Book Review: Tactics by Gregory Koukl

Have you ever had one of the following encounters?

  • A family member (perhaps even your own child) blurts out in front of a large group of people that they no longer believe in God;
  • An unbelieving co-worker calls you “intolerant” due to your beliefs about God, abortion, and/or gay marriage in front of others;
  • In witnessing to a stranger, you are asked, “How could you believe in fairy tales? Everybody knows that Christianity has been disproven.”
  • Someone challenges you on a divisive issue at a church gathering, daring you to defend a controversial belief while constantly cutting you off mid-sentence.

Were you rendered speechless, wondering what to say? Or looking back, do you realize that you were more stridently combative than you should have been?

Most of us have been there. So if you answered yes to any of the above, then you would benefit greatly from Gregory Koukl’s helpful little book, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions.

The book is divided into two parts. In part one, Koukl, who has his own apologetics radio show and website (see str.org), gives you an easy to follow strategy, modeled after the TV character Columbo. If you will recall, Columbo was a frumpy, slightly clumsy detective who underwhelmed the alleged perpetrators of a crime. But right as it looked like he couldn’t crack a case, he would say, “Oh, wait a minute. There’s one things that’s bothering me.” And then, he would ask a simple yet penetrating question that would usually lead to the guilty party’s confession.

As Koukl applies this method in Tactics, let us suppose an unbeliever makes a statement like, “Of course there is no God.” Instead of getting upset, an appropriate response would be, “Can I ask how you come to that conclusion?” This is effective because most of the time, the person hasn’t thought the issue through completely.

Attached to this, it is imperative to ask follow-up questions that will show the other person where they are in error, or how inconsistent their worldview really is. In using this tactic, Koukl notes, you will have turned the tables on the unbeliever, and so put them on defensive in just seconds.

The second part of Tactics focuses on countering the various tactics of unbelievers. One of these tactics is what Koukl calls the steamroller: the person who uses bullying tactics to win arguments. If you have ever gotten into an argument with someone like this, you know how intimidating they can be.

But Koukl helps his readers to calmly handle them: first, when they interrupt you in the middle of a point you’re making, stop and gently ask them if you can continue. Second, name them. This gets their attention, and more often than not, it lets them know that they have crossed the line and are engaging in rude behavior. Third, if they continue to be belligerent, it is best to just end the conversation there. At this point, they have proven that they are not interested in dialogue; their only goal is to win the argument by force. Therefore, it is simply best to just walk away.

This is but one example of difficult situations Koukl teaches his readers to navigate. As they follow his tactics in each of them, they will find both helpful and edifying.

This is not to say that Tactics is a perfect book. Koukl’s apologetic method has its problems, in that he places reason above the Bible. Additionally, there is not much in the way of facts that the Christian can use, like proofs for Christ’s resurrection or evidence against evolution. Readers will have to look elsewhere for such information.

Those criticism aside, Tactics still has much value for the believer, as Koukl skillfully teaches his readers to respond wisely and calmly to common objections to their faith. While this should not be the only apologetics book in a Christian’s library, it is nonetheless a very helpful volume. I recommend it.

Book Review: Crazy Love by Francis Chan

Have Christians in America “missed it”?

In other words, have we in the land of the free not fully grasped, appreciated, and embraced what it truly means to be followers of Jesus Christ? Francis Chan answers that question with an emphatic “yes” in his bestselling book, Crazy Love. It has caused quite a stir since its release in 2008. Better late than never, I decided to get a copy and read it for myself.

Chan’s critique boils down to this: “The goals of American Christianity are often a nice marriage, kids who don’t swear, and good church attendance.” In other words, not much else besides that. Rather, he sees American Christianity as all form and no substance with little emphasis upon service, especially towards the poor.

In the first two chapters, Chan talks about the greatness of God, and how He is far bigger, more holy, more loving, and more merciful than we realize. He then reminds us how short our lives are when compared to eternity, and hence how little time we have to do good works for God’s kingdom.

Following are the next two chapters, which are by Chan’s own admission the most controversial in the book. Here, he profiles the lukewarm–those who say they are Christians, but the way they live runs counter to their confession of faith.

Chan then describes what true love for God looks like–namely in acts of service towards others, especially those who are less fortunate.

In chapter nine, the author profiles several people who are his ideal–that is to say, they have lived in such a way to demonstrate their radical love for Jesus. And in the final chapter, Chan issues a final challenge to his readers to truly live for Christ.

On the One Hand…

Chan is right that in far too many instances, the lives of churchgoers are little different from their non-churchgoing neighbors, and that there is too little emphasis upon service and humility. He is also right that there is too little contemplation about the greatness of God.

The author also has valid criticisms of American churchgoers, whom he says “feel secure because they attend church, made a profession of faith at age 12, were baptized, come from a Christian family, vote Republican, or live in America. Just as the prophets in the Old Testament warned Israel that they were not safe because they lived in the land of Israel, so we are not safe just because we wear the label Christian or because some people persist in calling us a ‘Christian nation.’”

Chan is also very careful about his motives. He wants it to be clear that he is not attempting to bash Christians. Rather, it is because he loves Christ and His bride, the Church, that he writes what he does.

