Not long ago WaterBrook Multnomah Books sent me a copy of If God Is Good: Faith in the Middle of Suffering and Evil for review. It is the first volume I’ve ever read from best-selling author Randy Alcorn, but after reading this book, Lord willing it will not be the last. The founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries presents an exceptionally well-written work addressing the nature of God’s absolute goodness, knowledge, and power in light of the existence of evil and suffering.
Alcorn launches the work by discussing the problems posed by evil and suffering in general, and then moves forward by providing a biblical explanation of their origins. He deals straightforwardly with the depraved fallen nature of human beings, and points masterfully to Jesus Christ as humanity’s only hope in a world filled with evil and suffering. The entire work, which is saturated with Scripture, is characterized by dealing boldly with the issues at hand and directing people constantly to Christ. This is one of the reasons I appreciate this book so much. As Alcorn continues, he poses problems for non-theists and tackles the arguments proposed by agnostics and atheists. He confronts the objections raised by the likes of Bart Ehrman, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins fearlessly. I believe this section will prove quite helpful to those who have been challenged particularly by the emotionally charged arguments of this trio.
Alcorn contends ably not only against non-theistic objections related to these issues, but also with unbiblical solutions proposed within the Church to answer these inquiries. He addresses the distortions of the “prosperity gospel,” the myth that Christians never suffer, and the “Christian” attempt to limit divine attributes to explain the issues at hand. Unlike many authors who contend against such unbiblical teachings, Alcorn never comes across as condescending. Rather, he counteracts these teachings in a manner found throughout the book – providing a foundational biblical theology with a sense of strong, compassionate pastoral care. He demonstrates how theology is interwoven; delving into important related areas such as the characteristics of God, free will, the existence of heaven and hell, and the nature of justification, sanctification, and glorification. Alcorn doesn’t flinch as he argues that God not only permits evil and suffering, but utilizes them for the good of human beings and for His own glory. The material presented isn’t ivory-tower theology presented merely for the sake of argument, but pastoral theology interlaced with real-life accounts of people who have been upheld by God’s grace during times of tremendous difficulty. Among the accounts, Alcorn includes the grave personal struggles he has faced.
The 492 pages of text may be intimidating to some, but they shouldn’t fear because this book is written in an easy-to-understand style with a general audience in mind. Anyone who picks up this volume will benefit from one of the very best works ever written on the subject. Randy Alcorn has masterfully written a piece which not only provides substantial support for believing in the existence of God, but also encourages Christians to persevere in the faith knowing that God is involved actively in the lives of His children – even as they suffer. I benefited greatly from reading If God Is Good, and trust you will as well. I give it my very highest recommendation.
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Please consider scoring this review at Blogging for Books.
Though you’ve probably never heard of Becca Ellis, my wife — Sharon — follows her blog regularly. Becca and her husband, Mike, were our neighbors in Abilene. Mike is a great guy who serves our nation faithfully as a military aircraft navigator. I had the privilege of serving as his unit chaplain while in Texas. Due to deployments, Mike was often away from home while Becca was taking diligent care of their boys. Becca’s latest blog caught my attention because it spoke poignantly about doing things of eternal value, and she used Sharon as an illustration. Becca’s blog — Becca and the boys — is well worth your time, and I especially recommend her latest post — What I like about You.
My thanks to WaterBrook Multnomah Books, particularly Chris Sigfrids, Online Marketing Manager, and Ashley Boyer, Publicist, for creating a new program they launched in November – Blogging for Books. This program was designed for one purpose: to give out free books to bloggers in exchange for an honest review of the works published by WaterBrook Multnomah. Bloggers win by receiving a free book, and WaterBrook wins by getting bloggers to create buzz about their books. For more info about the Blogging for Books program check out their FAQ page.
I just received my first book – Randy Alcorn’s If God Is Good: Faith in the Middle of Suffering and Evil, and will be posting a review in after I finish it. I’ve already completed the first section of 11, and so far it has been a fantastic read. Pastor Alcorn offers insight from personal experience and encounters, undergirded with solid theology. I’m looking forward to bringing you my final thoughts once I work through the entire book.
Thomas Howard, a highly acclaimed scholar and author, is a graduate of Wheaton College. He taught periodically at the school, but later earned his living as a professor of English at St. John’s Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts. His brother, David Howard, was a missionary, as was his well-known sister, Elisabeth Eliot. In his work, Evangelical Is Not Enough, Howard provides a narrative explaining his pilgrimage from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism. Describing evangelicalism with great sympathy while examining his own soul-searching reasons for embracing liturgical worship, he presents an apologetic for full-orbed worship.
While I believe Howard went much too far in abandoning the fundamental tenets of the Reformation by converting to Roman Catholicism, his work is not without merit. In his thinking, he didn’t depart from the Christian faith, but rather acquired an historical foundation which he felt was lacking in evangelicalism. He begins by investigating whether the term ‘evangelical’ is too diverse, and ably points out the commonalities shared by Roman Catholics and Protestants. In the concluding chapters, Howard appeals to utilizing liturgical worship as opposed to other forms of corporate worship. In summary, Howard believes Christians as a whole should overcome truncated worship by returning to three vital elements: episcopacy, communion as the focal point of corporate worship, and utilizing the Christian (liturgical) calendar.
Evangelicals may certainly benefit from reading this work, carefully considering the virtues of liturgical worship without surrendering essential tenets of the Protestant faith. In this, they may come to see how orthodox Anglicanism retained a full-orbed worship without compromising the evangelical faith. I leave you with a lengthy quote from Howard as he discusses reuniting the physical with the spiritual in worship:
“It is in the physical world that the intangible meets us. A kiss seals a courtship. The sexual act seals a marriage. A ring betokens a marriage. A diploma crowns years of schooling. A doctoral robe bespeaks intellectual achievement. A uniform and stripes announce a recruit’s training. A crown girds the brow that rules England. This symbolism bespeaks the sort of creature we are. To excise all of this from piety and worship is to suggest that the gospel beckons us away from our humanity into a disembodied realm. It is to turn the Incarnation into a mere doctrine.
The Incarnation took all that properly belongs to our humanity and delivered it back to us, redeemed. All of our inclinations and appetites and capacities and yearnings and proclivities are purified and gathered up and glorified by Christ. He did not come to thin out human life; He came to set it free. All the dancing and feasting and processing and singing and building and sculpting and baking and merrymaking that belong to us, and that were stolen away into the service of false gods, are returned to us in the gospel.
The worship of God, surely, should be the place where men, angels, and devils may see human flesh once more set free into all that it was created to be. To restrict that worship to sitting in pews and listening to words spoken is to narrow things down in a manner strange to the gospel. We are creatures who are made to bow, not just spiritually (angels can do that) but with kneebones and neck muscles. We are creatures who cry out to surge in great procession, ‘ad altare Dei,’ not just in our hearts (disembodied spirits can do that) but with our feet, singing great hymns with our tongues, our nostrils full of the smoke of incense.
Is it objected that this is too physical, too low down on the scale for the gospel? Noses indeed! If the objection carries the day, then we must jettison the stable and the manger, and the winepots at Cana, and the tired feet anointed with nard, and the splinters of the cross, not to say the womb of the mother who bore God when He came to us. Too physical? What do we celebrate in our worship? It is Buddhism and Platonism and Manichaeanism that tell us to disavow our flesh and expunge everything but thoughts. The gospel brings back all our faculties with a rush.
It was evangelicalism that taught me to love Christ and to defend the doctrine of the Incarnation. It was also evangelicalism that taught me that the locale of true religion is in a man’s heart and not on this mountain or that. Insofar as the simple forms of its worship stood out in protest against more sumptuousness it was truly Protestant.
But is protest enough? Can the heart of man feed on protest? Is it enough for our piety to say that because the idolator bows we will refuse to do so? On this accounting, prayer itself would have to go, since idolators pray. It is like saying that since gluttons eat too much food, we will eat none. What is needed is someone who will show what the right use of food looks like.
