Saturday, April 28, 2018

Reading Update

I picked up There's a War to Be Won at a book sale for 50 cents or something. Geoffrey Perret is a great writer, and his emphasis on the building of the American army in the run-up to WWII is fascinating. The other thing is, I'm just fifty pages in and I want to strangle Douglas Macarthur.

I just finished John Piper's Let the Nations Be Glad. This was a bit of an obligatory read (with my pastor's strong encouragement). The beginning and end of the book is incredibly inspiring, but the large middle gets tedious as Piper piles up his Bible citations in order to drive his points home so that they will never be un-driven.

John's son, Barnabas, has a post on the value of reading fiction here. I don't think many people who don't already read fiction will change their reading-habits because of B. Piper's reasoning, but he's right on all counts. I find, though, that people in the church want to read for self-improvement, or out of a sense of obligation (i.e., a church-wide reading assignment . . . see above), and those kinds of motivations are simply improper, even undermining, where fiction is concerned.

By the way, I am always bemused by the typical reaction of many men to reading assignments in church. There's the inevitable question -- how many pages? -- and the inevitable complaints about how the author uses too many big words, too many complicated sentences, etc. It's as if, where reading is concerned, we've never got past the 4th grade.

A while back I lost my Kindle. Sheesh! So I deactivated the thing on Amazon and hoped it would turn up around the house (having looked for it in all the likely places, of course). But turn up it did not, so last week I got myself a new one. Opening the thing for the first time, I found myself at the very page where I left off on my old Kindle, months before! That's pretty cool, as I never would have known where to start. The book, by the way, is Exalting Jesus in Matthew, by David Platt.

Of course like every reader I have an extensive backlog of books I intend to get to someday. Nate Spencer forced me to move The Silmarillion up closer to the top of that list by writing an excellent reading help.

Finally, wife Laurie has discovered a new favorite author. She's reading everything by Kate Dicamillo. Indeed, I may just join her in this reading project!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

On reading the Gospels wisely

I've been Reading Jonathan Pennington's Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. It's as good as I expected it would be, even if one or two chapters were decidedly slow-going for me.

Bottom line, "reading the Gospels wisely" is a major goal for me. I'm glad that Pennington points out what I've often noticed as well: the strange lack of emphasis on the Gospels (as opposed to the epistles) among many reformed evangelicals. And when they do reference something in the Gospels, the passage is inevitably seen through the lens of the (Pauline) epistles. In fact, this inverts the proper relationship. We ought to be reading the epistles through the lens of the Gospels.

I'll illustrate this from my own experience. In a recent conversation, a seminary student told me that Jesus' words in the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, where he equates anger with murder and lustful thoughts with adultery, were intended to show our helpless state and need for God's redeeming grace.

Well, that's a fine example of reading the Gospels through the lens of the Pauline epistles. In fact, such a reading is not so much Jesus-centered as Paul-centered, and not so much Gospel-oriented as Reformation theology oriented.

For me, coming to grips with Jesus has been the longest of long-roads in my faith walk, and one that even now I have only just begun. There have been many diversions. The "saved-by-faith-not-works" diversion was one, where absolutely everything was boiled down to that one message. The trouble is, the Sermon on the Mount cannot be boiled down to a mere truism. Sometimes reformed theology can seem nothing more like a theological avoidance-mechanism.

I suppose I should say here that I believe in the formulation -- saved by faith, not by works -- with all my heart. I suppose I should also say I have loved Paul's epistles for many years. But my primary study from now on is going to be in the Gospels. This is simply addressing a felt-need, I suppose. Jesus is the most supremely attractive figure in human history. We have four sources for his words and deeds -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This is not to say I won't ever again be reading the OT or the epistles (after all, I go to an evangelical church, so the preaching will probably be frequently settled on the epistles), but that for me, in my private study and prayer, the Gospels will come first.

* * *

I'll be back with more from Pennington's book, and more also about the Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5, in a later post.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

More thoughts on life and godliness

So it's still 2 Peter 1:3 with me . . . I can't get it off my mind.

I'm intrigued by the way you can link it up with any of the imperatives of the Bible. Jesus tells his disciples they must "love one another, as I have loved you." Link that up with 2 Peter 1:3. It means that you (yes, you, if indeed you're a disciple of Jesus) can do that; you are able, however difficult it may seem, however unable you may feel. God has given you everything you need for life and godliness . . . everything you need to love one another.

Or take one of Paul's imperatives. "Set your mind on things above, where Christ is," he says (Colossians 3:2). But so often our minds are on "earthly things." This is exactly what Jesus was saying in the Sermon on the Mount when he talked about not storing up treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, but storing up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy. It almost seems there is a battle for our minds going on, and much of our sinning is the natural working out of our mental preoccupations. But the message of 2 Peter is, God has given you everything you need to set your minds on your true treasures (that which Jesus secured for you), for to do so is "life and godliness."

