A little book that’s good for your heart
I've just finished reading Piper's new book published by Christians Focus. It's called Five Points and is a little primer on… the five points of Calvinism. In one sense, this is a book that was preaching to the choir. I had no need to be persuaded myself – these convictions are my convictions. Nevertheless, Piper explains them in such a way that young or new Christians would be able to grasp what the teaching and its relevance is. His aim is to set out a biblical case, and (given the space limitations) he does this admirably. I would happily give this to someone in our congregation to read.
But more than this, it did me good. Not so much (interestingly) the individual chapters on the five points (more of this in a moment). But Piper's own personal testimony of why he treasures these five points really stirred by own soul. He offers up 10 consequences of reflecting on these truths, many of which (when I sat down to think about it) resonated with me. That last chapter is gold dust.
On the individual points, some chapters are (perhaps not surprisingly) stronger than others.
- The chapter on Total Depravity is very strong and well applied. "The aim of this book is to deepen our experience of God's grace. It is not to depress or to discourage or to paralyze. Knowing the greatness of our disease will make us all the more amazed at the greatness of our Physician. Knowing the extent of our deep seated rebellion will stun us at the long suffering grace and patience toward God." This is Piper the preacher at his best.
- The chapter on Limited Atonement is perhaps the one many will turn to first. I appreciate that not all readers will share his (and my) conviction. Piper knows this too and in this chapter tries to be his most persuasive. He does acknowledge that a much more in-depth analysis of this question is in the forthcoming Crossway volume, but that is going to take months to digest. So this is a good place to start, Nevertheless, I do think Piper could here have interacted with the most crucial objection, namely that this doctrine prevents the evangelist from saying "Christ died for your sins." That's a common enough objection that is worth tackling. BTW, it's interesting that that's never (as far as I can see) a New Testament evangelistic approach. Perhaps that will get tackled in the mama volume.
- Similarly, there is no real interaction in the chapter on Perseverance of the Saints with Hebrews 6. I appreciate that the book is a positive preach on the five points, but again, this is such a common objection, that a paragraph or two on it would have been a worthwhile addition.
- I also wanted to see stronger links between the points. I think the linkage (and interdependency) is important and often overlooked.
- Finally, the title is unlikely to draw in those who need to be persuaded. I would have liked a more engaging title.
Overall, this is an excellent little primer which, even for this paid up choir member, stirred my heart and made me thankful for the sovereign action of God in saving me. Worth reading for yourself and worth recommending to your congregation.
Reading for ALL your congregation
Right. I'm going to review a kids book. Before you click away, just think about this. You're pastor of a congregation that's made up of adults AND children (I guess). You need to be reading books that are good for your own ministry and spiritual life and be on the ball to recommend to your congregation suitable books for their own spiritual development. That's a different way of thinking for most pastors, which is a shame. If I asked you to recommend a book for early teens on holiness, what would you say? (Don't say Ryle, please). If I asked you for a series which introduced great Christian characters for 8-10 year olds, what would you recommend?
I don't think, as pastors of congregations, we can be ignorant in this area or simply delegate responsibility to our youth workers. We need to be pastoring the whole congregation, and that includes younger Christians.
So here's my help.
- First tip. There are lots of kids books out there and they're not all good. You can't simply send people to the kids section of the local bookstore and know they're getting faithful well-written and applied material. It's true for adults and it's true for kids too. Don't assume.
- Second tip. Start with good publishers. There are good books from what I would call mixed publishers. But, if you're uncertain, it's best to start with those publishers where you can be sure about the theological position they're written from.
- Third tip. Don't imagine that kids can only cope with childish stories. You may be surprised. It's a constant source of frustration to me that Sunday School materials do not (for the most part) deal with, say, epistles. They concentrate on narratives (which, incidentally, are some of the hardest parts of Scripture to teach well to adults, let alone kids). There are books which are more than stories and they're worth searching out.
- Fourth tip. Don't imagine that Horrible History is the only way to go. That particular series is incredible for getting kids into history. I commend it for that, But anyone with any historical knowledge knows that it is not really history. A few gruesome facts about the Tudors does not begin to convey Tudor life. There are more and more Christian books that pick up on that oeuvre. But don't make that (alone) the young church's diet.
So, here's a constructive kids suggestion. I've been reading Simonetta Carr's Lady Jane Grey with one of the Misses R, aged 9. This is a beautifully made book (hardback, landscape),illustrated with timeless pictures (rather than cartoon like graphics). The text is accurate and relatively detailed – this is not a 5 year old's book. But the story is told in such a way as to challenge (we spent some time thinking about whether we should obey God rather than man and followed up by reading Acts 4). I cannot commend this series enough. It's all I think a kids book should be. It's testament to the quality that this is not the first time we've read it and it was requested! As you might imagine with this story, it's not a laugh a minute – no Horrible History toilet stories here. But the story introduces all kinds of themes that are good for young people to know. In fact, we've just come back from a week near Oxford and reading this book helped us talk about the Marytrs Memorial there which Dad insisted on going to see (again!). The books also cover Athanasius, Augustine, Calvin, Owen and others. Reformation Heritage have done a great service to the world of kids books. And if you're in the UK £6.63 from tenofthose is a remarkable price for such a nicely presented hardback. It would be a great gift this Christmas.
