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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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 – 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review – Married for God

51nwKRzG+wL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I know what you are thinking – it’s just like what my friend said when he saw my copy of the book “We need another book on marriage?”  I honestly thought the same thing, but it was Tim Challies who included Married for God on his “Favorites of 2016” list that caught my eye.  Because after all, if Challies thought this book was needed…that’s probably saying something.  Right from the beginning, this book didn’t move in the “customary” marriage book topic flow.  Sex is literally the first word, and carries an important undercurrent throughout the rest of the book.  The books focus is on the centrality of wanting what God wants, in our sexuality, but more to the related point – in our marriages.  We need to want what God wants, Ash writes, because he is not a god in our service, we are in His and we need to ask God what he wants and then line up our goals behind his, rather than expecting him to line up his goals behind ours. God has given us all we have and what God wants is actually in line with how things actually are, because he is the Creator and we are the creature. When we ask what God wants, we really are asking what is best for us. [16-17]

Pursuant to having a book that is based on what God wants, particularly in our sexuality, Ash starts with grace, because unless we start with grace we will end up either with despair or self-righteousness.  With that in mind, Ash boldly enters into gospel-fused discussions of the brokenness of sexual sin and how that profoundly affects marriage  – because the Bible speaks to men and women who are all spoiled in the area of sex. Even for those of us who think that we are pretty much in the clear, the gospel teaches us that we are not, when we are talking about the areas of sexual desires and things of the heart. [22-23]. Ash quickly brings in the powerful hope of the gospel, that there is forgiveness, but realistically even though there may not be sexual fulfillment in this life.  This then points to his empowering grace, which allows us to live lives of purity, based soundly on the hope of the gospel.

The author biblically traces the topics of gender, marriage, loneliness, and companionship – noting how we have reoriented these things to be self-serving and not God-serving. It is a serious mistake to think that marriage is made to meet my needs – for two reasons.  First, Genesis 2:18 needs to be rightly interpreted.  It’s not sex in the service of me, it’s sex in the service of God.  Second, simply – the rest of the Bible doesn’t support such a view.  God has bigger purposes in all things than just meeting our perceived needs.  AMEN!  A marriage is made to meet my needs mentality is wrong, self-focused, and destroys marriages.

Ash aptly pushes on the Western undercurrents of children being either curses or something to be idolized.  “We idolize education, caring more about their getting good grades and getting to into a good school than their faith and godliness.” [53]  He boldly (but sensitively) takes a minority position on having children in marriage which I found bold – that deliberately choosing to not have children is wrong.  This goes with this thesis of our lives being not for our own needs but for others, as any parent will attest to – this is inescapable in having children.

He then spends more time developing a convicting and biblical position on sexuality in marriage.  While Christians tend to focus on the epidemic of sexual activity within marriage, he calls us to focus on the epidemic of sexual inactivity within marriage. [67]  As a Pastor this rings true, I’m still saddened to see so many marriages that have a sexual relationship that has all but died, and it’s poison has spread to many other areas in the marriage.  All the while neglecting what is to be the supreme act of intimacy reserved for husband and wife, as other much lesser pursuits have taken priority.  He cautions from having too high a view of sex, nor too low a view.  A husband and wife’s delight in each other, should overflow into areas of service, usefulness and blessing to others.

This is also exemplified in the roles of husband in wife in the “shape” of marriage, in which Ash appropriately balances both the wife submitting to the husband, but also the husband loving his wife, as Christ loves the church.  He notes that Paul writes forty words to the wife about submission, but 115 words to the husbands about sacrificial love. [85] This again has everything to do with sex and making sure that all sexual energies are reserved exclusively for one’s spouse, as a primary way of honoring marriage in a culture that dishonors it.  I appreciated again his boldness and clarity on biblical sexuality and the multitude of implications within sexual sin.  Marriage after all is a covenant promise, and a promise is to be kept, whatever the cost – see Psalm 15:4. [111]

The author has a helpful chapter on singleness. Stressing again that the whole duty of every person on Earth is to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength – married or single. The question then becomes how we are going to love and serve God. [120] Ash pushes on the ‘gift of singleness” stressing that whatever circumstances God has allowed are his gracious gift to me, and I am to learn to accept them from his hand as such. Just because we have been gifted with singleness or marriage, doesn’t mean he can’t change that status either. [126] One point that I found challenging was that neither status is an easy option.  There are unique challenges to each, and we need God’s grace and strength to fulfill God’s calling on us, particularly as sexual purity intersects life and the pursuit of holiness.

