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Tim Challies

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christian living

1 year 7 months ago
Harvest Bible Fellowship is a network of churches on the move. It seems as if every week brings a report of a new church plant somewhere in the world. From what I have observed locally, these are solid churches whose pastors love God’s Word and where people are being transformed by the gospel. James MacDonald is the founder of this movement and he refers to them as “vertical” churches. What MacDonald wants is for every local church to be a place where people have “a weekly experience with the manifest glory of God.” The local church is to be the one place where people experience what they can experience nowhere else.

Vertical Church is part manifesto and part instructional guide and is one of those unusual and unfortunate books that combines genuine strengths with disappointing weaknesses. The first half of the book is strong and provides a biblical basis for a vertical model of the local church; the second half is far weaker in explaining how to create one.

The Strengths of Vertical Church

Vertical Church has many notable strengths. The discussion of verticality is very helpful and provoked the pastor in me to think carefully about the worship services at my church and the role of church leaders in providing an experience of God’s glory and majesty. Our role is not simply to check off a list of boxes—singing, Bible-reading, preaching, prayer—but to lead people in an encounter with the living God. MacDonald’s desire to glorify God in every facet of the church’s life is laudable and challenging. He shares a great deal of wisdom earned through many years of ministry while critiquing both the church growth movement and those traditional churches that don’t care to grow at all.

A chapter on preaching shows why expositional preaching is at the heart of the Harvest movement and why it needs to remain there. A chapter on evangelism is a call to action despite fear and discomfort. There are many parts of the book that I highlighted and many concepts and even sentences that I need to explore in more detail in the future. Really, Vertical Church would have made an excellent 120-page book.

The Weaknesses of Vertical Church

But it’s not a 120-page book. Rather, it is a little bit over 300 pages and as it transitions from the “why” to the “how” of vertical church, weaknesses begin to outweigh strengths. A condescending and sarcastic tone begins to creep in while the joyful humility of reveling in God’s glory is supplanted by overbearing and overly-prescriptive instruction. Here MacDonald often relies often on false dichotomies, setting two possibilities in unfair opposition to one another. This is seen clearest in chapters dealing with music and prayer.

In the chapter on music, MacDonald turns away from definitions of worship that extend to all of life and says that worship is “the actual act of ascribing worth directly to God” and sets it almost entirely in the context of corporate singing. He argues against hymns—“great theology racing us by at a pace so dizzying that all we could express as we took our seats was effectively ‘that was all so true’.”—and instead advocates songs with fewer words and more repetition. He believes that worship in song should be:

  • Vertical - “…we must frame all language of worship as to Him and not merely about Him. Otherwise our worship effectively ignores and potentially offends him by talking about Him as though He is not present.”
  • Simple - “Intimacy demands simplicity, and with all due respect to hymns filled with great theology, that level of complexity is not what the Scripture reveals as God’s personal preference.”
  • Emotive - Here he sets “shoulders-up worship” against worship that engages the emotions and is expressed with great emotion. “‘Hey God, how is that formulaic, shoulders-up, obligation, church-as-a-checkmark worship working for you?’ Answer: ‘It’s not’.”
  • Physical - He says the Bible commands and models worship that involves the voice, eyes, head, hands, legs and feet. “Keep in mind that these physical expressions of whole-body worship … are commanded and modeled in Scripture and are to be entered into increasingly, without using personality or tradition as an excuse.”

Yet such claims are only barely drawn out of Scripture and go unproven. They may reflect preference or perhaps even a degree of wisdom, but never does he prove that they are mandated by God. He does not interact seriously with the songs of the Bible (whether the Old Testament psalms or New Testament hymns), many of which model worship that is to God exactly because it is about God. We do not have to choose between singing to and singing about and we do not have to choose between worship that is intellectual and worship that is heartfelt; these can easily co-exist.

The chapter on prayer, while displaying some great strengths, is also beset by similar weaknesses—broad statements, preference elevated to law, lack of biblical proof, false dichotomies. Does fervency in prayer demand volume? MacDonald says it does and offers only “the fervent prayer of a righteous man results in much” as evidence. Should “mind-only and whispered praying” be the exception in the Christian life? He says it should and turns to Psalm 116 where David says, “I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice” and Romans 8:15 where Paul writes, “You have received the Spirit … by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’.” It goes without saying that there are times we may do well to pray aloud and with great passion, but the Bible does not command us to do so as a rule.

Overall, MacDonald seems drawn to external expressions of worship and supplication as if these are necessary indicators of the kind of vertical affection he longs to see. At one point he says “Theological giants like [John] Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards, and Lloyd-Jones all embraced and experienced great emotional expression as evidence of a deep work of God in their services.” Yet a reading of Edwards’ The Religious Affections will show that Edwards understood that emotional expression can be dangerously deceptive: “Nothing can be certainly known of the nature of religious affections by this, that they much dispose persons with their mouths to praise and glorify God.” MacDonald too often allows his personal and culture preferences and his extroverted personality to be prescriptive.

