Saturday, November 14, 2015

Book Review - Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament

Make no mistake about it, there are some tough questions that skeptics, seekers, adversaries, and even well-intentioned Christians have about God. But we must also not make the mistake of inadvertently or intentionally thinking there are no competent answers to the tough questions. There are. Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament is one such book that attempts to answer these queries in an thorough but accessible manner. And I believe, for the most part, it does this successfully. Therefore, people ought to avail themselves of such books.

Author Walter C. Kaiser Jr. takes up “the most challenging issues that seem to cast the longest shadow on God’s character and his actions” and thereby “openly and honestly face these charges … and answer them with valid responses from the same biblical texts that are the basis for these challenges.”

The first three chapters deal mainly with God’s character. Is God merciful or wrathful, peaceful or warlike, truthful or deceptive? These chapters were the strength of the book for me. These issues cause problems for many people and I thought the author answered thoroughly and helpfully.

Chapters five, seven, eight, and ten seem to target questions more likely to arise from inside the church. These chapters deal with the questions that surround the contrast between grace and law, open theism and meticulous sovereignty, the omniscience of God, and the food restriction laws of the Old Testament. These chapters were not as appealing to me as others but that likely reflects the lessened interest I had for these topics.

Chapters four, six, and nine were in my estimation geared towards questions non-Christians would be very opinionated about and for which Christians have not armed themselves with very good answers. Of the three, Kaisers chapter on monogamy versus polygamy is significantly superior. I found this chapter very informative and helpful in addressing my own lack of knowledge on this issue. In fact, this chapter alone makes the book worth acquiring.

One critique of the book is that, at times, the author seemed to give a thorough survey of the question while only delivering a brief answer. Dealing with ten difficult topics could lead to an overly long book, but I felt some of the questions did not get as full an answer as I would have liked.

This small complaint aside, I think this book is worth getting one’s hands on particularly if the reader, or someone the reader knows, is struggling with these questions. There are solid answers available, but they need to be sought out in places such as Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Book Review – The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation

Generally speaking prequels, at least when it comes to movies, receive mixed reviews at best. They often lack the appeal that the original movies from which they spawned command. However, The First Days of Jesus, sort of a prequel to The Final Days of Jesus, matches the accomplishments of its predecessor.

The authors, Andreas Kostenberger and Alexander Stewart, describe The First Days of Jesus as “a guidebook for reading and encountering the Gospel infancy narratives” which “will examine a section of the biblical text with an eye toward proper understanding and application.” As to these proposed aims of the book, I consider it a success.

This work did indeed help me encounter and engage with Scripture’s account of Jesus’ birth. The author’s efforts to help this reader properly understand the text were also successful. I learned new information around the narratives as well as, with the author’s help, dispel cultural myths and mistakes about the historical event. I feel I have a much better command of the passages under consideration.

Additionally, the authors endeavour to approach the biblical text in a manner that is “biblical, exegetical, historical, and devotional. The biblical-ness of their approach is evident as they connect the birth stories to both Old Testament prophecies as well as future events not yet fulfilled. They examine and exegete the texts with care and precision appropriate for the broad audience that this book would appeal to. By explaining how these texts fit into their historical context, I was helped immensely. It is easy to read these stories through 21st century lenses which obscures and confuses what really happened.

The devotional aspect of this book similarly appealed to me. By devotional, the authors mean that their intention is to “discuss the scriptures in such a way that you, the reader, will be drawn closer to God. I can avouch that the book did have this desired effect on me. A clearer, more accurate understanding of the bible will have this effect; the authors enhance the devotional character of this book through their intentional writing to this end.

Of the first book about Jesus’ last days I wrote, “This book will be valuable for all Christians as well as non-believers interested in the last days of Christ on earth. Its simplicity enhances the beauty and wonder of the story.” I can reiterate these sentiments and apply them infancy narratives covered in The First Days of Jesus. I recommend this book!

Monday, October 5, 2015

False Dichotomies

A false dichotomy involves a situation where only two options–often extremes–seem available when,
in fact, at least one other option exists. Sometimes false dichotomies are used as a tactic to win an argument. And sometimes we adopt false dichotomies accidentally, not realizing we have painted ourself into a corner that isn’t really a corner. An example of a false dichotomy might be: “People either love Aerosmith, or they hate Aerosmith. Actually, there are more than the two options of love and hate: some people may find the band mildly enjoyable while others might find them slightly annoying.

One issue that we Christians often apply a false dichotomy to is our own happiness. We tell ourselves something like this: “I have two options in life. I can either choose to glorify God or I can choose to be happy.” There we have a big ol’ false dichotomy. We erroneously believe that there are only two options there. What’s it gonna be? God’s glory? Or my happiness?

Fortunately, the church has been blessed with brilliant-minded men and women who can see through our foggy thinking and shine some light on our dullness. One such man seems to be Puritan David Clarkson.

I have never read anything by David Clarkson. I’m only able to reference him because of a quotation in a book I read this week. On a side note, the book is called The Joy Project and it is written by Desiring God staff-writer Tony Reinke. It is a wonderful book, available for free at, and is highly recommended by many people including me. Check it out. But back to David Clarkson.

The quotation by Clarkson reveals the glaringly credulous mistake made by those of us who think our happiness and God’s glory are at odds. Clarkson declares,

The Lord aims at his own glory and our happiness, and we aim at his glory and our happiness. And though he may seem more to seek his glory than our happiness, and we may fear we seek our happiness more than his glory, yet indeed these two are inseparable and almost coincident. That which advances his glory promotes our happiness, and that which makes us most happy makes him most glorious. Wisdom and mercy have made a sweet connection between his honor and our happiness, so that they cannot be disjoined. We need no more fear to come short of happiness than we need to fear that the Lord will come short of his glory, for these two are embarked together.

That is some puritan-esque de-false-dichotomizing of the fallacy we sometimes arrive at when contemplating our happiness and God’s glory.

God’s glory, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us, is of primary importance when we consider man’s chief end: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” And rightly so. My upcoming sermon, on Malachi 1:6-2:9, is one of a myriad of Scripture passages one could point to in order to prove that God’s glory is the point of everything created. But it is wonderful to think that God, who loves us and delights in us, has not protected and promoted his glory at the expense of our happiness. Rather, in his loving and faithful way he has ensured our happiness as we pursue his glory. Take that false dichotomy!

This whole God’s-glory-our-happiness issue will come to a consummating crescendo when Christ returns and in seeing him, we behold his glory, are glorified, and are enraptured in total and utter happiness. Then, free from sin (and feeble thinking that results in false dichotomies), we will rejoice in the glory of God. Until then, let’s glorify God and be happy.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

An Interim Strategy

While perusing the stream of tweets that accrued on my Twitter account ( @judestjohn ) a few weeks ago, a particular tweet, in fact a particular word in that tweet, caught my attention.
The word I saw: interim.

And of course it caught my eye because I have recently become one. An interim, that is, not a tweet to be sure. More precisely, I have become the interim lead pastor at West London Alliance Church.
The tweet in question provided a link to a blog post by Seth Godin. I had heard of Seth Godin, knew him to be an author, and found the following description of him on his website:

SETH GODIN is the author of 18 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything.

The title of the blog post by Godin further intrigued me: The Interim Strategy. Now I was hooked and so I proceeded to read the article. The article itself was neither a how-to manual for interims nor an Interiming-for-Dummies piece. Rather, it discussed the tendency of businesses to employ an interim strategy in spite of the conflicts that interim strategy might have with the company’s long-term goals and mission.

Despite the seemingly disparate topic of the article to my situation of being an interim pastor, it nevertheless had some ideas that are very transferable and surprisingly biblical.

Godin begins,

We say we want to treat people fairly, build an institution that will contribute to the culture and embrace diversity. We say we want to do things right the first time, treat people as we would like to be treated and build something that matters.

But first... first we say we have to make our company work.

We say we intend to hire and train great people, but in the interim, we'll have to settle for cheap and available. We say we'd like to give back, but of course, in the interim, first we have to get...

This interim strategy, the notion that ideals and principles are for later, but right now, all the focus and resources have to be put into the emergency of getting successful—it doesn't work.

This is helpful for me, for West London Alliance Church, and for churches around the globe. Churches in general, and pastors like myself, often feel an immense pressure to “be successful.” And that desire to be successful may tempt a church or a pastor or a parishioner to set aside a biblical mandate, even if only temporarily, for something more pragmatic that will bring success. That is a very dangerous thing.

 Godin writes, “It doesn't work because it's always the interim. It never seems like the right time to stop doing what worked and start doing what we said was important.” And we might apply it to our church and to our lives by saying, “A non-biblical strategy doesn’t work because it is always the interim; it is always already-not yet when it come to the church. And it will never seem like the right time to stop doing what seems to bring success and start doing what is biblical.”
Godin concludes his discussion of business strategies by exhorting: “perhaps it makes sense to act in the interim as we expect to act in the long haul.” And that is what I plan to do; that is my interim strategy.

I’m not going to import some idea that could make myself or the church “successful,” whatever that means. I’m much more concerned about being faithful. Faithful to the Bible. Faithful to my calling. Faithful to the principles that have been the foundation of West London Alliance Church, a faithful body of believers. I plan to continue to deliver “as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (1 Corinthians 15:3-5 ESV).” I’ll endeavour to continue “Making known the greatness of God” just as this congregation has done over the years.

Nothing new here. No cutting-edge interim strategy. Just faithfulness to the Word, fealty to the gospel, and fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

A post on a new journey for me

For any of you who didn't see this, the following is a blog I posted at where I have recently assumed the role of interim lead pastor.

In the summer of 1995, I was playing my first year of professional football. As a proud member of the Hamilton Ti-Cats of the Canadian Football League, I was living a dream. Playing a sport and getting paid for it is something most young, athletic boys wish for at some point in their childhood; I was no different.

I did not become a starter until my second year. Thus, as is often the case, my rookie season had me pegged as a backup. As a backup, I was only going to get playing time one of two ways. The first way for me to get on the field was if we got way ahead in a game. This would be a great thing on every front. The second way I could find myself on the field was if one of the starting lineman was injured. In 1995, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were not likely to be ahead in any game, much less way ahead. So, for the most part, I was often biding my time on the sidelines, waiting for someone to get hurt. For clarity, I did not want any of my teammates to get hurt, but I desperately desired to get in the game and play.

And play I did. I started 6 games that year despite never really being a regular starter. And every one of my starts was due to one of my fellow offensive linemen getting knocked out of the starting lineup with an injury. Playing in games was thrilling. But as I relive those days of seeing actually playing time for Hamilton’s football team, the best word I can come up with to describe the totality of my feelings is bittersweet.

Bittersweet is a word to describe something that is both pleasant and painful, both wonderful and woeful. And seeing action in a real, live professional football game was sweet. I can still taste the sweetness as I reminisce about the games I played. But I also remember the bitter taste that came from the knowledge that one of my fellow lineman, all of whom mentored me in those early years, had experienced great disappointment and possibly great pain in getting bumped from their position. My feast was the result of a friend’s famine. My rise was precipitated by a buddy’s fall. Those thrilling days of 1995 which saw this young, inexperienced gridiron greenhorn take the field were days of mixed emotions; sweet as a result of the sweat induced in playing the game I loved, bitter from the brutal reality that someone else’s disappointment led to my opportunity.

Here it is, 2015. It could be almost 20 years later to the day of my first professional football start. And as I consider what I am about to experience, I find myself contemplating an all too similar sense of bittersweetness.

I am becoming the interim lead pastor of a wonderful, Christian congregation in London, Ontario that gather under the name of West London Alliance Church. The road that brought me to this juncture is filled with many weird, wild, and wonderful stories…stories that can wait for another day. For today, I’d simply like to explain what makes this event so bittersweet.

Before I expand on the pleasantness of becoming a regular preaching pastor, and the pain that brought these changes about, let the reader know that the gravity of this situation makes the bitterness far more stringent.

The bitterness that is so thoroughly mixed in with the sweetness of recent events comes, once again, from the pain of a friend and mentor, in fact, a teammate in the race of faith. Pastor Mike Wilkins has pastored this congregation for over 30 years; I was just becoming a teenager when he started. Pastor Mike has been the “starter” behind the pulpit for many, many years. And just like those men that I backed up on the football field, Pastor Mike’s health has forced him to step aside. His ongoing battle with cancer has brought about, as it were, a change in the lineup. Unlike the trial that injured footballers face, this is a life and death battle. And so, there is a great deal of pain, sadness, and disappointment mixed in with this exciting opportunity that I’m facing. The bitterness is a result of the trial of a valiant, resilient, and faithful man of God. It is his difficult situation which has precipitated my move behind the pulpit that he has dutifully and fruitfully filled for so many years.

But it’s not all bitter. There is sweetness too. There is great excitement. The opportunity to preach the Word of God is an honour far beyond what I deserve. The thrilling challenge of loving, serving, and leading the bride of Christ, even in an interim position, is a turn of events so wonderful I can barely articulate it. And there is sweetness because the man who is stepping aside to make room for me wouldn’t have it any other way.

Despite the sadness in the situation, Pastor Mike continues to preach and proclaim the sweetness of a sovereign God who works all things for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28). Pastor Mike continues to exult in the beautiful peace of God which is ours in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7). And Pastor Mike continues to point to the One who drank the most bitter cup, a cup brimming with God’s wrath, on behalf of those who deserved to be punished (Romans 5:9) so that their cups would no longer be bitter but rather brimming with living water (John 4:10-14). Pastor Mike fearlessly and faithfully points to the cross of Christ, and the empty tomb of Christ, which brings eternal sweetness into our dark, painful, and bitter world (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). We would do well to harken to Pastor Mike’s preaching even as he steps away from the pulpit.

One day all bitterness will be removed; only sweetness will remain. For now, this really, really amazing honour of becoming West London Alliance Church’s interim lead pastor will be, for me, bittersweet.

Book Review – Understanding Prophecy

Have you ever experienced a “left behind” moment? I have. Before I held to a different eschatological position, I remember being a young teenager who believed in the rapture. And I also remember an instance where I was unable to find any of my family in the middle of the day when they all should have been at home. I recall being a little panicked, wondering if I had been “left behind.” If nothing else, that anecdote reminds me of the importance of biblical prophecy, and how imperative it is to understand the Bible in general but biblical prophecy more specifically.

The primary goal of Understanding Prophecy by Alan S. Bandy and Benjamin L. Merkle is to “give readers a framework of how to interpret any passage in the context of the Bible.” That is, they want to do more than just explain prophetic texts; they want to help students of the Bible read these passages with understanding.

The first three chapters of this book outline prophecy and how one might approach it from the biblical-theological perspective. The authors do this by providing guiding principles for interpreting predictive prophecy which take into account such things a redemptive history, the Christo-centricity of Scripture, and the progression of revelation. They elucidate on the ministry of the prophets, the genre of prophecy, and some of the challenges prophecy presents. Finally, they locate prophecy in their biblical-theological framework.

I found this first section, chapters 1-3, extremely helpful in providing me a foundation for my ongoing attempts to read and understand this genre of the Bible. Some parts were review, some were new to me, but all were helpful. This section of the book is one which I’m sure I will revisit.
In the next two sections the authors apply the framework for understanding prophecy that they presented in section one. Chapters 4-6 consider prophecy in the Old Testament and chapter 7-10 examine the same in the New Testament.

In examining OT prophecy, the authors compare unconditional prophecies, conditional prophecies, and fulfilled prophecies. They consider restoration prophecies given to Israel as well as messianic prophecies which, the authors contend, are both fulfilled ultimately in the Messiah.

Again, there was very interesting and enlightening material n these chapters. I particularly liked how they took these pre-Christianity writings and demonstrated how they point to Christ. There is thorough interaction with many prophets and their writings from the Old Testament.

The final section of the book focuses on prophetic texts found in the New Testament. These include prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah, the coming of the Spirit, and the return of the Messiah. The book of Revelation is dealt with extensively, with many helpful and intriguing insights.
These chapters address many of the obvious questions people have regarding the end times. I found it helpful that the authors dealt with the main perspectives of eschatology and did so in an irenic and fair manner.

For me, this book’s strength is in the accessibility it provides for the average lay reader to some very difficult passages of the Bible. The topics covered may be popular in our Christian culture, but sound answers and thorough explanations of those answers are less than common. Understanding Prophecy provides answers to some hard questions but also provides a framework for working through those questions for oneself. I recommend this book as a solid resource for understanding prophetic texts on the Bible.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Book Review – The Compelling Community

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

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

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

Packer on petitioning God via Keller

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Awe and intimacy in forgiveness

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

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

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