Friday, December 30, 2011

The Weariness of Wrong-hearted Study

I’m missing something…

In Philippians 1:15-18 Paul, from prison, writes this:

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
    Yes, and I will rejoice,

I know that Paul is not rejoicing in those that are preaching some form of a false gospel that are merely throwing around the name of Jesus.  They are probably preaching the true gospel of Jesus but they seem to be personally at odds with Paul.  My guess is that they get the gospel but they are a little weak on the periphery elements of the good news of Jesus. 

Paul rejoices. 

I can’t seem to. 

Even though he is referring to those with a different problem I find myself identifying with those C.S. Lewis laments in this quote:

But you cannot go on `explaining away' for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on `seeing through things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through' first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through' all things is the same as not to see.  -C.S. Lewis from The Abolition of Man

I think Lewis is really only saying what the Preacher said centuries ago when he said, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh”.  (Ecclesiastes 12:12)  There is a type of studying and learning where all you do is “see through things”.  I feel like I have been guilty of that. 

I hear somebody preach and I “see through” certain elements of what they say.  I see a brother or sister in Christ spill out their heart and I “see through it” and analyze it according to a strict theological grid.  It’s like I say to myself, “Yeah, they are preaching Jesus but I can tell their eschatology is messed up.” 

I’m not like Paul.  Paul was able to “see through things” so as to “see something through it”.  And that is why he was able to “see through” the preaching of those that were seemingly his enemies.  He can see through it and see that the gospel is still being proclaimed and the sovereign Lord of the universe is being glorified even with them having shoddy motives.  What a robust view of the power of God that Paul must have had. 

I have to confess I am so weary of myself in this regard.  Ecclesiastes is true, all of my study (because I have often done it so wrongly) has given me a weariness of the flesh.  One of my prayers for the New Year is that the Lord would rescue me from “seeing through things” and help me “see through things to see something through it”.  Indeed to see Someone through it.  If I don’t see Jesus through my labor of study then I’d be just as well served digging holes in my yard looking for buried pirate treasure.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Now That’s a Missionary Mindset…

Commenting on the invasion of the barbarians in the early 400’s Paul Orosius remarked:
If the only purpose for which the barbarians were sent within the Roman borders was that throughout the entire East and West the Church of Christ would be filled with Huns, Suebi, Vandals, Burgundians, and many other peoples of believers, let the mercy of God be praised and extolled, for so many nations have attained to the knowledge of truth which would not have been able to do so without this occasion, even if this has taken place through our own destruction. 
In case you aren’t familiar with Orosius, he was a friend of Augustine

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

From the Pen of Newton: The Oak Tree of Grace

John Newton explains the work of grace in the believers soul as more like a mighty oak tree than Jonah’s gourd which sprang up overnight.  By “work of grace” Newton does not mean only initial conversion but the entire process of redemption:

   The work of grace is not like Jonah's gourd, which sprang up and flourished in a night--and as quickly withered; but rather like the oak, which, from a little acorn and a tender plant, advances with an almost imperceptible growth from year to year, until it becomes a broad-spreading and deep-rooted tree, and then it stands for ages. The Christian oak shall grow and flourish forever.

   When I see any, soon after they appear to be awakened, making a speedy profession of great joy, before they have a due acquaintance with their own hearts--I am in pain for them. I am not sorry to hear them afterwards complain that their joys are gone, and they are almost at their wit's end; for, without some such check, to make them feel their weakness and dependence, I seldom find them to turn out well; either their fervor insensibly abates, until they become quite cold, and sink into the world again--of which I have seen many instances. Or, if they do not give up all--their walk is uneven, and their spirit has not that savor of brokenness and true humility which is a chief ornament of our holy profession. If they do not feel the plague of their hearts at first--they find it out afterwards, and too often manifest it to others.

   Therefore, though I know the Spirit of the Lord is free, and will not be confined to our rules, and there may be excepted cases; yet, in general, I believe the old proverb, "Soft and fair goes far," will hold good in Christian experience. Let us be thankful for the beginnings of grace, and wait upon our Savior patiently for the increase. And as we have chosen him for our physician--let us commit ourselves to his management, and not prescribe to him what he shall prescribe for us. He knows us and he loves us better than we do ourselves, and will do all things well.  (Works of Newton, Volume 1, 642-43)

There is, in my opinion, much to learn from Newton here.  I firmly believe that what Newton describes here became an epidemic in the late 1800’s with the rise of the Pelagian practices of Charles Finney.  Even in our day many church leaders, I believe wholly out of love, desire to quickly alleviate feelings of weakness, dependency, guilt, brokenness, etc.  Out of this good desire gone astray we end up as Newton said, “prescribing to him what he shall prescribe for us”. 

What then should you do?  Should a pastor pick up the practice of the Puritans and allow people to “smart awhile” or should they quickly apply the remedy of grace? 

I’ll attempt an answer to that question tomorrow…

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dads, Show Them His Glory

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

As I was reflecting on the life of Augustine these words took on a little different shape for me.  I have always read these words as if Paul is saying, “don’t be a jerk to your kids, but instead bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”  As if Paul is saying here, “Be nice to your kids and make sure you tell them about Jesus”.  I still think that is a good part of what Paul is saying.  I think he is speaking of tender nurturing and discipline and admonition in the lives of our children. 

But there is another side to this that I notice in Augustine’s life.  You can access over five million words of Augustine’s online.  If you perused over them less than .01 percent of these words would have been dedicated to his earthly father. 

In his biography on Augustine, John Piper hypothesizes that Augustine’s silence towards his father is owed to his fatherly neglect.  As Augustine once lamented that his father, “his father, "took no trouble at all to see how I was growing in your sight [O God] or whether I was chaste or not. He cared only that I should have a fertile tongue."  And so Piper believes that, “the profound disappointment in his father’s care for him silence Augustine’s tongue concerning his father for the rest of his life”.  (47)

One way to provoke your children to anger is to rip them off by bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the world.  Teaching little Billy—even though mostly inadvertently--that the greatest part of his identity and efforts should be at becoming a top-athlete, brilliant student, fine politician, or shrewd money-manager may eventually provoke him to anger.  Perhaps he will not even know what to call it, but he will look back on your fathering and there will be an aching void that cries out for answers; why didn’t you show me there was more, dad?

Dads, your little boy (and girl) is crying out to you “Show me His glory”.  Everything else will be but a mere trifle.  Enjoy sports, enjoy learning, enjoy spiders and bugs and mud and monster trucks, but enjoy them unto the glory of God.  As Augustine later discovered:

But what do I love when I love my God? . . . Not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the body delights to embrace. It is not these that I love when I love my God. And yet, when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace; but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfillment of desire. This is what I love when I love my God.

Yes, grace ultimately triumphed in the life of Augustine.  God was not going to sit idly by and allow a passive, misdirected, unengaged father to eternally ruin one of his sheep.  Grace triumphed in spite of Augustine’s father.  And I pray that grace triumphs in the life of my children in spite of my own failings as a dad.  But I also pray that grace triumphs through my efforts of bringing up my children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. 

I pray that the Lord will continue to raise up fathers all across the world that care more about the breadth of their children’s love for Jesus rather than they do the fatness of their children’s wallet. 

I pray that the Lord raises up fathers whose everyday talk with their children is an overflowing of grace and joy in the abundance of all that Jesus has purchased instead of the bickering, whining, and despair of dads still dreaming about the national championship that almost was 15 years ago. 

I pray that the Lord raises up dads that realize their greatest victory and greatest ministry will be children that love the Lord and not job promotions, social statuses, or worldly security—even when those things are “Christianized” and called ministry.

I pray that the Lord will raise daddy’s all over the world off their couches and into their children’s lives.  I pray that these fathers refuse to think that showing up is enough to give them a trophy and that they stop delegating their child’s instruction to mommy, and start being intentional and passionate about daily living/sharing the gospel with their children. 

I pray that the Lord makes me one of those daddy’s. 

Marriage in a Fallen World

In preparation for a marriage seminar I am co-leading, I am reading through Paul Tripp’s book on marriage: What Did You Expect?  I found this immensely helpful:

…Our marriages live in the middle of a world that does not function as God intended.  Somehow, someway, your marriage is touched every day by the brokenness of our world…there is one thing for sure: you will not escape the environment in which God has chosen you to live.  It is not an accident that you are conducting your marriage in this broken world.  It is not an accident that you have to deal with the things that you do.  None of this is fate, chance, or luck.  It is all a part of God’s redemptive plan.  Acts 17 says that he determines the exact place where you live and the exact length of your life.  He knows where you live, and he is not surprised at what you are facing.  Even though you face things that make no sense to you, there is meaning and purpose to everything you face.  (What Did You Expect? p.21)

Sweet Deals from Zondervan

Zondervan is having a Load Your E-Reader Sale.  Check out some of these awesome deals.  Click on the price below to get the deal. 