Is it enough to keep pressing home the truth that God dwells not in temples made with hands and that therefore, the church building is nothing? Where is the doctrine, then, of the Incarnation and of Redemption? It was not simply our souls that were rescued from hell: the whole Creation was redeemed, including space and time. Evangelicalism believes this and teaches it, as Saint Paul did in Romans 8, and as Saint John did in Revelation. If it is true, then may not the church building itself stand in our history and in our experience as itself a pledge and token, like a wedding ring, of this Redemption? In Christ, all of life is returned to its proper center. All human work is hallowed once more. But most people do not see this. Gas stations and hotels and restaurants and office buildings are not dedicated to God. But Christianity says that they should be. All work should be offered to God. Let us hallow at least this one place as a ‘sacred space,’ as we hallow the hour of worship as ‘sacred time.’
Only symbols, of course. But who will think lightly of his wedding ring and say it is nothing? Who will take a kiss lightly? It is ‘only’ a physical pledge of something deeper, more mysterious, and more substantial, namely, love. But in that small physical act the great mystery is somehow bespoken. Of course, God does not live in the church building, if by that we mean He needs it for shelter and for a place to lay His head. He lives in heaven, we say. He makes His dwelling in the paths of the sea. He has also told us that His dwelling is in the heart of man. No one can teach otherwise.
These things, which are true, must somehow be focused and brought to a point in a symbol for us mortals. In prayer we focus and bring to a point the petitions and praises that are always going up from our innermost beings. In the singing of hymns we articulate what is formless and semiconscious the rest of the time. In the hour of worship we focus and bring to a point what we should be true always of our hearts, namely, that God is adored there. Likewise, with the church building we set aside space and enclose it with walls and a roof, which shall be for us the token of what should be true of all spaces. Like the lamb that the ancient Jew brought from his flock, this space stands for all space as that lamb stood for the whole flock. The principle of focusing and bringing to a point did not disappear with the New Covenant. We mortals are still the same sort of creature. We cannot live with abstractions. We cannot nourish ourselves on generalities. The Incarnation attests to this.
The religion that attempts to drive a wedge between the whole realm of Faith and the actual textures of physical life is a religion that has perhaps not granted to the Incarnation the full extent of the mysteries that attach to it and flow from it, and that make our mortal life fruitful once more.”
I appreciate the comment left by Mason Murch in regard to the most recent edition of Theology onThursday. Mason writes:
“Piper has never been more on point than he is in this clip. The link on my page right below yours is to ‘A Place of Hope Africa.’ Bev and Joey Starling are acquaintances who started and run this orphanage in Nigeria. Of course, their message is: ‘Jesus loves you , let us show you. We will raise that little boy who is crippled, we will care for that baby with aids it is because of Jesus’ love that we do this for you.’ That is Christian love and Christs’ gospel. Servants must bear their crosses, Christ told us this is so. Joey and Bev probably won’t say much about it on their web page, but Bev has now contracted Malaria. They need our prayers. Please remember them.”
In response to this comment, I would like to ask you to do a few things. First, please pray for Bev’s health and the work she and her husband are carrying on to show the love of Christ to orphans in Nigeria. Second, consider the shallowness of the so-called prosperity gospel in the face of death and dying. We will all face death, the question is how. Rachel Barkley, a Canadian wife and mother of two, has terminal cancer. She addressed a group in Vancouver lately regarding life and death in a way which demonstrates the sufficiency of God’s grace (watch it here). Please pray for Rachel, her husband, Neil, and their children, Quinn and Kate.
These lives demonstrate the reality of the gospel and its hope-giving effects in the face of death, unlike the ego-centric ‘health and wealth’ teaching espoused by TBN televangelists and movies like ‘Facing the Giants‘. You will die. Will you die well, clinging to Christ alone? Will you die clutching on to all the things you ‘named and claimed’? Will you die bitterly cursing God for being unfair and unloving? Your belief (or lack thereof) will determine how you leave this world and enter the next.
John Charles Ryle (1816 – 1900) was educated at Eton and also at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was the Craven Scholar in 1836. He served as a parish minister for St. Thomas in Winchester, Helminghham in Suffolk, and later at Stradbrooke, also in Suffolk. Later he was appointed as the first Anglican bishop of Liverpool, England. He remained in Liverpool until his resignation, just three months prior to his death. A critic of Ritualism, Ryle was a staunch evangelical. Ryle was not only an exemplary preacher and pastor, but also a prolific author. Some of his most well-known writings are Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (7 vols), and Principles for Churchmen. A leader of the evangelical party in the Church of England, he was noted mainly for his doctrinal essays and polemical works. Ryle’s vigorous advocacy for evangelical doctrine was mixed with graciousness and warmth. Baker reprinted several of his writings in The New Birth (1977). It is within this book which he discusses “The Cross”, expounding the Apostle Paul’s words from Galatians 6:14, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is found, in part, in today’s edition of Theology on Thursday:
“Now what did Paul mean by saying this? He meant to declare strongly, that he trusted in nothing but Jesus Christ crucified, for the pardon of his sins and the salvation of his soul. . . . . For his part the apostle determined to rest on nothing, lean on nothing, build his hope on nothing, place confidence in nothing, glory in nothing, except the ‘Cross of Jesus Christ.’. . . .
He never gloried in his own works. None ever worked so hard for God as he did. He was more abundant in labours than any of the Apostles. No living man ever preached so much, traveled so much, and endured so many hardships for Christ’s cause. None ever converted so many souls, did so much good to the world, and made himself so useful to mankind. No father of the early Church, no reformer, no puritan, no missionary, no minister, no layman,–no one man could ever be named, who did so many good works as the apostle Paul. But did he ever glory in them, as if they were in the least meritorious, and could save his soul? Never! Never for one moment!
He never gloried in his knowledge. . . . He was a mighty preacher, and a mighty speaker, and a mighty writer. He was as great with his pen as he was with his tongue. He could reason equally with Jews and Gentiles. He could argue with infidels at Corinth, or Pharisees at Jerusalem, or self-righteous people in Galatia. He knew many deep things. He had been in the third heaven, and heard unspeakable words. He had received the spirit of prophecy, and could foretell things yet to come. But did he ever glory in his knowledge, as if it could justify him before God? Never! Never! Never for one moment!
He never gloried in his graces. . . . He was full of love. How tenderly and affectionately he used to write! He could feel for souls like a mother or a nurse feeling for her child. He was a bold man. He cared not whom he opposed when truth was at stake. He cared not what risks he ran when souls were to be won. He was a self-denying man,—in hunger and thirst often, in cold and nakedness, in watchings and fastings. He was a humble man. He thought himself less than the least of all saints, and the chief of sinners. He was a prayerful man. . . . He was a thankful man. . . . But he never gloried in all this, never valued himself on it, never rested his soul’s hopes on it. Oh, no! Never for a moment!
He never gloried in his Churchmanship. . . . He was himself a chosen apostle. He was a founder of Churches, and an ordainer of ministers. Timothy and Titus, and many elders, received their first commission from his hands. He was the beginner of services and sacraments in many a dark place. . . . But did he ever glory in his office and Church standing? Does he ever speak as if his Churchmanship would save him, justify him, put away his sins, and make him acceptable before God? Oh, no, never! Never for a moment!
Who is there that is valuing himself on his baptism, or his attendance at the Lord’s table,—his church-going on Sundays, or his daily services during the week,—and saying to himself, What lack I yet? Learn, I say, this day, that you are very unlike Paul. Your Christianity is not the Christianity of the New Testament. Paul would not glory in anything but the cross. Neither ought you. . . .
The cross…means…the doctrine that Christ died for sinners upon the cross,—the atonement that He made for sinners, by His suffering for them on the cross,—the complete and perfect sacrifice for sin which He offered up, when He gave His own body to be crucified. In short, this one word, ‘the Cross,’ stands for Christ crucified, the only Saviour. This is the meaning in which Paul uses the expression, when he tells the Corinthians, ‘the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness.’ (1 Cor. i. 18.) This is the meaning in which he wrote to the Galatians, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross.’ He simply meant, ‘I glory in nothing but Christ crucified, as the salvation of my soul.’ . . .
This is the subject he loved to preach about. He was a man who went to and fro on the earth, proclaiming to sinners that the Son of God had shed His own heart’s blood to save their souls. He walked up and down the world, telling people that Jesus Christ had loved them, and died for their sins upon the Cross. . . .
