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theology

5 months 6 days ago

We will leave it to future church historians to determine the reach and impact of the recent renewal of Reformed theology. While we do not know if, when or how it will fade out, we do know that John Piper has been one of the men at the forefront of the movement. His books, his sermons and his conferences have been instrumental in raising awareness of Reformed theology and in making it downright exciting. In his new book Five Points, Piper offers his explanation and defence of Calvinistic doctrine.

One of Piper’s great strengths in representing and defending Calvinistic theology has been in not merely defending this doctrine, but in making it lead to wonder and to worship. “My experience is that clear knowledge of God from the Bible is the kindling that sustains the fires of affection for God. And probably the most crucial kind of knowledge is the knowledge of what God is like in salvation.” Of course this is what the five points of Calvinism are about—“not the power and sovereignty of God in general, but his power and sovereignty in the way he saves people,” which is exactly why these doctrines are commonly referred to as the doctrines of grace. He insists that he does not begin here as a Calvinist who sets out to defend a system, but as a Christian who holds the Bible above any system of thought.

As with many modern Calvinists, Piper does not love the TULIP acronym that has become synonymous with Calvinism. He steps away from the acronym and the standard order, saying “I have found … that people grasp these points more easily if we go in the order in which we ourselves often experience them when we become Christians.”

  1. We experience first our depravity and need of salvation.
  2. Then we experience the irresistible grace of God leading us toward faith.
  3. Then we trust the sufficiency of the atoning death of Christ for our sins.
  4. Then we discover that behind the work of God to atone for our sins and bring us to faith was the unconditional election of God.
  5. And finally we rest in his electing grace to give us the strength and will to persevere to the end in faith.

In short, here is how he explains each of the points:

  1. Total Depravity: Our sinful corruption is so deep and so strong as to make us slaves of sin and morally unable to overcome our own rebellion and blindness. This inability to save ourselves from ourselves is total. We are utterly dependent on God’s grace to overcome our rebellion, give us eyes to see, and effectively draw us to the Savior.
  2. Unconditional Election: God’s election is an unconditional act of free grace that was given through his Son Jesus before the world began. By this act, God chose, before the foundation of the world, those who would be delivered from bondage to sin and brought to repentance and saving faith in Jesus.
  3. Limited Atonement: The atonement of Christ is sufficient for all humans and effective for those who trust him. It is not limited in its worth or sufficiency to save all who believe. But the full, saving effectiveness of the atonement that Jesus accomplished is limited to those for whom that saving effect was prepared. The availability of the total sufficiency of the atonement is for all people. Whosoever will—whoever believes—will be covered by the blood of Christ. And there is a divine design in the death of Christ to accomplish the promises of the new covenant for the chosen bride of Christ. Thus Christ died for all people, but not for all in the same way.
  4. Irresistible Grace: This means that the resistance that all human beings exert against God every day (Rom. 3:10-12; Acts 7:51) is wonderfully overcome at the proper time by God’s saving grace for undeserving rebels whom he chooses freely to save.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints: We believe that all who are justified will win the fight of faith. They will persevere in faith and will not surrender finally to the enemy of their souls. This perseverance is the promise of the new covenant, obtained by the blood of Christ, and worked in us by God himself, yet not so as to diminish, but only to empower and encourage our vigilance; so that we may say in the end, I have fought the good fight, but it was not I, but the grace of God which was with me (2 Tim. 4:7; 1 Cor. 15:10).

Each of these points is not only explained and defended, but also celebrated. The passion that has marked so much of Piper’s ministry is fully present here; his desire is to elevate God and to draw his readers to see and revel in the glory of God. As the book draws to a close he provides a personal testimony of “What the five points have meant for me.” Here he describes how rightly understanding God’s sovereignty in salvation has led him to stand in awe of God and has led him into the depth of true God-centered worship; how these doctrines make him marvel at his own salvation; how they make him alert to any man-centered alternatives to this good news; how they make him hopeful that God has the will, the right and the power to answer prayer; and so much else.

Five Points was edited and published on the far side of the Atlantic and as with Finally Alive before it, I immediately noted a difference—a good difference. I consider Five Points as readable and enjoyable a book as Piper has ever written. He covers those five doctrines that have been the subject of so many books, but does so with a kind of fire, an infectious enthusiasm for the display of God’s splendor. This is sound doctrine in the hands of a skilled and passionate writer and it makes a great combination.

