Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review: Throw It Down by Jud Wilhite

Addictions, habits and dependencies come in all shapes and sizes. From chemical to emotional, from spiritual to behavioral, all of us have sinful tendencies that separate us from healthy relationships with God and others.

This is Jud Wilhite's premise in Throw It Down (released by Zondervan today). Using the exodus of Israel out of Egypt as a metaphor, Jud describes the stages that characterize an exodus out of slavery and dependency. Pastor Wilhite is himself a former addict, so his own testimony colors some of the chapters along with the testimonies of others who have found their way to his ministry.

As much as the author and publisher would like a wide target audience for this book, it read too much like a 12 step program for the average reader to really engage with it. However, for those dealing with dealing with addictions and dependencies (and for the churches ministering to them), this book is an excellent resource.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Addicts and those working with them

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan Books.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Book Review: Small Faith--Great God by N.T. Wright

InterVarsity Press' latest offering from N.T. Wright's, Small Faith—Great God, is in fact one of his oldest books, first released in 1978. Amazingly, I would not have noticed the book was over 30 years old had I not read the preface. Wright seems to write and think in a timeless fashion that does not grow dated very quickly.

Small Faith—Great God focuses on the faith of the Christian, Who we look to and what we hope for and look forward to. It is part devotional, part apologetic, highlighted by N.T. Wright's vast knowledge of biblical history. Most of the chapters were originally sermons given in and around Oxford University and they fall roughly into three parts. The first part focuses on the object of our faith, God and his character. The second looks into the lives of various biblical characters and how their faith impact their lives. And finally, the third portion addresses how our faith can likewise enable us today to live faithfully through every period and challenge of life.

While I admittedly haven't read much from Wright and despite the theological debate he has sparked of late, this small book has got me looking forward to reading a lot more of his work.

The Westminster Bookstore has Small Faith—Great God at one of the best prices I could find, 33% off the list price ($12.06).

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Fans of N.T. Wright's early work, anyone who's felt challenged in faith

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Reason for the Season

Thinking back on my childhood, I can still remember the excitement and anticipation that I felt leading up to Christmas. It was almost like a dull vibration that went humming through my body giving me a constant sense of advent. Of course, it was the advent of Christmas morning and presents that I was feeling, not the more spiritual Advent you're thinking of.

I still remember the year that I began to care a little less about the presents. I remember telling my mom so and saying that I was understanding and appreciating more the "real reason for the season". And since that year, there has been a continual progression as the presents are less and less a part of my Advent excitement. And this year I am beginning to wonder if that's such a good thing.

Don't get me wrong. I believe Jesus is the reason for the season. But I think we're losing something when we try so hard to get away from the childhood fixation on gifts, because at the heart of the incarnation is one act of God after another that is each fundamentally and profoundly a gift.

After all, I don't think most adults appreciate the real reason for the season any better than kids do. When it comes to Christmas gifts, children are quite materialistic. They're excited about getting stuff. Adults, on the other hand aren't less excited because they're less materialistic but rather because they can get all that stuff for themselves. If you were anything like me, you started caring less about the Christmas gifts around the same time you started earning your own money and buying all the stuff you wanted throughout the year. So we're not less materialistic than we used to be, we're not more in tune with the real reason for the season than we used to be, we're just more capable of meeting all our own wants and needs during the year.

Kids, on the other hand, wait for months in anticipation of the promised and coming gifts. They know that if they aren't given what they want or need, they are completely helpless to get it on their own. Someone else must earn and pay for their gift. And what shows the Gospel and Advent better than gifts given to even the undeserving and ill-deserving children? In my childhood and materialistic mind, I was thinking in very simple terms "Despite how I've behaved this year, the gift under the tree is what I want, what I need, and if it's not given to me, I am utterly out in the dark to earn it for myself".

The gift of Jesus in incarnation—his advent, his life, death, and resurrection—are, as Tim Keller might say, the true and better Christmas gift. It fulfills promises and great anticipation. It is given to those undeserving and ill-deserving. It meets our most fundamental needs. It satisfies our deepest desires. It cannot be earned. It cannot be bought. It cannot be merited by good behavior.

I'm suggesting that when we lose that gift-excitement around the Christmas season, we're actually losing something that is a perfect picture of the Gospel and Advent. Instead of making it less about the gifts perhaps we should consider how we, for children and adults alike, might take the excitement and anticipation of the gifts and channel them toward the true Gift.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Another entry from the Old Testament Challenge devotional

Day 54: Deuteronomy 8-10

You shall have no other gods before me. (Ex. 20:3, Deut. 5:7)

Everything that follows Deuteronomy chapter five begins to unpack each of the Ten Commandments in sequential order. First, Moses rephrases the first commandment from a negative into a positive: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (6:5). And, in proportion to its importance, Moses spends about six chapters detailing from Israel’s history and future what that command should—and should not—look like.

And the recurring theme from Moses is “Remember—do not forget.” The turn in every human heart from the Lord to other gods doesn’t begin in the hands or the feet, it begins in the heart and mind. And so Moses tells the Israelites, as we should tell each other, “Remember—do not forget”.

Remember how the Lord found you, saved you and led you out of your captivity to sin; how God demonstrated with miraculous finality his sovereignty over your slave-master; how the Lord made provision with a lamb so that his wrath might pass over you. Do not forget and return to your captivity to sin for we have died to sin and we are now slaves to God and righteousness.

Remember it is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you were chosen, saved and redeemed; it is not because of your superiority to those unbelieving around you in any way; it is not by your works so you have nothing to boast about. Do not forget and so become proud as if you were saved by anything of your own hands.

Remember that you have, at one time, provoked God to anger by turning away from him and to other sources of comfort, security, identity and status; that you have seen firsthand how other gods are just a shiny covering for slavery to your old master; that you have reaped only bitterness in turning to worship any other created thing over the Creator. Do not forget the grace of discipline by the Lord towards his wayward children; the mercy of his correction is better than the very best the other gods had to offer.

Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. He is your praise; he is your God. — Deuteronomy 10:20,21a

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book Review: The Good News We Almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung

Before I say anything else, I must offer a big thanks to Moody Publishing for their patience in waiting for this review. I took my time with this book and read it more as a devotional which incidentally the book is perfectly laid out for. More on that in a moment.

Who would have guessed that a catechism from the 16th century could be anything but dry, propositional and boring? Yet Kevin DeYoung has taken the Heidelberg Catechism and unearthed a treasure that is modern, relevant and even interesting in The Good News We Almost Forgot.

The catechism (and thus the book) are largely an unpacking of the Apostle's Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. The 129 questions of the catechism are broken up into 52 chapters, perfect for a weekly devotional reading. While I didn't spend a week on each chapter, I did take my time reading the book, rarely reading more than a chapter or two in a sitting. The chapters are short enough and the content varied enough that the book doesn't really lend itself to knocking out half the book in a sitting.

This book is taken best in small bites . . . and chew slowly.

You can purchase The Good News We Almost Forgot at 34% off the retail price at the Westminster Bookstore!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Every Christian looking for a systematic survey of Christian theology and it's application to everyday life

This book was a free review copy provided by Moody Publishers.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Another entry from the Old Testament Challenge devotional

Day 56: Deuteronomy 14-15

If you have ever flipped back and forth between Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments) and Deuteronomy 5 (Moses’ retelling of the Ten Commandments at his farewell speech), then you have noticed that the first three commandments are almost identical. However, if you look at the commandment on the Sabbath and the application to Jewish life in our reading, there is a noticeable divergence at the end of the command. Consider:

For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. — Exodus 20:11

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. — Deut. 6:15

Why the change? In the Exodus passage, the reason for the law was grounded in the character and example of God. In the Deuteronomy passage, the reason for the law was grounded in the provision and grace of God. So Exodus gave the model of Sabbath rest and Deuteronomy gave the motivation for Sabbath rest.

