Like a lot of writers and editors, I spend a great deal of my time reading news and opinion articles, essays, books, blog posts, and more. Much of what I read is for the benefit of Disciple readers–it’s hard to know what to publish if you don’t keep up with what’s going on in the world and the Church. Additionally, a huge chunk of reading time is devoted to studying God’s Word and theology–knowledge is not the be-all-end-all of Christian life by any means, but it’s hard to live rightly if you don’t know truth. Finally, some of the material that passes my eyes is simply to gain perspective on the wider world, to find new examples of faith and courage through biography, to see truth and lies played out in fiction, etc. All good writing, should teach as well as delight, and as with nourishment, a balanced diet of reading keeps our minds healthy, active, and productive.
What follows are 10(ish) of the best books I encountered in 2012, in alphabetical order. These books are not all from Christian publishers (or authors), but they each blessed me in some way. Also, most of these books were not published this year, but simply made their way to the top of my “to-read” list at some point in the year.
1. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy, by Eric Metaxas
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had always lurked on the periphery of my understanding of Church life. I’ve read snippets of Discipleship and Life Together, and some of his ideas therein have given voice to some powerful convictions about what it means to love God and neighbor. Metaxas’ biography opened up Bonhoeffer’s life, giving weight to his words by showing the faithful, heroic, consistency of his commitment to God and His Word. Bonhoeffer’s understanding that belief in God and obedience to Him are inseparable is on full display in the story of his stand for truth and love–even unto death–against Hitler and the evil he unleashed on the world. Full review here. As an aside, Eric Metaxas came to speak for our parent organization’s 70th anniversary in November, and I got to have dinner with this thoughtful, kind, and humorous man.
2. Civilization: The West and the Rest, by Niall Ferguson.
Ferguson examines the triumph of Western Civilization in the last half-millennium, identifying 6 “killer apps” that propelled development in the West above and beyond the other major world powers of the early modern era: 1) Competition, 2) Science, 3) Property Rights, 4) Medicine, 5) The Consumer Society, and 6) The Work Ethic. He analyzes modern history though this rubric, offering example after example of how these phenomena took root in the West, but were ignored or suppressed in the majority world. Today, he argues, the West has forgotten these institutions and begun to decline, whereas the “Rest” have beaten the West at its own game by downloading them. His thesis definitely seems to hold water, and his warning to Westerners to recapture the foundations of their prosperity and culture before it is too late is especially prescient.
3. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Really Matters, by Timothy Keller
I read this at the recommendation of an old and trusted friend, and I wasn’t disappointed. Like other works of Keller’s that I’ve read, this book is short, to the point, and bold in its approach to its subject. He pares away rhetorical flourishes, side-notes, allusions, and deeper discussions to cut to the chase–a bruising theological argument that all sin begins with idolatry. He shows how our sinful hearts can manufacture idols from anything, turning finite things (even, or especially, good things) into ultimate things, the loss of which sends us spiraling into despair. An excellent prompt to reflect, repent, and fix your hope on Christ alone. Full review here.
4. The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness, by Kevin DeYoung
DeYoung’s latest book is an challenging and loving corrective of what he observes as a diminished concern for living according to God’s standards among today’s Christians, particularly those who claim the Gospel message–that we are not saved by works but solely through God’s grace–most deeply. He points out that the Law of God has a much larger purpose than simply to show us God’s standard (though it does), to convict us of sin (though it does), or to remind us of how unattainable perfect righteousness is apart from Christ (which it does very well indeed). He argues the rather obvious point that God’s Law should also give us a direction in which to strive to be like Christ, that believers can and should live in a way that pleases God. Full review here.
5. The Holiness of God, by R. C. Sproul
Somehow, I’d never read this book until this year, but I’m glad not to have attempted it before having some good life experience to properly appreciate God’s power and perfection beyond the “Sunday school” understanding. Sproul mines Scripture to portray God as He is–the infinite, perfect, uncreated God of the universe who created the heavens and the earth and sustains them by His Word, and cannot abide sin. He shows that the great mystery of theology and philosophy rests in the fact that this same God chooses to reveal Himself to sinful men in explicit terms and desires to be reconciled to them. Sproul is at his finest here, inviting readers to come and lose themselves in awe as they contemplate their maker, what He has done for them, and what He asks of them. Full review here.
6. Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry
I’ve long appreciated Wendell Berry’s essays on the nature of life, society, and agriculture. In today’s rapidly-urbanizing world, he offers a voice of opposition, encouraging us not to forget the land that produces our food and to think about what we stand to lose with each technological and political innovation. He has also written a large body of fiction, much of which is centered around the fictional town of Port William, Ky. (modeled on his own hometown). Jayber Crow, is one story in that group, meditating on life and the upheaval that “progress” brings to a community. As powerful a picture as any I’ve read of what we’ve lost as a culture in speeding up our lives and of what we stand to gain by slowing them back down.
7. Technopoly, by Neil Postman and The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion, by Tim Challies
Postman’s Technopoly was a “town crier” announcing the arrival of an age in which mankind began to trust machines rather than gods or even human reason. He makes a compelling case for the dangerous proliferation of information and technology to the point where all power and authority in our lives is ceded to human inventions and the “experts” who operate them. Where Postman’s critique comes up short is in his disbelief in the existence of an all-powerful creator who holds all things, even the man-made doomsday of technology, in His hands. The Next Story is Tim Challies’ effort to echo and amend Postman’s warning for Christians who, even though we cling to God and His salvation, can be seduced and distracted by technology and information overload. Taken together, these two books give us a healthy skepticism toward technology (which is desperately needed in today’s world), but also a framework to become what Postman calls “loving resistance fighters” for the art of living well in the midst of a changed world. Full review of Challies here.
8. Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ, by Russell D. Moore
Books on sin and temptation typically don’t “hit the spot” for us–we’d rather focus on the good things Christ brings than the dark depravity from which He saved us. Moore helpfully breaks that silence, delineating between temptation (which even Christ endured) and giving in to its call (sin), and challenging Christians to find strength for the resistance in Christ’s own battle with Satan in the desert. He writes with an uncannily clear vision of the human soul, piercing our false ideas and shining the light of the Gospel into the recesses of our hearts. This is not a ”how-to” on the “victorious Christian life”, but an invitation to see ourselves daily as sinners in need of a Savior. Full review here.
9. The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell’s social psychology trilogy delves into the nature of how men and women make decisions, find success in their pursuits, and effectively change the world through communication. In each of these volumes, he cautions us not to take the world we see at face value, but to think critically about the ways we process information and act on it. These three books ought to be required reading for any professional, as the findings he discusses have tremendous implications for the way we do business, industry, politics, and even Christian ministry are profound. Gladwell eloquently challenges our assumptions about the world and hopefully urges us learn and grow for improvement of our lives.
10. Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life, by Douglas Wilson
Great stuff for writers here, but good thoughts on human communication in general. We all write at least something on a regular basis–as Wilson put it, without words we’d be left with just pointing and grunting–so it behooves us to do a good job in whatever medium we’re using to say what’s on our minds. If you write (or speak) for a living, this goes on the must-read list, and I’d give it a hearty recommendation for everyone else as well. This short little book is far more than just a manual for better writing; Wilson calls us as Christians to be truthful and winsome in how we tell God’s story (and the millions of little stories that point to it) to the world.
Posted by Justin Lonas
I don’t usually use this space to comment on local issues, but something has come up here in Chattanooga that is a microcosm of the larger cultural fault-line of abortion.
This cartoon appeared in Sunday’s edition of our local newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Warning, this is (in my view) a very offensive image.
To be fair to the newspaper’s editorial staff, the local backdrop of this issue is the very unfortunate case of Dr. Scott DesJarlais, a Republican U. S. Congressman representing a neighboring district. DesJarlais was supported by the Tea Party in 2010, winning his seat by campaigning on the pro-life, low tax, limited government platform that most voters in East Tennessee identify with. In this year’s re-election campaign, however, a recording surfaced of a conversation between DesJarlais and a female patient of his with whom he had committed adultery. In the recording, the woman claimed to be pregnant with his child, and DesJarlais pressured her to have an abortion. The hypocrisy that this exposed has cost him all credibility with the people of his district, turned his locked-in reelection into a fight for survival, and given more ammunition to opponents of the Church and Christian values.
This cartoon exemplified for me the harsh, anti-conservative and anti-Christian turn the pro-abortion forces have taken this election year. The local situation notwithstanding, I thought the cartoon was totally uncalled for. I haven’t written much about this issue as it has played out at the national level this year, but as a firm believer in Tip O’Neill’s observation that “all politics is local”, I undertook to write to the Times Free Press editorial board and register dissent with their choice to display such a hateful image. Please note that being a Christian should never be equated with being a Republican, but the Republican platform on abortion has been consistently shaped by Christians seeking to restore a respect for and protection of God’s image-bearers in our culture.