10 months 2 weeks ago
A few weeks ago a reporter from Macleans magazine got in touch to ask if I would be willing to talk about a whole new genre of books—books that claim the author has journeyed to heaven. He had been assigned the story and was baffled by their popularity. I am baffled too. He saw as well that even as authors are insisting that heaven is real and that they have seen it, hell is on the downgrade. He understood readers want the assurance that heaven exists and they want to believe that hell does not.

These books crowd bookstore shelves (as evidenced by this snapshot I took at a local bookstore). Every couple of months there is another book telling the story of a near death experience followed by a journey to the afterlife. Every couple of months one of these books hits the list of bestsellers. 90 Minutes in Heaven, Heaven Is For Real, Proof of Heaven, To Heaven and Back…it just goes on and on. While bookstores are now full of these books, there have been very few responses to them.

Heaven Tourism Books
Enter the second edition of John MacArthur’s The Glory of Heaven. The first edition was written to combat New Age themes that were pervading the church in the early to mid-90’s. The second edition is angled specifically at exposing this genre of heaven tourism. While much of the content is the same, there is also much that is new, refreshed and updated.

In some ways this is two books: a look at what the Bible says about heaven and the afterlife, and a pointed critique of the many heaven tourism books cluttering bookshelves. In both ways it is successful.

As MacArthur sketches out a brief a theology of heaven, he is in his element, looking to Scripture and simply teaching about the glory that awaits us there. His views are traditional, orthodox and at times very literal. He shows again and again that the greatest promise of heaven is not meeting those who have gone before or being free from sickness and pain, but being in the presence of the Savior. He is equally strong in exposing and critiquing heaven tourism books. He pulls no punches as he points out the massive contradictions between the various books in this genre and as he draws attention to just how often they contradict not only the facts of what the Bible says about heaven, but also the Bible’s whole theme and tenor. This is classic MacArthur, looking to the Bible, showing contradictions, and saying, “No way!”

While there are many excellent books on heaven, this may be the only one that specifically addresses the heaven tourism books. MacArthur models how to think biblically—how to go to the Bible, how to think critically, and how to exercise discernment. This alone makes The Glory of Heaven a book you would do well to read.

11 months 4 weeks ago
Christianity is a bloody faith. It is a bloody faith because it is the faith of sinful people and the Bible tells us that sin requires blood. For sin to be forgiven, for sinful people to be made right with God, there must be a payment of blood. That payment was made by Jesus Christ on a blood-soaked cross and through the centuries Christians have been praising God for providing the one thing they need most that they cannot do themselves. So Christians speak of the blood of Jesus Christ, they thank God for accepting the bloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ, they sing of that blood, they praise God for it. This is an unashamedly bloody faith.

We can see the significance of blood in the pages of the Old Testament, where from the earliest verses there are bloody footprints leading away from the perfection of the Garden of Eden. The blood of millions of animals brings temporary peace between sinful people and a sinned-against God. We see the significance of blood in how frequently the New Testament mentions it—nearly three times as often as “the cross” of Christ and five times as often as the “death” of Christ. Says Richard Phillips, “At the very heart of our Christian faith is a precious red substance; the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In his new book Blood Work, Anthony Carter, pastor of East Point Church in East Point, Georgia, describes how the blood of Christ accomplishes the Christian’s salvation. Through 140 pages that are equally descriptive and meditative, he traces the New Testament’s blood motif and finds that blood is necessary for purchasing, propitiating, justifying, redeeming, cleansing, sanctifying, electing, freeing and so much else. Almost every benefit that is ours in Christ Jesus is explicitly connected to us through this trail of blood.

The reason for all this talk of blood becomes clear in the pages of Scripture. “In Genesis 9:4 we are told that life is in the blood. If life is in the blood and the blood represents life, then the loss or shedding of blood represents death.” Thus the blood of Jesus is a metaphor for the life and death of Jesus. “His precious blood signified His precious life and His precious death. Consequently, the redeemed do not receive a blood transfusion from God. We receive a life transfusion—His death for our death, His life for our life. It is all according to His precious blood, which satisfies God’s righteous requirements for life and justice.”