The Jesus Storybook Bible:  Only 3.99
For Calvinism: 4.99
Against Calvinism: 4.99
Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel: 3.99
Tim Challies’ The Next Story: 1.99 
Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: 1.99
Made to Crave: 3.99
Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible: 9.99
How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth: 4.99

I’m excited to see Challies’ book and McKnight’s on this list, I had been wanting these for awhile and now can get them both for under 6 bucks. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

From the Pen of Newton: An Astonishing and Cheering Thought

After writing at length about discovering sin daily in his life and then lamenting that though he can see that his heart “is very deep and dark, and full of evil; but as to particulars, I know not one of a thousand!”, John Newton then bursts forth in doxology concerning the depth of grace.  Though our sinner is great Newton shows that our Savior is greater:

And if our own hearts are beyond our comprehension, how much more incomprehensible is the heart of Jesus! If sin abounds in us—grace and love superabound in him! His ways and thoughts are higher than ours, as the heavens are higher than the earth; his love has a height, and depth, and length, and breadth, which passes all knowledge! The riches of his grace are unsearchable riches! Eph. 3:8, Eph. 3:18, Eph. 3:19.

All that we have received or can receive from him, or know of him in this life, compared with what he is in himself, or what he has for us—is but as the drop of a bucket—compared with the ocean; or a single ray of light—compared with the sun. The waters of the sanctuary flow to us at first almost ankle deep—so graciously does the Lord condescend to our weakness; but they rise as we advance, and constrain us to cry out, with the Apostle, O the depth! We find before us, as Dr. Watts beautifully expresses it,

A sea of love and grace unknown,
Without a bottom or a shore!

O the excellency of the knowledge of Christ! It will be growing upon us through time—yes, I believe through eternity! What an astonishing and what a cheering thought—that this high and lofty One should unite himself to our nature, that so, in a way worthy of his adorable perfections, he might by his Spirit unite us to himself!

Could such a thought have arisen in our hearts, without the warrant of his Word (but it is a thought which no created mind was capable of even conceiving until he revealed it), it would have been presumption and blasphemy! But now he has made it known, it is the foundation of our hope, and an inexhaustible spring of life and joy. Well may we say, Lord what is man, that you should thus visit him!   (From Newton’s Letter Ten to Miss M).

The Precious!

I thought of this again the other day and it still makes me laugh:


Review of Excellence in Preaching by Simon Vibert

When I was in elementary school and just beginning to read my favorite books typically related to sports.  In those early years I gravitated towards books listing the top 10 shortstops, hitters in baseball, NFL rushers, hoop stars, etc.  I liked these books because they would assist my 4’3 fifth grade frame become a professional athlete.  Now some 20 years later I have long given up my dreams of filling stadiums for the sole purpose of marveling at my athletic prowess.  But could God ever use this preacher to fill an athletic stadium and provide the opportunity for gospel preaching?  And would I be assisted by a book listing the top 12 (plus the obligatory Jesus chapter) preachers of our day? 

Simon Vibert’s Excellence in Preaching is written with the hopes that looking at these twelve men will help

“preachers and their listening congregations have a better sense of why it is that some preachers connect hearers with God, inspiring, encouraging and motivating them to authentic Christian living, and enabling them to leave with a sense that through the preaching they have indeed met with the living Lord.” (13)

Vibert looks at the preaching ministry of Jesus and then twelve contemporary preachers: Tim Keller, John Piper, Vaughan Roberts, Simon Ponsonby, J. John, David Cook, John Ortberg, Nicky Gumbel, Rico Tice, Alistair Begg, Mark Driscoll, and Mark Dever.  In each chapter Vibert looks at a couple of sermons and tries to discover “What makes ______ a good communicator”.  He then closes up every chapter with a few bulleted points of application for preachers. 


There is a positive and helpful aspect to this book and also one that could be relatively dangerous and unhelpful.  We will consider the dangerous first.

The dangerous aspect is not one that would catch Vibert off-guard as he seems to acknowledge this danger in a few places throughout the work.  With books like this there is always a danger of starting a “guru mentality or a cult following” (13).  John Piper (one of the subjects in the book) has written an entire book decrying the professionalism of ministry, entitled Brothers We Are Not Professionals.  Vibert’s book toes towards the pitfall of exalting superstar pastors at the expense of the “ordinary week-in, week-out preaching of the local church”.  (10) 

It has been pointed out before that many preachers that got their start in the 50’s and 60’s are cookie-cutter pastors.  The cookie-cutter that seems to be used for these pastors is the Reverend Billy Graham.  Some have even commented that these pastors hold their Bible like Rev. Billy and even though said pastor may have never been East of the Mississippi he speaks with a North Carolina accent just like Graham.  The danger then in a book like Vibert’s is that young pastors will take a shortcut by merely parroting the skills of successful pastors and thereby undercutting the work of the Spirit and neglecting the labor of honing their own unique giftedness.  If used in that way then this book is dangerous and unhelpful. 

Having said that I believe that Vibert does an adequate job of lifting up these succesful preachers and humbly considering the things that we can learn.  Yes, I wish that an entire chapter was given to dispelling the potential for this danger, but as a whole this book could be very beneficial to young pastors just beginning to preach. 

One of the things that Vibert does is list the specific sermon(s) that he analyzed for each chapter.  Given the media benefits of our day these sermons are readily accessible.  Thus a seasoned pastor could easily use this book as a guide for helping a younger pastor get his feet wet in preaching.  They could together listen to the sermons and then come up with their own bullet points and things to learn from the pastor under consideration.  Then the two could use Vibert’s chapter as a helpful launching pad for further discussion. 

Any pastor (new or seasoned) could benefit from this book, however.  I have been preaching for a little over ten years (hardly a veteran) and there was a great deal that I took away from this book.  Some things were reminders but there were some things that I had never really considered before that I think can make me a more effective communicator. 

Should You Buy It?

If you take to heart the danger inherent in the work then it could be vastly helpful.  It is not a theological treatise on preaching nor is it the only preaching manual that you should have in your library.  It is, though, widely beneficial.  It may even introduce you to the preaching ministry of some men that you have never heard of before.  I would suggest it as a helpful addition to any pastor’s library.

I received this book free from IVP.  You will have to buy it.  Thankfully the book is relatively inexpensive at Amazon (only 12.00).  Buy it here

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Cleveland Browns and Christian Sanctification

Yes, being a Browns fan is a form of suffering—and suffering does tend to lead to sanctification.  But that is not the point here…

Yesterday, I listened to the Browns blow another winnable game to the Arizona Cardinals.  The Browns record this season is a deplorable 4-10.  Truth be told, however, if it were not for a few bonehead plays they could just as easily have a luck 8-9 wins.  (They are not good, they are not even close to a playoff team—but given their schedule this year they aren’t quite as bad as 4-10 would have us believe). 

The problem that I see with the Browns (and have noticed this problem for the past 3-4 years) is that rather than playing to win the Browns seem to be playing to “not lose”.  That is a subtle difference but it is huge; both in football and in life. 

One of the things that I have to do as a Browns fan is around week 12 or 13—when the Browns are already out of the playoff hunt—I pick a new team to cheer for.  I do not abandon the Browns I just become like every other Browns fan and wait for next season.  This year I am rooting for another underdog; namely, the Detroit Lions. 

Yesterday was a great comparison.  Down 27-21 with only a little time left in the game the Lions confidently and fearlessly put the game in the hands of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.  They marched down the field and won the game 28-27.  They were playing to win.

A few hundred miles East in Tempe Arizona the Browns and Cardinals were tied up at 17 with under two minutes left.  The Browns had the ball backed up deep in Arizona territory.  The Browns—as has been the case for most of the year—played to not lose.  They ran the ball, had a few dink and dunk passes that they probably hoped they would get luck on, and then ended up punting.  They eventually blew it in overtime having squandered what was once a 17-7 lead.  Why?  They played conservative and tried to “hold the lead”.  Same junk that has been happening all year.

Running to Win the Prize

What does this have to do with Christian sanctification?  In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 the Apostle Paul says this:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
(1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV)

In other words “race to win”.  You don’t get a prize for just showing up.  As David Garland notes, “they are to run as if their life depended on it.  It does”.  Many professing Christians are like the Browns, they are doing just enough to not lose the race.  Perhaps running aimlessly hoping that somehow they can blow enough time off the clock that they have a couple more points than the other team.  In the same way many believers do just enough (at least in their mind) to keep God happy—just enough to get them into heaven. 

That’s not the way Paul talks about living the Christian life.  Yes, I believe that we are held by grace and that none can snatch us out of the loving hands of Jesus.  But also firmly believe that the Scriptures teach the necessity of grace-driven effort in the Christian life.  Here Paul is saying we need to run to win the game and not to merely not lose. 

What does it look like to race to win?  Fundamentally, it is a daily grabbing hold of Jesus and resting in and enjoying everything that He has already purchased.  But it is a daily battle to believe the promises of God and to find satisfaction in the pleasures of God over and against all those fleeting pleasures that would turn our eyes away from the prize; namely, Jesus the Christ. 

