Glory Hunger

Glory hunger (1)

As positively unchristian as it sounds to say, it’s not wrong to seek glory. In fact, it can be quite good—as long as we’re seeking the right glory. This, however, is where we all fall down because the glory we seek is usually for ourselves. We want people to think we’re a pretty big deal. We want to make a name for ourselves. We want to be somebody. And we will gladly rob God of glory and honor to get it.

In other words, when seeking glory is about seeking it for ourselves, it’s a very bad thing indeed.

This is where Glory Hunger by JR Vassar is so helpful. As in Dave Harvey’s Rescuing Ambition before it, Vassar assists us in combating the shallowness of our glory hunger as he examines its origins and the only source of satisfaction we will ever need.

We are all narcissists now

“Has a generation ever been so concerned with its own glory?” Vassar asks as he considers our nasty social media habits (58). After all, we value blog posts based on how many likes and tweets and pins and comments they receive; we tweet and Instagram our best duck faces (or, if you prefer, blue steel1). We consider ourselves more important because we have people following our Twitter account and Facebook page. We even have services like Klout which tell us how influential we may be.

We are, most assuredly, a painfully narcissistic generation, and it is destroying us:

Narcissistic people rarely have deep friendships and usually don’t really desire them. They have fans but not friends. They have the admiration of others but not intimacy.… Narcissists tend to use others to build up themselves, but do not invest or give in relationships. … A narcissistic glory hunger is destructive primarily because it means that one has taken a life direction that is opposite to reality. (58-59)

Don’t gloss over this too quickly. Stop and really consider it—and especially those of us who serve in some form of vocational ministry. One of the trends I see that absolutely terrifies me is the “lonely leader” archetype. No one understands him. No one appreciate him. Or at least, that’s what he tells himself.

The problem here is that it’s a delusion. Leadership is lonely only because we choose for it to be. The only reason people don’t know us or understand us is because we don’t let them. And I wonder if it’s because we secretly (or not so secretly) really like it? We like being seen as the embattled leader, standing up against the forces of the world and our defiant congregations, when, really, we’re just stroking our own egos. It makes us feel good to be admired from a distance because if people actually knew us, they’d see that we’re kind of a hot mess. We might look good on the outside, but we’re a complete disaster.

(Is anyone else getting a bit uncomfortable here?)

Refocusing glory by becoming realists

So what do we do about this? If we are so narcissistic that we love to be seen as being vulnerable (without actually having to be vulnerable), if we are so in love with our own selves and our own glory… we’re in a lot of trouble, aren’t we?

True though this may be, Vassar doesn’t leave us hopeless, though he does continue to push on us to think correctly:

Imagine attending the 2014 New Year’s fireworks show in Dubai, which, at a cost of nearly six million dollars, was the largest the world has ever seen. As you gaze into the sky in amazement, feeling the rumblings in your chest from the explosions, some kid yanks on your pant leg and tries to sell you a ticket for a viewing of the Roman candle he is about to set off.… We are the glory hogs with our little Roman candles; God’s just a realist. (83)

“When mans’s glory is raised against God’s, the bottom line of the riches of God’s glory reveals the utter bankruptcy of man’s” (82). Our attempts at glorifying yourselves can’t begin to compare with the glory that inherently belongs to God. We need to see it this way, not because we should wallow in self-pity, but because we need to realize that the only true rescue we can find from taking our eyes off ourselves! If we want to be free from a self-focused glory hunger, we need to be realists as God is a realist. His glory is better than ours. He is more important. We should seek to become like John the Baptist, who, after Jesus’ ministry began to grow, simply said, “he must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

And this is the cure for our insatiable glory hunger. This is the one thing that can satisfy it. It’s not in achieving whatever goal we’ve set for ourselves—it’s by taking our eyes off ourselves.

The cross deflates us and serves as a clarifying lens that allows us to see our true condition. When we are tempted to boast in ourselves, the cross tells us we are not awesome.… When you are tempted to think highly of yourself, remind yourself why Jesus had to die. Let the cross measure you, not your accomplishments or your failures for that matter. (90)

The happiest we can be is when we’re forgetting about “me”

If there’s one thing from Glory Hunger that should stick with us, it’s this:”The happiest people are those who are most free from personal glory hunger and refuse to compete with God for glory” (96).

We’re not going to be happy until we actually stop trying to make a name for ourselves. We won’t find what we’re looking for there. The world wasn’t made to function that way, nor were we. It’s only we stop thinking about our own glory and focus on God’s, that we will know true glory. And only then will we be satisfied. Glory Hunger is a strong reminder of this truth, and it’s one I hope will be appreciated by all who read it.


Title: Glory Hunger: God, the Gospel, and Our Quest for Something More
Author: JR Vassar
Publisher: Crossway (2015)

Buy it at: Westminster Bookstore | Amazon

Fierce Convictions

fierce-convictions

For pretty much the entirety of my adult life, I’ve loved good biographies and memoirs. Whether a modern celebrity like Neal Patrick Harris, a tech guru like Steve Jobs, a war hero like Louis Zamperini, or a mathematician like John Nash, it’s fascinating to learn the stories behind well-known (and not so well known) individuals.

Before reading Fierce Convictions, I’d never actually heard of Hannah More. Unless you travel in very particular circles, it’s likely you have not either. After reading, I have only one thing to say: I really wish I’d known about her sooner. In this new biography, Karen Swallow Prior introduces readers to woman who was both an extremely gifted poet and playwright, and a person of deep conviction and compassion.

Social activism and orthodox convictions

One of the great accusations made against conservative evangelicals in our day is that we are “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.” Our concerns over doctrine, evidently, take precedence over any and all social action. And as is often the case, when we attempt to correct this assumption, slavery is raised. At the western form of slavery’s height in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were numerous Christians who believed it was acceptable to own slaves, including Jonathan Edwards. Though he ended his days a staunch abolitionist, John Newton continued in the slave trade for ten years after his conversion to Christ.

And yet, when we look to Hannah More and her contemporaries (including her close friend, William Wilberforce) you get a different picture. More wasn’t an abolitionist in spite of her orthodox convictions—she was because of them. Throughout her life, this was one of her great passions, and her literary gifts were a valuable resource for the cause.

