Israel Day 2 – Jerusalem

So…again…WOW.  It’s hard to describe everything that you see, hear, smell and experience when you are walking thru Jerusalem for the first time.

Before we begin:  Click HERE for all the photos!  I took TONS…

First, we stopped at an observation point to get a look at the city from a higher elevation.  The first thing I noticed were tombstones – essentially concrete coffin-like boxes.  HUNDREDS [thousands?] of them.  All with stones of remembrance laid on top.  I thought…there has to be something to this.  There is.  When the Messiah comes/returns the resurrection will happen…and the idea is he would come back to the same mount he ascended from…you’d want to have your grave nearby so you were ready to go.

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On the other side of the wall, you have the Golden/East Gates [see Ezekiel 44] where the Messiah will supposedly enter the city from, and you have hundreds of Arab graves there to stop him.

This is so much of the tension that is here.  Different religious ideas all co-existing [or not] within a country the size of New Jersey.   Christians, Jews, Muslims…and if you add in all the different sects and varieties of each, it’s easy to get the theological head spins. It is such a combination of frustrating, and lighting a fire in me to continue to be faithful in the pursuit of sound Biblical doctrine.

On a more touching note, we spent time in the Garden of Gethsemane, [see Matthew 26:36cf] and even though those weren’t the exact trees that Jesus leaned on while he was praying for the Father to take the cross from him, it still was profoundly powerful nonetheless.

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We also went to what is traditionally known as the High Priest Caiaphas’ palace, and saw where they believe Jesus was held prisoner and whipped the night he was arrested.  One of the many places that silence was observed as people took time to reflect and pray.

We spent time at the Israel Museum and took in all the history of a 400:1 model of the city of Jerusalem at around 65AD.  Huge amounts of Biblical history to be had there, not to mention we also stopped by the Shrine of the Book and saw some actual Hebrew manuscripts and a facsimile of the Dead Sea Scroll version of Isaiah. [We were not allowed to take pics indoors!]

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We also spent time in shop owned by Evangelical Christians in Jerusalem, who worship in Aramaic, so we got to hear one of the owners pray the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic.

Perhaps the shopping highlight was the market in Judah.  It was less of a tourist stop, and more of a local spot.  It was absolutely amazing.  [It was also slightly freaky, as we all know any terrorist account in the movies starts in a market…]. Mel and I scored some good gift purchases and it made me thankful that I get to take in all this with my best friend and soul mate.

Onward to tomorrow!

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Israel Day 1 – Allegedly It’s Tuesday

So…WOW.  Direct flight from Newark to Tel Aviv is just over 10 hours…which in and of itself isn’t bad, but what is the challenging part is that you literally fly through time – we took off from Newark at 1:15pm Eastern time and landed in Tel Aviv at 6:00am the next day.   Don’t ask me the math, all I know is that part hurt a little.  We are 7 hours ahead of the East Coast. Welcome to Israel!   [ברוך הבא לישראל]

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The flight was great, we were met right away by our tour guide, Irit, and after a quick breather and an Israeli airport Americano, we were on our way.

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First stop was the Valley of Elah.  This is where David fought Goliath.  It’s not hard to imagine such an epic battle happening here.  David standing up for the honor and glory of God, in the middle of his fellow Israelites quaking in their boots. [Read more in 1 Samuel 17]

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From there we went to Kirath Jiream, where the ark of the covenant was brought after a series of unfortunate events and rightfully returned to Israel. Currently, a Catholic church sits on top of the hill, but a beautiful and historic place nonetheless. [Read more in 1 Samuel 7]

Lastly, we arrived at our hotel and took a tour of their Biblical gardens with many realistic recreations of things like a watchtower, a synagogue, olive oil press, threshing floor and a wine press.  Then we got to participate in 2 very needed activities: a nap and a hot shower.

Half of our group is here, we are waiting for the other half to arrive, who according to Find My Friends, is at the airport.  We look forward to seeing them over dinner tonight.

Resting up for Day 2 tomorrow!



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Israel 2019 – Departure!

I’ve been preparing for our Israel trip by reading Augustine’s Confessions.  [Doesn’t everyone?]


OK, it’s not totally strange, as for the past few days in all the controlled chaos of shopping, collecting supplies, packing…I’ve tried to determine what I’m going to do/read in the 10+ hours of travel.  And I got hooked on this book.  It’s one of those that I’ve started and stopped at a previous time, and now wondering why I never kept reading.

And so, the early morning hours of our departure day, I read this quote

“For what is nearer to thine ears than a confessing heart, and a life of faith?”

It struck me as we are traveling over 5,000 miles for the trip of a lifetime, that maybe some people do it in an attempt to be nearer to God.

Yet what Augustine was referring to is the reality that we are not nearer to God in any particular city, or holy land – only thru confession of faith in God’s Son, Jesus. Paul writes,

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:13 ESV)

Jesus is our Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.  He is our way to God.  While Melanie and I look forward to walking where He walked, and absorbing all the spiritual realities, and Biblical history – we are thankful that Jesus did what no place ever could – reconcile sinners to God.

More posts and pictures to come.  Next stop Israel!


Book Review – The Pastor’s Justification

Whilst listening to the For the Church Podcast the other day, the question posed was something like “What books have been helpful for you as a pastor?” The immediate response was “The Pastor’s Justification” – of which…I have never heard…until that moment. He said it so matter of factly that I was embarrassed I hadn’t heard of it, nevertheless read it.  Good thing I was alone in the Mighty Tundra.  71ywgW3NGgL.jpg

Being that we live in the age of one-click, I actually ordered it from the Amazon app while driving [I’m sure it was safe], and had it in 2 days.

I consumed it shortly thereafter, and I must agree…it is profoundly helpful.

Jared Wilson is a ridiculously talented writer.  I don’t say that just in hopes that he re-tweets this, but because it’s true.  He knows what pastoring is like and he translates that with transparency, depth, and humor that makes for a profoundly helpful read.

As the title indicates – pastors, like most perhaps, are prone to searching for a ‘justification’ – something to ease the nagging questions of the tired soul. “Am I doing enough?” “Am I even good at this?” “Am I doing too much?” “I’m probably terrible at this, right?” Jared proclaims what we all need to keep our drooping soul’s eyes fixed on – “there is no Justification 2.0 for ministers of the gospel. There is only the gospel itself – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” [19]. How to get that thru our thick skulls and into a Monday reality is what this book is all about.

The pastor, although still working out his own salvation with fear and trembling, is still the one called to lead the church to their own maturity, through their own muck and mire.  On Sunday, as he stands in the pulpit and pours out what the Holy Spirit has been pouring into him all week, he walks in full – while the church walks in empty.  On Monday morning the reverse happens, the pastor is now empty, drained from the whirlwind that was Sunday, and the church is full.  Happy Monday.  I agree the “Monday morning pastoral hangover is real.”

For me, this is a mixed blessing, as I truly love what I’ve been given the privilege of doing.  Let’s face it, it’s joy and an honor.  But the image of a stone that is pushed up a hill all week only to watch it roll back down to the bottom each Sunday afternoon.  Monday afternoon, it’s time to get rolling again.  My routine side loves that [Nerd Alert/Routine Idolatry], but the reality is that many Mondays, my arms are tired, and my soul is achy. Isn’t that the same for all of us?

Pastors are to be free – free from sin through the justification by faith in Jesus.  Free from the sin of being arrogant, from ruling harshly, from leading with selfish gain.

Pastors are to be holy – and we rest again in the justification of Jesus who accomplished this for us.  “Be holy, for I am holy.” [1 Peter 1:16] is “both a command and a promise (thank God.)”.  [41]. Yet, we are called to be killing sin, and growing in personal holiness. Robert Murray McCheyne famously said, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.”  Not better programs, though we should be innovative.  Not better sermons, though we are called to be diligent.  We need to submit ourselves to the Word that we are proclaiming on Sunday mornings.   We will be holy, if we obey, so obey.

Pastors are to be humble – this, even in a small church context is challenging.  There is a constant flow of compliments, and to balance them…some critiques as well.  But the reality is that if we are being faithful, God is at work and people will change and they will be thankful.  Wilson reminds us that we need to be humble in all things – in suffering, in ‘messy ministry’, in prayer and in the Word.

Pastors are to be confident.  Not in ourselves, for we are to be “point them to the real Jesus and away from yourself.” [80] We are to be cultivating a “gospel-wakened” sense that goes beyond worship styles, “petty criticisms and legalistic slander.” [88]

Pastors are to be watchful. Watchful toward those who need Jesus, even (especially?) those who are ‘less-than.’ Watchful against heresy – an ever increasing risk in this internet age.  Watchful against apostasy – a casual glance at Twitter of late will show only an increase in big name apostasy.  How do we work through that and in our own people? Watchful against gossip.  Watchful against division.  And watchful against ourselves – as Wilson repeats several times…and it hurts every time (thanks Jared) “Remember, the pastor’s biggest problem is himself.” [96]. Who watches us?  We can certainly isolate ourselves and there is where the danger is.  Tell the truth. Let people in.  Trusted mature brothers.  [and I’ll add for good measure – listen to your wife.  She is a good and Godly gift to see our hearts when we don’t want to]

Pastors are justified.  Our security, the one that shakes when things don’t go as planned, must be in Jesus.  Fire our internal defense lawyer.  Christ justifies. Not us.  “I am a dummy, and God is good.” [109]. Again, thanks for that, Jared.

In Part 2, Wilson anchors the “glory” of pastors in the gospel, using the Five Solas.   Sola Scriptura – Scripture is authoritative and complete, so we preach God’s Word and we stand on it’s authority, not ours.  Let God’s Word do God’s work.

Sola Gratia – we are saved only by God’s grace, so we model grace to our people.  We “seed grace in every space.” [139]. This speaks to the need for gospel intentionality in all things – the gospel of grace first, not programs.  This quote is soooo good, I just have to drop it – “A community whose culture is gospel-intentioned is the antidote to programmed discipleship, where “church” is not the people but a set of programs and activities, and its relegated to fitting into the sovereignty of peoples schedules.” [140] #Boom.

Sola Fide – we are justified by our faith alone, in Jesus, so we pastor by faith, and that includes letting people in.  Being transparent.  [See Wilson’s story of the start of his pastorate in Vermont…] We faithfully preach God’s Word and we let it do It’s work.

Solus Christus – it’s only Christ, so we make him the center.  If you are familiar with the FTC podcast that’s Wilson’s thing “May Jesus be big.”   Since it’s Christ who justifies us, it’s all about Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria – it’s all about God’s glory, not ours, so we pastor to bring honor to Him.  “The pastor who will see God’s glory is the pastor who pursues God’s glory in exclusion of  everything that falls short. All lesser glories may be placed on the altar.” [168]. He must increase, I must decrease…

This book hurt a little.  The good kind of hurt.  Part of it was validating…maybe I’m not crazy…maybe we are on the right track. Part of it was encouraging…maybe I’m not the only guy that thinks these things.  Part of it was confronting…Pastors, we have a precious calling, but a dangerous one.  We must be every vigilant, to proclaim not our own justification, but only the justification of Jesus in all we do.






Book Review: Understanding the Lord’s Supper

It’s a pastoral task that happens fairly frequently – I was asked about another local church. I wasn’t familiar with them, so the inter webs I went I listened to a few sermons.  Most of it was the garden variety false teaching = mega-church/prosperity gospel/word-of-faith man centered pop-psychology motivational feelings-fest, with a few out of context verses scattered about. [Too harsh?  Just wait…]

But they also posted their Easter worship set.  I skipped thru most of it, but then saw on screen what appeared to be the Pastor coming up literally in the middle of the bands set, to lead the Lord’s Table.  He indicated that the audience should grab their “communion kit” that they all received on the way in.  He summarized/paraphrased Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, and said that the bread and juice represent that “healing is ours today.”   They “receive healing into their bodies” with the elements.  That it is “God’s will that they live healthy and whole lives.”  If they “believed by faith” they would be healed through the receiving of the elements. As for the cup, he did say the “blood of Christ paid the price for our sins so that we can have a relationship with God.”  But also that was our “ticket” to eternal life with God. He prayed and they took the elements.  The whole thing lasted literally 2 minutes and 46 seconds.  Then they got back to the concert…er…I mean the corporate musical worship.

My mouth could not have been open wider.  Maybe I was a little more sensitive to it because we just recently celebrated Good Friday and the reverence and palpability of the depth of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  I don’t get offended by much, but I felt offense as I watched how poorly they handled Communion.  I’ve seen plenty of false teaching, but I’ve never seen such a disrespect, and complete lack of Biblical understanding of something so profound as the Lord’s Supper.

This is why I was immediately thankful for a 9Marks mini-book in their Church Basics series titled “Understanding the Lord’s Supper” by Bobby Jamieson.

9Marks exists to help build healthy churches and perhaps no other organization I’m familiar with has a higher view of the local church.  With that simple foundation in mind, they skillfully and biblically address this vital topic.

Jamieson starts by reviewing the significance of Israel, and how the Passover meal marked their birth as a nation, as they were rescued from slavery in Egypt.  Marked by the blood of the lamb.

Fast forward to Jesus, the fulfillment of Israel…the Messiah.  “When Jesus made good on God’s greatest promise to his people, he sealed it in his blood.” [9].   “The bread and wine are visible words of promise…and because we keep company with Christ in the Lord’s Supper, we also keep company with each other.  As a local church, we are one body because we share in the one bread and all it represents.” [15]

That points to the Scriptural reality that the Lord’s Supper is for the church…meaning believers, and only believers.  Not just anyone who walks through the door and gets handed a communion kit.

With that in mind, Jamieson offers a solid definition for us “the Lord’s Supper is a church’s act of communion with Christ and each other and commemorating Christ’s death by partaking of bread and wine, and a believer’s act of receiving Christ’s benefits and renewing his or her commitment to Christ and his people, thereby making the church one body and marking it off from the world.” [25]

The author rightly points to 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul says several times that it is the body “coming together” for this – meaning the church is gathered for regular worship. Not “families and small groups”, it is “not detachable from the church.” [26]

This creates the unity of the church, quoting from 1 Corinthians 3:17 – “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body…”  In it, we are receiving from God but we are also renewing our covenant with God and with each other.

One cannot talk about the Lords Supper without talking about Baptism – as “baptism binds one to many, and the Lord’s Supper binds many into one.” [40].  Thus it is for “baptized” believers only.  Baptism being the public proclamation of your faith and your identification with Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s your profession of faith in the covenant in Christ’s blood, which is being renewed in the Lord’s Supper.  You cannot renew something you never proclaimed and covenanted publicly.

Understandably, Jamieson also goes as far as to say that the “Lord’s Supper is for baptized believers who belong a church.”  This is sound, as church membership is grounded in Scripture as well, there was no such thing as a non-baptized believer who was not a member in the early church.  This isn’t closed communion, but rather the magnification of a biblical view on church membership.

This book provides very practical guidance. Churches should celebrate the table when they are all together, typically during a worship service.  The meaning should be made clear and it should be clarified who should participate.  Everyone should eat the bread and drink the cup together and it should be celebrated regularly.

Jamieson also provided a helpful chapter on how individuals should approach the table. They should look to the cross, look around at their brothers and sisters, look ahead to the coming kingdom, and look inward in examination of our own soul…with a subsequent look back to the cross in what Christ won for us there.

He didn’t win for us a “communion kit” or “healing” that we can apply by faith to any ailment we want or our “ticket” to eternal life or something awkwardly and hurriedly jammed into a worship set for 2 minutes and 46 seconds.

It is so. much. more. than. that.

I remain thankful for men like Jamieson and organizations for 9Marks that provide ways for us to think biblically about things of such importance.








Book Review – A Time for Confidence

I’m a fan of apologetics.  I love well thought out, Scripturally grounded perspectives that incorporate the full orb of what Scripture actually says.  Maybe it’s because I was a child of the 80’s and youth groups were all about pithy shallow sayings and don’t get me started on the worship music.  OY.

That’s why I gravitate towards books like “A Time for Confidence: Trusting God in a Post-Christian Society” by Stephen J. Nichols.

Indeed we are a post-Christian society.  I’m finding that there are people walking through he doors of our church that have never been in church…or only a handful of times.  Generations are growing up knowing nothing about the true Jesus and the truth of the Scriptures and defining life on their own terms. Tell us, Dr. Nichols…

“Marriage is whatever we want it  be. Human life is defined however we want defined. Gender is a moving target. We have plunged ourselves into a whirlpool of relativism, and we’re spiraling toward the drain.” [7]  Dang. I’m gonna like this book.

Nichols wrote this book to answer the big question “How do we respond?” It is not a time to “cower, cave, or capitulate. It is a time for confidence, and our confidence must be in the right space. Or better to say, our confidence must be in the right person. Our confidence must be in God. All else will disappoint.” [15]

One of the things I love the most about men like Nichols is their grounding in church history.  With a nod to Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” – who do we have to help us? “The Spirit, and the gifts are ours…as is the Man of God’s own choosing. Christ, our elder brother, our Lord and our Redeemer.” [22]

He also quickly grounds our confidence in God as revealed in Scripture, pointing us towards Isaiah 40, which looks to the character, power, and wisdom of our great God. This gets our eyes off of us, and the problems around us and onto Him. “If all we do is see what is in front of us, only see what is right on our horizon, we will easily despair We can easily doubt. so we must have vision. We must have the vision of God, our all in all.” [35] This is the perspective of early church fathers/martyrs like Polycarp. Of early Christians who were persecuted under Nero. And it must be ours as well.

We must know this God deeply and truly, as he has revealed himself to us in Scripture.  This gives us perspective for the world around us and for our own hearts.  Quoting RC Sproul “our biggest problem is that we don’t know who God is, and we don’t know who we are.”  Amen! Our confidence must be in God.

We also need to have confidence in the Bible.  Again, this comes down many times to a knowledge issue.  Just this week, Twitter melted down with the decision from the Methodist Church to honor what the Bible says about marriage, gender, and sexuality.  So many people furious over this decision – yet the Bible could not be more clear on the subject.  Our confidence must put our own hearts to rest – we can trust the Bible.

“We must let the Bible be our guide. If it’s a gospel issue, then we must take our stand If it’s a biblical truth matter, then we must take our stand. God has spoken on the nature of human identity and sexual identity. God has spoken on marriage…they are lines drawn in the sand in the opening two chapters of the Bible…and they are rejected today.” [50]

Our confidence must also be in Christ.  We consider who Christ is and what he endured, we have confidence through him to also endure.  “He is truly God…truly man…superior to everything else that precedes him, the complete revelation and fulfillment of and apex of all revelation.  The consummation of all God’s promises.” [70-1] And all this, just from the book of Hebrews.

When we look to Christ, suddenly our increasing hardship and “persecution” for holding to our faith in these times seems a lot more like what he actually went thru for us.

This leads us, of course, to confidence in the gospel.  Nichols takes aim and asks a powerfully convicting question – “Do we believe in the power of the gospel?” [95] If so, we will endure, press on and be an authentic witness of it, and Romans 1:16 tells us this as fact – it IS the power of God for salvation.  “It will succeed against all odds and against all opposition.” [100]

The gospel also gives us confidence that things are not actually spiraling out of God’s control, he is sovereign over all things.  “God governs history and moves it along toward his desired end and purpose as surely as the sun rises.  We can have confidence in God’s work of redemption.” [115]

Finally, we can have confidence in hope.  Jeremiah Burroughs wrote “We have great things in hand, but greater things in hope.”  The very best we can do here on earth – in love, in humility, even in prayer – is still as Edwards said “clogged by sin.”  In heaven – we will be unclogged…so we have hope. [121]

Hope is part of our nature, put there by our Creator.  “The prevailing worldview did not and cannot offer real answers. Modernity says ‘Hope in man.’ That doesn’t work. Postmodernity says ‘Abandon hope.’ That doesn’t work either. Humanity cannot live without hope.” [124]

As a pastor, I especially appreciated [and was slightly convicted by] this hope of heaven means that what our people will be had not yet appeared.  We are all in the process of progressive sanctification.   Hope includes hoping for the image of Christ to be fully formed in each other as we sojourn in this lost place.

Hope also breeds joy and “to be a person of joy is a profound apologetic.” [137]

As we, as Christians, face this world of constantly shifting moral sands, we can stand on the confidences we have received – in God, in Scripture, in Jesus, in the gospel, and in hope.  One day, all the striving will cease and we will be like him and we will all be one in the confidence of our God for eternity.



Book Review – Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church

Another book in the “Growing Healthy Churches” series by 9Marks, Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church, both challenges and encourages us all to think more deeply on perhaps the churches biggest overlooked spiritual discipline.  AND…perhaps the reigning world champion of the “Lowest Attended Event for Every Church on Earth” title – the prayer meeting.

I had the helpful experience of hearing the author, John Onwuchekwa, speak at a church planting conference a few years back, so I was very excited to dig into not only this topic, but his perspective as well.  He didn’t disappoint.

Onwuchekwa is the Pastor of Cornerstone Church, Atlanta…and to be very transparent, I was a little surprised that in a completely different ministry context than me…prioritization and participation in prayer in the church is still a challenge.  What is the deal?  Onwuchekwa helps us come to grips with that.

This book helps us towards the goal of “learning how to pray better and more as churches.” [15]  Specifically, the authors purpose is to examine how prayer shapes the life of the church.  Much as been written about our individual prayer lives, but how do we pray together…as a church? Why is that important?  How can we be more consistent in weaving it into our DNA?

Now, it’s probably safe to say that most churches don’t completely ignore prayer…but rather minimize it. In both time allowed for corporate prayer and that invisible way we either celebrate something and hold it as critical, or the way we can regulate it to the ‘nice to have.

“Where prayer is absent, it reinforces the assumption that we are OK without God. Infrequent prayer teaches a church that God is needed only in special situations.  It leads a church to believe that there are plenty of things that we can do without God’s help, and we need to bother him only when we run into especially difficult circumstances.” [19]. Of course we wouldn’t come right out and say that…but we are saying that…right?

With a vulnerable mix of humor and honesty, Onwuchekwa talks about his own journey to prioritizing prayer. Through the loss of his brother, he was helped to “reinforce a forgotten truth: prayer is vital and necessary to spiritual life. Prayer is like breathing.” [22]

Quoting Millar, the author defines prayer as “calling on God to come thru on his promise.” [33] When we call on the LORD, we call on not only his name, but his nature.

Here’s then how that comes together in the local church, where a community of believer of Jesus gathers to live life together.  As Dever likes to point out – it’s impossible to answer the question of ‘what is a Christian?’ without talking about the church…and if the church shares a corporate hope in Christ, prayer [should] reflect our togetherness in Christ. [37]  AMEN.

Even looking at something like the Lord’s Prayer [Matthew 6:9-13] shows us that prayer, particularly gathered prayer, is to pray that God will continue to establish his gospel work through the local churches. [48]

This was something that was part of our culture as we planted Highlands Bible Church.  Planting a church makes you face an undeniable reality – there are things that you cannot do yourselves, no matter how hard you try.  God must establish his church. [Matthew 16:18].  After planting a church, you are faced with a subsequent undeniable reality – there are still things you cannot do yourselves, like the work of the gospel in the hearts of those who come.  We must continue to pray for God to establish his gospel work through the local churches!

This is how then praying together knits us together in that most important purpose – the making and maturing of disciples of Jesus Christ. [Matthew 28:18-20] “As we pray this way together, he forms us into a community of people who confess our dependency on him is not primarily circumstantial.”  [51]

It’s fine to pray for Aunt Betty’s knee.  We are told to pray for all things, but if we aren’t praying for the big things of God – the ministry of the gospel in the hearts of people – we are off base.

Onwuchekwa nails it – “The church gathers to meet together – we should be hearing the word preached, sang and read. And in response, we pray.  We gather to meet him together in large part through prayers that are responses to his Word.” [78]. AMEN!  God’s Word must be the foundation of all we do, it should be the central part of our gatherings.

The author gets practical in “how to” pray using the ACTS model of prayer:  Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.  This is a model that few follow at HBC and we are still working on it, but I was encouraged that we seem to be headed in a solid direction.  The idea is not just to run into God’s presence with a list of requests…but rather spend time in His presence. As Onwuchekwa writes “unpack the attributes.” [80]

I also appreciated how practical he gets in “how to run a prayer meeting.”   Start with the Word, and then pray for “primarily kingdom-minded, whole body, major life concerns.” [100]. This is helpful and convicting.  We can pray for the “small stuff”…but again, what is the weight of what we pray for showing a priority?

Realizing all this is in a church is a marathon, not a sprint.  It’s a long walk. It’s being consistent.  It’s being patient. It’s a culture change. It’s being prayerful.

And it’s worth the effort.  Thanks, Pastor John.


Book Review: The Gospel – How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ

As stated previously, I’m a big fan of 9Marks and their missions to “equip church leaders with a biblical vision and practical resources for displaying God’s glory to the nations through healthy churches.”

Personally, I’ve found them to be very helpful and insightful in thinking thru complex issues with remarkable clarity.  They have also been a tremendous help to our church, specifically in the area of Elder training and assessment.    We have been to their Weekenders, and their “Building Healthy Churches” series of books are required reading.  IOW, get ready for several more book reviews like this.

First up is “The Gospel – How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ” by Ray Ortlund, who is the Lead Pastor of Immanuel Church, in Nashvegas.

The gospel is the center and foundation of everything in the church, or it should be.  The depth to which that is realized within a church lies in the balance between the theology of the gospel, and the practice of the gospel.  The primary danger being that “a church with the truth of the gospel in its theology can produce the opposite of the gospel in its practice.” [16] Ortlund holds these two in tension throughout this helpful book and how this tension plays out is the true test of a “gospel-centered” church.

As Ortlund points out – this doesn’t start with doctrine so much as it starts with the beauty of Christ.  Hence the subtitle.  Churches need to center this balance of theology and practice on the incomparable beauty of Jesus in His redemption of sinners by his boundless mercy and grace

So, how do churches get a gospel culture?  Works of service?  Deeds of mercy?  Turning the lights down low and turning the music up high?  There are no shortcuts – “gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture.  The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace.” [21].  Funny how doctrine gets a bad rap, but there is no escaping that we have to building on the same foundation or the walls will be rickety.  We can’t hang pictures on the walls of grace without digging the ground and setting a foundation on the rock.  “Truth without grace is harsh and ugly. Grace without truth is sentimental and cowardly.” [22]

Before you get nervous with the word “doctrine” remember – the gospel is a set of indisputable facts.  God is perfect, holy and just.  We rejected Him and made ourselves kings of our own kingdoms, thus incurring the just wrath of God.  Jesus was sent as our wrath-bearer – becoming the very perfection, holiness, and justice of God.  What do we do to participate?  Ortlund, quoting Gerhard Forde, points out “Nothing.  Just be still.  Shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!” [34]

How does look in the local church?  “The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace where good things happen to bad people.” [36]. The church is the environment for growth, the arena for holiness, it’s God’s Plan A for reaching the world with the good news of His Son.  It needs to held high, honored, and committed to.  “There is no churchless Christianity in the Bible. We individualistic Americans need to face that. God is building a new community, and it’s worth belonging to.” [41]. Anytime we pick on individualistic Americans I’m in.  Of course…there is a healthy dose of self-conviction in that. If I were honest of course.  This is where the gospel confronts, sanctifies and grows the church. Quoting John Owen, “…the love of Christ is effective and fruitful in producing all the good things which he wills for his beloved. He loves life, race and holiness into us; he loves us into covenant, loves us into heaven.” [47]

This should get real practical, real fast. The church is also where “the gospel is field-tested for real life…the gospel should be displayed most clearly in our church. Therefore, how we behave in the household of God matters to everyone around us.” [66].  The reality of practical holiness and progressive sanctification by the Spirit, all done under the banner of love, are the bread and butter of life in the church.  “The goal is not to make the church safe for sin; it is to make it safe for confession and repentance.” [73]

What stops us then? First – what are we preaching? The gospel much be preached from the center God’s Word.  One needs only to look as far as the ecclesiological and denominational wreckage of the American church to see what happens when we drift from the center.   But once that becomes the heart of a church, attention turns to the members themselves.  Ours is a religion of faith and Ortlund rightly points out “one of the largest barriers to the work of the gospel in our churches is unbelief among us church members.”  Ouch.  Why did he have to say “us…” Because unbelief undermines the authority of the gospel in our actual lives.

Solution?  Focus on the perfect beauty of Jesus Christ.  “God simply changes everyone’s topic of conversation from what’s wrong with us, which is plenty, to what’s right with Christ, which is endless.” [90] AMEN!  We don’t  spur each other on to growth in the gospel unless we look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of or faith.

Preach the gospel of Christ boldly!  “The one thing the gospel never does is NOTHING. Every time we hear the gospel preached, it hardens us a little more, or it softens us a little more…no one is static. No one is NOT responding to the gospel. Everyone is moving further along one path or the other.” [95-97]. Think about that the next time we stand in the pulpit, or give a youth group talk, or sit down for family devotions.  The gospel forging a culture, let us pray it is one of true saving faith in the hearts of the hearers.

Ortlund closes with a practical call to action for the church in power, culture and love.  In power, we call upon God in prayer. In courage, we boldly run the race set before us focused on Jesus and others, and not ourselves. In love we are identified as Jesus followers, as we love others and the true church.

Straight up – this is a great book.  It makes you think deeply about how the gospel not only saves us, but fuels the church in representing the beauty of Christ in a dark world.  It gives you hope of gospel transformation not only within our own hearts, but the culture of our churches.  It points to the glorious eternal hope we have in Christ and how by dwelling on the riches of the glorious gospel, we will be better prepared to meet him one day.




Book Review – Love Came Down at Christmas

This year, [well…actually LAST year as it’s now January] I wanted to read a dedicated Advent devotional. I also haven’t read much by Sinclair Ferguson, but have always found his teaching helpful.

Enter Love Came Down at Christmas, which I snapped up during the Ligonier Black Friday sale.  [Note for next year’s shopping…]

If you’ve never read an Advent devotional before, the idea is that you read it during well…Advent.  There are 24 devotionals running the month of December leading up to Christmas.

Love did come down at Christmas and Ferguson rightly points us to the source of love itself – Jesus.  “He shows us what love it. Love is simply being like Him.” [10]

“Love always means that you come down. It means that you use [your]gifts for the good of others, not to make yourself feel good. It means that are willing to do things that are uncomfortable or inconvenient for you, or that go unnoticed.” [17]

Indeed, Christmas is a time of year when we stop and think of others, there is no one who has ever thought more of others than Jesus Christ. [Philippians 2:5-8]

With love being the foundation, Ferguson goes on to have the reader daily reflect on other attributes of Christ.  I found this convicting and helpful, as we don’t get time off from sanctification.  It’s not often that we consider doing such soul-work at Christmas, but yet we need patience, kindness, contentment, humility, and even being well-mannered.

One day I found particularly helpful was Day 10 titled “Throw Yourself In.” Being a philosophical/worldview kind of guy the author confronts our worlds obsession with self.  “Christmas says there is a cosmic scheme of things.” Perfect segue into the riches of the gospel!

“Through faith in Jesus, we discover that our lives fit into the ‘cosmic scheme of things.’ He recreates in us a love for himself and restores us to fellowship with himself, which transforms self directed love into love of our neighbors. In this way the birth of Christ leads to our rebirth. That new birth sets us free from the tyranny of the project of the self.” [69].

The birth of Christ leads to our rebirth.  That rebirth includes the counter-cultural realization that we aren’t the centers of the universe and in fact, by rejecting the real center of the universe we have fractured our relationship with Him and have put us in the place of needing to be rescued from our sin.  Love comes down to rescue us at Christmas, and how he does that is astounding – truly the greatest gift of all.

I found this book convicting and encouraging…exactly how I like books, especially ones for such an important time of the year, when love truly came down.

Book Review – In His Image

So…disclosure time. I didn’t do as well as I wanted to reading books in 2018. I managed to squeak out a few more than I did in 2017…and I was slightly less diligent in publishing reviews. Hence, I’ll have a few reviews that are stragglers of books read in 2018. That being said, here is the first such review.

I have not read personally anything from Jen Wilkin, other than her tweets and a few postings on TGC. My wife has benefitted greatly from her books, as have other ladies in our church as she seems to have a solid grasp on the Word of God and theological application. This book verified all that for me.

Subtitled “10 Ways that God Calls us to Reflect His Character” you knew right away that we were headed into a survey of God’s attributes.  What was helpful about this book was how Wilkin weaves his character into our quest to “know God’s will” for our lives.  One of the top Christian cliches and misunderstandings that American Churchianity has every produced.

Wilkin poses the better question in response to “What should I do?” – “Who should I be?” [13].  And as you can probably see what’s coming – who we are as Christians has everything to do with who Christ is, as we are united with Him.

This speaks to our fallen natures – the sin, selfishness, weakness that resides in us all – and thus there is only one answer to that:  the gospel.  “The gospel transforms us to who we should have been.  It re-images us.” [14]. 

“What is God’s will for your life?  Put simply, that you would be more like Christ.”  [16]

AMEN.  Thank you, Jen Wilkin.  Not that we finally answer our true calling and find our purpose by unlocking some secret plan for our destiny with a new job, or new mission.  Rather that we live out our highest calling – to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.  

Wilkin then walks through 10 aspects of God’s character that we should be:

  1. Holy.  God is holy, so we are to be holy. [1 Peter 1:14-16]  “Holiness permeates the entire Christian calling.  It lies at the very center of the gospel. We are not merely saved from depravity; we are saved to holiness. Creation entails consecration.” [25]
  2. Loving. Modeled after “agape” love – “a selfless, purposeful, outgoing attitude that desires us to do good to the one loved.” [34]  It’s worth noting that everything rolls up under #1 – so as Wilkin rightly points out “if I seek to be holy without agape, I addd nothing, I am nothing, I gain nothing.” [1 Corinthians13:1-3; 37].  The ultimate example of love is what God did for us by giving us His Son, Jesus on the cross.
  3. Good. “As those who are the recipients of the good and perfect gifts of God, goodness toward others means generosity. It means were recognize that God gives us good things no so that they might terminate on us, but so. that we might seared them on behalf of others.” [51]. “Be the person who seeks the welfare o others. Be the person tho ives without counting the cost. Be the person who serves joyfully with no expectations of thanks for recognition. Be good employees, good next-door neighbors, good parents, good children…” [52]
  4. Just. Stop score-keeping. Stop attempting to self-justify.  There is only one who knows all things and has acted perfectly to right all wrongs.  Jesus is both just and the justifier. [Romans 3:21-26] “Be just as he is just, delighting in his law, extol his good government, do justice daily as children of your Heavenly Father.” [69]
  5. Merciful.  “Justice is getting what we deserve. Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Grace is getting what we do not deserve.” [72].  I like the way Wilkin writes…clearly and powerfully…”the fact that you are currently inhaling and exhaling at this very moment means that you are a recipient of mercy.” [73]. God expresses his mercy towards us in Jesus, so we ought to be merciful.
  6. Gracious.  God’s grace is everything.  Without it, we are only left with his just wrath for sin.  Even after conversion, his grace empowers us to grow in Christlikeness.  “Those who enjoy such abundance can afford to deal abundantly with others.” [93]
  7. Faithful. “God is incapable of infidelity at any level.” [99] We are not, yet God like faithfulness should be a life goal.  Being faithful is an intentional chasing to be like God, and not the sinful desires of our hearts. Talk about God’s will for our lives, it doesn’t get much more practical and nitty gritty than choosing to follow his way in the 1.78 trillion thoughts, words, and actions every single day.
  8. Patient.  I’m not a patient person.  God is perfectly patient.  Any questions?  But seriously, to make it worse – God is all-knowing and perfectly patient. I know only a microscopic slice of my life and I’m impatient.   That means we have to trust him with our lives because he knows best.
  9. Truthful.  We have to remember that any of these things we know because they are comparison items.  We know what is good, because we compare it to something known to be good, etc.  However, God is the very definition of these characteristics.  He is truth. He created truth.  He is truth personified in Jesus.  This flies in the face of our current “what’s true for you is cool” moral relativism culture.  I love that Wilkin goes all worldview by pointing out there are actually answers to the big questions of “Where did we come from?” “Why am I here?” “What’s wrong?” and “What fixes it?”  [125cf]. This world, in all it’s blessings, is a false reality. The truth is God and we know him thru the Word of God.
  10. Wise. So many times we pray for wisdom in a situation.  I wonder how much of that would be informed if we diligently, honestly, and humbly pursued #1-9?  In order to know God’s wisdom, we need to know God.  We need to spend time with him in prayer, in his Word, and following it.  the Bible is very clear the road to wisdom, sometimes it’s a lack of desire and submission on our part.


Wilkin rolls all of this up into what we were created to do – worship.  “The motive of sanctification is joy…fullness of joy results when we seek to reflect our Maker. It’s what we were created to do. it is the very will of God for our lives.” [148]

May we focus more on being like God himself this year and less of our own “mission quest” – let the world see God in you.  “God’s will for our lives is to become living proof.” [153]

Thanks Jen Wilkin.