Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Book Review – The Compelling Community

Some of the most edifying books I have read in the past decade have come with a 9Marks logo located somewhere on the cover. The Compelling Community, by Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop, is another excellent 9Marks book that I found very helpful. This book, primarily written by Dunlop, focuses on lessons learned and principles derived from Pastor Mark Dever and the church the two authors lead and attend.

Dunlop writes, “I want to raise the bar of what you envision church community to be,” and at the same time he claims, “I want to lower your ambition for what you can do to create community…Scripture teaches that the community that matters is community built by God.” In Dunlop estimation, this book is “an exploration of What God’s Word says about community–paired with practical advice for how you might work out these principles in your own church.”
  • Chapter one argues that gospel-plus community–derived from natural means–may “work” to create community, but churches aspire to gospel-revealing community–derived supernaturally–that displays the power of God.
  • Chapter two considers the impact of naturally derived community: compromised evangelism and compromised discipleship.
  • Chapter three contrasts community built on comfort versus community built on calling and the evident supernatural quality of the latter.
  • Breadth of community, and the diversity inherent in it, is considered in chapter four along with the difference between this and similarity based community.
  • Chapter five looks at the interplay between the right preaching of God’s word and how it works itself out in God’s community.
  • The focus of chapter six is prayer and chapter seven’s is on discipleship.
  • The eighth chapter assesses impediments to community which may include staff positions, events, music, and ministries.
  • Chapter 9 deals with the inevitable discontent and disunity that come with community with a focus on how the apostles wrestled with these issues.
  • Chapter 10 examines Jesus’ teaching on sin in the church.
  • Chapter 11 deals with the witness of the church community and evaluates how we can best expose the world to it.
  • Church planting and church revitalization are deliberated in the twelfth chapter.

My experience with 9Marks books and their teaching on the church has almost been entirely positive. Their books, and the ideas contained in them, are informative and inspiring. I find myself challenged, and motivated to rise to the challenge. This book, The Compelling Community, is no different in these regards. As a church leader, and one who desires to see the church be what the Bible calls her to, I recommend this book.

Packer on petitioning God via Keller

In the 14th chapter of Keller's book Prayer, the author addresses the question "How should we ask?" Keller has already considered the danger of asking God for things wrongly, as well as looking at the pitfall of being too timid to ask God for things. Keller proceeds by looking at the 98th question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which is as follows:
Q. 98. What is prayer? 
A. Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.
Keller notes that the catechism's answer indicates that we should ask God to fulfill desires, even though we may be plagued with sinful or well-intentioned but mistaken desires. Keller then looks to J. I. Packer for wisdom on how to proceed with asking God for things in light of the dangers brought to light in the catechism.

First, Keller argues that we should embed "theological reasoning in all our prayers." He quotes Packer, "we should lay before God, as part of our prayer, the reasons why we think that what we ask for is the best thing" and "why what we have asked for seems to us to be for the best, in light of what we know God;s own goals to be." This is a very helpful suggestion. This embedding of theological reasoning will be a safeguard if we find ourselves with desires that don't align with God.

Second, Keller informs us of Packer's instruction to tell God in our prayers "that if he wills something different we know it will be better and it is that (rather than the best we could think of) that we really want him to do." This, again, is very helpful for maintaining a reverent attitude while we petition God for our desires. Quoting Packer, Keller writes, "We must ask ourselves "what we ourselves might need to do to implement answers to our prayers."" Keller continues, "To some degree, the answers to many of our petitions would be facilitated by changes in us, but we usually do not take time to consider this as we pray." This final insight impacted me the most; I don't think I even consider this approach.

Asking God for things in prayer is not only a privilege, it's a command. But we petition God best when we do it intelligently, reverently, and with self-reflection.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Awe and intimacy in forgiveness

We've taken a little hiatus from posting, and reading, about Tim Keller book on prayer called Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. So, here we go again, hopefully keeping on track until the book is finished.

