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christian living

7 years 1 month ago
It seems a fair question, doesn’t it? If God is truly good, as Christians insist, then how can there be so much suffering in the world? Since ancient times this question has led skeptics to believe that God cannot, must not, exist. Even today’s so-called New Atheists show how little is really new when they use the existence of suffering and evil as a linchpin of their arguments against God’s existence. Quite simply, they say, if suffering and evil exist, then God must not. Yet though people have wrestled with this question and allowed it to drive them from the faith, many more have wrestled with it and have come to the conclusion that God does exist despite suffering. They have found that suffering is God’s invitation to trust in him and to hold out hope for a better world to come.

If God Is Good is the latest book from Randy Alcorn’s who is probably best-known for his last major release, Heaven, which has sold well over a half million copies in hardcover. From my experience, Alcorn primarily writes three types of books: novels, very small books and very large books. If God Is Good, like Heaven before it, fits squarely in the final category. Weighing in at 512 pages, this is a good-sized hardcover that offers a thorough examination and defense of faith in the midst of suffering and evil.

The topic Alcorn deals with in this book is a particularly difficult one. Humility and practicality, trademarks of his ministry, are evident in the books earliest pages. “If I thought I had no helpful perspectives on the problem, it would be pointless for me to write this book. If I imagined I had all the answers neatly lined up, it would be pointless for you to read it.” He seeks to get right to the bottom of the subject and, as we learn, a sound theology of suffering touches upon many different areas. This leads him into theology that is increasingly foundational, plunging into deeper and deeper waters. He looks to the source and nature of evil, human depravity (advocating total spiritual inability), free will (arguing for compatibilism), divine omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence, the existence of Heaven and Hell, justification, sanctification and so on. What area of the Christian life remains untouched by this great question of suffering? In what area of life or theology is evil not an unfortunate consideration?

Throughout the book Alcorn’s style is stridently didactic, bearing shades of Heaven. But where Heaven depended heavily on questions and answers, If God Is Good leans upon bolded headings followed by explanations. The style is unique in all the books I’ve read, but quite effective. These are headings that cannot be skipped over as they are integral to the flow of the book. So choosing a page at random, we see a heading of “Free Will in Heaven.” Immediately below that is a bolded sentence saying, “Free will in Heaven will not require that we be capable of sinning or that humanity may fall again.” There follows seven or eight paragraphs of explanation and then another bolded sentence to delineate the next few paragraphs: “We will have true freedom in Heaven, but a righteous freedom that never sins.” And so it continues throughout. This writing style fits well with the way I learn, though I did discover to my chagrin that I tend to skip over headings and often had to backtrack to ensure that I was not missing important content.

As we would expect, Alcorn’s teaching is interlaced with stories of grace through suffering. Some of these come from the author’s own life (consider reading this article if you have never read of some of Alcorn’s own suffering) while others come from family or friends or strangers. More than supplementary material, these examples show how God has acted in grace toward his people as they have suffered. Though the size of the book may warn some away (then again, this has certainly not proven the case with Heaven) the book is in no way an academic treatise. To the contrary, it is written with a general audience firmly in mind and, because it never gets bogged down in detail, anyone should be able to read and to enjoy it. In fact, though the book does teach some profoundly important theology and though it is concerned with doctrine, it is always pastoral in its tone. This is not theology for the sake of theology, but theology that brings true peace and comfort. Where firmness is required, Alcorn provides firmness, but where gentleness is best, he is gentle.

Writing to those who may see little need to read such a book he says, “We shouldn’t wait until suffering comes to start learning about how to face it any more than we should wait to fall into the water to start learning how to scuba dive.” To those skeptics who are convinced that the existence of suffering must mean the non-existence of God he challenges, “This is one of the great paradoxes of suffering. Those who don’t suffer much think suffering should keep people from God, while many who suffer a great deal turn to God, not from him.” And for those who know suffering all too well he encourages, “Our present sufferings are a brief but important part of a larger plan that one day will prove them all worthwhile.”

There can be a fine line between exhaustive and exhausting. In the case of If God Is Good, Alcorn has succeeded in writing a book that is long and thorough but not at all tiresome. And though this book enters quite a crowded field, it offers a depth, a thoroughness, a pastoral spirit that set it apart. I very much enjoyed reading it and trust that you will too. I am glad to give it my highest recommendation.

7 years 1 month ago
The Ten Commandments was among the first lengthy passages of Scripture I ever committed to memory. Like most children, I was told to memorize the commandments and did so. Every week they were read in church, ensuring that they remained fresh in my mind. And yet, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that I think little about these Commandments, usually convinced that I am living by the letter of the law but rarely pausing to consider whether I live in the spirit of them. I’m a New Testament Christian, I suppose, often seeing little reason to look back to these laws, given so long ago. And it is to my shame, I’m sure. So it was some interest that I turned to Words from the Fire, a new book in which Al Mohler calls Christians to hear the voice of God in the Ten Commandments.