So fight the fight of faith today as one that is trying to win the race and not merely not lose it.

For more on this I would suggest reading Tom Schreiner and A.B. Caneday’s excellent work The Race Set Before Us.  Or perhaps you would enjoy Dr. Schreiner’s more accessible work Run to Win the Prize

Friday, December 16, 2011

Simple Discipleship and Preaching Advice

I still remember a good chunk of advice that one of my professors in college gave me.  Dr. Pelletier (not the skater) was a man that taught me a great deal about ministry.  Perhaps one of the most profound things he taught me was about family devotions.  I was single at the time but engaged to my wife Nikki.  I was freaking out about how to lead this woman. 

The weight of Ephesians 5 was pressing hard on me; what does it mean to wash her in the water of the word?  What does it mean to lead a family?  I had never really seen family devotions modeled and had no idea what it meant to lead my spouse the way that Jesus would—much less how to lead the children that God would bless us with a few years later.

Dr. Pelletier’s advice to me was simple yet profound.  With eyes filled with wisdom that came from years of experience he calmly reassured me and said, “Love Jesus and share that with her”. 

That’s it.  No magical formula.  Love Jesus and share it. 

Ten years later I am still chewing on that advice and trying to live it out.  In fact as I am reading through Augustine this morning I see not only how grounded in history Dr. Pelletier’s advice was but also how far reaching it is.  Turns out this isn’t just good advice for marriage but also for ministry.  Consider this from Augustine:

“I go to feed myself so that I can give you to eat.  I am the servant, the bringer of food, not the master of the house.  I lay out before you that from which I also draw my life.” 

Kind of reminds me of John Owen’s, “If the Word does not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us.”  All the great preachers (that can truly be called great because they point us so well to the source of all delight) seem to have one thing in common—their preaching, teaching, ministering, etc. is but an overflow of their private devotion and single-minded love for Jesus. 

This is why the advice to one ministerial candidate is so powerful:

“I’m not interested to know if you can set the Thames on fire.  What I want to know is this: If I picked you up by the scruff of the neck and dropped you into the Thames, would it sizzle?”

I am responsible for shepherding people and discipling them to disciple others. This really makes it simple.  Love Jesus then share it.  Of course it’s taken me ten years and I’m still chewing on exactly what that means and how to love Jesus more and how to effectively share it…but the foundation it built remains firm. 

I’m convinced that any sort of ministerial training, preaching practicum’s, books on ministry, resources on marriage, seminar’s, etc., are only distractions and given to self-bloating if they are not grounded in this simple truth—“Love Jesus then share it”. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY*** Night of the Living Dead Christian by Matt Mikalatos

Yesterday, I reviewed Night of the Living Dead Christian.  If that looks like a book that you would enjoy then fill out below for your chance to enter.  Deadline to enter is Wednesday, December 21, 2011.  Drawing will be December 22nd. 

(Sometimes punchtab is a little slow to load so if it doesn’t load right away be patient)

Review of Night of the Living Dead Christian by Matt Mikalatos

Night of the Living Dead Christian is a spiritual allegory that attempts to answer the question of what a transformed life looks like.  The story centers around Luther Martin (yes named after Martin Luther) a werewolf that desires change before everything that matters to him is stripped from him.  The book is filled with werewolves, vampires, zombies, mad scientists, robots, and basically anything else you would expect from a cheesy monster movie. 

This is my first experience with reading Matt Mikalatos.  The back cover hails him as “Monty Python meets C.S. Lewis.”  The first chapter started out slow for me.  The jokes seemed like cheesy pastor jokes that I tell.  They made me smile but it wasn’t quite Monty Python.  I could tell that he was going somewhere and I appreciated his exploration of Christian transformation using monsters, so I continued.  But I was far from agreeing with the Lewis/Python acclaim. 

Something happened, though, around the third or fourth chapter.  I began slowly entering the world that Matt had created.  I began seeing the depth to many of his analogies and I was quickly hooked.  I started caring about the characters and longing for their redemption.  Then I began seeing myself in the book. 
Yeah, C.S. Lewis may be a little bit of an overstatement (as might Monty Python) but there is some pretty serious depth to this silly little tale.  Just when you begin to think this book is too ridiculous to even make a point Matt will drive home a very profound insight concerning transformation.  His analogies are very helpful to understanding the struggle that we often have living this side of Eden. 

There are two things that Matt does in this book that are quite interesting that I want to mention.  The first is that Matt puts himself (even as the author of Imaginary Jesus) into the book.  It provides for really interesting reading and it builds rapport with the author for those times he drives home a penetrating theological insight. 
The second thing that I loved about Matt’s approach is that he leaves the story “broken” but broken in the hands of Jesus looking toward redemption.  I do not want to give away anything about the ending but I was shocked at a couple of the choices he made in ending the story.  I am glad that he ended it the way that he did because it is far more realistic than the cheery “yeah the Christian team won the game, every relationship is restored, all is right with world, etc. etc.” that we usually see in Christian movies/fiction.

His choice to leave the story somewhat broken but in the hands of Jesus shows me that Matt really gets what redemption/transformation looks like this side of Eden.  At risk of sharing too much of the story I have to share with you the transformation of the werewolf.  It made me a little teary because of how beautiful a picture it is of the redemption that Jesus accomplishes:
He took hold of my snout and forced his fingers between my teeth, and with a terrifying speed and surprising strength, he yanked my jaw open, then pushed it farther until I felt my jaw begin to crack.  I tried to shout, to tell him to stop, but he kept going until my jaw snapped like old firewood.  I collapsed under his hands, sobbing, and he pulled my werewolf lips back and tore them.  And he was not finished.  I felt a hand in my side where the knife had wounded me, and then the excruciating pain of the tearing there, and I whimpered and closed my eyes.  A last momentary regret washed over me as I realized that the burning man was killing me, and I was powerless to stop him.  But it was, after all, what I had agreed to.  Let him do as he will.  I let my body go limp and felt my mind wander and then go free.  And then only the heat and the flames and the dark.  (205)
That’s a beautiful picture of how the Lord often wounds us or breaks us and then provides redemption. 

A Caution

There is one part of the book that concerned me.  And though not a pervasive theme it did seem to be an underlying thread that ran throughout the book.  I do not know this for certain but Mikalatos may be a “red-letter Christian”.  I get this from the dialogue between the main characters in the story and Clockwork Jesus—a robot that had been programmed to only give the answers of Jesus. 

From this Matt seems to struggle through the connection between right believing and right living.  It seems that Jesus is more concerned about right living than right believing.  Deducing this from the words of Jesus, Luther says, “So what we do is more important than what we believe.  Or so it seems”.  To this Matt protests, but eventually it seems that if we are to listen to Jesus then it’s less about what you believe and more about how you live.  This statement was especially alarming to me:
“Clockwork Jesus is programmed to give the most direct response from Jesus’ answers.  He doesn’t go into Paul’s letters or the other letters to the churches.  He’s purely the words of Jesus” (181)
That’s good and all, and it makes you sound like a fuddy-duddy to throw up a red flag and say, “wait a minute isn’t this creating a false dichotomy?”  If we really believe that Jesus is the author of all of Scripture (and I’m not sure where Mikalatos stands on this one) then to pit Jesus against Paul as Clockwork Jesus is programmed to do seems unhelpful. 

Having said this I think that Mikalatos is making a point that bare belief in Jesus is not sufficient for salvation—that is not what transformation looks like.  That, to use his analogy, would be more like zombies following doctrines of men instead of Jesus himself.  His point is well taken, I just find his approach in this section a little clumsy and a tad murky concerning the benefit of all of Scripture as Jesus’ words. 

Should You Buy It?

If you like Christian fiction that makes a good point this is one of the better works that I have read.  Of course, I am not a Christian fiction guru either so there may be better stuff out there.  As for me I really enjoyed this and found myself considering a purchase of the authors other books. 

In my opinion the mark of a good Christian fiction book is one that makes you hope there is a sequel (that means the story is engaging) and that you are thinking about it a couple of weeks after you read it (that means it makes a profound statement).  To me this book, though rather silly, accomplishes both of these goals.  Great book, I’d suggest it. 

You can buy it for 10.94 or 8.99 on your Kindle.  Get it here.

Or you can enter to win a free copy of the book

I received this book from Tyndale in exchange for a review.  The review didn’t have to be positive, but fearing a zombie attack I made it positive anyways.  Find more at Matt's website or Tyndale.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Santa-god and Psalm 44

He's making a list,And checking it twice;Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice.

Good little boys and girls can be assured that if they are good then Santa Claus will bring them presents.  But the bad little boys and girls had better shape up because Santa Claus is coming to town and these little sprouts are going to have hell to pay.  No toys for these little minions they’ll be getting coals and spankings or at best that nasty fruitcake. 

If Christians are faithful then God will bless them.  He will give them presents like peace, prosperity, and healthy relationships.  When we turn our back on biblical principles this is when we are robbed of peace, prosperity, and our relationships become fractured.  But we can be assured that if we are nice rather than naughty the Lord (who sees us when we are sleeping even) will reward us well. 