Ash closes with a chapter on the heart of marriage, as faithfulness, emphasizing that faithfulness in marriage comes from the faithfulness of God. This understanding is even cloudy in “Christian” marriage materials who instead can focus on feelings, instead of faithfulness. As God promises eternal faithfulness to us in Jesus, we are to life lives of faithful obedience to Him, whether we are married or single.

This is a highly recommended resource for all aspects of marriage!

Sons in the Son – Book Review

sonsinthesong

Sons in the Son (P&R Publishing, 2016) by David B. Garner goes deep into the doctrine of our adoption in Christ.

Adoption is one of those doctrines that warms and encourages the soul and needs to be dwelt upon.  It is also deeply foundational to who we are as united to Christ.  J.I. Packer famously wrote (and Garner is quick to quote) that if he could summarize the New Testament in three words it would be “adoption through propitiation.”

This book is a challenging and academic read, one that is good for enhancing,  deepening and poking at our gospel perspectives, while keeping Christ central.

In Garner’s first section of the book, he lays the adoption foundation -“Securing a family of adopted children occupied the mind of God since before the world’s origins…God purposed adoption, God accomplished adoption, and God applies adoption.” [19] After a brief survey of the concept of adoption in early church history and culture, Garner focuses on the Pauline references to huiothesia – the Greek term  (literally “son-placing”) for adoption which the Apostle uniquely uses for spiritual (not social) adoption.

In the second section, the author dives into the specific texts exegetically and theologically.  Ephesians 1:3-6 [“…God the Father…predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons thru Jesus Christ…”]  As Garner wisely puts it “the opening words of Ephesians affirm, without the all-wise counsel and eternal purpose in the mind of God, redemption would have never happened.”  Amen!  Praise be to God for his sovereign mercy and grace.  Garners stresses, as Paul does in his letters that adoption is in Christ (en Christo) and that union with Christ is paramount to keep in central focus.   Many things stem from this, but one I appreciated particularly was the connection between adoption and Christlikeness.  Eph 1:4 says that he “chose us…to be holy and blameless.”  We have a calling and a purpose therefore as his adopted sons and daughters – bring him glory by looking more like Jesus, through his abundant transforming grace.

The author brings in a redemptive-historical view of adoption when looking more closely at Galatians 4:4-7. [“…so you are no longer a slave, but a son…”]  We see that adoption was not only sovereignly planned, but accomplished in Christ.  As he powerfully writes “the stranglehold of the law and the power of it’s curse meet their defeat under the power of Christ and the cross…” [93] As a result, thru faith, we are no longer slaves to the law/sin – but we are adopted as sons in freedom! Romans 8:15-17 furthers the emphasis of accomplishment. [“…you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons…”]  This is indeed a powerful and central point, once again tied to Christlikeness in practicality – “The Spirit of adoption empowers the believer for spiritual renovation by mortification of sin, and he accomplishes  this empowerment in the mystical union with the Son by the Spirit, or as Paul puts it succinctly, by adoption.” [115]  Through this mortification of sin we grow into the reality of our adopted sonship.  [129]

Garner makes some big statements in this book, one of which he brings out in the context of Ephesians 1:4 to 1:11.  [“…works all things according to the counsel of his will…”]  “Or put in Pauline shorthand, adoption is the singular goal of redemptive history, an adoption that changes the state of the sons, the hearts of the sons, and even the bodies of the sons.” [143]  I can’t say that I disagree with this statement, but the author is laying the groundwork for some bigger statements to follow.

