Book Review – Early Christian Martyr Stories by Bryan Litfin

July 15, 2015

The evangelical church, is beginning to see the value in studying the early church fathers. A slew of recent books from the likes of Haykin and Litfin among many more specialized studies, has reawakened the usefulness of the early church fathers (and mothers) to help in our own understanding of theology and living the Christian life today. Bryan Litfin has offered us another look into the early church, in particular with the martyrs of the early church in his book, Early Christian Martyr Stories. Here, Litfin provides for us a very readable, engaging, and useful tool in evaluating our own Christian devotion in light of the devotion of the early church.

After an introduction to Christian martyrdom Litfin begins to introduce us to the major martyrs of the early church period. Through brief, yet complete and interesting introductions, Litfin sets the contextual stage for the account of each martyr’s death to be understood. He begins in the pre-New Testament period with the Maccabean martyrs, and then the Apostolic martyrs, Peter and Paul, and then moves through those who have been martyred (Perpetua and Felicity for example), or those who have written on martyrdom (Augustine for example) within the early church. Following each introduction, Litfin rightly gives us the text as it was written and offers helpful editorial comments throughout. It’s important to let these early church writers speak for themselves first, and then through the helpful guidance of Litfin, see how their stories and their writings speak to us today.

In our easy, McDonald’s, “have it your way,” culture in the church in North America and the West, this reminder of what extreme devotion to Jesus looks like should be sobering, challenging, and encouraging to the broader church of Christ. Litfin offers four points of contact in which we can learn from these martyrs:

  1. The martyrs refused to make Jesus into just another god.
  2. The martyrs counted the cost and gave up everything.
  3. The martyrs were utterly confident in their eternal hope.
  4. The martyrs call us into unity with the ancient church.

So, take up and read and be challenged by both the writings concerning martyrs and martyrdom and the wise guidance of Litfin. Your life will be forever challenged and changed by the boundless devotion of these men and women for Jesus Christ.

Book Review – The Gospel Transformation Bible (ESV)

July 15, 2015

With the multiplicity of study Bibles available on the market, is there a need for another? The short answer is yes. There is always need for additional refinement in making God’s Word clear, but in updating the language of the actual text, and in the notes that correspond to that text. And while I was a huge fan of the ESV Study Bible, the new Gospel Transformation Bible, is my new go-to recommendation for new and seasoned Christians.

One of my biggest concerns in our churches is the rather piecemeal way that most Christians understand the Bible. They understand it in books and chapters, and struggle to put it together in one overarching thematic whole, especially as it relates to God’s progress of redemption and the centrality of Christ in all of God’s Word. The flourishing of the current revival of Biblical Theology,* in our churches has really improved on this area, but most Christians still struggle to put all of God’s Word together. Here’s a way for students of God’s Word, to follow the overall message of how God is bringing a people together for Himself by the redemptive work of Christ. The Gospel Transformation Bible does just that.

With helpful introductions as to details about each book, and good details throughout, you will find how God’s Word all ties together. For instance, in a book I recently taught through on Wednesday nights, Obadiah, it’s difficult to see how it fits within God’s larger purposes. Yet, the introduction identifies areas where the Gospel is found in Obadiah:

  1. Obadiah’s mentions of hope and salvation may be an extension of Amos 9:11-12, immediately preceding Obadiah in our Bibles. The restoration of the Davidic kingdom through the Messiah would restore Judah’s fortunes but would also include a remnant of Edom. This remnant will worshi pthe Lord at his consummation.
  2. The Judah-Edom relationship must be read in light of the Jacob-Esau relationship. They strove against each other, but God sovereignly picked one. This is a reflection of his electing grace even here in Obadiah, of Judah over Edom.
  3. Any blessings in the Judah-Edom relationship (perhaps a remnant of Edom) are due to God’s grace, because neither Jacob nor Esau lived according to God’s plans for them in his covenant.

Connecting this to the NT the writer of the notes helps us to see how this Jacob-Esau dynamic relates to us in the Gospel.

This is the kind of interconnectedness that we need in the church today. When our understanding of God, His plans, and His Word are so piecemeal, a resource like the Gospel Transformation Bible, is of vital need in our churches. My plans are to put one in the hands of every new member of our church!

*For a number of good recommendations in this area consider Chris Bruno’s, The Whole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses, Jim Hamilton’s, What is Biblical Theology?, Michael Lawrence’s, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, and anything by Graeme Goldworthy.

