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Tim Challies

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christian living

8 years 4 months ago
It seems unusual, does it not, that at a time when the church is in such dire need of discernment, there are few books to be found that address this critical issue. Or perhaps it is this dearth of books dealing with discernment that have contributed to the problem. Regardless, at a time when the shelves at Christian bookstores are groaning under the weight of the tens of thousands of books published each year, it is exceedingly difficult to find one that deals with discernment. A survey of several of my friends, avid readers all, yielded a grand total of one suggestion: John MacArthur’s Reckless Faith, which is out of print.

We are fortunate, I suppose, to live at a time when even books that are out of print are not terribly difficult to acquire. I was grateful to see that Amazon and other companies selling used books have many of this title available. I quickly purchased one and am glad that I did. Reckless Faith, in classic John MacArthur style, began as a series of sermons. MacArthur argues for the importance of reason in the Christian faith, proving first that a reason-based faith has largely been abandoned within the evangelical world. In its place has arisen a faith based on feelings and, humans being what they are, a faith that feels good. It is this faith, faith that bypasses and ignores the mind rather than being built upon it, that MacArthur terms restless. Opposed to reckless faith is true biblical ministry. “We must take an unmovable stance on all issues where the Bible speaks plainly. What if people don’t like such dogmatism? It is necessary anyway. Sound doctrine divides, it confronts, it seperates, it judges, it convicts, it reproves, it rebukes, it exhorts, it refutes error. None of those things is very highly esteemed in modern thought. But the health of the church depends on our holding firmly to the truth, for where strong convictions are not tolerated, discernment cannot survive.” Later MacArthur teaches that discernment cannot survive in an atmosphere of doctrinal confusion and will not survive where relativism is tolerated. “It cannot survive if we compromise with the world.”

The heart of the book is “The Biblical Formula for Discernment.” Expositing 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, MacArthur teaches the three requirements of a discerning mind. First, we must judge everything. Paul sets this exhortation in the context of some very basic commands for the Christian life, showing that it is not an extraordinary duty, but a part of what He expects of every Christian. Having judged all doctrine, we are to cling to what is good. We need to cultivate our love for truth and have a faithfulness to sound doctrine. And finally, we must shun all that is evil. We are not given permission in Scripture to expose ourselves to evil or to tamper with it. We are to flee evil doctrine as we flee sins such as sexual immorality.

The final chapters of the book deal with specific issues where the church has failed in its discernment. MacArthur first provides some teaching on the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and then points to the ecumenical movement and the Word Faith movement as examples of the church failing to judge doctrine and flee from what is unbiblical. The chapter dealing with Evangelicals and Catholics Together is particularly useful as a brief examination and refutation of that dangerous document.

When I began this book I thought it was the only book available dealing with spiritual discernment. I was glad to see that MacArthur often referenced a book written by Jay Adams also dealing with the topic. A quick Internet search shows that this book is also out of print, but like Reckless Faith is widely available from used bookstores. I ordered it immediately.

Reckless Faith is an excellent book and one that ought not to be out of print. I hope that, like other MacArthur titles, Crossway will see fit to publish it again. Rarely has the church needed this type of teaching more than it does today.

8 years 5 months ago
I mentioned to a friend that I was reading Mark Buchanan’s book Your God Is Too Safe and that I had recently finished The Rest of God. “What’s Buchanan like?” he wanted to know. The best I could do was to suggest that the style and theme of his writing is quite a lot like what he’d find if he read John Eldredge. But unlike Eldredge, Buchanan’s books are actually grounded on some solid theology. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed a book that was endorsed by the likes of Philip Yancey and Eugene Peterson. Yet it is also endorsed by J.I. Packer who says, quite accurately, “Within a framework of biblical orthodoxy, Mark Buchanan’s jabbing insights minister a salutary pastoral shake-up, drawing and driving us sluggards to come closer to our God.”

Buchanan believes that evangelicals have constructed a God of their own making: a God who is too safe. He is a loving God, but a God who is entirely predictable. But the truth is, this God bears little resemblance to the God of Scripture—a God who is entirely unpredictable. We dislike God as He really is, and so we run away from Him like Jonah or hide from Him like Adam. Where we end up when we do this is a place Buchanan calls “borderland,” a strange and safe place that promises nothing and delivers nothing. Your God Is Too Safe is a wake-up call—a call to escape this borderland and live with God in “the holy wild.”