While Chan does make sweeping statements (more on this later), he tries to note that not everyone is called to the pastorate or mission field. But most importantly, he tries to stress that Christians should be doing more with a right motive: it should not be done out of fear, but out of a deep and heartfelt love for God.

On the Other Hand…

Crazy Love is not without its problems. Others have done a very capable job of probing the deeper theological issues (especially here), so I will limit my criticisms to five points.

1. Chan does not properly contextualize the Scriptures he quotes.

For instance, he quotes Luke 14:12-14 at least twice: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

The clear impression given is that this was a stand-alone command given to all Christians. But the context tells a different story: this is in the midst of a passage where Jesus was invited to dine with the pharisees–and the passage is clear that they had sinful motives which contributed to our Lord’s strong statement. Additionally, Luke 14:12 begins with, “And He said to the man who invited Him…”

In other words, this is a word of admonishment to an individual; since Christ is God, He knows the hearts of men, and so He knew that the host’s motives were not pure. Hence Christ rebuked him, and hence this is not a universal command to all believers.

Of course, this is not to say that this passage has no bearing on our lives; it is in the Bible, and so it certainly has much to teach us about proper motives for giving and generosity. But as with any passage of Scripture, it is critical to teach what it is saying without divorcing it from its original context.

Chan also makes the very common mistake of using Christ’s confrontation with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:21-25) as a proof-text for professing Christians who don’t serve others. In using this text, Chan commits a very common mistake: he assumes it’s teaching something that it’s not–i.e., that a rich man selling all that he has and giving it to the poor is in some sense a prerequisite to eternal life; rather, Jesus is confronting this man who had just said that he had kept all of God’s commands from his youth. When he walked away from Jesus’ challenge to give away all he had to the poor, he showed demonstrably that he could not even keep the First Commandment.

As the saying goes, a text without a context is a pretext. In other words, if you wrench a verse out of its original setting, as Chan does quite often, you can make the text say whatever you want it to. In quoting these and other verses out of context, the author places unnecessary guilt on the backs of his readers.

2. In his chapter on “Profile of the Lukewarm,” Chan makes some troubling, contradictory, and/or sweeping statements, and he uses some questionable teaching methods. Chan quotes Revelation 3:15-18: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.”

Chan is emphatic that Christ is speaking exclusively to unbelievers; and given the above description, he may be correct that there were many in the Laodicean Church. However, he neglects to mention the very next verse, 19: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” In omitting this verse, Chan ignores a very crucial piece of evidence that Christ is also speaking to believers. This is so because verse 19 is consistent with Hebrews 12 and Proverbs 3, both of which speak of God’s loving discipline towards His children.

So then, perhaps this verse is speaking not just to unbelievers, but also to believers who have gotten stagnant. This would make sense, as we are going to find both in any local church.

But Chan will not acknowledge this. Instead, he offers the following explanation for why he comes to such an abrupt conclusion: “In an earlier draft of this chapter, I quoted several commentators who agreed with my point of view. But we all know that you can find quotes to support any view you want to take. You can even tweak word studies in your effort. I’m not against scholarship, but I do believe there are times when we can come to more accurate conclusions through simple reading.”

Setting aside his shallow caricature of scholarship, why does that “simple reading” not include Revelation 3:19?

To be clear, Chan may well be right about the state of Christ’s audience. But as a pastor, Chan is required to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), and patiently walk his reader through the passage, which he does not do.

He continues: “Rather than examining a verse and dissecting it, I chose to peruse one Gospel in each sitting…I attempted to do so from the perspective of a twelve-year-old who knew nothing about Jesus. I wanted to discover what reasonable conclusions a person would come to while objectively reading the Gospels for the first time.”

Granted, there is something to be said for the simple reading of the Bible. But a book targeted at a popular audience is not the place to do it.It’s obvious why: the author has no way of knowing how much, or if any, theological training his readers have had. Therefore, he should examine and dissect verses since he is purporting to teach what the Bible says on a vitally important topic.

Chan also makes sweeping statements about those whom he considers to be lukewarm. There are many examples that I could point to from Crazy Love, but I will limit it to two.

In one place, he states, “Lukewarm people will serve God and others, but there are limits to how far they will go or how much time, money, and energy they are willing to give.”

Never mind, apparently, that some people have busy schedules; perhaps some parents have to work two jobs to make ends meet, have small children to tend to, or have to care for a sick relative or a special-needs child, and so are only capable of committing so much time, money, and energy.

In another place, Chan declares, “Lukewarm people do not live by faith; their lives are structured so they do not have to. They don’t have to trust God if something unexpected happens–they have their savings account. They don’t need God to help them–they have their retirement account in place…They don’t depend on God on a daily basis–their refrigerators are full and, for the most part, they are in good health.”

If this statement isn’t legalism (and assuming that this is not merely a sarcastic comment which should have been edited out of the final manuscript), it comes perilously close to it. Why is it his business if people have a saving or retirement account, or even a full refrigerator? While we should heed Luke 12:16-21 (Chan’s proof-text), we should also heed 1 Timothy 5:8, which says that one who does not provide for his own “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

While Chan is correct that Christians should be more giving of their time and resources, that does not mean that they shouldn’t save ahead for their future. Having a savings or retirement account does not mean lack of trust in God–rather, it is part of caring for one’s family, and easing the burden on one’s children when one gets older.

