Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Formed for the Glory of God by Kyle Strobel

5 out of 5 Stars
Author: Kyle Strobel
Publisher: IVP Books
Buy Formed for the Glory of God
Reading Level: Moderate

Formed for the Glory of God is my favorite book of June. It’s odd reading Kyle describe the struggle he had to find a publisher. They said a book written from his perspective would sell, but not from Jonathan Edward’s. Thankfully Kyle dismisses that non-sense and continues to pursue a publisher for the book he finally writes.

Formed for the Glory of God centers on the pursuit of God. Kyle writes,
Spiritual formation is about a life oriented to God in Christ by the Spirit. Since spiritual formation is not, ultimately, about us at all, but about God, we must set our minds and hearts on him rather than our problems, our shortcomings or our desire to change. (p. 13)
Those sentences are a compass for the enter book and a breath of fresh air. It hints at some explicit themes found later in the book--spiritual formation is God centered and spiritual formation is trinitarian. He frequently uses that kind of Trinitarian formulation as he explores our union and communion with God as seen through the vision of Jonathan Edwards (pp. 31, 32, 37, 42, 48, 50, 52, 64, 66 and I could go on).

It’s also ironic that Kyle explains God’s presence and essence as “a fountain of love” (pp. 20, 30). The centrality of love in God is crucial in Edward’s understanding. The irony comes into play because much of the criticism I hear of reformed theology today centers on the lack of emphasis on God’s love. It’s at that point I scratch my head and wonder if the person has ever truly read any of the great reformed theologians.

I also love how Kyle takes big ideas and topics and provides stark and concise explanations. In explaining true beauty, for instance, “True beauty is God and his infinitely perfect life of love” (p. 50) or “To worship is to be human” (p. 56), or one of my favorites, “Sin can be understood as believing ugliness is beautiful” (p. 61 see also pp. 63, 64, 80, etc). OK, just one more, “This love [for God] is seeing the beauty and glory of God in Christ by the illumination of the Spirit” (p. 66).

Kyle starts the book by this heavy, deep, rich exploration of the trinitarian God of love who draws us into union and communion with himself. The first three chapters absolutely drew me closer to God. They are the kinds of chapters you must read slowly and multiple times. These are truths that must stick to your bones. He transitions into spiritual practice. For those who doubt the place of the Holy Spirit in reformed theology, Kyle skillfully demonstrates the Spirit as the primary giver of grace and drawer to Christ. Spiritual formation is primarily Spirit formation.

Formed for the Glory of God is just the kind of book the church needs today. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s rich in its God-focused theology, for a book exploring the someone else’s theology it’s immensely practical, and it will drive you closer to Christ and closer to the love of God through the work of the Spirit. It’s a book I’ll be coming back to before the year ends more than once

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received Formed for the Glory of God free from IVP Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you plan on purchasing Formed for the Glory of God, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

God’s Sovereignty and Christian Deism

God’s sovereignty may be one of the touchiest topics in Christianity. It may not hold the mainstream attention like gay rights or abortion, but church history demonstrates this doctrine creates tension within the church. Full disclosure: I’m a Guinness stout enjoyer of reformed theology. I love John Calvin, the Westminster Confession, and Presbyterian liturgy. But you don’t have to be Presbyterian to love God’s sovereignty.

Some wield God’s sovereignty like it’s the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). For some reformed theology conjures images of stodgy theologians and dusty orthodoxy. Some are stodgy, which is where the caricature comes from.

We, reformed folk, can be quick to speak to the truth of God’s sovereignty without considering the situation, timing, or practical implications of our words. God’s sovereignty isn’t a sword but rather a pillow to rest your head on, some one once said. Fellow reformed folk keep that in mind.

On the flip side, I see a growing trend within Christianity. Many see God’s sovereignty like a clock. God winds up his sovereign will and it keeps going until the end. Yes, He’s sovereign but it has very limited import for our daily life, and we dare not speak of God’s sovereignty over evil and the like.

That’s God’s sovereignty Bud Light edition. Kind of misses the point. If God is sovereign, it must have real consequences for our daily life and especially for our suffering. It’s not enough to pat some one on the head and say, “Well, God didn't mean for that to happen. That’s surely not part of His plan.”

That doesn’t do justice to the suffering Jesus experiences while on earth and our union and communion with him. I could write a book on all the admonitions in Scripture for us to prepare to suffer with Jesus. It also only moves the “problem” back one level. Instead of God actively working for good. He’s now on His heels because of the evil in the world, but, even in that scheme, He must allow it in the world. He very well could have not allowed it.

