Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Review: What Is the Mission of the Church? by DeYoung and Gilbert

Mission, social justice, shalom, and the great commission. If there was a contest this year to see who could fit the most current Christian buzzwords on the cover of their book, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert would probably win with What Is the Mission of the Church? Fortunately for all of us, DeYoung and Gilbert are bringing some needed balance to these ideas rather than just riding the wave of popularity behind these hot topics.

Regarding these trending themes in Christianity:

"We are concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems, we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission Christian: namely making disciples of Jesus Christ . . . We want to help Christians articulate and live out their views on the mission of the church in ways that are more theologically faithful, exegetically careful, and personally sustainable."

I can't say this book is for everyone, but for the pastor or church leader who feels torn a hundred different directions with good things the church could be doing, this book brings the focus back to "the main thing". After an introductory chapter, the bulk of the book is spent doing one condensed biblical theology after another regarding the Great Commission, the biblical meta-narrative, the gospel, the kingdom of God, social justice, and shalom. While none of these chapters are comprehensive treatments on such themes, the authors give sufficient time to each to make their case:

"In the end, the Great Commission must be the mission of the church for two very basic reasons: there is something worse than death, and there is something better than human flourishing . . . Universal shalom will come, but personal redemtion comes first . . . We are not called to bring a broken planet back to its created glory. But we are to call broken people back to their Creator."

If I may make two observations not directly regarding the content of the book: (1) This is now the fifth book I've read authored or co-authored by DeYoung, and it is certainly the driest. There is no fluff, personal anecdotes, or humorous illustrations. This is DeYoung at his most mature, perhaps because he feels the ideas are most dire. (2) This is one of the most seamlessly co-authored books I've ever read. Most of the books I've read written by two or more authors suffer from a choppy train of thought, awkward self-references, and painful transitions between authors that all serve to break up the flow of the book. Not so with this book.

What Is the Mission of the Church? is at the same time an important corrective and an impassioned plea for the church to rightly prioritize among all the good things we can be about doing.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Pastors, church and missions leaders

This book was a free review copy provided by Crossway.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

God isn't fair

The following is an email I sent to my Community Group recently in response to some tensions being felt as we studied the historical books in our Old Testament Challenge:

God has seemed "unfair" in the ways that he deals with mankind (especially in how he judges and even takes life in the Old Testament), so that some are getting a strong sense that God is capricious and arbitrary. However, I think the crux of the problem we're feeling is in the way we define "fair", and this causes us to have expectations of God's character that the Bible doesn't support (and honestly, we wouldn't want).

"Fair" is an unhelpful word to use when talking about God because it's got a broad spectrum of meanings. Usually people use it in two different ways, fair meaning just or fair meaning even (everything's equal and uniform).

But if God were even and uniform with all humanity, there's really only two options: either everyone gets justice and dies at their first sin and goes to hell (actually, humanity would cease to exist with Adam and Eve), or everyone gets grace and God deals no consequences in this life or afterlife and everyone goes to heaven. (Neither are biblical and neither sound like a preferable alternative to me).

So God is not fair, if by fair we mean identic and uniform. If we expect this from God, this is our own preconceived expectation of God, not one the Bible gives (and not a desirable one, if you ask me).

If by fair we mean just, then I would argue that God is perfectly just because no sin goes unpunished. Either we pay for our own sins in this life and the next, or Jesus pays for them. But no sin goes unpunished.

God is also gracious and merciful, which is why nobody dies at the moment of their first sin (and most people don't die by the hand of God for a sin later in life). Yes, God gives more grace to some than others, but grace by definition is a freely given gift, not an obligation. If God were obligated to deal out grace uniformly and identically, it would no longer be grace. And I always like to point out, whether you get justice or grace from God, no one receives injustice.

