Friday, December 23, 2011

Pagans in the Keep

“Your best friend is turning to Buddhism; your young nephew is confused about his sexuality; your wife is learning new spiritual techniques from a spiritual guide; you are beginning to wonder if Christianity is too restrictive. If these and other such issues are a concern for you, your friends or loved ones, then this book is for you.”

So writes Dr. Peter Jones in the preface to his latest book entitled One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference (ISBN 978-0-9746895-2-4). Dr. Jones is well qualified to write this book, holding an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a ThM from Harvard Divinity School, and a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary California. Dr Jones formerly taught seminary for seventeen years in France, returning to the US in 1991. Along with his seminary work and writing ministry, Dr. Jones maintains a busy schedule as director of truthXchange (, a ministry devoted to researching, warning, and educating the church with regard to the growth of ancient paganism and how to conduct worldview evangelism.

The title of the book refers to the competing worldviews which Dr. Jones has named “One-ism” and “Two-ism.” “One-ism believes that ‘all is one’ and shares the same essential nature…everything is a piece of the divine. Two-ism believes that while all of creation shares a certain essence (everything apart from God is created), the Creator of nature, namely God, is a completely different being, whose will determines the nature and function of all created things” (17).

The book is divided into three sections each of which is organized around a different aspect of Rom. 1:18-32. Section One establishes the need for the church to hear Paul’s ancient words afresh – pointing out through numerous examples and supporting documentation the major inroads paganism has and is making into the culture, and consequently into the church. The militancy of the spiritual/political powers behind the rise of paganism have in many cases forced believers from public discourse and are succeeding in redefining true and acceptable “spirituality as a combination of social justice and mysticism” (13).

Dr. Jones writes that the two issues over which the church is being intimidated into silence are “Christian uniqueness” (basic theology) and “homosexuality” (basic anthropology – humans as male and female) (58). Among young Evangelicals a growing commitment to mystical experience and deeds of social justice are replacing the gospel’s claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation, and absent a Biblical worldview, many eighteen-to thirty-year-olds think homosexuality is a valid lifestyle.

Section Two of the book is by far the longest and is devoted to an exposition of Romans 1, with particular emphasis upon “The Lie” of paganism (Rom. 1:25). In this section Dr. Jones traces the outworking of that lie in three areas: First, the overturning of sane thinking by making nature its own creator. Second, the overturning of sane worship by the abandonment of the Creator God and the substitution of created images, and thirdly, the overturning of sane sexuality by the embrace of unnatural sodomy (80). Dr. Jones provides an interesting and insightful subsection on homosexuality, paganism and the new spirituality (173-183) – shedding light on the driving politicalization of the gay agenda both nationally and internationally.

In Section Three Dr. Jones deals with the application of the truths of Romans 1 for both individuals and the church at large, noting that it is only in the mystery of the god-man Jesus Christ that a Transcendent Creator and his creation meet. “The ultimate pagan declaration is “Man becomes God,” but the Christian declaration is: “God became man” (241). It is this message that has the power to transform sinners and has been the church’s answer to paganism for the past 2000 years. May God grant us the grace to live and speak to our world in light of this reality regardless of whether the message is welcomed or not.

If you read only one book in 2012 this may well be the most important you can select. The infiltration of ancient paganism into our culture and churches present us with a scenario that would be easily recognized by the NT Apostles. In the last century the threat to Biblical Christianity came from atheistic humanism. In this new century the threat is not secular but spiritual - the pantheistic spirituality characteristic of the "Age of Aquarius"

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What is the Mission of the Church?

What is the mission of the church? This question generates different answers depending upon who you consult and what books you read. For some the mission of the church includes the active engagement with culture in a way that is designed to bring relief to physical suffering and for others it is confined strictly to evangelism and discipleship. Authors Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert tackle this question in their recent 266 page book of the same title (ISBN 978-1-4335-2690-9). On Page 62, after examining the classic texts relating to the Great Commission, they answer the question as follows: “The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.”

DeYoung and Gilbert are not blind however to the significant healing ministry of Jesus (and the Apostles), as well as the obvious OT emphasis on God’s loving concern for the economically and socially vulnerable, a concern shared by the writers of the NT (Gal. 2:10; Jam. 1:27). In working through the difficulties of applying these two truths the authors develop the idea of a “wide-angle” and “zoom lens” to explain the various Scriptural emphases (pg. 94).

In their view the “wide-angle” approach, which they later call “the gospel of the kingdom” (pg. 106), focuses upon the passages in both the Old and New Testaments which speak of “the entire package of benefits that Christ secures for his people” (pg. 95). While the “zoom lens” approach, which they also call “the gospel of the cross” focuses much more narrowly on the forgiveness of sin through the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross (pg. 100). In this discussion they correctly note that the blessing of the former depend completely upon the redemption secured in the later.

Chapter six of the book includes a very helpful and exegetically sound explanation of “social justice” in the OT, which by itself would be worth the price of the book. In chapter nine the authors deal with the responsibilities of both the church as an institution, as well as the individual Christian, correctly noting that they have overlapping, but not identical spheres. The church must preach the gospel because it is uniquely the guardian of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). The individuals who make up that church may legitimately choose to become involved in a plethora of social ministries, but they do not individually set the agenda for the church. The church may choose to become involved in various ministries to improve social conditions, but if it so engages it must never forget the eternal truth that “there is something worse than death [hell], and there is something better than human flourishing [heaven]” (pg. 242), and only the preaching of the cross enables a person to escape one and gain the other.

I found this book to be very profitable to read and think through. I recommend reading it with a Bible at the ready in order to follow the flow of the argument and evaluate its exegetical support. My only real criticism of the book comes in its confusing eschatology (particularly chapters 5&8) in which the millennial promises to Israel are transferred to the church, or confused with the new heavens and new earth. In fact the whole section on the “wide-angle” and “zoom lens” gospel would have been much clearer and compelling if the authors were able to acknowledge the great physical blessings of Messiah’s Millennial Kingdom that come only to those who enter through the doorway of spiritual redemption (Jn. 3:5).

Saturday, October 29, 2011

When People are Big and God is Small

According to Scripture the fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom (Prov. 1:7) and conversely having no fear of God before our eyes is a manifestation of unbelief (Rom. 3:18). When the fear of God is lacking, the fear of man quickly takes its place.

Recently I finished reading a book entitled “When People are Big and God is Small” (ISBN 0-87552-600-4) by Dr. Edward Welch. Dr. Welch is the director of counseling and academic dean at Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF), as well as professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. The book is 239 pages divided into 13 chapters, with all but the last one containing helpful questions designed to stimulate further thought and application of the concepts covered in each chapter.

The book is so helpful because in it Dr. Welch examines in practical terms the symptoms and cures for the fear of man. He notes that the symptoms of this often debilitating sin can masquerade by many different names such as “peer pressure,” “over-commitment,” “self-esteem,” the “need to feel loved or wanted,” or “anxiety and panic attacks” to name a few.

Dr. Welch also identifies three basic reasons why we fear people (pg. 23):

1) We fear people because they can expose and humiliate us.

2) We fear people because they can reject, ridicule, or despise us.

3) We fear people because they can attack, oppress, or threaten us.

All these fears share the same basic root cause of idolatry, self-worship, and an underestimation of our sovereign and loving God.

What is the solution to these fears? Simply put, it is to learn to properly fear the LORD because it is the fear of the LORD that drives away all other fears (Prov. 19:23). We grow in our fear of the LORD as we grow in our knowledge of Him through His word, and we begin to emulate His holy character by loving and serving others – particularly our brothers and sisters in Christ (chapter 12).

