Archive | March 2010

Book Review: The Cup and the Glory

Every once in a while you pick up a recently published book, read through it, and know it’s going to be around for a very long time. It’s not light. It’s not transient. It’s not directed at a particular subset of the culture which will be gone within 5 years of the book hitting the shelves. It’s not a hyped-up, mass-marketed feel-good book (see: Prayer of Jabez, The Purpose-Driven Life, Your Best Life Now, etc.). Rather it is a book where study and emotion meet, and the truths contained in it were first etched deep in the heart of the author.

The Cup and the Glory first and foremost is a book about suffering. I didn’t intend to read this book, having a stack of books on my own shelves waiting to be read. I went looking for Greg Harris’ second book, The Darkness and the Glory, but ran across this one on my pastor’s bookshelf. Harris starts the book off with a letter he wrote to the church he pastored:

Joe Hammond had just given me a piece of peppermint taffy, a ritual he had performed after every church service for as long as I can remember…Being a father of two I knew the predicament of having one piece of candy that could not be shared. Doris Stough saw this too and graciously added another piece of peppermint candy she had in her purse…When I came back to the foyer, [my daughter] had taken both pieces of candy.

“Place them in my hands,” I told her.

“But I don’t want to Daddy,” she replied.

“Lauren, those are my two pieces of candy. They are not yours until I give them to you. I may give you one or both, or I may not, but they are mine to give or mine to keep. Place them in my hands.”…

Lauren reluctantly placed both pieces of candy into my hand. I think she was expecting since she had given them to me, I would automatically given them back to her. In this case, I closed my hand over the candy and told her we would talk about this on the way home. As parents, Betsy and I do not want our children to take what has not been given them or to be presumptuous.

Later that night Harris’ wife gave birth to identical twin girls. Both were stillborn.

Even at the hospital when we first received the news that the babies yet to be born would not live, I still expected down deep that if I gave the twins to God, then He would give them back to me…Only after the nurse walked down the hall with our second baby and turned the corner forever out of our sight this side of heaven, did I fully realize this was one of those times when God had closed His hand over what had been placed into it.

There’s a world of difference between a book written about suffering by someone who has never suffered, and one who has experienced the severe mercy of God where He takes us where we do not want to go in order to produce in us what we could not attain otherwise. But merely experiencing suffering doesn’t make an author’s book helpful for others. Rather, one who has suffered and understands why it is better to suffer and know Christ more deeply than to remain in mediocre faith and a comfortable lifestyle has much to teach us all.

At the heart of Harris’ message is a question about our prayers: When we pray for sanctification and the Father’s will to be done, do we really mean it? Sanctification and ease are two words that do not often room together. If we are to pray for spiritual growth, we must be ready to drink the cup of suffering the Lord may place in our hands. And we’ll only drink that cup if we understand the glory we are to receive is incredibly worth the hardship we must endure to gain it.

There are a lot of books that have sold more copies than The Cup and the Glory. But few books will match it in helpfulness. Harris’ message is a difficult pill to swallow. The God he proclaims shatters the kindly grandpa-in-the-sky image so popular in today’s churches. But a sovereign God who ordains suffering for the sake of love is far greater and more deserving of praise than a God we can look down upon. Get the book. Read it. You’ll probably need it soon.

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Book Review: The Betrayal

Released last year for the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, Douglas Bond has written The Betrayal as a sort of novelized version of an introduction to Calvin. The story is not told through Calvin’s eyes, but rather through the fictional character Jean-Louise, Calvin’s personal servant. What makes the plot interesting is that Jean-Louise secretly works for the Crown, denouncing those fledgling Protestants who come and meet with Calvin. Many go to the stake through Jean-Louise’s efforts, leaving him rejoicing and Calvin mourning as Calvin’s friends are consumed.

In a lot of ways, this book doesn’t know if it wants to be a novel or a theology manual. Bond undertook a difficult task in trying to novelize Calvin’s life, as he is a man remembered not primarily remembered for some heroic deed, but rather for what he said and thought. Unlike figures such as Churchill, Washington or Patton who are remembered as great statesmen or military generals, Calvin’s main impact on history was through his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

As a theology book, The Betrayal does serve to give the reader a broad overview of the issues surrounding the Reformation. The first half of the book spends a great deal of time illuminating the spiritual darkness and corruption that gripped the Roman Catholic Church. Bond chooses three doctrinal distinctives of the reformation (the sufficiency of Scripture, the sacraments, and predestination/free-will) and deeply explores Calvin’s thoughts of the matter. Most of the words spoken by Calvin in the novel are drawn from his writing in the Institutes.