And then there are times where he shows shockingly poor judgment in illustrating with his own life. At one point he writes about the role of prayer in saving his church from bankruptcy. He prayed to the Lord and then called a contractor whose work had been woefully substandard. “Sensing the Lord infusing [him] with still greater boldness” he told this man, “If you do not ship the remaining steel for free, we will close the construction project permanently, take the entire church into bankruptcy, and I will spend the rest of my life pursuing a legal remedy for all damages incurred by your company’s failure to perform. You have until tomorrow at five o’clock to give me your answer, but don’t call at 5:05, because there is a big part of me now hoping your answer is no.” This kind of personal intimidation does not at all stand as an example of the fruit of the Spirit or the character of a man called to be an elder!

Another Concern

Before I conclude, let me express another considerable concern. I know I am meant to review a book on its own terms, yet I can’t help but note contradictions between this book and some of MacDonald’s actions in the past year or two.

At the beginning of the book are 9 pages of endorsements from Christian leaders, including men whose model of church would appear to be anything but vertical. Bill Hybels and Rick Warren are the gurus of church growth while Steve Furtick’s Elevation Church hardly models strength and verticality. Yet these men, and others like them, endorse Vertical Church. Meanwhile, these men are often endorsed by MacDonald in return, whether in the pages of this book or elsewhere. I simply can’t understand how MacDonald could pen a book like Vertical Church and ignore the appalling contradictions of T.D. Jakes, a man who holds an unorthodox understanding of the Trinity and who preaches the prosperity gospel in place of the true gospel. Yet he is a man MacDonald has befriended and defended. It boggles the mind.

Conclusion

Vertical Church is a book with both strengths and weaknesses—very helpful strengths and very dangerous weaknesses. If you are looking for a method to follow, I would certainly not recommend it for that purpose. However, if you are looking for examples to consider and evaluate, and if you can thinking discerningly to embrace what is helpful and reject what is so very unhelpful, you may well find the effort rewarding.

1 year 8 months ago

I have never been the kind to enjoy an afternoon at the art gallery. It’s not that I don’t like art—I really do—but more that I don’t understand it very well. Of course the fact that I am red-green color blind probably doesn’t help my cause too much, but it seems that what excites artists, what stands out to them, does very little for me.

One of those funny little memories of my childhood involves a day visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario with my aunt and uncle. Both of them are artists and both of them love visiting art galleries. Hour after hour we would walk into a room with paintings hung on every wall. I would do a quick survey, glance at each painting, and then go to the middle of the room and grab a snooze on the little padded bench. Meanwhile, my aunt and uncle would walk slowly, they would take a long look at each painting, they would look at it from different angles, they would express joy and delight at the technique the artist used, at the colors he chose, at the detail he included—the light falling upon an object, the careful brushstrokes, the shading, the precision. The three of us were in that art gallery together, but one of us had a very, very different experience from the other two.

I thought of my aunt and uncle and I thought of that art gallery as I read Paul Washer’s new book The Gospel’s Power and Message. There is something in my nature, I think, that wants to glance instead of linger. I get restless quickly, I look for a moment and then move on to other things. I have come to see that it is often better to linger, that certain things can only be seen and grasped by that long and dedicated study. And this is exactly what Washer does in his book.

The Gospel’s Power and Message is the first of a trilogy from Washer, three books together titled “Recovering the Gospel” that take a long, deep look at the gospel. Washer begins in a slightly defensive posture, showing how the gospel has been reduced, neglected, and attacked in so many contemporary churches.

One of the greatest crimes committed by this present Christian generation is its neglect of the gospel, and it is from this neglect that all our other maladies spring forth. The lost world is not so much gospel hardened as it is gospel ignorant because many of those who proclaim the gospel are also ignorant of its most basic truths. The essential themes that make up the very core of the gospel—the justice of God, the radical depravity of man, the blood atonement, the nature of true conversion, and the biblical basis of assurance—are absent from too many pulpits. Churches reduce the gospel message to a few creedal statements, teach that conversion is a mere human decision, and pronounce assurance of salvation over anyone who prays the sinner’s prayer.

Against this radical neglect he says, “It does not become us as ministers or laymen to stand so near and do nothing when we see ‘the glorious gospel of our blessed God’ replaced by a gospel of lesser glory. As stewards of this truth, we have a duty to recover the one true gospel and proclaim it boldly and clearly to all.” This is exactly what he sets out to do in this book and in this series of books.

This book, then, is a long, careful, joyful look at the gospel. It is as if Washer walks into the room of an art gallery and studies a work of art first from one side and then another. He steps back to look at the entire work and then steps close to examine the finest details and the most careful nuances. He marvels at the workmanship and delights in the artistry. His joy in this work of art is contagious and the reader just can’t help but be drawn in to the excitement.

Yet unlike a work of art which is necessarily limited, a work that can be exhausted, the gospel is infinite in its depth and beauty.

