The Gospel as Center
This is a US book. You can tell that from the misspelt (UK readers)/correctly spelt (US readers) title. But there is just about where any US/UK divide happens. Some books are so rooted in their immediate context that they just don't work over the pond. There are US titles which are addressing peculiarly US issues, and UK titles similarly hampered. This is not one of them. So, the book is The Gospel as Center, the subtitle is "renewing our faith and reforming our ministry practices" and what you have, under the careful editorship of Carson and Keller, is a concise set of essays on the important and defining elements of The Gospel Coalition's beliefs.
So – don't be shocked – on one level this is an entirely uncontroversial, safe book. You know where it's coming from before it begins and you can have a pretty good guess at each of the conclusions reached. Such is our constituency. Ordinarily, this safeness might have made it rather dull and useless. But that's simply not the case. Instead, there are a collection of useful essays from the pens of quite different writers. Some are more useful than others, of course – but the dual-authored chapter on baptism and the Lord's Supper by Thabiti Anyabwile (a baptist) and Lig Duncan (a presbyterian) is worth, as they say, the admission price alone. It really helped me think clearly about how and why we celebrate these sacraments in church life.
Here are the chapters:
- Gospel Centered Ministry – Carson & Keller
- Can we know the truth – Richard D Phillips
- The Gospel and Scripture – Mike Bullmore
- Creation – Andrew Davis
- Sin and the fall – Reddit Andrews III
- The Plan – Colin Smith (hoorah for the Brits!)
- What is the gospel? – Bryan Chapell
- Christ's Redemption – Sandy Wilson
- Justification – Philip Ryken
- The Holy Spirit – Kevin DeYoung
- The Kingdom of God – Stephen Um
- The Church – God's new people – Tim Savage
- Baptism and the Lord's Supper – Thabiti Anybwile and Lig Duncan
- The Restoration of all things – Sam Storms
If you're going to read it on your own then it's a book for reinforcement – and there's nothing wrong with that. If you're going to read it with others (e.g. a leadership team – and that's where there's real value), then it's a book for learning and growing. Both are worthy causes.
It's a nice hardback, 300pp. Come along to the EMA and there'll be a very nice price, signficantly under list of £14.
The root idea of marriage
I've hesitated to wade in with my size 9s on the whole marriage thing, not because I don't have strong views (oh, I do) but because I don't particularly want to preach to the choir. But here's a thought – do we need to recover the root idea of marriage? When we're arguing for marriage in the marketplace, we tend not to use theological arguments. I sort of understand that. We need to interact with people at a level they will understand and a dialogue they will engage with. It puts us at an immediate disadvantage because so many of the theological arguments are too complex for a sound-bite media world. So, praise God for those, like the Christian Institute, who make a cogent case for traditional marriage on our behalf.
But, at the very least, when we're talking amongst ourselves, we must make sure we use the full force of theological argument. I was thinking about this because I listened to the Bishop of Buckingham's response to some of The Times correspondence, making a case for gay marriage. This is what he said, word for word:
…a partnership between two people who covenant a faithful relationship to one another based on the love they have for one another and seek it as a sacramental blessing – in other words that they receive the love of God partly through the love that binds them together as a couple in a partnership – this is the root idea of marriage.
Really? First of all, I'm not exactly sure what he is saying. It's just a bit too wishy-washy for me. But, more fundamentally, that is not the root idea of marriage.
The ultimate thing we can say about marriage is that it exists for God's glory. That is, it exists to display God….Marriage is patterned after Christ's covenant relationship to his redeemed people, the church. And therefore the highest meaning and the most ultimate purpose of marriage is to put the covenant relationship of Christ and his church on display. That is why marriage exists. If you are married, that is why you are married. If you hope to be, that should be your dream. John Piper, This Momentary Marriage, p25.
This gets to the root of marriage and explains, from first principles, why sexual immorality of any kind is wrong. Of course, there are commands a-plenty, but if sexual union is at the heart of marriage and reflecting the mystery that is Christ and the church, then accepting sex outside of marriage implies you can be the bride of Christ without being married to him (pluralism). Masturbation (solo sex) is saying "I don't need Christ." Sleeping with a prostitute (1 Cor 6.15) is saying that there is salvation outside of Christ. Ditto gay sex and marriage. Let's make sure, then, that we keep the root idea before us.