You can extend this to a national level and say that when a nation is faithful to the Lord by allowing prayer in schools, keeping 10 Commandments and nativity scenes on the courthouse lawn, and making sure that our money mentions God then we will have prosperity, increased jobs, a better economy, and all the things that our good God-fearing nation would desire.

Now before I make my point it is important that you do not hear what I am not saying.  I think God does ultimately desire peace, prosperity, and healthy relationships, and ultimately I believe those will belong to those that are faithful to Him.  God does bless obedience.  Obedience is a good thing.  But… 

How does the above mentioned Santa-god fit into Psalm 44? 

The logic of Santa-god and Psalm 44

In verses 1-8 the sons of Korah remind the nation of the power of God displayed in their history.  They remind the people that if they are to have victory and salvation it will come through the Lord and not their own efforts.  Verse 8 ends with, “In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever”. 

For the first eight verses it sounds like Santa-god is standing on pretty solid biblical grounds.  If we were using logic it would look like this:

(A) As he has shown in the past, God blesses those that are faithful
(B) The Sons of Korah are being faithful
(C.) Therefore, the Sons of Korah will experience God’s blessing

But that is not what the equation looks like in Psalm 44:9.  Instead it is this:

(A) As he has shown in the past, God blesses those that are faithful
(B) The Sons of Korah are being faithful
(C.) “But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies”. 

Instead of “blessing” the people experience tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword.  They are “sold for a trifle”.  They have become a “laughingstock”, their face is “covered with shame” and they have become like “sheep for the slaughter”. 

Perhaps I am simply forgetting the other equation.  Certainly their situation is a result of their unfaithfulness.  This must be their equation:

(A) God punishes iniquity and does not bless those that are unfaithful
(B) Those living in the days of the sons of Korah are not being blessed
(C.) Therefore, the sons of Korah must be unfaithful

The only problem with that “loophole” is that according to Scripture the sons of Korah have not been “false to your covenant”.  They have not turned their hearts away from the Lord.  They have not departed from the ways of the Lord.  They aren’t talking sinless perfection here, they know they aren’t sinless; but they have remained faithful to the covenant.  And yet, “for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered”. 

Romans 8 and Psalm 44

It is interesting that Paul quotes Psalm 44 in the midst of Romans 8.  Honestly it seems like a weird (almost self-contradictory) place to quote Psalm 44.  At the end of Romans 8 Paul is asking the question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”  He then lists all those really bad things like tribulation, danger, sword, etc. and then quotes Psalm 44.  Why?

Paul is looking back to Psalm 44 at the experience of the sons of Korah and instructing us that believers will face mockery and suffering; such is, as Schreiner notes, the “lot of Christians”.  Believers will suffer and it is not because they aren’t being faithful or that they aren’t having enough faith but precisely because God loves them. 

In the midst of Psalm 44 the congregation is invited to join the psalmist in praying for the Lord’s redemption.  Romans 8 is no different.  It is placed there with Psalm 44 to infuse us with hope that in the midst of suffering and difficulty we can take heart that there is no place so low where the love of Christ does not reach the believer.  The suffering that we experience is not necessarily a sign of the Lord’s disfavor but is perhaps a sign of his profound love and grace.

Somehow the pain of Psalm 44 or Romans 8 is not divorced from the depth of God’s love.  This experience is not meant to separate us from the Lord but in actuality the banner that is placed over-top of this suffering is “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us”. 

Not just conquerors.  More than conquerors.  To conquer it would be to get through something, to achieve victory over it, to slay it.  At the end of “conquering” this suffering would be a statement like, “whew, I am really glad that is over”.  But the text goes further than merely conquering.  It says more than conquerors. 

“More than conquerors” means that somehow God turns horrible things like suffering and death into good.  Those that are “more than a conquerors” would say things like, “that was really difficult and I would not necessarily desire to go through it again, but it has deepened my relationship with Christ, increased my capacity for joy, and brought me into a greater conformity with Christ.” 

The problem with Santa-god  

There are many problems with the Santa-god moralism that wears the mask of concerned Christianity, but I want to quickly note three.  The first and perhaps the worst is that he rips us off by distracting us with fleeting pleasures.  With Santa-god the goal to obedience does not become greater conformity to Christ, greater enjoyment of God as God-belittling sin no longer distracts us from relishing the Lord.  With Santa-god the goal to obedience is a bigger house, cheaper gas for your car, and more gold buried in your backyard.  What a rip off.  God offers eternal pleasure of infinite joy.  I’m not buying this shoddy promise that Santa-god is promising. 

Secondly, if we take this on a national level Santa-god causes lots of fighting.  If Santa-god looks at us as a nation to see if we are being naughty or nice then those darn liberals not letting baby Jesus silently sleep in the courthouse lawn are causing me to be put on that naughty list.  I’ll fight these loser to the death because they are robbing me of the fleeting pleasures that Santa-god is promising us if we would only be good. 

Lastly, Santa-god creates moralism in the midst of brokenness instead of shining a light on the only source of hope.  The message of Santa-god to a suffering sinner is simply, “repent, get up out of the mess, and do better next time”.  He offers moralism as the solution to brokenness.  But not Jesus.  Jesus offer complete redemption.  Jesus whispers to the suffering, “nothing is going to stop me from loving you”.  He comes into the midst of brokenness, changes our hearts, and while he still calls to repentance he also infuses our hearts with hope, love, and grace to accomplish the task He calls us to fulfill. 

Individually and corporately we need Jesus.  We cry out with the sons of Korah, “Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” But we, as the sons of Korah could only know partially, know that Jesus Christ did “rise up” and he has redeemed us for the sake of His steadfast love!  And we know now that there is nothing that can separate us from His love.  Our crying now is for the not-yet to become the already! 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Out-Rejoicing Adversaries

…be sure that you always out-rejoice your adversaries.  If something is worth fighting for, it is worth rejoicing over.  And the joy is essential in the battle, for nothing is worth fighting for that will not increase our everlasting joy in God.  (John Piper, Contending for our All, 62)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review of Gospel Wakefulness by Jared C. Wilson

I’ve shared this story before but I think it is a fitting illustration of what Jared Wilson’s book Gospel Wakefulness is all about…

One morning as I was taking a shower this text came across my mind:  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.”  I didn’t give it much thought until a few days later…

There I was sitting in the bath tub at a spiritual crossroad.  I felt as if all of hell was pulling at my soul.  Tempting me, sifting me…sifting me…wait, was God communicating something to me a few days ago.  I had no idea.  Everything was cloudy.

Here I was a youth pastor.  I am supposed to be leading teenagers.  I was preaching about the glory of God and having satisfaction in Christ alone.  Yet inwardly, I was so screwed up.  I had thoughts that a believer should never have.  I had doubts that ravaged my soul.  And with that came dejection, depression, and deep feelings of condemnation.  I wanted to hide but knew there was no place to run.  There I was alone, cowering in the bath tub.

This time in my life was perhaps the most intense period of temptation that I have faced.  I felt as if I were seconds away from turning my back on Christ and running in the other direction forever.  I’d have to quit as a youth pastor.  My marriage would be altered forever.  My relationships with others rocked.  I’m not sure if it was good or not but I kept going through the motions trying to hang on to what little faith I seemed to have left.

Then the lights came on.  Suddenly I felt as if the sifting had subsided and I was able to see the beauty and sufficiency of Jesus.  Actually its not as if I had somehow returned to normal.  Actually, through this experience I was utterly transformed.  The gospel became so much sweeter.  I was slowly being stripped of every vestige of self-righteousness, and I saw Christ as the only home for my tattered and tempted soul.

What is Gospel Wakefulness?

This experience is what Jared Wilson would call Gospel Wakefulness.  For some people it happens simultaneous with conversion but for others, like me, it happens at a time after conversion.  What is gospel wakefulness?  Wilson defines it as “treasuring Christ more greatly and savoring his power more sweetly”.  (24)

It is not a second conversion experience nor is it equivalent to the new birth (24).  It is a strengthening of the affections for Christ alone that comes through beholding the glory of Christ at an intersection of profound brokenness (32).  It is Wilson’s contention that those that are bored with the gospel say such things because they have never experienced gospel wakefulness. 

If I understand Wilson correctly he is saying that gospel proclamation is its own catalyst.  Rather than being afraid of the monotony of the gospel we should proclaim it over and over and over and over and over again.  The more it is proclaimed the sweeter it becomes.  Rather than becoming boring and drab the gospel actually gets better the more it is experienced and beheld.  (Perhaps it may be better to say Jesus becomes sweeter the more He is experienced and beheld). 

As Wilson weaves stories, illustrations, and biblical defenses throughout this book he is making one simple point Jesus is big enough to captivate our every affection so rather than assuming the gospel let’s proclaim it over and over again.  The gospel is what drives sanctification.  The gospel is what ties a broken and depressed person to a strong and faithful Christ, so let’s proclaim it in the midst of darkness.  The gospel transforms our hearts and therein also transforms spiritual disciplines.  It brings confidence as it links us to Christ. 

