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Tim Challies

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christian living

3 years 5 months ago
Last night my wife and I sat and did a rough tally of the number of couples we have known as they have gone through dating and engagement. It’s a pretty good number of friends, family, and fellow church members. Then we thought about how many of them maintained healthy and God-glorifying physical boundaries and how many had confessed that they had not. The numbers were suddenly not looking nearly so good. This is one of those areas where contemporary Christians so often do very poorly and this is exactly why there have been so many recent books on dating, courtship, purity and all the rest. Christians are failing and desperately looking for a better way.

It has been some time since I have read a book on dating and relationships, probably because it has been some time since the subject has seemed urgent to me. But recently a local pastor told me that as he pastors young adults toward marriage, he has been helped by Sex, Dating, and Relationships by Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas. I decided to check it out and I am glad I did so.

Hiestand and Thomas call their approach to relationships “a fresh approach” and this is an accurate way of describing it. They don’t kiss dating goodbye and they don’t advocate a return to the courtship of years gone by. Instead they encourage Christians to form “dating friendships.” In this little phrase “dating” is the activity and “friendship” is the relational category. You are not boyfriend and girlfriend, but friends, and you spend time together (i.e. date) as friends for the purpose of seeing if there is mutual interest and compatibility. Romance and sexual activity and commitment can wait; for now, it is simply “two friends getting to know each other with a view toward marriage.”

Think of a dating friendship as a precursor to a marriage proposal but without all the romantic, sexual overtones that so often accompany a dating relationship. A couple in a dating friendship, regardless of their attraction to each other, doesn’t pretend there is more to the relationship than is warranted. They consciously refrain from sexual and overtly romantic activity and don’t become naively optimistic about the commitment level of their friendship. Thus, the main goal of a dating friendship is to explore the viability of marriage while preserving the guidelines of sexual and romantic purity required by the neighbor relationship.

Integral to the argument is an understanding of how the Bible guides and restricts sexual activity. God gives us clear sexual boundaries to guide marriage relationships (sex is required), neighbor relationships (sex is forbidden) and family relationships (sex is forbidden). The authors want dating couples to understand that until they are married, their relationship to the person they are pursuing is a neighbor relationship in which any sexual activity or even the awakening of sexual desire is inappropriate. What is conspicuously absent from the Bible is a category that falls between neighbor and spouse. Yet this is where so much of our relationship confusion comes from—an invented category that is more than one but less than the other and lacking any clear biblical guidelines.

Even more foundationally, the authors want the Christian to understand that the marriage relationship, and sex within marriage, has been given by God for the specific purpose of serving “as a living witness of the spiritual oneness between Christ and the church.” When we get marriage wrong, and when we tear sex and sexual activity from marriage, we serve as a false image of the very thing we are meant to model. “We tend to believe that God’s commands are given to us merely for our own sake. But this is not true. As those created in the image of God, our very nature as image bearers explains the reasons behind God’s commands. Not only is sex a divinely appointed image of the gospel, but also man himself is an image of God. We are walking sermon illustrations, if you will.” In this way the book’s greatest strength and greatest desire is not in avoiding sexual transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy, but in preserving holiness and the purity of this powerful image of the gospel.

At a time where there is so much confusion about sex, dating and relationships, this book provides helpful, timely counsel. It offers clarity to the nature of relationships and encouragement that purity is not out of reach. Kevin DeYoung’s endorsement nicely summarizes my take: “This is a straightforward, yet provocative little book. You’ll find a lot of practical, sane, biblical wisdom that will explode a number of our cultural assumptions about dating. If you are single or care about someone who is, you really should read this book. The result may just be a simpler, more God-honoring approach to dating than you thought possible.”

3 years 6 months ago
No one could possibly claim that the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5:1-12) are overlooked or underappreciated. They have been the subject of countless books and sermon series. But this is not to say that the Beatitudes have been widely understood and properly taught. As often as not they have suffered from moralization, reduced to the level of the fortune cookie and with all the spiritual power of a fortune cookie.

In Crucifying Morality, R.W. Glenn takes a new look at the Beatitudes saying, Maybe you “were taught that the Beatitudes were the highest form of morality that anyone could live by, and you know now how impossible they are. Or maybe you experienced the flannelgraph version of the Beatitudes.” If that is the case, “maybe it is time to get unfamiliar. Maybe you need to read these verses with fresh eyes for the first time. Whatever your exposure to the Beatitudes has been, you probably think of them as less powerful and captivating and helpful than they are. Take a step back to see how breathtakingly radical their real message is.”

