Challies 2019 Reading: J.I. Packer on Evangelism and God’s Sovereignty

February 18, 2019 2 comments

Going through my stack of paperback books, here is an interesting one: J.I. Packer’s early work (1961) on “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.”  This is an early work (originally published in 1961), preceding his “Knowing God” which made him an evangelical household name.  I find it especially interesting for the historical context of the mid-20th century, the era of “Forgotten Spurgeon” (see this previous post).  Much of what is said here regarding the two seemingly-contradictory truths of divine sovereignty and man’s responsibility, is found in the Charles Spurgeon sermon volumes — ideas brought out in a few sentences at a time over the course of many sermons, and well covered within Packer’s book.

I have not read any other J.I. Packer books, but relate much of what he says here to his comments in a lecture series on the Puritans (and this previous post about the Puritan Papers), in terms of overall ideas about preaching the whole gospel and its full range of application: addressing certain points in one sermon or setting and other doctrinal truths at other times, yet regularly addressing the whole counsel of God, so that people will get the full picture.

In addition to the topic of God’s sovereignty, Packer discusses “wrong” versus more biblical methods of evangelism:  the  Arminian-style special prayer meetings with use of emotion; and, positively, the need to present the full gospel, so that people know what they are committing to. He also describes and advocates what is now known as ‘friendship evangelism’, of the type that presents all of the word of God–as contrasted with the manipulation method of inviting an unsaved friend to a special prayer meeting.

Describing the antinomy between the seemingly conflicting truths, Packer describes the mystery and transcendence of our creator God:

We ought not, in any case, to be surprised when we find mysteries of this sort in God’s Word. For the Creator is incomprehensible to his creatures. A God whom we could understand exhaustively, and whose revelation of himself confronted us with no mysteries whatsoever, would be a God in man’s image and therefore an imaginary God, not the God of the Bible at all. – J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

Another great quote from Packer:

For sin is not a social concept; it is a theological concept. Though sin is committed by man, and many sins are against society, sin cannot be defined in terms of either man or society. We never know what sin really is till we have learned to think of it in terms of God, and to measure it, not by human standards, but by the yardstick of his total demand on our lives. – J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

Near the end, Packer addresses the implications of God’s sovereignty in evangelism, as an answer to the discouragement of evangelicals at this point in the mid-20th century, a discouragement brought about by nearly 100 years of “revival” type evangelism campaigns and the dismal results.  Noting the early success of D.L. Moody and others of that era as occurring “not because they were always well planned and run, but because God was working in Britain in those days in a way in which he is evidently not working now,” yet even then the campaigns experienced the law of diminishing returns.

 We had come to take it for granted that good organization and efficient technique, backed by a routine of prayers, was itself sufficient to guarantee results.  We felt that there was an almost magical potency in the special meeting, the special choir and soloist, and the special preacher.  We felt convinced that the thing that would always bring life into a dead church, or a dead town, was an intensive evangelistic mission.  With the top of our minds, many of us still think that, or profess to think that…. But with the bottom of our minds, in our heart of hearts, we have grown discouraged and disillusioned and apprehensive.  … we do not know what to make of a situation in which our planned evangelism fails.

After acknowledging the disappointments (failure of converts) through these methods, Packer brings home the underlying reality:

First, we must admit that we were silly ever to think that any evangelistic technique, however skillful, could of itself guarantee conversions; second, we must recognize that, because man’s heart is impervious to the Word of God, it is no cause for surprise if at any time our evangelism fails to result in conversions; third, we must remember that the terms of our calling are that we should be faithful, not that we should be successful; fourth, we must learn to rest all our hopes of fruit in evangelism on the omnipotent grace of God.

This is a well-written book for layperson reading, a short book yet very informative, with a lot of solid Christian teaching as to how evangelism has been done and what we need to remember about how it should be done.

 

Challies 2019 Reading: Derek Thomas’ Heaven on Earth

February 14, 2019 2 comments

Heaven-On-EarthMy recent reading of hard-copy books (free from book giveaways) has included some interesting titles, such as Derek Thomas’ “Heaven on Earth.”

