Bible Application from the Patriarchs’ Lives

April 20, 2018 2 comments

It has been well observed that God’s word instructs us in two ways: by precepts, and by illustrations. Sections including the Decalogue, the Proverbs and New Testament epistles emphasize right living by precepts and commands; then we have illustrations of real people’s lives – such as the patriarchs and King David – that show us the good and bad, including the consequences of sin.

The Tabletalk 2007 back-issues (the same calendar year as 2018), going through the lives of the patriarchs, are excellent studies, packed with application regarding Christian living.  I was familiar with some of the more obvious issues — such as the repeated patterns of lying (Abraham and Isaac), parental favoritism (Isaac and Rebekah with Esau and Jacob), and Jacob’s years with Laban, for Jacob to learn some things about his deceitful behavior the hard way – and the general point that the Bible is a divine book, that it does not whitewash the heroes of the faith, it does not hide but tells us the many faults of these men, to show that it is all of God’s grace and not ourselves.

Beyond that, though, Genesis has much more to say about day to day life and the trials and suffering, showing us by way of illustration that it has always been this way for God’s people, and that what we experience is nothing new or unusual (ref. 1 Peter 4:12 and 1 Peter 5:9).

Abraham and Sarah lived, day by day, through 25 years before the promised heir was born.

Isaac and Rebekah clearly did not have a great marriage, one that had broken down in communication by the time of Genesis 27, such that each was doing their own thing.  Along the way, they both experienced the daily grief of Esau’s wives—and this went on for decades, from the time when Esau married them (age 40) to the time of Jacob’s stealing the blessing when they were about age 76-77: life events did not come and go quickly, but they endured this situation for over 35 years.

One of the Tabletalk articles from February 2007 consists of John Calvin’s exposition of Genesis 26:26-35.  In the details of Isaac’s life we see a Bible example of what Spurgeon pointed out in his sermons: when God does not answer our prayers and provide relief in one specific area, He will answer us in some other way (a truth which I have come to know, time and time again, in my own trials):

Here we see on the one side, how God would comfort his servant [Isaac] every way: For it was not only showed him that he should be assured from then on that none should hurt him — seeing the king himself of the country came to seek him — but also he had water given him, which he might enjoy peaceably and quietly as his own. When therefore our Lord shows this great favor towards Isaac, let us know that He does not tempt him above their strength, but always sweetens their afflictions in such sort, that they shall not be, as it were, ever oppressed and quite overthrown. Let us hope, that just as Isaac was upheld, God after He had afflicted him, looked also again unto him to give him some comfort, so likewise must we wait, and then we shall not be disappointed if we rest there. For God knows our frailty, and there is no doubt He will always give us such taste of His mercy and favor that we shall have good cause to bless His name and have no occasion to think the sad thought that we do not know how to comfort ourselves anymore in Him.

Then another Tabletalk article from this same issue defines the law of retaliation, the talion (an eye for an eye, for equivalence of punishment), followed by reference to the specifics of Jacob’s life.  Jacob deceived his father who was blind; later, Jacob was deceived by Laban due to the blindness of night (Genesis 29:21-30, Leah substituted for Rachel).  Jacob deceived his father with a goat skin; his own sons deceived Jacob with the blood of a goat (Genesis 37:31).  Noting the specifics of how God worked out His justice in the life of Jacob, is good application to God’s Providence regarding our own lives, to reflect on the reality of this in our own lives. I can relate the events in Jacob’s life, and the truth of Galatians 6:7, to my own circumstances, to better understand the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of God’s chastening in the specific events in my own life.

Yet God’s grace and kindness comes through as well, sometimes in very amazing and unexpected ways–in their lives, as well as ours.

But God is rich in mercy as well as justice. By Leah, Jacob’s wife through Laban’s deception, was born Judah, through whom Christ was to come (Gen. 29:35). And by Joseph, who was at last restored to Jacob, God delivered the world from a famine (41:57). So in all of this we see that God is rich in mercy as well as justice. In wisdom He works to accomplish His sovereign ends even through the just punishments He visits upon His errant covenant people for their evil means.