I would encourage you: Don’t reject God’s sovereignty in its most robust form because some wield it wildly. Lean hard on it and see if it won’t hold the weight of your suffering. See if the stick breaks and pierces your hand.

In some mysterious way, God reminds us when we see Jesus our affliction now will feel “light [and] momentary” compared to “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Accountability: Law or Gospel?

I am for accountability. Having your your tree planted in a garden full of other trees that are flourishing is essential. You cannot be a lone tree if you wish to grow. However, I wonder if our attempts at accountability tend to chop at the trunk of the tree instead of prune the branches. I wonder if our accountability is more law than gospel.

In many of the accountability groups I’ve been apart of, the conversations tend to center around setting hedges to protect against sin. For instance, if you struggle with pornography, an internet filter might be suggested. You might add your accountability partner to the email list. Internet filters are good tools. They can help with accountability.

But when the tool becomes the sole focus, it becomes law not gospel. Law centers on the hedge. It never moves beyond it. All you talk about when you meet together is if you’ve crossed the proverbial line. The law judges guilty. It waits for an opportunity to pounce. It thrives on the “Gotcha!” moments. The law apart from the gospel creates guilt, shame, and death.

That’s the law apart from the gospel. The gospel, on the other hand, gives life. You still install the filter but the gospel isn’t waiting for the “Gotcha!” moments. It’s not reactionary.

The gospel proclaims, “Run to Christ sinners. He’s better than your sinful filth. There’s more joy in him.” It’s decidedly proactive. If failure happens, it’s not guilt, shame, and death, it’s conviction, repentance, and life. It’s hope in Christ. As John Flavel said, Jesus says, “Poor sinner, either come naked and empty-handed, or expect a repulse.”

Next time you meet with friends for accountability, consider whether you are primarily creating “how-to” manuals for avoiding your particular sinful bent. Or whether you are pointing to Christ. Proclaiming his excellencies above all else. Proclaiming his worth. Proclaiming his eternal joy. Proclaiming his beauty.

Don’t stop with the law. Proceed to the gospel. “The law wounds, the gospel cures.” John Flavel

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Prepared by Grace, For Grace by Joel Beeke and Paul M. Smalley

4 out of 5 Stars
Author: Joel Beeke & Paul Smalley
Publisher: Reformation Heritage
Blog Tour: Cross Focused Reviews
Buy Prepared by Grace, For Grace
Reading Level: Moderate

Prepared by Grace, For Grace examines the Puritans teaching on preparation for conversion. Ironically, just before reading this book, I saw a pastor tweet that another pastor taught the Puritan doctrine of “preparationism” **key spooky music**. I honestly had read nothing on this topic prior to reading Prepared by Grace, For Grace, although after reading I realize I had indirectly heard quite a bit about preparation for conversion.

Beeke and Smalley journey through the history of the church to show first that preparation for conversion was not a novelty to the Puritans. They point out that while not as developed, John Calvin expresses the Spirit’s work prior to conversation as preparation. This, in fact, is a central argument as you start the book.

What they want to positively demonstrate is that some of prevailing scholarship misreads the Puritans as a whole. They do note some Puritans miss the mark in their version of preparation for conversion, but most were evangelical on the matter. Beeke and Smalley introduce near a dozen Puritans and examine their work thoroughly to show preparation in the truest sense is a work of the Spirit, not the work of man, and also not at all like the Roman Catholic understanding of preparation by the natural will.

The emphasis on God’s work and grace through out shines. You should walk away, no matter where you fall on the topic of preparation, understanding the Puritans saw the work of salvation from A to Z as a work of God. The natural man apart from grace had no part in the new birth.

If you’re interested in the topic of preparation or historical theology, you’ll love Prepared by Grace, For Grace. The authors are even-handed and survey a smorgasbord of Puritan writing and secondary scholarship. I appreciated many times the way they quoted larger sections of these writings to set the context. It’s slightly more academic than your standard fare, but the work is worth the prize.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received Prepared by Grace, For Grace free from Reformation Heritage. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you plan on purchasing Prepared by Grace, For Grace, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent by Josh Moody

5 out of 5 Stars
Author: Josh Moody
Publisher: Crossway
Buy Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent
Reading Level: Easy

I’ve been soaking in the Psalms over the last month. Josh Moody has done me no small favor in pointing me to God in the Psalms of Ascent. He makes a point that I hope drives home for you when  you read this book “I believe there is a crying need for people who believe the Bible to feel it . . . . [The Psalms] scare people who wish the Bible said only things that sound pious and nice . . . . They will take your pain, and if you will, they transcend it by means of passion, the suffering of the soul in communion with God” (p. 13).

