Book Review: Jesus Manifesto by Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet

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“Christians don’t follow Christianity, they follow Christ.” This is the thesis of “Jesus Manifesto” by Leonard Sweet And Frank Viola. The authors’ assertion is that Christians have made Christianity to be about so many things: morality, politics, social justice, etc. Though these things may good, or even Christ-like, they are not where the Christian begins. “He begins with God.”

This is a timely book. Not so long ago. I wrote that conservative political fervor was quickly replacing the gospel for many evangelicals. The reaction I received proved that for many, politics was central. The idea of Christ being central (even with political action being the fruit of a Christ-centered life) was unthinkable. No matter where one sits on the theological spectrum, left or right, this book calls for something else: to make Christ the center.

Be warned: this is not another how-to manual. There are no steps or suggestions for how to reorganize your life or your church. Instead, the authors will walk you through an understanding of who Jesus is (making no difference between the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the Pauline epistles), and invite you to allow this Jesus to live in you.

Thomas Nelson Publishers gave this book to me in exchange for a review. I am not obligate to give it a positive review, and quite frankly, I did not expect to. Some of the language of the book indicated to me that this book might represent a post-modern view of a different kind of Jesus that is found in each one of us. Nothing could be further from the truth. The book is about making the Jesus of scripture the center of our lives, gospel, and church. I heartily recommend it.

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Some thoughts on church membership and church discipline

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Most agree that a church should reflect the nature and character of God. Someone should be able to see the goings on of a church and its members and understand something of God. The problem is, that they seldom see truth about God. Christians become torn between trying to display the love of God or the holiness of God. This is problematic. The church that focuses on the love of God will drift towards an “anything goes” doctrine. The church that focuses on the holiness of God will drift towards a harsh legalism, not unlike the Pharisees of the New Testament. The challenge for a church is to reflect both the love and the holiness of God in order to show truth about God.

To better understand how this can be done, consider Matthew 16. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am.” Peter provides the correct answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Then Jesus says a peculiar thing.

17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19, NKJV).

It is necessary to carefully consider a few of the words in this passage. First, consider “rock.” Jesus claims that upon the rock of Peter’s confession (the Greek words for “rock” and “Peter differ), He will build His church. The church is based on profession that Jesus is the Christ; the Son of God.

Next, consider “church.” The ekklesia was a list of citizens in a community that were called out for important decisions, trials, or defense. Jesus, claims that He will build just this sort of group, on the foundation of this profession of faith. This is the beginning of our understanding of a church. It is a group (and I would argue a specific group, though I do not exclude the notion that there is a universal body of all believers) of people that believe that Jesus is the Christ, which has been called out for a specific purpose. By definition alone, it is apparent that membership has its place.

After this, Jesus says something that has puzzled many for years. He tells the disciples that they are given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Some implications here (particularly that the disciples, and by extension the church, determine salvation) seem to contradict other teachings of scripture, so it is important to find clarification here.

A good means of clarifying a passage is to look for parallel passages. In other words, look for the same thing said elsewhere in scripture and then look for the context there to find a better understanding of the teaching. A parallel passage is found just two chapters over in Matthew 18.

15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. 18 “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:15-20, NKJV).

This time, the teachings (found here in vs 18) are in the context of church discipline. Where before they were in the context of what composes a church, now they speak to what does not compose a church.

It is important to note that as Jesus says “let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector,” Jesus loved heathen and tax collectors. Love is not absent from this process. The goal of the process is to bring someone to repentance; to encourage faith and growth. The purpose of removing a person from the church is not to shun, but to attend to salvation. How often do we simply try to assume the salvation of someone who strays? That may bring comfort to church members, but which is better: to assume someone is lost only to find in eternity they are not, or to assume someone is saved only to find in eternity that they are not? Love is the means and purpose of this process.

