Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reconciling Calvinists and Arminians?

The interplay between God's sovereignty and human responsibility is one of the most difficult aspects of theology to talk about accurately.  It's also one of the most important.  How can God permit evil without also being guilty of evil?  If God has predetermined everything in advance, doesn't that mean He is responsible for our sinful choices?  And why should we bother to do anything?  Que sera, sera!  But if God doesn't control everyone's choices, doesn't that mean our lives could be derailed (or even ended) by the sinful (or merely stupid) decisions of people around us?  Better build stronger walls!  These positions have been debated heavily and hotly by philosophers and theologians for centuries, and the debates are still active today.

There are really two aspects to the ongoing controversy.  First, there is the debate between determinism and libertarianism, which relate to the big picture of God's sovereignty and human responsibility in all areas of life.  Then there is the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, which focuses specifically on God's sovereignty and human responsibility in the salvation of humans from sin and God's wrath.  It is a subset of the bigger debate.  

Pastor and seminary professor Randy Alcorn has addressed both of these debates in his new book, hand in Hand(And no, that was not a capitalization mistake.)  Although I think he made a few blunders along the way, his book points readers in the right direction. 

Perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic of this book is that it is irenic, not polemic.  In other words, it's peaceful.  Alcorn strongly tries to pull readers from both sides toward the middle, encouraging them to lay aside the invectives and assumptions they have about the other side. While clearly putting both Hyper-Calvinism and open theism outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, he seeks to show that mainstream Calvinism and Arminianism can both be orthodox. 

Alcorn also works hard to base his theology on Scripture alone, rather than a logical framework.  This is why he believes only four point of the five points of Calvinism.  He knows that this makes his theology less cohesive, but he prefers this to believing something he doesn't see in Scripture.  I applaud his intention even while I disagree with him in his understanding of some Scriptures.  I love where he says, "The best theological label is 'Berean'".

In addition to bringing together a number of Scriptures relevant to this debate, hand in Hand also includes a number of quotes from other recognized Christian thinkers and teachers throughout history.  For me, this was perhaps the most helpful part of the book because while I had studied most of the Scriptures before, I had not read many other writings about them.  (The only other books I have read on this subject are Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free and James White's rebuttal, The Potter's Freedom, which I recommend as a companion to hand to Hand.)

Alcorn has studied this issue far more carefully than I have.  So I was, frankly, surprised to find a few things that seemed like obvious errors, things that Alcorn himself may actually disagree with if he had thought about them more.

1. He attempts to find an analogies that will help explain how God's choices and human choices can both be real and meaningful.  He borrows Tozer's ship analogy (pages 152-153) and Strong and Fisk's fishbowl analogy (page 178).  The idea is that the ship captain controls the big picture (speed, destination, route) while the passengers have free choices within the ship (they can watch a movie, swim, eat, sleep, etc.).  Similarly, the fishbowl owner controls where the bowl is placed, how many fish are in it, what food they get, but leaves the fish free to swim as they will within the limitations of the bowl.  These analogies are both dangerously flawed, and I'm surprised Alcorn didn't see it.  The ship captain and fishbowl owner are unable to protect their passengers and fish from every contingency.  A passenger might kill another, and a fish might jump out and die.  The captain and owner do not even know what the actions of the passengers and fish will be, much less have a way to bring good out of every choice the passengers and fish make.  A god like this is not very comforting when tragedy strikes.

In the end, we must acknowledge that we do not and cannot understand how God's sovereignty and human responsibility coexist.  We just know with confidence that both do.  As with the Trinity (one God, three persons), we can see and describe what the Bible teaches on the subject, but we cannot fully explain or understand it, and no analogy will prove helpful. 

2. He repeats the often-asserted notion that God gave humans the ability to choose evil because otherwise we would be robots, and our love would be meaningless (pages 144-145).  The obvious problem with that is that Christians will be unable to sin in heaven, yet we will not be robots and our love and worship will still be very meaningful.  Alcorn asserts this very thing (pages 146-148) and yet fails to note that it contradicts what he just said.  Rather than saying that God gave us the ability to choose evil so that we would not be robots, the Bible seems to indicate that God gave it to us so that He could display His incredible patience and mercy toward us when we did choose evil (Romans 9:19-24).  God could have made us free, loving, non-robotic beings incapable of sin from the get-go, but He chose to make us capable of sin while on earth, so that He could display His wrath and His mercy.  

3. He quotes C. S. Lewis along these same lines, but with an extra kink:
Of course God knew what would happen if they {Adam and Eve} used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. ... If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying. (Page 56; quoting from Part 18 of Mere Christianity)

As I said before, man's freedom to choose evil is not God's tribute to the value of human self-determinism, but to the value of His own glory.  The extra problem in this quote was the reference to God taking a risk.  Only open theism teaches that God can take risks.  I'm positive Alcorn doesn't believe in open theism (he spends an entire chapter in the book dismantling it) so I'm surprised he didn't catch that.

4. In his attempt to calm the warring parties, Alcorn skirts some of the stickier issues, such as particular redemption and double predestination. Thus a person new to the debate could come away thinking there is less difference between the two sides than actually exists.

5. Hand in Hand also does not discuss the ways consistent Arminians and Calvinists live differently.  In other words, how do the differences in their beliefs result in differences in their behaviors?  This book could lead one to think it is it all theoretical and makes little difference at street level.  But especially when it comes to counseling, evangelism and prayer, the differences do have significant implications.    

So, with these weaknesses, why I am I still recommending this book?  (Since he's a four point Calvinist, I'm going to give him a four star rating!)  Mainly because there are too many angry Arminians and Cage-Stage Calvinists out there.  My first few exposures to the doctrines of grace (as I prefer to call the five points of Calvinism) were mostly negative snippets from snarky Calvinists.  But when I heard them explained in a peaceful way, similar to the way they are presented in this book, I realized how biblical and beautiful they are.  I hope that this book will have the same effect for you.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah in exchange for an unbiased review.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Uncle's Hep C, Gone!

Anyone who has been rescued from death will want to talk about it.  Particularly if their words will help save the lives of others.  Such is the case for my uncle.  His hepatitis C, and the treatments to suppress it, nearly cost him his life.  Now he is completely rid of the virus.  Here’s his story, in his own words.

I am an engineering graduate of Texas A & M University.   I am a Viet Nam veteran who recently celebrated my 66th birthday.  I enjoy travel, various volunteer activities and collecting and restoring old cars.   
I am not sure how I was infected with Hepatitis C but as a veteran I had mass inoculations as well as oral surgery.   In 1978, I was in a nearly fatal auto accident that resulted in a lengthy stay in the hospital. My leg was repaired and during surgery I received 12 pints of blood.
In 1986, I was told that I had elevated liver enzymes and that I should eschew alcohol and other drugs that mal effect the liver.   Two years later, I was diagnosed with gall stones and decided to donate a pint of blood in advance of the surgery in case it was needed.   After going home to recover, I received a rather startling letter, informing me that my blood was unfit and would be destroyed.   My doctor then told me that I probably had non-A non-B hepatitis and that as long as I continued to abstain from alcohol there was little concern.   Hepatitis C was not even codified or noted as a distinct disease until about 1990 ergo the term non A non B Hepatitis. C was not thought to be a serious or deadly disease as it sometimes took years to manifest in symptoms.
In 1996 my Internist noticed that my liver enzymes had continued climbing and referred me to a Gastroenterologist who performed a biopsy that confirmed that I had Hepatitis C and Stage One scarring. Early the next year I began what became some of the hardest years of my life.   I had 4 different versions of Interferon and Ribavirin treatments for seven of the next 8 years and ending in 2005. I was a responder but never cured.
I weighed 145 pounds at the end of that period of time, lost my job and my spouse.  After ceasing Interferon, my health rebounded but my viral load continued to climb as did my liver enzymes.  My esophagus was also deteriorating and I was on a list for transplant.
Fortunately, God had other plans as the last few years I was treated at BAMC in San Antonio and had kept in touch with my nurse for several years.   I sent her an email in late 2011 to say Merry Christmas and learned she and her husband had returned to Texas.   She was working with some of the doctors who had treated me at BAMC. They were doing clinical trials for AbbVie Labs and having success in treating Hepatitis C.   I wrote back and asked if any guinea pigs were needed.  Angie almost immediately wrote back and told me to come see them on Friday.  That began what is nothing short of a Miracle.  In one week my liver enzymes were declining and my viral load had dropped from nearly 2 million to 25.  After two weeks my enzymes were in normal range and there was no virus.
I had zero expectations but was encouraged by the stellar early results.   At the end of treatment and after one year I was given a “cured” letter.   One of the doctors who had treated me at BAMC came in with a big smile on his face, looked me in the eye and said, “You are cured”.   After being mal affected from this disease, years of unsuccessful and difficult treatment, being told you are CURED is beyond words to express.   It was emotional, physical and certainly Spiritual.  
Life is a Gift and rather than traveling a path that was based on being prepared for deteriorating health and very likely an earlier death, I have been given an opportunity to live and relish a healthier outlook than I could ever imagine.  I did nothing to earn or deserve much less expect such an amazing gift but I hope that I can give back a little by testifying to the immense blessing that I have received.  
Friends that have known me for many years have told me that they have the old John back.  I am not sure about that but I am older and I feel better than I have in many years without the bleak cloud of a deadly disease continuing to erode my being.   I am stronger, less irritable, laugh more and have much joy in contemplating the future.
I cannot easily verbalize my thanks and gratitude to AbbVie.  This is not about me but about God's Healing Grace and the many dedicated health professionals who devoted their lives to finding a cure.   I am obliged to all the people I know and the many others I never met for making me part of the cure.   There is hope for those who have Hepatitis C.

If you know someone with hepatitis C, please forward this to them and encourage them to talk to their doctor.  Even if they do not opt to use the AbbVie protocol (which has just now been approved by the FDA) it's important for them to get examined and treated before further liver damage is incurred.  Transplants and end of life treatments can be extremely expensive, not to mention the risk of an early demise.  If they would like to speak with my uncle, contact me and I will put you in touch! 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Spurgeon, Summarized

My parents and I were blessed recently by watching a free, online documentary about the life of 19th century British preacher Charles Spurgeon.  If you know a lot about Spurgeon, you'll learn things that you didn't know.  If you've never heard of him, you'll get a comprehensive overview of a man you should know, who ranks right up there with Luther, Wesley and Calvin in importance to church history.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lead Us Not into Consumption

The American Church is drowning in prosperity.  Of the four types of soil Jesus talked about, we are clearly most like the third, where the "weeds" of "the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful" (Matt 13:22).  Most thoughtful men realize this, some have warned eloquently about it, but no one seems to have found an herbicide that works. 

Examine your own life: compare the huge pile of blessings you enjoy (which would be considered fabulous luxuries by people in most places of the world and most times in history), and the trickle of meaningful ministry that you produce.  Of the 168 hours that come your way every week, how many of them get spent simply on keeping yourself and your family rested and fed and healthy and clean and clothed and looking decent (and paying for all of the above)?  How many get spent on the Word of God and prayer and evangelism and discipleship?

Why is it that Christianity is declining in our country while we have more money and more training and more tools available to us than ever before?  Why is it that of 1,999,564,000 professing Christians in the world, only 10,200 are foreign missionaries to unevangelized peoples?  Of the 15.2 trillion dollars in annual income of professing Christians, why do only $250 million make it to supporting foreign missions in unevangelized places?  (Year 2000 statistics, includes all denominations and sects of Christianity.) 

How could this happen in a religion founded by a Someone who had no place to lay His head (Matt 8:20), and propagated throughout the Roman empire by a man who wrote 1 Corinthians while hungry, poorly clothed, and homeless (4:11)? 

I am grateful that the American church has some men who model for us commitment to Scripture, devotion to prayer, skill in evangelism, fidelity in marriage, wisdom in child-rearing, and many other aspects of following Jesus.  But where are the Christian men today who can lead us out of chokehold of the American dream?  Even the ones who preach against it most, seem to lead lifestyles that are virtually indistinguishable from the rest of us. 

Today we honor and admire David Brainerd, Adoniram Judson, David Livingston, John Wesley, George Whitefield, John Paton, and Hudson Taylor for the incredible physical and financial and familial sacrifices they made to see the gospel spread in their generations.  But no one today actually imitates them, or even seems to know how to imitate them, in our culture.  Nor do I.

May the Lord rescue us, for the sake of His own reputation.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

When Bookishness is Bad

A few day ago I realized that my insatiable appetite for reading may be a bad thing. So I’m in the early days of a month's fast from discretionary reading (other than the Bible and one book I’m almost finished with) to see if my relationship with Jesus improves any.

May be tough, I have a couple of juicy books waiting for me. (Stop laughing.)

But I found a few reasons why I love reading so much.  Books are like ideal friends, so much more appealing to me than people.  I like books in the same way that some people like dogs or cats.  Books are quiet when you are busy, and talk when you need their comfort or advice.  They are available to help 24x7.  Books stay the same, and you can come back as many times as needed to the passages that you want to remember. Worst case, if a book is unhelpful or just plain wrong, you just close it and move on. It cannot hurt you in the way a person can.  Books are normally more organized and less messy than people. You can extract the information you want quickly from a book. Books give, people take.

A book also offer the promise of a better life. Its dust jacket tells me that it will give me the key I’ve been missing to better interpersonal skills, or a better walk with the Lord, or better evangelism skills. 

But somehow books still leave me thirsty.  They never make my life as exciting or satisfying as the dust jacket makes it sound.
And books can be more misleading. The author can present his best side, and fool you into believing his words in a way that would evaporate if you could observe him in real life for five minutes. The theologian might be a jerk to his wife, and the evangelism expert might be neglecting his kids.

So, pray that I persist during this 30 days, and emerge from it different, and more balanced.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Are Catholics Christians?

A dear friend read something I wrote, in which I mentioned evangelizing a Catholic. He wrote back:
Are you saying that Catholics are not Christians? The word catholic means universal as explained in the Nicene Creed.
I realized my reply to him might be of interest to others too.  Here it is.
Howdy ______,

Sorry for the delay getting back to you. Thanks for asking for clarification about this. You’re absolutely right that catholic is a great word and every Christian should consider himself a catholic in the sense of being part of the one universal church (all Christians from all places and all times of history).

