an identity we neither win or can lose. We don’t have to prove ourselves. This identity also shapes how we live, providing appropriate boundaries for us. We have a new destination too- not simply to decompose in the ground or simply cease to exist. Our destiny is to be what Adam and Eve once were, the image of God. Jesus, in His humanity, the perfect image of God restores God’s distorted image of us. We don’t lose our sense of self (just as in a healthy marriage we are one flesh but don’t lose your sense of self). You become more fully you with the unique gifts and experiences but without the sin and weakness.

“The purpose of the gospel [is] to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.” John Calvin

“Because love was central in the life of Christ, love is at the heart of the image of God. Your win is learning how to love. And your greatest losses are your failures to love.”

We are here for holiness, which for many of us, as he notes, is like broccoli. Good for us but …. (personally I like broccoli). Holiness is good, beautiful and attractive. It is something we only pursue properly in union with Christ (see Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification).  We are positionally holy due to our union with Christ, and dwelling in us He works to make us personally holy. These two tensions are brought together in harmony in Christ. The more holy we become the more we enjoy communion with God, in part because we now find His holiness more attractive and a greater source of joy.

“God wants us to grow in holiness, not as some sort of test or punishment, not even just as preparation for the future, but because he wants us to enjoy life with him more. The more we grow in holiness, the more we can enjoy his presence. He wants us not simply to press on but to soar. He wants holiness for us, for our joy.”

Our hope is life in the presence of God where Jesus currently is. This is unattainable for us apart from our union with Christ. He is there now, seated and interceding for us (Heb. 7:25). This means that our continuing sin does not separate us from God. We don’t have to look to our circumstances to gauge if God is pleased with us, we look to Jesus and know He is. Union with Christ holds the facts that God with for us and with us together.

“John Calvin said, ‘Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us.’ John Owen added, ‘Labor, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ.’ And Jonathan Edwards exhorted, ‘We should labor to be continually growing in divine love.'”

Wilbourne then moves into our daily life as people united to Christ. He begins with abiding. He brings up the illustration of sailing. Sailing depends on the wind, but you still need skills to get where you want to go in the power of the wind. This is communion with Christ, the subjective or experiential aspect of our union with Christ. We cannot be more or less united to Christ. But our sense of communion with Christ grows or diminishes. Faith always precedes our sense of communion for faith lays ahold of Christ. He warns us of our tendency to drift (pride, complacency etc.). If we are not manning the sail and the tiller we will not go where we long to go. He moves into the means of abiding, or the means of grace. Our sense of communion is tied to prayer, meditation on Scripture, and worship including the sacraments (signs of our union). This does not mean all will be exciting. There will be doldrums, just like in sailing. There will be times when all seems stagnant, and no progress is made.

“Jesus lived a perfect life and terrible things still happened to him. Jesus was the only one who ever trusted and obeyed God perfectly, yet he nevertheless was made to walk the way of suffering unto death…”

We are united to the Christ who suffered. As a result we should expect to suffer (Rom. 8; Phil. 1 & 3; 1 Peter 2-4). Because He suffered, He is able to comfort us in our suffering. He also provided an example for us in suffering, to continue to do good and entrust ourselves to our Creator. Will our suffering drive us from God, or deeper into God?

He then moves into the fact that each of us is united not only to Christ individually but also to one another. In Christ we are the people of God. Here, in a footnote, he surmises, that the tension revealed by the New Perspective of Paul finds reconciliation. In Christ we are justified by the imputation of His righteousness AND we are part of the community of God; soteriology and ecclesiology are united in Christ. Another tension that tends to tear the church apart is also reconciled in Christ: we declare and demonstrate the love of God to the nations. Many conservatives so fear the social gospel that they deny the social aspects of the gospel (and throw accusations at any who do). This is because Jesus not just declared God’s love but demonstrated it (see 1 John 3-4) and calls us to do the same (see also 1 Peter 2).