So what of the difficult reaching of verse 18? The church roll is a testimony to the coming judgment. Both by membership and by discipline, the church testifies to the judgment of a just, righteous, holy, and loving God. By profession of faith there is inclusion. By lack of repentance there is exclusion. Faith and repentance are inseparable, thus they both speak here to the nature of God.

Consider the testimony of the church. Be careful here. Many times, a Christian simply considers what the world thinks. There is a desire to gain a hearing; to show love, so that which is offended is avoided. Motives are good here, but the method of considering what the world thinks is questionable. Instead, consider the testimony that the Lord calls a church to show.

Consider three applications here: 1) With no regard to membership or discipline, we lack a good testimony. 2) If we do not show holiness (that is, have no discipline), we testify that God is not good. 3) If we so not show love, we testify that God is not love.

Having considered these things, let me challenge you to do the following:

1) Honor scripture. No matter how difficult, seek to apply these important doctrines.
2) In every aspect of your church, ask, “What does this say about God?”
3) Shore up membership. Seek to display an honest testimony and seek to call brothers and sisters in Christ to commitment.
4) Lovingly hold each other accountable, strengthening each in their walk with Christ.

For further reading, I recommend this book.

Book Review: Mystically Wired by Ken Wilson

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Mystically Wired by Ken Wilson claims to be “a practical guide to cooperating with your brain’s innate capacities in order to experience a richer, fuller prayer life.” Wilson bases much of his doctrine of prayer on new discoveries by Andrew Newberg et al that suggests that the brain is uniquely active during prayer and meditation. Based on these findings, Wilson attempts to show why contemplative prayer practices are affective and how anyone can begin such practices.

It is odd that Wilson advocates mysticism while dismissing the supernatural. In all fairness, Wilson denies being a mystic, yet he recounts a vision in which he met with Jesus in a cave and another prayer where the “presence” of his deceased father sat next to him. Wilson is attempting to dwindle all things spiritual to brain chemistry. In other words, he is defining the supernatural in terms of the natural. He claims that praying is essentially looking “inward.” This ought to be the first clue that Wilson’s prayers have very little to do with Christ.

Throughout the book, prayer is presented as a way to manipulate brain activity in order produce results. Thus, Christ is of no consequence to prayer. This may be very true regarding the scientific link between brain activity and certain meditative practices. It is also true of various drugs, exercise, and other activities. However, the Christian in prayer is not looking for chemistry. He or she is looking for communication with Almighty God. The “prayer” of this book is not that kind of communication.

Thomas Nelson publishers provided this book to me, free of charge, in exchange for a review. One question I am to address is, “Did the author convey biblical truth?” In fact, there is virtually no biblical foundation for Wilson’s doctrine of prayer. Though he does quote a few verses, they nothing more than weak proof-texts. The gospel is absent. The cross is reduced down to nothing more than a “desolate place” of prayer.

There are some that would say that people are afraid of new methods and are thus cautious concerning books like this one. Let me be clear. It is not the method, but the doctrine that is problematic here. If someone were looking for a book on prayer, they would be best to stick with the classics. May I suggest The works of E.M. Bounds on prayer? Or perhaps simply reflecting on what it means to have a life in Christ? Jesus Manifesto is a great resource for such meditation. Someone wanting a deeper prayer life need not be distracted by tricks of the imagination, but should seek to embrace a life in Christ. Mystically Wired adds nothing to such a life.

Fellowship in the World of Social Networking

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I often wonder about social networking. Various technologies has allowed people to communicate quickly and at many different points in one’s life. Where as before I might see a friend and catch up on all that has gone on since our last meeting, I am now able to read and comment on even the smallest details of their day.

In many ways, it’s a great new way to increase communication. I love seeing what is going on in the lives of so many on Facebook, or reading various thoughts and musings on Twitter. However, I’m not sure that all this increased communication it is actually building fellowship. Instead, I think people are becoming more isolated. In social networking, words can be taken back simply by deleting a comment. Friends can be “defriended” and blocked with the press of a button; effectively no longer existing. There is no need for reconciliation, we’re all free to continue on without the nuisance of descent.