As preachers and congregants, we would be wise to see the gospel anew through the eyes of [Paul] and to esteem it worthy of a lifetime of careful investigation. For though we may have already lived many years in the faith; though we may possess the intellect of Edwards and the insight of Spurgeon; though we may have memorized every biblical text concerning the gospel; and though we may have digested every publication from the early church fathers, the Reformers, the Puritans, and up through the scholars of this present age, we can be assured that we have not yet even reached the foothills of this Everest that we call the gospel. Even after an eternity of eternities the same will be said of us!

In a book that is deep, methodical, and powerful, Washer calls every Christian to make the gospel his lifelong obsession. “Remember this: you must always be growing in the gospel and your knowledge of it. It is not Christianity 101, but Christianity from A to Z. You have not mastered the gospel, nor will you master it, but it will master you!” This book, and the two that follow it, are intended to allow you to grow in your knowledge of the gospel so it can increasingly master and delight you. The Gospel’s Power and Message lingers over the message of the gospel and proclaims the objective facts of the gospel. The next volume will focus on the call of the gospel to true conversion; the final volume will look to the gospel’s assurance and warnings.

This is a book for every Christian—a book that calls us to know and to delight in the good news of the gospel. It is a book that will bless everyone who reads it.

1 year 9 months ago

There’s little doubt that pornography is a modern-day plague. Though pornography has always existed in one form or another, the Internet has created a medium through which it can be disseminated both widely and discreetly. Almost an entire generation of boys has succumbed at one time or another, with a new generation quickly falling into all of the same traps. And it has not just been boys; many men have found the temptation irresistible (and, of course, not a few women). While there are some who try to downplay pornography’s impact on life and marriage, evidence is mounting that it is a terribly destructive force.

Two new books from New Growth Press address the issue head-on. One targets men who are struggling with pornography or any other manner of sexual sin and the other brings help and healing to women who have found that their husbands have an addiction.

David White’s Sexual Sanity for Men seeks to help men “understand that sexual sin starts in their minds and hearts and shows them how knowing Christ breaks their chains, builds spiritual brotherhood, and helps them take practical steps to re-create their minds in a God-focused direction.” This is a study or a course as much as a book. It is broken into fourteen chapters, each of which has five parts. The idea is that you will read one chapter per week, and one part per weekday, and hopefully meet with other men along the way. There is a downloadable leader’s guide that allows it to be structured as a group study.

The heart of the book is helping men re-create their minds through the power of the Holy Spirit so that they are able to make choices that are sexually sane. Paul Tripp says it well in his endorsement:

I know of no resource for men who are struggling with sexual sin that is more soundly biblical, drenched with the gospel, and practical at the street level. I am thankful that this resource now exists and will recommend it again and again. Here is a welcome for men to come out of hiding, to embrace that there is nothing that could be revealed about them that hasn’t already been covered by the blood of Jesus, and to believe that God has given them every grace they need to fight the battle with sexual sin.

Meanwhile Vicki Tiede has written When Your Husband is Addicted to Pornography. (Long-time readers of the blog may remember that I interviewed Tiede early in 2011 and at that time she mentioned that she was working on the book.) This book is meant for the women—the thousands or millions of women—who have been left shattered and betrayed when they have found out that their husband has an addiction to pornography. In many ways Tiede has the more difficult task; the men have sinned and have now to put sin to death; the wives have been sinned against and have to deal with the betrayal and heartbreak and bitterness.

Tiede writes from personal experience here and gently guides women away from anger and despair and toward healing. The book promises that “Through daily readings and questions on six important topics: hope, surrender, trust, identity, brokenness, and forgiveness, you will grow in healing and hope. Allowing God to meet your greatest needs is a long and learned process, but he promises to help you every step of the way.” Much like White’s book, this one is structured as a series of daily readings of five per week for six weeks. It is equally drenched in the gospel and equally practical. I had the opportunity to read it before it was published and to write this endorsement:

A porn plague is raging in homes across the world today, and for every addicted husband there is a brokenhearted wife. While there is an abundance of powerful, biblical resources to help men overcome addiction, their wives have largely been overlooked. I am grateful that Vicki Tiede has filled that void. In a book that is sensitive, biblical, and conversational, she comes alongside hurting women as a friend and guides them to the hope and peace only the gospel can give.

Though much has been written on the subject, each of these books has a niche all its own. White gives men the time they may need to overcome an addiction and to retrain their minds, something that usually cannot be accomplished overnight or through a quick reading a single book. Tiede eschews easy answers and calls women to the kind of action that will take time and conviction.

Both Sexual Sanity for Men and When Your Husband Is Addicted to Pornography are well-written, well-formed, and much-needed books. Any of us can benefit from reading these books and every pastor or counselor will want to keep some on hand. 

1 year 9 months ago

Take a look at this graphic. Image that the middle box in the chart is your house and the boxes that surround it are the eight houses closest to your own. I doubt your neighborhood is arranged like a tic-tac-toe board, so you may need to use your imagination just a little bit.

 

Here’s what I want you to do.

