Evangelism by Mack Stiles

Evangelism by J Mack Stiles

Our church has always been very clear on stressing the need for evangelism. Whenever our local missions pastor preaches, it almost always turns into a sermon on evangelism (especially when he’s trying not to). We have a local missions team that goes out every week to open-air preach and interact with individuals on the streets of our city, sharing the gospel at every opportunity.

But then, about a year ago, we did something really bold: we took all of our small groups through a personal evangelism workshop. And the response?

*crickets•

I was a small group leader at the time, taking my group through the course. It was really challenging material, but presented in a way that took a lot of the fear out of evangelism. But despite its initial “failure,” the impetus behind offering this training is a good one—a desire to create a healthy culture of evangelism, one where it’s seen as a normal part of the Christian life.

I have a hunch Mack Stiles would stand up and cheer if he knew this was something our church attempted (and continues to nurture). Why? Because that’s exactly what his latest book, Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus, is all about.

Evangelism: it’s not about the results

If there’s one thing Stiles wants you to understand, it’s this: evangelism is not about programs or events. It’s not a technique or a specific kind of response. Many of our problems creating a healthy culture of evangelism stem from a lack of a biblical foundation. We count declarations of faith, hands raised, cards put in a bag, people walking down aisles… but do these things really mean anything? Maybe, but maybe not.

Regardless, if we’re going to see a culture of evangelism take root, “we must be very careful to conform our evangelistic practices to the Bible, because this honors God,” he writes (24).

And so, he begins by defining his terms—specifically, what evangelism means.

“Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade,” Stiles writes. “This definition, small as it is, offers a far better balance in which to weigh our evangelistic practice than looking at how many people have responded to an appeal” (26-27).

…the definition does not require an immediate outward response. Walking an aisle, raising a hand, or even praying a prayer may tell us that evangelism has happened, but such actions are not what evangelism is.

Those four elements in Stiles’ definition are key: teach, gospel, aim, persuade. Without those, you don’t really have evangelism. Our goal in evangelism is to communicate the gospel with the purpose of persuading our hearers that it is true. That doesn’t mean browbeating or extorting a profession of faith out of them. It just means speaking with conviction about the truth of the gospel.

This, I think, is one of the places we all get tripped up. We tend to speak almost apologetically about the gospel, or we wring our hands, break out into a sweat, and worry about saying the wrong thing. But this is also where it’s helpful to remember something crucial: “conversion is required, but conversion is a function of genuine faith, which is given by the Spirit” (37). In other words, you’re not responsible for the result. You’re only called to be faithful and speak.

What a culture of evangelism looks like

So what does a healthy culture of evangelism look like? Stiles is pretty honest that it’s impossible to instruct people on everything that goes into it, but he can describe the yearnings that surround it. He breaks these down into 11 points:

  1. A culture motivated by love for Jesus and His gospel
  2. A culture that is confident in the gospel
  3. A culture that understands the danger of entertainment
  4. A culture that sees people clearly
  5. A culture that pulls together as one
  6. A culture in which people teach one another
  7. A culture that models evangelism
  8. A culture in which people who are sharing their faith are celebrated
  9. A culture that knows how to affirm and celebrate new life
  10. A culture doing ministry that feels risky and is dangerous
  11. A culture that understands that the church is the chosen and best method of evangelism

There’s so much that could be said about each of these, but notice how they all work together. You can’t have a culture of evangelism without any of these points. If the people attending week in and week out aren’t passionate about sharing their faith, then no amount of encouragement from the pulpit is going to change that. It’s something that builds from within the body, and something that needs to be celebrated.

Simple, but not.

Create and cultivate the culture you want to see

Creating a culture of evangelism isn’t a one-and-done thing. You can’t preach a series on evangelism or offer an occasional course, pat yourself on the back and say, “nailed it.” You have to be intentional about creating and cultivating the culture you want to see, but there’s only so much control any church leader really has.

Why? Because “a culture of evangelism is grassroots, not top-down.”

In a culture of evangelism, people understand that the main task of the church is to be the church.… The church should cultivate a culture of evangelism. The members are sent out from the church to do evangelism. (65-66)

Do you feel the tension there? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of trying to force the change from the top or programmatize evangelism. But it doesn’t work that way. A church only becomes more evangelistic as its members become more evangelistic. And this is big, scary stuff. Church leaders can and should model it, but the members have to own it.

Thankfully, it’s a vision that I believe every faithful Christian can own. We should want this for our churches. We should want to be the kind of people who take risks in order to share the gospel with others, who understand that entertainment doesn’t equal ministry, that God truly rejoices when one lost sheep is found. This is the vision Mack Stiles presents in Evangelism. It’s what I want to see in my own life and in the lives of all the members of my church. How about you?


Title: Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus
Author: J. Mack Stiles
Publisher: Crossway (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

Raised? by Jonathan Dodson and Brad Watson

raised-3d

Oftentimes Christians are accused of being too confident in their beliefs, or using “faith” as a way to shut down questions or concerns from those exploring Christianity.

There’s no room for questioning. No room doubt.

Jonathan Dodson and Brad Watson get this. They don’t want to scare off doubters or make people shy away from questions. But they do want them to be willing to do something with their doubts—find answers. Enter: Raised?: Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection.

In its four easy-to-digest chapters, Dodson and Watson offer readers an engaging look at what it means for Jesus to have been raised from the dead and why it matters, beginning by challenging the foundation of modern day skepticism.

Possibility before plausibility

For many who doubt the resurrection of Jesus, the authors argue, the problem begins with their foundation: do we have a category for the supernatural? By and large, we in the West have discounted such things as impossible. So when we hear stories of miraculous events, we automatically assume there has to be a natural explanation for them. The flood account in Genesis, the parting of the Red Sea, the virgin birth… you name it, there’s a naturalistic alternative.