Book Review – Marie Durand by Simonetta Carr

July 15, 2015

The historical anemia in the church overall is very frustrating for those who see the vital need to know our history as we move forward in the Church. Especially difficult is the task of teaching said history to our children. Thankfully, a number of new books presents the heroes of our faith, heroes because they make Christ the hero of their lives, for children of various ages and levels. Simonetta Carr’s excellent series, Christian Biographies for Young Readers, are wonderful introductions to many of the church’s choice servants. Her newest on little-known Marie Durand, is just as wonderful as her previous ones.

Durand, a protestant Christian during the reign of Louis XV in France, found herself spending 38 years in prison simply because she would not recant her protestant faith. Her love and care for the church, the neglected women and children who were imprisoned with her, all a demonstration of her love and devotion to Christ alone, are beautifully told here in word and image. The illustrations by Matt Abraxas are wonderfully helpful in developing for us a “picture” of Durand’s life and trials. Upper elementary students will gain much needed perspective on the lives of Christians, and what true devotion to Christ looks like for the believer.

I would heartily recommend Carr’s volume here on Durand, and all of her previous and forthcoming ones. Buy them. Read them. Have your children read them. One of the greatest ways of passing on the faith once for all delivered to the saints, is to do so through the context of those said saints who held onto that faith in days gone by.

Book Review – Passing Through by Jeremy Walker

July 15, 2015

 I’ve been thinking a lot about the pilgrim nature of our lives as Christians. In particular, with so many rapid changes in our culture here in the West, I’m reminded that I’m just passing through and that this world is not my home. Jeremy Walker’s new book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness, is such a breath of fresh air for the Christian that I cannot recommend it heartily enough.

Walker, a pastor in England, is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. His informed theology, pastoral warmth, and active service for Christ plays out in all of his works and is just as present here in Passing Through.

As Christians we vacillate between isolationist (just gotta endure until the Lord comes) and over-engagement (going to create me a Christian culture on earth). Yet, the reality is, we are travelers making our way to the Celestial City (in the words of Bunyan), and while we will seek “the welfare of the city” (in the words of Jeremiah) this world is not our home. We are aliens and strangers and our citizenship is in heaven.

On that note, Walker brings a helpful balance to our identity as strangers and pilgrims. He helps us to understand our enemy while we travel here on earth, know our battles and our mission, and teaches us how to live in and appreciate the beauty of this world as we anticipate our final destiny of living with Christ for all eternity. Pastors and teachers would be well served to work through the various elements that Walker presents for us in a series to help the many people in our churches who do not know where they are going, how they should get there, and what they should do while they’re here.

I would strongly suggest Christians in the West think through Walker’s teachings here. On that note, I will leave you with the final though from Walker himself, which sums up why this concept of “pilgrimage” is something to be rediscovered in hte church,

And so we live as a pilgrim people, separated to God, engaging for God, citizens of Christ’s heavenly kingdom, seeking His glory every step of the way, living and dying to that end, waiting for His return, pressing on, passing through.

Now What?

June 29, 2015
Thus far I have resisted addressing the recent SCOTUS ruling that came down on Friday. It’s not that I don’t have opinions on the matter (we all know that’s not true), nor do I think they are not worth sharing (because I think one of my jobs as pastor is to respond to cultural issues), but because I wanted to take some time to formulate the best response on the issue. Despite some people online implying that pastor’s who didn’t address the issue this past Lord’s Day are wishy-washy and you should look for new churches, I didn’t want to interrupt the momentum our church was working on with our series on prayer. Plus, just a week and a half ago I posted my entry on gay marriage that cost me my regular column in the Hudson Valley News. So, my position is hardly surprising. But now that the Lord’s Day is over, I’ve felt it important to respond now, and ask the question, now what?

Let’s start with a few foundational truths we all know:

  1. God is in control. Our sovereign God was not surprised by this event, nor was He attempting damage control in some board room in anticipation of a press conference following the announcement.
  2. Just because SCOTUS rules on something does not make it true, it simply makes it legal. When SCOTUS ruled in Dredd Scott vs. Sandford that African-Americans could not be American Citizens and therefore not have standing in Federal Court to sue for their freedom, it did not make it morally right. In Roe vs. Wade, SCOTUS determined that privacy laws under the due process clause of the 14th amendment allowed women to have abortions. Both of these positions were morally wrong. Just because SCOTUS rules does not make it true.
  3. Despite the left’s intention that opening the doors for same-sex marriage would not lead to other forms of marriage, like polygamy, this very thing is beginning to already be addressed. The slippery slope had begun despite all attempts to argue otherwise.
  4. While business is usual for churches, the claims from the left that churches would continue to be free to do their own thing is already being challenged in the public square. The next step is potentially removing tax exempt statuses from churches.
  5. It seems clear that despite claims to otherwise, the intention is not just equalization among people regarding marriage, but moral acceptance of said positions as well.
Now, where do we go from here? Despite the unique argumentation upon which the SCOTUS majority legislated their position (dignity in the 14th amendment which is not a usual basis for the interpretation of law, and the disavowal of tradition and history which is a common basis for the interpretation of law), there’s probably not much that the church can do on a political level. 57% of Americans approved of this decision. Even within Christendom the cheers go on for “equal rights.” Yet, there is a serious issue with a country that approves en masse something that God disapproves of. 

In some ways, like Dredd Scott and Roe v. Wade, we see here one of the single biggest institutionalization of something for which God’s Word is opposed to. Slavery, while described and regulated in the Bible due to historical context, was something to which the church was moving out of (1 Corinthians 7:21). Abortion, or the murder of children in the womb, is clearly opposed by precept and the warp and woof of Scripture. And finally, there can be little doubt that Scripture describes homosexuality as sin. God has already identified His judgment against those who call evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20).  

Hence the church cannot rightly rejoice in this ruling, because by judicial fiat the US government has now made legal something outside of the will of God. While we can acknowledge that in a sinful state this is something that is bound to happen, we still need not rejoice along with everyone else. Yet, what we should do differently?

Not much really. There are two major things we should do, which is exactly what the church has been doing since the very beginning:
  1. Love all people, no matter their sinfulness and provide for them the hope of the Gospel that God has promised to all of us who are sinners.
  2. Continue to teach and practice the truth. Just because something is acceptable in popular opinion doesn’t mean that we should hesitate from identifying sin and offering the solution: Jesus Christ.
So friends, it’s business as usual. We will continue as a church to preach that all people are sinners and are under just condemnation. God does not excuse sin just because it is politically popular or because of majority position. God does not excuse sin, but He does forgive sin. So while we will preach condemnation for all sinners, liars, cheats, adulterers, and homosexuals, we will also preach forgiveness and peace in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This SCOTUS decision, in the end, isn’t the important decision. The only important decision is the decision that God made in sending His Son to die for sinners and rise again for eternal life. Pray for sinners, love sinners, teach the Gospel to sinners. That’s the answer to the SCOTUS decision.

The Other Side…

June 24, 2015

Until just this week, I wrote a semi-regular column for the Hudson Valley News. In response to a previous columnist’s work on speaking positively about his church’s acceptance of homosexuality, I sought to write a fair and balanced treatment on the other side of the equation. That column was too much for my editor who found it offensive and canceled my column for future issues of the paper. I think the issue though, is of great importance, and so I include that column here for a wider readership. I noted to my editor, it was not with me he was offended, but what God’s Word taught.

The times sure are changing. Cultural mores of which we have been used to for generations are quickly being discarded for the sake of toleration (although those who are opposed to such abandonment are usually not privy to toleration). Rarely, if ever, are underlying philosophical and worldview issues behind these changes examined by the average person. People today are simply willing to go with the ebb and flow of the prevailing thought of the culture, especially as represented (perhaps misrepresented) by the media. And surely, there is no hot-button issue bigger than same-sex marriage. However the Supreme Court rules, there is more to understanding the acceptance of an issue than whether it is legal or not.

I’m certainly no philosopher. My expertise is in the Christian Scriptures. So, that’s the only way I can truly speak on this issue. And while some denominations have chosen to change their position on whether God finds homosexuality acceptable or not and whether or not it is acceptable for the church to marry said people, the vast majority of the church around the world (and in North America) continues to affirm that homosexuality is sin and that same-sex marriage is forbidden in the church. For instance, the three largest Christian denominations in North America (the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church) all see the Bible as condemning homosexuality as sin and prohibiting same-sex marriages.

What does this say about the state of Christian thinking on this most pressing issue? It means that, while there has been some dissent from the majority opinion, the majority opinion is just that, that homosexuality remains outside the bounds of God’s will for humanity.

Does that mean that folks like Westboro Baptist Church are right in their attitudes toward homosexuality? Of course not. Instead, the church should be loving and kind and gracious to those with whom they disagree. But loving and kind and gracious doesn’t mean capitulating to positions with which they disagree or tolerating behavior in their midst of which the Bible outlines as sinful. Sin is sin in God’s eyes, whether the sin of adultery, lust, theft, pride, jealousy, or lying. All sin separates us from God (Romans 3:23). But just because some people, and some churches, want to make it seem like homosexuality is not sinful (whether they were made that way or not) does not actually change what the Bible says nor what the collective wisdom of the church has taught for over 2000 years.

So, while I will not affirm someone’s homosexuality as being acceptable to God (as it is not – 1 Corinthians 6:9-10), and nor will I marry you to celebrate in affirmation that sin, I will love you as Christ has called me to love all people. And love, that abounds in wisdom and discernment, will also require me to tell you that as a sinner you are separated from God—whether as a homosexual, a drunkard, or a gossip—but that you can have forgiveness of your sin and that you can have hope that God will accept you if you place your trust in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:1).

No matter how we seek to twist the Bible out of its context, the text says what it says, that homosexuality is sinful just like all other sins in the Bible. But it also says that forgiveness is available to all, because Christ loved you enough to die for you (Ephesians 1:7). So while I cannot affirm your sin or celebrate your union in sin, I can love you, and show you the way to forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

Church: Pray for Caitlyn Jenner

June 2, 2015
I hesitate to address every single cultural issue that comes down the pike, but with the prevalence of the news media addressing the recent Vanity Fair cover of former Olympic medalist, Bruce Jenner, now called Caitlyn Jenner, it seems like a few important points need to be addressed from a biblical standpoint.

One caveat to begin. I do not know what Bruce Jenner is going through, nor has been going through, so anything I do say comes not from empathetic experience, but simply from care and compassion, and a humble dose of Gospel grace (“There but for the grace of God, goes I” – attributed to John Bradford [1510-1555]).

The first thing we should note is, despite what the world understands, the Christian should judge sin. Matthew 7:1’s call to “Do not judge,” is often mentioned minus vs. 5’s note that we must simply address our own sin before we address the sin of others. Therefore, I carefully acknowledge my own sin, but note, it is important for us to call sin for what it is: an affront to God. And therefore, to cast off how God has made us, in His image He has made us, male and female, and take our sexuality into our own hands, is just that: sin. The Christian church should stand firm on our understanding of sin, resulting judgment, and the desperate need for all sinners to respond in faith in Jesus Christ for any hope of redemption. 

That leads me to the second thing. The call to judge sin is not a call to judgmentalism. Surely, the church has been notoriously guilty of this over the years: an attitude of constant “I am better than thou” which misinterprets our growth in holiness as our own doing apart from the gracious work of God in our own lives. Truly, but by the grace of God, you or I could be Bruce Jenner. That means that when we react, we should not react with a barrage of constant judgment, but a heartfelt attitude of gracious compassion. Instead of simply reacting in revulsion, have you stopped to pray for Bruce Jenner and those like him struggling with the sinful inclinations of their hearts? Have you prayed that instead of them throwing off the authority of God in their lives, that instead they would submit every part of themselves to Jesus Christ?

Lastly, no sin is truly new. We should not be surprised by this turn of events in the life of Bruce Jenner, or in countless other people’s lives. The first sin of Adam, was one of casting off their God-given identity of submission to God and seeking out his own identity as a God-substitute. Bruce Jenner’s sin is no different that the sin of our forefather, frankly, than all of our sins: namely, we don’t want God to be in charge. We think we can do it better. So we cast off God and set up ourselves as idolatrous replacements for God. The result, is our failure to rule our lives let alone our world and right condemnation for our treason against the sovereign God of the universe. So don’t be surprised my friends, but instead, see to it that your heart breaks for those who continue to spurn God and elevate themselves in His place. For their destiny is Hell, just as ours was once before. Pray, and reach out with the life-changing Gospel to people suffering in their own idolatry.

It seems only slightly ironic, that Bruce Jenner’s cover shoot appeared in Vanity Fair. For John Bunyan fans, you’ll note that Vanity Fair is a place where everything to satiate the desires of sinful humanity are sold daily. It is a place of death and destruction that Pilgrim and his companion Faithful make their way through on their way to the Celestial City (in the classic Pilgrim’s Progress). Sadly, Faithful is put on trial and martyred for his failure to enjoy the wares sold in Vanity Fair. Is it any surprise then, that Jenner appeared in the magazine Vanity Fair, to demonstrate how each whim of our deceitful hearts can be fulfilled in what this world has to offer, but in the end leads to destruction? And for those who are Faithful, who reject what Vanity Fair has to offer, they will receive the condemnation of the world that worships self rather than the creator God. Christians who respond biblically to Bruce Jenner’s “transformation” will too be mocked and condemned for their failure to enjoy all that the Vanity Fair has to offer.

Friends, let us not cast stones, for we too are sinners. But we are sinners that have been shown the way to the Celestial City. We must not stop and buy the wares of Vanity Fair. Instead, we must persevere in faithfulness following our God and calling out to all those trapped in the sins of their own selfish idolatry to submit and worship the glorious God of the universe.

There was hope for us, and there is hope for Bruce Jenner. There is hope in the Gospel. Not in Vanity Fair. 


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