Book Review – The Imperfect Disciple

Christmas is a great time for book junkies.  Not to mention, it’s also a great time for those who buy presents for book junkies.  It’s a win-win situation.  I’m happy because I got a book I wanted and they are happy because they got me something I wanted, and hopefully will prove helpful.   Yes, in this case it was a win-win.  [Thank you Mom and Dad Shivers!]

I’ve also never read any books by Jared Wilson, which for such a gospel-centered dude such as myself seems somewhat shocking. I mean I know who he is, of course,  I’ve read plenty of his online stuff and Tweets, but never a whole book.  Once I got knee deep in this book, I could quickly see what all the fuss has been about.  Wilson is an extraordinary writer – he is sharp, eloquent, witty and just the right mix of cranky. [I guess that means he is cranky about most of the things I’m cranky about.]

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The Imperfect Disciple, as the subtitle tell us, is about “Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together” and right away, Wilson comes out swinging against all the stuff I like people to swing at.  He is transparent and vulnerable and even tackles the obvious question up front that I was asking – “How is this book going to be different than the 84 other books on discipleship?”  Welp.  I found out quickly.  Wilson pulls the curtain back on the truth that we all know deep in our hearts – we don’t all have it all together. This then is a book writing for people who want to “follow Jesus even though their feelings speak more loudly.” Or those who “deny themselves in order to do what’s right although I don’t really want to.”  It’s NOT a book for those who give the Sunday School answers all the time and never get down into a cage match and wrestle with sin and self until someone’s dead.  THAT to me is really following Jesus.  Dealing with sin and self every stinking day and growing and changing into the image of Jesus in his overwhelming, jaw-dropping grace.

Maybe it’s because I too grew up on the 80’s, and can relate to much of the youth group era hijinks that contributed to my gospel comprehension not getting off the launch pad.  For guys like us, the pressure to live out the good works of the gospel [“witnessing,” anyone?] without fully appropriating the truths of the gospel didn’t make sense.  It felt like we were moving on to doing stuff when we clearly hadn’t grasped why we were doing it in the first place.  The reality of what wasn’t mentioned so much back then, was that we live our lives in Romans 7, while not realizing that Romans 8 is the blast of air we desperately need.  As Wilson writes, “you bring Romans 7 into Romans 8 and say ‘Look what I found everybody!'”[26]

Wilson is also transparent with the complexities of pastoral ministry, and how in the muck and the mire we still cling to the gospel alone as we help others follow Jesus.  “Plenty of times, though, if it weren’t for the gospel, I simply wouldn’t have words at all.”  I’ve seen that look, just this week actually, when people are in the midst of a huge tragedy and you show up on the scene and it feels like 100 million eyes just landed on you and they all want you to say the magic thing to make it all better.   As I looked into the eyes of a young woman holding her stillborn 25 week old baby, all I could say was that “Jesus came for this very reason, to put an end to death.”

While this is true and good, this is hard and Wilson totally gets that.  It’s flat our hard to trust, to deny your feelings, to think of God’s glory above our selfish lusts – and that’s why we are all imperfect disciples.  Good thing we follow the one who is perfect, and the reality is that this perfect God uses those hard times to grow us, it’s his plan, and we have to get that thru our thick skulls.  “What if Jesus actually brings us to the very moment of those no-more-rope situations in order that we might actually, finally trust him?” [48] What Wilson didn’t say, and I wrote in the margin was “But what if that is your whole life?”  I think the truth is many do spend their whole lives with no more rope, and Jesus is right there with them. We should redefine “normal” – it’s not the absence of trials, but the ugly, sweaty, bloody quest to glorify God when you’ve got next to nothing left in the tank.

We miss this glory because as imperfect people, we are side-tracked by the glory of a million other, less glorious things.  Our phones, our ‘perfect’ lives, our whatevers have dulled our appreciation of the glorious.  Wilson quotes Ray Ortlund, in encouraging us how to regain what we have lost – “stare at the glory of God until you see it.”  [65]  Amen.  The theme of the book hangs on the fact that the power to change, doesn’t come from the law, but rather it can only come from the glory of Christ. [67]  Growing disciples, even though they may be imperfect, must be guided and directed by one thing – bringing God glory, over and above and especially in the middle of our mess.

In our mess it can seem like God isn’t listening, isn’t there.  As a Pastor I hear this all the time, and I was encouraged to see that Wilson would answer it the same.  “…so long as we have the Bible, this is simply not true. In fact, because we have the Bible, it is an incredibly selfish and sinful thing to say.” [93] See, I told you this guy gets me.