I was referring to the Roman Catholic Church. Based on my understanding of Scripture and of the teachings of the RCC, the RCC still (even post-Vatican II) teaches a gospel that is, at its core, contrary to the Biblical gospel. The core issues still remain that caused them to excommunicate Martin Luther and led to the Protestant Reformation. (Interestingly, today is the anniversary of the day in 1517 when he nailed the 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg.) So while I’m sure there are individual RCC members who are Christians, I would say that the RCC as an institution is not Christian in the Biblical sense. Thus, when I have opportunity to talk about Jesus with people from an RCC background, I try to find out their understanding of the gospel. (A book that I found very helpful is The Gospel According to Rome by James G McCarthy. It is written by a former RCC member himself, he avoids exaggerating the RCC positions and writes with compassion, not anger or pride.)

But I should have said in my note that many Baptists I run into are not truly Christian either. Many Baptist churches proclaim an emasculated gospel that basically tells people to pray a prayer and then assures them they are now Christians. (And I say that as someone who has spent the last ~10 years as a member of Baptist churches.) No matter what our particular “stripe”, we seem to all naturally gravitate away from the teachings of the Bible to the teachings of men. We want a formula, and God refuses to be reduced to a formula!
 I would also add that we seem to all naturally gravitate toward forms of religion that flatter our pride.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Should Movies Be Used to Change Worldviews?

No one will argue that wordless art can convey powerful messages.  Think, for example, of Pomp and Circumstance, or Da Vinci's The Last Supper.  How much more powerful then are movies, combining the power of story, music, and (an ever changing) "painting"!  The Hollywood elite are very aware of the power they possess to shape culture, and they wield it with skill.  They have actually created a system in which people pay them money to get brainwashed.

But should Christians use film to fight back?  Should Christian movies be produced to change worldviews?  God could have arranged things so that Jesus was born and lived and died in a time when there were video cameras.  Why did He choose to convey the story of Jesus in writing instead?

Here's why I am thinking about this.  A friend sent us a link to a good short movie, Crescendo.  I'll try not to spoil it for you, other than to say it is designed to change minds about the topic of abortion.  The movie is rather creepy (as a movie about abortion should be) so I don't recommend it for children.  But (if you're not a child) have a watch now, before you read further.  You might even want to watch it twice so you can catch the clever nuances of the opening conversation, which seems rather bewildering the first time through.
Now that you've watched it: how would your reaction to the movie have been different if the child had been named Adolf instead?  Do you see how the same medium (film) could have been used to produce an equally compelling argument in favor of abortion?

Which leads to my final question.  I have an answer in mind, but I want to hear your thoughts first.  Since non-Christians can use film with power to "convert" people to their worldview, is it a waste of our energy and money to use film to try to convert people to ours?  Should we exclusively use other means of proclamation that non-Christians are unable to duplicate?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Strong on Friendship, Weak on Gospel: Wheaton's Intro to Evangelizing Muslims

As the number of Muslims increases in America, Christians are realizing that we should reach them with friendship rather than avoid them in fear.  Wheaton College has just released Journey to Jesus, a 6-session DVD curriculum about building Christ-centered relationships with Muslims.  Tyndale, the publisher, was kind enough to send me a free copy in exchange for an unbiased review.  See below for details on how one of you can get my copy for free!

First I'll tell you about the curriculum, then I'll give you my analysis of its strengths and weaknesses.

The curriculum is contained in two DVDs.  (It seems that everything would have fit on one DVD, so I'm not sure why they split it onto two.)  The six sessions are comprised of a dramatic video (short movie), a teaching video (like watching PowerPoint with a person's voice), and printable (PDF) teacher guides, student handouts, and bonus explanatory materials.  Sessions one and two center around a young American Christian mother who befriends a shy young Egyptian Muslim mother who has just moved into her neighborhood.  Sessions three and four introduce us to an American Christian man who converses with an intelligent but nominal Muslim East Indian coworker.  The final two sessions depict a young Christian engaging a young, very argumentative (American?) Muslim as part of a college assignment to learn about each other's worldview.

What I like about this curriculum:
  • It shatters the stereotype of Muslims as terrorists and fundamentalists.
  • It shows the great variety there is among followers of Islam.
  • It depicts Christians displaying genuine hospitality and friendship.  
  • The 'movie' segments are very fun, and the cinematography is top class.
  • The teaching segments contain a lot of information, conveyed clearly, accurately, and succinctly.
  • I think the average viewer will come away from this curriculum eager to meet, befriend, and share Jesus with Muslims.
How this curriculum could have been better:
  • Using the movie segments to depict Christians who knew how to answer Muslim questions.  The movies seem mainly to feature Muslims who know more about their faith than their Christian counterparts.  At the end of session two we have some sense that the Egyptian woman may be growing slightly more receptive to the gospel, but at the end of sessions four and six, the other two Muslim men seem to have scored more points than their Christian friends.  Probably Wheaton intended this so that Christians won't feel bad if they get stumped by a question, or wait until they have a ThD before attempting to share the gospel with a Muslim.  But the videos would have been better if they had not only depicted how to acknowledge our ignorance with humility, but also how to declare the truth with accuracy and confidence.  Notice in this transcript from the movie how "Larry" misses a huge opportunity to explain the gospel when "Azim" argues that forgiveness is attained through good deeds :
Azim: The Christian idea of forgiveness, it seems far too easy to commit a wrong, ask for forgiveness, and make the same mistake again.
Larry: Everybody fails, nobody’s perfect. Which means we all need forgiveness.
Azim: I agree, but which is better: to ask for forgiveness or do something tangible to make up for our wrongs?
Larry: We can’t always make up for our wrongs.  This means that sometimes--
Azim: We do good deeds to outweigh the bad ones, thus the world becomes a better place.
Larry: I believe in good deeds too.
Azim: Oh, so we believe the same thing?
Larry: Well the Christian perspective is that good deeds is the humanly thing [sic] that we can do to bring the kingdom, as Jesus said, here to earth.  See in the New Testament it says that faith without deeds is dead.
  • If any Muslims were to watch these DVDs, they might be offended by two things.  The Muslim man in sessions three drinks alcohol ("Allah is very gracious", he says).  Islam completely bans alcohol (not just drunkenness, as in Christianity), and drinking it is almost on the same level as eating pork for Muslims.  Some Muslims do drink, but I'm not sure any try to justify it so casually!  And there are some immodestly clothed young American college women in the background of session 5 and 6.  (Unfortunately, that is what American colleges are like nowadays.  But the producers of the video didn't have to make us see them.)
  • The video teaching segments are scripts read aloud, using PowerPoint style slides.  It might have kept viewer attention better if these teachings had been recordings of a real person teaching a live audience.
  • Because the curriculum was produced by a college, all of the actors are relatively young, and the movies are designed to appeal to people in their 20s and 30s.  It would have been nice if one segment had depicted older Americans reaching out to older Muslims.
In short: this curriculum is a good tool for introducing young Christians to the joy of sharing Jesus with Muslims.  But you will need to supplement the curriculum with outside information that explains the content of the gospel clearly and comprehensively.  (Thabiti Anyabwile's The Gospel for Muslims is a good option.)  Friendship evangelism is only good if evangelism actually takes place.