  • First, write the names of the people who live in the house represented by each of the boxes. If you can give both first and last names, that’s great. If you’ve only got first names, that’s okay too.
  • Second, write down some information or facts about each of the people in that house. I don’t mean facts that you could observe by standing on the road and looking at their house (“Drives a red car”) but facts that you’ve gathered from speaking to them (“Works for a bank,” “Grew up across town.”).
  • Third, write down any in-depth information you know about each of the people. This could include details like their career plans or religious beliefs—the kind of information that comes from real conversation.

How did you do? Or how do you think you would do if you actually went through with this exercise? The degree to which you simply do not know your neighbors is the degree to which you will benefit from reading The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon. They premise their book upon this simple question: When Jesus told us love our neighbors, what if he meant our actual neighbors, the people who live closest to us? They explain that Christians have long been making “neighbor” into a safe metaphor that allows us to believe we are carrying out the Lord’s command when we visit soup kitchens and do acts of kindness to complete strangers.

The problem, as they explain it, is that “when we aim for everything, we hit nothing. So when we insist we’re neighbors with everybody, often we end up being neighbors with nobody.” Ouch. Much like the Pharisees, we ask “Who is my neighbor?” in the hope of finding a loophole, not in the hope of loving those who live nearby. “Jesus assumed that his audience would be able to love those nearest to them, their literal neighbors, the people most like them, who shared the same heritage and geography. In telling the parable, Jesus was stretching their concept of neighbor to include even people from a group they didn’t like.” As we read the parable today we tend to go straight to the stranger on the side of the road and no longer include the person in the house next door.

This book is full of biblical counsel and simple wisdom about how to be a good neighbor. Perhaps the most freeing concept is that there is inherent value in being a good neighbor, even if your neighbor never becomes a Christian. The authors helpfully distinguish between ultimate motives and ulterior motives. The ultimate motive in engaging your neighbors is to share the gospel with them and to see them turn to the Lord, but we must never do this through ulterior motives. Too many Christians use engaging their neighbors as a thinly-veiled guise to try to “win them,” and give up when the neighbors do not respond positively. Pathak and Runyon say, “The ‘agenda’ we need to drop is the well-meaning tendency to be friends with people for the sole purpose of converting them to our faith. Many so desperately want to move people forward spiritually that they push them according to their timetable, not according to how God is working in them. It’s tempting to offer friendship with strings attached.”

They clarify: “Sharing the story of Jesus and his impact on our lives is the right motive, but it canot be an ulterior motive in developing relationships. We don’t love our neighbors to convert them; we love our neighbors because we are converted.” Christians have long been taught that we should do good things solely to have a spiritual conversation that can move people toward conversion; but Jesus never called us to use a bait-and-switch approach where we are friends only so we can share the gospel. “We are called to love our neighbors unconditionally, without expecting anything in return.”

The Art of Neighboring clearly comes from a little bit outside the theological “tribe” that I identify with, and that brings both benefits and drawbacks. The book is not without its weaknesses. I would have liked to see the authors wrestle a bit more with issues related to sharing the gospel and creative ways of doing that. I would have liked to see them focus more on the role of the local church in the life of the Christian. But those weaknesses are more than compensated for with their call to be good neighbors and the challenge they offer.

This is a book I learned from, a book that was of immediate benefit to me, and, I think, exactly the book I needed to read. We live in a closely-packed neighborhood where we know and are known (at last count at least four of our neighbors have a key to our house!) but I needed to be freed to simply love my neighbors, to be a good neighbor to them, without feeling guilt for not always offering gospel sneak-attacks where I work it into every conversation. There is value in being a good neighbor and as we neighbor well, we trust that very natural gospel opportunities will arise.

1 year 9 months ago
I occasionally write under a pseudonym. There are some things I feel like I can say, or maybe even ought to say, that wouldn’t be wise to contribute under my own name. And so there have been a handful of times over the years that I’ve written under a pseudonym. There are several complications that come with writing under a pen name, chief among them that it is difficult to interact with people who appreciate and respond to what I’ve written. Unless I want to create an entire identity for this character, complete with email address and Facebook profile, I have no capacity to respond to those who have questions or concerns.

There is another issue that, sadly, tends to bother me more. A couple of things I have written under this other name have been well-received and I have found it surprisingly difficult to allow the accolades to go to a non-existent person. I’ve got pride problems, I guess, and want some of that recognition for myself. In its fullest form, I can see that I almost feel like it’s a waste to write something clever or something helpful that doesn’t, in the end, elevate my name. That sounds pathetic as I write it, but I think it’s true, at least on one level.

The author of the new book Embracing Obscurity spotted this same pride problem in his own life and responded by writing an entire book as simply Anonymous. In the book’s opening pages he admits to fantasies in which he is outed and receives the praise that he desires, at least on one level. And yet he has done all he can to shield his own identity, thus avoiding the ridiculous problem of receiving accolades, of receiving a wider platform, for a book that deals with obscurity. Like the panel of well-known leaders who discussed celebrityism at this year’s Together for the Gospel event, even discussing the subject carries with it a certain level of irony.