Is there an imperative in the Bible that kind of makes you anxious? That you are conscious of frequently falling short of? Maybe it's the one about coveting, or lust, or greed. Maybe it's Paul's "Do all things without grumbling," or Jesus' "Go and make disciples." Or perhaps it's one of those Pauline "put offs" (anger, malice, obscene talk) that gives you pause. The point is, all these imperatives are way-markers to life and godliness. So here's something you might find helpful. Take a 3x5 card and write across the top, "God has given me everything I need in order to. . . ." Then, under that, write down that troubling imperative, the one you'd really rather not think about. For example:
  • God has given me everything I need in order to . . .
  • not be anxious about what I will eat or wear, but trust God for all things. (Matthew 6:25f)
You get the idea. But one more key point. Peter was writing to a church. He was telling the church, not an individual Christian, that they have everything they need for life and godliness. As the saying goes, there are no Lone Ranger Christians. Life and godliness is "walked out" in a family of believers.

Monday, March 26, 2018

A Matthew 5 Christian

I was praying about temptation. I'm not going to go into specifics, but it was a prayer that falls under the "lead me not into temptation" rubric. And immediately the answer came. "I have given you everything you need for life and godliness."

Since then those words, which are from 2 Peter 1:3, have been resonating in my brain like an echo that refuses to diminish. God has given me everything I need for life and godliness.

So I went back to my source, to my foundational text, the Sermon on the Mount. I have everything I need to be a Matthew 5 Christian.

  • A Christian who understands that anger and contemptuousness are deeply sinful, and who is quick to seek forgiveness whenever he has wronged another (Matt. 5:21-26)
  • A Christian who understands that lust is a toying with adultery in the mind and needs to be dealt with immediately (Matt. 5:27-30)
  • A Christian who takes faithfulness in marriage extremely seriously (Matt. 5:31-32)
  • A Christian whose word is truth. An utterly reliable man .(Matt. 5:33-37)
  • A Christian who prizes peace, and whose actions lead toward peace instead of conflict, making whatever personal sacrifice is necessary (Matt. 5:38-41)
  • A Christian whose love does not recognize categories like friend or enemy (loving the one and hating the other). It is not a selective, fastidious, of exclusive kind of love. (Matt. 5:43-48)
Of course these nutshell summaries do not plumb the depths of these verses. There is much more that can be said about all these things, but suffice to say that Jesus is painting a portrait of the life of those who have answered his call to follow. And that is a call for which each of us will need equipping. The great thing is, the One we follow will do the equipping.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Believing Peter

It's in Peter's second letter, just after the brief introductory remarks. Peter says,
His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.
Like many verses in the Scriptures, this one is hard to really come to grips with. When we sin, do we think to ourselves, but I had everything I needed for godliness, and still, I chose this sin instead? Despite our having everything we need for life and godliness, sin feels inevitable, at times irresistible. 

Much of the life of discipleship to which Jesus has called us (the life of the Jesus follower) is letting the truths of God really sink in. It takes time to believe the Bible. I mean, to really believe it. To "know it in your knower," as my old pastor, Phil Strout, used to say. So that the new truth, the Bible truth, replaces the worldly presets that have governed our thinking (and knowing) up till now. That was the way of thinking that belonged to the "old self," as Paul might have said (see Colossians 3). But now we are a new creation! Do we believe it?

"Everything we need for life and godliness." This is a word, of course, for the church. The Christian alone does not have everything he needs, for he does not have the Body. This is a partial answer to the question, what are these things that we (the church) have now that we need for life and godliness?

We have, first and foremost, Jesus, our savior, intervening for us even now at the right hand of the Father (Romans 8:34). We have the Holy Spirit, the very spirit of God (the motive force of our sanctification as believers), living and abiding within us (John 14:26). And we have one another: the church, the body of Christ. This is the reason that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says, "keep on stirring one another up to love and good deeds." (Hebrews 10:24)

The life of discipleship is the working out of what God has worked in. The transformation begins inwardly and is progressively "walked out." This is the ordinary way of sanctification. It means believing the Scriptures and living out our believing. Does Jesus say he will be with us always? And do we believe it? Does he say he will give us rest? Do we believe it? Does he say, the poor in spirit are blessed? Do we believe it? Are we walking and talking as if we really do believe Jesus?

Or, for that matter, as if we believe Peter (who believed Jesus)? "You have everything you need for life and godliness." It is the calling of the church, which is to say, of every Christian, to believe it and to walk it out.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

4 new thoughts from Screwtape

When lauding yourself, your various successes and many virtues, always use superlatives, and always round up. When speaking of others, and especially of people who oppose you in any way shape or form, always load your language with negative connotations, and always round down.

Never pass up the chance to be the naysayer in the room, the discourager, but do so in the interest of what you call "being realistic." People should leave your presence with fewer dreams and less lofty goals than before they met you.

Our war against peace is going very well. We've convinced the enemy's followers that though they may rhetorically claim to serve the Prince of Peace (how the very name makes me retch!), that fact need have absolutely no effect on their daily life, let alone on their unquestioning support for their nation's wars. The Prince of Darkness, I am happy to report, is very pleased with our work on this front.

In a similar vein, the P of D is also pleased with how we've managed to confuse the enemy's followers into conflating nationalist pride (which they call "love of country") with love of, well, the enemy himself. Over the centuries we've got them so used to thinking of God and country as an inseparable tandem that now they can't think of God at all apart from country. Again, good work, my legions.