Tuesday, November 30, 2021

It’s Daily Devotional Buying Season

Reading the Bible
It’s that time of year when people start thinking about their next devotional or getting one for someone else, so I want to tell you about some good ones.

I like devotionals with a lot of scripture in them. Human opinion is fallible, so let’s focus on what isn’t.

Meet the Bible by Philip Yancey and Brenda Quinn is the best I’ve found with respect to that. It goes through the Bible mostly chronologically. Each entry is largely scripture with a little commentary actually related to the passage. Entries are undated, so you can easily start whenever you like. It's a big book because the entries are longer than most devotionals due to the length of the scripture quotations.

The Songs of Jesus by Tim and Kathy Keller is a much smaller book with shorter entries in the same style. It divides the Psalms up into 366 sections with devotional thoughts.

For some people, a devotional is all they read — they rarely read in the Bible itself. For those people I especially recommend devotionals with more scripture. Those who will also open their Bible can get away with the verse-a-day style devotionals.

Through the Bible Through the Year by John Stott is one I’ve recommended before. It also goes through the Bible more or less chronologically, starting with one or two verses and then devotional commentary that actually deals with the verse(s) in context. Each entry also includes recommended further reading in the scriptures. This one starts in September, but you can easily start the Sunday before Christmas by starting with week 16 or the new year in week 18, then going back to page one next September.

God's Wisdom for Navigating Life also by Tim and Kathy Keller takes a verse or two from the various OT wisdom books and gives a devotional on the topic of those verses.

Holiness Day by Day by Jerry Bridges is a collection of excerpts from his many books with an applicable verse attached. The more I read of Bridges, the more I think we should just read everything he writes. This is a good way to get a sample of a great many of his books (which you will then probably want to read in their entirety). It is all about helping us to grow more Christ-like. Entries aren’t dated; they’re just “Week 1/Monday”, etc. So you can easily start this one next Monday if you like.

I do hope you spend time in the Bible every (or at least most) day whether you read a devotional or not. You might also think about making it a more than once a day thing. If you normally spend time in the scriptures, for example, in the morning, then perhaps a short devotional at lunch could help you recenter. If living the Christian life in this fallen world seems easy, we’re probably not doing it right. Intentionally turning our thoughts back to our Lord throughout the day can help us stay focused on his character and mission.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Systematic Theology Buyer’s Guide

I really hope that you’ll go deeper into theology than what I was able to do here. I hope you’ll encourage your friends and family to learn a little more about what we believe and why.

To that end, I want to offer some tips on buying systematic theology books.

These works tend to come in four sizes I’ll call small, medium, large, and sets. Small ones can be about 200 paperback novel-like pages. Medium runs closer to 400-500 textbook-sized pages. Large books tend to run around 1200 pages. Then you have multi volume sets. One author may offer books of more than one size. Length determines how much depth the author can go into. It also determines how much the author can split hairs. For those really, really interested, a set can be a wonderful investment. For those who just want to get their feet wet, there’s nothing wrong with starting small.

Now to name names. There are lots and lots of systematic theologies out there. I haven’t read many at all. But these are the ones I like of the ones I’ve read.

Wayne Grudem’s popular Systematic Theology has a number of great features. Every chapter ends with “questions for personal application” and a bibliography which lists other works from many different backgrounds where you can go deeper on the topic; this is very broad, including Arminians, Reformed, Dispensational, and even Roman Catholics. He then gives a scripture memory passage and a hymn that correspond to the topic of the chapter. Appendices include a glossary, historic confessions of faith, a compilation of the scripture memory passage from the book, contemporary worship songs classified by chapter, an annotated bibliography, and a closer look at a debate on what the words usually rendered “only begotten” mean. The extras make this a really useful book to teach from. Be aware Grudem is a Calvinist and charismatic, and certain sections will reflect that. Also, there is a recent second edition that reflects changes to his positions and also includes new material, making it a few hundred pages longer than the original.

Grudem’s large volume has been edited to form a medium, Bible Doctrine, and a small, Christian Beliefs. They don’t have all the extras, but they do offer discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology doesn’t have as many extras as Grudem’s work, but it does contain study questions and a helpful outline at the beginning of each chapter. And I think it’s a bit more readable than Grudem’s. Erickson is Reformed Baptist, but I think his reformed position is a little less obtrusive than a lot of reformed writers.

Erickson’s large volume has been edited to form a medium Introducing Chrisitan Doctrine. There are multiple editions of both. If someone asked me to recommend one book but didn’t want to tackle a large one, this is what I’d suggest.

Tony Evans’ Theology You Can Count On to my knowledge only comes in a large volume. It contains application points and discussion questions at the end of each chapter. You’re probably aware that Evans is a great communicator, and this book reflects that. It’s very easy to read, and if you’re familiar with him, you can read it in his voice, which is kind of fun. He’s not reformed, but he does not soft-peddle the sovereignty of God.

All of the larger works I read, you might say, laterally, meaning instead of reading them cover to cover, I read each one’s section on, say, Christology. Evans’ is the one I most want to go back and read cover to cover. I really enjoyed his book.