The great crisis of our day, of the postmodern times in which Mohler writes the book, is one of knowledge. It is an epistemological crisis that goes to the very root of how we can know anything and, continuing on from there, what right we have to tell other people what is true and what is false. Mohler summarizes the question in this way: “How do we know and teach what we claim to know and teach?” The great challenge for Christians, in face of such questions, is to “make certain we know on what authority we speak, and know, and teach.” As Christians our claim is not that we have something to say or that our words merit attention. To the contrary, we claim that God has something to say and has chosen to say it through us. We speak only because he has spoken and we ought to speak only what he has spoken.

The format of the book is dead simple and really exactly what you would expect—after an Introduction there are ten chapters for ten laws. This Introduction is excellent, structured around eight “if’s.” If we grant that God has spoken as Creator to his creation, there are eight things we must now acknowledge: that we now do know; that we know what we know only by mercy; that we too must speak; that all of creation is about God; that God has spoken for our good; that we must obey; that we must trust; that we must witness. “We are here because God has spoken, not only in the fire, but also in the Son—in whose name we gather as the church and in whose name we serve. The voice at Horeb points to its ultimate fulfillment in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. For beyond the miracle of Israel hearing God’s voice and surviving, we can now know the Word of God made flesh…and be saved.” And from this starting point Mohler consistently shows how the Ten Commandments are relevant to us today and how God calls us to obey them; he shows how they are all a work of God’s grace. And always he points to the ultimate fulfillment of these commandments in Jesus Christ, the one in whom the law has been fulfilled. These are commandments we can know and obey and delight in today in a way that the ancient Israelites could not even imagine.

As I considered reading the book I was particularly interested in Mohler’s teaching on the fourth commandment. I was raised in the Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed traditions, both of which insisted on a real continuity between the Old Testament Sabbath and the New Testament Lord’s Day. Though I am now a convinced Baptist, I have still found it difficult to reconcile the Ten Commandments with a non-Sabbatarian view of the fourth commandment, a position Dr. Mohler refers to as Lord’s Day observance. I found his arguments here logical, convincing and convicting. The main issue in this commandment, he insists, is what we are to do rather than what we are not to do. That simple observation, combined with his other teaching, shows me that I can be a non-Sabbatarian and actually have a higher view of the Lord’s Day, just as a New Testament Christian should have a higher view than his Old Testament equivalent of any of the other commandments. “Are there things we ought not to do on the Lord’s Day?” he asks. “Certainly there are. Anything that would detract from our worship should not be done on the Lord’s Day. Anything that would rob the Lord’s Day of priority worship should not be done. Anything that would be on our minds when we are worshiping, as if we can only get done with this in order to go do that, is a matter of sin, no matter what it is.”

If I were to point out a potential weak point in the book I’d say that strangely and rather surprisingly, I noticed several little editing oversights—a missing quotation mark here, a missing word there, an overuse of a word in a few other places. There are only a few such things, but still more than I would have expected. It is certainly not enough to detract from the message of the book but still enough that I made a note of it.

We’ve seen a steady stream of books come from Mohler’s pen in the past couple of years. I have read them all and am quite comfortable saying that this one is the best of the bunch. Logically, consistently, biblically, Mohler looks to the Ten Commandments and then calls us to live in light of those laws, not as people burdened by rules, but as a grateful people acting in love toward a great God. “Understood rightly, these commandments lead, not to our despair that we fall short of them, but to our thankfulness for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ comes to save lawbreakers like ourselves. Thus, we see the commandments themselves as grace to us. But our confidence is not in our ability to keep these commandments, for we will surely fail. Our confidence is in Christ, whose perfect obedience fulfills the law.”

7 years 2 months ago

Mark Tubbs is a good friend and my co-laborer over at Discerning Reader. If you have enjoyed that site recently, thank Mark more than me. As Managing Editor, he is heavily involved in the day-to-day management of all that happens there. Because I am on vacation this week, I asked if he would mind if I borrowed a review he had published at Discerning Reader. It is for Paul David Tripp’s brand new Broken-Down House. I trust you’ll enjoy the review and consider purchasing the book!

Using the concept of the house as a metaphor for life isn’t a novel idea. In Scripture, both the psalmist and Christ himself employ the metaphor. More recently, author William Paul Young situated the majority of the action of The Shack in a ramshackle structure in which the Trinity helps the main character to process the tragic events of his life. Even the secular world has employed the metaphor, such as in the 2001 film Life as a House.