But in today’s reading (Deut. 14,15) we find a further reason why God would bring up Egypt when talking about the Sabbath. You see, the Jews not only recognized Sabbath days, they also recognized Sabbath years. And a Sabbath year was not just about rest for the land by not farming it.

The Sabbath year was about freedom.

Every seven years, debtors were released from their debts and servants from their slavery. And, according to the writer of Hebrews, in a very real and profound sense, the Old Testament Sabbath is just a shadow of something greater to come in the New Covenant in Christ:

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. — Hebrews 4:9, 10

So to the one who does not work but trusts God, there is rest. There is freedom. There is a release from debts. There is an end to slavery. There is true Sabbath.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: Evidence For God

For this book I am breaking from my usual practice and sharing my criticism first. Evidence for God, edited by Mike Licona and William Dembski, has a slightly misleading title and subtitle: "50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy and Science". A more fitting title and subtitle would be Evidence for God and Jesus: "50 Arguments for the Christian Faith". That's it. That's all I can say bad about this book.

Evidence for God is broken into four sections and, while the first two address concerns shared by all theists (questions of philosophy and science), the last two sections (Jesus and the Bible) address apologetic issues for Christianity in particular. However, there is enough material in the first two sections alone to benefit any theist seeking evidence for God.

Typically a book with so many contributing authors may struggle to keep a good flow of thought and argument from chapter to chapter. Not so with Evidence for God, and much credit is due to Dembski and Licona for this fact. Notable contributors such as Copan, Habermas, Pearcey and Witherington III make the best use of the four or five pages given each chapter. The brevity of these chapters keeps any one topic from growing too overwhelming or nuanced but still gives adequate space to grasp the facts and the basic argument.

All in all, this is an excellent starting point for anyone looking for a broad treatment of the most common challenges in Christian apologetics.

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: All apologists (Christian and theist)

This book was a free review copy provided by Baker Books.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Why do you call me good?"

"And Jesus said to him, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.'"

Mark 10:18

Goodness is a confusing thing. What does it mean to be 'good' and what does it mean to perform 'good' acts? After all what is the underlying quality that renders good things consistently good? On one hand we congratulate international athletes for being world-class and 'good' at their sport, yet we also declare non-athletic children 'good' when they participate in low-level sporting events. Clearly the child and athlete are poles apart but their disparate acts are still 'good'. For the Christian we are encouraged to be good, but really what does that mean? Jesus asks the question in Mark 10:18: why do we call him good?

One preconception of Christians is that we perform good acts in some attempt to achieve a standard of behaviour which will endear us to, or worse hoodwink, a heavenly arbiter into allowing us into heaven. Indeed, this is unfortunately the thought of many professing Christians today. The Bible though makes it clear that good works are not salvation in themselves (Jer. 6:19-21; Hos. 9:3-5) let alone the issue of universal sin (Rom. 3:22-24). But yet we are encouraged to show faith with works (James 2:18-24). All rather confusing. Moreover, on a cosmic scale, who would ever want to worship a God who you could reach by works? Would He actually be just and worth trusting if we could achieve His level of holiness for ourselves? Would you trust any human for your salvation? (This is an appeal to the ontological argument).

The issue still remains: what characterises a good act and why should we perform them? What is it within the act which endows it with the desirable quality of goodness? Mother Theresa, for instance, is often held as a paragon of good works but I would imagine she would never consider her acts good, but rather the right thing to do.

Good acts are usually directed towards others whether they are conscious of that act or not and in some way they become 'enhanced' or reap some benefit from that act. What is Christian reasoning behind this? Well, I think that at their core good acts are those which endow those who bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26) with dignity. Think about it: Mother Theresa's acts dignified the poor, turning the unloved into the loved. She refused to accept them as 'lesser' people but could see they bore the image of God within them: "This is Jesus. . . In distressing disguise." See adopted Matt. 25:31-46 into her heart.

By performing good acts we glorify the image of God in others and as a consequence glorify Him. Consider Jesus' miracles: healing the woman with the haemorrhage and Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:21-43), healing the man possessed by Legion (Mark 5:1-20) and the lepers (e.g. Matt. 8:1-3). These people were effectively the 'living dead' excluded from the nation of Israel and therefore under judgement - yet Jesus reaches out to them and by doing so endows them with dignity and healing to return to 'life'. Note as well He actually touched the 'dead', an act forbidden by Levitical law thereby showing that good acts cannot be restrained by death - they have no enemy. Furthermore, is not the mere presence of God Incarnate an act of dignity bestowed upon all man? Was God not saying "You matter"?This is a rather satisfying turn of events which harks back the the first Westminster confession of faith.

By endowing others with dignity and serving them is to engage in the Trinitarian model of relationship and if that model is appropriate enough for God then how much more us. Your acts of kindness and goodness say to that person: you matter, just as Jesus speaks to "You matter" to us. By engaging in these acts we transcend creation and enter into activities divine and by so doing glorify God. Win-win.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Video Review: BASIC.Fear God by Francis Chan

As one of the primary people responsible for finding small group curriculum for my church, I have found that videos work particularly well in the summer when regular attendance and outside study both take a vacation. Last summer, for instance, we worked our way through some of the Nooma videos by Rob Bell. However, if I may be honest, I have found something I am even more excited about for this coming summer.

Francis Chan has begun a new video project called BASIC that lends itself perfectly to the small group (both teen and adult) and addresses the fundamental building blocks for the Christian life and the Church. These videos are visually exquisite, intellectually stimulating and theologically solid.

The BASIC videos are being created by a group called Flannel, the same organization that did the Nooma series. However, based on the videos I've seen so far, they have outdone themselves on this current project.

One of the elements that sets these short 15 minute videos apart is the secondary story that takes place as Chan presents his material. The picture cuts between Chan and other characters that give us a sort of visual "parable" of what Chan is describing (trust me, it's not as confusing or distracting as it sounds).

Fear God is the first video in the BASIC series and it lays the groundwork for the videos that follow. Chan addresses some misconceptions surrounding the idea of the fear of the Lord, but also affirms some of the more challenging aspects at the same time. In the end, however, this fear should drive us away from self-sufficiency and toward the only one who can save us, God.

This will be a stellar series and I look forward to the future releases and using these videos in my own ministry!

You can watch the trailer for BASIC.Fear God here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Review: The Passionate Intellect by Alister McGrath

The intellect and "discipleship of the mind" does not always top the list of dominant Christian characteristics in the eyes of the general public, especially those more antagonistic to our views (like the new atheists). So who better to write on the role of the mind in the life of the Christian than a former atheist? And there is perhaps no one on that list better suited than Alister McGrath to write such a book.

And The Passionate Intellect is that book—for the most part. The first two chapters are as solid a treatment on the Christian mind as I have read and they alone merit picking up the book. Other high points include a chapter on the relationship between theology and apologetics and between faith and science.

While the first half of the book focuses on the life of the Christian mind in general, the second half is a sort of case study on how Alister McGrath himself has applied these principles in his areas of expertise. The final five chapters deal with such themes as the natural sciences, evolution and the New Atheism.

The key weakness of this book lies in the fact that each of its eleven chapters are based on previously unpublished lectures and addresses given over the last three years. This naturally lends some of the chapters to be more timely than timeless. It also keeps the book from having a cohesive flow at times from chapter to chapter. And the book ends on a bit of an odd note with a chapter called "Atheism and the Enlightenment: Reflections on the Intellectual Roots of the New Atheism" rather than a summary and conclusion.