So yes, God deals with grace in some situations, and justice in others. Both are good and true attributes of God that work in harmony with—not conflict of—each other (that's a whole other discussion if you want to have it some time). "But isn't a sometimes just and sometimes gracious God capricious? Fickle? Whimsical?" The only way we can really make this charge is if we assume that we understand these seemingly similar biblical accounts better than God does all the way down to the heart- and motive-level. We should be humble enough to admit that we can't read hearts or minds or motives, and when God seems to be acting differently on different occasions there are a whole host of factors that we aren't privy to. And yes, God gives grace for a time to the Israelites before finally bringing the judgment he threatened, but grace for a time leading to eventual judgment is a common theme throughout the Bible that both the Israelites and the Canaanites got. So again, God is consistent with his own character here and anything but capricious.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Turn, return to your healer, and give thanks

"When was the last time you used the word "thanksgiving" without referencing the holiday? Yes, it is appropriate that you "give thanks" at the dinner table, but this easily becomes a formality void of real affection. Thankfulness is the joyful and humble response of a heart that has been transformed by grace . . . Thankfulness is a good test of your faith. Its absence demonstrates that your faith is more lip service than experiential knowledge." Joe Thorn, Note to Self

More news on the Advent Giveaway


We are just a week away from kicking off the Advent Giveaway and we're thrilled at the response we've gotten so far! However, a lot of the same questions have been coming up, so here are the details:

What are the prizes?

We are proud to partner with the following publishers who have graciously provided us with all our prizes for the Advent Giveaway. To the best of our knowledge this is a complete list and, as you can see, there are more than 24 books for our 24 day giveaway. That means, as we get closer to Christmas, the prize packages will get a little sweeter!

Baker Books (and Bethany House)
  • Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook - J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays
  • Come to the Waters - James Boice
  • Earthen Vessels - Matthew Lee Anderson
  • Everyday Prayers - Scotty Smith
  • Gospel Commission - Michael Horton
  • The Great Books Reader - John Mark Reynolds
  • Is God a Moral Monster? - Paul Copan
  • Mere Apologetics - Alister McGrath
  • Putting Amazing Back Into Grace (with DVD) - Michael Horton
  • Prayers, Praise and Promises - Warren Wiersbe
  • Road to Missional - Michael Frost
  • Sacrilege - Hugh Halter
  • ESV Study Bible
  • Give Them Grace - Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson
  • Jesus + Nothing = Everything - Tullian Tchividjian
Cruciform Press
  • Licensed To Kill - Brian Hedges (2)
  • Smooth Stones - Joe Coffey (3)
InterVarsity Press
  • Authentic Church - Vaughn Roberts (3)
  • The Cost of Community - Jamie Arpin-Ricci, C.J. (3)
  • Missional Spirituality - Roger Helland and Lenoard Hjalmarson (3)
Moody Publishers
  • Counterfeit Gospels - Trevin Wax (5)
  • Prayers for Today - Kurt Bjorklund (5)
Shepherd Press
  • Red Like Blood - Joe Coffey and Bob Bevington (2)
Who can enter?

Anyone living in the United States and Canada with a functioning e-mail address and mailing address. (We will only ask for your mailing address if you are selected as a winner. No P.O. boxes, please.) We will be using a PunchTab giveaway widget which allows all our entrants to leverage their social contacts (Facebook, Twitter, email) to earn additional entries. The more you share, the more entries you have in the giveaway, the more chances you have to win free stuff! Please, only one winner per household per month.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Turkey with a mission (Is that a Disney plot?)

David Matthis wrote a timely piece over at Desiring God called "Making the Most of Turkey Time: Thanksgiving on Mission".

"Here’s a few thoughts from a fellow bungler to help us think ahead and pray about how we might grow in being proxies for the gospel, in word and deed, among our families this Thanksgiving. These are some practical ideas for what it might mean to see ourselves as sent among our relatives."
And the bullet points:
  1. Pray ahead.
  2. Listen and ask questions.
  3. Raise the gospel flag early.
  4. Take the long view and cultivate patience.
  5. Beware the self-righteous older brother in you.
  6. Tell it slant.
  7. Be real about the gospel.
  8. Consider the conversational context.
  9. Know your particular family situation.
  10. Be hopeful.
I think my favorite was #3, Raise the gospel flag early.