Other small works of note:
Know Why You Believe by Paul Little is very small, but a great introduction for someone who isn’t up to a longer work. If I was going to give a book to someone a little reluctant, this would be it.

Concise Theology by JI Packer isn’t my favorite of his books (see below), but it is typical Packer (meaning quite good). Packer was a Calvinist Anglican, and it shows in his positions.

Affirming the Apostles’ Creed by JI Packer is also included in his Growing in Christ. I absolutely love this one. I’d force this one on everyone I know if I could get away with it.

5 Minute Theologian by Rick Cornish (a little thicker than others, but still small) was written as an introduction for his teen sons. It’s 100 short chapters; one a day will take you just over three months. I have recommended it before as well as the companion books 5 Minute Apologist and 5 Minute Church Historian as devotionals. They’d be good for anyone.

Other medium works of note:
Everyone’s a Theologian by RC Sproul is also available in audio form as Sproul’s “Foundations” class. It’s a good book, typical RC. I really love hearing him teach, so I highly recommend his class which is basically the audiobook. When Christian Audio does their twice a year sale, the course is very much worth $7.49. Sproul was Reformed Presbyterian, and he’ll do his best to convert you, but if you don’t mind that, you can really enjoy this work.

Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie isn’t my favorite, but he's a dispensational Baptist, which offers a different perspective on some issues from these other guys, and it’s pretty well written.

Finally, Growing Deep in the Christian Life by Chuck Swindoll is technically a medium-sized systematic theology, but it’s unlike any other book I’ve come across. In Swindoll’s usual easy, pastoral style, he looks at issues from a different angle. I would recommend it to complement any other systematic theology.

As for sets, I haven’t tackled any for more than a few pages. There are many written from a number of theological perspectives. In the not-too-distant future I hope to get cozy with Calvin’s Institutes and Chafer’s set, maybe balancing them with Oden’s Arminian point of view.

If you’re only going to read one, read something fairly close to the views of your church so you can explain why you believe what you believe. If you’re going to go deeper, reading something from a different point of view will help you better understand why you believe what you believe -- or force you to modify your beliefs, and that’s not a bad thing either. No one has perfect theology. Semper reformanda, “always reforming”, is a good motto for every thoughtful Christian.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2021

An Evangelical Creed

The Apostles’ Creed is a beautiful summary of the essentials of the Christian faith. But it’s so broad that heretics can recite it with a straight face. The Nicene Creed is much more specifically trinitarian, but it is still pretty “ecumenical” -- meaning that believers of all stripes can attest to (most of) it. What would it look like to create a summary of the things Evangelical Christians believe? Here’s my attempt as such a creed:

We believe in one God,
Infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,
The maker of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible,
Eternally existing as three distinct persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Father, who loves us and adopts us as his children,
Sent his Son into the world to reconcile sinners to him.

The Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father,
Begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father,
Having two natures, indivisible but without confusion,
For us and for our salvation became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and was born of the virgin,
Lived a righteous life,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died for our sins, and was buried;
The third day he rose again in the flesh, as the prophets predicted.
He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father
Where he intercedes for us.
From there he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.

The Holy Spirit, the comforter, the giver of life, who spoke through the prophets and apostles
Was sent by the Father and the Son to convict sinners, regenerate hearts, and conform believers to the image of Christ.

And we believe in one universal church, a nation of priests called to be a holy people,
The inspiration of the scriptures
The forgiveness of sins through faith alone,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting in the world to come. Amen.

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Living in the Problem of Pain

night fall
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless” (Psalm 10:14).

“Why does God let bad things happen” is a very different question from “Why did God let this happen to me” or, worse yet, “to my baby”. What do we say to people — or to ourselves — when their world has just collapsed on them?

Suffering can either push you away from God or draw you near to him. Let it make you draw near to God.

Yesterday you knew God was good. You knew God was sovereign. You trusted that he had a plan that he is working out in this broken world. All of that is still true. God is still good. And he still loves you.

How can we believe God loves us in the midst of the pain? Our feelings will lie to us and tell us he doesn’t. We have to remind ourselves of the truth:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).a

The cross proves God’s love. Don’t let the Devil tell you that God doesn’t love you, because you know he does. He loves you more than you can understand.

When you lose your job, your heavenly Father loves you. When your house burns down, he loves you. When your life burns down, he loves you. When he takes your baby to heaven far earlier than you wanted, he loves you. And he loves your child more than you do.

People will offer suggestions for why this has happened. Don’t listen to them. They don’t know. No one knows but God, and he rarely tells us why. But you know it’s not because God doesn’t love you and your family. You can trust his heart in the plan he is working out.

Job is the quintessential sufferer. We all know what befell him. As Sproul said, “Ultimately the only answer God gave to Job was a revelation of Himself. It was as if God said to him, 'Job, I am your answer.' Job was not asked to trust a plan but a person, a personal God who is sovereign, wise, and good. It was as if God said to Job: 'Learn who I am. When you know me, you know enough to handle anything.'”1

We have to remind ourselves when things are easy and when things are hard: God is powerful, God is sovereign, and God is good. He does not promise that we won't have hardship, but he promises that nothing will be wasted and he will see us through. And one day, he will make beauty from the ashes.