All in all, this book makes a solid case for the Christian intellect and gives us good modern-day application for some of the biggest challenges currently being thrown our way.

For those interested, right now you can buy The Passionate Intellect over at the Westminster Bookstore at 32% off retail price!

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Theologians, university students, teachers, apologists

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Book Review: Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps

Flickering Pixels is part history of media, part theology for the postmodern era, part social commentary.This book read like a collection of short essays unified around major shifts in media and strongly influenced by Marshall McLuhan's book "Understanding Media" (you should recognize his now famous aphorism, "The medium is the message"). From the printing press to social networking sites, from texting to TV, Shane Hipps gives a brief and random sample of media history and how each of these elements have effected culture and Christianity.

I found the chapter on the printing press particularly interesting as Hipps argues that it gave rise to the modern age of linear, logical thinking. While most of Christianity is still operating in this modern mindset in its apologetics and theology, he suggests that the postmodern age has been ushered and accelerated by the arrival of the telegraph, television and internet. While the modernist mindset was logical, linear and word-based, the postmodernist mindset is now nonlinear, narrative- and image-based. I found his criticism of Christianity in this regard to be excessive and more than a little ironic since he was making his argument in book form.

With that said, Hipps understands media well and identifies with post-modernity well (at times uncomfortably so). This is a decent read and certainly a challenging read for anyone who is still a logical thinker of a modernist bent (which I assume most avid readers will be).

Rating: 2 1/2 of 5 stars

Recommended for: Those interested in media, postmodern ideas and how Christians might respond

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why is there pain?

Why must the fallen world be so painful? The answer is rooted in the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man (neither of which do we grasp the depth and severity of). However, these are only two of the factors and a third may surprise you. One of the main reasons this world is so painful is because of God's great love and compassion for us.

I know, this sounds ridiculous and contradictory but let me explain. As children, we learn what our bodies were not made for through pain (our hands were not made for the stove, etc.). In a similar way, God is trying to teach us as spiritual children that we were not made for this world. More precisely, we were not made primarily for any desire in this world but rather were made to desire God above all else.

This, in fact, is how the whole pain thing started. In the garden, man and woman rejected God as their supreme desire and chose the desire for autonomy and freedom from God (in the form of choosing the forbidden fruit) instead. Through this act, not only did man sin and become fallen, but the world was subjected to bondage to corruption and futility. Because of this, creation has not functioned in the perfect harmony that it was intended for.

Why? Why did God do this to the world? Why so many children with heart-wrenching disabilities? Why natural disasters that take so many lives? Why famines and diseases? As John Piper puts it, God put the world under a curse so that the physical horror we see around us would become a vivid picture of how horrible sin is. In other words, natural evil is a signpost to the unspeakable wickedness of moral evil. God allowed the disorder of the natural world to match the disorder of the moral and spiritual world. Diseases and deformities are God's portraits of what sin is like in the spiritual realm and that is true even though some of the most Godly people bear the most horrible deformities.

Yet we don't feel it! In our present, fallen condition our hearts are so numb and so blinded we seldom feel the gravity of our sin. Almost no one feels the abhorrence that sin is or feels repulsed or nauseated at how they scorn the glory of God. We should feel as deeply about sin as we do about a friend's disability. We should feel as intense and bad about our immorality as we do about starvation. O, that we could feel how offensive and repugnant and abominable it is to prefer anything to your Maker! To plagiarize John Piper once more, the natural world is shot through with horrors that aim to wake us up from the dream world of thinking demeaning God is no big deal.

Thus, if there were not the pain that there now is, it would be far too easy to forget God and how we have spurned Him. It would be far too easy to prefer all the temporary pleasures that this world offers rather than prefer the eternal joy in Christ. To quote C.S. Lewis, "We are half-hearted creatures like an ignorant child wants to go making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the beach. We are far too easily pleased."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tolerance is a buzzword

"Politically incorrect" used to be the card to play in a losing discussion to color one's opponent as the bad guy. Today "intolerant" has become the catchall missile levelled at anyone dumb enough to disagree with a closely-held pet belief in most dialogues (especially those regarding religion and morality). Postmodernism has completely distorted what the word tolerance used to mean. What follows is, in my experience, how tolerance is defined today:

1. Everyone is free to believe what they want without fear of verbal or physical violence from the public or coercion from the government.

2. Every belief is equally valid and true (if not for you, then for someone else).

3. Every belief should be celebrated by everyone.

I certainly agree with the first assertion. I believe the first concept is one of the founding ideas that formed our country. However, tolerance has been amplified in our day to encompass the second and third tenets as well. Allow me to explain why I have a problem with these two.

Let's start with a proposition that everyone can objectively say is false: 2+2=5. Now, in the spirit of tolerance, I will permit someone to believe that 2+2=5 without directing any hatred, violence, or bigotry towards them. I may tell them they're wrong, I may try to convince them to change their minds, but I will not act harshly negative toward them. However, you will never hear me (or any teacher I want teaching my kids) say "I believe differently, but your belief that 2+2=5 is true for you and valid". And hopefully you will never hear "Furthermore, I think it's great that you believe that 2+2=5 and I support you in such thinking". In this illustration, I can be tolerant (by the old definition) of a view different from my own while still considering it wrong and in need of correction.

Now, if you plug any of the hot topics of today into the above equation (the existence of God, one's personal view of God, homosexual marriage, just war, abortion, divorce, etc.) you see how this quickly rubs against today's definition of tolerance.

Note the implication: we can think and talk objectively about certain ideas (math, science, etc. where one view is the correct one and all others are wrong), but when it comes to the bigger thoughts of religion and morality, we must stay neutral. Neutered. Non-committal. Passive. Spineless. And the only people we should not tolerate . . . are the intolerant. And we'll define that word how we like, thank you very much.

D.A. Carson wrote, "It used to be that tolerance was the virtue of the person who held strong views about something or other, but who insisted that those who disagreed had an equal right to defend their views – the sort of stance picked up in the slogan, 'I may detest your opinions, but I shall defend to the death your right to speak them.' Today, however, tolerance is the virtue of the person who holds no strong views, except for the strongly held view that it is wrong to hold strong views, or to indicate that someone else might be wrong." - Maintaining Scientific and Christian Truths in a Postmodern World

Please don't misunderstand me, this is not my endorsement to be bull-headed, unlearning, close-minded, and elitist about your beliefs. But neither can I endorse a silencing of the gospel just because it presents the solution to our malady as the only solution. If one believes that Jesus was who He said he was, we must be as exclusive in our message as Christ was in His. This broader definition of tolerance is impractical and unsustainable in the real world. I do not expect to hear any time soon a doctor tell his patient, "I know of a solution to your deadly sickness, but whatever you believe will heal you is a valid belief as well and I celebrate it". I do not expect to hear this from Christians either.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book Review: Marks of the Messenger by J. Mack Stiles

Marks of the Messenger is not a how-to guide to evangelism, it's not steps or strategies to gaining more converts. Instead, this excellent little book by J. Mack Stiles lays the groundwork for a life that is gospel-centered and naturally evangelistic. For example:
I'm convinced that the greatest obstacle to healthy evangelism is pragmatism: "doing evangelism"...Success drives pragmatic evangelism. Pragmatic evangelism never asks the question "Who are we to be as an evangelist?" Pragmatic evangelism only asks the question "What works?" (p. 19)
J. Mack Stiles certainly didn't set out to write a faddish book (and by no means did he) yet Marks of the Messenger addresses how a life centered around the Gospel and evangelism informs how we should think about such hot topics as social justice, the missional movement in a post-Christian age, and the narcissism and self-love of our culture. When speaking of social justice, he says the following:
"The gospel message is the message that produces salvation. So we should never confuse meeting physical needs with sharing the gospel. Caring for others represents the gospel, it upholds the gospel, it points to the gospel, it's an implication of the gospel, but it is not the gospel, and it is not equal to the gospel." (pp. 68, 69)
While some may disagree with his position on social justice, every reader will find the vast majority of the book to be easily readable, applicable and commendable. (Every reader will also find it at the Westminster Bookstore for 33% off the retail price at $10.05. Sorry, shameless plug!)

