30 August 2012

Book Review: How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home

I recently read Derek Thomas's How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home (2011), a purchase I made through Ligonier Ministries $5 Fridays. If you have not availed yourself of their continually great offerings, you should.  I have many wonderful books in my library because of $5 Fridays.

Thomas's book is essentially an exposition of Romans 8. More precisely, it is a book about Romans 8 based upon a series of sermons that Thomas gave.  Switching from the spoken word to the written carries with it certain challenges and, I think, this book has done that reasonably well. 

Thomas builds upon the guilt-grace-gratitude chain that I had not previously heard, though interestingly, one of the next books I picked up, Transformed by the Gospel by Jerry Bridges also builds upon that notion.  Thomas sets out to show how salvation for the Christian is truly an unmerited gift, dependent only upon the blood of Christ. 

On page 12, he asks the question, "Can I still be in a right relationship with God (justified and adopted) and still sin as I do?"  He seems to come down on the side of suggesting that we will continue to sin, but that we cannot be satisfied to stop there.  He then moves on to address big topics like sanctification and mortification and prayer.

All in all, this is a good little book, certainly worth the $5 dollars I paid for it.  It encourages me to go again to Romans 8 as one of the golden gems of Paul's writing.   

29 August 2012

Be Careful Little Eyes How You Study

I am big on Bible study. I think it is important, perhaps even essential to the Christian.  I do think it is important to use caution in how you approach studying it, however.  In part, there can be a danger in having an unbalanced view of God's word, or a tendency to know a few trees well, but miss the forest.  Doug Wilson was correct today in his post "As Somebody Somewhere Said..."

Wilson writes, "The only way to learn the Bible the way you should is to read and reread it. This brings us back to the point made earlier: proper Bible study must be preceded by reading. After you are familiar with the context of Scripture, you will be able to build on your knowledge through more specialized study methods. But until you have that familiarity, such study methods should be scrupulously avoided. Until you have the proper foundation, do not memorize any Bible verses. This may seem odd to some of you and sacrilegious to others. Does not the Bible say, 'I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you' (Ps. 119:11).

"Yes, we are to store God's word in our hearts. Yes, it will keep us from sin. But we are not instructed to cram His Word into our hearts sideways or upside down. God's Word cannot be properly hidden in our hearts when it is misunderstood. And it cannot be understood apart from context."

If you have never read your Bible through (perhaps even a few times), you may want to set to work on that task before you sign up for the next round of memory madness or read the next Christian living book. 

(EDIT: Based on an online conversation with my friend Amy, I think it may be more appropriate to stress both scripture memorization AND getting the grand story of scripture. So perhaps it is better to say "sign up for memory madness, but really seek to read through the whole Bible so you can see the big picture"). 

28 August 2012

Why Churches Fail So Many

Rod Rosenblatt delivered a message, The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church, in 2010.  In this message, he looks at the tendency for churches to settle into law even if, for a season, they visited the gospel.  He traces the problem thus:

"We start to imagine that we need to be born again again. (And often the counsel from non-Reformation churches is that this intuition of ours is true.) Try going again to some evangelistic meeting, accept Christ again, surrender your will to His will again, sign the card, when the pastor gives the altar call, walk the aisle again. Maybe it didn’t “take” the first time, but it will the second time? And so forth.

"In a Christian context, the mechanism of this can be, I think, a very simple one:

1. You come to believe that you have been justified freely because of Christ’s shed blood.
2. Freely, for the sake of Jesus’ innocent sufferings and death, God has forgiven your sin, adopted you as a son or daughter, reconciled you to Himself, given you the Holy Spirit, and so on. Scripture promises these things.
3. Verses like, “Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” seem now—at first read—to finally be possible, now that you are equipped for it. Or you hear St. Paul as he writes, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Same thing.
4. You realize that you might have had some excuse for failure when you were a pagan. But that’s over. Now you have been made a part of God’s family, have become the recipient of a thousand of His free gifts.
5. And then, the unexpected. Sin continues to be a part of my life, stubbornly won’t allow me to eliminate it the way I expected.
6. Continuing sin on my part seems to be just evidence that I’m not really a believer at all. If I were really a believer, this thing would “work!”"