Yes, and AMEN!  Scripture must be in the center of the daily cage match with sin and self for the imperfect disciple! We must read it and chew on it and in those moments where things feel as imperfect as they really are, we need to bring it to bear like a fire extinguisher of truth.

This spills out into the life and the culture of the church.  I love the chapter title “The Revolution Will Not Be Instagrammed.”  Our perfectly lit and clever hash tagged images all make our discipleship lives look a heck of a lot more together than they really are.  “The church has got to be a place where it is OK to not be OK. 98% of family life is simply Not Ready for Instagram.  Is it any wonder so many f us struggle with church community” [121-2] People, we need each other, and we need our churches to be a “culture of grace” that will cause people to stick around when things get imperfect.  “You cannot grow in holiness and holier-than-thou-ness at the same time.” [136] #MicDrop

This sets up nicely how to follow Jesus in community, Wilson gives nine irrefutable laws of ‘followship.’

  1. Be ye loving
  2. Be ye joyful
  3. Be ye peaceful
  4. Be ye patient
  5. Be ye kind
  6. Be ye good
  7. Be ye faithful
  8. Be ye gentle
  9. Be ye self-controlled

If you recognize those as the fruits of the Spirit you are correct! But what Wilson points out is that “against these things there is no law” [Gal 5:23] is saying that while there is law against drunkenness, immorality, coveting – there is no law against any of these things so that we are free in the gospel to grow more into the image of Christ by using the law to sanctify us! “The law can tell us what to do, but it can’t help us do it.”  To grow in these 9 areas as an imperfect disciple, we need the limitless grace of the gospel.

This has everything to do with the battlefield, not of the mind, but of the hearts in the arena of idolatry.  This is the true self – indeed there is nothing more true than what we truly struggle to give over to Jesus in our hearts.  And he is right there with you.  “The real you, the you inside that you hide, the you that you try to protect, the you that you hope nobody sees or knows – that’s the you that God loves.” [188]

This is the beauty of the growth of the imperfect disciple – “over time we each become more and more like Jesus while at the same time becoming more and more our true selves.” [191]

This once again, is all in the power of Christ, and that is where we rest.

“This is how you boast in your weakness and suffering too. This is how you boast in your sorry little devotional life. This is how you boast in your constant inability to get your act together No, not by seeing a physical revelation of the heaven that awaits you. But by beholding a vision of the glorious Christ, whose power rests on you if you’re a believer.” [225]

May we all rest in this power as we imperfectly follow our perfect Savior.

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review – Gospel and Kingdom

Straight up, I honestly don’t know where I got this book…but I’m glad I did.  I was looking for one more book to round out the year, by far my best reading year yet! [not counting mandatory seminary reading of course].  I’ve not read anything by the author before, so this was all new territory to me.

My sense was that Gospel and Kingdom was a well known classic that had escaped my radar, and that sense was confirmed. This is a very helpful book to help us understand the centrality of the gospel in the whole Bible, specifically, the Old Testament. [OT]

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For any Christian, the question of what do make of the OT is a very prevalent one.  There are things in there that just defy our modern mindset of all sense – unless you understand we are dealing with God Almighty and see them as parts of His overall redemptive plan.

Not only that, but how does the OT apply to us today?  Goldsworthy has written this book to “bride the gap” from the ancient world to the modern man, to build a basic structure to confidently use the OT and the Bible as a whole. [9-10]

Namely, the OT is Scripture and Scripture points to Christ. As Christians, we will always be looking at the New Testament [NT] from the framework of the gospel and therefore we will be driven back to the OT for the gospel foundation of the NT.  Believe it or not, the gospel is alive and well in the OT.  The cross of Christ wasn’t a reaction to an experiment gone wrong.  God’s redemptive plan existed before time, and the OT is the foundation for the gospel made flesh in the NT with Jesus Christ.  [19]

I appreciated how the author brought us back to biblical facts, as opposed to more modern day feelings.  “The core of the gospel, the historical facts of what God did in Christ, if often down0graded today in favor of a more mystical emphasis on the private spiritual experience of the individual.”  [20]  Amazing that was written back in 1981, and that problem has only gotten exponentially worse in Evangelicalism.

