Category Archives: Wednesday Books

‘This is our life’ by Lesslie Newbigin

I recently took the funeral of a retired minister in one of my congregations, and his daughter passed on to me a selection of his books. One was a thin paperback book entitled ‘This is our life’ by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. As many URC folks will know, Newbigin was a bishop in the Church of South India who – in ‘retirement’ – became a URC Minister and Moderator of Assembly on his return to Britain. This little book, available online here, is Newbigin’s address to the 1978 URC General Assembly.

What struck me about this little book is how desperately the URC still needs to hear Newbigin’s 1978 address. Newbigin preached on Romans 1:16:

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”

I don’t want to give a lengthy ‘review’ because I want to encourage you to read it and pray through it for yourself. I will just draw your attention to three of Newbigin’s points though:

First, having stated his passage, Newbigin begins “At the opening of our Assembly I want to direct your minds to the Gospel…” If only this happened at every Assembly. If only this happened in every sermon preached in every congregation in every place around the world. If only we were so focussed on the whole point of faith, on the whole reason we exist as a church, if only we listened and humbled ourselves before the good news of God revealed in His word to us. If only!

Secondly, Newbigin reminds us of the meaninglessness of listening to the world’s judgement of the Church. It doesn’t matter whether the world thinks we should be doing this, that or the other. What matters is what God says.

Thirdly, the Gospel is NOT ‘Loving God and loving your neighbour’. This is not the Gospel, this is the Law. The Gospel liberates, the Law enslaves. Most people know we ought to love God and almost everyone knows we ought to love others others. This is not what the Church is called to preach to the world. There is nothing distinctive about such a message. “We exist, the Church exists, because there is a Gospel, good news which cannot be discovered but only told…”

May the URC of 2012 and 2013 and beyond hear again this prophetic message.

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Book Review: Calvin on the Songs of the Nativity

When thinking about the work of John Calvin our minds may take us to the Institutes of the Christian Religion or to the many volumes of commentaries on books of the Bible. Some of us may think of his fabulous treatises On the Necessity of Reforming the Church and An Inventory of Relics. All these works are worthy of reading and studying and will be rich sources of edification to any believer.

songsofthenativityBut if we restrict ourselves to these works we miss a vital part of Calvin’s output. We will miss out on what Calvin thought was the most important part of his life and ministry. We will miss out on his preaching.

Calvin was, first and foremost, a preacher. He ascended the steps of St Peter’s pulpit almost every day to preach the Word of God to the people under his care. And in the pulpit we hear the voice of a man who used his considerable intellect and learning to bring that Word to the lowliest child in the faith.

Calvin preached without notes and only with the original Greek or Hebrew text in front of him. But from very early on in his time at Geneva a stenographer was found to record the sermons. These records have long been extant but only a few volumes have ever been translated into English.

The Banner of Truth Trust, however, has published many volumes of Calvin’s sermons in English. One of their most recent volumes makes fabulous reading over the Christmas period. In Songs of the Nativity Calvin expounds the songs found in the first two chapters of Luke. The songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels and Simeon are here opened up to the reader in a way that directs our thoughts to the glory of God and the riches of Christ.

If you’ve never read Calvin before you will find him to be more readable than Karl Barth or Rowan Williams. He will have better applications than Rick Warren or Tim Keller, despite the gap of time between him and us. Calvin’s sermons were preached to people like you. Pick up this volume (or any volume of his sermons) and delight yourself in the Christ who has saved you.

Book Review: ‘The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit’ (Michael Reeves)

ImageMichael Reeves is the UCCF’s Head of Theology and his latest book ‘The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit’ does exactly what it says on the cover. It gives us the theology we need to enjoy the triune God.

In the introduction, Reeves writes,

‘God is love’: those words could hardly be more bouncy. They seem lively, lovely, and as warming as a crackling fire. But ‘God is a Trinity’? No, hardly the same effect: that just sounds cold and stodgy. All quite understandable, but the aim of this book is to stop the madness. Yes, the Trinity can be presented as a fusty and irrelevant dogma, but the truth is that God is love because God is a Trinity.

