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Reading Classics Together

May 11, 2011

A week ago I solicited some help in choosing the next classic book to read in Reading Classics Together. I received hundreds of suggestions, but two seemed to dominate: Knowing God by J.I. Packer and Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen.

Having narrowed it down to 2, I thought I’d put it to the vote. So let me give you on paragraph about each book, and then you can make your selection. The one that receives the most votes will be the one we read together.

  • Machen’s classic defense of orthodox Christianity established the importance of scriptural doctrine and contrasts the teachings of liberalism and orthodoxy on God and man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the church. Though originally published nearly seventy years ago, the book maintains its relevance today. It was named one of the top 100 books of the millennium by World magazine and one of the top 100 books of the century by Christianity Today. (Read more at Amazon)
  • J. I. Packer’s Knowing God has become a classic of the Christian faith. Why? While it gives us information about God with clarity and grace, it does much more—it aids us in actually knowing him, in building our relationship with him, and helps draw us closer to him in love and worship. (Read more at Amazon)

One thing to note: Knowing God does not appear to be available in ebook format (while Machen’s book is available). That may be important to some.

May 05, 2011

Several years ago I introduced a program called Reading Classics Together. The impetus for this project was the simple realization that, though many Christians want to read through the classics of the faith, few of us have the motivation to actually make it happen. I know this was long the case for me. This program allows us to read such classic works together, providing both a level of accountability and the added interest of comparing notes as we read in community.

Those who have participated in each of the programs have read Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross by A.W. Pink, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, Real Christianity by William Wilberforce, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs, Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray, The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore and The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. That is quite a solid collection of classics! I have benefited immensely from reading these books and know that others have, too.

The format is simple: every week we read a chapter or a section of a classic of the Christian faith and then on Thursday we check in at my blog to discuss it. It’s that easy: one chapter per week.

It has been a few months since we finished The Holiness of God. I have been deliberate in allowing a bit of time to elapse, but I think it’s time to get going again.

I’d like you to help me choose the next classic. I have spent some time looking through the lists of books and just can’t choose one. So if you are interested in reading a classic together (either because you think we would benefit from reading it or because you have been wanting to read it but haven’t had the time or discipline) go ahead and leave a comment with your suggestion. And then stay tuned to the blog to see what we’ll be reading and when we’ll begin.

The book can be old or new; it can be well-known or obscure. It just needs to be good and needs to be able to make an impact on us as we read.

My suggestion is Robert Murray M’Cheyne by Andrew Bonar—Bonar’s biography of his dear friend. But I am very open to other suggestions.

December 23, 2010

And here we are, at the end of another classic. If you’ve been doing this since the beginning, you’ve now read Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross by A.W. Pink, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, Real Christianity by William Wilberforce, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs, Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray, The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore. And, of course, The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. I’ve spoken to a few people recently (in real-life even) who have kept up and who have enjoyed the book. So I’m glad to know that some of you continue to read along.

This week’s chapter was titled “Holy Space and Holy Time” and in wrapping up the book Sproul turns to a discussion of setting apart certain spaces and certain times as holy. He writes about traditional church architecture and its function in drawing people to the holy, something he has emphasized in several of his other books. He writes about what goes missing in churches that are designed to be functional rather than beautiful. “What is often lost in these functional church designs is the profound sense of threshold. A threshold is a place of transition. It signals a change from one realm to another.” If you have ever visited Dr. Sproul’s home church of St. Andrew’s you will see how he and the members of that church have sought to recapture traditional design including the concept of threshold.

He writes as well about sacred times and in particular the Sabbath and the Lord’s Supper.

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper involves sacred time in three distinct ways. First, it looks to the past, instructing believers to remember and to show forth Christ’s death by this observance. Second, it focuses on the present moment of celebration, in which Christ meets with His people to nurture them and strengthen them in their sanctification. Third, it looks to the future, to the certain hope of their reunion with Christ in heaven, where they will participate in the banquet feast of the Lamb and His bride.

December 16, 2010

So we’ve got just one week left in our reading of R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God. Next week we’ll wrap up—rather good timing, I think, since the holidays are just about upon us.

Summary

This week’s chapter was titled “Looking Beyond Shadows.” In the first part of the chapter, Dr. Sproul writes about the ways in which man refuses to acknowledge God as God. God has revealed himself clearly to each and every individual in the world, but left to ourselves we despise that revelation and suppress it.

The real person of God is really known through the real revelation that takes place in the real realm of nature. But the problem is that in the case of God, we distort our knowledge of Him with an image that we create ourselves. This is the essence of idolatry; replacing the reality with a counterfeit. We distort the truth of God and reshape our understanding of Him according to our own preferences, leaving us with a God who is anything but holy.

Paul does not bring a universal indictment against humanity for the failure to know God. That is not our problem. It is not that we fail to know that God is and who God is; it is that we refuse to believe what we know to be true. Here we face a problem that is not an intellectual problem. It is a moral problem. It is the problem of dishonesty. All idolatry is rooted in this fundamental dishonesty.

God’s holiness is not an arcane secret that may be discovered only by some spiritually elite group of people. Rather God’s holiness is on display daily for everyone to see. Again it is not merely that it is available to be seen for those who earnestly search for it. Rather Paul’s point is that God’s holiness is seen, and it is seen clearly.

…The knowledge of God that is given through creation is not a knowledge we warmly receive and embrace. Instead it is our nature to abhor this knowledge of God’s holiness. It is characteristic of the reprobate mind not to want to retain God in our knowledge. We prefer to change the holy into something less than holy. It is this rejection of God’s majesty that leaves us with minds that are darkened. It results in a massive foolishness that has disastrous consequences for our lives. Once we refuse to honor God as God, our whole view of life and the world becomes distorted.

December 09, 2010

We have just a few chapters left in our reading of R.C. Sproul’s classic book The Holiness of God. This week we come to chapter 9 which is titled, “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners,” a clear play on the title of Jonathan Edwards’ most famous or notorious sermon.

Summary

I hope no one will accuse me of laziness if I continue posting lists of my favorite quotes from the chapter. I am trying this this time around because a) it may help jog the memories of those who are reading along and b) it gives a sense of the chapter for those who are not reading the book but who are enjoying these posts; it is the way they can most benefit from these articles.

In this chapter Dr. Sproul uses Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as a jumping-off point to look at an aspect of God’s holiness that we naturally hate: his wrath.

If we despise the justice of God, we are not Christians. If we hate the wrath of God, it is because we hate God Himself. A loving God who has no wrath is no God. He is an idol of our own making as much as if we carved Him out of stone.

If we are unconverted, one thing is absolutely certain: We hate God. The Bible is unambiguous about this point. We are God’s enemies. We are inwardly sworn to His ultimate destruction. It is as natural for us to hate God as it is for rain to moisten the earth when it falls.

By nature, our attitude toward God is not one of mere indifference. It is a posture of malice. We oppose His government and refuse His rule over us. Our natural hearts are devoid of affection for Him; they are cold, frozen to His holiness. By nature, the love of God is not in us.

If God were to expose His life to our hands, He would not be safe for a second. We would not ignore Him; we would destroy Him.

The failure of modern evangelicalism is the failure to understand the holiness of God.

We may dislike giving our attention to God’s wrath and justice, but until we incline our selves to these aspects of Gods’ nature, we will never appreciate what has been wrought for us by grace.

Loving a holy God is beyond our moral power. The only kind of God we can love by our sinful nature is an unholy god, an idol made by our own hands. Unless we are born of the Spirit of God, unless God sheds His holy love in our hearts, unless He stoops in His grace to change our hearts, we will not love Him.

December 02, 2010

Today we continue with our readings in R.C. Sproul’s classic work The Holiness of God. This week we come to chapter 8, “War and Peace with a Holy God.” I know that quite a few of you continue to read along; I trust you’re enjoying this rather amazing book.

Summary

As with last week, I think I’m going to focus on quotes from the chapter rather than writing out a summary of it (since that is meaningful even to people who aren’t involved in the project). I find that this is a very quotable book and that even the short quotes offer a lot to ponder.

The saints of Scripture were called saints not because they were already pure but because they were people who were set apart and called to purity.



My sins have not brought me happiness. But my sins have brought me pleasure. I like pleasure. I am still very much attracted to pleasure. Pleasure can be great fun. And not all pleasures are sins. There is much pleasure to be found in righteousness. But the difference is still there. Sin can be pleasurable, but it never brings happiness.



Our marks of piety can actually be evidences of impiety. When we major in minors and blow insignificant trifles out of proportion, we imitate the Pharisees. When we make dancing and movies the test of spirituality, we are guilty of substituting a cheap morality for a genuine one. We do these things to obscure the deeper issues of righteousness. Anyone can avoid dancing or going to movies. These require no great effort of moral courage. What is difficult is to control the tongue, to act with integrity, to reveal the fruit of the Spirit.



The key method Paul underscores as the means to the transformed life is by the “renewal of the mind.” This means nothing more and nothing less than education. Serious education. In-depth education. Disciplined education in the things of God. It calls for a mastery of the Word of God. We need to be people whose lives have changed because our minds have changed.



To be conformed to Jesus, we must first begin to think as Jesus did. We need the “mind of Christ.” We need to value the things He values and despise the things He despises. We need to have the same priorities He has. We need to consider weighty the things that He considers weighty. That cannot happen without a mastery of His Word. The key to spiritual growth is in-depth Christian education that requires a serious level of sacrifice.



If we say we have faith, but no works follow, that is clear evidence that our faith is not genuine. True faith always produces real conformity to Christ. If justification happens to us, then sanctification will surely follow. If there is no sanctification, it means that there never was any justification.

November 25, 2010

This will be an abbreviated Thanksgiving edition of Reading Classics Together (since, honestly, most people aren’t doing a lot of surfing today…so maybe if I keep it short, you’ll be able to read quickly and get back to the family!). This week I will simply share some of my favorite quotes from chapter 7 of The Holiness of God. The chapter is titled “War and Peace with a Holy God.”

Summary

People in awe never complain that church is boring.

The struggle we have with a holy God is rooted in the conflict between God’s righteousness and our unrighteousness. He is just, and we are unjust. This tension creates fear, hostility, and anger within us toward God. The unjust person does not desire the company of a just judge. We become fugitives, fleeing from the presence of One whose glory can blind us and whose justice can condemn us. We are at war with Him unless or until we are justified. Only the justified person can be comfortable in the presence of a holy God.

When God signs a peace treaty, it is signed for perpetuity. The war is over, forever and ever. Of course we still sin; we still rebel; we still commit acts of hostility toward God. But God is not a cobelligerent. He will not be drawn into warfare with us. We have an advocate with the Father. We have a mediator who keeps the peace. He rules over the peace because He is both the Prince of Peace and He is our peace.

November 18, 2010

If I were to tell someone to read just a single chapter of “The Holiness of God” I would probably recommend chapter 6, “Holy Justice.” More than any other, I think, this chapter displays the holiness of God using the testimony of Scripture. In this chapter Sproul looks to the Word and draws from it what God wants us to know about his holy justice.

Summary

I think I can best tell the story of this week’s chapter through a series of quotes. First, though, let me say that this is the chapter in which Dr. Sproul discusses Nadab and Abihu and then Uzzah—biblical characters who were struck down by God for not taking his holiness seriously. Sproul shows that these are not cases of God’s arbitrary nature or quick temper, but cases of God defending his own holiness. These are times in which God shows his holy justice.

God’s justice is never divorced from His righteousness. He never condemns the innocent. He never clears the guilty. He never punishes with undo severity. He never fails to reward righteousness. His justice is perfect justice.

We have a saying that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Not always. In the case of creation and mankind’s fall, the full measure of justice was delayed so grace would have time to work. Here the delay of justice was not the denial of justice but the establishing of mercy and grace.

Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself. Have you ever considered the deeper implications of the slightest sin, of the most minute peccadillo? What are we saying to our Creator when we disobey Him at the slightest point? We are saying no to the righteousness of God. We are saying, “God, Your law is not good. My judgement is better than Yours. Your authority does not apply to me. I am above and beyond Your jurisdiction. I have the right to do what I want to do, not what You command me to do.”

November 11, 2010

I mentioned in this morning’s A La Carte that my youngest daughter had learned how to sleep (or had taught herself, more properly). Last night she had a nightmare, the first in probably six months, and was wide awake in terror for a long, long time. That meant I was also wide awake (though not in terror). So I am going to use the little bit of awareness I have to share just a few of my favorite moments from this week’s chapter of The Holiness of God as we continue to read the classics together.

Summary

This week’s reading was quite a bit different from the ones before it. Chapter 5, “The Insanity of Luther,” is almost a biographical chapter that looks at the struggles of Martin Luther as he came face-to-face with the holiness of God. Luther, even before he came to understand what would be known as Protestant theology, had a profound sense of God’s holiness. And that holiness very nearly drove him crazy. He had a clear assessment of the infinite gap in holiness that existed between himself and his Maker. Sproul points out, “Whatever defense mechanisms normal people have to mute the accusing voice of conscience, Luther was lacking.” He was devastated by every little sin, knowing that each one of them was sufficient to condemn him to hell.

It has been said many times that there is a fine line between genius and insanity and that some people move back and forth across it. Perhaps that was the problem Luther had. He was not crazy. He was a genius. He had a superior understanding of law. Once he applied his astute legal mind to the law of God, he saw things that many people miss.

Luther simply looked to the laws of God, saw how he fell short, and knew that he was a condemned man. This was far more genius than insanity, far more light than darkness.

Luther “realized that if God graded on a curve, He would have to compromise His own holiness. To count on God doing so is supreme arrogance and supreme foolishness as well. God does not lower His own standards to accommodate us.” Luther realized that even our good deeds are none too good.

November 04, 2010

This week’s chapter of The Holiness of God is titled “The Trauma of Holiness.” I love the title; it introduces an immediate question that just begs for an answer: If holiness is so good, how could it be in any way traumatic? It’s a clever little hook.

Summary

Sproul begins with the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. At the conclusion of the story he points to the disciples’ reaction to the fact that Jesus could simply speak and calm the storm: they were terrified. And here he makes an application that really struck me. “Now that the sea was calm, the fear of the disciples increased.” Sproul answers, “In the power of Christ they met something more frightening than they had ever met in nature. They were in the presence of the holy. … It is one thing to fall victim to the flood or to fall prey to cancer; it is another thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” He points as well to a rather interesting little point. “The words the disciples spoke after Jesus calmed the sea are very revealing. They cried out, ‘Who is this?’ The King James Version expresses the question like this: ‘What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ The question was ‘What manner of man is this?’ They were asking a question of kind.” In other words, they were looking to put Jesus in a category, realizing that he was in a class all by himself. They saw that he was holy. And this holiness traumatized them.

A little later in the chapter Sproul looks to the Pharisees, the religious leaders who were regarded as the holiest of the holy. They were revered as men who were singularly pure, as men who drew near to God by their fastidious obedience to his every law.

Through their singular devotion to the pursuit of holiness, the Pharisees achieved a level of popular respect for piety and righteousness that was without parallel. They had no peers. They were accorded lofty human praise. They were welcomed to privileged seats in the banquet halls. They were admired as experts in religion. Their uniforms were decorated with the tassels of their exalted ranks. They could be seen practicing their virtue in public places. They fasted where everyone could see them. They bowed their heads in solemn prayer on the street corners and restaurants. No one missed the clang of the coin in the beggar’s cup when the Pharisees game alms. Their “holiness” was plain for everyone to see. Jesus called them hypocrites.

But then there was Jesus, who was so different from the Pharisees.

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