So how does one bridge this gap between OT, NT and today?  Goldsworthy helps us by noting “we cannot simply transfer the experiences of the past wholesale to today. We can’t view the OT as a series of events in which to draw little moral lessons or examples for life.”  [25]  I’ve heard way too many moralistic talks on David and Goliath to sadly say this is how many teachers view the OT.

In order to get our arms a bit more around the OT, we need to understand more about what it is.  First, it is history. But not just history – theological history.  A record of God’s own dealings with the world and with men. [41]  The theology controls the writing of the history. the fact that God acts in the history of men and interprets his acts means that these historical events will form a pattern that relates to the purposes of God.  Biblical history is theological history. [42]

Specifically, the OT is the theological history of redemption.  Goldsworthy writes, “the key to the OT is not the part Israel plays, but the part God pays in redeeming a people from slavery and making them his own.” [46] This history is progressive, and incomplete without the NT, and it is to be interpreted.  There is a flow to this interpretation – we begin with the NT, for there we see Christ and believe. The NT then drives us back to the OT, because the OT is the basis of the gospel.  Then, and only then, we see that the NT establishes for us what the OT promises.  This is all fulfilled in Christ.  Indeed, then we can do the work of explaining and applying the OT to our life today.

In this redemption, there is a relationship and certain parameters that need to be clarified, and the author does that well.  God is king and man is his subject.  Man’s sin is his attempt to renounce his creature-hood and to assert his independence of God.  This is the Fall and is the break in the relationship between God and man.   God takes the initiative in restoring the relationship and does so by covenant – originally with Israel to be a people, a land and in relationship with God.  Every later expression of this relationship stems from the original covenant. [53]  The content of the covenant is the Kingdom of God – God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule.  The author then walks us through several kingdom perspectives in the OT.

First, the kingdom revealed in Eden.  God is the Creator and we are his created subjects, made in his image.  Yet, as mentioned, we rejected God’s authority over us for which we deserved judgment and instead Adam and Eve [we] received grace.

Next we see the kingdom revealed in Israel’s history.  God establishing a nation through Abraham, from which redemption would come.  We see again the themes of God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule – and all the ups and downs, and bumps and warts that went with it.  God always acting in faithfulness to his plan and his glory, while continuing to show lovingkindness to Israel and ultimately to us in Jesus.

The kingdom of God is also revealed in prophecy.  Not like the lame word-faith nonsense, but like the actual biblical prophets. This must be overlaid over the history of Israel – the old-order prophets, pointing to the Sinaitic covenant, the pre-exilic prophets, when Israel was invaded by Babylon and lost their land, and the exilic and post-exilic prophets who interpreted the failure of Israel’s kingdom and the hope of an eternal kingdom of God.   This “restored kingdom will be in the context of a new heaven and a new earth, and all this new creation of God will be permanent, perfect, and glorious.” [99]

This brings us to the kingdom revealed in Jesus Christ.  The gospel is a declaration of what God has done for us in Jesus for our salvation. [107] The unavoidable conclusion from the NT evidence is that the gospel fulfills the OT hope of the coming of the Kingdom of God. [108] Each of these kingdom expressions represent the same reality, but expresses it in a different and yet related way. [109]

This is then provides a foundation for how we can interpret the OT.  Each stratum has the same essential ingredients relating to the saving acts of God and the goal to which they lead. Each stratum prefigures the realities of the gospel. Each step is not only a movement in the chronological sequence of revelation, but is a movement in the process of making clearer the nature of God’s Kingdom until the full light of the gospel is revealed. [123]

The author then suggests a helpful method of interpretation, based on that kingdom foundation.  (1) Identify the way the text functions in the wider context of the kingdom stratum. (2) Proceed to the the same point in each succeeding stratum until the final reality in the gospel is reached. (3) Show how the gospel reality interprets the meaning of the text, at the same time, as showing how the gospel reality is illuminated by the text. [126]  The lesson of biblical theology is that no text stands alone, and the whole of scripture is it’s ultimate context. We have to be aware of that in our interpretations and not try and force the text to say something it really isn’t.

The author provides several OT examples of this interpretive method and concludes with a return to the rallying cry of not forsaking redemptive theological history for personal spiritual (mystical) experiences.  Again, I’m struck at how forward thinking this was back then and how painfully relevant it is now.  “The evangelical who sees the inward transforming work of the Spirit as the key element of Christianity will soon lose contact with the historical faith and the historical gospel.” [137]  We risk going astray when we make the Bible, and Christianity about us and our kingdom, and not about God and his.  We would do well to heed the warning and instruction in this helpful book!

