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October 11, 2007

“Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18)

Today those of us who are engaged in this project to read some great Christian classics together are going to be looking at the sixth chapter of J.C. Ryle’s Holiness. You can read more about this effort here: Reading the Classics Together. Even if you are not participating, please keep reading. I’m sure there will be something here to benefit you.

As we draw near to the end of this book we remember that Ryle has covered Sin, Sanctification, Holiness, The Fight and The Cost. This week he progresses to “Growth.” He begins with these simple questions: “Do we grow in grace? Do we get on in our religion? Do we make progress?” He says, “To a mere formal Christian I cannot expect the inquiry to seem worth attention. … But to every one who is downright earnest about his soul, and hungers and thirsts after spiritual life, the question ought to come home with searching power. Do we make progress in our religion? Do we grow?” Believing that spiritual growth is absolutely fundamental to the pursuit of holiness, Ryle leads the reader through the reality of religious growth, the marks of religious growth, and the means of religious growth.

Summary

  1. The Reality of Religious Growth
    1. Growth in grace is the evidence of spiritual health
    2. Growth in grace is the only way to be happy in religion
    3. Growth in grace is the only way to be useful to others
    4. Growth in grace pleases God
    5. We are accountable before God to grow in grace
  2. The Marks of Growing in Grace
    1. Increased Humility
    2. Increased Faith and Love
    3. Increased Holiness of Life and Conversation
    4. Increased Spiritual Taste and Thoughts
    5. Increased Charity
    6. Increased Zeal and Diligence
  3. The Means of Growing in Grace
    1. The Private Means of Grace
    2. The Public Means of Grace
    3. Watchfulness
    4. Caution of Company kept
    5. Regular Communion with the Lord

Discussion

I found this chapter both an encouragement and a challenge. It was encouraging because when I examine my life I can find evidences of the Spirit’s work within me—I see evidence of growth. I suppose one could say it smacks of arrogance to say so, but I think any Christian, or any true Christian, should be able to see the same. And this should be a cause to rejoice in the Lord. But, of course, any Christian will also see just how much room for growth remains. And this is the challenge—to take comfort in the evidence that the Spirit is at work and to allow this to help assure us that He will continue to do His sanctifying work within.

I appreciated Ryle’s description of his term “growing in grace.”

When I speak of growth in grace, I only mean increase in the degree, size, strength, vigor and power of the graces which the Holy Spirit plants in a believer’s heart. I hold that every one of those graces admits of growth, progress and increase. I hold that repentance, faith, hope, love, humility, zeal, courage and the like may be little or great, strong or weak, vigorous or feeble, and may vary greatly in the same man at different periods of his life. When I speak of a man growing in grace, I mean simply this—that his sense of sin is becoming deeper, his faith stronger, his hope brighter, his love more extensive, his spiritual–mindedness more marked. He feels more of the power of godliness in his own heart. He manifests more of it in his life. He is going on from strength to strength, from faith to faith and from grace to grace. I leave it to others to describe such a man’s condition by any words they please. For myself I think the truest and best account of him is this—he is growing in grace.

He goes on to further define this term as the chapter progresses and he moves through the various marks and means of growth. What strikes me as I read about the means that are to be used by those who wish to grow in grace is how exceedingly simple they are. Christianity is a faith that does not call for us to do extraordinary things in order to progress in our faith or to mark or progress in faith. Rather, we do the extraordinary ordinary—we use the private and public means of grace, we keep watch over the little things, guard our hearts from unwise influences and commune daily with Jesus Christ. And through these things—not great pilgrimages or great acts of public self-sacrifice—we grow in our knowledge of the Lord, our love of Him, and our obedience to Him. The sheer simplicity of Christianity is, I think, one of the evidences of its truth, for we need only do things that come naturally to those who have been renewed by the Spirit.

What a blessing it is to know that the Spirit does His work in us as we do these small, obvious, day-to-day tasks. He works in us through these ordinary means, even when they seem just so very ordinary…

Next Time

We’ll finish up this book next Thursday (October 18) with the sixth and final chapter (“Assurance”). If you’ve committed to join in this reading project, please keep reading and be prepared to discuss it!

Your Turn

I am interested in hearing what you took away from this chapter. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Don’t feel that you need to say anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or gave you pause or confused you.

October 09, 2007

Forty-one books to the winner…

Last month’s Great September Giveaway was a great success with three readers taking home some excellent prizes. Of course I extend my sympathies to the multitudes who didn’t win; I can identify with your disappointment since I don’t think I’ve ever won anything in my life! But I am confident that my time is coming.

This month you’ve got another chance to win a great prize. Or forty-one of them to be exact.

The Sponsor

Reformation TrustFirst, a word about sponsors. Each of these giveaways is sponsored by a different ministry or a Christian company. I’d ask that you express your gratitude to these sponsors by clicking through to their sites and looking around. All of them have something interesting to offer. By clicking to their sites you support them and you support these giveaways.

This month’s sponsor is Ligonier Ministries. And really, what can I say about Ligonier? It is, of course, a ministry based upon the teaching of R.C. Sproul. It was established in 1971 to equip Christians to articulate what they believe and why they believe it. And it has been doing that faithfully ever since. Dr. Sproul’s most recent book, The Truth of the Cross is ideal for both personal growth and for evangelism. To that end Ligonier is offering it at a volume discount (‘spread-the-word’ pricing) when purchased through their site.

Buy 1–––––––—$15
Buy 2-5–––––––$12 each
Buy 6-39––––––-$9.75 each
Buy a case of 40–––-$6.75 each
Buy two or more cases—$5.25 each

You can learn more about this offer right here.

The Prizes

I’ve got some amazing prizes to offer this time around. As with the last giveaway there will be three winners.

  • First prize: One case (Forty copies!) of The Truth of the Cross by R.C. Sproul along with a copy of Jesus the Evangelist by Richard Phillips (that’s a retail value of over $600!). The forty books are not to be sold, but are to be given away or used for evangelism. Just think what you could do with forty of them. That’s ten for people in the church, ten for family members, ten for Christmas gifts and ten to hold on to for just the right moment.
  • Second prize: One copy of Jesus the Evangelist by Richard Phillips and admission for two to the Ligonier Ministries 2008 National Conference, Evangelism According to Jesus.
  • Third Prize: One copy of Jesus the Evangelist by Richard Phillips and admission for two to the Ligonier Ministries 2008 National Conference, Evangelism According to Jesus.

Note: If the second or third prize winners are unable to attend the 2008 National Conference, they may substitute admission for two to The Cross of Christ Regional Conference in Dallas/Fort Worth (November 2-3, 2007) OR any two books published by Reformation Trust.

Small Print

As with previous giveaways, you can increase your chances of winning by referring others. Details and other smallish print is available in the contest area. I recommend you read it. Last time a potential winner forfeited the prize because he did not join the mailing list!

Enter the Draw

You can enter the draw here (Please read the instructions carefully!):

www.challies.com/draw.php

September 20, 2007

As you know, I am, along with a group of readers, attempting to work my way through some great Christian classics. Today we have arrived at the third chapter of J.C. Ryle’s Holiness. You can read more about this effort here: Reading the Classics Together. Even if you are not participating, please keep reading. I’m sure there will be something here to benefit you. Four weeks ago we began our eight-week study of this book by looking at the Introduction to the book, and then progressed to the first chapter which dealt with Sin and then the second chapter that dealt with Sanctification. This week we move on to the third chapter, the subject of which is Holiness.

Summary

The chapter begins with a simple but profound question. In previous chapters we’ve learned about sin and sanctification and on that basis and reflecting on Hebrews 12:14 (“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”) Ryle now asks, “Are we holy? Shall we see the Lord?” He begins to move holiness from the realm of theology to the realm of personal application. “In this hurrying, bustling world, let us stand still for a few minutes and consider the matter of holiness.”

As with all of these chapters, Ryle follows a clear outline. There are three sections: The Nature of True Holiness, The Importance of Practical Holiness and Application.

  1. The Nature of True Practical Holiness
    1. Holiness is the habit of being of one mind with God
    2. Holiness endeavors to shun every known sin and to keep every known commandment
    3. Holiness strives to follow the example of Christ
    4. Holiness cultivates the passive graces of meekness, longsuffering, gentleness, patience, kindness, and self-control
    5. Holiness pursues temperance and self-denial
    6. Holiness practices love and brotherly kindness
    7. Holiness practices mercy and benevolence towards others
    8. Holiness is exemplified in purity of heart
    9. Holiness follows after the fear of God
    10. Holiness follows after humility
    11. Holiness follows after faithfulness in the duties of life
    12. Holiness follows after spiritual mindedness
  2. Importance of Practical Holiness
    1. God commands it in Scripture
    2. Holiness is the purpose for which Christ came into the world
    3. Holiness is the only sound evidence of saving faith
    4. Holiness is the only evidence of love for Christ
    5. Holiness is the only sound evidence of being sons of God
    6. Holiness is most likely way to contribute to the good of others
    7. Holiness produces present comfort
    8. Holiness prepares us for heaven
    9. Application
  3. A Word of Advice – If you want to be holy…
    1. Begin with Christ
    2. Go to Christ
    3. Abide in Christ

Discussion

This chapter offered a lot of content and gave me a lot to think about. I find the chapters in this book are just long enough that I can begin to have trouble adequately digesting them. If they were much longer I think I’d have to break them into chunks that are more easily digestible. The combination of the density and the length can make for tough going!

After discussing the nature of practical holiness, Ryle, always the pastor, pauses to ensure the reader knows that holiness does not shut out the presence on indwelling sin. Holiness is our goal and our motivation, but it is a goal we can never fully attain in this life. I was encouraged to read “some men’s graces are in the blade, some in the ear, and some are like full corn in the ear.” It is good to see all holiness in a continuum where the most godly men are on the same inclined plane as even the newest Christian—they are just further along the slope. Ryle provided this metaphor in the introduction and I’m glad that he paused here to ensure the reader does not become overly discouraged by his lack of holiness. While I appreciated that encouragement, I also appreciated the challenge that “it is the excellence of a holy man that he is not at peace with indwelling sin, as others are. He hates it, mourns over it, and longs to be free from its company.” A mark of holiness is the desire to attain more holiness and to put sin to death. Though we know that we will never be entirely free from sin in this life, at the same time we strive towards that impossible goal, seeking to join with the Spirit in destroying sin’s power over us. Encouragement and challenge side-by-side are a powerful force for change. I need to remember this.

Shortly after this, Ryle says that holiness is the only sound evidence that we are children of God. I think every parent has moments of shock or incredulity as we see our children begin to mimic our words, our habits, our priorities. The other day my son was talking on the phone while pacing in circles around the house. As he spoke to his grandmother he walked from the kitchen, through the dining room and living room, up the hall and back into the kitchen in endless circles. Aileen laughed, knowing that he has somehow inherited this habit from me. His habit is evidence that he is a member of this family—that he is my son. As Ryle says, “children in this world world are generally like their parents.” The degree may vary from person-to-person, but it is rare that there is no kind of family likeness. This is as true of the family of God. If God is our Father, we must begin to imitate Him and to resemble Him. “We must show by our lives the family we belong to.”

A third thing that stood out to me was a simple one and one I should have thought of long ago, I think. Ryle asks, “Do you think you feel the importance of holiness as much as you should?” He then says “how apt we are to overlook the doctrine of growth in grace, and that we do not sufficiently consider how very far a person may go in a profession of religion, and yet have no grace, and be dead in God’s sight after all.” He mentions Judas and says, “When the Lord warned them that one would betray Him, no one said, ‘Is it Judas?’” And that is exactly the case, isn’t it? Not one of the disciples stood up and said, “It’s going to be Judas! I haven’t seen the evidence of holiness in his life! It must be him!” No, Judas seemed to fit in quite well even though he was never saved. While it may be that he did a very good job of playing the part, it seems more likely that the disciples simply were not thinking in these categories and were not looking for evidence of holiness in their own lives or in the loves of each other.

So this walk I’m putting the book down knowing that without holiness I cannot see the Lord and am seeking to be deliberate about evidences of holiness in my life. I need to pause often to ask, “Am I holy?” And at the same time I need to seek evidence of holiness in the lives of other Christians, encouraging them were I see this, and perhaps lovingly exhorting them where I do not.

Next Time

We’ll continue the book next Thursday (September 27) with the fourth chapter (“The Fight”). If you are interested in joining in, please do. There is still time to purchase the book or to read it online. See this discussion (Read the Classics Together - Holiness) for information.

Your Turn

And now it’s your turn. I am interested in hearing what you took away from this chapter. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Don’t feel that you need to say anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or gave you pause or confused you.

A friend sent along some study questions he once prepared while leading some men in his church through this book and this question stood out to me. It’s worth thinking about and perhaps someone would like to take a stab at an answer: “If holiness is so great, not equal in every man, and, to some degree, contingent on our own works, why then does it produce such a deep humility rather than encourage pride?”

September 18, 2007

Brian McLaren shares two gospels, one new and one old.

Those of us who have been keeping a wary eye on the Emerging Church know that to understand the movement we need to understand Brian McLaren. Though it is not quite fair to label him the movement’s leader, he certainly functions as its elder statesman and his writing seems to serve as a barometer for the movement. But anyone who has read his books will know just how difficult it is to pin down what he really believes. So often he is deliberately vague and mischievous and opaque, making suggestions but stopping short of actually saying, “This is what I believe.”

It was with some interest, then, that I read his understanding of “two views of Jesus’ good news” in a pre-release copy of his upcoming book Everything Must Change. In a chapter entitled “How Much More Ironic,” he lays out the gospel as he understands it, set against the gospel as traditionally understood by Protestants. In an endnote he defines this just a little bit further to say it represents a Calvinistic, evangelical Protestant, understanding of the good news.

So here, under four headings, is McLaren’s portrayal of what he calls the “conventional view” of Jesus’ good news:

The Human Situation: What is the Story We Find Ourselves In? God created the world as perfect, but because our primal ancestors, Adam and Eve, did not maintain the absolute perfection demanded by God, god has irrevocably determined that the entire universe and all it contains will be destroyed, and the souls of all human beings—expect for those specifically exempted—will be forever punished for their imperfection in hell.

Basic Questions: What Questions Did Jesus Come to Answer? Since everyone is doomed to hell, Jesus seeks to answer one or both of these questions: “How can individuals be saved from eternal punishment in hell and instead go to heaven after they die?” “How can God help individuals be happy and successful until they die?”

Jesus’ Message: How did Jesus Respond to the Crisis? Jesus says in essence, “If you want to be among those specifically qualified to escape being forever punished for your sins in hell, you must repent of your individual sins and believe that my Father punished me on the cross so he won’t have to punish you in hell. Only if you believe this will you go to heaven when the earth is destroyed and everyone else is banished to hell.” This is the good news.

Purpose of Jesus: Why is Jesus Important? Jesus came to solve the problem of “original sin,” meaning that he helps qualified individuals not to be sent to hell for their sin or imperfection. In a sense, Jesus saves these people from God, or more specifically, from the righteous wrath of God which sinful human beings deserve because they have not perfectly fulfilled God’s just expectations, expressed in God’s moral laws. This escape from punishment is not something they earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love. Those who receive it enjoy a personal relationship with God and seek to serve and obey God, which produces a happier life on earth and more rewards in heaven.

And here, now, is the “emerging view” of the good news under those same four headings:

The Human Situation: What is the Story We Find Ourselves In? God created the world as good, but human beings—as individuals and as groups—have rebelled against God and filled the world with evil and injustice. God wants to save humanity and heal it from its sickness, but humanity is hopelessly lost and confused, like sheep without a shepherd, wandering farther and farther into lostness and danger. Left to themselves, human beings will spiral downward into sickness and evil.

Basic Questions: What Questions Did Jesus Come to Answer? Since the human race is in such desperate trouble, Jesus seeks to answer this question: “What must be done about the mess we’re in?” The mess refers both to the general human condition and its specific outworking among his contemporaries living under domination by the Roman Empire and confused and conflicted as to what they should do to be liberated.

Jesus’ Message: How did Jesus Respond to the Crisis? Jesus says, in essence, “I have been sent by God with this good news—that God loves humanity, even in its lostness and sin. God graciously invites everyone and anyone to turn from his or her current path and follow a new way. Trust me and become my disciple, and you will be transformed, and you will participate in the transformation of the world, which is possible, beginning right now.” This is the good news.

Purpose of Jesus: Why is Jesus Important? Jesus came to become the savior of the world, meaning he came to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil. Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted into human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated. This seed will, against all opposition and odds, prevail over the evil and injustice of humanity and lead to the world’s ongoing transformation into the world God dreams of. All who find in Jesus God’s truth and hope discover the privilege of participating in his ongoing work of personal and global transformation and liberation from evil and injustice. As part of his transforming community, they experience liberation from the fear of death and condemnation. This is not something they earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love.

Following his summary of the two views of the good news, McLaren says his readers will recognize that the conventional view is commonly described as “orthodoxy” while any departure from it is heresy. While he affirms that the conventional view has a lot going for it, he says “more and more of us agree that for all its value, it does not adequately situate Jesus in his original context, but rather frames him in the context of religious debates within Western Christianity, especially debates in the sixteenth century.”

Before turning to a discussion of six unintended negative consequences of the conventional view, he makes this statement about conventional theology. “The basic shape of the story is similar despite [denominational or traditional] differences in details: earth is doomed, and souls are eternally damned unless they are specifically and individually saved, and the purpose of Jesus was to provide a way for at least a few individuals to escape the eternal conscious torment of everlasting damnation. Supporters of the conventional view can justify it with many questions from the Bible, and in so doing they bring much of value to light. But many other passages of the Bible are marginalized in the conventional view, and it has proven to entail many unintended negative consequences.”

This book is an attempt to answer two overarching questions: What are the biggest problems in the world? and What does Jesus say about these global problems? Those who know McLaren from his previous books will not be surprised to learn that “Jesus in the conventional view has little or nothing to say regarding the world’s global crises.” Clearly, then, an alternative is needed—an alternative that will allow Jesus to speak to the crises in the world.

But if Jesus did not come to proclaim that He had come to reconcile sinful men to a sinless God through his substitutionary atonement, what then was the central message of Jesus? Well, I haven’t quite finished the book yet, but this seems to be the best summary so far: “When Jesus proclaimed his central message of the kingdom of God, he was proclaiming not an esoteric religious concept but an alternative empire: ‘Don’t let your lives be framed by the narratives and counternarratives of the Roman empire,’ he was saying, ‘but situate yourselves in another story … the good news that God is king and we can live in relation to God and God’s love rather than Caesar and Caesar’s power.’” Another summary of Jesus’ message reads like this: “The time has come! Rethink everything! A radically new kind of empire is available—the empire of God has arrived! Believe this good news, and defect from all human imperial narratives, counternarratives, dual narratives, and withdrawal narratives. Open your minds and hearts like children to see things freshly in this new way, follow me and my words, and enter this new way of living.” Jesus took that message to the cross, an instrument of torture and cruelty that He used “to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed.”

So, according to McLaren, Protestant theology has had it wrong all along. We’ve missed the message of Jesus by reading sixteenth century presuppositions into the Bible. We’ve read the Bible with faulty lenses and have arrived at a flawed and false view of Jesus.

It seems clear to me that Everything Must Change is another step down the steep path that leads farther and farther away from biblical orthodoxy. McLaren seems to be fully aware of the path he is taking and of the crowd he is taking with him. I fear for them all. It seems increasingly clear to me that the new kind of Christian is starting to resemble no kind of Christian at all…

September 13, 2007

At some point I need to write an article about how to build a library on the cheap. When I do it will mention inventory reduction sales. Speaking of which…

Westminster Books is holding just such a sale right now. Since, like several good, Reformed online retailers they don’t really stock any bad books, everything listed there is good. But I noticed at least one that really stands out. Not too long ago I reviewed The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World and said, “All-in-all, this book serves as a wonderful, popular-level introduction to the key persons and events involved in the Reformation, surely one of history’s most pivotal times. It makes for a great springboard to deeper appreciation and thus deeper study of both people and events. It is exactly the kind of book I would put in the hands of new Christians, or simply Christians who have no appreciation of the church’s history, so they can benefit from knowing and understanding the history of the church and thus the history of their faith. I wholeheartedly recommend it.” I actually just bought a copy of it for our church library, still believing that it is a superb resource to give people just enough church history to interest them in reading more and to help orient themselves in the grand stream of the long, storied history of the church. You can pick it up now for just $5.20—and it’s a deal at that.

If you didn’t pick up John Piper’s What Jesus Demands from the World during that big Desiring God sale a few months ago, you can get it here for $8.60.

You may also like to click on the “Best of WTS Sale” link. Several good commentaries are on sale there, probably the most notable of which are John Murray on Romans and D.A. Carson on John. Both are priced to sell!

So…

Go shopping!

September 05, 2007

Suggestions on organizing and cataloging a personal library.

I am developing what I suspect will soon be an extensive personal library. Though it is currently not all that large, as these things go, it is growing at an alarming rate. When we moved into our current house just over one year ago, I had, to the best of my recollection, four bookcases in my office which left me lots of wall space to hang prints of some of my heroes of church history. I couldn’t quite fit all my books in there (the military history books are still in boxes in the basement) but it did suffice for all of my other books. A year later the three available walls of my office are lined with bookcases, all of which are stuffed to overflowing. I’ve only got room remaining for three of those church history prints. In many places books are piled from the top of the bookcases to the ceiling. I have room along my walls for two more bookcases (though they’ll have to go between my desk and the wall, meaning that my desk will be pressed hard up against the shelves). At that point every wall in my office will be hidden behind bookcases.

While I do collect books, many of these come in because I am a book reviewer. Some publishers are eager to have me read and review their books (with tens of thousands of new books flooding the market each year they are anxious to have anyone review them!) and new titles come flowing in on an ongoing basis. This growing collection has caused me to have to get a bit creative with managing the library, so in response to questions from some of this site’s readers, I thought I’d tell how I keep my library in some semblance of order.

Perhaps it is helpful to first understand the orders of order. In the first order of order we organize physical objects—in this case books. As soon as we do anything with those books, placing them on shelves, sorting them by author, and so on, we have entered into the first order of order. This is helpful, but is best used in combination with the second order of order. In this second order we create metadata, which is information about information. Think of an old-fashioned card catalog—the kind you used to see at libraries. This card catalog contained information about the book, it’s title, author, and perhaps most importantly, the place you could find it. It represented the second order of order. To organize my library I depend on both of these orders of order. I’ll start with the second.

My Library in Bits and Bytes

LibraryThing is a great service that allows you to catalog your books through their web site. A product of this Web 2.0 world, it also encourages social networking, linking the libraries of various users in interesting and creative ways. While I do not often use the social networking features, I’ve found the site indispensable in organizing my library and in creating metadata about my books. If interested, you can see the results here: My LibraryThing Catalog (As a visitor to the catalog you’ll see the books ordered by title. I created a custom view for myself so I see them sorted by entry date so that the book I added most recently is at the top). As of the moment I write this, I have cataloged 1079 books which represents the bulk of my library (I didn’t add some of the older and more obscure theological volumes). Cataloging is a simple process. I simply click “Add Books” and type in a title or an ISBN number. In 99 out of 100 cases, the software will find the book (at Amazon, the Library of Congress, or any other number of places) and all I need to do is click to confirm it’s found the correct one. If I have already added that book it will let me know there is a duplicate in the library. Adding a book takes only a few seconds per title. Every time I receive a new book I immediately add it into my catalog. I don’t put it on a shelf until it has been added to LibraryThing.

When I first began using LibraryThing I had to invest a fair bit of time in cataloging the books. I went through each book in my library, adding the titles one-by-one. It was miserable, but was a necessary evil. If I had to do it again I would use a barcode scanner (which can be had for only a few dollars through LibraryThing).

While cataloging the books is great, LibraryThing does not stop there: it also allows books to be “tagged.” Unfortunately for me, I have not been very creative in tagging books. At some point I intend to go through the catalog to do a better job of this. A tag can be any word at all that describes the book’s content. I have tended to use “categories” more than tags: Christian Living, theology, and so on. What would be better would be to be more specific: atonement, justification, holiness, heresy, and so on.

Once the books are cataloged, I can search quickly and easily to see what I’ve got in my library using the available metadata. The search function will pull up authors, titles, tags, and so on. If I want to see if I’ve got a book by R.C. Sproul, I simply go to LibraryThing, type “Sproul” in the search box, and can see an immediate list of all of his books in my library. If I want to look for a book about a particular aspect of theology, such as the trinity, I could simply type “trinity” into the search area and see what shows up. Had I done a better job with tagging, the results would be better!

My Library in Atoms

After virtualizing my library, adding it to the world of bits and bytes through LibraryThing and creating that second order of order, I still need to deal with the actual books—those big, heavy, tree-based things that insist on being comprised of atoms and insist on taking up space (and a lot of it!). I need to find a way of sorting them using the first order of order and sorting them in a way that is intuitive. I tend to keep most of the books I receive, but do throw out the worst of the worst. There is little point in allowing some of them to keep taking up space. Every now and again I tend to weed through and cull any that have made it through my first filters and are now just taking up space.

I’ve chosen to organize my books on their shelves in this way:

  • Commentaries by book of the Bible. I have a bookcase that starts with the complete Commentary on the Old Testament series by Keil & Delitzsch. That is followed by the rest of my Old Testament commentaries organized by book of the Bible. I then have the Baker New Testament Commentary set (by Hendriksen and Kistemaker) and it is followed by volumes organized from Matthew to Revelation.
  • Church History. I’m not sure why I singled out church history as a category, but for some reason I did. So a church history section follows the commentaries.
  • Fiction by author. I chose to separate fiction from nonfiction and organized my fiction titles by author. This is probably the smallest section I’ve got!
  • Reference books. This is a somewhat arbitrary section of systematic theologies, commentaries on catechisms, and other similar reference books.
  • Everything else organized by author. And then I come to the rest (and the bulk) of my library. This stretches from Abanes to Zwonitzer and everything in between and spans many bookcases. Where I have many titles by the same author (such as John MacArthur) I have organized the titles alphabetically. When I first organized the library I left the bottom shelf of each bookcase empty so I had some room to grow. Needless to say, it has long since grown into that room!

I’m sure my method is not perfect. But it works for me. We can, I think, be very subjective, very pragmatic about this. When I browse through other people’s libraries I see a lot of variety—some are organized very methodically and others seem to be completely chaotic. As long as a person can track down the books he needs his method is a success. This is how I do it and it seems to work just fine for me. A few days ago I had to go through each of the 100 or so footnotes in the manuscript for my upcoming book. The system worked well for me as I pulled book after book from the shelf, never having to look for more than a few seconds for any of the titles.

I’d be interested in hearing how others here organize their libraries and whether you’ve also found value in using a service such as LibraryThing. Do you rely on that second order of order or can you still exist with just the first?

August 30, 2007

The Introduction to J.C. Ryle’s Holiness

This is the first of what I hope will be many opportunities to read the classics together. You can read more about this effort here: Reading the Classics Together. Today we start into an 8-week study of J.C. Ryle’s Holiness. Written in 1879, this book has stood the test of time and is considered one of the best works on practical holiness. At just eight chapters, it seemed like a great place to begin in our quest to read some Christian classics together.

I hope this will be a collaborative effort, meaning that we will read the book through the week and then discuss it together right here on Thursdays. I believe some seventy or eighty people expressed interest in reading it, so I trust many of you did so and will have your own thoughts to contribute. I will provide a brief overview and then post a few thoughts of my own. The comments section is available for discussion.

Summary

In the Introduction Ryle provides a defense for writing this book. He saw a lot of interest in the subject of holiness, but “had a deep conviction … that practical holiness and entire self-consecration to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country.” Ryle felt as if he had to defend the doctrine of sanctification, assuring the reader that it is “quite as important as justification. Sound Protestant and Evangelical doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. It is worse than useless; it does positive harm.” Tragically, at his time and in ours, any movement towards personal holiness can be “damaged by crude, disproportioned, and one-sided statements.” Satan hates holiness and will do all in his power to stop and destroy it.

As he surveyed the subject of holiness and the reaction to it, Ryle felt deep concern and expressed this in the form of seven questions to the reader, questions that together form the heart of this chapter:

  1. Is it wise to speak of faith as the one thing needful, and the only thing required, as many seem to do now-a-days in handling the doctrine of sanctification? Is it wise to proclaim … that the holiness of converted people is by faith alone, and not at all by personal exertion?
  2. I ask, in the second place, whether it is wise to make so little as some appear to do, comparatively, of the many practical exhortations to holiness in daily life which are to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the latter part of most of St. Paul’s epistles?
  3. I ask in the third place, whether it is wise to use vague language about perfection, and to press on Christians a standard of holiness, as attainable in this world for which there is no warrant to be shown either in Scripture or experience?
  4. In the fourth place, is it wise to assert so positively and violently, as many do, that the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans does not describe the experience of the advanced saint, but the experience of the unregenerate man, or of the weak and unestablished believer?
  5. In the fifth place, is it wise to use the language which is often used in the present day about the doctrine of “Christ in us”? I doubt it. Is not this doctrine often exalted to a position which it does not occupy in Scripture? I am afraid that it is.
  6. In the sixth place, is it wise to draw such a deep, wide, and distinct line of separation between conversion and consecration, or the higher life, so called, as many do draw in the present day?
  7. In the seventh and last place, is it wise to teach believers that they ought not to think so much of fighting and struggling against sin, but ought rather to “yield themselves to God,” and be passive in the hands of Christ?

He wrapped up (reluctantly, it seems) by providing a brief glimpse of the state of the church and the importance of recovering holiness.

Discussion

Like any true classic, this book has stood the test of time because it deals with issues that are always relevant. Many books come and go because they discuss issues that soon pass away. But in the introduction we see that the concerns of Ryle’s day match the concerns of our own. There may have been different emphases and a different cultural setting, but it is clear that his concerns at the close of the 19th century are very similar to ours at the dawn of the 21st. Consider Ryle’s seven questions:

The first question may not be asked in those terms today simply because so many people within churches have no real sense of the doctrine of justification by faith. But reading the Christian books you might encounter in your local bookstore will show that very few discuss the Christian life as difficult and laborious. Rather, they discuss a life of constant victory where sin and Satan melt before us. Rarely do they discuss just how difficult it is to overcome sin and how this life is a constant battle with evil. They promise an abundant life, but with no abundance of labor.

The second question can be answered in a way that is similar to the first. Look at the books and teaching that arises from contemporary Christianity and you will soon see that there is little time given to true personal holiness. There may be lip service to it, but there is little of the particulars, the nitty-gritty details of how we are to destroy sin in our lives. We are given generalities, but few specifics; we are told to whitewash the tombs but without removing the scent of death.

The third and sixth questions seem to me to deal with very similar issues and ones that still exist today. Great harm has been done by those claiming that there are different “levels” of the Christian life and that we are to strain to be like those who have reached a state of perfection (or even of near-perfection). This teaching exists in the fringes of the charismatic movement but also in more conservative circles. Ryle’s illustration of Christians occupying varied positions along an inclined plane is a good one, for it shows that all Christians exist in a sinful world and that they can never fully rid themselves of its influence. What an encouragement it is to know that even the greatest Christian exists on the same plane as we do, the only difference being his effort in attaining sanctification and God’s subsequent blessing upon his life.

The fourth question confused me just a little bit, but I believe he is pointing to some kind of antinomianism or lawlessness that must have existed at that time. Clearly people were using Romans 7 to defend sinful and lawless practices.

The fifth question discusses the doctrine of “Christ in us” that was clearly denying the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. People were ascribing to the Son the work of the Spirit. While it is more common today to make the opposite error, focusing almost undue attention upon the Spirit, I can see shadows of the “Christ in us” teaching even now. I think, for example, of those who discuss “being Jesus” to others or those who do not understand that it is the Spirit who does the work of sanctification within us.

The final question discusses a kind of passivity towards holiness that certainly exists in our day. Too many people believe that becoming more godly is not a battle, but simply a process of leaning on Christ and expecting him to change us. But the testimony of Scripture is clear—we are to exert ourselves in pursuing holiness; we are to strive after it.

I say all of this to express confidence that Ryle’s book is relevant to us today, not only because it claims to simply provide what Scripture says on the subject of holiness, but because Ryle was writing it as a reaction to trends we see even today. He could as easily be describing 2007 when he writes:

There is an amazing ignorance of Scriptures among many, and a consequent want of established, solid religion. In no other way can I account for the ease with which people are, like children, “tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” ( Ephesians 4:14.) There is an Athenian love of novelty abroad, and a morbid distaste for anything old and regular, and in the beaten path of our forefathers. Thousands will crowd to hear a new voice and a new doctrine, without considering for a moment whether what they hear is true.—There is an incessant craving after any teaching which is sensational, and exciting, and rousing to the feelings.—There is an unhealthy appetite for a sort of spasmodic and hysterical Christianity. The religious life of many is little better then spiritual dram-drinking, and the “meek and quiet spirit” which St. Peter commends is clean forgotten. ( 1 Peter 3:4.) Crowds, and crying, and hot rooms, and high-flown singing, and an incessant rousing of the emotions, are the only things which many care for.—Inability to distinguish differences in doctrine is spreading far and wide, and so long as the preacher is “clever” and “earnest,” hundreds seem to think it must be all right, and call you dreadfully “narrow and uncharitable” if you hint that he is unsound!

I think my primary take-away through reading this portion of the book is not so much a point of theology (as I’m sure it will be in subsequent chapters) as it is a sense of how the history of the church is cyclical. The same problems arise time and again; sin continues to manifest itself in the same way from generation to generation. This shows to me the value of turning to the old masters, men like Ryle, to show how they faced these problems in their day and to see how the gospel was the remedy, even then.

Next Time

We’ll continue the book next Thursday (September 6) with the first chapter (“Sin”). If you are interested in joining in, please do. There is still lots of time to purchase the book or to read it online. See this discussion (Read the Classics Together - Holiness) for information.

Your Turn

I am interested in hearing what you took away from the Introduction. I realize that we have not yet struck at the heart of the book, but I am sure you benefited even from reading the Introduction. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts).

August 28, 2007

Lucado and R.C. and Moore, Oh My!

Here is your update on the latest reviews at Discerning Reader. We have uploaded six new reviews for you this week—reviews that come from the pens of four different reviewers and which examine books by some of the Christian world’s most popular authors. It’s a banner week!

Leslie Wiggins, who writes reviews of books that are of particular interest to women, has a courageous review of Get Out of that Pit by Beth Moore. I say “courageous” because Leslie dares to suggest that perhaps this book has some poor theology and too little focus on the cross. Read the review and see if you agree.

I have reviewed Max Lucado’s upcoming book, 3:16: The Numbers of Hope (a review I’ve also posted here). A guaranteed bestseller that is going to receive massive publicity, this book is an examination of John 3:16. Though not without its strengths, the book suffers by not defining the target audience. This leads the author to make promises that are not his to make. I have also reviewed Quiet Strength, the autobiography of Tony Dungy, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Dungy is a Christian who is very outspoken about his faith and this biography tells his story. Finally, I’ve added a review of A Taste of Heaven by R.C. Sproul.

From Scott Lamb comes a review of Foundations of Grace, the first volume of Steve Lawson’s series (five volumes are planned) dealing with the history of Reformed theology.

And finally, Colin Adams brings a review of Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger. He says, “This is not to say there is nothing helpful in the book. … Church is never truly simple, and Simple Church over-reaches by claiming that it is “returning to God’s process for making disciples.” (book subtitle). Put simply? Gain insights from this book; don’t build your ecclesiology on it.”

You know we’ll be back next Tuesday with more reviews…

August 23, 2007

An interview with the editors of the Reformed Expository Commentary series.

There have been a few times in the past few months that I’ve mentioned the Reformed Expository Commentary Series. This is a growing series of commentaries written from a distinctly Reformed perspective and targeted at both pastors and laypersons. Having used these commentaries for both research and personal devotions, I am very enthusiastic about them and am anxious to spread the word.

To that end I recently took the opportunity to ask the editors, Richard Phillips and Phillip Ryken, a few questions about the series—who it is for, how it can be used, how it has been created, and what the future holds for it. (Note: Phillips’ reply was sufficiently sufficient that, with the exception of the digs at his age, Ryken chose to simply give it an “amen.”)

Read to the end for a special (and exclusive) download from this series!


Tim Challies: Tell me about this Reformed Expository Commentary series: Why did you decide to produce this series of commentaries? With so many commentaries available, what niche did you anticipate this series filling? What makes them unique?

Richard Phillips: I think this kind of large project inevitably flows from one’s own experience. Long before I was a minister, I found that substantive biblical exposition was the most useful devotional material. Too many “devotionals” are simply too short or do not ground their teaching in the text of Scripture. I began the practice of reading the kind of Bible exposition authored by James Boice, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spurgeon, or some other theologian/preacher and have been enormously blessed by this practice. So my interest in this kind of commentary flows from my own benefit both as an individual and as a preacher from this kind of Bible exposition. I think most of us write the kind of books that we like, and we are writing the kind of commentaries we find most beneficial ourselves. (I already find that if an REC volume is available for a book of the Bible I am preaching, it is the first one I turn to.) Lastly, we are aware that not all preachers – and almost all lay Bible teachers – are able to devote themselves to study to the extent that we are able. So we want to make convenient to others the best from the wide range of study that we are able to do. Our goal all along has not only been to produce excellent and accurate commentaries, but also eminently useful commentaries.

It undoubtedly is not by chance that the two series editors, Phil Ryken and I, are both proteges of the late James Montgomery Boice, who was known for accessible, doctrinal, and practical Bible commentaries. We wanted to carry forth that kind of work into our generation. In fact, the REC series had its genesis in conversations Phil and I had when we were preaching together at Tenth Presbyterian Church. Our goal all along has not only been to produce excellent and accurate commentaries, but also eminently useful commentaries.Dr. Boice had recently died and we were giving counsel to his wife, Linda, about his literary legacy. Meanwhile we both had been writing books of biblical exposition and were thinking about how to best direct our expository preaching ministries into our writing ministries. It was obvious to us that we should not co-opt the Boice series, and also that our writing ministries were distinct from his in the sense of being more than just duplicating Boice’s work. We both wanted to make original contributions both in the pulpit and in the books. We ended up deciding to work together and to bring in others who could make outstanding contributions both as editors and authors. It was also providentially the case that both Phil and I were emerging out of our “apprentice” years, ready to seek to do our best work and hoping to have a good many years ahead of us to do it. So the idea of a large-scale project like this commended itself.

As for the need for this kind of commentary series, I think of several answers. First of all, most preachers and Bible-study teachers know that while there are usually an abundance of academic commentaries available, there often is very little of use that goes beyond exegesis to exposition (that is, that goes beyond answering the technical questions but actually proclaims and applies the passage). What is available is always worth its weight in gold. So we hope at least to partially fill this need with a series that (d.v.) covers the whole Bible. Secondly, when it comes to the commitments that we cherish, there is actually very little available elsewhere. Mainly, I am referring to a Christ-centered reading of the Bible and a vigorously Reformed doctrinal stance. I remember doing a paper in seminary on Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32, and not finding a single commentary in the seminary library that made any reference to Jesus Christ from this passage. So we want to provide robustly Reformed and Christ-centered commentaries to the church. Thirdly, we believe that the theology of the church is best performed in the pulpit of the church. We are grateful for the work of many outstanding and faithful academics, but we also want to see the church pulpit play a more vocal role in biblical theology.

TC: How and why are these commentaries “Expository?”

RP: One of our goals in the series is to promote and model “expository preaching” for other pastors. We believe that the best way to serve a pulpit ministry is by preaching successively through whole books of the Bible, giving a thorough teaching of the text, and grounding the message and authority of the sermon in the clear teaching of the Bible. And that is what these commentaries are: thorough, clear expositions of whole books of the Bible, passage by passage. The REC commentaries will proclaim, explain, and apply the whole text within coherent units appropriate for sermons or Bible lessons.The REC commentaries will proclaim, explain, and apply the whole text within coherent units appropriate for sermons or Bible lessons.

TC: In the series introduction you state that all of the contributors are pastor-scholars and that, as pastors, they will first present the expositions in his pulpit ministry. Why did you decide to make this a requirement?

RP: We are aiming both to serve and to model pulpit ministries. Therefore, these have to be “real” sermons. Naturally, we edit them between the pulpit and the printer, but not all that much. If you listened to the CD of the sermon with the book open in front of you, you would say, “Yep, that was what he preached.” We don’t want to model a scholarly approach that we think inappropriate for our own churches. We also want to combat the belief today that serious, authoritative preaching is bad for the church and will kill its growth. We find the opposite to be true, and we are contributing the fruits of our own pulpit labors to others.

This significantly affects the commentaries. For instance, the question will come up regarding technical matters dealing with exegesis, text criticism, theology, or historical studies. When we decide whether to put it into the commentary, we do so by asking “Would we put this into a sermon?” And when we decide that a sermon must deal with technical matters, we try to model how to do this, because this is how we actually preached it.

Lastly, we want to encourage other fine pastor-scholars by publishing a series in which they can contribute.

TC: Is there a primary audience for these commentaries or do you anticipate they will equally benefit both preachers and laypersons?

RP: Yes, we have a clearly defined audience that we make clear to all prospective authors. Our main audience is pastors, lay Bible teachers, and informed lay people who want substantive devotional materials.

TC: We know that the volumes are distinctly Reformed in their theology. With the series editors both being Presbyterian, should we anticipate that the volumes will take on a distinctly Presbyterian form or will they appeal to Reformed folk of all stripes? How will you approach controversial topics such as baptism and eschatology?

RP: Right from the start, we wanted to be unabashedly Reformed. So many people are downplaying Reformed doctrines and we want to do the opposite. But we want to advocate a Reformed faith that flows up from the text of Scripture rather than down from the systematic theology textbooks. We certainly desire to promote, explain, and defend Reformed theology in these volumes, but to do so by careful and accurate treatment of the Scriptures. For that reason, I think the commentaries will commend themselves to Reformed folk of all stripes, mainly because we share such strong convictions on core matters, especially as they relate to the doctrine of salvation. It is also true, however, that all the authors in this series approach it from an explicitly Westminsterian approach. This means that the Reformed doctrine espoused in this series will be that set forth in the Westminster Confessions. We will handle controversial topics like baptism forthrightly, preaching as we would preach in our own churches. We will deal with them when and where the text leads. But I am certain that those who take differing views – Baptists, for instance – will find their positions treated fairly and accurately. On other matters, such as eschatology, I suppose there may be some varying views among the authors. But probably not too much. We have already had a couple of matters in which there was vigorous debate between author and editors, but all within a strongly Westminsterian grid.

TC: To this point the six available volumes are written by four authors—the co-editors, and the two biblical editors (or testament editors), Iain Duguid and Dan Doriani. What other authors will be involved as the series unfolds? How have you gone about choosing contributors?

RP: We wanted to do the initial volumes ourselves to set the grid for future contributions. Now that we have done that, you will be seeing volumes from a wider group of authors. The four of us will continue to contribute extensively to the series, but we have upcoming volumes by Bryan Chapell and Derek Thomas in the works. We want to advocate a Reformed faith that flows up from the text of Scripture rather than down from the systematic theology textbooks.We have proposals from a number of other able contributors, but they aren’t as far along. We are also twisting the arms of other notables and we accept proposals from those who would like to submit. This is a big project and we can only contribute so much, so we greatly desire the contributions of outstanding pastor/scholars. I would say, however, that the prospective authors who are most likely to be accepted are those who already have established themselves as writers. We have a pretty demanding proposal process since the series is itself pretty demanding.

TC: Tell me, if you would, how these volumes are edited to ensure both skill and accuracy in all that is taught. What role do each of the editors play in this?

RP: The answer is that we are wearing ourselves out editing! And the reason is that we know that the only way to ensure sustained excellence is through a demanding editorial process. Normally, a volume will be slated for release two years after the draft is submitted. Each volume has a series editor (either Phil or me) and a testament editor (Ian Duguid for OT and Dan Doriani for NT). The testament editors are men with academic experience, and they especially focus on issues of scholarly concern. You might think of Phil and me as the ST editors and Ian and Dan as the BT editors, but that would be a gross simplification, since we all do both. But we did want to have testament editors who are up to speed on the current OT and NT literature. The editors go over every manuscript, and I think it is fair for me to say that pretty serious editing takes place. These edits go back to the author who responds to the edits and presents a final manuscript to the series editor, who has overall responsibility for the volume. Occasionally there is need for specific dialogue about a question that has been raised. When the series editor is satisfied with the final manuscript, it is sent to the publisher (P&R), normally 1 year prior to publication. P&R then has their own editorial process with the author, and the author interacts with them for copy editing and indexing. It’s a lot of work, but I find that I benefit enormously from the editorial process. Of course, I get the toughest editing since Phil does every single one of my volumes. I do try to get even when I can, though. There is never a time when we are not editing something, and most of the time Phil and I are both editing something the other has written. (And, yes, Phil, I am still plugging away at my overdo edits!) While it’s hard work, it’s also pretty fun because we are all in pretty regular contact. Since Phil and I are answering these questions, let me just say how much we have appreciated and enjoyed the partnership of Ian and Dan. They are absolutely essential participants in our editorial process. The commentary series would suffer notably without them and in all likelihood would not even be possible.

TC: Can you tell us who will be writing some of the more notable and more difficult (or controversial) volumes such as, say, Genesis, Romans, and Revelation?

TP: Nope. None of these are currently under contract, although I think one of us has dibs on one of them. I think we’re all waiting to get older and wiser before staking a claim to Revelation.

TC: I’ve noticed that, of the six volumes available, most rely on the ESV while one relies on the NIV as the default translation. Why the emphasis on the ESV but also the allowance for another translation?

RP: Our preferred translation is the ESV, but if someone has a strong preference for the NASB, NKJV, or the NIV, it is permissible. As you already know, the ESV is quickly becoming fairly standard among Reformed folks, so I expect to see much more ESV.

TC: How do you feel this commentary series can best be used by laypersons? Do you feel they are best suited for research and reference or are they best suited for devotional reading?

RP: I would say they have two main uses for laypersons. The first is for teaching. If you are leading a Bible study or teaching in some venue, we hope that our commentaries will be the single most useful resource you could use. Secondly, they are ideal for devotional purposes. I make it a point to use each volume for my own devotions after it is in print, even if I was the editor. (I have edited Phil’s Galatians and 1 Timothy, and Dan’s James – both were tremendous for devotions). I don’t use my own volumes for devotions though – that would be a bit weird.

TC: How do you feel this commentary series can best be used by pastors? Should this series serve as a primary commentary reference or should it be used in conjunction with others?

They are ideal for devotional purposes. I make it a point to use each volume for my own devotions after it is in print, even if I was the editor.RP: I would recommend every pastor to read as much commentary material as his schedule will permit. He should read more academic works, including those that deal closely with the original language text. But he will also be greatly helped by expository commentaries that not only teach the text but also illustrate and apply it. We are aiming to be of service in just this regard. We would hope that every pastor would read more than the REC, but we also would hope that every pastor would find the REC to be a go-to resource.

TC: There are currently six volumes available covering seven books. How many volumes will there be in the series? Which volumes are coming up next and when do you anticipate the series being completed?

RP: We are aiming to do three commentaries per year. The following are under contract and in various stages of production (in order of publication): Daniel (Duguid), Matthew (Doriani – 2 vols), Luke (Ryken – 2 vols), Jonah-Micah (Phillips), Ephesians (Bryan Chapell), Acts (Derek Thomas), John (Phillips – 2 vols). We have other volumes in the pipeline (for a series like this, you have to be organizing things years out), but this is all that is currently under contract. We are starting to get more proposals from other authors, so I expect that the coming months will see a fair number of contracts involving new authors. We don’t know exactly how many volumes there will be overall, but we are aiming for the entire Bible. I suppose it will mainly depend on the breakdown of the minor prophets. Some will necessarily be multi-volume, but only those that absolutely demand it. We don’t have a completion date, but if we get there it will be many years from now. (It’s a good thing we’re still pretty young, although Phil is starting to get pretty old.)

TC: What are your hopes for this series and how will you measure its success?

RP: Well, as always with the ministry of God’s Word, we simply offer our work up to the Lord for His pleasure and blessing. We have seen a need and the opportunity to meet it, so we’re just doing our best. But I think all of us look upon this as one of the chief works we expect from our lives. Obviously, we would like to see the volumes gain a wide reading and use and we are hopeful that as we continue our readership will continue growing. We also hope that our work in this series will have enough enduring quality to extend beyond our own lives. Some of our goals are harder to measure. As always with the ministry of God’s Word, we simply offer our work up to the Lord for His pleasure and blessing. We have seen a need and the opportunity to meet it, so we’re just doing our best.For instance, we hope to encourage pastors in the ministry of the Word and to model expository preaching for many. In that respect, we hope that our work will be spread through many, many pulpits. We are finding our volumes popping up almost everywhere within established Reformed circles, including overseas. We would very much like to be able to translate our commentaries for use in places where Christianity is growing so rapidly but where trained pastors are few. With these goals in mind, we are aiming for the long-run as much as or more than for the short-run. This is one of the reasons we are publishing with P&R, since we have confidence in their long-term doctrinal commitment. It is also with an aim towards enduring value that we are doing everything we can to produce the highest quality commentaries that we can. Overall, the sheer privilege of publishing biblical exposition is overwhelming, and the idea that preachers are relying on us and that simple Christians are being nurtured through our labors is overwhelmingly gratifying.


A Special Download

If you are interested in using this series with your times of personal devotions, P&R has been kind enough to provide an excerpt of the first five chapters from Hebrews. Feel free to download this file and to use it for that purpose. After five days you might just find yourself hooked!

Download File (Adobe Acrobat PDF File)

Buy Online

If you are interested in purchasing the series, the following six volumes (covering seven books of the Bible) are currently available for purchase from Westminster Books:

You can also follow these links to find a copy of the series introduction.

August 22, 2007

Teaming with Bob Kauflin to encourage you to dedicate yourself to reading.

Yesterday Bob Kauflin wrote about reading (What - Me Read?) in response to a question sent to him by a reader. This young man asked:

One facet of your site that is always of interest is your list of books you are currently reading. In addition to your devotional Scripture reading, how much time in a week do you set aside for reading? Do you schedule reading time into your day? As I contemplate the different ministry responsibilities that I will have, my concern is that the time to read will be slim. So, any helpful suggestions from your own experience are greatly appreciated.

Bob provides a great answer to this question and I wanted to interact with it just a little bit. As you will know if you read this blog on a regular basis, I am a voracious reader and one who rarely goes more than a day or two without spending a good bit of time in reading. And it seems I’ve passed this trait to my son. On Sunday, as we returned home from church, I watched him walk from the car to the house and then fling himself to the couch without once lifting his eyes from the book he was reading. That’s my boy!

Recently I was away down south in Dixie with my family and saw my sisters and their friends heading out in 100+ degree heat to go jogging. Jogging has so become a part of their life that they just don’t feel quite right if they don’t spend at least some time in that kind of exertion every day. I feel the same way about reading. Reading is a kind of mental exercise for me and one that helps set me right.

Here is what Bob says:

But even if I don’t read as many books as others, I read. If I’m not reading, I’m relying on my memory. Which seems to be decreasing daily. So I read. I once heard someone say that books don’t change people - sentences do. If I glean two or three sentences from a book that affect the way I think and the way I live, that’s time well invested. So I read. Books give me the opportunity to learn from and about godly, bright, insightful people I’ll never meet. So I read. What I know will always be dwarfed by what I don’t know. So I read. Books help me become more effective at what I do. So I read.

What I’m saying is that I know I’ll be learning by reading for the rest of my life. That compels me to find time to read. Even if reading seems dry at the moment, I know that at some point I’ll find something insightful, engaging, or potentially life-changing. Without the inner drive and conviction that there is always more to learn, I stop reading. And when I stop reading I usually find that I drift and/or become complacent.

I’ve said it often that if I stopped reading I would stop having things to say. Reading is what keeps my mind working; it keeps it active. Reading forces me to interact with ideas in a way that pictures do not. Television is not a replacement for the stimulation of reading. Reading is, at least for some of us, pleasurable. At a recent conference a panel of speakers was asked what they do to relax. The men mentioned a few of the things they do to unwind, focusing on physical activities. Dr. Mohler, though, a voracious reader in his own right (to the tune of 7 to 10 books a week!) replied that he likes to read. This is how he relaxes and how he spends his times of recreation. And I’m the same way. I get little pleasure from the sweat-inducing physical exhaustion of running or other forms of exertion. Though I realize I have to keep fit, I do so out of pure necessity (usually on an exercise bike with a book propped up there!). But reading is pleasure.

The pleasure of reading is not necessarily in what we retain, but in the actual act of reading. And I think this is what a lot of people may miss. They see reading only as a means to an end—a painful journey that promises something beyond itself. But I don’t see reading this way. I see reading as a pleasurable means leading to a blessed end. And even without the blessed end, the reading in itself is still a joy. And I think the same is true of the spiritual benefit of reading. I do not necessarily need to retain all that I have read of a good, biblical book in order to benefit from it any more than I need to recall every word of a sermon to be blessed, encouraged and strengthened by it. I’m reminded of what Jonathan Edwards taught about the benefit of preaching. During his ministry, he faced a conflict involving whether sermons should primarily enlighten the mind or whether they should primarily stir the affections. Charles Chauncy, his opponent in this debate, believed that “an enlightened mind, and not raised affections, ought always be the guide of those who call themselves men; and this, in the affairs of religion, as well as other things.” Chauncy, as with many men of his day, believed that the affections were closely related to the passions of one’s animal nature and needed to be restrained by the higher faculty of reason. Edwards disagreed, teaching that one could not neatly separate the affections from the will. Both the intellect and affections are fallible and unreliable, but both are given by God and ought to be exercised.

In his great biography of Edwards, George Marsden points out an application of this. “Critics of the awakenings alleged that when people heard many sermons in one week they would not be able to remember much of what they had heard. Edwards countered, ‘The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by the effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.’” Marsden concludes, “Preaching, in other words, must first of all touch the affections” (Page 282) (For more on this subject, read my post The Benefit Obtained by Preaching).

And I feel this is true with reading. It may not be true of reading a Stephen King novel (any more than listening to a sermon by Benny Hinn would be spiritually beneficial) but with a book that teaches Scripture and delights in the gospel, there is a spiritual benefit that cannot be easily measured. If we finish a book and can think only of how much we have already forgotten, we will be too easily discouraged and may decide that reading is a worthless pursuit. Instead we need to persevere, trusting that we will benefit simply by the journey and by what God in us through the journey. If we take away even just the fraction of the book that is especially profound, the few quotes or phrases or ideas that have most struck our hearts, we have gained a tangible and valuable benefit.

Bob mentions a couple of the ways he tries to make books as meaningful and memorable as possible:

I underline everything that impacts me, and have started to dog-ear pages with quotes I want to remember. When I review the book, I’ll turn to those pages. That way I have a better chance of benefiting from what I’m reading. I probably forget 99% of what I read. But if I didn’t read books, I wouldn’t get the 1%. I don’t always agree with everything I read in a book. But I almost always find sentences that are helpful.

I used to be an underliner but have recently graduated to a highlighter. I now always have a highlighter in my hand when I read and I use it to mark any important passages—that 1% of the book that I know I definitely want to remember. It is those highlighted portions that typically provide the framework for the reviews I write of almost every book I read. I also keep a pencil with me and often jot notes in the inside cover or one one of those almost-blank pages at the front of most books. I write down thoughts as they race through my mind or write down questions as they occur to me. I also look for structure in the book, marking bullet points or numbered lists within the text. All of this serves to keep my mind in the book and to help me recollect the salient points hours, days and months later. Reviewing the books is another useful discipline that helps me retain information and gives me a short summary of the book I can return to later if I need to refresh my memory.

I think it is also important to say that we can become better at reading by reading more. I often have people ask me how they can become better writers and I give this advice: “Write more!” There are few shortcuts to becoming a better writer other than dedicating oneself to the practice. The same is true, I’m convinced, of reading. We become better readers simply by dedicating ourselves to the task.

I love reading and, like Bob, anticipate that I’ll keep reading until the day I die. I suspect there will be lots more reading and learning to do in heaven and I look forward to starting into the celestial library! But for now I continue to read and continue to love reading. It’s a passion and one that has brought unmeasurable benefit to my life and my faith. I pray the same is true for you!

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