Simply stated, giving to the poor and saving for the future need not be an either/or situation for the Christian, as Chan seems to be saying; rather, it should be both/and.

3. There are confusing and possibly contradictory comments about grace. After spending nearly two chapters slamming “the lukewarm,” Chan suddenly backtracks and says, “I do not want true believers to doubt their salvation as they read this book. In the midst of our failed attempts at loving Jesus, His grace covers us.

“Each of us has lukewarm elements and practices in our life; therein lies the senseless, extravagant grace of it all. The Scriptures demonstrate clearly that there is room for our failure and sin in our pursuit of God…I’m NOT saying that when you mess up it means you were never really a genuine Christian in the first place. If that were true, no one could follow Christ.”

This statement would not be a problem except that earlier, he declared the following: “To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.”

So then, which is it? Are they Christians, or are they not? How many times does a person need to veer into lukewarmness before we can begin to question their salvation? It is unclear.

Or, perhaps Chan was just being careless with his verbiage. But when one is writing a book–and especially on such an important topic–one ought to go out of their way to be crystal clear about what they are saying so as to avoid any unnecessary confusion. This is an unfortunate oversight that may have some readers scratching their heads.

4. I was troubled by some of the people Chan chose to spotlight as believers who should be emulated. For example, he writes approvingly of a man at his church who “donated his house to the church and moved in with his parents. He told me that he will have a better house in heaven, and that it doesn’t really matter where he lives during this lifetime.”

One wonders how that man’s parents feel about this.

Additionally, Chan highlights Shane Claiborne without mentioning his questionable teachings (see here). Granted, Chan does site some worthy examples for believers to consider as heroes. But citing Claiborne as an example of Christlikeness without examining his teachings shows an appalling lack of discernment.

5. There is not much Scriptural balance to the picture that Chan paints of the ideal Christian life. While he quotes verses about serving the less fortunate, nowhere is any mention made of 1 Timothy 5:16-25, which qualifies diaconal assistance–and even says that it should be denied in some cases.

Neither is there any mention of Galatians 6:10, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” While this verse does not teach that Christians shouldn’t help unbelievers, it does say that there should in some sense be a priority toward our fellow Christians.

Lastly, there is no mention of verses like 1 Thessalonians 4:11, which tell us to “aspire to live quietly, work with your own hands, and tend to your own affairs” (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5). In short, the call here is to live modest and unpretentious lives, work with excellence at our chosen vocations, and tend diligently to our own affairs. Further, it reminds us that rather than doing “something big” for God, Christian growth more typically takes place while doing the same mundane things over and over again: going to church to partake of the means that God has provided for growth, disciplining children–often on the same issue many times over, and working at your job to provide for your family.

These verses provide helpful correctives to Chan’s thesis. It is a pity that he does not mention them, and so not present a more balanced picture of the Christian life.

In Closing

American Christianity does need to be awoken from its slumber. I had heard that Crazy Love might be the book to do that. But while it had its moments–some of which were useful, convicting, and humbling–I have a hard time recommending it for the reasons cited above.

Announcement Time

I am privileged to bring you a big announcement. I have been struggling to hold this in for quite some time, but now I can tell you:

I recently accepted a call to pastor a mission work, Grace OPC, in Fargo, North Dakota. Stella and I were blessed to candidate up there March 19-24. The people were very friendly, made us feel right at home, and they let us know, both in their homes and after my ministry to them on Sunday, that they would be thrilled for us to move up there and for me to be their next pastor.

Stella and I are both of the same mind on this: we cannot wait, and we are looking forward to the opportunity, and for what the Lord has in store for us.

Of course, this is the closing of a chapter in my life. Minus my 22-month sojourn in the Atlanta, Georgia area, Florida has been my home since 1998. I will miss it (everything except the humidity, anyway). It has been a place of growth for me. I came into the state as a young man, and I leave (hopefully) much wiser. I’m not sure when we’ll be back, and we will greatly miss all of our friends here.

At the same time, Stella and I are excited to begin this new chapter in our lives. As you think of it, please be sure to add us to your prayer list. For now, our requests are these:

1. Please pray for the many logistics involved in moving, especially such a long distance.

2. Pray that the families would be receptive to my ministry. Pray that hearts would be opened for the gospel.

3. Pray that people would see the love of the brethren at Grace OPC, and want to be a part of what we are doing–establishing a Reformed church in Fargo, which is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.

4. Pray that we would be able to adjust to a much colder climate. Actually, this prayer is more for me, as Stella grew up in the Philadelphia area, and so is far more familiar with that white stuff that falls from the ground than me.

Thanks in advance for your prayers and friendship.

Johnny Farese’s Homegoing

It is good for me that I have been afflicted, so that I might learn your statutes. -Psalm 119:71

I can think of no one whom this verse would better apply to than Johnny Farese. For those who don’t know, Johnny was born with spinal muscular atrophy, an ailment which massively undermines an individual’s usage of his/her body and muscles (for more, please read here).

For Johnny, this meant that when he was younger he could sit up and get around in a self-operated cart. But for the majority of his life, including the 12 years that I knew him, he was confined to a bed. His body was so badly mangled, it was almost uncomfortable to look at him when you first met him. But any apprehensions you might have had immediately vanished when you got to talk to him and know him, and the special Christian that he was.