You may rest assured that Paul was right. Depend upon it, the Cross of Christ,—the death of Christ on the cross to make atonement for sinners,—is the centre truth in the whole Bible. This is the truth we begin with when we open Genesis. The seed of the woman bruising the serpent’s head is nothing else but a prophecy of Christ crucified. This is the truth that shines out, though veiled, all through the law of Moses and the history of the Jews. The daily sacrifice, the Passover lamb, the continual shedding of blood in the tabernacle and temple,—all these were emblems of Christ crucified. . . . Take away the Cross of Christ, and the Bible is a dark book. It is like Egyptian hieroglyphics, without the key that interprets their meaning,—curious and wonderful, but of no real use. . . .
You may know a good deal about Christ, by a kind of head knowledge. You may know who He was, and where He was born, and what He did. You may know His miracles, His sayings, His prophecies, and His ordinances. You may know how He lived, and how He suffered, and how He died. But unless you know the power of Christ’s Cross by experience,—unless you know and feel within that the blood shed on that cross has washed away your own particular sins,—unless you are willing to confess that your salvation depends entirely on the work that Christ did upon the Cross,—unless this be the case, Christ will profit you nothing. The mere knowing Christ’s name will never save you. You must know His Cross, and His blood, or else you will die in your sins. . . .
Whenever a Church keeps back Christ crucified, or puts anything whatever in that foremost place which Christ crucified should always have, from that moment a Church ceases to be useful. Without Christ crucified in its pulpits, a Church is little better that a cumberer of the ground, a dead carcass, a well without water, a barren fig tree, a sleeping watchman, a silent trumpet, a dumb witness, an ambassador without terms of peace, a messenger without tidings, a lighthouse without a fire, a stumbling-block to weak believers, a comfort to infidels, a hot-bed for formalism, a joy to the devil, and an offence to God.
The Cross is the grand centre of union among true Christians. Our outward differences are many, without doubt. One man is an Episcopalian, another is a Presbyterian,—one is and Independent, another a Baptist,—one is a Calvinist, another an Arminian,—one is a Lutheran, another a Plymouth Brother,—one is a friend to establishments, another a friend to the voluntary system,—one is friend to liturgies, another a friend to extempore prayer. But, after all, what shall we hear about most of these differences in heaven? Nothing most probably: nothing at all. Does a man really and sincerely glory in the Cross of Christ? This is the grand question. If he does, he is my brother: —we are traveling on the same road. We are journeying towards a home where Christ is all, and everything outward in religion will be forgotten. But if he does not glory in the Cross of Christ, I cannot feel comfort about him. Union on outward points only is union only for time.—Union about the Cross is union for eternity. . . . Union about outward points is mere man-made union.—Union about the Cross of Christ can only be produced by the Holy Ghost.”
John R. W. Stott is an insightful scholar, passionate preacher, gifted evangelist, and Christian statesman from Great Britain. He served as the rector of All Souls Church in London for many years, and was one of the framers of the Lausanne Covenant in 1974. Some of his most well-known works are the best-selling Basic Christianity; The Spirit, the Church and the World; and Christian Mission in the Modern World. His most significant work may be The Cross of Christ (InterVarsity Press, 1986), featured in today’s edition of Theology on Thursday. Consider his words as he discusses the cross – the focal point of the Gospel, and its relevance to suffering and evangelism:
The early post-apostolic church…had a firm double base – in the teaching of Christ and his apostles – for making a cross the sign and symbol of Christianity. Church tradition proved in this to be a faithful reflection of Scripture.
Moreover, we must not overlook their remarkable tenacity. They knew that those who had crucified the Son of God had subjected him to ‘public disgrace’ and that in order to endure the cross Jesus had to humble himself to it and to ‘scorn its shame’. Nevertheless, what was shameful, even odious, to the critics of Christ, was in the eyes of his followers most glorious. They had learnt that the servant was not greater than the master, and that for them as for him suffering was the means of glory. More than that, suffering was glory, and whenever they were ‘insulted because of the name of Christ’, then ‘the Spirit of glory’ rested upon them.
Yet the enemies of the gospel neither did nor do share this perspective. There is no greater cleavage between faith and unbelief than in their respective attitudes to the cross. Where faith sees glory, unbelief sees only disgrace. What was foolishness to Greeks, and continues to be to modern intellectuals who trust in their own wisdom, is nevertheless the wisdom of God. And what remains a stumbling-block to those who trust in their own righteousness, like the Jews of the first century, proves to be the saving power of God (1 Cor. 1:18-25).
One of the saddest features of Islam is that it rejects the cross, declaring it inappropriate that a major prophet of God should come to such an ignominious end. The Koran sees no need for the sin-bearing sin of a Saviour. At least five times it declares categorically that ‘no soul shall bear another’s burden’. . . . Denying the need for the cross, the Koran goes on to deny the fact. . . .
But Christian messengers of the good news cannot be silent about the cross. Here is the testimony of the American missionary Samuel M. Zwemer (1867-1952), who laboured in Arabia, edited The Muslim World for forty years, and is sometimes called ‘The Apostle to Islam’:
The missionary among Moslems (to whom the Cross of Christ is a stumbling-block and the atonement foolishness) is driven daily to deeper meditation on this mystery of redemption, and to a stronger conviction that here is the very heart of our message and our mission. . . .
If the Cross of Christ is anything to the mind, it is surely everything – the most profound reality and the sublimest mystery. One comes to realize that literally all the wealth and glory of the gospel centres here. The Cross is the pivot as well as the centre of New Testament thought. It is the exclusive mark of the Christian faith, the symbol of Christianity and its cynosure. The more unbelievers deny its crucial character, the more do believers find in it the key to the mysteries of sin and suffering. We rediscover the apostolic emphasis on the Cross when we read the gospel with Moslems. We find that, although the offence of the Cross remains, its magnetic power is irresistible.
‘Irresistible’ is the very word an Iranian student used when telling me of his conversion to Christ. Brought up to read the Koran, say his prayers and lead a good life, he nevertheless knew that he was separated from God by his sins. When Christian friends brought him to church and encouraged him to read the Bible, he learnt that Jesus Christ had died for his forgiveness. ‘For me the offer was irresistible and heaven-sent,’ he said, and he cried to God to have mercy on him through Christ. Almost immediately ‘the burden of my past life was lifted. I felt as if a huge weight…had gone. With the relief and sense of lightness came incredible joy. At last it had happened. I was free of my past. I knew that God had forgiven me, and I felt clean. I wanted to shout, and tell everybody.’ It was through the cross that the character of God came clearly into focus for him, and that he found Islam’s missing dimension, ‘the intimate fatherhood of God and the deep assurance of sins forgiven’.
Muslims are not by any means the only people, however, who repudiate the gospel of the cross. Hindus also, though they can accept its historicity, reject its saving significance. Gandhi, for example, the founder of modern India, who while working in South Africa as a young lawyer was attracted to Christianity, yet wrote of himself while there in 1894:
I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart could not accept.
Turning to the West, perhaps the most scornful rejection of the cross has come from the pen of the German philosopher and philologist, Friedrich Nietzsche (died 1900). Near the beginning of The Anti-Christ (1895) he defined the good as ‘the will to power’, the bad as ‘all the proceeds from weakness’, and happiness as ‘the feeling that power increases…’, while ‘what is more harmful than any vice’ is ‘active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak – Christianity’. Admiring Darwin’s emphasis on the survival of the fittest, he despised all forms of weakness, and in their place dreamt of the emergence of a ‘superman’ and a ‘daring ruler race’. To him ‘depravity’ meant ‘decadence’, and nothing was more decadent than Christianity which ‘has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted’. Being ‘the religion of pity’, it ‘preserves what is ripe for destruction’ and so ‘thwarts the law of evolution’ (pp. 115-118). Nietzsche reserved his bitterest invective for ‘the Christian conception of God’ as ‘God of the sick, God as spider, God as spirit’, and for the Christian Messiah whom he dismissed contemptuously as ‘God on the cross’ (pp. 128, 168).
If Nietzsche rejected Christianity for its ‘weakness’, others have done so for its supposedly ‘barbarbic’ teachings. Professor Sir Alfred Ayer, for example, the Oxford philosopher who is well known for his antipathy to Christianity, wrote…that, among religions of historical importance, there was quite a strong case for considering Christianity the worst. Why so? Because it rests ‘on the allied doctrines of original sin and vicarious atonement, which are intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous’.