Below is my letter to the editor, which may or may not show up in the paper, but which I want to share here to encourage Christians around the country not to take such attacks from the media lying down.
To the TFP editorial staff,
Sunday’s editorial cartoon by Clay Bennett was predictably left-wing, more tasteless than usual, and untruthful to the point of libel.
As a longtime reader of the Times Free Press, I’m well familiar with Bennett’s style and politics, and very little that he produces surprises me. He is a talented artist, but I’m sure I’m not the only Chattanoogan who finds his relentless ax-grinding for Democratic Party politics and liberal social issues a poor fit for this community. Still, he is entitled to his opinions and I fully support his right to express them.
When a cartoon so deliberately crafted to goad many (if not most) people in your readership area to anger is run on the front of the Perspectives section with no comment from the editorial staff or space given to an opposing viewpoint, my beef is with the TFP editorial board, not with Mr. Bennett. Cartoons are by nature stand-alone pieces not requiring further commentary, but this absolutely humorless depiction of Republicans as supporters of gruesome back-alley woman mangling and child murder crossed a line that should exempt it from the usual “free pass” afforded to a cartoon. I have trouble believing that the TFP or any other major news outlet would run a written editorial expressing those ideas with the same level of vitriol at all, and certainly not without running a corresponding piece from a pro-life source.
More than the tactlessness, Bennett’s complete misrepresentation of a conservative position on life prompted me to write. The insinuation that political action toward the end of protecting children from abortion must mean 1) that proponents of life wish unspeakable harm to women who become pregnant against their wishes or when they feel helpless to care for a child, and 2) that pro-life conservatives have no compassion whatsoever is hateful and uninformed. Conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives, do so much to protect life (both of mothers and babies).
If the staff of the TFP cared to look, Chattanooga is filled with examples of people giving of their time and resources to help women break the cycle of unintended pregnancy and abortion. The wonderful people at Choices Pregnancy Resource Center (who provide counseling and assistance with prenatal care) and Bethany Christian Services (who work tirelessly to place children with loving foster families and adoptive parents) spring immediately to mind, and I’m sure there are many other smaller organizations and church ministries striving for the same goals. In my own circle of friends at church and at work, I know many families who have sacrificed tremendously to adopt and care for the “unwanted children” that might have been killed in the womb but for the intervention of the same conservatives Bennett skewered in his cartoon. The liberal establishment and the Times Free Press may believe that opposing legal abortion is simply an ivory-tower moralistic position that doesn’t stand up to reality. The truth is that the pro-life movement is filled with people who live out their beliefs at great personal cost to give every member of our society a chance to live their life and have their voice heard. This is apparently a privilege that Bennett takes for granted.
The TFP’s promotion of Bennett’s unanswered attack amounts to nothing more than a gleeful sucker punch of your host city by an editorial staff increasingly out of touch with the needs and values of the Chattanooga region. I offer this as a word of caution. A city of Chattanooga’s caliber deserves a thoughtful, thoroughgoing, and well-managed media presence. If the Times Free Press chooses to become a mouthpiece of only the liberals in the city, another media outlet will grow to fill the middle ground, taking more and more readers out of your circulation and making it more and more difficult to provide the services you promise. It would be a very sad end for a publication with such an august history.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Originally published in Pulpit Helps, November 2008, and updated for Disciple Magazine, October 2010.
It seems as though many who’ve encountered Christ, from the very beginning, have confused His mission with political solutions to the world’s problems. From Herod’s violent reaction to the perceived threat of the King’s birth (Matt. 2) to the crowd Jesus fed who then sought to make Him king (John 6:15) to the general perception that He had come to establish an earthly kingdom (exemplified by the disciples misunderstanding of His death in John 20:9-10), men have misinterpreted the Kingdom of God according to their own vision.
Through the centuries, we see this pattern repeated—in Constantine, the aggregation of power in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, the Crusades, the alliance between Church and state through most of modern European history, etc. While in America the relationship between religion and politics was designed to be more distant than in the nations of our forebears, there is still significant overlap. In this heated election season, both sides are quick to invoke God and reach out to the Christian community. The tendency to assign God to a political party and vote accordingly is pervasive—but that’s not what He calls us to.
While there are certain issues never to be compromised on (i.e.—protecting the sanctity of life), almost all political positions involve man’s ideas and plans and therefore are likely to be fundamentally flawed. When we passionately identify ourselves as a Church with any party, we can cheapen our witness by allying ourselves with unbiblical policies and programs. Such a commitment detracts from our ability to reach the lost by creating additional stumbling blocks for unbelievers. Those uncomfortable with being confronted about their need for a Savior will be that much more resistant to that message delivered by someone who is perceived as a political opponent. “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” (1 Cor. 1:18a)—why would we want to make it more difficult for someone to come to the Truth?