In the first half of the book, Buchanan lays the groundwork, showing how and why we run and hide from God. The primary reason is bad theology: a steady traffic of invented or distorted ideas about God. But “God isn’t nice,” he says. “He isn’t safe. God is a consuming fire. Though he cares about the sparrow, the embodiment of His care is rarely doting or pampering. God’s main business is not ensuring that you and I get parking spaces close to the mall entrance [this was written pre-Osteen too!] or that the bed sheets in the color we want are—miracle!—on sale this week. His main business is making you and me holy. And for those of us who love borderland more than holy ground, whose hearts are more slow than burning, that always requires both the kindness and the sternness of our God.” After suggested that the Catholic cult of Mary arose because of a dark and punishing medieval portrait of God the Father, he challenges evangelicals. “In Protestantism, I think we’ve simply substituted the safe god. But the biting irony is this: Neither the safe god nor the tyrant god are the real God…the true God is far more fierce and fearsome than the bullying and petulant god of our imaginations. But His anger is not irritability: It is the distillation of His justice, His hatred of evil. It is what we would want, even demand, from a good God.” This is a cutting insight and one that challenged me. As Tozer said, we need to take refuge from God, in God.

The second half of the book challenges Christians with spiritual disciplines. “We have to train for the spiritual life. That’s the most lost idea to the world, and it requires whole books and sermon series to establish its value, even its validity.” We need to practice holy habits and to weave these habits deeply into our lives. Like all habits, good, holy habits eventually come to define us and to become our ways. They may be awkward and feel unnatural at the beginning, but they will soon become natural, beautiful and indispensable. The disciplines Buchanan teaches are: practicing the presence of God, understanding the wounds that have inflicted us and allowing God to heal them, confessing sin both to God and to others, solitude, fasting, reading Scripture, service, prayer and delight. Among the better chapters are those dealing with fasting, confession of sin and solitude. Buchanan discusses these without falling into the contemplative, New Age practices that have become far too common in the church today. He provides practical advice on how to proceed in developing such disciplines.

As may be clear by now, Your God Is Too Safe is quite a good book. Buchanan writes with force and conviction and a good deal of urgency. But one concern stayed in the back of my mind throughout the book. While Buchanan’s theology is generally sound, he often quotes those whose theology strays outside that framework of biblical orthodoxy mentioned by Packer. He quotes Philip Yancey on a few occasions and holds up Mother Teresa and Saint Francis as examples of people who have “gotten it.” He portrays Richard Foster as an expert on the spiritual disciplines. When I see people holding up Mother Teresa as the example of Christian virtue I always wonder just how much that person understands about biblical theology. How can a person truly understand justification, and yet hold as an example a person who denied it? Are there not better examples we can use? Do we really feel that Mother Teresa was such a wonderful example of Christian virtue, or is she just the easy and popular example? This was an ongoing disappointment with this book.

Like Wild at Heart, Your God Is Too Safe will not appeal to all Christians (though, unlike Eldredge’s book, this one is targetted at both men and women). My father, for instance, cannot tolerate terms like “the holy wild” or “woundedness” or “brokenness” and would get little enjoyment from this book. But for those who enjoyed the style of Wild at Heart but objected to the content, Your God Is Too Safe may have appeal. However, I would not recommend it in place of a book such as Don Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (my review) - a book that will provide a more consistently biblical framework in developing and enjoying the spiritual disciplines. Buchanan’s book is good. It is challenging. But it is not the strongest, most Scriptural treatment of the topic.

8 years 6 months ago
“As Americans we’ve come to tolerate, embrace, and even champion many things that would have horrified our parent’s generation. Things like abortion-on-demand virtually up to the moment of birth, judges banning the Ten Commandments from public places, a national explosion of middle-school sex, the slow starvation of the disabled, thousands of homosexuals openly flouting the law and getting “married,” and online porn creating late-night sex addicts in millions of middle-class homes.”

What has happened to America? What has happened to Western culture? How did it come to be that what was once—and not in the distant past but only a generation or two ago—regarded as self-destructive and immoral is now regarded as free choice and tolerance? “The plain truth,” writes David Kupelian, “is, within the space of our lifetimes, much of what Americans once almost universally abhorred has been packaged, perfumed, gift-wrapped, and sold to us as though it has great value. By skillfully playing on our deeply felt national values of fairness, generosity, and tolerance, these marketers have persuaded us to embrace as enlightened and noble that which all previous generations since America’s founding regarded as grossly self-destructive—in a word, evil.

