The Company We Keep

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“…What really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films—these things matter.” With this one sentence, Rob, the grumpy, and broke protagonist of the Nick Hornby novel (and, later, John Cusack film), High Fidelity, perfectly captures the shallowness of our world’s understanding of friendship, a problem exacerbated by Facebook and other forms of social media. We are “friends” with people we don’t know, telling them details about our lives they have no business knowing… simply because we like some of the same stuff.

We know of people, but we don’t really know one another.

But friendship is meant to be something more than this. Books, records, films might start a conversation, but they can’t sustain a relationship. Nor is awareness the same as a relationship. We need something deeper, something richer. Something that will hold against more than the gentlest of life’s storms. Jonathan Holmes wants to help us in his new book, The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship.

Why we prefer emaciated friendships over the real thing

“Deep and meaningful friendships don’t come easily—even within the church, and sometimes especially within the church,” Holmes writes. “[We] can find the challenges of biblical friendship perplexing, frustrating, and discouraging.”

Forging friendships has never been terribly easy for me. I am reasonably social (despite my introverted tendencies), but I have few people I would consider friends, and even fewer are close ones. While there are many reasons for this, it most significantly comes down to one thing: real friendship is hard. 

“Deep and meaningful friendships don’t come easily—even within the church, and sometimes especially within the church,” Holmes writes. “[We] can find the challenges of biblical friendship perplexing, frustrating, and discouraging.”

This is why, honestly, our currently emaciated form of friendship is so easy—it requires so little of us and those with whom we claim to be friends. But true friendship is costly. It requires us to give of ourselves, to be vulnerable, to—gasp!—actually trust people to know us.

And yet, our acceptance of the form over the substance runs completely contrary to how God has made us—we are inherently relational beings, meant to be known by others. And as believers, we are “bound together by a common faith in Jesus Christ,” making the primary purpose of our friendships “to bring glory to Christ, who brought us into friendship with the Father.” This, Holmes writes, “is indispensable to the work of the gospel in the earth, and an essential element of what God created us for.”

You’re squirming now, aren’t you?

Why constancy, candor, carefulness and counsel really matters in biblical friendship

So what does this kind of friendship look like? Drawing from the wisdom of Proverbs (and a little help from Tim Keller), Holmes describes four marks of biblical friendship—constancy, candor, carefulness, and counsel. “All of these marks…empowered by the Holy Spirit, help separate and distinguish biblical friendship from a crowd of counterfeits.”

What’s particularly helpful about Holmes’ description of these four aspects of friendship is how they all work together. A true, biblical friend is not merely candid or constant, careful or offering wise counsel. He or she is all of these things (albeit imperfectly).

This is where the rubber meets the road with friendship. “A biblical friend is willing to wound us, and those wounds are actually for our good,” Holmes writes. “Silence in the face of a brother or sister’s folly is no act of love, but the wounds of correction are, however uncomfortable it may be to inflict them.”

Do you have friends like this? Are you a friend like this?

The first time I knew I had friends like this was when we first considered leaving the only other church we attended. I had a lot of conversations with two men (both of whom still attend that church) about what I was seeing and the thinking behind leaving. They gave me some fairly significant pushback, not because they believed that church was the best place for me, but because they wanted to make sure I was making a wise decision. Would I have greater opportunities to use my gifts? Would our family be able to serve more effectively? I’ve experienced this a few other times since with a few men at our current church when important decisions have come up—selling our house a few years ago being chief among them.

Yes, it’s hard to develop these relationships. Yes, it’s uncomfortable being challenged on your thinking. But those are the sort of “wounds” we should welcome.

A taste of something greater

While The Company We Keep is extraordinarily helpful, I finished the book feeling unsatisfied. Consider it this way: imagine you’re given a tiny morsel of a perfectly seasoned, finely cooked steak. As you put it in your mouth, you relish the flavor… and then it’s over. There was only enough for a taste.

This book has a similar effect. Holmes gives readers just enough to get a taste of something greater, a type of friendship that “gives us a way of experiencing and living out the fundamental drama of all creation.” This is far more powerful than the form of friendship we accept in our culture and in the church at large. And I trust it’s the kind of friendship that, after reading this book, you will want to pursue.


Title: The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship
Author: Jonathan Holmes
Publisher: Cruciform Press (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon | Cruciform Press

Crash the Chatterbox

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How do we hear God’s voice? Are all negative thoughts really bad for us? My thoughts on these questions and more can be found in my review of Crash the Chatterbox: Hearing God’s Voice Above All Others by Steven Furtick over at The Gospel Coalition:

First, let’s talk about the good of this book. Furtick builds his argument, or rather his counterargument to the lies we believe, around four “confessions”:

  1. God says I am. Overpowering the lies of the enemy in your insecurities.
  2. God says he will. Overpowering the lies of the enemy in your fears.
  3. God says he has. Overpowering the lies of the enemy in your condemnation.
  4. God says I can. Overpowering the lies of the enemy in your discouragement. (Kindle location 382)

“These are truths about God and truths about you that come straight from God’s Word,” Furtick writes. “So by filling our spiritual ears with these four declarations of truth, we receive and respond to what God says about who he is and who we are in him” (Kindle location 371).

Taken on their own, these confessions (or, more accurately, declarations) are actually pretty helpful. What matters isn’t what I, or others, think about me but what God says about me. What God says he will do and what God has already done is more than enough to overcome my fears. What God says I can do—or, more correctly, what he’s empowered me to do through the Holy Spirit—is more important than what others think I can do.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details. And the details, I’m afraid, spoil Crash the Chatterbox. I’ll limit myself to four significant errors I see in this book.

Read the full article at TGC.

Replant

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Can a dying church live again?

It seems like such a simple question. As long as there are people present and the Bible is faithfully preached, there’s every chance. But even so, there is no guarantee. Conflict, turf wars, wounds from church splits, and numerous other challenges are very real threats attempts to revitalize, especially the dreaded seven words, “But we’ve always done it this way.”

Can those obstacles be overcome? Yep. But it won’t be easy, which is why Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again exists. In this short book, Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick share the challenges facing prospective replanters through the story of DeVine’s efforts to rejuvenate First Calvary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri.

Who is prepared for this task?

DeVine was, by his own admission, an unexpected choice for this job. He was primarily an academic—a seminary professor—not a vocational minister, nor a church planter. “What prepares a man to imagine that he can stroll into an old, proud, dying city church in the Midwest and have his way with it?” he asks.

What allows a man to suppose he can wrench the levers of power out of the hands of a small but entrenched and fierce pack of lay Christians habituated to having their way—to imagine he can do so despite decades of failed attempts at pastoral leadership?

Given what he and Patrick describe in this book, I’m not sure there’s anything that could prepare a man for such a task. DeVine found himself in the midst of a disaster: a church controlled by an elite few who intimidated congregation members, controlled committees and bullied their pastors into leaving. And this had to end:

The prevailing culture of the place, despite a superficial sheen of interest in the gospel, expended its energies largely in nostalgia, defense of personal perks and privileges, and the sabotage of would-be pastoral leadership. The more I researched the recent past of the church and examined its present state, the more convinced I became that only radical steps—including multiple and likely bitter confrontations with the lay cartel—held out much hope for spiritual revival.

