Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Evangelism - a duty or delight?

I came across this the other day from JI Packer:
Harry S. Boer wrote telling of the naturalness of evangelism in Pentecost and Missions (1961). There he shows that the view of evangelism as first and foremost a Christian duty required by the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 is no older than the last century, prior to which the mainspring of evangelism among lay Christians was the naturalness of sharing Christ with one's neighbour out of sheer inner excitement over the new life of hope one had found.

Packer continues:

...But during the past century Christians have become unbiblically and indeed pathetically earthbound, concentrating their hopes of happiness on the here rather than the hereafter. And as the glow of the hope of glory has faded, credibility has diminished, and zeal for sharing Christ has waned.

Meantime, evangelism has been institutionalised in various forms and programs of organised mission activity, thus becoming a duty rather than a delight.
Celebrating the Saving Work of God, p208

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

On being judgmental

I caught the tail-end of Highland Radio’s interview with Pastor Trevor Russell and Gareth Hayes of Letterkenny Christian Fellowship about their beliefs. I thought they did a good job of explaining and defending their faith, and supporting their answers from the Bible.

Having touched on a number of hot potatoes, the interviewer kept coming back to the claim that their Christianity made them judgmental.

It’s a claim often thrown at Christians—and sometimes justly. Christians can be guilty of looking down their noses at others—which is often what is meant by ‘judgmental’—and that is indefensibly wrong.

But that is different from what these guys were doing in expressing their standards of right and wrong. We all have standards of what we think is right and wrong—in that sense we are all judgmental.

However there is difference between having standards, and looking down your nose at those who don’t hold to the same standard. One does not necessarily follow the other. And in some cases a person feels ‘judged’ simply because another holds or expresses a different standard. We need to stop being such moral crybabies and have the courage of convictions, and enter into robust discussion as to the basis of our convictions.

The issue is not “Is Christianity judgmental”—for we all are—but “On what basis do we make our value judgments?”

This was clear in the interview. The interviewer clearly disapproved strongly of Christian beliefs which led to strong opinions about right and wrong. Let me say that again: He had a strong opinion/judgment about those who had strong opinions/judgments.

Do you see the irony? His own belief system made him equally judgmental to those who didn’t agree with him.

Christians hold to a defined standard of right and wrong set down by God. It is not arbitrary; it is fixed and universal because God is unchanging and universal. As creator he has the right to rule. But if you don’t have God, where do you get your standard of right and wrong from? It’s simply left to the prevailing climate of opinion which changes from place to place. Without a fixed standard it becomes an arbitrary matter of opinion, and why should one opinion be better than another?

The genuine Christian has a reason for what he believes and how he lives. He is seeking to be consistent with what he believes.

He knows that he is a sinner who can’t earn acceptance with God—so he has no reason to be proud of how he lives or to look down on others. He lives the way he lives because someone has paid for his sin, and because he takes sin seriously he wants to avoid it out of love for the one who paid for his sin. He knows the mess sin makes for others and the judgment that awaits them and so he wants to lovingly warn them that standards are not a matter of opinion, but that there is a God who judges.

And therein perhaps lies the crux of the issue—we don’t like the idea of a God who judges. And we don’t like being reminded of his fixed standards. Yet our only hope lies in a God who judges. If he turns a blind eye to sin then Heaven will be Hell. But instead he offers to judge Jesus in our place. Our only hope is to come to terms with the God who judges, and to ask that Jesus be judged and not us.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Angel-maker

There was a discussion about angels on Highland Radio on Monday. Unfortunately I was standing in a shop that had it on in the background and didn’t get a chance to call in. It was really intriguing. Various callers talked about their belief in angels: about having a personal angel who turned up at just the right time, about what their angel was called, and how they talked to their angel.

It sounded great – to have this great being take such a personal interest in your life, to listen to your requests and to help you, to be there and never to leave you or forsake you.

Then it struck me – what do you need an angel for when you can have the angel-maker?

Almighty God spoke the angels into existence. They are creatures and he is the Creator. They are finite and he is infinite. He is all-knowing and they are not. He is all-powerful and they are not. He is all-present and they are not.
  • He offers to have a close personal relationship with us.
  • He then promises to hear and answer our prayers for our best.
  • He promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us.
So why bother with angels when you could go straight to the top and have the angel-maker?