How is it that Christians can face such ridicule without shifting their ground? Why do we ‘cling to the old rugged cross’…and insist on its centrality, refusing to let it be pushed to the circumference of our message? Why must we proclaim the scandalous, and glory in the shameful? The answer lies in the single word ‘integrity’. Christian integrity consists partly in a resolve to unmask the caricatures, but mostly in personal loyalty to Jesus, in whose mind the saving cross was central.
One of my mentors from seminary, Roy Fish, is still well-known in SBC circles. In fact, the fairly new School of Evangelism & Missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is named for him. Not many recall his mentor, however. C. E. Autrey, who received the Th.M. and Doctor of Theology degrees from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, became the associate secretary of evangelism for the Home Mission Board in 1952 following pastoral and denominational work in Louisiana. From 1955 to 1960 he served as a professor of evangelism at SWBTS, then went back to work for the HMB as the Director of Evangelism. During his lifetime, Dr. Autrey traveled across the globe for the cause of Christ and led many conferences on evangelism. In 1966, Broadman Press published his work, The Theology of Evangelism. When I taught as an adjunct professor of evangelism, I utilized this work.
If you haven’t already noticed, this month Theology on Thursday has focused upon books related to missions and evangelism. Today’s edition is no exception. Though Dr. Autrey’s book was released even before my birth (and I’m no longer a “young” man), the words penned in the 1960s are quite fitting for evangelicals (particularly Southern Baptists) who are concerned with biblical evangelism today. I encourage you to check the links while you also read what Dr. Autrey has written:
If the concept of evangelism is fuzzy, then plans and performance will be limited by lack of clarity and dedication. . . . Evangelism is the outreach of the church by confrontation with the gospel of Christ, in an attempt to lead people to a personal commitment by faith and repentance in Christ as Saviour and Lord. . . .
An encounter with God himself must precede the development of a concept of God. The evangelist must have encountered God and experienced his presence. Men who know about God but do not know him will worship the imaginations of their hearts. . . .
A knowledge of theology and God’s purpose in coming into history to redeem men will not produce evangelists. One may understand all of the cardinal facts of Christianity and never feel the urge to evangelize. God alone can produce the necessary urge. A knowledge of the theological ramifications of the Christian religion will enable the evangelist to be intelligent and effective. However, this knowledge, without divine compulsion, will not be used. On the other hand, for one to be swept into evangelistic endeavor without it may prove disastrous for total Christianity. A person with a burning passion for the lost and no knowledge of the great redemptive facts may use successfully certain evangelistic methods which are incongruous with the gospel and do, ultimately, irreparable harm. . . .
No amount of instruction will liberate men from the power of Satan. One may point up the fallacy and foolishness of their present position, and one may clearly explain the advantage of liberty in Christ, but that will not be sufficient. The power of evil is broken only by a superior power. . . . The basis of evangelism is found in the nature of God and not in the nature of man. The sinfulness of man prompts Christians to try to remedy the predicament of man, but the real basis of evangelism lies in God’s nature. Christ became incarnate because of God’s love for men. Therefore, evangelism is spiritual and not psychological. If the basis of evangelism could be found in the nature of man, then evangelism could become psychological. But since it is found principally in the nature of God, it must remain spiritual, and there is a vast difference. . . . The world is unholy and adverse to the nature of God. It is in sin and in complete rebellion against God. . . . Christ is Lord. That mighty truth has never been recognized by the world. . . .
A major objective of current evangelism is to refine and promote revivalism, but it should be free from high pressure techniques, excesses, and commercialism, which may be visibly successful but ultimately harmful. . . .
The most significant objective of evangelism is to keep the message positive, scriptural, spiritual, and practical. New Testament evangelism is a positive declaration of the cardinal facts of redemption. Social and moral ills are so glaring that it is a common mistake to crusade against them. This has its place, but it is not the gospel. The evangelist must not be detoured from declaring the redemptive acts of God. The evangelistic message is spiritual rather than emotional, although emotions will be involved. . . .
A motive is an inner drive that compels response. There may be several incentives in vital evangelism, but there are only two real motives. The love of Christ in us, and the indwelling Holy Spirit. Proper motivation is essential to vital evangelism. . . . Pride is often the motive. . . . Often, a church seeks new members in order to be larger in numbers than a neighboring church. Frequently, pastors merely want to lead the association in additions, or to baptize more than they baptized last year. This urge is rooted in pride and fills the churches with unregenerated people who are worse after joining the church than before. They are still unregenerate sinners, but they are recognized as church members, lost and hopeless, fruits of Pharisaic pride.
Modern Christians are so enamored with success that results are the only criterion by which they measure effective evangelism. Did a church “baptize more this year than last year?” is all that is needed to indicate whether it is on the downgrade or the upgrade. This is a senseless “rat race” that leads to spiritual ruin. A method which is used to add numbers may at the same time undermine the pure life of the church. Numbers and bigness resulting from pride will destroy Christianity. . . .
If one is motivated by success, and if his conception of success is synonymous with visible results, he may often be discouraged when he should be inspired. . . . If the motive is love for Christ, the evangelist never despairs. Success, or lack of success, does not affect his spirit. . . . The evangelist who equates success with results and whose motive is success, rather than love of Jesus, may become a promoter, but he will never be an evangelist in the New Testament sense.
The best book I’ve ever read on missiology (the theology of missions), bar none, is John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad!: The Supremacy of God in Missions. Dr. Piper, senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Munich. In Let the Nations Be Glad!, Dr. Piper draws on key biblical texts and the lives of missionary heroes to demonstrate that worship is the ultimate goal of the Church, and that true worship fuels the Great Commission. He also addresses subjects interrelated to missions, such as the role of prayer, universalism (the belief that all will ultimately be saved), and annihilationism (the belief that Hell is not eternal). I recommend the work highly, and hope today’s edition of Theology on Thursday will whet your appetite. Dr. Piper writes in the first chapter, “The Supremacy of God in Missions Through Worship”:
Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.
Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal of missions. . . . The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God. “The Lord reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” (Psalm 97:1). “Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!” (Psalm 67:3-4).
But worship is also the fuel of missions. Passion for God in worship precedes the offer of God in preaching. You can’t commend what you don’t cherish. . . . Missions begins and ends in worship. If the pursuit of God’s glory is not ordered above the pursuit of man’s good in the affections of the heart and the priorities of the church, man will not be well served and God will not be duly honored. . . . Where passion for God is weak, zeal for missions will be weak. . . .
God is central and supreme in his own affections. There are no rivals for the supremacy of God’s glory in his own heart. God is not an idolater. He does not disobey the first and great commandment. With all his heart and soul and strength and mind he delights in the glory of his manifold perfections. . . .
God is calling us above all else to be the kind of people whose theme and passion is the supremacy of God in all of life. No one will be able to rise to the magnificence of the missionary cause who does not feel the magnificence of Christ. There will be no big world vision without a big God. There will be no passion to draw others into our worship where there is no passion for worship.
God is pursuing with omnipotent passion a worldwide purpose of gathering joyful worshipers for himself from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. He has an inexhaustible enthusiasm for the supremacy of his name among the nations. Therefore let us bring our affections into line with his, and, for the sake of his name, let us renounce the quest for worldly comforts, and join his global purpose.