And recommending it would almost certainly do your congregation good. Young and old.
Unread emails and self-discipline
A week away and I have 200 unread emails (not counting the trash) to sort through. That's pretty dispiriting, I have to be honest. Email is far too easy a tool. It's immensely useful (of course), but cc'ing someone in or, worse still, sending someone an email and thinking that means it's on their radar and action plan, are both too easy. I'm as guilty of doing this as much as the next man I guess, but I still know that this kind of mentality can be harmful in church life. The bottom line is that it requires some self-discipline to manage – this is especially true if, as in most churches, you're not blessed with a church administrator and secretary to give some help.
I think we need to engender a culture in our churches where issues (in particular) are resolved face to face rather than via email. And if we try to sort things out by firing off emails, we mustn't be surprised if we get a whole load back! So, here's a discipline for a preacher.
- something not quite right about the service? Try a phone call to the music leader, rather than an email.
- something you want to pick up on in the sermon preached by an elder last week? Try a coffee and chat one morning early rather than an email.
- something you want to respond to – perhaps a criticism sent in an email? Try calling the plaintiff, rather than concocting a five page defence.
Emails are useful of course (particularly for sharing information). But it seems to me that replacing face-to-face real interaction can damage churches in the long term and come back to bite you, as you will give the entire congregation carte blanche to contact you in the same way. We lead congregations of God's people. Not businesses.
Gunpowder, treason and plot
So, today's the day. 5th November. Guy Fawkes and all that. Not quite celebrated in the way it once was and perhaps – in some ways – that's a good thing. But it's also a shame. I spent a few moments (just a few) reading the old Book of Common Prayer service for the 5th November. I'm not quite sure at what stage it was removed from the ecclesiastical calendar. I only know it's in my 1760 copy, but not in my 1930 one. I'm not too bothered (don't write in please!). But what interests me in this particular service is that it is strong on the providence of God.
Perhaps services like those have had their day, but they did give congregations a great sense of the sovereign hand of God on all things. And I wonder if we are poorer for losing that? Remembrance Days – such as they are (and we probably only celebrate one now), tend to focus on what people have given rather than what God has done. Perhaps that's worth remembering as you plan and prepare for this coming Sunday, Remembrance Sunday.
I find it an odd occasion in a multicultural church where many people represent Axis countries. It's difficult to find the right words. But reflecting on the sovereignty of God is one sure answer. Whatever your background, this is a sure and certain truth that is always worth repeating.
Almighty God and heavenly Father, who of thy gracious providence, and tender mercy towards us, didst prevent the malice and imaginations of our enemies, by discovering and confounding their horrible and wicked enterprize, plotted and intended this day to have been executed against the King, and whole State of England, for the subversion of the Government and Religion established among us; and didst likewise upon this day wonderfully conduct thy servant King William, and bring him safely into England, to preserve us from the attempts of our enemies to bereave us of our Religion and Laws; We most humbly praise and magnify thy most glorious Name for thy un-speakable goodness towards us, expressed in both these acts of thy mercy. We confess it has been of thy mercy alone that we are not consumed; for our sins have cried to heaven against us, and our iniquities justly called for vengeance upon us. But thou hast not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us after our iniquities; nor given us over, as we deserved, to be a prey to our enemies; but hast in mercy delivered us from their malice, and preserved us from death and destruction. Let the consideration of this thy repeated goodness, O Lord, work in us true repentance, that iniquity may not be our ruin: And increase in us more and more a lively faith and love, fruitful in all holy obedience; that thou mayest still continue thy favour, with the light of thy Gospel, to us and our posterity for ever more; and that for thy dear Son’s sake Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.
The depths of the riches
I managed to get a few days away this last week (school half term here in the UK) and this meant catching up on some reading. Notably, it was time for my once-a-year outing for Great Expectations. I don't really care what you think about Dickens, nor this book. I love it. And (this is where you will really think me potty), I read it about once a year. Even after all these readings (25 odd, I guess), it still never fails to make me laugh and cry in equal measure. Tommy Traddles is still funny (and wickedly left out of the BBC adaptation). Mr Micawber is a comedy treat. Dora's death is moving. Agnes' integration into the family tear inducing.
But here's the thing. Dickens is dense prose and I am a light reader. That means there is always something more to see. Always something I haven't seen before. A sentence or a pun. A conversation. A depth to a character or situation I overlooked. I guess that's one of the reasons I come back to it again and again.
