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Book excerpts

What a Savior! Christ on the cross intercedes for his enemies

In Dr. Wes Bredenhof’s new book "Seven Wondrous Words" (available in Canada here, and in the US here) he shares Christ’s seven final conversations or “words” from the cross. In this excerpt he addresses the first, “The Word of Forgiveness” when Jesus says: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34a). **** Perhaps you have heard of The Hunger Games. Some time ago, it was popular in the broader culture and controversial among Christians. The story involves a young woman named Katniss Everdeen. It is set in the future, in a time when the political landscape of North America has radically changed. It is now a country called Panem and there are twelve districts governed by a central region known as the Capitol. In years previous there had been a revolution. The revolution was violently overthrown by the Capitol and now as retribution each year the districts have to send two young people to the Capitol. The young people participate in a reality TV show that involves mortal combat. Only one can survive. There are all sorts of ways to view this story – which is to say there are many classic themes of literature. For many people, one of the most moving moments in the story is right at the beginning. It takes place at what they call “the reaping.” This is where the two young people are chosen by a draw. Katniss Everdeen’s little sister Prim is chosen. The choice means certain death for Prim. She is young and does not stand a chance in the Hunger Games. So Katniss steps forward and takes her place. She essentially offers to die for her sister. She is the substitute. This is one of those classic themes I just mentioned – something that has always resonated with audiences and especially with those who have some familiarity with the gospel and the Savior who offers himself as a substitute for sinners. But very much unlike the Savior, Katniss Everdeen is partly driven to survive by her rage against the system that brought her to the Hunger Games. Yes, she wants to survive for her sister and she tries to help others survive too – she has a sympathetic heart for the weak and helpless. But for her enemies in the Hunger Games she has no sympathy. Moreover, she also hates the people in charge and is filled with spite for them. She wants to destroy them. In this sense, she is a true daughter of fallen Adam and Eve. What a difference from Christ as he hangs on the cross as our substitute! The first of his seven sayings on the cross is often called the Word of Forgiveness. We are going to reflect on the content of the prayer of Jesus, the reasons behind it, and the attitude driving it. WHAT JESUS PRAYS When describing the actual crucifixion of our Lord Jesus, Luke is extremely brief. Verse 33 simply says that when they had come to Golgotha (the place of the skull), “there they crucified him.” Luke wrote his gospel for a man named Theophilus. Luke takes it for granted that Theophilus knew what this involves. He lived in the Roman Empire and so he surely knew the drill for Roman crucifixion. Luke did not need to go into the details. He did not need to tell of how the rough cross was laid out on the ground, of how Jesus was thrown down onto it and nailed to it. Luke did not need to tell of how the cross was then lifted up, with Jesus nailed to it, and then dropped into a previously dug hole in the ground. Theophilus knew all that. People were crucified by Rome all the time. As you might expect, it was customary for those who were crucified to die with some fairly foul words on their lips. The crucified would usually curse the Romans for their cruelty. They would usually curse the crowds watching and jeering. Under the best circumstances, someone might just die quietly without saying a word. But that would have been unusual. The more typical crucifixion involved crude words filled with hatred and anger.1 Realizing this makes Jesus’ first words on the cross all the more remarkable: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Now as he hangs on the cross, he does the very thing he taught. Even at this moment, he is being obedient to the will of God and doing so in our place. Yes, he is suffering to pay for our sins, but he is also still actively obedient in our place. There is overlap here between what theologians call the passive obedience of Christ (his suffering obedience) and his active obedience. But the thing to keep in the front of your mind here is that this is not just some tidbit of Bible trivia: Jesus prayed for his enemies, for those who persecuted him. It is something he did for you – in your place. His righteousness here, too, is imputed to you, which means that it is credited to your account. This is personal. Do not let that slip by you here. There is gospel encouragement in that for people who have failed in following God’s will in this. After all, it is so hard to love your enemies and pray for those who attack you. You may have failed in doing that, but Jesus did not and God looks at you through him. Your Father sees his Son and he sees you in him. You see, this is not just okay news, this is good news! This is grace. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Many questions come into our minds as we hear these words. Let me try and answer as many of them as I can. As we do, the wonder of grace here should become more apparent. First of all, who are “them” and “they”? Who is Jesus speaking about? Our thoughts would first go to the Roman soldiers who are standing by and getting their hands dirty in all this crucifixion cruelty. Certainly, they had no idea what was happening. They had little (if any) clue that they were torturing and killing the Lord of glory. Jesus asks the Father to forgive the Roman soldiers. But does he also have the Jews in mind? To answer that, we could turn to Acts, which is part 2 of Luke’s historical work for Theophilus. In Acts 3:17, the apostle Peter tells a Jewish crowd in Jerusalem, “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” Peter says that they did not know what they were doing. They understood it at some level, but in a real way they were just driven by what John Calvin called “inconsiderate zeal.”2 They were led on by their emotions. Perhaps there were some in which there was a wicked spirit and premeditation. With some there may have been knowledgeable intention, but not all. Many were caught up in the mob mentality. So, yes, it is fair to say that Jesus had Jews in mind too. As he was being crucified, many of the Jews and their leaders stood round to watch. Verse 35 even says it, “The people stood by watching, but the rulers scoffed at him…” So Jesus is asking the Father to forgive both the Romans and the Jews involved in his crucifixion, for they were sinning in ignorance and not with what the Old Testament called the uplifted hand.3 But what does it mean that Jesus asks the Father to forgive them? Can he even do that? Does that mean this sin was forgiven? In the Bible forgiveness is a transaction which removes an obstacle in a relationship. It involves a promise that the sin committed will never be brought up again and will never be used against the person who committed the sin. When describing God’s forgiveness, we find these powerful images in the Bible of God casting our sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19) and removing them as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). God no more remembers our sins, which is to say, they are no longer a barrier to covenant fellowship (Jer. 31:34). That is what Jesus is asking for. However, in order for that to happen, there will have to be repentance. There will have to be a turning from the sin committed. That is what happens in Acts. When the Jews hear the preaching of the gospel at Pentecost and other occasions, some of them are cut to the heart. They ask, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” We can say this happened because of the preaching of the apostles. We can say this happened because of the work of the Spirit. However, we can also say all this ultimately happens because of the prayer of Christ on the cross. Jesus asks the Father to forgive them, which means he was asking the Father to set the wheels in motion so that all the pieces would later fall together so that they would repent and believe. Many did – thousands, in fact. They repented and sought the forgiveness of sins in the blood of Jesus and received that forgiveness from God. Now probably another burning question has to do with what we are to do with this. Can we pray to the Father for the forgiveness of those who hurt us? To answer that we ought to think about our relationship to Jesus Christ. The Bible describes that relationship in several ways. One is found in John 15:5 where Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches. This pictures our spiritual union with Christ through the Holy Spirit and faith. If we are truly united to him, then our lives ought increasingly to reflect his. Another important picture of our relationship with Jesus is that of a Master and his disciples. All Christians are disciples of Jesus Christ. It is crucial to recognize that the biblical notion of discipleship includes following the example of the Master. Jesus reflects this in John 13:34-35: …just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. Therefore, being a disciple of Jesus means becoming like him. Union with Christ and discipleship are two key ways to consider application here in Luke 23:34. These sorts of notions are in the background of what the Holy Spirit says in 1 Peter 2:21-23: For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. To see an example of that in action, we can turn to Acts 7:59-60. When Stephen is being stoned, as he is dying, he echoes Jesus’ words. He prays to Jesus, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” He prays in almost the exact same way as his Savior. He has a forgiving and gracious spirit. His heart has been touched by God’s grace in Christ and he cannot die like so many others, with words of bitterness and cursing on his lips. Christ prayed for his enemies, Stephen prayed for his enemies, Christians are to pray for their enemies. In union with Christ and as his disciples, we are to pray that they would be brought to forgiveness through the blood of Christ. The Word of God calls us to this stance of grace towards those who might hate us and would hurt us. WHY JESUS PRAYED THIS “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Why did he pray this? In the first place, it was to fulfill Old Testament