The realization of the impossibility of the task at hand, the understanding that we will never measure up weighs heavy and when Christians can't do it, they leave.  They cannot bear up under the weight.  

He goes on to say, "I hope that most of us would say that the shed blood of Christ is sufficient to save a sinner? All by itself, just Christ’s blood, 'nude faith' in it, 'sola fide,'  'faith without works,' 'a righteousness from God apart from law,' a cross by which 'God justifies wicked people,' etc. So far, so good, right?

"But is the blood of Christ enough to save a still-sinful-Christian? Or isn’t it? Does the Gospel still apply, even if you are a Christian? Or doesn’t it? It seems to me (1) that the category 'sinner' still applies to me, (2) that the category 'sinner' still applies to you, (3) that the category 'sinner' still applies to all Christians. (If you are a Wesleyan and have reached perfection, what I have to say here doesn’t, of course, apply to you.) But for the rest of us, it seems that what Luther said of the Christian being  'simultaneously sinful and yet justified before the holy God' is critical. Is what Luther said Biblical? Or isn’t it? Is it Biblical to say that a Christian is 'simul justus et peccator' or no? Are we Christians saved the same way we were when we were baptized into Christ, or when we came to acknowledge Christ’s shed blood and His righteousness as all we had in the face of God’s holy law? That all of our supposed 'virtue'—Christian or pagan—is just like so many old menstrual garments (to use the Bible phrase)? But that God imputes to those who trust Christ’s cross the true righteousness of Christ Himself? We are pretty sure that unbelievers who come to believe this are instantly justified in God’s sight, declared as if innocent, adopted as sons or daughters, forgiven of all sin, given eternal life, etc. But are Christians still saved that freely? Or are we not? We are pretty clear that imputed righteousness saves sinners. But can the imputed righteousness of Christ save a Christian? And can it save him or her all by itself? Or no?"

I confess that for me, this idea of grace is so radical, so unbelievable that I think to myself, that can't be right.  Surely there must be something I bring to the table.  Frankly, it leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable.  I desparately want to believe it and when I read God's word (particularly Galatians), I see it there, but the legalist inside of me insists that I must do more, that I should trust in my hard work rather than Christ's finished work, and so back to the cross I go again. 

27 August 2012

Christian's Discourse with Prudence

I am working my way through John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress again.  If you haven't read this allegory, you should remedy that.  Today, I came upon Christian's discourse with Prudence.

PRUDENCE: Do you not think sometimes of the country from whence you came?

CHRISTIAN: Yes, but with much shame and detestation. Truly, if I had been mindful of that country from whence I came out, I might have had opportunity to have returned, but now I desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.

PRUDENCE: Do you not yet bear away with you some of the things that then you were conversant withal? 

CHRISTIAN: Yes, but greatly against my will; especially my inward and carnal cogitations, with which all my countrymen as well as myself were delighted. But, now, all those things are my grief, and might I but choose mine own things, I would choose never to think of those things more; but when I would be doing that which is best, that which is worst is with me. 

PRUDENCE: Do you not find sometimes as if those things were vanquished, which at other times are your perplexity?

CHRISTIAN: Yes, but that is seldom; but they are to me golden hours in which such things happen to me. 

PRUDENCE: Can you remember by what means you find your annoyances at times as if they were vanquished? 

CHRISTIAN: Yes; when I think what I saw at the cross, that will do it; and when I look upon my broidered coat, that will do it; also when I look at the roll that I carry in my bosom, that will do it; and when my thoughts wax warm about whither I am going, that will do it.

PRUDENCE: And what is it that makes you so desirous to go to Mount Zion?

