When Your Church Feels Stuck – Chris Sonksen (2017)

stuckChris Sonksen, When Your Church Feels Stuck: 7 Unavoidable Questions Every Leader Must Answer Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017, 181 pp. $10.80

Many churches in America are sitting on the plateau – so Chris Sonksen’s book, When Your Church Feels Stuck is relevant and fills an important need. The author sets forth an important principle at the outset: God determines the talent but we determine the choices. That is, are we faithful with the resources that God has given us? Sonksen remarks, “The measure of success is based on your living up to your potential, doing the absolute best you can o with what you have been given, digging deeper into your heart and soul, and seeking to become the leader God intended you to be.”

Several questions are offered which assess attitudes:

  • Am I doing all I can to reach my God-given potential?
  • Do I seek out people to mentor me or do I let pride get in the way?
  • Am I open to change or stuck in tradition?
  • Has ministry become more of a career than a calling?
  • Do I hold on too tightly to past successes?
  • Have I gotten too comfortable with the way things are?
  • Is everyone else recognizing a problem except me?

The author presents different stages in the life of a church from the initial launch, to utopia, whirlwind, increase, merry-go-round, and slow death. Readers are encouraged to evaluate which stage their respective church is currently in.

Most of the book revolves around seven questions, which are outlined below:

  1. Mission: What do we do?
  2. Strategy: How do we get it done?
  3. Values: What are the guiding principles we live by?
  4. Metrics: How do we measure a win?
  5. Team Alignment: Do we have the right people in the right seats moving in the right direction?
  6. Culture: How do we change the culture of our church?
  7. Services: How do we match what we say is important and what we really do?

The author goes into more detail as each question frames a specific chapter. The seven questions are helpful diagnostic tools and should be carefully considered by pastors and church leaders.

While nothing harmful is presented in Sonksen’s work, I would prefer to see a more biblically faithful model. Such work is found, for instance, in Andrew Davis’s book, Revitalize: Biblical Keys to Helping Your Church Come Alive Again. The work under consideration may help jumpstart a struggling church. However, it fails to provide the robust biblical groundwork to help a church move forward in a Gospel-centered way. My fear is that a business model is slowly replacing the biblical model, which is presented in the pages of the New Testament.

My assessment of this work is mixed. Readers should proceed cautiously, refusing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But they should also realize that there is no “magic bullet” for church growth or revitalization in the local church.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

The Influence of Spurgeon: A Boon for the Soul

 

 

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born on this date, June 19, 1834 – one hundred and eighty-three years ago.  I got to thinking about the influence that Spurgeon has had on my thinking, theology, and Christian life.  This thought led to another interesting tidbit.  I have been influenced by many Christian men over the years – most of whom I have never met.  On Spurgeon’s birthday, consider a few noteworthy men who have played a role in my life.  I commend their lives and writings to you.

C.H. Spurgeon Courage in the face of adversity, an unwavering trust in God’s sovereign purposes, rock-solid commitment to prayer, and a die-hard, Christ-exalting determination in the pulpit.

Jonathan Edwards The sovereignty of God in all things.

John Owen The glory of Christ, communion with Christ, and the death of death in the death of Christ.

John BunyanWarm-hearted devotion and Pilgrim’s Progress.

John CalvinHumility, contrition, and trembling before God’s Word.

Martin Luther Commitment to truth and rediscovering justification by faith.

William Tyndale – Zeal for translating the Word of God into the language of the common man.

John Knox  – Steely resolve in the face of adversity.

Thomas Watson Courage under fire and commitment to biblical principles.

Polycarp Refusing to bend under pressure.  An enemy of pragmatism.

Martyn-Lloyd Jones Biblical preaching/logic on fire!

Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone, David Brainerd Missionary zeal.

John PiperDelighting in God and the fight for joy.

Al Mohler – Confronting culture with the unchanging truths of Scripture.

Francis Schaeffer Heart for lost people, love for truth, and biblical worldview.

John MacArthur Faithfulness in the pulpit.

Steven Lawson Expository preaching.

R.C. Sproul – The holiness of God and Reformed theology.

Ron Nash – Christ-saturated intellectual and spiritual passion.