We have seen this phenomena grow among Christians long before social networking sites were popular. How often do we simply switch churches over disagreements? I live in a town of 700 people and I preach in one of three Baptist churches. Fellowship is secondary, what I want is primary.

So what do we say about the gospel? We proclaim that when humanity rebelled against God, it pleased Him to pour out His wrath, not on the rebels (us), but on Jesus. He took great lengths to reconcile us to Him. He is a holy God and certainly well within His rights to abolish humanity for its sin, but in grace, He reconciled. That’s the gospel we preach, but is it the gospel we display when we simply erase those with whom we disagree, or change churches because our feelings are hurt? Something isn’t adding up. Christian, we must begin to adjust our lives, every part, to reflect the gospel.

Book Review: The Plight of Man and the Power of God by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones

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The Plight of Man and the Power of God by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones is a collection of five messages delivered in 1941. The theme is the gospel. He begins by discussing the Christian faith in light of the history of religion and moves on from there to cover the foundation of the gospel: rebellion from God, the seriousness of sin, the wrath of God, and the only solution which is found in Jesus Christ.

In the message entitled, “The Religious History of Mankind” Lloyd-Jones critiques the study of comparative religion and its conclusion that religion has evolved into Judeo-Christian monotheism. He argues that the gospel, though unchanging, is always relevant. The church is not to be soothing the world or ignoring it entirely. After all, our faith did not evolve, but came by direct revelation. Thus, Christians have a message of great importance that must be presented.

In the message entitled “Religion and morality,” Lloyd-Jones argues that godliness should be our primary concern. In sin, man has made for himself new gods, one of which, Lloyd-Jones explains, is ethics. Many pursue ethics or morality commending religion as a means to that end. Here the case is made that “Godliness is essential to ethics;” that before there can be a Christian society there must be Christians. Some would argue that a Christian society would produce Christians, making this seem like a chicken or the egg type of argument. However, one needs to determine which is the primary Christian message: to live as Christ or to be crucified with Christ? If the gospel is that people should live as Christ, then nearly any means which results in Christ-like living would create Christians. However, if the cross is the gospel, then only lives being transformed by Christ will result in Christians and subsequently, Christian society. Understand, I am not dismissing Christ-like living. On the contrary, I am saying that the cross leads to Christ-like living (but not necessarily the other way around). Lloyd-Jones reiterates this in the final chapter when he says, “A new society is only possible when we have new men; and Christ alone can produce new men.” Ultimately, “ungodliness is the greatest and central sin.”

This brings the book to a message entitled “The Nature of Sin.” Lloyd-Jones argues that a modern view of sin is that man is simply increasing in his moral consciousness, thus what we may call sin is nothing more than lingering animalistic instincts. Using scripture, he shows that instead, sin is much more. It is deliberate, and it is debasing. As evidence, he points to how common it is to give up worshiping God, and how many view mocking God as a “hallmark of intelligence.” He attributes a diminishing intelligence in society as evidence of how sin depraves: “The modern man lives on newspapers and periodicals, repeats the views of others without thinking for himself, and spends his time listening to the wireless or sitting in a cinema.”

Having discussed sin, the book moves on to the next message, “The Wrath of God.” All are guilty of sin and punishment for sin is evident in the broken state of the world. Further, the Law of God was given, not as a means of fixing the world, but as a way to display the holiness of God. However, people reject the idea that a Holy God would have wrath against sin. Lloyd-Jones argues that such a view is flawed in that first, it only sees “wrath” in sinful, human terms, and second, it fails to realize the essential difference between people and God. Meanwhile, to dismiss the idea of wrath is to “ignore the announcement concerning the love and the grace, is not only the height of folly, it is also to condemn oneself to needless suffering and punishment; and at the same time it robs us of every excuse and plea.”

