Brothers, we are not professionals (book review)

Brothers, we are not professionals: a plea to pastors for radical ministry (updated and expanded edition)
John Piper
B&H Publishing Group, 2013


Despite not having read it before, I’ve held this book on a pedestal for quite a while. This was thanks mostly to excerpts I’d heard from it, especially an impassioned reading from ‘Brothers, Bitzer was a Banker’ which was one of the highlights of Hebrew class. As a result, it has been on my to-read list for a while, but I wanted to wait until the updated edition came out (with 6 extra chapters) before I finally got round to reading it.
Those looking for a coherent whole will be disappointed. The book is a hodge-podge of chapters relating (to a greater or lesser extent) to pastoral ministry. A number of the early chapters are summaries of Piper’s other books, here focused on the pastor’s work. At least one chapter is originally a website article and chapters are given to issues such as racism and abortion.

Within that mix there’s much to benefit from (I marked 15 out of the 36 chapters as particularly helpful). The chapter I’ve heard cited most is probably ‘Brothers, fight for your life’ (ML-J’s take on reading), and it’s definitely a highlight. Piper quotes Stott that an hour a day ‘is an absolute minimum for time for study which even the busiest pastors should be able to manage’ – and suggests three twenty minute segments. Elsewhere he searchingly asks why we don’t weep over the lost and says: ‘without those tears we may shuffle members from church to church, but few people will pass from darkness to light’. While unbroken seriousness is a sign of a sick soul, we must be in earnest.

In terms of preaching, chapters 13 and 19 (‘Brothers, save the saints’ [not the lost]) are very helpful on the necessity of preaching for the spiritual survival of those who are already Christians. ‘There is not an earnest sermon for evangelism…and a less critical message for the saints to simply add a few starts in their crown’. Yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t preach doctrinally – in fact: ‘A steady diet of gospel messages that do not help the saints grow out of infancy not only stunts their character but also jeopardizes their final salvation’.

One of Piper’s most convicting calls, for pastor and people alike, is ‘Brothers, tell them copper will do’. Elsewhere Piper warns that we’re living in a day which has seen the hijacking of the word arrogance to refer to conviction and the word humility to refer to uncertainty – a day when we’re even further down the road which Chesterton prophesied would produce a man ‘too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table’.

My overwhelming sense while reading the book however was that it could have done with being reduced rather than expanded. 36 disparate chapters makes it a bit of a desperate read, and some could easily have been cut. These include a mild-mannered attack on infant baptism and a chapter with a potentially helpful title (‘Brothers, focus on the essence of worship, not the form’) which ends up trying to quote Calvin and the Puritans to say that the form of worship doesn’t matter. A number of typos also make their way into the text (‘entrancwe’, ‘S’o’, ‘the affections of our people have for God himself’). At least one footnote hasn’t been updated to point to the correct chapter number in the new edition, and it’s strange in 2013 to find another referring to ‘cassettes’ which have long since been digitised.

There’s much that’s helpful and challenging here, but 36 chapters is a tough slog in one go, over a month if you try and read one a day, and too many to try and study in a fraternal. Piper notes that Thomas Jefferson trimmed the gospels with scissors; the reader may have to do the same with this.

Thanks to B&H for providing a review copy.

Can religion and politics be kept separate?

Came across a few interesting quotes as I prepared to preach on 1 Kings 21 a week after the General Election:

“Americans, if they believe in idolatry at all, believe it is a victimless sin…According to contemporary interpretations of the First Amendment, it makes no social and political difference what people believe. They can worship a thousand gods or none; they can worship Yahweh or Allah or Jesus; and it has absolutely no public consequences…This is what O’Donovan had in mind when he suggests, shockingly to many American Christians, that the First Amendment ‘can usefully be taken as the symbolic end of Christendom,’ since, whatever the intentions of the framers, it ‘ended up promoting a concept of the state’s role from which Christology was excluded, that of a state freed from all responsibility to recognize God’s self-disclosure in history'”.

