You and Me Forever

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If you’ve read more than one or two Christian marriage books, you may have noticed they tend to follow a pretty standard template. For a marriage to be successful, husbands and wives need to:

  • Understand how God has intended them to be (with some sort of discussion of Genesis 2);
  • Have frequent sex;
  • See how their relationship represents the gospel (as per Ephesians 5); and
  • Have frequent sex. Frequently.

And then Francis Chan went and wrote a marriage book. Or did he?

Chan and his wife, Lisa, give readers a decidedly different take, one suggests that as good as it is it try to make your marriage better, our main focus—whether in marriage or singleness—needs to be something bigger: God. This is the big idea behind You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity. The Chans want readers to picture marriage as a vehicle for mission, an opportunity for Christians to carry out our mission to make disciples of all the nations.

Sounds pretty lofty, huh? So how’d they do?

Marriage problems are God problems

“As a pastor for over 20 years, I have come to the conclusion that most marriage problems are not really marriage problems. They are God problems,” Chan writes (20). “They can be traced back to one or both people having a poor relationship with God or a faulty understanding of Him.”

This, among all the many wonderfully helpful things you’ll read in this book, is probably the most important—and also the most contentious. While sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, certainly, many of us are too quick to call everything a cigar.

Or (to mix metaphors) we treat symptoms, but not illnesses. The problem with this is what happens when you leave an illness untreated? It only gets worse (and in some cases, eventually kills you).

So think about it in a marriage: if a husband is domineering, it’s because something is deeply dysfunctional in his relationship with God, if one exists at all. If a wife commits adultery because another man understands her and makes her feel special, it’s because something is deeply dysfunctional in her relationship with God, looking to other people for affirmation instead of the Lord.

The same can be said of virtually any problem we face. They all start with our relationship with God. And that’s what makes it so contentious. Chan’s tendency is to get to the heart of an issue right away, rather than easing his audience into that knowledge. And because of his, shall we say, abrupt style of springing such things upon us, it’s easy to be turned off. But the more you sit with what he says, the more you realize it’s true (most of the time, anyway).

Marriage is for mission

This theme continues throughout the book, as both Francis and Lisa continually remind readers that marriage is a tool for the spread of the gospel:

Beautiful people make beautiful marriages. Jesus is the most beautiful person to ever walk the earth. Your best shot at having a beautiful marriage is if both of you make it your goal to become like Jesus. (91)

Our mission does not call us to neglect our marriages. But a marriage cannot be healthy unless we are seeking His kingdom and righteousness first (Matt. 6:33). (97)

Whether as individuals or as couples, our mission is to make as many disciples as we can during our time on earth… We should be constantly asking ourselves the question: How can we free up more time and resources for making disciples? (98-99)

There is an urgency to the period of time in which we live—after Jesus’ resurrection and before His second coming. We have callings from God, and those callings are bigger than our marriages. Seeking His kingdom must be our first priority, and if we’re not careful, marriage can get in the way. (114)

This, again, is a necessary reorientation for many of us (even if there are some cautions I want to address). We should be examining our lives from the perspective of our clearly stated purpose: to make disciples. If we are in Christ, each and every one of us is called to this in some way, shape or form. There is no denying it.

And if we have children, mission starts at home. We want our kids to know the gospel, to see the beauty of Christ, to see Christianity as something more than just going to church for a couple hours on Sunday. We want them to see that it involves sacrifice, sometimes including sacrificing time with them for the sake of the gospel…

How much should mission disrupt marriage?

But we also want them to see something else: sometimes the sacrifice we make is saying “no” to a good opportunity in order to be with them. Chan writes:

I work a lot. And I definitely travel more than most. Hardly a week goes by where I’m not jumping on a plane, wishing I could just stay home with my family. Some would call this bad parenting. I would argue that. I don’t neglect my children by any stretch of the imagination, but there are many times when I know God has called me to serve Him in ways that disrupt the family routine. I genuinely believe that it’s good for my kids to observe this. (165)

I sympathize with this a great deal. There are times in our lives when our family routine is disrupted. Because of work commitments or speaking engagements, I’m away from home probably five to six weeks of the year. While that might seem light in comparison to the schedules of many authors, speakers and pastors, we take it very seriously. When I have the opportunity to speak somewhere, we consider not only the opportunity, but the cost for our kids who are all very young. And there have been many times when I’ve had to say no to really good opportunities because where I’m most needed is at home playing cars on the floor with Hudson.

(There was also the time I went to Nashville and back in 36 hours when Emily was days away from giving birth to the boy, but…)

The point here is simply this: sometimes where we will be most effective for the sake of the mission will be away from home. But this is not license to “take care of the ministry and let God take care of your family,” as so many of a previous generation advocated (with their lives if not their words). I fear for the one who neglects his family in the name of Christ, because I can’t see it going well for them. Instead, what we need to do is find the right balance (in as much as something as unbalanced as ministry is). While we might have good opportunities to be used effectively away, sometimes it’s still best to be right here.

A marriage book that’s not about marriage

You may have gotten to this point and thought, “Great, it sounds like Crazy Love: Marriage Edition.” As tempting as it might be to say, it’s not entirely true. Yes, it has all the emphases of “radical” Christianity that you see in Crazy LoveRadical and so many others. No, it’s not without it’s problems (personally, I do feel Chan’s explanation of disrupting the family routine could be better fleshed out). But in the end, You and Me Forever succeeds in giving us a different kind of marriage book—one that’s less about marriage and more about the gospel. And that, for me at least, is a welcome change of pace.


Title: You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity
Authors: Francis and Lisa Chan
Publisher: Claire Love Publishing (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

The Pagan Heart of Today’s Culture

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Nature abhors a vacuum. A bit cliché, perhaps, but true nonetheless, especially as we consider the cultural landscape of the West. As Christianity’s influence in wanes, something else is rising to take its place. But what? According to Peter Jones, it’s paganism, or Oneism. In The Pagan Heart of Today’s Culture, the latest in P&R and Westminster Theological Seminary’s Christian Answers to Hard Questions series, Jones introduces readers to this belief, grounding his study by showing the connections between three other isms—polytheism, Gnosticism, and postmodernism.

“These three ways of thinking have become strangely connected,” he writes. “Together they help explain the nature of today’s pagan worldview and its opposition to the truth of the gospel” (5).

Three isms and Oneism

Each of the isms described in this booklet represent pieces of a larger puzzle that, when seen together, describe a worldview ultimately about one thing: the end of distinctions. No longer will there be need for the distinction between male and female (sound familiar?), right or wrong, good or evil… “a rejection of the opposites is in fact…a fundamental aspect of religious paganism, so that postmodern philosophy fits surprisingly well with the religious yearnings for the morality and spirituality of inclusion—pantheistic ‘all is one’ wholeness” (9).

This is seen not only in postmodernism, but gnosticism and polytheism as well. Ultimately, these ideas all coalesce in the end of the distinction between Creator and creation. And this is the great lie we see in Romans 1:25—that people exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served creatures instead of the Creator. That, in essence, is what Jones calls Oneism, and it is a deadly snare.

Twoism: the Achilles’ heel of the “all-is-one” fantasy

Contrast this with Twoism, or, rather, biblical Christianity, a view that embraces distinction—male-female, right-wrong, Creator-creation. This, Jones says, is the only significant challenge to the rising tide of paganism, which is why there is such a strong effort to snuff it out in our day:

Twoism is the Achilles’ heel of their “all-is-one” fantasy. Twoism must therefore be spoken of and lived out with love, courage, and coherent clarity before a hostile world progressively enveloped by the delusion of the unifying Oneist lie. And as Paul implied so long ago, the future confrontation will be between not simply thinkers but spiritual worshipers, the worshipers of creation and the worshipers of the Creator. (35)

Jones’ challenge isn’t to engage in more culture wars in the sense some may fear. He’s not telling us to run around calling people pagans for doing yoga, for example. Instead, he’s challenging us to live out our faith as we’ve been called to—to be people who celebrate the differences between male and female, as well as between humans and the rest of creation, and who rejoice in the difference between God as our Creator and ourselves as created beings.

This is something we so easily forget, isn’t it? That while we should be informed in our thinking, the call is not to be the best apologists out there and present the clearest argument: Our call is to be people who obey our transcendent Lord, the One through whom and for whom all things were created.

A solid and accessible introduction

The Pagan Heart of Today’s Culture does not represent the end of a journey, but the beginning of one. If you’re intrigued by the concepts of Oneism and Twoism, or if you’re confused by them, Jones unpacks these concepts in greater detail, particularly in One or Two and Gospel Truths, Pagan Lies, both of which I would highly encourage reading. However, if you’re looking for an accessible and solid starting point, this is the book to get.


Title: The Pagan Heart of Today’s Culture
Author: Peter Jones
Publisher: P&R Publishing/Westminster Theological Seminary Press (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster | Amazon

Can I Really Trust the Bible?

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There are a lot of really great books out there on the trustworthiness of the Bible. Some of these tend to be on the academic side, demonstrating the historical reliability of the Scriptures, the formation of the canon and so on. Others are more devotional in nature, designed to edify and encourage believers as they seek to have confidence in this book which is so important.

These approaches are good and helpful, but many readers want something that’s a bit more direct and to the point. This is what Barry Cooper offers in Can I Really Trust the Bible?, the latest in The Good Book Company’s Questions Christians Ask series. Over the book’s five chapters, Cooper offers compelling answers to three key questions:

  1. Does the Bible claim to be God’s word?
  2. Does the Bible seem to be God’s word?
  3. Does the Bible prove to be God’s word?

The inescapable force of circular logic

These three questions absolutely essential to any serious study of the nature of the Bible. If the Bible does not claim to be, seem to be, or prove to be God’s word—if it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny—then we must reject the notion of the Bible being God’s word. If it’s a duck, we cannot call it a swan. And so we are wise to consider what the Bible says about itself in order to verify its nature.

Which, of course, leads to that common critique many Christians face—the charge of circular reasoning. But, Cooper notes, “When you think about it, it’s impossible for any of us to avoid this kind of circularity in our arguments: we all appeal to authority of one kind or another, even when we don’t realise it.” He continues:

…if I say: “The Bible is my highest authority because it can be proved rationally”, the argument would be self-defeating. I’d be appealing to an authority other than the Bible (rationalism), implying that it (and not God’s word) was the real measure of trustworthiness.”

This level of candor is refreshing to read in any book on this subject, and very much needed. We don’t need to deny that, yes, we’re use circular logic—why? Because (as Cooper notes above) appealing to anything other than the Bible implicitly places authority over the Bible in something other than the Bible.

Authority and evidence

 

This doesn’t mean, though, that appeals to outside evidence are invalid. For example, one of the most common challenges to the Bible today is whether or not we can know for certain what it said in its original manuscripts. If we can’t have any certainty on this, we can’t have any real confidence that what is found in the Bible as we know it today is what was intended by its original authors. But the embarrassment of riches we have in the form of ancient manuscripts—some dating back to within just a few decades of the events described—are a wonderful example of how God’s people have faithfully maintained the message.

…although we no longer have access to the original biblical documents, all is not lost. The truly enormous number of surviving copies enables experts to reconstruct the original with great accuracy. This process of comparing copies is called textual criticism, and as a result, scholars are able to say: “For over 99% of the words of the Bible, we know what the original manuscript said.”

 

It’s appropriate to mention evidence like this, not as a gotcha, but to help illustrate the point: if early Christians didn’t believe the Bible was God’s word, why would they have been so meticulous in making copies, so much so that the variations that exist affect no major doctrine of the faith (and most are limited to things like typos)? Evidence of this sort doesn’t prove the point, but it does lend additional credibility to the point the Bible itself makes.

Breaks no new ground, but refreshing nonetheless

Having said all that, readers should be aware that they’re unlikely to find anything they’ve not already read in any number of other books on this subject. The arguments are as solid as what you’ll find in Kevin DeYoung’s Taking God at His Word, R.C. Sproul’s Can I Trust the Bible? or Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited. And while Cooper may not break new ground, Can I Really Trust the Bible? is a refreshing and encouraging read that would be excellent to share with those looking to study this important topic.


Title: Can I Really Trust the Bible?
Author: Barry Cooper
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Bookstore

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

why-not-emergent

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