Since 2010, I’ve posted a list each year of a smattering of the best books that made it to the top of my to-read list. With 2014 freshly “in the books” (ha!), here goes another. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Not all are from Christian publishers (or authors), but they each blessed or challenged me in some way. Most of these are not books published this year, but simply those I encountered for the first time in 2014. Such lists posted by others often help me discover noteworthy new books and build a reading list for the coming year, and I hope this serves the same purpose for you.
The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott
From my review: “Stott’s magnum opus is among the finest expositions of the central truth of the Gospel the Church has produced. His focus on every page is on Christ, captivating the reader with a portrait of the cross as the culmination of the weight of sin, the absoluteness of God’s holiness, and the depth of His love. As a theological treatise, The Cross of Christ ranks with the classics of Church history. Like the best of those classics, it is not merely excellent theology, but a good book—Stott’s prose is engaging and his argument flows well from beginning to end. He comes across not as a calculating academic, but as a man on fire with the joy of his salvation and a pastor eager to lead others to see the beauty of the Gospel in its manifold glory.”
The Meaning of Marriage by Tim & Kathy Keller
I went through this with my discipleship group this summer: really a first rate look at the significance and purpose of marriage from a biblical perspective. The Kellers offer a condensed and persuasive counternarrative to the dominant cultural view of marriage as either an outmoded and repressive institution or an idol for self-gratification. Clarity of thought abounds here, whether you’re newlywed, long-married, or still single. If you know, me, you’ll recall that I shy away from (”actively revolt against” may be more accurate) spiritual/relational “how-to” books, so my recommendation is a declaration that this is not among those.
Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung
Kevin DeYoung writes with humble authority on many of the key theological, ecclesiological, and cultural issues facing the church today. His short, witty books are disarmingly challenging, and he somehow manages to write a new one almost every year (a feat which he credits to his congregation’s generous offer of 4-6 weeks of “book writing” leave from pulpit ministry each year). Using Psalm 119 as his starting point, DeYoung here embarks on a wonderfully pastoral exposition of the doctrine of Scripture in all its facets (inerrancy, perspicuity, sufficiency, etc.) that should shore up any believer’s faith in God and His revealed Word and give seekers and skeptics much to chew on.
The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote
It’s hard to imagine that anyone other than Shelby Foote could have written this. His family ties and sentimental roots in the South give the book somber, almost mournful overtones that honor the fallen and cry out “never again” with no hint of triumphalism. His urbane libertinism and self-important literary mind keep it balanced enough that both sides are given a fair shake–Union heroes and villains abound as much as their Confederate counterparts. Is this book long? Obsessively (3,000+ pages in print, 131 hours in audio). Is it tedious? To a fault. Yet both qualities render it readable and enduring in ways that less exhaustive accounts lack.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
From my review: “It would do you a disservice to explain the full details of this story rather than letting you discover it through your own reading, but here’s a taste. Zamperini survived multiple experiences that could have (you get the sense from the flow of Hillenbrand’s narrative that they perhaps should have) killed him. In spite of these often unfathomable hardships, Louis made it home safely at war’s end, reunited with his loving family. Many writers would have left it at that, a harrowing yet somehow hollow survival account. Hillenbrand doesn’t stop there, telling the sour details of rest of his story—how Louis could not make peace with life back in the U.S., how his spirit was consumed by hatred and a desire for revenge, and how his anger and alcoholism threatened to destroy his young family. Moreover, she doesn’t shy away from showing the only thing that made him whole: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Histories and Fallacies by Carl R. Trueman
Delightful, witty, insightful. A quick read and a good reminder to those of us who read history (or philosophy, theology, etc.), that the writers thereof are human and fallible. In other words, this was a great overview of common pitfalls to avoid when writing history and to be wary of when reading it (anachronism, category confusion, reification, oversimplification, etc.). Of course, the biggest recommending factor for this helpful little book is its author, Carl R. Trueman, a professor of Church history at Westminster Seminary Philadelphia. He is, as someone once put it, “one of those Brits who writes in such a way as to remind you that they invented the language.”
