Monthly Archives: January 2015

Questions for preachers to ask themselves (via Dallas Willard)

Dallas Willard expresses concern in The Divine Conspiracy that the idea of discipleship is lost on both the “left” and “right” sides of the theological spectrum. He believes that discipleship has been replaced by doctrines of “sin management” (or what Bonhoeffer might call “cheap grace”) that is disconnected from the person of Jesus Christ. This leads Willard to exhort Christian teachers:

“Must not all who speak for Christ constantly ask themselves these crucial questions: Does the gospel I preach and teach have the natural tendency to cause people to hear it to become full-time students of Jesus? Would those who believe it become his apprentices as a natural “next step”? What can we reasonably expect would result from people actually believing the substance of my message?”

In contrast to doctrines of “sin management” and teaching a gospel that is disconnected from our “real” lives Willard offers this solution:

“To counteract this we must develop a straightforward presentation, in word and life, of the reality of life now under God’s rule, through reliance upon the word and person of Jesus. In this way we can naturally become his students or apprentices. We can learn from him how to live our lives as he would live them if he were we.

Book Review: The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Cost of Discipleship

The Cost of Discipleship

My copy of The Cost of Discipleship is filled with underlined passages and notes in the margins, all indications of time where Boenhoffer led me on a mini inner-dialog. I would love to bring those notes and reflections to bear on this review. However time constrains me to deal too much with the content. I have done so a little bit here, in regards to Bonhoeffer’s view of discipleship.

As much as I was struck by the message of this book, I was perhaps more impressed by Bonhoeffer’s tone. Bonhoeffer wrote to a church in the crisis of Nazi Germany. Many in the Church capitulated. For others who resisted and chose instead to follow Jesus, the cost was high. Bonhoeffer speaks often of suffering and martyrdom and the Christian life being a life shaped by the cross. He not only wrote about this – he bore this out in his life and death.

Whether it is because of the crisis in which Bonhoeffer wrote or not the style of The Cost of Discipleship is bold. His language is stark. He loves to draw sharp distinctions between ideas, his most famous being his distinction between cheap grace and costly grace. This draws the reader to a point of internal conflict. Is this distinction really so great? Is there really so much on the line? Is the way really so narrow? Is this cost really so high? He does not often call the reader to decision, he just points out that there is one, and that decision is of utmost importance.

The Cost of Discipleship is devoid of the fluff so common in most modern popular books. Bonhoeffer simply says it as he sees it and grounds it all in a rich understanding of Scripture. In fact, most of the book is simply exposition on Scripture. Part 2 is an exposition on the Sermon on the Mount.

I hope that a bit of Bonhoeffer’s boldness and style can find its way into my preaching and writing (and even personal conversation.) I so often couch everything I am saying, and sometimes that is necessary. But sometimes I am being soft and cowardly.

There are many “talking-heads” today who are “bold,” but they are the bold for their own sake, for their own brand. Their “boldness” is really only added for shock value. It is ultimately empty. Bonhoeffer was not bold in that way. He speaks often of the “hiddenness” of the righteousness of the disciples. A disciple’s good works are hidden from himself. A disciple looks only to his Master, never at his own works. That is the sense I get from Bonhoeffer’s style. He was simply focused on obeying Jesus and the boldness followed naturally. It did not need to be manufactured on its own. In fact, it could not be and still be worthy of praise.

It is this kind of discipleship the Bonhoeffer draws our attention to – a single-minded focus on obedience to the call of Jesus – and it is this kind of discipleship that Bonhoeffer lived.

The Core Values of WPBF

Our church’s core values are posted on our website  but I want to take a brief opportunity to rephrase and expand on what we mean by those core values. I have tried to rephrase these values as “loves” since you value what you love. What you love you also pursue, so when we hold these things as values they also form what we aim for – our vision and our daily and long-term goals.

Unstated in this list of values is one that is foundational to all of them: We love God. We seek to glorify Him in all we do.

We love God’s Word (Biblical Truth)

We love the Bible because it teaches us about God. It is God Word to us.

We believe that the Bible is trustworthy and without error. We do not need to wonder whether or not it is telling us the truth. Because God never lies – he cannot – neither can his word. It is therefore also our authority. While interpretations of it may vary, it still wins the argument. We also believe that God’s word is sufficient. It gives us everything we need for life and godliness. This is why we preach from it every Sunday and while we meditate on it in weekly Bible studies. There are many other sources of good information, but the Bible will always remain our primary source. Finally, we believe that the Bible is clear, in the sense that its basic truths can be understood by anyone. Because it is accessible to all we all wrestle through it together. Certainly, there are many parts that are hard to understand, but it does not follow that only certain people, with particular degrees, can understand its plain meaning.