CHRISTIAN: Why, there I hope to see Him alive that did hang dead on the cross. There I hope to be rid of all those things that to this day are in me an annoyance to me. There they say there is no death. There I shall dwell with such company as I like best. For, to tell you the truth, I love Him because I was by Him eased of my burden; and I am weary of my inward sickness. I would fain be where I shall die no more, and with the company that shall continually cry, Holy, holy, holy. 

We are, each of us believers, though cleansed still reminded on a daily basis of sinfulness, ever with the draw to it. I echo the words of Christian who longs to be eternally freed from those daily annoyances. 

May the Mist Remain

I went for an early walk this morning. The sky was clear and the air was cool.  I find morning walks to be a good time to reflect upon the character of God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  Even my neighborhood with the skies at heights I cannot reach is beyond human comprehension. The extent of God's cosmos is vast and yet he also attends to sub-atomic details, working them all together in his power to create a beautiful canvas each morning.

I walked past the school.  Soon, the playground will be filled with children, returning to their studies, but today, above the green grass, there was just a dense mist, perhaps three feet deep. It covered the entire expanse of grass and  I was struck by its beauty. Then, however, I realized that in just a little while, perhaps an hour, this mist will be gone with no trace of it left.

That led to reflecting upon God's word. In the morning, I bask in God's word.  I see the beauty of what he reveals and it is encouraging and uplifting.  Too often, though, later in the day the word that held such deep meaning for me disapates. I no longer intentionally behold its beauty.  As a Christian I am thankful that God's mercies are brand new every morning, but it is a discipline to keep them in mind.  I pray for strength that I might behold the beauty of His word amidst the stresses of the day. 

    The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
        his mercies never come to an end;
    they are new every morning;
        great is your faithfulness.
    “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
        “therefore I will hope in him.”
-Lamentations 3:22-24

25 August 2012

A psalm and a prayer for sinners like me

In my quiet time this morning, I came across two passages that really struck me and are worth meditation.  Every day, I am a sinner in need of mercy.  I am often amazed at the depths of my own sinfulness, so sure I should "have it together" by now.  Alas, I do not, but God was gracious in sending his son to die in my place. 

Psalm 130
    Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
        O Lord, hear my voice!
    Let your ears be attentive
        to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
    If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
        O Lord, who could stand?
    But with you there is forgiveness,
        that you may be feared.

    I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
        and in his word I hope;
    my soul waits for the Lord
        more than watchmen for the morning,
        more than watchmen for the morning.
    O Israel, hope in the LORD!
        For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
        and with him is plentiful redemption.
    And he will redeem Israel
        from all his iniquities.

Prayer for Spiritual Growth

In the way of thy appointment I am waiting for thee,
     My desire is to thy name,
     My mind to remembrance of thee.
I am a sinner, but not insensible to my state.
My iniquities are great and numberless,
     but thou art adequate to my relief,
          for thou art rich in mercy;
          the blood of thy Son can cleanse from all sin;
          the agency of thy Spirit can subdue
          my most powerful lusts.
Give me a tender, wakeful conscience
     that can smite and torment me when I sin.
May I be consistent in conversation and conduct,
     the same alone and in company,
          in prosperity and adversity,
          accepting all thy commandments as right,
          and hating every false way.
May I never be satisfied with my present spiritual progress,
     but to faith add virtue, knowledge, temperance, godliness, brotherly kindness, charity.
May I never neglect
     what is necessary to constitute Christian character,
     and needful to complete it.
May I cultivate the expedient,
     develop the lovely, adorn the gospel,
     recommend the religion of Jesus,
     accommodate myself to thy providence.

Keep me from sinking or sinning in the evil day;
Help me to carry into ordinary life portions of divine truth
     and use them on suitable occasions, so that
          its doctrines may inform,
          its warnings caution,
          its rules guide,
          its promises comfort me.

-Valley of Vision

24 August 2012

Is it always "the Gospel?"

Thabiti Anyabwile's mini-rant about using the Gospel hammer for every nail is worth considering.