I found this to be a very encouraging book. He had a number of helpful ways to explain our union and its implications. I heartily recommend it to pastors, elders and ordinary people who want to grow in grace. He makes a difficult subject understandable, interesting and practical.

 

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These days it is pretty difficult to avoid conversations about homosexuality for very long. The question is more about what will be the tenor of those conversations. When we agree, we can unfortunately deride and denigrate people who are different (no matter what the difference is) since, by nature in Adam, we suffer many a prejudice. When we disagree, the tone can quickly become shrill and ugly, particularly in this day when people can’t seem to disagree agreeably. We can succumb to the need to be right (I must win this debate), or if we feel like we are losing or unable to respond our insecurity tempts us to attack the person.

This is why Joe Dallas wrote Speaking of Homosexuality: Discussing the Issues with Kindness & Clarity. Joe used to be “a staff member with a pro-gay church, an openly gay man, and an activist identifying as a gay Christian, arguing for the acceptance of homosexuality.” In the mid-80’s that all changed. Since then he has been defending a biblical perspective on sexuality. He understands the history of the revisionist arguments for homosexuality as well as the best way to address them.

“I’ve written this book with a twofold goal: to help the reader better understand arguments in favor of homosexuality, and to equip him or her to meet those arguments with responses that are accurate, biblical, and compassionate.”

Before he gets to the heart of the book, he talks about the context of these conversations. He talks about why they are hard for everyone involved. So much seems on the line- the personal happiness & existential worth of the homosexual, the perceived safety and happiness of a loved one, eternal life etc. We all bring baggage to the conversation which can blind us, and we’ll accept anything that may confirm our bias, however inaccurate it may be. There is also the political and social climate which makes these conversations difficult. It is a shibboleth creating a dividing line between “us and them”.

He moves into the various groups we can interact with: activists who take no quarter, millennials who grew up in a time when it was acceptable, friends and family. He then moves to the “rules of engagement” for this discussions.

  1. Speak clearly
  2. Speak appropriately
  3. Speak empathically
  4. Concede what is true
  5. Consider what is possible
  6. Watch the apologies
  7. Recognize and point out diversions

The heart of the book addresses a series of issues (born gay?, change, same sex marriage, homophobia, gay Christians, Sodom, Leviticus, what Jesus said, & Romans 1) following a similar pattern. He lays out the general dynamics of the issue, why it is important and summarizes the traditional position. Then Dallas works through a series of revisionist arguments and responses to those arguments from a traditional perspective. He seeks to prepare you for the arguments they are most likely to present to you, and some responses that address those arguments. Those responses come for the Bible, but also address medical and psychological studies, assumptions that may be incorrect etc.

Overall, Dallas does a good job. I think he models his approach by being clear and kind. There is lots of information here, more than most people can remember. But it can be a good resource, particularly in on-going discussions with people you know. If you are a person who ends up in these conversations frequently, you will become more familiar with use.

Dallas, like all authors, writes from a theological tradition or perspective. I also read from one. I am a confessional, Reformed Christian (conservative Presbyterian to be precise). He writes from an Arminian and non-covenantal perspective. If I may be so bold, this weakens his responses in a few key areas.

For instance, in the question of the “gay Christian” he talks about whether a Christian can lose their salvation or if “once saved always saved”. I found that argument rather weak, unconvincing and lacking any nuance. From the perspective of the preservation/perseverance of the saints, I find it more helpful and we can be more patient with people as this works out. We’re also more honest about the collateral damage in that person’s life even if they are a Christian living in disobedience for a time.

Another place this weakness appears is in discussing Leviticus. Tim Keller’s defense of the Christian view from a Reformed & covenantal perspective utilizing the 3 types of law is far more helpful (in my opinion) than the dispensational approach that Dallas takes. The issue is not whether a law is repeated, but what kind of law (and there are textual indications): moral, ceremonial & case law.