More’s abolitionist efforts over the decades were said to constitute “one of the earliest propaganda campaigns for social reform in English history.” Indeed, it could be said that More was the mastermind behind some of the abolitionist movement’s most effective campaigns to sway public opinions. Imaginative literature, such as More’s antislavery writings, and other arts were essential to the abolitionist movement because, as has been noted, the slave trade was so hidden from the eyes of the people. (133–134)1

This reminds us of the power of the arts. We cannot deny the power of art, literature, and drama to transform the thinking of our culture. Indeed, we would be utter fools if we tried. Why? Because you change people’s ideas by presenting them in a different way. (And if you have any doubt about this, consider the rapid acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in the west. It almost certainly couldn’t have happened without its normalization through popular media.) Abolition would likely not have succeeded without the efforts of an individual like More—someone who was able to bring the issue before the people, so it was no longer hidden from their eyes. Because once you see, you have to do something about it.

But her passion was not limited to abolition: she also desired that people know how to read. So More and her sisters started Sunday schools to teach the poor to read. And why did she do this? Not simply because she valued education (which she did), but because she believed the Scriptures were so important to the Christian life that people must be taught to read so they can read them for themselves (160).

We dare not get caught up in silly notions that orthodox Christianity doesn’t lead to social action. The truth is quite the opposite; consistent belief always leads to action. Or, to say it another way, what we do is the fruit of what we believe. And More is a helpful example in this regard.

Contemporary beliefs and biblical inconsistency

Nevertheless, even though More was greatly concerned with education, seeing learning as the next best thing to religion, she was hardly a revolutionary in her day (and certainly not in ours). Despite her strong desire to teach her nation to read, she would not teach poor children to write. This was an area in which her culture’s influence was stronger than More’s Christian convictions.

This is an important reminder for us: because we all exist within a specific cultural context, how we express our faith is going to be influenced by it. And undoubtedly, there will be some dreadful inconsistencies (as in the case of slavery in the west). Because of this, we need to approach how we express our faith and our values humbly. Perhaps we should be willing to extend grace to our brothers and sisters who wrongly advocated for the practice of slavery, or embraced classism and all that went along with it. Not excuse it, but acknowledge that just as we are troubled or appalled by these things, so too will our descendants by some of our own inconsistencies.

Conclusion

In Fierce ConvictionsKaren Swallow Prior has produced a wonderful treatment of one of the most important social reformers you’ve probably never heard of. It is superbly written, highly informative, and enjoyable to read. If you enjoy biographies, or if you’re concerned at all about the history of the abolition movement, you will be well served by this book.


Title: Fierce Convictions—The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist
Author: Karen Swallow Prior
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Romans 8-16 For You

Romans 8-16 for you

By now, if you haven’t checked out the growing God’s Word For You series of devotional commentaries from The Good Book Company, I honestly don’t know if anything I say about the latest edition, Timothy Keller’s Romans 8-16 For You, will convince you.

Nevertheless, you really should check them—and this volume in particular—out.

Like Romans 1-7 For You and the other volumes in this series, Romans 8-16 For You offers readers an engaging, thoughtful and practical look at one of the most contentious books of the Bible. And more specifically, one of the more contentious passages in one of the most contentious books of the Bible. For Romans is not a book with a, shall we say, light touch, and Keller fully embraces this in his treatment of the text.

Encourages and challenges the heart and mind

It’s important, once again, to remember: this is not a detailed commentary (though it does quote from many of them, including John Stott’s The Message of Romans, and Leon Morris’ The Epistle to the Romans). But the strength of Romans 8-16 For You is not in the thoroughness of its commentary; rather it’s in how the text encourages and challenges both the heart and mind.

One of the best examples comes toward the end of this volume as Keller digs into Paul’s practical teaching, the implications of his grand theology found in chapters 1–11: how do Christians relate to the government? This is an especially important question in our day, as western nations race back to the worldview of ancient Rome and Christians face public scorn, prosecution, and eventually persecution, for refusing to compromise on their convictions. For many, it’s sorely tempting to take our ball and go home, hunker down in the bunker, or whatever other metaphor for disengaging from the culture at large you prefer. Yet, this is exactly what, according to Keller, Paul encourages us not to do.

The command for every Christian is to submit to civil government, appears to be absolute, Keller writes, which isn’t helped by Paul’s putting “the command in negative terms, ie: what the Christian is not to do: ‘He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted,’ and to do so is to ‘bring judgment’ (v 2). The strength of this statement intensifies when we realize that Paul was talking of a very non-Christian government—the pagan Roman empire.”

Remember, the Roman emperors were no fans of Christianity. The Christians caused too much trouble. Their presence was disruptive, they kept insisting that their religion was the only right one, and that could not stand. But this is the sort of state Paul told his original readers to submit to—a state that hated them! Thus, “the default position of the Christian (every Christian) to the state (any state) is to submit.”

But, there were hints, Keller argues, that this submission was not absolute. Instead, although we are to submit and engage in civil matters—paying our taxes, voting, serving in public office, and so on—we are also to evaluate the state. “Paul’s radical principle is: we obey our government out of our Christian conscience, out of our obedience to God alone.”

So let’s consider for a moment: how does our attitude toward our governments reflect this radical principle? Do we submit begrudgingly in certain areas? Do we submit our taxes correctly, even when we know reporting everything means we may have to pay instead of receiving a return? Do we pray for our political leaders, or curse them? And when we speak out against the errors of our governments (as we should), do we do so with a gentle word, or with harshness (Proverbs 15:1)? In other words, even when we disagree, do we treat them with respect:

…we are not only to comply with civil authorities, but to do so in a way that shows them respect, honor, and courtesy. This is the same issue we face in the family and the church. We are to treat parents, ministers, and civil magistrates with deference. Even when the individuals in these positions are not worthy of much respect, we show respect to the authority structure that stands under and behind them.

Intended for application

As with the other volumes of the God’s Word For You series, Romans 8-16 For You is designed for application. Readers will find it most beneficial as they read this book with a Bible and journal alongside it, and really wrestle with the application questions provided throughout. Read it with the expectation of being encouraged and convicted, but be prepared to do something with those moments of conviction. Think with “sober judgment” (Romans 12:3) and what you read and discover lead to a change of heart, mind and actions.


Title: Romans 8-16 For You
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2015)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

Brief thoughts on Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (vol 1)

Reformed Dogmatics

You may recall that my big reading project (aside from school) is to reengaging with time-tested works of theology. The first work I chose was Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, of which, after five weeks, I’ve made it through the first volume. (You can see my reading plan here.) Reformed Dogmatics is a fairly massive undertaking, and at my current (fairly aggressive) pace, I should be completing it around the end of May, 2015.