Come praise and glorify our God
Just been thinking about EMA music. When I was at T4G, I greatly enjoyed singing Tim Chester's words based on Ephesians 1 – Come praise and glorify our God. At least, I assume Tim wrote the words and Bob Kauflin the music – but perhaps it was the other way around…..?
Anyhows, it's got good content and a rousing tune. You could sing it with minimal accompaniment if that is your thing, or full band if that is yours. Here are the words:
The music is here for free and you can watch a full band full on version on you tube below if that is your thing. We're going to learn it at church this Sunday.
On how Bible studies could make you Catholic
Just been reading the latest issue of Modern Reformation which contains a series of devastating interviews with those who have left mainstream evangelicalism for Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Emerging church, liberal Anglicanism and cultural atheism. It's sobering reading. This one particular comment caught my eye. It's in the interview with someone who has left for the Roman Catholic church and has a side swipe as he goes about Biblical interpretation, particularly in small group studies.
I'm sure there are a lot of good Bible studies out there, and a lot of well intentioned people, so I don't want to go overboard. But it's not only my opinion [that evangelicalism tends to be self-help rather than Christ-centred]. There have been some recent academic studies by anthropologists who have examined evangelical Bible studies. They report that people don't pay too much attention to what the text actually says. People search around in their heads, their memories, and their feelings for something that seems to connect to the text. And then, they conclude "Oh yeah, that makes me fee like.." or "What I think is that…." or "In my opinion, what it means is…" Usually the text is serving as a pretext to affirm something they already believe, rather than as an authoritative text to challenge what they already believe. There's no other way to put it. There's a lot of sharing of ignorance.
Hmm. It's what we've been saying for years of course. And thankfully, many of us will have worked hard to get away from precisely this kind of Bible study. And, to be fair, it's one of only 95 (!) steps that led Christian Smith away from the evangelical faith. But it shouldn't even register as one. For the answer to these kind of Bible studies (though they cannot really claim that title) is not to move to Catholicism, but to have better Bible studies. How often do you get around your small groups to hear what's going on?
Why I am a procrastinator
This is a hard book review to write. Why? Because in the review I am about to give I will reveal something of my heart and a lot of my sin. That's unavoidable. As soon as I tell you that this was a book for me, I've let the cat out of the bag. So here goes – Pleasing People by Lou Priolo. This was a book for me. There, said it. Why write a review then, if it is all so heart-revealing? For the simple reason that being a people pleaser is a common sin in many pastors and preachers. We tend not to be, on the whole, those who err by thinking nothing of others. We're soft hearted towards others – and so we tend to err by being overly sensitive to others – and very, very often this means overly sensitive when it comes to what others think about us. That's why Keller's little book that I recommended yesterday was such a good starting point. Here's the big brother to that little volume.
In so many words it's the kind of book I don't really enjoy reading – lots of numbered lists. It's not quite a seven-step-to-success program but at times, because each chapter is often a collection of points, 1., 2., 3. and so on, it does feel like that. But, in one sense, it's very puritan-like – and that's not surprising because Priolo draws heavily on Timothy Dwight, Hugh Blair, Jeremiah Burroughs (hoorah, East End boy!) and, especially, Richard Baxter. That means what you get is warm, biblical wisdom suffused with pastoral punch. I got beyond the lists to the heart of what Lou was saying: and very often I found those lists describing me from lots of different angles.
To be frank, this is the pastoral punch many of us need. OK, let's not beat around the bush. It's pastoral punch that I need. So here, for example, are ten characteristics of an approval junkie:
- he fears the displeasure of man more than the displeasure of God
- he desires the praise of man more than the praise of God
- he studies what it takes to please man as much (if not more than) what it means to please God
- his speech is designed to entice and flatter others into thinking well of him
- he is a respecter of persons
- he is oversensitive to correction, reproof, and other allusions of dissatisfaction or disapproval on the part of others
- he outwardly renders eye service to man rather than inwardly rendering sincere (from the heart) ministry to the Lord
- he selfishly uses the wisdom, abilities and gifts that have been given him for God's glory and the benefit of others for his own glory and personal benefit
- he invests more of his personal resources in establishing his own honour than he does in establishing God's honour
- he is discontented with the condition and proportion that God has appointed for him
Sound familiar? Oh, and the people-pleaser is also often a procrastinator. Did I mention that? You'll have to read the book to find out why. This book was good for my soul. It's the kind of book that I won't lend to you. I'd lend you most of the books in my library should you ask nicely, but not this one. I need to read it regularly, I think. Plus, you don't want to see my scribbled comments and highlights (or rather, I don't want you to see them. I don't think that's just because I'm a people pleaser (!!) but there are some things that are better not shared).