Kupelian’s book, The Marketing of Evil was written to expose the fact that the moral decay which surrounds us is not mere happenstance and is not merely a product of the evolution of a higher society. Rather, evil and immorality have been carefully, deliberately and often brilliantly marketed to us. “Radicals, elitists, and pseudo-experts” have sold us corruption disguised as freedom. Through ten chapters, he exposes ten different areas of moral decay and the deliberate actions that have foisted them upon us.

He begins with gay-rights, discussing the “war conference” that was held in 1998 by prominent homosexuals in Warrenton, Virginia, where they mapped out the future of the gay-rights movement. “Shortly thereafter, activists Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen put into book form the comprehensive public relations plan they had been advocating with their gay-rights peers for several years.” These men, both brilliant researchers, depended, in their own words “centrally upon a program of unabashed propaganda, firmly grounded in long-established principles of psychology and advertising.” Their strategy was followed with great success and has advanced the gay cause to what it is today. It has made homosexuality not merely accepted, but celebrated.

Following gay-rights, Kupelian turns to several other hot issues. He discusses the myth of church-state separation, the culture of sex and rebellion in today’s youth, multiculturalism, the meltdown of the family, our culture’s obsession with sexuality, the education system, media and abortion. He concludes by suggesting that the church of Jesus Christ is the last, best hope for America.

It’s often said that the Christian church in America needs revival. But this doesn’t necessarily mean ever-bigger tents with tens of thousands of us swaying back and forth, singing songs, giving speeches, and getting pumped up—and then going home and watching television. America’s real revival and genuine rebirth will be much less dramatic in the beginning. We might never even realize exactly how it came about. But it can happen, and we must pray that it will.

How will it come to pass? It’ll happen, dear friends, when we all simply go to our rooms, close the door, take a deep breath, and take a good, long, hard, honest look at ourselves. And then, quietly and humbly and fervently, we ask the living God for help, for insight, for direction—for salvation.

 

And I think he is right. At this point, nothing but a miraculous intervention of God can reverse the dangerous, depressing trend in our society. But I firmly believe, as does Kupelian, that the church of Jesus Christ is the hope for the world. Nothing but the church, Christ’s body, can bring hope and meaning and peace to a society bent on destroying itself.

The Marketing of Evil is a book that will make you wince. It will make you angry. It will make you appreciate or understand the brilliance of the evil one who is engaged in an all-out war against the biblical foundation upon which America was founded. And hopefully, it will serve as a wake-up call that evil is not merely an abstract concept, but is a force, a strategy, that is cunningly marketed and brilliantly deployed against all that is good.

8 years 6 months ago
There may be no greater honor for a minister of the Word than this: his ministry has become nearly synonymous with the cross of Jesus Christ. His ministry has led people to the cross not just once, but time and again as they have come to reflect on the deeper meaning of Jesus’ death. They have been led to see that “the cross is the blazing fire at which the flame of our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough for its sparks to fall on us.” Such has been the case with C.J. Mahaney. When I post a reflection on the cross it is not unusual for people to tell me or to comment on this site that they are now going to go and re-read The Cross Centered Life or listen to some of the cross-focused songs on the album Songs for the Cross Centered Life. His ministry is marked by a passion for leading people near enough to the cross that its sparks can fall on us.

I recently received an email from a person claiming to be a Christian, yet one who does not believe in Jesus. I was shocked. How could a person call himself by the name of Christ, yet not believe in Him? This person wanted to help me experience the power of God in my life, yet without Jesus Christ. That is impossible! Without the cross there is no Christianity. Without the cross we have no hope, no salvation. The cross stands at the very center of our faith and even at the very center of human history. We would be nothing without it.

The focus of those who love the Lord should be constantly upon the cross. Living the Cross Centered Life combines two of Mahaney’s books (The Cross Centered Life and Christ Our Mediator) with new material. This book provides a passionate, biblical reflection upon the cross and encouragement for living a life that will be centered upon the gospel, for this is what we all need to regard as the main thing.

Mahaney delights in the cross. The reader will only be able to conclude that the cross is what motivates his life and his ministry. His enthusiasm, his desire, his love for the gospel message in infectious. Always focused on the truths of Scripture, Mahaney draws the reader back to the very center and focus of the Christian faith. The reader will be given much grounds for rejoicing and much grounds for deeper, prayerful reflection. The reader will be led near to the cross where he can experience the power of the Son of God. He will learn the need for the cross, the power of the cross and the wonderful benefits that have been extended to us because of the cross. He will learn why this cross stands at the center of our faith and why we must always hold it there.

