PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace

The doctrines of grace have an image problem.

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

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

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

Redefining the doctrines of grace around grace

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

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

Can you see why these doctrines have an image problem?

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

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

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

Old wine in new wineskins

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

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

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

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

Engaging PROOF in all of life

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


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

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

The Pastor’s Kid

The Pastor's Kid by Barnabas Piper

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

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

Okay, I’m probably exaggerating.

A bit.

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Buy it at: Amazon

Titus For You

titus-for-you

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

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

Showing the truth is true

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

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

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

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

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

The fuel and fire of obedience

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

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

Faithful encouragement doesn’t need to be groundbreaking

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


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

Buy it at: Amazon

Is it My Fault?

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

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

Whose fault is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. Someone actually said that.

What is domestic violence?

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

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

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

What will God do about it?

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

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

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

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

What will we do about it?

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


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

Buy it at: Amazon

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

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

A look at The Gospel Transformation Bible

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The Bible market is a peculiar one, and not just because there’s such a thing as a Bible market. There are hundreds of different variations available today:

Metal-ensconced Bibles. Kids’ Bibles. Women’s Bibles. Bibles showing you how to be a prosperity preacher. Interlinear Bibles. Klingon Bibles… I’m pretty sure there may even be a scratch-n-sniff version coming out soon (if not, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, you’re welcome)!

We ESV fans have plenty to choose from, too. The ESV Study Bible is certainly the best known by far, but there are a few others. And now they’ve added a new (and much-hyped) version to the family: the Gospel Transformation Bible. In this study Bible, readers are shown how the gospel permeates the entire text of Scripture, beginning in the first verse of Genesis and culminating in Revelation with explanatory notes written by the likes of Scotty Smith (John), Jared Wilson (Jude), Justin Holcomb (Acts), Ray Ortlund (Proverbs), Jim Hamilton (Hosea), and dozens more.

There’s a lot that I could say about this, but let’s get down to the most important, and most obvious, question: What makes the Gospel Transformation Bible different from other study Bibles?

The answer really comes down to purpose. This is a study Bible intended to go after the hearts of readers, to aid in their worship of the Lord. While the notes included definitely explain the text, they’re less technical than those of the ESV Study Bible and geared toward application in light of the gospel. The goal of the authors is not to simply give readers more information, but to encourage heart transformation.

One of my favorite sections comes from Holcomb’s notes on Acts 7:1-73, Stephen’s speech before he is stoned to death. Commenting on this passage, he writes: [Read more...]

Risky Gospel by Owen Strachan

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In the whole “radical” Christianity discussion, there’s an elephant in the room. We know the goofy, “it’s a wonderful life” style of faith doesn’t work. We’re stressing ourselves out chasing the American dream, but we’re not really sure how to change it. So we hear the call to radical obedience, to take big risks in following the Lord, and our hearts resonate, but we’re not sure where to go with it. So some of us find ourselves back on the proverbial treadmill, but instead of chasing the American dream, we’re chasing after attempts to be radical “enough.”

But that doesn’t work either. And so we’re stuck with the pachyderm eating all our peanuts. We need to know, “What do I actually do with this?”

Owen Strachan wants to give readers a bit of encouragement—being a sold-out follower of Christ is not going to be easy, but it might look pretty ordinary. This is the message at the heart of his new book, Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome.

What Strachan presents in this book is a compelling and realistic vision of following Christ in the everyday. Boldly following Jesus doesn’t mean you have to sell all your possessions and move to the mission field. But it does mean living out your faith unashamedly at work, at school, as a husband, a wife or a child—in short, it means being faithful to Jesus, even when it’s inconvenient. [Read more...]

Does God Listen to Rap? by Curtis Allen

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I’m not a fan of rap music. I’ve never had a particular moral objection to it; it’s just that, outside of a song here and there, it really doesn’t appeal to me all that much. So it’s been fascinating for me to learn some Christian folks have got their britches in a bunch over whether or not rap is inherently immoral. Honestly, I’d never given it much thought beyond “I don’t really dig it.” Maybe you’re the same way.