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
This selection from one of our book club members was a welcome surprise – particularly the affirmation that there are many good authors still working in contemporary times. Enger’s characters are real and knowable, the narrative moves along with all the force of the classic westerns on which it was modeled (complete with an outlaw on horseback, even in the 1960s setting), and his vision of God’s hand in all our dealings gives the book a not-unpleasant mystical flavor. I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying, but it works as a mirror of life, which unfolds in myriad interesting and shocking ways, with billions of individual sorrows and dissatisfactions. Read it and then take the advice of Enger’s narrator, Reuben, and “make of it what you will.”
Home by Marilynne Robinson
The vagaries of parenting, personality, and the difficulties of fleshing out an intellectually understood faith underscore this quietly beautiful novel. Its piercing phrases of recognition moved me to reflect on my own life choices and family in new ways. Not quite as theologically probing or historically profound as Gilead (covering, as it does, a different angle of the same story), but in no way a bad book. Robinson’s extended rumination on how the routine dysfunctions of family beautifully and painfully intertwine with time and place may not change your life, but it adds a sweet savor to life as it is.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
Another book club selection. Graham’s most Catholic of stories draws with chiaroscuro beauty the story of the last surviving priest (and an immoral, alcoholic priest at that) in a Mexican state that has outlawed the church. The palpable darkness gives way to hope through death. I think it can well be read more broadly as a tale of how none of us is worthy of God’s call, but that He nevertheless calls and sustains those whom He will. This line sums it up well: “How often the priest had heard the same confession–Man was so limited: he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization–it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”
Collected Poems by T. S. Eliot
I took a stab at learning to read and to like poetry this year (and even to write a bit), and T. S. Eliot helped immeasurably. His bleak, bemused thoughts on the decline of the West in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, and The Hollow Men were avant-garde in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, but today ring eerily prophetic. His musing on the Christ and Christianity in later works (Ash Wednesday, The Four Quartets, etc.) offer hope in the midst of doubt. Poetry is to prose as whisky is to beer–the same substance distilled to a strength that must be handled with care. A little goes a long way, but it is often strikingly beautiful and can boost your overall use of language tremendously. Among the “finds” of linguistic beauty from Eliot: “Here were decent, godless people: their only monument the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls” (Choruses from The Rock). “These are only hints and guesses, Hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation” (The Four Quartets). I also enjoyed reading much of W. H. Auden’s work, and have been savoring this gem: “O stand, stand at the window as the tears scald and start; you shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart” (As I Walked out One Evening).
The Children of Men by P. D. James
A taut, provocative thriller, this is sci-fi/dystopia for grown ups (envisaging a world in which no children have been born for over a quarter century), full of enduring themes and a banal plausibility that makes it the more chilling. James wrote this in 1992, near the height of the 20th century crime wave and the peak years of the abortion industry, so some of the story’s sociological punch has faded (her “future” setting for the action is now just 6 years away). Still, it touches on the some of the core fears of humanity and does so with deep religious sensibility, often explicitly Christian–James, a lifelong Anglican, peppers the novel with quotes from Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer. The story moves along briskly, almost too quickly for robust character development, but the themes carry the day
The Tyranny of Cliches by Jonah Goldberg
Goldberg’s work always strikes an balance of irreverence, wit, and insight that makes him a most enjoyable read, though I suppose that enjoyment may be tempered if you find yourself on the receiving end of his irreverence. Though the primary target here is the political left, Goldberg is delightfully uncharitable to the mushy mainstream as well. It is a political book, but perhaps more a book of language and culture. As a writer, I appreciated the focus on deconstructing those pernicious things we all say without knowing what we mean–a helpful discipline regardless of your occupation or beliefs. I recommend the audiobook version read by the author.
Posted by Justin Lonas
There are billions of people around the world in thousands of unreached people groups with little or no hope of hearing the Gospel in their lifetime. What are you prepared to do?
This sort of appeal to the immensity of the Church’s task in fulfilling the great commission has become the stock-in-trade of the global missions movement in the past few years. The true, of course, and we shouldn’t lose sight of Christ’s promise that “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations” (Matt. 24:14) or the faithful and courageous efforts of missionaries and organizations working in every corner of the world. Often, however, this appeal has the opposite effect–the call is so great, so all-encompassing, that it is abstracted to such a level in the minds of most Christians that they end up doing nothing (or very little) because they cannot do everything. Even in the secular realm, there is a growing body of research from the psychological realm that points to the simple fact that we have trouble feeling responsible to do thinks we feel we are to accomplish.