This book, then, is a simple passionate and emboldened plea to keep the gospel central in our lives and in our churches.  It’s not a formula or a magic potion.  In fact, Wilson admits up front that gospel wakefulness “can’t be learned” (34).  He explains:

…all I mean is, neither I nor anyone else can say to you, ‘Be awed by the gospel,’ and have you say, ‘Okay,’ and make the decision of awe.  I can and should tell you to ‘Behold!’—and that is the major function of this book—but whether you will truly see is up to God , and it is usually dependent on how dim all your earthly hopes have grown for you.


There have been a few cordial concerns from other reviewers that Wilson’s book “could easily lead to unhelpful division and categorization” (Trevin Wax and also Aaron Armstrong).  While I understand the point that Wax and Armstrong are making I think Jared’s position is one backed up by the apostle Paul. 

It seems to me that in Ephesians 1:1-14 Paul is laying the ground work of what has objectively happened in the life of every believer.  But then in 1:15-23 Paul essentially prays that the Ephesians will “have the eyes of the hearts enlightened” in such a way that they will come to increasingly enjoy all that Christ has already purchased.  Certainly this process of “enlightening” and “knowing the hope to which he has called you” is not a uniform process in every believer. 

Though there are those that are sensitive to such language (and perhaps rightly so) I am perfectly fine with praying over every brother and sister in Christ that their experience of enjoying what Christ has already purchased would become sweeter and sweeter.  I do not think Wilson’s intention is to draw a fine line between “wakened” and “unawakened” but rather it is to say that what will cause us to increase in our affections for Jesus and increasingly wake up to the beauty of the gospel is indeed the gospel itself. 

My only criticism (actually concern) is one that Wilson mentions in his conclusion.  He notes that his friend voiced concern over the constant use of the term gospel.  The friend said, “I feel like all the gospel-centered this and gospel-driven that is just our version of ‘smurfy’.” (213)  And as Wilson notes, this is a very valid concern within the gospel-centered movement.  I think Wilson answers this charge quite effectively.  I found the conclusion helpful but perhaps more so his response to a Fuller quote I shared.  

My only critique is that I wish the concern addressed in his conclusion had been given a full chapter worth of treatment.  We have to be cautious not to make the gospel the end but as a means to the end; namely, God Himself.  I would have liked to see this potential danger fleshed out a little more.  (See Piper’s God is the Gospel). 

Should You Buy It?

Absolutely.  As I shared earlier through a period of intense brokenness God began the process of awaking me to the beauty of his gospel.  But for some silly reason I occasionally decide to shut my eyes or fall asleep to the beauty of Jesus.  I echo the sentiment of Matt Chandler when he says of this book, “My eyes filled with tears and my heart flooded with joy on numerous occasions.” 

Wilson is correct in his thesis—the more the gospel is proclaimed the more it awakens the heart.  God used this book to strengthen and dare I say re-stimulate the sufficiency of the Christ and His gospel in my own heart.  Through reading this book I began to ache for more of Christ.  My heart was truly stirred. 

I’d buy this book simply because it is filled with gospel proclamation.  At every turn you see Wilson pointing to Jesus and saying “Behold”.  Eventually, it’s gonna click and we’ll catch glimpses—beautiful, brilliant, radiant glimpses—of the beauty of Christ.  Eventually we’ll simply become fixated.

You can buy the book for 10 bucks at Amazon or on the Kindle for just over 7.  Get it here.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Review of What God Thinks When We Fail

I received this book free from IVP in exchange for a review.  I thought about failing to review it for the irony of it, but then realized everyone would fail to catch the irony because only my wife and the online publicist from IVP knows that I got the book to review.  If you think this review or any of my jokes up tot his point can be considered a FAIL, then take heart I’m not offended I’ve read this book and I’m okay with it…really. 

Rather than trying to summarize myself I’ll treat you to the IVP Press Release:

What does God think of us when we fail?

Does he think

  • You're a loser.
  • There's no hope for you.
  • What a wimp!
  • You're good for nothing!

Or does he think something very different?

If you've ever lost a job or a relationship, let your friends down, seen your finances collapse, found your ministry crumbling or failed to meet your own ethical standards, you might wonder if recovery is possible. Perhaps you've wondered if you can ever repair the damage done to others, to yourself and to your relationship with God.

Steve Roy has good news for you. He had to face his own failures, but his failures also drove him deep into what God thinks about us and success, especially in Christian ministry. He searched deeply in Scripture and listened carefully to the stories of others. He found that God's view of success is very different from ours. And that a biblically grounded view of success and failure challenges our preconceived notions but leads to hopeful renewal that goes beyond what we often ask or think.

Roy’s book is simple but not simplistic.  His main point is that what really matters is what God thinks of us.  That is good news because God is not concerned with our performance He is concerned with our faithfulness and obedience. 

If done poorly this book would have been dangerous.  And many have veered off the gospel path on this point.  Many would agree with Roy’s thesis statement that failure is only failure as determined in the eyes of God.  They would agree further that would God is really concerned with is our faithfulness and obedience to him.  But then once the “moralistic therapeutic deism” that we call modern Christianity is inserted into the equation, Roy’s thesis ends up being a sledgehammer to bludgeon and already downtrodden “failure”. 

You see knowing that success is determined by God is not freedom unless you rightly understand the gospel.  One particular area that I see many Christians fall in concerns the “finding the will of God”.  What do you do when you have made a really dumb decision and somehow find yourself “outside of the will of God”?  (Read my review of Kevin DeYoung’s excellent book Just Do Something for a little more perspective on this).  This is the area where many Christians feel like failures.  They assume that they have somehow failed in the eyes of God (obedience and faithfulness) and therefore must clean themselves up, dig themselves out of the hole of their own making, etc. before God can truly like them again. 

Thankfully Steven Roy doesn’t take that path.  Roy takes the narrow path of the gospel.  He helps us “failures” come to realize that our identity is in Christ.  He even helps us to see that our screw ups can be used by God to make us more holy and even to further His kingdom.  His advice for confronting failure is simple really, believe the gospel and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. 

The final chapter is also helpful and I am glad that the book does not end at chapter 7.  It seems to me that God often uses our failures and our sufferings to help others to cling to Jesus and fix our eyes on Him.  In the final chapter Roy speaks to ministers (but just as easily to anyone that has failed and knows somebody else that has a heartbeat) when he urges us to share our failures with other failures.  That is helpful.  Many ministers want to keep their weaknesses hidden.  Roy follows the apostle Paul in reminding us that it is in our weakness that the power of God is shown. 

So what does God think when we fail?

He’s not surprised by it, it doesn’t change his love for us, it doesn’t even change His ability to use us to further His kingdom.  Failure is only really a problem if it’s not covered by the gospel.  Or perhaps if we refuse to move on and live in the forgiveness that Christ has already purchased.

Should You Buy It?

I would recommend this book to about anyone.  Roy helpfully applies the gospel.  He writes in a compelling fashion.  He gives solid theology but does not do it in a boring way that many often associate with “theology”.  It’s a good read and a helpful reminder that God is faithful even when we blow it.  Throughout the book Roy points to Jesus and encourages the struggler to look there.  And that always makes a book worth handing to somebody else. 

I will keep this book in my library and I’m guessing I’ll be giving it away to some “failure” that comes into my office because they’ve assumed they’ve blown it. 

Don’t fail to buy this book.  You can get it from Amazon for about 10 bucks in Kindle and paperback.  Buy it here.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Preparing for When the Light Goes Out

I’ve shared in the past that I struggle with depression, discouragement, or if you’re feeling extra Elizabethan “fits of melancholy”.  I loathe these times. 

I know what it is like to live in the enjoyment of what Christ has purchased.  I know what it is like to be “on fire for the Lord”.  In these times I figure I see things rather clearly.  I see gospel metaphors everywhere.  I see the beauty of Jesus all around me.  In these times I am feasting on the goodness and greatness of God.  I cherish these times. 

But then for some unknown (at least to me) reason the lights go out.  Sometimes it is because of a stupid choice.  Sometimes it is personal sin.  Occasionally it will be circumstances.  But many times I just wake up discouraged and I cannot seem to shake it.  My head feels fuzzy, my body feels tired, my affections feel cold. 

When the Light Goes Out

In these times it is as if I find myself in a really dark room where all the things that I know are real appear much different than they really are.  You know that feeling that you had when you were a child and as soon as the lights went out the trees outside your window turn into monsters with long dangly arms, the dresser becomes a giant blob of death, your wardrobe is Frankenstein, and your toy chest is now a portal to the depths of the underworld.  That’s what real life feels like to me sometimes.

