Jesus Did Us a Solid: a book review

Are you in God’s favor? Often we think about favor as the purview of the super saint. We cast ourselves at the mercy of God, but it is the prayers of ‘a righteous man’ that ‘avails much.’ Or we think of the favor of God as some health and wealth, prosperity gospel promise. If we seek first the kingdom,¬†all these things will be added to our bank account.¬†

9780801093210Greg Gilbert is senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church, author (or co-author) of several resources for Crossway’s 9marks series ( resources for one of those manly men church movements). He explores the concept of favor in the aptly titled: Favor: Finding Life at the Center of God’s Affection.

Gilbert places the concept of God’s favor back in a theological frame. If you are in Christ, you exist, and subsist, in God’s favor. You didn’t earn it. God gave you his favor through Jesus, whose perfect life and sacrificial death earned us God’s favor the moment we trust in him, and live in growing intimacy with Him.

The book divides into two sections. In part 1, Gilbert explores what the favor of God is and how to get it? In chapter 1, he describes God’s favor as being pleasing to Him (25), having an intimate, personal relationship with God (26), being a recipient of God’s blessing (30-32) and being acceptable to Him (33-35).¬† Chapter 2 and 3 probe our inability to win God’s favor because of our sinfulness. Chapter 4 describes how Jesus won for us God’s favor through his life, death and resurrection, and chapter 5 how we enter into God’s favor by our union with Jesus:

Have you realized that God’s favor is not some cherry on top of the Christian life that only the really good Christians get? I hope so. I also hope you’ve discovered that the favor of God is not something you will ever be able to win for yourself, that your only hope of getting it‚ÄĒof being well pleasing to God‚ÄĒis to be united to the One of whom God said, “This is my beloved Son , with whom I am well pleased.” Rest in Jesus, dear Christian. Your salvation is secure in his strong hand. God is pleased with you, and he will cease to be pleased with you only when he ceases to be pleased with his own Son. (96).

In part 2, Gilbert explores the benefits of God’s favor: contentment (chapter 6), peace with God (chapter 7), the blessings of new life (chapter 8) and our adoption as sons and daughters of the King (chapter 9).

In a lot of ways, Gilbert is giving us old-school evangelicalism here. God’s favor is God’s grace and the ensuing blessing. Like grace, we can’t earn God’s favor. We experience it as we live in relationship to God through Christ.¬† As I read through the latter part of this book, I thought especially of Paul Little’s¬†Know Why You Believe¬†(IVP, 1966),¬†which apart from being an ‘apologetics book,’ extolled the benefits available to us in Christ. The language of favor, may be a different way of talking about it, but the message remains unchanged.

I give this book three and a half stars. ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ¬Ĺ

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

G is for Grace (an alphabet for penitents)

Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. (Jeremiah 31:2-3).

Grace is the ground we stand on, the word connotes “mercy” and “favor.” We are told we are ‘saved by grace’‚ÄĒGod’s unmerited favor toward us, because of Christ and his cross. In the thought-world¬†of Jeremiah the prophet(quoted above), grace meant that exile and destruction weren’t the final words. Because of God’s favor, faithfulness and everlasting love, there was Grace, for Israel, in the wilderness.¬†The forty-day period of Lent¬†gets¬†its¬†forty days from Jesus wilderness fast (Matthew 4:1-11). As we enter into wilderness space‚ÄĒthrough fasting and repentance‚ÄĒwe do so with confidence, that we, too, will find grace in the wilderness.

No repentance is possible without the reality of grace. Theologians talk of Prevenient Grace‚ÄĒthe Grace of God which precedes human repentance. Calvinists and everyone else argue about how irresistible this grace is. ¬†I don’t know. But I do know without the existential hope of restoration and mercy, there is not much psychological need to ‘repent.’ A fast¬†only makes sense in light of a rock-solid belief in God’s grace for us.

But God’s grace isn’t the only grace we need. We also need our own. As we strip away our comforts and take an honest stock of our heart condition, we may recoil at what we find there. We are the ones whose hands crafted idols. We justify sin and act selfishly. We have hurt other people and mistreated them. When we start to see this, we beat ourselves up and¬†feel unworthy. Normally we dull our guilty¬†feelings with the things that comfort us(ice cream, cookies, chocolate, etc). But the wilderness of Lent forces us to confront our demons in the den of self-loathing.

