Book Review: The Story of the Word

One summer, I was leading a Wednesday night college ministry bible study. There were about 50 students there, and I gave them a group assignment. On a piece of paper, I listed dozens of biblical characters and events and asked each group to put them in chronological order. I was trying to learn whether or not these students understood the overarching story of the bible and how these major characters fit into that story. As each group shared their answers, I wasn’t surprised to learn that, like me prior to seminary, almost none of them had any sense of the larger story of the Bible. They weren’t unique. Many Christians who have grown up in church have a familiarity with the Bible that lacks any sense of the overarching narratival unity of the Bible. After years of pastoral ministry, I am convinced there’s an even bigger problem: most Christians don’t understand how the larger story of the Bible, how all Scripture, is about Jesus Christ. In large part, it’s this problem that The Story of the Word by Trevor Laurence seeks to address.

sotwLaurence’s helpful book sets out to do four things: 1) to make use of Scripture as a means of grace, 2) to familiarize readers with the whole story of the Bible, 3) to train readers to interpret Scripture well, and 4) to help us see how the Bible speaks good news into every aspect of everyday life. This book accomplishes each of those goals effectively in a writing style that is both beautiful and easy to follow.

The book has three parts comprised of forty-five meditations and an interlude between parts two and three. Part one covers the story from creation to Christ. Part two covers the manger to the empty tomb. The interlude collects major themes and characters before Christ and shows how Jesus fulfills them all (this chapter alone is worth the price of the book). Part three unpacks and applies key passages in the New Testament from Christ’s ascension until his return.

Each meditation revolves around one passage of Scripture that serves as a major plot line in the grand story of the Bible and ends with a short prayer. The book works best if the reader starts with the Biblical passage before moving on to the meditation and prayer. It reads like a devotional commentary packed with background information beautifully interwoven with the details of each passage in a way that really helps the reader understand and appreciate what God has been doing in his world throughout history. Laurence’s writing style moves back and forth between connecting each passage to the larger story culminating in Christ and relating it to our lives today. Most chapters along with the biblical passage will take between 15-20 minutes to cover, making this book a wonderful morning devotional read.

Several chapters of The Story of the Word stood out to me as particularly excellent. In chapter 10, Laurence meditates on the blessings and curses of the Mosaic Covenant found in Deuteronomy 28 and 30—not exactly easy reading. But the way he ties this passage to the Garden of Eden, to Israel’s slavery in Egypt, to Christ, and to us turns a difficult and somewhat confusing passage into an accessible, relevant, and edifying text. In chapter 27, Laurence manages to explain what’s happening in the Garden of Gethsemane on multiple levels while addressing the issue of pride and temptation and highlighting the beauty of Jesus’ loving perseverance. In chapter 39, Laurence meditates on the end of Galatians helpfully connecting Paul’s teaching on walking in the Spirit and bearing fruit to the power of the gospel. These chapters are rich examples of what Laurence does through this book, beautifully and practically weaving together gospel-centered interpretations and personal applications in the Christian life.

If there are any weaknesses to the book, they mainly relate to what this book is not. If you pick it up expecting an instruction manual telling you exactly what you need to do today to be faithful, this isn’t the book for you. Laurence is interested in helping us see and imagine the world from within God’s story, not proscribing simple answers to the complexities we face in life.

This book probably isn’t the starting place for those who have no familiarity with the Bible. While it is intended to help the reader see the big story of the Bible, it does depend on the reader having some familiarity with Christian terms, figures, and concepts. Laurence doesn’t take time to defend the faith or make it comprehensible to skeptics, but anyone who is willing to try to understand the Bible on its own terms will benefit.

I really enjoyed slowly reading through this book day by day, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the Bible and its central figure, Jesus Christ.

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How Our Suffering Can Be Productive

Maybe you can tell, but I have been reading Tim Keller’s book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering the past few weeks. It’s full of insight, depth, and practical help. I have never read anything so comprehensive and so good on suffering. I found his discussion on pages 188-190 on how suffering can reveal character flaws that can then be addressed particularly insightful in a number of ways.

In his book The Importance of Suffering, [psychologist James Davies] critiques what he believes is the majority position among Western therapists, namely that suffering should be treated by helping the patient remove or manage the negative feelings that adversity brings…Davies goes on to make a radical suggestion. What if your negative thoughts about yourself are actually right? “The feeling of being ‘cowardly,'” he writes, “may be less a symptom of ‘faulty thinking’ than an accurate appraisal of part of us that is cowardly. This makes the distress that accompanies our self appraisal not only a perfectly natural response to encountering our cowardice, but also a necessary prerequisite for changing it.” So suffering can lead us to see a significant lack of courage in our character.
If we listen to our negative thoughts in the midst of suffering, we might actually see ourselves more clearly so that we can cultivate courage. If dive deeper into our suffering, as difficult and frightening as it may be, by listening to our negative thoughts rather than seeking friends or therapists that will tell us we are great, then suffering can actually produce positive character growth.
Keller notes two other examples from Davies of character flaws that can be transformed in suffering :
Or suffering may also show us a streak of selfishness. Davies points out studies that show “low self-esteem” is far from a universal problem. He points to research psychologists demonstrating that many people, instead of being plagued with low self-esteem, “are so infected with self-love that they are unable to love others…[and] cannot see beyond the horizon of their own needs and concerns. They are therefore unable to put themselves to one side and empathize with the needs and pains of others–their reality is best so all should adapt to it.”
With an even more countercultural impulse, Davies claims that people who have been through depression can become wiser and more realistic about life than those who have not. He presents a number of studies that show that people who have never been depressed tend to overestimate the amount of control they have over their lives. While severely depressed people are debilitated, in general an experience of depression can give you a more accurate appraisal of your own limitations and how much influence you can have over your circumstances.
No one should seek out suffering, but psychologists agree with Romans 5:3-4 that suffering can produce endurance (resilience), proven character, and eventually a new hope.
But suffering doesn’t always produce these things in us, does it? Why not? Keller looks to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to explain.
Davies, Jonathan Haidt, and others who argue for the benefits of adversity, are quick to point out that suffering does not automatically improve your life. [In Happiness Hypothesis,] Haidt speaks of two basic ways to cope with it–what he calls “active coping and reappraisal” and “avoidance coping and denial.” The latter strategy can lead to disaster, for it includes “working to blunt one’s emotional reactions by denying or avoiding the events, or by drinking, drugs, and other distractions.” The former strategy can lead to real gains, as it combines doing the hard inner work of learning and growing with seeking to change the painful external circumstances. Put another way, Haidt and Davies distinguish steadily walking through suffering from standing still, lying down, or just running away from it.
…The stakes are high here. Suffering will either leave you a much better person or a much worse one than you were before.
When we rage at God, our church, and our friends on account of suffering, when we run away, deny, refuse to face, self-medicate, and/or distract ourselves from the pain and trauma we experience, our suffering will not transform us into better people. It will only make us bitter and angry or further blind us to the areas of our lives that need transformation. Running from our pain by finding something that temporarily relieves the pain and seemingly gives us new life will end up crashing down on us later leaving us more devastated and disillusioned with life.
But when we face our suffering, listen to our negative thoughts about ourselves, and observe what has been exposed about us, we can start to see beauty emerge from brokenness. We can grow into people of greater depth, compassion, understanding, and love.
This latter response is more probable if we know that because of the suffering of Jesus, we are in God’s hands as his children. The confidence that we belong to the Lord whether in life or in death can strengthen us to deal with our suffering rather than merely trying to manage or even deny it.
Trial and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same.

My Top 50 Books

I have read and re-read some great books recently. Some have solidified or synthesized theological and pastoral concerns I have been wrestling with for years. Others have given me whole new insights to myself, our cultural context, and/or my pastoral calling. A few have been incredibly challenging, causing me to rethink a particular part of my life.

All of these great books (and the fact that my study has moved from upstairs down to my basement where my bookshelves stare at me when I sit at my desk) have got me thinking about my spiritual and theological journey. For the past 4 years, I believe I have been discovering and getting comfortable in my theological and ecclesiological home. I am now at a point where I want to think about how I should be directing younger men seeking to be pastors regarding what they should read. I am thankful for the path I have traveled and the books that got me here, but I hope that those who follow me can take a shorter journey.