And so I commend this book to you. If you have not yet read The Cross Centered Life this is your opportunity to read it blended with Christ Our Mediator. Mahaney recommends that each Christian read at least one book about the cross each year. This is your opportunity to read that book while the year is still young. Read it, learn the message and worship at the foot of the cross. Your life may never be the same.

 

8 years 7 months ago
Richard Mayhue is Dean of Studies at the Master’s Seminary and has sufficient credibility to write a volume about how to properly interpret the Bible. Writing in a simple and straightforward manner, he describes the process of “cutting it straight,” a term he borrows from Paul’s message to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15. Though the passage is most often translated “handling accurately the word of truth” the literal sense is “cutting it straight.” This book is thus divided into three sections. The first deals with how to make straight cuts, the second with avoiding crooked cuts, and the third with living out your cuts.

In the first several chapters Mayhue lays out the proper methods for studying Scripture. He speaks about presuppositions, methodology and rules for interpretation. A significant portion of the section is devoted to recommended study tools - concordances, dictionaries, commentaries and so on.

The bulk of the book contains rules to avoid making poor cuts. In other words, the author discusses many of the common errors in interpretation. The list of errors is extensive, but a few of the topics are: spiritualizing, embellishing, culturalizing, anglicizing and experientializing. They may seem like difficult terms, but they are all explained in sufficient detail and with plenty of examples.

The final chapter provides four pointers for translating straight cuts into a life. Interpreting Scripture properly is just the first step in allowing the Words of God to penetrate and change our lives.

What I most appreciated about this book is that the author provides examples for everything he writes about. When he discusses rules for interpretation, for example, he exposits Psalm 13, showing how he would go about interpreting this passage. He shows the questions that should arise when discussing it and how he would answer each of them. Another strength in this book is the questions at the end of each chapter. So often I find that the questions authors put in their books add little to the subject, but in this case they truly ensure that the reader has read carefully and understood the content of the chapter.

The only shortcoming I found is that the author sometimes does not go into quite enough detail about regular Bible study habits. I would have appreciated some suggestions on how to begin a regular pattern of inductive Bible study.

Despite that small shortcoming, this book is an excellent introduction to the principles of Biblical interpretation and I heartily recommend it. I would suggest that it might be well complemented by a book that specifically covers the inductive method of Bible study, such as Kay Arthur’s “How To Study Your Bible.”

8 years 8 months ago
In his basement Rob Bell has a Velvet Elvis. A genuine, bought-by-the-side-of-the-road Velvet Elvis. Bell uses this image of a work of art stashed in the basement behind suitcases and boxes as a metaphor for churches that are out of date.
For thousands of years followers of Jesus, like artists, have understood that we have to keep going, exploring what it means to live in harmony with God and each other. The Christian faith tradition is filled with change and growth and transformation. Jesus took part in this process by calling people to rethink faith and the Bible and hope and love and everything else, and by inviting them into the endless process of working out how to live as God created us to live.

The challenge for Christians then is to live with great passion and conviction, remaining open and flexible, aware that this life is not the last painting.

Times change. God doesn’t, but times do. We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be.

 

Times change and God doesn’t. It is clear that the church has changed in her history - major doctrines have been disputed and finally decided. Bell seems to want us to believe that many cardinal doctrines of the faith might just need to be changed at some point in the future. We need to have a fluid faith, he might say, that allows us to change accordingly when a particular doctrine is proven wrong. This is dangerous ground to tread. While we have to acknowledge human limitations in our understanding of Scripture, we also have to acknowledge the Spirit’s help in gradually uncovering doctrine and providing it to the church. There are some beliefs, some doctrines, that are non-negotiable. The Bible teaches them clearly and the Spirit has confirmed them through the testimony of the church.

I documented a few other concerns with the book. One that I found particularly troubling is Bell’s obsession with ancient Judaism. He constantly explains biblical events and personalities through his understanding of Judaism. While I affirm that it is important and helpful to understand the political, cultural and religious setting for Jesus’ life, I believe we can take this too far. For example, Bell states as fact that the first three miracles in one of the gospels (and you’ll have to forgive me for being vague as I lost my notes on the book) were listed specifically to refute three pagan deities. That may be the case, but we do not know that as a fact. At best it is mere speculation. Bell often interprets what is clear in Scripture through his understanding of Judaism. His understanding of the “binding and loosening” spoken of in Scripture is also informed by his understanding of Judaism rather than Scripture and common sense.

