Book Review: Mark Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church

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I have not had many books recommended to me more frequently than Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. As I read it, I could easily see that many of my friends and colleagues have read it. They echo it continuously. Apparently, it bests states the driving philosophy of many pastors today.

Anytime I began to read a book which comes even remotely close to instruction on how a church should operate, I have to ask two questions: Is it biblically and doctrinally sound? Will it work in my church? Granted, if the answer to the first is no, then there is no need to ask the second. Most books of this category end up that way. They are written more towards how to grow a fortune 500 company than they are a church. I’m not sure their authors would argue that point. They may argue that it’s the method to examine; a method that can be applied regardless of doctrine. Thankfully, 9 Marks is not that book.

9 Marks is loaded with scripture references that back up every point. Mark Dever displays his amazing ability to draw a solid point from passages throughout the entire Bible. He does not ever simply pull a verse out of thin air, but rather exegetes scripture to his points. The book is well founded in scripture and teaches doctrine as much as anything. Is it sound? Absolutely! Will it work?

Thankfully, this is not a method book. Dever is simply presenting 9 characteristics of a healthy church. They are:

Expository Preaching
Biblical Theology
A Biblical Understanding of the Gospel
A Biblical Understanding of Conversion
A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
Biblical Church Membership
Biblical Church Discipline
Biblical Discipleship
Biblical Church Leadership

The temptation is to treat this as a method book. As I read, I began making mental notes of things I needed to begin, end, change, etc. in my ministry. Of course, quick and drastic change is rarely lasting and almost always results in more damage than it set out to resolve, so this temptation is to be avoided. Rather than a method to be followed, consider these principles to be a guideline for evaluating a church. The chapter on discipleship excellently discusses this, as does the first appendix.

Once a church leader understands the shortcomings of a church in these nine areas, they work to improve. Each “mark” is based on another, so the pieces will fall into place. This is a great book for better understanding a biblical ecclesiology. I strongly recommend it not only for pastors, but anyone in church leadership.

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Book Review: Scandalous by D.A. Carson

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“The entire Bible pivots on one weekend in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. Attempts to make sense of the Bible that do not give prolonged thought to integrating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are doomed to failure, at best exercise in irrelevance.” This statement, taken from his preface, demonstrates the importance that D.A. Carson places on the cross. It is the center, the fulcrum of redemptive history. Yet, more and more, evangelicals are put in a position to defend or reclaim the historical doctrines which focus on the cross. This book is ammunition for that defense. Taken from five messages given at the 2008 Resurgence conference in Seattle, Scandalous examines five biblical passages and the contrary way in which the cross prevails.

Revealing the scandal of the gospel is not Carson’s primary goal with this book. He does that to some extent by looking at the ironies found in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion as well as the “surprises” found in the resurrection of Lazarus. However, his main objective is to prove that the cross is the pivotal point of redemptive history. It is the central moment of scripture. He proves this by examining Romans 3:21-26 as well as Revelation 12. In fact, the examination of Romans 12 is so thorough, it connects the dots – so to speak- for all of scripture and lays to rest many mistaken theories on the book of Revelation. This book is a great, readable help for anyone wishing to grasp the whole of scripture. Further, this treatise is a comfort to those worried about uncertain times and end-times prophecies.

Finally, Carson addresses doubt by examining none other than “doubting” Thomas. In the final chapter he looks at Thomas’ skepticism, his belief, and the purpose he serves as a witness to the resurrection.

There are many aspects of the crucifixion and resurrection that may be scandalous. What is most so is that it was that moment, that weekend in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, on which all salvation hangs. Carson does an excellent job of bringing this to light and I highly recommend this book.

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.

“One Nation Under God” Painting

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I recently received an email forward. I hate email forwards, but this one actually turned my stomach. It was called “One Nation Under God Painting.” It pointed me to a video about a recent painting. The painting is a depiction of Jesus surrounded by historical figures as well as archetypal American figures.

I am no legalist, and I don’t necessarily believe that an artist’s depiction of Jesus counts as a “graven image,” so that is not what bothered me. I also realize that Jesus was a middle-eastern man, most likely shorter than most people are today. This painting depicts him as a tall, white, fair-haired, effeminate man, but that really wasn’t what bothered me either.

