Blog Archives

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 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?”

Book Review: ‘Thinking. Loving. Doing.’

Thinking. Loving. Doing. is an engaging and deep thinking selection of essays by big names in the reformed evangelical world who were all contributors to the 2010 Desiring God conference: Rick Warren, Francis Chan, John Piper, R.C Sproul, Albert Mohler and Thabiti Anyabwile.

Picking up on a perceived bias in the reformed world towards ‘thinking”, they issue a clarion call to Christians to be thinkers, feelers and doers. These three aspects of faith cannot and should not be separated as we seek to engage minds, hearts and hands for the sake of the Gospel.

Rick Warren focusses on ‘The Battle for Your Mind’ and how we can take every thought captive to obey Christ. Warren is clear, concise and challenging. He understands the devil’s tactics and urges us to too. I was particularly struck by his statement that “We only believe the parts of the Bible that we actually do.” (p.40) It’s no good believing in tithing or evangelism if we are not prepared to actually do it.

R. Albert Mohler contrasts the way the world thinks with the way Christians should think. Expounding Romans 1, Mohler gets us to ‘think about thinking’, challenging our intellectual pride and getting us to understand how our thoughts have been corrupted by the fall.

R.C. Sproul gives us a lesson in pagan philosophy and uses it to help us understand how Paul engaged with such philosophies in Athens (Acts 17). Sproul ends by arguing that “We will never find an explanation for being, for life, or for motion if we try to find it outside the being and character of God” (p.79).

Thabiti Anyabwile is a Baptist minister who was formally a Muslim. Anyabwile helps us to appreciate Islamic beliefs, good and bad pluralism, and, in particular, the problems with the “naive pluralism” prevalent in the Western world today that is incompatible with sharia law. Anyabwile’s chapter is not just an academic pursuit, but ends with ways to respond to Islam: remembering the Gospel, engaging with the world, repenting of fear, and losing our lives in order to find them.

Expounding 1 Corinthians 8 and food offered to idols, Francis Chan’s chapter is a passionate plea for genuine love in the church, and particularly (but certainly not exclusively!) for those in leadership roles. I was challenged to the point of tears in parts of this chapter as Chan repeatedly calls for our lives to look like Jesus’s.

John Piper draws the threads together in the conclusion, ending with a prayer for love through thinking. Overall, the book is a stretching, thought provoking and worthwhile read. The chapters don’t link together as well as they might, but all of the contributions are rooted in and soaked with Scripture. Every chapter ends with prayer. The contributors share many years worth of wisdom and this is undoubtedly a book I will return to again and again.

Thinking. Loving. Doing. is published by IVP and priced at £8.99.

Summer Refreshment: Luther, Calvin and Whitefield

The last weekend has seen the four of us occupied with denominational events. The other three men were in Scarborough for the General Assembly making brave stands for Biblical Christianity. Meanwhile, this correspondent was wandering around outdoor shops looking at family tents. However, I was getting regular text messages and sneakily following the debates through Twitter and Facebook.

For many of us, last week’s Assembly was a reminder that the United Reformed Church is a difficult place to be for traditional, evangelical, orthodox ministers. But it was ever thus.

In times like this one of the best things we can do is to revisit the lives of the saints that have gone before us and take inspiration from their example. It is a good practice to see how our heroes coped with opposition, good times and the bits in between. And we’ll also see that there is not that much exceptional about them – except that God showed his grace and accomplished his purposes through them.

The first biography I want to draw your attention to is Here I Stand by Roland Bainton. This is a popular level book detailing the life of Martin Luther. From his promise to become a monk in the midst of a thunderstorm, through his early battles with the Roman church to the end of his life this book takes a lively look at the German Reformer.

Bainton writes in an accessible way and the volume is packed full of illustrations. The fact that it’s a small paperback is another bonus. Read this and be thrilled.