How does this square with clear commands of Scripture? Surely God would not call us to do that which He knows we are incapable of…or would He? Actually, He does that all the time, calling dead men to live. The trick is that God gives the life He asks for. Our making disciples is entirely contingent on His Spirit bringing to life both us and those we reach. The power for the action of our obedience and the results of that obedience come from Him. He is the one who makes possible the impossible (Mark 10:27).
If you think about it, how much more unattainable must the Great Commission have seemed as Christ ascended into the Judean sky? For us, it starts with millions of faithful believers in multiple countries and cultures, billions of dollars in resources, and incredible advantages. The apostles had obstacles to the goal we could never imagine–there were 11 of them (12 when Paul was “recruited”) and an entire world of unregenerate souls. And yet they obeyed, the truth prevailed, and caused the dry bones of sinful men to become as flesh.
The temptation to give in to the apathy of the overwhelmed, I would submit, comes because we have forgotten the truth of God’s power embedded in the Scriptures–not just when taken as a whole, but in the very passages that call us to the task.
“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’” (Matt. 28:19-20).
“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).
“Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-20).
This Gospel is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), and He who made the world and all that is in it will accomplish His task. Our participation at whatever place He leads us to is part of His plan. We obey, but the work is His, the results are His, and the glory is His. Ours is not to change the hearts of men, but only to tell them of the One who will. Reaching the nations begins with reaching your neighbor. In any good-sized Western city, reaching your neighbors often is reaching the nations–with people from many tribes, tongues, and nations moving in to seek a better life for their families.
We may want to throw in the towel (or, on the other hand attempt own the task and own some of the glory), but our desire for success and significance beyond obedience is in vain. As T. S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets:
These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Posted by Justin Lonas.
He was baptized as Man—but He remitted sins as God—not because He needed purificatory rites Himself, but that He might sanctify the element of water.
He was tempted as Man, but He conquered as God; yea, He bids us be of good cheer, for He has overcome the world.
He hungered—but He fed thousands; yea, He is the Bread that gives life, and That is of heaven.
He thirsted—but He cried, “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink.” Yea, He promised that fountains should flow from them that believe.
He was wearied, but He is the rest of them that are weary and heavy laden.
He was heavy with sleep, but He walked lightly over the sea. He rebuked the winds; He made Peter light as he began to sink.
He pays tribute, but it is out of a fish; yea, He is the King of those who demanded it.
He is called a Samaritan and a demoniac—but He saves him that came down from Jerusalem and fell among thieves; the demons acknowledge Him, and He drives out demons and sinks in the sea legions of foul spirits, and sees the Prince of the demons falling like lightning.
He prays, but He hears prayer.
He weeps, but He causes tears to cease.
He asks where Lazarus was laid, for He was Man; but He raises Lazarus, for He was God.
He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver; but He redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the Price was His own blood.
As a sheep He is led to the slaughter, but He is the Shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also.
As a Lamb He is silent, yet He is the Word, and is proclaimed by the Voice of one crying in the wilderness.
He is bruised and wounded, but He heals every disease and every infirmity.
He is lifted up and nailed to the Tree, but by the Tree of Life He restores us; yea, He saves even the robber crucified with Him.
He is given vinegar to drink mingled with gall. Who? He who turned the water into wine, who is the destroyer of the bitter taste, who is Sweetness and altogether desire.
He lays down His life, but He has power to take it again.
The veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise.
He dies, but He gives life, and by His death destroys death.
He is buried, but He rises again.
He ascends to Heaven, and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.
Gregory of Nazianzus (329-290), Third Theological Oration, “On the Son”. Translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7, Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.)
Posted by Justin Lonas
After studying, writing on, and teaching through 1 and 2 Timothy this year, the powerful themes of these letters made me want to try my hand at condensing some truths into poetry. Here’s a meditation on God’s Word set as a sonnet.
But one tale, by a single Author writ
Speaks all, breathes form, life, to the world entire.
Not of man, yet man must comprehend it
To meet Him; saving, purifying fire.
From this fly our peregrine hearts, chasing
Tickles, myths, ashes; vain salve for sin’s throes.
The Tempter’s counterfeits our ears catching,
The self-unbuilding Gospel to depose.
Forged yarns weave ruin, despair. Lust negates love,
Avarice throttles hope, debts crushing joy.
But darkness must retreat. Light, as a dove
Descends, cuts straight, truth itself to deploy.
