Monthly Archives: June 2012

Reformation Books: Counterfeit Gods

In CounterfeCounterfeit Gods by Tim Kellerit Gods, Tim Keller brings the Bible to life helping his readers to see biblical stories in a completely fresh way. Stories like that of Leah and Jacob, Naaman and Elisha, Jonah and  the Ninevites are retold in ways that help the reader comprehend anew God’s mission to rescue human hearts from all the idols they would cling to.

In The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes, ‘that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols’ (1.11.8) and in the Letter to the Ephesians St Paul describes immorality, impurity and greed as idolatrous (5.5). In Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller seeks to diagnose the many idols that threaten to enslave and distort our lives. In the introduction he writes,

An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure”.

Over the rest of the book, Keller explores the ways in which love, money, success, power and even religion can act as idols in our lives. In each situation he gives cultural and biblical examples revealing how God’s message of salvation confronts and defeats our idols.

To give you a flavour of this lets consider Keller’s exploration of the idol of success. Mining contemporary cultural commentary he quotes the pop star Madonna, sociologist Peter Berger, professional counsellor Mary Bell, even the film Chariots of Fire. In a particularly revealing reference he quotes Chris Evert, a leading tennis player in the 1970s and 1980s, who looking back on the close of her career observed,

I had no idea who I was, or what I could be away from tennis. I was depressed and afraid because so much of my life had been defined by my being a tennis champion. I was completely lost. Winning made me feel like I was somebody. It made me feel pretty. It was like being hooked on a drug. I needed the wins, the applause, in order to have an identity.

From his analysis of the contemporary seduction of success, Keller leads us to reflect upon one of the most powerful men in the world in his time, Naaman, the Syrian commander. For all his success Naaman remained an outsider inflicted with a terrible skin disease. It is the rumour of a slave girl that sparks his search for healing and acceptance. So using his power and wealth he goes to the king of Israel who surely has the power to heal him, but the king tears his clothes, ‘Am I a God? That I can kill and bring back to life?’ (2 Kings 5.7). He goes from the king to the home of the prophet where he is met by a servant and told to simply to wash seven times and be cleansed. Offended by his reception he turns away angrily, but his servants again convince him to do as the prophet asks. Having been humbled Naaman is now healed. Keller writes,

The biblical story of salvation assaults our worship of success at every point. Naaman, to be cured, had to accept the word of a servant girl, and later through a servant of Elisha, and finally other servants of his own. In those days such people were treated as no more important than a pet or beast of burden by the high and mighty. Yet God sent his message of salvation through them. The answer came not from the palace, but from the slave quarters! The ultimate example of this theme, of course, is Jesus Christ himself.

Finally, in the epilogue Keller grapples with how to discern, identify and replace the idols in our own hearts. He observes that though we think of idols as bad things the opposite is almost always true; idols are almost always good things. He writes,

If we have made idols out of work and family, we do not want to stop loving our work and our family. Rather we want to love Christ so much more that we are not enslaved by our attachments.

To do this we cannot simply figure out our idols intellectually or know the truth of the gospel cerebrally, we have to allow the truth of Christ to capture our hearts. This leads us to the practice of worship but to look at that would be a whole other book!


Exposition: 1 Timothy 1:18-20

These two verses complete Paul’s opening section in his letter to Timothy.  In other posts, we have seen verses of prayer thanking God for his calling and praising his majesty (v.12-17) and an introduction to Paul’s main reason for writing to Timothy – a message to stay strong amongst false teachers of different doctrine, who go on about myths and genealogies, and promote speculation rather than stewardship (v.3-11).

Paul says some pretty encouraging things to Timothy as he signs off this introduction – it’s like he’s showing Timothy what he has been given to deal with this situation.  Firstly, he has been given a charge – one imagines a charge from God, entrusted to him by Paul.  Timothy has a purpose.  His ministry among these folk, in this mixed up congregation, as with all those ministering in churches, has a purpose.  There is a reason he is there – God has put him there for that purpose.  And going further back, it’s not simply the case that Timothy has been given a job to do, but that prophecies have been made about that work previously – so here is a massive confirmation for Timothy (see 4:14 for more details of the prophecy given to Timothy).  You’re here because there is a job to do, and God knows what he is doing, and yes, it is you that he foresaw and foreknew would be here right now.  What an incredible encouragement of truth from Paul to his ‘child’; and what encouragement to us: every member, elder and minister has a purpose in the congregation and church that they have been called to, a purpose that God foresaw and foreknew.