The second is a recent biography of John Calvin titled Pilgrim and Pastor. Written by W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary California, this book looks at Calvin’s life before and after his permanent settling in Geneva. Although the book details many biographical details its great value is seeing how Calvin’s teaching played out in practice in the Swiss city.

I lent this book to one of my elders who lapped it up. It makes an excellent introduction to Calvin’s thought.

The last book I want to recommend is Arnold Dallimore’s two volume biography of George Whitefield. This book may not win too many prizes for historical writing and it strays into hagiography at times but it makes a thrilling story. Delight as young George comes to faith after almost starving himself to death! Marvel at the tales of the crowds that came to hear him preach! Be amazed at how he responds to the man who showed Whitefield his backside whilst he was preaching in London!

All these books will lift any gloom you may be feeling and remind you of our gracious, awesome God who gives us “this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” 2 Corinthians 4:7

Out of the saltshaker and into the world: Evangelism as a way of life

Since evangelism by knocking on strangers’ doors became something that feels uncomfortable in society, the church has been searching for what should replace it as the evangelistic ‘method’.  The void has given many Christians the opportunity to back away from the dreaded ‘E’ word altogether, or else hide behind the smoke screen of “I’ll let my actions do the talking.”  The other response to this void in methodology is to carry on regardless, letting evangelistic conversations be filled with either cheesy Christian sound bites that give no depth, or alternatively lifetime long arguments about evolution, creation or of course whether we can be sure that God actually exists at all.  It is into this void, that Rebecca Manley Pippert, with years of experience working with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and UCCF, asserts that evangelism is a sheer joy, and instead of it being something you ‘wouldn’t even do to your dog’, she paints a picture of the delight it is to bring a non-believer into a relationship with God through the grace of Christ on the cross.

Don’t be fooled by her title, as much as Pippert asserts evangelism is a way of life, this is no “I’ll let my actions do the talking” smoke screen.  She offers a well constructed approach to evangelism that simply begins with the lifestyle choices Christians make.  Rooting ourselves in Jesus who was the most human of us all, but is also the Lord of all, she goes onto show how we as his disciples and evangelistic messengers should be radically identified with the world through love, and radically different from the world through holiness.  In these earlier chapters of the book, through careful study of Biblical texts Pippert shows that sharing the good news must grow out of a life following Christ.  Then, after a chapter considering conversational skills, she makes an analogy between evangelism and the three stages of cultivating the soil, planting the seed, and reaping the harvest.  The chapters covering these areas are filled with honest, helpful and insightful examples from her own experience, and as many practical hints as theological depth.  It is in this part of the book that you see that Pippert is not just suggesting we invite folk to join a club or society, or even a social activist group, but we are inviting them to hear the good news that Christ has died for them, and should expect folk to respond.

The final section of the book, the most updated section in this, the second edition, is filled with some reflections and hints for evangelistic work in the so-called post-modern era.  Pippert is aware enough to see that some will share their faith through reason and logic, and others through relating their own stories and testimony.  These two strands are brought together by considering the strength and power of the Spirit in evangelistic work.

The final two chapters speak quite intuitively to the United Reformed Church’s current situation.  I couldn’t help but feel that in her chapter ‘The witness of community’ a useful and thoroughly biblical approach to Radical Welcome is aired (which should of course just be ‘Welcome’), and the final chapter is a call to action – ‘Without a vision the people will perish’.

If the book has one down-side, whilst Pippert is experienced in her work either side of the Atlantic, most of her examples come from the American side.  However, the benefits, encouragement and practical ideas, based upon solid foundations, far out-weigh these minor cultural differences.  The appendices are also very useful with suggestions of evangelistic books and aids, some outlines of the gospel that are easy to share, and a very thorough and useful study guide.

Anyone who wants to be encouraged in evangelism, or wishes to encourage others, or even wants to lead a church in developing its evangelism needs to read and use this book.  Every elder and minister should have a copy.

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!