The book concludes with the message, “The Only Solution.” Lloyd-Jones acknowledges that for much of the world, the only accepted aspects of the gospel are moral teachings. However, it is the most often rejected aspects: of Christ and his atoning death, that are crucial. He points out that the Apostle Paul was proud of the gospel as it was God’s way of saving. Further, the gospel is ‘the power of God’ – it works. Finally, it is a way of salvation that is for “everyone, for anyone, for all.” Having laid out the great problem of rebellion against a Holy God, Lloyd-Smith simply proclaims the glorious solution found in Jesus Christ.

I recommend this book for two reasons. First, it presents a classical view of the gospel.; from the problem of our sin to the atonement on the cross. There are always new ways to view the gospel, and it is crucial that Christians stay focused. Second, the book addresses every aspect in light of the opposing view. Granted, times have changed since these messages were presented in 1941, but the views of the world concerning the gospel have not changed much at all. I personally found many of the points made in this book to be extremely relevant to conversations I was having at the time and to my preaching ministry. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones brings clarity to an all to often muddled gospel.

Politics: A New Gospel

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It is my belief that politics is one of the biggest threats to the gospel faced by conservative evangelicals. Certainly, we could point to various doctrinal debates that cut away crucial theology, but those are, for now, in the left, and evangelicals in the right are wary…for now. In this blog, I want to show you three concerns I have regarding politics, answer some common objections, and offer a simple plan of action.

Politics brings conservative theology to a crashing halt. Doctrinal lines are blurred when political lines are at stake. One only needs to consider how popular Glenn Beck is among conservative evangelicals. Beck’s faith (of which he is very vocal) is contrary to evangelical Christianity. His political views are what are seen as the common ground. Christians are willing to overlook doctrine for the sake of politics. The simple question could be asked, which is more important: sound Christology or political values?

Politics confuses Christians about what is most important. What issues seem to fire up evangelicals these days? Health care? Gay marriage? The Obama administration? Do we not believe that we serve a higher authority? Do we not believe in a Kingdom that exists far beyond the United States, or even Earth? Are we not living in the Already and Not Yet? Why so much concern about the temporary issues of a people that believe in an eternal reality? Do I think these things are important? Yes. I think we should take an active part in our society, living as representatives of Christ, but I wonder why these are often the most important issues. What matters to you more: the passing of the health care bill or the passing away of millions without Christ? Before you answer, could I look for the answer in your email forwards, Facebook profiles, and sermons?

Politics is a new pornography. The sources of most political information are entertainment companies. They are very skilled at reaching in and tickling those emotions that will keep you glued to the set. Your time is wasted. Your emotions are stirred up about something that may or may not be true, and you are essentially being controlled by something other than the Holy Spirit. Don’t believe me? Turn it off for one week. Go a week without any of it and see if you notice the difference. I swore off cable news two years ago. It is amazing how much difference it makes.

Maybe you think we live in urgent times. Are these times better or worse than the Roman Empire? Do we not face many of the same moral concerns of those days? The days of Jesus and the apostles had many political issues that would certainly bother Christians, yet there is little talk of it in the New Testament. Even when given an audience among government officials, Paul seems to be more interested in talking to them about Christ.

Perhaps, you believe that politics is the way to redeem society. Do you also think that you would change an apple tree into an orange tree by hanging oranges from the limbs? No, you would need to begin with a different seed. The same is true of politics. No country will ever be a Christian nation because it chooses Christian values. No law can be passed that will make this country more pleasing to God. If an evangelical desires to make a difference in the world, he should begin with the gospel.

Politics is quickly becoming another gospel. I have known one pastor to say that the US Constitution had in it the essence of the gospel. No, it absolutely does not, as it does not even mention Christ let alone His death for our sins and His resurrection. Evangelicals are setting aside the gospel in order to proclaim conservative values. We are joining forces with all kinds of anti-Christian entities to do so. Scripture says that if ANYONE proclaims another gospel, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).

