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The Worst Form of Failure
June 13, 2016

I’m not afraid of failure. I’m afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.” You may recognize those words as belonging to the great missionary William Carey who was giving voice to thoughts many of us have had at one time or another. There are a lot of things in life we could do, there are a lot of things in life we could succeed at, but we come to realize there are very few that actually matter. There are very few that will make a difference to the world and to the people we care about. We know it would be tragic to look back on life and see that we had succeeded at all kinds of lesser things but we had failed at the greater things.

Just think how many people have gone to the grave with extravagant wealth and all kinds of nice possessions but with a broken marriage and with children who barely know them. I recently stayed with a family whose next door neighbor had built a huge home but who lived there alone. He and his wife had built it to live in together and then doubled it so they could host great parties. But their marriage had failed and she had left and now he was living alone in ten thousand square feet. By one measure he had succeeded—he had a giant home and an amazing car and the wealth to support it all. But by more important measures he had failed. By those measures he had nothing. He was wealthy but destitute all at once. He was an object of envy but an object of pity.

Don’t we all live with this fear that we will succeed at the lesser things in life while failing at the greater things? It’s not like those lesser things are always bad things. Some of them are actually very good. It’s just that they are, by definition, lesser things. They are not the matters of first importance. There is an order to life and we all know that sometimes those lesser things can look so attractive. They can be so distracting. They can keep us from giving attention to the things that matter far more.

See, succeeding at the lesser things at the cost of the greater things is its own form of failure. What does it matter if you become CEO but lose your family? What does it matter if you win the gold medal but lose your wife? Or like Jesus said: What does it matter if you gain the whole world but lose your soul (Matthew 16:26)? We are so bad at making these assessments. We are so tempted to throw away all the big things to succeed at the lesser things. But we can’t deny it: Succeeding at lesser things at the cost of the greater things is the worst form of failure.

There is a solution. The solution to this kind of failure is productivity—productivity that is rightly defined according to the Word of God. It’s this kind of Bible-based and Bible-defined productivity that helps us identify what matters most and then helps us accomplish it. It helps us identify and pursue those very few things God means for us to succeed at and helps us avoid the million-and-one lesser things that matter so much less. Or, at least, it helps us put those million-and-one lesser things in their proper place.

The art of productivity is the art of succeeding at things that matter. At its best, productivity is ensuring that you succeed at the things that matter most. It is meant to ensure that you don’t look back over your life someday and realize you’ve only succeeded at the fleeting things, the minor things, the things that just don’t matter.

I believe we can read through the Bible and see something like this: Productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God. What matters most in life, what matters most in the universe, what matters most to God, is the glory of God. God calls us to bring glory to him in every way we can in every area of life and especially by doing good to others (see, for example, Matthew 5:16). We do good to others and God gets the glory. That means that the greater things in life are the things we do for others, not the things we do for ourselves. The greater things in life are the things meant to benefit other people. The lesser things are the things meant to benefit ourselves.

Do you want to succeed at life’s greater things? Then direct your life toward glorifying God by loving others. Take everything you are and everything you’ve got and deliberately direct it at doing good to others so God can receive the glory.

Do you want to think more about this? My book Do More Better is a challenge to live this kind of life. Also, everything I have written here is drawn from a recent seminar at the Ligonier Ministries West Coast Conference and perhaps you will find that video helpful.

June 12, 2016

I received quite a lot of interesting letters to the editor this week and their topics ranged from Arminianism to ebooks and just about everywhere in between. I have captured a few of the most noteworthy and hope you enjoy reading them.

Comments on Why I Am Not Arminian

First off, I love this series you are doing “why I am not…” It has been extremely edifying to me personally and has helped answer a lot of questions, especially regarding Roman Catholicism. I really appreciate your willingness to share your experiences with these differing view points.

I was wondering if you had thought about putting in more scripture references throughout the next steps in your series? From this post forward (based upon your schedule of this series), we’re dealing with differences between brothers and sisters in Christ (as you stated in this article about Arminianism). I know that you said in your introductory post to this series, you’re not writing this to persuade us to believe what you believe, however, I think that Scripture references, even if they are not exposited, would be extremely beneficial.

Again, I really appreciate all of the work and thought you put into these articles, and you certainly are in a better position to know what would be beneficial to include in your posts. I guess I just wanted to hear your thoughts on including more scripture references in these future posts. Thanks so much for having this feature on your site, I appreciate having the opportunity to communicate with you easily.
—Charlie L, Marietta, GA

Tim: I appreciate the suggestion. I feel a bit “caught” between keeping the series descriptive and prescriptive, especially as we move into these finer points of theology. A defense of adult baptism, for example, is different from my story of coming to embrace it. But I will definitely keep your suggestion in mind as I go forward.

Comments on 10 Lessons from 10 Years of Public Schooling

Tim: I am not in the habit of posting letters to the editor based on “Flashback” articles, but did want to make an exception since I appreciated this young lady getting in touch. Then it only seemed fair to share the second letter on the topic as well.