Let’s not wait to get to know them “well enough” to start clearly identifying with Jesus. Depending on how extended our family is, or how long it’s been since we married in, they may already plainly know that we are Christians. But if they don’t know that, or don’t know how important Jesus is to our everyday lives, we should realize now that there isn’t any good strategy in being coy about such vital information. It will backfire. Even if we don’t put on the evangelistic full-court press right away (which is not typically advised), wisdom is to identify with Jesus early and often, and articulate the gospel with clarity (and kindness) as soon as possible.

No one’s impressed to discover years into a relationship that we’ve withheld from them the most important things in our lives.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Review: Radical Together by David Platt

In 2010 David Platt made significant waves with the release of Radical. Platt's book took aim at the American Dream and the "consumer Christianity" that has bought into it. It landed on the New York Times Bestsellers' list and not without a little controversy within the church. Much of the debate surrounded sacrificial living, poverty, missions, and what a faithful life committed to Christ looks like. While there are respectable and reasonable arguments (and persons) on both sides, I count it a win that this book pushed the conversation to the forefront.

Radical Together promises to do more of the same. At the same time, Platt seems to have taken heed to some of the concerned criticism and clarified his position taken in Radical. This second book revolves around what he calls foundational ideas for churches unleashing people into the world with the gospel:
  1. One of the worst enemies of Christians can be good things in the church.
  2. The gospel that saves us from work saves us to work.
  3. The Word does the work.
  4. Building the right church depends on using all the wrong people.
  5. We are living—and longing—for the end of the world.
  6. We are selfless followers of a self-centered God.
With a cursory read these ideas sound counter-intuitive (and, to some, even offensive). Yet with compelling biblical arguments and examples from real life practitioners, Platt brings these challenging ideas down to ground level.

In many ways, Radical Together is the proper partner to Radical, bringing balance and clarification where needed. While at the heart of the book still lies a near-impossible challenge, I kind of think that's the idea.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Fans of Radical, those tired of American consumerism

This book was a free review copy provided by Waterbrook Multnomah.

Monday, November 21, 2011

BIG NEWS: The Advent Giveaway


All of us here at Christians In Context are really stoked about December! Of course there's Christmas. Hot chocolate. Sledding. The increasing odds that you'll get to see at least one NFL game played in the snow. . .

. . . oh yeah, and the biggest giveaway we've ever done in the history of the blog! Starting December 1st and running all the way up until Christmas Eve, we're hosting our first (and hopefully not last) Advent Giveaway. We'll be giving something (mostly books) away every day and the prizes get bigger—and more expensive to ship—the closer we get to Christmas. We've hand-picked some of our favorite books of the past year to give away, including several we've reviewed for the blog. Here's just a sample:
  • Counterfeit Gospels by Trevin Wax (five of 'em!)
  • Smooth Stones by Joe Coffey (three of those)
  • Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan
  • Gospel Commission by Michael Horton
  • Jesus + Nothing = Everything by Tullian Tchividjian
  • An ESV Study Bible
So mark your calendars, double-check that you're subscribed (email, RSS, or Reader) and go tell it on a mountain (or at least tell your friends). Just don't miss a day of this giveaway!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: From the Garden to the City by John Dyer

At the risk of sharing details that no one is interested in, the books that I review are always and only sent to me from publishers upon my request. So when Kregel Publications sent me two books unsolicited, I was certain there had been some sort of mistake. Only after contacting Kregel did I find there had been no error. Rather, Kregel is so excited and confident in their products, they decided to send them out to prior reviewers. Initially I was slow to pick up the books since I felt no obligation towards them, but in the end I caved...and am happy I did so.

As a former communications major at a Christian university, I've read a number of books addressing the intersection of technology and Christianity. These "theology of technology" books have almost always proven to be heavier on the technology side than the theology side. The authors, likewise, have more often proven to be students of Marshall McLuhan (a major figure in media theory) than students of the Word.

But that all changed as I read this latest book by John Dyer (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary). From the Garden to the City has a biblical balance and insight to it that has been missing in all my previous reads. Dyer shows an uncanny ability to skillfully and faithfully weave the two seeming unrelated topics of faith and technology into quite an engaging book.