At the risk of oversimplification, Americans tend to take one of two approaches in this arena, both of which are damaging to the Gospel. 1) We cherish our religious freedom and we believe that it is the government’s job to enforce morality in the culture, or 2) We cherish the work of Christ and we believe it is the government’s job to do justice and love mercy.
When we succumb to the first approach, we show a watching world that Christianity is not as important in society as general conservatism and that we don’t trust God to redeem men from the inside out as He has always done. When we fall to the second, we show the world that Christianity is less about personal sacrifice and more about making sure someone else takes up their cross and gives involuntarily to the poor and needy through taxes. We show that we don’t trust God to move His Church to live out His kingdom. In either case, we show a willingness to compromise certain key teachings of Christ in order to advance a temporal agenda.
Both approaches belie a fundamental distrust of God’s view of things—if there is one theme that Jesus hit over and over again during His ministry, it was that His kingdom was not of this world. He had eternity in view in everything He did, and Christian involvement in politics can easily devolve into idolatry of the present and visible over the permanent and invisible.
Politics is, fundamentally, about gaining and leveraging power. It revolves around the ability to make others do what you want them to, the desire to protect your interests, and a belief that we must solve our own problems rather than allowing God to work in His time. Christ calls us rather to settle offenses personally and quickly (Matt. 5: 21-26), to graciously accept persecution and go the extra mile (Matt. 5:38-42), to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), to trust God to reward righteousness practiced in secret (Matt. 6:1-6), and to treat others as we would like to be treated (Matt. 7:12).
Most of all, He has called us to be fishers of men and to make disciples. Men’s hearts are not changed through political action, but by the work of the Spirit. Accordingly, that should be the focus of our lives and work. If we focus on political solutions to the problems facing the world, we forfeit opportunities to show Christ through service. Governments can provide many services, but without the ability to address the base-level need of humanity, they can never make men whole.
As dangerous an animal as politics can be, it is important to distinguish it from governing authority. Though it is difficult to separate the two in our country, there is an important distinction—governments are instituted by God to preserve order, punish evildoers, and protect the weak. As such, we are told to submit to them (Titus 3:1, Rom. 13:1) to pay our taxes (Rom. 13:6-7) and to pray for our leaders (1 Tim. 2:2). These passages assume the absolute despotism of the day as the norm and that citizenry has but two choices—obedience and disobedience. The concept of representative government of, by, and for the people (cherished though it may be by most Americans) is not given a category in Scripture. We struggle with this, in short, because we are torn between the submission and prayer commanded of us and the very tangible ability to change things through political action.
As in all professions, God has placed many of His servants in the realm of government. Working with authorities to achieve godly goals is noble and right (as we see in Daniel and Esther) when it is a part of our primary goal of following Him and spreading His Truth. Through such action, William Wilberforce was able to lead the movement to eradicate slavery in the British Empire and stir a revival of true Christianity in that nation. Christians working within governments have helped save untold thousands of lives around the world through disease prevention, aid programs, and peace negotiations, giving men the opportunity to live to hear the Truth. In our own day, believers fight valiantly for the right of unborn children to live, both politically and practically (through adoption and crisis pregnancy centers).
These two temptations—to believe that politics can solve all our problems or to believe that God never uses political action to advance His plans—are always knocking at our door. Even as we seek to focus on our primary mission as His Church, we must be careful to recognize that God’s will and the authorities He set over us are not always in conflict. As we head into the voting booth soon, let us strive to vote according to scriptural principles, but remember that no party or candidate has a platform that wholly conforms to God’s commands. No matter the outcome, our responsibility is to trust the Lord’s sovereignty, submit to and intercede for those He places over us, and be about His business in all aspects of life—not just in the ballot box.
Posted by Justin Lonas
The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle: A Journey of Love across Africa, Nell Robertson Chinchen, 2012, Christian Focus Publications, Faern, Scotland, ISBN 9781845509217, 175 pages, $12.99, softcover.
Serving as a part of a missions organization, my coworkers and I have the opportunity to hear so many firsthand stories of the incredible power of God to use individuals, families, churches, and institutions to proclaim His Gospel and redeem people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. This is a source of great joy, but also a danger—if you’re not careful, you can grow numb to the eternal significance of this. This can happen even in wonderfully missions-focused churches, and every Christian should be on guard to keep themselves uncalloused.