I am a 16 year old public school student. If you would like a bit of background of who I am: I take a mix of AP and IB classes; I run my own blog, and I am looking into a future in missionary aviation. In 2 weeks I will be at a Christian aviation camp, and I am terribly excited.

I do not think that public school has ruined me. That said, my public school has about 2000 kids. We have 2 different Bible Clubs (Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Bible Club) and also sing a 20 minute long “Song of Christmas” in our winter concert- complete with a cast of student actors who carefully complete the nativity scene as we hum, recite, and herald the Christmas message.

Still, I have had teachers that hate religion, the sort that parents choose to either homeschool or private school because of. And there are plenty of students who listen to their memos. But I agree with Tim’s statement that those who have good, faithful parents and an active tie to the church will make it out (spiritually) alive and well.

At the same time, I don’t deny that schools are definitely changing. I remember days when we used projectors and wet erase markers and today, we sit in a world a million times more wired. In light of the different changes happening, I have noticed when adults look at high schools, there is a lot of fear about what the future will look like. Or maybe not so much the schools, but what America will look like in ten or twenty years. I write this letter because there is one thing I would like us to remember: It can never be “us” and “them.” We are all in this together.

I have had teachers who have voiced being hurt by Christians and friends who have only had bad church experiences. I have watched friend and after friend struggle with identity and mental illness. It’s not just in schools: If you look around, there are so many people who feel shattered, youth who are lonely and no one gives them a hug. Soon, “maybe a little depressed” turns into a life certain that there is no hope and no one would understand.

It’s so easy to think we are better than the “them.” It’s so easy to point fingers at the trans kids or to look at someone who denies the existence of God and raise our voice a little. But we must consider that the gospel requires all of us to go through some pretty critical “heart surgery” and we must create communities that will help us share the hope of the gospel with all people.

I am going to propose something fairly radical, but hear me out: In a few months when school starts up, it likely wouldn’t be too difficult for you to take a day off from work and visit the local public high school. We are probably never going to have prayer in schools again, but I think if we want schools to be places where God is welcome we must listen to the young generation, learn what the struggles feel like through a student’s eyes. Instead of looking at the differences, it’s time to focus on our own hearts and how we can demonstrate the love of God; kids’ll notice, I promise. After all, we are all in this together.
—Kate G, Chambersburg, PA

Your work has been a blessing for me in my life, especially your work with modern struggles, such as technology. Recently, we used The Next Story in my adult Sunday school class at our church. But I wanted to write a quick note concerning this article in defense of public schooling. I think you should remember the influence you have over many believers right now and know this post will be used by parents who should not have their kids in the local public school, to continue in that stead, even though you say it’s not meant to defend that choice in every place and every time. What I have noticed is that those sending their children to public school see that choice through very rose tinted glasses, I would challenge you and your wife to do this as well. Make a list of scripture verses that cover how we should be educating our children, what they should be taught, when they should be taught (how often) etc. Then make your choice off what you think is the most biblically accurate path. Often time it’s easy for us Christians to become post modern in our thinking on certain issues, in other words, we think we can make our own choices in areas where I believe scripture is actually very clear. I will continue to follow you, read your books, etc, and am very thankful for the work you are doing here, but since I am hoping a very direct email will be easiest here, I want to say, that I think you are wrong here. The article is not wrong, but it doesn’t really have any argument as to why you think public school is more scriptural than homeschool or Christian school. I truly believe that if you are 100% honest with yourself here, meditate on the Lord’s revealed will through scripture and pray on this, you would change your position. I would suggest listening to Voddie or Sproul Jr’s arguments, and consider very closely what Dueteronomy 6 is requiring that we provide as Christian parents to our children. Thanks again for all you do.
—Anthony S, Kansas City, MO

Tim: Aileen and I have done those very things. We have considered what the Bible demands of us as parents as well as what it does not demand of us, and we are comfortable with our choice. We consider this the kind of conscience matter Paul addresses in Romans 14 where you and I may come to different conclusions each while affirming the other’s right to come to such a decision.

Comments on Imagine If eBooks Came First

Your article posed some major advantages of electronic books over paper books. However, I wondered if you had considered some of the advantages of paper books that are not typically offered. For example, those without access to electricity for charging a device cannot access electronic books (we cannot assume that electricity will continue to be widely available in decades to come as our country is in a state of decline). Daylight should continue to be available until the end of the world, however! Also … our living room is filled with bookshelves and when I sit there, alone, and look at the rows of books, I feel as if I were surrounded by friends. Iain Murray and the Puritans, biographies of John Newton, Mary Winslow and Elizabeth Prentiss, favorite children’s books and novels gather around me. It is perfectly delightful. I am sure that even in the triumph of ebooks, paper books will continue to be used as decorations in many homes, because as your article’s featured image shows, a Kindle just can’t compete for sense of presence.
—Alyssa B, Ridgeway, WV

Tim: So much comes down to what we are accustomed to and to matters of personal preference. I do not disagree with anything you say here, but we could also flip many of them. Consider, for example, the pastor in the developing world who can be given a device containing thousands of books that take up no space and can easily recharge using solar power. We can give him an entire library in one simple device. Since migrating to ebooks I do miss being surrounded by books at times, but not nearly as much as I would have imagined.