At a time of Christian celebrityism, Embracing Obscurity is a call to “become nothing in the light of God’s everything.” In a culture where so many people fear being underrated, where so many people feel they deserve recognition, this is just one of what I hope will be several calls to be willing—eager even—to be unrecognized and insignificant in the eyes of men. Though I trust this book is not the final word on the matter, I consider it a helpful opening salvo in the battle against a culture of Christian celebrity.

Anonymous begins with a reasoned call for obscurity simply in the light of being just one of seven billion people on the earth. Statistically, each of us is insignificant. But then we know that as beings created by God, created in the image of God, we could scarcely have more significance. So Anonymous draws our minds to the gospel where we see that our deepest significance is not found in our status or celebrity, but in being God’s image bearers. Not only that, but through the cross we are released to live what may seem insignificant lives so that we draw attention to Christ. Each of us, through the cross, can celebrate obscurity when Christ is elevated. Only in light of what Christ has done are we able to find joy in obscurity. This is the central message of the book and the most important takeaway.

Embracing Obscurity is a noble and well-timed attempt to advance the conversation about where we will find our identity and how we will understand Christian celebrity. It is well worth reading and well worth pondering.

1 year 10 months ago
It’s a feeling every reader knows and loves, and perhaps especially the reader of theology. It is the feeling that comes as you read a book and find yourself thinking “This could change everything.” There are some books that go straight to what you think you know, what you are so sure of, what you’ve so carefully constructed, and begin to pull it all apart and to replace it with something that is so much better, so much loftier, so much more worthy of God. Michael Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity has been one of those books to me. After ten pages I was hooked, after twenty I was reeling and after fifty I knew I would have to go back and read it all again.

I have read several books on the Trinity in the past and have always enjoyed reading them. James White’s The Forgotten Trinity and Bruce Ware’s Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are biblical, systematic and powerful. I’ve read them, benefited from them, and often recommended them. I will continue to do so. The unique angle—and unique beauty—of Delighting in the Trinity is that it looks less at a concept and more at a relationship, less at a doctrine and more at the persons of the godhead. It is, at heart, an introduction to the Christian faith and the Christian life that seeks to show that both must be at all times rooted in the triunity of God. All that God is, all that God does, flows out of his triunity. It is the essential Christian doctrine. Reeves says that his book is

about growing in our enjoyment of God and seeing how God’s triune being makes all his ways beautiful. It is a chance to taste and see that the Lord is good, to have your heart won and yourself refreshed. For it is only when you grasp what it means for God to be a Trinity that you really sense the beauty, the overflowing kindness, the heart-grabbing loveliness of God. If the Trinity were something we could shave off God, we would not be relieving him of some irksome weight; we would be shearing him of precisely what is so delightful about him. For God is triune, and it is as triune that he is so good and desirable.

Like me, you have looked at the diagrams that attempt to display the Trinity and you’ve heard the various comparisons: It’s like the three states of water: liquid, steam and ice; it’s like an egg that has shell, white and yolk and yet is only one egg. But if we aren’t careful, our explanations can make the Trinity seem distant and difficult rather than imminent and delightful. “For all that we may give an orthodox nod of the head to belief in the Trinity, it simply seems too arcane to make any practical difference to our lives.” While we have a theological construct of the Trinity in our hearts and minds and statements of faith, it can make so little difference to our lives that God is a Trinity rather than one (or two, for that). What Reeves seeks to do, and what he does so well, is to introduce the Trinity not as a problem or a technicality, but as “the vital oxygen of Christian life and joy.”

And so he looks at Father, Son and Spirit, he looks at Creation, at salvation, at the Christian life, placing the triunity of God at the very center of it all. Consider this, the triune nature of the cross:

This God makes no third party suffer to achieve atonement. The one who dies is the Lamb of God, the Son. And it means that nobody but God contributes to the work of salvation: the Father, Son and Spirit accomplish it all. Now if God were not triune, if there was no Son, no lamb of God to die in our place, then we would have to atone for our sin ourselves. We would have to provide, for God could not. But—hallelujah!—God has a Son, and in his infinite kindness he dies, paying the wages of sin, for us. It is because God is triune that the cross is such good news.

He says a page later, “The more trinitarian the salvation, the sweeter it is.”

Here’s the rub: If you are to delight in God, you must delight in the God who is, which is to say, the triune God. And if you gaze at this God, you will be filled with delight. And this is exactly what this book does—it draws the heart and mind to the Trinity, the source of all delight.

And so, this book is about delighting in the Trinity not as a theological construct, but as the very essence, the very joy, of the Christian faith. The Trinity is not merely a doctrine that separates Christianity from the other religions of the world, but a doctrine that describes the reality of the God who is. While Reeves deals with one of the most unfathomable of all doctrines—one we can understand only to a limited degree—the book never becomes dense; what’s more, Reeves infuses the book with a droll, cheeky sense of humor. It’s a perfect tone.

I am hard pressed to think of a book I’ve highlighted so heavily, a book that has impacted me so immediately, and a book which I am so eager to read again so quickly. I give this one my absolute highest recommendation.