Of course my question could be asked in the other direction – What do you need the angel-maker for, when you could have an angel? If they are already offering all that, maybe we don’t really need him?

But there is one thing an angel can never do for you.

No angel will die for you. No angel will suffer God’s wrath in your place. No angel will answer for you on the day of Judgment.

And that is precisely what the angel-maker, the Lord Jesus Christ, offers to all who will come to him.

No angel can stand in your shoes on that day, because no angel went to the cross. In Jesus, God came as a human, so that he could take the punishment that humans deserved, so that he could stand in your shoes. And so the angel-maker outranks, out-saves, and out-performs the angels.

Why trust in angels, when only the angel-maker can offer what is ultimately necessary?

‘For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son”… And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God's angels worship him.”’ (Hebrews 1:5,6)

Listen online at

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Recent reading & listening

Books I have read recently that are worth reading (and also worth me reviewing at some stage!):

The Reason for God - Tim Keller
Belter apologetics - winsome, gentle, well-read, humble - the way to go

Promoting the Gospel - John Dickson
Non-guilt inducing book on evangelism - very encouraging and a balanced insight into how evangelism can have its place in everyday life.

The Christian in Complete Armour - William Gurnall
As part of my own version of the Puritan Paperback Challenge I substituted the 3 volumes on the Armour of God for others I had already read - great stuff.

Audio worth listening to:

CJ Mahaney interviews Sinclair Ferguson - great stuff. Worth it just to hear CJ weep at Ferguson describing Christ in Gethsemane. Does Christ work on your behalf move you to tears?

Ask Pastor John - 5 minute Q&A with John Piper - check the archives - some great questions dealt with.

Don Carson preaching on the Pastor as Father and Son - refering to his own father. Personal and insightful.

Dale Ralph Davis on Psalm 124 - first class

CJ Mahaney ministered to my soul with this message from Together for the Gospel - "Sustaining a Pastor's soul" - you have to wait about 15 minutes from him to really get going, but once he does...

My little brother on "Warnings about the coming Judgment" from Luke 12:49-13:9 - sobering and thought provoking

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Book Review - A Spectator's guide to World Religions

A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions
John Dickson
Blue Bottle Books

What do you know about Buddhism – the current religion of choice for those interested in choosing a new religion? What do you know about Hinduism, or Islam, or Judaism?

John Dickson, known to many as the author of ‘A Sneaking Suspicion’, ‘Hanging in there’, and ‘Stranger than Fiction’, sets out to guide us through the various beliefs of the ‘big five’ of world religions. He seeks to do so from a spectator’s perspective rather than a critiquing perspective – an idea that is both useful and frustrating. His rationale is as follows:
“... Imagine yourself as an art curator who is convinced that one piece in his collection has an unequalled quality. What will you do? Will you dim the lights on the 'competitors' in the gallery and put spotlights on your favourite piece? Of course not. That would be a sure sign you were not actually convinced about the special beauty of your treasured masterpiece.”
And so he sets out to give an unbiased description of each religion in such a way that assumes no prior knowledge.

In this regard he succeeds, setting out clearly and simply what each believes. One of its strengths is that Dickson doesn’t seek to analyse each through a particular grid as many other writers tend to. He doesn’t ask, “What does Buddhism teach about sin?” or “How do Hindus understand forgiveness?” which would be largely meaningless. He says:
“I’ve often wondered what it would look like if an author set out to describe Christianity from the perspective of the Buddhist concepts of 'Self', karma and rebirth. I imagine Christianity would look rather thin.”
That’s a very helpful comment – so often we approach witnessing to different religions through our own framework of ideas and don’t really hear what they are saying. At the end of each chapter there is a handy 2-page summary of what that religion believes.

The book concludes with an interesting twist. Instead asking “What’s wrong with each of these religions?”, he asks, “What do these religions find wrong with Christianity?”. And once again this is a really helpful perspective, putting us in the other shoes and allowing us to see Christianity through their eyes.

Throughout, the book is generous to other faiths, dispelling misconceptions along the way. He really does seek to represent each in its best light.