Josh Moody journeys with us through the Psalms of Ascent. He provides careful exegesis and pastoral care as he unpacks then applies the truths of these Psalms. He explores the gritty reality of living in a fallen world, while always pointing to Christ.
How can Christians believe in the crucifixion of the Son of God if they do not believe that God has a plan for suffering? We worship the king with the crown of thorns, not the golden tiara. (p. 36)
He encourages us to experience life together as the church (pp. 42-43, 157-164). For instance, “[I]n loving each other we resist the hell of individualism” (p. 43). Individualism has rotted much of the doctrine of the American church but the Psalms remedy this in their corporate focus something Josh hones in on.

What I really loved was the constant Godward focus. As the Psalms cover a diversity of topics, Josh does as well but he’s always careful to draw our attention back to God. He’s careful in revealing Christ in the Psalms and reckless when ensuring us that God is faithful to see us through our journey in the world. I love how he ends Journey to Joy:
Is the journey we are on, that is, a pilgrimage with Christ for our companion, with heaven for our goal, with the blessing of God on our lips, and the assurance of God’s blessing in our lives? If it is, rejoice with no disappointment. You have chosen the path less traveled that ends well, and all’s well that ends well. And if that is not the path you are on, then without delay being the journey that ends like this. (p. 174).

If you love expositional, gospel-rich, God-centered reading, then Journey to Joy is for you. If you’re struggling under the burden of this fallen world, then this book is for you. And if you strongly desire to know more of God in the Psalms, then this book is for you.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent free from Crossway. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you plan on purchasing Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: Torn to Heal: God’s Good Purpose in Suffering by Mike Leake

4 out of 5 Stars
Author: Mike Leake
Publisher: Cruciform Press
Buy Torn to Heal: God’s Good Purpose in Suffering
Reading Level: Easy

Mike Leake wants you to know that God will do whatever it takes to make you complete, to give you lasting joy. He says,
[T]he Lord, in his goodness, will rip us to shreds if that’s what it takes to replace our idols with lasting joy. He will stop at nothing to fully redeem us. He does this by changing our desires. And this is good. (p. 16)
He starts the journey to unpack this truth in Hosea--a book that portrays in some of the most vivid and graphic terms God pursuing his people at all costs.

What Mike wants you to know is that God is sovereign even over our suffering, even when we are being disciplined and all of it is for our good. He carefully separates the fibers of truth found in God’s sovereignty and makes pastoral application. Christ is central in understanding God’s sovereignty (pp. 47-48). If we can understand how God directs suffering in the life of his Son, then we can understand how he will work in our own life.

He also attacks dualism and stoicism in the Christian life. He demonstrates how the biblical view of God’s sovereignty provides hope and comfort hand and fist over these bankrupt world views. “Yet at the end of the day the gospel proclaims (over against the dualist) an absolutely sovereign God and (over against the stoic) a God who incarnates himself and weeps for man’s suffering” (p. 68).

He ends where the story ends in the new heaven and new earth--when we see Jesus. “It is a return to Eden, this time with no room for crafty serpents (see Revelation 21:8). Finally humanity will know the rule of God, rest in God, and relationship with God we were created to enjoy.” (p. 83)

I found the constant reminder that God will restore us in the midst of suffering encouraging. Without that tenor through out, without the hope of final victory of pain and suffering, we would fall prey to despair. He ends with these words, “You and I are being un-dragoned. Take heart, suffering saint, Aslan is on the move. One day the tearing will be over and we will be swimming and splashing in the river of glory!” (p. 91)

As suffering is common to us all, prepare yourself. Mike Leake will lead you to Christ and deepen your trust and hope in him in preparation for suffering.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received Torn to Heal: God’s Good Purpose in Suffering free from Cruciform Press. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you plan on purchasing Torn to Heal: God’s Good Purpose in Suffering, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Seeing Depression as Part of God’s Plan for You

John Lockley says,
If [God] had said, “Go out and preach...”, you’d have gone. If he’d said, “I want you to be a mission- ary,” you’d have gone...But because he has said, “Sit there and be depressed for a bit, it will teach you some important lessons,” you don’t feel that it is God calling you at all...do you?