The very structure of the book follows the Christian metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Dyer argues that (1) our ability to make technology is a reflection of our Creator, (2) every technology has the potential to be used for sin and rebellion, (3) technology can also be used for redemptive purposes, and (4) God's plan is the restoration of all things, including some of the things we make. Here's a thread of insights I felt made a significant connection:

Adam and Eve's very first act after sinning simultaneously reflected their programming as God's image-bearers, and their newfound sinfulness...
The clothing was their way of transforming their circumstances such that they would no longer rely on God for anything...
Technology can at the same time be both a reflection of the image of God and a subtle rebellion against him and his authority...
...technology is also one of the chief means by which humans attempt to create a world without God. As our technology grows more and more powerful, the illusion of control becomes increasingly convincing. (Chapter 5, "Rebellion")

Dyer does a masterful job of helping the Christian reflect on the nature of technology. If I have one critique, it is that there was not equal emphasis on how the Christian should respond to technology. Or put another way, at the cross-section of theology and technology Dyer gives us plenty of implications but not enough applications. (Perhaps a second book is in order?)

Living in the middle of a technological explosion (comparing the last 150 years with the span of human history), we should be all the more diligent in examining and "seeing through" the technology we use. Dyer warns, "When technology has distracted us to the point that we no longer examine it, it gains the greatest opportunity to enslave us."

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Communicators, techies, multimedia ministry personnel

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"Who wrote the Gospels?"

Dr. Michael J. Kruger briefly (just under 5 min.) addresses the question "Who wrote the Gospels?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Unfinished books: a source of low-grade guilt?

Trevin Wax recently interviewed Tony Reinke over on his blog, Kingdom People, regarding his new book Lit: A Christian Guide To Reading Books. While I haven't decided yet if I will read the book, I found parts of the interview very insightful. If you are a reader of any sort (or want to be more so than you currently are) then read on!

Most Christians have a stack of unfinished books in their house, maybe on a desk or a bookshelf. Those unfinished books are often a source of low-grade guilt. We’ve been conditioned to think that if we buy a book, we must read it from cover to cover. That’s not true, and I’m trying to loosen Christians from this misunderstanding of what is really a subtle form of slavery to books.

Apart from Scripture, all other books are optional reading. In fact, all other books are tools for us to use in our lives as we see fit. We use books when we need them. This means that we can read books cover to cover if we wish. Or we can read one chapter, or one page. It’s our call. By writing in a book, I claim the book as a tool. I own it; it belongs to me; it was purchased to serve me, and its value to me as a tool far exceeds its resale value. This does not give me license to ignore the truth God teaches me in my reading, but it does liberate me to see books as gifts from God, not as taskmasters. And that’s a very important stage of development for Christian readers.

Of course, I mark all sorts of things in my books, but fundamentally it is a claim of ownership, a claim that reminds me that my books are my tools and that I am not enslaved to them.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Book Review: Earthen Vessels by Matthew Lee Anderson

What do tattoos, cremation, and homosexuality all have in common?* They each reveal one's fundamental belief about the body, it's design and purpose. While Christians should arguably have a higher view of the body than most, the average evangelical theology of the body often remains unexamined and merely reactionary towards cultural trends and spiritual concerns.

Matthew Lee Anderson challenges the unexamined and reactionary in his surprising new book Earthen Vessels. Not knowing what to expect of the latest blogger-turned-author (an ever growing breed) in his debut work, I found myself tearing through this book in a matter of days. How interesting can a Christian's book about the body be? As it turns out, very.

As already hinted at, Anderson artfully covers a spectrum of modern day implications for a deeper understanding of the human form. As one who resisted against all odds, I found the chapter on tattoos particularly interesting (definition of irony: in pursuit of individualism, rebellion, and self-expression, tattoos and their host bodies are now markers of conformity and consumerism). Homosexuality too got its own chapter, and the insights here alone make the book worthwhile:

...as long as those with same-sex orientations treat the fulfillment of their sexual desires as a necessary part of their identity, the most sensitive traditional responses to same-sex attraction and acts will inevitably be reduced to bigotry. (p. 146)
All in all, Earthen Vessels is solid and enjoyable, and Anderson has made a definite contribution to an important conversation that has long been overdue in evangelical circles. Two thumbs up!

*I tried to come up with a punch line for this question but never succeeded. If you have any zingers, I'm all ears!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Theologians, pastors, counselors

This book was a free review copy provided by Bethany House.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

…Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord…

This is part 3 of a continuing series on hard questions from the Old Testament. They have been adapted from a series of articles I wrote for my church's community groups during our Old Testament Challenge. You can also read the introduction and part 2.

All throughout the book of Deuteronomy, God repeatedly explained to Israel that they were to be a holy people. That word holy literally meant “set apart”. God was seeking to establish a kingdom and community that was so counter-cultural that every other nation would be drawn to them and blessed through them.

But instead Israel wanted to be just like all the other nations. They envied the gods of the other nations (and with them came all the detestable practices for which God had judged the Canaanites). Soon we will read they envied the kings of the other nations too.

Joshua saw this coming and warned all of Israel before his death (Joshua 23:15,16). And Israel renewed their covenant with God (Joshua 24:19-23). Despite all this, the tone of the book of Judges turns with the phrase, “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). From this point on, the book of Judges is virtually an account of the downward spiral of the nation of Israel.

God is true to his word

Through Israel’s unfaithfulness, however, we see God’s faithfulness in a number of ways:
  • God is faithful to judge. As promised in Deuteronomy 28, God begins to judge Israel in the same way he had judged Canaan and Egypt before them. This judgment (like those before) centered around Israel’s idolatry and worship of false gods.
  • God is faithful to forgive. Like children, the people of Israel repeatedly ignore past instruction and correction and do things their own way until things get unbearably bad. Yet every time, when their hearts are broken with genuine repentance, the Lord is always ready with grace and salvation.
  • God is faithful to preserve. Though God allows Israel to fall under oppression—and eventually exile—he is faithful to his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He saves a remnant of Israel that will pave the way for the coming Messiah and ultimately the descendants of Israel (both ethnic and spiritual, see Rom. 11) explode exponentially.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Great Bookshelf Cleaning Giveaway

It's been too long since we've given anything away. And it just so happens that as I was organizing and cleaning my bookshelves, I found a couple duplicates of a few of my books in new condition.

So today (until Saturday at midnight) we are giving away three books:

Orthodoxy - G.K. Chesterton
Finally Alive - John Piper
Your Church Is Too Small - John H. Armstrong

You can enter using the PunchTab app below (RSS readers, you’ll need to click through to the post to enter) and good luck!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Book Review: Existential Reasons for Belief in God by Clifford Williams

If you ever wanted to impress people simply by the title of the book you're carrying around, I don't think you could do much better than Existential Reasons for Belief in God by Clifford Williams. However, that same intimidating title makes your job harder if you want to encourage people to read it. (For the record, I do want to do the latter and don't want to do the former.)

I am always game for new takes and approaches to Christian apologetics, and this one certainly fits the bill. While most such books build arguments around sheer fact and reason, Williams argues that there is also good reason (no pun intended) to defend the Christian worldview on a basis of need and emotion.

He points out that some people approach religion and faith in God emphasizing reason (rationalists) while others do so emphasizing emotion and need (emotionalists). Williams argues that rather than an "either/or" approach, we should take a "both/and" approach. Even on it's face this argument makes sense because apologetic arguments based on sheer airtight reason are of no use if the subject does not care about the information or sees no need to believe or accept those arguments. As Williams says,

"My aim is to defend the legitimacy of acquiring faith through need, emotion and reason. Satisfaction of need legitimately draws us to faith, but reason must be involved in this drawing. More simply, the two basic ideas of the book are the drawing power of need and the certifying ability of reason. Need without reason is blind, but reason without need is sterile."
I find it just a little ironic that he makes his argument throughout the book on the basis of rationality, but then again, his reasons would have no power if they did not awaken a desire to respond to such reason. Williams makes his argument in the first couple chapters and then spends four chapters (the majority of the book) addressing four different objections to his premise. The book does threaten at times to turn into an academic paper, but Williams injects personal testimonies of faith throughout the book that effectively breaks that up (and supports his points).

In the end, Williams presents a fresh approach to apologetics that is both helpful and encouraging for those intimidated by a field long dominated by the many intellectual, complicated, and often nuanced arguments for and against the existence of God.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Christian apologists, theologians, and counselors

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