My wife’s expression which a day before would have been rightly interpreted as love is now interpreted as disdain.  The harmless jokes from my friends which I would have laughed at yesterday are now darts that rip at the very fiber of my identity.  The sin that I could have dealt with yesterday, seeing it rightly covered by the blood of Christ, now seems insurmountable.  The confidence that I had yesterday, the passion for writing, preaching, studying, etc. to make Christ the only boast of this generation now turns on me and convinces me that any work I do will probably bring shame upon the risen Lord.  The open arms of Jesus that yesterday seemed like an invitation for loving embrace now seem like that grappling position that wrestlers have before one is thrown down to the mat.

I know my eyes (perhaps, more so my heart) are playing tricks on me.  I know that any wrestling Jesus does is for my good.  I know my wife loves me, my friends respect me, God uses me, and His blood is sufficient for even my thoughts in this darkness.  I know that.  But yet that tree sure does look like a monster. 

Your counsel to me might very well be “just go turn on the lights”.  I can’t.  Maybe because I can’t get myself out of bed for fear that the darkness will swallow me.  Maybe I can’t because for some reason the light switch is broken.  Maybe I’m so disoriented that I am not even sure where the light switch is anymore.  It seems as if I am in these moments at the mercy of the dawn.  When morning comes then I’ll see again. 

Making the Nights Better

I have not given up trying to make the night go away.  Though, I’ve somewhat come to grips with the fact that this may very well be my “thorn”, my “weakness”, that the Lord will choose to show His strength through.  As for now, I’m in that in between spot where I am trying to find a way to “boast in my weakness” but fight it with all the vigor I have with weaponry of Christ. 

One way that I have learned to fight the darkness is to take advantage of the daytime.  In those times when the lights are on I cannot throw my time away on trivial junk (though I often do).  In these moments I need to prepare for the darkness.  The more I become convinced of reality when the lights are on the easier it is to tell a dragon from a jukebox when the lights are out

This is one reason why I rehearse the gospel quite often and keep things that serve as matches quite close to me.  I know that when I’m in the dark I can call to mind Scripture that I’ve read, theological truths that have been implanted in my heart, help from the church (all 2,000 years of her history), and identity shaping gospel promises.  These are my matches.  They give me just enough light to see for a moment before the darkness overtakes them. 

Perhaps God allows the night so that I long for the day.  There will be a day when there are no more dark rooms and I am able to see the Lord for who He is.  I’ll know then who I am too.  And his outstretched arms will never be interpreted for a forthcoming throw to the mat—instead I’ll know they are love. 

I’m content hanging on to my bed post in darkness praying that the darkness doesn’t overtake me, so long as I know that morning is coming.  I take great encouragement from FLAME’s moving exhortation, “Hold On, He’s Strong, Hold On, He’s Strong, Our God is a Warrior”.  He’s fighting the darkness.  I can’t see Him but He is.  And He’ll make sure that morning comes, even when it seems like the darkness may have gotten the upper hand. 

I’m hanging on until morning. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Doing Us Good In Spite of Ourselves

Every now and then you are going to have to put up with an abundance of Newton quotes on this blog; I read these things and they are such balm for my soul that I have to share them.  Consider this:

[The Lord] often takes a course for accomplishing his purposes directly contrary to what our narrow views would prescribe.  He wounds, in order to heal; kills, that he may make alive; casts down when he designs to raise; brings a death upon our feelings, wishes, and prospects, when he is about to give us the desire of our hearts.  The things he does to prove us; but he himself knows, and has determined before-hand, what he will do.  The proof indeed usually turns out to our shame.  Impatience and unbelief show their heads, and prompt us to suppose this and the other thing, yea perhaps all things, are against us; to question whether He be with us and for us, or not.  But it issues likewise in the praise of his goodness, when we find, that, [in spite of] all our unkind complaints and suspicions, he is still working wonderfully for us, causing light to shine out of darkness, and doing us good in defiance of ourselves.

Repeated Multiplied Goodness

I found this very encouraging.  I believe the gentleman that Newton is writing to has cancer.  Newton’s struggle is my own:

I hope you will find the Lord present at all times and in all places.  When it is so, we are at home every where; when it is otherwise, home is a prison, and abroad a wilderness.  I know what I ought to desire, and what I do desire.  I point him out to others as the all in all; I esteem him as such in my own judgment; but alas! my experience abounds with complains.  He is my sun; but clouds, and sometimes walls, intercept him from my view.  He is my strength; yet I am prone to lean upon reeds.  He is my friend; but on my part there is such coldness and ingratitude as no other friend could bear.  But still he is gracious, and shames me with repeated multiplied goodness.  O for a warmer heart, a more simple dependence, a more active zeal, a more sensible deliverance from the effects of this body of sin and death!  He helps me in my endeavors to keep the vineyards of others; but, alas! my own does not seem to flourish as some do around me.  However, though I cannot say I labor more abundantly than they all, I have reason to say, with thankfulness, By the grace of God, I am what I am.  My poor story would soon be much worse, did not he support, restrain, and watch over me every minute.  (Newton’s Works, Volume 1, 626)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Quick Review of Welcome to the Story by Stephen J. Nichols

In his book Disciple: Getting Your Identity From Jesus Bill Clem shares an analogy where he compares three drama students starring in a play they perform in their garage with a drama student auditioning for a small part in a Broadway play in New York.  The difference between the two scenarios is the one student even with a walk-on part being part of something huge.  The other students are delusional “believing their vision of the way things could be is the way things actually are”.  He compares this analogy to the difference between inviting God into our little stories or being offered whatever role in God’s epic unfolding drama.  Clem says,

Our personal story is actually a distortion of reality and a desire for significance.  God’s story is reality, and significance can be ours with even a walk-on bit part, because pleasing and glorifying the Creator is the most significant experience offered to created beings.  (Clem, Disciple, 15)

It’s not only our personal stories that can be distortions of reality.  Our reading and understanding of Scripture can suffer from the same distortion.  Yes, God’s story is about us.  It is about our creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.  but that is our part in the story.  More than our story the Bible is the story of God and we play bit-part’s in it. 

Stephen J. Nichols has written Welcome to the Story with the hopes of inviting readers to “enter in, to participate in, the story of the Bible”.  Nichols traces the Bible’s plotline of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, then he starts teaching a street-level hermeneutics course. 

That’s really what this book is: a street-level hermeneutics course.  I have been looking for this book for quite some time.  I love Goldsworthy’s books outlining God’s story.  I found a good amount of help from Vaughn Roberts’ God’s Big Picture.  I found Dr. Wellum’s hermeneutics class immensely helpful.  Furthermore, works like Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty and Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God helped to open my eyes to seeing the big picture of God’s story.  But up until this book by Nichols nothing seemed to translate into the pew. 

Now I finally have something that I can give curious members of my church.  Now there is something that we could use as a small group study to teach the storyline of the Bible in an engaging way.  Now there is something that I can use as an introduction to biblical theology with young men that I train for ministry. 

I share Tom Schreiner’s enthusiasm for the book when he says,

Nichols has written a delightful and inviting book on how to understand and live out the Bible.  The storyline of Scripture is sketched in, and the book is full of wise advice on how to read and live out what God requires.  I recommend the book with enthusiasm.

There is enough in here to teach a seminary level course but it’s written in such a way that the average Bible reader would be able to understand the concepts.  As I read through the book I found myself engaged, helped, and at the end I finally realized what Nichols had done.  I thought to myself after finishing the book, “He just taught a hermeneutics course, oh my goodness, how did he do that?!?!” 

This book is very helpful.  No matter what your level of Bible reading this book belongs in your library.  For only 10.81 you can treat yourself to an engaging seminary course that you won’t even notice is a seminary course.  Buy it today!

Muscular Faith Giveaway

I just reviewed this book and I want to give it away to somebody.

Here are the rules.  I’m not looking to give this away to somebody that just wants to read it for the heck of it or to pad a library.  I want to give this to somebody that is either A) going to give it away to somebody that needs it or B) convinces me that they need it. 

So here is how you win this book.  Read the review and then be the first one that meets one of those criteria.  You can either leave a comment here or simply email me at

         mike AT fbjasper DOT org

First come first serve.

Quick Review of Muscular Faith by Ben Patterson

Confession time…

My stomach usually starts a minor Civil War against my other greater sensibilities whenever I see a Christian book title like this one.  There are quite a few “be a man” books out there.  Some are good.  Most are more about how to be Rocky Balboa than a follower of Jesus.  Books with titles like Muscular Faith are usually heavy on the muscles and lax on the faith. 

It’s the former category—the Rocky Balboa type—that I assumed this book would fall under.  It’s starts with a quote from C.S. Lewis (an apt theologian but one that those "warrior” types like to quote) and a translation from The Message.  So, I braced myself for what would be an agonizing 260 pages of my palm constantly hitting my face. 

Somewhere in the first fifty pages or so my opinion radically changed.  Rather than assuming that this was one of those theologically-weak testosterone-filled diatribe’s I soon discovered that this guy was solid.  Suddenly I realized that the “fight” and the “muscular faith” that this guy was calling for is none other than the faith once for all delivered to the saints. 