 

 

 

Book Review – The Complete Husband

So…funny story.  As a book reviewer, I have a (limited) choice on which books to read and review.  As the next list of eligible books came out, my wife looking over my shoulder, noticed this title “The Complete Husband: A Practical Guide to Improved Biblical Husbanding,” and exclaimed “Oooh.  Get THAT one!”

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Lou Priolo, a biblical counselor and head of Competent to Counsel International, first wrote this book in 1998.  This revision came out this year and I immediately found myself doing the forehead smack as to why I had never read this book before.

Perhaps, it’s because I thought that I didn’t need it?  Oh yes.  I need it.

Maybe one of the biggest challenges with pastoral ministry and biblical counseling is the question of how to best help non-believers, since all of our hope for real lasting change is non-negotiably grounded in being a Christian.   Priolo got my attention by addressing this in the introduction.  “It is impossible to for any man to consistently do what the Bible says without the assistance of the Holy Spirit’s enabling power. So if you are not a Christian – you will not be able to properly apply the contents of this book to your life.” [13]  AMEN.  Throughout the book, Priolo takes every opportunity to proclaim the transforming power of the gospel and point people towards a helpful appendix titled “How Can I Be Saved?”  Note that is also the first appendix of many…and the author’s gospel priorities are shown clearly.  Thank you.

The author quickly establishes 1 Peter 3:7 as the main thesis of the book – Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”  (1 Peter 3:7 ESV)  He places the burden, correctly and squarely on the shoulders of the husband to understand his wife.  Turns out she does come with an owner’s manual – it’s in her heart. When we fail to do this, we not only sin against our wives, but we sin against God.

This requires a change in mindset from a “feelings-oriented” person to an “obedience-oriented” person.  Yeah…Priolo isn’t messing around.

Scattered throughout the book are very helpful, and very practical questions that can be used in application exercises with husbands and wives.  Intimacy building questions like “If you could change three things about me in order to make me more Christlike, what would you change?” or “On a scale of one to ten how would you rate our marriage at the moment?” “What would it take to make it a ten?”  These are all summarized at the end of each chapter in a handy “1 Peter 3:7 Notebook Interview Questions” section.  [Which my wife quickly caught on to…’Don’t you have any questions you want to ask me?’]

This is because us husbands tend to be terrible communicators.  Everything else [life, kids, job, ministry, stress, sickness, etc.] gets in the way, we get lazy or shut down and marital intimacy looks more like just staring at your phone instead of an emotional mingling of souls.  [#ChandlerShoutOut].  Leaving no stone unturned, Priolo includes a “crash course” chapter on biblical communication, which is extremely helpful and practical.

Once a solid foundation is set, the author dives into actually how husbands should be loving their wives and as you may suppose, he defines biblical love first.  “Biblical love is primarily not a feeling, it’s a verb.” [99] Love is very well defined in 1 Corinthians 13.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…” (1 Corinthians 13:4–8 ESV)

Love is all about giving for another person, it is not selfish, which Priolo writes “I can tell you, without fear of contradiction, that the root cause of virtually all enduring marriage conflicts is selfishness.” [104]

When talking about love and “self” one inevitably can fall into the trap of the “self-esteem movement.”  This is deadly and unbiblical, as it turns the the two greatest commandments of “Love God” and “Love Your Neighbor” into being dependent on a new and highest priority commandment of “Love yourself.”

“Nowhere does the Bible instruct you to love yourself. In fact in many places it teaches you the very opposite – you are to deny yourself.” [110]

When two people are living together in marriage, hurt is inevitable. Where there is hurt, there can be bitterness, which is the “result of responding improperly to a hurt.” Scripture likens bitterness to a root.  Roots have to be planted, so what is the seed that when planted in your heart, sprouts into a root of bitterness?” [120]

When we are bitter, we exhibit outward behavior that reflects the nasty state of our hearts.  Priolo gives a convicting list, which sadly some of my favorite weapons were prominently featured.