Paul goes on: in this pre-ordained role Timothy is to fight the good fight as some translations put it, and whilst that makes for a good hymn-title, the Greek is much more about the role, something like, ‘serve as a soldier in a good military expedition’.  Again focussing on Timothy’s charge and fulfillment of a role, rather than focussing on the battle to be won.  That said, it is a tough role, a difficult role, and as every soldier in the Roman army would know, it was a role that demanded your all for the honour of your cohort and emperor – better to die true than live running away.  In the tough role Timothy has, Paul tells him he has two bits of equipment with him – faith and a good conscience.  Balancing faith and conscience is tricky – especially when they say alternate things.  Yet if we are walking humbly with our God, recognising the grace of God and his majesty over our lives, they should go hand in hand.  When your faith and your conscience, backed with a sure call and sound doctrine, come up against opposition, Paul suggests that would be the time to stand strong and tall.  In today’s church with its wide range of theologies and understandings, sometimes it will be right to discuss, but there will be other times when faith and conscience, call and doctrine, tell us it is right to stand up for Christ – not out of hatred and self-importance, but to uphold that ‘charge [which] is love that issues from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith’ (1:5).

Paul offers the warning to Timothy – if you reject faith and conscience, reject the grace of God and true Biblical doctrine, then you become shipwrecked in your faith (1:19).  And it’s incredibly hard to get back afloat, and only possible after major re-building.  Hymenaeus (see also 2 Tim 2:17) and Alexander have been removed, rightly or wrongly, by Paul, from his congregation.  Better for them to sail in a little dinghy alongside a large vessel while they re-build their faith on sound doctrine, than be on board sinking the whole ship.

Sound Biblical doctrine firing our faith and conscience is an absolute essential of Christian ministry and vocation, and we should rejoice that God calls individuals, men and women of faith and conscience, to the church, ‘for such a time as this’ (Esther 4:14).

Music: The psalms have the answer

Last week, Paul started this series on music with an excellent article on what to look for in a hymn or song to be sung in worship. He showed us how our hymns should cover the whole gamut of worshipping God: objective (praising God for who he is), subjective (expressing our response to God) and reflective (expressing what we’re doing in our singing). Paul also showed us how all these things must be considered theologically, explaining how the most important thing about what we sing in church is the words.

But that still leaves the minister much to think about when it comes to choosing appropriate songs to sing in worship. Going through Rejoice and Sing or Mission Praise looking for just the right song to sing can be a real minefield.

If only there was a hymnbook that covered all Paul’s categories, that covered all human emotions and responses to God and is inspired by the Holy Spirit in a unique way.

Well, thank God. There is.

At the time of the Reformation much thought was given to the songs that God’s people were to sing in worship. Even that idea was revolutionary. Much of medieval worship was a spectator sport with a choir singing and the priests doing whatever it was they were doing up there. The Reformation changed all that by restoring song to the whole people of God. But that still left the question as to what was appropriate to sing in church.

For the Reformed, the most appropriate thing to sing in church was God’s own Word. And for the congregation of Geneva and elsewhere the book of Psalms became the primary hymnbook. Calvin called the book of Psalms “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul”. He found in the Psalms all that was needed to know how to worship God in the right way. Here are the objective, subjective and reflective songs that Paul asked us last week to consider, often all within the same Psalm.

Is there any better reflection on the majesty of God in creation and in adoption than Psalm 100, which we sing to a tune from Calvin’s Geneva? –

The Lord, ye know, is God indeed;
without our aid he did us make;
we are his folk, he doth us feed;
and for his sheep he doth us take.

Is there a better way of expressing our salvation from sin and death than Psalm 40? –

He took me from a fearful pit,
and from the miry clay,
and on a rock he set my feet,
establishing my way.

Or any better words to express the glory of Christ than Psalm 2? –

O wherefore do the nations rage,
and kings and rulers strive in vain,
against the Lord of earth and heav’n
to overthrow Messiah’s reign?