As DeVine details the events that took place to eventually dismantle the lay cartel, readers see something pretty incredible: the rest of the congregation begins to stand up to them, as well. DeVine’s actions remind us of an important value: leaders shape the culture. When a leader cowers in the face of opposition, the congregation likewise cower. This is how the “cartel” took control of the church, in DeVine’s experience. It was because of a lack of strong leadership—not strong in the sense authority, but a humble confidence in the Lord. A willingness to be courageous in the face of opposition. And when a leader does that, it empowers the congregation to follow suit.

Perpetuating popular evangelical stereotypes

In terms of practical value (specifically “how-tos”), Replant doesn’t have much to offer. It’s really not that kind of book, something the authors themselves readily admit. But that doesn’t mean there are no practical takeaways. Most are in the form of principles, such as the one above. There are some, however, that don’t sit quite as well.

For example, early in the book, the authors assert that, “When churches settle into extended periods of decline, they sometimes adopt a defensive rhetoric that touts spiritual growth or spiritual health over numerical growth.” While there is an element of truth in this, without question, it’s not quite as clear cut as they make it seem. Some declining churches absolutely do adopt defensive rhetoric around spiritual growth. But many apparently thriving churches do the same around their numerical growth. The reality is a bit more complicated than that.

Growing in numbers doesn’t equal gospel-fidelity, as any number of churches around North America bear witness. It’s hard to make a case that Lakewood Church is a bold outpost for the gospel since its pastor preaches another gospel. Numerous so-called evangelical megachurches—such as Elevation Church—seem more enamored with their rockstar pastor than with the Lord Jesus. And then there are churches like those of my friends’ Noel and Tim, churches that are intentional about making disciples, training leaders and sending out people in order to spread the gospel through church planting. Their congregations are small by some standards (around 200 or so, which really isn’t all that small), but they are gospel lights in their communities and seeing it spread.

There are other curiosities as well—not necessarily good or bad, but things I’d love to have seen discussed in more depth. DeVine’s family was not with him while he served as the interim pastor of First Calvary. And this, he explains, was a good thing, for they were spared an enormous amount of hardship. But as I read, I wanted to know more about how that dynamic affected the family, even from afar. Of how much were they aware? Who did DeVine have to confide in and seek encouragement from during that time? The picture painted is, perhaps inadvertently, a continuation of the “leadership is lonely” paradigm, and that should not be.

If one church can revitalize, so can another

That’s not to say, however, that you should not read the book. In fact, I’d especially encourage those who are considering replanting to consider this. Every replanting situation is different, filled with its own peculiarities and personalities, after all; in some ways it might even more more difficult than planting an entirely new church. So those who are pursuing this mission are in short supply of encouragement. That’s really what this book has to offer: it’s the story of how one church was replanted and revitalized. And that should give readers hope that if it can happen in one church, it can happen in another—perhaps even their own. It won’t be easy, but it will be possible.


Title: Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again
Authors: Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick
Publisher: David C. Cook (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

Facing Leviathan

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Influence. Leverage relationships. Eschew formal authority. Develop compelling values… this is pretty much what you see in all the best-selling leadership books. And while it’s not all bad (although not all good, either), it begs the question: if influence is the silver bullet, why isn’t it working? 

Mark Sayers, senior leader of Red Church in Melbourne, Australia, may have stumbled onto the answer, and, as he writes in Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence, and Creating in a Cultural Storm, it’s less of an issue of technique or style than one of worldview.

A clash of worldviews

 

We are in the midst of a battle between what he describes as “mechanical” and “organic” values—a move away from traditional values surrounding leadership, which includes authority and power toward fluid, creative and (sometimes) leaderless leadership styles. And while some argue that this is our “evolving beyond” the modernist approach to life and leadership, Sayers argues it’s actually a reversion. It’s the reassertion of the values of Romanticism.

“Romanticism arose in reaction to the Enlightenment,” he writes, “attempt[ing] to create an alternative to the mechanical worldview. It would base its ideology on the suspicion of power and structure… They preferred emotion and experience to reason and the empirical.” And while the Englightment (or modernist) vision imagines the leader as hero, “the Romantic vision imagines the creative genius as a heretic, always pushing the boundaries and breaking taboos” (26-27).

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Go take a look at any of the leadership books littering your shelves and you’ll see this conflict front and center. But Sayers goes deeper than the Romanticism vs Enlightenment ideology clash—those two are merely alternatives to the Christian worldview, options that fail to stand up against the true battle:

The real battle in which our culture is engage is not between the mechanical and the organic but rather between the pagan and Christian worldviews. A Christianity that attempts to model itself on the hero or the genius will be a faith that has little potential to speak the good news to the West. Instead, we must rediscover the truly radical vision of leadership found within the Bible. A model of leadership… that dared to proclaim in pagan streets and squares that God had lowered Himself to come and live in the mess and muck of human life, within history, in time, in human flesh. (29)

Christlike leadership

The first and last chapters—and the passage above in particular—makes Facing Leviathan worth reading. Sayers succinctly and precisely identifies the battle within our world, and the struggle within leadership circles. We’re essentially fighting the right battle with the wrong weapons. We’re combating “leader as hero” with “leader as heretic,” preferring to be hip over being heard. And both approaches leave us—both leaders and followers—wanting.

The leader as hero types quickly tend to veer into becoming overbearing and authoritarian. I once knew a man who seemed more like a supervillain than a human being in this regard, laughing maniacally whenever he learned an employee had purchased a car or a house. It meant, from his perspective, he owned them—they needed their jobs, and he delighted in that fact. Followers of this type often feel beaten down and abused. But I’ve also seen the leader as heretic, too, and it also quickly falls apart as they’re too busy deconstructing what already exists to figure out how to move forward. Followers of this type are typically frustrated by the lack of forward direction, which feeds into their distrust of authority, which then makes them even more frustrated, which then…

We don’t need more heroes, and we definitely don’t need more heretics. We need something better. “We must become leaders who are deep in a society of the spectacle that produces shallowness” (115). In other words, we need leaders modelled after Christ. We need people who are, as Sayers calls them, rebuilders, those who are quietly “getting on with the job.”

“Our culture of deconstruction no longer makes sense to them,” he writes. “The culture of deconstruction that has come to dominate the church no longer helps them. It hinders them. They are the rebuilders, partners with God in the rebuilding of His creational order” (217). These are the kinds of people we need to become, he argues, people less concerned with worrying about “moving from the mechanical values to the organic values,” and instead “living wholeheartedly for the God we find in the storm” (218). And out of that comes something compelling and beautiful, something deep in a sea of shallow. Maybe even leaders worth following.

Weaknesses punctuated by the author’s strengths

There is so much strength to Facing Leviathan, particularly when Sayers is exercising his considerable skills as a cultural commentator, that it’s hard to find much fault with the book. But what weaknesses do exist come from its author’s strengths.

Sayers is clearly gifted as a cultural commentator, but is not nearly as gifted a biblical one, as demonstrated by his novel (but not entirely unorthodox) approach to Jonah throughout the book. Jonah isn’t the first book I’d go to tease out lessons on leadership, but maybe that’s just me. I’ve seen it done occasionally, but the results have always left me wanting. Jonah is a powerful illustration of the gospel, to be sure, but I’m not sure he really fits the mould of either the “heroic” or “heretic” leader. Instead, he, like the rest of us, is a deeply confused, broken, sinful, selfish, individual—one who desperately needs the saving work of the One whom he foreshadows.