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Every Christian in ministry, small group leaders, any Christian wanting to be more comfortable in sharing their faith.

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Monday, November 8, 2010

God as Father, and we His children

How often have you heard someone say "Were all God's children"? It is not unusual for the term Father to be used when speaking of God, at least in Christian circles. Jesus did so, and instructed his followers to do the same when teaching them to pray. However, this not only speaks of God's paternal characteristics towards us, but it also speaks of our relationship to Him. It is this relationship, of us to God as children, that I want to consider.

First, it cannot be said that just anyone is a child of God. Though He did create us all, there has been a fall and separation that must be atoned for and taken out of the way. As Paul said, "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ". So it is clear that the qualification for status as a child is faith and baptism in Christ. Again, as John wrote, "To all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God".

Don't let the blessing and privilege of this be lost on you. This is not something that we are born into like our natural sonship, it is adoptive. Thus we are chosen and it is solely by a gift of grace. We are heirs along with Christ. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus.

What does it mean to me that God is my Father? This is a quite comfortable and comforting question. All the answers that you may come up with probably make you feel cozy and require nothing from you. However, there is a question that follows that is less comfy: What does it mean to me that I am God's child? If I may put it another way: we are quick to elaborate on what the Father-son relationship means to us in terms of benefits, but slow to consider what it means in terms of responsibilities and expectations.

You see, Christianity isn't just a "one and done" deal. It's not just fire insurance. Being a child of God signifies that He is in a position of authority over us. It suggests a sense of affection and fellowship between us. And it means giving honor to Him in all these areas. When Jesus called his followers to live in a certain way it was always to either imitate, glorify, or please the Father.
While works do not save us, they are and must be a developing "family trait". As children of God, we do no follow the law to sustain our salvation, but as J.I. Packer wrote, "Law-keeping is the family likeness of God's children; Jesus fulfilled all righteousness, and God calls us to do likewise."

You cannot give the Bible even a cursory reading without finding a strong theme of God's Fatherhood over us. Yet there are so many who passively call God "Father" and live like anything but His child. Anyone who isn't being made into an obedient child of God, no matter how faltering or stumbling, may be no child at all. If there is no love, no deference to the will of the Father, no grief at sinning against such a loving parent, one should rightly ask themselves if He is truly Father. If the Bible gives clear guidelines as to what a true child adopted into all rights and benefits looks like, we would be wise to ensure our lives mirror that.

For a more in-depth treatment of the subject, see Knowing God by J.I. Packer, specifically the chapter "Sons of God".

Monday, November 1, 2010

Challenges from the Exodus account

As I've mentioned before, our church is going through the first five books of the Bible during a series we're calling the Old Testament Challenge. This past week we read—and the Community Groups discussed—the account in Exodus covering the ten plagues. There were some really good questions during our discussion time and I wanted to offer some (hopefully) succinct answers to a few questions I imagine are very common from these passages.

Q: Why so many plagues and why so severe? Was God just wielding the ten plagues like a playground bully, twisting Pharaoh's arm until he cried "uncle"?

A: No, it was much more than just a battle of the wills. Egypt was a pantheistic society, which means they worshiped many gods. Each of the ten plagues was direct challenge (and defeat) of one or more of those gods in the minds of the Egyptians. In essence, God was demonstrating his superiority and sovereignty over all of the created order and the supposed corresponding Egyptian pantheon. Pharaoh and all the Egyptians would have rightly understood this as a sort of clash of the titans, with the Israelite God emerging as the clear victor.

For instance, darkness was an assault on the sun god, Ra. The Nile turning to blood was an attack on Hapi, god of the Nile. With each plague, the Israelite God worked his way up the rungs of the Egyptian pantheon, finally reaching the Supreme: Pharaoh himself. The Egyptian religious system held that the Pharaoh was a human incarnation of Ra and that he was a god-king. So the death of Pharaoh's first born was the death of the son of god, the god-in-waiting.

Not only was this final plague seen as the defeat of Egypt's preeminent god figure, but within it (and the Passover sacrifice and meal) was a beautiful foreshadowing of both the Old Testament sacrificial system and the eventual perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. So in each of the plagues—but especially the last—God is anything but a mere bully and arbitrary in his actions.

Q: Were all the other Egyptians (and the Israelites, too) just innocent victims suffering collateral damage in this battle of the gods?

A: No. God demonstrated his ability to execute a surgical strike when necessary. The land of Goshen, the Israelite district within Egypt, was spared some of the plagues like those of flies, darkness and livestock. We are even told that some Egyptians were spared the worst of certain plagues when they "feared the word of the Lord" and responded properly (see the account of the hail for example).

However, it is conceivable that God had designs even for those plagues that afflicted both Egyptians and Israelites indiscriminately. After all, even the Israelites delayed in honoring, fearing and obeying the direction and word of the Lord through Moses.

It is also reasonable to assume that Pharaoh was not the only Egyptian holding out hope that one of the higher and mightier deities might finally put an end to this God of the slaves. In fact, there is never any account of any repentance or pleading for mercy or sanctuary on the side of the Egyptian people. This idea seems supported by the fact that there is no account of any Egyptians fleeing to Goshen during some of the more localized plagues. Whether they still held out greater hope in their gods (and Pharaoh) or whether they simply feared Pharaoh more than God, the silence of the Egyptian population doesn't necessitate their innocence.

Q: How do we make sense of the biblical account when it says "God hardened Pharaoh's heart"?

A: This is probably one of the most common and challenging questions from the entire book. One question that I have found important to ask about this problem is: "What action is required of God in order for Pharaoh's heart to harden?"

The Bible does declare emphatically that "God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed." (James 1:13,14) So God would not tempt Pharaoh and in deed did not need to if Pharaoh's own evil desire and inclination was already against God. If this is true, then all that would be required is for God to release Pharaoh and turn him over to his fallen tendency towards hardness of heart. This same progression of fallenness is shown in Romans 1 when Paul writes three times that God "gave them over" to sinful desires, shameful lusts and a depraved mind. So while God may be the passive agent releasing fallen mankind to do whatever they desire, Pharaoh and the rest of humanity would be the active agents in our sin and rebellion. Our fallenness simply dictates what we do with our freedom when God turns us loose.

The biblical writer of Exodus communicates as much when switches back and forth between the idea the God hardened Pharaoh's heart and Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32). Certainly the author was not implicating God in Pharaoh's sinfulness, but it does seem he sees even Pharaoh's willful, sinful hardness as under the sovereign allowance of God.

In summary, the Bible always keeps these two ideas in balance and tension: the active willful rebellion of mankind within our freedom and the passive allowance of that rebellion under the sovereign rule of God. In this way, both the moral responsibility of man and the ultimate sovereignty of God is preserved.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Are adultery and lust the same thing?

Alright CIC readers, I'm looking for some feedback. Recently I received the following question from one of my Community Group members and sent her a brief 10-minute response. I had considered polishing it up before posting it over here for you guys, but I think I'd rather hear your thoughts. What would you have added/left out/said differently?

Q: Some people believe that there is no difference among sins because of the verse where Jesus talked about lusting after a woman is as bad as adultery and hating someone in your heart is like actually murdering them. What do you think?