The fact is that

the flannelgraph and the saccharine tone of those reductionist Sunday school lessons can’t get the job done. Jesus’ teaching is too radical to be stuck on felt. He uses counterintuitive gospel logic to show us that life in the kingdom of God is completely contrary to what we expect. In fact, we could not have predicted it. Kingdom blessing looks like the opposite of everything we value. So don’t moralize the Beatitudes, sterilizing the gospel as though it is primarily or even only a rule book for nicer living. You cannot put the mind-altering, world-shattering nature of the Beatitudes into neat categories. Jesus won’t let you.

Glenn wants the reader to contemplate this: “It is no accident that the Beatitudes contain no imperatives whatsoever. Because we are wired for performance and have an insatiable hunger to turn Christianity into a system of dos and don’ts to earn a spot at the table of grace, we feel almost irresistibly inclined to turn them into commandments. Instead, they are the qualities that begin to characterize sinners who encounter God’s grace in the gospel.” We need to be careful not to read the Beatitudes as a series of commandments because when we do that we empty them of their true power.

After all, “the Beatitudes are a profile of the Christian. They are a description of people who would never dream of turning the characteristics God has given them by grace into a list of moral commands because they know that Jesus has crucified even their best attempts at self-centered, self-propelled morality on the cross.” The Beatitudes are not a list of dos and don’ts that get you into God’s kingdom, but a list of declarations of what a child of the kingdom looks like. Where too many people reduce Christianity into a system of achievement in which you do certain things in order to gain life, the Beatitudes instead show Jesus saying, “I have done this, so you can live.”

With all of that in place, Glenn proceeds through the Beatitudes pausing to explain and apply each one. He shows that perfect conformity to the Beatitudes is absolutely essential to our salvation and then points to Jesus Christ as the one who has perfectly kept them on our behalf. In fact, Jesus is the Beatitudes. And now, through the work of Jesus Christ, they are character traits that mark the person who has encountered the gospel of God’s amazing grace. 

Crucifying Morality is an antidote to performance-based religion, a temptation that is always near to each one of us. It is an antidote to a grave misunderstanding of the Beatitudes that eviscerates them, reducing them to an impossible to-do list. It is a powerful call to live out of the joy and freedom of the gospel.

3 years 6 months ago
In 2010 Josh Harris released Dug Down Deep, a book concerned with sound doctrine. He encouraged the reader to unashamedly embrace that much-maligned word theology and to “dig deep into a faith so solid you can build your life on it.” In the final chaper he called Christians to a “humble orthodoxy” and many considered this the book’s greatest strength.

Today’s marks the release of Harris’ new book Humble Orthodoxy. This is a short volume that takes the content of that final chapter and expands on it. Though there is a good bit of overlap between the two, Humble Orthodoxy stands on its own merit.

Harris’ desire in this book is to encourage Christians to hold the truth high without putting people down. He calls for Christians to be guided by both truth and love, to be guided in equal measure by orthodoxy and humility, qualities that are complementary, not in opposition to one another. As J.D. Greear says in his foreword, “Getting doctrine right is a matter of life and dead, but holding that doctrine in the right spirit is essential too. A great deal of damage is done by those who hold the truth of Christ with the spirit of Satan.”

The book begins by setting the context and explaining the dilemma. “One of the problems with the word orthodoxy is that it is usually brought up when someone is being reprimanded. So it has gotten a bad reputation, like an older sibling who is always peeking around the corner, trying to catch you doing something wrong. … I don’t know any other way to say this: it seems like a lot of the people who care about orthdoxy are jerks.” And here he begins to suggest the solution: a humble orthodoxy, caring deeply about truth, but defending and sharing this truth with compassion and humility. “Whether our theological knowledge is great or small, we all need to ask a vital question: What will we do with the knowledge of God that we have?” The Bible does not allow us to choose between orthodoxy and humility, but insists that we need both in equal measure, and assures us that through the Holy Spirit we can be humbly orthodox. I have always loved this quote from John Stott which speaks to this very thing:

Thank God there are those in the contemporary church who are determined at all costs to defend and uphold God’s revealed truth. But sometimes they are conspicuously lacking in love. When they think they smell heresy, their nose begins to twitch, their muscles ripple, and the light of battle enters their eye. They seem to enjoy nothing more than a fight. Others make the opposite mistake. They are determined at all costs to maintain and exhibit brotherly love, but in order to do so are prepared even to sacrifice the central truths of revelation. Both these tendencies are unbalanced and unbiblical. Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth. 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.

Harris lays out two alternatives to humble orthodoxy. The first is arrogant orthodoxy, where our doctrine is correct but we are unkind and unloving, where we are self-righteous and spiteful in our words, attitudes and behaviors. “If anyone thinks arrogant orthodoxy doesn’t exist, he’s never read the comments section of a Christian blog.” Touche. The other alternative is humble heterodoxy where a person abandons orthodox Christianity but does it very nicely. The temptation for Harris, for myself, and for most of those who will read this review is toward the first of these alternatives, to pursue orthodoxy at the expense of love. “You and I need to contend for the truth. But there’s a fine line between contending for truth and being contentious.”