These particular responses, in my opinion, could be much stronger. But this is a very helpful book that I hope does find an audience among pastors, chaplains, and laypeople. Unless we live in a “Christian ghetto,” we all know and interact with homosexuals. We should do so with love, which includes speaking the truth with clarity and compassion.

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

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Jared Wilson’s new book is a bit of a departure for him. He has written mostly for the church and its relationship to the gospel. With Unparalleled he seeks to talk to the world about the gospel. The subtitle is How Christianity’s Uniqueness Makes It Compelling. That is Wilson’s goal in this book, to reveal this compelling uniqueness.

This is not an evidentialist kind of book like Evidence that Demands a Verdict. It is more in the tradition of Mere Christianity and The Reason for God. Wilson covers the territory in different ways but it winsome rather than confrontational. He adds some humor. He removes some of the philosophical sophistication of Lewis and Keller’s books. But he is speaking to a similar skeptical world to the ones they did.

He begins with how the God of Christianity is different and cycles through the following: the Trinity, Human Dignity as the Image of God, Human Depravity as Fallen in Adam, Jesus is God, His Substitutionary, His Resurrection, Salvation, Mission and Eschatology. So he treats the major doctrines of Christianity, in a good logical order, He does this with an eye toward showing not simply the reasonableness of Christianity but how it is profoundly different (and better) than any other faith tradition.

This is really the important thing- that profound difference in what we teach about God, man and salvation. As he does this, he often brings us into conversations with cab drivers like Omar and (the midnight) Tokar. There are dying church members, high school friendships and a boss. The questions and comments of skeptics and atheists often move the discussion forward.

“The deepest, most profound evil I will ever face is that which is found in me.”

This is a book I would commend. It isn’t perfect, obviously. Perhaps because I was studying the Trinity shortly before reading the chapter I found it took abit too long to get to the crux (as least for Augustine and Michael Reeves); God is love. This is what makes the God of Christianity profoundly different from the god of Islam or any other faith. He gets there near the end of the chapter, but dabbles in some unsatisfying material first. The incomprehensible nature of the Trinity isn’t really what matters, though it is true. That people want a God of love is important. Not just loving, but love as central to His essence and character.

“Think about it: A solitary god cannot be love. He may learn to love. He may yearn for love. But he cannot in himself be love, because love requires an object.”

The Christian understanding of mission is very different. It is not a self-salvation project. It is a response to grace received. It is also about offering grace instead of demanding change. Christianity thrives as a minority faith, and one that serves the ones deemed unworthy by society. While he notes the great things Christians do he also notes we don’t have cameras following us to show the world. This is why the new atheists can get traction with the claims of religion causing so much harm. They ignore the damage done by atheistic regimes, but more importantly the many hospitals, schools, poverty agencies etc. founded by Christians.

His chapter on eschatology isn’t what many might think. Like many, he heard about “heaven”. I’m guess he also heard about the rapture and great tribulation. But the focus here is not on these, but on the new heavens and earth. There is a physical, as well as spiritual, hope for Christians. While the world seems to be running down, these groans are birth pains for the renewed or restored creation in which all God’s people will spend eternity. We don’t have a faith that hates this world, but one that hates sin and misery while longing for the removal of the curse from creation.

“All of our attempts at orchestrating community cannot keep our self-interest at bay. The vast injustice of the world- in everything from slavery to racism- is the result of our failure at community. Sin messes up our souls; sin messes up our societies.”

As you read you do find a comprehensive world and life view that makes sense, and better sense of the world than any other. The tension between the dignity and depravity of man helps us understand why we see glory and why we experience evil. The gospel of grace is fundamentally different than the salvation offered by other faiths. Grace and glorification leave the others in the dust. It is a faith for real people, real sinners, as I listen to Johnny Cash’s American VI which was largely about his hope in Christ.

