Monday, July 19, 2010

Is Christianity Just a Nice Dream?

Although it's a little early to be talking about Christmas I thought this quote from N.T. Wright was very sobering.

"For many, Christianity is just a beautiful dream. It's a world in which everyday reality goes a bit blurred. It's nostalgic, cosy, and comforting. But real Christianity isn't like that at all. Take Christmas, for instance: a season of nostalgia, of carols and candles and firelight and happy children. But that misses the point completely. Christmas in not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice old place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place, where wickedness flourishes unchecked, where children are murdered, where civilized countries make a lot of money by selling weapons to uncivilized ones so they can blow each other apart. Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don't light a candle in a room that's already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that's so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. The light shines in the darkness...and the darkness has not overcome it" (Quoted from For All God's Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church, Eerdman's 1997).

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Review: The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission

As I write this review I have just set down John Dickson's new book on evangelism "The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission." There are not very many books that I would consider to be "life-changing" but after finishing this one I can confidently say that this will have lasting effects on my life. The reason I initially picked this book up was because I wanted to see how N.T. Wright and Alistair Begg could end up endorsing the same book on evangelism. Now I understand.

The Best Kept Secret is basically a book on evangelism for the whole church. Dickson makes a helpful distinction between proclaiming the gospel and promoting the gospel. This book is primarily about the latter and shows a variety of ways that all Christians can participate in "gospel ministry."

Evangelism, in the strict sense of the word, is a verbal activity. It is the actual communication of the news of the royal birth, life, teaching and miracles, atoning death, resurrection and ascension of the Messiah and Lord, Jesus Christ. But this verbal activity is not the only aspect of gospel ministry. One example of promoting the gospel is the financial giving towards Christian mission. Paul speaks of those who give financially towards his mission as "partners in the gospel". These "gospel promoting" activities are not of secondary importance. They are actually vital to the mission of the church.

For Dickson not every Christian is an evangelist. There are some Christians that are set apart for the verbal proclamation of the gospel. This does not mean that everyone else just sits around and lets the evangelists take care of all the gospel work. All Christians are to have a "salvific mind-set." They are to be people who are passionate about the salvation of others. This "salvific mind-set" expresses itself in a variety of ways from letting our light shine before others to being ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us.

One of the best chapters was chapter 8, "What is the Gospel?" Dickson does not settle for a systematic presentation of the gospel that presents the doctrine of sin and then the doctrine of the atonement. These are central to the gospel but need to be placed within the narrative accounts of Jesus. The theme of the gospel is the kingdom of God and the content of the gospel includes the royal birth, life, teaching and miracles, saving death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. In other words, the four books at the beginning of our New Testaments are actually Gospel.

This is an excellent book that would be a good read for those who have no experience when it comes to sharing the gospel and for those who have been doing it their whole Christian life. Dickson roots all his discussion in the Scriptures and refuses to have a narrow view of gospel ministry. I am sure that I will be turning to this book again and again for wisdom on this amazing topic.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Symbolic Praxis and the Christian

Last night I went to the bank to change my bank card PIN because my card had been compromised. I didn't really want to do it but I had to. Unfortunately it turned out to be a big waste of time because it wouldn't work, my number wouldn't reset. I'll have to give it a try another time. I had something I had to do and I did it (at least I attempted to). A lot of the things we do from day to day do not have meaning attached to them. We run errands, meaningless little endeavors to keep life going; but as for meaning, there is nothing significant about the event itself.

In the gospels, on the other hand, the actions of the main characters are full of symbolic meaning. N.T. Wright calls this "symbolic praxis". One such example is the significant figure John the Baptist. From his clothes to his actions all of it revealed something about his message. I have been reading through Mary Healy's commentary on the Gospel of Mark and she says this about his food, "The locusts and wild honey again evoke the exodus, where they represented God's judgment on sin (the plague of locusts...) and his promises to his people (a land flowing with milk and honey...)."

John was saying that the time that God had promised was here. The Messiah-King was coming to deliver God's people from their sin and inaugurate the Kingdom, God's new world order. John saw it necessary to change his diet to display this reality. Jesus lived by the same rule. Not that he ate locusts and honey but his actions were deeply symbolic of his messianic task and the kingdom that was coming to bear on the world through his actions. One only has to think about the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple to see the truth of this claim.