As well as being suffused with the wisdom of the puritans, it's also highly biblical (no surprise that the two go together). If I had a criticism, it would be that there is almost too much Scripture (e.g. on humility, p168-170) which can mean running the risk of taking some texts out of context. But this is a minor niggle. Overall, the tone is gentle, persuasive and focused. And – this is possibly my highest praise – the book is very God-centred: Christ-centred, even. Again, using the puritans makes this less than surprising, but time and time again I found myself thinking less of myself and more of him. That's got to be good, right? And in so doing, my motives and thoughts are laid bare – this quote from Jeremiah Burroughs is typical:
I urge you to consider that God does not deal with you as you deal with him. If God were to put the worst interpretation on all your ways towards him as you put on his towards you, it would be very bad for you.
So, buy, read and keep. Our friends at ten of those have got it for £8.50, almost £3 less than amazon.
[And please keep my sin to yourself!]
Oh, and it's got a neat cover.
The freedom of self-forgetfulness
I spent a profitable hour yesterday reading Tim Keller's little book The freedom of self-forgetfulness. It's essentially a sermon on 1 Corinthians 3.21-4.7. As such, its 46 pages tackle one main theme – what we think of ourselves. What can I say? It's immensely helpful. Who doesn't some of the time (at least) if not all of the time worry about what others think? No one I know. Certainly not me. And the answer, says Keller, is not in the modern philosophy that everything can be blamed on low self esteem. In fact, historically, everything has been based on too high a self-esteem. No, the answer is in forgetting who we are except who we are in Christ. In other words, it's about identity.
What would Paul say to those who tell him to set his own standards? He would say it is a trap. A trap he will not fall into. You see, it is a trap to say that we should not worry about everyone else's standards, just set our own. That's not an answer. Boosting our self esteem by living up to our own standards or someone else's sounds like a great solution. But it does not deliver. It cannot deliver. (p27)
This is a book I will take home and read again, more slowly. You should too. £2.99 in print version of 99p as an ebook. Here's what Sir Christopher said about it:
In this helpful little book, Dr Keller paints a compelling picture of a truly gospel-humble person who is so taken up with his Lord that he is freed from the constant need to think about himself. We were challenged by it; we pray that you will be too.
And if you're booked in to the EMA, there'll be a great deal on it…..
Introducing Expositional Preaching
One of the most encouraging things I saw in the US was the desire to promote and practice expository preaching in the local church. In fact, this is one of the affirmations of the T4G crowd:
Article IVWe affirm the centrality of expository preaching in the Church and the urgent need for a recovery of biblical exposition and the public reading of Scripture in worship. We deny that God-honoring worship can marginalize or neglect the ministry of the Word as manifested through exposition and public reading. We further deny that a Church devoid of true biblical preaching can survive as a Gospel Church.
Expositional preaching is preaching in which the main point of a biblical text becomes the main point of the sermon and is applied to life today. This is how pastors should preach. God calls pastors not to preach their own opinions or agendas; he calls them to preach his Word. Expositional preaching is what gives life and health to the church. It's what shapes, forms and reforms the church. It reveals God to us. It confronts our sin. It comforts us. It brings us to Christ. And it teaches us how to live together in a way that puts God's glorious character on display for all the world to see.
- We're not saying expositional preaching has to go verse by verse through a book of the Bible
- We're not saying expositional preaching rules out topical preaching as a legitimate practice
- We're not saying expositional preaching is just a series of lectures, the main goal of which is information transfer
- We're not saying expositional preaching is marked by any particular style
- We're not saying expositional preaching is not evangelistic preaching
These obviously require more explanation. You'll have to buy the book. Anecdotally, pastors I had meals with had also caught the vision. I hesitate to say this – but as a movement within conservative evangelicalism it feels that the US is where we were 20-30 years ago. Sorry, US readers! But the UK has got to be ahead in something! That's not to say that there have not been proponents and practitioners for generations. There have. One thinks of Haddon Robinson in the seminary and guys like R Kent Hughes in the pulpit. But, to this uneducated observer at least, it feels that there is now real momentum. Praise God for that.