Johnny’s Story

Johnny was born in August 1956, being one of seven children in a nominally Roman Catholic family. He was also one of three children afflicted by spinal muscular atrophy, including his older brother Bernie and their sister Tina, who died at the age of three (early death is very common for those with this ailment, as one of the symptoms is a weak immune system).

In Johnny’s young adult years, something happened that dramatically affected his life: his brother Bernie came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Bernie witnessed to and prayed for his family, and gradually some of them also came to faith in Christ, including sister Gina, Johnny, and their younger brother Paul.

Until he came to recognize Christ as Lord, Johnny lived in rebellion. But when he repented of his sins, it was dramatic: he gave up his sinful lifestyle, sought to regularly attend church, and became a devotee of the Bible and good Christian books–most especially the Puritans.

In the early 1990s, Johnny was still living at home. His parents had separated for a time, and so his mother was his sole caretaker. Paul had just gotten married, and he and his young wife, Janis, were visiting. They quickly came to realize how difficult it was for their mother to care for Johnny alone, and so they took him in, barely three months into their own marriage. Not only would they take care of him through his many ups and downs (mostly downs, given the fragility of his health), but two of Paul’s and Janis’ four children would have special needs as well–one with speech problems, while their youngest, daughter Kayla, has Down’s Syndrome.

Through it all, Paul and Janis cared for Johnny and their own children with the help of the pastors and members of Emmanuel Baptist Church. Caring for him was not easy. To give just one example, Johnny could not swallow his own saliva–something which you and I do without thinking about every day. So for many years, someone–usually Janis–would have to go into his room several times a day, take a small tube, place it into his mouth, turn on the machine it was connected to, and it would suck out his saliva. Thankfully, the Fareses were eventually able to find a way for Johnny to do it himself through computer voice activation. But until then, helping Johnny to spit the saliva out of his mouth was just one of the many physical needs he had that needed to be met every day.

All of that said, if anyone ever had an excuse to feel sorry for himself, it was Johnny. But he didn’t. Instead, he was very active in the life of his church. He ran a twice-monthly Bible study using R.C. Sproul’s “Dust to Glory” series, which could feature as many as 20 people gathered in his room. He also mentored several people through their own trials, and he was not afraid to confront those close to him if he feared that they might be straying into sin. I should know, because there were a few times where he confronted me; never in anger, but always firmly and in love.

Meeting Johnny

I met Johnny for the first time in 2002 when I began to attend Emmanuel Baptist Church (I was a Reformed Baptist at the time). He was in his portable bed at church, and because of all of the people around, I had to strain a little bit to hear what he was saying. But he invited me to his Bible study, and it was there that our friendship began. I would attend his Bible study, and often visited him on Saturdays, where we would talk about our many shared interests: the Bible, the Puritans, and baseball (since he was from Boston, he was an avid Red Sox fan).

Early on, I would go to see him, thinking that a visit might somehow brighten his day. I’m not sure what affect I had on him, but I always left thinking that I had been blessed rather than him. He was a true friend and brother in the Lord who always knew what to say, and whose speech was saturated in Scripture. He was also the living personification of Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” When you were simultaneously confronted with his physical condition, his Christlike humility, and his personal accomplishments, you could not help but be personally convicted by the shallowness of your own complaints and the lack of your commitment to Christ. Without him saying a single word of rebuke, he helped me numerous times to keep my spiritual bearings, and (to borrow from William Carey) attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.

Johnny on TV

In 2005, I was working at Coral Ridge Ministries as a radio producer, and progressing through seminary. I had told my boss, Chuck Burge, about Johnny from time to time. One day, Chuck said to me, “Why don’t you go tell our TV department about Johnny? They might do a feature on him.”

And so I went and spoke to our ministry TV show’s executive producer about it. I didn’t hear anything for a while, but a few months later, I got a phone call from the conference room, where the TV production team was brainstorming ideas for future programs. They asked me about Johnny, and I told them his life story and how his brother and sister-in-law took such good care of him and their own special-needs children as well. They then sent a TV producer and film crew to their house in Boca Raton, and about two months later, the following feature was aired nationally on The Coral Ridge Hour.

In his interview, Johnny spoke of the sanctity of human life, and how God caused this to happen to him. He said in part, “I reject the notion that God allowed this to happen to me. No. God caused this to happen to me for His own glory. I don’t know why, but when I get to Heaven, I’ll ask Him.”

I later asked him what reaction he got from his TV appearance. He told me that dozens of women had contacted him who had gotten abortions because they learned that the child they were carrying might have birth defects. After seeing Johnny, they were so ashamed, and they told him so. Johnny wrote them all back (through voice activation) to let them know that God is forgiving, and how He loved us by sending His own beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins. This was a tremendous example of God’s power being manifested through the weakest of vessels.

Johnny had also previously appeared on Cross TV, where he spoke with great knowledge and insight on the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. He demonstrated himself to be a strong student of the Scriptures, and as one who paid great attention to the preaching of Pastors Robert Fisher, William Hughes, and Robert Diekema, whom he sat under.