2 years 3 days ago
I guess we need to get this out of the way right off the top—A Place of Quiet Rest is a book by women and targeted squarely at women (as if the cover art and font didn’t already tip you off!). It is written by Nancy Leigh DeMoss and includes contributions from twelve other authors and speakers, all of whom are likewise women. Though I knew all of this going in, I read the book without any compulsion and for my own benefit. And it really did benefit me. Let me explain.

Because personal devotions are a daily (or near-daily) part of my life, I try to ensure that I am doing them well, that I am not simply going through the motions, but making my times with the Lord a real and vital part of my life. To help me in this, I regularly read books on Scripture, prayer or the spiritual disciplines. Most of the books I have read in recent years have been written by men. Well and good. However, a few weeks ago I stumbled across this book on Aileen’s shelf and began to read it. I’m glad I did.

A Place of Quiet Rest is meant to lead the reader toward finding intimacy with God through a daily devotional life. In a friendly and personal way, DeMoss shares many of the lessons she has learned as she has sought the Lord day-by-day and year-by-year. What she longs for, and what she longs for her readers to experience, is not merely knowledge of God—the facts of who God is and what he has done—but true relationship with him. This, more than anything else, is what makes her book different from so many others. It is not about the technique, but about the goal at the end of it all—a growing delight in God himself.

I believe the greatest strength of the book may be just how real it is, how imitable. This is not a theologian with postgraduate degrees in theology seeking advanced answers to advanced questions (though certainly there is a time and place for that), but a very real, very normal person who simply longs to know her Creator through the means he has given. DeMoss shares what she has learned as someone who is in process, not someone who has all the answers or who has figured it all out. Anyone can read this book and, at the end of it all, know “I can do that.” There is no great trick to it, no technique that requires special equipment or special knowledge. It is simply a matter of pursuing relationship with one who longs to relate to us.

As you would hope and expect, the heart of the book is a look at the disciplines of reading Scripture, prayer and meditation—taking truth and working it deep into the heart. DeMoss sometimes teaches by example, sharing how she has studied, understood and applied specific passages. Other times she quotes from some of the classics of the genre, displaying a reliance on the Puritans and other godly mentors. Through it all she avoids all of the trendy and new forms of prayer and meditation and simply describes what has brought joy and growth to so many Christians for so many years.

This is a book for women that has been of great benefit to at least one man. Yes, I had to substitute the occasional word and re-work some of the application, but what DeMoss teaches is universal. Whether men or women, we were created to long for and to need fellowship with God. In his kindness God has given us prayer and his Word so that we may delight in him by enjoying relationship with him. This book stirred my love for the Lord, it stirred my desire to pursue him through the means he has given us, and it gave me specific and helpful ways of doing just that. I am certain that it can do just the same for you.

2 years 2 months ago
As Christians we make a big deal of the death of Jesus and rightly so because it is only through his death that we can be saved from our sin. But if all Jesus needed to accomplish before God was his death on the cross, he could have come to earth as an adult on the evening of Good Friday, he could have died, and still be the one to save us from our sin. But had he done all of this, we would still have a problem. There is a reason that before Christ died he had to truly live. This is the subject of R.C. Sproul’s new book The Work of Christ.

Sproul says: “In order for [Jesus] to qualify as our Redeemer, it was not enough for Him simply to go to the cross and be crucified. If Jesus had only paid for our sins, He would have succeeded only in taking us back to square one. We would no longer be guilty, but we still would have absolutely no righteousness to bring before God.” We would be free of guilt before God, but we would have no righteousness. This is what Christ merited for us in his life.

Our Redeemer needed not only to die, but also to live a life of perfect obedience. The righteousness that He manifested could then be transferred to all who put their trust in Him. Just as my sin is transferred to Him on the cross when I trust in Him, His righteousness is transferred to my account in the sight of God. So, when I stand before God on the judgment day, God is going to see Jesus and His righeousness, which will be my cover.

The purpose of this book is to give a brief overview of the time Christ spent in this world to show that he was here to fulfill a mission. Sproul looks at the incarnation, the infancy hymns, Jesus in the temple, baptism, and so on, in each case showing that all along the way Jesus was executing a mission. This book bears all the marks of R.C. Sproul, from careful teaching to wise application to theological nuance to a remark or two on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Though Sproul has elsewhere written extensively about the life and death of Jesus Christ, this book focuses narrowly on this one area of the theological implications of Christ’s life.

Let me say a word about the book’s format. The Work of Christ is the first of several books that will be released in a new partnership between Sproul, Ligonier Ministries and David C. Cook Publishers and this partnership has resulted in a unique format. Each of the book’s eleven chapters is about ten pages or so and then followed by an extensive study guide. The study guide for each chapter contains an introduction, learning objectives, quotations, a thorough outline of the chapter’s contents, Bible study questions, a discussion guide, a couple of points of application, and some suggested reading for further study. All told, the study guides are just about the same length as the chapters. This brings a lot of value to those who appreciate assistance in understanding and applying a book; this kind of a thorough companion to a book usually comes with an extra cost. Those who do not enjoy study guides will want to be aware that only about half of this book’s pages are actual content.