A: I don't believe there is no difference or that adultery is "as bad" as lusting. I don't think that's what Jesus was really getting at. I think, as Lee talked about at length in last week's sermon, that there is a heart component to every sin, that every sin really happens at the heart level. So while I believe that adultery and lust are both equally sins in the eyes of God, there's a lot more that must be considered.

First off, every sin is a sin because it is an affront to the nature of God. So when James says "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it" (2:10), I believe that is because when I lie, I am living in direct conflict with the moral nature of God, just as when I steal or covet or lust. Thus, they are all sins. So on this level, lusting is the same as adultery because our hearts--not just our hands, eyes and feet--are accountable to live by the moral nature of God.

However, while lust is just that, I would suggest that adultery actually involves a number of sins: lust, covetousness, theft (to name a few) and requires a further quenching of the conviction of the Holy Spirit to actually put sinful thoughts and desires into action.

Also, God must see the consequences of the two sins as being unequal at least here on earth, because while I believe capital punishment was something instituted in Genesis and endorsed in the New Testament as well (Rom. 13:4), Jesus didn't say that if you hate a brother in your heart that you should suffer the same earthly consequences as if you had really murdered someone.

So while Jesus did say "you have committed murder in your heart" and "you have committed adultery in your heart", I don't think we can say that there is a 1 to 1 ratio when we consider the scope of the sin, the earthly consequences of the sin, the companion sins that may occur in the actual deed, and the quenching of the Holy Spirit in the process.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"I won't ever be your cornerstone"

Christian leadership is a curious thing. I have always perceived it to be something of a double-edged sword: powerful when used in the right way, dangerous to those who become enamoured by power and perks. I have tended to avoid leadership, but I have recently had to re-engage with the subject and press into the issues.

How does one be a Christian leader and what does Christian leadership look like? Now I do not hold myself to be a Christian leader - or at least what I perceive to be a leader. Sure, as soon as you take up service roles within the church family (which I have) there is a degree to which you become a 'leader'. The question remains though: how do we 'lead'?

My reluctance in engaging in leadership comes from my atheistic hangover - for 20 years my ideas and drives were formed by the world and what it taught me. I remember learning that leadership was a mechanism by which you exert some level of rule over others and enjoy the privileges of those hallowed circles. Seek leadership because it brings Mammon and all her glories. Now I have no wish to expose myself to those temptations and so I have avoided leadership at all costs.

I marvel in the paradox of the Bible and of God, a concept which needs a brief explanation. It is undeniable that God stands in direct contrast with what the world tells us to be true. In short, many of these lessons are so counter-cultural, are so beautifully paradoxical, that you cannot help but think they must be true. So it is with leadership and how we are taught to lead.

Given God can be nothing other than a leader, we should look to Jesus and see what He makes of leadership - Matt. 20:25-28 makes it clear. We are not to lord it over others but serve. Leadership is defined by service. This paradox continues in 1 Peter: this servant King is then the One who is rejected by the world becomes the cornerstone of the Living Temple of God (1 Peter 2:4-6). Architects forgive me, but the cornerstone is the foundational stone from which measurements for buildings are taken - everything is measured in relation to the cornerstone. So measure yourself by the cornerstone of Christ and His leadership methods - build on His sure foundation.

Why is this emphasis on service important? Consider the purpose of the cross: to reconcile sinful man to God. Why? So that we may enjoy Him forever. How? By being more like Him and His dearly beloved Son. Jesus affords us the mechanism to that change along with the Spirit - in short the cross allows us to become all we can be (to steal the US Army phrase). Jesus led so we could become all we can be - that is righteous via sanctification. So leaders take note - leadership is to allow and equip those you lead to become all that they were supposed to be, that is holy.

"I won't ever be your cornerstone" opines Caleb Followill in Pyro. I cannot help but share the sentiment. When you think of the Living Cornerstone and how everything is measured from Him, why would you want to be? He is our cornerstone, we are living stones chiseled to His measurements. We need Christ to shape us: His example, His grace. We must heed His example in encouraging and equipping others in their sanctification. I pray that those I feebly attempt to serve and lead are becoming Christ-like through my stewardship. If I am ever blessed with a wife I only hope that I can lead her to become all she can be in Christ - that is leadership in marriage, by no means is it bossing her around.

"I won't ever be your cornerstone." Praise be that I no longer want to be and that He is! Lead on Servant King.

Book Review: A Praying Life by Paul Miller

I am not much of a prayer. I mean, I pray, but no one that knows me would put me in the category of "prayer warrior". In fact, I have trouble finding the time to pray and, even when I do find that, finding the words to pray.

This is perhaps why I loved A Praying Life by Paul Miller so much. While it is packed with wisdom and helpful instruction, it is written by and intended for the struggling prayer. If you're like me, a book on prayer sounds about as appealing as a book on having your cavities drilled at the dentist (you and I were both wrong).

Unfortunately, practice is much harder than principle. This is not a book to be rushed through. I would recommend a slow pace that allows you to implement the various disciplines and directives within. Believe me, it will be worth your time.

Not only did the book read much easier than I expected, it really stuck with me. I have found myself quoting him often in my Community Group as the various challenges to prayer are common and widespread. Additionally, this book will be one I will loan and recommend often and it even made it onto my "read again" list (a surprisingly short list, believe it or not).

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recommended for: Every Christian (yes, all of you)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review: The Grace of God by Andy Stanley

The God of the Old Testament can sometimes seem like a starkly different person from the God that Jesus reveals to us in the New Testament (so much so, in fact, that heresies have sprung from the idea that they are two different gods). His dealings with many Old Testament characters can seem harsh and cruel—as the New Atheists love to point out. However, just under the surface is a strong current of grace that flows through the biblical narrative from beginning to end, from Adam and Eve, through Jesus, and all the way to the modern-day believer.

Andy Stanley charts the thread of God's unmerited favor through the Bible in his book, The Grace of God. As he recounts some of the better and lesser known biblical accounts, there is enough history, humor and insight to make even the most familiar stories fresh. Some of the most interesting chapters deal with the shady Old Testament characters and episodes that make it into Jesus' lineage (i.e. Judah, Rahab, "the wife of Uriah").

And yet one would have to be blind to not see, in the retelling of grace in each of these lives, the same grace that is constantly at work in our own lives. Andy Stanley has taken one of the Bible's most dominant themes, retold it in captivating fashion and captured a satisfying portrait of the Gospel of grace in the process.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recommended for: Fans of Beth Moore, Philip Yancey and anyone desiring to get a good big-picture idea of the Bible

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Book Review: Pure Pleasure by Gary Thomas

Ask the average non-Christian on the street and they will probably tell you that the God of Christianity is just out to set a bunch of rules and spoil everybody's fun. They may even suggest that to become a Christian means to devote yourself to a life of monkish asceticism and self-denial. In Pure Pleasure, Gary Thomas sets out to debunk this misconception, and does so in rousing form and in the spirit of the likes of John Piper and C.S. Lewis.

Early last year I was sent a copy of The Glorious Pursuit unsolicited and I read it not knowing what to expect, being unfamiliar with the author and his work. I have been thrilled with everything I have read from Gary Thomas ever since and this book is no exception. Central to Thomas' argument is the idea that pleasure is good, God created pleasure, and we are created and intended to pursue our highest pleasures (ala Piper). In fact, at the core of most sins and temptations is a good pleasure—a good drive—that is being hijacked by our fallen, sinful nature.

The solution, Gary offers in part, is not to deny ourselves these illicit pleasures, but rather to so pursue and satisfy ourselves on holy pleasures that we kill at the root our temptations. As he says, "Using pleasure to point us back to God instead of allowing it to compete with him (or worse, letting it draw us away from him) roots us in the greatest pleasure that will never, ever end".