It’s not surprising the church has struggled (and continues to struggle…) with heresy when people don’t understand who God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and what that means for us. The Trinity is a key part of what makes Christianity distinctive from other faiths. It’s not surprising people think all religions are the same, or ‘we all worship the same God’ when we don’t fully appreciate who God is in Biblical Christian thought and theology.

Reeves runs through the history of the doctrine of the Trinity, and explains (in very easy-to-understand language) what Athanasius, Sibbes, Augustine, Luther, Tyndale, Calvin, Owen and Chalmers have contributed to it. Reeves’ writing is meaty and thoroughly Biblical, but not without humour to lighten the tone and keep you engaged. More importantly, you sense Reeves’ passionate desire for us to discover who God is and to enjoy Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to every Christian and will be using it myself as the inspiration for a sermon or two on the Trinity!

Per Crucem ad Lucem

This is an adapted post from my personal blog:

forsyth

Through the cross to light. That’s the title of a little biography by A.M. Hunter about a Scottish congregationalist called P.T. Forsyth, a minister and theologian at the turn of the last century. My interest in Forsyth came about after my return from Madagascar. That trip had clarified the importance of a vital trust in Christ, the beauty of Reformed worship and the great responsibility laid on me as a future minister of the Gospel. I also came to see that it was not upon the heads of ministers to run social services or to turn churches into community outreach centres but to proclaim the saving work of God in his Son Jesus Christ. I’d finished the journey from liberal to conservative.

I now saw that human sin was a terrible reality that needed to be taken seriously. I saw that God was sovereign and holy. I believed the cross was God’s solution to this problem. I saw that our Reformed forebears consistently taught this and should be studied and listened to. But this meant I felt out of place in a denomination where these truths were not central and many evangelicals were far from the Reformed practices I held dear.

I began searching the Internet for information about this Gospel I had to preach but much of it came from America. Was there a British theologian who could speak to the situation this country and my denomination found itself in? And then I stumbled on this quote:

“There was a time when I was interested in the first degree with purely scientific criticism. Bred among the academic scholarship of the classics and philosophy, I carried these habits  to the Bible … [but] it also pleased God by the revelation of His  holiness and grace, which the great theologians taught me to find in  the Bible, to bring home to me my sin in a way that submerged all the school questions in weight, urgency and poignancy. I was turned  from a Christian to a believer, from lover of love to an object of  grace.”

Here it was. Someone who had taken the same path that I had. From the liberal academy to an object of grace. This was Forsyth writing in 1907 in the book “Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind”. I bought the book. I devoured it. I broke a lifetime’s practice and underlined passages in biro. Here was a theologian from my own denominational heritage talking of sin, grace, the holiness of God and the cross as being absolutely essential.

This book also reminds the preacher that he is not to read the newspapers and adapt his messages accordingly. The preacher is a herald, an ambassador with a message from a holy God to a sinful people. That message will always be relevant whereas the man that follows the press will be pulled from pillar to post.

Forsyth was a great reader of his times. Many of the things he warned about have come to fruition. 100 years on, his writings are still vital. Start reading – it’s worth it.

The Pastor as Scholar & The Scholar as Pastor

Of the last five years, I spent four in theological college and latest one in pastoral ministry.  Whilst at college I enjoyed the engagement with scholarly material.  Translating and grappling over textual issues and interpretations, reading commentary upon commentary, and using my findings to shed light on doctrine, pastoral conversations, and perhaps most prominently in preaching.  Since beginning pastoral ministry, I have done less in depth study, partly because there are no essay deadlines looming, and partly because church management has a canny habit of taking over time used for study and reading.  However I still feel that there is to be a balance between scholar and pastor in each Christian ministry.  Why? Because we’re helping people to grow in faith of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was the pastor and scholar extra-ordinaire.  At the moment of Peter’s great revelation of that fact in John 6, “You have the words of eternal life.”, he quickly follows by “We have come to BELIEVE and KNOW that you are the Holy One of God.”  Believing is to some extent encouraged by the role of a pastor sharing their heart, and knowing, encouraged by the role of scholar sharing wisdom.