So, expository preaching is dead! Long live expositional preaching.
T4G: a book review: Health, Wealth and Happiness
This short book is all about why the prosperity gospel is wrong. Not really a book for the UK, you might think? Wrong. You would be surprised at the reach. But I think, through a combination of poor teaching and the reach of the internet, this is more common than you may think. I've got real examples but they're all from real pastoral situations, so, if that's OK with you, I'm not sharing. What this book does well is call into question not just hard line prosperity teaching (Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin) but the 'soft' proponents too – Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen and so on. That's useful because their influence is huge (and may well be in your church more than you even realise). It's this 'soft' prosperity gospel which is so destructive here in the UK and its influence is, it seems to me, growing rapidly.
So, this has the potential to be a helpful book even here in the UK. It's mostly very robust, starting with a chapter showing how the teaching grew out of New Thought philosophy in the nineteenth century. There are good interactions with people such as Meyer and Osteen and some excellent critique showing how their teaching compromises the gospel at its very core. All good. I found it very helpful. Nevertheless, there are one or two omissions:
- there is some talk of what healing in the atonement really means (Isaiah 53:4-5 clarified by 1 Peter 2:24). However, to tackle this subject without reference to Matt 8:16-17 seems something of a major oversight (where the Isaiah reference is specifically linked to Jesus' healing ministry). That omission is a shame though, for what it's worth, they do get to the right answer!
- there is virtually no discussion of the differences between the Old and New Covenants. The Old Covenant does have inbuilt prosperity in it if it is fully obeyed (see Deuteronomy 28). There is the blessing of children, increase of herds and crops, defeat against enemies: "the Lord will make you abound in prosperity" (v11). These promises explain much of the other blessing language in the psalms and prophets. They also underline the importance of reading the Scriptures in context – in this case which covenant they appear in. To miss this entire subject out seems to be glaring oversight.
However, that is not to distract from the overall usefulness of the short book. The authors are arguing from an orthodox point of view – they view the atonement and the Scriptures in a robustly evangelical way. I've actually disproved my last post – this was a free book and I'm going to recommend it – just a shame there was not a bit more…
[It's a Kregel book and available through amazon second hand for around £10 delivered]
T4G: a few reflections: the value of free
The number of free books you get given at US conferences is Stupid (spelt with a capital letter deliberately). This despite the fact that one of them was UK Celebrity Pastor Christopher Ash's Listen Up (good move Good Book!). I came away with over 30 – 18 from the main sessions and then loads more from a breakout I attended on blogging. I guess in marketing terms I can see the catch – here are mainly pastors and if you can get a pastor to endorse your book in a large congregation you may get on sales. But over 30! It did seem a litle ridiculous. I'll write a review of one or two in the coming days. But for now, I'm interested to reflect on the value of free.
There's plenty of charity research (so I'm told) that says that people give more when they're buying something. That's why charities often give away pins or small gifts. Similarly some churches find that charging a nominal amount for an event (say £1) is more effective than saying it is free. We're suspicious of free. That is certainly true of the books. I'm happy to take them, but I'm under no illusion why I've been given them.
I wonder if there is something here in the way that free grace is so hard for us, in our human nature, to accept. It's very difficult to accept that something comes with no strings attached or that we have not had to work for it. Does that explain, to some extent anyway, self righteousness and the way that generation after generation keeps adding to the gospel some form of works?
T4G: a few reflections: Celebrity Pastors (part 2)
My favourite interchange of T4G at dinner one day when I sat down with a bunch of strangers from West Virginia:
West Virginia Pastor: Hey, where are you from?
WVP: Wow, I don't suppose you've heard of Dick Lucas? He's one of my heroes.
Me: Sure I have
WVP: Have you actually, you know, met him ever, man?
Me: Yes, he often wanders into my office
WVP: [Stunned silence]
I hadn't meant to elicit this reponse in him. He then asked me for a card! Can't wait to tell Dick the story……