While serving in a Baptist pastorate in Oklahoma, an influential couple visited me in the study over concerns with my theological convictions. They said something to the effect, “You’re a ‘chosen before the foundation of the world’ person, but we’re ‘whosoever will’ people.” I replied, “You don’t understand. It’s not an either-or, but a both-and. I’m a both-and type of person. I believe in election and evangelism, in predestination and ‘whosoever will’.” Unfortunately, they still didn’t understand. Part of the problem was that they heard many high profile leaders within the denomination denounce the doctrines of grace and those who affirm them as being unconcerned with the lost and with the task of evangelism. Though the couple had often heard from the pulpit that we must work for the advance of the gospel, though they witnessed the first adult missions team sent out from the church in nearly three decades, and though their pastor replaced the outdated, sun-bleached tracts in the foyer and encouraged members to utilize them weekly, they were unconvinced. The influence of high-profile personalities proved too steep for them. Vociferous pleas from such leaders as Adrian Rogers, Johnny Hunt, Jack Graham, Steve Gaines, Elmer Towns, Ergun Caner, and others, added with the vocal opposition of local associations and colleges , has proven too steep for many average laymen. Nonetheless, it is my hope that the internet, with its vast amount of information available at an individual’s fingertips, will be utilized by laymen and others to know what “Calvinism” actually asserts and what “Calvinists” actually believe and practice. It is with this hope that I provide an excerpt from J. I. Packer’s classic, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (InterVarsity Press, 1961). Dr. Packer writes about what the belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect. I hope, even if you don’t embrace the doctrines of grace, that you will read with open eyes and an open heart. Dr. Packer, himself a “Calvinist”, asserts on behalf of historic Reformed theology:
The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the necessity of evangelism. Whatever we may believe about election, the fact remains that evangelism is necessary, because no man can be saved without the gospel. . . . They must be told of Christ before they can trust Him, and they must trust Him before they can be saved by Him. Salvation depends on faith, and faith on knowing the gospel. God’s way of saving sinners is to bring them to faith through bringing them into contact with the gospel. In God’s ordering of things, therefore, evangelism is a necessity if anyone is to be saved at all. . . .
The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the urgency of evangelism. . . . The world is full of people who are unaware that they stand under the wrath of God: is it not similarly a matter of urgency that we should go to them, and try to arouse them, and show them the way of escape? . . . The non-elect in this world are faceless men as far as we are concerned. We know that they exist, but we do not and cannot know who they are, and it is as futile as it is impious for us to try and guess. . . . Our calling as Christians is not to love God’s elect, and them only, but to love our neighbour, irrespective of whether he is elect or not.
The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the genuineness of the gospel invitations, or the truth of the gospel promises. . . . The fact remains that God in the gospel really does offer Christ and promise justification and life to ‘whosoever will’. ‘Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ As God commands all men everywhere to repent, so God invites all men everywhere to come to Christ and find mercy. . . .
The fact that the gospel invitation is free and unlimited—‘sinners Jesus will receive’—‘come and welcome to Jesus Christ’—is the glory of the gospel as a revelation of divine grace. . . . Some fear that a doctrine of eternal election and reprobation involves the possibility that Christ will not receive some of those who desire to receive Him, because they are not elect. The ‘comfortable words’ of the gospel promises, however, absolutely exclude this possibility. As our Lord elsewhere affirmed, in emphatic and categorical terms: ‘Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.’ . . .
The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the responsibility of the sinner for his reaction to the gospel. . . . A man who rejects Christ thereby becomes the cause of his own condemnation. . . . The unbeliever was really offered life in the gospel, and could have had it if he would; he, and no-one but he, is responsible for the fact that he rejected it, and must now endure the consequences of rejecting it. . . . The Bible never says that sinners miss heaven because they are not elect, but because they “neglect the great salvation”, and because they will not repent and believe.
One of the finest books added to my library during my days of seminary was The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 1996). Required reading for the Philosophy of Religion course I took under Dr. Ted Cabal, The Gagging of God is a tremendous work penned by D. A. Carson. Dr. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, earned a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from McGill University and the Ph.D. in New Testament from Cambridge. He has served as an assistant pastor, pastor, and itinerant minister in Canada and the United Kingdom. Dr. Carson has authored or edited over fifty books, including The Sermon on the Mount (Baker, 1978), Exegetical Fallacies (Baker, 1984), How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Baker, 1990), and Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005).
The Gagging of God won the 1997 Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Gold Medallion Award in the category of “Theology and Doctrine.” In my opinion, it is a book which needs to be read by every evangelical pastor, evangelist, and church leader. The purpose of this work is to help evangelicals respond to the culture in answering the question, “Is Jesus Christ the only way to God?” The 569 pages (not including the bibliography) may intimidate some, but Carson writes in such a manner as to make his thoughts easily understood. The following excerpt is taken from “A Short List of Practical Points” in Chapter 12, “On Heralding the Gospel in a Pluralistic Culture”:
(1) The primary reason why people in our churches do not invite more of their friends to come to church is that they are embarrassed by what goes on there. If such embarrassment is triggered by anything other than the offense of the cross, it is the pastors’ fault.
(2) Many Christians, not least Christian preachers, simply do not know any out-and-out pagans. It is time they did. They should rearrange priorities and befriend some of them….
(3) Those committed to seeker services ought to ask themselves constantly if commendable zeal for the lost does not sometimes lead them into a lamentable pragmatism that unwittingly displaces worship by aesthetics, transforms biblical understanding of conversion into the shallowest kinds of decisionism with all the real life-transforming content introduced after “conversion” in various small-group therapy sessions, and reduces God to the status of divine genie: he helps me when I need him. Those committed to traditional services may be safe enough in conservative enclaves in the country, but they exist in a social context where virtually everything they do in corporate meetings is utterly alien to men and women all around them, they must ask what pains they ought to take to explain what they are doing to outsiders, and to forego their own comfort zones for the sake of communicating the gospel.
(4) There are many useful alternatives to the antithesis, seeker service or traditional service. Many churches use “guest services” to which believers are especially encouraged to bring unconverted guests. Those services include singing, prayers, preaching—but every element is carefully and wisely explained. . . . Assume visitors have never been to any church. Those who have will not be offended by such gentle explanations and may be instructed by them; those who have not will be greatly helped. . . . The value in preserving the normal patterns of corporate worship, even while gently explaining them, is that outsiders are introduced to the church as a worshiping community and feel the power of corporate reverence.
(5) Develop evangelistic Bible studies for complete outsiders.
(6) Some churches in big cities develop brief and pungent noon-hour services for business people, often combined with an inexpensive lunch.
(7) Many companies allow their employees, during lunch breaks, to form themselves into various groups or clubs or societies for diverse purposes. It is quite possible to start evangelistic studies in such settings, provided there is just one employee in the company with a little courage.
(8) Very frequently I begin an evangelistic series to complete outsiders (university students, perhaps) with something like this: “If you think I have come to defend Christianity, guess again! For some of us, Christianity is so little known and understood that defending it would be like defending the general theory of relativity to a first year arts major. What I shall be doing, rather, is outlining, explaining, and showing the relevance of some of the fundamentals of any kind of Christianity that tries to be faithful to its founding documents, gathered together in a book that we call the Bible. If there is a defense, it will be largely implicit. But I hope you will listen carefully as you enter into a world of thought and experience that you may never before have encountered.” I find that such an introduction as that changes the focus of expectations. At the end of each talk, people come out talking about the gospel, not about apologetics.
(9) Be bold. This is not an invitation to discourtesy. But boldness, coupled with an unassuming humility that conveys the impression that Christians are only poor beggars telling others where there is bread, will always elicit better attention than the half-embarrassed, semi-apologetic bearing of the person who is more frightened of the people than of the living God.
(10) In my view, it is usually best (although there are exceptional circumstances that overturn this preference) that these evangelistic sermons be expository messages, not topical ones. . . . Where the address is not in a church, so that Bibles are not available…put a typed copy of the relevant passage on each seat. This approach is wiser than the purely topical approach with minimal reference to biblical texts because (1) it directs people’s attention to the Bible, not to the preacher, and, if done properly, draws them into reading the Bible for themselves, and (2) by directing people to think through texts, the preacher is helping them to think linearly, coherently, through God’s gracious self-disclosure in human words.
(11) Remember that men and women are not converted, finally, by your sagacity, oratory, theological brilliance or homiletical skill. God in his mercy may use all these and many more gifts. But only God is able to bring people to himself. That is ample incentive to prayer.
(12) Finally, speaking of prayer, it is vitally important, once again, that we recall how our secular, postmodern society affects those of us who are believers. We may think we are being faithful, when somehow we no longer believer in the God of the Bible—the God who is sovereign, the God who hears and answers prayer, the God who alone can save.
Today’s edition of Theology on Thursday focuses on the area of missiology – the theology of missions. The modern missions movement began with William Carey, a shoe cobbler from rural England. Driven by a compulsion to see the lost in India won to Christ, Carey translated the Scriptures into local languages, established a school, administered a school, helped banish inhuman practices such as wife burning and child sacrifice, and preached the Gospel to thousands. He inspired others to follow him to the mission field – Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon, and many others.