As a novel, this book is difficult to adjust to stylistically. Since most of Calvin’s lines are drawn from the Institutes, the remainder of the book is written in rather formal language to match the tenor of Calvin’s other words. For an uneducated servant, Jean-Louise seems to have a rather large vocabulary! The book is written as a deathbed confession, making everything past-tense. This serves to put some distance between the reader and the story. While I had a difficult time with the first half of the book, the book picks up speed once Calvin is betrayed.

Bond’s book both succeeds and fails. Don’t pick it up expecting a gripping novel set in the religious-political turmoil of 16th century France. The book moves slowly and is full of detailed theological arguments. However, that doesn’t make it a book not worth reading. If you’re looking for a broad overview of Calvin and the issues facing him and other leaders of the Reformation, this is probably the book for you.

First Importance: The Church and “The Man” Part Two

I didn’t intend for this to be a series, but enough questions were raised between here and on Facebook that I think this is a topic worth returning to. I’m not sure how many posts I’ll on this topic I’ll wind up making, but it will be at least one or two more. For part one, click here.

As Paul walked across the hills and valleys, through the towns and cities of the known Roman world he no doubt had plenty of time to consider his missional strategy. No man in history has reached as many unreached people groups as Paul. He faced a world that had never heard the name of Jesus Christ and disdained the Jewish roots of his new religion. For all our decadence, the Roman empire makes America look like a nation of pietists. Infanticide by exposure was commonplace (especially for female babies and the deformed). Homosexuality was smiled upon. The people appeased the popular deities by performing sexual rituals with temple prostitutes. The legal system was fraught with corruption. Nearly 1/4 of the population were slaves, and therefore considered not human.

1 Corinthians 15:3-5 describes Paul’s missionary work among the Corinthians:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according tot he Scriptures and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (emphasis mine)

The gospel was of first importance to Paul because the gospel was of first importance to Jesus Christ. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That was His purpose, that was His mission. Jesus was not primarily concerned with transforming society. He was not primarily concerned with showing compassion to the suffering multitudes. Everything He did was focused upon bringing the hope of the gospel to blind and hateful men. Christ came to die and be a propitiation for our sins.

It has become popular in our culture to focus upon Jesus’ life rather than on Jesus’ death. Of far greater importance is Christ’s weeping over the city of Jerusalem than His weeping before the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. The pinnacle of Christ’s teaching is found in the Sermon on the Mount rather than in the Upper Room Discourse. And of far greater interest is Christ lifting the temporary burdens of men than bearing their eternal ones in His own body on the tree. Christ did not come to change the culture. Christ came atone for the sins of mankind.

That brings us to the critical question: Is the church to be gospel-focused or issue-focused? Some claim that this is an unfair distinction because the issues are subsets of the gospel. The gospel informs how we think through and interact with every cultural conflict. Yes, that is true. But that’s why I also used the word “focused.” What is to the one thing we must spend our energy and intellect for? It is the same for which Christ spent His own life for. The church exists first and foremost to proclaim the gospel into the darkness.

But what of William Wilberforce, the great British MP who worked tirelessly against the tide of public opinion to abolish slavery in the British Empire? Didn’t he focus his energy and passion on curing a societal evil? Yes, he did. But the movie of Amazing Grace isn’t the whole story. Wilberforce’s greatest grief in life was not the slave trade, but that his sons grew up and renounced the evangelical movement to join the High Anglican Church. Wilberforce was a determined dissenter. In his classic work A Practical View of Real Christianity, he takes the church to task for its lack of passion for the gospel. Written in the middle of his struggle against the slave trade, it never pauses to make a grand appeal for the cause of abolition. Rather, Wilberforce condemns the public for its lack of being converted. As much as he cared about ridding England of the slave trade, Wilberforce’s chief concern was the gospel.

Wilberforce is often held up as the champion of the progressive-conservative missional movement. He was a dissenter, calling out the church. And he worked himself to exhaustion for a great societal cause. But the two are not directly connected. His passionate plea was for the church to return to Christ, not to abolish the slave trade.