Do you remember Naaman, who wanted to be cured of his leprosy? (See 2 Kings 5). If he had been asked to do something glorious he would have been happy. Because he was asked to bathe in the murky old Jordan he wasn’t so keen—yet this was God’s plan for him, and it cured him. God has better plans for us than we have for ourselves—unfortunately, as we can’t see into the future, we don’t always appreci- ate just why God’s plans are better. With hindsight it’s somewhat easier.

However strange it may seem to you, God wants you to go through this depression—so look at it positively, not negatively. What does he want you to learn from it? What can you gain through it?

When you begin to think in this fashion your guilt feelings start to drop away. You can begin to understand that what is happening is part of God’s plan for you—and so your depression is not a punishment from God. You are actually where God wants you to be, even if it is emotionally painful. To put it another way, if God wants you to go through this it would be wrong for you to avoid it, wouldn’t it?
David Murray. Christians Get Depressed Too (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 51-52 as quoted by Mike Leake in Torn to Heal (pp. 71-72).

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Gospel Story: Family from A to Z

I hope the title for this post made you stop and think. Maybe you asked, “How is the gospel about family?” Eternity past begins (the irony of using begins to describe eternity didn’t miss me) with Trinitarian perfection in community. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are enjoying, glorifying, and loving each other perfectly. A model of the perfect family.

In this perfection God creates heaven and earth. He makes the sun, stars, and moon. He creates animals on dry ground, in the air, and in the sea. As He exercises his creative dominion, He stops after each stroke and says, “This is good.”

He then creates humanity out of a lump of clay. He breathes into Adam the breath of life. He forms Adam into his image. He instills within him creativity and the right to rule the earth and animals. But God stops short of saying, “This is good.” He says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). God creates a family.

In this garden, the first family flourished. They fellowship with God. They tend the garden. They grow in love with each other. But sin slithered into the garden. Adam and Eve reject the covenant God made with them and fall into sin. From then on something was rotten in the state of man’s heart.

But God doesn’t leave man to himself. He promises the Seed of the women would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). He promises to create a new family, sound from the inside out, out of this Seed.

I could write an entire book about God using families through out Scripture. He saves mankind through Noah. He preserves the family of Seed through Abraham and Sarah. He rescues Israel from Egypt through the family of Moses. He brings forth David through the family of Rahab, the Harlet, and Esther, the Moabite. He saves Israel from the Philistines by the family of David. He saves the world through the family of Mary and Joseph. God reveals the families of the world are adopted in the family of Israel through the blood of his Son. God then reveals the mystery of the gospel through marriage (Ephesians 5:22-33). And finally, the story of the gospel, the story of God’s family, ends with a marriage celebration (Revelation 19:6-10). Timothy Keller says, “The Bible begins and ends with marriage.”

From A to Z the gospel is about family. It’s about a Father who “saw [his son] and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). It’s about a Father sending his Son to die to make rebels adopted sons and co-hears with Jesus Christ. It’s about a Father securing a bride for his Son.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God by Tim Chester & Jonny Woodrow

5 out of 5 Stars
Author: Tim Chester & Jonny Woodrow
Publisher: Christian Focus Publishing
Cross Focused Blog Tours
Buy The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence
Reading Level: Easy

Recently I wrote that the ascension is often the neglected chapter of the gospel story. Next thing you know Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow are putting out Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God. Coincidence? I think not. All joking aside. This is a valuable addition to the current gospel-centered dialogue. It highlights a crucial element in the progression of redemptive history. Without the ascension we would have no assurance. Succinctly Chester and Woodrow explain,
But one of the greatest wonders  of the ascension is that a human being is now in the presence of God” (p. 55)

“The scandal is not just that God has left heaven to be ‘enfleshed’ on earth, but that God will return to heaven in the flesh. As John (‘Rabbi’) Duncan, the Scottish theologian and missionary, said, ‘The dust of the earth sits on the throne of heaven’” (p. 58)
The entire book slowly unfolds these truths. Chester and Woodrow work to tease out the implications of Jesus’s ascension especially in light of his humanity for the gospel. For instance, they say, “Atonement was not complete until Jesus stood before God on our behalf” (p. 22). Also helpful,
The ascension secures our royal identity and locates it with Jesus in the presence of the Father. Far from delivery of our royal identity, it is the even that secures it. Because of the ascension we are seated at the right hand of the Father (Eph. 2:6). (p. 79)

There was also some interesting application near the end of the book. Chester and Woodrow contrast incarnational ministry with ascension ministry; they also examine the Lord’s Supper in light of Christ’s ascension. Both sections rely heavily on a robust understanding of Christ’s reigning from heaven and his sending the Spirit. For the first, he argues Jesus doesn’t need a replacement body to do incarnation ministry because he reigns embodied through the power of the Spirit. For the second, he argues against the Roman Catholic and Lutheran understanding of the real presence insisting instead what happens when we eat and drinks at the table is the Spirit draw us into throne room where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father.