All of this is to be true of Christians as well. From holiness to deeds of mercy all of our actions are deeply symbolic of a great reality. God's kingdom has come through the crucified and risen Messiah. He is reigning at God's right hand and has given the Spirit to his people. The messianic age has dawned. Therefore when we put sin to death in our lives we are saying, "we are under the sway of a different ruler."; when we help the poor and needy we are saying, "This is what it looks like when Jesus becomes king!" What other ways can our actions point people to the risen and reigning Messiah?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Failure and Family Devotions

Over at the Resurgence blog there have been a few very good posts on the topic of family worship. As I read them I was reminded of the importance of this ministry and my repeated failure at leading my wife. I am trying to figure out why it is that I can be so neglectful of family worship when I know that it is exactly what my family needs. Here are some possible reasons:

1. I Don't Believe (enough) that it is Important

Sure I know that family worship is important. But do I really believe it is that important? I don't think I have ever forgotten to eat a meal, forgotten to sleep or put clothes on before I leave the house. These are all basic to my daily life. Why, then, do I easily forget to lead my wife in regular worship? The only reason I can think of is that I don't really think it is that important. In reality, though, this ministry is probably more important than food, sleep and clothing put together.

2. I Find More Satisfaction in Other Things

I like television, reading and browsing through various blogs but too often I find more satisfaction in doing these things than I do spending time worshiping the Lord with my wife. These things can be good and do have their place but only the Lord can satisfy our deepest longings.

3. I Don't Make Time

Sometimes we just don't have time for family worship. Some nights we have places to go and by the time we get home it's already time to get ready for bed. This is okay. More often than not, however, we don't have regular times of family worship simply because I don't make the time. We eat dinner, watch television, read on our own and by the time I think of having family worship we are too tired. If, however, I were to think of this ahead of time and schedule 20 minutes after dinner then we could easily fit this into our night. Perhaps we could even have devos on the run when we are having nights out.

When it comes down to it it seems as though I fail at this so often because of unbelief. I do not believe that family worship is important, satisfying or worth my time. These are all lies. Thankfully I have Christ. In him there is no more condemnation. I have been set right (or right-wised) with my God. He has declared me righteous and given me to ability to love him above all things. I have become his righteousness. Best of all, this isn't due to the quality or frequency of my devotional life. It is all by grace.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Review: God the Peacemaker: How the Atonement Brings Shalom

Sometimes I just need to read a good book on the cross. There are so many things that can distract us from that which is most important but the Bible says that the cross and resurrection of Jesus are matters of "first importance". This is a topic that no Christian (or no human for that matter) can afford to make peripheral.

Graham Cole's book (published by IVP) is a book on the atonement. In the introduction he lays out a variety of questions that he seeks to answer but essentially the book is about the cross, its saving significance and how it fits in the unfolding drama of God's redemption of his fallen creation.

Cole explains that there is a "big picture" of the Bible. He calls this big picture a divine comedy (or a U-shaped story). God has a plan to restore his created order (what Cole calls God's "atoning project" or "peacemaking project") and the atonement should be seen within this project. This, however, does not cause Cole to minimize the cross; rather, he sees the cross as central to this project. This, in my opinion, is the book's greatest strength. Cole manages to see the cross within God's larger drama without doing injustice to its centrality. In many books the larger drama takes center stage and the cross becomes one small part of that drama. Other times the cross is taken out of its context and it just becomes the way in which "I" get to heaven when I die.

Also helpful is the fact that Cole does not minimize sin. He acknowledges that the human predicament extends beyond a barrier to personal fellowship with God; Cole demonstrates how all our relationships are affected by the "rupture" even our relationship with the cosmos. But he never ignores the fact that all the problems in the world are ultimately due to sin. He, therefore, quotes Carson with approval, "In sum, we find ourselves fighting the Bible's entire story line if we do not recognize that our deepest need is to be reconciled to God" (p. 83).

Popular today, especially in scholarly treatments of the cross, is to question the idea that penal substitution plays a central role, or any, in the biblical concept of atonement. Some pick a different models like Christus Victor (Christ's victory over evil) and place them at the center. Cole doesn't seem to choose a "central" model but he does say that a model like Christus Victor, "needs the explanatory power of substitutionary atonement" (p. 184).

At the end of the day, I didn't come away from this book feeling ready to win a debate. Rather, I came to see the glory of God's peacemaking project. God desires "shalom" for this world (peace with God, peace with others, and peace with the cosmos) and at the dead center of this project stands the cross where the second member of the triune God paid for the sins of the world so that he could have a people who would be apart of this project to the praise of his glory.