Saying Goodbye

Looking back, I see in hindsight that I said goodbye to Johnny in stages. The first stage was when I told him that I had embraced paedobaptism (the practice of baptizing infants); being a Reformed Baptist, Johnny strongly opposed this. I was nervous about telling him. But while he was sad, he could not have been more gracious. Even after this, I remained in contact with him, and for a time continued to help him lead his Bible studies.

In 2007, I met Stella, whom I would eventually marry. I made sure to take her to Johnny’s on her first visit to Florida to see me, which she enjoyed very much. A year later, we were married. In June 2008, Stella and I left for Atlanta, where I was to serve a one-year pastoral internship. I met together with Johnny one last time. We talked, reflecting on the Scriptures and the fact that his beloved Red Sox had just one their second World Series in four years. Deep down, I wondered if that would be the last time I saw him.

Thankfully, it wasn’t.

In 2010, I was called to serve as pastor of Faith Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ocala, Florida. While it was nearly 300 miles from his home, I still had the chance to visit him from time to time. But as I was beginning my first pastorate, he gave me a wonderful gift: he designed our church website (he had taught himself HTML by voice activation), and maintained it free of charge for nearly two years!

In 2012, he wrote to me that his health was taking a turn for the worse, and that he could no longer maintain our website. I told him I understood, and thanked him for his generous help to me and to our church.

In spite of Johnny’s declining health, he continued to hang in there. I visited him in 2013 for what I honestly thought would be the last time. The visit just seemed to have a sort of finality to it as we talked and prayed together.

But I got to see him one more time. In January 2014, Stella and I were in the area; I filled the pulpit of a PCA church the night before. When we came into his room, we noticed that he had lost a lot of weight, and he looked much weaker than any other time I had seen him. His nurse said that he really couldn’t talk anymore, so I would have to do all the talking. So the first thing I said was, “Johnny, I have four words for you: World Champion Red Sox!” (They had just won the World Series in October 2013.) His face immediately lit up.

I then told him about what we were going through–especially about how the church in Ocala, my first call as a pastor, had just closed. He looked sad, and I knew that if he could speak, he would have said, “I’m sorry, Greg.” But I told him that we would be okay, and that I knew the Lord would take care of us. He seemed to like that.

Even though he couldn’t talk with his mouth, he spoke with his eyes. I asked him if he had heard from certain people, and his eyes would quickly move up and down for “yes.” I inquired as to whether certain men whom he had mentored still kept in touch with him. He sadly moved his eyes sideways for “no.” When we finished catching up, I prayed for him. Johnny obviously couldn’t pray for me (at least audibly), and I missed that. He prayed the most beautiful prayers. In his raspy voice, he always communicated a deep love for God, an appreciation for His holiness, a reliance upon His grace. Johnny truly held the gift of prayer in high regard.

As we were about to leave, Johnny motioned towards his nurse. She asked him if he wanted to say something. He nodded with his eyes. She then put her finger on a tube on his neck, and I could barely hear him say, “Thank you for visiting.” I will always be thankful that I got to hear him say that, and that the Lord so graciously gave me several “last” visits with him.

Johnny’s Passing

This last Sunday night (March 10), Stella and I were traveling back from visiting a church in Mobile, Alabama when I got the news: Frank Pontillo, a longtime friend and brother in Christ to both me and Johnny, called me to inform me of Johnny’s passing. Johnny had died peacefully in his sleep at 2:30 pm.

I was sad to hear the news. I will miss my friend. I did not get to tell him that I will soon be candidating at another church, and I won’t get to introduce him to the children that, Lord willing, Stella and I will one day have.

Even still, I was also happy to receive this news: I know, that as Paul said, that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” and that it is “far better” to be with Christ. Johnny had fought the good fight, finished his race, and kept the faith, and he now has a crown waiting for him.

I know the Scripture teaches that Johnny’s body will rest in the grave until Christ’s triumphant return and that his soul is with the Lord. Even still, it is tempting to think that he is now dancing in God’s presence, free from all of his physical pain, and that he has met other Christians near and dear to us who have already passed on, including my own brother. Johnny has passed from this life, but he has begun his time in eternity.

Those who knew Johnny should be comforted by the fact that we will see him again. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul speaks of what will happen at Christ’s return: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”

What a great reunion that will be! Then, we will see Johnny again. Only, this time it will be much better. But even better than that, we will see Christ.

I’m already looking forward to it! Until then, I won’t be saying “Goodbye forever” to my friend. Instead, I’ll say, “So long for now, Johnny. I’ll see you in the clouds.”

Book Review: Through Western Eyes by Robert Letham

Imagine two English-speaking groups that are completely isolated from each other. After 1,000 years of separation, they are finally able to establish contact. Following such a significant period, chances are their customs and usage of language would be significantly different; so much so that there would be a great deal of disagreement on vital issues, an over-reliance upon cultural assumptions when dialoging, and a lot of talking past each other.

In some ways, this is a helpful analogy to describe Reformed relations with the Eastern Orthodox (EO) Church: because of our separation from them for many centuries, we and they have had different emphases, histories, and assumptions that have led to different conclusions about what comprises the Christian faith, and what does not. 

For instance, while Protestants look at the EO’s heavy emphasis on tradition with a jaundiced eye, EO adherents can be all too quick to write Protestants off as a schism of a schism: the Roman Catholic and EO Churches separated in 1054, and the Protestant Reformation began when the Reformers left the Catholic Church nearly 500 years later. It is for this reason that the above analogy is helpful in discussing the relationships between the two bodies: they both claim the name of Christ but until recently, there have been very few points of contact.  