I see the same, multiplied a zillion times, in the Scripture. I find it constantly amazing to see and understand details that I've never seen before, despite countless readings. Details that open up vast vistas and trains of thought that magnify the ultimate author and draw me closer to the Son. Just last week I saw in Genesis 1 something I'd never really seen before. How likely is that! It got me thinking and meditating and reflecting and drove me back into the text and back to the God who inspired it.
God's word is immensely deep and rich, and it's a great privilege to be paid to sound its depths and convey its truth to others.
The New Testament use of the Old (5)
It’s an undeniable fact that the NT uses the Old to reinforce moral teaching. It does this through using case law and example. We are, to be frank, a bit embarrassed about this. We are so anti-moralising, that we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. I am against moralising too. But there is a world of difference between “Samson grew his hair and so must you” to “These things were written for us.”
I like the way Ed Clowney writes about it in his excellent little book “Preaching and Biblical Theology.”
We do well then to avoid setting up a false antithesis between the redemptive-historical approach and what might be called an ethical approach to the Scriptures, particularly in the historical passages. The redemptive-historical approach necessarily yields ethical application, which is an essential part of the preaching of the Word.
The New Testament use of the Old (4)
4. Prophetic fulfilment
One of the more obvious ways the NT uses the Old is in terms of prophetic fulfilment. This is essentially the same point as yesterday. There we saw how stories can have a certain trajectory. It’s no coincidence that many of these stories come from books Jewish people call ‘former prophets.’ And the so the stories often work in terms of prophetic fulfilment.
Nevertheless, prophetic fulfilment does tend to be more direct. We often get markers in the text, “as the Scripture says” or “to fulfil what was written.” Sure, there will often be immediate fulfilment first. But any OT sermon that does not follow the NT trajectory in this case is sadly lacking. Sometimes that will be obvious; other times more thinking will be required. But, a sermon which takes a servant song from Isaiah and applies it only to Cyrus is clearly short changing a congregation.
There’s no substitute for knowing your Bible at this point. However, two resources I’ve found immensely helpful are (an older one), The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge and (a newer one), Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old.
The New Testament use of the Old (3)
3. Prophetic illustration
Some OT illustrations are more than illustrations for a particular point. We saw yesterday how stories from the life of Elijah and Elisha are used by Jesus to illustrate a point about his own ministry and how that does not change the meaning and significance of the original narrative.
However, there are also stories where the original meaning of the narrative is made clear by a NT use. A great example is found in Luke 11.29-32. There Jesus uses two well known Sunday School stories (the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon and Jonah’s preaching at Nineveh) to make a point about his own ministry.
These are not illustrations as such, but what I call prophetic illustrations. The OT stories have a natural trajectory which takes them in a certain direction and the preacher who does not follow Jesus’ pattern is, I would suggest, being cavalier with the whole Bible. Jesus is not just using the stories to illustrate, he is interpreting the stories in their wider Bible context.
The New Testament use of the Old (2)
2. Illustrative example
Sometimes the New Testament uses the Old Testament as an illustrative source book. This is often prefaced with the words “just as…” The Old Testament story (in particular) illustrates the point being made. A good example is Jesus’ reference to the widow of Zarephath (Luke 4.24-26 using 1 Kings 17.8-16).
We need to be careful here, though. Just because the story is referenced in the New Testament, does that narrow its interpretation to only this line? I think that depends very much on the context. Take the following illustration from Luke 4.
And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed, only Namaan the Syiran.
If you go back to that story (2 Kings 5.1-14) I think careful study will reveal that the heart of the passage is Namaan’s confession “Now I know there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.”
This is a story about the gospel going to all nations and nations being brought in, fulfilling the promise to Abraham. However, the widow story in 1 Kings 17 is about the word of the Lord through the prophet not failing.
Yet both are used by our Lord to illustrate that a prophet is not accepted in his home town. If you were to preach those 1 or 2 Kings passages, you would not want to make (I would suggest) the Luke 4 line your main thrust. Jesus is using those passages illustratively. (And therein lies an interesting aside. Why not take more of your illustrations from Bible stories?)
However, there is a different kind of example, which I will consider tomorrow.
The New Testament use of the Old (1)
One of the most important grids for any preacher tackling an Old Testament text is to ask if and then how it is used in the New Testament. The whole Bible is inspired and so it is always going to be instructive to see how inspired Scripture interprets inspired Scripture. I'm going to say a little more about this over the coming days. First, it's good to see that the New Testament uses the old in different ways.
1. Understanding the OT story
There are times when the NT sees the OT as a whole into which the story of salvation fits. This is evident in Stephen’s majestic overview in Acts 7, for example, or in the words of Jesus to his followers in Luke 24.27. In both of these cases, and others too, the OT Scripture is taken as a whole and the reader invited to see how the work of Christ (in particular) acts as the great climax to this story.
Most of us are well drilled in this kind of biblical theology and will often apply it to Old Testament texts. But it is worth noting that this is not the only way the Old Testament is understood. There is more than one sermon from the Old Testament, to which the answer is “Jesus is the coming King.”