We aim as a church, then, to grow in our knowledge of God’s Word and to together apply it to our lives.

We love God’s People (Loving Community)

Certainly, we are called to love the whole world, but we have a particular responsibility to love the local church. This love contains within it a goal and that goal is that we might become the mature body of Christ, firm in the faith and in the knowledge of God. There are many ways we demonstrate this love for one another but there are four called out in Ephesians 4 which I will briefly mention.

  • We aim to speak the truth in love.
  • We aim to use our gifts for acts of service, or to equip others for acts of service.
  • We aim to practice humility and deference to the needs of others.
  • We make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bonds of peace.

How does this play out? We aim to right any wrongs as quickly as possible. If there is a disagreement about preferential matters, we try to defer to the desires of others. It’s OK, even great, when I don’t get “what I want.” Even when we disagree about a particular we try to remain united in what we can all agree on and stay united to the mission God has given us.

We Trust Our Heavenly Father (Trusting God)

To state in terms of love: We love obedience to God greater than we love our own “success.” Or, to put it another way, our “success” is measured in terms of our obedience to God. This is really just another way of self-evaluation. Our primary criteria for self-evaluation isn’t the size of our church or of a particular ministry, but whether or not we are doing the things God has called us to do and not doing the things God has forbidden. This frees us to focus on obedience, which is within our control, instead of results, which are given by our gracious heavenly Father in whom we put our trust.

Of course, we rejoice in growth, and how people are responding to the gospel is one of the criteria we measure ourselves by, but it is not the ultimate criteria.

We love God’s Word (Gospel Mission)

We are inspired by the love of God for us and we are compelled by his command to go into the world and make disciples. We do not exist for our own sake but we are sent, like Jesus was sent, because of God’s love for all mankind (see John 3:16).

We have a mission and that mission is to make disciples, to proclaim the good news of Jesus and call people to follow Jesus in every aspect of their lives, including obedience to the call to “make disciples.” This is how we live out love for God’s world.

This mission is holistic. The gospel is an essential component, but not the only component. People are whole people – body and spirit – and we are called to love them in that way. And so we seek to meet the physical needs of our community (and worldwide communities) and their spiritual needs as well.

What does this mean for our church? We aim to do this in a variety of ways, most obviously through our After School program, but we always need to be open to other ways of reaching out to the community God has placed us in.

Judging a book by its Introduction (Half the Sky, Can God Be Trusted? The Purpose Driven Life, and more)

Sometimes the introduction of a book says more than the book itself. Here we usually find the author’s thesis and an outline of their arguments. As of right now I have 174 books on my Amazon Wish List. I’m never going to read all of them but the good news is that Amazon has a “Look Inside” feature that provides, most of the time anyway, the introduction of the book. So instead of trying to read all of them I’m going to try to read 1 Introduction a day (ish) and provide a few observations from each intro.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn

Why I put it on my wishlist:

I added it after hearing a seminary chapel talk about the subjugation of women around the world.

The Book:

The introduction is a punch in the gut, in a good way. It tells the story of a girl who got caught in the sex industry of Cambodia, but who eventually found a way to escape and make a life of her own.

By their own account the authors stumbled upon the topic of the global subjugation of women quite unexpectedly. While working as journalists they discovered that “when a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were routinely kidnapped and sold into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news.”

Since this realization they have come to the conclusion that while previous generations faced the challenge of slavery and totalitarianism the “paramount moral challenge” for this generation “will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.” Specifically the authors are concerned with three specific abuses: sex trafficking/forced prostitution, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality.

Despite a list of rather sad statistics and personal stories the authors are hopeful. They ask the reader not only look at the problem, but to see these women as the source of their own solution. “The plight of girls is no more tragedy than an opportunity.” They are convinced that the empowerment of women, such as through education and micro-financing, offers a hopeful way forward.

They then site what they call the “girl effect:”

 “The basic formula was to ease repression, educate girls as well as boys, give girls the freedom to move to the cities and take factory jobs, and then benefit from a demographic dividend as they delayed marriage and reduced childbearing. The women meanwhile financed the education of younger relatives, and saved enough of their pay to boost national savings rates.”