As borderline blasphemous as it might seem to say “I wish he hadn’t included discussion of this or that biblical passage,” I’d almost rather he’d have not bothered with it since it lessens the impact of the rest of his writing. His theologically informed reading of culture, the arts, and literature stands on its own.

Nevertheless, I would not let this prevent me from recommending this book to most any reader, especially those in a position of influence (or leadership). By recasting our leadership principles as a conflict between worldviews, Sayers will surely cause its readers to rethink what they’ve read in the latest leadership bestseller—and perhaps reconsider their approach to Christlike leadership.


Title: Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence, and Creating in a Cultural Storm
Author: Mark Sayers
Publisher: Moody Publishers (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

16 timely quotes from Why We’re Not Emergent

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At the beginning of the year, I started what I called the re-reading project, an attempt to diversify my reading a bit in 2014 by re-reading one previously enjoyed book each month.

A few weeks back, I decided to take a trip back in time to 2008, to the days when men’s capris were (strangely) in fashion, and Rob Bell was still considered a Christian by the average evangelical. The purpose of this trip? To re-read Why We’re Not Emergent by then unknown authors Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck.

Why re-read a book tied to a movement most consider dead and buried? Even though the movement itself might be dead, the emergent mystique is alive and well, even if everyone eschews the term “emergent” (it is so early 2000s, after all…). The biggest difference is that the lines are clearer: today’s “progressives” are yesterday’s “emergents,” but more willing to be forthright about most of their beliefs. (And many of yesterday’s emergents have felt the freedom to start doing the same.)

But the same intellectual snobbery and cynical questioning remain—even as those who portray themselves as outside the cultural mainstream find themselves marching lockstep right along with the world. To these attitudes, Why We’re Not Emergent still has so much to say to us. Here are sixteen timely quotes that still offer necessary challenge to the thinking of progressives and conservatives alike:

  1. “It’s some combination of pious confusion and intellectual laziness to claim that living in mystery is at the heart of Christianity.” (37-38)
  2. “Arguing for the inherent uncertainty of knowledge causes problems when you write books trying to convince people to believe or behave in certain ways. That is to say, radical uncertainty sounds nice as a sort of protest against the perceived dogmatism of evangelical Christianity, but it gets in the way when you want to prove a point.” (41)
  3. “For every fundamentalist who loves the Bible more than Christ, I’m willing to be there are several emergent Christians who honor the Bible less than Christ did.” (81)
  4. “Doctrine was to die for because it was the heartbeat of Paul’s saving message about saving historical facts.” (113)
  5. “The problem lies not in emerging Christian seeking the truth, but in their refusal to find and call out falsehood.” (119)
  6. “God is greater than we can conceive—but what about the 1,189 chapters in the Bible? Don’t they tell us lots of things about God that we are supposed to do more with than doubt and not understand?” (123-124)
  7. “I would rather take a beating than argue (dialogue) on message boards all day, where people are brave and full of convictions without actually being brave and full of convictions.” (138)
  8. “Is the best corrective to domineering CEO pastors really bewildered Dorothy leaders? How about shepherd or teacher or overseer or herald?” (160)
  9. “At times I feel as if the emergent church is like that friend who goes off to college as an eighteen-year-old, and for the first year or so when he comes home feels like he has to quote Nietzsche just to impress you with his newfound intellect.” (172)
  10. “If my mother-in-law’s suburban crowd…is on board, then it [the emergent movement] is as mainstream as mainstream can be.” (177)
  11. “Too often emergent leaders force us to choose between salvation by following Jesus’ example or salvation that doesn’t care about good works. But this is another false dilemma.” (203)
  12. “Call me old-fashioned, but it doesn’t fill me with hope or warm feelings to hear my pastor…suggest that he may be, and probably is, wrong about all of this.… I want to believe, and do believe, that people can known things and still be humble.” (228)
  13. “…I’m really glad that we have a pastor who, instead of being ‘with it,’ is committed to being with God.” (235)
  14. “Doctrinally minded evangelical Christians like me would get more out of emergent critiques if they recognized that there are just as many undiscerning, overtolerant Pergamums and Thyatiras in North America and the United Kingdom as there are loveless Ephesuses.” (241)
  15. “We may think right, live right, and do right, but if we do it off in a corner, shining our lights at one another to probe our brother’s sins instead of pointing our lights out into the world, we will, as a church, grow dim, and eventually our light will be extinguished.” (244)
  16. “A therapist-Christ does not evoke an ardency of soul that wishes to be annihilated, emptied of self and filled with Christ and made pure with a divine and heavenly purity. We need a Christ from above.” (250)

The movement might be dead, but the mood isn’t. And although some of the examples might be a bit dated, Why We’re Not Emergent  is still a helpful corrective.

PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace

The doctrines of grace have an image problem.

It’s easy to understand why: Those who embrace them, those Calvinists are a shifty bunch. If they’re not limiting salvation to a tiny handful of people, they’re trying to take over your local church like stealthy ninjas. Or something.

Regardless of the silliness you sometimes see, especially in the blogosphere, about Calvinist conspiracies, hostile takeovers, and the joyful condemnation of sinners to hell, there is an almost complete lack of understanding as to what the doctrines of grace—sometimes called the five points of Calvinism—actually are.

Clearly, Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones have noticed this problem, and their new book, PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace, seeks to remedy it by “awaken[ing] you from the delusion that life depends on you and free[ing] you to discover the intoxicating joy of God’s wild and free grace” (16). They do this by offering readers a fresh look at the doctrines of grace—by redefining them around grace.

Redefining the doctrines of grace around grace

Rather than using the oft-repeated (and not entirely reflective of Reformed theology) acrostic TULIP, the authors redefine the doctrines of grace as PROOF:

  • Planned grace—“God planned to show his grace to his chosen people… God’s eternal plan was to love his children and give us his very best” (31, 32).
  • Resurrecting grace—“Apart from God’s single-handed gift of resurrecting grace, no human being will ever seek God because a death-defeating King who demands that we find our greatest joy in his Father’s fame is repulsive to the spiritually dead” (51).
  • Outrageous grace—“God chose us … and secured us as his children without the slightest reliance on anything we have done or might do… All of his, from beginning to end, God accomplished not due to our deeds but ‘freely by his grace'” (74-75).
  • Overcoming grace—“God unshackles us from the enslaving contagion of sin so that we glimpse the overwhelming beauty of Jesus and his kingdom” (91).
  • Forever grace—“If you are God’s property—someone who has been transformed by God’s power—no one, not even you, can remove you from God’s hand.… What our perseverance provides is evidence that Jesus is present in our faith, working his works through us” (111-112, 116).

Can you see why these doctrines have an image problem?

But truly, the issue doesn’t come from the doctrines themselves—the issue comes from us. Every element of this acrostic points away from us and what we do to God and what He does. They put us in a position of utter dependency, of desperate need. And we hate that, don’t we?

Years ago, I was teaching a children’s Sunday school class, and we discussed how we are Jesus’ sheep. A six-year-old girl—the pastor’s daughter!—went berserk when she heard this, defiantly declaring, “I am not a dumb sheep!”