I highly recommend this book for all Christians. There’s so few books written about the ascension especially on the level any one could understand. Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God fills this hole. You won’t find a book that has such a strong right hook in such a little frame (just under one hundred pages).

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God free from the Christian Focus Publishing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you plan on purchasing The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review: The First Christian by Timothy Keller (Reviewed by Pastor Jon Reed)

5 out of 5 Stars
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Penguin/Dutton
Buy The First Christian
Reading Level: Easy

Jon Reed is the pastor at Sulphur Springs Baptist Church outside of Gray, TN. He has been married to his wife Leann for almost 20 years and they have two (soon to be three) wonderful boys. He is passionate about running, Reformation/Puritan theology, and reading. He enjoys Alabama Crimson Tide football, Baltimore Raven football, and Duke basketball (his oldest son had heart surgery on campus when he was three weeks old, and it turned him into a fan). He hopes to begin doctoral work at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where he graduated with a Masters in 1996). He blogs at revrunjon.

The First Christian by Timothy Keller was a very short, and concise read but one that was very impactful as well. This book is a part of the “Encounters with Jesus” series, in which Dr. Keller sets out to answer some of life’s most pressing and philosophical questions by examining how Jesus related to people who were asking some of those questions. In this book, he details Jesus’ post-resurrection encounter with Mary Magdalene.

The question that Dr. Keller examines in this book is the question of faith. What is true Christian faith? And What difference does it make in a believer’s life? Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on resurrection morning absolutely hopeless and feeling defeated but after she encountered Jesus (a better way to phrase that would be to say after Jesus found her) her life was radically changed.

Keller says of faith that it is both “impossible and rational.” What does he mean? He means that it is impossible for a person in and of themselves to have Christian faith because of the flawed, sinful state that we all are in as people. So it is impossible for us to produce faith within ourselves and yet as the Bible affirms to us, “with God all things are possible.” Christian faith has as its author God Himself, and yet that doesn’t mean as Keller correctly points out that faith cannot be rational. Faith is a supernatural process so it is more than rational, but it is rational as well.

Most first century Jewish people would have believed that physical resurrection was impossible. There is no way that someone could rise from the dead especially someone who had been through the horror of crucifixion and someone that had been dead for three days. Yet after the resurrected Jesus found Mary she believed. She logically accepted the fact that Jesus was alive. It was a supernatural work within that was certainly more than rational, but she rationally believed as well. In laying out the story this way, Keller shows the importance of thinking within Christianity. Our minds can actually help strengthen our faith when we consider the evidence for Christ.

One of the strengths of the book is the section on the personalness of faith. Keller correctly says, “real faith is always personal.” Jesus personally sought out Mary, that is the grace of God. She was looking for a dead Jesus so she never would have found the living one; however, He found her. That is the grace of God and for me it is a powerful reminder of the love of God. Mary became in essence “the first Christian” (a person who believes in the death and resurrection of Jesus) because Jesus sought her out. Her life changing experience with Jesus was God’s initiative. It was a supernatural encounter, but then she also personally and rationally believed.

Mary began that day to fully experience and taste the love of God. She clung to Jesus after she met Him, but as Keller points out she didn’t need to because He would never be away from her again. He has promised to never leave her or forsake her, and He didn’t and He won’t. It was for Mary a life changing realization. She had lived her life trying to never be alone and now the promise, Mary you won’t have to be. I will always be with, and I know you better than you know yourself. Jesus loved Mary, that is why He sought her out, that is why He extended the grace of God to her and that is why she became “the first Christian.”

The First Christian is definitely a book that all Christians would benefit from. It shows us the depth of the love of God, the power of the grace of God, and it reminds us of the personal nature of the God that we serve. It is a book that could also be used evangelistically to show the reader that God is searching for them as well. He doesn’t want them to be lost but He wants them to be found. That is the grace of God, it is grace that is greater than our sins (and doubts) and it is grace that makes all the difference in the world.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received The First Christian free from Penguin/Dutton. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you plan on purchasing The First Christian, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon.