Archive for ‘Books’


Calvin’s Company of Pastors

I gather monthly with a group of like-minded pastors for fellowship and to discuss pastoral ministry.


Lately we’ve been reading together Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford UP, 2013).  This is from the Epilogue:


The task of the historian is not simply that of an antiquarian who dusts off ancient artifacts that are roped off from the general public with a sign reading ‘do not touch.’  The study of religious history invites, even compels, us to investigate the past with an eye toward the present, to explore the foreignness of history with the expectation that ‘cultural immersion’ of this sort will not only expand our knowledge of peoples and events but also enrich our experience by providing needed perspective, timely wisdom, apt warnings, and precious glimpses into the failings, the beauty, and the sheer complexity of the human condition.

Manetsch then provides four final observations and insights for pastoral life today gleaned from its practice back then.

(1) “The vocation of Christian ministry is a difficult one.”   “Pastoral effectiveness in Geneva required courage, a clear sense of vocation, thick skin, a generous dose of humility, and solid Christian faith.”

(2) “The importance of accountability and collegiality in pastoral work.”  “Contemporary Protestantism, with its infatuation for robust individualism, celebrity preachers, and ministry empires, has much to learn from the example of Geneva’s church.”

(3) “The leading role that the Scriptures played in Calvin’s Reformation, suggesting the central importance of God’s Word for Christian renewal in our own day.”

(4) “The ministry of pastoral care.”  “In our modern world where men and women so often struggle with spiritual dislocation, fractured relationships, and deep-seated loneliness, Calvin’s vision for pastoral oversight that includes gospel proclamation and intense relational ministry appears especially relevant and important.”


Helping Without Hurting


Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert with Katie Casselberry, Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015), 154 pages.


Whether your ministry setting is urban, suburban, or rural, you’ll inevitably encounter people stuck in poverty. How does your church lovingly engage with those who, for a variety of reasons, have little to no income and approach the church for help? Ignoring the issue and being an insulated middle-class clique is easy, but it’s not an option for those who profess to believe in the gospel of grace. At the same time, throwing money at people is really a way to keep them at a distance and therefore to only love ourselves.




Several years ago, I read what’s since become a modern classic on poverty intervention: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Afterward, I thought, “I wish our church could do more to truly help those in financial need among us.” I also realized, however, that this was not my primary calling as a pastor (cf. Acts 6:1–7). I simply started praying that God might raise up the right people in our body who could take some of the ideas found in When Helping Hurts and run with them.


Recently, God has answered those prayers. We now have a small team of church members working through how we can genuinely love our brothers, sisters, and neighbors who find themselves in poverty. And thankfully, Corbett and Fikkert have written a short follow-up book that functions as the perfect guide for any church seeking to implement a wise approach to what has been called benevolence, diaconal work, mercy ministry, or compassion ministry. The book is titled Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People.




The authors begin with a theological definition of poverty that includes more than just material need. We’re all poor in the sense that we have experienced brokenness in our relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. The ultimate hope of salvation is only found in the reconciling work of Christ. Sanctification is a messy, life-long process for all believers as we are restored to God’s design for us as image-bearers. Framing the issue this way prevents poverty alleviation from becoming a prideful attempt at “playing god.” The materially poor and the materially non-poor are both broken and need each other.


When poverty is defined exclusively as a lack of money, then we try to fix it with handouts, which ends up doing spiritual damage to everyone involved. Think of churches that give away hundreds of backpacks to impoverished school kids while taking pictures for their newsletter. This is not helping anyone in the long-term. We need to move away from paternalistic practices that promote dependency and demean objects of “charity” and instead encourage empowering relationships that aim for long-term, positive change.


Therefore, it is important to distinguish relief from rehabilitation and development. Relief is “stopping the bleeding.” There are times when people need immediate material assistance in the face of a crisis. However, Corbett and Fikkert demonstrate that “one of the most common and detrimental mistakes that North American churches make in their benevolence work is using a relief approach when the situation calls for development.” Development means doing things with others, not to them or for them—and it fits very nicely with discipleship.  Any serious engagement with those in poverty will require entering into relationships that address the root causes and not just the symptoms.




There are many avenues and arenas for engaging the issue of poverty, and certainly not every local church is required or recommended to have a formal, structured benevolence program.  But for those who decide to go this route, this book will walk you through all the steps to get started.


First, the book will help you create a Benevolence Philosophy and Policies document that your church can unify around. Corbett and Fikkert provide a list of 19 questions that need to be answered in such a document and they comment on each one.


Then they offer detailed guidance on how to create an Intake Form. The authors suggest most people approaching the church for financial assistance should work through this form with a member of the benevolence team.


Next, the book explains the essential elements of an Action Plan. Here the key is making sure the person in poverty is put in the driver’s seat and those from the benevolence team are seen as allies or champions in an asset-based, participatory process.


The book also provides creative ideas and links to online tools. There are helpful suggestions for recruiting and training volunteers for a benevolence ministry, creating a Community Resource Directory so you know what social services are already available around you, and coordinating this ministry with other aspects of the church.


A great strength of the book is that it assumes a healthy ecclesiology. The “ordinary ministry” of the church—preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, accountability, discipline, prayer—is not undermined but explicitly encouraged and honored throughout. The gospel is clearly defined and the need for it to be verbalized in benevolence work is underscored. Sin and the need for personal responsibility never gets minimized, yet there is helpful awareness-raising information on contributing external factors like trauma and institutional racism. Poverty is complex and thus requires addressing individual behaviors, abusive or exploitive people, oppressive systems, and demonic forces.


The last chapter offers test cases to help the reader see what this approach would look like in different scenarios when people approach the church for money. Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but biblical wisdom and dependence on the Holy Spirit’s guidance is required. Corbett and Fikkert want us to be informed but not paralyzed. They give great advice: start small, start fast, and succeed!




Our church is located in a gentrifying center-city neighborhood that is anchored by a university and has an abundance of expensive lofts, condos, and townhomes populated by professionals. And yet, immediately surrounding our building there are government subsidized housing projects that are not going anywhere. We want to be a church for everyone here—a compelling community that primarily has Christ in common, not socio-economic class. For this to happen, we felt we needed a benevolence ministry that is biblical and informed by best practices. This little book will be an indispensable resource for us and I am sure many other churches.


Fresh Dose of David Wells

I first read David Well’s No Place for Truth back in the late 90s.  I praise God for leading me to good books in my formative years!  Every few years I need to get a fresh dose of David Wells and thankfully every few years he publishes a new book in this same vein.  Right now I’m reading the latest – God in the Whirlwind (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014).

There are, in fact, gut-wrenching changes taking place in our Western societies.  Our world is being shaken to its very foundations.  Instead of offering great thoughts about God, the meaning of reality, and the gospel, there are evangelical churches that are offering only little therapeutic nostrums that are sweet but mostly worthless.  One even wonders whether some current churchgoers might even be resistant were they to encounter a Christianity that is deep, costly, and demanding.

That is why we must come back to our first principles.  And the most basic of these is the fact that God is there and that he is objective to us.  He is not there to conform to us; we must conform to him.  He summons us from outside of ourselves to know him.  We do not go inside of ourselves to find him.  We are summoned to know him only on his terms.  He is not known on our terms.  This summons is heard in and through his Word.  It is not heard through our intuitions.

These are our most basic principles because they deal with our most basic issues and our most basic calling.  That calling is to know God as he has made himself known and in the ways that he has prescribed.  We are to hear this call within the framework he has established.  He is not there at our convenience, or simply for our healing, or simply as the Divine Teller handing out stuff from his big bank.  No, we are here for his service.  We are here to know him as he is and not as we want him to be.  The local church is the place where we should be learning about this, and God’s Word is the means by which we can do so.


Great Awe

In the evenings presently our family is reading Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows.  Grahame plays on the strings of the soul with the pick of his poetic prose.  So far, it seems to be a story that shows the folly of wanderlust and the joys that can be found by staying put.  His talking animals arouse similar feelings in me that Wendell Berry’s talking ancestors of Port William do.

I read the description of Rat and Mole’s encounter with the demi-god Pan playing his pipes at dawn and wondered if it can be seen as an echo of the true experience we can have in God’s presence.

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, and awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground.  It was no panic terror – indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy – but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.  With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently.


‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking.  ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love.  ‘Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never!  And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid!’