Let’s be honest, us grown-ups are no different. The idea of being a “sheep”—a dumb, defenseless animal, totally incapable of caring for itself—is offensive to us. And yet, this is how the Lord describes His people: as sheep in need of a shepherd. These doctrines only serve to reinforce that: to challenge our self-reliance and destroy any misconceptions as to whom all glory, honor and praise is due.

Old wine in new wineskins

Some might argue that redefining the acrostic doesn’t resolve the issue with these doctrines. But that all depends on your point of view. If you have an issue with the doctrines of grace, it doesn’t matter how they’re articulated, you’re going to reject them. If you see the wine as tainted, a new wineskin isn’t going to help.

But what Montgomery and Jones do exceptionally well here is show us that this old wine is indeed the best. “Grace sets people free… Grace gives rest and peace… Grace leaves us with nothing to prove because, in Christ, everything that needs to be proven has already been provided” (143).

Like the pure rations that flashed in the tankards of eighteenth century sailors, the undiluted message of grace is intoxicating—so strong that it leaves us slaphappy, staggering, and singing for joy at the thought that God chose to love us precisely when there was nothing loveable about us.

This joy is the fuel that drives Christian worship. When a church proclaims God’s undiluted grace, the deadly delusions of human religion are drowned in a flood of gospel-fueled freedom and intoxicating joy. (22-23)

Engaging PROOF in all of life

There’s nothing stealth about the Calvinism in PROOF. There’s nothing hostile or conspiratorial. This is not a grim tome filled with condemnation. What Montgomery and Jones offer is a picture of grace—grace that is to be meditated upon, sung about, worshiped through. Pure, undiluted grace; the kind that truly changes lives, the kind that is meant to be engaged in all of life. This is the grace we all need. Come, discover it with fresh eyes, won’t you?


Title: PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace
Authors: Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones
Publisher: Zondervan (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

The Pastor’s Kid

The Pastor's Kid by Barnabas Piper

I’m not a pastor’s kid, but if I were, there are two things I know to be true: First, I’d want everyone in our church to stop using the term “PK,” and second, I wouldn’t want to be the kid of a famous pastor.

Barnabas Piper didn’t have much of a choice on either count. Born three years into his father’s call to pastoral ministry, he’d known nothing but the PK life, and as the son of John Piper… Well, let’s be honest: the fact that Barnabas hasn’t dyed his hair purple and started running marathons in leather chaps may well be the surest evidence of God’s grace.

Okay, I’m probably exaggerating.

A bit.

Maybe.

But one thing he makes clear in The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity is the PK life is anything but simple:

The life of a PK is complex, occasionally messy, often frustrating, and sometimes downright maddening. It can be a curse and a bane. But being a PK can also be a profound blessing and provide wonderful grounding for a godly life. Often the greatest challenges are the greatest grounding and the biggest falls are the best blessings. This polarity exemplifies the challenge it is to be a PK. (Kindle location 71)

This polarity Piper describes—that being a PK can be simultaneously a blessing and a burden—is a theme that runs throughout this book. The insane expectations of simultaneously being perfect and the perfect rebel, as as though the PK will be the MVP in a game of Bible All-Star while at the same time wearing a beer helmet to church. Living in the fishbowl, where all eyes are on you (and often knowing private things they have no business knowing) because of Pastor Dad. The confusion of knowing a lot of Bible stories, but not knowing Jesus because Jesus has become boring:

Being around Jesus-related teaching, literature, and events all the time makes Jesus rote in the minds and hearts of PKs. Rote is mundane. When Jesus becomes mundane, He ceases being life-changing and life-giving. In the case of many PKs, He never was either of these; by their estimation, He was just a character in an overtold story. Instead of Savior and Lord, He becomes any number of other things, most of which take on the character of those who represent Him in the church. (Kindle location 634)

As a parent, that is probably the most terrifying thing for me when I think about my own children’s spiritual health. They’re not PKs, but they are in the bubble because of my job and my extra-curricular activities. They’re exposed to a lot of Bible, a lot of books, a lot of discussion… and honestly, the last thing I want for them is to find Jesus boring.

So what does it mean for me as a parent? I need to give them grace and space to figure stuff out as they grow. To wrestle, to ask questions. To meet the real Jesus at the end of it all because, “only when Jesus becomes real to a PK can she begin to figure out what she is, who she is” (Kindle location 648).

This is where, from a  practical standpoint, the sixth chapter, “Pastor and Child,” is so helpful to me (even as a layperson). It’s a simple reminder to be dad before being a pastor or ministry leader or anything else. To talk with instead of at. To have fun, have friends, to play and be silly. “The greatest grace a pastor can show his children is not being a great pastor; it is being a parent who is fully invested, cares deeply, and shows it as well as he can” (Kindle location 1110).

Writing on a subject so closely tied to the author’s life and experience can be touchy, especially one as complex as being a pastor’s kid. It’s easy to veer into bitterness, grumbling and complaining about how awful being a PK was. While that might even be true for some, this is not where Piper leaves readers. He’s not bitter or jaded. He hasn’t abandoned Christianity. He’s not angry with his parents for giving their lives to church ministry. Instead, he is grateful:

…PKs are blessed to have parents who devote their lives to serving Jesus. It is a challenging calling, and not one person in the world’s history has figured out how to do it perfectly. It is a daunting life. But it is necessary and good and rewarding. So thank you, pastors (and spouses). You have given your lives to serving Jesus and His church, and that is a blessing. (Kindle location 1343)

If there’s one key takeaway from the book, this is it. Despite its complexity, being a PK ultimately is a blessing, rather than a burden. Although some stumble and fall, and some try to run as far away as possible from the faith of their parents, they don’t have to. They don’t have to live up to false expectations, or let unkind and uncharitable comments become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Instead, they can run full tilt toward Jesus, owning their responsibilities to “honor Jesus, to honor our fathers and mothers, to love and support the church, and to go about our lives not as victims but as the redeemed” (Kindle location 1394). This is what I see Barnabas Piper doing, both in The Pastor’s Kid and when I interact with him online or when we happen to be in the same city (when we’re not making smart-alecky comments, that is). And this is what I’d love to see for my kids who aren’t PKs, as well as for all the PKs at our church and in all the faithful churches in our community. While none of us can make it happen for any one person, this book is sure to offer a great deal of healing for wounded pastor’s kids and challenging encouragement along the way for their parents.


Title: The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity
Author: Barnabas Piper
Publisher: David C. Cook (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Titus For You

titus-for-you

I realize it’s probably a bad idea to have favorites when it comes to the Bible, but I kinda do. If I had to make a top five list for books of the Bible, Titus would be on it. For years, Titus has been one of my “go-to” reads—when I don’t know what to read, I turn there. And I always find something in its three chapters. In it, Paul is direct, challenging, encouraging… basically, everything you would expect from a message from an older man to a (presumably somewhat) younger one.

But up until recently one of the things I had not added to my library was any sort of devotional material or commentaries of significance about this epistle. So, when I learned about the latest edition of The Good Book Company’s God’s Word For You series, Titus For You by Tim Chester, I was pretty excited. Even when I on occasion disagree with some of his emphases, I’ve always counted on Chester to offer faithful interpretations and thoughtful applications of the Scriptures.

Showing the truth is true

In this regard, Titus For You is no different. Like the previous volumes in this devotional commentary series, Titus For You offers readers a basic understanding of the text with lots of space for personal reflection and application. In this regard, again, Chester’s exposition is (as expected) clear and careful. In his explanatory notes, however, Chester intentionally focuses on an important aspect of Titus that’s easy to overlook—that “godliness shows that the truth is true.”

