SUFFERING AND THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD – John Piper and Justin Taylor, Ed (2006)

The only one who has taught me more about the sovereignty of God than John Piper is Jonathan Edwards.  Dr. Piper does not disappoint in this edited work.  The chapters are compiled in a series of transcripts from the 2005 Desiring God Conference, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.  This review serves as a summary of some noteworthy chapters.

Piper’s opening chapter unfolds ten aspects of God’s sovereignty over suffering and Satan’s role in it.  He points the reader to the eternal and infinite God; a God who stands in sharp contrast to the finite and contingent creature.  The insight that Piper offers in this chapter are simply breathtaking.

Dr. Mark Talbot pens one of the most helpful and beneficial chapters on compatibalism to date.  The doctrine affirms that God ordains everything that comes to pass and also affirms that agents make free, responsible choices.  God never does evil, but he does in fact ordain or decree evil.  Talbot’s explanations are philosophically and theologically satisfying and are expressed with warm pastoral concern.  Pretty good work for a philosophy professor!  Dr. Talbot’s chapter is worth the price of the book.

Steve Saint poignantly describes the murder of his father, Nate Saint and shares his personal pain as a child and the events that God used to soften his heart and make him usable vessel in God’s kingdom.

There are so many rich nuggets in this volume.  Read it and be prepared for the difficult days ahead. Suffering and the Sovereignty of God is a welcome addition to students taking the Veritas course, Mending the Achilles Heel: A Biblical Response to the Problem of Evil.

4.5 stars

THE REASON FOR SUFFERING

“The ultimate reason that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God by suffering in himself to overcome our suffering.  The suffering of the utterly innocent and infinitely holy Son of God in the place of utterly undeserving sinners to bring us to everlasting joy is the greatest display of the glory of God’s grace that ever was, or ever could be.”

– John Piper, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Crossway Books, 2006), p. 82

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS – Thomas Watson (1692)

Jonathan Edwards has always been and will always be my favorite Puritan pastor and theologian.  But Thomas Watson comes in as a close second.  Though he did not pump out the material that Edwards produced, his work is always readable, inspiring, poetic, biblical and God-centered to the core. The Ten Commandments is no exception.  Thomas Watson’s prose is typically Puritan in style.  He masterfully mines a given passage and thoughtfully applies God’s truth to the reader.

After a lengthy introduction, the author digs deeply into the ten commandments.  Each commandment is served up, much like a five course meal.  Each exposition is filled with insight and pithy commentary.  For instance, Watson contrasts the first and second commandments: “In the first commandment worshipping a false god is forbidden; in this (namely, the second commandment), worshipping the true God in a false manner.”  “God is to be adored in the heart, not painted to the eye.”  Watson draws the reader toward true worship and warns of false, idolatrous worship:  “Take heed of all occasions of idolatry, for idolatry is devil-worship.”

Clearly, Thomas Watson was a student of John Calvin and was well aware of his famous dictum: “The heart is an idol-factory.”  No doubt Watson was grieved by the rampant idolatry that was being churned out of the Roman Catholic Church.  But he was also grieved with his own propensity toward idolatry.  So he writes with zeal.  He writes with passion.  And he spurs readers toward the glory of God and prompts them to worship him alone!

Watson, though writing to a 17th century audience, speaks directly to the heart of America as he unfolds the meaning behind the third commandment: “[God] is not to be spoken of but with a holy awe upon our hearts.  To bring his name in at every turn, when we are not thinking of him, to say, ‘O God!’ or ‘O Christ!’ is to take God’s name in vain.  How many are guilty here … It is a wonder that fire does not come out from the Lord to consume them, as it did Nadab and Abihu.”

Watson clearly articulates the utter inability for sinful men to  keep the moral law.  Indeed, “though man has lost his power of obeying, God has not lost his right in commanding.”  Watson indirectly confronts the heretic, Pelagius who believed that all men have the ability to carry out God’s commands.  His view concerning freewill is clear: “The will is not only full of weakness, but obstinacy …The will hangs forth a flag of defiance against God.”

The author is quick to point sinners to the cross of Christ: “Though a Christian cannot, in his own person, perform all God’s commandments; yet Christ, as his Surety, and in his stead, has fulfilled the law for him: and God accepts of Christ’s obedience, which is perfect, to satisfy for that obedience which is imperfect.”  Here is where Watson shines brightly.  He constantly emphasizes the lost condition and utter hopelessness of sinners apart from grace.  And he consistently stresses the life, death, and resurrection of Christ on behalf of God’s elect.