Section 3 contains the significant disconnect I have with the book.  While remaining faithful to the orthodox doctrine of the eternality of Jesus as the Son of God, Garner maintains that Jesus himself was adopted as the Son of God at His resurrection.   This point he carries then for the rest of the book, but devotes a whole chapter to it in chapter 7.  Again, Garners sets the theological foundation with boundaries – “That Christ is eternal Son does not mean, however, that there is therefore no progressive, functional dimension to his sonship.” [179]  Quoting Dunn, he claims this was the adoptionist perspective of primitive Christian teaching “…to have regarded Jesus’ resurrection as the day of his appointment to divine sonship, as the event by which he became God’s son.” [179]  This can be a dangerous perspective and I couldn’t help but take it as a thesis driven push point.  It colored the rest of my interpretation of the book.

The author mainly relies on Romans 1:3-4 for textual support  – ““concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Romans 1:3–4 ESV). The centrality of the argument is the ESV (and KJV, NKJV, and NASB) translation of horisthentos as “declared” which Garner (along with NIV and the new CSV BTW) claims is actually better ” appointed” – thus surmising that Christ was appointed the (adopted) Son at his resurrection.  To be blunt, I can’t buy this, I don’t think it’s helpful, and again it can be dangerous.  Citing support from Gaffin [“…the resurrection of Jesus is his adoption.”] he claims this nuanced interpretation warrants serious attention. [187]

Where it troubles me further is the connection made to biblical Christology and biblical soteriology.  “To put it simply, without the human biography of Christ Jesus, capped by his own adoption as the Son of God, there is no salvation.” [195] – I would wholeheartedly agree with this statement, were it not for the singling out of Christ’s “adoption.”Hence, I cannot.  We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus, I know the author agrees with that of course, but the addition of the adoption of Christ himself seems to obfuscate the overwhelming orthodox centrality of it.   Highlighting my concern are statements such as “…there is no adoption of believers in Christ Jesus without the adoption of Christ Jesus.”  As he continues to make the point, I find myself less and less convinced and more and more concerned.  Don’t get too excited – I realize that Garner isn’t denying the eternal divine sonship of Christ, he is stating that “…at his resurrection, Jesus enters a new phase and new dynamic of sonship.” [214], but I’m at a loss as to why this nuance is emphasized for half of the book.

I appreciated Garner’s discussion of the ordo salutis and rescuing it from a forensic, stale, sequential view. He returns to highlight the importance of sanctification resulting from our adoption, and brings a balanced perspective to a sometimes over-emphasized justification.  “Actual holiness is as important as declared holiness.”  [292] AMEN!  He expands the readers view of ordo salutis and it is appreciated and helpful.  “The golden chain of salvation then comes to the redeemed not as consecutive links, but at once as a gloriously completed crown of divine filial grace.”  Once again, AMEN!  Having sat thru many extended dialogs on “which came first” this is very refreshing and helpful.

All in all, I found this book equally helpful and challenging, but one that should be read with a Berean mindset as the priority given to Christ’s own adoption should not be read without significant personal prayer, study, and thought.

 

 

 

Adoption, the Gospel, and Fairness

Nearly 2 years ago I received a call from my wife that I had received many times before. She told me that DYFS called and they want to place a foster child in our home.  We’ve said ‘yes’ to 7 children previously, but this one seemed different.  4 month old baby boy.  Undernourished.  Almost definite we could adopt if we wanted to – truth be told, we had been hoping we’d find a child we could adopt someday. We said yes immediately.

As I drove home from work that day, I was anticipating a cute, cuddly baby boy.  When I walked in the door and saw him, I was shocked.  Sticks for legs and arms, oversized head, sunken eyeballs.  I was angry…I was trying to not be self-righteously angry.  “How could anyone starve a child in this day and age?”

