Learning from the Best

It’s easy to rely on programs and methods to “do church,” both individually and corporately. But as Leslie Hardin reminds us, the church starts with people who follow Christ, period. And if we want to truly follow Christ, there’s very few individuals who reflect that better than the apostle Paul.

9780825444029Leslie T. Hardin. The Spirituality of Paul: Partnering with the Spirit in Everyday Life. 192p., $16.99, Kregel Publications.

As Hardin points out, we tend to focus on Paul’s theology or methods of church planting, “But there’s another side to Paul that has been neglected. Rather than thinking of Paul as a theologian and apostle, perhaps it’s time to approach Paul as a disciple of Jesus, as a Spirit-filled man practicing the Spirit as Jesus did, and as someone who lived an authentic Christian life.” Thus, our focus is steered away from “spiritual Superman” Paul to everyday-follower-of-Jesus Paul—in short, someone we not only can admire but emulate.

We are shown and reminded that Paul was a man who engaged in spiritual disciplines,  engaged in making disciples, was involved in corporate worship, and not only preached about spiritual gifts but used his spiritual gifts—all things many of us do. We’re also reminded that Paul went through more than his share of suffering and disappointment—again, things we can readily identify with. But in the end, we see some whose struggles bring him closer to Christ, and into a deeper sense of holiness rather than the sense of resigned compromise so many of us fall victim to.

After walking us through all of these things, Hardin wraps it all up in his chapter “The Shape of Pauline Spirituality,” citing six main aspects: faithfulness to Scripture (and I liked the dig at The Book of Eli here—I’m still ticked about that ending), imitation of Jesus, living out of a foundation of freedom, glorification of Jesus, commitment to unity, and a remembrance that spirituality is based in the Spirit. So many of us have an imbalanced approach, emphasizing one of these aspects over all the others. Paul didn’t make that mistake, and Hardin encourages us to follow Paul’s lead and not make that mistake either.

In short, Hardin reminds us that Paul was human—and that ultimately, that might be the most inspirational thing about him:

Paul had a reputation in the first century as someone who had a weighty and forceful media persona, but who was soft and unimpressive in reality…. Yet here was a man who, when he patterned his life after that of Christ Jesus, with the help of the Holy Spirit, turned the world on it head for the glory of Jesus. This gives hope to us who read him, who take him seriously, and who want to be spiritual like Paul was.


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Living in the Spirit’s Power

I believe the job of a prophet is to rattle the spiritual cage and wake up sleepy Christians, calling them out to understand the danger we face today. We have come to the point of contentment. We are content with where we are, we are content with what we have, and we have no real expectation of what the future holds. Henceforth, this generation of Christians and the next faces a grave and severe danger.

I have to admit: In terms of the plethora of “unpublished” posthumous books (mostly converted sermons) by A.W. Tozer, this is one of the lesser ones. Still, Tozer is Tozer, and thus there’s always something to learn or truths to be reminded of.

9780764218071A.W. Tozer. Alive in the Spirit: Experiencing the Presence and Power of God. Compiled and edited by James L. Snyder. 192p., $14.99, Bethany House.

As is apparent from the title, the focus is on the Spirit, both in terms of knowing the Person and in accessing His power. One thing that does set this book apart from many of Tozer’s others is that we’re given a fairly lengthy glimpse into his own personal testimony early on in the book, so those curious about that alone may want to check this out. And for those who really haven’t been taught about the person or works of the Holy Spirit, this book can serve as a good primer for that.

The majority of the book, though, is Tozer being Tozer—which means a never-dull combination of insight and crankiness, and a even bit more of the latter than usual in this one. Nonetheless, the “evangelical trends” he regularly railed against back in the ’50s and ’60s are now the norm—the drive for numbers rather than transformation, trusting in political solutions rather than embracing God’s holiness, relying on human energy rather than spiritual empowerment, entertaining rather than truth-telling (in Tozer’s words, “people who want church to be fun”), etc. Therefore, it’s worth going back to read and heed these warnings from more than a half-century ago now, because he wasn’t wrong then and he’s even less wrong now.

Ultimately though—and exactly because others aren’t—Tozer’s goal is to get us relying on the power of the Spirit rather our own power, and to live a life that reflects His holiness:

Power is a positive, not a negative word. When Jesus promised His church power, He meant, of course, that they were to have power to stand against evil, but that was not the primary purpose. The primary purpose was that they should have the power to do good. . . . So may God help us. We are not only against something, but for something. Or we are against something only because we are for something better.


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Anger Is an Energy—But Where Is It Going?

David Powlison had been on my “gotta get around to reading him” list for quite some time now; I figured he’d been name-checked by too many people I respect to not be worth my time. And now, courtesy of the good people at New Growth Press, I have his latest. Short version: I was not disappointed.

good_and_angry_thumb__12895_1454016123_1280_1280David Powlison. Good & Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness. 256p., $17.99, New Growth Press/CCEF.

Although it’s reiterated throughout, the basis of this book is best encapsulated in its final chapter:

The presence of anger depends on the presence of evil. Wherever there is evil, you find anger. You find both the angers that are evil and angers that oppose evil. Where there is no evil, you find no anger.

This idea sets up the premise of the book: All anger, whether righteous or twisted, is based in a sense of justice. Anger can be good or bad, but it’s not indifferent; it’s always out to “right a wrong,” even when that “wrong” is based in our own selfishness—and more often than not, our selfishness is wrapped up in it somewhere.

At its core anger is very simple. It expresses “I’m against that.” It is an active stance you take to oppose something that you assess as both important and wrong. You notice something, size it up, and say, “That matters . . . and it’s not right.” . . . Every time you get angry (or don’t get angry) you broadcast what matters to you.”

At the same time, Powlison reminds us that anger can be “the constructive displeasure of mercy”—a genuine desire to make things right—and points us to the one person who got anger right: Jesus (and of course, by extension, the Father himself). “You can’t understand God’s love if you don’t understand his anger,” he says. “Because he loves, he’s angry at anything that harms those he loves.” With that, he draws a wider application for us:

The technical term for all this is redemption. Jesus was a redemptive troublemaker. . . . To actually make peace, where open wrong, hostility, and destruction now operate, is the hardest and best work in the world. It involves saying true words that some people might not like to hear: “That’s wrong. Let’s solve it.” It involves confronting evils, rescuing victims, calling wrongdoers to accountability: “You can’t treat people that way.” . . . But such merciful anger always maintains its sense of proportion, its perspective, and its constructive purpose.

However, most of our anger doesn’t fit that description, and we broadcast that anger with every part of our being—physically, physically, emotionally, intellectually. Therefore Powlison spends most of the second half of the book trying to get us to look at both why and when we’re angry, and how we deal with it. Eight questions he asks and re-asks are meant to help us break out of our anger and see it in perspective:

  • What is my situation?
  • How do I react?
  • What are my motives?
  • What are the consequences?
  • What is true?
  • How do I turn to God for help?
  • How could I respond constructively in this situation?
  • What are the consequences of faith and obedience?

There’s a lot of interactivity built into this book, so that users can apply it as a workbook for dealing with their own anger—because, to restate the entire text of Chapter 2, “Do You Have a Serious Problem with Anger? “Yes.” Powlison calls us to the hard, redemptive work of dealing with our anger—from everyday nonsense (which, nonetheless, happens every day) to the painful sins that can overshadow every part of our lives. It’s the work of choosing God’s side over our own, and it’s the work our “redemptive troublemaker” and Savior calls us to.

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What Happened in the Garden… Doesn’t Stay in the Garden

In his book The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer famously declared, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” This book delves into a subset of that idea; for indeed, how we treat the story of Creation and the Fall goes a long way toward dictating how we think about God’s Word—and therefore, what we think about God Himself.

what happened in the garden.jpgJohn MacArthur and the Master’s College Faculty. What Happened in the Garden: The Reality and Ramifications of the Creation and Fall of Man. Abner Chou, editor. 302p., $19.99, Kregel Academic.

If that publication info above feels a bit scholarly to you, well, it is. But the effort is worth it. As editor Abner Chou puts it in the introduction, “The story of Genesis 2-3 is the foundation for the rest of the story of Scripture. Change one part of that and we shift our entire theology. Even more, theology  is not just ideas … but the way we understand reality around us…. What would change when you reinterpret the opening chapters of Genesis? In a word: Everything.”