Grace in the wilderness comes as we trust in the grace of God towards sinners and learn to be gracious with ourselves. We struggle and stumble along the way. Grace isn’t a belief in our worthiness so much as a belief that God thought we were worth it. We are more than our missteps. At our core, we are God’s beloved‚ÄĒthe objects of God’s grace and His delight. He gives rest to us when we’re weary. He searches for us when we’re far away. He loves us with forever faithfulness. We are loved. Judgment and destruction do not have the final word. Grace in the wilderness!

 god27s_grace

Lessons of a Good God (Hosea)

Hosea was a bad husband who publically shamed his spouse and a bad dad who saddled his children with awful names. He did all this to make vivid the message he had for a bad people, with bad leaders practicing bad religion. The final decades of Israel were marked by violence as new leaders deposed previous dynasties. They put their trust in trans-national partnerships with Egypt and Assyria. And the people followed the gods of the nations. Their idolatry was adultery, they forsook YHWH and their covenant relationship with Him. They forgot that was God that brought them into the land and gave it to them as a gift. Their practice of false religion and fertility rites (9:1-6) would not stave off famine and exile. Times of economic prosperity had led them away from their  God (10:1-2).

Because of Israel’s idolatrous heart, they were under God’s judgment. They sowed to the wind and would reap the whirlwind (8:7). Israel would be swallowed up by the nations they trusted, carried off to Assyria (8:8-9).¬† Hosea hoped that his people would turn their hearts back to God but they didn’t. The result was that perverted justice and coming judgment:

Sow righteousness for yourselves,
    reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
    for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
    and showers his righteousness on you.
 But you have planted wickedness,
    you have reaped evil,
    you have eaten the fruit of deception.
Because you have depended on your own strength
    and on your many warriors,
the roar of battle will rise against your people,
¬†¬†¬†¬†so that all your fortresses will be devastated‚ÄĒ
as Shalman devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle,
    when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children.
 So will it happen to you, Bethel,
    because your wickedness is great.
When that day dawns,
    the king of Israel will be completely destroyed. (Hosea 10:12-15)

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God’s judgment hangs like a cloud over the prophets’ writings. But judgment was never the final point. Revealing badness was always a secondary concern for the prophet. The primary prophetic task was to reveal¬†knowledge of¬†God¬†(daath Elohim),¬†His goodness,¬†and turn the hearts of people back to Him.¬†Using the analogy of marriage, Hosea reveals God’s heart‚ÄĒthe love he had for his people.
Throughout his book, Hosea describes the Lord in heart language. When he speaks of the knowledge of God (cf. Hosea 6:6), he is describing the intimate sharing between He and his people (like the intimate¬†knowing which marriage partners possess of one another). “The general sympathy which Hosea requires of¬†man is solidarity, an emotional identification with God” (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets Vol. 1, New York: Harper & Colon, 1962, p60). So emotive language describes God with emotive language: “When Israel was a child¬† I loved him. .. (Hosea 11:1). Hear the yearning of God in this passage and the promise of restoration:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
    How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
    all my compassion is aroused.
 I will not carry out my fierce anger,
    nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man‚ÄĒ
    the Holy One among you.
    I will not come against their cities.
They will follow the Lord;
    he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
    his children will come trembling from the west. (Hosea 11:8-10)