I will give my copy for free (including postage within the US) to whomever of you can use it most.  Send me an email [danielbartsch q com] to request it and tell me how you hope to use it.  I'll select next Wednesday from the emails that I receive.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Feast of Booths, New Testament style

At first I thought it sounded totally weird.  But after an evening seeing it firsthand, I'm impressed.

A church near my home, Beaver Creek Baptist Church, is observing the Feast of Tabernacles (aka Feast of Booths) this week.  Sort of.  

Hopefully your theological alarm bells are already going off.   There are "Torah Observant Messianic Jews" who try to do things like that nowadays, and usually wind up losing the Messiah.  Then there was the heretical Worldwide Church of God (founded by Herbert Armstrong) that had as one of its tenets the keeping of Levitical feasts, including Tabernacles. 

But BCBC is not doing this to obey the Old Testament (or the New Testament, for that matter).  It's clear that the Feast of Tabernacles is one of the shadows that was no longer necessary once the substance (Jesus) had come.  (Colossians 2:16-17). 

Rather, they have extracted key benefits of the Feast of Tabernacles and imported them into the 21st century church.  What this looks like for them is this:
  • Inviting members to come and camp at the church all week.  Some are camping in RVs, others in tents. 
  • Preparing and sharing meals together (all three meals, every day for the week) outdoors. 
  • Lots of unscheduled, unstructured time to just talk with each other.
  • Public reading of large portions of Scripture, without commentary.  About 2 hours of it each day.  (An hour after lunch and an hour after supper.)  Some people just come to these Bible readings.  A schedule of Bible passages has been prepared in advance (by the pastor?) and people sign up to read a chunk.  They have a microphone, speaker, and lights outside to facilitate this.
You can't tell from the photo, but this man is actually standing outside the church, on the steps in front of the main entrance.  He was one of this evening's Bible readers.

 Tonight my parents and I went to the after-supper Bible reading.  It was very simple: 
  • A woman read Psalm 139 and 134.
  • A man led singing of three short songs (using only a guitar).
  • A man read Mark 8-10.
  • Another man read Mark 11-13.
  • A third man read Mark 14-16.
  • The pastor prayed.
About thirty people were there, sat mostly on folding steel chairs, and listened remarkably attentively to over an hour of straight Bible.  Some followed along silently in their own Bibles or on their electronic devices.  The reading was mostly monotone and the readers stumbled over their words frequently.  But there was something strangely beautiful and compelling about this unprofessional, unadorned meeting.  The only attraction was the Word of God itself.

I hope more churches will experiment with this idea.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Swindoll's Abraham: An Imperfect Biography of an Imperfect Giant

Abraham is highly respected by the world's three monotheistic religions.  The Bible calls him "the father of faith".  And Charles Swindoll is a seasoned Bible teacher and writer.  So I was sorry to find a couple major blemishes in Swindoll's new biography of the patriarch.

The biggest shock was how "gospel centered" this book is not.  Although Swindoll carefully covers everything from Genesis 12 to 24 as well as many New Testament references to Abraham, he manages to minimize the many parts of this story that point forward to Jesus and the cross.  A modern Jew would disagree with little in this book.   
  • He missed what Paul taught in Galatians 3:17 that when God made promises to Abraham's "Seed", the Seed is Jesus.
  • He missed the entire chapter of Hebrews 7, explaining how Melchizedek (the priest who met Abraham as he returned from conquering the kings) is a type of Jesus.
  • He spent only four sentences mentioning that Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac pointed forward to Jesus' death on the cross (pg 203).
  • Swindoll correctly states that Genesis 15:6 ("Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"), is "one of the most significant verses in the Bible" (pg. 57).  But he only gives it five paragraphs, and doesn't mention until 3 pages later that the faith that gives righteousness must be in Jesus' work on the cross (pg. 61).
Swindoll writes with the assumption that his readers are Christians, and thus places the gospel message in the appendix.  But Christians need to be "evangelized" just as often as everyone else, and the gospel is not an appendage to the story of Abraham; it is the central message.

There is actually more law than gospel given in this book.  Swindoll's Abraham dwindles into a collection of good moral precepts and principles.  This is not bad: we do need to heed the Bible's moral precepts, and Swindoll delivers them.  He just does not explain much how we will find the power to keep them. 

My other, smaller critique, is that Swindoll quotes A. W. Tozer's analogy that explains the way God's sovereignty and man's responsibility interrelate.  When you think about their analogy, though, it quickly breaks down (about like trying to explain the Trinity using an egg, or water).

Even given these problems, this book is still one that I recommend for several reasons:
  • Swindoll makes clear just how unmerited God's election of idol-worshiping, lying-in-a-pinch Abram was.  This makes God's graciousness shine.
  • Swindoll writes with a pastor's tender heart.  For example, he does a beautiful job using the story of Hagar to speak to today's single mothers.
  • He does a good job blending accurate exposition with relevant application.
  • It is God, not Abraham, who emerges as the hero of this story -- which shows that Swindoll has gotten the most important thing right.
  • Swindoll is just a good writer!
Swindoll's book is flawed.  But so was Abraham.  And yet God chose to use him.  May He do so with this book as well. 

I received this book for free from Tyndale in exchange for a review.  My review was not required to be positive.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Take the Testimony Challenge

If you are plugged in to social media you've probably heard about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, in which people video themselves getting ice dumped over them, and call on a friend else to get frozen next.  I don't know how much money has actually been raised for ALS, but ice machine sales are up.  (Kidding.  I don't know.)  

Someone came up with the great idea of using the same concept (sans money) to get Christians to share their testimony of how they came to know Jesus.  So here's mine!

Here's a link to Mom's also!  

As you'll see, the testimony challenge consists of three parts: one camera, 60 seconds, and 3 friends.  The 60 seconds was the hardest part for me; it took me about 8 tries to get my message compact enough to fit.  I tried to include the most important elements of the gospel in my testimony, because my story itself cannot save anyone, but the truths of the gospel can.  Go and do likewise!

Monday, August 25, 2014

B-Grade Bible

How could a Bible ever deserve less than a 5-star rating?  When too many of man's words are mixed in with it.  Zondervan's NIV Essentials Study Bible is not a bad Bible -- there is much to commend about it and certainly you could find worse Bibles.  However, there are so many other better study Bibles available (even from Zondervan!) that I cannot recommend this one.

As its title suggests, Zondervan designed this one as a starter study Bible, combining (what they thought were) the best elements from 6 of their other study Bibles.  Their aim was to help newbies quickly get up to speed on the fundamentals of the faith. 

Great idea, bad execution.  The notes from the 6 study Bibles were not all of equal quality.  In particular the devotions from the Great Rescue Bible are not even as good as what you'd find, say, in Our Daily Bread.  Some of the rather lengthy notes pulled from the Archaelogical Study Bible are anything but essential to the faith.  (A full page about the shroud of Turin?)  A whole page in Jude showing a map of where the cities of Sodom were located?  The notes doubt that the Genesis 1 days were 24 hours, and aren't sure that Noah's flood covered the entire earth or that Paul actually meant to prohibit women pastors. And it is lacking the most essential feature of any study Bible: marginal cross references.  