What’s the answer for bitterness? Forgiveness grounded in the gospel.  We forgive others, in this case our spouses, because we have been forgiven so much more by God.  “You must work at dethroning your idols. You must prayerfully and actively replace those inordinate desires with desires that are in accordance with pleasing and glorifying God rather than pleasing and glorifying yourself.” #Convicting [133-4]

Likewise, feelings of romance and being “in-love” were not something that came at the hands of Cupid’s arrow – rather the author points out that “you created (internally) the romantic feelings that you had for her, by means of both what you told yourself about her and what you did to and for and with her. That is your own heart produced those wonderful feelings as a by-product of your thoughts and actions.  It’s sort of the reverse of the root-of-bitterness. Any bitter, hurtful, or resentful feelings that you may now have toward your wife are also the by-products of your thoughts and actions (or lack of them.)” [139]

How do you go about renewing feelings that have waned?  Remember, rethink, redo.  Remember the way you used to think about your spouse.  Rethink – meaning repent – change any sinful thought patterns and redo those sinful patterns with God glorifying ones.

This is a hard – it’s a battle actually – and we can have battle fatigue. Some symptoms of this are – permitting bitterness, telling yourself things will never change, gossiping, withdrawing, pouting, and many more.  This is often responding to your spouses sin with more sin. “Do not return evil for evil…” [1 Peter 3:9]

Husbands, this is our responsibility.  Quoting the recently passed RC Sproul, the author writes “Her sanctification is his responsibility.”  But, as he points out sharply “You cannot be properly sanctified apart from God’s Word.” [181]

No marriage book is complete without a chapter on sexual relations in marriage and I greatly appreciated the initial focus on sexual health being a product of other intimacy issues.  “Each hurtful remark they make and every unkind nonverbal expression they display they are sabotaging their sexual relationship.  Sexual problems are not really sexual at all. They are relational.” [190]

Husbands are also called to protect their wives from danger. Not just physical danger, but negative influences, bad theology, taking on too much, embarrassment.  This was very helpful as I was forced to expand my definition of “danger.”

In what some might think should be the first chapter, Priolo leaves it to one of the last.  Husbands – we are called by God’s Word to be the spiritual leaders of our homes.  As a Pastor, I know full well this intimidates the heck out of many husbands.  To that end, the author gives two definitions – “A spiritual leader is a man who assumes responsibility for the management of his own household.” [245] Are we attentive and involved? Or passive and disconnected?  Yet, this is not a power play.  We are not the owners of the family, which leads to the second definition “a servant leader is a man who has learned to be a servant to his wife.” [250]  Jesus modeled perfect servanthood in his incarnation to earth, submission to the Father’s plan to die on the cross as our substitute.  We then continue in humble service of our families, but following God’s command to lovingly lead them to Him.

All in all, this is difficult, but Priolo writes pointedly “The problem is that many Christians are unwilling to suffer for righteousness.” [269]  Sanctification is hard work, but a work which is supported by the Holy Spirit’s presence and power, as we seek to grow and change into the image of Christ in our marriages.

This book is perhaps the best marriage book I have read to date, one that I will surely come back to in the future.

 

 

Book Review – Don’t Fire Your Church Members

Let’s get this straight up front – I’m a fan of 9Marks.  I think they are incredibly helpful for restoring a Biblical ecclesiology of the local church.  I’m a local church Pastor, I love the local church…it’s “God’s Plan A” for the proclamation and ministry of the gospel.

I’m also a fan of Jonathan Leeman.  Despite the fact that he is my doppleganger, he is a unique voice crying out for the elevation of importance of the local church in an ocean of gospel-light pragmatism.

Leeman is also smart.  Really smart.  Like PhD smart.  But he is also very approachable and funny.  I had the privilege of sharing a meal with him while at a recent 9Marks event.  When he is writing, he is in his element.  When he is writing about ecclesiology and church history, he is pressing the boundaries of a joyous nerd fest.  He is in his lane.  So that made this book for me, particularly the first part, a little dense.  It was like I was saying “OK, Dr. Leeman.  I know you are excited about this…but…”  BUT, the thing is he has reason to be.  The church should be something of very high priority because it is the very authority of God in the world, and it’s time we start acting like it.

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So, that brings us to “Don’t Fire Your Church Members.”  Which I’ll admit, I really didn’t understand the title until I got a few pages into this book, then I had the “Ohhhh.  I see”  moment.  Church congregations have been Biblically given a huge responsibility, and we should be enabling that responsibility, not taking it away.

As the subtitle gives away, Leeman is firmly in the congregationalist camp. Specifically, an elder-led, congregationally ruled camp, as opposed to an elder-ruled camp where the members [if there is actual biblical membership] have little to no say.