Paul David Tripp, whom I readily disclose as one of my favorite Christian authors alongside John Piper, puts the Christian-life-as-a-house metaphor to effective service in his newest book, Broken-Down House: Living Productively in a World Gone Bad. Special mention ought also to go to editor Kevin Meath, who strengthened the manuscript for publication.

Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but the way in which Tripp opens the penultimate chapter is instructive regarding the nature of his book:

Tim had his life organized into neat little categories—work, family, church, friendships, leisure—and he was careful to give proper attention to each one.

Similarly, whereas many Christian books focus in on a single aspect of the Christian life as though it were a separate compartment, Broken-Down House is comprehensive in its scope. A biblical theology of the Christian life, if you like. I cannot do better than to quote Tripp sketching out the architecture of this book:

Well, sin has ravaged the beautiful house that God created. This world bears only the faintest resemblance to what it was built to be. It sits in slumped and disheveled pain, groaning for the restoration that can only be accomplished by the hands of him who built it in the first place. The Bible clearly tells us that the divine Builder cannot and will not leave his house in its present pitiful condition. He has instituted a plan of restoration, and he will not relent until everything about His house is made totally new again. That is the good news.

The bad news is that you and I are a living right in the middle of the restoration. We live each day in a house that is terribly broken, where nothing works exactly as intended. But we do not live in the house by ourselves. Emmanuel lives here as well, and he is at work returning his house to its former beauty. Often it doesn’t look like any real restoration is going on at all. Things seem to get messier, uglier, and less functional all the time. But that’s the way it is with restoration; things generally get worse before they get better.

The greatest strength of this book lies is its recognition of the bifurcated reality of life: the world that we live in is broken and the bodies that we live in are broken. Indeed, Tripp goes much further on the second count, explaining that our very selves are irreparably broken by sin, unfixable by anyone but the master builder, God himself. Tripp roots his theology in Scripture, pointing out that in all its sweat, blood, guts and glory, “the Bible is painfully honest about real life in a fallen world. This honesty is a sign of God’s love.”

I advise you to use the final chapter to do what its title suggests: “Examine Your Legacy.” It is packed with lengthy passages of Scripture and warrants extended time spent on every section. You’d be doing yourself a disservice and the book an injustice to rush through it.

Broken-Down House is a book for everyone and everything. Everyone in that no one is exempt from its message, and everything in that there is not a single aspect of the human condition (that I could think of) absent from this book. Even more importantly, it is a piece of work whose cornerstone is Christ, and whose chief architect is God himself. Read it and weep, read it and rejoice.

7 years 3 months ago
To live is to suffer. It is sadly inevitable that in this sinful world, we will all suffer. Some suffer more than others and some suffer for different reasons than others. But the fact remains that all of us will face hardship and pain. Knowing this, we are wise to arm ourselves for those times, to prepare ourselves for the inevitable affliction. Does Grace Grow in Winter?, authored by Ligon Duncan and J. Nicholas Reid is just the kind of book that does this so well, offering wise, biblical, pastoral counsel useful to those in the fight and to those only preparing to fight. The book considers suffering in the light of the sovereignty of our wise and loving God.

“The problem with the way many Christians treat suffering,” say the authors, “is that they simply attempt to put a happy face on trials. A little personal suffering, however, goes a long way in revealing how vacuous careless platitudes can be. The issue of suffering is not to be treated in a cold and pedantic manner. Suffering is real and not something to be handled several steps removed. Yet if we address suffering merely subjectively, without focusing on the objective truths of the Bible, then there is all the reason in the world to despair.” Through this short book they attempt to address suffering from a biblical perspective, asking why we suffer, how we are to suffer and how we ought to respond to such difficult times.

The authors cover this territory through four chapters. First they look at the question of “Why Me?” and seek to provide the background to suffering and then look at several ways of suffering well (which is to say, suffering in a way that brings glory to God). In the second chapter they ask “What is God Up To?” and show how important it is that we always see God right at the center of our suffering—that we do not begin to believe that when we suffer, we do so without God. They look at four things God says he intends to accomplish through suffering. Chapter three asks, “How Can We Profit From Suffering?” and offers seven things believers can do to profit from affliction. The fourth and final chapter asks, “What Should We Think of Jesus’ Suffering?” Here they show that Jesus’ suffering allows him to be sympathetic to us in ours’ and then asks what we are to learn from what and how Jesus suffered. Thus, though it is short, the book offers a well-rounded look at the topic.