God’s own Word, own Son, come with us to dwell.
His blood opens Heaven, dooms lies to Hell.
Posted by Justin Lonas
As you observe Advent and Christmas in your homes and churches this year, don’t fail to preach the Word. The incarnation of Christ, the Son of God, is an almost unfathomable mystery, yet it is the foundation of our redemption and the capstone of God’s revelation. May we be captured by this and may it be our focus now and through the year.
However you celebrate this season, do not let that point be lost on your family or your congregation. Whatever traditions you hold and enjoy, do not let them overshadow the wonder of this truth. Whatever the mood or intellectual bent of your hearers, do not attempt to reduce this truth by illustration or explain it an any way beyond what Scripture teaches–some mysteries of the Word must be extolled and accepted at face value. Therein lies faith.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:1-18).
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:1-4).
While you’re at it, take care that the hymns and carols you attach to your celebration keep and embellish the wonder rather than setting it adrift in a sea of sentimentality. My personal favorite has always been Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”:
“Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim
‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.
Christ by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King.
Hail, the heaven-born Prince of peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the suns of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn king”
Posted by Justin Lonas.
“The Lord commands us to do ‘good unto all men,’ universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scripture assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the image of God in them, to which we owe all possible honor and love; but that this image is most carefully to be observed in them ‘who are of the household of faith,’ inasmuch as it is renewed and restored by the Spirit of Christ.
“Whoever, therefore, is presented to you that needs your kind offices, you have no reason to refuse him your assistance. Say he is a stranger; yet the Lord has impressed on him a character which ought to be familiar to you; for which reason he forbids you to despise your own flesh. Say that he is contemptible and worthless; but the Lord shows him to be one whom he has deigned to grace with his own image. Say that you are obliged to him for no services; but God has made him, as it were, His substitute, to whom you acknowledge yourself to be under obligations for numerous and important benefits. Say that he is unworthy of your making the smallest exertion on his account; but the image of God, by which he is recommended to you, deserves your surrender of yourself and all that you possess.
“If he not only deserved no favor, but, on the contrary, has provoked you with injuries and insults—even this is no just reason why you should cease to embrace him with your affection, and to perform to him the offices of love. He has deserved, you will say, very different treatment from me. But what has the Lord deserved, who, when He commands you to forgive all men their offences against you, certainly intends that they should be charged to Himself?”
~ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
Posted by Justin Lonas
In his 2005 bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Canadian journalist Malcom Gladwell wrote about the neurological phenomenon of “thin-slicing”–the ability of humans to make remarkably accurate snap judgments about people, objects, and situations based on very little information. Thin-slicing, Gladwell says, helps us navigate daily life by equipping us to recognize friends and acquaintances, avoid danger (like visiting run-down buildings or eating spoiled food), and generally speed up our cognitive process (in essence, bypassing deeper thought about simple matters). Of course, like the rest of human nature, it has its drawbacks too: stereotyping and subjectivity to subliminal advertising messages come to mind.
Our propensity to thin-slice can make a muddle of social discourse. It is difficult for us to see the individual merits of someone who is from a different social class, race, or political party than we are or to rightly judge the merits of a specific action or argument because it is espoused by someone with whom we have profound disagreements in completely unrelated areas. These are not conscious decisions we make, but we can choose whether or not we allow our automatic thin-slicing to drive our slower, more reflective thought processes. We have to be willing to question our snap judgments, to “test the spirits” before we reach conclusions or take action.
In the Church, likewise, thin-slicing can be a blessing (quickly recognizing the fruit of the spirit in a believer’s life, having a “nose” for phony charities, etc.) and a curse (assuming guilt based on circumstantial evidence, interpreting Scripture out of context, etc.). Unchecked thin-slicing leads us into a host of theological, ecclesiastical, and personal prejudices that can often impede spiritual growth and provide justification for sin. I mean “prejudice” here in its classical sense (to pre-judge, to make decisions before gathering sufficient evidence), not, despite its modern connotations, “racist”, “hateful” or simply, “bad”. Neither is it prejudice to have many things settled in advance of evaluating a person or an idea. To hold to the authority of Scripture, for instance, in judging thoughts or behaviors as sinful is not prejudice but prudence–you are simply obeying the “ground rules” for debate and discussion set by the Maker of the universe. By contrast, however, it is indeed prejudice to impute sinful motives to a fellow believer simply because they hold to a position you don’t.