As you may have figured out, I’m pretty passionate about this too.  How we “do” church is extremely important and the Bible has lots to say about it.  I have seen first hand the carnage that is left in the wake of non-biblical ecclesiology, and as hard as it may be to overcome our pre-conceived notions of what a church should look like, it’s a whole lot better than dealing with the aftermath, immature believers, and weak theology that will hinder a church for years to come.  As Leeman writes “the question for a Christian, always comes back to, What is Biblical?” [9]

Leeman’s thesis is that congregationalism isn’t just a conclusion drawn from a few proof-texts, it’s the culmination of the Bible’s covenantal trajectory that began with Adam.  “Jesus, the last Adam and federal head of God’s new covenant people, fulfilled the office perfectly both for his own sake and on behalf of his people. These people have now been hired and deputized to fulfill the same Adamic office of priest-king. This involves representing Christ, seeking to expand the reach of Christ’s kingdom and guarding the people of God in holiness, which includes watching over both the what of the knowledge of God in the gospel and the who of the knowledge of God in the gospel.” [59]

This theme of “what” and “who” of the gospel will permeate through the book in a very helpful and accessible way.   The church should be crystal clear on what the gospel is, and how that impacts and informs everything we do, and it should be crystal clear on who makes up the biblical membership of the church itself.

The church represents God in the world and it’s palpable and public presence depends on it’s order, or polity. [71]  Get it wrong, and people get the wrong idea about God the gospel.  THIS is why how we “do” church is a really, really big deal.

Leeman is fairly well known for his position on the “keys” in Matthew 16:13-20.  This is where Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” [16:16]  and Jesus replies that Peter is right and “on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” [16:18]  Roman Catholic theology inaccurately uses this to justify that Peter has been granted the status of the first Pope and hence all other Catholic Popes have their authority tracked back to this lineage.

What this fails to grasp is that it’s not Peter that Jesus will be his church on, it’s Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah.  Jesus goes on to give Peter the “keys” to bind and loose things.  Leeman writes “the keys are the authority to judge an declare on what as well as who.  They deputize their holder to pronounce a judgement concerning the who and what of the gospel: what is the right confession and practice of the gospel, and who is a right confessor.” [77]  Who holds the keys?  Fast forward to Matthew 18 and Jesus is giving binding and loosing instructions on how to wield the keys of church discipline to the members of the church [in the Greek, all of the “you”/῾υμιν῾ references are plural!] – AKA “wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in my name.”  [Matthew 18:15-20]

So what then?  So…are our churches biblically reflecting this model?  Are they being lead by biblical elders? [1 Timothy 3; Titus 1] Is the church set up in order to facilitate this model?  Leeman is bold, but not surprising if you know 9Marks  – “To put this another way, a gathering is an essential part of a church being a church. By definition there is no such thing as a multi-site or multi-service “church”…” [100]

Yet, what do we see dotting the landscape of American churches?  Over the years, I’ve become firmly convinced in the dangers of the multi-site model…I’m still working through the multi-service aspect.  Yes, I would agree that is preferred, but there are a host of logistical questions/challenges that go along with that…

How is this most practically done?  Biblical preaching through pastors/elders, Biblical membership and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Table.  “A particular church is a gathering of two or three witnesses who together testify to the name of Jesus and their shared membership in him. They do this by preaching the gospel and by employing the keys of the kingdom through the ordinances.” [103]

Church members are given direct responsibility in encouraging one another’s growth and correcting when necessary [Matt 18:15-20; Gal 6:1].  Every church member should be able to distinguish between the true gospel and a false gospel.  [Gal 1:6-9]  Therefore, every church member has an awful lot of responsibility in the what and who of the gospel-centered running of the local church.  They should not be fired from such an important responsibility by having it taken off their plate.

To do this, an understanding of how the Holy Spirit establishes elders and their role in leading this model is necessary.  Leeman helpfully points out that Ephesians 4 clearly teaches that pastors and elders have been “given” for the “equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry and the building up of the body of Christ.” [Eph 4:11-12]

How then do we go forward?  In working with other congregations, we should care how they are doing, how they are structured.  Working with them in partnership of the gospel and lovingly speaking truth.  Some will not agree and our partnerships can therefore be limited.

Within our own churches, this is where 9Marks shines.  They have many helpful resources to help churches think through how to establish what Leeman calls a “new covenant culture – a gospel culture.” [172]  The author provides a good summary in the final chapter, but definitely check out the foundational book “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church” to get started.