John Frame The doctrine of God.

J.I. Packer Knowing God and Christian creeds.

Wayne Grudem Systematic theology and a biblical understanding of the Trinity.

David A. Steele (Dad) Commitment to Scripture, leadership, and personal integrity.

Wayne Pickens Patiently and lovingly shepherding the flock, commitment to truth, and personal integrity.

Bruce A. Ware – High view of God and the authority of Scripture, and a commitment to the eternal relations of authority and submission in the Trinity.

Don Robinson – Evangelistic zeal, bold resolve.

Cal Blom Pastoral faithfulness, spiritual disciplines, and integrity.

David Needham – Lover of God and family.

Ron Frost – Approach to God and scholarship.

Hugh Salisbury Evangelistic zeal and love God and people.

 

 

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering – Timothy Keller (2013)

kellerI have yet to meet a person who enjoys pain and suffering.  Yet suffering is a part of the warp and woof of life.  It is not a part of God’s original intent for creation.  Since Adam’s first sin, pain and suffering have been an abnormal part of the cosmos.  Suffering is an unwelcome guest who bullies his way to the table and makes demands – much like a  soldier on a bloody battlefield.

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller addresses this topic with candor and clarity.  Keller leaves no stone unturned here.  The book is organized into three sections:

Understanding the Furnace

Keller introduces the problem of pain and suffering and explores some of the philosophical challenges that Christ-followers must understand and address.

“Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity,” writes Keller.  Yet our culture has a tendency to respond to suffering in ways that are helpful and wrongheaded.  The moralist response to suffering is to “do good.”  The fatalist’s response to suffering is to “hang in there” and “endure.”  The dualist response to suffering is “purified faithfulness.”  And the secular response to suffering is focussed on “technique.”  A combination of these erroneous responses to suffering litter the current milieu and produce a generation of confused and discouraged people.

Keller rightly alerts readers to the importance of worldviews and their relation to the subject of pain and suffering.  Ultimately, the matter of pain and suffering is a matter of faith.  “Faith,” writes Keller “is the promise of God.”  He adds, “We can be fully accepted and counted legally righteous in God’s sight through faith in Christ, solely by free grace … It means freedom from fear of the future, from any anxiety about your eternal destiny.  It is the most liberating idea possible and it ultimately enables you to face all suffering, knowing that because of the cross, God is absolutely for you and that because of the resurrection, everything will be all right in the end.”

Facing the Furnace

Part two provides readers with the theological muscle – a crucial part of the battle.  Keller unpacks the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and provides a painful but biblical rationale for the role of suffering the lives of people.

At the heart of this discussion is an important look at the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The author summarizes, “That is, in order to satisfy justice, in order to punish sin so that in love he could forgive and receive us, God had to bear the penalty for sin within himself.  God the Son took the punishment we deserved, including being cut off from the Father.  And so God took into his own self, his own heart, an infinite agony – out of love for us.”

Keller’s treatment in part two travels great distances to help resolve the problem of evil – the so-called “Achilles heal” of the Christian faith: “So while Christianity never claims to be able to offer a full explanation of all God’s reasons behind every instance of evil and suffering – it does have a final answer to it.  The answer will be given at the end of history and all who hear it and see its fulfillment will find it completely satisfying, infinitely sufficient.”

While Keller never attempts to provide a comprehensive answer to the problem of evil, his treatment of this thorny subject is some of the best in print.  He may not satisfy the disciples of David Hume, Voltaire, or Sam Harris – but he does give ample ammunition for believers who are looking for honest answers.

Walking With God in the Furnace

Parts one and two explore the philosophical and theological angles of pain and suffering.  Part three helps readers with practical application.  They are given practical tools for “walking with God in the furnace.”  The very notion of walking with God in the furnace assumes pain – pain that some are unwilling to admit.  But practical experience reveals that we live in a broken world; a world which has been torn to shreds by the consequences of sin.

Keller urges readers to walk with God in suffering: “If you go into the furnace without the gospel, it will not be possible to find God in there.  You will be sure he has done terrible wrong or you have and you will feel all alone.  Going into the fire without the gospel is the most dangerous thing anyone can do.”  So the gospel is the first and last defense of every Christ-follower; indeed it is the hope of the watching world.

Second, the author stresses the importance of weeping during seasons of adversity.  Elijah serves as an example of a man who cried out in great agony.  He was a man unafraid of weeping.  Such an approach is not only honest – it is a sign of emotional health.

Third, Keller demonstrates the need for trusting in God during days of pain and adversity.    Joseph is portrayed as an example of a man who trusted: If the story of Joseph and the whole of the Bible is true, then anything that comes into your life is something that, as painful as it is, you need in some way.”  Jesus too demonstrated trust in his Father and points believers in the identical direction.  Keller continues to alert readers to other tools that they should utilize during their dark days.

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering is a watershed book that deserves to be read.  Christ-followers will no doubt be encouraged by this Christ-exalting book; a book which drives readers to the cross of the suffering Savior.

Highly recommended!

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God – Timothy Keller (2014)

Over the past twenty-five years, I have read books on prayer by thekeller Puritans and Reformers, the Quakers and the contemplative writers, the Desert Fathers, and even some living authors who think they have something unique to contribute to the discussion.

Timothy Keller’s newest work, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God is quite frankly the best book I’ve ever read on prayer.  This short review will only touch the tip of the iceberg; so I encourage readers of Veritas et Lux to read this incredible book for themselves.

Keller’s work is divided into five parts:

  1. Desiring Prayer
  2. Understanding Prayer
  3. Learning Prayer
  4. Deepening Prayer
  5. Doing Prayer

The book aims to show that  “prayer is both conversation and encounter with God” and demonstrates that prayer is both “awe and intimacy, struggle and reality.”

Keller rightly notes, “A book on the essentials of prayer should contain three components: the theological, experiential, and methodological.”  The author succeeds in presenting a lucid theological framework for understanding prayer.  He presents the experiential side of prayer by citing numerous Scriptural examples and drawing on the work of many Christ-followers in Church history.  And he sets forth a workable methodology, which in the final analysis includes many different forms that may appeal to different kinds of people.”  Keller’s book is biblical, engaging, God-centered, gospel-centered, and Spirit-fueled.

Prayer: Experiencing  Awe and Intimacy With God will confront readers with the God-centeredness of Jonathan Edwards, the earthiness and practicality of Martin Luther, and the theological precision of John Calvin.  This work will undoubtedly be used by God to encourage faithful prayer, enlist new prayer warriors, and revitalize a church that has neglected the important discipline of prayer.

5 stars

The Prodigal God – Tim Keller (2008)

Sometimes big things do come in small packages.  The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller is one of those “big things.”

Keller tackles the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  His approach confronts the typical interpretation that fixates on the sin of the younger brother in Christ’s parable – the prodigal son.  Keller does not minimize the sin of the younger brother.  Rather, he emphasizes the heinous nature of his sin and explores the sin of the older brother as well – whose sin that is no less evil than his wayward brother.

The two brothers and their father not only set up the framework for the parable; they provide the basis for Keller’s assertions.  The younger brother is the rebel; the one who sinfully squandered his inheritance.  The older brother despised the act of mercy and grace demonstrated by the father toward the wayward son.  The younger son tries to find happiness and fulfillment through self-discovery.  The older son tries to find happiness through moral conformity.  Keller adds, “The message of Jesus’s parable is that both of these approaches are wrong.”

The remaining sections of the book redefine sin, lostness, and hope – all based on the parable under consideration.  Keller implies that all people gravitate toward one of the two brothers.  He explodes traditional categories and offers fresh encouragement to rebel types and Pharisee types.  At the end of the day, readers are challenged to repent of the sins of self-discovery and/or moral conformity.

The Prodigal God is a reaffirmation of the biblical gospel set forth in categories that are understandable to believers and unbelievers alike.  I plan to utilize this resource as an evangelistic tool.  I also plan to read this little treasure from time to time to remind myself of the gospel realities that emerge in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

4.5 stars

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief – John Frame (2013)

a frameHow does one review a systematic theology by one of the leading minds of the evangelical world?  How does one summarize the thoughts of a 1,100-page book that towers with truth; a book that takes readers to the top of the theological mountain?  Anyone who attempts to read and devour Systematic Theology by John Frame will be faced with such questions.  Indeed, while the oxygen is scarce at the top of this theological peak, readers will be delighted to enjoy the view that Dr. Frame presents.  As one might expect, every branch of systematic theology is explored.  The author invites readers on a journey which introduces them to God who relates to creatures as their covenant Lord.  The three lordship attributes are articulated throughout the book – control, authority, and presence.

Several thoughts help capture the essence of this incredible book.  While some will be put off by such thoughts, my hope is that a majority of readers will be motivated and inspired to pick up Dr. Frame’s work.  This powerful book is marked by at least ten features:

  1. It is God-Centered
  2. It is Scripture-soaked
  3. It is unashamedly Calvinistic
  4. It is conservative
  5. It exposes liberal scholarship and lays bare its erroneous presuppositions
  6. It is biblical
  7. It is mind-penetrating
  8. It is heart-softening
  9. It is personal
  10. It leads readers to worship God

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief by John Frame is a theological tour de force.   This weighty volume is drenched with Scripture and is drowning with biblical wisdom.  I cannot think of any other writer who has influenced my thinking, outside of Jonathan Edwards himself.  This work is a true labor of love, a gift to the church, and a tool that will sharpen the minds of Christ-followers and serve as a heart-tenderizer for many years to come!

Highly recommended

5 stars

Getting the Gospel Right – R.C. Sproul

gospR.C. Sproul, Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie That Binds Evangelicals Together Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017, 235 pp. $10.70

There are many things in life that we “get wrong.” Some of the things we get wrong may cause temporary pain or inconvenience but usually do not pose a significant challenge to our daily lives. But getting the gospel right has eternal implications. R.C. Sproul addresses this matter in his book, Getting the Gospel Right. Originally published in 1999, Baker Books has repackaged this timely book for a new audience that probably never had the chance to read the original work.

The book includes three parts. Part One discusses the Controversy Concerning the Gospel. The debate reaches back to the sixteenth century when Luther boldly challenged the doctrinal underpinnings of the Roman Catholic church.

Dr. Sproul helps readers determine the marks of a true church which is distinguished by the faithful proclamation of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments (or ordinances for Baptist readers), and church discipline. Since the Roman Catholic church has jettisoned the gospel by abandoning sola fide, which is essential to the biblical gospel, one would rightly consider Rome to be an apostate church. To assign such a label to the Roman Catholic church does not automatically mean that certain individuals have not experienced personal salvation; it merely demonstrates how Rome has abandoned the biblical gospel. The author adds, “When an essential truth of the gospel is condemned, the gospel itself is condemned with it, and without the gospel, an institution is not a Christian church.”

The author presents the historical debate between evangelicals and Rome by clearly identifying the meaning of the term, evangelical. The term means “the gospel.” Sproul continues, “The Reformers used the term evangelical to define their movement as it related to the central theological issue of the day, the doctrine of justification by faith alone … the Reformers believed that sola fide is essential to the gospel, that without sola fide one does not have the gospel.”

Sproul continues by explaining the rise of liberalism and the ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) document that “heralded another subtle but significant shift in the contribution of sola fide to evangelical unity.”

Part Two includes a critical analysis of The Gift of Salvation, the joint statement by Roman Catholics and evangelicals in October 1997. Sproul’s comments and critiques are straightforward and gracious. He affirms the points of agreement between Rome and evangelicals but he also identifies several doctrinal deficiencies. These deficiencies who prevent most evangelicals from endorsing such a document.

Part Three includes a detailed exposition of The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration, a document that was drafted by notable evangelicals including D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, and others.

The document includes a series of affirmations and denials and is essentially an exposition of the document, which includes safeguards and doctrinal sideboards which help preserve the very essence and purity of the gospel.

We may get things many things wrong in life. Such decisions may prove painful in the short run, but in the final analysis, such decisions have little effect upon our lives. Failing to get the gospel right, however, has eternal implications.Getting the Gospel Right reminds readers of the importance maintaining our allegiance to the truth of God’s Word. Trifling with the gospel is simply not an option for followers of Jesus Christ.