Does Grace Grow Best in Winter? was first delivered at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi as a series of lectures and that format remains evident even in the book. There is an urgency to the message, an applicability to the message, that comes, no doubt, from the fact that Duncan only had a few hours (and, hence, only a few pages) to communicate his message.

I suspect that the large type, thick paper and seven pages of related books from the publisher are meant to make this look like a more substantial volume than it really is. All-told the actual text comes to 87 pages though, again, this is with a rather large font size. So do know when you buy this book that you are not purchasing an exhaustive volume offering a thorough treatment of suffering. This book can be read in an evening and that is one of its great strengths. It is short but it packs a punch. It may not be the only book you’ll want in your library dealing with this subject, but it is certainly a worthy addition on its own merits. I highly recommend it.

7 years 4 months ago
I spent a few minutes yesterday reading about the new iPhone—the iPhone 3G S. It sounds spectacular. With every generation of the phone the wizards at Apple get one step closer to what people wanted the iPhone to be from the outset—an amazing, innovative, gizmo that does so many things so well. Watching the videos, reading the descriptions, I can feel my heart begin to long for that phone. I know that if I don’t watch myself, if I don’t guard my heart, I may just find myself dedicating way too much time to pursuing that phone and rationalizing all the reasons I need it. Of course the problem is not with the phone, but with my heart—a heart that longs for what it does not have. Idolatry, it seems, is alive and well.

We are prone to believe, I think, that idolatry is a problem we have evolved beyond. Those ancient Israelites bowed to a golden calf and tribes in South America prostrated themselves before wooden sculptures. But we, in the demystified west have no idols, do we? Greg Dutcher thinks we need to rediscover this little word, idolatry. “My prayer is that this book will help you in this regard, but in order to press forward, we have to take a look at an ugly word, and it’s a word that gets little press today. Idolatry is an old-fashioned word, consigned to social studies classes and Clive Cussler novels. But what if it’s alive and well, even in America? What if it’s a problem of such epidemic proportions that our unawareness of it is only making it worse? … The battle against idolatry is a fight for our lives, the lives of others, and most importantly, the reputation of Christ himself.” In You Are the Treasure That I Seek, Dutcher seeks to expose this idol and to equip Christians to battle against it.

Like any book that deals with a specific sin, Dutcher has to begin with bad news. He has to expose this sin and show how it is alive and operative in the lives of people today—people far removed from the day of stone gods and wooden idols. He defines idolatry as “cherishing, trusting, or fearing anything more than we cherish, trust, or fear God himself.” And in that light we can see how this is a plague in our day. How easy it is to cherish something, anything, more than I cherish God. “If a woman cannot find God’s presence and power sufficient to sustain her through a day, then idolatry has hunted her down. If that student’s Xbox fantasies shift from fun entertaining to ceaseless obsession, then idolatry has slipped through the back door and made itself at home. And when a husband stops seeing his wife as a God-given life partner and treats her only as an object for his own pleasure, then idolatry has done a good day’s work. None of these victims may realize how deep in the throes of God-substitutes they actually are, but that’s just fine with idolatry. Idolatry is a stealthy hunter.”

Having provided the bad news, and having encouraged Christians to hunt down idolatry in their own lives, Dutcher provides biblical wisdom to help them begin to deal with it. And, as we might expect, the cure for idolatry is finding hope and joy and true delight in God. “Being enamored with Christ is the best offensive weapon against idolatry. When idols call for our attention, we should flee, yes, but in fleeing we need to ask God to show us the excellencies of the Savior. Hearts that cherish, trust, or fear Jesus more than anything else prove to be barren soil for idols. Counterfeit saviors cannot grow in soil that has been reserved for Christ alone.” The one who finds joy and delight in Christ will find only a reflected joy in anything or anyone else.

The book concludes with a helpful pair of appendices, the first providing four solid case studies in idolatry with idols being as disparate and unexpected as hardwood flooring; text messaging; acceptance through sex; and pornography and the second providing a long list of Scripture passages, quotes and prayers useful in engaging idolatry.

You Are the Treasure That I Seek is a small book, but one that packs a punch. Dutcher exposes the myth that idols are made of wood and stone and shows instead that they can be anything that draws our hearts, our minds, our affections away from the Savior. The remedy he suggests is Bible-centered and gospel-focused. Well-illustrated and well-written, this is a book I am sure I will recommend often.

As for the iPhone, well, at some point it may make good sense for me to have one. But I know I cannot get one until I sort out my heart issues to make sure that if and when I do buy one, I am doing so for only the right reasons.