When I closed the cover of this book I realized that it had been just a big “nothing” for me. It was 172 pages (though through less “contemporary” typesetting and better editing it could have been compressed to about 80) that had little to say that has not already been said before. In some ways Bell says a lot, yet in many ways it seems that he says just about nothing. Some of it is good and some of it is bad. But little of it is really worth reading.

I recently read a review of this book and the reviewer lavished it with praise. “It is one of those books that you will refer to, when your kids grow up and ask you what made your faith and love in God so strong!” If the book meant that much to you, I would respectfully suggest that perhaps you should do more reading. There are many, many books that are far better, far more scriptural and far more challenging than this. Velvet Elvis is not a particularly bad book - it’s just not very good. So why waste your time and money?

8 years 8 months ago
Who Are You To Judge? by Dave Swavely is a book that deals primarily with legalism. It defines judging and legalism in a biblical manner, and discusses two often-overlooked biblical commands: Do not pass judgment before the time and do not exceed what is written. Swavely teaches that learning to identify and avoid these problems will help promote peace and joy in the body of Christ, and release believers to serve God in the freedom of His grace.

All Christians have, at one time or another, borne the brunt of inappropriate judging and the burden of legalism. All Christians have, in all likelihood, been guilty of inappropriate judging and burdening others with legalism. Here are some examples of legalistic, judgmental statements as provided by the author:

  • “There is no way someone can drive a car that expensive and be a godly man.”
  • “A church that does not serve weekly communion is dishonoring the Lord.”
  • “Rock music is the devil’s music and is never appropriate for a Christian.”
  • “God is sickened by the singing of simplistic praise choruses that repeat the same works over and over.”
  • “Birth control robs God of His sovereignty and rebelliously refuses His blessings.”
  • “Any woman who works a full-time job is neglecting her children.”
  • “Smoking is a sin because it destroys the temple of God.”
  • “She’s a member of our church, but I don’t think she’s a true Christian.”

Swavely defines the sin of judging as follows: “The sin of judging is negatively evaluating someone’s conduct or spiritual state on the basis of nonbiblical standards or suspected motives.” Said more colloquially, to judge others is to decide that they are doing wrong because they do something the Bible doesn’t talk about or because you think you can guess what is in their heart. This is what the Apostle Paul has in mind when he discusses judging, particularly in 1 Corinthians (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 4:5). Similarly, legalism is “creating moral standards beyond what the Scripture has revealed.”

Through eight chapters and two case studies, the book exposes legalism and points in particular to two grave dangers: first, legalism leads to spiritual pride and arrogance. This causes people to become puffed up because of their attention to extrabiblical traditions. Second, legalism leads to division in the church as Christians allow themselves to become fractured by man-made rules. The book includes two case studies, the first dealing with entertainment and the popular arts and the second with public education. In both Swavely attempts to sort out what is legalistic and what is biblical and arrives at what may be surprising conclusions. The final chapter turns to an examination of the relationship between legalism and the gospel. Swavely differentiates between legalism applied to sanctification and legalism applied to justification and shows how legalism diminishes our understanding of the gospel. “Those who are legalistic in regard to sanctification are often, to one degree or another, legalistic in regard to salvation as well — whether they realize it or not. This is illustrated in a rather obvious fashion by movements such as Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Roman Catholicism, whose theology of ‘salvation by faith plus works’ is accompanied by all kinds of extrabiblical rules and requirements.” An appendix discusses the ultimate human judgment and asks whether it is permissible for one human to judge that another is an unbeliever.

While I do not agree with all that Swavely writes, and can scarcely believe that there is anyone who would see eye-to-eye with him in all the matters he discusses, this is a valuable and challening book. It certainly challenged me to examine my own heart and to ensure that I meditate upon where I have allowed legalism to enter my life. I am glad to recommend this book to you and trust that you will benefit from it as I have.

8 years 8 months ago
As I read Humility by Wayne Mack I could not help but draw comparisons with C.J. Mahaney’s excellent book by the same title. I am glad to say that both books are deeply challenging and saturated in Scripture. Both men are skilled expositors of Scripture and both have a heart for the church. While I will go so far as to recommend both of these books I do not wish to make further comparison between them as each stands on its own merits.