Today, I wanted to share a few of the things I most appreciated in the first volume—and truth be told, narrowing it down was no easy task. I rarely went more than a few paragraphs without highlighting something that was fascinating to me, or finding a quote I needed to interact with, or something that challenged my assumptions (even if simply in his approach to those whose ideas he was challenging). Here are three items in particular that stick out:

1. The background really does matter. Believe it or not, one of the most beneficial parts of the first volume was the editor’s introduction. There, readers are treated to not just an overview of the key points of the book, but a look into the climate that made Bavinck… well, Bavinck. The influence of Abraham Kuyper, the historical backdrop of the rise of 19th century liberalism… all of this is foundational for a fair reading of Reformed Dogmatics.

2. The philosophical discussions are fascinating. This, for me, was perhaps the most enjoyable part of volume one. As Bavinck delved into the history of dogmatics and how others have attempted to articulate the Christian faith—including his very generous assessments of Schleiermacher, Kant, and others—but also how he recognizes the place of philosophy in regard to the development of theology:

Still, theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. It is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not, a priori and without criticism, give priority to the philosophy of Plato or of Kant, or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful. (609)

This is so helpful to keep in mind, especially when reading frequent accusations of forcing Greek philosophy onto the Scriptures by post-evangelicals. Theology is not subject to philosophy—philosophy, when viewed rightly, is subject to theology. When we get this confused, the results are disastrous, for it is how we risk losing our grip on the gospel.

3. New problems aren’t that new. The final thing that’s helpful in reading the book is the reminder that, once again, the challenges we face in the church are not new. Heresy doesn’t change, it only gets a cooler haircut.

Thus, the temptations toward mere pietism, to outward morality without inward transformation, to the allegorizing and intellectualizing1 of the Christian faith, even accusations of circular reasoning have long been present. And just as these issues have long been present, so to have their responses.

Bavinck’s response to accusations of circular reasoning regarding the belief in Scripture as the Word of God is particularly helpful. The Spirit witnesses to the divine marks imprinted upon Scripture’s content. He also witnesses directly and indirectly through the Church’s ongoing existence and though the church’s united historical confession of Scripture. And finally through the internal witness within the heart of the believer. And yet, what Bavinck reminds us is that accusations against the testimony of the Holy Spirit are invalid because his testimony is not the ground, but the means of faith:

The ground of faith is, and can only be, Scripture, or rather, the authority of God, which comes upon the believer materially in the content as well as formally in the witness of Scripture. Hence the ground of faith is identical with its content and cannot, as Herrmann believes, be detached from it. Scripture as the word of God is simultaneously the material and the formal object of faith. But the testimony of the Holy Spirit is “the efficient cause,” “the principle by which,” of faith. We believe Scripture, not because of, but by means of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Scripture and the testimony of the Holy Spirit relate to each other as objective truth and subjective assurance, as the first principles and their self-evidence, as the light and the human eye. Once it is has been recognized in its divinity, Scripture is incontrovertibly certain to the faith of the believing community, so that it is both the principle and the norm of faith and life. (597-598)

So far, while it’s been heady (and at times confusing), Reformed Dogmatics has been an absolute joy to read. There is no shortage of material to consider in its pages, whether we agree with everything entirely or not (and let’s be honest, if we agreed entirely with it, we probably aren’t reading carefully enough). If you haven’t started reading this book (or rather, series of books), I’d encourage you to join me on this journey reading time-tested theology. Grab the reading plan, get yourself a copy of Reformed Dogmatics, and get started today.

The Mingling of Souls

#Minglingofsouls

There are a dizzying number of marriage books available on the market—well over 150,000, in fact. And a few of them are even good.

Clearly, we have a lot to talk about. With so many titles available, one has to wonder: what else is there to say? Can an author write a book on marriage that genuinely adds something of value? Thankfully, the answer is yes. And Matt Chandler’s latest, The Mingling of Souls: God’s Design for Love, Marriage, Sex, and Redemption, is a great example. In its eight chapters, Chandler (assisted by Jared C. Wilson) offer readers biblical and helpful principles for love, marriage, and life together from the Song of Solomon.

Though it is not as thorough in developing a theology of marriage as Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage, and is more typical in its approach than Chan’s You and Me Forever, I was surprised by The Mingling of Souls for four reasons:

1. Chandler always—always—speaks well of his wife. You can tell a great deal about a man’s character by the way he speaks of his spouse. I’ve read so many books and articles on marriage where the (male) author paints himself as the victim, the faithful husband dealing with an unpleasant wife undeserving of his love. When he confesses sin in the marriage, it’s usually her sin he confesses.

Friends, that’s probably not the person we want to go to for marriage advice.

This is emphatically not Chandler’s approach. As I read the book, I was consistently impressed at how Chandler avoids putting himself in the position of the victim. He lays the problems in his marriage at his own feet, rather than at his wife’s. And even where he does bring up an example of something she did that was wrong, he doesn’t focus on her action, but on his own ungodly response.

“The first seven years of our marriage were very difficult,” he writes. “I remember one occasion in particular because it marked a real turn in our marriage. I had said some very cruel things to Lauren that day. I was frustrated; I was angry. I thought she was selfish and self-absorbed, and I told her so. I admit with shame that I wanted to wound her” (202)

I’ll never forget this: Lauren came around the corner… and grabbed me. Then she pulled me really close to her, and she began sobbing. She cried and cried as she held me. She said, “I don’t know what happened to you, but I’m not going anywhere.” … It broke me. It wounded me in the good way, in the right way. It startled me and helped me in a way I could never foresee or imagine.… and that’s when I said, “I’m going to get help.” (203)

It’s easy for so many of us to point outside ourselves and treat our spouses as the problem in our marriages. It’s easy to play the victim. But to show the ugly side of yourself, to say, I was wrong or the problem is me, takes a great deal of courage and a tremendous amount of humility.

2. Chandler spends more time on teaching us to fight fairly than on sex. The chapter on sex clocks in at 24 pages, where the next one on fighting fair is 33. So why spend so much time on the subject? Because we’re going to spend a lot more of our waking time disagreeing with one another in our marriages than we are going to in our bedrooms. Sorry for shattering the glass, there, newlyweds. And let’s be honest, most of us don’t know how to fight fairly. Most of us have never even seen a married couple fight well.

And this is why we need to pay careful attention to the principles of fighting fairly presented.1 We need to be sure we’re fighting fair—we’re not speaking rashly or shaming our spouses, bringing up baggage or using children as leverage. And most importantly, we should strive for reconciliation—genuine, heartfelt reconciliation—as quickly as possible. “I’m not naive about the nature of some conflict… But as much as you are able as soon as you are able, make an effort to take at least part of the responsibility for the conflict, no matter how small that part may be” (167-168).