prophecy. Isaiah 53:12 speaks of substitution: “For he bore the sin of many,” but then it also speaks of prayer, “and makes intercession for the transgressors.” Our Lord Jesus knew this prophecy and he knew this was what was needed. He made intercession for sinners – he spoke up on their behalf before the throne of God. That brings us to the second reason why he spoke these words: to magnify his grace and love for us. Jesus is portrayed here as the priest making intercession for sinners still lost in their sin and still under sin’s condemnation. That reminds us that he cares about us long before we make any moves towards him. Quite remarkably, Scripture even tells us that Jesus prays for those who do not yet believe. Sometimes we have this idea that, at the right hand of God, Jesus’ ministry of intercession only involves people who already believe. We have this idea that he only prays for Christians and speaks up on their behalf. Yet that is actually unbiblical. He said in John 17:20 that he also prays for those who will yet come to faith through the preaching of the gospel. When did Jesus begin praying for you? As soon as you became self-consciously committed to him, whenever that was? No, he has been praying for you all along, praying along the same lines as what we find in Luke 23:34. He has been praying that you would find grace and forgiveness in his sacrifice once offered on the cross! You see, his grace is far more wondrous than we often realize. He spoke these words on the cross to bring us to the realization of that. He wants us today to see the deep, deep love of Jesus, so we would love him in return and long to live for his glory. A third reason why he prays here has to do with where he is in his ministry. He is at the end of his three years of preaching and teaching. It began with prayer back in Luke 3:21 and now it ends with prayer.4 In fact, it must end with prayer. There is nothing else he can do. That hands that healed are nailed to the cross. The feet that traveled from town to town preaching are nailed to the cross. There is no more room in any synagogue for him and certainly not in the temple. What is left for him? He can only pray and that is what he does. When he cannot do anything else, he prays. That is powerful enough. When everything else is stripped away, there often still remains the possibility to pray. And prayer should never be underestimated. Jesus’ prayer was answered beautifully in the book of Acts. We are united to Christ through faith, and as we pray, we can also do so with the hope and expectation that our prayers will be answered. There may not be anything else we can do but pray, but God will hear and answer. Maybe not always in the way we asked or expected, but his promises are sure. He always hears and answers prayer offered in the name of Christ. You can count on it. HOW JESUS PRAYED THIS That brings us last of all to consider his manner in this prayer. I can be even briefer on this point, because it should be obvious from everything else. This prayer is drenched in wondrous grace. There is amazing grace, even if his oppressors are ignorant of what they are doing, even if they do not fully comprehend the extent of their evil, and even if they are still violent and bloodthirsty. What do these Roman soldiers deserve from God’s hand except his wrath? What are the wages for the sin of these Jewish crowds and their leaders? Do they not deserve death? Could not Jesus justly call down bolts of lightning from the sky to incinerate them on the spot? He could stop the wind and the waves, could he not do the reverse and call in a tornado to give these sinners a taste of what they have coming? They deserve all that and worse. They deserve the cup of hell he is drinking. But instead, he utters words of mercy: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” It is truly amazing when you stop and think about it. We hear forgiveness prayed for those sneering, for those mocking, for those nailing, for those stripping him naked. Grace for those hurling insults and taunting him. Mercy for those whose commitment to him flags and fails. For me – and you. He does not return evil for evil. What a Savior! Now you may be thinking: was this not the same Jesus who preached woes against the Jews in the Olivet discourse? In Mark 13 and Matthew 24, Jesus prophesied the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the terrible covenant curses that would fall on the Jews for their unbelief. How does all of that tie into the first word from the cross? Note well: the fall of Jerusalem did not take place right away. In his mercy, God delayed. God gave the Jews some forty years to hear the gospel of grace. They were given much time to repent and believe. Some did. They found forgiveness in the blood of Christ and while the covenant curses raining down around them affected them, they were not directed at them, nor did they have any relationship to their eternal destiny. The central thing to remember is that God gave time. In reply to Christ’s prayer, God mercifully gave room for the preaching of the gospel to be heard among all the Jews following Pentecost. The dreadful covenant curses fell on those who remained in unbelief. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” This first wondrous word from the cross is a word of grace. In this prayer, you can see what your Savior is all about. As he enters into the darkness of our curse, he says, “Remember that I practice what I preach. I preach grace and I embody grace.” His grace and mercy are for you. He uttered these words in obedience for your benefit, so that you are declared righteous by God and can stand before him without fear of condemnation at the Day of Judgment. He also spoke these words to show us, who are united to him, how we are to be a gracious people, even with those who seem to have it in for us. We see grace here and how to respond to grace with more grace. All of that results in praise and glory for the God of grace and our Savior. “Seven Wondrous Words” is available in Canada at The Study (thestudy-books.com), in the USA at Amazon.com and in Australia at Amazon.com.au. QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION Can you think of other examples from Scripture and church history of believers reflecting their union with Christ in forgiving their oppressors as he did? Arthur Pink asserts that Peter’s eloquence was not the cause of the conversion of the 3000 on the day of Pentecost. Rather, he insists, it was the prayer of Christ. What is your evaluation of this assertion? Why is it so challenging for us to adopt the forgiving attitude of our Savior in Luke 23:34? What does Scripture say about this in passages like Matthew 18:21-34? Is it legitimate to conclude that in the first word from the cross, our Lord Jesus was only praying for the elect? Why or why not? As we saw above, Christ’s prayer effected a delay in God’s judgment over the unbelieving Jews. Does this relate to the preaching of the gospel inside and outside the church in our day? If so, how?  ENDNOTES 1 Tom Wright, Luke For Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), page 284. 2 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists (Vol. 3) (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979 reprint), page 301. 3 Numbers 15 makes a distinction between sin committed unintentionally (Num. 15:22,27) and sin committed “with a high hand” (Num. 15:30). 4 Arthur W. Pink, The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958), page 9. ...

Music, News

That morning I listened to Kanye West

I’ve never been a Kanye West fan. About a year ago, I was flipping through the radio channels while driving. I came across a station playing one of his songs. It was one of the most vile, misogynistic songs I’ve ever heard. As we were eating our dinner, I told our kids about what I’d heard earlier in the day. Knowing Kanye better than I did, they weren’t surprised. But they sure were surprised to hear their dad listening to Kanye West last Saturday morning. I was rather surprised too. His new album had just dropped and the title led me to listen. Jesus is King blew me off my feet. How could it happen that the same man responsible for that horrible song could produce an entire album in praise of the Saviour? Who is/was Kanye West? Kanye West is an American recording artist who’s mostly worked in the hip-hop/rap genre. He’s been hugely popular and is one of the most successful musicians of all time. Jesus is King is his ninth studio album. The previous eight each went platinum. Moreover, he’s been awarded 21 Grammy awards since the beginning of his recording career in 2003. As far as his personal life goes, West was raised middle-class by his mother, an English professor. He briefly attended university but decided to chase a music career instead. He was involved in several romantic relationships over the years. He married reality-TV star Kim Kardashian in 2014 and they have four children together. His first album College Dropout included the song “Jesus Walks.” This song already indicated some spiritual inclinations. The song speaks of spiritual struggles but also features the profanity found in so many of his songs. Over the years, he’s claimed to believe in God, and in 2014 he even claimed to be a Christian. However, in the meantime, he continued making music putting those claims in question. For example, his 2013 album Yeezus included a blasphemous song entitled “I Am a God.” In short, while there have been spiritual themes in some of his past work, much of what Kanye West has produced up till now has been profane, wicked, and even sacrilegious. He’s represented the dregs of what hip-hop has to offer. What happened? Early in 2019, West began a new musical endeavor known as Sunday Service. Every Sunday, he and a number of others would get together to perform gospel music. While it began as an event for family and friends, eventually it turned into something bigger and Sunday Service began touring around American cities. That was the first sign something seemed to be changing with West. Through the end of 2018, it was well-known that West was working on a new album entitled Yandhi. It wasn’t going to be a gospel album – in fact, it wasn’t going to have any notable spiritual emphasis. However, in August 2019, West’s wife Kim Kardashian announced that the direction of the new album had changed and it would now be entitled Jesus is King. Around the same time, West began attending Placerita Bible Church in Newhall, California. This church is a non-denominational congregation. Besides what it says about baptism and eschatology, their doctrinal statement is