I’m very thankful for this book and glad I stuck with it.  It’s only by reading things that challenge our thinking will we grow.  May it be in the knowledge of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 

Learning from Israel’s Thankfulness

Israel was really good at expressing thankfulness to God.  The book of Ezra records a time when the Israelites were returning to their land to rebuild the temple many years after it had been destroyed, and they had been exiled as punishment for their rejection of God.  God promised not only to punish them for their disobedience, but he also promised to restore them.  He kept that promise and they were thankful.

And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel.And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”

And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.” (Ezra 3:10–11 ESV)

Laying foundations of templeWe can learn two things from this – first, Israel thanked God for the work in progress.  They hadn’t finished the temple…not even close…but they stopped after laying the foundation to hold a mini-party, they did so out of thankfulness to God for the work in progress.

Likewise, we are all works in progress.  Thanksgiving is always a time to consider the last year, and hopefully to give thanks.  We might be tempted to think that we haven’t come as far as we’d hoped, maybe we’ve had setbacks, or perhaps the hardest year of our lives.  But we all have progress, however small, and for that we should thank God. What foundations, that may have even been destroyed, have been rebuilt? Or are in the process of being rebuilt?  Express thankfulness to God.

Second, Israel thanked God for who he wasGod is good and he loves us.  After many years of extreme hardship, brought on by their disobedience, they have lost everything – their country, their homes, possessions, many lives and they are starting over.  But they do so while clinging to the deep-seated knowledge that God is good and he loves them.  Yes, he allowed them to be nearly wiped out, but he is bringing restoration.

Whatever kind of year you’ve had, God doesn’t change.  He is still good and he still loves you.  Trust Him.  Keep this truth in the center of your thoughts, especially in difficult times.  Our God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, he forgives sin and is a God of justice. [Exodus 34:6-7]  He keeps his promises.

Israel knew this because they are back in their land, rebuilding their temple and rightfully thanking God for it.  We know this, because we live on this side of redemptive history where we know that God sent Jesus.  As He promised He sent the Messiah, that came through the line of Israel.  Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to rescue and redeem those who could not do so for themselves.  He came to be the atoning sacrifice for our sin, our failure, our weakness, our rejection of our God.

And we didn’t deserve any of it.

So while we can learn a lot from Israel about thankfulness, ultimately we should be thankful for what came out of Israel – our redemption in Jesus Christ.

The early got this – and Martin Lloyd Jones summed it up powerfully in his usual bluntness –

“The early Christian church was a rejoicing, praising church that is filled with thanksgiving, magnifying the grace and glory of God. They were a thankful people. But why was this? . . . What is a Christian? Well, Christians are men and women who know that they are what they are by the grace of God. Their sins are forgiven. Why? . . . Christians know that they owe everything to the grace of God in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. They have received it all as a free gift . . . Now if you can believe a thing like that and not feel grateful and thankful, then I do not understand you. It is impossible.”

Christians, we should be the most thankful people on Earth all the time, but perhaps this year, I’m most thankful that God is not as blunt as MLJ.  He does understand us, our weakness, our ungratefulness and in his jaw-dropping mercy and grace gave us Jesus.  And for that…we should be abundantly thankful.

Book Review – Absolute Surrender

Andrew Murray was a South African Pastor and wrote “Absolute Surrender” in 1897…so yeah…a long time ago.  It’s a good practice to be reading a balanced diet, so yes…picking one from 120 years ago is a good stretch.  [For a super intentional reading plan look at Challies’ 2017 Reading Plan…]

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This is also part of B&H’s “Read and Reflect with the Classics” series which provides helpful questions and things to pray through at the end of each chapter.  The chapters are based on a series of sermons that Murray gave and they are good for a morning devotional read.

It usually amazes me how the issues that we face as believers in 2017 were very similar to those faced in 1897.  We still struggle with issues of surrendering all of our hearts to Jesus, the rightful owner. Murray provides a balanced perspective on this, yet doesn’t hold back from the truth – “God expects our surrender, God accomplishes our surrender, God accepts our surrender, God maintains our surrender and God blesses us when we surrender.”

Soon after we talk about the topic of surrender, the topic of love shouldn’t be far behind – again all to the goal of our growth. Murray writes “When God gives the Holy Spirit, His great object is the formation of a holy character…because nothing but love can expel and conquer selfishness.”