Christians need to be mindful of this tendency and the ways it influences discourse, both between the world and the Church and between believers within the Body.
In a culture given to ever more truncated communication, the substitution of cliches and sound-bites for dialogue is the rule of the day. The truth of the Gospel interrupts the noise, forcing everyone to engage with the person of Christ. The world recoils from that intrusion, quickly recognizing both Christ’s difference from itself and authority over it. There have always only been two options–repentance and submission or rejection and assault.
It should never catch us off guard when the world and those in its thrall pigeonhole Christians. We should more or less expect them to do everything possible to shut us down, drown us out, and keep us from applying the truth to their lives. We can either walk back our faith, kowtowing to their side and turning our backs on the God who saves, or we can stand firm. When we do that, the world’s next move is always to attack, and it should not take us by surprise in the least (see Matthew 10).
Nonbelievers often fail to think beyond their knee-jerk association of Christians with “badness”, hurling quick quips and distortions at the Church from a safe distance. They seldom engage in actual reading of the Bible or relationships with actual Christians in effort to discredit us–exposure to those things for many, as we are well aware, can have the unwanted side affect of conversion. Among their favorite tactics is to extrapolate the motives of every Christian’s heart from any example they can find of a “Christian” behaving badly or sharing views that run counter to the fruits of the Spirit. Nevermind that many of their favorite whipping boys were not Christian in any biblically recognizable sense and that most of the worst opinions ever held by Christians are the result of insufficiently sanctified minds (that is, Christians taking their cues from the world rather than from Christ).
In the world’s construct of reality, a Christian who lives out the love of Christ with the greatest of devotion (reaching out to the lost with the only thing that can truly make a difference in their lives: the offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone) is at best “intolerant” and at worst a bigot. Christians are only tolerated by the world when they dance to the world’s tune, pushing aside the demands of Scripture whenever the two are in conflict. Christians are told that we are only being “Christ-like” when we perform duties that any humanitarian would approve of (providing food, water, shelter, education, etc. to the poor or those in crisis). If we try to combine mercy ministries with the proclamation of the Gospel, we are marginalized and called hypocrites for offering those in need a “bait and switch” of some sort. If we focus our ministry on the truth of the Gospel, we are openly derided and constantly reminded about how Jesus was more concerned with actions than “doctrine”.
How should we relate to those who prejudice Christians and seek to tear us down? First, we have to remember that the people who attack us are acting in sin and have been made into agents of the Enemy by their rebellion against God. Our quarrel is not ultimately with them, and when we respond in kind to their thin-sliced judgments and catty harassment, we’re ceding Christ’s hard-won ground and souring them on the hope of redemption. Second, we cannot overemphasize personal holiness–the things we affirm as we seek to honor God and follow Him are going to raise the ire of the world, and it is of crucial importance that we maintain a standard of righteousness in our walk with God so that those who assail us in tearing down the truth cannot find any extra ammunition lying around.
Far more dangerous is the often bitter infighting between Christians over theology, ecclesiology, politics, and the like. Too often, when we feel we have something important to say, we get on an ideological high horse and ride roughshod over anyone who disagrees on that particular point, brushing aside the 10,000 things we hold in common (most importantly the blood of Christ). When that happens, we show the outside world that their convictions are correct–Christians are just a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites on a succession of power trips who have nothing useful to contribute to “society”.
A distinction needs to be made between two types of Christian “infighting”. The first kind is often just a covert operation of the larger tension between the world and the message of Christ. That is, the fight is not between two branches of Christianity, but between Christians who want to honor Christ above all and people who want to submit Christ to the world’s system and are using the Church as a tool to that end (the conservative/liberal divide in theology is a good example of this). By wearing the mask of infighting, such conflicts are among Satan’s best tactic for tearing down the faith in the world’s eyes. The second strain, squabbling between Christians over issues that are in fact important when both sides are genuinely trying to apply God’s Word and give Him glory, is where I’m addressing these remarks.
When we let our discussion and decision-making begin and end with our thin-sliced assessments of each other, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the intellectual laziness we’re engaging in. When we set up certain trigger words as our shibboleths, beyond which no discussion can pass, we close our hearts to what the Lord may be trying to teach us through debate and disagreement. When we surround ourselves with an echo chamber of only like-minded voices, we deprive the Body of Christ of the challenge of learning and growing, and the joy that comes from submitting our differences to our shared worship of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Again, there are two primary points we forget at our peril.