But while helpful, this analogy is by no means perfect. While there are greater misunderstandings between the Reformed and EO churches than there probably should be, it is also true that there are unbridgeable differences between the two. 

Robert Letham helps his readers to navigate these areas in his book, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy, A Reformed Perspective. He displays the areas of agreement in part one, where he focuses on the seven ancient Ecumenical Councils of the Church (Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc.) where doctrinal disputes about the person, character, and work of Christ were resolved. It is a helpful reminder of the truths that we have in common, and of the debt that the West owes the East.

Letham also shows his readers that the EO and Reformed churches are surprisingly in closer agreement with each other than to Rome on questions of church polity and justification by faith–although lack of clarity and differing emphases on the doctrine of salvation will continue to divide the two camps on the latter topic. 

Especially helpful is his section on iconography, which is likely the most controversial issue that separates East from West. Letham takes the time to outline the history and the nuanced theological arguments behind it, and why it is so integral to EO faith and practice. In short, while Reformed churches are right to not use icons in worship, it will take a lot more than simply declaring that they are violations of the Second Commandment to persuade EO adherents. 

Also of great importance are the chapters on Scripture and Tradition, Church and Sacraments, the Trinity, and Salvation. 

In the second-to-last chapter, Letham provides a helpful summary on the areas of agreement (and it bears repeating there are more than initially meets the eye), legitimate disagreement (especially the EO’s highly synergistic view of salvation), misunderstanding (the EO’s failure to understand God’s sovereignty in salvation), and where to go from here. 

In closing, it has been said that if one truly wishes to be honorable in debates, they must be able to state their opponent’s position in such a way that the opponent would wish they had written it themselves. It is clear that Letham has done this, as Through Western Eyes is no polemic; rather, it is a scholarly yet very accessible volume that strives to be fair, and admonishes both sides when they have not accurately represented each other’s views.

But at the same time, neither is Letham a pushover; while he advocates further discussion with the EO Church, he also states that “[T]he existence of basic disagreements…requires caution and forbids compromise. The great truths rediscovered at the Reformation cannot be bartered away. It is incumbent on the Reformed to demonstrate that these are entailments of the classic creeds and ecumenical councils.”

For these reasons, I highly recommend Through Western Eyes to anyone who wants to gain a careful and nuanced understanding of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Are New Year’s Resolutions Sinful?

The New Year is upon us! If you’re like me, you are anticipating greater things in 2014, and perhaps a fresh start.

Whatever your plans for the new year may be, are you considering new year’s resolutions? Many  people do them, although some consider it wrong for Christians to participate in this practice. But is it?

My conclusion is that while they are not sinful, one must be careful in how to carry them out. I say that new year’s resolutions are not sinful because they fall into the category of Christian liberty. For our purposes, this is the teaching that if the Bible is silent or not altogether clear on a particular practice, then the Christian is free to pursue it so long as it does not cause himself or someone else to fall into sin. Such is the case with new year’s resolutions.

On the other hand, one must be careful in how to carry them out. This is because a resolution is defined as a promise to oneself do or not to do something. James, the earthly brother of our Lord, commanded us to “let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (James 5:12).

This speaks directly to the sanctity of truth, which ought to be paramount for the Christian. In this regard, the Ninth Commandment declares that we shall not bear false witness. To break this command is to intentionally twist or misconstrue the truth. Therefore, to make and then break a new year’s resolution is to violate this Commandment.

In short, if a Christian wants to make a new year’s resolution, he or she is free to do so. But once it is made, it must be kept. For that reason, I would advise setting goals rather than making specific resolutions.

In such situations, it is always good to heed the wise words from the writer of Ecclesiastes: “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.”

Things Christians Struggle With, Part 5: Worldliness

What is one of the easiest ways to cast aspersions on a fellow Christian?

While other Christians different experiences will lead them to any number of answers, one of the charges which I have commonly witnessed the most is getting labeled as “worldly.” The online Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “relating to or consisting of physical things or ordinary life rather than spiritual things.”

That seems harmless enough. But in Christian circles, being defined as “worldly” has many negative connotations: it denotes selfishness, greed, covetousness, and by extension a lack of trust and love for Christ. In short, it’s not a leap to suggest that declaring a fellow Christian to be “worldly” is to question their level of commitment to Christ, and even whether they actually possess saving faith.

Therefore, since the charge is so scurrilous, it behooves us to ask the question: what, exactly, is worldliness?

To answer the question, let us examine one of the most explicit biblical texts on this subject, 1 John 2:15-17:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

In reading this passage, all would agree that worldliness is a bad thing. However, if you were to sit down with three different Christians and ask them to define worldliness, you would probably get three different answers. So to ascertain what the Apostle John is saying, let us first determine what does not constitute worldliness, and then what does. Lastly, we will examine why John addresses this topic (and in the case of full disclosure, much of what you are about to read–though certainly not all–is adapted from a sermon I once preached on this text).