“This truth that accords with godliness would be in contrast to other teachings that self-identify as ‘truths’, but do not produce godly lives,” he writes. “In this sense godliness authenticates the truth; godliness shows that the truth is true. Or, better still, it shows that the truth is living because of the fruit it produces.”

This is important because it’s a necessary filter through which you need to see the rest of the book. Godliness authenticates truth—how we live affirms or denies what we profess to believe—and how we live is inevitably replicated in others. This is why character matters so much in the qualifications of elders, and why Paul encourages older godly men and women to teach and train the younger. We replicate what we’re like in others, for good or ill.

And this is why limiting the demands of godliness is so dangerous. When we reduce godliness “from becoming Christlike to becoming a little less like our culture in a few ways,” we set up a false witness. We become known as people who don’t do certain things, as opposed to people who love Jesus and serve others wholeheartedly. “Christian maturity is exchanged for not sleeping around, not getting drunk, and turning up to Bible study,” which is just kind of sad.

We are all called to commend the gospel to one another so that we live gospel-shaped lives that are fit for purpose—the purpose of doing good. And we will only do this as we learn to live out the gospel, enjoying God’s good gifts in a way that brings glory to him and good to us. Legalistic abstention is no more the gospel of grace than licentious abuse is; and running to the first extreme in order to escape the other is to swap one error for another.

The fuel and fire of obedience

For me, the standout material in Titus For You, really comes toward the end of the book, as Chester reminds readers that salvation—and the godly living that is a result of it—is truly all of grace. And there is nothing better than grace:

“There is nothing more that he could have given. He has given us himself,” Chester writes. “There is nothing more that he could have done. He has done everything.… There is nothing more that he could have promised.… He saved us to become heirs, looking forward with certain hope to an eternity spent enjoying everything that Christ deserves.”

Faithful encouragement doesn’t need to be groundbreaking

While Titus For You doesn’t break new ground, it would make a welcome addition to any reader’s devotional literature. This book, in a nutshell, is chock-full of simple, faithful encouragement, the sort that more us desperately need. That might not be terribly groundbreaking, but it certainly doesn’t go out of style.


Title: Titus For You
Author: Tim Chester
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

everPresent

everPresent

There’s a new trend in the gospel-centered publishing world: recovering a sense of locality. The time and place in which we live and minister—the physical location God has placed us—this really, really matters. Or, at least it should. Sometimes we struggle to see why we live where we do, what God’s purposes might be in that when we’d much rather live in some far off “exotic” land. And so pastors are rising to the challenge, reminding us how the gospel affects our sense of purpose in the place we are and how we might benefit the world around us by being present.

Jeremy Writebol is the latest voice in the choir with his new book from Gospel-Centered Discipleship, everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present. In this concise book, Writebol asks readers to reprioritize their sense of presence in light of God’s omnipresence—and because there is nowhere He is not, we should see everywhere as an opportunity for worship and missional living:

How would it change the way we see our neighborhoods? How would we live differently in God’s place? How would we work? How would we play? How would we worship? What would we do with the broken places within God’s place? What would we say to the broken people in God’s place? (25)

Being present in light of God’s omnipresence

The first half of everPresent contains its strongest material. Writebol does a terrific job connecting our disconnection with “place” and the gospel itself, pointing readers back to the Fall. We feel dislocated because our souls have been dislocated from the place where they were intended to reside: in proximity to God. And our dislocation is only solved by God relocating us in Christ.

Every religion in the world is constructing systems and paradigms to get us home. The reality, however, is that none of them work. None of them can adequately do the job of restoring the dislocating reality of our sin.… How do we get home? We get home by way of Jesus. He has done everything to bring his dislocated brothers and sisters back to the Father. (48)

A bit repetitive

As much as I appreciated the first half of the book—and again, it is really, really good—the second half is where it falls apart for me. This isn’t because what Writebol says is bad or wrong; it’s simply that there’s nothing I’ve not read in a Tim Keller book or any of the dozens of authors advocating a “missional” lifestyle. As a result, the second half comes across a bit repetitive, if only because it seems like that area has been more or less exhausted.

A strong portrayal of one side of being present, but more balance is needed

Now, that said, I do have one particular issue I feel is important to bring up: marriage and singleness. Much of what Writebol shares in chapter five, which deals with the subject of cultivating a households and families, is very good. In fact, there’s little I would disagree with. Here’s an example:

The goal of conceiving and cultivating children isn’t just to have well-adjusted adults who won’t make a larger mess when they enter the world. The goal of the gospel- shaped home is the sending of our children to live in their homes and bear witness to the relocating power of Jesus as King over all kings. This is often the reason the Scriptures describe the church as a household (Eph. 2:19). In the same way the church is called to make disciples, develop, and then deploy them, the home is a first place for the making of disciples, developing, and then deploying them. The missionary strategy of the church is first played out in the home itself. (79)

This is an example of a passage I wouldn’t have much to disagree with. As a parent, I strongly resonate with what Writebol advocates here. I want my home to have this kind of culture, where our children are discipled and deployed to reach others. And honestly, I can’t think of a Christian parent who would’t want that.

The concern for me arises not so much in the content as the seeming elevation of marriage as the ideal:

The home is the place where Kingdom citizens fulfill the mandate to cultivate a new generation of loyal followers of the King. By implication this means that, as God allows, every Christian should endeavor to get married and have children. Making a home for the Kingdom means, at the most basic level, fulfilling the mandate to make babies. This does not mean that every Christian will be married and have children, but again, as God allows, this should be the default intention of our home lives. (75)

While, again, I agree to a point—every married Christian should endeavor, as God allows, to have children, I’m not entirely sure I agree with the assertion that every Christian should endeavor to get married (even with the necessary caveat of “as God allows” in place). The Bible presents what seems to be an elevated view of singleness for the purpose of ministry. Single believers have a flexibility and freedom for the pursuit of mission that those of us who are married and have children simply don’t.

For example: as a parent and provider for four other people, I have to filter all the opportunities I receive through their needs: does this take away from my ability to emotionally and spiritually invest in my family, does it allow me to provide for their physical needs, and so on. But a single believer, ultimately, only has one serious question to answer: is this the place where I am best able to further the work of the gospel? There is much freedom there, something we would do well to remember in any discussion of locality and being present.

Now, in reading the book, it’s clear that Writebol is not intending to marginalize single Christians as second-class believers. It’s simply that he winds up showing only one side of a powerful witness from believers who are invested in the places they live. I would have loved to have seen the other side given as much attention for a more balanced perspective.

Overall, despite what I perceive as a few missteps and the repetitive feel of the latter half, there is much to be appreciated about everPresent. As an introduction to the conversation and a discussion starter, it is very good and well worth reading. Just don’t let it be the only book you read on the subject.


Title: everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present
Author: Jeremy Writebol
Publisher: Gospel-Centered Discipleship (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon | Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Delighting in the Law of the Lord

delighting-law

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7). David wrote those words to describe the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. These, he said, are “perfect.” These “revive” the soul.

Do we see the Law the way David did?

I’m guessing, probably not.

