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. 


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