I talk about Wilberforce at length because he understood something that those who champion his name often do not: The church does not exist to cure society of its ills. Jesus did not come to heal. Jesus came to save. And while in the process of saving He healed, He never considered that the point of His coming to earth. John goes so far as to say that his entire book (including the compassion miracles) “have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31)

The church does not exists to address homosexuality. The church does not exist to discuss the Christian’s responsibility as globalism becomes an ever-increasing reality. As the Word is taught through expositorily, those issues will come up. Eventually. But the grand truths of justification, sanctification, glorification, atonement, adoption, etc. are not to be eclipsed by the passions of the moment. The church exists to proclaim the power of the Cross and the greatness of Christ. Everything else was secondary to Paul, was secondary to Christ, and must be secondary to us.

Book Review: Transforming Grace

The back of this book proclaims in large letters: “Grace. It’s not just for beginners.” Bridges begins his book by comparing our spiritual condition to two different kinds of bankruptcy, Chapter 7 and Chapter 11. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is a temporary financial restructuring necessitated by becoming insolvent. Creditors give the company extensions on its loans, knowing that it will be able to get out of debt and repay them eventually.  Chapter 7 bankruptcy, on the other hand is the death knell for a corporation. It has exhausted every one of its options, and nothing is left other than for it to be picked apart by the financial vultures. Bridges argues that most of us will say we’ve declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy, but we functionally believe that we really only need temporary restructuring. We live under a burden of guilt as we accept the grace of God for salvation, but then feel the need to work for Him in order to merit his continued favor and grace in sanctification.

The first six chapters of this book are spent establishing the fact that God’s grace is totally free in justification, and therefore is also entirely free in sanctification. The rest of the book is spent working out the tension between this tension. God does not give us grace because of our works, however He works through spiritual disciplines to allow us to receive grace.

While grace is not only for beginners, Transforming Grace probably is. No one in the Christian Living section writes easily understandable books dripping with grand truths about our God as well as Bridges. This book is perfect for a mature Christian to walk through with another believer who is just beginning to develop an interest in doctrinal things. And yet, this great strength of the book is also its greatest weakness. In order to remain easy to understand, the book is often repetitive and somewhat lacking in breadth. Bridges chooses to dissect one small slice of grace over wading into the deeper waters of Christ’s righteous life meriting grace for the unrighteous. For a book about grace, this is a surprising omission, as Bridges barely touches the One in whom the grace of God was made manifest to us.

These issues do not make this a bad book, it’s just how Bridges writes. Those who enjoy Bridges’ other books like The Pursuit of Holiness and Trusting God Even When Life Hurts will enjoy this book as well. If you’ve found yourself frustrated by Bridges’ writing style in his other books, you’ll find Transforming Grace to be the same.

All in all, this book is a very good fit for a discipleship group to get together and discuss. My church has been reading through it in our men’s discipleship ministry, and I’ve been incredibly blessed by the conversations that have stemmed from the reading. While I personally wouldn’t pick it up and read on my own, there’s very little negative I have to say about it apart from the personal preference of style. I appreciate how Bridges tackles a difficult issue in the Christian life, and this is one of the only books on the market that explores the absolute acceptance we have received into God’s family.

The Bottom Line: 4/5

Book Review Page Launch

New to the blog is the “Book Review” page tab. While I’m nowhere close to Tim Challies-like reading (if you don’t know, he’s reading every bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list this year, which is roughly 10 million words), I am currently on pace to read 52 books this year. It seems a good use of my time to share my impressions of them. Hopefully the reviews I post will be helpful if you’re wondering if a book is worth investing time into.

God Will Share

God will share:

His love with me (John 3:16)
His family with me (Romans 8:16)
His inheritance with me (Romans 8:17)
His sustaining grace with me (2 Corinthians 12:9)
His reproving grace with me (Hebrews 12:6)
His joy with me (Psalm 16:11)
His presence with me (Revelation 21:3)
His mercy with me (Ephesians 2:4)
His riches with me (Matthew 6:20)
His patience with me (Romans 2:4)
His eternal life with me (Matthew 19:29)
His sufferings with me (Philippians 1:29)
His favor with me (1 Peter 2:20)
His righteousness with me (Romans 4:6)
His truth with me (John 20:31)
His compassion with me (Exodus 34:6)
His inter-trinitarian love with me (John 17:23)
His protection (John 17:11)

But two things He will not share:

His wrath with me (John 18:11)
His glory with me (Isaiah 42:8)

The Church and “The Man”

It’s no secret that people of my generation are incredibly suspicious of the church. I’m not talking about the binge-drinking, drug-using, frat boys/sorority girls crowd who think they’re religious giants because they went to confession six months ago and fingered the rosary before their Chem 2A exam. I’m talking about those who were raised in Christian homes, served in the nursery, played piano for the hymnsing, and worked on the church with the men during the biannual maintenance workday but now feel rather disenfranchised and repressed by the church.