He writes, "Of course, I’m not tired of hearing the actual gospel.  Let us all determine to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  But let us also learn that the apostle taught a lot of things about Jesus Christ, His crucifixion and resurrection without lackadaisically tossing out a few cliched references to 'the gospel'.  He meditated on and expanded the message of God’s redemption through His Son in many varied arguments, tropes, and statements.  But that’s not what’s trotted out in today’s situations of human need.  We’re not getting deep reflections on the Person of Christ–His offices, nature, and work.  We’re not given robust explanations of the cosmic renewal of all things in Christ as the grounds of hope and joy no matter the circumstance.  We’re not having very many conversations that explore the dynamics of repentance and faith when we’re tempted to blast our mechanic.  Too many Christians lazily tell us we need 'the gospel' the way little kids answer every spiritual question with a reflexive 'Jesus.'"

Read the rest here.  

19 August 2012

Thinking of leaving your church?

Tim Challies shares these thoughts from Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.

Here is some wisdom from Mark Dever, drawn from What Is a Healthy Church?. He offers up six considerations for before you decide to leave a church and four to apply if you decide that you must leave.

Before You Decide to Leave

  1. Pray.
  2. Let your current pastor know about your thinking before you move to another church or make your decision to relocate to another city. Ask for his counsel.
  3. Weigh your motives. Is your desire to leave because of sinful, personal conflict or disappointment? If it’s because of doctrinal reasons, are these doctrinal issues significant?
  4. Do everything within your power to reconcile any broken relationships.
  5. Be sure to consider all the “evidences of grace” you’ve seen in the church’s life—places where God’s work is evident. If you cannot see any evidences of God’s grace, you might want to examine your own heart once more (Matt. 7:3-5).
  6. Be humble. Recognize you don’t have all the facts and assess people and circumstances charitably (give them the benefit of the doubt).

If You Go

  1. Don’t divide the body.
  2. Take the utmost care not to sow discontent even among your closest friends. Remember, you don’t want anything to hinder their growth in grace in this church. Deny any desire to gossip (sometimes referred to as “venting” or “saying how you feel”).
  3. Pray for and bless the congregation and its leadership. Look for ways of doing this practically.
  4. If there has been hurt, then forgive—even as you have been forgiven.

17 August 2012

Don't get your Christianity from Television

Pat Robertson, who a few months back told a husband to divorce his wife diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, now it seems has been openly critical of international adoption. He is quoted as saying, "after all, you never know about adopted children; they might have brain damage and 'grow up weird.'"

In his ever gracious style Russell Moore, himself an adoptive father, takes on Robertson's hatred with compassion.  Moore writes,

"The issue here isn’t just that Robertson is, with cruel and callous language, dismissing the Christian mandate to care for the widows and orphans in their distress. The issue is that his disregard is part of a larger worldview. The prosperity and power gospel Robertson has preached fits perfectly well with the kind of counsel he’s giving in recent years. Give China a pass on their murderous policies; we’ve got business interests there. Divorce your weak wife; she can’t do anything for you anymore. Those adopted kids might have brain damage; they’re 'weird.' What matters is health and wealth and power. But that’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ. For too long, we’ve let our leaders replace the cross with an Asherah pole. Enough is enough.

"Jesus was, after all, one of those adopted kids. Joseph of Nazareth was faced with a pregnant woman he could easily have abandoned. He knew this child wasn’t his, and all he had to go on was her word and a dream. He could have dismissed either. But he strapped on his cross, provided for his wife, and protected her child. Indeed, he became a father to her child. God called this righteous. The child Jesus seemed to be a colossal risk. His own family and neighbors and villagers thought he’d turned out 'weird' (Mark 3:20-21). Maybe he was demon-possessed, they speculated, or maybe even 'brain damaged.'"

Moore goes on to conclude, "I say to my non-Christian friends and neighbors, if you want to see the gospel of Christ, the gospel that has energized this church for two thousand years, turn off the television. The grinning cartoon characters who claim to speak for Christ don’t speak for him. Find the followers who do what Jesus did. Find the people who risk their lives to carry a beaten stranger to safety. Find the houses opened to unwed mothers and their babies in crisis. Find the men who are man enough to be a father to troubled children of multiple ethnicity and backgrounds.