If blood is so central to our great problem and God’s great solution, “It should not be surprising that as recipients of God’s gracious salvation through the person and work of Christ we preach, pray, and even sing of the wonderful power of the blood, as the popular hymn by William Cowper (“There Is a Foundation Filled with Blood”) demonstrates.” In fact, every chapter of Blood Work is marked by Christian hymns that, in both sorrow and joy, speak of Christ’s blood. “And can it be that I should gain / An interest in the Savior’s blood?” “I’ll wash my garments white / In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.” “Sealed my pardon with his blood / Hallelujah! What a Savior!” “Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood / Shall never lose its power.”

All this talk of blood and all these bloody songs called me to ponder why the Old Testament and all its blood-soaked history had to come before the cross. All the blood of all those animals was preparing us to understand the blood of the perfect and final sacrifice. The bloody doorposts in Egypt made death pass over the homes of God’s people; the bloody cross of Calvary makes death pass over the souls of God’s people.

Blood Work is a powerful book that calls the reader to better understand why blood is such a integral, vile, beautiful necessity to the Christian faith. It is a book that calls the reader not only to understand, but also to marvel and to worship.

1 year 1 month ago
I am often asked to comment on Calvinistic theology and its impact on my life. I was raised in the Reformed tradition and continue to hold fast to the tenets of Calvinism, but always try to distinguish between Calvinism as a kind of theological shorthand, a means of summarizing a lot of theology under a single word, and Calvinism as a banner to rally around. I advocate the former and shy away from the latter.

Greg Dutcher is a Calvinist pastor who is concerned about some of what he sees in today’s New Calvinism. Calvinism is “in” today; this is a cause for joy for those who, like me, believe that Reformed theology is a pure and accurate expression of New Testament theology, but with Calvinism’s trendiness come certain dangers and challenges. Some time back Dutcher approached me to ask if Cruciform Press would be interested in publishing a book that would look at a series of ways that we, today’s Calvinists, might destroy what the Lord appears to be doing. His proposal was intriguing and I passed it to the decision-makers. Cruciform went on to publish Killing Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside. Though I looked at the initial proposal I deliberately chose not to read it until several months after publication. In fact, I only read it in full yesterday. (A long-delayed flight gave me a lot of time.)

I am glad I waited and even more glad that I finally read it. Killing Calvinism is part confession, part teaching, part exhortation. Dutcher looks first to himself and his own propensity to be a Calvinist first and a Christian second, to be more concerned with a theological system than with the gospel itself. He offers eight different ways that we may just destroy what the Lord is doing.

  • By loving Calvinism as an end in itself
  • By becoming a theologian instead of a disciple
  • By loving God’s sovereignty more than God himself
  • By losing an urgency in evangelism
  • By learning only from other Calvinists
  • By tidying up the Bible’s “loose ends”
  • By being an arrogant know-it-all
  • By scoffing at the hang-ups others have with Calvinism

While it’s unlikely that each of these eight things apply to each one of us, I’m sure we can all see our propensity toward at least a few of them. I know that I sometimes value understanding and systematizing theology over being a disciple of Christ and I know I can sometimes try to tidy up the Bible’s loose ends by downplaying the difficulties presented by certain texts. I know that I can also do just what Dutcher says here: “Some Calvinists seem to think we were saved to proclaim God’s sovereignty rather than God himself.” Guilty as charged. And I could go on.

Among the book’s strengths are its illustrations. For example, Dutcher compares Reformed theology to a windshield of all things. “I am concerned that many Calvinists today do little more than celebrate how wonderfully clear their theological windshield is. But like a windshield, Reformed theology is not an end in itself. It is simply a window to the awe-inspiring universe of God’s truth, filled with glory, beauty, and grace. Do we need something like a metaphorical windshield of clear, biblical truth to look through as we hope to marvel at God’s glory? Absolutely. But we must make sure that we know the difference between staring at a windshield and staring through one.” 

Dutcher’s exhortations and rebukes are timely and well-taken. He writes as a concerned Calvinist who wants to see the Lord continue to work in and through his people and he knows that we may prove to be the barrier to that work. John Piper read the book and said “When this kind of critique and warning come from within a movement, it is a sign of health.” I couldn’t agree more. All of us who love Reformed theology would do well to read it and take it to heart.

(Let me again disclose that I am a part-owner of Cruciform Press, the publisher of this book. I have written an honest and voluntary review, but I guess there may be some bias. I haven’t quite figured out how to express enthusiasm for a book I was involved in publishing but truly believe in.)