We tend to view the Law in one of two ways. The first is, we treat the Law merely as commands to be scrupulously obeyed in order to earn favor with God. We are trying to be “good,” which is moralism (or, legalism). The second option treats the Law as something to be rejected altogether; we are free in Christ and thus we become a law unto ourselves. This is licentiousness (which, arguably, is another form of legalism).

Neither view respects the Law. Neither exhibits a love for the “perfect” Law. Neither revives the soul, as David says the Law does.

But there is another option left to us, one that is better than anything moralism and licentiousness have to offer—delighting in the Law. This is the option available to all faithful Christians, the way the Lord wants us to see His Law, and what what Jerram Barrs wants us to see in his recent book of the same name.

Barr’s background teaching apologetics and outreach at Covenant Theological Seminary plays a significant role in the tone of Delighting in the Law of the Lord. Barr writes not as a typical academic, but one who is convicted that what he writes is true. He, like a good evangelist, wants to persuade us to see the goodness of the Law over the course of 24 chapters (which is, sadly, where he does become more of a traditional academic).

So how’d he do?

Well, here are a couple of the standout items from my perspective:

The law is the definition of true humanness. Barr’s connection of the Law to our being created as image bearers of God is perhaps the most helpful thing he describes in the entire book. The Law represents the character of God—and is therefore beautiful by virtue of this fact—which means it also shows us the nature of true humanity. With each commandment given, “It’s as if God is saying, ‘This is my character: I am just; I am merciful; I am kind; I am faithful; I am generous. You are to be like me'” (99). If humanity was intended to reflect God, it makes sense that the Law would show us what we were intended to be—and more importantly, that Christ would show us what it meant to be truly human in His perfect keeping of the Law.

Legalism is the enemy of outreach. Where legalism—whether in rigorous rule keeping or in defiant rule-breaking—reigns, the gospel is not preached. Barr writes:

We must sit at Jesus’ feet and recognize that all legalism is an implacable enemy of the gospel of grace. And we need to be prepared to fight against it, rather than bow to it or allow it to govern the life or outreach of our churches.… Attacking legalism is necessary to bring about the salvation of the legalists themselves by humbling them before the Lord, before his truth, and before his grace. Attacking legalism is also necessary in setting people free from the rules that legalists impose upon them.… This proclamation of liberty from legalism is one of the great friends of true proclamation of the gospel, both to the church and to the world. (210)

These are a couple of points from the book that, in hindsight are tremendously helpful, and if they’re all you walk away with from the book, you will be very blessed indeed.

However, I’ve got to be honest: I wasn’t terribly enamored with this book while I read it. Don’t get me wrong—it’s well written, it’s thoughtful, and there’s a lot I agree with… but you know how sometimes the best way to describe a book is simply long? That’s Delighting in the Law of the Lord. It took me five months to read—not because I’m a slow reader, but because it couldn’t hold my attention. As harsh as it is it say, for a book on delighting in the Law, I didn’t find myself terribly excited about what I was reading.

Maybe the problem is me. In fact, it’s a safe bet that at least some of the blame belongs there. But as much as I wanted to be riveted by the book, I just wasn’t. I love the Law, I love seeing God’s grace in the Law and recognizing how Christ came to fulfill the Law for me while also working it in me… But my time with this book didn’t help with that. Having had a fairly significant amount of time away from the book (I finished reading it about two months ago), there’s more that I appreciate from it, but it’s definitely not a book that’s for everyone.


Title: Delighting in the Law of the Lord: God’s Alternative to Legalism and Moralism
Author: Jerram Barrs
Publisher: Crossway (2013)

Buy it at: Westminster Bookstore | Amazon

The Gospel

The Gospel by Ray Ortlund

It seems like  every few minutes there’s another book, article, or message being released with “gospel” in the title. Usually it’s followed by a hyphen: “The gospel-driven life,” “gospel-centered ministry,” “gospel-influenced driving…” It’s not that any of these are bad (well, except the one I made up), but sometimes I wonder if we’re in danger of turning the gospel itself into a modifier for the thing we’re really talking about. When that happens, we risk leaving the gospel assumed.

And you know what happens when you assume, right?

Ray Ortlund is a man who doesn’t assume the gospel. The pastor of Immanuel Nashville, Ortlund is one of those guys who you read or hear, and think, “Wow… he really believes this.” He gets that what we believe about the gospel shapes us and the culture of our churches, that “gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture” (117). But what does that look like? This is what he aims to show readers, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ.

Individual and expansive

Loosely divided into two parts, The Gospel begins by exploring the deeply personal and epically cosmic purposes of the gospel. The gospel is about the eternal fate of individuals—but it is also about our churches and the world as a whole. This “both/and” Ortlund strikes is so necessary in our day when we need to introduce the God of the Bible to people with no frame of reference. People who have no concept of either an intimately personal God or a transcendent Creator who holds the universe together with but a word.

So how does this shape our culture? “We see how massive God’s love really is, and so we give up our aloofness and come together to care for one another in real ways, even as God wonderfully cares for us” (37), and we see that it “creates churches of bright, resilient, rugged hope. It creates churches that face life as it is and are not defeated” (62).

Is that not what the people of this world desperately need? I can’t help but think about the social awareness and action culture that’s sprung up around the millennials, a generation with just the right mix of naïve optimism and arrogance to believe they can truly change the world. After all, they’ve been told this their whole lives. And this is the driving force behind so much of our social (network) activism, cause-creation, and all of these things—it’s all about living up to the ideal. (Or is that idol?)

Is it any wonder that people are beginning to experience something called compassion-fatigue?

 

The gospel, though, has so much hope for them (just as it does for every age generation). In the gospel, millennials (and, again, all people) find the answer to the problems of the world, which aren’t external factors to be managed, but internal realities that need to be transformed. That we’re not good people who need to think more positively, but bad people who think too highly of ourselves. And when we get this, we are free—free from the demands of (man-driven) performance, free to let go of the unwieldy burden of trying to make a better world, and give it to the One whose job it actually is.

Faltering steps toward a new kind of culture—and a longing for something greater

If that last paragraph made you squirm a little, you’re not alone. The idea of letting go of the pressure to perform, to “fix” the world, is scary. Simply because we struggle to believe it’s true. The gospel seems too good to be true, and embracing and building a gospel culture is intimidating. It means we’re constantly examining our own culture to see how it conforms to Christ, to see what assumptions we’re making and uproot areas of unbelief. We will meet resistance from within and from the world. We will face rejection and self-doubt… But even our faltering steps forward give the opportunity for something beautiful to spring to life.

If we have suffered the loss of all things in order to gain Christ—no egos to protect or scores to settle—we are free to receive his power, courage, and love. They outperform everything in this world, because they come from beyond this world. How compelling for our churches to say: “We’re not taking one more step without the power, courage, and love of the gospel for the glory of Christ alone. No more status quo!” (104)

Though particularly aimed at pastors and church leaders, The Gospel is valuable for any reader. It is not a how-to for ministry; it is a rallying cry for revival. It leaves you with a desire to see the kind of culture Ortlund talks about (and has nurtured at Immanuel) birthed in your own life and church. What we believe shapes how we live, and how we live reveals what we believe. And what I want—and what I hope shows increasingly with time—in my own life and in my church is a culture where grace is freely given and joyfully received. Where even as some are hardened to the gospel, others are softened and welcomed into God’s family. When that happens, when our gospel doctrine leads to a gospel culture, it’s a wonderful thing indeed.