Having said all that, you can no doubt hear the hesitation in my voice. While I can appreciate what he has done – and he has done what he set out to do – I still think that the book lacks an important critical edge. Dickson regards it inappropriate to critique the other faiths without first attempting to see what others see in them, until you’re able to answer a question like – ‘Why are millions of people attracted to Buddhism?’. I agree wholeheartedly with that, and this book equips you to find out what they believe. But it never reaches the second part of the equation – critiquing after you have understood.

It’s too nice, too understanding.

It’s like a recipe book which has a selection of poor recipes in amongst the good, but the kindly editor doesn’t want to point out which are which. He expects people to be able to tell from the description.

And Dickson’s analogy of the art curator is slightly off because it assumes that if we could see all the religions in the same light we would instinctively choose the right one. It seems to overlook the reality of a deceitful heart that suppresses the truth. When you have a group of vision-impaired students looking at art work, the curator needs to do more than simply turn up the lights – he should explain why one is better than another.

There are a few other quibbles along the way – Given his approach it’s no surprise that when it comes to Christianity he simply describes the differences between what the world would see as the three major brands of Christianity – Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodox. And therefore it shouldn’t be surprising either to find amongst the list of ‘Famous Christians’ the names of Mel Gibson and Mother Theresa. But given that the author is an evangelical Christian I would have liked to see him give a different set of representative examples of Christianity for non-Christians to look at.

The problem with the book is that it is betwixt and between. It isn't fully useful to non-christians, and isn't fully useful to Christians either. But in what it does do, it does well. It teaches simply and clearly about other religions. And for that I would still recommend the book.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Book Review - The Jesus Storybook bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones

As I pastor I've just finished preaching an overview of the bible - I'm passionate about gettting people to see the big picture. So I was really excited to see this for children. The idea is superb, the tying every story to Jesus is magnificent. Our 4 year old daughter has started seeing the connections already. And that excites me. I love how it fits every story in with the plot-line of the bible.

However I have a couple of caveats.

Since children get so much from imagery I was really disappointed with the artwork. I have a problem anyway with images of Jesus since I see them as breaking the second commandment, but I had reservations about some of the rest of the illustrations in the book. The quality is great, but the content very poor, and underscores misconceptions of the bible, actually making the bible look less believable. Noah's ark is shown balancing precariously on the pinnacle of the mountain, as well as being that silly shape that it is often drawn - nothing like the proportions given in the bible. Jericho is a five house town - not much of a conquest there. Goliath is make to look like a gruesome ogre of fairytale proportions. The people of Israel coming to the Red Sea look like a small Sunday school outing rather than 1.5 million people making the exodus. I could go on. For me, the pictures undermine the very thing the words are seeking to do - they push the stories into the realm of fairy tales.

(A far better set of illustrations are by Gail Schoonmaker in the The Big Picture Story Bible written by David Helm.)

The other caveat is that sometimes Lloyd-Jones is a little loose to the story, making up things that aren't in the passage. For example - Jesus being bathed in a golden light at his baptism, there being three wise men, Jesus winking at the boy who brought the 5 loaves and saying "watch this" and others. It's little things like she says Jacob had to wait 7 years to marry Rachel instead of just a week, like God creating by saying "Hello Light", like using "Papa" for Father - a word which doesn't carry the same connotations as Abba. Like the feeding of the '5000 people', rather than 5000 men, plus a lot more women and children. Like Jesus playing games with children. Like Zacchaeus being so small that he had to take a flying leap to get up into his chair for breakfast.

In one sense they're small things, and it is in the style of other children's books. And therein lies the problem - the bible isn't another children's book. It's true in every detail - so when it comes to a Children's version of the Bible, it should be true in every detail. We owe that to our kids.

I'd prefer not to have to edit the story as I tell it. Growing up, we had the Child's Story Bible by Catherine Vos read to us. Time and time again when we thought she was stretching the text, when we looked up our bibles we found she was exactly right. Since we read it so many times, a vast quantity of accurate bible knowledge was imbibed. That's what I look for in a children's bible.

Having said all that - the links to Jesus often make you stop and praise God for Jesus. We've read it following on from the aforementioned Big Picture Story Bible - which I would heartily recommend. And that's probably the best way - read it along with other children's bibles and correct it as you go.