But those who are truly looking for answers need to ask, “Is this position truly open-minded?”

It certainly seems biased and closed off to possibilities we may not have personally experienced. Shouldn’t we at least be open to the possibility of Jesus rising from the dead? In fact, many are willing to believe in the supernatural teachings of Buddha, Vishnu, and Eckhart Tolle, but what about Jesus? If we are to consider fairly the plausibility of the resurrection—whether it happened or not we must begin with its possibility. (19)

This is so important for those investigating the Christian faith to understand—if you’ve already discounted the miraculous, you’re going to be profoundly disappointed with Christianity, because it hinges on a miracle.

 

At the risk of belaboring the point (which itself is the foundation of the first chapter of Raised?, not the entirety of the book), we need to have to get this straight: If Jesus was not raised from the dead, Christians are to be pitied above all others because we’ve put our hope in something untrue (1 Cor. 15:19). And worse, if what we’ve put our hope in is a lie or a delusion, then we’re doing terrible evil to others by encouraging them to believe it, too.

But if we’re right, and the resurrection is true, it changes everything.

What the resurrection really means

The remaining three chapters of the book offer a look into the implications of the resurrection and how we move from doubt to belief:

  • Chapter two is an overview of the big story of the Bible using the “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation” paradigm (which is essential in a book geared toward non-Christians).
  • Chapter three examines what faith really is.
  • Chapter four looks at what happens when we trust in Jesus.

Each of these chapters is filled with solid, helpful material. Probably my favorite element of the three comes from the third chapter, where the authors press in a bit more on the nature of doubt. Doubt, they argue, isn’t the lack of belief—it’s just the belief in something else:

In his observations of pluralistic societies, Lesslie Newbigin noted that “doubt is not an autonomous activity.” What he means is that doubt is not self-sufficient—it cannot exist on its own. Doubt does not live in a vacuum. It is propped up by faith in something else. To doubt one thing is to have faith in another.… if you put your faith in one company or spouse, you are—at the same time—expressing doubt in other companies or potential spouses. You are doubtful they are the best possible fit, uncertain they are the one for you. Meanwhile, you have faith in the other company or spouse. To put it another way, if you doubt one thing, it’s because you believe in another. (61-62)

Can you tell discussion of doubt made an impression on me? The reason for that is simple: this discussion really is the strongest element of Raised.

There are a lot of excellent books dealing with the evidence side of the argument, but few address the epistemological side of it. How we know something and what we can know to be true is critical for us to deal with when faced with a generation that’s uncertain of what can be known at all. But Raised? offers a thoughtful and welcome apologetic for a newer generation of doubters. If you’re looking for a helpful outreach resource for your church or a book to give to an unbelieving neighbor, you’d do well with this one.


Title: Raised?: Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection
Authors: Jonathan Dodson and Brad Watson
Publisher: Zondervan (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung

deyoung-taking-God-at-his-word

The Bible is the most important—and most controversial—books ever written. Its message of world destroyed by human sinfulness and redeemed only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is an affront to our modern sensibilities.

So it’s no wonder this book is constantly under attack, is it? For centuries, skeptics of all stripes have done their level best to debunk the Bible’s reliability. And Christian scholars in kind have written many wonderful treatises expressing why the Bible can be trusted.

The problem is, most of those treatises aren’t written to the people who need them: average people coming to church on Sunday morning. For the average Christian, there aren’t a lot of good, engaging books on the reliability of Scripture. So, Kevin DeYoung decided to write one.

His latest, Taking God At His Word, offers readers an easily digestible look at what the Scriptures say about themselves and why we, as Christians, can and should trust them—and more than that, why we should love the Bible.

Why do we need to love the Bible?

Taking God At His Word begins with its conclusion: God’s people are not to simply assent to God’s Word, they are to love it. Our approach to the Bible is not to be one of dreary subservience, but of delighted submission, something illustrated in Psalm 119’s exuberant language. And this is DeYoung’s entire purpose in writing the book.

I want all that is in Psalm 119 to be an expression of all that is in our heads and in our hearts.… I want to convince you (and make sure I’m convinced myself) that the Bible makes no mistakes, can be understood, cannot be overturned, and is the most important word in your life, the most relevant thing you can read each day. Only when we are convinced of all this can we give a full-throated “Yes! Yes! Yes!” every time we read the Bible’s longest chapter. (16)

Note how careful DeYoung is to ground this delight: we’re not to come to the Bible with a subjective emotionalism; our feelings don’t guide how we are to view the Bible. Instead, because the Bible is true, clear, essential and authoritative we can feel an immense amount of joy and gladness!

But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? After all, many of us don’t live there, or if we do, it’s not all the time. But getting there is possible—not easy, but possible. It means we have to understand what the Bible says about itself.

What does the Bible say about itself?

DeYoung’s knack for taking complex ideas and making them accessible is on full display as he unpacks what the Bible says about itself. In doing so, he outlines four essential truths about Scripture:

  1. God’s Word is enough. The Bible is sufficient for all our needs and to grow us into maturity as believers.
  2. God’s Word is clear. The Bible’s message can be accurately (if not completely) understood by ordinary people using ordinary means.
  3. God’s Word is final. The Bible is our ultimate authority over all matters, and we are to sit under its rule.
  4. God’s Word is necessary. We need the Bible in order to know God and to know the way of salvation.

Entire books can easily be written on each of these four subjects (and have), but DeYoung gives readers just enough to be grounded and certain in how the Scriptures speak to each of these truths. Of them all, the one we see near constant attack on is the Bible’s authority—and often this challenge is made by undermining its clarity.