However…sprinkled throughout the book and towards the end especially, are comments about the “Higher Life” and Keswick movement…which I would strongly disagree with.  This movement teaches that there is a way to become a “higher level” Christian where you can sin less often or even not at all.  Nonsense.  See Romans 7.  I think the idea is that we are just supposed to know this is false, but still…not sure why it’s not pointed out more clearly as unsound doctrine.

Where this book shines is in it’s uncompromising call for us to surrender all of our lives to God, yet understanding the undeniable fact that this is HARD.  Murray, even in 1897, gets this – “When you thought of absolute surrender to God were you not brought to an end of yourself? Fall down and learn that when you are utterly helpless, God will come to work in you not only to will, but also to do…that which is impossible with men are possible with God.” [73]

This leads rather naturally into a discussion on Romans 7, one of my favorite places in all of Scripture.  The Apostle Paul is wrestling with himself and his utter sinfulness.  Many theologians claim this is a pre-Christian Paul…I can’t disagree strong enough.  The Christian life is one of constantly battling sin, thru God’s enabling of course, but it’s a cage fight to the death, and sometimes I wonder if academic scholars feel this.  We all need to get to a point, regularly, where we are feeling the weight of our sinfulness, which then leads us to feel the glory of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”  (Romans 7:24–25 ESV)

Murray writes – “Blessed be God when a man learns to say “O wretched man that I am!” from the depths of his heart. He is on the way to the eighth chapter of Romans! When a man is brought to this confession…deliverance is at hand.” [88-89] Indeed, then we can stand with Christ and proclaim – “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 7:25–8:2 ESV)

This is all done by his gracious empowering of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the believer.  “Nothing will help you unless you come to understand that you must live every day under the power of the Holy Ghost.” [99] What the Spirit begins in us when we surrender to Christ initially, let us not add in our idolatry by claiming our growth is up to us.  Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”  (Galatians 3:3 ESV)

The Christian life is one of dependance and abiding in Christ for His power to bring about the fruits of the Spirit.  God empowers us to do what he requires from us.  Treasures from the past, like this work from Murray, inspire us, encourage us and challenge us to live in worshipful surrender to our loving Heavenly Father.

Book Review – The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

For parents, the “It’s Not All About You” speech we give to our children is a familiar one. Yet…if we were being brutally honest, how often due us parents then go and live our lives like it is, in fact, all about us.  [or maybe that’s just me?]

Enter “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness” [Tim Keller, 2012, 10Publishing]

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I’ve heard about this tiny book from Keller for a while now and when I was at the Gospel Coalition MidAtlantic conference a few weeks ago they had it in the bookstore, so I grabbed it.  It will be one that I refer back to many times in the future, whenever I need to give myself a solid spiritual metaphorical punch in the face.

Keller bases this mini book on 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7

Keller points out the direct opposition of the world view vs the biblical view of ourselves.  Yet the world’s view has actually changed.  Up until the 20th century, traditional cultures always believed that too high a view of yourself was the root cause of all evil in the world.  IOW – pride caused misbehavior.

But our modern world culture flipped that and the over-arching reason for misbehavior because they lack self-esteem and have too low a view of themselves.  This is why we have drug-addiction, crime, marriages in trouble and so on.

Indeed, we have become the center of [our] the universe and the Apostle Paul writes in our passage in verse 6 that we are “puffed up one against each other” – the Bible saying the problem is we are thinking too highly of ourselves.  Our egos are out of control and Keller gives us 4 things specifically about them that are the problem.  First, they are empty, we live under the illusion that we are competent to run our own lives, to find a purpose in something other than God.  Second, they are painful. A distended overinflated ego is painful. Our feelings are so easily hurt. Thirdly, our egos are busy always trying to draw attention to itself. We are only proud of being more successful than whoever we are comparing ourselves to. [Hence my usual bouts of depression on the golf course.] Lastly, our egos are fragile – always in imminent danger of being deflated.

The solution?  A transformed view of self, rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the passage, Paul essentially says – ‘I don’t care what others think – but I don’t care what I think either.’  His justification doesn’t come from others, nor does it come from self-validation.  It comes from God through repentance, faith, and perseverance in Jesus.

This is gospel-humility.  “It means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.”  This is an ongoing process because as Keller notes “the more we understand the gospel, the more we want to change.”

When we get the gospel we flip the self-soaked view on it’s head.  We don’t live then for approval, we are approved by repentance and faith in Christ and so we live. Our basis for acceptance and approval by God Almighty is not in ourselves, but because of what Christ has done for us.

Let us forget about ourselves and live each day in the grace that he alone can give!