Baby S quickly started to thrive, mostly because of my wife’s status as a SuperMom.  We started our journey with him – as he started to grow and change.  His smiles, his laughs, his first crawling (more like Army crawling/sliding/dragging), first standing up, first walking, first foods…first words. His obsession with balloons and YouTube Kids. The “not-so-fun” stuff like poop filled diapers, a seemingly constant need for schedule modifications and baby sitters, the countless nights of interrupted sleep, screaming, dinners with friends cut short by projectile vomiting, an awesome case of coxsackie virus on vacation…and the introduction of the full blown 2-year old fit when you do not draw the letter “S” to his exact requirements, or “dit” (sit) when and where he’d like you to. In all that he became our son.  A part of our family.  He had a brother and a sister, grandparents, pets…and an extended family at church that adored him.

img_0028Now, 2 years later we held each other as the DYFS van came back, this time to take him away and reunite him with his birth parents. I snapped this picture standing with the van door open in the awkward, and seeming 45 minutes (in reality probably 2 minutes) it took the driver to strap S into his carseat, while Mel and I cried our eyes out. I didn’t know what else to do, I felt stupid for just standing there. The “impossible” had happened, and it seemed to happen fast.  The trajectory turned quickly from adoption, to him being removed from us and reunited with the situation that put him with us in the first place. Shock.  Pain.  Loss of words. Anger. Disbelief. Fear of the future. Then today…just numbness and grief.  I haven’t cried that hard in a long time.

The thing that comes to mind most often is “this isn’t fair.”  And that would be correct – but it points to a greater truth.  This world isn’t fair.  It’s broken.  It’s chock full of unfairness.  It’s that way because of sin.  We were all created to be in perfect relationship with our good and perfect Heavenly Father, but we chose to reject him – and in so doing fractured the perfection of this world and opened the door for sin, pain, hurt, sickness, unfairness to charge in and take over.

But there is a greater reality that sin hasn’t taken over completely – because it can’t.  Our loving Heavenly Father knew that we would reject him, and despite the stupidity of our choice, he had a plan that he enacted at the perfect time to reconcile us, forgive us, heal us, and conquer sin and unfairness, forever.

Today, we receive this thru repentance and faith.  We turn (repent) from our choice to reject God, and believe (faith) in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, to he sent to absorb his full wrath for our sinful choice on the cross.  He then was resurrected from the dead to prove that the sacrifice was accepted and also to allow us to be united with him in new life.  We live this new life here on earth by his power, and one day he will return to permanently banish sin, sickness, unfairness, and death.

While human relationships will always be flawed and full of sin, and occasional unfairness – thru Jesus our relationship with God can be one of perfect grace, healing, hope, and fairness.

While we won’t always know why things happen, we do know that God is always good and always fair, most profoundly because of what he demonstrated to us in the cross of Jesus.  Fairness in treating sin the way it needs to be treated, and overwhelming grace to give us something far above we could ever earn.

So in that, we press forward.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

(Romans 8:32 ESV)

 

 

Walking in Thankfulness

man-with-boots-in-dirt-road

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

(Colossians 2:6–7 ESV)

Paul is writing to the church, Christians, reminding them of the gospel and encouraging them.  As you are Christians – then WALK in Him.  Biblically speaking, to “walk” is to “live.”  So then, as Schaeffer said – How then shall we live?

First way is “rooted and built up in Him.” This means to be a Christian, our hope, our lives, our purpose, our mission is centered around Jesus.  We are to be “rooted” in Jesus, like a tree’s roots go deep into the soil, so the roots of our lives should go deep into Jesus getting our nourishment from him.

This world tempts us to sink our roots into other soil – We must be careful to see what sold our roots are actually in.

That brings us to the second way – we are to walk “established in the faith”.  We are to live as those who are confirmed, sustained, strong in the faith.  Note we also see that this is “just as we were taught.”  It’s the faith that we were taught. We learn this in His word, the Bible.

These two things, living rooted and built up in him; walking established in the faith as you were taught – should then result in something. 

So what’s the result?  Thankfulness.  Not mere thankfulness – overflowing, abundant thankfulness.  This is something that is ours to do, ours to recognize.

We can live in abundant thankfulness because of what Christ has done in our lives.

We were dead in sin, unable to save ourselves, alienated from God, objects of His wrath, broken and needing healing and we can’t fix ourselves. God in his mercy and grace, gave us Jesus.   We then live transformed lives and we then abound in thanksgiving.

This gospel-based thanksgiving can transcend circumstances because it’s based on what Christ has done.  This Thanksgiving, let’s abound in thankfulness for what Jesus has done.