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A Theology of Suffering: Mark Talbot Lectures

April 10, 2018 Leave a comment

From last fall’s free special from Reformed Resources, a series done a few years ago by Mark Talbot is very helpful, a five-part series on Trusting God When We Suffer.  These lectures look at what suffering is, within the plan of God: a divine, though unsought gift.  Yes, we do not seek suffering – but it is still a gift from God.  So much information is presented, and presented clearly with the challenge for us to really think hard about it, to think through it.

Talbot mentioned a book he was working on, not yet published; this book is apparently still unpublished, but one free book resource from John Piper includes a chapter from Talbot: Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.

Talbot responds to apostate agnostic Bart Ehrman, who has claimed that the Bible has nothing to say about the reality of suffering by believers; according to Ehrman, the Bible depicts a loving God who rescues His people and does not allow suffering, but instead provides good and prosperity not only in the life to come, but in this life also.  By contrast, scriptural examples of suffering (many to pick from) include the stories of Naomi (Ruth 1), Job, and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20).  Profound suffering sometimes involves the person coming to have false beliefs about God, such as Jeremiah in chapter 20; in other cases such as Naomi, the person maintains their basic belief in the goodness of God, while seeing no possibility of any further good in their own life.

Suffering includes physical and mental, and sometimes both, as well as many levels and degrees. It is person-relative, such that the particular suffering one person endures, would not necessarily affect another – an adolescent being bullied online versus an adult’s more mature response, for example.  An overall definition of suffering:  from the sufferer’s standpoint, all suffering involves something disrupting his/her life’s pleasantness, to the point where that disruption feels disagreeable enough that he/she wants it to end.  Suffering can be considered on a sliding scale, from minor (such as Talbot’s wife, who dislikes Wagner and Opera, having to listen to it) through more intense, chronic, or other types of suffering.   For scriptural support, Hebrews 12:1-13 deals with this in the abstract, the definition. For experience of it, we can turn to many places in the Bible, including the Psalms – such as Psalm 126, which contrasts positive and negative events.

A solid theology of suffering includes application from the many Bible accounts of actual suffering, “breathing” the promises of God, and a robust understanding of God’s sovereignty over everything – including our next breath, and even our thoughts.  How many times in everyday life do we start to say something and then realize we don’t know the words to express it, or forget what we were about to say?  God is sovereign over our thoughts.  Theological anthropology is another term, the biblical understanding of what it means to be human—and applied to suffering.

Talbot references studies that conclude that most people are happy most of the time – when accounting for all other factors such as age, gender, and economic situation – as long as a few basic physical and social needs are met.  Thus we find that poor people in third world countries are happier than some wealthy, successful people in developed countries.  Again we can return to biblical proof:  Acts 14, Paul’s speech to the people who attempted to offer sacrifices to him and Barnabas (as Hermes and Zeus); verse 17,  “Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

We view life within the bookends of scripture, the first two and the last two chapters of God’s word.  Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 both describe a time – past and future – of undisturbed peace and pleasantness.  Everything in between these two times will be a mixture of pleasant and painful experiences.

Another area where people get tripped up is in their view of God as our Father.  Viewing this from a bottom-up expansion, of how good human fathers are and thus how much more God is this way, sufferers have trouble with Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7-11.  Instead we need to see God as Father from a “top-down” view:  God is the starting point, all goodness is in Him; when we happen to see some goodness in human fathers, that is a derivative or shadow of the reality in God.  Further analysis also brings out the reality of even human parenting: children cannot see the future, long-term good of certain things done by their parents – who have long-term goals for their children such as a good education and life-skills.  Mark Talbot as a child could not understand the value of the restriction his mother placed on him, requiring him to read for a certain amount of time every day before going out to play; the child who wants to have the same “popular” shoes as every other kid cannot appreciate the value of a different, higher quality shoe.