First, no one is perfect. I know we’ve heard that before, but I don’t think we believe it–we expect our cohorts in the Church to attain a standard of personal and intellectual purity that is simply impossible this side of glory. When we remember this, however, we can move forward in a more honest dialogue that honors God who alone is holy. The fall means that every good gift of God is distorted, every solution has a dark underbelly, but also that many bad things can be redeemed. If we’re hoping for anything better in our churches than repentant, forgiven sinners, we’re bound to be disappointed. Paul’s words to the Corinthians (about church members suing one another) are instructive: “Actually, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren” (1 Cor. 6:7-8).
Second, remember how Scripture tells us to handle disagreements and sins. Jesus outlines a very specific process (private confrontation, confrontation by a few witnesses, public confrontation in the church, and excommunication if unrepentance persists) in Matthew 18:15-17. Paul, as fierce a contender for the truth as the Church ever produced, urges us in familial terms to rebuke one another in love (1 Tim. 5:1-2) and places very strict standards on how such charges are brought against church leaders (1 Tim. 5:19). What we see is that patience, thoroughness, and charitability are to be the defining features in our public responses to disagreements.
Both these lessons are crucial in today’s high-tech world. The walls between the world and the Church have been dissolved when it comes to online debates. Accountability is replaced by anonymity and darts are hurled from all sides. The pace with which controversies explode in the age of the internet pressures everyone with an opinion to weigh in within a day or two–why? Because they know that if they wait a week to pray, reflect, and research, no one will care anymore. If that is truly the case, we should always wait at least a week before we respond to anything–if we’re still confused, angry, and convinced someone was wrong, then we’ll have firm ground to deliver a well-formed response. If we’ve forgotten about it, it probably means that we should have–it wasn’t important enough to get our knickers in a wad over after all.
The reason this matters is wrapped up in the classic injunction to peace in the Church: “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). I fear that we may be so angry, even if righteously, that we turn from God and bow to a favorite idol of modern man–being right, understood, and acclaimed. I fear that this idol is worshipped more than the God we all desire to serve and worship, and that is on full display when we fight in public. May God have mercy on us all.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Growing up in Watauga County, North Carolina, you inevitably hear some really good folk and bluegrass music. It just seems like the natural soundtrack to green mountains and mist-filled valleys. In Watauga, especially, one name always epitomized the gold-standard of mountain music: hometown legend Doc Watson. Doc was a fixture on the nationwide folk circuit for the better part of 5 decades, winning 7 Grammy awards (plus a lifetime achievement award) and the National Arts Medal. He was completely blind from early childhood, but made his way in the world quite capably with his other senses.
Doc passed on yesterday at 89, still picking and singing joyfully in his old age. It feels close to home for me, as his family homestead was just across the highway from my parents’ “homestead” (since 2006) in the little farm community of Deep Gap. The few times I crossed paths with Doc (more often at the grocery store than any place music-related), he seemed like a genuinely humble and grateful man–the simple fact that he was still living on his family land in Deep Gap after his fame attests to that.
Like many of his folk, bluegrass, and country contemporaries, Doc wrote or recorded a lot of spiritually themed music, what could broadly be termed “gospel” songs. It’s difficult to separate the biblical content from those genres, even in songs not explicitly about Christian concepts. The music, is, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “Christ-haunted” because of the deeply Christian culture that birthed it. I don’t know if Doc trusted Christ for his salvation or not, but I sincerely hope so. If the testimonies of those who knew him better and the frequency and passion with which he sang about the Gospel and the Church are any indication, my hope may be well founded. If so, he’s now living what he said once at a concert: ”When I leave this world…I’ll be able to see like you can, only maybe a bit more perfect.”
Can “gospel” music be simply a superficial nod to the Christian roots of our culture that doesn’t have anything to do with the true Gospel message? Of course, but I think it also can be an ember that keeps the cultural memory of God’s sovereign grace from fading completely. Satan loves to have nations relegate the truth of Scripture and the influence of the Church to their history or to certain subcultures. Even more, though, God wills to see nations transformed by His Gospel, and He uses even the histories and subcultures of those nations to plant seeds that can fan those embers into a flame once again.
