What NOT to say to those who are suffering

In this brief post, Ed Welch talks about how to come alongside people who are going through trials.  He makes very helpful comments about the difference between questions that are “orthodox” and questions that are “orthodox and pastoral/edifying“.  Taking Welch’s wisdom to heart could go a long way in bringing support and encouragement to our friends who are going through hard times.

Vintage Powlison on "Why me?"

Another gem from Justin Taylor’s blog.  How often I find myself lacking words for how grateful I am to God for David Powlison.  He is a man who has suffered and has dedicated his life to helping others in suffering.

What this passage "means to me"

From Thabiti Anyabwile’s post entitled, ‘What It Means to Me’:

That little sentence has been the death of many well-meaning attempts to understand the Bible.  “What it means to me” ruins our understanding because it decapitates the intent of the original author.  What matters first and primarily is “what did it mean to John or Paul or Luke or whoever wrote Hebrews.”  What did the author intend to communicate.  That’s first base in biblical interpretation and its the guard rail that keeps us from driving off into the wilderness of subjectivity and a million swamps of private interpretation.

And, ultimately, we’re concerned to know what the Author–God Himself–intends to communicate with us.  If we’re hasty to rewrite the Bible with our own thoughts, we’ll ultimately write God right out of it.  A premature “what it means to me” takes the pen out of God’s hand and dips it in the ink of our puny intellectual, emotional, social, psychological and usually idolatrous wells.

Read the whole post.

My Favorite Books of 2009

This is a snippet of an email sent to members of the worship team at Lakeview Christian Center – a great bunch of friends and servants, and a fine group of musicians to boot.   I try to encourage the team to be “readers of good books”.  We want to be a worship team full of people who desire to learn more and more truth about the God we worship, so that we might lead others in God-centered, doctrinally-anchored songs that rise from grateful hearts.  We certainly don’t want to worship in a way that we’re simply stringing together tired cliches that say lots about how we feel and precious little about the One we’ve gathered to worship.

So, this little list is from a recent exchange with the team.  Since I’ve sent this, they’ve been chiming in one by one to let the other team members know what books have affected them the most this past year.  Seeing the solid things they’ve been reading and hearing how it has affected them is a great encouragement to the whole team.

Hopefully, as we’ve talked about before, we are cultivating the art of good reading – first and foremost, God’s Word, but also – and we learn this value from God’s Word – faithful teachers and Christian leaders (whose fruitful labor lives on in books) …

Though not in any particular order, these would be the five best books I read in 2009.

Just Do Something (DeYoung, Kevin)

Pivoters [our ministry to 18-30s] always ask questions about life, marriage, calling, majors, decisions, so I read anything on this topic that I can get my hands on.  DeYoung’s book is far and a way the best treatment I’ve come across on the topic of how to discern God’s will.  It’s also a perfect book for someone who says “I don’t like to read” since 1) the book is pretty short 2) DeYoung’s writing is solid, engaging, and at several points humorous and 3) every Christian immediately recognizes how relevant this subject is for his/her life.

The Reason For God (Keller, Timothy)

Keller’s defense of Christian faith is beautifully written and cogently argued.  He does an excellent job arguing for the biblical worldview and Christian faith as well as deconstructing some of the pillars of 21st century skepticism.  I love Keller’s writing.

Instructing Your Child’s Heart (Tripp, Paul D.)

The re-enacted conversations of how to discipline and correct children with the gospel are alone worth the price of the book.

Keeping Holiday (Meade, Starr)

Meade’s book is a kind of modern day Pilgrim’s Progress.  The characters and story development effectively communicate truths like – our inability to fulfill God’s requirements, Christ’s provisions for us, the Christian standing always with “the wind in his face” (opposition to the world, flesh, devil), false promises of sin, the ways that God “speaks” and draws us to Himself, the power of grace, the traps of religion, and more.  Short book.  I read it to the boys.  They begged for more every night.  So did I.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Calvin, John)

I have tons of quotes from Calvin’s Institutes, but have never gone through the whole thing.  It is widely regarded as one of the grandest works of Christian literature in all of church history.  All of Calvin’s theology is bathed in Christ-centered devotion.  He is no rationalist or dusty theologian.  It was a riveting read that brought me to tears on many occasions.  His letter to the King of France in 1536 (at the front) is Christian statesmanship par excellence.  I trust Calvin’s magnum opus will be on my all time top 10 list when I’m 90, if I’m alive.  Ref21 blog has a reading plan that will take you through it in a year.  You’ll have to put on your thinking cap, but the journey is well worth the effort.

Favorite authors: R.C. Sproul

It is no exaggeration to say that God used this man to change my life.  His book, Willing to Believe, devastated some of my most cherished theological beliefs and began to open new windows for seeing and being amazed by the grace of God.  Over the next few years I read just about any Sproul book I could get my hands on – even his children’s books.