On the other hand, there are lots of helpful maps, character profiles, in-depth sidebar Q&A's, and a number of solidly helpful notes from the NIV Study Bible.  Ironically, I think the original NIV Study Bible did a better job covering the "essentials" than the NIV Essentials Study Bible.  I would recommend it or the ESV Study Bible or MacArthur Study Bible over this one.

I received a copy of this Bible for free from Zondervan in exchange for writing an unbiased review.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

How I Marked My Ballot

If you'll be voting in an Arizona GOP Primary this year, this message might be of help to you.

Picking candidates was harder for me this time than in any previous election.  Many of the candidates seem to be accused of major scandals.

Nevertheless, here are the people for whom I cast my vote.

Congress (CD1): Adam Kwasman
Governor: Andrew Thomas
Secretary of State: Wil Cardon
Attorney General: Tom Horne
Treasurer: Randy Pullen
Superintendent of Public Instruction: Diane Douglas
Corporation Commission: Tom Forese and Doug Little

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Greater Enemy than ISIS

Today my heart was captured by a two minute CNN video of Yezidis being rescued off Mount Sinjar.  Then I remembered that these dear people face an even greater enemy than ISIS: God.

The Yezidis believe in a false god, a god who tested his angels by commanding them to do something that violated a previous command.  One angel somehow figured out that he should obey the first command and disobey the second command, and was rewarded with rulership over the earth.  The Yezidis now worship this angel.

The Bible calls this (and worship of any other false god) idolatry.  And ironically, ISIS also calls it idolatry and has determined to exterminate as many Yezidis as they can.  The Bible would call that murder!

But if the Yezidis continue to reject the true God who made them and who made a way for them to be forgiven by the death of an innocent Substitute, they will face an fate far worse than ISIS.  There are no rescue helicopters from hell.

If journalists can risk their lives to get photos, why can't Christians risk their lives to preach Jesus to the Yezidis?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Simple Plan to Evangelize Your Neighborhood

Last fall I tried to start a weekly Bible study in my neighborhood.  I went door to door distributing invitations.  It pretty much flopped after one week.  But then a friend pestered me for a couple months to try again.  I did, with a change.  Instead of using professional curriculum, I decided to just start at the beginning of Mark and work our way through the text of his gospel in order.  The Lord has blessed our weekly Saturday night gatherings.  We are small, but it seems like people are growing.  And of course it makes me grow!

Some Christians are good at evangelism. Some love to pray.  Some are good at hospitality. And some are good at teaching the Bible.  (And of course, some people are multi-talented.)  If these people could be found and linked in each neighborhood, they could work together to form and fill small home Bible studies. I would love to see the little work we are doing multiply in neighborhoods everywhere. Pray about that, OK? And if you live in the Verde Valley and would like to see a Bible study started in your neighborhood, contact me!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Eat Your Leviticus

Americans have become increasingly skilled in medicating their conditions, either directly (vitamins and over-the-counter drugs) or with professional help (prescription drugs).  But strangely, despite the fact that we have more brands and types and knowledge of pills available to us than ever before, we still have a lot of sick people.

Rather than investing in better pills, and better knowledge about which pills to take, what if we focused on eating really good food?  What if God put our food together with more absorbable, more balanced nutrients than the best of pills can offer?  What if God's engineering was better than ours?  I am thankful for vitamins and drugs, and the scientists who design them.  They are often helpful and even life-saving.  But, I think many of our health conditions could be prevented or cured if we would simply:
  • Eat a wide variety of food
  • Eat foods seasonally
  • Eat foods with as little processing as possible
I have noticed that many people approach their spiritual health like their physical health.  They look for 'vitamin verses'.  Short, pithy Bible cures for particular malaises.   Topical indexes are handy for this.  Got worry?  Take Philippians 4:6-7.  Anger?  Ephesians 4:28-32.  Lust?  Matthew 5:27-28.  And so on.  And yet despite the fact that we have more books and blogs and sermons talking about Scripture than ever before, we still have a lot of spiritually anemic people.  I think it's because we are trying to self-medicate, or expert-medicate, our souls.  Why not trust the Expert?  He made our souls, and He's given us, not a collection of magic-bullet verses, but a gourmet, balanced meal: the whole Bible.  I think most of our spiritual problems could be solved if we:
  • Read from many parts of the Bible (Torah, history, poetry, prophets, gospels, epistles)
  • Read through the Bible on a schedule
  • Read through the Bible with as little 'processing' as possible -- which is to say, reading whole chapters and whole books rather than isolated verses.
  • Listened primarily to expository sermons that go through a book of the Bible, rather than topical sermons based on a few scattered verses.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Jesus' Teaching Methods

Recently I have been startled by studying the teaching methods of Jesus.  Why are they so different from what we typically think of when we say "teach"?  How would the message of Jesus have been subverted if His methods were more like ours? 

Commands.  These constantly brought His followers to a point of choice about whether they would continue to follow Him; they could not remain undecided.  Study the gospels to see how many times Jesus spoke commands!

Questions.  What are the benefits of using questions in teaching, and how did Jesus use them differently than Socrates?

Stories.  I find that stories stick in my mind much longer than prose, don't you?  And when I tell Bible stories during evangelism conversations, they form such a helpful framework around which to teach important truths!

Traveling.  Rather than establishing a school in one location, Jesus traveled widely to make it easier for many people to hear Him.  This also meant that the people who wanted to hear Him more had to... follow Him!  For more detail on this, go here.

Analogies, illustrations, similes, and metaphors.  If stories are like paintings, analogies are shafts of sunlight to illumine the subject.

Brevity.  The Sermon on the Mount is only 15 minutes long.

Difficulty.  Jesus was sometimes deliberately obfuscatory.

Shock talk.   Jesus wasn't joking--or putting anyone to sleep--when he talked of cutting off hands, swallowing camels, escaping hellfire, or giving everything to the poor. If you haven't noticed this, you have a log in your eye.

Tangible.  Why use a blackboard when you can touch a coin, a fig tree, a mustard seed, a child?

Authority.  The MacArthur Study Bible, commenting on Matthew 7:29, says "The scribes quoted others to establish the authority of their teachings; Jesus was his own authority".

Scripture References. Jesus may not have quoted humans, but He sure did quote or refer to the Scripture a lot, and rebuked people for their ignorance of it.  (See, for example, Mark 12:24.)

Repetition.  That's right, He said important things multiple times.  He didn't mind saying things more than once to make sure His listeners "got it".

Demonstration.  Jesus lived everything He taught.  I'll have to show you how this one works. 

Supervised delegation.  Go explain these methods to someone else (using your own words) and let me know how it goes!

In-the-moment.  This one would be better explained over lunch.  When can we get together?

What other methods can you identify in Jesus' teaching?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Don't Beat Around the Bush

This is a true story about the danger of assumptions.  So if you're going to read this, please read it all.  Don't assume that you know how this story will end!