I don’t want to be in the business of over-spiritualizing popular culture, but I do see a bright lining to the customarily dark clouds of American entertainment in the resurgence of traditional (or “Americana”) music over the past decade. Of course, the music itself doesn’t qualify as preaching. The seeds of the Gospel contained in that music won’t do much to change hearts and lives unless they are watered by clear, faithful teaching of God’s Word and modeled in the faithful witness of believers. We can appreciate the music as the creative spirit of the image of God, but we should also never forget that the message of all the best gospel songs needs to be delivered in person and expounded to take root.
If Doc was indeed a follower of Jesus, I’m sure he could think of no better legacy than that his music would be used to stir the calloused soul of America to seek her Creator. As he sang in a recording of an old hymn (below), so also we can know that our hope doesn’t depend on our culture or, thankfully, on our own merit. Ironically, perhaps, it is this knowledge of the end of our faith that makes the redemption of our culture and the salvation of our fellow men our greatest goal.
O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.
O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an uncloudy day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.
O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
O they tell me of that land far away,
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the uncloudy day.
O they tell me of a King in His beauty there,
And they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on the throne that is whiter than snow,
In the city that is made of gold.
O they tell me that He smiles on His children there,
And His smile drives their sorrows all away;
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of uncloudy day.
Posted by Justin Lonas
What happens when a pastor has an awakening in his own relationship with Christ? When he comes to an understanding of the Word that renews his passion for the Gospel and the work of the ministry? He is bound (and responsible) to share his discovery with his congregation as an evidence of the grace of God in His life and the life of the local body.
What happens when he addresses the congregation, however, may not be nearly so joyous as his initial breakthrough. Often, the substance of spiritual growth involves things (conviction of sin, deeper understanding of grace, shift of focus from self to Christ) that will necessarily step on the toes of those who are not interested in the things of God and attend church for merely social or personal reasons. Sometimes, however, even those who share the pastor’s sincere faith and desire for growth will take offense at a challenging teaching from the Word.
I’ve seen far too many pastors get frustrated when they have a clear sense that the Lord is leading them and their churches into greater obedience to His Word but their congregation is either unmoved or even hostile to the changes in practice that obedience might lead to. In recent months, a few pastors I’m acquainted with have been fired or pressured to backpedal in their teaching under threat of dismissal. In those cases I’m familiar with, the pastors in question have been pilloried for being “too Calvinist” for preaching the glory of God’s work in sending His Son to die for our sins in a way that gives God’s power in redeeming us precedence over man’s work in responding.
I’m not sure why the congregations of these pastors have rejected their sincere teaching, and I don’t want this post to be a quibble over doctrine or semantics. What I do want is to outline a few helpful principles that churches and pastors should apply when this type of situation (a pastor relaying a doctrinal/obedience awakening to a church that hasn’t experienced the same awakening) arises.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Originally published in Pulpit Helps Magazine, April 2009.
On the face of it, Easter seems like a straightforward celebration of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.
Without doubt, the salvation of mankind was an integral part of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The wider view of Calvary, however, reveals Christ crucified as the cornerstone of God’s plan for His ultimate glory.
From the very beginning, Easter was calculated for; in the midst of meting out the justified curses on His handiwork after their rebellion, God promised a coming redemption (Gen. 3:15). Later, he clarified his promises through the prophets, most notably via a man named “Salvation is God” (Isaiah). Isaiah begins to distinguish between two comings of Messiah—he elaborates on the theme of the coming king who will crush Satan’s head (Is. 9:1-7), but adds to it the narrative of the “suffering servant” who would be undeservedly punished to take away the sins of mankind (Is. 53:1-12). As we see throughout Scripture, both appearances are crucial to a proper understanding of Christ. Paradoxically, the Jews were so focused on the second, triumphal coming that they had Jesus crucified for blasphemy at His first.
The events surrounding the crucifixion are further evidence of the cosmic significance of that day. The thorns woven into His crown evoke a powerful irony as a product of the curse was used to mark the King on the day He settled the score; the story arc of fall and redemption came full circle. Athanasius of Alexandria in his On the Incarnation speaks of the earthquakes, darkness, and raising of deceased saints at Christ’s death as the whole of creation bearing witness to the fact of His Lordship and the act of redemption.
While Easter often draws our focus to the cross, the resurrection is the foundational act that gives fullness of meaning to everything that came before. Sometimes we think of it as the happy ending to the “real story” of atonement, but without rising from the dead, Christ’s work would not have been complete. Among others, four reasons stand out as to why the resurrection deserves paramount attention.