“…Besides, all efforts to establish social harmony on the foundation of theologically neutral concepts of nature and human nature are doomed to failure. To found a constitution on the premise that human beings are something other than the image of God is not to found a constitution on neutrality. It is, so Christians must testify, to found a constitution on falsehood.”

“Scripture does not treat idolatry as morally or politically indifferent. What and how we worship shapes the kind of persons we become.”

“Ahab’s career follows this trajectory. Ahab is introduced as the most overtly idolatrous king that Israel suffered, but Ahab’s resistance to God does not stay in a safe “religious” arena.”

– Peter J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006)

“There is a close link between the command to have no other gods, and the commands to respect human life and property; love for God and love for neighbour are inseparable. It is because this world and all that it contains belong to God that morality has any basis.”

– John A. Davies, A Study Commentary on 1 Kings (Darlington, England: EP Books, 2014)

Side by Side (book review)

Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love
Edward T. Welch
Crossway, 2015

side by side

I heard someone say recently that ministers are spending their time feeding those who are already well fed. But what’s the solution? Stop feeding them? What about trying to equip them to pour what they know into the lives of others? Ed Welch’s Side by Side aims to help those who go for the second option. Welch has a counselling background – but don’t let that scare you off. This is a book for everyone. It’s summed up on the blurb as ‘Practical Guidance for Loving Others Well’ – and that’s exactly what this is. It’s basically just how to be a good friend, especially to your brothers and sisters in Christ. There’s nothing that’s rocked science here – but if Christians actually put the book’s teaching into practice, it would transform our churches.

The book divides nicely into two halves – ‘We are needy’ and ‘We are needed’ – so this isn’t a call to help those around us as if we were better than them. Neither is it targeted at just fixing outward behaviour – Welch makes clear that we need to go for the roots. The goal of the first section is for us ‘to become transparent and humble friends who are at ease with our neediness’.

The second section encourages us to make the move towards helping others. Some of it is obvious – after church, don’t go straight to talk to your friends – but sadly it needs to be said. And to be able to help other people we need to actually care for them – looking for refractions of divine goodness in them and taking an interest in what they’re interested in. Welch then moves on to helping people who are struggling, either because of suffering (the trouble that comes at us) or sin (the trouble that comes out of us). He also includes helpful examples of things not to say – eg Biblical platitudes or ‘If you need anything please call me anytime’ (= ‘I’ve said something nice, now see ya later’). It’s not just practical tips though – Welch does well to tie it all to the gospel story (‘the second Adam, when tempted, trusted the word of God and dismissed the lies of Satan’). There’s much here that would be useful if we want to move beyond the church culture Bonhoeffer recognised where ‘we dare not be sinners’.

While helpful to read by yourself, I think this book could have a big impact on a church if they studied it together. The chapters are short and Welch provides a few discussion questions, and there is lots that’s worth talking through and applying to our life together. There’s much potential here to move relationships in the church beyond the external and superficial.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

James Denney (1856-1917) on J. P. Struthers

james denney 1

This is the second of a two-part series of posts on what some of Scotland’s better known theologians of the past 150 years ago have said about J. P. Struthers, minister of Greenock RPCS.

“…the late J. P. Struthers of Greenock (the only man of genius, Denney confessed to a friend after his death, he was ever intimately acquainted with)”
J. A. Robertson, “Memories of a Student,” in Letters of James Denney to W. Robertson Nicoll 1893–1917 (London; Hodder and Stoughton, 1920), xxxvii.

March 1, 1901.