Thomas’ work, noted on this Theology to Go podcast is an interesting read, a short one that can be read within a day or two.  It provides a good summary regarding the difference between heaven as the intermediary state (sometimes called paradise) where the believers who have fallen asleep in the Lord are now, and the later Resurrection and the New Heavens and New Earth.  The book is also noteworthy as a treatise that discusses the future, especially the Eternal State, without one single reference to the millennial age or to millennial views.  Thomas appears to have a view similar to that of Hoekema – amillennialism that recognizes the Eternal State New Earth as a place/time that includes the basic things of this creation such as geography, physical activity, and animals.  This view also fits well with what Michael Vlach described several years ago as the “New Creation model” – as contrasted with the “Spiritual Vision” model (the traditional church view of saints sitting up on clouds with their harps), with reference to the Eternal State.  Thomas also sees the future New Heavens and New Earth as a renovation rather than annihilation/completely new creation; here, reference this post (The Judgment by Fire in 2 Peter 3) from several years ago, regarding 2 Peter 3 and Robert D. Culver’s Daniel and the Latter Days.

Other reviewers have mentioned the part about dogs being in heaven – an item specifically mentioned on only one page, yet fitting within the “new creation” model, a future that does not specifically include our own beloved pets from this life, but will include the reality of animals then to care for and appreciate.  Thomas also considers questions for speculation and the imagination, such as what our resurrected bodies will be like:  will our bodies age?  will they change in any way? will they grow tired and require sleep?  will we experience pain, if we fall on rocky ground, will they bleed?  and what age wil we be?  Will we all look like athletes?  Along with quotes from C.S. Lewis in his non-fiction as well as fiction (The Chronicles of Narnia The Last Battle,  and The Great Divorce), and consideration of various OT and NT scripture texts, a lot of questions are raised, on practical things such as will we recognize each other as friends from this life.  Jesus told the Sadducees (Matt. 22:23-33) that in the resurrection we will be “like the angels,”  but given the context of that, we should not over-interpret.

I do not think that we should over-interpret this passage, in a way that suggests that we will not have close friends in the new heaven and earth.  Jesus had close friends -Peter, James and John – and the latter was His closest friend.  I see no reason to doubt that we shall experience these kinds of friendship in the new earth, and with those who have been our spouse and best friends here in the old earth.  And perhaps this helps us understand a little Jesus’ statement about marriage.  It is not the intimacy as such that is dearest, but the companionship and the love.  And Jesus didn’t say that we won’t experience the friendship and the heady sense of love that two people know.

This book is an enjoyable read about a good topic — suitable to share with friends who have questions, and a good book for the average evangelical Christian.  It’s a short read at about 100 pages, but with a lot of good points and ideas to consider, great “food for thought.”

“Rediscovering the Holy Spirit,” and Holy Spirit Indwelling

January 14, 2019 8 comments

Going through a stack of unread paperback books I’ve received over the last year or so, recently I’ve  been reading Michael Horton’s Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God’s Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life.  With a style that is somewhat scholarly — more difficult than average layperson books (though not as difficult as some scholarly theological books) – Horton’s book is interesting in several aspects, with plenty of footnotes and references to other theologians, a serious look at the oft-neglected and often misunderstood role of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity.

Though expressed in more technical language, this book references the “seminal headship” error commonly associated with Anabaptists (referenced in this previous blog post):

The God-world antithesis was so marked that many Anabaptists held a form of Docetism, with the Son believed to have assumed “heavenly flesh” rather than a true humanity from the virgin Mary in the power of the Spirit.  … Menno Simons argued that “there is no letter to be found in all the Scriptures that the Word assumed our flesh.”… The Polish Reformed theologian John a Lasco took the lead in challenging this view as taught by Menno Simons, and Calvin criticized it in the Institutes…