That quote sets up the framework for the entire book, written by several members of the (now) Master’s University faculty. Part 1 of the book analyzes the Genesis narrative from a variety of angles—historical, hermeneutical, biological, genetic—before finally delving into the symbolic/allegorical questions that plague much modern-day “biblical scholarship.” Depending on your viewpoint,. Grant Horner’s conclusion will either sound like Occam’s Razor or circular reasoning, but either way it cuts right to the point: “Our tendency to explain away, dehistoricize, and misread Genesis 3 is a direct result of the very thing the narrative describes in such absolutely clear terms—a literal, historical account of a Fall into spiritual blindness.” Kind of reminds me of the Baudelaire quote, “The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.”

With the foundation established, the second and briefest part of the book digs into two specific theological ramifications of the Fall—namely, the doctrine of original sin and the promise of the “seed” (Messiah) in Genesis 3:15. Again, what one believes about the narrative itself is bound to dictate what they believe about these two critical pieces of the Christian faith.

Part 3, then, gets into the “worldview” issues, again from a variety of angles—human enterprise, the laws of thermodynamics, natural and divine law, psychology, gender issues, and education. In the final chapter, “A Sin of Historic Proportions” pastor and Master’s University president John MacArthur returns us to the original premise of the book:

The facts are clearly on the side of Scripture. The whole chronicle of human history proved the doctrine of original sin to be true…. The work of Christ is the remedy—the only remedy—for the failure of Adam. Adam cannot be merely a myth or an illustration. He is the living, breathing reason we are in this mess. And Christ is the only way out of it.

Again, not easy stuff—but if you’re up for it, you’ll have the opportunity to see through the “mess” more clearly for the effort.

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Living as People Who Are Free

Repentance is not what we do to right ourselves with God. That’s been done for us by Jesus. Repentance is what we do when we are right with God. It is change in the direction of obedience toward what God desires for us. Repentance is intentional, grace-empowered change over time.

With this book, Andy Farmer not only provides a vision for change, but some of the nuts-and-bolts we need for that “grace-empowered change” to become a reality in our lives.

trapped_thumbnail__81570_1454080753_350_450Andy Farmer. Trapped: Getting Free from People, Patterns, and Problems. 192p., $17.99, New Growth Press.

Farmer invites readers to jump to the chapters that cover their particular “traps.” But you’ll want to read all of them. Chances are,  you’ll realize that there’s more (at least potential) traps in your life than you first realized.

In the opening chapter, we’re introduced to each of those traps —approval/people-pleasing/”fear of man,” laziness, pornography, eating disorders, chemical addiction, marital issues—through a series of brief case studies. Then, Farmer pulls back, to remind us that we’re not here to focus on our traps—we’re here to escape them. Hopefully.

We say we want to be free, but don’t want the personal regime change that freedom requires. We may subtly prefer a long-term life chained to our problem to the short-term hardship of doing what it takes to live another way.

In short, the willingness to change has to come first. But even before that, we need to remember that we have already been given freedom in Christ. And it’s something we tend to forget far too often.

At the heart of this book is a singular conviction: The promise of the gospel is not enduring captivity; it is enduring freedom. But this promise isn’t plug and play. It doesn’t just happen because you say you have faith. I do a lot of pastoral counseling and one of the most common struggles I see in those I counsel is how the gospel seems to get lost in the traps and trials they experience. Good, solid, believing Christians face hardships in life and have very little idea of how the gospel is meant to make a difference.

Thus, Farmer spends a few chapters first reminding us of both the freedom and redemption we’ve already received through Jesus. Then, once the reader has been properly (re-)equipped, it’s time to dig into how it’s possible to escape from each of the above traps.

Each trap is given its own chapter, with one exception—pornography and eating disorders are treated together in the chapter, “The Trap of Secret Escape.” If that seems to knock you a bit off-balance, good; you’re ready to listen. And it will make sense once you’re in.