The Work of Christ is a powerful book that can serve as an ideal companion to The Truth of the Cross—one book to focus on Christ’s active obedience in living a sinless life, and one book to focus on Christ’s passive obedience in facing the Father’s wrath on the cross. I highly recommend it.

2 years 2 months ago
I guess I’m a little late to the party. Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts was released almost eighteen months ago and since then has been a consistent bestseller. If anecdotal evidence can be trusted, its appeal has been almost entirely to women. Not surprisingly, I’ve received many questions about the book and most of them have come from women—women who have been given the book or who have been told to read it. So at long last I had the book sent to my Kindle and I gave it a read.

The book’s appeal seems to come on at least two levels. In the first place, it features a uniquely poetic form of writing. Voskamp has a style all her own; it appeals to some and is exasperating to others. Just to give you a taste, here is an excerpt from the first page:

A glowing sun-orb fills an August sky the day this story begins, the day I am born, the day I begin to live.

And I fill my mother’s tearing ring of fire with my body emerging, virgin lungs searing with air of this earth and I enter the world like every person born enters the world: with clenched fists.

From the diameter of her fullness, I empty her out—and she bleeds. Vernix-creased and squalling, I am held to the light.

Voskamp likes to use language in unexpected ways, moving around the order of words, blurring the lines between prose and poetry so that a gift isn’t “tied with ribbon,” but is “ribbon bound.” Sentence fragments are acceptable, rules malleable. There is clearly a kind of appeal to it so that those who don’t hate it, love it.

The second level of the book’s appeal involves the topic so that what she writes about resounds with many of her readers.

Voskamp’s story begins with the twin themes of suffering and ingratitude. She recounts the heartbreaking story of the death of her sister and shows how this, along with other great sorrows and disappointments, drove gratitude far away. One Thousand Gifts is a biographical account of first seeing her need for gratitude and then learning to express it not just in spite of life’s trials, but even through them. She refers to this as eucharisteo, a Greek word for thanksgiving.

Voskamp comes to consider ingratitude the very heart of humanity’s fall into sin. “Non-eucharisteo, ingratitude, was the fall—humanity’s discontent with all that God freely gives. That is what has scraped me raw: ungratefulness.” The remedy, then, is to restore thanksgiving. “Then to find Eden, the abundance of Paradise, I’d need to forsake my non-eucharisteo, my bruised and bloodied ungrateful life, and grab hold to eucharisteo, a lifestyle of thanksgiving.” The way she does this, or the way she does this tangibly at least, is to attempt to order all that she has to be grateful for. She begins to scratch out a list of one thousand gifts. She challenges herself with this, to write down 1,000 gifts of God’s grace. 

What are these gifts? They are the ordinary and every day things like “morning shadows across old floors, jam piled high on the toast, cry of blue jay from high in the spruce” (those are numbers 1, 2 and 3 on the list). As she writes, she finds that she begins to think and speak the language of gratitude. Her life is transformed as she discovers how to be grateful. She goes so far as to make this very nearly sacramental, saying “If clinging to His goodness is the highest form of prayer, then seeing His goodness with a pen, with the shutter, with a word of thanks, these really are the most sacred acts conceivable.” As she learns gratitude in her own life, she calls on her readers to do the same, to begin that list of one thousand gifts. Perhaps they, too, will ascend to this new level of Christian experience that she has found.

Having now read this book, I want to point to a couple of some significant concerns.

The first pertains to the people who have influenced Voskamp in her journey to eucharisteoHer theology is an eclectic combination of Protestantism and Catholic or Catholic-influenced mysticism. She either quotes or is influenced by authors like Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Annie Dillard, and Dallas Willard. This brings to the book a deep-rooted mysticism that at times seems even to border on the view that the divine exists within and extends to all parts of nature (a teaching known as panentheism). At heart, mysticism promotes the view that God can be experienced, and perhaps even best experienced, outside of Scripture. This comes in direct contrast to what Scripture itself says, that Scripture is God’s final and sufficient revelation of himself.

Sexuality & Ecstasy

Based on the people who influence her, it should not be surprising that her book ends up leading toward a higher plane of holiness or Christian experience that borders on spiritual ecstasy. This ecstasy comes by way of an almost sexual experience with God.

By the book’s final chapter Voskamp has realized that she still hasn’t put it all together, that something is still missing, and so, in her words, “I fly to Paris and discover how to make love to God.” This closing chapter, “The Joy of Intimacy,” is her discovery of God through something akin to sexual intimacy. In a chapter laden with intimate imagery she falls in love with God again, but this time hears him urging to respond. She wants more of him. And then at last she experiences some kind of spiritual climax, some understanding of what it means to fully live, of what it means to be one with Christ, to experience the deepest kind of union. “God makes love with grace upon grace, every moment a making of His love for us. [C]ouldn’t I make love to God, making every moment love for Him? To know Him the way Adam knew Eve. Spirit skin to spirit skin?”