7 years 6 months ago
To be honest, I don’t know that we really need another book—yet another book—on guidance and the will of God. Having said that, there is probably no genre of book I recommend more often than this simply because experience shows that many Christians, too many Christians, do not understand how God expects us to know his will and how we may expect him to guide us to those things that please him. We are blessed to have some excellent resources at our disposal. The best known of these is Garry Friesen’s Decision Making and the Will of God, a book that many of the others depend on, but one that is perhaps a little intimidating due to its size (528 pages in the most recent edition). Dave Swavely’s Decisions, Decisions is the one I recommend most often as it serves as a useful condensed version of Friesen’s work. Similar titles have been written by John MacArthur, Bruce Waltke, J.I. Packer, Phillip Jensen and many, many others.

The author who seeks to add something to this genre is entering into a very crowded field and is going to need a unique angle. Kevin DeYoung takes on this challenge and succeeds admirably, crafting a short but powerful book that really packs a punch. His unique angle is reflected in the title: Just Do Something! “My goal,” he says, “is not as much to tell you how to hear God’s voice in making decisions as it is to hear God telling you to get off the long road to nowhere and finally make a decision, get a job, and perhaps, get married.” He fears that many Christians, because of their unbliblical understanding of knowing and doing the will of God, are wasting their lives doing nothing when they should just be doing, well, something! “I’d like us to consider that maybe we have difficulty discovering Gods wonderful plan for our lives because, if the truth be told, He doesn’t really intend to tell us what it is. And maybe we’re wrong to expect Him to.”

DeYoung’s understanding of the will of God and God’s guidance is very consistent with Friesen and Swavely and a whole host of others. He distinguishes between God’s secret will (or will of decree), God’s revealed will (will of desire) and God’s will for our lives (will of direction). God’s will of decree is his secret will, ordained from all of time—a will that is going to come to pass and that no man can thwart. God’s will of desire is his will as revealed in Scripture—a will we sometimes obey and at other times disobey. God’s will of direction is the one that answers those questions we have about jobs and spouses and houses and all the rest. Here’s the real heart of the matter, according to DeYoung. “Does God have a secret will of direction that He expects us to figure out before we do anything? And the answer is no.” Though we are free to ask for his direction and though we ought to be devoted to prayer in all matters, God does not burden us with seeking his will of direction ahead of our decisions. “God does have a specific plan for our lives, but it is not one that He expects us to figure out before we make a decision.” “Trusting in God’s will of decree is good. Following his will of desire is obedient. Waiting for God’s will of direction is a mess.” The solution is simple: we are to have confidence in God’s hidden will, we are to search out and believe and obey God’s will, and we are then to use wisdom to make decisions that God will bless. We are to use what Dave Swavely aptly terms “sanctified reasoning.” DeYoung leaves the reader to consider this: “If there really is a perfect will of God we are meant to discover, in which we will find tremendous freedom and fulfillment, why does it seem that everyone looking for God’s will is in such bondage and confusion?”

Here, then, is how we are to live within God’s will: “So go marry someone, provided you’re equally yoked and you actually like being with each other. Go get a job, provided it’s not wicked. Go live somewhere in something with somebody or nobody. But put aside the passivity and the quest for complete fulfillment and the perfectionism and the preoccupation with the future, and for God’s sake start making some decisions in your life. Don’t wait for the liver-shiver. If you are seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, you will be in God’s will, so just go out and do something.” God’s will for your life is really not as complicated as you may be making it out to be.

The book has occasional spots of appropriate levity. Writing about a young man whose affection for a woman was not reciprocated because “the Holy Spirit told me no,” DeYoung writes, “Poor guy—he got rejected, not only by this sweet girl, but by the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity took a break from pointing people to Jesus to tell this girl not to date my roommate.” Pastoral throughout, DeYoung also covers the kinds of topics that people ask in relation to God’s will—issues related to work and wedlock. In a concluding chapter that certainly does not detract from the book even if it does not seem to add a whole lot, he pays tribute to his grandfather who has lived a long and productive life for God’s glory without ever concerning himself with discovering God’s hidden will.

In a brief Foreword, Joshua Harris says that this is his new go-to book on the subject of God’s will and decision making. I am inclined to agree with him, at least for those who are looking for a kind of entry level book. Friesen is still the most thorough and the one who lays the foundation, but this title is certainly much easier to read and much more likely to be read. I am quite convinced that any Christian who reads Just Do Something will benefit from it. I unreservedly recommend that you do just that.

7 years 6 months ago

The Bookends of the Christian LifeI met Bob Bevington a couple of years ago. He and I both somehow ended up at a youth conference and we began to chat while walking from the venue to a nearby hotel; we were the only adults around so we must have naturally gravitated toward one another. We were surprised to learn that we were both under contract to write a book—I was writing The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment while he was working with Jerry Bridges on a book they were to co-author. Since that time he and Bridges have written two books together, the second of which is The Bookends of the Christian Life.