The singing of the Psalms is one of the blessings the Reformed can bring to the table of Christianity. In singing these songs we’re drenching ourselves in the Word of God, expressing praise that is acceptable to him and teaching ourselves who God is and what he’s done for us.

As Calvin said: “there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise.” He’s right. Get singing.

Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

When did you last hear Satan mentioned in church?

If it was in the last month, you’re probably within a minority in the British church today.  The devil may have fallen off of the church’s radar in recent decades, but Satan still prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). We still need to heed Peter’s advice to be “alert and of sober mind.”

C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters were first printed in The Guardian (how times have changed!) and then published as a book in 1941. There have been endless reprints for the book has a timeless quality.

The 31 letters give us an amusing and powerful insight into the devil’s tactics. We see Uncle Screwtape, a senior devil, writing advice to his young demon nephew, Wormwood. Only a few pages in, Wormwood’s “patient” becomes a Christian and Screwtape has to do all he can to help Wormwood save this man from “The Enemy.” Wormwood tries to undermine the patient’s view of the church to make him someone who unhappily hops from church to church, unable to see beyond the flaws of his brothers and sisters. Wormwood attempts to focus the patient’s attention on his tense relationship with his mother to test his Christian character.  Wormwood fights to make his patient waste time, to be distracted from good and worthwhile work. And so it goes on…

The part which always strikes me is how Screwtape calls Wormwood to focus on the small sins:

You will say these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (Letter XII)

So much to think about, reflect on and pray for!


Exposition: 1 Timothy 1:8 – 17

In this first letter to Timothy concerning the church at Ephesus, Paul appears to be addressing a prideful elitism in the church. Some church members had devoted themselves to ‘myths and endless genealogies’, ‘mere speculations’ rather than ‘good stewardship’ (1 Timothy 1:4). Worse these members, having fallen short of ‘love from a pure heart’, have devoted themselves to ‘senseless babble’ aspiring to be teachers of the law (1 Timothy 1:6-7). It appears that these members are claiming they they have both the law and the gospel, but Paul argues that they have completely misunderstood the purpose of the law.

God’s law is not intended for our self-righteousness, it is not given to create a Christian elite puffed up with pride and arrogance. On the contrary the law is not given for the righteous in Christ, who are living according to the power of God’s Spirit within them, but for those living in rebellion against God’s kingdom.

Anticipating the accusation that he is opposed to the law, Paul writes, ‘the law is good if someone uses it lawfully’ (1 Timothy:8). Then to demonstrate this he argues that the purpose of the law is to convict ‘the lawless and rebellious, irreligious and sinners, unholy and profane’ (1 Timothy 1:9) these three couplets correspond to the first four of the ten commandments. The remaining vices and offences correspond to the next five commandments, ‘honour your father and mother’, ‘you shall not kill’, ‘you shall not commit adultery’, ‘you shall not steal’, and ‘you shall not bear false witness’ (Exodus 20:12-16).

Christians though are ‘no longer under the law, but under grace’ (Romans 6:14). For the gospel of our glorious God, entrusted to Paul, transforms us from within so that we may not boast in our outward observance but solely in the gospel of God’s grace to us.

In this wonderful truth the apostle Paul now revels as he declares himself continually thankful to the Lord Jesus Christ who ‘strengthened’ him and ‘appointed’ him to service, though formerly he was a ‘blasphemer, persecutor, and an insolent person’ (1 Timothy 1:12-13). Now through that Damascus road experience (Acts 9:1-19) Paul’s blasphemy, persecution and insolence has been obliterated by Jesus’ three gifts of mercy, faith and love. So Paul’s life is a testimony to the trustworthy saying that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world in order to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). Like Paul we should never grow tired of rejoicing in the truth that Christ has shown mercy to us!

For the purpose of God’s mercy is not simply for our benefit but so that ‘God’s patience’, God’s gracious character, might be made known to all ‘who would believe in Him for eternal life’ (1 Timothy 1:16). For all of this is to the honour and the glory of God, our King eternal.

Music: What’s important about a hymn or song?

“If someone was born in our church and grew up singing our songs, over the course of twenty years, how well would they know God?”