It is true, of course, that the Bible uses imagery of bride and groom to describe the relationship of Christ to his church, but it does not go as far as integrating the sexual component of marriage. Sometimes it is best to allow God to define the parameters of our metaphors rather than taking them to a much greater extent. Voskamp would have done well to limit herself here.

The sexuality of this chapter is not all that concerns me. I am also concerned with the kind of spiritual climax she experiences. Why should she have to travel to a Roman Catholic cathedral in a foreign land in order to truly experience the Lord? “My eyes follow the stone arches rising over us, granite hands clasped in prayer over souls. I think of all who have gone before, the hands of medieval peasants who chiseled the stone under which I now stand. I think of those long-ago believers who had a way of entering into the full life, of finding a passage into God, a historical model of intimacy with God. I lean back to see the spires.”

What does she not understand about the gospel that her ecstasies have to happen in a place dedicated to a false gospel of salvation by grace plus works rather than a gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone? Why should they happen in a place dedicated to Our Lady (which is what Notre Dame translates to)? She declares that in the cathedral she is on holy ground, but there is nothing more or less holy about this cathedral than any other place on earth. There must be something wrong not just with the destination but with the whole journey if it leads here, of all places.

Conclusion

Though One Thousand Gifts is not without some strengths, in its own subtle way I believe that it can and will prove dangerous, at least to some. Many will read it, embrace their need for gratitude, and genuinely be more grateful to God. This is well and good. There are many books that contain valuable takeaways even if they also contain significant weaknesses. It doesn’t make you a bad person or an immature Christian if you’ve read it and enjoyed it. But perhaps you’d do well to make sure you haven’t bought into it all the way.

I fear that some will see that Voskamp subtly promotes a higher order of holiness, a higher order of relationship with God, and be dissatisfied that they do not have this for themselves. They may grow discontent not with their ingratitude but with their inability to experience the kind of ecstasy and fervor Voskamp models. What she finds, what she models, is absent from the Bible.

One measure of a good book is that it more clearly displays the power of Scripture to show us our shortcomings and display the gospel’s power over them. In this sense One Thousand Gifts simply does not measure up. And for that reason, among others, I would not recommend it.

2 years 5 months ago
Several times in the past decade D.A. Carson has been asked to give a public lecture at one university or another. Three times he has taken the opportunity to speak on the subject of tolerance, or intolerance, as the case may be. Those lectures proved the foundation of what would become his cleverly-titled new book, The Intolerance of Tolerance.

Here’s the thing: In a society obsessed with tolerance, we are actually not tolerant at all. It’s all a big lie, a big fiction, and we’re all playing along. In order to claim tolerance we’ve had to rewrite the definition of the term and in so doing we’ve put ourselves on dangerous ground. Tolerance has become part of the Western “plausability structure”—a stance that is assumed and is not to be questioned. We are to be tolerant at all times. Well, almost all times, that is.

Carson begins by showing that tolerance presupposes disagreement. That’s the beauty of being tolerant—one person expresses disagreement with another but still tolerates him, accepting that differing views exists even while holding fast to his own. He puts up with another person even though they do not believe the same thing. But over time there has been a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle shift in the word’s meaning. Today’s version of tolerance actually accepts all differing views. We’ve gone from accepting the existence of other views to believing that we need to accept all differing views. This brings us into the natural outworking of postmodernism, a philosophy that denies the singular nature of truth.

Things get trickier still when we see that tolerance is not considered merely a virtue today, but the cardinal virtue, the virtue above all others. “Intolerance is no longer a refusal to allow contrary opinions to say their piece in public, but must be understood to be any questioning or contradicting the view that all opinions are equal in value, that all worldviews have equal worth, that all stances are equally valid. To question such postmodern axioms is by definition intolerant.” To quote Carson, “Oh dear.” 

Tolerance rules today with one important caveat. There can be no tolerance for people who do not agree with the contemporary usage of the term. People like Christians, for example. Those who hold to the old meaning, that I will tolerate you even though I believe that you are wrong, sinful even—there can be no tolerance for people like that. Hence this new tolerance is inherently intolerant.

The Intolerance of Tolerance explains this strange new definition, traces its development, shows how it is particularly opposed to Christianity, and discusses what we stand to lose if this intolerant new tolerance continues to reign in society. Carson closes by suggesting ten ways ahead—ten suggestions that each of us can adopt if we wish to combat the new tolerance.

This is not just a book for smart people, but you’ll find it helps. If you’re really smart and well-read you can probably read it once with pretty good comprehension. If you’re like me, you’ll need at least two readings and even then be scratching your head at times. It’s not that it’s exceedingly dense or difficult, but that it deals with categories that are unfamiliar. At least that was my experience. But I’m glad I read it as it helped me crystalize exactly what I’ve seen going on all around me. It’s given me the parameters I need to ensure that I don’t inadvertently lose the better meaning of tolerance and it has given me fair warning of the consequences should I do so.

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