This book relies upon a metaphor that extends from cover-to-cover: the metaphor of bookends. I think we have all experienced the difficulty of putting books on a bookshelf without using any bookends. You know what happens. The books on the end inevitably tip over and once they fall, the ones beside them fall too. Soon the whole line of books has tipped over and several of them may have crashed to the floor. The solution, of course, is to install a couple of sturdy bookends on either side of the shelf. This will support the whole row, keeping them right where they are supposed to be.

“Think of your life right now as a long bookshelf,” say Bridges and Bevington. “The books on it represent all the things you do—both spiritual and temporal. There’s a spiritual book for each activity of your Christian growth and service, perhaps with titles such as Church Attendance, Bible Study, Daily Quiet Time, Sharing the Gospel or Serving Others. The temporal books might include Job Performance, Educational Pursuits, Recreation and Leisure, Grocery Shopping, Driving the Car, Doing the Laundry, Mowing the Grass and Paying the Bills, to name a few. Our temporal books are intermingled with spiritual books on our bookshelf, since all our activities are to be informed and directed by the spiritual dimension. … Without adequate bookends, even if we succeed in getting all our books to remain upright, their stability is precarious at best.”

Through the bookend metaphor, the authors use this book to teach about God’s solution. “When we become united to Christ by faith, God places a set of bookends on the bookshelf of our lives. One bookend is the righteousness of Christ; the other is the power of the Holy Spirit. Though they’re provided by God, it’s our responsibility to lean our books on them, relying on them to support, stabilize, and secure all our books—everything we do.”

The authors dedicate half of this book to each of the two bookends. In the first half they look at the righteousness of Christ as a means of assurance in our day-to-day relationship with God. It is only because of the righteousness of Christ that God can see us as righteous. As our sin was transferred to Christ on the cross, his righteousness was credited to us. And so we live now in the present reality of being justified before the Father. In the second half they turn to the power of the Holy Spirit to fight with us and for us as we battle against indwelling sin. Here we see both the Spirit’s monergistic work in giving us new life, in giving the gifts of repentance and faith, but we also see the necessity of synergistic work where we cooperate with the Spirit in putting sin to death (though obviously this is a qualified, uneven synergism much in the same way my six year-old daughter may help me shovel the driveway).

In each case Bridges and Bevington look to gospel enemies that can cause our books to begin to tip over and in both cases they offer a series of focal points that will help the reader keep his life and his faith focused on that particular bookend. As he progresses, the reader will find answers to such questions as: How can I overcome persistent guilt? How can I deal with the pressure to measure up? Where can I find the motivation it takes to grow? How can I live the Christian life with both my head and my heart? How can I be sure God loves me? How can I change in an authentic and lasting way?

In The Bookends of the Christian Life Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington look at the Christian life through a wide-angle lens, examining the framework that supports, stabilizes and secures the believer’s life in Christ. They teach elements of a distinctly biblical worldview, leaning upon the righteousness of Christ on one hand and upon the power of the Holy Spirit on the other. This is a deeply pastoral book that constantly encourages the reader to look to Christ and to depend on the Holy Spirit. I have read it twice and have benefited from it both times. A wise and powerful book, it is one I heartily recommend.

Buy it at Monergism BooksBuy it at Monergism Books

7 years 8 months ago
As I read the final page of Finally Alive I realized that I had found a new favorite book by John Piper. Those who have read my reviews of some of his previous titles know that while I greatly enjoy Piper’s ministry and am indebted to him in many ways, I have not always found his books easy to read. Yet I read Finally Alive with relish, enjoying it from the first page to the last. It is an incisive examination of a topic of profound importance. I think it represents Piper at his very best as an author.

This is a book about the new birth, about regeneration, about what it means to be born again. Born again is a term we hear often these days, both within the walls of the church and without. But it seems that the term is so often used in a different way than the doctrine as we find it in Scripture. It takes only a couple of pages for Piper to take issue with the term born again as used by people like pollster George Barna—people who desecrate it by taking it far outside of its biblical context. “In this research,” says Piper, “the term born again refers to people who say things. They say, ‘I have a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. It’s important to me.’ They say, ‘I believe that I will go to Heaven when I die. I have confessed my sins and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior.’ Then the Barna Group takes them at their word, ascribes to them the infinitely important reality of the new birth, and then slanders that precious biblical reality by saying that regenerate hearts have no more victory over sin than unregenerate hearts.” Piper doesn’t hold back.

