February 24, 2016

Book Recommendations

Now and again I have used this space to offer some recommended reading. And today I do so again. But before I list the books, can I also just urge upon you the practice of reading, period? I know we are a visual culture, with easy access to videos of every kind. A family of five could conceivably spend an hour in the same house, watching five different videos, on five different devices, in five different rooms. But much of what we watch will be frothy.  And almost all of our watching is passive – meaning that, even if we are watching something helpful, film does a lot of the thinking for us. But books require us to engage our minds more intently (since they are not accompanied with moving pictures). Books require some imagination. And serious books will take the time to delve deeply into issues in ways that film often can or will not. So, while my mind is drawn to moving pictures as much as the next guy (and while there are films and videos well worth watching), I want to discipline myself to put my eyes, more often, on the written page … and I urge you to do the same.

Buy good books. Borrow good books. And, if you're local, make use of our church library that is getting better by the year. “Bring … the books” as Paul said it! Below are a few recommended offerings (some of which I have recommended before, but which bear repeating at the present time):

The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. This book is a modern-day classic, reminding us of just how wholly other God really is – and the effect that otherness has when men and women encounter God for who He really is. Written in a contemporary style, Sproul (Sproul’s God, really) will challenge your vision of God without challenging your perseverance with drab prose. Highly recommended, especially as a follow up to our recent sermons on Exodus 33-34.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. Postman’s book, written for the TV generation (but all the more applicable in our world of multiplied screens), explores the way in which the format of our media affects our ability to assimilate the ideas, facts, and news that it communicates. How, for instance, has the advent of the television, with its short segments and soundbites, impacted what sort of thoroughness we expect from our politicians? A thought-provoking question in the middle of this election season, I’d say!

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield. I wrote a full article about Butterfield’s book last September, but let me remind you again that it has been one of the most gripping books I have read in a long time – for its display of the power of God in the gospel; for the way in which it demonstrates the effectiveness of a persistent and loving gospel witness; and for the reality that conversion, when a person gets ‘the real thing,’ can sometimes be like “a train wreck” – but one, to borrow from Sproul’s book above, that ends in peace.

Human Nature in its Fourfold State by Thomas Boston. This book is the magnum opus of my historical hero, who walks his reader through the story of redemption by focusing on the journey of mankind from his state of innocence in the garden, to his state of corruption after the fall, to his state of re-creation by the gospel, and finally to his final state of either glory or damnation. It is a long book by today’s standards, and written in the language of the 18th century … but Boston will both challenge and help you with his ready command of the scriptures, and his Christ-like ability to demonstrate God’s truth with illustrations from daily life. One of the classic theological volumes ever written in the English language, it would be a great read form someone wanting to really dig in and think high thoughts about God and His gospel!

And one more word on Boston’s book … to convince you that you really can and should read much more than many of us often do. Reaching to 450-plus pages in its modern reprint, the Fourfold State was yet one of the most read books by the common Christian folk of 18th century Scotland – not just pastors, but farmers, shepherds, and so on! So you can do this!

February 18, 2016


I was struck by this word – “endurance” – in my Bible reading this week, as Paul lists it among the many qualities that make up a faithful ministry (see 2 Cor 6:1-10). And so I decided to do a little word study on the words endurance, endure, and so on … and put together a little article on what the Bible teaches on this matter.

Well! What I found was far more material, especially in the New Testament, that I had quite anticipated. The Christian’s need for endurance comes up over and over (and over!) again! There are famous verses like Matthew 24:13 (“the one who endures to the end, he will be saved”) and Hebrews 12:1 (“let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”). There are verses that pertain particularly to gospel ministers, like 1 Corinthians 9:12 (“we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel”) and 2 Timothy 4:5 (“endure hardship … fulfill your ministry”). There is (often!) the call, specifically, to endure persecution (e.g. Matt 10:22, 1 Cor 4:12, Heb 10:32ff.). And there are examples of endurance as well – Job in James 5:11, and Jesus in Hebrews 12:1-2. Indeed, I count something like twenty New Testament passages that speak of the believer’s endurance!

And I come to the same conclusion, concerning myself and my readers, as the one to which the writer of Hebrews came concerning his own readers: “You have need of endurance” (Hebrews 10:36).