Title: The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ
Author: Ray Ortlund, Jr.
Publisher: Crossway (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

Is it My Fault?

is-it-my-fault-holcombAs we sat in the school auditorium where our church meets, I could feel my wife seething beside me. Our pastor had come to a crucial text in one of the gospels—Jesus’ teaching on divorce. As we listened to our pastor strongly (and faithfully) teach on what the Bible says about marriage and divorce, Emily became increasingly agitated. Not because of anything that was said, but what hadn’t been: what about women who are being abused?

To many, the Bible’s teaching on divorce seems too simplistic to deal with these issues. Bad counsel based on incomplete teaching leaves many women (and men) feeling trapped, with nowhere to turn when their spouses begin to spiritually, psychologically, physically or sexually abuse them. When the abuse somehow becomes their fault in the counselling session, or they’re too ashamed to even say anything at all—or don’t even know if it “counts.”

Whose fault is it?

Emily’s anger was birthed from experiences of these feelings in both her childhood and adolescent years, and her empathy for several friends who have experienced abuse in their marriages.1 If we’re to offer any sort of hope and encouragement to those suffering from domestic violence, we need to know what the Bible has to say to them.

This is why books like Is It My Fault? are so necessary. From its opening pages, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb offer a compassionate and biblical look at the problem of domestic violence, beginning with five words victims need to hear: It is never your fault.

No matter what kind of abuse you have experienced, there is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, nothing you think that makes you deserving of it. There is no mistake you could have made and no sin you could have committed to make you deserving of violence.

You did not deserve this. And it is never your fault.

You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. You are not damaged goods, forgotten or ignored by God, or “getting what you deserve.” (21)

These truths should be obvious, but for someone in an abusive relationship, they’re anything but. And truthfully, I’m not sure how obvious they are to some of us who aren’t, either. For example, we tend to look at marital problems and try to figure out how divide responsibility for those problems equally between spouses. And while this is certainly true in the average problems that come with marriage and relationships, we need to be careful to not apply this too broadly. Sometimes, it really is the problem just one person—and in the case of domestic violence, in whatever form it takes, it is always the abuser’s fault.

Although a bit of a loose example, consider the recent shootings in Santa Barbara, California, when 22-year-old Elliott Rodger stabbed three people to death, shot three more, and left 13 more injured, before killing himself. Why did he do it? Because “girls have never been attracted to me.” What surprised me with this wasn’t Rodger’s placing the blame for his yet-to-be-committed crimes on women, but because some online commenters seemed to agree, saying that if he wasn’t a virgin, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.

Yeah. Someone actually said that.

What is domestic violence?

Keeping this in mind is especially important when you consider how tricky it can be to develop a concrete definition of domestic violence. You need a broad enough definition that captures the full spectrum of abuse, yet doesn’t leave every reader paranoid that they’re either being abused or an abuser themselves. How is it defined in Is It My Fault?

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner. (57)

Despite being a little clinical, and maybe a bit lawyer-y, this definition is very strong. I believe the key word here is “pattern.” An abuser isn’t necessarily someone who says something stupid and hurtful once (again, if that were the case, we would all be abusers). An abuser is someone who makes an intentional behavior of it. This doesn’t mean that sinful and hurtful words don’t need to be dealt with (they do!); it just means we ought not label the one-time offender—depending on the nature of their offense—as being guilty of domestic violence. (There’s no such thing as being just a little stabby.)

What will God do about it?

The first several chapters of the book offer extremely necessary definitions and categories that readers may lack—beyond a definition of domestic violence, they may not know what the cycle of abuse looks like, or what types of personas exist among abusers, all of which the Holcombs provide. But the strength of the book really comes through when the authors turn to the Scriptures to show readers what God says about this issue. The picture shown here is of a God who “hates abuse, viewing it as sinful and unacceptable” (107), and “delights in rescuing the oppressed (2 Sam. 22:49)” (108).

This isn’t always easy for us to believe, though. After all, in our day-to-day circumstances—especially those in abusive situations—struggle to see God at work. They cry out asking for the Lord to deliver them, just as David did many times in the psalms. But it’s the tension we all face. Suffering and pain are real, but deliverance is real, too, even if it doesn’t come when or how we might wish it did. Despite how it may seem at times, “God is not standing idly by to watch evil run its course he will not allow evil to have the final word. His response to evil and violence is redemption, renewal, and recreation” (113).

What I appreciate throughout the authors’ reflections on several psalms is how they hold this tension. They don’t offer a pat “God’s in control,” although that would be easy to do. They dig into the reality of the pain, the difficulty of the circumstances. But they don’t leave us there. Instead, they redirect despair to hope, showing how we can be confident that God’s deliverance will come.

This, arguably, may be the most important practical takeaway for readers (aside from the very helpful action plan in the appendices). When the darkness won’t seem to lift2, we need the hope that God is not ignoring our circumstances. That God is at work, even when we can’t see it. That His promises are still true—and because His promises are true, hope cannot be extinguished.

What will we do about it?

Is It My Fault? will provoke some strong feelings in its readers—anger that abuse happens at all, perhaps temptations toward seeking vengeance, and a longing for Jesus’ return and the coming of the new creation. What I hope it does is remind us all that none of us can stand by when abuse occurs in our homes or in our churches. In those situations, our goal should always be to bring hope into the darkness of abuse of all kinds. To humbly, earnestly and uncompromisingly call perpetrators to repentance, and allow them to experience the consequences of their actions. To offer compassion to victims and allow them to begin to experience some form of healing, while holding out the promise of the final restoration Jesus will bring when He comes to wipe every tear from every eye. This is what victims of abuse need, and by God’s grace, it’s what we can offer, if we’re willing.


Title: Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence
Authors: Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
Publisher: Moody (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Know the Heretics

Know the Heretics by Justin Holcomb

“Heretic” is one of those words we struggle to use well. Often times, you see it used in one of two ways—either liberally or ironically. One equates all disagreement with apostasy, the other pretends disagreement doesn’t matter at all.

Both rob the word of its power.

Justin Holcomb understands the seriousness of heresy and what it means to call someone a heretic—it is “a weighty charge that [is] not made lightly, nor [is] it used whenever there [is] theological inaccuracy or impression” (14).

So how do we learn to use this word wisely? By knowing what heresy really is. And so, we have Holcomb’s newly released Know the Heretics. This short book introduces readers to several heresies that have threatened the church throughout history, and how the controversies surrounding each—whether it be the requirement to obey the Law, the existence of original sin, or the Trinity itself—helped shape the church as it is today.

Learning from the past to understand the present

It’s tempting to pretend that ancient heresies don’t matter anymore because, well, they’re ancient. But this tendency is our chronological snobbery at work. We like to think we’re beyond the problems of the ancient world; that because we are so much more advanced, we couldn’t possibly fall prey to the same errors our spiritual forbearers did.

You know what they say about those who ignore the past, right?

That’s why we need a book like this one. “This book is a case study of fourteen major events when the church made the right call—not for political or status reasons… but because orthodox teaching preserved Jesus’ message in the best sense, and the new teaching distorted it,” Holcomb writes (12).