3. Chandler writes as if the marriage bed is to be kept holy. Because, y’know, it is. Rather than following the now all-too-common approach to the Song of Solomon and treating it as a ham-fisted sex manual (there are no edicts issued about what you “should” do, you’ll be pleased to know, ladies), Chandler emphasizes the fact that sex is holy and should be treated as such. This, again, is extremely helpful because it redirects our attention.

Rather than asking what we can or cannot do, Chandler encourages us to consider what does or does not bring God the most glory. And when God’s glory is our focus, a lot of our “can we” questions, are left behind.

[Sex] is meant to remind us of the God who gave it to us, who takes joy in unison with his people. We don’t need to overspiritualize sex to see it this way; we just need to approach it the way the Bible ordained and be grateful for it. Seeing sex as holy will also help us love our spouses more greatly. (133-134)

4. Chandler doesn’t write as one who’s got it all figured out. This is probably the most important thing about the book: Chandler’s tone is not like that of many books written by his contemporaries. He’s not the expert saying, “my marriage is great,” or even “my marriage used to be terrible, but now it’s awesome so go and do likewise.” Instead, he writes as one just like the rest of us—a man whose marriage has ups and downs, who is guilty of sinning against his wife, who frequently needs to ask her forgiveness, and who leans on the grace of God to be a good husband. And this, perhaps even more than its good teaching, is what makes the book worth reading.

It’s tempting to take the easy path when writing about marriage, to only confess the “safe” sins. But to reveal serious sin, to continually point to yourself as the problem in conflict… This is fairly uncommon, even among Christian authors. Yet, it’s only when we do this that we really get to give thanks to God as we see how the gospel has been at work in the author’s life. For him to be able to say, “All the time, I find so much new sin in me of which I need to repent.… But I know that Go dis faithful and that he will get the glory” (197), and know that the author actually believes this to be true. That is what we need more of in our marriage books—and more importantly, in our marriages. And if there’s anything that makes The Mingling of Souls a valuable read, it’s this.


Title: The Mingling of Souls: God’s Design for Love, Marriage, Sex, and Redemption
Author: Matt Chandler (with Jared C. Wilson)
Publisher: David C. Cook (2015)

Buy it at: Amazon

Gospel Formed

gospel-formed-medders

It’s all the rage to talk about being gospel-centered, shaped or formed these days. We have gospel-centered conferences, gospel-centered discipleship, gospel-centered blogs and teaching… With so much emphasis is being put on being gospel-centered, it’s easy to forget that we also need to live it out.

But what does that look like? What does it look like as we should know grow by, in, and with the gospel—and what does that even mean?

This is the heart behind J.A. Medders’ book, Gospel Formed: Living a Grace-Addicted, Truth-Filled, Jesus-Exalting Life. Divided into five parts, Medders’ offers 27 accessible and thoughtful meditations on the gospel, and its implications for our lives and identity.

He writes it like he means it (and that’s really important)

There’s a lot to like about Gospel Formed. Medders does a great job of laying an accessible theological foundation for Christian living in each chapter. He takes these nebulous concepts we float around—the buzzwords too many of us use, and almost all of us fail to define—and helps us get a sense of what they really mean.

For example, consider his definitions of the four primary aspects of gospel-centered living:

Gospel worship: “Gospel worship is the glorifying of God in all of life, in light of and in accordance with, motivated by, and empowered by the gospel of grace… [It] is living in response to the gospel in spirit and in truth.” (49)

Gospel identity: “Gospel identity is discovering the Christian’s meaning, purpose, acceptance with God, and position in the universe based on our union with Christ.… [It] is first, foremost, and always that we are ‘in Christ.'” (111)

Gospel community: “Gospel community is a group of Christians encouraging and exhorting each other to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.… [It] is the people of God living out the gospel ethics of the kingdom of God.” (146)

Gospel mission: “Gospel mission is the call and commitment to spread the good news of the gospel of grace to all kinds of people in all kinds of places.… [It] is the spread of the name and fame of Jesus by gospel proclamation.” (168)

There’s a lot here, but as far as overarching definitions go, these are pretty good. And where it gets better is when Medders actually digs into the details of each of these. For example, central to worship is the joy produced by the gospel. And about this, Medders writes with joy:

Gospel worship has a certain zest to it, a nuance that is much more than simply a catchy melody or guitar riff. A gospel-centered heart dances tot he beat of a different exegesis. It looks for a crucified Galilean; it listens for the echoes of “It is finished!” Many claim that if churches aren’t giving eye-popping visuals, people will be lumps in the pew; the gospel, however, gives a different perspective. The gospel doesn’t need to be dressed up to inspire worship; it just needs to be seen with the eyes of the heart. Faith in Jesus ignites worship. The person and work of Jesus wills et your heart ablaze for him. (70-71)

Hopefully you caught the same thing I did in reading this paragraph. Where Medders succeeds in his writing is that he writes as though he really means it. There’s a difference between explaining something and demonstrating. What I find Medders does well consistently in Gospel Formed is the latter—as he explains, he actually demonstrates. His excitement about the gospel comes through. And for the reader who is desperately lacking that in his or her own life, this is a great gift.

It’s only funny if it doesn’t seem like you’re trying to be

Though a very strong book, Gospel Formed is not without its weaknesses, only two of which I’ll mention for the sake of time:

First—and this is one of those hard to quantify things—at times I felt like there was a disconnect between the tone and the content of the book. The only word I could use to describe it is “swagger.” Please do not read this brief critique as an accusation of pridefulness. This is an intangible—it wasn’t that Medders wrote something specific that jumped out as such. It may simply be a case of misreading on my part. If it’s something you pick up on as well, my recommendation is to chalk it up to first-time author jitters (something we all deal with).1

The second, for me, is connected to this, but a bit more serious. Where Gospel Formed suffers most is that Medders tries too hard to be funny at times. It’s not that being funny is a bad thing, by any means. But the best kind of humor is that which doesn’t call attention to itself—that seems almost effortless (which takes an extraordinary amount of effort to pull off, incidentally). However, what I found in Gospel Formed was that I was frequently distracted by the jokes—to the point that I frequently wanted to cross them out just so I could focus on Medders’ main points.

Sit and steep

All that being said, Gospel Formed is a very well-crafted book, especially for a first-time author. So if you choose to read it (and I do think it’s worth your time to do so), here’s what I’d recommend. Do not read it in a couple of sittings (as I did in preparing to review it). Read a chapter a day. Sit with it; steep in its message, with your Bible open. Soak in the good encouragements Medders offers and be reminded afresh that the good news is actually good. If you do that, I believe you’ll find this book a worthwhile addition to your library.