1 year 8 months ago
R.C. Sproul has a long history of making a stand for truth. He has an equal history of standing firm against error, using his ministry platform to refute errors that are seeping into the Evangelical church. On several occasions he has reacted to those who have sought to minimize the differences between Protestant theology and Roman Catholic theology. Faith Alone and Getting the Gospel Right are both insightful looks at the critical importance of affirming and protecting the Reformation gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. These books were largely a response to “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” and “The Gift of Salvation” (ECT 2). 

While ECT may seem like ancient history, there are many Protestants today who continue to minimize the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, even going so far as to say that the Reformation is over and that it is time to reunite with Rome. Others may not go quite that far, but they still believe that the differences are not significant enough to prohibit a great deal of unity. “The Manhattan Declaration” was just one recent attempt to find common cause on issues such as abortion and traditional marriage. With such efforts in mind, Dr. Sproul returns to the fray with Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism.

He makes his purpose clear in the book’s opening pages: “In this book, I have a simple goal. I want to look at Roman Catholic teaching in several significant areas and compare it with Protestant teaching. I hope to show, often using her own words, that the Roman Catholic Church has not changed from what it believed and taught at the time of the Reformation. That means that the Reformation is not over and we must continue to stand firm in proclaiming the biblical gospel.” He means to show that the gospel itself is at stake and to do this he looks at six core doctrines in which Catholicism varies from the clear teaching of Scripture: Scripture, justification, the Church, sacraments, the papacy and the role of Mary. He closes with a reflection on how Protestants should now relate to Roman Catholics without minimizing theological differences.

What I have long appreciated about Dr. Sproul’s books on Catholicism is that he is charitable and respectful in his tone, always careful to show where Protestants have erred in their understanding of Catholicism and ensuring that he properly represents even those positions that he does not hold to. Thus he looks at Catholic doctrine as it is explained by its foremost theologians and official documents. Having allowed Catholicism to explain itself, he goes to Scripture to show where it has strayed.

When discussing Roman Catholic theology, Protestants have too often been ignorant, careless, or unfair. The power of this book is that R. C. Sproul is fair, precise, and charitable as he proves that the errors of the Roman Catholic Church are both deep and significant, and that the Roman Catholic gospel is not the gospel of the Bible. Even as he calls for us to love our Roman Catholic friends, he warns that we cannot consider them brothers and sisters when the gospel itself is at stake. Are We Together? serves as a helpful primer on Roman Catholic theology and a powerful stand for the gospel. I highly recommend it.

2 years 2 months ago

 

It is one of Jesus’ more audacious claims—that all of the Scriptures testify to him. As Jesus appealed to the religious authorities of his day and as he exposed their ignorance, he declared that he himself is the subject of the Bible; he himself is the one all of the Old Testament Scriptures were pointing to.

Finding Christ in the pages of the Bible can be a challenge at times, and especially so when reading portions of the Old Testament. Michael Williams’ How to Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens is a helpful guide to a Christ-focused reading of the Bible. Williams is Professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary and his passion is to teach people to understand and appreciate the grand sweep of redemptive history. This book puts that passion in print by going through each of the books of the Bible to show how each one and how all of them together point to Jesus Christ.

Williams turns to a puzzle to provide an illustration. He says:

The picture of Christ in the Old Testament can be obscured by veritable whiteout conditions of chronological, sacrificial, architectural, geographic, and genealogical details, so that all that can be made out after spending some time in the snowstorm is a mound of white where the car used to be. To an admittedly lesser degree, the problem exists for the New Testament as well. Names of apostles and disciples, travelogues, letters to forgotten churches in obscure locales regarding confusing theological issues—all of this can seem like so many different shaped jigsaw pieces without a picture on the box to help us to put it all together. This book is intended to help believers make the picture on the box. And it is a picture of Jesus.

In a book targeted at the general reader rather than the scholar, Williams structures each chapter in precisely the same way. He introduces a book of the Bible and draws out its theme while also suggesting an ideal memory passage. He then examines the book through “The Jesus Lens” to show how that theme finds its focus in Jesus Christ; he follows this with a short piece of contemporary application. Each chapter wraps up with a few hook questions that drive home both understanding and application. He does all of this in just about four pages for each book.