A good missionary biography can be an excellent tool to refresh the sheer wonder at the work of God that we as believers should enjoy. Nell Robertson Chinchen’s The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle serves admirably for this. The Chinchen family’s story of spiritual growth from complacent churchgoing to pastoral ministry to pioneering missionary work across Africa offers example after example of God’s radical faithfulness to His obedient servants.
In the book, Chinchen recounts her family’s journey into a lifetime of missionary work over the course of dozens of short stories. It would be impossible to miss the Lord’s guidance of every step of their move to the jungles of Liberia, the establishment of the African Bible College there and (later) in Malawi and Uganda, and the blossoming of their radio ministry, and Chinchen is careful to make sure readers know that He deserves all the glory.
Though the book’s anecdotal format seems to leave some gaps in the larger narrative of the Chinchens’ life and ministry (there is enough material there, to be sure, for a much longer book) and doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of their experience as one might hope, what shines through is the mighty hand of God in every facet of their work.
Chinchen shares how God opened doors for ministry by bringing “men of peace” to guide them through red tape and dangerous situations, how He miraculously provided land, equipment, and funding for every ministry need, and how He protected them through disease, fire, political unrest, and war. Her frank and funny style resonates well, and punctures the notion that missionaries must somehow be extraordinarily somber, hyper-spiritual people to be effective.
The reason I picked up this book is largely personal—I grew up in a church that supported the Chinchens. They were regulars at our congregational missions conferences, and I remember them coming over to my family’s house for meals when I was 9 or 10 years old. It seems like yesterday that we were praying for their safety during the Liberian Civil Wars and rejoicing with them at the Lord’s provision for a new African Bible College campus in Malawi. I can attest to their faith and infectious zeal for missions, and that comes through in the book.
The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle should be a great encouragement to all believers to look up and see what God is doing, and perhaps even to respond to His call to “ go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
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
True faith in Jesus Christ shouldn’t be confused with religion–we all know the clichés. In fact, I believe much of the trouble with reaching the lost in so-called “Christian cultures” has to do with the fact that faithless religion can inoculate souls against the power of the Gospel.
In America especially, however, we love the idea of a public shared faith. We want our political and civic leaders to at least call themselves religious, to give a “shout-out” to God at public gatherings. We’d be happy to have prayer back in the public schools, even if it’s not required to be to the God of the Bible. The assumption behind this is that acknowledgment of the supernatural will help keep our darker natures in check and raise the level of collective morality in our communities and public affairs.
It’s only natural for Christians to bristle at the vilification of belief in God in society, but too often, the civic religion of the public square for which we settle conflates belief in any range of deities with general values and ethics, and the resulting mush is something that no one could love, but that few could be offended by. Such “religion” is hardly an asset to the Gospel. Or is it?
Sure, a civic religion that sees it as good citizenship to be a part of a church can promote apostasy in churches desiring to lure influential businessmen and politicians in attendance. But it could also drive “upwardly mobile” members of the community into a place where they will encounter the saving grace of Jesus Christ through a clear presentation of the Gospel for the first time.
A civic religion that places peer pressure on business owners to donate to local charities, churches, and outreach events (whether or not they do so from a heart longing for the salvation of the lost) could make light of the Church’s calling to make disciples. But it could provide needed funds to vibrant ministries that would otherwise languish.
A civic religion that sees Protestants, Catholics, and concerned nonbelievers come together to fight abortion certainly could muddy the theological waters and damage the witness of the exclusive Gospel in the community. But it could also foster the development of crisis pregnancy centers and adoption agencies that will faithfully proclaim Christ as they seek to love the downtrodden and prevent them from turning one sinful choice into a far greater one.
A civic religion that brings 1,500 community leaders into a room for a prayer breakfast (as we have here in Chattanooga each year) could be simply an opportunity for glad-handing and networking with like-minded citizens. But it could provide a legitimate opportunity to call local churches to remember that “entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). It could also provide a platform to offer a clear Gospel call to each of those in attendance.
Clearly, civic religion should not be goal of the Church. Clearly, it could damage the Church and diminish the light of Christ in our culture. Clearly, our focus should be on faithfully proclaiming salvation through faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, as taught by Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. But let us be careful before we throw all such public “faith” under the bus. It can be (and has been) used greatly by God as a framework that opens doors to the introduction of the true Gospel into the hearts of many.
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
“Now I exhort you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider our calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that just as it is written, ‘let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Corinthians 1:10-31).
Posted by Justin Lonas