***

From the tone of this article, I am assuming your “year of the eBook” challenge is going quite well! I have considered transitioning my book purchasing to all-digital, but I am concerned by the near-monopoly that Amazon has on the market. I know there are other ways to buy eBooks, but as far as eReaders, the Kindle is king and has little serious competition. I worry, as Amazon corners the market, that the proprietary nature of kindle could lead to an unsafe pricing or even censorship of content. Maybe you could speak to this at some point, but it has always been a concern of mine when going “all-in” on a particular content platform
—Colin S, Dayton, OH

Tim: I quite agree and share your concerns. It is not enough to keep from going all-in, but it is enough to cause me some concern and to hope that proprietary formats will eventually be relaxed.

***

In your article, you refer to the challenge of “proprietary or defunct formats in ebooks.” Speaking as an IT guy with nearly 30 years of experience, I can confirm that one of the biggest challenges with digital information is the migration of that information from a dead or dying format to a newer format. I understand that there is much digital information that’s only accessible if you load a floppy disk, hoping that the magnetic information is still readable, and fire up an ancient program that understands its format.
—Dave U, Belvidere, IL

Tim: Quite right and, again, that is one of my concerns. I would like to think that as our digital technologies mature and become less dependent upon a particular medium (such as a floppy disk) we will see less of those situations where our files become unusable.

***

The part I found most interesting in this was the “security” section. Interestingly enough, I don’t see eBooks as having more security than physical copy, only having a “different” kind of security. Take for instance the ironic Kindle snafu with George Orwell’s 1984. Amazon pulled the book remotely from people’s Kindles without any kind of confirmation. They just woke up one day and the book was gone.

Now, consider this with the Bible. If we are trusting an organization to supply us with an un-edited version of the Bible, how do we verify that? The excellent thing about paper manuscripts and physical books is that if you read a book a year ago, returning to it guarantees the same content. Even if someone were to sneak into your home and replace it with a changed copy, there are other existing copies to which it can be compared for accuracy. Contrast that with a company that routinely issues “updates” to books, some of which have been the Bible! Who ultimately controls the content in the book? This underpins the importance of a “purchase-to-own” rather than a “license-to-read” model of eBook commerce as well as DRM-free alternatives to Amazon’s (as well as others) model of “ownership” (i.e. you don’t own it, you have a license to read it).

We should take what happened with the Qur’an and Uthman, when the disagreeing Qur’an were burned, as a warning. Text can be validated against human altering by widespread dissemination so that human-introduced changes can be detected, not by consolidating responsibility with a single person or company.
—Matthew H, Denver, CO

The Bestsellers
June 10, 2016

Some time ago I began a series called “The Bestsellers” and am picking it up again after a hiatus. In this series I look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian book sells only a few thousand. We have already encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris and Randy Alcorn all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson, and William Young. Today we continue the series by looking at a book that has become a perennial fixture on the bestseller lists and one of only a handful of Christian books to top the ten million mark.

The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman

Gary Demonte Chapman was born on January 10, 1938. A graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he went on to become a pastor, a counselor, the director of Marriage and Family Life Consultants, and the host of a radio program devoted to relationships and marriage.

In 1971 Chapman joined the staff of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Even as a young pastor he had a heart for marriage and family and began to host seminars for couples. Naturally, many of the people he taught approached him to ask for help with their marriage conflicts. He met with many of these couples and over time came to see that a common root cause of their conflict was poor communication that left one or both spouses feeling unloved. “Adults all have a love tank,” he says. “If you feel loved by your spouse, the whole world is right. If the love tank is empty, the whole world can begin to look dark.” Different people have this love tank filled in different ways, he observed, and he came to describe these as “love languages.” He encouraged spouses to learn their partners’ love language and then to deliberately display their love in that way. What he taught in his church formed the basis for his 1992 book The 5 Love Languages.

The heart of the book is a description of the five common languages people use to express love: affirming words, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time, and acts of service. Each person has tendencies toward some of these languages and away from others. And, indeed, most of us can look at the list and quickly put them in order of personal preference. The key application is that each person needs to understand his or her spouse’s love language and then learn to show love in that way. It is implied that the spouse will reciprocate and a happy marriage will ensue—the communication mismatch that lies at the heart of so much conflict will be resolved.

5 Love Languages

Sales & Lasting Impact

The 5 Love Languages was released by Moody Publishers in 1992 and immediately exceeded the publisher’s modest expectations. Remarkably, for 19 of its first 20 years it would outsell its total from the previous year. In 1998 it surpassed 500,000 copies sold, just two years later surpassed 1 million, and in 2015, after selling its 10 millionth copy, received the Diamond Award from the Evangelical Christian Booksellers Association. Twenty-four years after its publication date, the book remains at the top of the New York Times Love and Relationships list of bestsellers and is fixed at number 2 overall on the ECPA list, bested only by Jesus Calling. It has been translated into 50 languages.

While The 5 Love Languages has proven undeniably helpful to many struggling couples, it has not been without its critiques. The most notable of these is expressed by David Powlison in a 2002 edition of The Journal of Biblical Counseling. Powlison explains that “Part of considering the interests of others is to do them tangible good. But then to really love them, you usually need to help them see their itch as idolatrous, and to awaken in them a far more serious itch! That’s basic Christianity. 5LL will never teach you to love at this deeper, more life-and-death level.” In other words, the book subtly teaches that the desires we feel within are legitimate needs even though they may actually be idolatrous lusts.

A second critique is that “Chapman’s model is premised on a give-to-get economy: ‘I will give to fill your love tank. But in the back of my mind I’m always considering whether and when I’ll get my own tank filled.” In Powlison’s words, “The 5 Love Languages replaces naked self-interest with civilized self-interest. ‘I give, hoping to get.’” The love languages can mask a kind of selfishness that is the very opposite to the Bible’s selfless love.

Those critiques lead to this one: “The love language model does not highlight those exquisite forms of love that do not ‘speak your language.’ … The greatest love ever shown does not speak the instinctively self-centered language of the recipients of such love.” The saving love of God, expressed in the death of Christ, does not speak anyone’s natural love language. And yet it is the greatest love and our most desperate need. In this way Christ fails the love language test! We wanted to be loved in all sorts of ways—but none of us wanted to be loved in the way Christ has loved us, by dying for us, sending his Spirit to indwell us, and being Lord over us. And yet this is what we needed more than anything in all the world.

These critiques do not render the book or its “love languages” terminology invalid, but they do demand that we approach it with care and discernment.

Since the Award

The overwhelming success of The 5 Love Languages begat an entire industry of related material including God Speaks Your Love Language, The 5 Love Languages for Men, The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, The Love Languages Devotional Bible, The 5 Love Languages of Children (which has surpassed 500,000 copies sold), and many others. Chapman hosts a daily radio spot called A Love Language Minute and regularly hosts marriage conferences and seminars. He remains Senior Associate Pastor at Calvary Baptist Church.

A Personal Perspective

I find the love language terminology helpful and use it quite often. Aileen and I are sure to bring it up in pre-marriage counseling and in one session have the engaged couple place the languages in order of their preference. They also try to guess the preferences of their future spouse and compare their results. We are confident that this helps them better understand how to communicate their love for one another. However, we always make sure to provide the caveats Powlison expresses. Not only that, but we turn it all the way around to help them understand that they need to learn to receive love in their spouse’s language. It is more important for a husband to learn to receive love as his wife gives it than to demand that she learns to offer love in the way he wants to receive it. This, I think, is the book’s most important lesson.

Sources: Wikipedia, New York Times, 5 Love Languages, Journal of Biblical Counseling.

Why I Am Not Arminian
June 09, 2016

Today I am continuing the series titled “Why I Am Not…” and in these articles I am telling what I do believe by looking at what I do not believe. So far I have told why I am not atheist, why I am not Roman Catholic, and why I am not liberal. Today I want to tell why I am not Arminian. (If you are uncertain of what I mean by Arminian, Theopedia has a brief but excellent article that explains its key tenets.) I was raised within the Reformed tradition, left it as a young adult, and returned to it a few years later. Let me explain how and why that happened.

For most of my childhood my family was involved in the Canadian Reformed Church. This denomination arose in the 1950s after a wave of post-war emigration from Holland. At the time we attended, their membership was still almost exclusively Dutch and we were among the very few exceptions. Nevertheless, we were warmly welcomed and for many years were comfortably part of those churches, first in Toronto and then in Ancaster.

The Canadian Reformed churches took as their foundation the Three Forms of Unity: The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. These documents were woven into the life and fabric of the church. Each Sunday evening the pastor preached a sermon based on the Heidelberg Catechism or one of the other documents. We learned Reformed doctrine and history in the denominational schools and even attended catechism classes on Tuesday evenings. Along the way I became thoroughly versed in Reformed doctrine.

As I grew into adulthood, though, I began to grow wary of it. For all the strengths of the Dutch Reformed churches, they showed little concern for evangelism and, not surprisingly, saw almost no conversions. I longed to be part of a church that was reaching the community around it and began to believe there was something within Reformed theology that was opposed to evangelism. After all, my primary experience of that theology was through this Dutch tradition. I began to listen to Christian radio and heard non-Reformed preachers like Charles Stanley who had a soul-stirring love for the lost. I began to listen to Christian music and heard songs that spoke to me, that fed me, even though they clearly came from an Arminian perspective. My horizons began to widen a little as I encountered Arminians who were preaching, singing, and celebrating truth.