Take homosexuality and same-sex marriage as an example. A number of well meaning professing believers want to believe homosexual practice is not in conflict with the Christian faith, and that this is not an issue clearly spoken of in Scripture. A few of the common arguments:

  • Maybe Paul wasn’t referring to monogamous homosexual relationships in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6; maybe he was only speaking of nonconsensual acts.
  • Jesus didn’t really speak on the issue, so how can we know what Jesus would say?
  • Perhaps there is a trajectory that is set in motion through the gospel that would mean that even though Paul said it wasn’t acceptable, it is now.

Notice the common traits: each argument attempts to obscure the clarity of Scripture, either by questioning the author’s clear intent or arguing from silence. And as soon as we lose the clarity of Scripture, we lose its authority. It’s the old serpent’s trick once again: “Did God really say…?”

God’s word is final. God’s word is understandable. God’s word is necessary. God’s word is enough. In every age, Christians will do battle wherever these attributes of Scripture are threatened and assaulted. But more importantly, on every day we will have to fight the fight of faith to really believe everything we know the Bible says about itself and, even more challenging, to live accordingly. (93)

Can we take God at His Word?

Getting to the place of delight DeYoung advocates for is hard, but it’s necessary. We will continually be challenged from without and within on whether or not this book we claim is the Word of God is what it says it is. But we have good reason for confidence—not from external evidence (although we do), but from the Bible itself. Taking God At His Word does a wonderful job of reminding readers that this book is what it says it is: the knowable, necessary, authoritative and sufficient Word of God—the only place where we may learn of the One who has come to rescue us from our sin, and of the hope He offers for tomorrow.

Friends, if this is really true, how can you not delight in it?

Taking God At His Word is one of the few books I want to hand out to everyone I know. It really is that helpful. Its punchy and powerful message is exactly what so many new and mature believers need, and I trust it will be a great benefit to all who read it.


Title: Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me
Author: Kevin DeYoung
Publisher: Crossway (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

The Social Church by Justin Wise

The Social Church by Justin Wise

The first time I heard Justin Wise speak on social media I was impressed.

It was the first session—actually the pre-conference workshop—at a conference for Christian creatives in Canada. Wise was speaking on how churches need to embrace their websites as their new front-door. And as he laid everything out, with tons of practical examples, I had two reactions:

  1. People really need to listen to this guy
  2. This is going to be really hard for some folks to swallow

Many of the people occupying the leadership roles in churches, non-profits, and for-profit entities are digital immigrants. They remember a time without Wi-Fi, Netflix, and Facebook. Many of them use social media, but struggle to understand how to do it. Others don’t bother with it at all, seeing it as a distraction, a fad, or a time-suck that gets in the way of getting real work/ministry done.

But, Wise argues, digital communication is not a good thing for a church to engage in—it’s necessary if they’re actually serious about reaching people with the gospel. And that’s really the heart behind his book, The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication, where Wise unpacks the “why” of social media, with a bit of how sprinkled in along the way.

Mission and ministry in social media

If you could boil the why down to one thing, it’s really this: Churches need to be engaging social media—blogs, Facebook, Twitter, whatever the next thing is that’s going to take the world by storm—not because it’s hip and trendy, but because it’s about mission and ministry. Where people are, Christians must be as well. But the difference, and maybe the most challenging aspect of it, is that mission and ministry in social media requires two-way communication.

“For many, many years, churches communicated in the same fashion you and I drive down a one-way street: traffic only moved one way,” Wise explains. “Churches broadcasted a message and never anticipated a moment where the congregation would start speaking back.”

But social media has changed this dynamic.…For the church, and virtually every other sector of society, the shift to social permanently turned the tables in the public’s favor. Social media gave people a voice, and they’re not going to give it up easily. (30)

This is the challenge many of us have when engaging social media. Because the expectation is two-way communication, you actually have to engage people. You have to talk to them when they talk back and share content that’s not all about you. And this is also where so many organizations—including some of the world’s biggest brands—fall on their faces. So if you’ve just realized that you’re doing the digital equivalent of shouting into an empty room, take heart: you’re not alone and you can change this.

But in order to do it, you have to know the values of a social media culture, what it likes and dislikes. What it thinks, how it feels… This is, essentially, the “nasty” business of contextualization, becoming all things to all people so that some might be saved. And even as we seek to understand—or humbly admit we can’t make the leap ourselves and bring in people to help us—we find more opportunities to push back.

Challenging a mediated world

Even as “online” and “offline” become increasingly blurred, we’re going to find ourselves having to confront the tendency to hide in the digital realm with more force. Humans were not meant to hide behind screens and smartphones (and yes, I understand the irony of me even saying this in a digital medium). Real relationships can form and be nurtured online, but the best kinds of relationships form in the real life.

I suppose the inherent danger of online communities is when there is a mistaken belief they can serve as a one-for-one replacement for in-person communities. They can’t (and shouldn’t). Offline trumps online.

Having said that, online community is definitely preferable to no community whatsoever. Lives have been changed, saved, and redeemed all because gospel-centered online communities exist. (155)

You can see the tension here, can’t you? I think Wise is certainly correct that “digital community is better than no community” to some degree, but the fact that this also points us to a legitimate issue in our context: that even as we develop a sound theology of digital communication, we must develop a robust eccesiology to compliment it. This is the difficulty many of us have with idea of online services—while streaming the service can certainly beneficial, how do we challenge people to engage in reality?