What John is Not Saying

Since this is a very strong statement that John is making, it behooves us to approach this text with humility about our own lifestyles, rather than immediately jumping to conclusions about others. I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I would wager that every person reading this has pointed an accusatory finger at someone else, and called them “worldly.” I would also wager that somebody at some time has also said the same thing about you, even if you were totally unaware of it!

So then, what does John not mean when he says we should “not love the world”? To begin with, he is not necessarily talking about the world itself. This is important because in his writings, John makes many references to the world. The best known, of course, is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The context has to do with God sending His Son to die for all kinds of people, all over the world, to atone for their sins. In short, because the world is so sinful, God would have to be incredibly loving to do such a thing; and that’s exactly the point. John 3:16 is not a statement about how large the world is; rather, it’s a very telling statement about God’s character. Furthermore, God created the world, and after all but one of the six days of creation, He declared that it was “very good.”

For the sake of this discussion, then, John is not saying that we should hate the world and everything in it without qualification. Neither is he saying that we shouldn’t love sinners in the world. After all, Jesus also told us in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies, do good to them, and pray for them.

He also called us “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” This refers to the light of the gospel, which is how God brings about true and lasting change. So we as Christians are not called to cloister ourselves off from the rest of the world.

Nor is John saying that we should embrace man-made regulations as a path to cleanse ourselves from worldliness. Paul speaks directly to this in 1 Timothy 4 when he warns of those “who forbid marriage and require abstinence from food that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.”

So often in our efforts to protect others from sin, we go too far by adding such man-made rules. But as this First Timothy passage makes clear, God’s Word will not allow us to go that far. This is legalism, and it deprives Christians of enjoying liberties which the Bible does not forbid.

Nor is John saying that it’s wrong to have lots of money. Again in 1 Timothy, Paul states, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.  They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19).

Granted, there is much that could be said about Christians and wealth–some of which I discussed in part 3 of this series. But for the sake of the present discussion, notice that Paul does not tell the rich to give up all of their money. Rather, because they have money, they have greater opportunities (even responsibilities) to further the Kingdom of God and care for the poor that other Christians do not have; hence, their financial generosity should be a high priority for them.

One of the most wonderful examples of this from church history was an English lady named Selina, Countess of Huntington. She lived during the 18th century, and at an early age she inherited a large fortune. A previous pastor told me that after adjusting for inflation, she had roughly the same amount of wealth that Oprah Winfrey does today. But because Selina was a Christian, she sought to use her money to build up the Church. And so, she personally funded the building of dozens of chapels, several of John Wesley’s and later George Whitfield’s evangelistic trips to North America, and a seminary. She also helped the poor with great generosity. Since much of her wealth was tied up in property, Selina often sold her most expensive pieces of jewelry to pay for these things.

God has certainly used many Christians of means throughout the centuries to further His cause. But returning to the main point at hand, when the Apostle John tells us not to love the world, he is not necessarily talking about money. That’s because money, in and of itself, is not the problem; rather, it’s the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil.

Therefore, it is wrong for Christians to judge each other on account of how much money they have, or if they have a nice house, couch, or car. It could simply be that that’s their way of providing for their family. Also, people need cars and houses and furniture and various forms of modern technology, and quite frankly, you get what you pay for: if someone spends extra money for a nicer car and they have the means to do it, that probably means they are planning on keeping it for a number of years. In fact, not only is it wrong to judge someone who has something nicer than you do, but the fact that you are judging could very well be a sign that you are coveting their possessions, which is a violation of the Tenth Commandment.

At any rate, this is what John does not mean when he tells us not to love the world: he is not speaking of the world as a whole, he is not telling his readers to hate unbelievers, and he is not necessarily speaking of money and worldly possessions.

What John Is Saying

This is where it’s always important to see the context of verses like 1 John 2:15 that needlessly cause so much controversy. That’s because nearby verses invariably provide reasonable explanations. That is true in this case, as the next verse says, “For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world.”

Here, John presents three ways on how it is wrong to love the world. They are very closely related, and in some ways they overlap. What is also clear is that it’s not objects in and of themselves that denotes worldliness; rather, it’s the motive of the person’s heart.

First, John mentions the “desires of the flesh.” According to one commentator, this word for “desire” appears 38 times in the NT, and all but three of those uses are negative. This is why some translations render it “cravings,” or “lusts.” But here’s the key: every person reading this, regardless of how sanctified they might be, has a craving for something. Of necessity, our desires must have an object. The question is, where are those cravings and desires directed: to the things of God, or to the things of this world?

It is the desires of the world that we are to avoid. Paul catalogs them in Galatians 5:20-21: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.”

Second, John mentions is “the desires of the eyes.” These desires are things that you see, desire to have, but (by implication) should not have. It’s looking at something, know that it is contrary to God’s will, and striving to get it anyway.

The “desires of the eyes” come in many different forms: it can be a hot new sports car, a desire for greater power or prestige, or the like. For instance, let’s say your job requires you to work in a cubicle. Suppose a higher position becomes vacant, and you apply for it right away. Getting this position would mean a promotion that includes a nice corner office, a personal secretary, and a big pay raise. There is nothing inherently wrong with going for the promotion, so long as it is done with a right motive: better caring for your family, now having more money to pay the bills, set aside for retirement, and above all, glorifying God and being thankful to Him when you get the promotion. But if you’re just after the fringe benefits in and of themselves, it’s then that you are guilty of coveting the “desires of the eyes.”