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It isn’t just a prophets purpose, it the Father’s longing for his people to return to Him. He loves and longs for his people.¬†God loves his people¬†and even though they spurned¬†and rejected Him, and like¬†an adulteress¬†chased after other lovers, God longed for¬†their return to Him. ¬†So while Hosea 12-13,¬†like much of the book,¬†describes Israel’s¬†sin and God’s judgement for their adultery it ends with the promise of future blessing.
 I will heal their waywardness
    and love them freely,
    for my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
    he will blossom like a lily.
Like a cedar of Lebanon
    he will send down his roots;
    his young shoots will grow.
His splendor will be like an olive tree,
    his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.
People will dwell again in his shade;
    they will flourish like the grain,
they will blossom like the vine‚ÄĒ
    Israel’s fame will be like the wine of Lebanon.
Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols?
    I will answer him and care for him.
I am like a flourishing juniper;
¬†¬†¬†¬†your fruitfulness comes from me.‚ÄĚ (Hosea 14:4-8).
The wayward and rejected Israel is promised that God would  heal them, love them freely, That his anger toward them would cease, and he would renew his Covenant love and blessing.
When we consider our own context, Hosea has a lot to teach us. As a prophet of God he spoke God’s truth. He told his nation of their wandering heart, idolatry and their failure to follow God. And yet as God’s prophet he told the whole truth. Beyond¬†their national apostasy stood a loving God, longing to restore his people who had good things in store for them. God who would not be angry forever and would restore, and renew covenant life with Him.
So whatever your read is of America’s social and political landscape‚ÄĒits decadence, the pandering to special interest and oligarchy, our tenuous relationships with other nation states, the winking at¬†injustice when it suits our interests, ¬†the hypocrisy of leadership, the need to drain the swamp, the subversion of Christian values, the lies of the media, the treatment of the vulnerable, and the violence or whatever other¬†ways we’ve sown to the wind and reaped the whirlwind‚ÄĒGod’s good news for us is this: He loves us with a faithful love and longs to turn hearts back to him. His anger doesn’t burn forever and he will restore those who turn to Him.
Who is wise? Let them realize these things.
    Who is discerning? Let them understand.
The ways of the Lord are right;
    the righteous walk in them,
    but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:9)

40 Days of Grace: a book review

While I occasionally review devotional literature, I am not really a ‘devotional guy.’ This is especially true of the 40 day journey variety. Admittedly, I can lack the consistency and stick-to-itiveness to complete the ‘whole 40 days.’ I also have bad memories of being dragged through the¬†40 days of Purpose¬†(twice). ¬†My big issue is that I find devotional books somewhat shallow. I’d rather pick up the Bible, and maybe a good commentary and study something. So it was with a little bit of apprehension that I began Rich Miller’s 40 days of Grace.¬†Except I did it in like 32. I’m not bragging or anything, I’m just letting you know I did it all wrong.

Miller is the president of Freedom in Christ Ministries, USA, an organization founded by Neil Anderson (Miller has also  co-written several books with Anderson).  Miller is the sole author of these devotions; however the book is designed to be used in concert with The Grace Course, a DVD curriculum featuring Steve Goss and Rich Miller (although it can also be enjoyed separately).

Miller’s six week (5 weeks, and 5 day) journey explores the different facets of Grace. The first week is devoted to describing what grace is, how amazing it is, and how good and gracious God is for giving us a gift we do not deserve. The following weeks expand on how ¬†God’s grace ministers to various parts of our soul. God’s grace in Christ deals decisively with our sin and guilt (week 2), our shame (week 3), our fears (week 4), and our pride (week 5). The final five days are devoted to exhorted us to live the “Grace-rest life.”

Miller writes these devotional reflections with wit, insight and good humor. ¬†My initial impression of this book was that it was overly basic. But there are many ways where we can ‘get grace’ intellectually yet still fail to live it out. Miller’s Mission) is to get us to understand experientially what we have been given in Christ, and help us to flourish as a result. This is a good goal, and sometimes a ‘back to the basics’ approach is good for the soul. ¬†However, I think that I would recommend this more for new Christians than seasoned saints. ¬†That isn’t to say that this book didn’t also make me hunger for a deeper, richer experience of God’s grace in my own life. ¬†I loved that Miller is not content to leave his description of grace as God’s gift of salvation from sin. ¬†By tracing the way Grace sets captives free (from sin, guilt, shame, fear, pride), Miller points us to a more grace-full life.

This was better than my previous 40 Day¬†journeys (even if I got done eight days early). ¬†Of course Miller doesn’t say everything about grace (anymore than Rick Warren speaks comprehensively about the purposes of God). What he does say here, is generally biblical, thoughtful and personally enriching. I give it 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Freedom From Pornography: a book review

Heath Lambert says he did not write¬†Finally Free¬†to address the dangers of pornography–how it poisons relationships, isolates individuals and victimizes those in the industry. There are other books on the market which discuss this at length. Many people who struggle with pornography know the problems associated with it but still live in bondage. Leath wrote Finally Free to proclaim that real freedom is possible through grace through Jesus Christ.