Finally, I have some practical suggestions for evangelicals dealing with politics.

1) Consider your intake of political information. How much time do you spend reading or watching the news? How many hours do you spend listening to talk radio? Try this: for every hour you spend there, spend 20 minutes in the Bible. If you can’t do that, I think we see the problem.
2) Listen only to Christian leaders who proclaim the gospel as opposed to any political agenda. That’s what we are called to proclaim. If you find a talk-show host or preacher claiming to be Christian that doesn’t proclaim the gospel, turn it off. They are way too far off course to offer anyone direction.
3) Take a Great Commission inventory. Are you sharing the gospel and discipling believers? If not, you hardly have time for anything political.
4) What are you DOING politically? If your best effort is watching and listening while you whine, then you are doing nothing. If after devoting time to scripture and making sure you are following the Great Commission, you still feel that politics is an area of great concern, pray about what God would have you to DO and DO IT.

Remember; seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Everything else will be added to you.

Book Review: Greg Gilbert’s “What is The Gospel?”

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What is the Gospel? That’s a tough question especially for someone to attempt to answer in their first attempt at a book. Greg Gilbert has had some training for sure, however, in his work with Mark Dever, so I was pretty confident that he could do it.

Actually, this is not my first experience with Gilbert answering this question. I have recently read his addendum to Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Gospel where he takes this question on and I’ve had the privilege to hear Gilbert speak recently on this very topic. In his addendum to the written version of the T4G2006 conference, he addressed the debate as to whether the Gospel was the announcement of the Kingdom or the message of how to enter the Kingdom. In a nutshell, he answered that it is both and that either side by itself is tragically in error. When I heard Gilbert speak, he used to book of Romans to outlines his “four crucial questions.”

The questions are brought out early in this book:

1) Who made us and to whom are we accountable
2) What is our problem?
3) What is God’s solution to that problem?
4) How do I come to be included in that salvation?

In this book, he does a good job showing how many passages throughout Scripture outline the gospel in the form of answering those questions. He devotes a chapter to each. First he discusses God as the Righteous Creator. With some clever satire, he shows how many Christians have reduced God to a “kind, affable, slightly dazed and needy but very loving grandfather who has wishes but no demands.” Gilbert argues that in order to understand salvation, we must understand “that this loving and compassionate God is also holy and righteous, and that his is determined never to overlook, ignore, or tolerate sin.”

Next, the book moves to sin. Gilbert explains the severity of sin, far beyond even the consequences of various sins one might commit. Sin is a condition; a rotting of creation, and a righteous God must judge sin.

Having covered the “bad news” Gilbert moves on to the good news: Jesus Christ the Savior. He explains the person and nature of Jesus and the significance of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

Next is the response of faith and repentance. Gilbert does a very good job explaining these concepts as two sides of the same coin; that to have faith is to repent. He carefully explains that true salvation will result in fruit, but that the fruit is never the cause of salvation.

Having presented the Gospel, Gilbert then goes on to discuss the Kingdom of God. He explains it in three ways: “that it is the redemptive rule of God over his people,” that it has come, and that it will not be complete until Jesus returns. Ultimately he points to the church as the intended display of life of the Kingdom.

This book also contains a plea to keep the cross at the center of the message of the church. He discusses three “substitute” gospels. This is the one area of weakness that I found in this book. Its not really weak, but I would have preferred more concrete examples of where Christians have been tempted to substitute the Gospel.

Finally, Gilbert includes a challenge for his readers. First, to the non-Christian, he asks to repent and believe. To the Christian, he asks to rest and rejoice, fully believing in what Christ has done. Finally, to the church, he exhorts to speak the Gospel to the world.

As a pastor, I wish everyone in my church would read this book. It is a wonderfully simple book and pretty quick to read. However, it very precisely explains the very core of the Christian faith: the Gospel.

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