The video and audio teachings by Todd Friel and the team at Wretched have been a great blessing to me.  I thought I would make a donation to help further their ministry.

Then I learned that they are a for-profit company so donations are not deductible.  That didn't bother me too much.  I can see how being non-profit could hinder their effectiveness.

The name of the parent company behind Wretched is Burning Bush Communications.  A quick Google search showed me that a man named Chuck Bush owns Burning Bush Communications.  According to the Wikipedia article, Chuck Bush seems to be a wealthy financier behind various film and TV products, focusing currently on producing 'non-toxic' films and programs.  No indication that he's a Christian, just a shrewd businessman.

That turned me off.  Not to Wretched, but to the idea of donating.  I didn't like the idea of giving money to help some rich guy who was using Wretched as part of his 'non-toxic' media portfolio.  And I found it puzzling that a brother as seemingly conscientious as Todd Friel would be a financial bedfellow with someone like Chuck Bush.

Months went by and finally I decided to email Wretched and ask about this.  I was afraid they would be offended and write back to say, "Why are you judging our motives?  Chuck Bush is a fine Christian man!"

Twelve minutes after I sent my email, Todd Friel wrote back from his iPhone. 
I don't have any idea who Chuck Bush is!

My best guess is that he might be related to George. Otherwise Chuck Bush has nothing to do w us.
It turns out that there are two Burning Bush Communications that are completely unrelated.  They both happen to be involved in producing video-based programming.  But that's where the connection ends.

I sent Wretched a donation immediately.

I wonder how many other wrong assumptions I have made about people?  It's better to ask the difficult questions than go on in assumed estrangement.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Error in the Father's Love Letter

A friend gave me a copy of some evangelistic tracts called Father's Love Letter.  You can read it online at Here is what I wrote him.

I finally took time to read it carefully today.

I could give it to a person who is already a believer, but I would not want to give it to a person who is not yet a Christian.

My fear is that it would confuse an unbeliever into thinking they were already a child of God.  The tract itself is unclearly worded.  It starts out (in large print) “My child” and ends with “Love, Dad”.  But yet it says near the end “Will you be my child?” 

Most unbelievers (in my experience) already think of themselves as being on pretty good terms with God and many believe that everyone is a child of God.   Of course we know that while God is kind to all His creation, only Christians are His children.  (John 1:12; 1 John 3:2, 10)

Quite a number of the Scripture references in the body of the letter are statements that are clearly made only to believers.  For example:
  • I chose you when I planned creation.
  • Simply because you are my child and I am your Father.
  • I will never stop doing good to you.
  • And I rejoice over you with singing.
  • I am also the Father who comforts you in all your troubles.
  • I am your Father, and I love you even as I love my son, Jesus.
  • One day I will wipe away every tear from your eyes.
  • And I’ll take away all the pain you have suffered on this earth.
  • He came to demonstrate that I am for you, not against you.
My fear is that unbelievers reading this would think “Oh, great, these promises already apply to me.” 

Then there are a couple of statements that are downright wrong:
  • I am not distant and angry, but am the complete expression of love.  (God does have anger.)
  • I gave up everything I loved that I might gain your love. (Cat theology)
It’s a bummer to have to criticize this tract so sharply because there are a lot of good and true statements in it.  But I believe that putting it in the hands of unbelievers will do more harm than good. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Trainer Jim and the Hyper Disciplers

A few weeks ago in God's providence I landed in four days of evangelism training with the unusual name of "Hyper Discipler".  I would not have had the sense to attend the training if a kind friend had not offered it to me and a select group of other friends for free (including meals!).

I have to call the teacher simply "Trainer Jim" for security reasons.  He spends a large part of the year training Christians all over the world, including places where they are physically persecuted.  Trainer Jim is well past the average retirement age, but he's still brimming with passion.  Thankfully God has given him good health and a sharp mind and a supportive wife, so that he can keep doing what he (and He) loves. 

I was a bit nervous going into this training because there are a lot of evangelistic methods out there that I cannot use in good conscience.  There are so many unbiblical ways to talk about Jesus, ways which omit or twist vital aspects of the gospel.  Go look at the gospel tracts you find in most churches and see what I mean.  So I was gladdened to find I agreed with and could use almost everything I learned during these four days. 

How to describe the content of the teaching?  It is a unique blend of the best of the teachings that Trainer Jim has picked up during his lifetime of Christian ministry.  During the day, he taught us his evangelism method, which is a sort of a tweaked combination of The Way of the Master with Simply the Story.  Each day we went out on the street and practiced what we were learning.  Then we came back together to tell what had happened and rejoice in and learn from each other's encounters.

In the evenings he taught information based on the book Cat and Dog Theology and a seminar called UnveilinGLORY.  Yeah, that's what I thought too, just based on the names.  Reading the book was a prerequisite for attending the class, and it turned out to actually be quite good.  It's sort of a street level Desiring God, and stepped on my toes surprisingly regularly.  The basic point of Cat and Dog Theology and UnveilinGLORY is that God's glory (fame, reputation, honor) is more important to Him than anything else, including us.  Then it extends that truth out to talk about how it affects our approach to prayer, evangelism, and missions.  God's global fame should be the focus of our lives.

But all of what I've told you so far is merely a prelude to what I want to say.  This time of training came to me during a season of discouragement.  Somehow the Lord used it to give me hope.  In thinking back, I tried to analyze what exactly made Trainer Jim's course impact me in ways that other seminars and trainings have not.

One vital factor, I realized, was the other people in the class.  Although coming from different cities, churches, ages, and levels of maturity, one thing that united us was a passion for spreading the supremacy of Jesus.  All of the people there were already active in evangelism in their own communities.  Whether we were praying together or evangelizing together, they were on fire.  I found myself one of the most timid of the attendees.  But rather than making me feel shame, the warmth of my companions emboldened and encouraged me.

Closely related to that was the concentrated amount of time we spent together.  Each day started at 9 AM and ended after 8 PM.  We ate together, and had rich times of spontaneous interaction about weighty topics related to the gospel and its proclamation.  Many of the other students had lots of interesting experiences and insights into Scripture to share.

You can see that Jim expected -- and got -- a high level of commitment from us.  He was in town for just a few days, with a lot he wanted to impart to us.  Everybody was expected to be there and participate.  For his part, Jim modeled this by devoting himself intensely to training us.  He went out on the streets with us. (So did his wife, which I thought was neat.)

As you can probably tell, Trainer Jim did very little teaching using a strict lecture method.  Usually he encouraged (and got) questions from us, as well as cross-talk amongst us during his teaching.  You know your audience is listening when you see them taking notes.  (As an aside, Jim said that studies show that taking notes during a teaching actually decreases retention.)  They are even more attentive when they start asking you questions.  But Jim pointed out that cross-talk among listeners is an even greater sign that they are engaged with what they are hearing.  (Jim worked for Walk Thru the Bible for several years and I could see the 7 Laws of the Learner in his teaching style.)

Of course, the best way to learn something is to actually do it, and that is why each day's immediate application  of the teaching was so helpful.  An hour of witnessing on the street is worth a week in an evangelism classroom. 