One of the finest biographies written about Carey is Timothy George’s Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey (New Hope: Birmingham, AL, 1991). Dr. George, Dean of the Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, is a noted Baptist historian and theologian. He earned a doctorate in theology from Harvard University, served for ten years as professor of church history and theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has also served as a pastor and interim pastor of congregations in Georgia, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Indiana, and Alabama. Faithful Witness is written with the heart of a pastor and the insight of a theologian. Chapter 11, “Carey Today”, notes several things we can learn from the missiology of William Carey:
1. The sovereignty of God. Carey knew that Christian missions was rooted in the gracious, eternal purpose of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to call unto Himself a redeemed people out of the fallen race of lost humankind. As a young pastor in England he confronted and overcame the resistance of those Hyper-Calvinistic theologians who used the sovereignty of God as a pretext for their do-nothing attitude toward missions. It was not in spite of, but rather because of, his belief in the greatness of God and His divine purpose in election that Carey was willing ‘to venture all’ to proclaim the gospel in the far corners of the world. . . . Today, more than a new program of missionary training or another strategy for world evangelization, the Church of Jesus Christ needs a fresh vision of a full-sized God—eternal, transcendent, holy, filled with compassion, sovereignly working by His Holy Spirit to call unto Himself a people out of every nation, kindred, tribe, and language group on earth. Only such a vision, born of repentance, prayer, and self-denial, can inspire a Carey-like faith in a new generation of Christian heralds.”
2. The finality of Jesus Christ. William Carey and generations of missionaries who followed in his wake shared a common conviction concerning the message they had been commissioned to proclaim: Personal faith in Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation for all peoples everywhere, and those who die without this saving knowledge face eternal damnation.
3. The authority of the Holy Scriptures. Nowhere is Carey’s kinship with the Reformation tradition more clearly seen than in his role as translator, publisher, and distributor of the Bible. Like Wycliffe, Luther, and Tyndale before him, Carey believed that everyone should be able to read the Scriptures in their own native language. . . . There were bases in Carey’s plan to evangelize India: Preach the gospel, translate the Bible, and establish schools. Proclamation, translation, education. This three-pronged strategy was itself an expression of Carey’s confidence in the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura. . . . Why was Carey so committed to a Bible-centered approach to missions? Because he knew that the Word of God was full of living power. Time and again he witnessed the transforming effect of the simple reading of the Scriptures on the people of India, steeped as they were in the fables and false theologies of their culture. Today, no less than then, missionary preaching must be true to the whole scope of the biblical revelation. Like Paul, we are charged to declare all the counsel of God, including the scriptural warnings about divine judgment and the reality of hell as well as the glad tidings of full Redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
4. Contextualization. Carey may be best described as a horizontal figure in the history of Christianity. Like Augustine in the early church, Francis in the Middle Ages, and Luther in the Reformation, Carey lived at the intersection of two epochs. He witnessed the death throes of one age and the birth pangs of another. In three important missions trends, Carey anticipated by a century and more subsequent developments and still remains an important catalyst for contemporary thinking and mission strategy. These are contextualization, a holistic approach to missions, and the quest for Christian unity.
Contextualization refers to the need to communicate the gospel in such a way that it speaks to the total context of the people to whom it is addressed. . . . The very act of engaging the vernacular languages as a vehicle for God’s Word was itself a major departure from a kind of cultural imperialism which has shackled many efforts at world evangelization. . . . Carey believed that the miracle of Pentecost meant that the gospel was not limited to any one cultural or linguistic expression. . . . Carey was a pioneer in what we have come to call cross-cultural communication. He was willing to experiment with new methods and to use hitherto untried approaches in reaching for Christ the people to whom he had been sent. The establishment of indigenous churches and the training of native pastors were two key elements in his plan for permeating India with the gospel. . . . Carey’s ability to contextualize the gospel without compromising the nonnegotiable essentials of Christian doctrine provides a balanced model for a truly evangelical missiology which seeks to be faithful in an age of social upheaval and cultural dissolution.
5. Holistic missions. Declaring the good news “in word and deed,” points to the dual necessity of both a propositional and an incarnational dimension to the life and mission of the Church. . . . Carey never shrank from understanding his mission to include both a social and an evangelistic responsibility. . . . He refused to divorce conversion from discipleship. He knew that Jesus had given food to hungry people on the same occasion that He presented Himself to them as the Bread of Life. . . . While Carey never lost sight of the individual, he saw clearly that the Christian message also applied to the sinful social structure of his day.
6. Christian unity. The modern quest for Christian unity was born on the missions field. Here again Carey pointed the way by working closely with non-Baptist evangelicals in India and by calling for an international conference on missionaries from various denominations around the world. . . . While Carey was intensely loyal to his Baptist identity, to the point of advocating a policy of closed communion, he also knew how to distinguish minor and secondary matters of doctrine from evangelical essentials to which all Bible-believing Christians are committed.
The burden of Christian unity in his day, as in ours, was not denominational differences among Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, and others; but rather the great divide between those committed to the great principles of historic Christian orthodoxy and others whose accommodation to the reigning ideologies of the contemporary world has resulted in “a God without wrath who brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.” Carey is a corrective to this kind of ecumenism by dilution, even as he is a model for another approach to cooperation among Christian believers, one rooted in the Reformation maxim: In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
7. Faithfulness. Carey’s mission to India was a catalyst for a great missionary awakening throughout the Church. . . . Carey knew that he was no Lone Ranger. He had been called, commissioned, and sent forth by a company of believers who vowed to pray faithfully and give sacrificially that the work of the mission would go forward.
1 Corinthians 4:1-2 – “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
The Rev. Dr. Kent Hughes served as a pastor for 41 years, the last 27 of those were spent as the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. He was given the title Senior Pastor Emeritus at College Church in December 2006. Dr. Hughes is the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Disciplines of a Godly Man. One of the most important books ever written for the ministry may be Liberating Minstry from the Success Syndrome (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988 ), which he co-authored with his wife, Barbara. This work is a must read for ministers, particularly those just starting seminary.
The Introduction sets the tone for this brief yet powerful volume. The Hughes write in that section:
Some onlookers thought it was unusual, but few noticed when the pastor wheeled into the church parking lot in a borrowed pickup truck. But everyone’s eyes were upon him when he backed the truck across the lawn to his study door. Refusing comment or assistance, he began to empty his office onto the truck bed. He was impassive and systematic: first the desk drawers, then the files, and last his library of books, which he tossed carelessly into a heap, many of them flopping askew like slain birds. His task done, the pastor left the church and, as was later learned, drove some miles to the city dump where he committed everything to the waiting garbage.
It was his way of putting behind him the overwhelming sense of failure and loss that he had experienced in the ministry. This young, gifted pastor was determined never to return to the ministry. Indeed, he never did. We wrote this book because of this story—and many, too many, others like it. We are concerned about the morale and survival of those in Christian ministry. Pastors, youth workers, evangelists, Sunday school teachers, lay ministers, missionaries, Bible study leaders, Christian writers and speakers, and those in other areas of Christian service often face significant feelings of failure, usually fueled by misguided expectations for success. . . . Every year thousands leave the ministry convinced they are failures, seduced by what William James piquantly called “the bitch goddess of success.” . . . We too almost succumbed to her enticements. It is our hope that the account of our subtle confusion about success, our near ruin, and ultimately our liberation through the truth of God’s Word will aid in delivering others from this unhappy goddess. . . . We trust these thoughts will help you cope with the despair of failure, which we all face in God’s work, and lead you to a deeper, fuller understanding of success in your ministry.
The first chapter delves into the disappointed dreams Pastor Hughes experienced during the early years of his ministry when attempting a church plant. He felt at the time that the Lord was to blame for his failure, but looking back, he knew his sense of failure and disappointment was rooted in youthful egocentricity. He assumed God “was going to do great things through” him, never believing for a second that such a gifted young minister as himself could ever “fail.” The sense of failure drove him to contemplating the lives of other pastors he met, men unhappy with themselves and their work. This made him conclude, at least temporarily, that God was not good because God hadn’t provided him (and others) with the gifts necessary to achieve “success.”