This book if for the real people in your life. The ones who would find C.S. Lewis dry or Tim Keller a little intellectual. It is for the skeptics in your life. The power to change their hearts and minds lies not in Wilson’s words. Like Tokar they may just shrug. But God may use it to see and delight in Christ for their salvation as a result.

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

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One of the things I appreciate about Sinclair Ferguson is how he combines astute theological thinking with pastoral wisdom. This characteristic is what makes his latest book, The Whole Christ so good, so timely and helpful.

It is also what makes reviewing this book so difficult. I started to review it, describing many of the great insights, distinctions, historical issues etc. that are in this book that the review was becoming a tome. It would be easy to have a short review that just doesn’t do the book justice, that doesn’t really give you a clear idea as to why you should read it. And you should!

The story of the book began decades ago when Ferguson delivered a number of messages on pastoral reflections of the Marrow Controversy at a conference. Over the years people have asked if he would put them in book form (I hadn’t seen him since I heard the lectures, so I just hoped and prayed). As he noted, and I have also discovered firsthand, it is much harder to adapt messages than to just write a book. The last person to ask him was Tim Keller. Ferguson’s retirement provided the opportunity. Having heard the lectures, I am thankful that it has come to pass. Having read the book, I am even gladder he did.

Ferguson brings us back to the Marrow Controversy that troubled the Church of Scotland in the 1700s. It was a controversy prompted, in part, by The Marrow of Modern Divinity by E.F. But it was really a disagreement about legalism, antinominanism and assurance in the Church of Scotland.

He necessarily interacts with the book, written years earlier but discovered by Thomas Boston, and how the controversy played out in the Church. He brings The Westminster Confession of Faith, various Puritans and John Calvin into the fray. Most importantly, Ferguson also writes about the human heart since these are not simply abstract theological ideas, but issues that plague us.

For instance, he resolves an alleged conflict between Calvin and the Westminster Divines on the subject of faith and assurance. Calvin wrote of assurance being essential to faith which is contrary to the Confession. But Ferguson shows that Calvin meant we must believe that Christ is able to save. This differs from assurance of salvation, meaning that Christ as saved a particular sinner. In other words, they were discussing two different kinds of assurance. This is a very helpful distinction, with pastoral implications. The first is an issue of one’s justification, the other is an issue of their subjective confidence before God. You have to identify the proper problem so you give them the proper instruction, otherwise you can do spiritual damage.

This book is rife with such pastoral implications whether for our preaching or our counseling. This is what makes the book so excellent, and a must-read. He gets to the heart of legalism and antinomianism, and presents us Christ and the gospel as the resolution for both (and the issue of assurance as well).

Ferguson asserts that both legalism and antinomianism severe the law from the character of the law Giver. They do it in different way, but come from the same root. He brings us to Eve and the original temptation. Satan got her to doubt God’s goodness and love. She developed a legalistic spirit, which hardened her heart towards God, which resulted in her antinomianism, or rejection of God’s law to the original couple.

He unpacks how both legalism and antinomian manifest themselves. They also appear in how we think of assurance. They also affect how we preach, and how we hear the gospel, or shall I say mishear.

Much of what Ferguson does is bring us back to the gospel and the character of God. Law then finds its appropriate place, and assurance seen aright.

What started this mess that divided the Church of Scotland, and many Christians today. The controversy started over a Presbytery creed that rejected “preparationism”, a form of hyper-Calvinism that taught that the gospel only for those who showed signs of grace, who have repented (yeah, confusing). One thing that becomes evident is that theses Scots wrote questions in a very convoluted fashion. One man had his license to preach the gospel removed by not affirming the creed. The General Assembly reversed the decision and condemned the creed. One frustrated member of the Assembly sat next to Thomas Boston who recommended The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

Some have taken issue with the book. The controversy over the book is not the issue so much as the views of the Marrow Men. The controversy spiraled out of control, and wider.

