Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace (Book Review)

I’ve mentioned before on this blog the inter-church project that I’m working to build in my local community.  We call it the Warrenton Gospel Partnership.  It’s still in its infancy phase as we’re actively seeking to expand membership to a critical mass of like-minded local churches.  The purpose of the project is to bring local churches together to cooperate in evangelism and mercy ministry.  The goal is a visible public testimony to the unity of Christ’s church in our town—when congregations confess the worldwide Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, we really do live it out.  Like all places, our home town has many wonderful resources to offer and yet significant needs to meet.  We are convinced that Jesus is the provision for every need and the inexhaustible resource the Church holds out to everyone.  This is the marriage of word and deed that has deep historical roots in the ministry of the Church.  Tragically this marriage is on the rocks in many communities in America as the Church has constructed an artificial barrier between word and deed.  Today it is common for the confessing and evangelical church to focus on the ministry of the word and neglect the ministry of deeds. The criticism is too often accurate: we are too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good!  And so our Gospel Partnership seeks to rectify our neglect to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.

To that end, a few of the Christians leading the initiative are studying how to bring the good news of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord to bear on our community.  Surely there are many resources that address this problem.  I’ve found a good one: from the late Harvie Conn, former professor of missions at Westminster Theological Seminary, comes a short but helpful treatise on the theological underpinnings of biblical evangelism.  What do I mean by helpful?  This is not a book offering yet another step-by-step outline on how to condense the gospel into a few conversational points.  Nor is it urging evangelism practitioners to share less good news and start addressing more this-world needs.  Rather, it seeks to reorder our assumptions about preaching the gospel in a culture that doesn’t care what we know until it is knows that we care.  The central thesis of Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace (hereafter EJG) is the Church has worked herself into a situation where either (1) we talk to people or do good works for people (one or the other), or (2) we talk to people but won’t also do good works for them unless they convert to Christianity and join the Church.  Conn observes these methods have not resulted in effective gospel outreach and they are not even consistent with the principles and examples of biblical evangelism.  The Bible’s model, upon closer inspection, is actually quite simple: scratch people where they itch (doing justice) in order to gain a hearing for the gospel they will then perceive as relevant (preaching grace). Continue reading

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A Canticle for Leibowitz (Book Review)

I literally can’t stop thinking about it.  When life’s big questions are addressed in a compelling story, you have the trappings of great fiction.  And when you can’t stop thinking about those questions—particularly in the way the story presents them—then you’ve got the makings of a classic novel.  Near universal praise is heaped on Walter Miller’s A Canticle For Leibowitz (CFL) because those who pick it up end up wrestling with it.

CFL is a futurist dystopian novel that opens on the far side of a 20th century worldwide nuclear holocaust.  Divided into three “books” (Fiat Lux, Fiat Homo, and Fiat Voluntas Tua) that are essentially novellas that contain three “worlds” on earth separated by several centuries, the metanarrative rather than the characters hold them together in unity.  The overarching story is familiar enough to anyone versed in Western history.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, civilization in the West was sustained for a thousand years through the efforts of a church-state symbiosis before the state asserted itself by declaring a secular independence from religion.  In the current historical epoch, what many historians call late-modernity or post-modernity, the question is what next?  Progressive secularists put their faith in a utopian eschaton where secular humanism rules and reigns. More conservative religious people, who are holding out hope of God ushering in the eschatological age of heaven on earth, are deeply skeptical and suspicious of humanity’s ability to even keep the peace in order to prevent the massive destructive tendencies of nationalism, tribalism, and other totalizing ideologies.  CFL answers the question of what is next from a cyclical view of history. Continue reading

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Wild At Heart (Book Review)