The driving passion behind our pursuit of biblical orthdoxy is “not to prove ourselves more right or better than someone else but to better worship the holy God, the one who forgives and accepts us for Christ’s sake alone.” He looks to Tim Keller and says “if we make a good thing like correct theology the ultimate end—if being right becomes more important to us than worshiping God—then our theology is not really about God anymore. It’s about us. It becomes the source of our sense of worth and identity. And if theology becomes about us, then we’ll despise and demonize those who oppose us.”

Thus the solution to arrogant orthodoxy is not less orthodoxy, but more. The more we know of God, the more we love and trust him, the more humble we will be before him.

This is a book that I would love to put in the hands of a lot of people I have encountered over the years. First and foremost, though, it is a book I needed to read. It is a book I need to read again. It is a book I plan to read regularly. It rebuked, encouraged and challenged me in very helpful ways. If you have a blog or you regularly peruse blogs (especially if you comment on them), if you just plain love theology and desire to believe what is right and true, then do yourself a favor and read it as well.

3 years 7 months ago
A couple of weeks ago I found myself in Nashville at the National Religious Broadcasters’ annual convention. I was there to lead a breakout session that would explain a biblically-based understanding of technology, but had almost a whole day to just wander the event. The exhibit hall was massive, though I heard it was actually smaller than in years past. It was a sight to behold, a mishmash of some of the best and some of the worst of Christian broadcasting.

George Washington was there with Martha (though I suspect it may actually have been people in costume) protesting gay marriage. Jesus and what appeared to be one of the high priests were walking the exhibit floor, looking like they were getting along surprisingly well, all things considered. I was not able to figure out why they were there, but my guess is they were connected to the TBN booth in some way and, if not that, one of the many (many!) Israeli travel companies advertising themselves there. Among the myriad displays and posters was one for Byron Yawn and his book Suburbianity. I enjoyed the irony because Suburbianity was written to take a wrecking ball to so much of what is celebrated at the NRB convention.

Byron Yawn is the pastor of Community Bible Church in Nashville, a church I have been to a couple of times and one I have very much enjoyed. He loves Christianity, the Christian faith, but despises Suburbianity, a contemporary perversion of that faith. Every person, every Christian, is to some degree a product of his environment. Yawn’s concern is that Christians have been unwittingly and unduly influenced by the values and ideals of suburbia. 

Suburbianity is the general conviction among professing evangelicals that the primary aim of Christ’s death was to provide us with a fulfilled life. We came to this perspective by persistently reading the mindset and aspirations of the suburbs into the biblical story. It relentlessly seeps into our Christianity. It comes through in nearly all forms of Christian media, including songs, books, movies, and sermons. God has big plans for you. You are important. You should not be discontented, There’s more out there for you. This is the suburban gospel. By it we’ve saved countless sinners from a poor self-image but not much else.

Of course the Christianity of the Bible is not about this at all. It is antithetical to this. “You can’t find it anywhere in the Bible. You may cite Moses, but he never meant that. Even if you make Jesus say it, He didn’t really. Jesus never commissioned anything close to this. We’ve made all this stuff up.” Powerful gospel-centered Christianity has been replaced by an impotent gospel-free suburbianity.

Yawn proposes a three-part antidote to suburbianity. The first part of the cure is to recover the true gospel and he writes three chapters on what the gospel is and why it must be central to all of Christian doctrine and practice. The second part of the cure is to recover the true and most meaningful storyline of the Bible, looking beyond the moralisms that plague today’s churches. He gives two chapters to the Bible. The third part of the cure, which receives two chapters, is to embrace the local church as God’s plan to save the world. This antidote is so simple and so obvious, yet so commonly overlooked.

Yawn lives and ministers in Nashville, a city where there is a church on every corner. Yet while Nashville is so heavily churched, it is also a conclave of suburbianity. He knows the very phenomenon that he critiques and as he critiques it he writes not as a sociologist but as a pastor, calling Christians to be shaped far more by the timeless Word of God and far less by the changing preferences of the suburbs. It’s a call we all need to heed.


3 years 7 months ago
Most people who read this review will be like me in that they live in a culture of radical individualism. Where our identities were once inexorably wrapped up in a local community, today we are what one sociologist has referred to as networked individuals, people who are loosely bound together by interests, but each convinced that we are answerable ultimately, or perhaps only, to ourselves. Individualism reigns, solidarity is passe.

Contra this individualism comes Chris Brauns’ Bound Together: How We Are Tied to Others in Good and Bad Choices. Brauns wants Christians to understand that in God’s economy we are tied together through what he calls the “principle of the rope.” He holds that corporate solidarity is a key aspect of life as taught in the Bible. We are not meant to exist apart from fellowship and community.

Brauns looks to man’s fall into sin as the ultimate negative example of this principle and then looks to Christ’s work on the cross as the ultimate positive example. In the first case one man sinned and saw the effects of his action extend to all who would come after him. In the second case one Man died and now offers the benefits of his death and resurrection to all who will take hold of the grace he offers and, in so doing, be united to him. In this way Brauns provides a uniquely interesting take on two foundational but often misunderstood Christian doctrines: original sin and union with Christ. And as he does this he shows the beautiful gospel truth that this second rope is infinitely stronger than the first. 

The principle of the rope finds application in all areas of life, but Brauns focuses on just a few:

  • Christian Community. The truest and highest joys are found not in selfishness, but in selfless investment in Christ-centered community. If you want to pursue joy—and God’s desire for you is that you would pursue joy—you will need to pursue it by investing in others.
  • Marriage. The principle of the rope illustrates both the beauty of marriage and the devastation of divorce which represents the destruction of a tie meant to last to death.
  • Family. Families experience the “bound together” nature of relationships in a unique way in both joys and trials. Brauns focuses specifically and pastorally on families that have been grieved by a family member who has turned his back on the people who love him.
  • Death. Christians can face death without fear because of their solidarity with the One who has already conquered death’s power.
  • The Local Church. Brauns insists that the local church is uniquely qualified to counter the radical individualism that is unraveling the very fabric of Western culture. The church offers both the theology and the structure that reinforces the values that are necessary to hold a society together. It is, after all, God’s plan a (and plan b) to reach a lost and dying world.

Jerry Bridges, who has often spoken and written about how few Christians understand the doctrine of union with Christ (and what a difference it would make if they did understand it), says this about Bound Together: “Chris Brauns has done a masterful job of explaining the truth and its implications of the principle of solidarity … His treatment of all humanity’s solidarity with Adam in his sin and the solidarity of all believers with Christ is especially helpful, but the entire book is a masterpiece that will help us understand some of the interpersonal relationships we deal with every day.”

It is, indeed, a book that is both enjoyable and insightful in understanding not only that we are bound together in both Adam’s and Christ’s redemption, but that we are bound to one another in all areas of life. My actions affect those around me and their actions affect me. We are not isolated individuals, but people connected together in so many different ways.

3 years 8 months ago
If there were a Guinness Book of World Records record for “amount of times having asked Jesus into your heart,” J.D. Greear is pretty sure he would hold it. Like so many church kids he asked Jesus into his heart when he was very young, and then again when he was slightly older, and then again every time he wondered if he really loved Jesus, and then again whenever he felt the guilt of sin. For years he wrestled with assurance and fought for an answer to this question: How can anyone know, beyond all doubt, that they are saved?

It is a question most Christians ask at one time or another; it is a question every pastor faces on a regular basis. Greear’s new book Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart tackles this question head-on and does so very effectively. Greear sets out to accomplish two things: to help the Christian find assurance that he has been saved, and to help the unbeliever resting on a false assurance see his danger and to turn to Christ. “My prayer is that by the time we’re done, you’ll know exactly where you stand with God. I hope to show you how to base your assurance on a promise God gave once for all in Christ and not on the fleeting memory of a prayer you once prayed.” What Greear teaches is consistent with what the best theologians have been drawing from Scripture for so long, that “what saves the sinner is a posture of repentance and faith toward Christ, that and that alone. Any ‘sinner’s prayer’ is only good insofar as it expresses that posture.”

Salvation does indeed happen in a moment, and once you are saved you are always saved. The mark, however, of someone who is saved is that they maintain their confession of faith until the end of their lives. Salvation is not a prayer you pray in a one-time ceremony and then move on from; salvation is a posture of repentance and faith that you begin in a moment and maintain for the rest of your life.

Greear begins with his own story of praying the sinner’s prayer a thousand times and being baptized four times, using it to illustrate the importance of finding assurance. He then proceeds to show that God wants us to have assurance, saying that God “changes, encourages, and motivates us not by the uncertainty of fear, but by the security of love. That is one of the things that makes the gospel absolutely distinct from all other religious messages in the world.” With that in place he reminds the reader of the gospel and explains both belief and repentance. One chapter answers this question: If “once saved always saved,” why does the Bible seem to warn us so often about losing our salvation? Along the way he offers three bases for assurance: a present posture of faith and repentance; perseverance in the faith; and evidences of eternal life in our heart—a love for God and a love for others, particularly other believers.

Yet even then some will wrestle with assurance and to those Christians he offers wise and simple counsel.

Am I really saved? How could I be, and still have feelings like this?