Given the fact I see my calling to Christian ministry in this way, I was delighted to discover The Pastor as Scholar & The Scholar as Pastor.  This short book began life as a conversation between John Piper and Don Carson back in 2009, and such was the usefulness of that conversation, they worked together to publish this book.  It is a very methodical read with each author taking up roughly half of the 110 pages.  First Piper, the Pastor as Scholar,  examines his route to being one of America’s leading pastors, and like my confession at the start of his post he starts by saying, ‘….don’t hold your breath waiting for me to say something about making room for academic scholarship in the busy life of a pastor.’  What he does do is explain what makes him ‘tick’ in Christian ministry – a pastor’s heart through which he has tried ‘to preach the whole counsel of God from his written Word, with a passion for Jesus and a love for {his} people.  {He has} tried to structure things so that the people are cared for in their needs and so that they learn to care for each other and reach out to the lost.’  What being a scholarly pastor for him is ‘that the greatest object of knowledge is God and that he has revealed himself authoritatively in a book; and that I should work with all my might and all my heart and all my soul and all my mind to know and enjoy him and to make him known for the joy of others. Surely this is the goal of every pastor.’

To actually reflect the thesis of the book, while Piper writes from the heart, Carson, the Scholar and Pastor, writes a rigorous introduction that covers questioning the terms of the title, and, amongst other things, sharing a little of his journey to scholarship.  The second part of his section, deals with frank observations and pitfalls for those in pastoral ministry whose heart, perhaps like mine, is driven by scholarly working.  He talks of the warnings of becoming a mere knowledge supplier to the troops on the front line, the dangers of working for plaudits, and the danger of forgetting the people.  He talks of how scholars need to recognise different gifts and above all remaining focussed on the gospel in the world.

Strangely I found both sections of the book insightful, challenging, and something of a reflection of what I hope and pray this ministry I’m called to may offer for God’s Kingdom.  Perhaps that response reflects the conclusion of the book, that ministry involves both a pastor’s heart and a scholar’s mind – it’s just important to recognise which way round your ministry ticks.  The book concludes with this paragraph:

So in charging pastors to be more serious about the life of the mind, and in challenging scholars to be more engaged with the life of the church, we conclude with this prayer, that all our thoughtful shepherding and all our pastoral scholarship may be to the great end of having the gospel message about Jesus dwell richly (Col. 3.16) both in us and in our people; that knowing Jesus would be the great end of all our pastoring and our scholarship; that we ourselves, in all our preaching, writing, and counselling, would continue to see ourselves as the great beneficiaries of his great grace; that into eternity we would be followers of Jesus more and more shaped, saturated, and transformed by his person and work.  To Jesus, the great pastor-scholar, be the glory. Amen

Reformation Books: Gospel Centred Leadership

Gospel Centred Leadership, Steve Timmis

I had the pleasure of attending one day of the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit recently and it was really good to hear Bill Hybels (talking about the privilege of leadership), Condolezza Rice (on a life of leadership), William Ury (on negotiating conflict), Jim Collins (on being great by choice) and John Ortberg (talking about Jesus’ unimaginable influence). I came away with many brilliant tips on leadership, such as the idea of primarily managing my energy rather than my time, the importance of optimism and perspective, and the significance of separating people and their interests from the problem or the flash point of conflict.

All of these are great tips from a mix of political, religious and business leaders but whilst truth is the same whoever shares it, I did want to deepen my understanding of biblical, gospel-centred leadership. For that reason I picked up Steve Timmis’ book, Gospel Centred Leadership; Becoming the servant God wants you to be. This helped me to examine the cultural lenses through which I view leadership and to set leadership into a broader biblical perspective.

In the opening chapter Steve hit the nail on the head as he analysed our cultures desire for and cynicism towards elected leadership. From there he invites us to explore biblical leadership, looking first at the role of God as the leader both in the fine and precise details of His judgement and His shaping of human history. It is this revelation of God’s leadership that places our own exercise of leadership (as a pastor, bible study leader, elder, church administrator, etc.) into context.