Title: Gospel Formed: Living a Grace-Addicted, Truth-Filled, Jesus-Exalting Life
Author: J.A. Medders
Publisher: Kregel (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Two devotionals you’ll actually want to use

I’ve got to be honest: devotionals are weird. Seriously. Typically, devotional books are filled with short little nuggets of encouragement that maybe warm your heart, but that’s about it. And that’s fine, but it’s also what I haven’t really enjoyed about a lot of the ones I’ve seen.

Too many try to make people feel good, but they don’t point people to Jesus.

But there are a few really good ones out there, believe it or not. Here’s a look at a couple newly released devotional books I’m enjoying right now:

new-morning-mercies-tripp

New Morning Mercies by Paul Tripp

Every book I’ve read of Paul Tripp’s has been worth my time, and New Morning Mercies is no different. What I love about reading Tripp is he’s direct. He knows what we need most, and what we wander from most frequently. He knows we constantly need to be reminded of the gospel.

And this is what you’re going to find in the daily readings of New Morning Mercies. For example:

Here’s what happens to us all—we seek horizontally for the personal rest that we are to find vertically, and it never works. Looking to others for your inners sense of well-being is pointless.… [It] never works.

The peace that success gives is unreliable as well. Since you are less than perfect, whatever success you are able to achieve will soon be followed by failure of some kind. Then there is the fact that the buzz of success is short-lived. It isn’t long before you’re searching for the next success to keep you going. That’s why the reality that Jesus has become your righteousness is so precious. His grace has forever freed us from needing to prove our righteousness and our worth. So we remind ourselves every day not to search horizontally for what we’ve already been given vertically. “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever” (Isa. 32:17). That righteousness is found in Christ alone. (January 11)

New Morning Mercies consistently reminds us that the gospel is the solution to the need we’re trying to meet through other means, the source of our hope and joy. There’s nothing else that matters, and nothing else that can encourage us or challenge us in the way it can.

(Buy it at: Westminster Bookstore | Amazon)

it-is-finished

It is Finished by Tullian Tchividjian (with Nick Lannon)

Tullian Tchividjian takes a different approach than a lot of modern preachers. He doesn’t really play it safe, certainly not in his books. What doesn’t he play it safe with? Grace. He offers readers a big picture of God’s grace—one that reminds us of our security in Christ. One that reminds us of God’s love for us, and just how jaw-dropping that love is. And this is what he offers in the daily readings of It is Finished: pictures of grace at work.

The Bible is God’s single story of great sinners in need of and being met by a great Savior. We set time apart fro God through prayer and Bible reading, for example, because it is in those places where God reminds us again and again that things between us are forever fixed. They are the rendezvous points where God declares to us concretely that the debt has been paid, the ledger put away, and that, in Christ, everything we need we already possess. This convincing assurance produces humility, because we realize that our needs are fulfilled. We don’t have to worry about ourselves anymore. This, in turn, allows us to stop looking for what we think we need and liberates us to love our neighbor by looking out for what they need. The vertical relationship is secure, freeing us to think about the horizontal ones—about others. What comes next is a peace we could not attain on our own. (January 10)

Because of his big picture of grace, some suggest he underemphasizes our works. But Tchividjian instead seeks to remind us of the source of our works—that they stem from grace. That they are works of grace. If our position with God is secure, we are free to serve in a way that pleases him, something that is impossible so long as we lack even a weak grasp of God’s lovingkindness.

(Buy it at: Amazon)

Are either of these perfect? Nope. They’re devotionals. Every reading is intended to be a done-in-one, so sometimes it’s going to feel incomplete, or err a bit on the side of pithiness (the latter has a bit more of this than the former). But when they hit the sweet spot, they really hit it, really encouraging in the right sort of way—by reminding me of the grace God gives through faith in Jesus Christ. And though it’s easy to forget, when we catch it afresh, it changes everything.

Distortion by Chelsen Vicari

distortion

If you don’t know who Chelsen Vicari is, you’re probably not alone.

You also risk missing out on someone very interesting.

I first learned of Vicari, the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s evangelical program director, because of an article: “Why evangelicalism is so misunderstood by Rachel Held Evans and the Christian Left.”

Clickbaity? Kinda. An interesting read? Definitely.

So when I learned of her book, Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith, I only had one question:

Is this going to be really great or made of crazy?

I blame the subtitle for this reaction—it’s an attention grabber, for sure. But because of it, it’s hard to imagine the book as being anything but one of these two extremes. And yet, that’s close what we find in Distortion: some really great insights mixed with a helping of… well, I’m not quite sure what to call it just yet.

Facing the crisis

Vicari writes as a millennial pleading with fellow millennial believers to not abandon the culture wars, and embrace their role as salt and light in the world—to hold fast to the truth, despite the cost that comes with it.

Much of what you’ll find in the book is familiar territory to those who’ve read existing literature about the crisis facing the American church in our day. But just because it’s familiar, doesn’t mean it’s not worth revisiting.

Many, whether seeking to reach their neighbors for Christ or simply to live somewhat comfortably, have given up the fight as the culture has progressively slid away from Christianity. But, as Vicari writes, “Waving the white flag of defeat in the culture wars is not an option for today’s evangelicals because to do so would be to give up on the next generation’s walk with Christ” (7).

This in itself is an important point: convictions matter. Truth matters. Whether it makes us uncomfortable or not, whether it’s convenient or not, if we want obey Jesus, we cannot compromise on the truth as found in God’s Word.

And yet, this is exactly what American Christians are being encouraged to do, as the nation moves toward fully recognizing same-sex marriage, its government funds abortion clinics, and attempts to socially or legally penalize business owners who opt to not to accept work that would violate their consciences. In other words, as America continues its slow march away from its traditionally held beliefs, Christian convictions are increasingly costly.1 And for many young Christians, the old fights are distasteful anyway.

But the strength Vicari consistently brings to many of the issues she addresses in Distortion is her willingness to point her finger at herself. She describes her own journey of having embraced an affirming viewpoint of homosexuality back toward the traditional view not with swagger, but with a sense of humility. It wasn’t peer pressure that drove her back, it was God’s Word.

But she’s also willing to ask her fellow conservatives to own their failings, as she does on this same issue when she writes,

Christians must not look upon the same-sex marriage debate with a “holier than thou” attitude. The truth is that churches stopped engaging and defending marriage and family long before same-sex marriage became front page news. (65)

The irony of Israel

There is, however, an irony in Distortion, and that is the decision to place support of the modern nation-state of Israel among the issues we must not compromise on. The irony here is in doing so, she’s majoring in a minor.