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

You can definitely see here Grahame’s influence on C.S. Lewis and his talking animals!


A Comment on Commentaries

It’s rare to find a biblical commentary that is well-written and engaging.  It’s even more rare to find one that uses poetic, imaginative language.  I’ve been enjoying Ronald B. Allen’s commentary on Numbers in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.  Check out this comment on Numbers 11:31-34 –


The scene must have been similar to a riot: people screaming, birds flapping their wings, everywhere the pell-mell movement of a meat-hungry people in a sea of birds.  Dare we picture people ripping at the birds, eating flesh before cooking it, bestial in behavior?  They must have been like a sugar-crazed boy in a child’s daydream, afloat on a chocolate sandwich cookie raft in a sea of chocolate syrup, nibbling at the cookie before drowning in the dark, sweet sea.

(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 795.


Book Review: The Wisdom of Stability


Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2010), 164 pages.

Review by Pastor Nathan, January 2014

I once heard Mark Dever point out in passing that Americans descend from the ones who didn’t stay. It’s true: we are a relatively new nation, populated by immigrants. “Consider the interesting gene pool that’s created,” Dever remarked.

Whether it’s genetic or not, there is no doubt that staying put is well nigh un-American. Most American stories involve growing up and moving on. I’ve been reading the Little House on the Prairie series with my daughters and can’t help noticing this pioneer itch to go west, to escape the constraints of civilization.

Today we assume this narrative and take an almost migratory existence for granted. It’s the air we breathe. That is how a culture works. In The Wisdom of Stability Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove helps us see that our air is polluted. That is what a prophet does.

This book defines the odor I have been sniffing and wondering if anyone else was noticing. I am a product of that “culture where success means moving up and out” (46). But God’s providence has superintended my life and led me to pastor an urban church which I am seeking to lead to be a steady gospel presence in a particular place. This book’s theme is one that has become central to my heart and an unshakeable conviction.

I realize, however, that we’re up against mega-forces, what Wilson-Hartgrove describes as “the placelessness that drives ambitious young students to see this university town as a stop on their way to somewhere else” (46). He calls the alternative ‘stability’ and explains that “stability challenges us to question the assumptions of a hypermobile culture” (51). It means “unlearning the habits of a culture that tells us the answer to our problems is always somewhere else” (40). Not just our culture but our economy is stacked against stability. Being rooted in a place with other people is both countercultural and practically difficult. Nevertheless, Wilson-Hartgrove commends stability and makes a compelling case for it.

The Introduction begins with these words:

This is a book about staying put and paying attention. In a culture that is characterized by unprecedented mobility and speed, I am convinced that the most important thing most of us can do to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are (1).

Wilson-Hartgrove is upfront with his intentions in writing this book:

I hope to reprogram your default setting. As participants in a mobile culture, our default is to move. God embraces our broken world, and I have no doubt that God can use our movement for good. But I am convinced that we lose something essential to our existence as creatures if we do not recognize our fundamental need for stability. Trees can be transplanted, often with magnificent results. But their default is to stay (5).

I agree. Epic characters like Abraham get a lot of attention in the Bible, which can cause us to think we must uproot and go somewhere else as the quintessential display of piety. But we must keep in mind that God’s goal with Abraham was to establish a people in a place where generations would enjoy and obey God, each man under his own vine and fig tree in his ancestral allotment. Even in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul’s missionary expeditions are recounted, the purpose was to establish healthy, local, self-governing churches in each city that could continue the task of evangelizing their own locale. He writes to the new Christians in one of these churches – “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands” (1Thess. 4:11). This is not what we usually think of when we hear ‘ambition’. We mustn’t confuse God’s will with our wanderlust.

While there are many factors that militate against the church that I serve being this kind of stalwart kingdom outpost, I truly believe that the city can be well-suited to stability. I resonate with the sentiment expressed by a man named Brian on page 65 who was frustrated by “the constant commute from home to work to school to church to shopping centers to playgrounds to home again. ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do everything in one place?’” Yes! This is the genius of a walkable, mixed-use urban neighborhood, as opposed to a suburban one.

However, our urban neighborhoods are often revolving doors. People are community-starved, yet the ethos of transience prevents us from truly experiencing the fellowship we were created for. ‘Hugging the parade’, as some have called it, is often the best we can do, but it is an anemic version of the New Testament’s vision of love within the body. As Wilson-Hartgrove says, “Stability demands that we do the long, hard work of life with other people in the place where we are” (21). He tells the story of a man named Will who moved with his family to be part of a church that took community seriously. After a year “he wasn’t sure that he was experiencing the community he had expected. Frankly, Will had hoped for more. The pastor listened to his misgivings, then asked how long Will and his family had been there. ‘About a year,’ he replied. ‘Then I guess you’ve got about a year’s worth of community,’ his pastor said matter-of-factly. ‘Stay another year and you’ll have two years’ worth. Stay thirty and you might find some of what you’re looking for” (19). Who thinks that way?!

Even for those who have recognized the virtue of stability, staying put is hard. Stability is not just a romantic ideal. It calls for plodding (sometime slogging) through commitments with patience and endurance. Like a marathon runner who ‘hits the wall’, when we’re seeking to practice stability we will inevitably become tired, disillusioned, and tempted to believe that what we need is a change of scenery. This has been experienced before and there’s a name for it – acedia. It is what the desert monks referred to as “the ‘noonday devil’ who attacks after one commits to stay and begins to feel the heat of high noon” (108). It is helpful to be aware of this common interior obstacle we will meet along our journey to stay put.

Wilson-Hartgrove is careful to point out that we are staying put to get somewhere. Stability is part of our individual and communal sanctification, but it is also part of our mission. Even though “our mobile world mocks stability’s tactic of changing the world by rooting ourselves in the ground beneath our feet and in the God who walked among us” (134), this is what the world needs. James Davison Hunter calls it ‘faithful presence’. I think it’s also an effective evangelism strategy.

“This is not to say that the mission of God never calls people to go elsewhere,” Wilson-Hartgrove is quick to acknowledge. “For all of Jesus’ attention to the local scene in Galilee, it is clear from the Gospel accounts that he meant for his disciples to get out with the message about God’s kingdom, even to the ‘uttermost part of the earth’” (140). But as Gerald Schlabach wisely notes – “We should expect authentic stability to nurture the virtues that allow Christians to become mobile in the best of ways – ready to hear the Abrahamic call” (140).

Like any good thing, stability can just as easily become an idol. “If we embrace stability as a countercultural virtue and persevere in the practice of it for even a few years, we may hear vainglory whisper, ‘Don’t give up; people will notice soon’” (123). This is a needed warning. Yet as a general rule, Wilson-Hartgrove is right – “Maybe the single most important thing we can do if we want to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are” (39).

These are some of the reasons why I greatly appreciated this book. Now here is why The Wisdom of Stability is not exactly the book I’ve been looking for and why I cannot recommend it to everyone. Wilson-Hartgrove is one of the leading voices in a movement called ‘New Monasticism’ that offers many helpful critiques and laudable practices, but also contains many dangers. The monastic rule – “In whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it” – is a good one. But monastic spirituality is confused at best and in many ways detrimental.

At times Wilson-Hartgrove gets close to grounding the call for stability in the grace of the gospel, but it was not explicit or well developed. More often he spoke in ways that contradict the gospel, saying things like: “…if we want to ascend to life with God…” (42); “…if we want our very being to rise up into God’s being…” (51), or “…the commitment to climb Jacob’s ladder in a particular place…” (49). This metaphor of climbing Jacob’s ladder is used throughout. The problem, as Michael Horton has put it, is that “it is not a metaphor of our ascent, but of Christ’s descent; not of our coming to Christ, but of Christ’s coming to us.” That’s what John 1:51 says (compare with Genesis 28:12) – Jesus is the ladder, dropped down from heaven for us! This is a huge difference.

The monastic communities were generally based on this false understanding of man’s ascent to God through religious works, ascetic practices, and the like. This resulted in a retreat from the world to secure one’s own soul with God. Instead, the gospel is about what God has done to secure our souls so that now we can engage with the world. God does not need our good deeds, but our neighbor does. In the gospel we are free to love and serve others through our faithful presence and witness. This seems like such a better theology to undergird the call to stability. There are many applications. For example, because Jesus’ righteousness is our identity we don’t have to traverse the world trying to carve out our own. Or: because we have been irrevocably joined to Christ by grace, we can be content and stop trying to attach ourselves to the next new thing. Or: because God has shown mercy and steadfast love to us in Christ, we can forgive and patiently cultivate love with others, instead of leaving a trail of relationships behind us. This lack of a gospel foundation is the book’s main flaw, and a significant one.

I would also like to have seen more biblical exegesis and theology, although he does deal with one of the most important passages – Jeremiah 29 – in chapter 6. Mostly, this left me wishing that there was a popular level book that shared many of the great insights of this work while drawing from and expounding on the Reformed tradition instead of the Monastic one. I’m not aware of one, but it seems like there are great resources in Luther’s doctrine of vocation and Kuyper’s emphasis on common grace institutions for calling Christians to stop moving every couple years… for the glory of God and the good of Man.


Book Review: The Power of Multi-Sensory Preaching and Teaching

The Power of Multisensory Preaching and Teaching

Rick Blackwood, The Power of Multi-Sensory Preaching and Teaching: Increase Attention, Comprehension, and Retention (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 207 pages.

Review by Pastor Nathan, October 2013

Preaching is my passion. I’m always interested in reading a book about preaching. Blackwood’s book, based on his research for an EdD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, begins with a big promise:

Do you consider yourself a good communicator or a great communicator? If you consider yourself a good communicator, would you like to elevate to great? If you are already a great communicator, would you like to raise the bar to phenomenal? You can! And relax! – it’s not going to complicate your life. (13)

And therein lays the first problem of the book. Blackwood assumes a preacher is essentially a communicator. The basic thesis of the book is that greater effectiveness in attention, comprehension, and retention can be reached if we engage more senses than just the ears (i.e. object lessons, special effects, costumes, video, hands-on interaction, etc…). Many of the insights and suggestions in this book would prove very helpful for leaders of organizations or elementary education majors or even Sunday School teachers. But are preachers the same as communicators?

What is the goal of preaching? Blackwood assumes that the objective of a preacher on a Sunday morning is to produce “doers of the Word.” “They predetermine what a particular text calls the audience to do, and they are obsessed with getting them to do it” (41). I appreciate Blackwood’s desire to keep sermons ‘expository’ in nature; that is, to try to explain and apply a particular text of the Bible. But his version of expository preaching, held by many in conservative evangelical circles, fails to apply a gospel-centered hermeneutic. Though keeping a high view of Scripture he fails to see Christ as the unifying theme and instead focuses on law. It’s just called ‘Life Application.” If the end is activity, the means of multi-sensory communication is justified, as shown in this schema that is found throughout the book:

Verbal clarity + Visual aides + Interaction = Maximum Learning
Hearing + Seeing + Interacting = Increased Learning = Increased Doing

However, the goal of preaching is not learning for doing. The goal of preaching is to produce worshippers. Preaching is different than simply teaching. So instead of people walking away with a new list of things they need to do, they should ultimately walk away with a new appreciation of what Christ has done. The right kind of doing will flow out of that. Preaching is essentially heralding the gospel, which is a report of something that has been accomplished by Christ that can’t be pantomimed. It must be proclaimed… from every text of Scripture.

One of the most influential insights for my theology of preaching came from Tim Keller’s address at the inaugural Gospel Coalition conference in 2007. You can listen to it here. Around 12 minutes in he says this:

Declarative preaching… is irreplaceably central to gospel ministry. Why? If basically we were sending people How To… if we were saying, “Here’s how to live in the right way…” if that’s the primary message, I’m not sure words are always necessarily the best thing to send. You want to send a model. If I was… teaching an advanced seminar on preaching I would make everybody read C.S. Lewis’ Studies in Words… The last chapter is called “At the Fringe of Language.” And he says language can’t do everything. And one of the things he says is that language cannot actually describe complex operations. He says, for example, don’t ask somebody, “Please tell me how to tie a tie.” No, you just show them… If you listen to somebody describe how to tie a tie you’ll be totally lost. On the other hand… to explain to somebody that Joshua Chamberlain, without ammunition, charged down Little Round Top in an incredible, risky adventure at the height of the Battle of Gettysburg and as a result changed the course of history. You don’t show people that necessarily, you tell them that. This is something that happened. You describe it… If you’re going to give them How Tos, very often what you want is modeling and dialogue and action and reflection and so forth. Therefore, if you believe that the gospel is Good News, preaching – declarative preaching, verbally proclaiming – will always be irreplaceably central to what we do. And if you really think that basically the gospel is good advice on how to live a life that sort of changes people… dialogue would be alright or stories and reflection and modeling. That’s more important.

Because our message is the gospel, our method is preaching! And preaching is one-directional, verbal, proclamation based upon the authority of God’s Word. This doesn’t have to be boring. We should seek to communicate with earnestness and vividness and passion, but finally the “boost” to God’s Word, to use Blackwood’s term (83), is not multisensory communication, but the Holy Spirit through prayer, what used to be called ‘unction’.

Some of Blackwood’s examples were helpful and I may even use some of his illustrations in my preaching, while leaving out the props (his comparison of Muhammad Ali fighting George Foreman to Jesus and Satan was actually more powerful on the page than when I went and watched the fight on YouTube). But one of his examples ironically illustrates my concern.

Let me give you an image of what we are doing at Christ Fellowship this weekend. We are teaching through the gospel of Matthew in our weekend services, and tonight we launch a new series called: “WAR: Defeating Temptation.” The series will be a four-part exposition of Matthew 4:1-11, which chronicles the temptations of Christ by Satan. Just a casual glance at this narrative, and you immediately know that this was an all-out war.
The war, however, is not restricted to Satan and God; it is also between Satan and us. Whether we like it or not, Satan has declared war against God’s people, and we are locked into a struggle against him. His goal is to drag us down into sin, destroy our lives, and destroy our testimony. To accomplish his objectives, he deploys a formidable arsenal of temptations.

Our single-minded goal throughout this series is to get people to realize they are at war. Christians must have a “war mindset” when it comes to fighting temptation or they will lose the battles. To etch that reality into their mind, the church campus has been transformed into a war zone. Christ Fellowship has the appearance of a theater of military operations.

Tonight, greeters and ushers will be dressed in military fatigues. Peppered throughout the campus are objects and images of warfare. The stage has been transformed to resemble a war zone. There are military tents and military weapons, and even a military MASH unit…

The sermons will launch with war videos as well as with a cleaned-up version of the 1960s song, “War: What Is It Good For?” To further drive home the truth, Eric Geiger and I will be teaching in military garb. The effect will be instant. People will be drawn into the sermon as soon as they walk onto the campus. The whole campus screams WAR! (92-93)

If he would give the text more than just a casual glance, he would see it in its historical redemptive context and realize that the whole thing screams that Jesus has won the war for us! Jesus is recapitulating Israel and succeeding where they failed! I won’t get into the financial cost of such a production. Nor will I resort to calling such antics silly (although I think they are and I think many others would find them shallow too).

I appreciate Blackwood’s heart for the lost and desire to connect people to the life-changing power of God’s Word. I wish, though, that he would have interacted more with insights from media ecology (i.e. Postman and McLuhan). The move to an image based culture is not necessarily a good or neutral development that the church must go along with. Christians are people of the Word. Images have a checkered biblical history. The medium and the message are not easily separated.

Michael Horton has also been helpful for me. He points out:

[P]roclamation is not meant to be merely a form of intellectual enrichment [it is a powerful means of grace]. Another objection that is sometimes heard is that preaching is too static. We need more visual movement and imagery, dance and drama, video clips, and the like. You may have heard some or even all of these criticisms of the centrality of preaching in the church. And minus the video clips, you would have heard a lot of the same arguments in the medieval church where the mass was theater, with stage, lighting, dramatic exits and entrances, and all the props to dazzle the senses. Yet there was a famine of hearing the words of God – especially the gospel of free justification in Christ alone. The invention of new strategies (“mission creep”) eventually led to the marginalization, perversion, and finally denial of that message that Jesus told us to proclaim to the world. [The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 167-68]

Whenever there has been a genuine revival it has been accompanied by an emphasis on “the right preaching of the Word of God.” Blackwood didn’t really interact with thoughtful philosophical or historical arguments like these that challenge his approach.