"And find a Sunday School class filled with children with Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome. Find a place where no one considers them 'weird' or 'defective,' but where they joyfully sing, 'Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.'

"That might not have the polish of television talk-show theme music, but that’s the sound of bloody cross gospel."

What can evangelicals learn from Mormons about church growth?

David French, writing at the Gospel Coalition, describes 6 reasons why Mormons are beating Christians in church growth.

  1. Mormons have bigger families
  2. Mormons have a lower divorce rate
  3. Mormons share their faith
  4. Mormons are "orthodox"
  5. Mormon leaders ask a lot of their members
  6. Mormons are less selfish
Read the whole thing here

Gage: Liberals have no books

Gene Veith points to an article from Yale professor that liberals have abandoned their previous intellectual tradition, whereas conservatives still recognize the importance of ideas.  Before you call foul, this article was written by a liberal professor.

16 August 2012

Book Review: Not The Way It's Supposed To Be

For the Centurions Program, one of our required readings is Not the Way It's Supposed to be: A Breviary of Sin by Cornelius Plantiga Jr. (1996).  I had not previously heard about this book and I am left wondering why.  This book is, in a word, exceptional.  In fact, if you look at my sidebar, you will discover it has been added to my list of "must read" books. 

Plantinga's book sets out to explore and develop a theology of sin. In the preface, he wrote "my goal, then, is to renew the knowledge of a persistent reality that used to evoke in us fear, hatred, and grief. Many of us have lost this knowledge, and we ought to regret the loss." He does not stop, though, at the devastating nature of sin. He moves on in the next paragraph. "So the broader goal of this study is to renew our memory of the integrity of creation and to sharpen our eye for the beauty of grace." 

There is a section of about 5 pages, beginning on page 34, entitled "Spiritual Hygiene" that I read to my wife in total.  I often read her snippets of what I am reading, but this one was particularly long.  In it, Plantinga addresses the concept of spiritual flourishing. Though I would love to reproduce the whole thing here, I won't for sake of space. Still, I want to provide a flavor.  He comments that the spiritually whole person "longs for God and the beauty of God, for Christ and Christlikeness, for the dynamite of the Holy Spirit and spiritual maturity...She longs for other human beings: she wants to love them and be loved by them... She longs for nature, for its beauties and graces, for the sheer particularity of the way of a squirrel with a nut. As we might expect, her longings dim from season to season. When they do, she longs to long again."  

Though just a small taste, I hope what I have shared will lead you to want to read this book.  Plantinga's list of referenced works is broad, his writing sharp, and his wisdom deep.  I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.  If money were no object, I would love to buy a copy for each and every one of you dear readers.  I look forward to the next time I may read it. 

15 August 2012

Being a Christian Hater

Recently, I was thinking it might be an interesting word study to look at what the Bible says about hate, specifically looking at what God hates.  I haven't done it yet, but it is in my bank of projects to think about.  David Murray took the time to write about how to be a Christian hater here.  There is some wisdom here worth considering.

14 August 2012

Sex and the single Christian

There is an informative article over at first things attempting to address premarital sex in evangelicalism.  Gerald Hiestand begins, "One of the more vexing issues facing Evangelical pastors today is premarital sexual ethics. Simply put, we pastors are not quite certain how to counsel singles and teens regarding appropriate boundaries. Of course, we clearly teach that sexual intercourse should be reserved for marriage. But beyond this, there is no consensus among Evangelical clergy about where the boundaries should be drawn. Instead we tend to push the burden of this question back onto singles."

In a world where parents are encouraging their children to "try out" several different mates to ensure compatibility (this doesn't work, by the way), where sex permeates the media, and where you can have things your way right away, premarital sex even among believers is all too common. Hiestand's article is worth reading.