This is an ideal resource to refer to if you are involved in a Bible-reading plan or if you would just like to gain a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. As you begin reading a new book of the Bible, you will find it helpful to turn to How to Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens to get an overview of that book and to train yourself to read it through the Jesus lens. It will sharpen your understanding of what you have read (or are about to read) and help ensure that you do not miss Jesus amidst the stories and genealogies and all the other things that sometimes threaten to cloud our view.

3 years 6 months ago
There are many books out there that describe Reformed theology and that invite people to become part of the Reformed tradition. However, most of these books are a product of the years before the advent of this young, restless, Reformed reality that is all the rage today. Most such books predate the New Calvinism.

New to the field, and largely distinct from the rest, is Letters to a Young Calvinist by James K.A. Smith. This is one of the few books to speak directly to this new young, restless, Reformed movement. Written in the form of letters from a mentor to a young man who is investigating Reformed theology, the book offers a winsome 125-page introduction to the tradition and to the way it works out in real life. The author says “These letters don’t offer an apologetic defense of Calvinism, trying to defend it against all comers; rather, I envision the addressee of these letters as someone who has already become interested in this tradition and is looking for a guide into unfamiliar territory.”

Smith leads the young recipient of these letters into the tradition in a systematic way. He begins with words of welcome, expressing the way that Reformed theology leads us to seek out and discover deep wells of the Scripture. For example, “I think it is one of the hallmarks of the Reformed tradition that it has a long history of encouraging curiosity about creation. Unlike some of the places you and I have been, which really discourage questioning in order to get people to toe the party line, the Reformed tradition has long encourages a kind of holy intellectual riskiness.”

He warns of one of the most perilous sins of the Reformed: “Now is as good a time as any to warn you about one of the foremost temptations that accompanies Reformed theology: pride. And the worst kind of pride: religious pride (one of Screwtape’s letters speaks quite eloquently about this). This is an infection that often quickly contaminates those who discover the Reformed tradition, and it can be deadly: a kind of West Nile virus.”

Smith suggests that the best one-word summary of Reformed theology is grace. He speaks of grace going “all the way down,” by which he means that grace infuses every part of Reformed theology. And, indeed, Reformed theology is a theology of grace—grace in every part. He says (rightly!) that Reformed theology is not all about election and predestination; they are components of the theology but they are not all there is to it. “I often feel that Reformed theology is ill served by a myopic focus on these things, as legitimate as they are.” And he emphasizes that Reformed theology is inherently unfinished. “It seems to me very un-Reformed to prop up Reformed theology as a timeless ideal, a consummated achievement, when one of the Reformers’ mantras was semper reformanda—always reforming. You shouldn’t expect a lifetime of pursuing the truth to result in constant entrenchment into what you thought when you were twenty.”

Sooner or later, though, the author has to take sides in some of the issues that remain unresolved across the spectrum of the New Calvinism. And here is where he will inevitably lose some of his readers. The first of these issues regards confessions. Many who consider themselves Reformed today are explicitly non-confessional, meaning that they do not adhere to any of the catechisms or confessions that have long been Reformed hallmarks. Following this are a few discussions about the role of covenant within the tradition. Where Smith is sure to alienate even more readers is in his parenthetical attempt to suggest that Reformed theology ought to lead to an egalitarian understanding of gender roles.

As I look back on this book I see both strengths and weaknesses. The epistolary form is a wonderful choice. The tone is humble and helpful. The majority of what Smith teaches lines up well with what I believe. But as a Baptist I had to disagree with, well, a good portion of it. And looking at the endorsements, I can see that others disagreed with him as well. Two of the book’s endorsers, Tullian Tchividjian and Michael Horton offer caveats within their blurbs (Tchividjian: “ No one will agree with everything here, but what I appreciate…” Horton: Most of the time I cheered ‘Amen!’ as I read these letters, but even when I disagreed, I appreciated…”). In fact, conspicuous by their absence from the list of endorsers are any of the Baptist leaders of this New Calvinism.

So I guess I regard the book as a bit of a mixed bag. I felt that it got weaker as it went on. The best parts were largely the earliest parts. Of course if you are a paedo-baptist, if you are confessional, if you are covenantal, and/or if you are egalitarian, you’ll probably agree with much more of it. But maybe that’s the point. Thus far this young, restless, Reformed movement has been very ecumenical, with most people focusing on the commonalities, and especially the common understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation. Maybe the movement has grown up enough that people are now ready to begin discussing more of the particulars. And it’s in the particulars that we are bound to find the most disagreement.

3 years 8 months ago
The Trellis and the Vine was 2009’s surprise hit (read my review). Written by Collin Marshall and Tony Payne, the book described a ministry mind-shift that the authors assured the reader could change everything—everything related to ministry, that is. The book stood upon its simple metaphor of a trellis, an apparatus used to support something, and of a vine, the object that is supported by that trellis. The trellis referred to the administrative work within a church, those tasks that, though important, are not actually directly related to discipling people. Vine work, on the other hand, is those tasks of working with the vine, drawing people into the kingdom through evangelism and then training them to grow in their knowledge of God and their obedience to him. Though the book may not have been groundbreaking, it somehow managed to pull together a lot of ideas and collect them all within this simple metaphor. It was a powerful and effective combination and it sold very well. Even better, it impacted pastors and those engaged in gospel work, helping them better understand the task the Lord has given them.

The follow-up to The Trellis and the Vine is called The Archer and the Arrow. While it comes from Matthias Media, the same publisher, it is written by different authors: Phillip Jensen and Paul Grimmond. Though the volume is co-authored, its purpose is primarily to make Jensen’s “wisdom about preaching available to a wider audience—wisdom acquired over almost four decades of faithful biblical ministry.” I do not know if the book was conceived as a follow-up to The Trellis and the Vine or not, but regardless, it works as a sequel. Where the first book focused on ministry through a wide lens, the second focuses on the essential heart of ministry—the preaching of the gospel.

The book is framed around what the authors describe as the preacher’s mission statement: “My aim is to preach the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love.” They break this statement into its component parts and expound it over the course of several chapters. This takes them from the theoretical to the practical, from the purpose of preaching a sermon to the actual delivery of it.

Let me say a word about the book’s title. The metaphor speaks of the archer (the preacher) and the arrow, which is the sermon. Firing the arrow corresponds to the act of preaching. The arrow itself is formed by three parts—the head, the shaft and the feathers. “At the point of the arrowhead is the gospel, the declaration that Jesus is the Lord and Saviour. The cutting edges of the arrowhead are the implications of that reality. This can include things like ethics, philosophy, apologetics, personal godliness and kategoria.” The shaft corresponds to the exegesis of the passage around which a sermon is formed. And the feathers “correspond to issues like systematic theology, biblical theology, church history, philosophy and the like. The feathers are like the big categories of thought that tie the whole message of the Bible together.”

Archer and Arrow

Where The Trellis and the Vine stood upon its metaphor, where the metaphor itself had great value, The Archer and the Arrow does not, at least in my assessment. The metaphor is simply too complicated, too obscure. Even some of the diagrams supporting it are tough to understand. The beauty of the metaphor of trellis and vine was that it was so simple, so easy to recall and apply. Where The Trellis and the Vine offered a whole new way of wrapping your mind around gospel work, the value of its follow-up will be more in benefiting from the wisdom of a man with decades of experience in the preaching ministry. I would not anticipate too many churches speaking of arrowheads, shafts and feathers in the way they may now speak of trellis work and vine work.

So while the metaphor is not the most compelling, the book’s contents are far more so. Phillip Jensen has a long history of faithful preaching and he has much wisdom to share. It is very helpful to be able to follow along with him not just through the theory of the sermon but through actually putting one together, through wrestling with a text to try to understand it, through looking to the various resources available, and finally delivering that sermon to the congregation. Not all preachers have access to a person who can lead them through such a process, and there is great value in looking in on a pastor like Jensen as he goes about his work.

Let me pause to draw an analogy of my own. Roy Halladay, as you may know, is arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He has already won a Cy Young award and has had many dominating seasons in the past. And yet he continues to try to perfect his technique. He still reads books about the art of pitching and still labors to make himself better. This is a key to his ongoing success. Preachers ought to be much the same, to labor throughout their lives to become better in crafting sermons, in delivering sermons and even in understanding the purpose of sermons. To that end most preachers continue to read books on preaching. And this is just the kind of book that may well prove beneficial to them. It shares no great new technique, no original way of understanding the minister’s task. And that is strength rather than weakness. The book simply calls ministers to faithfully carry out their task and gives them tools to do that in a more biblical way.

If you are a pastor and haven’t yet read The Trellis and the Vine, you will want to do so. And then you will want to read the follow-up as well. The books are a powerful one-two punch looking first to the big picture of ministry and then focusing in on that one area of utmost importance. Colin Marshall (co-author of The Trellis and the Vine) may say it best: “The disciple-making vision of The Trellis and the Vine will only be realized through the kind of fearless, Bible-driven proclamation of the gospel that has been the hallmark of Phillip Jensen’s ministry. For over 20 years I watched him train a generation of young preachers during their ministry apprenticeship. This brilliant book now distils this wisdom for every preacher and would-be preacher.” You cannot have that trellis and vine kind of ministry without faithfulness in the preaching ministry; the two are inseparable, and these books look first to one and then to the other.

You can buy them from Westminster Books: The Archer and the Arrow and The Trellis and the Vine.

3 years 10 months ago
Mark Driscoll must be a busy guy. As if his ministry at Mars Hill isn’t enough to keep him busy every hour of the day, he has also written a long line of books, the most recent of which is titled simply Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. Like several of his previous volumes, this one is co-authored with his friend and theological mentor Gerry Breshears. While using the term “systematic theology” may not be entirely helpful in describing this book, it at least gives an idea of its contents. Doctrine exists to provide an overview of what Christians ought to believe.

As theological tomes go, this one is particularly interesting, particularly effective, in its structure. Each chapter introduces a topic through a single word and then shows how that topic is really all about God. The first chapter is “Trinity: God Is” while the second is “Revelation: God Speaks.” That sets that pattern that continues through each of the book’s thirteen chapters (the last of which, not surprisingly, is “Kingdom: God Reigns.” This beautifully takes doctrine out of the abstract and applies it directly to God himself. It takes a noun and matches it with a verb, showing for example how the doctrine of the church is not about us, but about God, about his desire to send his Word into all the world (the chapter is titled “Church: God Sends”).

Also effective is the pattern of asking questions through each of the chapters’ subheadings. So as we begin to read the chapter titled “Fall: God Judges” we have subheadings that ask questions like “What Is the Fall?,” “What Is Sin” and “Where Did Sin Originate?” In each case the topics are explained in a way that is clear and concise but in way that does not depend on obscure theological terms. It is a very useful structure and one that differentiates it from so many other similar books, most of which are systematic theologies. It sets it apart in a very good way.

So much for the book’s structure. What matters far more, in the end analysis, is the book’s content. And here Driscoll and Breshears have presented a lengthy look at Christian doctrine that is accurate, biblical and even worshipful.

Endorsed by the likes of Carl Trueman, Wayne Grudem and John Frame, each prominent theologians in their own right, Doctrine aptly defends the historic doctrines of the faith. That is not to say that each of these theologians would necessarily agree with everything the authors write. There will be clear unity on the foundations of the faith but some disagreement on the finer points of doctrine. Areas where some readers will disagree will include the authors’ understanding of Creation (they come down on the side of the Gap Theory), their view of unlimited limited atonement, their view of covenant and baptism (they are firmly baptistic) and their view of the continuation of some kind of special revelation and miraculous gifts. Yet while I myself disagree with them on several of the issues (actually, I think I disagree with them to varying degrees on all of the issues I listed here) I am glad they were willing to not just list the options but also to take a stand. That increases rather than diminishes the value of the book.

Particularly effective are the sections discussing the incarnation as the model for the church’s mission and their defense of the important of celebrating and joining with the local church. Throughout they consistently do a superb job of showing why all this theology matters and how it must work itself out in the life of the Christian. Again, this is not abstract theology, but theology in motion, theology in practice.

I’ve heard it said that Mark Driscoll put far more work into this book than any of his others. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he put more effort into this book than he put into the rest of them combined. Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe is probably his best book so far (and I think I’ve read just about all of them). Though it may not be the most exciting to many readers, at least on the face of it, its content is biblical and its way of presenting that content superb. It is a good book to read through and then to keep on-hand for reference purposes.

4 years 3 months ago

Can you believe it’s been five years since we last saw a new book from Josh Harris (assuming we don’t count the re-titling and re-release of Not Even a Hint / Sex Is Not the Problem, Lust Is)? His last book was Stop Dating the Church which released all the way back near the end of 2004. But the wait is over. Today he returns with Dug Down Deep, a book whose title is drawn from Jesus’ parable about the man who dug deep to build the foundation for his house (see Luke 6:46-49). The rains poured, the river rose, but the house on the solid foundation stood firm. You know the story. Harris says, “digging down and building on the rock isn’t a picture of being nominally religious or knowing Jesus from a distance. Being a Christian means being a person who labors to establish his beliefs, his dreams, his choices, his very view of the world on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has accomplished—a Christian who cares about truth, who cares about sound doctrine.”

This is a book about sound doctrine. It is a book that encourages the reader to embrace that much-maligned word theology. “We’re either building our life on the reality of what God is truly like and what he’s about, or we’re basing our life on our own imagination and misconceptions. We’re all theologians. The question is whether we will be good theologians or bad theologians, whether what we know about God is true or false.”

The “I” in the book’s subtitle offers a hint at how Harris is going to go about teaching theology: “Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters.” In the book’s opening pages he writes, “This book is the story of how I first glimpsed the beauty of Christian theology. These pages are the journal entries of my own spiritual journey—a journey that led to the realization that sound doctrine is at the center of loving Jesus with passion and authenticity. I want to share how I learned that orthodoxy isn’t just for old men but for anyone who longs to behold a God who is bigger and more real and glorious than the human mind can imagine.” So maybe this book is best described as a theological autobiography (or would that be an autobiographical theology?).

Each of the chapters describes, defines and celebrates a particular point of doctrine and it does so from within the context of Harris’ own life. Among the topics he covers are the transcendence and the nature of God, the doctrines of Scripture, the uniqueness of Christ, the atonement, the Holy Spirit, and the church. In each case he shows how these truths have captivated him and he shows how they have transformed his life.

Let me pause here for one moment to make an observation.

Last year I came up with a tongue-in-cheek metric I call the Piper Factor. It measures how much what is said in a particular book has already been said (and usually said better) by John Piper. Trust me when I say there are some books out there that draw so heavily on Piper that I have to wonder how a publisher justified their existence. Lately I have extended the measure to the other Usual Reformed Suspects (Dever, Mahaney, Grudem, Carson, Packer, …). I look for the influencers behind a book and, if it is written by a Reformed author, I very often find that they come from a very narrow group of writers. I’m sure similar measures can be used across any field (try reading a book about technology that doesn’t rely on McLuhan and Postman, for example).

It is generally quite easy to measure the Piper Factor—you need only turn to a book’s end notes or bibliography and see who is there. How many of the book’s major points are drawn from one of these authors? How much of the book’s teaching is drawn from a rather narrow spectrum of similar authors? I can say that my own book drew very heavily from such authors. Harris’ book measures about the same. Packer? Check. Grudem? Check. Bridges? Carson? Check. Check.

Now let me say that the Piper Factor in no way indicates an actual problem with the book. n fact, I would be inclined to argue just the opposite. Instead it just shows that the writer has drawn primarily from a shallow pool of books that many of us have already read. In the case of Dug Down Deep this makes perfect sense since the book tells the story of how Harris came to the theological convictions he describes here. And, like all of us, he did so through good books written by godly men.

Back to the review and to my reason for raising the Piper Factor.

The greatest strength or the greatest overall contribution of Dug Down Deep is probably not in the content of what it teaches since this can largely be found elsewhere, in the books Harris draws upon. He is not advancing some radically new theological agenda or calling people to some new revelation of God. The strength of the book, what sets it apart from similar titles, is in the integration of Harris’ life with the theology he describes. Its strength is in its targeting of the audience he seeks to reach. Here he offers a fresh take on these points of theology, not only expressing them in his own life but also explaining why they are so dear to him. The book is particularly well-suited, then, to the younger audience that continues to follow Harris. Though there is benefit for any of us in reading again of the great truths of the Christian faith and in hearing how one believer has integrated these into his life, I would expect that the greatest benefit will be for younger Christians who, like Harris, have grown up in the church and who, like Harris as a young man, have heard these truths without actually embracing them. Here they can be mentored by a godly man whose passion for truth, whose passion for theology that extends to every area of life, is clear on every page.

Dug Down Deep is an excellent book and one I would be glad to recommend. I wouldn’t hesitate to hand it to any Christian but would be particularly pleased to see it in the hands of young believers. In fact, if my own children were just a few years older, I would hand a copy to each of them. And I’m not sure that I can give a book higher praise than that.

(Stay tuned this afternoon for a brief interview I conducted with Josh)

 

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