Chapter two explores several (broken) examples of leadership. Adam, Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Nehemiah are all used to highlight the way that God rule is mediated through His servants, but also to point the need for another leader. Chapter three introduces us to Jesus’ leadership, challenges our prideful dependence on self, and encourages us to have a quiet confidence in Jesus’ power to rule through His Word, by His Spirit. Comment is passed about women’s ministry (throughout the New Testament), but also about headship being male. The arguments for or against this are not analysed in the book. Suffice to say Steve believes that if the way headship is exercised reflects the headship of Jesus then many of the objections to leadership in general and male leadership in particular become redundant.

Chapters four to ten explore several distinctive marks of Christian leadership, character, aptitude, wisdom, service, authority, style and leadership. Looking at each of these marks of leadership, Steve explores contemporary leadership quandaries and uses these as a way into looking at the biblical teaching on leadership. In each chapter he provides questions for biblical study and questions for personal reflection.  Warning: do not read this if you are uncomfortable examining yourself and finding your own attitudes and actions challenged.

The final four chapters look at the practicalities of leadership, each chapter looks at a different principle for gospel leadership: decisions are to be made by Spirit-inspired consensus, idealism as the enemy of gospel ministry, leaders exist to serve others intentionally, and the importance of investing in leadership. I found myself cut to the heart by the chapter on idealism which highlighted the danger of despairing in the face of disaster (losing all perspective), echoing what everyone else is saying (entering a state of virtual paralysis), assassinating others who fail and threaten our idealised church (making the perpetrator into an enemy). I pray that God would grant me the strength and wisdom to dwell in and respond out of the resources of the gospel to all manner of crisis and disappointment.

Finally, I suspect many leaders in the U.R.C. will struggle to get past Steve’s view of women in positions of leadership. However, there is plenty apart from this that would be of value to us. I have to say that despite being just 125 pages, it was not an easy or quick read. It forced me to analyse my own leadership decisions over and over again, and to confess my own inadequacy, even as it led me to Jesus’ grace.

Book reviews: Children’s Bibles

In 2011 I became a father. And from the very earliest days of my daughter’s life we began to read Bible stories to her. When she was very little my wife and I would read quite lengthy passages but now she’s 18 months old it’s become a bit more of an interactive experience. She’ll now request “Jesus”, “God” or “Bible” stories, and can recognise the pictures of John the Baptist, and name the first four disciples called by Jesus. (She’s also pretty good at singing Zacchaeus was a very little man.)

But this isn’t a parental bragging session. It’s a chance to give you my thoughts on what’s out there to read to your own children/grandchildren/Sunday Schoolers/toddler group.

At Hannah’s baptism the church gave us the God Loves Me Bible. My initial reaction to things that say God Loves You is to reject it out of hand and then enter into a theological treatise on whether we’re talking about God’s common grace or his electing love that is only for his adopted in Christ. But I was pleasantly surprised by this one. There are 66 Bible characters that God showed his love for and each retelling of the story is short enough for wriggly toddlers without being too shallow. I appreciated the story of Gideon which begins: “Gideon was weak.” The accent is on God’s grace not on these “Heroes” works. 3/5

When Hannah was a small baby we could read to her all night if we wanted to. She would lie in our arms and would have no choice but to listen. As she’s grown we’ve found her to get more wriggly so we needed to find a book with short stories that would keep her attention. Time for Bed Bible Stories fitted this bill perfectly. The stories are 5 or 6 lines over 3 pages with bright illustrations. This is the book where Hannah can name the disciples. However, there are a couple of issues with this one. The Lost Sheep tells how a shepherd seeks the lost sheep but the moral of the story is “God is happy too when anyone comes to him.” My wife and I adapt this line to reflect the parable – that it’s God who seeks and finds the lost. Also, as one who takes the second commandment as being still in force today, the crucifixion picture may be the most blasphemous thing I’ve ever seen. (But that may be because I’ve not seen the kids’ Bible with the cloth characters yet.) 3/5

The best children’s Bible is the Jesus Storybook Bible. This has become the standard go-to children’s Bible for conservative evangelical parents because it puts the whole Bible into the framework of God’s redemption in Christ. It teaches us how everything in the Old Testament points to Christ and how the New Testament is the fulfilment of God’s promises. The only bad thing is that there is a lot of text so toddlers will find it difficult to sit through the reading of the stories without tearing the pages they want to turn. But for babies and then four-years and up this is amazing. You’ll learn a lot as well and praise God for his great love for his people. 5/5

Of course all of these are deficient in that they’re not the Bible. But as an introduction they’re a good stepping stone. Now, excuse me I have to go and catechise my daughter: “Hannah, what’s the chief end of man?”