The book’s much-hyped final Epilogue seems to say, “If it works, then don’t knock it.” This reflects the pragmatism that reigns in our culture. While a case could be made that it doesn’t really work (after all, we can eventually become numb to anything and need even more stimulation), the positive alternative argument is that we must stick to God’s appointed means, trusting him to work through them. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). As Horton has said elsewhere, “Everything that we possess right now of our salvation has come to us through the ear, not the eye.” We are not called to compete with Disney or MTV. We are called to the simple, counterintuitive task of preaching. I pray that pastors will stick with it amidst the many pressures to get fancy.

“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1Cor. 1:21).

“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1Cor. 2:4-5).


Book Review: Who Will Deliver Us?

Who Will Deliver Us

Paul F.M. Zahl, Who Will Deliver Us? The Present Power of the Death of Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1983), 85 pages.

Review by Pastor Nathan, June 2013

I had heard about this book for a while and finally bought it. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian says it is a book he regularly re-reads. I gave it four stars out of five on Goodreads.

The introduction and first four chapters deftly explain the atonement of Christ to a psychologized culture. Zahl understands law as both the revealed will of God in Scripture (Law) and the “force of ought” interior to everyone (law) in many different forms – the “bastard children of the Law.” So for example there is the “law of capability” which is “the demand a person may feel that he be 100 percent capable in everything he does – or else!” There are astute observations throughout this short book of how the modern soul is imprisoned to law.

This results in “the dereliction of fear.” For those acquainted with the Law there is the underlying fear of God’s punishment. For those who only deal with the various forms of law, still there is fear of the “fateful, nameless forces that dominate humanity and nature, of which idols must be built and to which tribute must be paid.” Zahl states boldly – “I am suggesting that the fear beneath all fears, which in turn creates the stress, depression, and anger of everyday life and human history, is fear of ultimate judgment.”

Zahl suggest that humans naturally try one of three strategies to deal with this terror. The first is flight – we hide like Adam and Eve. The ultimate form of escape is suicide, but there are various other flight mechanisms short of this. The second strategy is open resistance – we courageously stand up against our fear. The third tactic is what Zahl calls appeasement – acknowledging the rightfulness of judgment and trying somehow to assuage our fears through our own efforts. But whichever one is chosen, the end in every case is defeat. Whether it be “the implacable forces of criticism and cruelty stemming from other people and our own inner selves, or whether it be the demand of God for perfection, judgment is in the end too strong for us.”

Thus the title of this book, taken from Romans 7:24 – “Who will deliver us from this body of death?”

The answer, of course, is Jesus through his atonement. Other religions have some notion of atonement, but never a certainty of atonement. Zahl shows the beauty of the cross of Christ and says, “I believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ because it disarms the law and frees me from the fear of judgment.” He uses this striking analogy:

I am a little like the duck hunter who was hunting with his friend in a wide-open barren of land in southeastern Georgia. Far away on the horizon he noticed a cloud of smoke. Soon he could hear the sound of crackling. A wind came up, and he realized the terrible truth: a brushfire was advancing his way. It was moving so fast that he and his friend could not outrun it. The hunter began to rifle through his pockets. Then he emptied all the contents of his knapsack. He soon found what he was looking for – a book of matches. To his friend’s amazement, he pulled out a match and struck it. He lit a small fire around the two of them. Soon they were standing in a circle of blackened earth, waiting for the fire to come. They did not have to wait long. They covered their mouths with their handkerchiefs and braced themselves. The fire came near – and swept over them. But they were completely unhurt. They weren’t even touched. Fire would not pass where fire had passed.

The law is like the brushfire. I cannot escape it. But if I stand in the burned-over place, where law has already burned its way through, then I will not be hurt. Not a hair of my head will be singed. The death of Christ is the burned-over place. There I huddle, hardly believing yet relieved.

I didn’t really understand most of chapter 5, but I think Zahl was trying to construct a theodicy based on the atonement.

The last chapter – “Atonement in the Church” – presented practical ways that this fear-disarming gospel can and should infiltrate the way we do church. This was provocative. I loved most of it, had questions on some things, and was challenged on others. Zahl calls for a culture of honesty in the church because of the fact that Christ’s atonement has satisfied the Law of God and the internal laws of our own personal narratives. “Honesty is a truth-telling about our experience that has given up on strategies of flight, appeasement, or confrontation.” There are a few insightful case studies here that bring this into real life situations.