Of course such research is not necessarily entirely wrong. It is undeniable that vast numbers of professing Christians live in ways that are completely at odds with the faith they profess. But the New Testament does not allow us to move from a profession of faith to the label born again. Instead, it “moves from the absolute certainty that the new birth radically changes people, to the observation that many professing Christians are indeed (as the Barna Group says) not radically changed, to the conclusion that they are not born again. The New Testament, unlike the Barna Group, does not defile the new birth with the worldliness of unregenerate, professing Christians.” This is a term Christians need to understand and protect.

Piper offers four reasons for writing this book on the new birth. First, so we can understand what God intends when the Bible uses this language of the new birth; second, to help followers of Christ know what happened to them when they were converted; and third, to serve as a possible means for those who do not yet believe to come to faith in Christ. “My aim is to explain the new birth as clearly as I can from the Bible so that readers can see it for themselves.” And he does so in just the way we’ve come to expect from John Piper—with clear exposition of Scripture and with undeniable passion and integrity.

Piper moves through the subject by asking five all-important questions. He begins his examination by asking simply “What is the new birth?” From there he turns to the question of “Why must we be born again?.” He then asks “How does the new birth come about?” and “What are the effects of the new birth?” before concluding with asking “How can we help others be born again?” Each of these questions is answered two, three or four short chapters, each of which can be easily read and digested in a single sitting.

Why does this all matter for Christians? Piper gives three reasons that believers need to know what happened when they were converted. First, “When you are truly born again and grow in the grace and knowledge of what the Lord has done for you, your fellowship with God will be sweet, and your assurance that he is your Father will be deep. I want that for you.” Second, “If you know what really happened to you in your new birth, you will treasure God and his Spirit and his Son and his word more highly than you ever have. In this, Christ will be glorified.” And finally, “In the process of believers discovering what really happened to them, the seriousness and the supernatural nature of conversion will rise and that, I pray, will serve a more general awakening of authenticity in the Christian church so that religious hypocrisy will diminish and the world will see real love and sacrifice and courage in the service of Christ.” This is no minimal, abstract theology. This is of foundational importance to the Christian faith.

Piper’s tone is gracious and compassionate throughout this book. He shows the heart of a pastor from the first page to the last. But he also shows the skill of a theologian and the passion of a prophet. I’m inclined to agree with my friend Adrian Warnock who says of Finally Alive, “I believe this is the most important book Piper has written.” I cannot recommend this book too highly. I really believe it is Piper’s best.

7 years 8 months ago
I have a bit of an aversion to books on apologetics. I don’t know exactly why this is, but it may be that many of them seem to teach methods of defending the faith that either manipulate or bludgeon. Somehow grace and apologetics do not seem to go together as they ought. So it was with perhaps just a bit of reluctance that I began reading Gregory Koukl’s Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. This is a book that promises to teach a new method, a respectful method, of defending the faith and of attempting to convince others of the truth of Christianity. This is not an apologetics 101 text, as in a book that will compare and contrast various apologetic methods; instead, it is a guide, a book that seeks to lead the reader into a new method of sharing his faith with others.

“If you’re like a lot of people who pick up a book like this, you would like to make a difference for the kingdom, but you are not sure how to begin. I want to give you a game plan, a strategy to get involved in a way you never thought you could, yet with a tremendous margin of safety.” Here is what Koukl promises—he sets no small goal. “I am going to teach you how to navigate in conversations so that you stay in control—in a good way—even though your knowledge is limited. You may know nothing about answering challenges people raise against what you believe. You may even be a brand new Christian. It doesn’t matter. I am going to introduce you to a handful of effective maneuvers—I call them tactics—that will help you stay in control.”

This tactical approach is a useful one, for it allows you to stay “in the driver’s seat in conversations, so you can productively direct the discussion, exposing faulty thinking and suggesting more fruitful alternatives along the way.” It is important to note that “tactics are not manipulative tricks or slice ruses. They are not clever ploys to embarrass other people and force them to submit to your point of view. They are not meant to belittle or humiliate those who disagree so you can gain notches in your spiritual belt.” Instead, they are ways of guiding a conversation to expose poor reasoning and then use that as a bridge to the truth.

Koukl begins by looking at three basics skills the Christian will need if he wishes to be an effective apologist. First, he must have knowledge, having a familiarity with the central message of the Bible; second, he must have knowledge that is tempered by wisdom that makes his message clear and persuasive; third, he must have the character of a Christian, embodying the virtues of the kingdom he serves.

Then, over the course of four chapters, Koukl unveils his tactic. He calls it “The Columbo.” The key to this tactic is to “go on the offensive in an inoffensive way by using carefully selected questions to productively advance the conversation.” Never make a statement when a question will do the job. When you ask questions and listen carefully, you gather information that can be used to show a person where his thinking is faulty. Questions can be used to gather information, to reverse the burden of proof or to lead the conversation. Either way, the person asking the question is the person who leads the discussion.