Finally, it was refreshing to be in an environment in which rigorous training was married so beautifully to dependence on prayer.  Trainer Jim seems to have learned that "the horse is made ready for battle, but victory belongs to the Lord", so he frequently integrated group prayer during class times.  As I've already said, my classmates' intensity ensured that these prayers were not routine mumbo-jumbo.

On the final day of the training, we split into two groups and went out on the street again. The group I was with first went to a ballpark where we'd had good conversations the previous day.  But hardly anyone was there, so we went to another park.  There were even fewer people there, but Matthew spotted a few teenagers sitting at a picnic table.  "I'll go talk to them," he volunteered.  We parked, he jumped out, and within about two minutes he and the other two men in my team were already engaged in conversations.  I wandered around, afraid I would not have enough courage to approach anyone.  I noticed a lot of cars parked outside the city's recreation center, so I walked over there.  Two men were just coming out to the parking lot.  I went up to one of them and said, "I'm here talking to people about Jesus.  Do you have a church background?"  He didn't, and it turned out to be perhaps the best conversation I've ever had with a stranger about Jesus.  I went through the entire "Hyper Discipler" gospel presentation with him, which took about half an hour.  He ate it up.  He may have become a Christian.

After I finished talking with him, my teammates were still engrossed in conversation and I had to use the restroom, so I went in and used the one in the rec center.  I was about to leave when I noticed a group of six youngsters (probably between age 10 and 12) hanging out together near the entrance.  I told myself that kids that age would not be interested in talking about Jesus.  Then one of them waved.  I was so surprised that I turned around to see if there was someone behind me.  He was waving at me!  He asked how I was doing and I asked if they wanted to hear a Bible story.  They did.  So I got to talk with them about Jesus too!

So I came away from the training refreshed and rejoicing, because I had seen that God is still at work.  He is at work in the hearts of His people, stirring them to proclaim Jesus.  And He is at work in those who are not yet His people, giving them a readiness to hear.  Will you join me in finding them?  If you live near me, I would love to go out on the street with you.  If you don't know how to witness, I can show you what I have learned so far.  
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together."  (John 4:34-36, ESV)
If you have a group of people interested in Trainer Jim's Hyper Discipler program, contact me and I can put you in touch with him. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Gospel According to Daniel

This isn't a book about me, it's about the guy I was named for.  And actually, it's about his God.  Often when we read the book of Daniel, we either focus on his heroic choices to obey God amidst pressure to compromise, or on horns and statues and Antiochus Epiphanes.  The Gospel According to Daniel is so refreshingly different.

Bryan Chapell writes with the gravity and honesty and simplicity of one who knows suffering firsthand.  This is not a book of beautiful words and humorous anecdotes.  This is the book that will take you to the marrow of Daniel, and strengthen you for dark days.  If your life is not difficult, you probably will not enjoy it.  It's not a verse-by-verse exposition of every nuance of the book, but it is a clarifying 'big picture' walk through each chapter.

What Jesus on Every Page does in brief for the whole Bible, this book does for Daniel.  Prepare to have your heart strengthened by Daniel's descriptions of the God of grace redeeming sinners and preparing the timeline for the Messiah.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Best Book On Islam I've Read

I have read and reviewed a lot of books on Islam.  But Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus is the best of them.  It contains the strengths of the other books without their weaknesses.  It explains what Muslims believe (clearly, accurately, and without ad hominems).   It explains how Muslims live (most of them are family-oriented, peace-loving people who think the Quran teaches peace).  It explains why they think Christianity is false (giving and refuting their arguments in detail).  And yet it does all this without being even slightly boring.  In fact, my parents found it so compelling that they finished reading the book before I did. 

The reason this book is so captivating is that it is not just a collection of facts about Islam; it is the true story of a real Muslim's journey to Christianity.  It blends emotional intensity with intellectual rigor.  Nabeel Qureshi was raised by parents far more pious and kind than many American parents, and he followed Islam more wholeheartedly than a lot of professing Christians follow Jesus.   At an early age he learned refute the average Christian's arguments for the Bible.  So it's all the more amazing that he ever became a Christian.  Telling his parents of his conversion was the most heartrending moment of his life.  (And you'll understand why when you read it.)  His conversion shows both the value and the limitations of apologetics.

But he did convert.  And the reason seems to be that in the end, his love for truth exceeded his love for everything else.  For many people, their love for friends, family, pleasures, or even sin exceed their love for truth, so they suppress the truths they know about God and follow an ideology that leaves their idols alone.  To those who really do ask, seek, knock in pursuit of the truth, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Jesus has promised answers.  This book demonstrates how He gives them.

Please read the book.  And then look for a Muslim friend with whom you can share it.

I received this book for free in exchange for an unbiased review.  My review was not required to be positive.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Replant? Rethink!

Replant is an easy read. It is a true story, a story told simply and compellingly, a story that at some level many pastors would like to be their own.  It is the story of an old historic church with a beautiful building in downtown Kansas City.  As often happens to old historic downtown churches, this one journeyed all the way to the fringes of extinction.  When Mark DeVine became interim pastor it was dying under the weight of its glorious past. His first challenge was surviving. Previous pastors had been squeezed out by less than enjoyable processes. He describes how he discovered and conquered the shadowy clique ("the cartel") that was running the church behind the scenes.  But then he came up with the idea that the church, to move into its future, needed to give up its autonomy as a church and become a satellite church of Darrin Patrick's Journey Church in St. Louis.  The church did, and it worked.  They now have their own pastors and are bursting with people and activity.

A few things rub me the wrong way about this story:

  • It almost conveys the idea, "It worked for us, so what we did must have been God's will."  This is the danger of a book about church revitalization that is a story rather than an exposition of Scripture.
  • Pastor DeVine remarks that one reason he was able to survive the battle with the cartel is because his family was not with him at the church.  I'm sure that did make it easier for him (and for his family) as an interim pastor.  But I still think his ministry as a whole would have been enriched had his family joined him at the church for his ministry there, because pastoring is so much more than preaching and running business meetings.  In some ways, he seems to have functioned more as a CEO than a pastor.
  • In general, I'm uncomfortable with the philosophy of one church being run by another church.  There just seems no model for this in Scripture.  The closest would be the apostles running churches that were weak.  But Darrin Patrick isn't an apostle, nor is his church.  And the apostles focused on developing elders within the local church who could run the church when they were gone.  If Pastor DeVine made any serious efforts at developing elders from within the church, he did not mention it.  He seems to have condescendingly given up hope that the church would ever be able to make strategic plans for its own future.  The best thing they could do was give up control to a super church several hundred miles away.  Where did all of these energetic new members come from, and why did Darrin Patrick's philosophy and ministry team suddenly attract them?
Having shared my concerns, though, I will say that I am grateful to the Lord for using Pastors DeVine and Patrick to bring fresh life and hope to this church, and pray that it will remain a faithful gospel-preaching beacon for many years to come.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Theology distilled

Exploring Christian Theology is hard book to describe.  Because actually it's not just one book, it's a series of books.  But I'm writing a review about only one of the books because that's all I've read.  Except that the one book is actually two books, with two separate authors, in one volume.  But it covers three topics, not two.  The first half is about church (ecclesiology) and spiritual growth (sanctification), and the second half is about end times (escatology).  Apparently there will be other books in the series on other areas of Christian theology.