The book ends on a curious coda: After 150 pages of addressing our contemporary problems (or at least our contemporary versions of them), the final chapter details a correspondence between William Legge (aka Lord Dartmouth, Secretary of State to the American colonies) and pastor John Newton (better known as the author of “Amazing Grace”), which took place just months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Without giving away the ending, Newton’s advice to Lord Dartmouth (and the response to it) reminds us all that “being in the world without being of the world” is anything but a new challenge; only the window dressing changes.

Trapped, likewise, reminds us that the same God who has delivered and transformed people throughout the ages is here today, ready to free us now from whatever traps we face—and gives us a vision of what life beyond those traps can look like.

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From Disciples to Disciplers Featured on Discipleship Network

Happy August. And here’s a short note with a big link… 🙂

Season 4 coverA couple weeks ago I was interviewed by Phil Miglioratti of Discipleship Network / Pray! Network about the From Disciples to Disciplers series (although I was able to sneak in a quick plug for Lay It Down at the end as well). You can read the whole interview here.

Check out the rest of the recently updated Discpleship Network site while you’re there — they’re still at it, even post-NavPress, and as such deserve your support.

If you’ve been following for awhile, you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what I said; if not, it’s a quick way to get a nice overview of my whole philosophy and why I felt the series needed to be created in the first place.

Either way, hope you enjoy it. Hope to be back soon with some new material (or new reviews, at the very least…).

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Starting in the Harvest

Our making of disciples flows out of our life with God, to be certain. Yet in some ways, the order needs to be inverted as well: Only as we make disciples are we perfected in the faith. As we reach out, we are shaped and transformed. As we go about life, the mission of Jesus is to recognize the people in sphere of influence and help them take the next steps toward God. Engaging in that mission results in not only an increased quality of relationships, but a changed life for us as well.

This “inversion” struck me from the outset, and it’s critical to what this book is all about. We are not only called to make disciples, but as we make disciples we become more complete disciples ourselves. That’s just one of the “differences” this book highlights.

TheDiscipleshipDifference-Cover-238x325Robert E. Logan and Charles R. Ridley. The Discipleship Difference: Making Disciples While Growing as Disciples. 224p., $14.99, Logan Leadership.

(Disclaimer alert: I’m not just a fan; I’m also editor for this book. But as mentioned before, I was a fan of Bob Logan’s writing and ministry years before I was his editor. Thus, I went in with a positive bias. :))

Two other main points Bob makes throughout the book: 1) One size doesn’t fit all—Jesus changed His approach with every person He encountered, and so should we; 2) We are not just meant to be disciples making disciples—we are disciples making disciples who make disciples. If people are sitting at our feet instead of moving on to help others sit at Jesus’ feet, we’ve missed something huge.

This holistic approach to discipleship is woven throughout the book, which is also borne out by the branches of the “discipleship tree” examined here:

  • Experiencing God
  • Spiritual Responsiveness
  • Sacrifical Service
  • Generous Living
  • Disciplemaking
  • Personal Transformation
  • Authentic Relationships
  • Community Transformation

Another huge point is that discipleship is not reserved for believer—it starts “in the harvest,” with those who haven’t yet turned to Christ. By taking this approach, the result is new believers who already are disciples, rather than having some false dichotomy between belief and some later “higher calling” to discipleship. The two were never meant to be separated, and they’re not here.

The overall format of the book goes between practical advice and a fictional case study (“Rob”), whose course we follow as he implements that advice. It’s a success story (of course), but as opposed to other books I’ve seen that have used this device it’s a realistic story — there are real challenges; everything doesn’t go perfectly; sometime things happen that make no sense at all, at least at first. But when it comes to discipleship, staying the course is more than half the battle, and our travels with “Rob” throughout this book help us to vicariously experience that—with the hope that we’ll experience it for real after putting the book down.

On the other side of the spectrum, Chuck Ridley adds dozens of more academic notes throughout the book “if you care about the research.” Put together, these two facets help maintain a balance throughout the book—not only illustrating how discipleship works, but also showing us proof that it works.

In the later chapters, we’re (re-)introduced to the tools of discipleship. And really, all that needs to be said is that the hardest thing about using these tools is being willing enough to obey and actually use them.

As always, I’ve really enjoyed (and been challenged by) The Discipleship Difference, and am confident it’ll do the same for many others.


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