Leath is the executive director of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselor (NANC). Nouthetic counseling uses biblical principles as its fundamental basis for its apprach.  Leath applies the Bible to the problem of porn first by sharing the way grace enables us to live free from this sin and secondly, he presents eight  measures to ensure that we live out that freedom. These include:

  • Using the sorrow for our sins (not just regret at getting caught!).
  • Accountability.
  • Radical measures (i.e. getting rid of TV, credit cards, internet, etc).
  • Confession.
  • utilizing your relationship with your spouse (or singleness) to fight porn.
  • Growing in humility.
  • Cultivating a dynamic relationship with Jesus

Grace is foundational to this list and Lambert points us continually to the cross.  Jesus died for you because of this (and other sins). Jesus came to set you free. In Christ, we who were dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) have been set free!

I think that Lambert has many great, practical things to say. Real freedom from pornography is possible in Christ! I ¬†appreciate that he doesn’t assume every struggler with pornography is male. In his opening chapter on grace he writes, “I know dozens of people (men and women) who struggle with pornography. Each was introduced to pornography in a different way. (17)” ¬†One problem I have with a lot of Christian books dealing with pornography, is that they assume it is an exclusively male sin. ¬†This compounds the isolation and shame of female strugglers. ¬†I loved that Lambert was conscious enough of this to offer his pastoral counsel to both men and women. Unfortunately after the first page, all the examples focus on male struggle (these are mostly anecdotes drawn from Lambert’s own counseling ministry), but the intention is there.

I also think that the advice in this book is sound and applicable not only to the sin of pornography, but other vices as well. Gamblers, drug addicts and perfectionists can apply the principles in this book to their own problems. The specific topic of this book is pornography, but because Lambert roots his approach to counseling in biblical counsel, he is necessarily applying biblical principles to a specific twenty-first century context.  These principles can just as easily can be applied to other sins, and help Christians strive towards greater freedom and holiness. 

I commend this book. I think it is one of the better books on helping Christians gain freedom from pornography. There are places I want to nuance what Lambert says. For example, he tends to talk about pornography in terms of lust and adultery (which it is), but he says little about the desire for relationship and connection which both drives strugglers to pornography and causes them to feel profound shame and isolation. ¬†I also do not share his general suspicion of psychology which drives the Nouthetic Counseling approach. I ¬†do agree that much of the psychological literature is written from a secular and materialist bias, and that the fundamental problem humans face is Sin. ¬†So my view is probably closer to Lambert’s than most psychology. Yet I also appreciate some psychological insights and think that it would complement this book well.

I give this book four stars and recommend it for those who are struggling with pornography, those who are ministering to others, ¬†and other strugglers. I believe if you put these principles into practice, taking care that you are rooted in an experience of God’s grace, you will experience freedom in Christ.

Thank you to Zondervan and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

The Christian Romance: a book review

I almost didn’t want to read this book. There are a lot of books about grace. Many of them are underwhelming. They pit law against grace and New Testament against Old. Some books are fluffy and lack substance. ¬† Some books mistake grace for poor quality control (the results are almost always bad). ¬† I decided to go ahead and review The Romance of Grace¬†anyway because the author lives in my hometown and is a teaching pastor at a church I drive by often. Then a strange thing happened: I liked it.

The Romance of Grace by Jim McNeely III

Jim McNeely III explores the operations of Grace in a winsome and engaging manner. In his opening chapter he explores ¬†two of Jesus’ parables. The ¬†first is ¬†of the man who for the joy of it, sells all he has to buy a field with a hidden treasure. The second parable likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a merchant who sells all has to buy a pearl of great price.¬†These parables tell us something about how grace works. When we get grace, joy motivates us to give our life a way to enjoy the treasure God has for us.

McNeely explores the implications of grace for the Christian life and how God saved us because of his great love. ¬†McNeely interprets the Fall as the moment when humankind divorced God’s moral goodness from ¬†the aesthetic Good(Eve saw that the fruit which God said not to eat was good for eating). ¬†The implication of this is that our desires are disordered and we end up calling good, things which are not good (or lesser goods). God’s extravagant love brings ¬†both senses of good together again.