Now much of the need for endurance discussed in the New Testament relates to the need to endure suffering for our faith. And that is something for us to keep in our hip pockets for circumstances that may arise in the not-too-distant future. If I live and minister long enough, I suspect I’ll be writing and preaching more and more on verses like 1 Corinthians 4:12: “when we are persecuted, we endure.”

But even before that day comes, we “have need of endurance”, have we not?

Sometimes we encourage people to sign on as Christians by holding out to them the ‘adventure’ of walking with God. And, of course, sometimes the Christian life is an adventure! But on most days and for most Christians, our lives (and even many of the spiritual aspects of them) are just … well … normal. Much of life is even mundane and run-of-the-mill. Sometimes even s l o w. We are not always called to do great things. And often we don’t have the greatest of gifts for doing even the everyday things to which God has called us. Our days are average, and so are we.

Then, on top of it all, sometimes life (and even more so, life on Christ’s narrow way) can be just plain hard. Exhausting. Painful. Sometimes even gut-wrenching. And all of this is not even including any specific persecution we may endure for our faith! Not to downplay the joy of the Christian life … but Christian joy is often accompanied by sorrow (2 Corinthians 6:10), and very often by the hum-drum.

And therefore, sometimes, we must simply put one foot in front of another (joyfully, yes … but also routinely and doggedly) – pressing on through all the ups and downs … and especially in the unchanging scenery of life’s flatlands. And therein lies part of the call for endurance – to keep truly following Christ; to not give way to the world’s way of living; to continue doing what God has called us to do, even when we are not at the peak of the mountain, and especially when don’t see immediate or spectacular results. Friedrich Nietzsche (of all people!) coined the striking phrase “a long obedience in the same direction” (taken up more recently by the Christian author, Eugene Peterson). And if an unbeliever like Nietzsche thought this was a key human trait, how much more the believer in Jesus Christ! Because so much of a life lived for Jesus is just that … a long obedience, an endurance, a perseverance to keep running the race that is set before us – eyes fixed on Jesus who, Himself, had need for endurance for 33 years in this sin-soiled world.

So press on, Christian friend! Don’t turn back. Don’t give way the American Dream. Put one foot in front of the other – looking to Jesus, keeping eternity in view, and with faith that “your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” And when you experience the joy of the Lord, even in the mundane or the miserable, you’ll know that it is really the joy of the Lord, and not just the adrenaline of the mountain top.

“You have need of endurance.”

February 8, 2016

The Glory of God in the Letter 'M'

Last week I wrote about the fact that God’s modus operandi, in building His church, is not usually to target the upper crust of society; not usually to gather together the movers and shakers a culture, with the idea that, through them, the gospel will ‘trickle down’ to the rest of society. On the contrary, the composition of most gospel churches is like that of Corinth: “not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble.” This way God, and not man, gets the praise! God saves no-names, and uses them to advance His work, so that it will be clear – both to the no-names and to the watching world – that the power at work in them is divine, and not merely political, monetary, or otherwise!

But there are exceptions to the general rule. God does save the noble, the wise, and the mighty (and sometimes even uses their influence for the sake of the gospel). There is a gospel for the elite, as well as for the ordinary Joe … as evidenced by the fact that Paul says (notice the letter ‘m’) that “not many” wise, noble, and mighty made up the Corinthian church. It was Selina Hastings (Countess of Huntington), a famous and wealthy 18th century English noblewoman, who taught us to heed that letter ‘m’ in 1 Corinthians 1:26. Here is how she put it:
Blessed be God, it does not say “any mighty,” “any noble”; it says “many mighty,” “many noble.” I owe my salvation to the letter “m.” If it had been “not any noble,” where would the countess have been? (HT: Justin Taylor)
Isn’t that fantastic? Yes, God generally seems to seed the gospel into the culture at a very grassroots level. But the same gospel that saves what someone has called ‘the cap and t-shirt crowd’ also saves those who wear evening gowns, and academic regalia, and smart business suits. The same blood covers the sins of the elite as well as the proletariat. “All have sinned” and there is salvation “for all who believe” (Romans 3:22-23, emphasis added) and for “every one who thirsts” (Isaiah 55:1) – “the small together with the great” (Psalm 115:13).