  • Willing to Believe
  • Faith Alone
  • Getting the Gospel Right
  • Lifeviews
  • The Holiness of God (probably my favorite Sproul book)
  • Knowing Scripture
  • After Darkness, Light
  • The King Without A Shadow
  • The Lightlings
  • The Priest With Dirty Clothes

For every birthday I’d get a new teaching series from Ligonier.  When our oldest, Hunter (now 11), was a baby we’d joke that he’d grow up thinking of Dr. R.C. Sproul as “Uncle R.C.”, since he spent so much time in the car playing with his mobile and listening to Sproul talk about ‘God and ice cream cones’, univocal vs. analogical language, talks on the sacraments, practical godliness, apologetics, salvation, Trinity, world religions.

I’m grateful to God for Sproul’s strong love for Scripture.  This quote – a recent response to a question about his retirement – is vintage Sproul:

“I’ll retire when they pry my cold, dead fingers off of my Bible.”

I hope that’s not soon.  My boys hope to shake Uncle RC’s hand one day.  Maybe T4G 2020?

How willingly do people go to hell?

One of my favorite reads last year was one that I read through with the Theoforum fellas, by Timothy Keller, The Reason for God.  There was only one chapter, as I recall, that seemed to come short of a giving a robust and unapologetically biblical answer to the objection of skeptics.  It was the chapter on hell, and it struck me as a bit soft.  I like Keller’s winsomeness and want to imitate it.  Here, I didn’t feel Keller was merely winsome.  It seemed, well, soft.

Here and there, I’ve heard that C.S. Lewis was light on hell.  The first link is merely a passing statement made by Mark Dever on Lewis’ unbiblical presentation with respect to hell that, in light of my recent reading of Keller on the topic, piqued my interest.  The second is a post from John Piper.  He finds Lewis wanting on the topic and so provides some helpful counterpoint.

Check out Keller’s great book.  It really is outstanding.  Read and enjoy, and let me know if you think I’m out to lunch on the hell-chapter.

A non-fundamentalist fundamentalist. Huh?

Is this an oxymoron?  Dr. Russell Moore explains the way in which theological labels may be unhelpfully elastic and, at other times, quite useful.

Family reading & favorite authors

One of the things I’d love to see happen as our children grow up is for them to have a passion for reading solid books that shape a Christian mind, sharpen one’s eye in the reading of Scripture, and stir the heart with affection for Christ and the gospel.  Our oldest son, Hunter, has to go to bed at the same time as the other kids.  But, since he is eleven now, there’s a new perk about bedtime.  If he wants to, he is allowed to read as much as he would like to before falling asleep (from a select stack of books).  He just finished reading through The Big Picture Story Bible.  Now, he’s reading The Jesus Storybook Bible.  They are beautifully written, Christ-centered, redemption-focused readings of Old and New Testament stories.  Happily, at least for the time being, he is enjoying them very much.  And I enjoy seeing a book in his bed when Paula and I pass by in the morning on our way to the coffee pot … and our own reading time.  The hope is that the more he reads good stuff the more he’ll want to read, and that as he matures, the benefits of that reading and reflection will be used by God to shape his heart and mind, and stir up more and more Godward affections.

Over the past year we’ve been going through some books about some long dead, but not forgotten, hymnwriters.  So, last night when we were all at Applebees, our youngest, Ellie, looked at a picture on the wall and said, “That’s John Newton!”  It wasn’t, I’m sure.  I’m guessing Joe Dimaggio?  But we’ll take the fact that Newton’s name shows up in her ‘free association’ games as a fair start!

But alas, of course, not all the great writers are dead.  [My friend, Rodrigo Ribeiro, could use to be reminded of this fact.]

So, if I could pass along to them some favorite modern authors that I would love for them to get to know and learn from (as they will all be teen agers before we know it!), I’d mention some of the names that I’ll be passing along in weeks and perhaps months to come.

Three Amigos & Pop Evangelical Theology

What is the primary purpose for God giving us the stories of David and Goliath, Moses interceding for idolatrous Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and many other critical moments in the redemptive flow of Old Testament history?  To teach us to be brave like David?  To deal a death blow to the “Goliaths” of our lives:  the fear of man, worry, or impure thoughts?  To teach us that we should intercede for others?  That we should be importunate in our prayers, not taking no for an answer?

It’s funny how this speech from Steve Martin about “El Guapo” resembles the way we can empty the Old Testament of its primary aim, namely to foreshadow the person and work of Jesus Christ (Luke 24:25-27, 44-45; Rom. 1:1-4; Heb. 3:1-6, 7:23-28; 1 Pet. 1:10-12).  He is the perfect Prophet, who reveals the saving purposes of God to His people.  He is the Great High Priest, who offers Himself up once for all to satisfy divine justice, reconcile us to God, and he continually intercedes for us.  And He is the risen and exalted King, who brings us into His kingdom, rules and defends His people, and conquers all of His and our enemies.  Not only that, He is the new Temple, the Good Shepherd, the Suffering Servant, the Lamb of God, the Cornerstone of the church, the Last Adam, God’s fruit-bearing Vine through which His people receive life, the Psalmist/Worship Leader who leads us in God-honoring praise, and many more fulfillments of Old Testament events, places, figures, and ceremonies.  To realize this is to read the Old Testament the way Jesus taught his disciples to read it, and to interpret it the way he taught the New Testament writers to interpret it:  Christo-centrically.