As one who has from time to time struggled with the fear of man I recommend this book as biblical, readable, and insightful. I have profited from it and I believe that you will too.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Biblical Principles for Handling Conflict

I was intrigued when I recently received an email offer to purchase a short book (173 pages) by Alexander Strauch entitled “If You Bite & Devour One another” (ISBN 978-093608331-5). Having previously profited from Pastor Strauch’s more than 40 years of ministry experience and wisdom contained in some of his other books, I was quick to plunk down the $10 and place my order. When the book arrived, I found it to be both thorough and practical. The first three chapters provide a biblical foundation for handling conflict between Christians by emphasizing Spirit-controlled living, our duty to express Biblical love, and the necessity for humility. The remaining seven chapters deal with specific principles for handling conflict. Included among those principles are things like controlling our tongue, controlling criticism, pursuing reconciliation, and pursuing peace.

Under the chapter on peace-making, Strauch makes the following insightful comment, “Each member is responsible for the peace and unity of the local church. Each individual makes a difference as to the outcome of any conflict in the church” (pg. 112). How true that is! How much less conflict would there be in the local church if all of us were to take these words to heart and prayerfully intervene when friends, family members or even acquaintances begin to grumble against others in the fellowship. But, instead, many of us simply turn our heads and walk away, not wanting to get involved.

This book is designed for personal or group study and the publisher has enhanced its usefulness by making available a free study guide consisting of application questions for each chapter in a PDF format. Two helpful indices (Scripture & persons) round out the work and make it easy to find quotes or cross references after the fact. Brethren, it would be a good idea to spiritually arm yourself by reading this book before the next time you find yourself disagreeing with your brother or sister in Christ – the unity of God’s church may well hang in the balance.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Help for Small Groups

If you are interested in establishing a small group ministry you have probably encountered the reality that there is virtually no end to materials being published under the heading of “small groups.” Several years ago we looked at a number of them and found that most were heavy on sociology and psychology and light on theology.

Eventually our search turned up a wonderful book entitled “Why Small Groups? (ISBN#1-881039-06-4). In this excellent little work (116 pages) seven pastors associated with Sovereign Grace Ministries, and its vibrant small group ministry, each wrote a chapter addressing specific aspects of biblically authentic small groups. In chapter one the General Editor, C.J. Mahaney addresses the critical and biblical need for small groups and in subsequent chapters the topics of: biblical fellowship, member participation, group leadership, care and correction, and group multiplication receive focused attention. The final chapter of the book addresses the question of how successful small groups fit into and help fulfill the ministry of the local church. This strong emphasis on the local church is another feature of the book that causes me to commend it.

As for style and accessibility, the book is easy to read and includes many in text questions for application, as well as Scripture passages recommended for further study. A series of questions for discussion make the book ideal for both group use and leadership training. Graphically the book is well done and appealing to the eye.

Presently we are using this book for a summer study in our college and career ministry and the feedback has been uniformly positive. So if you are looking for a solid help on establishing or revamping your church’s small group ministry this fall, or just interested in becoming a better member of an already existing small group, you can not help but profit from taking the time to read and interact with this book.

Friday, May 27, 2011

My Favorite Book

In the course of a person’s life there will only be a few people that will truly make a lasting impact. That impact may come in person, or it may come through a book they have written - Dr. Alva J. McClain is such a person for me. The former president of Grace Theological Seminary published a work entitled “The Greatness of the Kingdom” in 1959 (ISBN# 0-88468-011-3) whose 556 pages literally opened up the Scriptures to me in a way that thousands of sermons never had. The book is an inductive study of the Kingdom of God from Genesis to Revelation. The Kingdom of God is in a certain sense the grand theme of the Bible from creation to consummation and provides the key for understanding both the first and second coming of Christ.

McClain unpacks that theme by first establishing the reality of a “Universal Kingdom of God” which exists without interruption throughout all time (Ps. 145:13). This Universal Kingdom includes all that exists in space and time (pg. 24-34) and is generally controlled via providence as administered by the eternal Son (Col. 1:17). McClain rightly notes that the Universal Kingdom can not be identical with the kingdom for which our Lord taught His disciples to pray (Matt. 6:10). McClain names this other kingdom “The Mediatorial Kingdom” in which God rules upon the earth through the agency of a human mediator.

What follows from here is a fascinating Bible study filled with profound insights as McClain traces the origin and development of that Mediatorial Kingdom from the first Adam to the second. In this journey, the history of the nation of Israel is retraced, the Mosaic covenant explained, and the decline and eclipse of the Davidic monarchy detailed (pg. 41-129). Following this, he turns his attention to the Mediatorial Kingdom in OT prophecy (pg. 135-254), unpacking the concept of the “Day of the Lord” and the person of the coming Mediatorial King. Perhaps the most encouraging and spiritually uplifting portion of the book is found in the section devoted to the blessings of the coming kingdom (pg. 217-254). For those who wonder what heaven will be like, I believe we have a wonderful picture detailed for us by the prophets in the splendor of Messiah’s coming earthly kingdom. God made man body and soul and declared His creation “very good” (Gen. 1:31), therefore, we have every reason logically and biblically to assume that the eternal state will be a place where that very good creation will be on permanent display.

The second half of the book is devoted to the Mediatorial Kingdom in the New Testament with considerable attention given to its prominence in the Gospels and the Book of Acts (pg. 259-430). When John and Jesus came preaching and announced “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17), McClain rightly notes that they neither offered, nor did the people need an explanation of this kingdom or the Gospel associated with it (Mk. 1:14-15). They could only have understood those words in their original OT context of the promised Davidic rule.

Almost 100 pages finish out the book by tracing the Mediatorial Kingdom through the Epistles and its consummation in the Book of Revelation when the Son delivers up the Mediatorial Kingdom to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24) and The Universal and Mediatorial Kingdom become one.

Having just finished my fourth reading of The Greatness of the Kingdom, I can confidently say that it is, in my opinion, the most definitive treatment of the subject of the Kingdom published in the 20th century and to date has not been refuted by those who would seek to spiritualize the kingdom as something within us. As McClain rightly notes, the kingdom of God is never said to enter into man – man enters into it.

Summer is almost upon us and you could not invest it better than to take up this book in one hand and your Bible in the other. Sit back, relax and go for a journey of a lifetime – you will never regret it. Maranatha!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Making Disciples

As part of our churches ongoing study and discussion of how to restructure the ministry in order to more fully engage in the Great Commission I am reading a number of books on the topic of disciple-making. Over the next couple of months I will review those books here on this blog. Today’s review is of the book “The Disciple-Making Church” by Bill Hull (ISBN 978-0-8010-6621-4). A number of years ago I read his book “The Disciple-Making Pastor and was challenged by a number of the things he had to say. At a later date I intend to review that book.

In this book Hull clearly defines disciple-making as consisting of two things. “The first part, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them,’ implies an intentional effort on the part of disciples to tell others about Jesus – what we call witnessing and/or preaching the gospel” (pg. 12). “The second part of disciple-making activity is ‘teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Teaching people to obey is called discipleship or apprenticeship” (pg. 13). The use of the word “apprenticeship” is a very helpful way to think about the process because it involves so much more than the impartation of Bible knowledge, encouraging the memorization of Scripture, sharing your faith, and learning ministry skills (pg. 40). It involves the process of helping a person grow in the likeness of Jesus. Because none of us has arrived at that perfect likeness it is folly to think that discipling in one-on-one terms will fully accomplish what God intends for His people (pg. 39). Instead Hull makes the case for what he calls a “churchocentric” model (pg. 38) of disciple-making that involves a leadership team coaching a multilevel, diverse congregation toward maturity in Christ (pg. 40). To use Colin Marshall’s terminology (see review of Trellis and the Vine) “moving people to the right.”

In order to successfully accomplish a community based model of disciple-making the author advocates a decentralization of pastoral care (pg. 49), pastoral training (pg. 50), and a commitment to small groups (pg. 19). Hull develops these concepts with numerous examples in the balance of the book, and includes several appendices that typify an active small group discipleship ministry based upon the “churchocentric” model.

One quote from the book which stood out in my mind was something he credited to Winston Churchill “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” (pg. 107). As a pastor of a church which is richly blessed with facilities developed around the traditional Sunday school classroom model I often feel the truth of that statement.

This book is well worth reading and thinking through the principles that are articulated herein. I recommend it to any church leadership team that is dissatisfied with the typical programmatic approach to ministry and disciple-making.

Humility: An Essential Christian Virtue

"God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). "But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word" (Is. 66:2). God is very serious about humility in His people and is actively working to undo the proud and elevate the humble.

Some time ago I was given C.J. Mahaney's little book "Humility: True Greatness; 170 pages, (ISBN 1-59052-326-1). As I read I was both convicted and encouraged in my pursuit of this essential Christian virtue. Mahaney has an easy writing style that is self-effacing and loaded with practical examples and illustrations. The book has a number of very powerful and quotable statements such as "Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?" (pg. 69), but for me the best part of the book was its emphasis on the Gospel as the remedy for pride and the seedbed of humility. Mahaney's focus on the cross makes this book very practical in helping to cultivate humility.

I also greatly profited from chapter eight "Identifying Evidences of Grace." This reminder of the need to specifically look for, and communicate to other people the evidences of God's work in their lives, as a means to encourage them to press on, is something that has helped me to relate to my adult children.

If you are looking for something short, accessible and impactful to take on vacation with you this summer - this book is it.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Investing for Eternity

The press of weekly ministry commitments can easily consign the typical pastor to a hand-to-mouth existence. Acutely aware of Paul's instructions to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:2) regarding the need to develop biblical leadership within the local church, he nonetheless can only dream of the time when he will be able to invest himself in a man who will go on to assume the privilege and responsibilities of the pastorate.

How does a local church find pastoral leadership? Is calling the local seminary or Bible college and getting a stack of resumes the best approach? It has always seemed to me a bit like going on a blind date and then having to make a decision regarding marriage. After all, does theological training readily translate into pastoral competence? You know the answer to that question.

Through the years, I have had a passion to train men for pastoral ministry; however, I have been locked into the mindset of working with men who are already involved in their seminary training. But what if we began working with men before they begin their formal education? What if we were to mentor them in the areas of character and people skills (those areas which typically wash out a young seminary grad) before they enter school? Wouldn't this assure them a much greater probability of success in their early years rather than let them learn those skills after graduation, when as a pastor they can do significant damage both to themselves and God's church?

But, you might say that you can't afford to invest in men who might not even make it to seminary, or who, if they do, might well graduate and move on to another church. To these objections I would reply that a seminary education proves nothing other than that a man knows how to read, write, and take exams - it says little about his heart or competence to work with people. And as for investing in those who might move on - isn't that essential to the work of missions?

So, if these ideas resonate with you, I want to commend to you a little but powerful book by my friend, Colin Marshall. "Passing the Baton: A handbook for ministry apprenticeship" (ISBN 978-1-921068-79-9) is a clearly written account of a two-year ministry apprenticeship program that trains young men in the areas of Christian character and conviction prior to their enrollment in theological training. Colin and others have been working this model for over 25 years and have trained more than 1500 young people along the way. The book provides both the philosophy of mentoring as well as the practical day-to-day methods and forms they have employed along the way. The book is sprinkled with testimonies from former apprentices and also honest assessments of things they tried which didn't work out. For those who wonder how to fund such an endeavor Colin relates how they established the appropriate stipends for the trainees and challenged various business people and churches to provide scholarships to offset the costs of such training.

Although most churches and pastors are not called to pioneer something as extensive as the organization Colin helped pioneer, they are still responsible to carry out Paul's command in 2 Tim. 2:2. It is my prayer that more pastors and churches in Southern California take the charge seriously and implement some of the principles from this helpful little book.