The first issue was the free offer of the gospel, contra preparationism. The Marrow Men held to limited atonement. They also believed that the gospel was to be freely offered to all sinners. There are no qualifications that must be met before the offer of Christ, and pardon in Him, is made to sinners.

“The fallacy here? The subtle movement from seeing forsaking sin as a fruit of grace that is rooted in election, to making the forsaking of sin the necessary precursor for experiencing that grace. Repentance, which is the fruit of grace, thus becomes a qualification for grace.”

The Marrow Men rejected the notion of separating Christ from His benefits. We receive all of them in Christ, not in isolation from Him. They upheld a robust theology of union with Christ. “This, to use an Augustinian term, is totus Christus, the whole Christ, the person in whom incarnation has been accomplished and in whom atonement, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly reign are now realized.”

In the midst of this, Ferguson sneaks in an application regarding the New Perspectives on Paul. Yes, he says, the Pharisees believed in grace. It was a conditional grace, however. This was the error of preparationism. It is similar to a conversation I had with some Mormons. We obey, and grace covers what lacks. Ferguson brings us back to the nature of God as good, gracious, and loving. This is what the Enemy seeks to keep from us via a legalistic spirit.

From here he discusses the various forms of legalism which essentially sees God as “He-whose-favor-has-to-be-earned.” Just as in preparationism, where repentance is separated from Christ, in legalism the law is separated from God, from “his loving and generous person”, and “not as the wisdom of a heavenly Father.” The solution is not in rejecting the Law, but embracing God as our delight (see WSC #1). He brings John Colquhoun in to remind us of “what the heart hears”. We can mis-hear solid gospel teaching because of our legalistic hearts. “But it is also all too possible to have an evangelical head and a legalistic heart.” This is important to remember in pastoral counseling. But it means that some hear the offer of free grace as antinomianism.

From there Ferguson moves into the “order of grace”. He touched briefly on the ordo saludis before, but now spends more time there. Faith is the instrument of justification. Repentance does not occur before faith (preparationism), nor after faith, but “within the context of faith’s grasp of God’s grace in Christ.” Further, “while we cannot divide faith and repentance, we do distinguish them carefully”. He also moves to the implications of free grace, a life seeking joyful obedience. Grace produces obedience, and not the other way around. The Mosaic Covenant is to be seen this way, not as a republication of the covenant of works that undoes the Abrahamic covenant. Many preachers, sadly, focus on the law’s exposure of our sin to drive us to Christ with a stark law-gospel distinction. For those justified, it shapes our salvation. It provides direction …

Do you see what I mean?

How we think about law and gospel matters. The default of our hearts matters in terms of how we hear discussions of law and gospel. Where we look for our assurance matters. Why we want to obey matters.

This is a book that can have a profound effect on how a pastor, elder or ministry leader goes about ministry. This is why I find this a book that should be in the hands of pastors, elders and ministry leaders. I want them to bring gospel wisdom to the people they serve: not legalism, not cheap grace. But to do so they have to embrace, and preach, the whole Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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In recent years there have been more than a trickle but less than a flood of books on the topic of idolatry. I’ve read books by Tim Keller and Elyse Fitzpatrick. There is a relatively new out by Brad Bigney called Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with Hidden Idols (e-book too).

In some ways the subject of idols is under addressed (similar to the subject of the Trinity and Union with Christ). The Bible focuses on the topic a great deal. So I’m thankful for Bigney’s foray into this subject.

He is a pastor and biblical counselor. That shows through in his work. There are enough personal examples and stories (his and other people’s) to flesh it out for us, but not so many that you grow weary. I’m finding there is a fine balance to maintain in this matter.

He identifies the issue in chapter 1:

“To move toward idols is to move away from the gospel and the Savior that the gospel proclaims, so the problem is not peripheral- it is central. … When the gospel loses center stage, your spiritual immune system shuts down, leaving you susceptible to a myriad of spiritual illnesses.”