I’m glad, though, not everyone’s like me when it comes to thinking carefully about rap music. Curtis Allen, a pastor at Solid Rock Church, Prince Georges County, Maryland (who also raps under the monikers of Voice and Curt Kennedy), wants us to think deeply about rap music—to think about it theologically and philosophically. He shows us how in his new book from Cruciform Press, Does God Listen to Rap?: Christians and the World’s Most Controversial Music.

Personal stakes and submission to the Lord

To say Allen’s got skin in the game is an understatement. Not only is he a rapper, but he’s the first one to have been invited to rap at Bethlehem Baptist Church in 2006—an event that revealed to him how serious a debate was raging over Christian rap. His performance was immediately picked apart online, his lyrics dissected, and his salvation questioned. And although he spent a great deal of time defending rap in song, online and in the media, he eventually found his own answers were shallow.

I realized I needed something a little deeper to hold onto. I could relate to what the critics were saying. I understood how you could take the position that rap can’t glorify God.… I understood where rap came from and why so much secular rap is what it is. I knew all about rap’s entanglements with sin and rebellion. I’m from that. I get it. But I really wanted to know how rap—or any music, for that matter—can glorify God. Realizing my position was actually biblificial (biblically superficial), I decided to start from scratch.… Rap’s critics make a strong case that most of its cultural origins and connections are far from godly, and I needed to see what those criticisms really mean for this art form I love so much.

Allen shows a great deal of humility in his desire to “start from scratch” when addressing rap, something I suspect few of us would have. As I wrote above, I’d never gone past thinking about preference. Developing a biblical view on something like rap music—or music in general—that takes guts. It takes courage to put your convictions on the table and say, “If the Bible genuinely says this is wrong—either in precept or principle—then I must obey.”

So what did his examination find? How much guidance does the Bible offer when addressing a subject like rap music? A great deal more than you’d expect.

Learning to think biblically about music

To show readers what Scripture says, Allen takes us through a number of what he calls theomethodosophical exercises. “This is a method that starts with and remains grounded in good theology but throws in some basic logic and philosophy where needed,” he writes. “It’s not too different from what somebody else might call common-sense speculation.” [Read more...]

A brief look at The Select Works of D.A. Carson (7 vols.)

If you’re a regular reader, you know one of the theologians I respect most (and quote most frequently) is D.A. Carson. Carson, the research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and co-founder (with Tim Keller) of The Gospel Coalition, is among the best theological minds of the last 30 years, writing or editing more than 60 books covering a wide range of subjects, sometimes exposing our exegetical fallacies and other times critiquing shifts within the church and the larger culture.

Recently, the folks at Logos Bible Software gave me a chance to look at the seven-volume collection, The Select Works of D.A. Carson. This collection contains some of the best set contains some of the best of Carson’s diverse body of work, including:

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A couple of things you can always be certain of when reading Carson are his fidelity to the text and his snippy wit. Whether he’s talking about the proper use of tone in pronouncing biblical Greek:

It is very difficult for modern English speakers to pronounce Greek accents in terms of musical pitch. To be sure, we use pitch in English; but it is used idiosyncratically, changing somewhat from speaker to speaker, and according to the shade of meaning intended. We distinguish, for instance, the emphatic ‘Yés!’, the open but questioning ‘Yè-és?’, and the doubtful and perhaps ironic ‘Yé-ès’. In Greek of the period before the New Testament, however, the tonal system was a fixed part of the language and helped to establish the essential meaning, just as varied pitch helps to establish meaning in Chinese. Many grammarians repeat the story of the actor Hegelochus who, when quoting a line from Euripides ending in γαλήνʼ ὁρῶ (‘I see a calm’), pronounced a circumflex accent instead of the acute, and brought the house down: γαλῆν ὁρῶ means ‘I see a weasel’. (Greek Accents, 18)

or preparing to trounce various arguments in the KJV only debate:

In what follows I shall not argue that the vociferous defenders of the [Textus Receptus] are knaves or fools. I shall seek to demonstrate, rather, that their interpretation of the evidence is mistaken. Moreover I shall point out logical fallacies in their exposition and the alarming way in which they cite arguments in their own favor without examining those arguments. Their presuppositions in favor of the TR have made most of them careless about determining the truth of many of their oft-repeated contentions, with the result that not only their interpretation of the facts is incorrect, but also their alleged “facts” are far too often simply untrue.

. (The King James Version Debate, 58)

or confronting our own sometimes unwitting hypocrisy in the area of self-denial:

We must not stand on our rights. As long as defending our rights remains the lodestar that orders our priorities, we cannot follow the way of the cross.

This sort of self-denial is easy enough to admire in other believers. One can formulate all sorts of interesting theological lessons deriving from Paul’s treatment of what to do about meat that has been offered to idols. But the power of this position of principle becomes obvious only when we are called upon to abandon our rights. (The Cross and Christian Ministry130)

I know many of these examples are a bit on the “think-y” side, but I hope you see in even these short excerpts Carson’s desire to clearly communicate the truth in a meaningful way—even when that truth is about the nature of the text itself!

Although he’s clearly an academic, his work isn’t meant simply for those who reside in the ivory towers of academia. It’s meant to challenge, encourage and inspire those of us who find ourselves wallowing in the muck of the nastier bits of life and ministry. He approaches the academic with a pastoral heart, which is something quite unusual.

Which brings us back to The Select Works of D.A. Carson. Logos has compiled an excellent collection in this resource; it’s one that is sure to be a wonderful blessing to pastors and academics alike and one I’m very grateful to have in my theological toolkit. Check it out or consider the individual titles, won’t you?

What should I review?

I just got back from a trip to Colorado Springs (day job related). After a fantastic welcome by my kids that included Hudson nearly walking outside barefoot shouting “Car-car!” and Abigail attaching herself to me like a spider monkey, I found a wonderful present waiting for me from my friends at Crossway:

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Image via Pressgram

If you’re struggling to see all the titles, here’s the complete list:

I’m very excited to dig into these over the next few weeks, and perhaps even sharing a few thoughts.

Now, here’s where I need your help: If were going to review one, which should it be?

Five Points by John Piper

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What’s the stereotype of the Calvinist? Depending on who you talk to, you’ll probably hear something like this: he’s a grumpy, joyless, theological nitpick who obsesses over an acronym and secretly (or maybe not so secretly) relishes the thought of people spending eternity in Hell.

But should this be the case?

Should the so-called doctrines of grace really lead to a lack of grace among God’s people?

John Piper certainly doesn’t believe so. Instead, he firmly believes that our doctrine should bring us joy. So, with that in mind, he’s penned this short book, Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s Grace. In ten easy-to-read chapters, Piper sets TULIP—total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints—in its historical context, offers a brief biblical survey for each, as well as the personal and historical testimonies of many faithful men of God who truly did believe that these truths are essential to our faith.

Piper’s goal is less about defending the five points of Calvinism for the sake of defending Calvinism as it is helping readers better see God—not just for the sake of knowing what He is like, but enjoying Him. “[T]o enjoy him we must know him. Seeing is savoring,” Piper writes. “If he remains a blurry, vague fog, we may be intrigued for a season. But we will not be stunned with joy, as when the fog clears and you find yourself on the brink of some vast precipice.” (8)

What’s most helpful in the book is, I believe, Piper’s honesty about his own view of the five points. One can’t help but come away from the book thinking Piper isn’t as much a fan of the modern construct of TULIP as he is the realities they point to:

  • He sees the implications of the doctrine of total depravity—of man’s open and continual rebellion against his Creator—and it causes him to wonder at the mercy of God.
  • He sees the necessity of understanding exactly for whom Christ died, but not so he can rejoice in the fate of those who die apart from Christ, but because the definitive nature of the cross should cause us to rejoice and to realize that Christ’s sheep are far more numerous than we might be tempted to believe.
  • He sees the unconditional nature of election as being a wonderful beacon of hope, for if salvation depended on anything but God loving us simply because He loves us, we’d be doomed.