What I mean by that is not to disregard the promises God made to Abraham, promises to bless those who blessed him and curse those who cursed him, but to remind us of the reality that the trajectory of the New Testament is that national Israel is not explicitly identified as God’s people. For, as Paul wrote, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). Additionally, Old Testament figures are frequently referred to as being, essentially, Christians, such as Moses who “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26).

So we need to be careful here, don’t you think?

While she tends to disregard the replacement view—that the church has replaced national Israel in the plans and purposes of God—she fails to seriously interact with any pastor or theologian outside of John Hagee. And here, perhaps, is the greater irony: approvingly affirming the teaching of a man who has, at best, distorted the gospel—if not outright denied it—while warning of the distortions of the Christian Left.

A wiser approach to these matters would be to affirm what Scripture affirms as central to what is to come: that Jesus will return bodily, that he will remake this world, that he will dwell with us forever and ever, that sin and death will be no more, and that a countless multitude from every tribe, tongue and nation will worship him throughout eternity. In other words, in God’s kingdom, we focus less on nationalities and bloodlines and more on our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

America, heck yeah!

My final comment about Distortion is more something to be aware of, rather than to be warned against: this is a very “American” book. For those of us who live in nations such as Canada, England, or Australia, there are many elements that are going to fall flat. Why? Because we’re not really people who are terribly concerned with our freedom—at least, not in the same way that our American friends are.

After all, we live in far more socialist leaning contexts than most of you reading this. We are subjects of a monarch.2 Freedom in the American sense is a foreign concept to many of us. So for those of us on the outside, there’s a bit of a voyeuristic quality that comes with reading the book—there are elements that are totally relevant to us, but many others that we just can’t understand, but we can’t turn away from.

In the end, Distortion is a very interesting read, largely because its author is an interesting writer. She’s a nice blend of strongly opinionated and thoughtful—and with time, I can only see that working to her benefit. As for Distortion itself, despite its shortcomings, it has a great deal worth considering, as long as you’re willing to wade through a bit of muck to get there.


Title: Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith
Author: Chelsen Vicari
Publisher: Front Line

Prayer by Timothy Keller

9780525954149

There’s no shortage of good books on prayer. Martin Luther’s Simple Way to Pray, Answers to Prayer by George Müller, CH Spurgeon’s The Pastor in Prayer, A Call to Pray by J.C. Ryle… These are some of the finest books on prayer I’ve read, and Christians would be doing themselves a disservice in not reading them.

While there are many wonderful classic books on prayer, I’ve noticed a severe lack of good modern books on the subject. Most modern books tend to fall into a couple of categories: wicked and stupid. The wicked ones accuse people who pray things like “if it’s Your will” of being cowards who are afraid to pray boldly. The stupid ones encourage us to pray like pagans.

And then Tim Keller went and wrote a book on prayer. Keller, “wicked,” and “stupid,” are words that do not belong together. And he only further proves this in Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

Theology before practice

Keller offers us something different with Prayer—he doesn’t jump straight into the mechanics, but instead begins by helping readers understand prayer. He puts developing a right theology of prayer ahead of principles for its practice. This is important because most of us (likely) don’t have an articulated theology of prayer that goes beyond “I pray because I’m supposed to.”

While that’s true, there’s significantly more to it than that. Prayer, Keller explains, is both an instinct and a spiritual gift. “As an instinct, prayer is a response to our innate but fragmentary knowledge of God… As a gift of the Spirit, however, prayer becomes the continuation of a conversation God has started” (50). So, on an instinctual level, the “I’m supposed to” is correct—we just don’t understand why. This instinct is why prayer is a nearly universal phenomenon; regardless of their specific beliefs, nearly all humans have a concept of prayer, though the forms and purposes differ drastically.

But in describing prayer as a gift of the Spirit, Keller wants us to understand that prayer is both a conversation and encounter with God. It’s not “plunging into the abyss of unknowing and a state of wordless unconsciousness,” but something tethered to God’s Word, the place from which we learn of and hear from God. Thus, “if the goal of prayer is a real, personal connection with God, then it is only by immersion in the language of the Bible that we will learn to pray, perhaps as slowly as a child learns to speak” (55).

Keller’s continual emphasis on keeping prayer connected to the Bible is important, and something sorely lacking today. What he doesn’t advocate for is a type of rote “just pray what the Bible says,” but to pray through the Scriptures as Luther encourages in his teaching on the subject. To let the Word guide and shape our prayers.

Leaning on the wisdom of the past

Perhaps what I enjoy most about Prayer—beyond the simple, practical principles provided—is the fact that Keller doesn’t attempt to be original (which is what gets us all into so much trouble). Instead, he leans heavily on the wisdom of those who have gone before us—Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Owen, Edwards, Torrey, and, more recently, Lewis, Clowney, and Packer (with a dash of the Westminster Catechism thrown in for good measure).

Could one ask for better influences?

This is where the book’s strong emphasis on being tethered to the Word in prayer comes from. Augustine, the Reformers, the Puritans, and faithful modern saints understood this better than many of us do today. We tend to give a verbal hat tip, whereas they see the Scriptures as vitally important to our prayer life. Luther advocates for a spiritual riffing off of the Word in prayer—taking the words of, say, the Lord’s Prayer and making them our own. Calvin encourages us to hold a joyful fear of God in prayer; to always be reverential in our stance toward Him and pursue humility as we pray. And Clowney likewise suggests “prayer involves an honesty that has no real parallel in human relationships” (135)

We repeatedly come to this conclusion throughout the book: if prayer is both an instinct and a gift, we need to pray in light of what God has said about Himself—and about us.

Awe, intimacy, and struggle

All that being said, prayer is not “easy.” There are seasons when I have a very strong and healthy prayer life, but often it feels perfunctory and powerless. Often my own sinfulness, stubbornness, and even some insecurity are the cause. When the weight of the world feels as though its pressing down, it’s difficult to even know where to begin. When prayer feels forced and feeble, it’s hard to muster up the power to continually pursue it.

And yet, this is what God desires of us. He wants us to embrace the struggle. because “prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle—yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering. There is absolutely nothing so great as prayer” (32).

As I read this book, I continually found myself surprised by how much I needed to underline; it’s rare to find a page in my copy where I don’t have a note, squiggle or marking of some sort because I was confronted or challenged by what I’d just read. And yet, I did not walk away from the book disheartened.