This book became one worth recommending.  Once I discovered that this book would be worth recommending my next task would be to find out who needs this book.  And that proves a tough task.  I have to answer two questions, “what is this book claiming?” and “who would benefit from it?”. 

What is the book about?

Muscular Faith is a relatively lengthy book but it reads quickly.  It is filled with engaging stories and simple points.  For 260 pages Patterson gives what seems to be an introduction to the gospel and how to live out the Christian faith.  But it’s not just any old introduction to the Christian faith; it reads more like a battle plan than a theology text book.  Patterson is real about the wounds that come from following Jesus.  I appreciate that.

As near as I can tell his point is to explain the Christian faith and how to live out what Christ has purchased in a way that debunks the lazy and superficial faith of many that merely profess Christ. 

Who would benefit from it?

It seems to me that Patterson’s main audience is professing Christians, probably college guys that are more passionate about the next Halo tournament than living for Jesus.  It’s probably not going to stir up someone that reads Puritans but it may be the next step for teenagers raised on event-driven and Spam-eating youth groups. 

I could see this book appealing to and assisting college men in their walk with Jesus.  It may even be something to give to an unbeliever that thinks the Christian faith is mostly for purple-haired women and effeminate dudes. 


I kind of wish that this book were a little less lengthy.  It’s kind of like trying to convince an 80 pound junior high kid that he needs to lift weights by throwing him into a workout with the professional wrestlers.  He’s probably wondering if he can even bench press the bar and these guys are throwing on 45’s just to get him started. 

If you are trying to “build up their spiritual muscles” as the back of the book claims then perhaps you shouldn’t do it with a 260 page book.  Yes, it reads quickly but I’d rather see a shorter book that makes much the same arguments but then refers in a few places to other resources.  

This book is probably best for the guy that has been lifting weights for awhile but he’s kind of a nancy and doesn’t want to push himself any further.  He’s comfortable with his bench press so there’s really no need getting any stronger.  In other words this book is probably not the first Christian book you want your college student to read—but it might be a “raise the bar” challenge to someone that has already read a few books and is pretty confident in his stagnant Christianity. 

If you purchase this book and give it to someone I’d like to know what you think.  Did other people find it helpful?  If so, who?  If you know someone that can benefit from this book give me an email or leave a comment and I’ll send it to you free of charge…only one rule though…you HAVE to give it away, or convince me you need it.  First come first serve.

You can buy it for 11.69 or 9.99 on your Kindle.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sleeping Away Our Mission Field

“God put Jonah in the midst of a serious situation with seriously broken people, and he slept” –D. Patrick & M. Carter from For the City

This one hurt. 

I’ve been Jonah way too many times.  My excuse has always been the same, “my wife and I are planning to move soon, this is only temporary, no point getting too attached”.  Two years later we end up at the same house still waiting for the next location. 

Granted our moves (up until the big move to Kentucky) were only across town or at least within 15 minutes.  And we could have certainly continued these relationships had we begun them.  But not us.  (I should probably say “not me” because my wife is better about this than I am).  I was too busy sleeping our mission field away. 

Is God sovereign?  Does He—somehow—through His sovereign goodness plant us exactly where He want us?  Even if we wind up where we are because of our own stupidity?  Are the people in your life (neighbors, co-workers, family, etc.) there by accident? 

Is God missional?  Is he drawing people to Himself?  Is His gospel to be proclaimed everywhere?  Is part of His work to redeem brokenness?  Who did Jesus hang out with—religious people or “sinners”? 

Does God use His church (believers) to throw back darkness?  To destroy the works of the devil?  To redeem brokenness?  To be the hands and feet of Jesus? 

I’m just guessing that God planted Jonah on a boat with lost people for a reason.  I’m just guessing that God has lost and broken people in our neighborhood for a reason. 

Time to wake up.

Review of For the City

Churches can be IN the city, AGAINST the city, OF the city, or FOR the city.  It is the latter approach that Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter encourage churches to adopt.  Actually the word “city” could be replaced with culture.  Whether it be a rural farming community, a ghetto, a wealthy suburban area, or a gathering of mountain men in the hills of Kentucky the church has these four options in regards to her response to the culture. 

The church in the city is primarily focused with bringing outsiders into the church.  The church against the city has adopted a defensive posture that considers the culture irredeemable.  The church of the city “bends so far to the culture that they lose their distinctive Christian identity—they lose their ability to speak truth effectively.” (25)  But the church for the city is:

…a model of engagement where a church speaks the truth of the gospel and is not afraid to uphold a biblical worldview and moral standard.  Such a church proclaims the truths of Scripture with passion, clarity, and boldness.  At the same time, though, this is a church that commits itself to seek the shalom, the flourishing, of the city.  This means seeking the shalom of the people they live in community with, living sacrificially and using their gifts, time, and money to seek the peace and prosperity of their neighbors.  (26)

It is this vision that Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter unfold in the latest book in the Exponential Series:  For the City.  Carter and Patrick each write four chapters and then tag-team on the last two.  In the first part of the book (which is very engaging) both men share their experience of planting a church in a large city.  Patrick helped plant The Journey in St. Louis and Carter helped plant Austin Stone in Austin, TX. 

In the second part of the book Patrick tackles the topics of contextualization, community, and what it means to serve the city.  Carter considers equipping and suffering.  The book closes with both men sharing confessions of what they have done wrong, and then with a passionate plea to live like Jonah. 


The community that houses the church where I serve is home to a little over 15,000 citizens.  If you combine the smaller surrounding towns there is at maximum 40,000 people in the area.  This is hardly what Carter and Patrick have in mind when they use the term "city”.  But that is okay says Carter, “those of you who aren’t located in a larger city, many of the concepts we discuss will work equally well where you are”.  (26)

So does it?  That is one key question that I was asking as I read through this book.  Does it transfer or do I need to be in a big city to apply the principles of For the City?

Darrin Patrick’s chapter on contextualization is certainly something that can be transferred to our church setting.  After giving a brief definition and defense for the necessity of contextualization he asks wide-open questions that can be used to exegete any culture.  He encourages churches to ask head, heart, and hand’s questions.  Such as, “what events rally the community?”, “what do they suffer and sacrifice for?, “what are people passionate about”?  Answering these questions can help a person exegete any community no matter the size.

Churches in any community are also tempted to drive off the ditch into syncretism and sectarianism.  And the healthy contextualization that Patrick presents--one which clings to “the true gospel with its brutal truth and beautiful grace (81)”—is certainly reproducible in any context. 

Patrick’s chapter on Community is also highly transferable.  Because the concepts are rooted in creation and inter-Trinitarian community they can be transferred anywhere.  The same thing goes for Patrick’s chapter on serving the city.  A smaller community may not be able to reproduce Luminary Center for the Arts or build a Karis House but they can ask questions that discern the needs of the community and figure out tangible ways to meet those needs.

Matt Carter’s chapters on Suffering and Equipping are a little less concrete than Patrick’s.  It is not difficult to see that suffering is universal.  And therefore the need for the church to not only suffer well but also meet the needs of those suffering is easily transferable. 

Carter’s central statement on equipping--1. Act, 2. Repeatedly, 3. Over Time (121) is a helpful reminder to any community.  Such a work takes time.  If we really want to be a church for the city it will take many efforts done repeatedly over time. 

For the City could easily be changed to For your Community because the concepts here really are transferable.  That alone does not make the book good.  Heresy and error could just as easily be transferable to every community as could solid biblical truth.  What makes this book good is that it is very solidly biblical, gospel-centered, and helpful to every church community. 

The fundamental question that this book leaves hanging over every church (or gathering that claims to be a church) is this one: If we shut our doors tomorrow would our community know we were gone?  Would the city leaders celebrate, feeling as if they had gotten rid of a nuisance?  Or would the city grieve and mourn our disappearance? (26)

If the principles of For the City are applied I believe that many more churches would be able to say, “yes our community would know that we were gone, and for the most part they will feel the impact of our departure”. 

One Frustration

There is one frustration that I continue to have with the books like this one.  They are almost solely written for church plants or younger churches.  I’m left with questions about how to apply some of these principles in a church that is heavily burdened (if not out right shackled) by a building program gone to seed. 

I agree that most churches are “so enamored with its own survival and maintenance that it forgot its mission” (74).  But how does that change?  In a church plant the planters/pastors have a much greater influence over creating the church culture.  Those of us that are pastors placed within a context that sometimes has deeply entrenched ideas about missions, giving, contextualization, etc. are often frustrated by the slow movement. 

I’m not faulting Patrick and Carter for not speaking to those of us that are not ministering in church plants.  We are not their fundamental audience.  I am speaking to those that are responsible for this exponential series.  Please, please, please find some people that have done it and write a book about changing a church from missional complacency to missionally passionate. 

I imagine the answer is slow patient but passionate plodding in gospel preaching. 