Piper’s point again and again is simple: when we see the five points rightly, they should cause us to give thanks for the wondrous grace of God.

If we want to go deeper in our experience of God’s grace this is an ocean of love for us to enjoy. God does not mean for the bride of his Son to only feel loved with general, world-embracing love. He means for her to feel ravished with the specificity of his affection that he set on her before the world existed. He means for us to feel a focused: “I chose you. And I sent my Son to die to have you.” (52)

Not too long ago, I was roped into an online conversation about the angry perception of Calvinists and the problem of TULIP. One gentleman pointed out that he sees a consistent problem with TULIP—that it leads not to joy but to condemning anger. When reading this book, I had this person in mind. Is this the kind of book I’d give to this man? Did it perpetuate the stereotype he believes is more or less true of many who hold to the five points—is this yet another “angry Calvinist” manifesto?

Although he doesn’t shy away from calling into question certain interpretations of Scripture’s teaching, Piper’s language is far from combative. Instead, there’s more of an earnest sense of wonder that permeates the book’s pages. Piper desperately wants to see the love of God in the five points of Calvinism; to see the doctrines of grace manifest their fruit: faithful joy in the lives of God’s people. Five Points is the kind of book I want to give to the person who struggles with the idea of Calvinism. It’s readable, challenging, thoughtful, and, most importantly, faithful to God’s Word.


Title: Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s Grace
Author: John Piper
Publisher: Christian Focus (2013)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

A Call to Resurgence by Mark Driscoll

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Christendom is dead. Now let’s set aside our differences and get to work telling people about Jesus.

If you wanted to sum up Mark Driscoll’s new book, A Call to Resurgence, in a sentence, that’d be the way to do it. And make no mistake, pronouncing Christendom, the age of cultural Christianity, dead is no overstatement, even if declaring the American church dead is. A quick survey of the cultural landscape in America (and the West in general) shows how much has changed, and it’s definitely not in favor of Christianity. So what are Christians to do? Are we to retreat and wait for Jesus to return? Are we to give up our distinguishing characteristics and blend into the culture?

We do not need more retreat, Driscoll says. We need resurgence:

This is not a time for compromise but rather courage. The fields are ripe. And as Jesus says, “the laborers are few”—in part because the prophets of doom are many.… This is no time to trade in boots for flip-flops. The days are darker, which means our resolve must be stronger and our convictions clearer.

A strong cultural critique

There is much to appreciate about A Call to Resurgence, starting with its intent. Driscoll’s greatest strength has always been his appraisal of the cultural climate in North America, and this is no less true in the case of this book, which is why chapter two shines. Here Driscoll offers a succinct description of many of the contributing factors to the death of Christendom—pornography, the acceptance of homosexuality, bad dads, a lack of generosity, intolerant “tolerance,” and the resurgence of paganism in its many forms.

I believe it’s no overstatement to say this is the book’s standout chapter, especially his breakdown of the “new paganism,” which owes a massive debt to Peter Jones’ excellent book, One or Two. Driscoll explains well its roots as described in Romans 1:18-32, and its various expressions, from atheistic one-ism (the idea of a pure naturalism) to pale imitations of Christianity (notably moralistic therapeutic deism).

A confused message on the essentials

While Driscoll is often insightful in identifying cultural issues, his assessment of biblical ones is too often simplistic. This is especially clear when he describes the various “tribes” within evangelicalism. These, he says, are united by their common agreement on the following black-and-white issues: [Read more...]