These case studies confront readers with our core problem: apathy. Take Sabellianism—a form of Modalism—for example. The reason this error gained ground so easily wasn’t because it was intellectually sound or vigorously defended. It gained ground simply because we have a tendency to be apathetic. The idea of the Trinity as best we understand it from Scripture—that there is one God who exists in three persons (Father, Son, Spirit)—is one of the chief areas in which our apathy reigns.

It’s not that we don’t care, though. It’s just that the idea of the Trinity is too hard for us to comprehend fully. “Compared with the idea that God is merely one, the orthodox answer might seem overly complex and philosophical, or an unnecessary later addition to the authentic Christian faith” (85).

So we wind up not thinking about it too much, and use really bad analogies to describe it—often ones that themselves find their roots in Sabellianism. But, as Holcomb notes, “Trinitarian theology…takes seriously the idea that God has revealed himself in Scripture and wants to be known, and that he has revealed himself in a certain way” (85). And so, the Bible forces us to answer the question of whether or not God is one or three.

Just as practically, having a sense of the Trinity better helps us respond to the claims of other religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, who actually view biblical Christianity as Sabellian:

Since many of the errors that these groups ascribe to mainstream Christianity are actually Sabellian in nature, it is useful to know the middle road that orthodox doctrine strikes between unity and distinction. Being able to articulate concisely what the Trinity is, how it makes the best sense of Scripture and how it affects our salvation and the worship of God can be valuable in witnessing to others as well as developing our own relationship with God. (86)

The Trinity also helps us see the power of the gospel at work—in fact, it’s safe to argue that without the Trinity, there is no atonement. Only if Christ is God as well as man could He pay for the sins of the world. Without the three persons of the Godhead agreeing from before the foundations of the world to redeem and rescue sinners, we’re left with a deficient view of the gospel that sees it as some sort of back-up plan.

These are the truths we ignore at our peril.

Understanding God’s purposes in heresy

Reading Know the Heretics is equally disheartening and encouraging. It’s disheartening simply because it’s easy to see the heresies of the past still making the rounds in our day, in one form or another, as (mostly) sincere people ask sincere questions, but accept wrong answers. These lies continue to be propagated, and men and women continue to be lead astray, thinking they know God when they are in fact rejecting Him.

But it’s also encouraging because, in learning more about the heretics of the past, readers gain greater insights into God’s purposes in allowing these aberrant teachings to exist—to strengthen the Church’s understanding of the truth about—and love for—God. “In order to love God, one must know who God is… right belief about God—orthodoxy—matters quite a bit” (156).

  • Without the Marcionites, we may never have formally developed the canon of Scripture.
  • Without the many heresies surrounding the nature of God and Christ, we might never have had the doctrine of the Trinity clarified.
  • Without the Pelagian error, we might not have as significant an understanding of the grace of God in saving sinners.

In that sense—and in that sense alone—we should be thankful the events and teachings Holcomb describes, not because falsehood is praiseworthy, but because the truth about God is.

Particularly valuable for those taking their first steps into studying church history, Know the Heretics offers powerful insights into the past and practical relevance for today. Read it carefully, learn from the past, and be encouraged for the future.


Title: Know the Heretics
Author: Justin Holcomb
Publisher: Zondervan (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Preparing Your Teens for College by Alex Chediak

preparing-teens-college-chediak

My niece is heading off to college this fall. This is weird for me… partly because it reminds me how far away I am from my own teens and college years. But when I think of my niece, I don’t think of an almost 18-year-old getting ready to take a first step into adulthood. I sometimes still think of her as a six-year-old wanting to play dress-up and paint on the carpet with nail polish.

But it also makes me realize that I really don’t have that long before one of my kids is ready to go to college. My oldest daughter is 7, and she’ll be 17 before we know it. So how do we start preparing ourselves—and eventually her—for that big milestone?

That’s much of the heart behind Alex Chediak’s new book, Preparing Your Teens for College. Written as a series of 11 conversations to have with your teen over the course of several months (or years), this book addresses everything from encouraging your child to own their faith to how to save for tuition.

A few thoughts on reading this book:

1. You don’t actually have to read this book in order. Although it can be beneficial to read through it from start to finish, it’s not necessary. You might want to start off simply reading the most pressing topic for you at the moment.

The section I most deeply resonated with during my read through (which was one I also turned to almost immediately upon opening the book) was the conversation on financial responsibility. I went to college almost entirely on student loans. I didn’t learn how to manage money during high school, so I had virtually no savings. I came out of school with a fairly sizeable debt load, but no skills on how to manage money. So that debt grew. And grew. And grew… It took a long time for me to learn how to manage money responsibly, and this is something I want to pass on to my kids, particularly the most foundational element—who our money actually belongs to:

Your teens don’t have much money yet. Now is the time for them to start thinking about money in a way that recognizes it all belongs to God, not us, and that we’re to use it to advance his purposes. Only from this firm foundation can they learn to properly manage it. (202)

This mindset is absolutely what I want for my kids. I want them to understand that how we use money is ultimately about furthering God’s purposes in the world, not satisfying our every passing fancy. Simply, because God desires for us to be generous and wise with the money He’s provided, we need to pray earnestly and think carefully about how we give, spend and save. This is

2. You don’t need to have a teen to read this book. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t have teens yet. But I have one child who is fast becoming one. And in some ways, I feel like I’m the exact target audience for this book because what Chediak repeatedly encourages us to remember is that none of these conversations are one-and-done. They should happen over a long period of time, laying a foundation and building based on your child’s age and maturity.

For example, I’m not going to have a conversation with my oldest daughter about sex right now. She isn’t really ready for an in-depth discussion on the topic. But I will (and have) talk to her about the purpose of boyfriends and girlfriends, and how the purpose is to get to know the person you’re going to marry, which is why we need to think carefully about who we spend time with.

This principle of building on a foundation is important for every topic discussed, from encouraging godly friendships and maintaining sexual purity, to developing godly character and teens internalizing their faith.

3. You’re going to be challenged to look at your parenting. This is especially true as you consider how to help your child discover his or her gifts and abilities or whether or not your child should go to college or university at all. Many of us have bought into the notion that wanting more for our kids means making sure they’re better educated or in a more distinguished field… But sometimes this is simply our own idolatry at work. We want to live out our unfulfilled dreams through our kids, instead of nurturing the unique person God has made them to be—and let them own that:

Perhaps you’ve always thought they’d make great doctors, or you have your sights set on them taking over the family business or going into ministry. Look for fruit in their lives and hearts to see if any of that makes sense. Whatever happens, remember that they are the ones who have to live wit the consequences. So give them space to own these decisions. (286)

4. It’s very “American.” This is not going to be an issue for the majority of the readers of the book, since they’re going to be Americans. But as a Canadian, there are a few things that don’t translate. These are mostly related to some of the practical tips on saving, terms related to degrees, and the like. This is a very minor quibble since, again, the author is an American writing to a primarily American audience. But it’s a good reminder for us non-Americans to focus more on the principles provided than the particulars.

Preparing Your Teens for College is one of those books that you don’t know you need to read until you read it. It’s packed with practical wisdom, sound theology, necessary challenges and much-needed encouragement for parents. Whether college is weeks or years away, you will benefit from reading this book and starting the conversations that will help your child thrive in college and beyond.


Title: Preparing Your Teens for College: Faith, Friends, Finances, and Much More
Author: Alex Chediak
Publisher: Tyndale House (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon