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Reading Classics Together

February 16, 2012

Reading Classics Together
It was back in 2007 that I had an idea that genuinely changed my life. I wanted to read some of the classics of the Christian faith, but I knew that without some measure of accountability I would never have the self-discipline to make it happen. I realized that this accountability could come by reading classics together in community. I decided to launch a reading program called Reading Classics Together.

In the years since this program began we’ve read some amazing classics from years gone by and from the present time. These include titles like Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul, and The Cross of Christ by John Stott. These books and others like them have benefited me immensely and I know the same is true of those who have read along with me.

It is time to embark on a new reading project and it only seems right that we should go to the bestselling and most enduring Christian classic of them all—The Pilgrim’s Progress. This is a book most of us have read at one time or another, or perhaps at many times, but if any book bears repeated readings, this is the one. It is, after all, the most widely-published book in the English language, not to mention one of the most influential and beloved books ever written.

Please consider this an invitation to read The Pilgrim’s Progress with me. I plan to begin reading it on March 8. Here is how you can read along. Simply find yourself a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress and read chapter 1 prior to March 8. Then visit this web site on March 8 and I will share some thoughts on that chapter and we can discuss it together.

Sound good?

There is one complication: There are many, many versions of the book available and they sometimes break the story into chapters in different places. I intend to follow the ten-chapter breakdown you can find at CCEL. Also, some people may prefer to read a modernized adaptation instead of the original; if so, feel free. Finally, I intend only to read about Christian’s journey and not the further journey of his family.

Here are some options:

  • A modernized but still-faithful adaptation from Crossway ($16.32 in hardcover, $3.96 in Kindle). It is a great version and easy-to-read, but the chapters are broken down differently. Still, it’s a great option.
  • This Kindle version is a good one if you’d like to read the original text. It costs just $2.86.
  • This softcover version is good for those wanting to read the original text. It has no chapter breakdowns and costs $8.80.
  • Now, here’s another option. If you’d like to listen to the book, you can download it from Audible (an Amazon company). If you’ve never been an Audible member, you can join their program with a free 14-day trial that allows you to download one book at no cost. You can download The Pilgrim’s Progress and, if you don’t find that you’ll use the program or don’t like it, cancel your account and keep the book you’ve downloaded. It’s truly risk-free. To get started with Audible, click here.

If you’re going to read along with me, why don’t you just leave a comment below so I can get a gauge on interest.

November 10, 2011

Reading Classics Together
Here we are at the very end of another Christian classic. As of today we’ve come to the thirteenth and final chapter of John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ. He closes the book with a chapter titled “Suffering and Glory.”

Suffering & Glory

“The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.” So this is not only a challenge for today (though certainly it is a distinct challenge) but a challenge for every day. The challenge of those who plead suffering as their foremost objection to the Christian faith is not new.

Sott says, “The problem of suffering is far from being of concern only to philosophers. It impinges upon nearly all of us personally; few people go through life entirely unscathed.” He goes on to state, “It needs to be said at once that the Bible supplies no thorough solution to the problem of evil, whether ‘natural’ evil or ‘moral,’ that is, whether in the form of suffering or sin. Its purpose is more practical than philosophical. Consequently, although there are references to sin and suffering on virtually every page, its concern is not to explain their origin but to help us overcome them.” His object in this chapter, then, is to explore the relationship between the cross of Christ and our sufferings.

By way of introduction, he mentions the standard arguments about suffering: suffering is an alien intrusion into God’s good good world; suffering is often due to sin; suffering is due to our human sensitivity to pain; suffering is due to the kind of environment in which God has placed us.

November 03, 2011

Reading Classics Together
Today we come to our second-to-last reading in John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ. We are in a section that discusses some of the implications of the cross, or, as Stott phrases it, “living under the cross.” He wants us to know that the cross directs our conduct in relation to other people which leads to this chapter’s topic: loving our enemies.

Loving Our Enemies

I sense that the book is beginning to slow down a little bit. While last week and this week have had plenty of good information, it seems like the greatest impact of the book was earlier on. I guess that should not be surprising. And still, Stott continues to deal with important topics.

The first thing Stott looks at is conciliation and here he shows that the command that we live at peace with everyone is very difficult to actually do, at least in part because true reconciliation and peace requires both parties to cooperate. Here is what he says:

October 27, 2011

Reading Classics Together
Today we draw one week closer to completing John Stott’s The Cross of Christ.  After this week’s reading, we’ve got just two remaining before we’ve finished the book and wrapped up another reading project. Thank you for bearing with me last week when I just wasn’t able to get things done on time. 

Self-Understanding and Self-Giving

You remember that last week’s chapter was about the community of the cross being a community of celebration. This week Stott shows that the community of the cross is also a community of self-understanding. “This may sound like a reversion to individualism. But it should not be so, since self-understanding is with a view to self-giving. How can one give what one does not know one has? That is why the quest for one’s own identity is essential.” That makes good sense to me!

October 21, 2011

Reading Classics Together
This week’s reading from John Stott’s The Cross of Christ for Reading Classics Together comes courtesy of Rebecca Stark. My week happened in such a way that I wasn’t able to write up my summary post, so I gladly borrowed Rebecca’s (with her permission of course). This week’s chapter was titled “The Community of Celebration” and here is how Rebecca summarizes it…

The Community of Celebration.

Stott starts by pointing out that Jesus didn’t die simply to save individuals but to make a new community of his own people, people from every nation who “live by and under the cross.” First of all, those in the new community of people have a new relationship to God, a relationship marked by

October 13, 2011

Reading Classics Together
Today we continue our project of reading through John Stott’s The Cross of Christ. Stott has been writing about the achievements of the cross. He has already spoken of the salvation of sinners and the revelation of God.  This week he looks to “The Conquest of Evil.” Now there’s a great title for a chapter. The conquest of evil is such a prominent theme in books and movies and stories—we love to see evil vanquished. And maybe the cross of Christ offers us an idea of why this is such an important theme among not just Christians but all human beings.

The Conquest of Evil

Stott begins the chapter in this way:

It is impossible to read the New Testament without being impressed by the atmosphere of joyful confidence which pervades it, and which stands out in relief against the rather jejeune religion that often passes for Christianity today. There was no defeatism about the early Christians; they spoke rather of victory. … Victory, conquest, triumph, overcoming—this was the vocabulary of those first followers of the risen Lord. For if they spoke of victory, they knew they owed it to the victorious Jesus.

We love to speak of the victory of Jesus, but let’s not lose sight of the context. The early church was celebrating the victory of a man that their contemporaries had seen slaughtered.

Of course any contemporary observer who saw Christ die would have listened with astonished credulity to the claim that the Crucified was a Conquerer. Had he not been rejected by his own nation, betrayed, denied and deserted by his own disciples, and executed by authority of the Roman procurator? Look at him there, spread-eagled and skewered on a cross, robbed of all freedom of movement, strung up with nails or ropes or both, pinned there and powerless. It appears to be total defeat. If there is victory, it is the victory of pride, prejudice, jealousy, hatred, cowardice and brutality. Yet the Christian claim is that the reality is the opposite of the appearance. What looks like (and indeed was) the defeat of goodness by evil is also, and more certainly, the defeat of evil by goodness. Overcome there, he was himself overcoming. Crushed by the ruthless power of Rome, he was himself crushing the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). The victim was the victor, and the cross is still the throne from which he rules the world.

There is a sentence worth repeating: “The victim was the victor, and the cross is still the throne from which he rules the world.”

October 06, 2011

Reading Classics Together
Today we continue our project of reading through John Stott’s The Cross of Christ. We’ve come now to chapter 8, “The Revelation of God,” where Stott explains that the achievement of Christ’s cross must be seen in terms of revelation as well as salvation. “To borrow some current jargon, it was a ‘relevatory’ as well as a ‘salvific’ event. For through what God did there for the world he was also speaking to the world. Just as human beings disclose their character in their actions, so God has showed himself to us in the death of his Son.” The purpose of this chapter is to show how the cross was a word as well as a work, and then to listen attentively.

The Revelation of God

Let me share a just few choice quotes from this chapter:

No one can now accuse God of condoning evil and so of moral indifference or injustice. The cross demonstrates with equal vividness both his justice in judging sin and his mercy in justifying the sinner. For now, as a result of the propitatory death of his Son, God can be ‘just and the justifier’ of those who believe in him. He is able to bestow a righteous status on the unrighteous, without compromising his own righteousness.

The value of a love-gift is assessed both by what it costs the giver and by the degree to which the recipient may be held to deserve it. A young man who is in love, for example, will give his beloved expensive presents, often beyond what he can afford, as symbols of his self-giving love, because he believes she deserves them, and more. Jacob served seven years for Rachel because of his love for her. But God in giving his Son gave himself to die for his enemies. He gave everything for those who deserved nothing from him. “And that is God’s own proof of his love toward us” (Rom. 5:8).

When we look at the cross we see the justice, love, wisdom and power of God. It is not easy to decide which is the most luminously revealed, whether the justice of God in judging sin, or the love of God in bearing the judgment in our place, or the wisdom of God in perfectly combining the two, or the power of God in saving those who believe. For the cross is equally an act, and therefore a demonstration, of God’s justice, love, wisdom and power. The cross assures us that this God is the reality within, behind and beyond the universe.

September 29, 2011

Reading Classics Together
Today we continue our project of reading through John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ. We’ve now moved onto Part III which discusses “The Achievement of the Cross.” Here Stott begins to move from the event itself to the consequences, “from what happened on the cross to what was achieved by it.” The Bible sums this up in three words: salvation, revelation and conquest. First up is chapter 8, “The Salvation of Sinners.” The chapters that follow will discuss revelation and conquest.

The Salvation of Sinners

Here is how Stott introduces the ideas he wants to discuss in this chapter.

It would be hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the changes that have taken place as a result of the cross, both in God and in us, especially in God’s dealings with us and in our relations with him. Truly, when Christ died and was raised from death, a new day dawned, a new age began.

This new day is “the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2), and the blessings of “such a great salvation” (Heb 2:3) are so richly diverse that they cannot be neatly defined. Several pictures are needed to portray them. Just as the church of Christ is presented in Scripture as his bride and his body, the sheep of God’s flock and the branches of his vine, his new humanity, his household or family, the temple of the Holy Spirit and the pillar and buttress of the truth, so the salvation of Christ is illustrated by the vivid imagery of terms like propitiation, redemption, justification and reconciliation, which form the theme of this chapter.

Those four terms form the theme and the structure, allowing Stott to progressively reveal the salvation accomplished at the cross. “They are not alternative explanations of the cross, providing us with a range to choose from, but complementary to one another, each contributing a vital part to the whole. As for the imagery, propitiation introduces us to rituals at a shrine, redemption to transactions in a marketplace, justification to proceedings in a court of law, and reconciliation to experiences in a home or family.” Substitution is not a theory of the atonement but the foundation of all of these words and concepts.

And so Stott turns to each of them. Let me share just three great quotes.

The reason why a propitiation is necessary is that sin arouses the wrath of God. This does not mean (as animists fear) that he is likely to fly off the handle at the most trivial provocation, still less that he loses his temper for no apparent reason at all. For there is nothing capricious or arbitrary about the holy God. Nor is he ever irascible, malicious, spiteful or vindictive. His anger is neither mysterious nor irrational. It is never unpredictable, but always predictable, because it is provoked by evil and evil alone. The wrath of God … is his steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations. In short, God’s anger is poles apart from ours. What provokes our anger (injured vanity) never provokes his; what provokes his anger (evil) seldom provokes ours.

September 22, 2011

Reading Classics Together
This morning brings us to our next reading in John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ. This week I am simply going to offer up a few amazing quotes from this chapter. I hope that this will give everyone who reads this article something to chew on, whether or not you’ve read the book. At the very least read the final quote!

The Self-Substitution of God

In this chapter, titled “The Self-Substitution of God,” Stott addresses this key question: Exactly who was our substitute? Who took our place, bore our sin, became our curse, endured our penalty, died our death? Who was this Christ? How are we to think of him? In other words, he is looking at the idea of substitution and wondering who could act as substitute and what the nature of that substitution would be.

He outlines several possible answers:

Was he just a man? If so, how could one human being possibly—or justly—stand in for other human beings? Was he then simply God, seeming to be a man, but not actually being the man he seemed? If so, how could he represent humankind? Beside this, how could he have died? In that case, are we to think of Christ neither as man alone, nor as God alone, but rather as the one and only God-man who because of his uniquely constituted person was uniquely qualified to mediate between God and man? Whether the concept of substitutionary atonement is rational, moral, plausible, acceptable and above all biblical depends on our answers to these questions. The possibility of substitution rests on the identity of the substitute.

He goes on to look at the three explanations he has sketched for us, looking carefully at a long list of passages from the Bible. He arrives at this conclusion:

Our substitute, who took our place and died our death on the cross, was neither Christ alone (since that would make him a third party thrust in between God and us), nor God alone (since that would undermine the historical incarnation), but God in Christ, who was truly and fully both God and man and who on that account was uniquely qualified to represent both God and man and to mediate between them. If we speak only of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the initiative of the Father. If we speak only of God suffering and dying, we overlook the mediation of the Son. The New Testament authors never attribute the atonement either to Christ in such a way as to disassociate him from the Father, or to God in such a way as to dispense with Christ, but rather to God and Christ, or to God acting in and through Christ with his whole-hearted concurrence.

September 15, 2011

Reading Classics Together
This morning brings us to our next reading in John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ. We are now in chapter 5 which is titled “Satisfaction for Sin.” In this chapter Stott argues that the cross was necessary because God “must ‘satisfy himself’ in the way of salvation he devises; he cannot save us by contradicting himself.”

Satisfaction for Sin

Stott uses this chapter to explain that the cross was necessary for satisfaction. This is something most people affirm. However, the nature of that satisfaction has been debated throughout the history of the church. The question is, Who or what needed to be satisfied, thus making the cross a necessity?

Stott looks at “five ways in which theologians have expressed their sense of what is necessary before God is able to forgive sinners. One speaks of the overthrow of the devil by ‘satisfying’ his demands, others of ‘satisfying’ God’s law, honor or justice, and the last of ‘satisfying the moral order of the world.’ In differing degrees all these formulations are true.” But there is something that we need to be careful to avoid.

The limitation they share is that, unless they are very carefully stated, they represent God as being subordinate to something outside and above himself which controls his actions, to which he is accountable, and from which he cannot free himself. Satisfaction is an appropriate word, providing we realize that it is he himself in his inner being who needs to be satisfied, and not something external to himself. Talk of law, honor, justice, and the moral order is true only in so far as these are seen as expressions of God’s own character. Atonement is a ‘necessity’ because it ‘arises from within God himself.’

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