Always the Christian life should be one of biblical balance. A time to indulge, a time to abstain. A time to exercise self-control, a time to get lost in something purely good. This book is not an argument against a Puritan life, it shares the key to finding and nurturing godly pleasure in life, even if yours is a Puritan one.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Those interested in spiritual growth; those dealing with sin, temptation, legalism

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan books.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Exclusive Q&A with the authors of Is God Just a Human Invention?

We didn't want to jinx anything by letting the cat out of the bag too soon, but Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow have graced us here at Christians In Context with an exclusive Q&A to follow up our review of their book Is God Just a Human Invention? Enjoy and stay tuned for more exclusive content on the Christians In Context blog!

Many Christian (and even non-Christian) authors have addressed the challenges from the New Atheists. How do you feel your book contributes to the conversation?

One of the things we have noticed in our experience with students and people within the church today (Sean as a Teacher and myself as a Pastor) is that the New Atheists’ books, articles and debates, have been wreaking havoc on their faith. And so we wanted to write a book for this generation that would be understandable and engaging but that would also contain substantive responses to the eighteen biggest objections raised by the New Atheists. Another unique feature is that we cover a wide spectrum of topics from scientific and philosophical issues to moral and biblical ones—all in one place. Finally, we wanted to have a productive conversation so we tried to maintain a civil tone while at the same time making a rigorous case for God and responding to their specific objections.

What one argument from the New Atheists was the most challenging to answer or took the most work/research hours to address?

What’s new about the New Atheists is not so much the content of their arguments as much as it is the rhetorical, emotional, and evangelistic nature of their writings. So in that regard, there wasn’t one argument or issue that particularly stands out as the most challenging because, as we show in the book, the evidence for God is really good. Also, we did continually try to walk the tightrope of explaining the powerful evidence for God that is available in an understanding and readable way to someone who has never encountered these questions before. So, for example, our chapter Has Science Shown There Is No Soul? was more challenging to write because of how technical that discussion can become.

You mention Stephen Hawking in Chapter 5, "How Did the Universe Begin?". He has even more recently released the book The Grand Design and the New Atheists seem to have been bolstered by the ideas therein. Have either of you had a chance to address the arguments he has offered?

Hawking’s book has certainly made quite the splash. While neither of us have responded to that specifically yet, it has been soundly critiqued already (for links to leading scientists as well as philosophers see my (Jonathan) blog post here - http://thinkchristianly.blogspot.com/2010/09/responses-to-stephen-hawking-and-grand.html ). It should also be noted that The Grand Design still affirms an absolute beginning of the universe and so the argument for God’s Existence from the beginning of the universe that we present in Chapter 5 remains unaffected.

What was it like to co-write this book and how did that process work?

This book was a lot of fun for us to write together because of our shared passion for helping people explore what they believe, why they believe it and why it matters. After all, these are the biggest and most important questions in all of life. Also, we have a common educational background and training that really allowed us to speak with a unified voice in this book to the issues and questions the New Atheists raise. Moreover, being able to interact together about the content and arguments along the way helped strengthen the book as a whole and sharpen our own thinking.

We also view the challenges of the New Atheism as an opportunity because when Christian students come out on the other side of wrestling with these fundamental questions and the challenges of the New Atheists, they will have formed more solid convictions. And passion flows from conviction. So in writing Is God Just a Human Invention?, we wanted to make sure there would be a resource to help guide young adults in their faith journey and ensure that they have the opportunity to seriously consider an uncaricatured, thoughtful understanding of the evidence for God and Christianity.

There are many well-known authors who have contributed to this book in the "Why It Matters" portions of the book. How did you get so many renowned contributors for this book?

We wanted this book to have a unique angle that speaks to this generation. And so we invited eighteen leading scholars to share a little bit of their own stories and how these truths were meaningful to their lives in a “why it matters” section that follows each of the chapters that we wrote. We were blown away and humbled by the generous response of these scholars to give of their time to help encourage the next generation in their search for truth. Their willingness to participate really speaks to how important these questions really are for all of us.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Review: Is God Just a Human Invention? by McDowell and Morrow

Atheism has seen a resurgence in the last decade or so in its publicity—if not also its popularity—due in large part to the New Atheism (names like Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris) and most recently Stephen Hawking with his argument against the existence of God in The Grand Design. Yet for every volley leveled at theism in general and Christianity in particular, there is are equally capable minds ready to pick up the gauntlet and offer return fire.

Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow aren't charting new territory in this book. Far from being a criticism, however, I found this to be one of the greatest strengths of the book. These two authors are thoroughly well versed in the arguments and works of other Christian thinkers and quote liberally from writers like C.S. Lewis, Timothy Keller, Dinesh D'souza, Alister McGrath and Paul Copan. A brief postscript section called "Why It Matters" follows each chapter and features other such thinkers as Gary Habermas, William Dembski, Randy Alcorn and Greg Koukl.

The book is broken up into two sections: "Responding to Scientific and Philosophical Challenges" and "Responding to Moral and Biblical Challenges". Each chapter is imminently accessible to even those unfamiliar with the topics at hand. For this reason, none of the arguments get very in depth, but the authors have done the heavy lifting and offer a couple titles at the end of each chapter if you feel up to the challenge as well.

Christian apologists have well-reasoned responses to the New Atheists' charges and this book is as good an introduction as one could want. McDowell and Morrow are standing on the shoulders of many brilliant minds and have made a substantial offering in their own right. This book is a perfect reference for those familiar with the arguments, a perfect primer for those who are not, and a perfect loaner for the believer and skeptic alike.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Skeptics, apologists, those looking for an introduction to the arguments and counter-arguments of the New Atheists.

This book was a free review copy provided by Kregel Publications.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Christian Ethic

The foundations of Christian ethics must be evangelical foundations; or, to put it more simply, Christian ethics must arise from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it could not be Christian ethics.”

Oliver O’Donovan, “Resurrection and Moral Order.”

I suppose most of us would nod our heads in agreement. The content does seem obvious but demands further consideration as the implications may not be quite so clear.

You see it is more than possible to be an ethical Christian whose ethics do not rely on Christ. We often fall into the self-congratulatory trap of believing our faith endows us with a heightened sense of morality and therefore gives us the resolve to meet moral and ethical issues head on. Christians rightly look to Jesus as the paragon of ethics: Jesus was without doubt the empathetic and caring person who ever lived (for instance Matt. 14:14; Matt. 15:32; Matt. 20:34; Mark 1:41). Yet was that actually His ethic? Is being nice actually ethical?

He spent much time healing the sick and caring for those in need, but we must not allow ourselves to lose sight of His primary concern: to bring with Him the Kingdom of God and freedom from sin and death (John 17). He set His face towards the cross despite protestation (Mark 8:33) and endured the emotional turmoil of His impending crucifixion knowing (Luke 22:42) knowing that it would bring glory to many sons and renew this fallen earth (again John 17). It is telling that in the points of greatest anguish He reflects not on healing or miracles, but His Father's Kingdom and the salvation of man. His resurrection was the powerful demonstration of death’s defeat and that man and God were reconciled. But we forget that this is the basis of our ethics. It is all too easy to divorce the Gospel and the resurrection from our ethical approach and dare I say it our lives as a whole.

The resurrection should be our starting point: it is the place where God takes control of our lives once more and vindicates us beyond the last time we truly walked with Him in Genesis 1-2. It is the most powerful affirmation that God wants us to live with Him (1 Cor. 15:45), for there can be no greater sacrifice than to see your dearly Beloved Son nailed to a cross bearing the weight of sin (for more see here).