In this chapter, Zahl defines sanctification/Christian growth as “the carrying of good news to the unevangelized territories of our personal and social being…. Sanctification is justification by extension.” I know there is some debate on this. I think that Zahl’s understanding may not account for all of the biblical data perfectly. But what he calls for is so needed, so forgotten, and so refreshing. It may be an overstatement to say that we need to completely “eschew prescription.” But it is true that “progress in our lives is not principally a matter of new experience or new knowledge. It is rather a fresh returning, in every new round of events, to a very old conviction: Christ died for our sins.”

Next, Zahl lists and develops three major implications of a ministry based on atonement for the practical functioning of the church:

(1) “We shall preach and teach the same message to believers and nonbelievers alike.” This is something Tim Keller has taught and modeled so well. The gospel is for Christians just as much as it is for non-Christians.
(2) “Self-righteousness has, by virtue of the atonement, entirely lost its potency. The façade can come down.”
(3) “Our preaching will be descriptive rather than prescriptive.” In other words, preaching must refrain from moralizing. How’s this definition of preaching? – “The manifesting of the objective atonement of Christ to the painful points of entrapment and despair that we experience subjectively.” It doesn’t cover everything (what about Calvin’s ‘Third Use of the Law’?), but there are many worse definitions and examples.

Finally, Zahl concludes with three questions to ask in our diverse ministry settings:

(1) Worship “Does our ministry provide people with a quality of worship by which they can get out of themselves?” This is a great insight for worship leaders – “As derelicts of fear, we are preoccupied with our own problems. We cannot help this. But if we can be enabled, just for an hour, just for a few minutes, to step outside ourselves, we inevitably see ourselves from a fresh perspective, in the light of the grace of Jesus Christ on the cross.”
(2) Community “Are we building up a family in which the wounds of the past can be salved and the new freedom won by atonement encouraged?” Zahl is calling for a small group ministry where people are given the time and safety to be sinners in need of atonement.
(3) Counseling “Does [our ministry] provide people with opportunities for counseling?” This was the end of the book and the portion I found to be the most provocative. I really wonder, does Immanuel have ways to “offer to our derelict humanity the possibility of a healing relationship, person to person, to mediate the love of God?”

Do I suggest that everyone needs counseling? I am not sure. Many of us have problems that have been “successfully” defended: our inner strategies to contain them allow us relatively stable, relatively purposeful lives. Many of us, however, find ourselves crippled by unassimilated negativities rising to the surface. Many of us will draw benefit from counseling. The scars of the past can be healed. The counselor can be a messenger of affirmation and nurture to the hidden fear, thus entering our world as a mediator of atonement.

Again in the parish in New York there are several professional counselors who work alongside the clergy. They become heralds of good news to the solitary places of fear, the unevangelized territories of our hearts. They may seldom mention the name of Jesus Christ. But as carriers of love to dark continents, they are missionaries. We find that as the grace of God imputed to us in Christ is preached from the pulpit, the inner fears and tragedies of our listeners rise to the surface even in the most “well-adjusted” people. The grace of God will produce an unmasking of the self by which needs that are unconscious to a person in day-to-day life rise to the surface. At this point the counselor comes to sustain the ministry of the Word. He becomes an active participant in the ministry.

Our ministry is rooted in the atonement. It includes three emphases: worship, to lift us out of ourselves and renew our perspective; small groups to provide a nurturing family for us as we grow; and opportunities for counseling as a bridge to past hurts and a means of healing old wounds.

I’m intrigued by this final question and the proposal embedded in it. But I wrote in the margin next to these paragraphs: “Problem is: where are there gospel-centered counselors??”

I benefitted personally from this little book. I would definitely give it to an unbeliever who struggled with insecurity and had tried different pop-psychology and self-help books. And as a pastor it gives me great food for thought on how to bring the gospel even deeper into the culture of our church.


Looking Inside

I have a new, brief book review up on Larry Crabb’s Inside Out. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts. Did I misread him?


Two Kingdoms

I have a new book review up on David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. Have you ever thought about this approach to cultural engagement? Have you ever thought about the implications of Jesus as the last Adam for this topic? Check it out…