So here are my top 50 books I recommend to anyone seeking a rich theological and pastoral foundation in the Reformed theological tradition. I have organized them by various categories that begin with the foundational topics and flow toward more practical life related issues.

Considering Christianity

  1. The Reason for God by Tim Keller
  2. King’s Cross by Tim Keller
  3. Three Essential Books in One Volume: Trilogy – The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, He is There and He is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer
  4. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation by William Placher
  5. Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen
  6. The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire
  7. The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story by by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen

Theology

  1. Letters to a Young Calvinist by James Smith
  2. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Michael Horton
  3. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1 by John Calvin
  4. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 2 by John Calvin
  5. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformed Worldview by Albert Wolters
  6. Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper
  7. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer
  8. Reformed Catholicity by Michael Allen and Scott Swain
  9. Union with Christ by J. Todd Billings
  10. Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama by Michael Horton
  11. We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God by David Koyzis

Ecclesiology, Ministry, Christian Formation, and Mission

  1. Center Church by Tim Keller
  2. Christ Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell
  3. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller
  4. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell Guder
  5. Grounded in the Gospel by J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett
  6. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James Smith

Biblical Studies

  1. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible by Graeme Goldsworthy
  2. From Paradise to Promised Land by T.D. Alexander
  3. Kingdom Prologue by Meredith Kline
  4. The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andraes Kostenberger and Michael Kruger
  5. An Introduction to the Old Testament by Tremper Longman III and Raymond Dillard
  6. An Introduction to the New Testament by D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo
  7. A Biblical History of Israel by Ian Proven, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III
  8. Gospel Centered Hermeneutics by Graeme Goldsworthy
  9. Is There Meaning In This Text by Kevin Vanhoozer

Culture and the Public Sphere

  1. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Hunter
  2. How (Not) To Be Secular by James Smith
  3. Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller
  4. A Public Faith by Miroslav Volf
  5. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Tim Keller

The Christian Life and Ethics

  1. The How and Why of Love: An Introduction to Evangelical Ethics by Micahel Hill
  2. Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics by Oliver O’Donovan
  3. The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame
  4. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller
  5. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
  6. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power , and the Only Hope that Matters by Tim Keller
  7. Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill
  8. Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill
  9. Real Sex by Lauren Winner
  10. The Christian Family by Herman Bavinck
  11. Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry by Kathy Keller
  12. Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp

I do not agree with everything written in these books, but they certainly contain the theology and practice of which I am most convinced and hope to embody. I hope you all find this list helpful.

A Resource Covering the Basics of Christianity

Well friends, as you probably haven’t noticed, I haven’t been blogging much in the past year. I have been doing a lot of writing however. About a month ago, Trevor Laurence and I self-published a book through Amazon.com that we had been writing the past year as home group material for our church. It’s titled Discipleship: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.

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The book’s purpose is to teach the basics of Christianity. While there are many books that set out to do this, we have found that most of them only deal with one or two of the three broad aspects of the faith: doctrine, morality, or devotion/fellowship with God and/or his people. In other words, we have found very few resources that introduce what Christians are to believe, how they are to live, and how they are to relate to God in prayer and his people in church fellowship. Rather than trying to get the people in our congregation to read 50 great books, we decided to try and synthesize solid biblical teaching on these three aspects of our faith into a book that could provide a solid introduction to Christianity. Drawing on how Christians in the past have sought to instruct Christians, we explain the basics by walking trough the Apostles’ Creed (the truth), the Ten Commandments (the way), and the Lord’s Prayer (the life) while keeping the gospel of our triune God at the center of everything.

I write all of this here because I want to encourage you to check it out. If you follow this blog, you have at least mild interest in my thoughts. This book represents my best  and most comprehensive thoughts on Christianity to date (with the help and equally substantial contribution of Trevor as well, of course).

I hope you will believe me when I write that it is a bit difficult for me to discern how to tell others about this book and about its message without promoting myself. As a pastor, I suppose this is a struggle that is bound to happen. I do believe in what we have written, and I do want people to benefit from the Christian teaching therein. That is why we wrote the book of course.

I hope to resume blogging more regularly soon, and I suppose, like the book, I offer my thoughts with the hope that it challenges, instructs, comforts, and leads to greater faithfulness.

Grace and peace to you.

Quotes from “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Part 4

On the confession of sin to a brother, from chapter 5, Confession and Communion:

“Confess your faults one to another” (Jas. 5:16).  He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.  It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness.  The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners.  The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.  So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners.  Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous.  So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.  The fact is that we are sinners!

But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you.  He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone. “My son, give me thine heart” (Prov. 23.26).  God has come to you to save the sinner.  Be glad!  This message is liberation through truth.  You can hide nothing from God.  The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him.  He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you.  You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner.  Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but He hates sin…

In confession the break-through to community takes place.  Sin demands to have a man by himself.  It withdraws him from the community.  The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation.  Sin wants to remain unknown.  It shuns the light.  In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person.  This can happen even in the midst of a pious community.  In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into darkness and seclusion of the heart.  The sin must be brought into the light.  The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged.  All that is secret and hidden is made manifest.  It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted.  But God breaks the gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107:16).

Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned.  The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil.  He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother.

The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power.

Quotes from “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Part 3

On the divine reality of Christian Unity, from Chapter 1, Community:

In Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.  Second, that Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a psychic reality.

Innumerable times a whole community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream.  The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.  Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.  He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream.  God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.  Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.  The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.  A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community.  Sooner or later it will collapse.  Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive.  He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.  The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, by himself.  He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.  He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren.  He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.  When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure.  When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash.  So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Quotes from “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Part 2

On the meaning of Christian Community, from Chapter 1, Community:

Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.  No Christian community is more or less than this…

What does this mean?  It means, first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ.  It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ.  It means, third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.

First, the Christian is the man who no longer seeks his salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone.  He knows that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces his guilty, even when he does not feel his guilt, and God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all.  The Christian no longer lives of himself, by his own claims and his own justification, but by God’s claims and God’s justification.  He lives wholly by God’s Word pronounced upon him, whether that Word declares him guilty or innocent.

The death and the life of the Christian is not determined by his own resources; rather he finds both only in the Word that comes to him from outside, in God’s Word to him.  The Reformers expressed it this way: Our righteousness is an “alien righteousness,” a righteousness that comes from outside of us (extra nos).  They were saying that the Christian is dependent on the Word of God spoken to him.  He is pointed outward, to the Word that comes to him…

But God has put his Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men.  When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others.  God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man.  Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.  He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.  He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ.  The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.

And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.  As such, God permits them to meet together and gives them community.  Their fellowship is founded solely upon Jesus Christ and this “alien righteousness…”

Second, a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ.  Among men there is strife.  “He is our peace,” says Paul of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:14).  Without Christ there is discord between God and man and between man and man.  Christ became the Mediator and made peace with God and among men.  Without Christ we should not know God, we could not call upon Him, nor come to Him.  But, without Christ we also would not know our brother, nor could we come to him.  The way is blocked by our own ego.  Christ opened up the way to God and to our brother…

Third, when God’s Son took on flesh, he truly and bodily took on, out of pure grace, our being, our nature, ourselves.  This was the eternal counsel of the triune God.  Now we are in him.  Where he is, there we are too, in the incarnation, on the Cross, and in his resurrection.  We belong to him because we are in him.  That is why the Scriptures call us the Body of Christ.  But if, before we could know and wish it, we have been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Jesus Christ, then we also belong to him in eternity with one another.  We who live here in fellowship with him will one day be with him in eternal fellowship.  He who looks upon his brother should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ.  Christian community beams community through and in Jesus Christ…

…One is brother to another person only through Jesus Christ.  I am a brother to another person through what Jesus Christ did for me and to me; the other person has become a brother to me through what Jesus Christ did for him.  This fact that we are brethren only through Jesus Christ is of immeasurable significance.  Not only the other person who is earnest and devout, who comes to me seeking brotherhood, must I deal in fellowship.  My brother is rather that other person who has been redeemed by Christ, delivered from his sin, and called to faith and eternal life.  Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community.  What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ.  Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us…

That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more.  One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood…Just at this point of Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at the root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood.  In Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.  Second, that Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a psychic reality.