Struthers has practically prohibited me from saying anything about him, and has indicated his reluctance (which I hope he will overcome) to have the Watch [1] issued in London. He spoke in the kindest possible way about your letter to him, but regards being written about with the sensations of a whelk being wormed out of its shell on a pin point. But there can be no harm in telling what everybody knows—that he is a minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, not an Original Seceder; that he preaches for anybody who asks him, and gets only too much of it to do; that he is a good preacher, the most solemn and the most tender you could imagine, as any one could infer from the Watch; and that his age may be guessed (it is only so that I have any idea of it) from the time when he was ordained—which according to the Clerical Almanac was 1878. His congregation is not large, but his church is full.
[1] The Morning Watch, edited by the Rev. J. P. Struthers, of Greenock.”
Letters of James Denney to W. Robertson Nicoll 1893–1917, p. 21.

On his preaching (in a letter to Struthers’ widow): “I am sorry you think nothing could be saved of his sermons. It was here he was original, deep, and tender and searching, like the Bible itself…”
A. L. Struthers (ed.), Pilgrim Cheer: a book of devotional readings, being extracts from the manuscripts of sermons by the late Rev. J. P. Struthers, M. A. (London, 1924), p. 5

“One of Denney’s most revealing comments on the Scripture came when he was advising his students about reading the Bible in public worship, referring them to the example of his friend, J. P. Struthers: ‘He never reads Scripture as if he had written it: he always reads it as if listening for a Voice.’ ”
John Randolph Taylor, God Loves Like That! The Theology of James Denney (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1962), p. 140.

“To be about to be married is a very fine state to live in if you had nothing to do but think about it; but as things are with me, it is really not without a serious side. It takes up a little time, and sometimes more than a little, and it is also a little distracting. You don’t want to think seriously about preaching, and as a matter of fact can’t—at least I can’t without a disproportionate effort, for all that comes of it. If you want to remain the only man in Greenock that can fill a kirk on the Sabbath evening, abide as you are.” [from a whole chapter of letters written by Denney to Struthers]
James Denney, Letters of Principal James Denney to His Family and Friends, ed. by James Moffatt (London; Hodder and Stoughton, 1922), p. 10.

A few short quotes from the chapter in Letters to his friends and family:

On holidays:
‘Instead of preaching at the expense of your health…’ (p. 35)
‘the only thing on which I don’t consider you an authority is holidays. Your mind wants liberalising there.’ (p. 76)

On their friendship:
‘There is not any hand in the world I like better to see on an envelope than yours. As Mrs. Denney is at home when I write this, nobody has any right to be jealous.’ (p. 41)
‘A letter from you is one of the happy events of my life’ (p. 44)
‘You are the only man who ever takes the trouble to send a line here out of naked friendliness, neither wanting me to preach nor wanting anything else, and I assure you I value it highly.’ (p. 50)
‘And when you come and let on that you can be indebted to me, I feel as if you were ‘as one that mocked’; it should be the other way about.’ (p. 54)
‘I would rather graduate with you than with any man alive.’ (p. 59)

On Sabbath keeping: ‘Sorry I have not even a sentence about Virgil. Have not read him, I think, since you reproached me for reading the sixth Æneid on a Sabbath evening.’ (p. 46)

On the Morning Watch: ‘I am sorry you are getting so little help for the Watch, but really I think it is probably the best thing for the Watch, though it is heavy on you.’ (p. 57)
‘The Watch followed us here, and was received with joy. I have not anything in the house that I am more proud of than my unbroken set, and my dear wife had, if possible, even greater pleasure in it than I. Just now I am reading Carroll’s last book on Dante, and though I have a kind of envy—admiring, not malignant, I hope—for a man who has actually finished a big thing like this, it is nothing to the feeling with which I contemplate the endless originality of the Watch.’ (p. 85)

On humour: ‘Why in the world do you write to me about the humour of the Bible? I mean to hear your lecture on the subject, but I don’t feel able to offer hints.’ (p. 78)

“GLASGOW, January 18, 1915.
DEAR MRS. STRUTHERS,—I cannot say what I think or feel with your loss before my mind. Your husband was not only the greatest but the best man I ever knew, and there must be thousands of people everywhere for whom his place can never be filled by anybody in the world. It was impossible to know him at all without feeling all the love and reverence for him of which one was capable, and it is only this which gives me courage to say how truly I sympathise with you. He wrote me a characteristically friendly letter at the New Year when he sent me the last volume of the Watch, and it had one or two serious touches about taking care of strength and not overdoing things, which I now see must have come out of his own sense of being overdone. Surely if anybody was ever faithful to the last atom of his strength, it was he.”
Letters of Principal James Denney to His Family and Friends, p. 92.