It's not aimed at pastors. Pastors need information with more depth and thoroughness.  It's also not aimed at baby Christians.  Beginners don't need to know this much information. So it's aimed at people in the middle, perhaps Sunday school teachers who want to brush up on a certain topic without having to purchase a full library. For what it intends this book does well.

For each area of theology, the book has a series of short, informative sections.  A quick survey.  Important Bible passages on the subject.  The non-negotiable pillars of the topic.  A detailed bibliography in case you want to dig in on a particular aspect of the doctrine in study.  Probably the most interesting part to me was a selection of quotes from famous writers throughout church history.  When it came to the doctrines of the church and sanctification, there was frightening disagreement throughout church history.  But on the subject of the return of Christ, there has been reassuring continuity.

I received this book from the publisher for free in exchange for an unbiased review.  If you would like to own it next, let me know and I might send it to you for free!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Meet the Real Noah

You may have heard that Hollywood has produced a new 'biblical' movie, Noah.  It is no surprise anymore when they are inaccurate in their portrayals of the Bible (apparently they think they can write a better story than God?), but this time they have really outdone themselves.  Darren Aronofsky, writer and director of Noah has said, “Noah is the least biblical biblical film ever made. I don't give a f*** about the test scores! My films are outside the scores...”  (For a summary of how their movie perverts Scripture, click here and for a detailed presentation of why Christians should not watch this movie for entertainment, click here.)

The good news is that Ray Comfort has produced a documentary about Noah to coincide with the release of Hollywood's.  Turn Hollywood's attack into an opportunity to spread the gospel!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Do Kids Still Need Math?

Perhaps there are some little boys out there who like money but hate math.  Maybe they think that because we have computers now we don't need to know how to add and subtract.  Maybe this letter I had to write one of my (very computerized and normally flawless) suppliers tonight will help encourage them.  I'm reaping the rewards of having parents who loved math and loved teaching it to me.

Hi ______ and team,

Thank you for the great work you do keeping me apprized of the charges on my account.  I wish all my suppliers had their accounting data so easy to access and understand.  

Recently you issued a large refund to my credit card for some credits that had been accumulating over the last few months.  You also included a separate sheet explaining that you had accidentally refunded some charges in error – they were already paid – so you charged me again for these amounts.  You were correct that I had already paid these charges, but you were incorrect to then charge me again for them; the amounts of the invoices had already been deducted from my large refund, so actually you should have refunded them to me.

I have to kind of stand on my head and then do a somersault to understand this, but let’s see if I can explain to you how you have charged me three times for these two invoices.

Invoice 1613313.001 was deducted from my refund on 3/13/14 for $47.25
Invoice 1615744.001 was deducted from my refund on 3/13/14 for $78.25.
In other words, my refund would have been $1078.69, but these two invoices lowered the refund to $953.19.  So in effect, you charged me for these two invoices.

Then the next day…

Invoice 1613313.001 was charged to my card on 3/14/14 for $47.25
Invoice 1615744.001 was charged to my card on 3/14/14 for $78.25.

Then on 3/18/14, you discovered your mistake…

But instead of refunding $125.50 to my card, you charged my card $125.50.  

So now I have paid three times, and I need you to refund two of the times (a total of $251.00) to my card.

I hope this makes sense.  Let me know if you have any questions.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Buffalo Stix for the Soul

I recently bought a quarter of a buffalo.  It's our third time buying one from Bob Jackson, whose skill and experience in raising bison results in some tasty, surprisingly inexpensive, and more importantly, truly natural meat.  But this time I did something different.  Bob offered me a chance to try some buffalo stix.  To be honest I didn't even know for sure what buffalo stix were.  Now that I've seen and tasted, I know they're precooked cylinders of buffalo meat, mixed with spices.  Because Bob and his team are perfectionists, his are not mixed with undesirable grades of meat or filler ingredients.  Think of them as Slim Jims that are good for you.  It's rare to find a food that is both convenient and truly nourishing.  These are.  (The downside is that they are expensive.)

Devotional books for Christians are plentiful, but unfortunately most of them are like Little Debbies.  Someone has said, "Sermonettes are for Christianettes" and a lot of devotionals are very light sermonettes.  But recently I came across two devotional books that are more like buffalo stix.  Their authors have struck that rare combination of depth and brevity. 

A Godward Heart by John Piper contains 50 such devotionals on a random assortment of topics and Scripture passages.  Piper's knack is identifying tensions in Scripture, how those tensions play out in our lives, and then carefully discovering how to live with balance.  For example: how Christians should respond to social media.  Piper explains the arguments for avoiding them altogether:
These media tend to shorten attention spans, weaken discursive reasoning, lure people away from Scripture and prayer, disembody relationships, feed the fires of narcissism, cater to the craving for attention, fill the world with drivel, shrink the soul’s capacity for greatness, and make us second-handers who comment on life when we ought to be living it. 
Piper acknowledges these problems, but still seeks ways to use them redemptively.  For example:

Now what about Twitter? I find Twitter to be a kind of taunt: “Okay, truth-lover, see what you can do with 140 characters! You say your mission is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things! Well, this is one of those ‘all things.’ Can you magnify Christ with this thimble-full of letters?”
To which I respond:
The sovereign Lord of the earth and sky
Puts camels through a needle’s eye.
And if his wisdom see it mete,
He will put worlds inside a tweet.
So pithy!  Here are a sampling of other deep issues he tackles with brief, but not superficial, answers.  Notice the precision with which he frames them:

  • How is God's passion for His glory not selfishness?
  • What is the place of confrontation in marriage?
  • How do you "give" God strength? (Psalm 96:7)
  • How shall we love our Muslim neighbor?
  • If you can be Godly and wrong, does truth matter?
  • When does God become 100% for us?  (Were the elect ever under His wrath?)
  • What makes an enjoyment idolatrous?
  • The rebellion of nudity and meaning of clothing
  • Why require unregenerate children to act like they're good?
  • If God wills disease, why should we try to eradicate it? 

The One Year Book of Psalms contains, as you might guess, a devotional for every day of the year, taking the reader not only through the book of Psalms but through several other key poetic passages of the Bible as well.  Many of the devotionals lead you to other parts of the Bible that relate to the Psalm you are studying.  But this book's greatest selling point is how it ties the Psalms in to post-biblical historical moments and figures who relied on those Psalms.  Sometimes we forget that we are not the first people to puzzle over, pray over, or praise over the psalter.  You'll learn why Alexander Duff preached from Psalm 107, why Psalm 50:16 smote Origen, why the church in Antioch sang Psalm 97, and which Psalm strengthened Spurgeon during a cholera epidemic. Each devotional also closes with a verse from a related hymn.

Compared with A Godward Heart, The One Year Book of Psalms has shorter, fluffier devotionals which require less thinking and make less impact.  But unlike A Godward Heart which deals with random topics, The One Year Book of Psalms takes you through an entire book of the Bible and illumines many other sections of the Bible.

When you are hungry for some spiritual meat but don't have the strength to read something long, you might add these two books to your menu.

I received both books for free from their publishers.  My reviews were not required to be positive.