Let me pause here for a brief aside. I need to affirm that somewhere between Roman Catholicism and Arminianism we have crossed an important line. The Roman Catholic church denies that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone and, for that reason, teaches a false gospel. Arminians affirm that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone and for that reason teach the true gospel. Even as I explain why I am not Arminian, I need to affirm that I am looking at a difference between brothers and sisters in Christ.

In 2000, now married and with a young child, I got a job in Oakville, Ontario, and Aileen and I moved to this new community. When we set out to find a church, we deliberately looked outside of the Reformed tradition, partly because of these concerns and partly for reasons I will recount when I tell why I am not paedobaptist. When we learned that a new Baptist church (Southern Baptist as it turned out) was beginning in our neighborhood we decided to visit on its launch day. We stayed for six formative years. To this point my Reformed theology was largely untested. I had not encountered the alternative in a compelling way. But now, at last, it would be challenged.

For a time we were thrilled with what we saw and experienced. We saw diversity, community, and conversions. It was an exciting and fulfilling time. But after a few years we found ourselves dealing with a growing sense of disquiet. Church leaders had asked me to read books by Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and others like them and those books didn’t sit quite right. The pastor preached through Romans and did not have compelling explanations of certain key texts. The church began to prove that it was unhealthy and built upon a shaky theological foundation. I took my concerns to this relatively new platform called the internet and even began to explore my questions and concerns through a blog. Those old doctrines I had learned as a child and teen just wouldn’t let me go.

Then there was that momentous day when I wandered into a local Christian bookstore and selected two books that, by rights, had no reason to be there: Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur and Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? by James Montgomery Boice. The first book spoke to the structure and purpose of the church we attended and the second to its theology. I ordered Michael Horton’s Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, R.C. Sproul’s What Is Reformed Theology?, and James White’s Justification. And that was that. I realized that in leaving Reformed theology I had walked away not only from a theological system, but from truth. It was at this time that I discovered Grace Fellowship Church, a congregation that was both baptistic and Reformed. This church loved Reformed theology but also loved to reach the lost. As it happens, this pastor was also preaching through Romans and had deep, compelling explanations for those key texts. We soon withdrew from that other church—and from Arminian theology—on amicable terms. We have never looked back.

So why am I not Arminian?

I am not Arminian because Reformed theology is backed up by the Bible. When I honestly examined both Reformed and Arminian doctrine in light of the Bible, I saw evidence of Reformed theology everywhere I looked. Reformed theology depends not only on key verses but on the warp and woof of the entire Bible. It offers a far more compelling explanation of Scripture than Arminianism, both in its broad outlines and in its fine details. I do not see libertarian free will in the Bible. I do not see universal prevenient grace, unlimited atonement, resistible grace, or any of the other keys to Arminian doctrine. But I do see a God who is utterly sovereign, who has set his love on his people even in the depths of their total depravity, who draws them by irresistible grace, and who then holds them fast forever.

I am not Arminian because Reformed theology motivates evangelism. I came to see that my Dutch Reformed experience was not typical for Reformed theology and actually quite inconsistent with it. At its best, Reformed theology provides the greatest motivation to share the gospel locally and to the ends of the earth. It does this by assuring us of God’s sovereignty in both election and calling. Our task, then, is to take the gospel far and wide so that God can draw his people through his appointed means, the preaching of the gospel. Evangelism and Reformed theology are not enemies, but the best of friends.

I am not Arminian because Reformed theology creates the healthiest churches. We began to see that Reformed theology does not begin and end at the five points, but extends into the entire life and structure of the church. It provides the foundation to build healthy, multiplying local churches. 

In short, I am not Arminian because I tried it and found it wanting, both in my experience and in my attempt to reconcile it with Scripture. I am not Arminian because Reformed theology is just too good to not be true.

If Ebooks Came First
June 08, 2016

Imagine if ebooks came first. Imagine if Gutenberg had not created the printing press but the Kindle. Now, hundreds of years later, we are beginning to experiment with this new medium of paper and beginning to acclimate ourselves to printed books. Though on one level this little scenario is absurd, it can also be an interesting thought experiment. Stick with me for just a few moments and I’ll show you.

To understand some of the fear and criticism directed toward digital reading, we need to first understand the way we tend to relate to new technologies. We do not take any new technology on its own terms, but always in comparison—in comparison to what was dominant before it. In this way the old technology always has the upper hand and we consider it superior until the contender proves itself. You and I were born into a world dominated and shaped by the printed book. For this reason we are naturally inclined to consider it superior to all that has come before and all that will come after. We are disinclined to see the strengths of any new and competing medium, for to do that we must first admit the weaknesses of the old. This is especially difficult for a medium as important and well-loved as the book.