Keller’s message, far from the pray more harder of so many of the “wicked” and “stupid” books available today, challenges us, but reminds us of the grace of God. This is what I believe those struggle in their prayer life desperately need. They don’t need another book to beat them up. They need encouragement and guidance. This is what Prayer offers. It is rich in its theology, winsome in its approach and wise in its application. There may be few good modern books on prayer, but Prayer is one of them—and among the finest I’ve read of any era.


Title: Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Dutton (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Bookstore | Amazon

A brief look at the Martyn Lloyd-Jones Collection (5 volumes)

There are only a few preachers who I hold in very high esteem. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is one of them. His book, Preaching and Preachers, is essential reading for any prospective preacher (even if you disagree with some of it), but this is not his most essential work. Lloyd-Jones was first and foremost a gospel preacher.

During his 25 years as a minister at Westminster Chapel in London, he preached the gospel through the books of Genesis, Ephesians, Romans, Acts, and John, as well as more topically driven messages such as those that became the book Spiritual Depression. All this to say, when I was able to add the five-volume D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones collection to my Logos library, I was delighted.

In this set, compiling several titles originally published by Crossway, readers are treated to Lloyd-Jones’ teaching on the nature of revival, the Trinity, the Church, the last things and what it means to seek God.

crossway-d-martyn-lloyd-jones-collection

Included in the series are:

Although there is much that could be said about every volume in the collection, I’ll limit myself to a few key points:

1. The set features one of the best books on revival you’ll ever read. Seriously. There’s a lot of junk out there on this subject, and not nearly enough that reminds us of the truth:

Is it not clear… that if the Lord Jesus Christ is not crucial, central, vital, and occupying the very centre of our meditation and our living, our thinking, and our Praying, that we really have no right to look for revival? And yet… [if] you go and talk to many people, even in the Church, about religion, you will find that they will talk to you at great length, without ever mentioning the Lord Jesus Christ. (Revival, 46)

When we talk about revival today, we’re often talking about revivalism and pressing men and women for “decisions,” rather than making Christ known. Or when Christians begin praying for revival, they may mean something closer to wanting more of the Holy Spirit’s power at work in their lives. Yet, revival doesn’t start with a desire for more spiritual power—it starts (and ends) with a desire to make Christ known and to know Him better.

Can you imagine what would happen if we really believed that? My goodness…

2. Lloyd-Jones is ruthless (in the right kind of way). Lloyd-Jones clearly had no time for dilly-dallying about the truth and ambiguity. He astutely observed—during the rise of the postmodern milieu in which we are dealing with the fallout of no less!—that we’re not trying to win people to theoretical notions or to nice feelings. We seek to convince men and women of reality:

People are not interested in something theoretical. The thing that always convinces people is reality. If they see there is something about our lives, a certain quality, a certain calmness and equanimity, the ability to be more than conquerors in every kind of circumstance, if they see that when everything is against us, we still triumphantly prevail whereas they do not, they will become interested in what we have. They will want to know more about it. I am convinced, therefore, that the greatest need today is Christian people who know and manifest the fact that they know the living God, to whom His “loving-kindness is better than life.” In other words, nothing is more important than an assurance of salvation. (Seeking the Face of God, 122)

3. Logos integration makes life easier. As a writer, I love having these titles in my Logos library in part because it makes research so much easier. I frequently preach from the Psalms, but they’re tricky. It’s really easy to get something wrong or to overlook something significant because we “think” we know what’s being said. Lloyd-Jones’ messages on selected psalms (Seeking the Face of God) offer an opportunity to learn from how he’s handled the text—and who wouldn’t want to learn from him?

This collection, along with anything else you can get your hands on, are an absolute must for any Logos user and student of God’s Word. The truth communicated is rich, and the application is eminently practical. If ever there were “must” for your library, this collection is it.

Rising Above a Toxic Workplace

3D_RisingAbove_NoLBT-400

I have a hard time imagining what it’s like to work in a “healthy” workplace. I mean, I know they exist. I even have friends who work in places they absolutely love. But I’ve worked in more unhealthy ones than not. And some have been downright toxic. Like, hearing the owner of a company I worked for curse a blue streak at my supervisor repeatedly. (Did I mention they lived together, too? Yeah, I worked in a soap opera.)

If Rising Above a Toxic Workplace is any indication, it seems as though my experience isn’t as out of the ordinary as I thought. In fact, according to Gallup, “seven of ten US workers are either ‘going through the motions’ or flat-out hate their jobs” (11). Thousands of people dread going to work every morning, wondering if they can survive another day, or if today will be the day they say “when” and resign. It’s to these people that authors Gary Chapman, Paul White and Harold Myra primarily write this book, providing insight, encouragement and practical strategies for survival. What they’ll find are numerous stories of men and women just like them who have faced the choice of how to cope—and when to quit.

Toxic bosses aren’t necessarily evil—they’re just over their heads

What these stories (which comprise the vast majority of the book) help us see are the choices before us. Consider Melanie’s story of a coworker who was a victim of the Peter Principle—a cheeky description of one who “keeps getting promoted till they reach the level of their incompetence. Often they are promoted into positions of power without the skills to exercise [it]” (29).

Melanie’s colleague, Brenda, was one of these. When she was promoted, Brenda became ornery and “even nasty… She was losing our respect,” Melanie said (29). She would pick a staff member and harass her, and this continued until Melanie finally had enough and told her “I love my job here, and I like you as a person, but I can’t respect you as a boss. I’m no longer going to sacrifice my life here” (30). And so she quit.

But what’s especially helpful in Melanie’s story is the question that arises from it: although Melanie’s husband suggested that Brenda had an evil streak, it might have been just as likely that she simply had no clue how to do her job. When people are overwhelmed, they perform out of their weaknesses, rather than their strengths. Thus, when a person with limited or no leadership skills is elevated to a management position, he or she is doomed to fail. This doesn’t excuse the behavior, by any means, but it should help us consider our responses to these people.

I once knew a man who was Peter Principled; he was a nice guy, fairly decent at the job he had, but he wasn’t someone I would ever have considered a leader. He just wasn’t wired that way. Yet, he wound up in a position he was completely ill-suited for. I knew the moment I heard about it he wouldn’t last. And he didn’t—the job crushed him.

Why do I share that, and why do I find Melanie’s story so helpful? Because it’s a reminder that we should have sympathy even for bad bosses. Very often they’re not bad people; they’ve just over their heads.

We also need to remember that churches and non-profits are just as susceptible as any other organization to becoming toxic. “Appeals to ‘the cause’ create pressures to conform to unhealthy codes. Poisons in ministry culture range from subtle fumes that slowly sicken to flames that scorch. Some workers suffer quietly for years while other get fired” (54). (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

Learning from toxic bosses and cultures

As depressing as reading so many stories of toxic environments can be, we can also learn much from their example.

First, as the authors point out in a survival strategy: toxic work environments naturally make people frustrated and angry. And if we’re not careful, we can become bitter. And bitterness will only make us toxic, too. We need to “find ways to nurture [our] inner reserves and gain perspective. Develop toughness, but resist embittered resentments” (35). We can’t “let bad leadership start to sour [ours].”

Second is to consider what’s right. When the opportunity for a promotion comes our way (if it happens), we need to consider:

  • Am I actually the right person for the job?
  • Has God wired me for this sort of work?
  • Do I have the necessary character and gifts?

Just because an opportunity comes our way, it doesn’t mean we need to say yes. For the good of our colleagues, organizations, families and selves, sometimes the best thing we can do is say “no.”

Finally, we need to remember that our workplace—whether we work in a church, charity, or multinational conglomerate—are all susceptible to having toxic cultures, and we are all responsible for how we contribute. Through our actions, we will either spread the toxicity, or we can can be a voice for health.

Being part of healthy change is probably the hardest. In fact, it’s much easier to continue on in patterns that tear down, rather than build up. And in some organizations, the healthiest thing we can do is leave. I know many people who have done this. But sometimes the hardest thing—staying and fighting for change, either until it happens or they get sick of you and you get fired—is the right thing to do. It’s risky, but sometimes the risk is right.

Helpful tools for gaining insight and developing a plan for change

Rising Above a Toxic Workplace is one of the business culture books you see all-too-rarely: one that actually talks about the problems in a workplace as though they’re problems by speaking to the people most affected by them. Whether your organization is healthy or toxic, and whether you are a leader or a staff member, this book will offer you many useful tools to help you see where you and your culture are at and develop a plan for change.


Title: Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment
Authors: Gary Chapman, Paul White, and Harold Myra
Publisher: Northfield Publishing/Moody Publishers (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Beat God to the Punch

beat-god-to-the-punch

I’ve got to hand it to Eric Mason: Beat God to the Punch may be the most provocative title I’ve seen in ages. In fact, that’s is what made me take notice when I first learned of it, and when it eventually arrived in my mailbox. When I cracked the tiny book open, I immediately saw how well suited it was.

According to its author, this is a book about God’s wrath and coming judgment; or more accurately, the grace God offers to rescue us from it. Thus, playing off Paul’s joyful declaration that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11), Mason writes Beat God to the Punch with a revivalist zeal, inviting men and women “to bow now, by choice” (1)—to submit themselves to the Lord and experience His grace.

The struggle of discipleship and contagiousness of grace

Chapters one to three, and chapter five, present a picture of what following Jesus means while striving to wow readers with grace. Using imagery from both first century Jewish practices, as well as drawing an analogy from hip-hop culture, Mason reminds readers that the struggle of discipleship is this: “Over and over again, in our lives, our humanity will collide with His divinity. At the end of the day, a disciple must be transformed into wanting what the Lord wants for them” (24-25).

Our desires are always going to come into conflict with what the Lord has clearly laid out in His Word. We are all called to sacrifice all for His sake and follow Him. Essentially this means questions about our rights or what we think we want or deserve go out the window the moment we become Christians. We are to follow His example, be imitators of Him in order that we might grow to become like Him.

And here’s where grace comes in: we are graciously called to this life despite not being able to follow Jesus like this on our own. Mason reminds us that Jesus actually broke the pattern of the rabbi-student relationship, where students would ask to follow the teacher. Instead, Jesus, our great Teacher, comes to us and says, “Follow me.” Not because God believes in us in particular, or because Jesus sees a glimmer of something in us—which is where Mason’s argument surprisingly falls apart on page 17, when he describes Jesus’ disciples as  knowing that “their rabbi believed in them. And… they realized that God believed in them too.”

(Suddenly, I feel like I’m watching a video of a kid shovelling a driveway.)

Despite this flub, Mason comes back around to God’s choosing us a little later in the book, giving us a much more rousing (and accurate) assessment, writing, “God picks, by grace—according to His nature, His lovingkindness, withholding His wrath—to blow the minds of men, to create potential where there is none, in order for all of the glory to go to Him” (44).

This should excite us, shouldn’t it? If a professing Christian isn’t moved by the thought that God—through no efforts, actions or intentions of your own—chose to save you and call you His own and promises to keep you as His own, so that He might be glorified, there’s something dreadfully wrong. This is not something we should look at lightly.

We should be on our knees with a sense of wonder over this amazing grace. But what does it say about us if it doesn’t?

The historical interlude that doesn’t quite fit

While the first three chapters flow naturally into the fifth, chapter four serves as a historical interlude. Here, Mason briefly surveys church history to gain a sense of perspective on how the Church has viewed grace through the ages. There’s some interesting stuff here, particularly as he gives readers a sense of the loss and rediscovery of grace and the battles to protect its centrality to the faith in the lives and ministries of the likes of Augustine and the Reformers.

Now, I’ve increasingly become a bit of a church history nerd, so I really dig stuff like this. I love seeing how different Christians have communicated grace through the years. It helps to give a more robust understanding of it both doctrinally and practically. But even so, the chapter doesn’t move the “story” of the book forward.While there are elements I enjoy about this chapter, it might have been better served as the book’s appendix.

And then there’s the inclusion of Charles Finney as “sufficiently orthodox” in his belief in God’s grace in salvation, and that “many differ on the semantics of his claim” (75). Hardly a glowing endorsement, but I’ll be honest, it threw me for a loop. To call Finney’s view of grace an orthodox example, despite his view of the atonement being anything but… I can’t quite wrap my mind around that.1 While I realize it’s a one-page reference, and therefore not a large portion of the book, were it me writing or editing Beat God to the Punch, I would have removed it in a heartbeat. It’s inclusion only hurts the author’s credibility.

No knock-out punch thrown

Which brings me to the end of my thoughts on this book: I wanted to like Beat God to the Punch more than I actually did. It’s not a bad book by any means. It’s got some really great elements, but it’s also kind of sloppy, and thus fails to throw the knock-out punch Mason hopes to. Would I say to anyone, “Don’t read this book?” Nope. But it wouldn’t be the first book I’d recommend.


Title: Beat God to the Punch: Because Jesus Demands Your Life
Author: Eric Mason
Publisher: B&H Publishing

Buy it at: Amazon

You and Me Forever

you-and-me-forever

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

9781629950877

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