The Hughes contend that success, not as the world (and too often the Church) defines it, but as the Scripture evaluates it, is consistently linked to obedience to God through His Word. This poses a large question for the minister (and the Christian), namely, “Do we know God’s Word, and are we growing in our knowledge of it?” Such knowledge is advanced by reading Scripture, reading which should take place on a daily basis. Simply knowing Scripture isn’t enough. Success comes only when God is obeyed faithfully. This means another question must be asked, “Are we living lives that are obedient to Scripture?” It is possible to pastor a mega-church and not love God, or even to preach biblical, Christ-exalting messages, and still not love God. Loving God is the heart of the matter for the minister (and the Christian). The Hughes write:
The realization that loving God is the ground of all true success is truly liberating. . . . First, it places our lives and ministries beyond the fallible, oppressive judgment of the quantifiers—the statistics keepers. Second, it liberates us from the destructive tendency to compare ourselves with others. . . . Realizing this, we need not feel discouraged or embarrassed by a ministry that may not be outwardly or numerically successful. Our dignity and accomplishment lie in our relationship to God and our love for him. Third, it frees and motivates us to live our life’s highest priority, because if we really do believe that loving God is the most important thing in life, then everything—our conversation, our schedules, our ambitions—will progressively reflect his love. There is a sublime, ongoing liberation to love that comes from understanding that the love of God is the most important thing in life. Finally, it is freeing to the whole church, regardless of status, because loving God is something equally open to all.
I hope this brief review whets your appetite for reading this fine book. It may very well be used by God to save your ministry and enrich your life.
Happy New Year! 2009 is the quincentenary of the birth of one of the most important figures in Church history, John Calvin, the Reformer of Geneva. This month 2 Worlds Collide will focus upon Calvin’s life and work. To begin, we will consider Calvin’s magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work which Lord Acton referred to as the “finest work of Reformation literature.”
Published as a work of doctrinal exposition and ethical admonition, the first edition of The Institutes was released in 1536 with six chapters. The work was revised and edited until the final edition was published in 1559 with eighty chapters. All editions are outlined following the order of both St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and the Apostles’ Creed. Those unfamiliar with Calvin’s work might assume the central doctrinal tenet within its pages is predestination, but such an assumption is erroneous. Calvin intended The Institutes to serve as an exposition of the Gospel. As such, the central doctrinal tenet of the work is justification. Calvin noted, “Unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of His judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God” (III.11.i).
Because individuals must be brought to a saving knowledge of Christ, Calvin first discusses the knowledge of God’s existence as revealed in creation, moves to the matter of universal human depravity, and then goes to God’s great provision for salvation in the Person of Jesus Christ and His substitutionary work upon the cross. Following his exposition of justification, Calvin (like the Apostle Paul in Romans) deals with the matter of Christians living consistently with the nature of their right standing with God (i.e., sanctification). Included in this portion, and following in Books III and IV, is the Reformer’s discussion of matters such as the importance of an ethical life (and how this is brought about), the importance of the Church and the sacred ordinances, and the significance of civil government. Calvin discusses divine attributes in a way which corresponds with practical piety, bringing the reader to contemplate the Lord’s providential dealings in the world and His working in His Church through His Word. Calvin has no use for those who merely have an abstract, philosophical conception of God. He calls upon his readers to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. It is through our study of Scripture and through its proclamation in the Church that God draws near us, instructing, encouraging, and directing us for service in His kingdom. His blessing is evidenced in our desire to seek, obey and glorify Him with our entire being in every detail of life.
In the first edition (1536) of The Institutes Calvin discusses predestination as a precise expression of God’s overarching providence. By the time the last edition was published (1559), the Reformer had revised his work so that predestination was discussed within the context of justification. This is not unlike the discussion of justification in Romans, which leads the Apostle Paul to explain the nature of God’s grace in chapters 9-10. If justification is granted on account of one’s merit (even partially), rather than solely as a matter of God’s grace, then one may boast in his or her own salvation. Not only that, if salvation is not all of God’s grace from beginning to end, then it is not secure. Therefore, predestination is viewed by Calvin as a vital aspect of the Lord’s guarantee of victorious grace in the life of every believer.
Evangelicals who shy away from Calvin due to his contemporary reputation would do well to take up and read The Institutes for themselves. In it they will find a man who looks to the Lord – a God who does not fit in their preconceived box, a God who rules and reigns and redeems, a God worthy of worship and praise.
I first became acquainted with the teaching ministry of the Rev. Dr. John Piper in 1995 when a friend of mine, Pastor Rusty Canoy, gave me his copy of The Pleasures of God to keep and read. Piper, inspired and provoked to meditation through reading the little known classic, The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal, asked himself, “If this is true for man, may it not also be true for God? Is it not also the case that the worth and excellency of God’s soul is to be measured by the object of his love?” The answer to these questions is what Piper aims to show from Scripture. In the introduction of The Pleasures of God, Piper reflects:
“We need to see first and foremost that God is God–that he is perfect and complete in himself, that he is overflowingly happy in the eternal fellowship of the Trinity, and that he does not need us to complete his fullness and is not deficient without us. Rather we are deficient without him; the all-sufficient glory of God, freely given in fellowship through his sacrificed Son, is the stream of living water that we have thirsted for all our lives.
Unless we begin with God in this way, when the gospel comes to us, we will inevitably put ourselves at the center of it. We will feel our value rather than God’s value is the driving force in the gospel. We will trace the gospel back to God’s need for us instead of tracing it back to the sovereign grace that rescues sinners who need God.
But the gospel is the good news that God is the all-satisfying end of all our longings, and that even though he does not need us, and is in fact estranged from us because of our God-belittling sins, he has, in the great love with which he loved us, made a way for sinners to drink at the river of his delights through Jesus Christ. And we will not be enthralled by this good news unless we feel that he was not obligated to do this. He was not coerced or constrained by our value. He is the center of the gospel. The exaltation of his glory is the driving force of the gospel. The gospel is a gospel of grace! And grace is the pleasure of God to magnify the worth of God by giving sinners the right and power to delight in God without obscuring the glory of God.”
When these words from the pen of John Piper are kept in mind, then worship, discipleship and evangelism keep their proper, biblical course.
Last year I noted my family and I had the blessing of visiting with some old family friends, the Rev. Dr. Doug Nicely and his wife, Vicki (my “adopted Mom”). Doug is Chief Chaplain at Memorial Hospital in Belleville, Illinois, former pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Fairview Heights, IL, and is a long-time radio host of KFUO’s “Do You Have a Minute?” and “In His Steps.” Last year Doug gave me a copy of Robert E. Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. A couple of weeks ago we got to visit with our friends again and Doug generously handed me a copy of The Lord Will Answer: A Daily Prayer Catechism.
Drawn from Holy Scripture, the Church Fathers, and Luther’s Small Catechism, The Lord Will Answer follows the Liturgical Calendar and serves as a wonderful devotional work. During this week, the ninth week after Pentecost, it contemplates the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The text inquires, “What does this mean?” and answers:
“The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also. How is God’s will done? God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die. This is His good and gracious will.”
One of the prayers given for the week, which encouraged me greatly and has brought about serious meditation, comes from Martin Luther:
“O dear God and Father, You know that the world cannot completely banish Your name and destroy Your kingdom. This world is engaged day and night in malice and evil deeds. Filled with all manner of malice, they oppose Your name, Your word, Your kingdom, and all Your children, to destroy them. Therefore, dear God and Father, convert and restrain. Convert those who are yet to know Your gracious will, that together we may be obedient to Your will and patiently and gladly endure all evil, the cross, and every tribulation. May we thereby acknowledge, test, and experience Your good, gracious, and perfect will. Restrain those who would not stop their rage, fury, hatred, threatening, and evil plans. Bring their counsels, wicked plans, and practices to shame.”
Sometimes you just have to laugh. TBNN (Tom-in-the-Box News Network) provides another classic post, this one detailing the split that didn’t really happen at my father’s alma mater, Southeastern Seminary. It’s entitled, “Seminary Fractures over Amyraldism versus Molinism Debate.” Of course, the post before that, “The ‘Osteen Archive’ Not Catching On,” is pure greatness. Then there’s “‘What Spurgeon Really Said’ To Hit Shelves Soon,” “Pro-Reformation Posters,” my personal favorite – “72 Bible Verses that Simply Can’t Mean What They Say,” and “Pensacola Christian College Releases New Anti-Calvinism Posters.”