Perhaps one way we can better assess the book, though, is to imagine that it is threatening to disrupt the ebook, rather than the other way around. In this scenario, you sat on your mommy’s knee while she read Goodnight Moon from a tablet, you heard dad read Little House on the Prairie from his Kindle, and you spent your years of schooling learning from electronic textbooks. Gutenberg had worked tirelessly centuries before to perfect the Kindle but now Jeff Bezos is heralding the remarkable new technology of the printing press and the amazing books it churns out. Where would the new book pale in comparison to the old ebook? What are the reasons we would give to remain with the status quo? Here are a few:

Endnotes and footnotes. We would encounter an endnote in the text and think it absurd that we then have to keep one finger inside the book to mark our progress, flip to the very end, search for the right page, and read that endnote in a much smaller font. Or we would encounter a lengthy footnote in the text and grow annoyed that it takes up one-third of the page, breaks into the flow of the text, and disrupts it with a font two or three points smaller than the main one. In an ebook we only need to tap the note and it immediately displays over the text. Tap it once more and it is gone. It requires no flipping and it brings no disruption. It’s a great solution.

Dictionaries. We would be amazed that anyone would expect us to consult an entirely different book—a big, heavy dictionary that may be in an entirely different room—when we need to look up an unfamiliar word. In an ebook the dictionary is built right in! Simply tap on the word and immediately we can read a dictionary definition. I look up far more words when reading ebooks than printed books because of the sheer convenience and simplicity of it.

Indexes. Indexes would perplex us. Why would we want to have an index, a list of words with their corresponding page numbers, only at the end of the book? This would prove itself in no way superior to the ability to tap a search button, type in a word or two, and gain immediate access to every use of it within the book. An index would represent a dramatic step backward.

Notes. We would count it ridiculous that any notes, marks, and highlights we make in a book reside exclusively on those pages and that only manual transcription can make them accessible outside of it. In books our highlights and annotations are nothing more than marks. In ebooks they are information that is electronically extracted and stored for us, made ready for use in other media. In this way ebooks help us easily gather important information so we can more simply put it to use.

Portability. We would consider it absurd that a personal library would now be a collection of physical objects that are heavy, bulky, and nearly impossible to move as a collection. Ebooks allow us to have a library that is completely portable. We can take thousands or tens of thousands of books with us anywhere and at any time, all on a single, inexpensive device. They add no weight and they add no bulk.

Security. We might hear about a person who lost his library to a natural disaster and blame it on the medium. We might say something like, “That’s what happens when you commit to paper books. You’re only ever one fire or flood away from losing it all.” Physical objects are always in danger of some kind (see Matthew 6:19-20). With ebooks our collection is always available and always backed up, endlessly duplicated for our convenience.

I know there are many more comparisons we could make and in many cases they would highlight the superiority of printed books—proprietary or defunct formats in ebooks, for example, or the ability to have an author personalize her book by signing her name in it. But really, this is the point. No medium is perfect, not even the beloved book. To properly assess a medium, we need to first own our tendency to compare it unfairly to the one that is currently dominant. (Do you remember people laughing at Steve Jobs and his iPhone and saying that no one would ever buy a phone that has no physical keyboard?)

For the first time in 500 years the printed book has found a worthy rival in the ebook. One will eventually inevitably emerge the winner. For what it’s worth, I think it will be a protracted battle that will eventually see the ebook vanquish its predecessor. Until then, we all have the joy and responsibility of assessing both, appreciating both for their varied strengths and weaknesses, and enjoying both grow stronger through the competition.

Image credit

A Time Like This
June 06, 2016

There are days when it is hard to read the news. I open my browser and see another set of headlines, I open my blog reader and see another collection of stories, and I despair. If it is not wars and rumors of war, it is other indicators that this world is sick and dying and in its death throes. I enjoy Al Mohler’s daily podcast and often listen to it while preparing and eating my breakfast, but a scan of recent headlines reminds me why I sometimes just want to climb straight back in bed: “Dolls for boys? Christians must recognize that even the toy aisle reflects a worldview.” “For celebrities, saving the elephants is the latest fad. Unborn babies? Not so much.” “When it comes to sexuality, what happens when a society’s only moral factor is consent?”  

I am not convinced that things are a whole lot worse now than they were tens or hundreds or thousands of years ago. Rather, we have learned to move information faster and farther while at the same time making the world grow smaller. This has left us trapped in what Neil Postman told us is as an endless cycle of cynicism and impotence where we learn all kinds of news and information but have no ability to do anything about it. We hear it all, we feel it all, but we can take no action. All that’s left to do is despair.

Whether or not the world is worse today than it once was is a matter for historians to debate, I suppose. What is clear enough to any observant Christian is that it is bad right now. Really bad. The world seems hell bent on bringing hell to earth. Millions of unborn children are viciously slaughtered in an infanticidal holocaust that now spans the globe. Marriage is being redefined so broadly that the very institution has nearly lost its meaning and significance. The good plan and purpose of God displayed in male and female is denied while transgenderism and androgyny are celebrated. The politicians we admire are belittled and beaten by ones who frighten and grieve us. Science proclaims that this world came into being without design or designer, that it exists without purpose, and that it will end with a meaningless fizzle. It’s hard to read it all and it’s agonizing to feel it all.