What bothered me is that in this painting, Jesus is holding up the US Constitution. In fact, the constitution is the focus of the painting. The characters in the painting are not looking toward Jesus. Their eyes are fixed on the Constitution. One small child in the painting is reaching his hand out to touch…the Constitution. Oh for the woman who would reach through a crowd just to touch a hem of the Lord’s clothing!

I love my country and I love the Constitution. However, I love Jesus more and I am deeply troubled about this painting and its popularity among Christians. Here is why:

What it says about the person of Jesus:

In this painting, Jesus stands along side historical figures: Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy, etc. He stands to hold up the Constitution. It is as though He is equal to these leaders and His purpose is to uphold the United States. He shares this work with others and the glory is the Constitution. This is a far cry from who the Bible says Jesus is. The Bible says that Jesus always existed with God and is God (John 1:1). The Bible says that every knee will bow to Jesus (Philippians 2:10) and that even nature acknowledges Him as Lord (Luke 19:40). The idea that anything would be held up and praised above Jesus is contrary to scripture and reduces Jesus to something less than He is.

What it says about the Holy Spirit:

The artist, Jon Mcnaughton (not a Christian, but rather a Mormon), has said that the idea of the painting came as a vision to him, So be it. If this is of a spirit, let’s test the spirit (1 John 4:1). In John 16:13-14, we are told that the Holy Spirit will speak truth and glorify Jesus. If the Holy Spirit had given a vision for a painting, it would only be to glorify Jesus, not the US Constitution. Many Christians are excited about this work and should realize that its supposed spiritual origin is not of the Holy Spirit.

What it says about the Gospel:

What did Jesus come to do? What is His purpose? These are crucial questions. Their answers are what Christians call the Gospel. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He came to give life. He came to die on a cross and rise from the grave to redeem His people to the Glory of God! So what does this painting say about Jesus’ purpose? It would seem that the Gospel is more about maintaining American values. Many would say that is a fine cause and Jesus is associated with it. Jesus said to make disciples of all nations, how does this American message fit there? Do we go to the poor faithful of third world countries and say “Look, Jesus came to give us the U.S. Constitution?” Do you see that to affix another cause to Christ is to step away from the Gospel? Remember, Paul said that even if an angel from heaven should preach another Gospel, consider him to be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).

Am I saying that the Constitution is not good? No, I am not. It is good. I’m thankful for it. However, it is not above Christ, it is not the message of the Holy Spirit, and it is not the Good News of Jesus Christ! I urge Christians to live according to your calling. Hold up Christ above even the best of things in this world. Seek only those ‘spirits’ which speak truth and hold up Jesus about all else. Proclaim the Gospel louder and bolder than any other message of our day!

Yes, Doctrine Matters

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Doctrine. Anymore, it’s the kind of word that we tend to spit out of our mouths. It implies stodgy rules and religious systems that we would rather avoid. Why care about doctrine when I can just have Jesus?

Jesus answered the questions best (as He tends to): “These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble.” (John 16:1, NKJV) He says this right before he warns his disciples that other religious folks are going to hate them. Sure, they could have all just agreed that God was most important, then they could get along, but Jesus told them they needed to know what He had to say.

The consequence of not knowing these things is series: we stumble. It is serious enough to demand our focus. In Acts 17, Luke described the people of Berea this way: “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness and searched the scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (vs 11, NKJV). There’s a model to follow!

Book Review: Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology

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Proclaiming a Cross-centered Theology (Together for the Gospel)is essentially the written form of the Together For The Gospel 2008 conference. Reading it is the same as being there, so long as you also do the following:

1) Imagine the voice and preaching style of the individual authors as you read. (Caution: don’t mix them. If you read Sproul and think Mahaney, it will get very confusing)
2) Invite several thousand friends over to sing various worship songs before reading each chapter.
3) Imagine the witty banter and thoughtful insight from the authors after each chapter.
4) Ask a friend or relative to surprise you with new books in your chair every time you leave the room.
5) Have a horse near you. A doll, a picture, a real live pony, any horse will do. You are, after all, suppose to be in Louisville.