This book is very helpful.  Even if you are not a church plant and not in a “city” the questions in this book are broad enough to apply.  Every person reading this book will benefit from hearing Matt and Darrin’s confessions.  It will humble and encourage all that read. 

The passionate plea in the last chapter to be like Jonah is so soaked in the gospel that it will hopefully motivate for action and cause the heart to rise in worship. 

You can (and should) purchase this book for only 12.91.  I was fortunate enough to get it for free from Zondervan in exchange for a review. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Little Care and Watchfulness Now…

…had the heart been well guarded at first, it had never come to this height: the temptation had been stopped in the first or second act.  And indeed there it is stopped easily: for it is the motions of a tempted soul to sin, as in the motion of a stone falling from the brow of a hill; it is easily stopped at first, but when it is set agoing, [it gathers strength as it goes]: And therefore, it is the greatest wisdom in the world to observe the first motions of the heart, to check and stop sin there.  The motions of sin are weakest at first, a little care and watchfulness may prevent much mischief now, which the careless heart not heeding, is brought with the power of temptation.  (John Flavel, from A Saint Indeed, emphasis mine)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review of Mind Your Faith by David A. Horner

The statistics are startling.  Consider this from Steve Henderson in a Christianity Today article:

“More than 52 percent of incoming freshmen who identify themselves as born-again upon entering a public university will either no longer identify themselves as born-again four years later or, even if they do still claim that identification, will not have attended any religious service in over a year.”  (From “Price Versus Cost”)

Perhaps that “statistic” is a reality in your home, or at least you know of a strong Christian family rocked by their college son’s newly acquired atheism.  For at least a decade churches have been considering how to equip teenagers for the faith attacks they will endure in college.  How will the church prepare its teenagers to not lose their faith once they enter college? 

Horner’s Solution:

David A. Horner, in his book Mind Your Faith, argues that what students are really losing is their mind.  He ably argues that if parents and churches can help a student learn to think well then the student will not lose his faith and will inevitably live well.

Horner’s approach is unique as he focuses, “on mind, faith, and character, dealing with each detail and brining them together into an integrated vision of flourishing as a college student and beyond.” (24)  Horner, rightly, believes that “our thinking undergirds everything else that we do, including our believing and our acting”. (33)  Because of this conviction the largest portion of the book is given to helping students develop clear thinking skills. 

In chapters 2-4 Horner attempts to build a foundation of healthy thinking.  His second chapter is a serious call to love God with our minds.  Here he very helpfully takes to task those that have embraced an intellectually unengaged brand of Christianity and attempts to sound the bell on the imaginary war between head and heart (in which head always seems to lose).  What does it mean to love God with our mind?

We use our minds for distinguishing between truth and falsity, learning, evaluating, memorizing, communicating, planning, inventing, and deciding.  In fact, we use our minds in doing everything else that we do.  Loving God with our mind, then, is doing all of those things—the best we can, for the glory of God, as an expression of gratitude, love, and worship of him.  (47)

The third and fourth chapters are the most technical of all of the chapters, but perhaps the most helpful.  They serve as crash courses on philosophy and Aristotelian logic.  That may sound daunting but Horner explains them as if he is explaining them to a freshmen high school class.  I am a seminary student that has taken classes on philosophy and logic and I learned a good deal in these chapters do to Horner’s simplicity (not simplism) and masterful teaching. 

In chapters 5-7 Horner takes his foundation out for a spin.  Chapter five is a helpful primer on “thinking contextually”.  The main argument is that we consistently need to think like missionaries.  We must consider whether we are in a Jerusalem setting (where people assume certain biblical truths but need to have a bridge built to Jesus) or whether we are in Athens (where people are largely ignorant of biblical truths and more bridges need to be built).  Horner then looks at Paul’s ministry at Athens and encourages the reader to find “points of contact”, “points of need”, and “points of tension”. 

The sixth and seventh chapter are attempts at helping students learn to ask good question and give good reasons.  In these sections Horner also attempts to serve students by helping them connect the dots in establishing their own worldview and assessing the worldviews of others.   

In the second part Horner begins to deal with the nature and necessity of faith.  He also is quick to help students handle doubts and objections (both their own and that of others).  His eleventh chapter is a formulation of worldview apologetics. 

Finally, in the third section Horner considers how character stems from the mind and faith interacting.  The last chapter is an exploration of the French community Le Chambon and how it is a model of what Horner is encouraging students to do, live out a robust faith that is not intellectually stagnant but intellectually vigorous. 

My Take

As I reflect upon this book—which I thoroughly enjoyed reading—I asked myself three central questions.  Would I hand this to a senior in high school that is getting ready to attend a public university?  Would I suggest this book to an unbeliever?  If followed would this book cause a freshman in college to not only keep his mind and faith but to grow in his passion to make Jesus the only boast of his generation?

Would I give it to a high school senior?

Unless she already had a good solid foundation, loved Jesus, but had a sense of fear and trepidation I am not certain that she would read it.  Though shorter than most Twilight books the lack of pale-looking vampires on the cover would probably seem daunting to most teenagers that are stooped in anti-intellectual culture. 

And that is unfortunate because I would love to have every high school student read through this book (more on that in a moment).  There are certain students that I have in mind that I would love to give this to, and probably will.  I am thinking of those students that are more prone to asking questions and that seem to have a thirst for knowledge.  Those type of students would eat this book up.  But on a popular level I’m not sure most high school students would take the time to read it. 

Maybe I am wrong, and I hope that I am.  Honestly, I would strongly suggest parents pick up this book when your teenager is a freshman in high school.  Go through the book with him/her and start helping them think well even in high school.  Honestly, the onslaught of students faith is increasingly entering our public schools at younger and younger ages.  This book should not wait until college to reach your teenagers hand. 

Would I suggest this book to an unbeliever?

I think I would, if this unbeliever were more the intellectual type that has a thirst for knowledge.  Much of what Horner says here could be used to “blow the roof off” many of the unbelievers assumptions.  It could be used to expose some of the faulty premises to his/her worldview. 

Obviously, there would be certain places that unbelievers would probably disagree with.  But Horner does a tremendous job of presenting the faith in such a way that is both engaging and grounded in the truth of the gospel.  You may not find a full-orbed gospel presentation in this book but it certainly would raise enough questions to lead to such a discussion. 

Would it work?

Maybe.  There are at least two things that may make this work.  But there is one glaring omission that may present a formidable stumbling block. 

One of the things that may make Horner’s book “work” is his continual emphasis of community.  I absolutely love his continual call for staying in a community of believers and working out questions, and doubts within that context.  We need one another and it does not matter how “strong” a student is going into college, if he does not quickly make himself a part of a Christian community his faith will grow stale.  We need community and Horner does a good job of continually pointing this out. 

The other very helpful thing in this book is its gritty honesty and room for doubts and questions.  The worst thing for students is to have a handbook of apologetics that is quickly blown up.  Books with cut answers to overly simplistic questions will get students blown out of the water once they actually engage with real people.  Few of these books have follow up questions.  What do you do when the person doesn’t accept your “easy answer”?  Or what if the simplicity of these explanations is exposed?  Many students “lose their faith” or as Horner would say “lose their mind”. 

To this end Horner deals with the roots and not fruits.  He does not attempt to answer all of the questions that will be posed.  This is not a manual on what to say when your atheistic professor questions Creation.  Or how do you prove a young-earth theory.  This is a guide to thinking (perhaps alongside your professor) about some of these difficult issues.  That makes this work an invaluable tool. 

There is one glaring omission in this book, Horner deals very little with postmodernism and its questioning of the Christian faith.  Because it does not pass the test of Aristotelian logic postmodernism is quickly dismissed.  “At the core of philosophical postmodernism is a logical contradiction”.  This may be so (and I believe it is), but a good majority of people and professors that these students will be interacting with are drifting away from Aristotelian logic and embracing philosophical postmodernism. 

This, unfortunately, becomes like equipping a solider for modern warfare with weapons used from the Civil War era.  Horner’s thinking is sound and for the most part I believe with him that postmodern thinking is largely bankrupt and self-refuting.  But does it really work to refute it with Aristotelian logic when the person holding to it rejects the logic you are using.  You first have to win the battle of which logic is best.  At the end of the day you may win a convert to modernism (or at least not lose yourself to postmodernism) but have you really won the war? 


Ideally, I would love to see father’s pick this book up and go through some of its principles with their younger children.  Then later (perhaps as the young man or woman becomes a freshman in high school) give him/her their own copy.  I would also like to see it supplemented with a few works that address’ postmodernism. 

It would also be helpful for pastors, youth pastors, and Sunday school teachers to pick this up and consider ways to teach and engage students with some of the material that is found here.  And perhaps churches could buy a good number of these books and give them to their graduating seniors as gifts (or even as incoming high school freshmen as a transition celebration). 

The book is well worth the 15 bucks.  For those that have doubts or feel discouraged by some of the questions that proponents of new atheism raises, this work may even help you mind your faith.  Buy it here.


I received this book free from IVP in exchange for a review. 


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