“This book was written,” says Mack, “in an attempt to understand pride and humility from a biblical perspective and to help us diminsh the destructive pride factor and to increase the true humility factor in our lives.” To do this the author uses a “four-D” approach. He begins with biblical definitions of pride and humility and then discusses how pride and humility display themselves. Finally, he explains how true humility can be developed and destructive pride can be diminished in the life of the believer.

The importance of this topic can hardly be overstated. The Scriptures make it clear to us that humility is an exceedingly important aspect of the Christian’s character. The Bible continually exhorts God’s people to be humble and to rid ourselves of all pride. We are often told that God pours out his blessing on those who display a humble heart. Pride strikes right to the heart of God as it is a proclamation on the part of a person that he considers his concerns to be more important than submission to his Creator. “Pride consists in attributing to ourselves the honor, privileges, prerogatives, rights and power that are due to God alone. Thus, it is the very root and essence of sin because pride, at its core, is idolatry of self. A proud person has put himself or herself in God’s place.”

Humility stands exactly opposed to pride. “Humility consists in an attitude wherein we recognize our own insignificance and unworthiness before God and attribute to Him the supreme honor, praise, prerogatives, rights, privileges, worship, devotion, authority, submission, and obedience that He alone deserves… It means having a servant’s mind-set and always putting self last.”

At the conclusion of each chapter is a set of questions of application and sometimes a self-evaluation. While I generally eschew this type of evaluation and have often found them to be somewhat less than useful, I found the questions in Humility to be challenging and relevant to the topic. They were a welcome addition and added significant value to the book.

While I enjoyed the book tremendously there were two areas that I considered negative. First, the author’s definition of pride did not seem to allow for any level of pride whatsoever. Is there anything inherently evil with feeling proud of, for example, one’s child? I would not think so, provided that one acknowledge his own and his child’s dependence on God. Yet I am not sure that this would fit within Mack’s definition of pride. He says also of humility that “As soon as we think we are humble, we’re not; as soon as we think we have it, we’ve lost it.” I am not entirely sure that this is the case. If a man may acknowledge other gifts given to him by God, could he not also acknowledge his own humility? Secondly, while I appreciate the usefulness and even necessity of reading the contributions of great Christians of days past, I felt that Mack may have relied a little too much on their writing. For example, the book concludes with fully five pages of an excerpt of one of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons.

These are but small complaints. I enjoyed Humility and, far more importantly, was continually challenged and edified in reading it. Just days after reading the book I can already attest to some changes I have made and will continue to make in my life because of what I learned through its pages. Because of the importance of the topic this is a book that will benefit all who read its pages. I recommend that you do so!

8 years 9 months ago
I have a bad habit of waiting a week or two after finishing a book before writing a review. I tend to do this with books that are particularly challenging to me as I like to allow what I have learned to resonate in my mind and heart for a little while before committing those thoughts to paper (or pixels, as the case may be). The drawback, of course, is that I tend to forget details as time goes on! The Benefits of Providence by James Spiegel was one of those books that I saw on my desk every day for the past two weeks but have not attempted to review until today. Part of my reluctance in reviewing it was that in some ways I was overwhelmed by the book as it delved into topics which I feel particularly poorly equipped to discuss.

Subtitled A New Look at Divine Sovereignty, this book seeks to examine and explain divine providence from the Bible. The author attempts to answer such difficult questions as: “Does God actively determine every event that comes to pass? Or does he passively allow some events to happen?” Much of the book is set against the claims of those who hold to Open Theism and who would claim that God does not determine every event and that he does passively allow certain events to happen. Spiegel teaches a classical, Augustinian understanding of providence, affirming that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future and that he knows, controls and directs all that comes to pass. Along the way Spiegel discusses art, science, philosophy, emotion and evil. The book concludes with several moral and devotional applications for what has been taught.

The purpose of the book is to “show that the doctrine of providence, properly understood, is not only biblically sound but conceptually enriching and personally edifying.” The author provides both a defense of the biblical, Augustinian view and a refutation of the Open Theistic position. “To see God,” the author concludes, “as utterly sovereign provides numerous benefits to us in diverse domains, ranging from art and science to ethics and philosophical theology…The doctrine of providence must help us make sense of Scripture and human history, as well as our intuitions about beauty, goodness, and our deepest fears, desires and hopes.”