“Struthers belonged to the Reformed Presbyterian Church, although born and brought up in the Original Secession body, and his genius and consecrated life made a profound impression upon Denney. “I have never known a man who had so deep a sense of the love of God, or who so unmistakably had the love of God abiding in him” was the latter’s testimony concerning his friend…Denney loved the Watch, as he loved its editor, and helped it too. He once described the Magazine in these words: “It is just like reading a letter”; and once, when giving a list of the Hundred Best Books, he included The Morning Watch as one of the Hundred… The playfulness and humour which made Struthers’s talk so fascinating, and lightened his preaching and lecturing, were like sunbeams playing on the face of the deep. Perhaps the most gifted preacher of his time in the West of Scotland and a veritable man of genius, Struthers was yet very reserved, very shy, very humble, very lovable. A creator of pure fun of the whimsical order, he had also the touch of sadness that so often accompanies a playful wit. He was at once humourist and melancholian. He was notable as the man who, with characteristic modesty, declined the honour of D.D. from Glasgow University. He and Denney were to be “capped” together, but the latter confessed afterwards to a feeling of relief, as he felt himself so unworthy to stand on a parity with an already so great and real “Doctor of the Church” as Struthers.
The Reformed Presbyterians were proud of Struthers, as they had cause to be. He was their foremost preacher and expounder of the Word.”
T. H. Walker, Principal James Denney, D.D.: A Memoir and a Tribute (London; Marshall Brothers, 1918), pp 15-16.

What does the Bible really teach about homosexuality? (book review)

What does the Bible really teach about homosexuality?
Kevin DeYoung
Crossway, 2015 (IVP in the UK – I prefer their cover this time!)

what does the bible really teach about homosexuality

Christians don’t always want to be banging on about homosexuality. And yet, as Kevin DeYoung reminds us, ‘This controversy was not dreamed up by evangelical Christians…The reason there is so much discussion about issues like abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage is because many have sought to legalise and legitimise actions that until fifty years ago were considered immoral and illegal’. He says that when it comes to cultural flash points, its hardly wise to avoid talking about what everyone else is talking about. And this book has been written to help believers do just that – especially in the face of claims that the Bible doesn’t actually condemn homosexuality.

Before zooming in on the issue of sexual sin, DeYoung begins his introduction with a brief overview of the Bible, and the book is worth getting for that alone. The first half of the book takes on key Bible passages such as Genesis 1-2, Sodom and Gomorrah and Romans 1. The chapter on Leviticus, ‘Taking a strange book seriously’ is especially helpful in the face of constant arguments that if Christians want to be consistent they can’t mix two kinds of fabric, etc.

deyoung homosexuality ivp

The second half of the book deals with 7 common objections people raise. For example, many use the ‘not that kind of homosexuality’ argument, saying that what the Bible condemns isn’t the loving, committed, consensual relationships we have today. Yet as DeYoung shows, and as many homosexual writers admit, the evidence doesn’t back that up. One of the most common objections we hear today is ‘You’re on the wrong side of history’. However that argument ‘assumes a progressive view of history that is empirically false and as a methodology has been thoroughly discredited’. In passing, DeYoung also debunks myths that are often wheeled out at times like this: for example, the church arguing that the world was flat.

The book is strongly pastoral, which is seen must strongly when it answers the objection: ‘It’s not fair’. At the end of the day however, for a growing number of Christians, living with the pain of same-sex attraction is part of their cross to bear. DeYoung also shows that not having a legitimate outlet for all your sexual desires is something that every Christian faces. He concludes: ‘if the summum bonum of human existence is defined by something other than sex, the hard things the Bible has to say to those with same-sex desires is not materially different from the hard things it has to say to everyone else.’

Those coming to the book already convinced of the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality won’t escape being challenged, especially when DeYoung goes after ‘the idolatry of the nuclear family, which holds sway in many conservative churches’. There is some helpful material here on singleness – perhaps not even the best term for those we expect to live a full life in the midst of friends and co-labourers. If everything in the church revolves around being married with children, ‘we should not be surprised when singleness sounds like a death sentence’.

What does the Bible teach about homosexuality? does exactly what it says on the tin. The chapters are short and (barring a few phrases like ‘summum bonum’ and ‘vacuous bromides’) it’s easy to read. For a compassionate, Biblical response to the key issue of our time, this is a great book to read and give out to others.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Practicing Affirmation

Practicing Affirmation: God-centred praise of those who are not God
Sam Crabtree
Crossway, 2011

practicing affirmation

I decided to check this book out after reading David Murray’s commendation of it in his The Happy Christian. He writes ‘I’m amazed that this book has not had much wider acclaim’. Having read it, I can understand both Murray’s enthusiasm but also why the book has failed to have the impact it could have.
A toxic build-up of negativity and widespread lack of praise for others are certainly issues needing addressed. As John Piper notes in the foreward: ‘When our mouths are empty of praise for others, it is probably because our hearts are full of love for self’. As C. S. Lewis once observed, cranks, misfits and malcontents praise least.

Any call for us to affirm others more will lead to objections – doesn’t that lead to pride? How can we affirm non-Christians? Crabtree is aware these will come and helpfully reminds us where the focus should be. ‘God-centred affirmations’, he says ‘point to the echoes, shadows and reality of a righteousness not intrinsic to the person being affirmed’. Yet the constant defensiveness rather spoils the book, and Crabtree includes a chapter which deals with all kinds of whacky objections, such as ‘Should I affirm Satan?’. If the defensiveness had been left to the first chapter it would have made for a more profitable book for those who are already on board with his premise. Furthermore, in attempting to see God’s grace in those who aren’t Christians, he also seems to grant atheists a neutrality when it comes to God, telling them: ‘I’m inclined to think that you are interested in following the evidence wherever it goes, embracing reality, whatever it may be.’ It’s also doubtful whether Ananias can be claimed as an example of giving someone (in this case, Paul) the benefit of the doubt, rather than simply obeying God.

Yet those who persevere will find useful encouragements and practical examples when it comes to a subject which isn’t just an optional extra for Christians – after all, our prayers can be hindered for a lack of it (1 Peter 3:7). Crabtree also helpfully discusses how we should receive affirmation. To follow Corrie ten Boom’s example – take the bunch of roses, savour their scent for a moment and then hand them up to the rightful recipient. Chapter 7 contains helpful practical suggestions for identifying and commending Christlike qualities in someone. These aren’t restricted to the obvious and include things like diligence, initiative and dependability. As these qualities were fleshed out, people who quietly exemplify them (probably receiving little if any affirmation) sprang to mind.

And yet, even allowing that the book is written by an American, there are copious amounts of cheese that need to be spooned out in order to enjoy the meal. It’s there throughout the book, but some of the worst examples are in his list of 100 practical suggestions for those struggling with affirmation, including literally applauding someone and singing ‘Happy Birthday dependable Debbie’.
The book was also a struggle to read due to a poorly formatted kindle edition. Full stops and commas often don’t have spaces after them, and there are line breaks in the middle of paragraphs where the print book goes onto a new page. And whatever format you read it in, there are a number of typos eg ‘is they believe’ (p. 21) and one of America’s best known film-directors is referred to as George ‘Lukas’.
Despite its flaws however, there remains much in this book to affirm.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.