The above and other parts are interesting, yet I find one area where I disagree with this book.  For some (bizarre, to me) reason, Horton – who is covenantal, affirming the covenant of works and the covenant of grace – states that Old Testament believers, prior to Pentecost, were not indwelled by the Holy Spirit.  This view is most commonly associated with classic dispensationalism, a relatively recent view introduced in the 19th century.  I previously blogged about this question in this post a few years ago (with links to a series from David Murray’s Headhearthand Blog), and still find the posts in that series helpful, regarding the historical Reformed view (with many quotes from the centuries past), and to understand the current-day flawed reasoning—and to respond to it. It is also interesting to note that even “leaky dispensationalist” John MacArthur (as pointed out in quotes at Murray’s blog) has affirmed that Old Testament saints had the Holy Spirit.  Yet Horton introduces an idea in conflict with the historic Reformed view, of a qualitative rather than quantitative difference in the Holy Spirit’s role with believers in the pre-Pentecost era.  According to this view, Old Testament saints were justified and regenerated, and saved and kept in the faith; but the Holy Spirit only “came upon” and was “with” them (with them in the corporate sense of the theocracy of OT Israel); further, that the Spirit being “with” them precludes the possibility of the Spirit also being “in” them.

Mention of this idea comes before chapter 6, “The Age of the Spirit,” but is treated in greater detail in this chapter.  On another topic, one statement takes the classic amillennial covenantal assumption that “the land” was included in the list of things belonging only to the Mosaic covenant:  “The writer to the Hebrews labors the point that the law of Moses—and everything pertaining to it (the land, the temple, the sacrifices, and the commands governing individual and social life in the theocracy)—was a typological shadow.” It’s just a passing statement without further elaboration – but let’s remember that the land promise actually first shows up in the early chapters of Genesis with Abraham, long before the Mosaic economy.

But just a few pages later comes the idea of OT saints regenerated yet not Holy Spirit-indwelled:

Looking to Christ from afar, the old-covenant saints believed in realities that they themselves had not experienced… Justified through faith, they were preserved and kept by the Spirit.  At this level, the difference seems more quantitative than qualitative.  …

The sheer repetition in the prophets of God’s promises to “pour out” his Spirit in the last days indicates a qualitatively new manifestation of the Spirit in the future.  …

the apostles interpret Pentecost as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and not simply as a continuation—even a heightening—of the Spirit’s work in previous days.   (emphasis added)

I understand from the above, that Horton is addressing the corporate nature of Israel, their worship, and God dwelling with them in the Tabernacle and then the Temple.  Yet it also seems to me, from reading the full chapter, that Horton is referencing the Holy Spirit in the Mosaic economy as only having a corporate nature and thus the Holy Spirit not having any purpose regarding individual believers within corporate Israel – taking an either/or approach rather than the broader both/and understanding.  Further, the idea of Pentecost as the fulfillment of an OT prophecy does not necessitate that the actual fulfillment itself is of something substantively different and previously unknown.

At this point I find David Murray’s observations helpful, regarding two mistakes in Bible interpretation:

I’m afraid that some who have argued against the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of Old Testament believers may have inadvertently erred in these two areas.

Just because the Old Testament did not clearly unfold the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of Old Testament believers, does not mean that such an indwelling did not exist.

And to start with “hard” texts like John 7:37-39, or at least to let such difficult texts be determining texts, is very likely to mislead us.

Horton often references the “harder” text, John 7:37-39, putting great emphasis on it (over other texts).  The reasoning here is also using the argument from silence, or confusing “the unfolding of truth with the existence of truth.”  Throughout this section, the “pouring out” of the Spirit is equated with actual indwelling, and silence in the Old Testament means the truth did not exist then. As described on page 151:

The Spirit had not been given, even during Jesus’ ministry, in the way that he would be “poured out” at Pentecost.  Since Moses’s hope for the Spirit’s being poured out on all the people is repeated as late as the Minor Prophets (e.g., Joel 2) without any appeal to a previous era of analogous outpouring and indwelling of the Spirit, we have no reason to believe that God answered Moses’s request until Pentecost.  God went beyond the request, putting his Spirit in, not just on, all of his people.  (emphasis in original)

Reading this book has been an interesting experience, helpful for reading this view I disagree with and for “iron sharpening iron” analysis, to help in strengthening my own understanding of the issue.  I was surprised to see this view (OT saints not indwelled by the Holy Spirit) taught in a book written by a Covenantal theologian, and it goes to show (as I’ve observed with other doctrines) the great variety of differing views even within the umbrella of Covenant Theology.

Ecclesiastes, The Crook in the Lot, and Vexation (Dr. Philip Ryken Series)

January 7, 2019 Leave a comment

Following up on this previous post, here is a good study series on the book of Ecclesiastes:  Dr. Philip Ryken’s 26-part Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters (available from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals).  The study also exists in book form (and Kindle $9.99).

In this great study for Christian living, the great contrast is between life “under the sun” and the higher, Christian reality, how to live in this fallen world in light of the gospel message of the Bible.  Ryken often references other commentators, including the “cynical view” taken by some, while showing the realistic and positive perspective that the author (Solomon) likely intended, the biblical-focused view of verses that can at first glance be thought of in a more negative way.

Especially interesting ‘food for thought’:  Ecclesiastes 7:13, “Consider the work of God:  who can make straight what he has made crooked?” and the lecture “The Crook in the Lot.” Ryken here expands from his study of Puritan (early 18th century) Thomas Boston and his exposition of this verse in The Crook in the Lot; Boston’s work is available in e-book format as well as MP3 audio format from Monergism.  The Crook in the Lot is whatever trouble, whatever suffering and tribulation, that God has decreed for each of us individually to experience.  From Boston:

“Consider the work of God,” namely, in the crooked, rough, and disagreeable parts of your lot, the crosses you find in it. You see very well the cross itself. Yea, you turn it over and over in your mind and leisurely view it on all sides. You look to this and the other second cause of it, and so you are in a foam and a fret. But, would you be quieted and satisfied in the matter, lift up your eyes towards heaven, see the doing of God in it, the operation of His hand. Look at that, and consider it well; eye the first cause of the crook in your lot; behold how it is the work of God, His doing.

Another interesting part is Ecclesiastes 11:10, Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.  The verse here is directly addressed to young people (referencing those in their youth) yet applicable at all stages of life.  It also relates to both physical as well as mental health.  How can we live wisely, in ways that increase our overall well-being?    Remove vexation – stress, anxiety, negative emotions, and look to God who provides for us.  Ryken mentions a few practical things for Christian living, such as healthy eating, rest, and prayer.  Here also I consider Brad Hambrick’s 50 Good Mental Health Habits, which includes these and many more points, good to print out and keep around to refer to on a regular basis.

Ryken’s teaching on Ecclesiastes is a great Christian living series, relating this wisdom book Ecclesiastes, to how we live in everyday life.  This study considers the verses in Ecclesiastes and their depth of meaning (beyond the superficial worldly life, to speak to the real difficulties in this life) as well as in relation to other scriptures of the Old and New Testament –in verses that teach the same truth as well as the contrast (living “under the sun” versus “set your mind on things above” (Colossians 3:2).  The content in Ecclesiastes is part of the whole Bible, relating to other parts which uphold the unity of scripture—not some outside “Old Testament” thing irrelevant to us in our age.

The Challies Reading Challenge: 2018 Recap and the 2019 Plan

December 27, 2018 Leave a comment

Another year is ending — and the 2018 Challies Reading Challenge.  Last year’s year-end post is available here.  The 2019 Challies Christian Reading Challenge is now available, so it’s also time to compile next year’s reading list.

As with last year, I picked from many of the categories but skipping around, and completed more than 26 but fewer than 52 books; the range of 35 to 40 books per year works well.  During the year my actual reading list changed, as new books became available (and other books postponed into next year). So for 2019, my current plan/list is tentative, based again on the availability of books in various formats — Kindle sale deals, free monthly audio books from ChristianAudio.com,  free books from Logos’ free monthly offers, plus several hard-copy books (paperback and hardback) from free used books as well as several I’ve won from ReformedResources (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals) offers.  I’ve also searched online for possible free books to fit a few of the Challies’ plan reading categories, and included these in my tentative 2019 reading plan.

Here, the links to posts about the books I read in 2018, in chronological order:

The 2019 reading list (so far) does not have as many audio books (just four so far – from Sermon Audio, Librivox, and Christian Audio free monthly offers); I may add from classic titles available from Librivox, or any future monthly offers from ChristianAudio.com.  Here, from several categories of the 2019 Challies Christian Reading Challenge, is my 2019 reading plan:

Planned for 2019:

 

 

Worldview Study: Understanding the Times (review)

December 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Nearing the end of the 2018 Challies Reading Challenge, I recently read a lengthy worldview book (from a frequent Kindle deal), Jeff Noebels’ “Understanding the Times:  A Survey of Competing Worldviews.”

The writing style is for laypeople, straightforward, though at over 500 pages it requires commitment to stick with it.  The first chapters seem to cover more general material common to any discussion about apologetics and other worldviews, as the book gets into describing several of the major worldviews:  Secularism, Marxism, post-modernism, Islam, New Spiritualism – and Christianity.  Of the non-Christian views, I have been most familiar with Secularism and New Spiritualism (which is a catch-all label for Hinduism, “New Age” and transcendental meditation), plus acquaintance with post-modernism and Islam.  Understanding the Times does not attempt an exhaustive look at all the different religious ideas or various cults, but interacts with the major ideas that Christians are likely to come across; modern-day Judaism is a smaller worldview; Buddhism and Hinduism have their differences, and have their differences from westernized “New Age,” but that would be the topic for other books – such as Marvin Olasky’s The Religions Next Door.  Marxism seems an odd choice to include, as an idea that enjoyed more popularity up through the mid-20th century, but the authors make the case for including this worldview which, unfortunately, has contributed in far greater measure to overall human misery and death in the last century, than other ideologies.

Where this book gets interesting is the chapters that consider several basic disciplines that are at the foundation of life in this world, and each of the worldview’s viewpoint (if any) at each of these points: theology, philosophy, ethics, biology, psychology, sociology, law, politics, economics, and history.  I particularly liked the chapters on ethics, politics, economics, and history, as well as the overall use of illustrations and quotes from popular literature (such as Les Miserables and Lord of the Rings, among others) as examples to help compare and contrast different worldviews on specific issues.

As an introduction to ethics, Understanding the Times notes the types of ethical theories:

  • Theories about ends (teleology): judging actions as right or wrong, based on the end goals desired. What is the good life?  How might the good life be secured for as many people as possible?  This is the ever-pragmatic “the ends justifies the means” approach.  This was the view of, for example, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Nietzsche, and John Dewey.
  • Theories about duty (deontology): What ought we to do? Whether we like it or not, we “ought” to do what is right merely because right is right.  Philosophers of this view include Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes.

Christianity does not fit neatly into either of these categories, but resolves the limitations of each view.  Addressing the problem of secularism (atheism) and morality, this book observes:

Christians can applaud that biblical morality is being upheld, and it is to (their) credit that they know a good idea when they see one.  What Secularists fail to address, however, is why these values are worth defending as moral declarations.  Cornelius Van Til’s assessment is apt:  they are sitting in God’s lap in order to slap him in the face.  In other words, secularists draw on truths explained only by God’s existence and form them into arguments to deny His existence altogether.

A (brief) summary of five Christian views regarding political involvement:

  1. Christians shouldn’t be involved. – religion and the intellect occupy different domains. An example here is Henry Ward Beecher,
  2. Society isn’t worth redeeming – late 1800s, early 1900s. The view of D.L. Moody.
  3. Political structures can’t change the human heart
  4. Christianity is only about the institution of the church and is not relevant to civil government: “Two-kingdoms theology.”  Michael Horton is noted as an example of this view.
  5. Christians should be involved, and they should try to take over

Overall this is another interesting book on the basics of worldview study, with a good survey overview of many of the common non-Christian views–and what the Christian worldview proclaims, by contrast.  It has often been a Kindle sale deal, and is worth reading.

The Fourfold State of Man: Overview of a Thomas Boston Classic

December 3, 2018 3 comments

Another year is coming to an end, and the Challies 2018 Reading Challenge along with it.  I just finished an audio re-read of The Lord of the Rings, and  an interesting worldview book (from previous Kindle deals), Understanding the Times: A Survey of Competing Worldviews, with interesting material for some future blog posts.  For this time, though, a brief look at an interesting topic highlighted by Dr. Philip Ryken in a four part series available from Reformed Resources (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals): The Fourfold State.  In these four straightforward lectures, Ryken provides an overview of a classic early 18th century Reformed work from Thomas Boston, a book that in its day was “the” book to read for evangelical Christians, one read by the later 18th century preachers (the time of Whitefield and Wesley)–the equivalent of, for example, the late 20th century Knowing God, by J.I. Packer.  The original text of Boston’s work, over 500 pages, is now available in electronic format, such as at Amazon for 99 cents.

I first learned about Thomas Boston from reading Sinclair Ferguson’s The Marrow Controversy, a controversy in which Boston was a key player, followed by a section on him in Joel Beeke’s Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer.  Ryken provides additional material on this great preacher who spanned the time between the end of the Puritans and the later Great Awakening of the mid-18th century.  These lectures from Ryken provide additional information beyond the Marrow Controversy–more about Boston’s life and teaching, including an overview of Boston’s personal life and suffering (including losing six out of ten children in infancy, and particularly regarding two infant sons both named Ebenezer, among those six), followed by two lectures on the fourfold teaching itself, and a last lecture with great application of the four stages to several Christian truths.

Boston’s approach with these four stages of human nature serve as a type of systematic theology:  1) creation, man before the fall; 2) nature; the unregenerate, fallen human nature; 3) grace, the experience of regenerate believers in this life; and 4) glory, including the condition of all humans after this life, the eternal condition of both believers and the lost.  This fourfold approach did not originate with Boston — actually going back to Augustine – but Boston exposited it in great detail, with some variations from Augustine’s teaching.

Of course, our actual human experience involves primarily the second and third states, with the fourth one to look forward to, the glorification and complete removal of sin that will not occur in this life.  Yet Boston developed all four of these points from an in-depth study of scripture, starting with the pre-fall condition of Adam and Eve.  These four states can also be applied to our experience in this life regarding important doctrinal truths and issues in the world today, such as our work/labor and gender roles—both of which involve creation ordinances.

Work itself is what God planned for us:  the original work of Adam and Eve in the garden; then corrupted into the drudgery of stress and never-ending work in this fallen world – the curse was on the ground, not on work itself, but sin makes work more difficult and a burden. Ecclesiastes well describes this situation: people toil, yet “all is meaningless” and the value ends when a person dies, for all the wealth to go to whoever comes after us.  Yet as Christians, we can now bring the concept of work into a redeemed, biblical view, as Paul described regarding Christian daily life roles and how we do all our work, including our secular vocation, to the glory of God.  Our fourth state (for believers) will also involve work, much of that the work of worship; the Bible also tells us that we will rule and reign with Christ in the age to come.  A similar approach can be taken with gender, and society’s fallen views (the second state), versus the renewed understanding (third state) and in the future state of glory.

This is a good summary series about an interesting topic, as well as a good sampling of Ryken’s preaching, part of the “Every Last Word” series, from the years that Ryken preached at Tenth Presbyterian Church (1995-2010); he was also James Boice’s successor, from 2000 to 2010.  A good follow-up to this series, which I’ve just started listening to, is Ryken’s 26 part series on the book of Ecclesiastes.  (Note: Ryken’s teaching on Ecclesiastes is also available in book form, Why Everything Matters: The Gospel in Ecclesiastes.)