Soli Deo Gloria!

4 stars

RELIGIOUS AFFECTIONS – Jonathan Edwards (1746)

Religious Affections is a classic work by America’s greatest theologian, and my favorite theologian, Jonathan Edwards.  The thesis: True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.

Section one discusses the nature of the affections and their importance in religion. Edwards defines his terms early in the work.  He describes the affections as the exercises of the “inclination and the will of the soul.”  He notes that one may have doctrinal knowledge and speculate  in matters of theology, but without affections one is never engaged in the business of religion. Similarly, a man having much affection, does not prove that he has true religion: but if he has no affection, it proves that he has no true religion.

The Scriptures represent true religion, as being summarily comprehended in love, the chief of the affections, and the fountain of all others.  “From a vigorous, affectionate, and fervent love to God, will necessarily arise other religious affections, hence will arise an intense hatred and fear of sin; a dread of God’s displeasure; gratitude to God for His goodness; joy in God; grief when He is absent.”

Part two demonstrates that one cannot rely on signs to test the validity of religious affections.  The author details twelve different supposed manifestations of religious affections that in reality turn out to be shams.

Part three is the heart of the book.  In contrast to the previous section, Edwards shows the distinguishing signs of truly gracious affections.  The fourteen different signs are worth noting.  1) Gracious affections are from divine influence.  2) Their object is the excellency of divine things.  3) They are founded on the moral excellency of objects.  4) They arise from divine illumination.  5) They are attended with a conviction of certainty.  6) They are attended with evangelical humiliation.  7) They are attended with a change of nature.  8) They beget and promote the temper of Jesus.  9) Gracious affections soften the heart.  10) They have beautiful symmetry and proportion.  11) False affections rest satisfied in themselves.  12) Their fruit is Christian practice.  13) Christian practice is the chief sign to others.  14) Christian practice is the chief sign to ourselves.

Edwards clearly describes the deceptive nature of the heart and makes the reader aware of counterfeit religious experiences as well as authentic ones.  The strengths in Religious Affections are numerous.  First, the author is logical.  His points are well-organized and cohesive.  Moreover, the author is biblical.  In classic Edwardsean style, the writer regularly supports his assertions with Scriptural truth, inviting the reader to deeper communion with God.  Finally, the author writes with conviction.  He pulls no punches and forces the reader to contemplate serious questions pertaining to Christian living.

Religious Affections has been and will continue to be an ongoing source of encouragement and an invaluable aid in pastoral ministry.   This work challenges me to measure what I believe about Christ in a practical way.  It forces me to ask difficult questions and probe motives in any given area.  In short, this work can be used as a gauge to measure my affections and devotion to Christ.  Additionally, this work will be a helpful tool in determining where others are coming from.  Finally, Religious Affections may be used to challenge the flock of God. It encourages me to raise the bar higher for those I have an opportunity to shepherd and disciple.

5 stars

Credibility: How Leaders Gain And Lose It – James Kouzes and Barry Posner (1993)

Credibility: How Leaders Gain And Lose It, Why People Demand It discusses how leaders earn the trust and confidence of their constituents.  The authors engaged in extensive research which included the surveying of over fifteen thousand people and more than four hundred written case studies.  The stunning results yield a treasure chest of information.  Some of the nuggets include the qualities that constituents look for and admire in leaders, the foundation of leadership and of all working relationships, the principles and disciplines that strengthen leadership credibility, and the struggles that leaders face in living up to their constituents’ expectations.  The conclusion: credibility is the foundation of all working relationships.

The first chapter maintains leadership is relationship and credibility is indeed the foundation of leadership.  Businesses can no longer get away with the “us verses them” mentality.  Rather one hears phrases like “seamless partnerships, “web of mutual responsibility” and “mutual commitments” in the marketplace.  Further, the research conducted by the authors shows what constituents expect from their employers.  The most frequent response was integrity or honesty, a leader who is forward-looking, inspiring and competence.

Chapter two discusses the difference credibility makes.  This chapter demonstrates how people feel working with leaders they admired.  The frequent responses are “valued,” “motivated,” “enthusiastic,” “challenged,”  “inspired,” “respected,” and “proud.”  The conclusion is that when people work with leaders they admire and respect, they feel better about themselves.  One therefore comes to the realization that high credibility earns intense commitment.  And commitment will ultimately enable people to regenerate great businesses, communities and churches.  Further, the six disciplines of credibility are offered as the means for building the foundation of leadership.

The first discipline of credibility is discovering yourself.  Three aspects of this discipline are developing one’s credo, competencies and confidence.  The credo is a simple affirmation of one’s values which serve in making decisions and resolving conflicts.  Acquiring competence involves building the necessary skills to perform a given job with excellence which in the long run builds credibility.  Strengthening credibility requires continued improvement of existing abilities which takes time and attention.  Self-confidence  or “self-efficacy” carries tremendous weight as one develops as a leader.  Keys to developing confidence include mastery of one’s job, modeling (learning from mentors who do the job well) and support (hearing from those we respect that we are doing a great job).  Ultimately, credo, competence, and confidence are the content of character.  Leaders do well then, to take time to discover their individual strengths and liabilities.

The second discipline of credibility is appreciating constituents and their diversity.  This skill simply involves empathy; learning how to understand and see things from another’s perspective.  “The greater the extent to which we comprehend each others perceptions, concerns, and values, the greater our ability to work together.”  Appreciating diversity involves showing appreciation by building trust.  And the greatest way to build trust is to listen carefully to the hopes, hurts and dreams of constituents.  Leaders further appreciate diversity by welcoming feedback and divergent viewpoints.

The third discipline of credibility is affirming shared values.  The authors claim that shared values are the foundation for building productive and genuine working relationships.  One critical objective in doing so is the building of cooperative communities that promote these commonly held values.  The net result:  finger pointing is eliminated and problems are solved at the grass roots level.  Further, the authors endorse the utilization of organizational systems to reinforce shared values.  They recommend orientation classes, training and development and promotions to foster an environment that places values at the forefront of the organization.

The fourth discipline of credibility is developing capacity.  The critical concept here is that credible leaders liberate potential leaders around them.  They turn their constituents into leaders and as a result earn credibility as leadership is distributed across the organization.  Credible leaders also have a passion for educating those around them.  They are not intimidated by others in the organization that commit themselves to life long learning.  Further, credible leaders offer choices, encourage ownership and inspire constituents to greater confidence.

The fifth discipline of credibility is serving a purpose.  Leaders serve a purpose and the people who have made it possible for them to lead.  In fact, the service of leaders is the basis of their credibility.  Serving involves staying in touch, constant attention to listening and learning from constituents and matching words and actions.

The fifth discipline of credibility is sustaining hope.  Credible leaders look on the bright side.  Their lives are brimming with optimism.  They demonstrate daily courage and inspire constituents to see positive images of the future.

The final chapter discusses the tension between freedom and constraint.  Kouzes and Posner discuss the fine line of leadership and explore the potential excesses of the six disciplines that comprise the bulk of the book.

Credibility is a tremendous book.   The research should be commended for its depth and breadth.  But more important is the personal nature of the research presented.  Cold statistics and data are absent from this volume.  Rather, real-life stories lay before the reader and the principles emerge confirming the thesis that that credibility is the foundation of all working relationships – and of all relationships that work.  The material is thought-provoking, practical, and may be implemented immediately in the local church context.  I will refer to this book again and again as I seek to develop leaders who are committed to living in and building the kingdom of God.

5 stars

THE SEVEN SAYINGS OF THE SAVIOR ON THE CROSS – A.W. Pink

The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross by A.W. Pink is a devotional look at the final words uttered by Jesus on Calvary’s tree.  But these meditations are more than mere musings.  To the contrary, Pink’s insight is theologically charged, mind altering, and heart transforming.

Pink turns the heart of the reader to the person and work of Christ.  He skillfully explains each of the seven sayings of the Savior on the cross and makes direct application to Christ-followers and calls the unregenerate to repentance.

Pink’s work is an excellent introduction to the basics of Christ’s cross work.  Readers would do well to proceed to The Cross Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney, The Cross of Christ by John Stott, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross by Leon Morris and Pierced for Our Transgressions by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach.

4  stars

TIGER NEEDS THE LION

Thousands of golf fans around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief this morning as Tiger Woods stood before family and friends and apologized for his infidelity.  I was personally relieved and encouraged to see Tiger humble himself by doing the right thing.  His act of humility is a step in the right direction and required a great deal of courage.

