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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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!

Book Review – Divided We Fall

Being a church planter the most frequently asked question is “What kind of church are  you?”  [READ:  “Are you a legit church or a cult?”]  Being a Non-Denom in the overwhelmingly Catholic Northeast US, people are naturally suspicious.  I get it.  Even within our small town there are several other churches, mainline denominations that, to be blunt, are preaching a false gospel.  How are we to relate to each other?  What does the unbelieving world see in all that?

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation this month we are forever thankful for the return to biblical doctrine over church corruption, the inescapable question is “To what extent has unity suffered?”

Luder Whitlock tries to address all of these questions in “Divided We Fall – Overcoming a History of Christian Disunity.”  [P&R Publishing, 2017]

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I’m very thankful for this book, and in reading this was encouraged by the way God works in our hearts to grow us, as this topic has been something that I’ve been wrestling with.

As one might expect, Luder starts with a solid foundation of what the Bible has to say, as does church history, and then moves towards more practical application.

In the perfect unity of the Trinity, God is completely harmonious.  When we draw near to this God, and our relationship with him is restored in Christ, our relationships with people will inevitably be transformed. [7]

I echo Luder’s concerns that unity has been been considered less important in the church to our shame.  “Given such an undeniably clear emphasis by Jesus on the importance of unity, how can his people afford to neglect it or treat is lightly?” [15] Hence the need for a book like this.

The author traces church history, again focusing on the Protestant Reformation, but notes that as the Reformers may have the reputation for division, they actually worked much harder in the spirit of unity.  Nevertheless, the unfortunate result of separation from Rome was a splintering of the church into many denominations, which unfortunately continues to this day.  Can’t we all just get along?

There has been some cries for cross-denominational unity and ecumenicalism and yet there is still a backlash on the protestant side against anything ‘ecumenical.’ I have had personal experience with this in my own setting. I do need to show love and grace to other churches, I will happily serve alongside them to feed the hungry or help the homeless, but I cannot participate in a worship service with people to differ on salvation.

I perceived a shift in the author’s tone to be one of “us” who are for unity and “them” that are not.  The immediate question I have is “Yes, but what about those things that are negotiable? Like justification by faith? Substitutionary atonement?”  I mean…I agree Protestants disagree on the dumbest and smallest of things [worship music? carpet colors??] and this is sin and to our shame, but there are things that we just can’t go along with – not because we have convictions, but because the Word of God says so.  Wasn’t that the reason for the Reformation in the first place?

The author writes “Here is the sobering thought that must not be avoided: If the unity of the church is as important as the Bible says it is, aren’t we obligated to attempt to surmount all impediments to it’s achievement to the greatest degree possible?” [130]

To which I say a hearty and loud YES and AMEN…but they key is “…to the greatest degree possible.”  In that, it appears the author and I differ as to what is the “greatest degree” – although I completely concur that unity in the church is sinfully neglected.  Still there are boundaries, set in God’s Word.  We cannot unify if we are preaching a different gospel.  [Galatians 1:8-9] Differences in substitutionary atonement cannot be resolved with unity…what are we unifying? [His unfortunate recounting of a conversation between Piper and Pagitt on that subject for example, p. 175.] Can we communicate better, yes?  With more love? Yes, but the challenge is doing this while not softening core doctrines, and weakening the very church we are trying to unify.

I also want to be very clear – Luder does hold firm to that which is of first importance – “Believers today are justified, as were the Reformers, in separating from those who deny the gospel and refuse to place themselves under the authority of God’s Word.”  My only wish is that this note would have been sounded louder, more frequently, and more clearly.

Even still, I’m thankful for his clarity in this and for the work of this book, it is surely needed.  Let us press on in unity for glorious gospel of God in Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

Book Review – Conversion: How God Creates a People

The topic of genuine Biblical conversion has been on my mind lately.  In transparency, sometimes in moments of frustration where we see people stuck in patterns of sin, brokenness and unfruitfulness.  Sometimes the reason why is because maybe they never really never truly understood and submitted to Christ, and therefore they aren’t converted, regenerated, made new.

I’m also fresh off of a 9Marks Weekender and this topic is always discussed when you are spending time reflecting on what is a Biblical church.

Enter Conversion:  How God Creates a People by Michael Lawrence.  I was excited to read this as I usually am with anything from 9Marks.  I have come to value their Biblical faithfulness and clarity.

download-1Hinson clearly states the solid reasoning why a book like this is needed right in the introduction.  “There is a problem with our theology – specifically our theology of conversion. Second, there is a problem with how we apply that theology to our church.  Too often our confessional theology says one thing, while our practical theology says something else. We say that regeneration makes us new creatures in Christ, but then we teach our kids a moralism that atheists could duplicate.” [14]  I think I’m gonna like this guy.

This problem, as I alluded to above, has then tremendous snowball effects in the body life and health of the local church.

This book targets then not the symptoms, but the underlying disease.

What do we think conversion actually looks like on the outside? It should be nothing short of complete regeneration – being made new, not just being made “nice.”  This means Godly new appetites and desires, not about just becoming a better you.  Hinson makes a great point as to the tragic effect of this on our youth in the church “I fear this is why so many of my friends’ children have walked away from Christianity. They haven’t given up on being nice. They’ve simply discovered that they don’t need Jesus to be  nice.” [23]  Exactly.

This regeneration then not only is person, it is corporate – the new person is now part of the church where God’s new creation people glorify God by living how he has called them to live.  This has big impacts on church membership and church leaders.  Are we sure that the people we are accepting as church members and allowing to lead or worse yet…teach…are actually converted believers?  This is of paramount importance.

Hinson faithfully lays down a biblical foundation of conversion.  We are saved…but saved from what and saved for what?  First, we are saved from God’s wrath for sin.  We need to preach and teach this hard topic because the Bible does.  It’s not “come to Jesus; he’ll give you purpose and meaning. The trouble is, subjective problems can be solved through subjective solutions.” [35]   If we are saved from God’s wrath, then we are saved by God’s grace, saved because of God’s love, saved into God’s people, and saved for God’s glory.  The Christian life is not about our happiness or fulfillment, it’s about God’s glory.  Otherwise when those things don’t materialize we are tempted to abandon Jesus…all the while we were believing in a different gospel. [44] Amen!

What then should conversion look like?  It should include repentance…real repentance. “An exchanging of our idols for God. Before it’s a change in behavior, it must be a change in worship.” [51] It should also include faith…again real faith, not just a intellectual acceptance of a set of ideas.   What faith do we teach, model, and give our people assurance of?

Contrasting pop psych-theology, the author challenges the therapeutic gospel – we need Jesus to make us OK.  “We don’t just need to accept ourselves. We need God to accept us.”  [66] Hinson continues “Being healed then is not at all about coming to peace with ourselves. It’s about having our guild and shame and ultimately the curse removed and being restored to a right relationship with God. In other words, to be healed in Scripture is to be made holy.” [67] This is much needed perspective on this and again has a direct result in how we live.  Going back to where I began, maybe the people we are expecting to live as Christians aren’t because they aren’t actually Christians?  I underlined and highlighted this next part – “…it is not burdensome to live according to the new nature if you have it. What’s burdensome is to live according to a nature that you don’t have. In fact, its worse than burdensome. It’s impossible. Could it be that you don’t live as if you’ve been set apart because you haven’t been set apart?” [72]  #MicDropMoment

The author then diligently turns to the church itself and how a Biblical theology of conversion affects our ecclesiology.  If the church is a community of converted believers, then who are we targeting with how we “do” church?  Are we seeking to make it as comfortable as possible for those seeking?  I just read a great Spurgeon quote in a Challies post today –  “I believe that one reason why the church of God at this present moment has so little influence over the world is because the world has so much influence over the church.”  Thanks, Spurg.

This also effects how we do evangelism.  It shouldn’t be a pragmatic, sales pitchy monologue. “Successful evangelism is not about getting people to respond.” [91] What we win them with we win them to.  Is what we are saying in our witnessing reflective of a Biblically grounded conversion?  How many times does our [in transparency maybe my…] evangelism get reduced to “God loves you” or “Jesus will give you purpose.”  We need to communicate plainly, honestly, urgently,  and confidently.

When we talk then about church membership, perhaps the most important thing we can do is diligently assess whether someone is truly converted.  I’m convinced this is why so many churches are in poor health.  We’ve see the implications on a personal level – how much more so on a church level!

Hinson wraps things up with a great summary chapter on why it all matters – It matters for God, it maters for us, and it matters for the world.  The doctrine of conversion is too important to be lead astray to a weaker, non-Biblical position.  I’m grateful for the reminder and foundation set here.

 

 

Book Review – Burning Hearts – Preaching to the Affections

Let’s face it – Pastors have a reputation for loving books, and I guess that is well-deserved and a good thing.  Pastors, and all Christians for that matter, should be readers.  We should be seeking to grow and be challenged.  So, my not-so-little-kids got me Burning Hearts – Preaching to the Affections815AD6kR4LL.jpg for Father’s Day off of my Amazon list…and yes…it’s September and I’m just now getting around to doing the review.  Hey – it’s been a busy Summer!

As a regular preacher of God’s word, I’m always wrestling with the challenge of not being just a conveyor of information, but God’s word being living and active has to impact hearts and affect how we live.  I’m not up there to just summarize and explain Scripture.  It has to be made applicable, and a big part of that is how it affects me, before I bring it to the church.

I can’t remember how I heard about this book, but that’s the beauty of the Amazon wish list, when I hear someone recommend a book I put it on and then I won’t forget.  [Sometimes…I’m smart…]  Moody and Weekes approach this very important topic in a logical and accessible way.

Logically, that would with a definition of terms.  They define affections as “the movement of our thoughts, feelings and will towards a desired object, person or event. An affection is what inclines us to something (whereas as effect is what results from something). Affections are what move us toward action.”  It’s also important to define what this therefore does NOT mean as related to preaching.  It is not “sentimental, touchy-feely, or lacking in intellectual rigor or content.”  AMEN.    Preaching to the affections means preaching that targets the heart – where emotion and reason come together – the core of the person.  [14-15]

That leads to more important general observations – affections are part of the brains response to data and they are necessary for rational functioning. However, reason and emotion are both fallen due to sin and therefore we need to wrestle them to be inline with God’s Word. Affections are oriented towards godly desires in the godly person, however affections are not proof in themselves that someone is spiritual.  I think we’ve all probably known a few very emotional Christians who aren’t spiritual and rather superficial.  As the authors wisely point out – salvation is evidenced by sanctification, gradually growing as a Christian.  What causes this growth is the power of the gospel – the pure Word of God, which produces faith in our hearts, gradually producing the fruit of increasing Christlikeness as the believer perseveres in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

Now that the foundations of affections have been set, the authors move on to setting the foundation for preaching.  They define preaching as “the God-ordained means by which He meets with His people through His Word and by his Spirit in such a way that His people’s eyes are opened to see Jesus and be captivated by Him.” [25]  They immediately refine this mean that this is done best through the systematic, continuous exposition of the Scriptures.  AMEN!  I’m not hating on topical preaching, sometimes it is necessary to address any issues in detail for church health, but the default setting for preaching should be the expositional teaching of God’s Word!

Bringing both affections and preaching together then – the authors rightly surmise that we use preaching to raise the affections of the supremacy of Jesus Christ.  [with an appropriate nod to Jonathan Edwards on that – as one would expect, he is quoted heavily.]  Practically this means that “one of the ways that we can do this is by remembering that we are preaching a person, not just teaching a passage.  What we are doing is presenting Christ.” [31]

Why would we preach to the affections?  The authors provide a few reasons (1) because of biblical precedent [Acts 2:37…they were ‘cut to the heart.]; (2) because of biblical warning [‘these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…’]; (3) because of biblical promise. [God promises to transform in the gospel, and preaching the gospel softens hearts and changes lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.]; (4) because of historical examples. [ex. Edwards “Religious Affections”; (5) because of global examples [this was their weakest reason IMHO, I didn’t connect with this one, the church is global and not sure how this helped the point.]; (6) because of evangelistic effectiveness [though they didn’t articulate it as such, people must get the feeling that we passionately believe in what we are preaching!]; (7) because of pastoral winsomeness [as we preach to engage the affections, our heart is open wide and gives the congregation a sense of our affection.]; (8) because of missional opportunity [conveying not only an agenda, but sacrificial service to the community.]; (9) because of the purity of the church [‘it is insufficient simply to tell people that a certain behavior or attitude is wrong. We need to know why it is wrong and see affectionally how other behaviors and attitudes are better, sweeter, more wonderful, of more value.’];(10) because of the glory of God. [ultimately, because heart change honors God and glorifies Him.]

How do you preach to the affections? As a precursor, and something I’m glad it was drilled into me in seminary, we can’t expect someone to be moved by a passage that hasn’t already moved us.  We need to be personally affected by the text before we can affect anyone else.  The truth has to be “massaged into our hearts so that God’s Word does not inform us, but transforms us.” [52].  The authors then give well thought out considerations of how to accomplish this.  (1) Look out for the affections in the text. [what affection words are there?]; (2) Think Christ, live Christ, apply Christ. [we should be looking for Christ in whatever part of the Bible we are in.]; (3) Probe the workings of the heart [expose deep-rooted idols, again by pointing to the supremacy of Christ.  Nod to Chalmers here and the ‘expulsive power of a new affection.’]; (4) Preach the pathos as well as the logos of the passage. [the logic as well as the resulting emotion of it]; (5) Learn from those who preach to the affections. [Again – Edwards…Puritans for example]; (6) Raise the affections with the truth. [it’s not enough to get the text right, we must go to the next step and ask “In what way to do the truths of this text raise my affections and those to whom I am preaching?”]; (7) Prayer. [infuse our preparation with prayer]; (8) Preach with an awakened heart [this becomes a challenge for us regular preachers…]

The authors wrap up the book with an appeal to preach boldly the Word of God and engage the affections…in the changing culture we live in and will live in.  Bring the unchanging Word of god to bear on a changing culture and be in tune with both.

Moody and Weekes also give us a few examples of sermons with running commentary.  Oddly enough, I found this less helpful than the first part of the book, perhaps I was distracted by the commentary or I’m more of a linear thinker.  Nevertheless, they provide solid practical examples which are still valuable.

Preachers and aspiring preachers – READ THIS BOOK.  It is definitely helpful for growth in this very important area.  So many sermons are either one extreme or the other – dry lifeless presentation of information or overly emotional shallow pragmatism.  The authors diligently define and balance the two necessary aspects of logos and pathos and hopefully will encourage many to savor the supremacy of preaching God’s word with knowledge and passion.

 

 

 

 

Book Review – Resilience

I’m a consumer of podcasts.  Mostly, they fall into two categories – sermon podcasts and interview podcasts.  As a pastor, the former is probably obvious – but the latter is my “brain off” time where I like to drive and listen to strong, successful, driven, self-disciplined and very interesting people being interviewed about what makes them tick.   This leads me to listening to a lot of stories of Navy SEALs, whom I highly respect as they always possess all of those qualities in abundance.

51vib-HkB7L.jpgThis leads me to Eric Greitens.  Former Navy SEAL and current governor of Missouri.  As one can surmise immediately…this guy is probably going to have a great story.   Turns out, however that his book, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, is not his story.  It’s a series of letters written to a SEAL buddy who has hit rock bottom.  The contents are gold.  Get a cup of joe, this is going to be a long post. One that I will need to come back to repeatedly.

This is not a theology or Christian book, though Greitens quotes Scripture throughout.  It is an excellent book that Christians can interpret through the lens of Scripture and the perspective of the gospel. When we do this, it strengthens our faith and deepens our understanding of God’s word.  Part of what makes this post so long, is that I try to do that real time and bring in Scripture to balance/correct some of these ideas. I’ll try to do that as we go thru this, OK kids?

Zach Walker is Greitens’ SEAL buddy and the one he writes all the letters to.  They came up thru BUD/S training together, though after it they served in different areas and didn’t see each other much.  Zach was the toughest of the tough, and after doing the things that SEALs do he hit bottom hard when he tried to adjust to normal life.  Lost his business, lost his family, got arrested, and turned to alcohol to try and keep the PTSD demons at bay.

As the title suggests, the thesis of the book is resilience – “the virtue that enables people to move thru hardship and become better. No one escapes pain, fear, and suffering. Yet from pain can come wisdom, from fear cab come courage, from suffering can come strength – if we have the virtue of resilience.” [3]

Right off the bat, he is speaking of biblical truths of pain, suffering and perseverance.   Greiten writes tellingly “human beings can turn hardship into wisdom because we are born with the capacity for resilience, and we can make ourselves more resilient thru practice.”

This is why I will always recommend that Christians read “non-Christian” books and practice using a biblical worldview to interpret the world around us – while being cautious not to get sucked into it.

Greiten is so close to the truth on this, or maybe he is and he is just sand-bagging a bit so as to not make it a “Christian” book. [He is a politician so he can’t probably say how he really feels.]  We were “born with the capacity for resilience” because God our Creator put it there for his glory. However, it is not solely in our power to make ourselves anything.  It is only thru coming to an end of ourselves, admitting our need for transformation in the gospel that we can realize that therefore he will powerfully work in us to change us, and glorify himself in the process.  [See Colossians 1:28-29; and Ephesians 1:17-23 for a few to start…]  It is a cooperative work between God and us.  Our effort and diligence is required, but it is not our work exclusively.

The author says we need to chose to live this resilient life.  Indeed we do. We need to chose say no to sin and yes to righteousness.  Every day.  Many, many times.

This is part of the discipline of self-mastery – another biblical concept, and why I love listening to the life stories of guys like Navy SEALs.  They have to master themselves, they have to be experts at self-discipline.  So does every Christian on the face of the earth.  [2 Timothy 1:7; 4:7-10; Galatians 5:22-24…]

There are many implications of this. One of the most foundational is therefore we discipline ourselves to live for God’s purposes and his glory, not our own.  Again, this is how we were created, yet how many millions of people just wander thru life without any direction or goals.  Greiten is spot on [although again only in concept] that “in the long run deprivation of purpose is as destructive as deprivation of sleep. Without purpose, we can survive but we cannot flourish.” [16]

We need to struggle and work towards this purpose.  Indeed much disillusionment comes from not having a clear purpose.  How many people have succeeded in doing great things and then suffered the sudden onset of “Now what?!”   We need to keep going, keep learning, keep growing – as Christians – keep maturing.

This will come with it’s share of weakness and hardships and a refining of the definition of resilience – it’s not just bouncing back. “Resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences; they find healthy ways to integrate them into their lives.  In time, people find that great calamity met with great spirit can create great strength.” [23]

This is the famous quote from Hemmingway “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” [24]  Christians – we are strong at the broken places because in Christ we are made strong.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV)

Resilience is then endurance with direction. [25]  YIKES!  That is the Christian life!  “-)

This leads to forming life habits and self-disciplines to endure and be resilient. “Practice builds habits. Our habits are our character. When it comes to virtue, practice makes a very great difference – or rather, all the difference.” [27] Romans 5:1-5 anyone?

As we act in these ways, our character development follows.  “We become what we do if we do it often enough. We act with courage and we become courageous. We act with compassion and we become compassionate. If we make the resilient choices, ewe become resilient.” [28] James 1:3

These things, like our sanctification, grow slowly. He mentions the “Stockdale Paradox” – where it has been observed that the POWs who broke the fastest were those who deluded themselves about the severity of their ordeal. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to conform the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”  In this we have to “maintain clarity about your reality. The paradox is that at the very same time you have to find a way to maintain hope.” [30]

I harp on this all the time and then am guilty of committing the same sin myself, that we Americans think we deserve a happy, comfortable, pain-free life.  Then reality hits and our world is crashing down around us.  “Soon enough, reality kicks down your front door and then you can’t pretend anymore. Pain is real and we do better dealing with is when we acknowledge it.” [30] He is right to say “keep in mind though, there is a big difference between acknowledging pain and wallowing in it.”  [31]

Greiten stresses another foundational biblical quality – humility.  This is where we start. Its humility of accepting our situation and enduring with direction.  I’m embarrassed to admit, that I never thought of Adam and Eve in this light.  Greiten points out “Adam and Eve left the Garden [after being kicked out] and went into the world: tilled the earth, had children, made a life. The knowledge of real evil and the experience of pain are always harsh. Often they are also a beginning.” [36]  We cannot wait for the world to change – we have to get going.  “When we accept what we cannot change – that some pain cannot be avoided, that some adversities cannot be overcome, that tragedy comes to every one of us – we are liberated to direct our energy toward work that we can actually do.” [36]

“Great changes come when we make small adjustments with great conviction.” [38] The growth and maturity of a believer comes in degrees. 2 Corinthians 3:18.

As believers we need to start now in growth in degrees.  As a pleasant surprise, Greiten quotes Augustine in Confessions – “When [Augustine] reflected on all the selfish ambition he began with, and all the false starts and doubts on his path, he could only say to God, “I have loved you so late.” [41]

We also do this together, in community and in deep relationships.  “Someone who cares about you, sweats with you, and corrects you when you need to be corrected is one of the most precious things in life: a true friend.” [44] Disciples of Jesus are supposed to come alongside other disciples in the tight community of the church.

When we put these principles into action – we flourish.  “Flourishing is rooted in action.  You work along the lines of excellence. You can’t just do things. You do them well. A flourishing life is a life lived along lines of excellence. Flourishing is a condition created by the choices we make in the world we live in.” [50] Flourishing usually produces happiness.  “Remember what comes first. A focus on happiness will not lead to excellence. A focus on excellence will, over time, lead to happiness.” [59]

I will again bust in and insert that “excellence” is supremely demonstrated in God Himself.  We purse GOD and we will receive the abundant life he promises [John 10:10], but not material abundance or pleasure.  Greiten, again so close to biblical truth here “The happiness of pleasure cannot provide purpose; it can’t substitute for the happiness of excellence.” [62…ie. God]  This is the restless striving of the human heart, which our friend Augustine reminds us “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.”

Greiten also touches on major biblical themes like maturity [“put away childish things – 77]; pursuing false idols [77]; and even our identity. And our identity has nothing to do with our feelings.

“How you are feeling? It’s often a sucker’s question…feelings lead to action and action leads to identity.”  Yes and no.  I was worried for a minute but he quickly got back towards biblical truth.

The typical identity flow goes like this: “Feelings – Action – Identity.”  That’s a trap.  It’s more accurately “Identity – Action – Feelings.”

We act from who we are [and who we are aspiring to be], which produces actions, which in turn produce feelings.  My church will hear me say “Feelings can’t drive the bus.”  Christians are children of God – dearly loved, cherished, made holy by faith in Christ.  We act from that identity and that aspiration, and feelings follow.  Most of the time…  🙂  Even when they don’t who we are cannot change, it is guaranteed by the blood of Christ! [Colossians 3:12]

This gets real practical real fast – “Sleeping, eating, exercising – these actions shape how you feel. Acting with compassion, courage, grace – these actions also shape how you feel.” [83]

He pushes harder against society, which I love.

“Here’s where this gets tough. Imagine that a friend tells us, ‘I feel depressed every morning.’ Society has taught us that we’re supposed to say ‘I’m sorry that you feel that way. Why do you feel depressed? What makes you depressed?, etc. The question we almost never ask, however, is the one that really matters – ‘How do you do that? How do you make yourself depressed every morning?’  When you feel miserable – even when you feel you are going to die – that’s not the end of the story. It’s time to start asking the hard questions.  How much of your pain is out there in the world? How much is in your mind? What is within your power to change? If the feelings you have are killing you, how can you change them?”  [85- see above!]

We act in line with our current identity [in Christ] and our aspired identity [more transformed, more mature.]  It’s a process.  Greiten is right when he says we might have to “wear the mask of virtue” in our actions until it becomes part of us.  I’m reminded of Luther’s quote – “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”  I think Piper said it as well “Become who you are…”

“To change the direction of your life, you have to reset your habits. Every time you act, your actions create feelings – pleasure or pain, pride or shame – that reinforces habits. When a habit becomes so ingrained that actions begin to flow fro you without conscious thought or effort, then you have changed your character.” [96]

“The more responsibility people take, the more resilient they are likely to be. The less responsibility people take – for their actions, for their lives, for their happiness [for their growth in Godliness] the more likely it is that life will crush them. At the root of resilience is the willingness to take responsibility for results.” [106]

“Whatever the world sends us, we have power over our intentions and our attitudes. Epictetus said that ‘it is not the things which trouble us, but the judgments we bring to bear upon things.'” [107]  The author goes back to Stockdale the POW – “Throughout his ordeal, Stockdale maintained that he held more power over his suffering than his captors did: his ordeal would only become an evil if he let it.” [108]  We are usually our own worst enemy. [113]

We shouldn’t look to the extremes here, again another trap I see people falling into.  Finding the extreme side of a situation and camping there.  “Fixating on extremes, like fixating on inconsistencies, can start to stand in the way of living well.” [134]

We need to live realistically – “In our security and comfort, we slip quietly into the false expectation that life will afford us completely happiness. We believe that we will move only from pleasure to pleasure, from joy to joy. When tragedy strikes or hardship hits, too many of us feel ambushed by pain, betrayed by the present, despairing of the future.” [137]

People like SEALs know the mistake that we Americans make in this first hand.  Seeing global suffering and evil up close.

“Resilient realists know that life – despite our highest ideals – is imperfect. Readiness means confronting the reality that life’s course is not completely under your control. Readiness is a form of humility, spurred by recognition of how little we can know or control. Hardship is unavoidable. Resilient people recognize this reality. Then they can prepare themselves for it, seeking to meet it as best they can, on their own terms.” [140]

Yes and no.  This world is imperfect, because of sin, and we shouldn’t expect it to be.  Humility is key, as far as our dependance on God who does completely control all things.  But, again, we can meet things ‘on our own terms’ to a certain extent.  We strive and labor and endure in the strength that God supplies.  Just as we should not think too highly of this broken world, we shouldn’t think too highly of ourselves.

Once again, Greiten pleasantly arrives at this truth a few paragraphs later “Recognize, as realists do, that life has a tragic character – human beings are flawed, and that both the natural and the human world are beyond your power to control, and you’ll have a better chance of serving effectively.” [140]

This is sin that dwells within us all in hearts.  “…the line dividing good and evil cuts thru the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” [141]  Greiten nailing biblical truth here, though not calling it that.  Jeremiah 17:9.  WE HAVE TO destroy the sin in our hearts! [Col 3:5; Rom 8:13]

Throughout the book, there is an undercurrent of “just try harder…” which as I’ve been saying, only gets us so far.  We need to be diligent with what God has given us, we need to accept reality, and be responsible – those things I’m in complete agreement with the author.  The danger here is that when you are dealing with things of eternal significance – “try harder” won’t cut it.  We need more faith in Christ, and less faith in ourselves.

I also agree wholeheartedly with the notion that we have to make resilience a part of our daily habits.  “What usually matters in your life is not the magical moment, but the quality of your daily practice.  Knowing is usually the easy part.  Doing is much harder.” [155]

This is particularly challenging when we are in pain – physical, emotional, or spiritual.  There is sometimes no answer to pain, and in that situation we accept what has been allowed into our lives by a sovereign, good, loving, and all-powerful God.  This is what Greitens says in a roundabout way talking about the Stoics – “…our choice to accept or reject what we cannot control is the only thing completely within our power.” [158]

This naturally comes with some negative effect on our mood and happiness sometimes.  Modern society will have us take that away with medication or something else.  It is true we don’t want to wallow in it, but just because we are sad doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be or try to remove it as quickly as possible. “Unhappiness in the face of a terrible loss is not evidence of a disease, and it’s not a mental disorder.  There are entire industries designed to persuade you otherwise, Walker, but if you are not depressed by some of what life throws at you, then you are not seeing or hearing or feeling all of the world around you.”  [161]  Yes, oftentimes God does his biggest work and we grow the most during times of pain.  He even quotes CS Lewis “pain is ‘God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” [165]  “Some pain is good and necessary. A lot of people in the modern world end to misunderstand this:  they believe that the ideal life is a painless life.” [166]

We need to respond to pain rightly “we do not grow because of the pain. We grow when we recover from the right pain in the right way.” [170]  There is also a difference, he notes, between pain and suffering – “You often don’t have a choice when it comes to feeling pain. You often do have a choice about whether you suffer, because suffering is created by your perception of, and relationship to, pain.” [171]

This is very prominent in how we talk to ourselves.  We all do it.  “We all talk to ourselves. You may not speak your thoughts out loud or share them with others, but there is always a conversation in your head about your environment, the people around you, and most important, about yourself.” [175]  Predictably, the author drives right down main street of humanistic “destructive self-talk.”  Spiritually speaking this is our sinful, twisted hearts trying to pull us away from our identity in Christ.  This is where the gospel comes in loud and clear and we need to inform our consciences, our inner voices, the truth according to God’s word. This is where preaching the gospel, over and over, to ourselves comes in.  “The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’– what business have you to be disquieted?” [Spiritual Depression – Its Causes and Cures]

Once you identify the “destructive self-talk, you can – as with any habit – replace it with a new one.”  This is the core of growing and changing biblically as a Christian.  We put off the old, renew our minds, and put on the new!  [Ephesians 4:20-22;  Colossians 3]

People are masters at overcomplicating things.  I have a few friends that I tend to mutter to myself  – “that dude can over think a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”  It’s true.  I see it as a Pastor and counselor – people paralyze themselves and are rendered unable to change because they have over-complicated everything.  Greitens agrees, “The more complicated you make something, the more excuses you create for yourself…people introduce complication to avoid beginning.” [187]  Break complex things down into small manageable tasks, set realistic goals and get started.

In one of my favorite quotes from the book he writes “A lot of people need more work, and less talk. More action, less complaining. We need to hear less about their feelings and see more of their effort.”  [197]

This is one of the many reasons why we need friends – and as Christians we need the church, because it’s not a building, the church is people – seeking to live their lives for God’s glory and grow to be more like Him. We all have blind spots and this is where good solid friends come in to help us, “…we can’t live our best lives or become our best selves without these kinds of friendships.”  [210]  Greiten, who definitely has a lot of Bible background, though I’m not sure if he is a professing Christian, quotes the story of David and Bathsheba – and his friend Nathan.  Nathan, the bold prophet of God who confronts David and David instantly knows his wrong.  I’ve said it myself, and it was nice to hear the author say that we all need a Nathan. “Who is your Nathan?” [213]

Good leaders understand resilience – “resilient living is the foundation for resilient leadership.”  As mentioned, humility is a big part of resilience and good leaders are humble. “Officers eat last. Leaders lead from the front [lines, I would assume?]. Never ask someone to endure more than you are wiling to endure yourself.” [247]

Greitens hits the importance of self-mastery again. “Some of our freedom can only be won through self-mastery.” [253]  This is precipitated by action – “many people try to find balance in their lives first, and then run.  Sometimes that works. But a lot of times it’s in the running itself that you find your balance.” [256]  As I like to say,  “You can’t turn a boat that isn’t moving.”  As Christians – what guides our direction and balance is the word of God!  Greitens, coming at this from the human side, writes that “you figure out the purpose of your live by living your life.  You give meaning to your quest by what you do and say and suffer. The challenges you face and the choices you make create the meaning of your story. The hardships, dangers, temptations and distractions that confront you are obstacles, yes, but its only by wrestling with those obstacles that your purpose can be understood.” [261]  Again – yes and no.  For Christians, the undeniable purpose of our lives is to bring glory to God with them – particularly as we walk thru suffering and hardship, which we all will.  That is always the main thing, but humans are thinkers and questioners and we want to know more of what we are supposed to be doing here.  God has gifted each of us, I agree that we need more action, but our action in ‘living our life’ should only shed more light on how we are to glorify God.

The author writes, and I agree, that our lives will not be movie-like perfect as we seek to live them out.  “You are going to live a real life. It’s not going to be perfect; it won’t always be pretty. But you can decide what the themes of your story are going to be.” [267]

I read this book over the course of several months while on airplanes or hanging by the pool.  It was a very helpful book for practically thinking about some of these things from a man who has clearly developed a deep sense of wisdom and maturity thru tremendous life experiences.  Christians can learn from men like this, but only as far as it propels us to translate what he is saying into biblical truth.  All truth is from God, and if we do not bring it back to God and clarify and refine it with God’s word, we can stray from it.