Wednesday Books: Matthew & Mission

I first came across Martin Goldsmith at Spring Harvest about eight years ago.  Having heard him give a series of talks that week, when I was next in a Christian bookshop, I was surprised and delighted to see this little (~200 pages) commentary on Matthew’s gospel.

With a Jewish heritage, thoroughly Gentile conversion to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and extensive, faithful and successful Christian missionary work in Indonesia, Goldsmith’s grasp of Matthew’s gospel speaking into a Jewish context not only sheds light and I believe truth, but also instils excitement that Good News of Jesus Christ can penetrate to the depths of the human heart.

So whether it be searching for light amongst the genealogy with which Matthew begins his gospel, hearing afresh Jesus’ message of the sermon on the mount, the call to mission, the response Jesus demands, the confrontations Jesus faces in Jerusalem, teaching about the end times, or his death and resurrection, Goldsmith shows how startling, glorious, gracious and revolutionary the gospel was for a Jewish population in the first century, and how that message is the one message of hope for the people of today’s world.

For example, Goldsmith’s commentary of Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday, in just two pages, covers much ground.  First he shows how this event fulfils the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9-10.  The Jewish Messiah is parading into the middle of the Jewish capital, and venturing to place the quote Matthew gives from Zechariah in context, Goldsmith shows that this foal mounted king has universal significance in proclaiming peace to all nations.  Goldsmith then highlights how thoroughly Jewish it was for the crowds to turn to Psalm 118, to declare him the royal Son of David, but shows the dichotomy that the same Jesus would be crucified for being the King of the Jews.  Psalm 118 is also full of assurance of the Lord granting success and Goldsmith adds, ‘it is a sad reality not only in the life of Jesus, but throughout history, meekness and humility do not draw the crowds like power and success’.  Psalm 118 also pictures the festal procession not only entering Jerusalem, but heading straight to the temple, which is of course what Jesus does, drawing crowds of people.  Goldsmith shows that Matthew’s emphasis on the crowds seeing the fulfilment of Psalm 118, leads to them being drawn into meet the Saviour of the world, but a Saviour who, when he gets to the temple, cleanses instead of performing some religious cermony, is rejected, causes a stir, but restores the relationship of worshipping people with God.  A fore-taste of that which is to come, and a picture for the church’s mission in the world, although just twelve, drawing crowds, to see the Saviour cleanse and restore lives through his grace and mercy.

Goldsmith’s commentary will not be the only one you will need to study Matthew’s gospel carefully, but I would recommend it as an important part of a pastor’s, bible study leader’s, or preacher’s library.  And when you can get a second-hand copy on Amazon for 1p……

Reformation Books: The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness

I’ve had a number of conversations recently with friends who are just too busy. I know that often they are busy doing the very best things, giving their time to their church, to their neighbours and to their friends, but at some point this busyness has taken over their lives. It is as if they are trapped on a treadmill and it won’t slow down enough to let them hop off.

So I’m going to dedicate this review to my busy friends, safe in the knowledge that they will be far too busy to ever read it.

The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness opens with a succinct summary of the problem. We can be busy at work or busy at play, but the result is always the same we become too busy to be healthy, too busy to think, too busy for relationships and too busy for Jesus.

In the second chapter, the author Tim Chester warns us against either ‘a work centred’ or ‘a leisure centred’ life ethic. He calls us to ‘a God centred’ ethic. This doesn’t mean keeping busy working for God, this means learning to both work and rest to the glory of God.

It is certainly true that the Bible commends hard work (‘Go to the ant you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food in harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep?’ Proverbs 6:6-9) but the Bible also commends rest (‘Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day’ Deuteronomy 5:15).