It could also come when you desire someone sexually who is physically attractive but is not your spouse. The Proverbs strongly warn against this.

This is the prime example of what John is talking about when he mentions “desires of the eyes”: they look enticing, but they lead to death. It is why C.S. Lewis called temptations like these “the sweet poison of the false infinite.”

Lewis had a way with words, didn’t he? Think about that for a minute: a “sweet poison” is the worst kind because it tastes wonderful, but since it’s poisonous, it will kill you. A “false infinite” is something that claims to continue in perpetuity, but does not. In other words, it’s a lie.

Therefore, if you ever find yourself in a situation of worldly temptation like this, you have only one option: run! Why? Because the momentary pleasure is based upon a lie, it will not last, and even if you are a Christian and God will forgive you, you must still live with the consequences of your sin, which can be very painful.

Third, John mentions “pride in possessions.” Recall from what I said earlier about how it is wrong to judge others according to their houses, cars, and furniture. That’s because you don’t know their motivation for getting it; again, everybody needs houses and cars and furniture, and they might pay more to get better quality because it makes better financial sense for them in the long run.

But there is a flip side that should not be ignored: America is the land of plenty, and if you have a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in at night, clothing, and hot food, then you are already better off than the vast majority of the world’s population. And yet, how many of us have succumbed to advertisements for things we either don’t need or have no lasting value? When we do this, we have succumbed to worldliness.

To be clear, it’s not wrong to own possessions per se. That said, the key question remains, why do you want to own a particular item? Because it will impress your friends? Because it makes you feel good about yourself? Because it gives you a feeling of personal fulfillment?

On the one hand, it would be wrong to deny anyone’s liberties as a believer. But on the other hand, we should recall Paul’s poignant statement that “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable.” This is because the single most important question a Christian should be asking himself when he is about to make an important decision is, “Does what I am about to do glorify God?

Glorifying God

Perhaps you might be wondering: “What does it mean to ‘glorify God’? I hear it all the time, but what does it mean?” Here is my answer: glorifying God is doing something that you know is pleasing to Him. Hence, it reflects well upon Him, you carry the task out with no thought to yourself, and often at the expense of your personal wants and desires.

For example, one of the most godly people I’ve ever met was a man at a previous church. When I knew him, he had a good job, a nice house, and a decent car. While he wasn’t rich, my friend perhaps could have gotten a flashy new sports car if that had been his heart’s desire.

Meanwhile, there were three men who liked to come to this church, but they couldn’t get there on their own: one was legally blind, one was wheelchair-bound, and one had mental problems so he basically behaved like a very innocent child with no street-smarts; hence, he could easily be taken advantage of.

At any rate, here were three men who wanted to come to church that did not have the means to get there on their own. So what did my friend do? He sold his car and he bought a large used van just so those three men could come worship, and hear the Word of God preached. Instead of thinking that this was somebody else’s problem, and without anyone at the church even asking him, he did that because he knew what those men needed. What a wonderful example of loving God instead of the world!

God may or may not call you to do something of that magnitude. He may not call you to adopt a special-needs child from a foreign country, like a pastor friend of mine did. Even still, these are people who seek to glorify God, which again is doing something that we know is pleasing to Him and so reflects well upon Him that you carry out with no thought to yourself, and often at the expense of your personal wants and desires.

That’s a major reason why we should not love the world: in the context of this passage, the world is sinful, and it is at odds with God. And this leads to the final point…

Why John Says What He Says

John writes in verse 17, “And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

To clarify, this verse is not teaching how to gain eternal life. But it is telling us about the future state of the world and Christians. The world is passing away, John says. He already said in 2:8 that the darkness is passing away as the true light of Jesus Christ shines. That’s because of what Christ did on the cross for you and me. This world in its sin will not last. It will one day come to an end, and whereas the first judgment came by water via the Great Flood, 2 Peter makes it very clear that the next judgment will be by fire.

Therefore, when you die, you cannot take the enticements of the world with you. This reality begs the question: why would you even want to continue chasing after the world’s enticements?

Instead, why not pursue the things of God? Imagine ways that you might seek to glorify Him. Tell others about Jesus Christ. Seek opportunities to serve others in your local church. As another pastor put it, doing these things will only strengthen your local body of Christ: “The more you love God the more your neighbor will profit from your life. The more you love God the more the church will gain strength from you being a part of her.”

As a Christian, your goal in life is to glorify God. And it’s worth noting that this does not mean you can’t have fun while you’re doing it. For instance, the people real-life examples cited earlier have experienced great joy through their sacrifices, even while they are difficult. You can also do so while spending time with your church family.

If you are indeed satisfied in pursuing our God and glorifying Him, then you have a wonderful future ahead of you. As the last part of verse 17 says, “but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

As one who has repented and been forgiven of your sins in account of Christ, you will be with the Triune God forever. That is your great reward as a Christian. Does that not move you? Does that not stir up your heart, to know that you will one day be free from all of the setbacks, disappointments, and trials of this life?

And while there are many good things in this life to be happy about, the blessings of Heaven will dwarf them. One of the most important ways you prepare for Heaven is by glorifying God now: by worshiping, serving, and loving others on account of Christ with a glad heart, and not being enticed by the things of this world.