There were wealthy people, for instance, in the church pastored by young Timothy (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Their wealth meant they were prone to certain temptations, of course (a fact which is also true of a lack of wealth, by the way). But there they were: in the church, right alongside the working class. And it paints a beautiful picture, doesn’t it? Christianity is not just for the elite; but neither is there a gospel only for the average. So that the church – in both its universal and local manifestations – is, in this way as well as others, something like Joseph’s coat of many colors! Jews and Gentiles; slaves and freedmen; men and women; young and old; African, Asian, European, Latino, and many combinations thereof; rich and poor; elite and average … all in one body, gathered around Christ rather than culture!

And so the sprinkling in of the bourgeoisie among a group of mostly run-of-the-mill church members serves much the same purpose as the fact that the church is mainly made up of small timers! Both serve to show the power of God! On the one hand, the average nature of the membership of most churches shows that the clout behind their spiritual successes must be of God and not of mere human influence and clout (of which the church often has not a great deal). On the other hand, the fact that, in the church, the upper crust gladly take their seats among the commoners (and that the commoners love them as brothers!) demonstrates much the same thing – that what is happening among these people is something much bigger than that which can be explained by mere sociology! The vari-colored nature of the church, in other words, serves notice to its members and to the world that it is God, and not man, who has brought it all together!

So praise God for the letter ‘m’ in 1 Corinthians 1:26 … and for the breadth in the gospel and the diversity in the church which it signifies!

February 2, 2016

"Not many noble"

That is how Paul described the Corinthian church as he scanned down the member roster in his mind’s eye. “Consider your calling,” he wrote to them. “There were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble.” God had not gone through the census paperwork of the city, in other words, in order to recruit to His cause the PhD’s, the government officials, and the chief land-owners. He did not build his church out of the most polished stones in Corinth – the actors, the athletes, the successful businessmen, the chief women, and so on.

Now that is not to say there were no such people in the church. For the gospel is for sinners of every stripe – even those who are wise, mighty, and noble in the sight of men! But “there were not many wise … mighty … noble” (emphasis added) in the church at Corinth. And I suspect that, with some exceptions, this is God’s modus operandi in most localities. Most churches are made up of a given city’s run of the mill, with a fair number sprinkled in whom the world would call “foolish … weak … base … despised” (to use Paul’s words again). And not because Christianity has nothing to say to the so-called elite; not because the gospel message is for those who need some sort of ‘crutch’ to get through the doldrums of this life. No! Local churches are so often such motley crews precisely because God has planned it this way!

That’s how Paul puts it there in 1 Corinthians 1: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world … God has chosen the weak things of the world … and the base things … and the despised God has chosen.” Did you see it three times? “God has chosen”! If a church is a hodgepodge of cultural no-names, it is because God has designed it that way! Why? “So that no man may boast before God.” So that it will be so evidently clear that the reason there is power and fruitfulness in this little church is not because its pews are filled with movers and shakers, but because its people are filled with the Holy Spirit! Nothing else could explain how these plain people could live such fruitful, constructive, holy lives. And so the church folks – who know that they are not wise, noble, or mighty – have to give the credit to God! And the outside world – who knows the Christian’s mediocrity even better than the Christians do – will be put to shame, marveling out how these plain people can be such a force for good in this city!

And the lesson is even more startling when we learn, later in Paul’s letter, that the members of the church were not only the city’s unexceptional, but also that some of them were former thieves, homosexuals, drunkards, adulterers, and so on! Again, God did not pick the best and the brightest (as if there actually were any ‘best and brightest’ in the moral realm)! He went out and saved those who were humdrum, wayward, culturally un-elite, and maybe sometimes even “foolish” in the world’s eyes … and molded them into a living force for His kingdom!

And that encourages me, when I mentally scan my own church roster! Beginning with the pulpit, and working my way through all the pews, I do not see “many wise … many mighty … many noble.” God has not formed our church out of Cincinnati’s elite. We are not a local all-star team! And that is something to be thankful for! Because this way, “no man may boast before God.” This way, whatever good comes from the people in these pews; whatever fruit sprouts up among us; whatever force for Christ we are in this city, no one can explain it away by saying: ‘Well, you gather a group of the city’s key players like that … and between their money, their influence, their acumen, and their name recognition, they are bound to draw a good number of people into their cause.’ Not so Pleasant Ridge! Whatever success we have cannot be explained sociologically! We are (at least in this one way) Corinthian … so that our boast can never be in ourselves, but must always be directed where it is due. “Just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”