In the thirteenth chapter, Keller perhaps discusses the area of Christianity where the experiencing of the intimacy and awe of God comes into play and does so with a whole whack of tension. This area is the area of forgiveness of sins. The experiencing of intimacy is profoundly experienced in the free forgiveness of our sins. But the experiencing of the awe of God is also experienced when we contemplate the infinite cost this free forgiveness required.

Keller desires to keep this biblically informed tension in the forefront in this chapter. He writes,
Only against the background of the Old Testament, and the great mystery of how God could fulfill his covenant with us, can we see the freeness of forgiveness and its astounding cost. It means that no sin can now bring us into condemnation, because of Christ's atoning sacrifice. It also means that sin is so serious and grievous to God that Jesus had to die. We must recognize both of these aspects of God's grace or we will lapse into one or the other of two fatal errors. Either we will think forgiveness is easy for God to give, or we will doubt the reality and thoroughness of our pardon.  (207)
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. Even in earthly relationships, one would be hard pressed to find a sweeter, more intimate and affecting idea than forgiveness. And yet, when forgiveness comes from the infinite and perfectly holy Creator of the universe, and the cost of his infinite and perfectly holy Son, the glory of forgiveness starts to be seen in its massively majestic splendour. Keller continues,
All those who are in Christ must and will be forgiven Why? He has taken the punishment and paid the debt for all their sins. It would be unjust of God--and unfaithful to his covenant with us to receive two payments on the same debt, so it would be unjust for him not to forgive us. This profound assurance and security transforms repentance from being a means of atoning for sin into a means of honoring God and realigning our lives with him.  (209)
The debt-paying sacrifice of our glorious Saviour assures our forgiveness which also assures the almost unbelievable reality of an intimate relationship with God! And the awe-inducing reality of what this actually cost, and what Christ actually did to secure this blessing, should leave us in a state of reverence beyond normal experience. Such is the nature of grace; forgiveness that is free and infinitely costly.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Book Review – 40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

The first 40 Questions book I read pertained to the Law and how Christians should understand it. I found it very helpful. This book by John S. Hammett is equally beneficial and useful. The strengths of this book which shape its helpfulness are the form it employs, the style of its writing, the tone of the author, and the content of its answers.

The form of the book shapes its usefulness for laypeople and clergy alike. The book is, as the title suggests, a compilation of questions and answers in regards to the sacraments, or ordinances, of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This format makes it very easy for the inquisitive to quickly find an answer to questions they may have. In fact, Hammett’s book deals with every question I had in regards to these topics; I cannot think of anything it does not deal with that is relevant to me. The books divisions also aid the reader. The book is divided into general questions, questions about baptism, questions about the Lord’s Supper, and concluding questions. The sections on each of the sacraments is further divided into introductory questions, denominational views, theological issues, and practical aspects. The very structure of this book bolsters its helpfulness.

The style of the writing greatly enhances its value to the reader looking for answers about these two issues. How many millions of words have been written about baptism and the Lord’s Supper? One could spend a lifetime reading about them. But Hammett’s writing is concise and clear. He is easy to follow and his answers are succinct. The reader will not get bogged down in this book, particularly when the option of just reading the answers to the questions one is concerned with is an option.

I appreciated the author’s irenic tone while dealing with the alternative views on many issues. Though the author clearly states his own opinion, he fairly represents other perspectives and presents them without negativity. He does not hesitate to state his disagreement, but he does so winsomely. This approach makes the book easy to read and helps the reader see other viewpoints which adds to the value of this book.

Finally, the actual of content of the answers is the main benefit of this book. Though I have read several books and many articles on these two controversial topics, this one book has helped me more than those combined. In particular, Hammett addresses historical topics throughout the book and I found these discussions very enlightening. I will add, the chapter entitled What Can You Do to Improve Your Worship through the Lord’s Supper? is worth the price of the book alone. Though one might not agree with all of the author’s answers, their helpfulness cannot be questioned.

40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper by John S. Hammett is another book in the 40 Questions series that helpfully deals with issues of great importance to the church. It is particularly helpful because of its question and answer format, its clear and concise writing, its irenic tone, and the actual answers the author provides. I recommend this book as a valuable resource for the church and her people.