While the book was certainly challenging and while it stretched my understanding of divine providence in many ways, it was not without its faults. There was one moment that I found almost comical as it seemed so far out of place in a book of this type. When discussing the virtues of people we most admire, Spiegel writes, “From the apostle Paul and Justin Martyr to Martin Luther and Mother Teresa, all of our heroes attained that status because of their struggles against and in the midst of evil.” One of those people stands out as not belonging in a group of great theologians! Beyond Spiegel’s seemingly obligatory mention of Mother Teresa, I had a few concerns about his understanding of the value and importance of human suffering, and particularly in his teaching on the beatific vision, wherein human suffering becomes valuable because of the direct knowledge of God it imparts to us. Aspects of the teaching of art and beauty will require some more thought on my part, but initially they made me uncomfortable (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

Looking back on this book two weeks later there is much I remember and much that made me grow. There is also much that requires a second reading for me to fully understand. My grasp of philosophy is tenuous at best and this made some of what Spiegel wrote about a little beyond my expertise. This is a deeply philosophical book and is not always easy to read and understand, even though it is very well written. If a proper understanding of divine providence is as important as Spiegel claims, and I believe he is right to suggest that it provides benefits to almost every area of life, it is a topic that ought to be near and dear to the heart of every Christian. This is particularly true in an age like ours where this doctrine is under attack. Despite a few concerns I really have no trouble recommending this book.

8 years 10 months ago
“There’s no escaping the fact that a serious, and occasionally vitriolic, breach exists between Word-based evangelical cessationists and their more experientially oriented charismatic cousins.” It is true, of course, that there is a breach between cessationists, those who believe that the more spectacular of the spiritual gifts (prophecy, tongues, etc) have ceased, and charismatics, who do not. In recent days we have seen the beginnings of the healing of that breach between those who hold similar beliefs on the most important doctrines of the faith. It was no small matter when John MacArthur, author of Charismatic Chaos, invited C.J. Mahaney to preach from his pulpit. Similarly, it was an important step when the heads of several major ministries announced the upcoming Together for the Gospel conference. Sam Storms, the President of Enjoying God Ministries, is a pastor and teacher who identifies himself as both a charismatic and a Calvinist. The recently released Convergence is his attempt to bring some closure to this breach.

The main premise of the book, as we might expect, is that on the whole Calvinists tend to have the theology but neglect the working of the Spirit. Conversely, charismatics have the heart or the deeds but tend to neglect theology. What Storms proposes is a convergence between these traditions where Christians can practice and affirm the biblically-based strengths of each of the traditions. On the whole he seeks to be fair to both traditions and to support his arguments with Scripture. I have a great deal of respect for the author and his ministry. I know that he is a godly man and a gifted teacher of the Word. But on the issue of the charismatics gifts, I think he is, quite simply, just plain wrong. I do not have time or inclination in this review to provide a thorough refutation of charismatic theology, so I will simply address the major points of the book from the cessationist perspective. Keep in mind that my views align closely with those of most Calvinists (and most notably with John MacArthur whose book Charismatic Chaos was foundational in forming my theology in this area).

Before we briefly examine this book, allow me to point out two things that this book is not. First, it is not an examination of Calvinism. While the author spends a small amount of time affirming his respect for and belief in the doctrines that have come to be known as Calvinism, the vast majority of the book discusses charismatic teachings. The book is clearly not an attempt to lead charismatics to the doctrines of grace, but is an attempt to lead Calvinists to accept charismatic teachings. Secondly, this book is also not primarily a biblical apologetic for charismatic teachings. There is some effort expended in providing biblical support to speaking in tongues or interaction with angels, but relatively little.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Storms provides a biography of about 100 pages wherein he describes his journey to the rejection of cessationism. In this section he provides many examples of the type of prophecy, tongues and other gifts that he now believes in. While I was prepared to hear about speaking in tongues and praying for miracles, I was surprised and perhaps even shocked by how far Storms delves into what I consider the bizarre. Allow me to provide a couple of examples.