Years ago, I was part of an active hobby-focused online community. People would talk about the primary subject (comics), but would also delve into all kinds of other topics, including sharing deeply personal details about their lives (not in a TMI kind of way. Usually). Folks would meet at conventions for drinks. Users who lived in the same cities would get together every once in a while for a meal if the suggestion was tabled… But in the end, when someone stopped visiting the site, it was like they never existed. In an instant, those relationships were severed. The connections weren’t really all that deep.

This is the challenge we face when we deal with the implications of online ministry. How do we build real connections that aren’t easy to sever? This is something Wise doesn’t thoroughly address in the book because, honestly, I don’t know if he or anyone else is equipped to put forward an answer. But make no mistake: if we’re serious about being gospel-minded, gospel-centered people who want to engage the digital realm for mission and ministry, this elephant in the room must be named and addressed.

The beginning of a much deeper conversation

The Social Church is not the last word on social media and the church, nor should it be. Instead, it’s best to see this book as the continuation (or possibly the beginning) of of a conversation we’re not quite ready for: a much deeper discussion on how to do ministry in a simultaneously bigger and smaller world. But whether or not we’re truly ready, it’s a conversation we need to have.


Title: The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication
Author: Justin Wise
Publisher: Moody Publishers (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

The Adam Quest by Tim Stafford

the-adam-quest

Some time ago, an excellent article appeared online reminding us that “pixels are people.” Behind every podcast, blog, and book we consume, there is a living, breathing human being made in the image and likeness of God.

Including those with whom we disagree.

Perhaps nowhere is this point easier to forget than in the origins debate. For some, this is a clear dividing line—if you subscribe to evolution in any form, you’re selling out the gospel. Others would rather stick their fingers in their ears and run away than engage the conversation. The debate gets too heated too quickly, and, when we’re not careful, people get burned.

This is what happened to Tim Stafford’s son, Silas. “Silas got burned by the fight over Genesis,” he writes in his latest book, The Adam Quest. Silas loved geology and chose to major in it in college, but his love for this scientific field began to cause friction with friends who insisted the earth is young.

If Silas wanted to be a serious Christian, he had to get out of geology. Whatever geologists believed about the age of the earth was completely wrong. . . . They could not let the subject alone. I imagine that they felt they were courageous Christians, speaking up for scriptural truth and refusing to let a friend go down the path of ungodliness. In practice, though, they drove Silas away from faith. (2)

Silas is by no means alone; many—on both side of the debate—have felt alienated from Christian fellowship over this matter. Their love of science and their faith seem at odds, and they’re unsure how to reconcile the two. But Stafford, senior writer for Christianity Today, wants to show them that science and sincere faith aren’t diametrically opposed. And he does so by humanizing the debate—introducing readers to 11 scientists, each of whom professes faith in Christ, and each of whom holds differing views on origins.

Novel approach

This approach—which is the most compelling reason to read The Adam Quest—will surely frustrate many of its readers, even as it elates others. As long as a position remains an abstract concept, it’s easy to ignore the “human” factor. That is, we can quickly forget that our rhetoric in debating various views really does affect people. Like Silas’s friends, we don’t notice the effect of our words. We’re too busy trying to win an argument to realize we’re losing the person.

But humanizing doesn’t just remind us of the people affected; it rounds out the perspectives on each view. Although Kurt Wise, Todd Wood, and Georgia Purdom espouse young earth creationism, by reading each’s story you begin to see their nuances to the position. You realize it’s built on something more than a literalistic approach to Scripture. These are not foolish, naïve men and women. They are extremely thoughtful, winsome, intelligent, and most importantly, humble. Nowhere does this characteristic shine more clearly than in Stafford’s profile of Wood: [Read more...]

The Storytelling God by Jared C. Wilson

The Storytelling God by Jared C. Wilson

Those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s still remember the intensity of Zack’s confronting Jessie about her popping caffeine pills,1 or the time he got drunk at a party and totalled his dad’s car. The “very special episode” of our favorite sitcoms always served to drive home a moral lesson that would have made most later Star Trek writers cringe.

Strangely, this is what we seem to do with the parables of Jesus:

  • We look at the parable of the good Samaritan and we see a moral impetus to love our neighbors…
  • We read the parable of the foolish builder and are told to always be sure to “count the cost” of our choices…
  • We hear the parable of the wise and foolish stewards and are reminded to use our gifts wisely…

…but if this is all we’re getting out of Jesus’ parables, we may need to look a little harder.

“When these oft-repeated stories from Jesus strike us as sweet, heartwarming, or inspiring in the sentimental sense rather than the Spiritual sense, we can be sure we’ve misread them,” Jared Wilson writes in his latest, The Storytelling God:

A generation of churchgoers grew up hearing the parables taught more along the lines of moralistic fables—illustrations of how to do the right things God would have us do. And they are that. But they are more than that. Some of these narratives are only a few lines long, but every parable, long or short, is fathoms deep and designed to drive us to Jesus in awe, need, faith, and worship. When we treat them as “inspiring tales,” we make superficially insipid what ought to be Spiritually incisive.

Wilson’s point throughout this book is simple: the parables are not the “very special episodes” of Jesus’ teaching ministry—instead, they are tales designed see the glory of Jesus.

Defining parables beyond morality

Our difficulty, though, begins as one of definitions—what is a parable, exactly? In a nutshell, Wilson suggests that rather than simply seeing as short stories or sketches, we should understand Jesus’ parables as “wisdom scenes,” illustrations running alongside their points and meant to “reveal them in rather immediate ways.”

Viewing the parables in this way allows us to embrace the multi-faceted approach Jesus often took in telling them, while at the same time forcing us to let go of our tendency to moralize them (or even relegate them to mere illustrations). Ultimately, this view drives home the purpose of the parables, which is to give us glimpses into what the kingdom of God (and God’s reign) looks like. And what that looks like is, for many, something wholly offensive.

Coming to the end of ourselves in Jesus’ parables

The most offensive aspect of Jesus’ parables is that, again and again, they point to Himself as the point of the story. He doesn’t simply tell the story of the Good Samaritan for us to “go and do likewise” (although this is certainly a necessary application), but to reveal to us how He is the true Good Samaritan who comes to the aid of His enemies at the cost of His own life. He tells us the parable of the prodigal son so that we might recognize the Father in the father, whose extravagant (or seemingly reckless) generosity in restoring His sons cannot be matched. He tells us of the man who sold all he had to purchase a field where he’d found a treasure because He is the treasure worth sacrificing all for.

In fact, as Wilson convincingly argues, Jesus Himself can be seen as a living parable—

He is a living parable because he is the inscrutable, eternal, ineffable God become a man, dwelling among men, tempted like men, sacrificed for men. As the parables contain the Spiritual power of awakening or deadening within stories of the human experience, Christ is the Spirit-conceived power of God undergoing the human experience.

Read that again. It makes sense, doesn’t it? At a minimum, it certainly fits with the tenor of Scripture, feeling right at home with the constant call to turn away from ourselves. It attacks our tendency (or desire) to view these stories as being about us and what we do, reorienting us to their true purpose—not to provide a moral imperative (although one can easily see those in the parables), but to point us to the Storyteller.

“Blessed are those who hear him and believe,” Wilson writes. “Condemned are those who are offended by him and disbelieve.”

No more “very special episodes” needed

If The Storytelling God succeeds at anything, it’s putting to death the parables as “very special episodes” mindset. And this is exactly what we all need to get out of our heads. We can do more all we want, trying to earn our way into the Father’s good books—but it’s not going to earn us the brownie points we’re hoping to get. What Jesus offers us in the parables is so much more valuable than “do more betterer”—He offers us the better He’s done for us in His life, death and resurrection.

He is the treasure we seek. He is the pearl of great price. He is the Shepherd who searches for His sheep and brings them home. Why would we want to settle for anything else?


Title: The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables
Author: Jared C. Wilson
Publisher: Crossway (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

Captivated by Thabiti Anyabwile

captivated_anyabwileAbout a year ago, I bought a new laptop, and the first time I turned it on it was magical. Well, maybe not, but it was pretty slick. It went super-fast, did everything I needed it to do… Then, a few months later, my new work computer arrived. And I started feeling a little bit of regret over my personal one. The “shininess” of my computer had worn off and it seemed kind of, well, average. It wasn’t nearly as rad in my eyes as it had been when I opened the box for the first time.

I wonder if some of us see the Easter story that way. We’ve heard so many sermons on it—or preached so many—that it seems like we’re going through the motions. We say, “yay, Jesus is alive,” but really we’re thinking “alright, and now to run some errands!” This should never be. Woe to us who can look upon the death and resurrection of Jesus and say, “meh.”

Thabiti Anyabwile is a man who has not lost his sense of wonder at the cross. He knows that beholding the glory of Jesus is something none of us can do without. This is the heart behind his latest book, Captivated: Beholding the Mystery of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection.

In its five chapters (which originated as sermons preached at First Baptist Church, Grand Cayman) Anyabwile invites us to behold the wonder of the cross as he examines several key passages of Scripture:

  • Jesus’ prayer in the garden (Matthew 26:42);
  • Jesus’ cry from the cross (Matthew 27:42);
  • Paul’s rejoicing over death’s impotence in the face of Christ’s victory (1 Cor. 15:50-58);
  • The angels’ matter-of-fact questioning of the disciples at the empty tomb (Luke 24:5); and
  • Cleopas’ gentle rebuke to his new travelling companion along the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:18)

“Is there no other way?”

Almost all of us at some point have asked the question, “is there no other way?” When we look at the cross, and all the events that lead up to it, we can’t help but wonder if God could have done things differently. If you’ve ever asked the question, fear not: you’re in good company. Jesus asked the same one as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.… if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:39, 42)

Here is the Lord Jesus—the One who was with God and was God from eternity past—asking if He had to go to the cross. Jesus wanted the cup to pass. But more importantly, He wanted the Father’s will to be done. So, could it pass from Him? No. And this is such good news, Anyabwile reminds us. In fact, we should be glad the Father said no. He writes:

Because the Father answered no, sinners have a merciful and faithful High Priest perfectly intimate with all their weaknesses. We have One we can approach for grace. Because the Father answered no, we have One who stands between us in all our ungodliness and God in all His holiness to reconcile us and reunite us as friends rather than rebels. Because the Father answered no, those who have faith in Christ need never fear the Father’s wrath again; His anger has been fully satisfied in the Son’s atonement. Because the Father said no, we stand assured that our acceptance with God happened on completely legitimate grounds—no parlor tricks, no loopholes, no legal fiction, no injustice to threaten or question the exchange of our sin for Jesus’ righteousness. Because the Father said no, we will forever enjoy and share the glory of Father and Son in the unending, timeless age to come.

I am so glad the Father said no.

Insightful, gospel-saturated meditations

Do you see the good news here? Anyabwile doesn’t resort to cheap parlor tricks or emotional platitudes to whoop readers up. Instead, he presents the gospel in all its glory. Over and over again, on page after page, the gospel shines through. And as you read the book, you can’t help but be caught up by its sermonic rhythm (appropriate, since it began as sermons). This makes for a captivating and fast-paced read—to some degree, almost a too fast one!

Indeed, that might be my only complaint about this book. Because it’s a series of gospel meditations, readers should not expect an in-depth treatise on any of the texts examined, which would work against Anyabwile’s purposes anyway. But this is not to say that deeper examination and application isn’t encouraged—it’s just left in your hands, thanks to the book’s reflection questions (which you really need to use—they add so much to the reading experience!).

Because we’re constantly inundated with “new,” we risk becoming a people who fail to take the time to enjoy what really matters. The gospel should never be something we move past, or shrug our shoulders at. This just won’t do. Whether you’ve struggled with familiarity or you’re consistently amazed at the cross, Captivated is a book that will be a great blessing to you.


Title: Captivated: Beholding the Mystery of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
Author: Thabiti Anyabwile
Publisher: Reformation Heritage Books (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

The Gospel at Work by Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert

the-gospel-at-work

You know what I’m really thankful for? That there are people starting to write on the relationship between the gospel and work. This is a subject in which western Christians desperately need to grow in our understanding. Many of us, me included, really struggle to do our work in a Christ exalting fashion. Many of us grumble and complain, and generally struggle to be satisfied in what we’re doing or even see the value in our jobs.

Unless it’s just me who’s guilty of some of these?

Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert tackle this head-on in their new book, The Gospel at Work. Their goal in the book is simple: to help us see how working for Jesus gives meaning and purpose to all of our work, to recognize that “when glorifying Jesus is our primary motivation, our work — regardless of what that work is in its particulars — becomes an act of worship.”1

Idols and idleness

Traeger and Gilbert approach the subject from a different angle than, say, Tim Keller does in his excellent Every Good Endeavor (reviewed here). While one could argue that this is a matter of semantics, the authors are less concerned about delivering a fleshed-out theology of work, as opposed to digging into the practical issues related to how we look at work. In doing so, they spend the bulk of their time examining the twin errors of idolatry and idleness in work.

Signs work is your idol

“Our jobs become idols when we overidentify with them,” they write. “Our work becomes the primary consumer of our time, our attention, and our passions, as well as the primary means for measuring our happiness and our dissatisfaction in life.”2 The key word here is “primary.”

When we give our all to the company at the expense of our families, when our minds are consumed by thoughts of work consistently, when we’re always looking at how we can position ourselves, or even when we see our work as being all about making a difference in the world… This is dangerous stuff, friends.

When work is “primary,” everything else is secondary, and we’ll always be dissatisfied. There’s always a next step, always another rung on the ladder, always a new challenge to overcome… but it will never be enough. [Read more...]

A brief look at the 9Marks series

There are very few organizations I get excited about, but one I absolutely love is 9Marks. I’ve been amazed at the quality of thinking on essential matters of the faith such as church discipline and discipleship, expositional preaching, and, of course, the gospel itself. The example set by many of the leaders involved with this ministry is tremendous. Frankly, even if you don’t agree with all their emphases, you can’t deny they genuinely love the local church and want to see churches become healthier.

This is especially clear when you look at the books published under the 9Marks banner, and this is no less true of the books found in Logos Bible Software’s 9Marks Series collection. Containing eleven volumes published by Crossway, this series covers a wide variety of subjects, from the relationship between God’s love and church discipline to the importance of biblical theology in the life of the local church.

9marks-series

Included in the series are:

For the sake of brevity, here are a couple of key takeaways to keep in mind:

First, each book published is intended to address one aspect of the nine marks of a healthy church.1 These marks are foundational to the organization’s vision of healthy churches but because they’re so rich, they require some serious investigation. You can’t just say “we believe a healthy church is one with biblical church leadership” without explaining what that means and what it looks like, practically.

Second, although many of these volumes are directed toward church leaders, all are accessible to the average church member. I found this to be especially true of two volumes. The first is Mike McKinley’s Church Planting Is for Wimps (which I reviewed here), a volume describing his experience replanting Guildford Baptist Church (now Sterling Park Baptist Church) and the challenges planters face:

…planting and revitalizing take different kinds of courage, and God appoints a particular task for every man. Go where God guides you. As Karen and I thought about our future, we wanted to take the path of revitalizing an existing church…I believe revitalizing may be more difficult at the outset, but I also believe that it offers all the rewards of planting—a new gospel witness—and more: it removes a bad witness in the neighborhood, it encourages the saints in the dead church, and it puts their material resources to work for the kingdom. (Church Planting Is for Wimps, 36-37)

The second is Mark Dever’s The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, particularly as Dever breaks down the problem we have sharing our faith and makes it a little less scary by admitting his own failures in that area:

Sometimes I’m a reluctant evangelist. In fact, not only am I sometimes a reluctant evangelist, sometimes I’m no evangelist at all. There have been times of wrestling: “Should I talk to him?” Normally a very forward person, even by American standards, I can get quiet, respectful of the other people’s space. Maybe I’m sitting next to someone on an airplane (in which case I’ve already left that person little space!); maybe it’s someone talking to me about some other matter. It may be a family member I’ve known for years, or a person I’ve never met before; but, whoever it is, the person becomes for me, at that moment, a witness-stopping, excuse-inspiring spiritual challenge.

If there is a time in the future when God reviews all of our missed evangelistic opportunities, I fear that I could cause more than a minor delay in eternity.  (The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, 15)

The eleven volumes in the 9Marks Series are ones every church leader—and every church member—should have in their libraries. They’re the kind of books that don’t leave you crushed under the weight of trying to “do more,” but constantly point you back to Christ, the One from whom all our purpose and power in ministry flows. I know I’m glad to have them in mine. I trust the same will be true for you as well.

Invest by Sutton Turner

Invest-Book_v2

In ministry, it’s easy to think of certain gifts as being more valuable than others. We look at one man’s ability to handle the Scriptures and applaud. We look at another’s ability to manage an organization and… well, often times we’re not quite sure what to do. It’s not that we don’t appreciate those abilities. It’s just we have a hard time thinking of them as having a purpose in ministry. And as a result, some Christians who want to use their gifts to bless their churches are left in a lurch.

Invest: Your Gifts for His Mission by Sutton Turner is written for people like this. People with serious business skills and a heart for the church, but struggle to see how their gifts can be used to benefit the body. Turner uses his experience as the current executive pastor of Mars Hill Church to help business-minded believers see how they can work for the glory of God, perhaps by considering taking on the role of an executive pastor.

A good reminder of the need for business savvy

The best thing about Invest is the refreshing reminder of the need for business savvy in ministry. “Ministry” should not be code for sloppy planning and procedures. But this is pretty common, sadly. Many who gravitate toward ministry roles tend to be people who want to spiritually guide people, but aren’t particularly savvy with administration or business practices. It my never occur to them to think about things like licensing for the songs we sing on Sundays, or the tax regulations that need to be followed in order to maintain charitable status.

So churches and parachurch ministries alike can greatly benefit from believers who are skilled and passionate about such things. People who care about what the organizational structure looks like and whether or not it actually works in practice, and who care about staff culture and dynamics. We need to be concerned about these things, and, thankfully, God has gifted certain individuals to be deeply passionate about them.

While I appreciate the general premise of the book, there’s a great deal about it I’m concerned about:

[Read more...]

Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer

evangelism sovereignty packer

The mysterious “they” say the greatest fear of many people—even more than death!—is public speaking. Standing before an audience, whether it’s a group of three or three hundred, is absolutely terrifying for some. But you know something? I think there’s something else that’s far more terrifying, especially for Christians:

Evangelism.

So many of us seem to be terrified of the idea of sharing our faith—we don’t know how to do it, we don’t want to do it “wrong.” But for some of us, our questions about evangelism aren’t simply of the “how-to” variety—they’re all about the “why”:

If God is truly sovereign over all of creation, why do we need to evangelize at all?

Does active evangelism suggest God isn’t really as sovereign as we think?

All of us at one time or another ask these questions, even if it’s only to ourselves. Many of us struggle to see how an all-sovereign God could require human beings to be involved in the work of salvation. At our worst, some fall prey to the notion that we have no need to evangelize at all, while others find themselves without any confidence that God will indeed save some.

J.I. Packer’s classic book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, is a sharp corrective to both of these errors. God’s sovereignty is not a barrier to evangelism, Packer argues. Instead, “faith in the sovereignty of God’s government and grace is the only thing that can sustain it, for it is the only thing that can give us the resilience that we need if we are to evangelize boldly and persistently, and not be daunted by temporary setbacks” (10). [Read more...]

Romans 1-7 For You by Timothy Keller

romans-for-you-Keller

Romans: it’s one of the most intimidating, confusing, and powerful books in the entirety of Scripture. In its 16 chapters, the apostle Paul casts a sweeping vision God’s redemptive purposes—”how God in the gospel makes sinners righteous, but also how this most precious gift of God is enjoyed in our lives,” writes Tim Keller in Romans 1-7 For You, “how it produces deep and massive changes in our behavior and even in our character.”

In his typical irenic fashion, Keller unpacks the message of the first seven chapters of Romans, helping us see the beauty of the gospel and our desperate need for it.

The gospel is for everyone

One of the most challenging issues we face reading Romans—and indeed, all of Scripture—is Paul’s emphatic decree that all of humanity is lost in when confronted by the justice of God.

That we are all, “without excuse,” with no hope to be found in moralism or pleas of ignorance. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Paul wrote in Romans 3:22-23. But he doesn’t leave us without hope. For while all have sinned and continually fall short of the glory of God, all who are saved “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). Moralism doesn’t justify, nor does ignorance. Instead, it is only God’s grace, the gift of redemption found in Jesus. And this is such good news for all of us:

God does not set his justice aside; he turns it onto himself. The cross does not represent a compromise between God’s wrath and his love; it does not satisfy each halfway. Rather, it satisfies each fully and in the very same action. On the cross, the wrath and love of God were both vindicated, both demonstrated, and both expressed perfectly. They both shine out, and are utterly fulfilled. The cross is a demonstration both of God’s justice, and of his justifying love (Romans 3:25-26).

Who is the man in Romans 7—believer or unbeliever?

Although all of Keller’s examination of Romans 1-7 is sound and edifying, perhaps no portion was more helpful to me personally than reading his view of the “wretched man” of Romans 7:7-25. Paul’s exposition of the effects of sin, the desire to do what is right, but being confounded by sin, has left many scratching their heads. Was he talking about Paul the unbeliever or Paul the believer?

Keller believes—and I would be inclined to agree—that Paul was writing of his then-present experience as a Christian, and the conflicting desires we all wrestle with. He writes:

We have, in some sense, “multiple selves.” Sometimes we want to be this; sometimes we want to be that. Morally, most people feel “torn” between diverse selves as well. Freud went so far as to talk about an inner “libido” (filled with primal desires) and a “superego” (the conscience filled with social and familial standards). The great question we all face is: I have divergent desires, different “selves.” Which is my true self? What do I most want?

This is helpful for so many reasons (and not simply because of confirmation bias). The point of Paul’s writing about these truths, that he continued to struggle with sin—and if anything, as he grew older, became increasingly aware of his own sinfulness—is to push us toward deeper dependence upon the Lord Jesus.

We are not justified and then left to our own devices to grow in holiness. If, to borrow an analogy, the gospel merely reset our righteousness back to zero, instead of giving us Christ’s, we’d still be damned. We do not do the things we want to do, and we do the things we don’t want to do. Paul’s point is simple, Keller says: “The unbeliever cannot keep the law (v 7-13); but neither can the believer!”