What do you do in that moment? Pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’ again? …

The answer is relatively simple in that moment: keep believing the gospel. Keep your hand on the head of the Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how you feel at any given moment, how encouraged or discouraged you feel about your spiritual progress, how hot or cold your love for Jesus, what you should be doing is always the same—resting in the gospel. Rest in His finished work. That’s all you can do. It’s all you need to do. It’s all God has commanded you to do.

I have just been in the South, so I can give a loud “Amen!” to that!

Two appendices round out the book and carry it to around 120 pages. The first asks who should be re-baptized and under what circumstances while the second looks at the indispensable link between assurance and the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

I want to offer just one critique of the book, and it is an unusual one, I suppose. While Paige Patterson’s foreword aptly summarizes the book’s content and potential impact, it feels as if it was written for the pastor who may hand it out rather than the concerned Christian who may be seeking assurance. This means that when I hand it to someone, the first thing they will read, assuming that they are in the habit of reading forewords, is rather technical. For example, “His angst over failures subsequent to his experience with Christ seemed to me to be more related to the family situation from which he came and the extent of the use of foreign substances in his life than it did to any substantive reason to doubt his salvation.” I believe it would have been more effective to use the foreword to pastorally convince the person who lacks assurance that he ought to keep reading, rather than to convince the pastor that he can confidently distribute it. But this is only a small and near-petty critique.

We have an enemy who is identified as the Deceiver. He loves to deceive Christians into thinking that they cannot possibly have been delivered from condemnation, and he loves to deceive unbelievers into complacency, making them believe that they have been forgiven even without true faith and repentance. Some of his most effective work is in removing assurance from those who ought to have it, and in giving assurance to those who should not have it. This book will comfort the Christian and challenge the deceived unbeliever. Full of useful illustrations, powerful insights and, best of all, gospel hope, it is exactly the book I will recommend to anyone who struggles with assurance. In fact, I am going to buy a few and keep them close at-hand; I know I will be reading it with someone soon enough.

3 years 8 months ago

The best life is a risky life. Really, I am convinced there is not much worth doing that doesn’t involve at least some measure of risk. A lifetime of always making the safest choice is an unrealistically boring and plodding life. We risk when we love, we risk when we live. To love any person is to risk—it is to risk your heart, to make yourself vulnerable to another. To love God is to risk—it is to risk your very life, to make yourself willing to do whatever it is that the Lord commands. Simply to live is to risk; we do not know what the next day, or even the next moment will bring. Yet we value our safety and so often run from risk, living our lives within the most comfortable boundaries.

John Piper wants us to know that Risk is Right—the title of his newest book, a short one that weighs in at all of 64 pages. If the ultimate aim of life is to honor and magnify Jesus Christ, then the meaningful life, the unwasted life, is a life in which it is right and good to risk everything for this ultimate goal. “I define risk very simply as an action that exposes you to the possibility of loss or injury. If you take a risk you can lose money, you can lose face, you can lose your health or even your life. And what’s worse, if you take a risk, you may endanger other people and not just yourself. Their lives may be at stake also.” Is it right, then, to take risks?

That all depends. It depends on whether losing life is the same as wasting it. Piper’s burden is to prove that all of life is a risk and that as Christians we are called to take big risks, good risks, that will result in the Savior being honored and glorified. “It is the will of God that we be uncertain about how life on this earth will turn out for us. And therefore it is the will of the Lord that we take risks for the cause of God.” We risk well when our motive is not heroism or lust for adventure or a desire to earn God’s favor, “but rather faith in the all-providing, all-ruling, all-satisfying Son of God, Jesus Christ.”

As Piper builds his case he looks at examples of biblical risk, searching out both the Old Testament and the New. He looks at Paul as the great risk taker of the early church, a man who risked his life time and again in order to advance the cause of Christ. He presents a strong case and a reasonable one. He proves biblically, as he means to, that it is better to lose your life through godly risk than to waste it.

This may all sound vaguely familiar which brings me to a critique, though perhaps this is a critique of publishing as much as this book. It is quite common in publishing to re-title books or to excerpt parts from successful books and to publish them as self-standing short books. This is the case with Risk Is Right—it is a chapter excerpted from Piper’s bestselling Don’t Waste Your Life. It now includes a foreword from David Platt and a few minor word changes, but it is, in essence, chapter 5 of DWYL.

Now listen, I appreciate Crossway, John Piper and Desiring God as much as anyone, but I am a little bit disappointed in them here. In all the marketing for the book and in all the descriptions, the Christian reader will be led to believe that this is a new work, not a repackaged one. The one endorsement at Amazon suggests that this is a new book: “While probably Piper’s smallest work, I would argue it’s content is the most critical.” At the end of the book there is even an ad for Don’t Waste Your Life, again suggesting that these are completely separated, though potentially related, works. The only way you would know this before you spend $6 or $8 is if you happen to have read Don’t Waste Your Life recently and recognize the title or if you are in the habit of reading the legalese in the first 2 or 3 pages of the book. If you already own Don’t Waste Your Life, you will now be paying for a short foreword from David Platt. I suspect there will be quite a few people who will be disappointed to find that they have paid again for a book they already own. This happens in publishing, but somehow I want to see Christian publishers and ministries protect the consumer even if they save them only $8.

However, none of that reflects on the quality of the book. Risk Is Right is a good little book, just as it was a powerfully challenging chapter in Don’t Waste Your Life. If you don’t already own DWYL, then do yourself a favor and buy it or Risk Is Right. It will both bless and challenge you.

3 years 9 months ago
This review of Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan comes a little bit late. The book released almost two years ago and has sold over a half million copies. I have been meaning to read it for some time, but something else always seemed more urgent. However, with Idleman’s follow-up releasing in the next month—a book that is likely to hit the list of bestsellers before Not a Fan has fallen off—it seemed logical to read the first before the second.

Not a Fan is a call to become a completely committed follower of Jesus. It is hardly alone in this category, this subgenre of Christian living or spiritual growth. Idleman’s unique angle is in focusing on the distinction between fans and followers. He looks at the Evangelical landscape and sees that there are many people who are mere hangers-on, mere enthusiasts for Jesus. “It may seem that there are many followers of Jesus, but if they were honestly to define the relationship they have with him I am not sure it would be accurate to describe them as followers. It seems to me that there is a more suitable word to describe them. They are not followers of Jesus. They are fans of Jesus.” In these circles Jesus is almost indistinguishable from a celebrity with committed fans “who know all about him, but they don’t know him.”

Idleman wants more than this. He wants more than this for himself, for you, for me.

He shares many good insights into contemporary Evangelicalism. “My concern is that many of our churches in America have gone from being sanctuaries to becoming stadiums. And every week all the fans come to the stadium where they cheer for Jesus but have no interest in truly following him. The biggest threat to the church today is fans who call themselves Christians but aren’t actually interested in following Christ. They want to be close enough to Jesus to get all the benefits, but not so close that it requires anything from them.” There is no doubt that this is true. He pushes back against easy-believism, against the kind of seeker friendliness that is all promise with no commitment. “Following by definition requires more than mental assent, it calls for movement. One of the reasons our churches can become fan factories is that we have separated the message of ‘believe’ from the message ‘follow’.” Again, this is very true, and refreshing to hear from a pastor who leads one of the most mega of America’s megachurches; his Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, is the 5th largest church in America with over 20,000 in attendance each weekend.

He calls on those who profess faith in Christ to diagnose the nature of their relationship by asking these questions:

  • Have you made a decision for Jesus or have you committed to Jesus?
  • Do you just know about Jesus, or do you really know him?
  • Is Jesus one of many or is he your one and only?
  • Are you more focused on the outside than the inside?
  • Are you a self-empowered fan or a Spirit-filled follower?

These are helpful questions that can lead to an accurate diagnosis. There are far too many church-goers who love only what Jesus does for them or how Jesus makes them feel. The follower-fan distinction is a helpful way of understanding the difference and provides a clear call to a clear commitment.

Still, I have a few concerns with the book.

While follower-fan is the book’s primary metaphor, Idleman also relies on words, phrases and concepts related to teenage romance. When he wants a Christian to understand whether he is a fan or follower, Idleman calls him to DTR, an acronym for “Define The Relationship.” That teenage feel persists throughout the book and is accompanied by quite a lot of puerile humor. Jokes abound, as do references to pop culture. A little bit of humor and a little bit of sarcasm would be one thing, but Idleman relies on it too much and it grows tiresome. It becomes clear why the book has such appeal to a younger demographic.

As Idleman calls the reader to define their relationship with Jesus, he looks to the New Testament and to several stories of people whom he says needed to do that very thing. But I think he pushes a little bit too hard to squeeze these stories into his grid. It’s not that what he says is outright wrong; rather, he seems to miss the point of these incidents from the life of Jesus and to stretch them just a little bit too far.

But my greatest concern is that Idleman describes the gospel as the gateway to the Christian life (which it is!) but not as the power and the joy of the entire Christian life (which it is as well). Without this focus on the gospel as the very center of our commitment to God, the book slips into being a call to commit to Jesus and then to commit to try harder. The fact is that we will all be fans at times, and only the gospel offers us the deepest peace, forgiveness and motivation to carry on. Unfortunately Idleman concentrates on the gospels so much, and the epistles so little, that he offers an unbalanced and incomplete view of Christian living. The reader concerned about his tendency to be a fan instead of a follower will learn to evaluate himself by his fervor rather than the finished work of Jesus Christ. Robert Murray McCheyne wisely counseled Christians, “For every one look at your sins, take ten looks at Christ.” Some of that wisdom would have gone a long way here.

Not a Fan bears a clear resemblance to two other recent bestsellers: David Platt’s Radical and Francis Chan’s Crazy Love. Like these books, Not a Fan identifies our tendency toward complacency. Interestingly, it may also have anticipated their follow-ups: Follow Me and Multiply, books that look to the command to be a follower. These are popular and important themes in the church today, and for good reason. If Not a Fan was the only book in the genre, there may be reason to recommend it, but as it stands, there are other authors who are saying similar things, but with clearer reference to the gospel. I would recommend Platt and Chan’s books ahead of Idleman’s.

3 years 9 months ago
There are too many Christians who doubt that the Lord still does miracles today. He does. I’ve seen them. I’ve seen more miracles than I can count. God still does the unimaginable and the unexpected, and just as in days of old, he does it all to testify to his own glory.

I found myself thinking about miracles as I read The Insanity of God, a new book by Nik Ripken—a book that carries a foreword by David Platt and endorsements by a who’s who of Southern Baptist notables: Akin, Page, Rainer, Stetzer, Hunt. Nik Ripken is a pseudonym for a former missionary from the hills of Kentucky. Having become a believer as a young adult, he felt called to the mission field, eventually settling in Nairobi. From there he founded a small aid organization and extended help into war-torn Somalia. As he visited that country, and as he saw the desperate poverty, the famine and death, he realized that his Westernized, Bible-Belt faith held few answers. It had not adequately prepared him. When he suddenly and unexpectedly lost his teenaged son, he experienced a genuine crisis of faith.

In this crisis he found himself wondering how believers survive and thrive under persecution. He decided to find out, traveling to the former USSR, to China, to the Middle East and to many other countries where to profess faith in Christ is to put your life in danger. Much of the book is spent describing what Christians have endured for Christ and how the Lord sustained them through the most difficult circumstances. He found quickly that “The stronger the persecution, the more significant the spiritual vitality of the believers.” He heard story after story of the Lord showing extraordinary grace in extraordinary circumstances. “It was as if the pages of the Bible had opened and the saints of old were once again walking the earth. And I had suddenly found myself among them.”

A theme among persecuted believers is the commonness of the miraculous. He heard Muslims describing visions where they were told where to go to hear the gospel; he heard of the dead being raised to life. He confesses “I had always seen God’s Word, especially the Old Testament, as a holy history book. For me, it was an ancient record of what God had done in the past.” But “In light of all I had heard, there was no way to avoid the conclusion: God, evidently, was doing today everything that He had done in the Bible! The evidence was compelling. At least among people who were faithfully following Him in the world’s toughest places, God was still doing what He had done from the beginning.”

Anyone who reads accounts of the Lord’s work in lands where the gospel is unknown will have to consider similar stories. I have heard many, many accounts of visions, where a person is told where to go and whom to speak to in order to hear the gospel. They are not converted in a vision, but are pointed toward the gospel. We hear stories like those made so popular by Brother Andrew in God’s Smuggler, of God making the seeing blind. 

What Ripken comes to believe is that persecution unlocks God’s power in a purer, sweeter way. He comes to idealize the faith of the believers in China and the former USSR, drawing a clear line between the way we experience God in the non-persecuted Western world and the way Christians experience God in lands were persecution is rampant. He comes very close to romanticizing persecution, to wishing it upon all of us. “Evidently, God is still very much at work in His world,” he writes. “And evidently, He still speaks to those who walk with Him. … I hungered for that kind of intimate relationship with God.”

What we discovered—through God’s grace and with the help of hundreds of faithful people—wasn’t so much a strategy, a method, or a plan. Rather, it was a Person. We found Jesus—and we found that Jesus is very much alive and well in the twenty-first century. Jesus is revealed in the lives and words and resurrection faith of believers in persecution.

These believers don’t just live for Jesus, they live with Jesus every day.

Ripken’s faith was restored when he saw that Christ’s resurrection power is alive and well in the world today, which is to say, when he saw that the Lord still works in miraculous ways.

And at the end of it all, I find myself thinking about miracles. I have no doubt that the Lord is able to work in miraculous ways today, and that he does work in miraculous ways. I pray for miracles nearly every day. This morning Aileen and I prayed for a miracle in the lives of our girls. We trust that in due time we will see one. We trust that in due time he will perform in their lives the miracle he performed in each of ours—that he will take their dead hearts, hearts that are committed to sin and self, and make them alive. There is no greater miracle than this. There is no better miracle than this.

If the Lord chooses to revive a heart that has stopped beating and to restore a brain that has stopped functioning, that is a testament to his grace. If he chooses to heal cancer through anointing with oil and prayer, that is a beautiful display of his power. But these miracles pale in comparison to what he does when he brings the spiritually dead to life, when he takes a rebel and transforms him in the deepest way possible. This is the one miracle that, unmistakably, gives glory to God alone.

I have seen this miracle again and again and it amazes me every time. I can barely hear an account of this miracle without my eyes filling with tears. It is the only miracle I truly long to see and the only miracle God has promised. It is more than enough.

3 years 9 months ago
One of the great questions of life is the question of identity. Who am I? When faced with this question—a question we must all answer at one time or another—some respond with their vocation: I am a pastor or a police officer. Others respond with deep pain from the past: I am a victim of sexual assault or I am a drug addict. Others respond with their greatest success or most shameful failure. Yet none of these get right to the heart of the matter. These may be what we do or what we have done or what has been done to us, but none goes deep enough.

The Christian answer can and should and must be different. It is this, the matter of identity, that is at the heart of Mark Driscoll’s new book Who Do You Think You Are?. Driscoll says rightly that even as Christians “we’re continually forgetting who we are in Christ and filling that void by placing our identity in pretty much anything else.” The question “Who am I?” is “far-reaching, belief-revealing, life-shaping and identity-forming. How you answer determines your identity and your testimony. Tragically, few people—even few Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians—rightly answer that question.”

This is too true. Joel Osteen made a recent appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show where he led a crowd in a long list of positive declarations, each of which began with “I am.” “I am strong. I am healthy. I am confident. I am secure. I am talented. I am creative. I am disciplined. I am focused. I am valuable. I am beautiful. I am blessed. I am excited about my future. I am victorious.” Osteen sees the importance of identity, but answers it without reference to the Bible. In stark contrast, Driscoll grounds his answer in the timeless truths of Scripture. “My goal is to take one massive need in your life, your need for identity, and connect it to one book of the Bible, Ephesians. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit penned Ephesians through Paul for just this purpose.”

At the heart of it all is our identity as God’s image-bearers. We have been created in God’s image and this gives us inherent worth and dignity. We are created as worshippers, yet by falling into sin we worship all the wrong things, leading us to craft idolatrous identities for ourselves. Instead of being identified first and foremost in our relationship to God, we ignore the Creator and craft other identities. It is the gospel, the good news of what Christ has done, that transforms, or re-forms, our identity. Driscoll writes, “Only by knowing our false identity apart from Christ in relation to our true identity in him can we rightly deal with and overcome the issues in our lives.” Identity is a matter of life and death.

Working his way through the book of Ephesians, Driscoll provides a long list of answers to this question of Who Am I?: I am in Christ, I am a saint, I am blessed, I am appreciated, I am saved, I am reconciled, I am afflicted, I am heard, I am gifted, I am new, I am forgiven, I am adopted, I am loved, I am rewarded, I am victorious. Each one is firmly grounded in Scripture. Each one flows from the good news of the gospel.

I am quite certain that I have read each one of Driscoll’s books, and I am confident that this one displays the greatest level of pastoral care and sensitivity. Driscoll is writing as a pastor and often illustrates his points by relating the stories of people in his church, describing how they came to find a new identity in Jesus Christ. He writes humbly and with carefully-chosen words, rarely turning far from the biblical text. He dedicates this book to his daughter and it is a book most fathers would be very glad to have their daughters read.

One theological application demands special mention. In other places Driscoll has described himself as a “charismatic with a seat belt,” and here, in a chapter on spiritual gifting, he looks briefly to a long list of spiritual gifts. What he says about healing, miracles and speaking in tongues shows that this seat belt might fit rather loosely, so to speak. Many Christians, myself included, will be uncomfortable with some of what he teaches about the miraculous gifts. Having said that, he remains well within the mainstream of Reformed Charismatics, and in this way is not teaching anything novel.

It is noteworthy that Driscoll ends his book where Osteen ended his list of positive affirmations, with “I am victorious.” This is fitting. Osteen’s cry of victory is built upon self-improvement and self-help; it comes from self and through self and to the glory of self. Driscoll’s cry of victory is built upon the victory already won by Jesus Christ; it comes from God and through God and to the glory of God. Where Osteen’s brand of identity will always shift and always ultimately fail, an identity founded upon Jesus Christ will stand eternally. I trust that the Lord will use Who Do You Think You Are? to help many Christians understand and believe that their deepest identity is based on what Christ has already accomplished for them. This makes all the difference.

Several of the most popular Christian megachurch pastor/authors have released new books within a short period of time and I thought it might prove interesting to work my way through that list. To this point I have read Vertical Church by James MacDonald, Creature of the Word by Matt Chandler and Who Do You Think You Are?. In the next couple of weeks I will also look at Francis Chan’s Multiply and David Platt’s Follow Me. Interestingly, I am not the only one seeing the close connection between these books. I dropped by Amazon today and, on the page for Driscoll’s book, saw the following offer:Driscoll Chan Platt