This series is very helpful, with a lot of information to think through – and held up to a second round of listening a few weeks later.  For further study of the theology of suffering, the above-mentioned book by John Piper looks interesting.  The Tabletalk issue from April 2007 (the same calendar year as 2018) also featured a study on Grief, with several articles on suffering and grief.  A good quote from one of the articles, ‘From Grief to Glory’:

God will birth His glory in us as we allow ourselves to honestly and passionately face our most terrible losses. To live honestly is to admit the pain and sadness of the loss. There is no reason to live in denial — Jesus did not die on the cross so we can pretend. … We must embrace God and the mystery of His provision and His sovereignty in the midst of our suffering. Through the pain, God is birthing a child who depends upon Him more and knows that He is good even in the most difficult of times.

All of us will experience loss. We will either withdraw from our loss with creative repressive strategies, or we will embrace our loss with faith in God. God is continually birthing renewed, revitalized, and dependent believers, but the road to hope often navigates through despair.

Hermeneutics: Understanding Genesis (and all of Scripture)

March 22, 2018 4 comments

From the Kindle deals in my 2018 Challies Reading Challenge, Jason Lisle’s Understanding Genesis: How to Analyze, Interpret, and Defend Scripture (currently $2.99) is a great resource for Bible interpretation, with detailed explanations of many different hermeneutical principles and the many textual and logical fallacies.  The first several chapters lay the groundwork, of how we approach any written text to understand it – the genre understanding of various types of literature – along with many examples from English language usage for correct understanding as well as fallacies and logical reasoning errors.  The features of Hebrew poetry are also covered – a topic dealt with in greater depth in books specifically about the poetic OT books, such as Dan Phillips’ God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, yet well summarized here.  Indeed, it is yet another wondrous point in God’s great plan, that Hebrew poetry has features that translate well into other languages:  parallelism of thought, rather than our English meter and rhyme of specific English words.

This book is also a good addition to the genre of Young Earth Creation books, as a good introduction and summary of the issues dealt with in more detail elsewhere.    Lisle applies hermeneutical principles to several errors concerning the early chapters of Genesis: old-earth progressive creation (two of Hugh Ross’ books), theistic evolution, and the Noahic flood as only a local flood (Hugh Ross again).  Several chapters include detailed interaction with the actual words from several Hugh Ross books plus one by a theistic evolution–a fascinating look at the flawed reasoning and ideas that actually border on heresy.

As with other creation science books, science is referenced, though primarily from the logical, reasoning perspective: pointing out the difference between operational, observable and repeatable science and that which is not really science but history: the one-time act of creation that by its very nature is not observable and not repeatable.  Related to this is the two books fallacy referenced in this previous post, that nature itself is a “67th book of the Bible” on the same level of authority as scripture itself.

Another interesting point developed by Lisle – and an area in which he differs from at least some other creation scientists – is the problem with thinking of the earth in terms of “apparent age.”  As he points out, we come up with ideas about age based on relative comparisons.  Due to observations of many people we know, for instance, we can conclude that a particular individual appears to be about 40 years old.  Yet people take such ideas and try to say that the earth “looks old” and “appears to be billions of years old”; yet we have no other planets for any relative comparison, to make such a claim:

People at the wedding in Cana may have assumed that the wine came about in the ordinary way, and probably believed that the wine was well-aged due to its taste. But Jesus did not create the wine with appearance of age. Rather, He made it good. Likewise, God did not create the earth with appearance of age. He made it to work. If people apply unbiblical, naturalistic assumptions to how the earth formed, and then come away thinking it ‘looks’ billions of years old, well, it’s not God’s fault

The hermeneutical principles and fallacies explained are not limited to use for the early chapters of Genesis, but apply to all other doctrinal subjects.  One such example, provided in Appendix B (about propositions and formal fallacies), concerns the error of baptismal regeneration:

Baptismal regenerationists commit the fallacy of denying the antecedent when arguing that water baptism is a requirement for salvation.

  1. If you repent and are baptized, then you are saved (Mark 16:16)

2. It is not that case that you have repented and are baptized (because you have only repented and have not yet been baptized).

3. Therefore, you are not saved.

Similarly, the meaning of words in their context, including general terms in the Bible that can mean many different things, is another area where people err, with superficial and out-of-context understanding.  The word ‘law’ in the Bible has many different meanings, as noted in this previous post; another term is the biblical definition of death, in its context for Genesis 3 and Romans 5.  The biblical definition of death does not include plant life, or anything other than animate (human and animal) life.

Understanding Genesis is an excellent reference for language comprehension / hermeneutics, and a useful guide for how to interpret all scripture.  It includes good application of these concepts to the specific issues of creation and the flood, yet the hermeneutics extend to all of our understanding.

Christian Living and ‘Self-Help’ Reading

March 6, 2018 2 comments

Over the last year and a half, my reading journey, and especially in the yearly Challies Reading Challenge, has included several books in the category of Christian living, and specifically the area of counseling and what could be called ‘Christian self-help.’ Beginning with Martyn Lloyd Jones’ classic work, Spiritual Depression and a David Murray conference series, additional lectures, articles and books have explained and expanded on the topic: the Christian identity, and proper handling of our emotions and dealing with the trials of life.

Recent books in my Challies’ Reading Challenge include Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker,  Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You (a past free offer from ChristianAudio), and Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest by Ed Welch.  Some recent helpful online articles include these:
• From TableTalk Magazine February issue, Who Defines Your Joy?
10 types of thinking that undergird depression-anxiety
In defense (somewhat) of self-help

Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You looks to the underlying heart issues behind phone use, including our tendency to distraction, and our need to feel accepted and to be part of the “in” crowd and not left behind. Though the main point has to do with the current technology (smart phones), the broader issue is how we use technology. Technology itself is not bad, and has been around since the early chapters of the Bible. Also, distraction is a tendency of our fallen nature, regardless of time and technology, as seen in the story of Mary and Martha, and Martha’s being distracted with the work of serving. Distraction is a way to avoid quiet and silence, the time needed to think about our soul and eternity, time to spend with God, for deep meditation.

Running Scared also provides good insights, to what is really behind our fears. What we’re afraid of reveals what we hold dear, such as money and what it provides, or fear of man (desire to not be persecuted; to be liked and loved). Such fears show that we are seeking this world and kingdom, not God’s kingdom. Welch points to the root behind many fears, and notes the answer; logical reasoning, or simply not thinking about the fear, does not really work. Instead, we replace the fears by focusing on what is more important—the fear of the Lord:

They [fears and anxieties] topple from their lofty perch and are replaced by what is more important. Whatever is most important is the thing that rules us. …You treat worries by pursuing what is even more important. Fear still reveals our allegiances, this time in a positive way. If we have a mature fear of the Lord, it means that we value and revere Him above all else. That’s how we fight fear with fear.

Regarding the transformation needed, to rely on the God of Rest:

Your task is not to transform into a superficial, sunny optimist. It is to grow to be an optimist by faith…. As for me, I want to watch and endure, not worry. I want to be like the night watchmen who are waiting to see first light. God is the God of suspense, but it is a suspense that teaches us peace. He is the God of surprises, but the surprises are always better than we could have dreamed. I can’t put Him in a box and assume that He should act according to my time schedule and according to my less sophisticated version of what is good. I need the mind of Christ. I can do with nothing less.

Wisdom often mentioned in these books, to continually remember—especially in response to the world’s way of reasoning: the Christian life is not about results, about seeing and achieving (what we think is) the right outcome.  The Christian life is about being faithful to God in the situation He has put each of us in; God is the one who determines the outcome. David Murray’s lectures about the LER (legitimate emotional response) versus SER (sinful emotional response) expand on this as well, explaining the importance of how we respond to disappointing life events.

These books (and articles) are helpful, providing good reminders along with great Bible application (such as from the lives of Bible characters) for dealing with the trials and discouragements of daily life.  My 2018 Challies Reading list includes two more books that should also prove interesting:  Scripture and Counseling: God’s Word for Life in a Broken World, by Bob Kellemen, and Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community, by David Powlison, both oft-recommended Reformed Biblical counseling authors.

Christian Theology and Classics: Augustine, William Perkins, and Millennial Views

February 13, 2018 3 comments

In the 2018 Challies Reading Challenge, my recent reading has included writings from the 4th and the 16th centuries:  Augustine’s Confessions as a book about the early church, and Volume 1 of the Works of William Perkins, as a book by a Puritan.

Both of these were featured in Puritan Reformed Seminary’s 2017 conference:  Carl Trueman’s talk about Augustine’s Confessions  and Joel Beeke’s summary of William Perkins.  Augustine’s Confessions was an interesting read, my first such reading of early church writings, and I noted the parts mentioned by Trueman:  Augustine as a youth stealing figs from a fig tree; and a much later event that happened to one of Augustine’s friends (who resolved to never go to the gladiatorial games, was taken there by force by his friends; he kept his eyes closed, determined not to look; but the sounds aroused his curiosity so that he looked –and was then ensnared again in the games).  Trueman had noted here, the power of the visual image.  Other interesting parts included references to the other Christian leaders of the time including Ambrose of Milan and his role in Augustine’s later conversion, as well as descriptions about worship services including the singing of hymns.

As others who have read Augustine’s Confessions have noted, the last few chapters are strange, getting into Augustine’s Platonic philosophy, with a lot of repetitive thought as Augustine considered the meaning of time, memory and forgetfulness.  In this tedious reading, I also observed that the Librivox volunteer readers must have had similar difficulty; the majority of the recording, through Augustine’s conversion, was read by one or two authors. Then, for each ‘track’ section of the last few (weird) chapters, it was a different reader for each segment.

William Perkins

Volume one of Perkins is over 800 pages and three treatises. I read a little of the first treatise, all of the second one, and about a third of the last and very lengthy treatise (the Sermon on the Mount).  The first treatise was about biblical chronology and dating of early Bible events; after a while it was too detailed and tedious.  Here I first learned the idea that the Israelite stay in Egypt may have been only 215 years instead of 430 years—the 430 years starting from the time of Abraham instead of the actual time in Egypt.  I have always thought that the stay was 400 years in Egypt, from the narrative reading and my old NIV Study Bible dates.  From checking online articles, though, apparently this is an area of differing views, and some do take the 215 years view regarding the Egypt stay.  At this point, the 430 years in Egypt seems more reasonable to me, given the large population at the time of the Exodus and allowing for gaps in the genealogies, which occurs often even in later Old Testament genealogies.  For further reading and study on this, are these two articles:

The second treatise was of a manageable length and more interesting:  Perkins’ exposition of Matthew 4:1-11 and the parallel account in Luke, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Good points brought out here include Perkins’ look at the scientific understanding of the human ability to live without food and water, that the human body has a limit of about 14 days­.  This event was supernatural, and necessary for Christ to experience, in similar fashion to the previous 40 days and 40 nights fastings of both Moses and Elijah.  Perkins adds, to any who might reason that ‘why did Christ not do double the length of time, 80 days?’, that Christ also must be shown to be human, and a fast of 80 days would have us question His humanity.  Another of Perkins’ ideas, though, seemed rather strange (again, the first time to hear this idea, for me):  the temptation of Jesus standing on the top of the temple in Jerusalem, was accomplished by Satan’s moving Christ’s body, slowly through the air, from the desert to the actual temple location.  Here again Perkins considers the known natural laws, and reasons that a human body could not physically withstand such flight movement through the air at very high speeds, but that Satan certainly could physically carry Christ a short distance at a slow speed.  I haven’t read other commentaries on this matter, but have always thought of this temptation as done in a vision, not actually there; if Christ were actually there, surely there would have been other people around to notice a man standing up on the top of the temple structure.   But Perkins reasoned that a temptation by vision would not be a real temptation.

The third work in volume one is a detailed exposition, with many excurses, of the Sermon on the Mount.  The reading is straightforward enough to follow, and similar in style to the later Puritans (who held Perkins in great esteem and were greatly influenced by him), with the outline format of different observations and ‘uses’ for application – as noted by J.I. Packer in his summary lecture series on the Puritans .  Throughout the reading, though, at several points I was turned-off by one particular aspect of Perkins’ views: his anti-millennial interpretations.  This comes out in such places as his exposition of Matt. 5:5 (the meek shall inherit the earth), in which he cites four ways in which the meek are said to inherit the earth.  The last two of these, Perkins considered as the primary ones:  3) inheritance in Christ in which ‘all things are yours, whether it be Paul or Cephas, or the world, things present or things to come’ (1 Cor. 3:21-22) and 4) that the meek will be made kings and ‘rule and reign’ (Rev. 5).  Before that, however, he considers that “if it fall out that meek persons die in want or banishment, yet God gives them contentation, which is fully answerable to the inheritance of the earth.”  As a premillennialist (and here I recall Spurgeon’s strong words about this text) such an idea misses the mark:  to say that a poor person being contented with what God gives him or her in this life “is fully answerable to the inheritance of the earth” is to seriously underrate and misrepresent the wonderful future promise of really inheriting the earth.  Elsewhere in the exposition, Isaiah texts about the millennial era are applied to what we have spiritually here and now.  At a point about various views regarding our neighbors and revenge, Perkins writes:  “Now the devil perceiving this to be their [the Jews’] natural disposition, makes God’s doctrine of salvation seem to them a doctrine of earthly benefits, for he caused them to dream of an earthly king for their Messiah, and of an earthly flourishing kingdom under him.”  Such statements reveal the standard European anti-Semitism along with an apparent hatred of the premillennial doctrine itself, implied in the idea that an earthly kingdom is somehow evil, carnal and unspiritual.  Premillennialists recognize the both/and of a future literal, earthly kingdom that is also spiritual in character, and that both physical and spiritual can co-exist, as in us believers today; and that the Old Testament did promise a future literal, earthly kingdom. The Jews had the basic idea correct; their error was in failing to recognize the two-stage purpose of God, the cross and then the crown, what is described in 1 Peter 1:10-11: the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.”

The criticisms aside, both works — Augustine and William Perkins — are good for overall reading of classic and Reformation-era thought, as both provide interesting ideas and points for further thought.  They both serve the purpose of reading “the classics” of Christian theological works, and variety in reading, to go beyond the comparatively shallow and superficial nature of many modern-day books.

Challies’ 2018 Reading Challenge: Autobiography (Steven Curtis Chapman)

January 30, 2018 4 comments

In my ongoing Challies’ 2018 Reading Challenge, I’ve enjoyed some “freebies” and sale books, including ChristianAudio.com’s free monthly audio book deal, which has offered several good books, including two I read last year–Kevin DeYoung’s Taking God at His Word and Steven Lawson’s The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd Jones (reference this blog post).

One recent free Christian Audio monthly offers, Steven Curtis Chapman’s autobiography – Between Heaven and the Real World: My Story – is well-written and quite interesting.  In my early Christian years I bought a few of his albums, and saw him in concert twice (in Denver, CO):  his first New Years Eve concert there, and then, two years later, a concert on the first Tuesday night in November, Presidential Election day 1992; we learned on the radio while driving home afterward, that Clinton had won the election.  Among the trivia from those years, I recall one time that he paused to tune his guitar; he remarked that his wife had said that Phil Keaggy tuned his guitar while he played, and that ‘I tried to explain to my wife that Phil Keaggy is not human.’  Some time later I also saw Phil Keaggy in concert, and noticed that, sure enough, Keaggy was adjusting the guitar tuning pegs while very animated, playing and jumping around on the stage.  In later years I did not follow CCM as much, though I recall the local church (Memphis area) youth group in ’96 doing a music program that included Chapman’s then-hit song ‘King of the Jungle.’  And I remember hearing in the news, almost ten years ago now, about the tragic accident in which his adopted 5 year old daughter was killed, hit by a vehicle driven by their teenage son.

Chapman’s autobiography is lengthy and detailed, almost 450 pages, yet reads well as an audio book (and rates close to 5.0 on Amazon user ratings).  It includes interesting history about the 1980s Christian music scene, the time I can relate to from my conversion in 1989 and the music CDs then available in the local Christian bookstore.  Over the years my theology and Christian music tastes have changed, such that I have come to prefer Michael Card, Steve Camp and other more Reformed music, and I probably would not have chosen to read this, but that it was a free Christian audio offering.  This book exceeded my expectations, and I have not regretted the time spent reading it.  Covering his full life since early childhood, Chapman’s auto-biography brings out and agrees with my recollections and impressions from his early concerts: basic evangelical Christianity and a love for Jesus, the importance of his family, and a tendency to self-righteousness.  He was saved at age eight, and was one of those people who get their act together (the Lord working in them since childhood) while young (thus a successful career), married with young children by his late twenties; it wasn’t exactly what us singles in our mid-to-late 20s could relate to, but we still enjoyed the music.  His autobiography includes interesting background related to some of the songs from those years; I liked the story where he performed “His Eyes” for others in the Nashville CCM group, and Michael Card gave him a standing ovation; Chapman as a young performer in the business appreciated that, noting Michael Card’s standing in the business as ‘a song craftsman.’

Chapman’s theology is general evangelical, non-Reformed, noted in his references to his friends and Christian-teacher influences.  One family conflict (from his early career and marriage days) he relates, soon turned into a heated argument—which ended when he suddenly shouted aloud to Satan, declaring to Satan that ‘you will not have my family’; a less mature response, as contrasted with the Christian growth and sanctification process, learning God’s preceptive will including how to resolved conflict viz Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker approach.

Where Between Heaven and the Real World gets more interesting, and more spiritually in-depth, is the later years–the full story concerning the family’s adoption of Chinese orphans, the details of the terrible accident, and the consequent effects of that great affliction.  As with all of us, great trial and affliction brought about the Christian growth and sanctification, the growth that God will accomplish in His ways in His people.  Through the grieving process and counseling, Chapman relates his new appreciation for the Psalms, with reference to some of the very same things I’ve learned through reading books and articles on the overall topic of spiritual depression and biblical counseling and coping with my own trials, including Psalm 13, and David’s talking to himself in Psalm 42, ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul?’; also the great need to study and work out one’s theology, expressing emotions to God instead of the stoical approach, and relying on God day by day through the emotional pain.

It is easy to be a Christian and love God when everything is going well in your life.  Chapman’s story, along with other biographies and autobiographies of believers, brings home the truth of our very different personalities and experiences, and that God perfectly measures out the particular trials and problems we will have, fitted to each of us individually.  Some people may have more relational problems early in life – resulting in other types of trial later in life.  Chapman did not have a perfect, ideal upbringing but overall a life with fewer difficulties, financial success, and a strong, close family life, with that family very important to him; thus the great God-ordained trial for him and the family, came in the tragic loss of one of the children, five year old Maria.

This book demonstrates the truth behind the Challies’ reading challenge, the value of reading a variety of different types of books.  I would not read Steven Curtis Chapman’s story for its theological value within the normal scope of ‘Reformed’ Christian reading, yet it is an interesting story to broaden the perspective of the lives of other Christians.

Challies’ Reading 2018: Machen’s ‘Christianity and Liberalism’

January 16, 2018 2 comments

For the 2018 Challies’ Reading Challenge, J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, a book by an author no longer alive, is an excellent read.  E-text including kindle version available free online from sources including Monergism, this is Machen’s classic work from 1923, defending true Christianity and proving that the liberal (so-called) Christian theology, is not Christian at all.  As noted in a Reformed Forum podcast which talked about Machen and his successor Van Til, Machen was a good and clear, straightforward writer. Christianity and Liberalism sets forth several contrasts of key Christian doctrines and the liberal view:  the nature of God and man, the Bible, Christ, Salvation, and the Church.  As Machen later said:

In my little book, Christianity and Liberalism, 1923, I tried to show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots. In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a “life,” as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that–exactly the other way around–it is a life founded on a doctrine.

Machen’s “little book” relates to my previous studies on this era of church history:  a series on “The Church and the World” from Reformed Theological Seminary with great overview of the three early 20th century responses to modernism; Machen was one of three responses (the other two being fundamentalism and Barthian neo-orthodoxy).  This was also a generation after Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy; not surprisingly, similar observations come from Machen as from Spurgeon: the dishonesty of the liberal theologians who would use the same ‘Christian’ terms to disguise themselves as true believers, yet attaching very different meanings to the terms.

A classic with staying power through the years, Machen’s book contains some dated material, especially in the introduction and conclusion—with reference to the pressing current events of the time including anti-Christian legislation directed at the public schools, a situation where some states actually prohibited anything other than a public education.  History has since shown the direction of the Christian church and the secular world; though overall conditions appear far worse, past the modernism of his day to today’s post-modernism, yet people today do have other educational options outside of the public schools, including the surge of evangelical Christian private schools and homeschooling, unknown in his day.

Trends in existence then have continued, though in different variations, to the point of current-day churches which do not embrace liberal theology with its rejection of miracles and a secular, naturalist “historical Jesus”—yet doctrinal understanding among professing Christians is at an appallingly low level.

Another troubling point today is the overall lack of knowledge concerning this period of history: the early 20th century fight against theological liberalism.  Machen stood against the promoters of liberal so-called Christianity, including one of its main advocates, Harry Emerson Fosdisck, pointing out that “The question is not whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity.”  Reference this article from Tim Challies, on the details regarding Harry Emerson Fosdick and the conservative response from Machen and his collleagues.

Many today do not even recognize the name of Fosdick, and yet a hymn written by Fosdick (“God of Grace and God of Glory”) has actually made itself into some church hymnals used by Calvinist churches.  People who are ignorant of the issues will defend the singing of that hymn because the words are nice; yet with all the many hymns written by true Christians, why include a hymn from someone who did not worship the same God and was clearly a false teacher?

I especially liked that Machen himself referenced the theology of hymns, making a good point regarding low and high views of Christ’s atonement (along with reference to the Titanic sinking):

The reality of an atonement for sin depends altogether upon the New Testament presentation of the Person of Christ. And even the hymns dealing with the Cross which we sing in Church can be placed in an ascending scale according as they are based upon a lower or a higher view of Jesus’ Person. At the very bottom of the scale is that familiar hymn:

Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.

That is a perfectly good hymn. It means that our trials may be a discipline to bring us nearer to God. The thought is not opposed to Christianity; it is found in the New Testament. But many persons have the impression, because the word “cross” is found in the hymn, that there is something specifically Christian about it, and that it has something to do with the gospel. This impression is entirely false. In reality, the cross that is spoken of is not the Cross of Christ, but our own cross; the verse simply means that our own crosses or trials may be a means to bring us nearer to God. It is a perfectly good thought, but certainly it is not the gospel. One can only be sorry that the people on the Titanic could not find a better hymn to use in the last solemn hour of their lives. But there is another hymn in the hymn-book:

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

That is certainly better. It is here not our own crosses but the Cross of Christ, the actual event that took place on Calvary, that is spoken of, and that event is celebrated as the center of all history. Certainly the Christian man can sing that hymn. But one misses even there the full Christian sense of the meaning of the Cross; the Cross is celebrated, but it is not understood.

It is well, therefore, that there is another hymn in our hymn-book:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

There at length are heard the accents of true Christian feeling–“the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.” When we come to see that it was no mere man who suffered on Calvary but the Lord of Glory, then we shall be willing to say that one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is of more value, for our own salvation and for the hope of society, than all the rivers of blood that have flowed upon the battlefields of history.

In this work, Machen includes many great quotes that succinctly stating the contrast between liberalism and Christianity, including these:

All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that other religion no Christianity. For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event. Without that event, the world, in the Christian view, is altogether dark, and humanity is lost under the guilt of sin.

The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. … Without the miracles, the New Testament might be easier to believe. But the thing that would be believed would be entirely different from that which presents itself to us now. Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Savior.

According to Christian belief, man exists for the sake of God; according to the liberal Church, in practice if not in theory, God exists for the sake of man.

the evangelical Christian is not true to his profession if he leaves his Christianity behind him on Monday morning. On the contrary, the whole of life, including business and all of social relations, must be made obedient to the law of love. The Christian man certainly should display no lack of interest in “applied Christianity.” Only–and here emerges the enormous difference of opinion–the Christian man believes that there can be no applied Christianity unless there be “a Christianity to apply.

Machen’s work is available free online in several e-book formats as well as web page text.  It is not long, at about 200 pages, and yet very insightful and packed with great truth, a work useful in its day and through the years since.