To put it simply, in their minds “The Church” has replaced “The Man.”

Like the anti-government, anti-establishment protestors of the 60s and 70s who viewed the government as an unassailable institution colluding together in dimly lit, smoke-filled rooms for their unhappiness and ruin, this current generation imagines their 40-60 year old pastors as having a specific agenda hatched over soda water and reruns of The Brady Bunch to keep topics such as social justice, globalism, profanity, and sexual expression out of their churches. And anyone who would dare violate the purity of the their church by having the audacity to suggest that such things might be good to talk about is immediately put on the pastoral hit-list to be ostracized and branded as a radical liberal who needs to be shunned or evangelized.

Every generation exalts some particular virtue. The Greatest Generation values work ethic and perseverance. Generation X values economic success. My generation values authenticity. People who are raw and unrestrained in their opinions. People who throw off cultural norms for the sake of individual expression. They are the heroes. Until someone can prove that they are authentic, content is irrelevant. Consequently, the chief evil of my generation is to come across as stiff and formal. If you’re going to try to convince us of something, don’t bother trying to reason with us until you’ve proved you’re not defined by other people’s expectations.

What could be less authentic than a bunch of older people (30+) getting together in a building to sing a bunch of songs that went out of style long before the iPod was even invented? And then, to top it off, the center point of the service is for a man to get up and deliver a public address from a manuscript that he’s spent the last week writing, looking down at his notes over and over to make sure that he’s gotten his prepared wording right and hasn’t skipped anything. [I hope it is clear already, but at the risk of sounding redundant, let me say that I completely disagree with this perception. This perception of the church is stilted, and is not my evaluation of my Cornerstone church family. After all, I am the man who looks down at his notes often to make sure he’s got the prepared wording right!]

Whatever we may say, we don’t really care about authenticity. We care about style that masquerades as “authenticity.” After all, we’re the ones who buy jeans with the rips and stains already in them so we can look rugged and play Gears of War at the same time. We’re the ones who like indie music and indie movies because they’re unsullied by the machine. We’re the ones who couldn’t care less that Obama is reading from a teleprompter just like McCain, but think McCain is irrelevant because of how he reads the teleprompter.

And maybe when we view the church we’re a little surprised that there is an institution that continues to defy our preferences. After all, society worships youth. The worst felony someone could ever commit is growing old. When was the last time you saw a McDonald’s commercial starring a 5’7″, balding, slightly overweight white man dancing to Journey about how incredibly jazzed he was to pick up a Big Mac during his lunch break from his middle-management position at the local CPA firm?

When a generation that is used to being worshipped meets an institution requiring them to abandon their personal preferences for the sake of those they consider to be irrelevant (see Romans 14:1-15:6), the victim mindset takes root. Underlying this attitude is a hypersensitivity to anything that could ever be perceived as an insult or a slight. Any comment, silence, action, inaction, program, lack of a program, gratitude, ingratitude, joy, sorrow, offer to help, lack of offer to help, and everything else under the sun is suddenly perceived as an intentional personal attack upon their beliefs, dignity, and person.

In reality, while my generation will eagerly denounce “The church” as holding them down, their real beef is with the Word of God. Anyone who would confront them with Scripture is seen as a Bible-thumping, brainwashed, right-wing, starving-children-hating fundamentalist. Those who refuse to indulge in sexual humor are prudes. A man or woman who refuses to pepper his or her speech with profanities and curses is downright retrograde. Never mind that the Word specifically addresses all these issues–to have any kind of source outside of yourself is to become inauthentic, and therefore irrelevant.

No, the church is not afraid to talk about social justice, globalism, profanity, and sexual expression. No topic will ever be brought up that will overturn or threaten the truth of God’s Word. But we will not like what the Word says about some of these topics. That’s called our sinfulness meeting God’s holiness. And because the church exists to worship God by teaching the Word, we may not like what the church says about those issues. “The Church” isn’t the “The Man” who holds anyone down. Rather, God through His Word calls us to abandon pride and sinful ways of life. And if any of us ever find ourselves at odds with Him, it would be wise for us reevaluate our paradigms.