Having understood these things, it isn’t out of place for us to derive models and examples for our lives from those events (1 Cor. 10:11).  But, to jump to what “I should do in light of David’s courage” and what “I should do in light of Moses prayer life” while ignoring the way in which those and other passages show us the glory of Christ, is to go a long way towards emptying the Bible of its truly Christian content.  What religion has a problem with you reading a passage and coming away thinking you should be a more courageous person?  None that I can think of.  A Christian interpretation of the primary intent of Old Testament revelation is one that repeatedly points to Christ and thus offers hope and salvation to those who repent and trust Him.  It also maintains the God-designed pattern of the offense of the gospel for any who would stubbornly reject Him.

Let’s not turn Bible stories into “El Guapo” speeches”.  Let’s take Christ at His word and look for Him in “Moses, all of the prophets, … and all the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:27).

Calvin: demonology

Apparently, in Calvin’s time, there was a certain fascination with angels and demons.  Still today, many books are written toward discovering the unseen operations of angelic beings.  Much of the popular demonology works coming out today, not unlike in Calvin’s time, pile speculation on top of speculation, using obscure texts as hermeneutical ‘keys’ for unlocking ‘truths’ long undiscovered.

As Calvin says, in better words, it’s a whole lot easier to talk about how many angels can dance on the head of a needle than what it means for a Christian to see to it that “no root of bitterness” springs up in our hearts (Heb 12:15).  Speculative theology is much more interesting and much less, well, intrusive.

Aurelius Augustine spoke of God’s existence in eternity past, before the world was created.  Speculative philosophers quipped “Pray tell, what was He doing all that time?”  Like R.C. Sproul (where I first heard this classic quote), Dr. Calvin very much enjoyed Augustine’s response.

“It was a shrewd saying of a good old man, who when some one pertly asked in derision what God did before the world was created, answered he made a hell for the inquisitive (Augustine, Confess. lib. 11 c.12).  This reproof, not less weighty than severe, should repress the tickling wantonness which urges many to indulge in vicious and hurtful speculation.” -Institutes, 1.14.1

Calvin wanted theology that conformed to the purpose of God’s self-revelation in Scripture – truths that transform the heart and the mind, truths that are profitable … for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16-17).

“My care, however, must be to keep within the bound which piety prescribes, lest by indulging in speculations beyond my reach, I bewilder the reader, and lead him away from the simplicity of the faith.  And since the Holy Spirit always instucts us in what is useful, but altogether omits, or only touches cursorily on matters which tend little to edification, of all such matters, it certainly is our duty to remain in willing ignorance.” -Institutes, 1.14.3

“Not to dwell on this, let us here remember that on the whole subject of religion one rule of modesty and soberness is to be observed, and it is this: in obscure matters not to speak or think, or even long to know, more than the word of God has delivered.  A second rule is, that, in reading the Scriptures, we should constantly direct our inquiries and meditations to those things which tend to edification, not indulge in curiosity, or in studying things of no use.  And since the Lord has been pleased to instruct us, not in frivolous questions, but in solid piety, in the fear of his name, in true faith, and the duties of holiness, let us rest satisfied with such knowledge.  Wherefore, if we would be duly wise, we must renounce those vain babblings of idle men, concerning the nature, ranks, and number of angels, without any authority from the word of God.  I know that many fasten on these topics more eagerly, and take greater pleasure in them than in those relating to daily practice.” -Institutes, 1.14.4

The devil’s created nature:

“But as the devil was created by God, we must remember that this malice which we attribute to his nature is not from creation, but from deprivation.  Every thing damnable in him he brought upon himself, by his revolt and fall.  Of this Scripture reminds us, lest, by believing that he was so created at first, we should ascribe to God what is most foreign to his nature.  For this reason, Christ declares (John 8:44), that Satan, when he lies, “speaketh of his own,” and states the reason, “because he abode not in the truth.”

How far can we probe the matter of how and when Satan became evil?

“But although the expressions are brief and not very explicit, they are amply sufficient to vindicate the majesty of God from every calumny.  And what more does it concern us to know of devils?  Some murmur because the Scripture does not in various passages give a distinct and regular exposition of Satan’s fall, its cause, mode, date, and nature.  But as these things are of no consequence to us, it was better, if not entirely to pass them in silence, at least only to touch lightly upon them.”

What of Satan’s power/authority?

With regard to the strife and war which Satan is said to wage with God, it must be understood with this qualification, that Satan cannot possibly do anything against the will and consent of God…. [the testing of Job, Ahab's deception, tormented King Saul, plagues of Egypt]  It is evident therefore that Satan is under the power of God, and is so ruled by His authority, that he must yield obedience to it.  Moreover, though we say that Satan resists God, and does works at variance with his works, we at the same time maintain that this contrariety and opposition depend on the permission of God…  This much, therefore, he has of himself, and his own iniquity, that he eagerly, and of set purpose, opposes God, aiming at those things which he deems most contrary to the will of God.  But as God holds him bound and fettered by the curb of his power, he executes those things only for which permission has been given him, and thus, however unwilling, obeys his Creator, being forced, whenever he is required, to do him service.” -Institutes, 1.14.17