That’s the challenge Bob Kauflin gives in his book, Worship Matters.  There are tens of thousands of hymns and songs that can be use to lead congregations in praise and wonder of God.  Old, new, hymns, songs, choruses, chants, 7 verse slogs, two line responses, full choral works and simple melody lines – what’s important in a hymn or song?

Words.  They’re really important.

In answering Bob’s question – it’s the words of our hymns and songs that will define how well we will come to know God.  In comparison the tune, the setting, when it was written and how long it takes to sing, is of little consequence to the words.  The lyrics to a hymn or song can usually be split into three categories.

Objective lyrics tell us something true about God that help us to know him better.  A great example of this would be

Immortal, Invisible, God only wise,

in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,

most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,

almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

(Rejoice and Sing 67, youtube version here)

When we choose to use hymns with objective lyrics it is really important that they share what the Bible tells us to be true about God.  Not every song or hymn in every hymnbook does that, so watch – you don’t want people to remember something that’s not true, especially when it’s something about God!

Subjective lyrics express our response to God – a really good example of these kind of lyrics would be:

Take my life, and let it be

consecrated, Lord, to thee;

take my moments and my days

let them flow in ceaseless praise.

(Rejoice and Sing 371, Chris Tomlin’s version of this hymn can be found on youtube here)

When we choose subjective lyrics it is important that we are singing these words in response to a message, word or working of the Spirit in worship and not just by themselves.

Reflective Lyrics express what we’re actually doing as we worship God – the eager-eyed reader will notice that some reflective lyrics are masquerading in the last line of the first verse of Immortal Invisible. Another great example would be:

Come, let us join our cheerful songs

with angels round the throne;

ten thousand thousand are their tongues,

but all their joys are one.

(Rejoice and Sing 382)

It’s important that hymns and songs reflect what we actually do, either theologically, as in Isaac Watts’ hymn above, or practically – I remember thinking how bizarre it was to sing ‘We lift our hands to worship you’ in a congregation that very definitely didn’t lift their hands to worship God!

Thinking about the type of lyrics being used can help us place hymns and songs in a beneficial place within a time of worship, and ensure that we not only sing about the great truths of who God is, but are also given the opportunity to respond to God’s gracious call on our lives and that we sing about what it is like to be in the presence of God worshipping him.  We do that through using hymns and songs that challenge and encourage us in our response, reflect what we’re actually doing, and above all are full of Biblical truth.  Then, we’ll see churches of people not just looking the part, but worshipping with an obvious and real sense of wonder and amazement as people ‘Before the throne of God’, and of course over twenty years, by the Spirit’s work, they’ll come to know God very well indeed.

Reformation Books: Christianity and Liberalism

In 2007 I came back from a year in Madagascar as a changed man. I’d seen living faith in the people I met. I’d had the chance to devote myself to studying the scriptures without the distractions of modern British life. I came to realise that I was falling far short of what I should be, not only as a minister, but as a Christian.

On my return I came across two books that God used to continue this unsettling, yet vital, experience. The first of these was The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter (to be reviewed at a later date), and the second was Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen.

Machen was an American Presbyterian NT scholar who led the fight against modernism in his denomination. He was disciplined by the Presbyterian Church for establishing an independent missions board and founded the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He was also a founder of Westminster Theological Seminary after the reorganisation of Princeton.

Christianity and Liberalism’s main thesis is that the liberal, modernist beliefs that were coming to the fore in the churches were not another strand of Christianity but were the expression of a totally different religion. This sounds like a harsh judgement but in this book Machen defends his thesis with panache.

Although an accomplished academic this book is written with the layman in mind. Machen shows the difference between Christianity and Liberalism in six areas: Doctrine, God and Man, The Bible, Christ, Salvation and The Church.

In each of these areas he details the main areas of disagreement between the two systems. If nothing else, he shows that the disagreements and misunderstandings that happen between evangelical and liberal people occur because of different presuppositions on these areas.

Here is a typical quote. He is facing the argument made that Christianity should not worry over much about doctrine but should be a “way of life”:

The Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine.

This little book, written in the 1920s, still has great relevance for us in the URC today. Is the Christian religion a revealed religion? Are there objective facts that must be preached? Or are we free to create a new system, more amenable to the modern mind?

This book is a must read. It would be a fine use of the URC’s budget to buy every minister Machen’s volume. It was a great help to me, I pray it will be for you too.