Every now and then I get asked whether I’ve read such-and-such a book.  Usually it’s a popular Christian book, sometimes a bestseller. (Hey, I’m a pastor, so I’ve come to expect people will ask about these.)  Unfortunately for these folks, I rarely read any of those “It” books that every evangelical Christian is talking about all at once.  You know which ones I mean: The Purpose Driven Life, Jesus Calling, The Gospel According to Veggie Tales.  You get the idea.  Not that there isn’t anything valuable in these sorts of mass-market volumes.  It’s just that they often have significant flaws as “lower common denominator” books.  In order to aim for a wide audience, they have to minimize doctrinal distinctives, focus on motivation and practice, and sugar-coat the materials so it goes down easy.  Not all high print volume books have these flaws, but I’ve read a few of them to know their common characteristics.  And I’m not alone either.  Plenty of reviewers have noticed that the huge number of evangelical readers out there have created a market for this kind of Christian publishing.  Even though I don’t fancy myself as a watchblogger, I do enjoy critically engaging with Christian books.  I prefer to read stuff I suspect I’ll want to recommend for my readers.  That’s why I commit to reviewing (nearly) everything I read here at Dangitbill!  It’s not for me (although I do enjoy and profit-without-“profit” from the exercise), but for you.

And so, every now and then I get asked by friends about the same book.  When that happens, my interest in reading a bestselling Christian book goes up.  Such is the case this time with John Eldredge’s Wild At Heart (WAH).  As a book that has been out there for a while (16 years and counting), it was probably about time that I pulled it off my shelf and looked into it.  Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 15 years, you know the basic premise of WAH.  It’s a famous book; over 1 million copies sold.  Its topic is biblical masculinity in contemporary evangelical Christian culture and teaching.  What I found didn’t surprise me.  More than a few positives that make it captivating and useful.  But even more problems that make it difficult to recommend.  The remainder of this review will be my reflections on the positives and problems as I see them. Continue reading

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God’s Glorious Symphony

What maxim will be used to describe us? If you’re a Truth person—as doctrinally sound? Or a Beauty person—as humble, and loving? Or a Morality person—as lovers of good? In the world’s eyes, religion is all about teaching morality and cultivating virtue, but that sounds like kindergarten to a lot of people. Religion, they say, is like childhood: “When you grow up, you outgrow it and move on.”

If religions are fundamentally a set of rules of do’s and don’ts, then it is no wonder people want nothing to do with religion. As Christians, we are quick to point out that Christianity is totally different—instead of being saved by keeping religious rules, we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But if that is what the Bible teaches (and it is), then why do we find ethical and lifestyle commands (not suggestions) interwoven with doctrinal teaching? Is Christian living optional, or required, for the Christian? If living the Christian life is required by God (and it is), what is its purpose? What function does the Christian ethic serve?  The Bible provides an answer in Titus 2:1-10 where the apostle Paul teaches that God calls pastors, elders, and other mature Christian leaders in the church to teach everyone in the household of faith (regardless of age, sex, or vocation) to live in such a way that beautifully harmonizes with biblically sound doctrine and glorifies Christ our Savior. Continue reading

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According to Plan (Book Review)

according-to-planWhen I was in seminary I distinctly remember something my professor said.  It was an off-hand comment (aren’t they always the ones we remember?), but one I’ve been able to verify over the years.  It was a class on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), and a student sitting at the back of the class raised his hand to ask a question.  It was a little unusual, because he built his question from the text of a book not on the syllabus.  The question was forgettable, but my teacher’s comment stuck.  “Is that a Graeme Goldsworthy book?  Read everything he writes.”  As a first-year student still wet behind the ears, that exhortation sunk in and is still lodge somewhere in my brain.  And after reading several Goldsworthy books, and leading study groups through them as well, I can attest to the wisdom of that recommendation.