Because we are sinners, albeit justified sinners, we are still prone to wander. Or drift. We drift toward someone or something that is essentially a Christ-substitute. In other words, towards an idol.

We may see our struggles with sin, but fail to see the idols underneath that struggle. Think of it like addiction. Your addiction often leads to a host of other sins: deceit, sloth, theft, adultery or promiscuity and perhaps even murder. The addiction is driven by something however. If you don’t address that “something” you will just shift addictions. Many AA meetings are filled with people chain-smoking cigarettes and gulping coffee. When we don’t address the idol our sin patterns simply change instead of going away. We think we are more sanctified, but we really aren’t. We continue to be stuck spiritually.

Bigbey is honest. He’s not offering a cure-all. We will struggle with this problem the rest of our earthly lives precisely because, as Calvin noted, our hearts are factories of idols. He also notes that God’s goal is not simply for you to sin less, but to make you like Jesus. Sometimes the process of changing our hearts means struggling with visible sins. He wants a Christ-conformed you, not a haughty person who simply obeys externally. In Jesus’ day they were often called Pharisees.

“Everything outside of Christ is saltwater, and it only leaves you thirstier than you were before.”

How do we see the carnage of idols? Bigney points us to the chaos in our relationships. This is what James does in his letter to the church. We tend to think other people are the problem and that if they will just go away all will be well. While there is an element of truth, we struggle with idols too and contribute to many of our relational conflicts. The conflicts are meant to help us see the idols. They are the visible manifestation of the unseen idol.

Bigney borrows quite a bit from David Powlison and Paul Tripp throughout the book but particularly from this section. That is not a bad thing. It is hard to improve on their work.

Idols also shape our identity. They alter our view of ourselves and the world. They are like fun house mirrors but we think we are seeing clearly and accurately.

“Your idolatry is bigger than just clinging to a few counterfeits. It includes taking on an identity replacement that leads to a sense of losing yourself.”

Bigney continues the diagnostics with a chapter on following the trail, looking at time, money and affections. Idols need to be fed and they consume those three things at an unhealthy rate. He then returns to the topic of chaos. This time it isn’t simply relational chaos but chaos with respect to time or money.

He returns to the heart, again, to warn us against following our hearts. While we are regenerate, and this affects every aspect, we are not fully and perfectly transformed. Therefore you heart can still lie to you and want the wrong things.

“Everybody is following his own heart and making a big, fat mess. Listening to your heart will lead you from one relationship to the next, and one job to the next, and one disaster to the next, with no end in sight. Guide your heart, guard it, but don’t dare follow it.”

Sticking with the heart, he wants to help us see where our hearts are most vulnerable. “Your heart is the compass that points to where you run under pressure.” Each of us has weaknesses. Satan knows them so you better know yours too.

After ten chapters of diagnostics and warnings, he moves into how God works to reorient us. He focuses on the means of grace, as he should. Even here there are warnings. We are to seek Christ in them, not just the doing of them to check them off our list. Our life is found in Christ, not in the reading, worship services etc. They point us to Him and we can find Him there but we too easily settle just for the externals. Daily reading? Check. Prayer time? Check. Weekly worship? Check.

We can do that and still be controlled by idols, particularly the idol of control (the need to be in control of your circumstances). We also need to be in fellowship with Christ’s people. They help us spot our sins and idols if we are in meaningful & biblical community (not simply a country club). Together we seek to submit ourselves to God (as seen in James 4).

Bottom line: … this was a good book. At times I found it inconsistent. There were excellent chapters and some that didn’t have much red ink underlining things. Could be a me thing. The bulk of the book is spent on explaining why they are a problem and how to diagnose them in your life. He did loop around some of those things a few times. I wanted him to develop the means of restoration more thoroughly, particularly union with Christ. Unlike Ed Welch, for instance, he doesn’t talk about the role of the sacraments (though E Free churches and pastors typically don’t focus on the Lord’s Table). So this good book could be better.

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