Tiger Woods needs veritas et lux – truth and light, as he forges ahead into the future and seeks to rebuild his life and merge onto the road to recovery.  However, this road will reach an eventual dead end if he continues to embrace a Buddhist worldview.  Buddhism teaches adherence to the so-called Eight Fold Path; essentially self-salvation.  But the Bible says our “works of righteousness” are unacceptable to God.  “We have all become unclean like one who is unclean, and all our righteousness deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6, ESV).

Tiger has taken an important step in the right direction by admitting his error.  Indeed, we have all sinned and broken the law of God (Rom. 3:23; Jer. 17:9).  We are sinners faced with eternal judgment for violating God’s law and failing to glorify him as we ought (Rom. 6:23; 2 Thess. 1:8-9).  We are sinners in need of a Savior (John 14:6; 1 Tim. 1:15).  Every person must confess their sin and their need of Christ (Acts 16:31) and receive the free gift of salvation (Eph. 2:8-9).

Tiger Woods needs veritas et lux – and the only way to truth and light is to embrace the Lion of the Tribe of Judah,  Jesus Christ – the One who came as a Lamb and who will return as a Lion. He is the truth (John 14:6, 18:37) and the light (John 1:1-5), the Son of God who died to set sinners free.  Forgiveness is not found through “self-atonement” or “self-salvation.”  Forgiveness is not found in confessing ones sins to a priest.  Real forgiveness is found as one places faith in the Lion who stood in the place of sinners (2 Cor. 5:21).  Jesus said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3, ESV).

Christians everywhere should pray for Tiger Woods; for a restored marriage, a restored family, a restored personal life and for salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

HE IS NOT SILENT: PREACHING IN A POSTMODERN WORLD – Al Mohler (2009)

Dr. Al Mohler has written a clear book that describes the mandate to preach God’s Word faithfully and authoritatively.  He Is Not Silent is not to be confused with preaching methodology.  Rather, Mohler’s concern is to develop a biblical theology of preaching.

Specifically, Mohler presses the need for men of God to preach expository sermons.  He states emphatically, “I believe that the only form of authentic Christian preaching is expository preaching.”

Mohler argues rightly that every sermon should be grounded in Scripture, rooted in the Reformation, and wielded with authority.  Indeed, every sermon should be Christological.  Spurgeon’s wisdom is cited with approval: “Preach the Word, place it in its canonical context, and make a bee-line to the cross.”

The author addresses the current postmodern climate and hostility toward metanarratives.  He maintains that pastors must link their sermons to the great movements of biblical history: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation:  “Our ambition, our obsession as preachers – should be nothing less than to preach so that the congregation sees the big story of the gospel, the grand narrative of the gospel, through every text we preach.”

Pastors who are not convinced about the mandate to preach expository sermons should not waste their time with this book.  Continue to tell stories and chat about Christianity from the safe confines of a stool.  The net result of this kind of “wee little preaching” as Mohler calls it, will be a weakened church that will bear the fruit of an anemic and lifeless Christianity.

Pastors who take the responsibility to shepherd the people of God with blood-earnestness should carefully read He Is Not Silent.  You will be encouraged and motivated to preach the Word of God with the passion and faithfulness.

4.5 stars

THE ENCHIRIDION – Aurelius Augustine (420 A.D.)

The Enchiridion (a book that contains key information on a particular subject), by Aurelius Augustine is a handbook of Christian doctrine that provides brief answers to Laurentius, one of Augustine’s friends.  The book is divided into three sections, the first of which is a brief exposition of the Apostles’ Creed.  The second part contains a basic exposition of the Lord’s Prayer.  The third part focuses on the Gospel.

Augustine begins by acknowledging the request of Laurentius, namely, a handbook with answers to the big questions of life.  The author articulates a few of these questions: “What ought to be man’s chief end in life; what he ought, in view of the various heresies, chiefly to avoid; to what extent religion is supported by reason; what there is in reason that lends no support to faith, when faith stands alone; what is the starting point, what the goal, of religion …”  Augustine maintains that his disciple can know the answers to all of the above questions, so long as he thoroughly knows the “proper objects of faith, hope, and love.”

Augustine boils down a piece of essential knowledge that is required for all who follow Christ, namely, that the goodness of the Creator created all things.  It is refreshing to hear the simplicity of Augustine’s message regarding origins; a message that comes almost 1,500 years before the scandalous musings of Charles Darwin: “It is enough for the Christian to believe that the only cause of all created things, whether heavenly or earthly, whether visible or invisible, is the goodness of the Creator, the one true God; and that nothing exists but Himself that does not derive its existence from Him; and that He is the Trinity – to wit, the Father, and the Son begotten of the Father, and the Son begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the same Father, but one and the same Spirit of Father and Son.”

Augustine wrestles with the problem of evil and holds that evil is the absence of good.  In other words, it is possible for evil to exist in a universe that was originally created as good.  Or to put it another way, evil is dependent upon goodness.  He writes, “There can be no evil where there is no good; and an evil man is an evil good.”

Augustine maintains the God, who is omnipotent is a good God, even when he permits evil: “Although, therefore, evil, in so far as it is evil as good exists, is a good.  For if it were not a good that evil should exist, its existence would not be permitted by the omnipotent Good, who without doubt can as easily refuse to permit what He does not wish, as bring about what He does wish.”

The author addresses the nature of free grace and responds to the Pelagianism that was corrupting the church in the fifth century (and continues to poison many contemporary churches): “Men are not saved by good works, nor by the free determination of their own will, but by the grace of God through faith … So when man by his own free will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost.”

Thoughtful readers will graciously pass by Augustine’s erroneous promotion of paedo-baptism; they will refuse to “throw the baby out with the bathwater!”  Draining the bathwater would preclude the reader from profiting from Augustine’s theological insight.  These insights include but are not limited to:

1) The importance of building a strong and biblical doctrinal foundation.

2) The importance of exercising discernment with professors of Christianity.

3) The importance of personal discipleship.

4) The importance of developing a Christian worldview, especially in regards to the Creator-creature distinction.

5) The folly of free will apart from grace and the liberty that new creatures receive in Christ.

6) The sinfulness of sin, the bondage and slavery of unregenerate man, and the necessity of a Redeemer.

Read the thermometer in our postmodern climate.  It nearly always reads, “trivial,” “banal,”  “superficial,” or “amusement.”  Augustine’s Enchiridion provides a much needed shot of meaty mercury! Read it with an open Bible and a pen in hand.

Tolle Lege!

THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM – George Eldon Ladd (1959)

The Gospel of the Kingdom is a solid biblical theology that stresses the importance of God’s kingdom.    The thesis is that the Gospel of God in the New Testament is the redemptive work of God active in history for the defeat of his enemies, bringing men the blessings of the divine reign.

Ladd presents the kingdom as a present spiritual reality and has popularized the “already-not yet” paradigm of the kingdom.  The kingdom is not only spiritual; it is also an inheritance which God will bestow on his people when he comes in glory.  Ladd notes that the kingdom is God’s sovereign reign, but God’s reign expresses itself in different stages throughout redemptive history.  In order to enter the kingdom one must submit himself in trust to God’s rule here and now.

The author explains the mystery of the kingdom.  The mystery is that the kingdom has come among men and yet men can still reject it.  The kingdom will not experience uniform success in this age.

Ladd makes it clear that righteousness is required for entrance into the future realm of God’s kingdom.  This very same righteousness  God imparts as he comes to rule within our lives.  When one submits himself to the reign of God, the miracle of  the new birth takes place within his heart.  The author continues to explain that the kingdom demands repentance which determines the quality of present life and future destiny.  The basic demand of the kingdom obedience. Ladd stresses that there is but one people of God (in contrast to classical dispensationalism).

The Gospel of the Kingdom has many strengths worth noting.  First, Dr. Ladd does a great job making sense of the different aspects of God’s kingdom, i.e. present versus future.  Second, he writes on a personal level and vividly conveys the hope of the kingdom to the new covenant believer.  The perspective in this book is quite illuminating.  Rather than getting weighted down by sophisticated theological arguments,  Ladd presents his case in a simple, yet profound manner.  Third, the author engages in a serious biblical theology.  No proof texting can be found here.  Forth, this book causes the reader to worship as he confronts the reality of the present and future reality of the kingdom of God.  Finally, the author does a formidable job at explaining the relationship between the church and Israel.  He remains committed to premillennialism, yet rejects the erroneous distinctions of classical dispensationalism.

4 stars