Certainly not his most well-known (that would be Gospel and Kingdom which is the first of three books compiled in The Goldsworthy Trilogy), but probably his most influential book is the author’s introductory Biblical Theology.  According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (ATP), is the next step to understanding the Bible as God’s revelation after the simpler Bible Overview by Steve Levy.  ATP is a book that attempts to find unity in the massive diversity of material found in the Bible.  It succeeds by organizing the main plot of the Bible around the theme of the kingdom of God.  Goldsworthy argues that every other biblical theme—whether major or minor—rightly fits into the overarching theme of Kingdom.  That means macro-subjects like covenant, temple, creation, Israel, sacrifice, and sin are all connected through the lens of God’s kingdom.  The kingdom theme itself can be helpfully summarized as God’s people, living in God’s place, under God’s rule. (I think this saying came from Goldsworthy, but I haven’t been able to locate a reference.)  The organizing principle of kingdom makes Goldsworthy’s account of the Bible’s story significantly different than most other arrangements of biblical theology in one respect.  Whereas the high point for many is Moses and the Law—thus contrasting Law (OT) and Gospel (NT)—Goldsworthy argues that David’s kingdom is the apex of the OT.  This has the effect of subsuming the theme of covenant underneath the kingdom theme, and therefore he reads the Bible as one unified story about the kingdom of God rather than two competing stories about the Mosaic covenant vs. the New covenant.  Such a difference is important because it moves the covenant theology discussion forward and away from the sticking point of the Mosaic law in relation to Christ’s salvation where theologians often get entangled in heated debate.  A kingdom-centered story provides some relief from this tired controversy that sometimes feels mired in minutiae at a theological Maginot Line. Continue reading

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Bible Overview (Book Review)

bible-overviewYears ago I remember hearing Bible teacher R.C. Sproul respond to one of his fans.  The man said he was so thankful for Sproul’s teacher because he made the Bible “come alive” for his students.  Nothing too unusual there.  Gifted teachers in most any subject are able to transfer their enthusiasm for their subject to listeners.  But this time, the teacher wanted to make a point about the unique nature of the Bible.  Sproul replied with a smile, “I can’t make the Bible come alive.  The Bible makes me alive!”  So it is with the Book of books.  And yet, lots of people feel boredom, dryness, and confusion when they read the Bible.  Its message seems incoherent, or at the very least vaguely moralistic.  Its relevance appears almost entirely outdated.  It has an ancient, foreign feel to modern sensibilities.  For people who sympathize with such complaints, closing the Bible and asking “What’s the point?” is probably the last and lingering thought they share about the Bible.

I am convinced that one of the main problems modern people have when it comes to reading and enjoying the Bible is the problem of understanding.  Because once you understand the nature, the purpose, and the plotline of the Bible, you can begin to sense deep down that its message is truly the Greatest Story Ever Told.  The Bible has managed to transcend time and place because it has proven to be a timeless epic and a priceless treasure trove of wisdom.  Most of all, it remains the most printed, owned, and read book of all time because it addresses humanities fundamental questions with satisfying answers: Continue reading

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A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: Volume 2 (Book Review)

phmw2Published in 2013, A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: Volume 2 (PHMW2) is the continuation of a story begun in 1898.  Volume 1 (reviewed here) narrated the story of the world from a conservative American perspective from the turn of the 20th century to the end of World War 2.  Authors Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty pick up right when they left off, narrating the baby-boomer era from birth to the year 2012.

It’s best to see Volumes 1 and 2 as one massive work of history, and thus they are best read one after the other so as to feel the force of what has happened over the past 100+ years.  I do not have much to add by reviewing Volume 2 except to remind the interested reading that these volumes are written from a conservative, American, and unapologetic patriotic perspective.  The authors are no fans of modern political liberalism.  Whereas in the first volume the villainous duo was undoubtedly Presidents Woodrow Wilson and FDR, in the second volume the bad guys are JFK and “Barack Hussein Obama.”  It is difficult to argue with documented historical events.  They either happened or they didn’t.  But it is not so obvious to me that the “bad guys,” although they may have been guilty of many disastrous missteps, committed their “political sins” with malicious intent.

One aspect I find particularly insightful (if not a bit personally disturbing) is the vitriol reserved for President Obama and his administration.  PHMW2 can only comment on the first 4 years of Obama’s leadership.  Yet even half-way through it is clear the authors understood that controversial social engineering and profligate federal spending were gaining speed.  So much so that reading the assessment of Obama’s first term prepares the reader for a more intense second term of unilaterally implementing a liberal agenda despite a nation deeply divided along conservative and progressive lines.  Conservatives would do well to learn this lesson.  Policy and law which are implemented along simple-majority partisan lines are ripe for repeal when the simple-majority shifts and the opposing political party is in power.  Better to work through gridlock toward the venerable goal of political compromise.  That way neither side feels defeated, demoralized, and disrespected. Continue reading

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