At one point Storms describes a time that a prophetically gifted man came to the pastor of a Kansas City church and said, “God is going to speak to us through the baseball game.” The man went on to say, “The Lord said that He would speak to this church through the baseball game, and that for a time it would appear that Kansas City would lose, but suddenly they will win.” Storms says, “At least one thing was clear from this word: the experience of the Kansas City Royals major league baseball team was to be a prophetic parable for what would happen to the kingdom of God in Kansas City.” This prophecy was delivered in June when the Royals were struggling, but by the end of the season they pulled off some amazing, underdog wins that catapulted them to the World Series. Game seven of the World Series came around and this man received another prophetic word, this one saying that “The Lord will speak to us through the number 11 in the game tomorrow.” Lo and behold, the Royals won the game 11-0. Storms concludes, “I am still not sure how this will all work out in terms of the kingdom of God in Kansas City. Perhaps the fulfillment of this prophecy is yet to come. No one is quite sure how, but you can rest assured we’re watching.”

The author also provides several examples of God’s leading through what cessationists would consider mere coincidence, and certainly not the leading of the Holy Spirit. When Storms was struggling with a decision of whether or not to apply for a position at Wheaton College, part (though certainly not all) of what helped him to understand that God wanted him to take the position was events such as: turning on “Wheel of Fortune” and hearing Pat Sajak introduce a contestant from Wheaton, Illinois; opening the newspaper and seeing an article about Dallas Cowboys player Kenny Wheaton; walking into a room and seeing Wheaton College written on a whiteboard. He concludes, “Coincidences? Chance happenings? Meaningless serendipities? I suppose some, perhaps many, may be led to conclude precisely that. That’s usually the case with such events until they happen to you.”

The second part of the book discusses the wedding of word and spirit. In this section Storms explores the divide between Calvinists and charismatics, or more properly, between cessationists and charismatics. He compares and contrasts the emphases of each of the traditions and discusses their beliefs on prayer, miracles, preaching, worship and so on. Some of this is good and Calvinists would do well to learn from the author. Some of it is downright absurd, particularly when the author resorts to rash generalizations. At one point Storms says, “[Cessationists] often treat worship as little more than an unavoidable prelude to the exposition of Scripture, after which the service is considered over.” I have attended many, many churches led by cessationists and can testify that cessationists love singing and regard it as far more than an “unavoidable prelude!” A lack of clapping and dancing does not necessarily make the experience any less worshipful or meaningful to the participants! Storms makes another generalization in discussing revival. “When asked, ‘What does the church need most?’ cessationists and charismatics offer differing remedies. The former see the church in desperate need of reformation, which typically would take the form of greater clarity of theological conviction,” etc. charismatics, he says, long for revival. I would suggest that very few cessationists, or at least Calvinists, seek a second reformation but also long more for revival, though a revival of biblical theology.

The final part of the book, entitled “He is There and He’s Still Not Silent,” is a fairly brief discussion of how God speaks to us today. Storms affirms correctly that God primarily speaks through the Scripture and that only Scriptural guidance is inerrant. Yet he affirms that God does speak in other ways, most usually through promptings and stirrings. In one chapter he critiques Jonathan Edwards’ concerns with those who allow themselves to be led by fresh revelation. Storms, relying on Dallas Willard’s teaching on this subject, suggests that “God puts words, phrases, sentences, images and the like into our minds, stamped with the indelible print of his voice.” While he does not deny the subjectivity of these impressions, he believes them to be a valid means of communication and suggests that people will grow more accustomed to knowing what is God’s voice and what is not as they gain experience. “After repeated experience, through trial and error, we come to discern the familiar way in which God speaks. God’s voice is self-authenticating. When you hear it, it has the “feel” of God. There is a sense of authority to his voice. God’s voice bears within itself the marks of its divine origin.” While there is no lack of prooftexting in this section, what is missing is clear scriptural proof that the way God spoke in biblical times continues to be normative today. But as I pointed out at the beginning of this review, that seems not to be the purpose of this book.

While I admire much of Storms’ ministry and have benefited greatly from reading some of his previous writings, and this book was useful in helping me understand how charismatic teachings are blended with Reformed soteriology, it that did little to challenge me or to convince me to set aside my cessationist beliefs. I suppose it is a bit ironic that Storms seems to fall back into the greatest criticism Calvinists have towards charismatic teachings: very few people offer substantial scriptural proof for them and rely instead on experience as the final arbiter of truth. Many arguments in this book seem to boil down to, “you will just know when you experience it” or “disbelief is usually the case with such events until they happen to you.” I am thankful to see Calvinists and charismatics who agree on the foundational doctrines of the faith coming “Together for the Gospel,” but see no biblical foundation to support the type of convergence Storms suggests.

Convergence seems to be available only through samstorms.com.

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