Locally, children I love and pray for are identifying themselves and their sexuality in ways that I know will lead only to their harm. Provincially, our Premier is planning to redefine the very notion of parenthood while at the same time increasing oversight of Christian education and homeschooling. Federally, our Prime Minister is advancing legislation to increase and celebrate the rights of transgender individuals while inevitably decreasing the freedom of anyone else to critique or deny such identifications. Everywhere I look it looks like evil is winning.

Is evil winning? I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Not when I break from the bad news to focus on the good news. The despair retreats in the face of truth. The truth I preach to myself again and again is this: The gospel was given for a time like this.

When God gave us the gospel, he knew the times that would come. He knew that just months after the culmination of the gospel in the cross of Christ people would turn on Christians and begin to persecute them. But that was okay, because the gospel was for a time like that. When those early believers scattered from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria they took the gospel with them. They proclaimed it, they lived it, they fed off of it, and it sustained them. Later the whole Roman Empire turned on those Christians, but that was okay, because the gospel was for a time like that too. Through times of persecution the gospel spread to new lands and took deeper root in the lands in which it had already been planted. The blood of the martyrs proved to be seed that sprang up into a great gospel harvest. And so it has gone in age after age and era after era.

The gospel is for times of hardship and persecution, but also for times of moral confusion. The church in Thessalonica was unsure how to live for Christ in a culture that both tolerated and celebrated every kind of sexual sin and peccadillo. But the gospel was for a time like that, and Paul reminded them of the instructions he had given them through the gospel of the Lord Jesus: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). If they would just understand the gospel and live in consistency to it, the confusion would give way to clarity.

The church in Corinth was allowing full-out sexual perversion to infiltrate its church and even its membership, but Paul did not panic, because the gospel was for a time like that. He reminded that church of the gospel and their new unity with Christ, he insisted that such immoral behavior was incongruous with people saved by such a gospel, and told them to live as they had been called. Their problem was not first addressed by panic or prohibitions but by better understanding the meaning, purpose, and freedom of the gospel. It was the gospel they needed! It was for them, for there, and for then.

The gospel was not given to a world without sin, without confusion, without difficulty and persecution—that world needs no gospel. The gospel was given to a world like this one, a world marked by every kind of pain and perversity. This world needs a gospel and, praise God!, he gave us one. He gave us the gospel of his Son. No matter how bad the news around us gets, that good news gospel is better. It was given for a time like this.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Peaceful Polemics Online
June 03, 2016

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. This wonderfully pessimistic French phrase roughly translates to “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” It points us to one of the undeniable facts about life in this world: that though times and contexts change, humanity remains the same.

Today, we find ourselves at a fascinating point in history, a point when we are witnessing a radical shift in the way we communicate. We are transitioning from old media to new media, from words on printed pages to words on pixelated screens, from words spoken face-to-face to words spoken to cameras and delivered instantly through screens ten thousand miles away. Such seismic shifts have occurred only a few times in history, and each shift has been accompanied by turmoil, by a time of learning to adapt to new abilities and new realities.

With this newest era and its groundbreaking technologies have come new capabilities as we carry out our age-old responsibility to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). God has called each one of His children to proclaim and defend the gospel. He has called each one of us to stand for truth and to stand against those who tamper with it or who outright deny it. Paul states:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Eph. 6:10–13)

This should be easier than ever in an age of widespread and instant communications. But with new capabilities come new temptations and new dangers.

If history were to end tomorrow, we would probably look back on the era of digital communications as an era of chaos. We have proven our deep depravity in our ability to speak too quickly, too strongly, and too harshly. All that Jesus and James and Solomon warned us about the power of the tongue can be extended to the power of our fingers as they dance over our keyboards and our thumbs as they tap out messages on our phones. Out of the overflow of the heart the fingers type.

God calls us to be people who speak the truth, but who speak the truth in love. Ephesians 4:15–16 illustrates:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Even as we contend for the faith, we are to contend in love. Even as we speak out in defense of the One who has saved us, we must speak with patience, with respect, with self-control. We have proven ourselves both willing and able to speak, but we have a long way to go to prove that we can do it all in love.

Many years ago, John Stott pondered Paul’s command to the church in Ephesus that they were to speak the truth in love. Paul called on those Christians to prove their spiritual maturity by their desire and their ability to maintain unity even through disagreement, even through debate. The way to prove the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, wrote Paul, is not only to speak true words and not only to speak loving words, but to do both at the same time and in the same measure. Stott’s warning from his commentary on Ephesians is timeless, transcending all technological eras: “Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth.” I fear that for too many of us, our words are hard, untouched by the softening quality of love. And yet we gain nothing if we speak love at the expense of truth, if our love is untouched by the strengthening power of truth.

Stott rightly points out:

The apostle calls us to hold the two together, which should not be difficult for Spirit-filled believers, since the Holy Spirit is himself “the spirit of truth,” and his first fruit is “love.” There is no other route than this to a fully mature Christian unity.

Our fast-paced, always-on, digital world brings us unparalleled opportunities to speak. It allows us to extend our voices around the world with the simple click of a single button. But it also offers unparalleled opportunities to do so poorly, to do so in ways that deny rather than display the fruit of the Spirit. Christian, God has called you to speak His truth, to contend for the faith. He has provided new and amazing media ideally suited to do this very thing. Your challenge and mine—the challenge of the church here in the twenty-first century—is the challenge to speak that truth in love, to contend with an equal measure of firmness and gentleness.

This article was originally written for Tabletalk Magazine. Image credit: Shutterstock

Why I Am Not Liberal
June 02, 2016

I am now well into a series titled “Why I Am Not…” In an age when so many consider religious beliefs as subjective and irrational, I am convinced that any conviction worth holding must stand up to scrutiny. So how did I come by my faith? Why am I confident in my most deeply held beliefs? These are the questions I’m attempting to answer and I am doing it by looking at some of the beliefs I have weighed but found wanting. I have already told why I am not atheist and why I am not Roman Catholic. Today I want to tell why I am not liberal.

I need to define what I mean by the term. Liberalism arose as professed Christians struggled to reconcile modern minds with ancient beliefs. They found apparent conflicts between science and Scripture, for example, and grappled with how to reconcile the two. Christians had traditionally professed that the inerrant and infallible Word of God is the “norming norm,” the standard that stands above all others. Liberals, though, began to place far greater emphasis on the human mind and were willing to overrule long-held interpretations of Scripture in order to make peace with modern discoveries and sensibilities. At heart, then, liberalism was a matter of authority—the authority of the Bible against the authority of the human mind. One would have to take precedence over the other.

While the terminology of theological liberalism has faded, the spirit of liberalism lives on. To give one ready example, the emerging church movement was little more than modern liberalism masquerading in postmodern clothing. And it is in this context that I first encountered it. Like so many others, I found myself investigating Reformed theology at the very time that the emerging church was in its ascendency. Each of these competing movements had its own attraction, yet they were incompatible because of their opposing views of Scripture.

I believe that the Reformed and Emerging movements each gained prominence as an alternative to the church growth movement. Church growth had dominated the evangelical landscape for many years but many people had become disillusioned with its brand of big-box Christianity, with so much emphasis on form and style but so little on content and orthodoxy. Both movements offered a compelling alternative. The Reformed movement offered historic Protestant theology carried through expositional preaching while the Emerging movement offered relational authenticity carried through community and advocacy. Both were attractive to people weary of yet another program, yet another “next big thing.”

The church I attended at the time was once described by a sarcastic visitor as “just another Saddleback/Willow Creek knockoff,” though that meant nothing to me at the time. As the years went by, the church began to make use of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos which had begun as clever theological inquiry but which soon tiptoed awfully close to liberalism. Some of the church leaders began to read and distribute books by Brian McLaren and other Emergent writers. At the same time, I learned that a close friend was dabbling in older forms of liberalism, first reading books he had borrowed from the local public library and then eventually full-out revoking the faith.

Between the church and my friend I had reasons to investigate liberalism in both its classic and contemporary forms. I did so by reading books. I read James White, James Montgomery Boice, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Michel Horton, Wayne Grudem, and others as well. Few if any of these books dealt with liberalism head-on, but they didn’t need to. These authors presented a united front when it came to a theology of the Bible, and between them they renewed and reinforced my understanding of Scripture’s inerrancy, infallibility, clarity, necessity, sufficiency, and authority. I grew in my conviction that the Bible is inerrant, that, as Grudem says, “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” Or, even better, as the Bible says, “Every word of God proves true” (Proverbs 30:5) and “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6).

Following behind the doctrine of inerrancy were the doctrine of sufficiency (that God has said through Scripture all that he needs to say in order for us to honor and obey him), the doctrine of clarity (that the central message of the Bible and the appropriate response to it are made clear in its pages), and the doctrine of necessity (that we are utterly dependent upon God’s revelation of himself). And from there it was but a short step to the sweet doctrine of the Bible’s authority (that “to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God”). I saw that God was calling me to willingly, freely, joyfully, and immediately acknowledge and obey him by acknowledging and obeying his Word.

When I turned my eye back to the emerging church or back to my friend’s classic liberalism, I saw that at the center of it all stood a denial of the authority of the Word of God. These people read the Bible and preached the Bible and wrote about the Bible and professed to honor the Bible, but all the while they denied the full authority of the Bible. They accepted God’s Word on their own terms. But God gives us no such option. To take the Bible at any terms but its own is to reject the Bible altogether. 

I am not liberal and never will be. Instead, I am evangelical, joyfully affirming the authority of the Bible while attempting to live according to it. My investigations into liberalism led me out of the church I was part of and into a church that was both evangelical and Reformed. And that serves as an appropriate into my next article in which I will discuss why I am not Arminian.