Remember though what God said about Eden and creation: it ‘was good’ (Gen. 1-2). This means to say it was perfectly ordered to such a degree that God could dwell with Adam and Eve. The entrance of sin at the Fall meant that the perfect order instituted by God had become disrupted and now that disorder threatened to unravel creation itself. The resurrection shows us that God has restored the order of creation by purging sin and that man has again taken the place for which he was created (1 Cor. 15:23). So faith-professing Christians find themselves wrapped up in Kingdom of God which is inaugurated but not yet completed – the ‘now-not yet’ tension of last days.

Why is this emphasis on order so important? We live in days of moral relativism – that there is no moral truth but only what you subscribe to and what your will compels you towards. This is the mechanism through which Christian morality and ethics can become contrasting and occasionally contradictory with its Gospel-basis – we appeal to our conscience and adhere to our precepts by our will. No mention of God. Christian moral obligation then becomes a function of a believer’s decision, that which we opt into. This is a slope back towards legalism, a concept for which Christ certainly did not die.

In the face of the resurrection and the order it brings, Christian ethics becomes concerned with man’s life in the face of this order (O'Donovan once more): “the way the universe is, determines how man ought to behave himself in it.” Given the vindication of creation through His Son, God’s morality is as important now as ever and given that there is an eschatological priority to His morality so it is for us. We are now free from the bondage of sin and given Jesus identifies Himself with man through His incarnation, life, baptism and death we are adopted into God’s family. So we share in God’s ultimate freedom as we were supposed to in Eden – to have dominion over creation and to act responsibly within it.

So this also includes moral decisions: we are to make moral decisions on the basis of living with God. God is a priori perfect and so the resurrection allows us through the Spirit to know the mind of God. With the resurrection of Christ came the resurrection of man but also the resurrection of creation – a renewal into a form which would be eternally pleasing to God hence why we should concern ourselves with our behaviour within it. It is in creation that the morality and ethics of God is acted out in physical form, a substrate in which the reinstituted order of God may be enacted. This is why the resurrection is so important to Christian ethics: it is the ethics of God’s eternal kingdom – to act in a Heavenly way, not to just be ‘nice’.

Framing ethics and morals in Kingdom terms becomes much more pleasing and holy; they become acts of sanctification! The mindshift the resurrection brings is not to counter culture but to think the ethics of Heaven and God. If it will not do in Heaven then it certainly will not do in this renewed world. This is only an introduction not the whole answer and nor is it an attack on 'nicety'. The point is that we should not think of what is nice or ethical in the eyes of the world. Opinions come and opinions go (Eccles. 1:8-11), but God lasts forever. Our thoughts and ethics are to be holy, how much more the greater task.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Trevin Wax on rating books

Here's an article Trevin Wax (Author of Holy Subversion and a regular book reviewer) called Why I Hate Rating Books. As he says,
The ratings system is flawed, and the bugs in the system really bug me. Because we are so quick to praise anything and everything, we don’t leave ourselves with a way to really praise a praise-worthy book. The best of the best are treated like all the rest. As the little boy in The Incredibles says, “When everyone is special, no one is special.”
We here at CiC use a ratings system as well when we review books, and I want to know, is it helpful? Is it distracting? Does it undercut the review itself?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Prayer and Medicine

Man, talk about writer's block. Apologies.

Earlier in the year I was asked to help lead a small group study on prayer in medicine which provided much food for thought. Amongst other things we considered trials to assess prayer as a mode of healing. I am sure most are familiar with its premise: does intercessory prayer make a difference to medical or surgical outcomes? The hypothesis? That praying to YHWH of the Bible is associated with better medical outcomes. The results: intercessory prayer leads to improved medical outcomes. The conclusion? That we should pray for patients because they get better quicker.

Really? Far from being encouraged by these sorts of studies I was left a bit cold. It was not necessarily the structure of the trial: many were double-blind trials, the gold standard for clinical experiments. It was not even the premise: that prayer makes a difference to patient outcomes. The sincerity of the Christians involved in the studies to 'prove' God in these atheistic and secular times is touching. It was not even that praying for others is a good thing - clearly it is. No, what I struggled with is the idea that you could 'test' God and a fundamental misunderstanding of prayer.

The first trial to look at this found that praying for patients without their knowledge of such prayer taking place was associated with a better outcome following what I presume to be myocardial infarctions. The medical care was the same for all patients. The study found that those who received prayer did better afterwards (Archives of Internal Medicine. 1999; 159:2273-78). However, many methodological problems were raised for this and other subsequent studies and another further study found deleterious outcomes for patients who received prayer without their knowledge (American Heart Journal. 2006; 151:934-42).

Clearly it is easier for Christians to harrumph about the 1999 study than the 2006 study. How do we answer that on the basis of the premises above? What does that mean for the God of the Bible who is a loving God? After all He loves to answer prayer doesn't He? What is the theological outcome we arrive at following this?

In my opinion, nothing. Nothing whatsoever. Again I do not doubt the sincerity of the investigators but I just cannot see how God would show Himself through these studies or even if that were never the case that prayer should be associated with better outcomes. Why do I say this?

Firstly, consider the nature of Jesus' miracles. Why did He perform them? Undoubtedly because He truly felt the pain and anguish of those suffering (Matt. 14:14), but was it not more for the fact He was demonstrating the coming Kingdom where the effects of the Fall would not be known? Jesus was trying to demonstrate that with Him the Kingdom of God was being ushered in reminding us of pre-Fall days. So healing is looking forward to something which I believe should shape our thoughts towards the Resurrection and new Heaven. Healing, I do not believe, is the 'best' outcome every time. To consider it the 'best' outcome denies the resurrection - sure, it is a 'good' thing, but not necessarily the best.

Then consider the methodology. How do you perform such an experiment? What do you pray? How do you pray? How do you account for fervency? Will every prayer mean as much as the last? How do you stop it denigrating into some sort of legalistic project? I am not sure that you can account for these things and the great danger is turning prayer into a mechanistic pursuit, as opposed to the incredible honour it is to pray and speak and commune with God. After all Jesus had to die to bring direct access to God (Mark 15:38) so we need to respect it with great reverence. Again I am not suggesting this was never the case with these studies but given how easily we slip towards Pharisaic religion I would always exercise caution.

Whilst I do not think the authors meant to be I feel somewhat uncomfortable putting God under the microscope. It is not just for Jesus' words (Luke 4:12) but that God and His divine and providential plan cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny. His revelation to us shouts through all creation, the calling and nurturing of Israel and ultimately and most visually in His Son. Do we genuinely think that science with prove (or disprove) the existence of God? Science has become a demi-god in our times, but it can never answer questions of the nature of God. Will we ever find Mr. Ford in an internal combustion engine? To use the age-old aphorism: science is the how but never the why. Unwittingly, we assume God is a performing monkey who just waits for us to ask Him something so that He may perform for us. If He shows mercy to those who He will (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:14-16) then He will show healing those that He will.

Consider the implications if these studies were to be used in a Christianity versus Judaism or Islam model. Whoever 'won' would surely trump the result whilst the losers claim that it means nothing. Or consider the 2006 paper above - prayer may have a deleterious effect. How do we interpret that? Could God be angry at us for putting Him to the test?

What then, should we not pray for healing? Of course not. We should pray for others - including those who are sick and suffering. Paul makes this clear in passages such as (1 Thes. 3:9-13) - as Carson points out in "A Call to Spiritual Reformation" Paul prays for the good of others as an outworking of a genuine affection and love. It is no mistake that when John (in 1 John) calls us children he uses the Greek root tekna meaning that those children that are 'begotten' as opposed to paida which means 'child'. We are a family, God's family, and we are to have just such a yearning for each other. But more than this we should be praying for God's will whatever that may be - it may be for healing or better outcomes, it may not. What we know is that works for the good of those that love Him (Rom. 8:28) - what this entails is that He make work in ways in which we cannot understand (Gen 45:5). More than this consider:

"Father, who art in Heaven . . . Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."

That was how Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6:8-10). God answers those prayers that are in sync with His will - He delights in such prayer. So praying for the sick is a good thing and we should continue to do so. If it is His will then He will heal, if it is not then He won't. We should divorce our preconceptions of what is good and set our sights on the Resurrection of Christ and eternity. Our minds and prayers should be centred on things above not things of man.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Five Reasons Why a Thoughtful Person Would Start Their Religious Quest With Christianity

1. Christianity is testable. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) In Christianity objective evidence exists and matters. It literally hangs the entire religious system out for objective scrutiny, inviting people to test it. You can make decisions for or against the Christian worldview based on objective evidence. This explains perhaps why Christianity is the object of "affection" for atheists when attacking religion. How long will it take you to investigate the claims of Christianity? It might take a week, it might take years, but at least you can investigate them.

2. Salvation in this system is free. There might be glimmers of grace in Hinduism and Buddhism, but every other major world religion is about doing stuff that is going to please some deity. Only Christianity turns the popular view of religion as moral conformity on its head and offers a relationship with God that is not based on our moral performance.

3. Christianity paints a picture of the world that matches reality. Of course, this is a huge claim that cannot possibly be tested in all its applications. However, we can begin to test this thesis using one of the more popular arguments against the existence of God, the problem of evil. Specifically, one should look at the way that different worldviews handle the issues of evil, pain and suffering. Most eastern religions portray evil, pain and suffering as "illusion" that you need to overcome and transcend. Christianity takes evil, pain, and suffering seriously. Christianity says not only is evil, pain, and suffering real but God takes it so seriously that he gets down with the the sufferer in their pain to bear them up. Jesus, of course, is the ultimate picture of this.

4. Christianity allows you to live a holistic life. In Christianity, we get to use our minds in our worship, we get to think about God. We use our minds to worship God, we are to reason and it's supposed to make sense. You worship God with the same mind that you approach every other aspect of your life, you don't need to compartmentalize. In eastern traditions (those religions that most often make the claim of being holistic), your reason might actually be an impediment in your religious progress.

5. Christianity has Jesus at the center. Jesus is the universal religious figure that every major religion wants to co-opt. If you're a Buddhist, you might claim that Jesus is an incarnation of the Buddha or at least an enlightened teacher. If you're Hindu, you might believe that Jesus is an avatar of Vishnu. If you're in Islam, if you read the Koran, Jesus emerges as a figure greater than Mohammad himself. If you're on a religious quest, it makes sense to start with the religion that centers around the greatest universal religious figure in human history.

This was a presentation developed by Craig Hazen as presented on one of my favorite weekly podcasts, Stand To Reason, hosted by Greg Koukl. (Note: Greg was absent the week of this conversation, but you can click here to listen to the entire three hour call-in program or skip to the last hour to hear the interview with Craig Hazen.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two Books by Eugene Peterson

While many may only recognize the name of Eugene Peterson in connection with The Message, he has written more than twenty other books that have had a considerable impact of their own. In fact, were it not for one of these two books, he may never have written The Message at all.

Peterson wrote A Long Obedience in the Same Direction thirty years ago and it's fifteen chapters are based on the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), Psalms that were most likely sung as Jewish pilgrims made their ascent to Jerusalem for their holy feast days.

Each chapter begins with one of the fifteen Psalms in The Message translation which provides the framework for the chapter. In fact, it was actually the work done during the writing of this book that, as Eugene says, "provided the impetus for embarking on the new translation".

This form is at times refreshing and at other times distracting. Refreshing because it reads a bit like an expository sermon, dealing with the text as it is written and in sequence, chapter by chapter. Distracting because, as far as a book on discipleship goes, it doesn't have a simple list of logical steps to follow. But, after all, when does discipleship ever work like that?

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: A supplemental read with The Message, anyone looking for a discipleship devotional

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Living the Resurrection is just three chapters long as Peterson describes how the resurrection meets us in the three sacraments of Sabbath, communion and baptism. Though this seems a simple enough of a concept, I found myself struggling to follow the ideas and themes throughout. In fact, I didn't even realize the three central ideas of Sabbath, communion and baptism until it was explicitly stated on page 94. While is a short 123 pages, I must confess it began to feel long since it is only broken up into three chapters (I am a sucker for long books with short chapters).

Peterson seems to write in a more flowing, poetic style rather than the straight-forward, logical form that I am accustomed to in most of my reading. While this is certainly not bad, being aware of it will certainly aid in finding enjoyment in the book (of which there is plenty to be found). The insights and the flashes of beauty in this work come not like the crescendo of a solid argument, but like the subtle turn of a word or phrase that may make you think of your everyday Christian life in a new light.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Fans of Eugene Peterson and The Message

This book was a free review copy provided by NavPress.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Another OTC Devo

Another preview from the devotional we are writing for my church for The Old Testament Challenge, Part 1 - The Pentateuch.

Day 36: Exodus 27-29

The priestly business was a bloody business. When you read Exodus 29, it begins to sound a little excessive and verging on morbid. Blood on the altar. Blood around the altar. Blood on the ear lobes, thumbs and toes. Even a little blood sprinkled on the garments. And all of this at the instruction of the Lord. Why?

First, God was implementing a system that would be a constant reminder of the gravity and severity of man’s sin. Today, if I lie to someone, all I have to do is repent to God and—if I’m motivated enough—the person I lied to. But under Israel’s sacrificial system, a little critter had to lose its life because of me. (I imagine the PETA of their day were in fits). As the writer of Hebrews described the Old Testament sacrificial system:
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22)
Second, the Old Testament system was meant to be a shadow of the perfect sacrifice to come—and that sacrifice was going to be bloody. Again, the writer of Hebrews speaks on this:
When Christ came as high priest…he did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11a,12)
Third, it was a constant reminder of the grace and mercy of a God who had every right to demand justice. It was a reminder of the provision that the Lord had made (and would make someday) so that a sinful people could dwell with a holy God.

So what, you say? Other than a nice little history lesson, what does this have to do with me? Well believe it or not, there is a similar system set up still today and you participate in it. It is a reminder of the gravity of our sin and the cost of forgiveness. It is a picture of the perfect, bloody sacrifice. And it is a reminder of the provision of grace made by God for us sinners.

We call it communion. Let us never forget the great extent that God in Christ stooped to for us. Let us remember the merciful covering of blood that makes us right before God. So eat. Drink. Remember. For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor. 11:26)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book Review: Can We Trust the Gospels? by Mark D. Roberts

Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. Dan Brown's DaVinci Code. From academia to pop media, it's trendy to suggest that Christians have gotten the message—and the person—of Jesus horribly wrong.

Enter Mark D. Roberts and his easily accessible book, Can We Trust the Gospels? What began as a blog has turned into what Roberts calls a blook, which is a real word for a blog turned book (who knew?). Without delving into the highly technical arguments of textual criticism, Mark D. Roberts defends the reliability of the Gospels in such a manner that even those with a low view of Scripture should be impressed and perhaps even convinced.

While the book is less than 200 pages in length, Roberts deals with all of the most central challenges to the transmission of the biblical texts. He also addresses many of the more fringe challenges that may not find footing in the academic realm but may gain popularity among the general public (via a novel turned movie about the Gospel of Thomas, for instance). After all, I don't care what academia thinks of an idea as long as Ron Howard can work some explosions and intrigue in.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Recommended: For apologists or anyone who wants to know if we can trust the Bible

This book was a free review copy provided by Crossway Books.