Ok, so its not the same as being there, but for those of us that weren’t at T4G08, its nice to have the teaching all in once book.

Since this book is a compilation of the T4G sermons, each chapter, like T4G itself is only loosely connected to any other. The one thing each has in common is a strong desire to proclaim the Gospel of the cross.

First up, is Ligon Duncon. His chapter, Sound Doctrine, is an argument for systematic theology and clear doctrine. He exposes the idea that we could be “doctrine-less” as being a doctrine in and of itself and stresses that the question is not should we or should we not have doctrine, but what doctrine should we have? He carefully reveals the ideas which question doctrine and thoroughly explains that doctrine is necessary and useful and that systematic theology is every bit as biblical as biblical theology.

Next up is Thabiti Anyabwile. Thabiti presents one of the freshest and profound arguments against racism I have ever read. As someone who once made “Jeremiah Wright look like a poster child for the Boy Scouts,” he argues that “the trajectory of race is always toward racism and an unbridgeable otherness.” He rejects the very idea of race, reminding us that we are descendents of Adam. We are of one race. Any acknowledgment of other sources or other races may very well suggest another savior. To Thabiti, the idea of race is contrary to the gospel. He acknowledges that we may have ethnic differences among us, and he certainly agrees that we have biological differences, but he urgest that we realize four grounds for unity: 1) Unity in Adam, 2) Unity in Christ, 3) Unity in the Church, and 4) Unity in glory.

John MacArthur is next. He addresses the doctrine of total depravity. Claiming that “soft preaching makes hard people,” MacArthur calls for a renewed zeal of this once common doctrine. As someone that is often outside of the reformed camp, I appreciate the careful way in which MacArthur explains this subject. This is a valuable chapter for the Calvinist and non-Calvinist alike.

Mark Dever presents a defense against five “improvements” to the Gospel. He urges pastors to “preach the Gospel we have been given” and be aware of various trends in theology that attempt to make the gospel social, larger, relevant, personal, or kinder. He argues that all the good points of these ideas are found within the Gospel, but to focus on any of them alone is to step away from the Gospel.

[For clarity, Dever has included and addendum written by Greg Gilbert entitled What is the Gospel? In it, Gilbert claims that the Gospel is the “declaration of the Kingdom together with the means of entering it.” Gilbert’s article has been expanded and published as a book now. What Is the Gospel? (9marks) is on my reading list and will be reviewed here soon.]

Sproul’s contribution is a look at the Curse Motif of atonement. This is a hard hitting message which reminds us of the depth of what was accomplished at the cross. He charges his readers with this, “That is the reality we must make clear to our people – either they will bear the curse of God themselves or they will flee to the One who took it for them.” This is an excellent explanation and argument for the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, which sets us up for what is next.

Al Mohler provides eye-opening evidence for the fact that a most basic doctrine, that Jesus Christ bore the punishment for our sins, is under attack. As I read this chapter, I realized how much of hatred of substitutionary atonement I have heard in popular Christians books lately. Mohler gives an excellent argument for why questioning this doctrine is “an assault on the integrity of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” This was one of the most valuable chapters in the book.

The last two chapters are meant to encourage, and they do it well. John Piper provides a walk through Hebrews and what it says about the Supremacy of Christ. He concludes, “Let us go to him outside the camp. For here we have no lasting city. But we seek a city which is to come, whose builder is God and whose light is the Lamb.”

Finally, C.J. Mahaney contributes a message for pastors. He understands well, the conflict between a great conference, message, or book, and the day to day struggle of pastoring a “regular” church. He urges pastors to be grateful rather than complaining, to minister in faith (how often we neglect that!), and to love the people we serve. It is a simple and profound charge.

I was introduced to T4G by attending the 2010 conference. It was wonderful. It was truly the best conference I have attended and I wish I had known about it for 2006 and 2008. It is good that the messages are available in this format. This is an excellent book for any pastor or layperson. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, and well worth the time to read.