He sets a modest and realistic goal for his interactions with unbelievers. “My goal,” he says, “is to find clever ways to exploit someone’s bad thinking for the purpose of guiding her to truth, yet remaining gracious and charitable at the same time. My aim is to manage, not manipulate; to control, not coerce; to finesse, not fight. I want the same for you.” The goal of this kind of apologetics, then, is not necessarily to win someone to Christ. That may be an ultimate goal or an ultimate hope, but the goal of an individual encounter is nothing more than, in Koukl’s words, “putting a stone in someone’s shoe.” “I want to give him something worth thinking about, something he can’t ignore because it continues to poke at him in a good way.”

In Part 2 of the book, Koukl offers guidance in finding flaws in the way people reason. He offers specific tactics to unveil poor reasoning and to turn it back against a person. He calls these things like Suicide, Sibling Rivalry, Taking the Roof Off. He offers advice on countering the human steamroller (you’ve tried to discuss issues with people like this) and the Rhodes scholar, the supposed expert.

When I think of Christian apologetics, I tend to think of Evidence that Demands a Verdict or some of the classics of days gone by. But in this book Koukl offers a new approach and one that is well-suited to the times. He teaches the Christian to think well, to exemplify grace and to humbly lead a conversation to the truth. “We may spend hours helping someone carefully work through an issue without ever mentioning God, Jesus or the Bible. This does not mean we aren’t advancing the kingdom. It is always a step in the right direction when he help others think more carefully. If nothing else, it gives them tools to assess the bigger questions that eventually come up.”

Apologetics is not always a discipline that is done with grace. But in this book Koukl shares tactics that will prove beneficial to any Christian. They may just revolutionize the way you interact with unbelievers. I highly recommend it.

7 years 9 months ago

There may be some who will get no further than the cover or even the title of Take Charge of Your Life. There on the cover is the smiling face of the author, rather a rarity for a book that is actually worth reading. And that title sounds like it may just be the title of a book by Dr. Phil or Joel Osteen. And yet at the top are these words by John MacArthur: “Superb…Prepare yourself for a study that is at once challenging and uplifting.” It seems a study in contradictions. Yet behind the cover and behind the title is a solid book, a very good book, that will challenge any reader, believer or unbeliever alike.

If you think Ganz has written something a little bit like this before, you’re both right and wrong. In its opening pages he writes, “Take Charge of Your Life is what I had hoped a previous book, The Secret of Self-Control [Crossway 1998], could have been, but wasn’t.” This new book, he promises, “will show you a revolutionary way of life. You are about to enter the world of power-charged, super-charged, God-charged, Take-Charge living.” By carefully describing what he calls a Take-Charge life, he teaches how any person can live the life God intends for him.

In Take Charge of Your Life, Ganz deliberately takes the words, the look, the feel of a self-help book and permeates it all with Christian meaning. His constant exhortation is to live a take-charge life—or, to use the words of Scripture, to work out your salvation. It is a book about sanctification, about living a life for God’s glory, about living a life that is distinctly Christian in its emphases and in its characteristics. He divides the book into six sections: The Start of a Take-Charge Life, the Heart of a Take-Charge Life, The Action of a Take Charge Life, the Challenges of a Take-Charge Life, The Mentality of a Take-Charge Life, and The Extent of a Take Charge-Life. Through them all he leads the reader from Christian infancy to Christian maturity. He does so by appealing constantly to Scripture. As the long-serving pastor of a church that is part of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, he does so in a way consistent with sound theology.

It has long been my observation that when the face of the author is on the book’s cover, more often than not, the book’s pages offer lots of the author and little Scripture. Take Charge of Your Life is a great exception. But don’t take only my word for it. Derek Thomas, Professor Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary declares it “a winning combination. It helps reform and strengthen biblical Christian discipleship. It is solid yet accessible. Highly recommended.” Jay Adams says “Rich Ganz has done it again! With his biblically-oriented pen, Rich Ganz, in “Take Charge of Your Life” shows us how to live in a way that is pleasing to God. As has been true of all of his other books, once again, what he has written, will be a real blessing to many. It is my pleasure to highly commend his work to you. Read and be blessed.”

This is a unique book and one that has a lot to offer. I recommend it to you. I believe it can be particularly useful to those who are drawn to this genre, this format, of book. Get past the title, get past the cover if those trouble you, and you’ll find a deeply challenging book inside.

Related: The Revival of a Rebel Jew | Awakening to Grace | 20 Controversies That Almost Killed a Church