When we read God’s law properly, and when we look at our own lives honestly, we can only conclude that we are “wretched.” Without accepting this, we will never grasp the glory of the gospel. We will never truly appreciate the gospel of received righteousness. Only if our hearts truly cry at our wretchedness can we then know the hope and liberation of looking away from ourselves and to what God has done. Who will rescue Paul, and us? “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v 25).

For the good of your soul

Like the other volumes in the For You series, Romans 1-7 For You is not an exhaustive study of Paul’s epistle, nor is it intended to be. As I described the recently released Judges For You, this is a devotional commentary. Use it like one.

Allow Keller’s insights in Romans 1-7 For You to inform your study. Glean helpful insights and illustrations to use in sermons or small group studies. But even as you do, read it with the good of your soul in mind, recognizing afresh all Christ has done on your behalf, and grasping anew the glory of the gospel in Romans.


Title: Romans 1-7 For You
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

What’s Your Worldview by James Anderson

whats-your-worldview-anderson

When I was a boy, I loved “choose-your-own-adventure” novels. There was one I especially loved in my school library, a Star Trek one if I recall correctly. Depending on how you answered a question, Captain Kirk could be romancing a lady with green-skin and low standards, or a Klingon warship could de-cloak and blow up the Enterprise.

In hindsight, the book was pretty cheesy, but there was something really exciting about discovering the outcome of a particular choice. What I chose drastically impacted the story.

Who’d have thought this would make a great template for a book on worldviews? Inspired by “choose-your-own-adventure” novels, James Anderson set out to write a book allowing readers to see how their answers reveal what they believe about life, the universe, and everything. And this is exactly what you’ll find in What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions.

By up to 21 questions—dealing with freedom, truth and knowledge, unity, matter and mind, and pretty much everything in between—Anderson takes readers on a journey to discover their worldview. Depending on how you answer, you may discover you’re a Deist, Christian, Relativist, Skeptic or any one of a number of alternatives.

This is extremely helpful for readers to see, as I’ve no doubt there are many who don’t give any thought to the idea of worldview at all. After all, “worldviews are like belly buttons,” he writes. “Everyone has one, but we don’t talk about them very often. Or perhaps it would be better to say that worldviews are like cerebellums: everyone has one and we can’t live without them, but not everyone knows that he has one” (12).

He continues:

A worldview is as indispensable for thinking as an atmosphere is for breathing. You can’t think in an intellectual vacuum any more than you can breathe without a physical atmosphere. Most of the time, you take the atmosphere around you for granted: you look through it rather than at it, even though you know it’s always there. Much the same goes for your worldview: normally you look through it rather than directly at it. It’s essential, but it usually sits in the background of your thought.

If our worldview is this important, then we ought to be more aware of it. We should wrestle with the beliefs undergirding all our other thoughts and beliefs because it truly changes everything. Take the issue of abortion, for example. What we believe about its validity  as a practice is necessarily tied up in what we believe about the nature of humanity, when life begins, its value… The same can be said of same-sex marriage, poverty alleviation or any number of hot-button issues.

What we believe drastically affects our response, so we should seek to be more aware of the framework undergirding our thinking.

But readers should also be quick to understand this is not an in-depth analysis of any particular worldview. What Anderson offers readers is a basic sketch covering the major points of each of worldview mentioned (21 in all). Although there’s part of me that would love to have seen more, Anderson’s approach is a welcome one since it’s clearly meant as a launch pad for further study, rather than a one-and-done experience.

When I read through What’s Your Worldview?, I immediately began thinking of the different applications for it. I believe there are two distinct uses for it. First, the book would be an excellent tool to use with newer believers or those who are looking for a basic primer on what a worldview is, and what some of the major ones out there look like.

Second, and most importantly, this seems to be an ideal book with which to engage non-believers to open the door to the gospel. The style of the book itself is extremely non-threatening, eschewing editorializing and the temptation to persuade to a specific way of thinking (at least as much as any of us are capable).

In fact, if there’s anything he’s attempting to persuade readers of at all, it’s this: worldviews really, really matter. “Your basic view of the world shapes how you feel about the world and how you engage with the world” (102).  What you believe drastically impacts what you do. What’s Your Worldview? is a wonderful tool to help us understand this truth, and I trust it will be a blessing to all who engage with it.


Title: What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions
Author: James N. Anderson
Publisher: Crossway (2014)

Buy it at Westminster Book | Amazon

Revisiting The Screwtape Letters

The_Screwtape_Letters

When I first came to faith, one of the first authors I read was C.S. Lewis. I’d loved Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, and had read some of the other books in the series, so when I found out he was a Christian, I was pretty darned excited.

The thing I noticed about Lewis’ theological work in contrast to his fiction, is it tends to be slow-burn material. The kind of stuff that, if you rush through it, you’ll miss something very important.

In other words, re-reading is necessary.

So, when I began my little re-reading project about three weeks ago, I knew one of the books on my list would have to be by Lewis. In this case, The Screwtape Letters

The premise, for those unfamiliar, of the book is simple: it’s made up of the “found” correspondence between a senior devil (Screwtape) and a junior (Wormwood), documenting the younger’s mission to prevent a man known only as “the patient” from being won over to the side of their Enemy—Jesus.

The book’s premise itself is fascinating. To negatively communicate Truth—after all, it is written from the perspective of demons—while at the same time exposing falsehood is no easy task. From a purely creative perspective, this is insanely difficult to do well. In the hands of a lesser writer, The Screwtape Letters might well have achieved the same overbearing, heavy-handed moralism we find in later Star Trek series (with fewer cosmic reset buttons employed).

Lewis is no pulp writer, and for that we must be grateful. [Read more...]