1) It was prophesied.
Isaiah is replete with references to Messiah’s return to reign after His suffering. In 55:11-13, he says “So will My word which goes froth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up, and instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up, and it will be a memorial to the Lord, for an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.”
The “Word” spoken of here most likely refers to Christ. The Lord’s declaration that He would not return empty tells us that His death alone was not the sum total of His task on earth. The work of redeeming creation referenced in this passage is not yet complete, but it is promised; the crucified servant, therefore, had to be raised to return. In Matt. 20:18-19, John 2:19, and elsewhere, Jesus predicted His death and resurrection, seldom mentioning one without the other.
2) The Resurrection defeated death and Satan.
Christ’s atonement had a manifold purpose: to defeat not only sin but death and Satan. Whereas His sacrificial death covered the sins of humanity, only His resurrection cast aside death and dealt the crushing blow to Satan’s power.
Paul’s polemic against disbelief in the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15 makes clear that Christ’s return to life was the key both to eternal life and to the demise of death. Paul proves that Christ was in fact raised (vv. 4-8), that His ongoing life is key to our salvation (vv. 16-19), that His resurrection heralds eternal life for those who follow Him (vv. 20-23), and that death itself has been defeated by Christ’s act (vv. 26, 54-57). “But Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20-21). Paul reiterated this truth to the Thessalonians, encouraging them to grieve with hope in the assurance of resurrection and Christ’s victory over death (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
3) It brought greater glory to God
Perhaps the only thing that could show God’s holiness, power, and love more than casting His only son away from Himself by making Him into sin itself to atone for our sins (2 Cor. 5:21) was for Him to be restored to fellowship with Jesus by raising Him from the dead. Christ the “first fruits” was welcomed back to the Father, opening the door for all those who believe in Him to be adopted into the Kingdom. For the first time since the fall, the Lord was able to enjoy fellowship with His creation without violating His holiness.
Additionally, In Luke 24:35-36, Jesus points out that His suffering and resurrection were necessary for Him to enter into His glory. His triumph over death and Satan showed once for all His ultimate power. Because He died the death of a cursed criminal on the cross, His resurrection brought supreme honor and glory from the greatest dishonor man could subject Him to.
4) The Resurrection empowered Christ’s followers
Jesus’ very public death, without a public resurrection, would have easily quashed the spread of His teaching. As Jesus prophesied in Matt. 26:31-32, His death scattered the disciples, but He drew them back to Himself and commissioned them after He was raised. Athanasius cites the empowerment of the disciples after the resurrection as evidence of Christ’s defeat of death. The early Church clearly did not fear death as the culture around them, braving persecutions and martyrdom to take the Gospel to the corners of the known world within a few generations of Christ. The resurrection reinvigorated the disciples’ commitment to Christ’s message and paved the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Living it out
Clearly, Easter should motivate us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the truths that form the backbone of our faith. It is a time for us to reflect on the cost of our redemption, the meaning of forgiveness, and the glory of God. More than that, however, it should stir us to give flesh to the reality of Christ’s life; we are to, as Paul said in Phil. 2:12 “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The magnitude of Christ’s work on the first Easter (not just physically, but theologically [giving up His nature, becoming separated from the Father, etc.]) demands a response of obedience to His holiness and mercy. The obligation is one of gratitude; the God who gave His Son for us is not interested in forced obedience.
Living the resurrection should encompass both submission to God’s will, and dedication to Christ’s call to make disciples. When we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), our actions fly in the face of human nature because they are flowing from the life within us. In that way, we give evidence to Christ’s resurrection; only if He was raised and is alive could He continue to work among men.
Jesus Himself desires that we carry on His mission in the power of the resurrection. In His “High Priestly Prayer” of John 17, He pleads to the Father for His disciples, saying, “Sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth” (vv. 17-19). In taking the Gospel to our neighbors and the nations, we are fulfilling Christ’s call and His hope for our lives.
John’s gospel concludes with a musing on the scope of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). There is a definite sense in which every believer tells a unique part of that story until the whole world is indeed filled with truth and majesty at the second coming. The glory of the resurrection is seen each day in the fullness of Christ’s living Body, the Church. Perhaps that is what the celebration of Easter is truly about
Posted by Justin Lonas