There’s another thing people will say you shouldn’t listen to: “God never gives us more than we can handle.” He absolutely does. When these things happen, God doesn’t want you to lean on your own strength because he thinks you can handle it. He knows you can’t. He wants you to lean on him. His grace is sufficient for you; his power is made perfect in weakness (2Cor 12:9).

God never promised not to give us more than we can handle. His promise is, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5).

What do you read when your world’s falling apart? The Bible. God has given us a treasure trove of comfort in his word. Many people turn to the Psalms of lament, like Psalm 10, 13, 22, 88, or 102 (among many others). I find more comfort in the passages that magnify our vision of God: for example, Psalm 23, 46, or 139 or the ending of Job (38-42) or Isaiah 40-45. Perhaps a little bit of both would be helpful.

a If someone wants more like this to meditate on, consider Rom 5:8, Gal 2:20, 1John 4:9-10.

1 RC Sproul, Surprised by Suffering

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Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Living the Solution to the Problem of Evil

broken chain
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matt 9:35).

CS Lewis wrote, “If tribulation is a necessary element in redemption, we must anticipate that it will never cease till God sees the world to be either redeemed or no further redeemable.”1 If God is not going to end the problem of evil until he ends the world, what do we do until then?

Sharing The Gospel
First and foremost, we need to let the pain of this world remind us that people need Jesus. They need to hear the real gospel, not some watered-down self-help version. People need to know, “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are ... rebels who must lay down our arms.”1

When we “lay down our arms” — when we repent of our sinful ways — and trust Jesus to be our righteousness before God, we are transformed by the Spirit, adopted by the Father, and promised that joy forever will eclipse the pain of this world. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations ...” (Matt 28:19).

Living The Kingdom
Second, we need to live in this world the way it ought to be.

“I have argued so far ... that the ultimate answer to the problem of evil is to be found in God’s creation of a new world ... with redeemed human beings ruling over it and bringing to it God’s wise, healing order. ... I now want to suggest that part of the Christian task in the present is to anticipate this eschatology, to borrow from God’s future in order to change the way things are in the present, to enjoy the taste of our eventual deliverance from evil by learning how to loose the bonds of evil in the present.”2

I’ve seen several versions of a cartoon where one character says, “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine, and injustice when he could do something about it.” The other says, “I’m afraid he might ask me the same question.” Sin will exist in this world until Jesus returns. Disease is a part of this world. But so much of the pain people experience could be removed or at least eased if we could just get our act together and do something about it.

There are lots of reasons why people are poor, but people are hungry because no one feeds them. Injustice exists because we act unjustly or allow others to. We cannot stop cancer or hurricanes, but we do not do all we can to alleviate the pain the natural world causes.

When we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”, it means more than merely making Earth more like God’s ultimate kingdom, but it does not mean less. In the Old Testament, we see again and again that God wants his people to help the poor and to create just laws and see that they are applied impartially. To God, real religion and real piety are as much about our neighbor as it is about him:

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Is 58:6-7).

As NT Wright said, “The Christian ... is thus under obligation both to honor the ruling authority, whatever it may be, and to work constantly to remind that authority of its God-given task and to encourage and help it to perform that task: to do justice and love mercy, to ensure that those who are weak and vulnerable are properly looked after.”2

And we are under obligation to do so ourselves, whether government does its job properly or not. We also are to be people of forgiveness and reconciliation. We are to be living examples of God’s healing and grace in this world.

To live out God’s solution to the problem of evil means “to live between the cross and the resurrection on the one hand and the new world on the other, and in believing in the achievements of the cross and resurrection, and in learning how to imagine the new world....”2

Saying God will make everything right in the next world will sound like pie in the sky to unbelievers. Living like his Kingdom has come on Earth as it is in Heaven will make it much more believable.

“We are not told -- or not in any way that satisfies our puzzled questioning -- how and why there is radical evil within God’s wonderful, beautiful and essentially good creation. One day I think we shall find out, but I believe we are incapable of understanding it at the moment, in the same way that a baby in the womb would lack the categories to think about the outside world. What we are promised, however, is that God will make a world in which all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, a world in which forgiveness is one of the foundation stones and reconciliation is the cement which holds everything together. And we are given this promise not as a matter of whistling in the dark, not as something to believe even though there is no evidence, but in and through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, and in and through the Spirit through whom the achievement of Jesus becomes a reality in our world and in our lives. When we understand forgiveness, flowing from the work of Jesus and the Spirit, as the strange, powerful thing it really is, we begin to realize that God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others, is the knife that cuts the rope by which sin, anger, fear, recrimination and death are still attached to us. Evil will have nothing to say at the last, because the victory of the cross will be fully implemented.”2

For more on a practical approach to the problem of evil, see NT Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God.

1 CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain
2 NT Wright, Evil and The Justice of God

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Part of Christianity 101