A global movement is afoot, say the authors, which is akin to the abolishment of slavery, “a global movement to emancipate women and girls.” This book is an invitation to join that global movement.

Verdict: Keep it.

Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil By John G. Stackhouse

Why I put this book on my wishlist:

Ever since I heard Stackhouse at an InterVarsity conference, I’ve been fascinated by everything he has written.

The book:

It occurred to me that after reading in such stark terms the evil described in Half the Sky you may be faced with the question that might lead you to Can God be Trusted? The question Stackhouse aims to answer is the theological and philosophical “problem of evil.”

Stackhouse is neither the first nor the last to address this question but he does have a unique voice. He distinguishes between two types of books on the topic, those that are primarily pastoral (light but encouraging) and those that are philosophical (dense but not accessible). Stackhouse’s aim is to write a book that gathers up the fruits of front-rank philosophy and theology and offers them to nonspecialists.”

As if on cue Stackhouse jumps right into a foundational philosophical question – how do we know things? He argues that “blind faith” is not really the answer that comes from religious tradition. Instead, “the various religions themselves encourage us to ask what many reasonable people as anyway: whether we have adequate reasons to put our trust in God. This book poses just this question in terms of one of the most powerful challenges to faith, the reality of evil. Can we believe in God in spite of evil?”

The book is split into two parts. Part one defines the problem more precisely and brings up other related questions – “If there is evil, there must be good, so where does it come from”. “Part two responds to those questions … by considering ways of reframing the issues.” “The book then steers toward considering the ultimate meaning of life, especially as it pertains to the question of God and evil.”

Stackhouse then gives a glimpse of his thesis – that we can not only believe in him, but that we can also trust him:

“What I offer, then, is this: a description of what we’re up against in our struggle against evil, and good reasons to believe in God even in the throes of that struggle. In short, I want to offer hope that, despite appearances and agonies, we really can trust God in spite of evil.”

Verdict: Keep it.

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (partial reading of chapter 1, there is no Introduction) by Scot McKnight

Why I put this book on my wishlist:

I’m not sure, but I think I was studying Bible interpretation at the time, which is related to the topic of this book.

The book:

McKnight starts with his story of spiritual awakening. In High School, prompted by a camp counselor, McKnight asked the Holy Spirit to guide him. The immediate and enduring response of the Spirit was to give him a love and appetite for Scripture.

As McKnight interacted with Scripture he became disturbed by the question: We say we believe the Bible but don’t follow everything it says. Why? He rejects the simplistic response: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me!” as too simplistic.

McKnight offers the example of James 1:26-27. It’s not that these verses are hard to understand but there were still several problems for Christians that he knew when it came to applying them. First, Christians didn’t like the word “religious.” Second, they didn’t apply the same rules to what a “good Christian” should say/do. They had a list of particular vices to refrain from, but few actually took care of widows or had complete control of their tongue. James is clear, but not everyone (in fact relatively few) do it.

McKnight concludes that, for better or worse, “every one of us adopts the Bible and (at the same time) adapts the Bible to our culture. In less-appreciated terms, I’ll put it this way: Everyone picks and chooses.”

The question that McKnight wants to answer is why we pick and choose. Even more importantly, many of us want to know how to do this in a way that honors God and embraces the Bible as God’s Word for all times.”

What does McKnight mean that we “pick and choose?” Early in chapter 1 he offers a few examples. In the case of keeping the Sabbath, we simply don’t do what the Bible says. In the case of tithing we morph what the Bible says. Instead of giving to the temple servants we give to the local church. In the case of foot washing, we try to obey the principle behind the command (humble servanthood) instead of the command itself (washing feet).

The list goes on for McKnight but I couldn’t view any more in preview mode.

Verdict: Keep it, for now. It still likely has something important to say to those new to Bible interpretation and application. And from what I know of McKnight, it offers an orthodox alternative to Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So.

By Rick Warren – The Purpose Driven Life (1st) (9.8.2002) by Rick Warren

Why I put it on my wishlist:

This was a culturally relevant book at the time.

The book:

The concept behind this book is pretty well known so I’m not going to go in depth. Instead I’ll just offer a few observations from introduction and first chapter.

First, Warren starts with a big promise:

“This is more than a book; it is a guide to a 40-day spiritual journey that will enable you to discover the answer to life’s most important question: What on earth am I here for? By the end of this journey you will know God’s purpose for your life… Having this perspective will reduce your stress, simplify your decisions, increase your satisfaction, and, most important, prepare you for eternity.”

I’m generally put off by such broad promises but hey, maybe he’s right.

Second, I do like how Warren starts out his book. He directly tackles a self-oriented way of look at purpose.

“It’s not about you. The purpose of life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness… If you want to know why you were placed on this plant, you must begin with God.”

Looking within ourselves for our purpose is pure folly. “You won’t discover you life’s meaning by looking within yourself…. You didn’t create yourself, so there is no way toy can tell yourself what you were created for … Many people try to use God for their own self-actualization, but that is a reversal of nature and is doomed to failure. You were made for God, not vice versa.”

Sometimes Rick Warren gets a bad rap for being too focused on self-improvement but based on the start to this book I’m not sure that’s a justified criticism.

The verdict:

It’s coming off the list. I’m sure it’s a great book but it’s not as culturally relevant as it once was and I don’t think it will teach me anything I don’t already know.

Bonds of Imperfection by Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan

Why I put it on my wishlist?

I have no idea.

The book:

Man, this was one dense introduction. This is clearly a work of scholarly depth. I had to re-read parts of it a few times just to figure out what in the world the book was supposed to be about.

The book is a collection of essays on political thought, action, and institutions, “from a perspective formed by the Bible and the Latin theological tradition.”

The introduction compares two political traditions. The first is the pre-modern tradition. This tradition identifies…

“the political with the sphere of judgment, divine and human, that gives order to human community in history. The political remains a morally ambiguous realm, an instrument of God’s merciful dealings with humankind and an object of his wrath… The justice and peace achieved by earthly politics… is transient and tragically deficient…. Until [the arrival of the heavenly kingdom], it is not political action but the communion of the church that looks forward to the city of God.”

In contrast, the modern view sets the highest political good as the enhancement of human freedom.

“But this is not the freedom which the older tradition knew as ‘evangelical freedom’: it is no longer law-governed… Projected as autonomous self-possession, freedom assaults the intrinsic forms of sharing and solidarity that comprise moral community: it assaults not only our communication in the created goods and structures by which we live well but also our solidarity as the object of God’s condemnation, forgiveness, and renewal.”

The authors clearly believe that the purely modern tradition is in need of some revision. This tradition has “intellectual and practical pitfalls.” Their goal is to show how the pre-modern tradition has “perennial relevance” to the modern political task. And the essays aim to offer criticism that “illuminates a way forward.”

The names of some of the essays are illuminating and daunting. They include the obscure – “The Political Thought of City of God 19”, “Christian Platonism and Non-proprietary Community”, “The Christian Pedagogy and Ethics of Erasmus” and broad “Nation, State, and Civil Society in the Western Biblical Tradition.”

The verdict:

Despite the fact that this book is clearly over my head, it’s still interesting enough to keep on the list.

Justice

Justice

Sanctity of Life Sunday (Jan 18) and Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan 19) are back-to-back. Both racism and abortion are questions of justice. Christians should care about both. Both are addressed by the truth of the gospel.

I’ve been listening to Justice by Michael Sandel on CD. It’s an enlightening and instructive book which covers many different ideas of justice, from Utilitarianism to Libertarianism; covering moral philosophers from Kant, to Rawls, to Aristotle. All of the philosophers struggle with the idea of justice and of human dignity. All start, however, with purely human notions of justice.

This got me thinking, what does the Bible bring generally, and the gospel specifically, to the questions of abortion and racial harmony? I’m sure it says a lot more than the short list I have here, but this is what came to mind this morning:

  • Foundationally, God’s Word teaches us that all people are made in the image of God, regardless of race or stage of development. Each life is sacred and worthy of care (Gen 1:27).
  • The gospel teaches us to have the mind of Christ, looking to interests of others (Phil 2:4).
  • The gospel teaches us that “neighborliness” extends beyond those with those in our particular clan (Luke 10:25-37).
  • The gospel teaches us to be good to those who cannot repay us (Luke 14:12-14).
  • The gospel teaches us that God’s grace in Christ extends beyond social barriers.
  • The gospel gives us a vision of heaven, of a unified worshipping community, from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev 7:9-10).
  • The gospel breaks down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph 2:14).
  • The gospel makes us one in Christ (Eph 2:15-16).
  • The example of Christ shows us that love is essentially self-sacrificial (1 John 4:7-11).
  • The gospel gives us the ministry of reconciliation – both vertically and horizontally (1 Cor 5:11-21).
  • The gospel teaches us to care for the oppressed.
  • The gospel offers true freedom from guilt through the sacrifice of Christ.
  • The gospel acknowledges the horrifying and truly evil nature of sin – and then defeats it on the cross.
  • The gospel teaches us that evil can be overcome with good (Rom 12:21).
  • The gospel offers us hope for the future – with no more death, or tears, or mourning (Rev 21:4).

Also, I would like to share with you a good video with John Piper and Lacrae where both issues are addressed. A little further on in the video Piper waxes eloquent about the need to address both issues since concern for both comes from how are ethics are transformed by the gospel in Christ.

Bonhoeffer on Grace and Discipleship

The Cost of Discipleship is perhaps most well known for its distinction between cheap and costly grace. “Cheap grace,” for Bonhoeffer, is accepting the principle of grace as free forgiveness of sins without also following the person of Jesus.

“Cheap grace is a grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Costly grace, on the other hand, is centered on the person of Jesus Christ and it calls us to follow him in the way of the cross:

“ Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Bonhoeffer was worried that the Luther Church of his day had taught so thoroughly a doctrine of cheap grace – only concerning itself with hold a particular doctrine of atonement – that all calls to costly grace had been lost. He saw this as a problem not with Luther’s teachings, but with the perversion of them:

“Everywhere Luther’s formula has been repeated, but its truth perverted into self-deception… We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship.”

It is this idea of “true discipleship” and “costly grace” that Luther tries to recover in The Cost of Discipleship. Specifically, he aims to “recover a true understanding of the mutual relationship between grace and discipleship.”

So how can grace and discipleship be reconciled? Bonhoeffer seems to be arguing against a doctrine that pitted the two against each other. Discipleship, following Christ, was seen as legalism, as antithetical to grace. Bonhoeffer argues, on the other hand, that the two can and must be reconciled.

“Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship.”

In fact, the call to discipleship destroys legalism:

“When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. It transcends the difference between law and gospel. Christ calls, and the disciple follows: the grace and the commandment [to follow] are one.”

Later, Bonhoeffer connects all this to Sermon on the Mount. Much like Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God), he takes his cue for the life of discipleship from this famous passage. Disciples are those that attach themselves completely to the person of Christ. The call is costly, but it is also gracious.

“The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, for those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit, the toke is easy and the burden is light.”

I see the same challenges in our culture as Bonhoeffer did in his, though thankfully without the Nazi threat. We live in a country that is ready to accept grace in principle but not in the person of Christ. We are ready to accept the “justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.” We want forgiveness, but aren’t so ready for discipleship. I am learning from Bonhoeffer that these two are not exclusive ideas. Discipleship springs from grace.

Romania Travel Journal – Gaujani

After our visit to Cozia Monastery we traveled north into the mountains to the village of Gaujani. We drove for at least an hour along narrow winding roads. For the first time since coming to Romania I felt as though I was in a world completely foreign to my own. While traveling to Guajani we saw more buggies than cars, though at least one of the buggy riders was busy looking at her cell phone. We also learned the meaning of “when the cows come home.” We were frequently blocked by cows and their herders who, at dusk, were literally, coming home.

Gaujani at dusk, just outside the church

Gaujani at dusk, just outside the church

We arrive at the Guajani church and “senior home” just as the sun was setting. The senior’s home, a ministry of the church, was a modest building with a kitchen/dining room, a bathroom, and six or so small bedrooms. When we arrive there was a caregiver and three seniors gathered in the dining area. We passed out some bread and bananas we had picked up at the store and sang “Amazing Grace.” We then visited the rooms of the seniors who weren’t in the dining area. I was struck by the gratitude of the people who lived there despite their meager (by American standards) list of possessions. In one room we sang “Oh, How I Jesus,” which it was clear truly captured the heart of our host.

From there we visited the church itself, the oldest evangelical church in Valcea County, at 75 years old. We heard stories about how it survived communism and was even partially aided by the communist spy who attended every service. This church was also instrumental in planting other churches in the county. The big struggle for the church today is a lack of young people. According to our guides there were no more than 13 kids in the entire village. We swapped some ideas about how to reach those kids with the love of Christ.

inside the gaujani church

By this point it was getting quite late and we were all starving so we stopped at a sandwich shop on the way home. But since dinner was still on the table when I arrived back at the apartment (it was now around 10pm) I was obliged to have dinner number 2. Yes, my visit to Romania was filled with hardships.