Tim points out that we should not live to work nor should we view work simply as a necessary evil. Our aim isn’t even to find the right balance between work and rest. No our goal is that we enjoy and glorify God in work and in rest. God wants to redeem both work and rest enabling us to know and enjoy him through these times of grace.

So that’s the theory but how does it work in practice. Tim gives us a four step process to the practice:

1. Use time efficiently
2. Sort out your priorities
3. Glorify God all the time
4. Identify the desires of your heart that make you do more than God is calling you to.

Step one involves many time management tips that you could pick up in any secular book (and to be fair Tim acknowledges and agrees with this). It covers planning, paperwork, managing people, and your home.

Step two involves setting kingdom priorities beginning with ministry and church and then looking towards our homes, jobs and lifestyles. I generally agree with this but I wouldn’t be as rigid as this. I am not sure busying ourselves with ministry and church should necessarily come before these other spheres of service. I am persuaded by the Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper that ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry “Mine!”‘. Consequently, I don’t think ministry or working for the church should assume priority over mothering or working as a nurse or lifestyle evangelism. I think working out your priorities should depend much more on discerning the Holy Spirit’s leading and God’s will for your life.

Step three talks about how we can glorify God in all of life and gives some really encouraging pointers on how we can redeem our work life.

Finally, we reach step four which takes up the majority of the book. I do not have the space to do this justice here, but this is where Tim really excels in helping us analyse our own desires (to prove ourselves, to live up to other people’s expectations, to keep on top of things, to work better under pressure, to gain more money, to make the most of life ). In each of the following chapters, Tim explores a single motivation, the way it appears in our lives, and then places it in the context of God’s liberating truth. I thoroughly recommend reading these.

All in all accepting my concerns over step two I think this is a really great biblically grounded book. In fact I’m going to give it to some of my busy friends now!

Business for the glory of God

Wayne Grudem if probably best known for his Systematic Theology – a great reference work of some 1,300 pages.  However this book, both in subject and size contrasts with that work.  Here is a short book of some 100 pages exploring God’s view of today’s business world and our responsibility within it.  That said the ability that Grudem has to bring a Biblical perspective to discussions to search for God’s truth is present in abundance in both books.

Business for the glory of God starts with the premise that the Bible upholds business as being morally good.  That’s quite a bold statement in today’s world, particularly in today’s Christian world.  Yet, having read this book, and worked within the financial sector in the UK, I, like Grudem, believe it to be true.  How?  Because Grudem, with Biblical insight and logic, shows that ‘many aspects of business activity are morally good in themselves, and that in themselves they bring glory to God- though they also have great potential for misuse and wrongdoing.’ (p.12)

The areas of business activity which Grudem considers are ownership, productivity, employment, commercial transactions, profit, money, inequality of possessions, competition and borrowing and lending.  In each of these areas he argues that in themselves these things can glorify God – for example, owning possessions can be a morally good thing, for those things can be used for the glory of God.  Yet in each chapter he also shows how the world of abuses business activity to glorify individuals instead.  So to continue the example, Grudem argues that owning possessions is, instead of something that glorifies God, something that divides, drives oppression of others, turns people away from the gospel, advance our own pride, greed or wealth.

If you work in business and are trying to balance God’s calling to work in that environment with the morality of the companies you own or work for, then this book will help you see how you can honour God in your work, giving him glory.  Equally if you look from the outside on the business world, and are critical of the system in which we live and work, and look to criticise or even protest against it, then this book will help you to support those working in business, and might guide you to see God’s glory in places you didn’t expect.

But what if Christians could change their attitudes toward business, and what if Christians could begin to change the attitudes of the world toward business?

If attitudes toward business change in the ways I have described, then who could resist being a God-pleasing subduer of the earth who uses materials from God’s good creation and works with the God-given gift of money to earn morally good profits, and shows love to his neighbors by giving them jobs and producing material goods that overcome world poverty, goods that enable people to glorify God for his goodness, that sustain just and fair differences in possessions and that encourage morally good and beneficial competition?  What a great career that would be!  What a great activity for governments to favor and encourage! What a solution to world poverty! What a great way to give glory to God!