Looking forward to the revised edition of this potentially tremendous asset.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

DA Carson talks - about his father and being a father

Don Carson is one of my favourite writers, and one who is worth hearing when you get the chance.

His writing is balanced, nuanced and thorough. His intellect seems vast.

He spoke recently at a Desiring God Pastors' Conference on the theme of "The Pastor as Father and Son". The talks are superb, and reveal Carson warmth and his love for his father. Great insights on scripture and on being a pastor, and on being a Dad.

You can find them here.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Dodgy Leviticus commentary??

I'm starting to preach on Zechariah at the moment and am enjoying a commentary in the NIV Application Commentary series by Mark Boda.

I was surprised at the series because I had always assumed that it was a light weight series for young people. This one isnt. Its fairly in-depth, and enjoyable. So I was thinking about looking out some others in the series.

Then today through my email letterbox came a missive from Matthias Media. After their usual blurb about The Briefing, there were links to a couple of other articles. One with the following title caught my eye:

Review: Leviticus, Numbers NIV Application Commentary — Leigh Trevaskis points out a major problem with a so-called ‘evangelical’ commentary.

Since the series was in my mind I thought I'd check it out.

Turns out that the guy who wrote the commentary on Leviticus is a Seventh Day Adventist - which doesn't mean he isn't a Christian, but it does raise some questions about how he regards the sacrifices and the effectiveness of Christ's work on the cross.

Here's a section of the article:
Gane unpacks the significance his interpretation has for atonement in the New Testament. Christians receive forgiveness by trusting in the sacrificial death of Christ (i.e. phase 1), but unless they live godly lives, this forgiveness will be revoked on the Day of Judgement.

You may wonder if the inclusion of SDA atonement theology warrants this book's public bagging. It does because the proposed second phase of atonement eviscerates grace from the gospel. And if busy preachers were to accept uncritically Gane's interpretation, they may follow unwittingly his conclusion that Christians who fail to live a sufficiently moral life will lose their forgiveness on Judgement Day.

A heavy reliance on this commentary will erode a Christian's assurance of salvation and confuse one's understanding of the complete sufficiency of Christ's atoning sacrifice.
Now I don't know very about Seventh Day Adventism, but I appreciated the warning that all might not be well in this commentary.

You can read the article here for yourselves.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Book Review - Don't Make Me Count to Three

Contrary reviews on Amazon this in not a book about spanking. Nor is it a book about being a dictator. Plowman has written a useful and helpful book that deals as much with the parent's attitude as it does with the child's.

It is a balanced book. She frequently highlights and underlines failures of parents to be loving and God-centred in their raising of their children. And she is humble enough to illustrate these failures from her own experience. It is balanced also in that it recognises the need to react differently with different children and with different ages of children - for her there is no 'one rule fits all' thinking.

It is a practical book. It is an ideal companion to Ted Tripp's "Shepherding a Child's Heart". I felt Tripp's book was light on practical examples, but Plowman redresses that with many illustrations of what to do and what not to do.

It is a heart-oriented book. Her approach is not simply to correct the behaviour, but to get to the roots of the behaviour which lie in the heart. It's relatively easy to create a little automaton who will obey out of fear or reward, and then rebel when your back is turned. Plowman is not interested in such an approach. She seeks to get to the heart - and often that means dealing with your own heart first.

It is a biblical book. As a pastor I dislike intensely seeing verses quoted out of context. Contrary to other reviews Mrs Plowman does not do this. Instead she shows every evidence that she understands the context. But more importantly she calls parents to act not as they find easiest, nor in a way that is comfortable to them, but in the way God requires.

It is also a direct book. Plowman is not afraid to call a spade a spade when it comes to some of the methods advocated by parents, for example 'counting to three', 'making excuses for children'. She shows how these only teach children to disobey until you get to '3' as opposed to obeying immediately and to make excuses when they are disobedient. They are counterproductive and naive.

It must also be pointed out that the majority of this book is about verbal correction. And when it comes to deal with physical correction, it spends as much time correcting wrong ideas, wrong motives and wrong approaches. Here there is also much wisdom and balance. Plowman shows the vast difference between biblical chastisement and unbiblical chastisement.

As a pastor and a parent I welcome this book. Those who read it and consider how it applies in their situation will find much help.