In each of the chapters of this book, McNeely explores a facet of grace. Does grace mean that we can do whatever we want because we have a get-out-of-hell free card? Not anymore than the fact that your spouse loves you means you can cheat on them (BTW don’t even think it!). But it isn’t that grace demands or¬†coerce.s¬† It compels. Like the man who buys the field for ‘the joy of it,’ we act graciously and faithfully because we know the love of God in our depths and it wells up within us. ¬†McNeely ¬†also explores how grace relates to predestination, spiritual gifts and the church, worship and wonder. God woos us with his love and his grace touches every part of our lives.

McNeely is a good communicator and I loved his illustrations (many drawn from movies and pop-culture, a few from his family life and personal experience). So many books about grace are fluffy but I found McNeely substantive and insightful.  This is a good picture of grace and the love of God. I happily give this book 4 stars and think that you will find its description of the romance of grace compelling.

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Blessed is the One Whose Sins Are Forgiven: Psalm 32 (Seven Penitential Psalms)

The Seven¬†Penitential¬†Psalms were chosen because they teach us about confession; yet they do not all teach us in the same way. Our first psalm (Psalm 6) lamented personal suffering and sadness which comes from sin. The tone of Psalm 32 is different. It is not a lament at all. Instead this is a psalm of thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness. ¬†At the end of Psalm 6, the psalmist feels heard and awaits the Lord’s sure deliverance. Here the psalmist sings of a lived reality. ¬†His sorrows were swallowed up by the mercy of God. Here is Psalm:

Psalm 32 (NIV)

Of David. A maskil.

1 Blessed is the one

whose transgressions are forgiven,

whose sins are covered.

2 Blessed is the one

whose sin the Lord does not count against them

and in whose spirit is no deceit.

3 When I kept silent,

my bones wasted away

through my groaning all day long.

4 For day and night

your hand was heavy on me;

my strength was sapped

as in the heat of summer.

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you

and did not cover up my iniquity.

I said, “I will confess

my transgressions to the Lord.‚ÄĚ

And you forgave

the guilt of my sin.

6 Therefore let all the faithful pray to you

while you may be found;

surely the rising of the mighty waters

will not reach them.

7 You are my hiding place;

you will protect me from trouble

and surround me with songs of deliverance.

8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;

I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.

9 Do not be like the horse or the mule,

which have no understanding

but must be controlled by bit and bridle

or they will not come to you.

10 Many are the woes of the wicked,

but the Lord’s unfailing love

surrounds the one who trusts in him.

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;

sing, all you who are upright in heart!

The psalmist is aware of the isolation and loneliness of being a sinner. He remembers how his bones ached and his spirit withered. He knew that he was the¬†recipient¬†of God’s wrath. But then he confessed his sins–did not hold back anything but declared them all. And then he experienced absolution, freedom, total forgiveness and joy. With confidence he exhorts us to shed our¬†obstinance¬†and petty¬†pretense¬†and seek forgiveness from the God of grace.

Have you experienced what the Psalmist describes? There was a time when I felt the weight of my sin and resented God’s goodness (if God weren’t so good, he wouldn’t demand so much would He?). But then I experienced God’s goodness afresh–His Grace abounding to my sin-sick-soul. And in that moment I felt loved by God and the freedom of forgiveness. But I am from a people of unclean lips and I have unclean lips. I don’t do confession well. I bet you don’t either.

I feel like our gut response to sin in our lives is to pretend it isn’t there. Sure we aren’t perfect but we really aren’t that bad either, right? So we excuse our faults and make sure that we do more good than bad. We hide from the ugly parts of ourselves and we hide from one another too. And God. When God and others see us for who we¬†truly are we feel exposed. We are naked and ashamed so we run and hide.

What this Psalm suggests to me is that another way is possible. To the extent that I have bared my soul to God in confession I am able to latch on to the forgiveness He offers through Christ. ¬†It is when confess our sins that we know the freedom of forgiveness. ¬†What we hold back from God, God will not bless. What we give to Him is transformed in His hands. I pray for myself that I would be bold in my confession and honest with myself about where my thoughts, words and deeds hurt the ones I love. In better moments I pray that for you too. Join me in confession and let us experience the freedom of God’s forgiveness together!