Last week my family and I had the blessing of visiting with some old family friends, the Rev. Dr. Doug Nicely and his wife, Vicki (my “adopted Mom”). Doug is Chief Chaplain at Memorial Hospital in Belleville, Illinois, former pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Fairview Heights, IL, and is a long-time radio host of KFUO’s “Do You Have a Minute?” and “In His Steps.” Every time that he and I have the opportunity to get together our conversations gravitate towards theology and church life. After our visits I always find my own spirituality deepened and my appreciation for God’s people expanded.
During this past visit Doug and I discussed personal piety and the liturgy. We discovered that each of us have used The Book of Common Prayer to strengthen our daily devotionals. He gave me a book written by his mentor during his days of doctoral study at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Robert E. Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (incidentally, Dr. Webber passed away on April 27th at age 73).
I began reading Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail last Friday night and finished it the following day. It was simply fascinating. Dr. Webber shares his own spiritual pilgrimage and invited six other evangelicals with similar stories to do the same in this work. Webber was raised as the son of a Baptist minister, graduated from Bob Jones University, and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister prior to becoming an Episcopalian. While he was writing this work, Webber interviewed a large number of evangelicals who also chose to become Episcopalian and asked them their primary reason for doing so. Without exception, the reply was, “I wanted to worship God.”
The heart of the book is found in the second chapter as Dr. Webber writes:
First, I am impressed with the fact that worship in the Book of Common Prayer is directed toward God. . . . I have been put off by the narcissism of much contemporary worship. In this setting the orientation of worship appears to center around me, my feelings, and my experience, rather than around God, His person, and His work in Jesus Christ. I am reminded of a prayer written by Hippolytus, a bishop in Rome at the beginning of the third century. In the prayer he says, ‘Having in memory, therefore, His death and resurrection, we offer to Thee the bread and the cup, yielding Thee thanks, because Thou hast counted us worthy to stand before Thee and to minister to Thee.’ The idea that worship is a ministry to God, that He loves to be worshiped, and that He made us to worship Him dominates the worship of the ancient church. It is early Christian conviction drawn from Revelation 4 and 5. . . . Second, I am impressed with the Christ-centered nature of worship in the Book of Common Prayer. The central thrust of worship in the Episcopal tradition, just as it was in the ancient tradition, is to celebrate Jesus Christ as the central cosmic figure of the universe.
Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail might not necessarily lead one to becoming an Anglican, but it will lead one to think more seriously about the reverent and profoundly spiritual nature of liturgical worship.
Thank you, Doug!
Although he claims that I’m his only reader, I doubt that my eyes are the only ones to have seen Percolations. Percolations comes to the world courtesy of Paul “Pablo” Ryan. Paul is the senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Sherman, Texas. Paul and his wife, Sheila, live in Sherman with their five (soon to be six!) children: James, Maggie, Jeremiah, Abigail and Emma. Paul earned a BA in English from the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (it was during those seminary days that Paul and I first met and began studying theology boldly together). He is working currently on a Doctor of Ministry degree from Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson).
In addition to enjoying many of the same theologians (Jonathan Edwards, J.I. Packer, D.A. Carson, J.C. Ryle) and the same authors (J.R.R. Tolkien, John Grisham, Tom Clancy), Paul and I are also fans of the World Champion San Antonio Spurs.
Although Paul didn’t post much on his blog for a long while, he is now posting consistently and the content is well worth your while. Paul serves his theology strong, just like his coffee. I recommend Percolations to you.
I would like to recommend one of my favorite blogs to you. Many readers of 2WC are also regulars over at Semper Reformanda, the blog of my very good friend, Eric “Gunny” Hartman. Gunny is the pastor of Providence Church in Garland, Texas. He graduated from Texas A&M with a BA in speech communication and an MS in educational administration. He also earned a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary and an MSt from Oxford University. He isn’t finished with his education yet, working currently on a PhD in rhetoric from the University of Texas at Arlington. In addition to being a pastor, he also serves as an adjunct professor of preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Eric has been married to Mary Ellen since 1993. They have four children: Sarah, Rachel, Eric, Jr., and Victoria.
Something that the other tour guides won’t tell you is that Eric and I share the same birthday, were born in the same state, both were military brats who lived at Ft. Knox at the same time, enjoy fine dining at Wendy’s and White Castles, and are avid St. Louis Cardinals’ fans (both of us were also long-time Dallas Cowboys’ fans, but my tolerance for Jerry Jones gave out the day he signed TO). We also have a passion for studying biblical theology boldly and applying it pastorally. All of these things, in addition to the grace of God in our lives, have resulted in a very special friendship.
You will find the posts on Semper Reformanda to be insightful, intellectually provocative, and often humorous.
I was very pleasantly surprised today as I saw an article (“Faith and fizz“) about Concordia Lutheran Church (Bedford, Texas) in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. The pastor, the Rev. Mark Lasch, is a good friend of mine (and a reader of this blog and a Cardinals’ fan).
This past Saturday, members of Concordia Lutheran offered free cold drinks (water, Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola and Sprite) to shoppers at a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market. The message that the church wanted to get across is, “God is kind, and so are we.” Pastor Mark told the Star-Telegram, “We wanted to show people God’s love in a practical way.” This was the second time the church carried out “Free Coke, no joke.” Not one cent was received or requested in return for the drinks, but the drinks did include an information card.
I would like to take this opportunity to reciprocate a recent plug I received from Scott Gilbreath, a.k.a. ‘The Stat Guy’. I discovered Scott’s blog, Magic Statistics, as a result of its listing on The Voice of the Martyrs’ blogroll. If you haven’t already discovered this wonderful blog on your own, then I invite you to peruse Magic Statistics for yourself. The content is solid. In fact, there is one recent post in particular I would like to invite you to read, “Indian Christians carry a heavy cross.” Scott concludes that post by stating, “Christians in India are bearing a very heavy cross. Pray that our Lord will support them and give them wisdom and courage in an often hostile place.” Please do.
The other day I received a copy of Southwestern News and was pleased to read an article about my friend and fellow SWBTS alumnus, Justin Peters. Born and raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Justin now serves as a staff evangelist for the First Baptist Church of Vicksburg, and preaches and teaches across the United States.
One of Justin’s “specialties” is conducting a seminar entitled, “A Call for Discernment.” It is a biblical critique of the Word Faith movement. The Word Faith movement is led by personalities such as Paul & Jan Crouch (Trinity Broadcasting Network), T. D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Jesse Duplantis, Creflo Dollar and Paula White. Word Faith teaching is heretical and is also known as the “Prosperity Gospel” (e.g., “Health and Wealth”). Justin knows the topic well. His Master’s thesis was an examination of the life and ministry of Benny Hinn. Justin has even been interviewed by Canadian television in regard to Hinn.
The day after I read the article on Justin, I read one of my favorite new blogs, Magic Statistics. Scott Gilbreath (aka ‘The Stat Guy’) noted that Mr. Hinn ejected a lady suffering from Tourette’s Syndrom from Auckland’s Vector Arena during a “crusade.”
Hinn yelled at the woman, “Shut up. You cannot be speaking when I am preaching. Nobody can do that here. We cannot allow people to be speaking back to me when I am ministering the word.” Hinn, whose annual income is between $100-$200 million, also snapped at a man who was walking in the auditorium, “Would you please find a seat? You must understand, distraction kills the anointing and I won’t allow no one to distract me, so sit down now. I am not going to change.”
Benny Hinn is not going to change, that is why I recommend Justin Peters Ministries to you wholeheartedly. As one who was raised in the muck and mire of Word Faith teaching, I have witnessed and experienced the confusion, heartache and anger produced by this anti-biblical doctrine. Justin has a keen intellect, a tender heart, and a gentle attitude. While pastoring in the Ft. Worth area, I invited Justin to fill the pulpit. The congregation benefited from Justin’s ministry, and I know that you will find him to be a blessing to your congregation as well.