mostly sound. The pastor, Adam Tyson, is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary, an institution founded by John MacArthur. Like MacArthur, Tyson’s doctrine of salvation is biblical/Calvinistic. According to Tyson (in an interview with Apologia Studios), West began attending the church and then asked to meet with him for instruction. West gave a sound Christian testimony and indicated a good understanding of the basics of salvation through the gospel. What he really wanted from Pastor Adam Tyson was instruction about how to begin living as a Christian. Tyson has been instrumental in guiding Kanye West’s spiritual journey. In the last while, Adam Tyson was invited to preach at several Sunday Service events. I watched a video of him preaching at a Sunday Service in Detroit. Using Isaiah 6:1-5 as his text, he gave a faithful and unambiguous presentation of the gospel to at least several hundred people. Kanye West provided a platform so the gospel could be preached. Tyson was also involved in the final production of the Jesus is King album. West told Tyson that he was finished with rap and hip-hop and didn’t want to do it anymore. But Tyson encouraged him to use his gifts in this genre to advance the cause of the gospel. Moreover, he helped him ensure the final product would be free of any serious theological errors. Jesus is King Having listened to the album a number of times now, let me make a few comments. Musically speaking, not everything here is going to be to everyone’s taste. In other words, there are hip-hop and rap elements. Yet it has a different feel to his previous work. I first listened to the album through Spotify, but since I don’t have the premium account, the stream would periodically circle back to his previous work. The difference was noticeable, not only in comparison with his previously foul lyrics, but also with the music. Even though I can’t put my finger on it, something has changed in the sound of the music. One of my Facebook friends noted she’s never listed to Kanye West and never will. I urged her to just listen to the first track on the album. “Every Hour” features lively African-American gospel choir singing – no hip-hop or rap at all. The last song of the album “Jesus is Lord” also breaks the stereotype. This short track features West singing of Christ’s Lordship accompanied by tuba, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, French horn, and euphonium. The lyrics are mostly sound. Check out these rhymes from “Closed on Sunday”: When you got daughters, always keep em’ safe Watch out for vipers, don’t let them indoctrinate … Raise our sons, train them in the faith Through temptations, make sure they’re wide awake Follow Jesus, listen and obey No more livin’ for culture, we nobody’s slave Stand up for my home Even if I take this walk alone I bow down to the King upon the throne My life is His, I’m no longer my own. The last bit echoes the biblical teaching of Lord’s Day 1, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, there’s some immaturity and imprecision in various tracks. Assuming he’s become a Christian, he’s just a young Christian and so we can’t expect the accuracy or theological profundity of Shai Linne and Timothy Brindle. Moreover, while the album is mostly clean in terms of language, there is one use of the word “damn.” It occurs in “God is”: I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cup I know God is alive, yeah He has opened up my vision Giving me a revelation This ain't 'bout a damn religion Jesus brought a revolution Could that be a legitimate use of the word? I’d like to be charitable. After all, there is religion that is damned – the religion of self-salvation and works righteousness. What shall we say about these things? For many people, their first inclination is to be skeptical. Me too. After all, how many “Christian” celebrities have we seen over the years? How many proved to be genuine followers of Christ for the long haul? The Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9) reminds us that there are those who hear the Word, show some promise, but are either seed sown on rocky soil or the seed choked by thorns. Kanye West anticipates this response on the album. In “Hands On” he predicts that many Christians aren’t going to believe he’s the real deal. Despite that, he asks listeners to pray for him. Even as we have might have concerns, that’s a request we can enthusiastically embrace. One of the big questions people are asking is: what happens to all the old music West produced? He was asked this directly in an interview with BigBoyTV. His reply was that no one goes to an Apple iStore to ask for an iPhone 4 – Apple doesn’t offer the inferior product. He says his old stuff is behind him and he won’t be performing it anymore. From now on he claims he’ll only be performing gospel music to the glory of God. True, for the moment, his old music is still available for sale -- though, to be fair, when it comes to music sales there are more players involved than just the artist. There are indeed still inconsistencies and troubling things about Kanye West. Just in the last month, he boasted in an interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music's Beats 1 that he’s “unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time.” While he’s attended Adam Tyson’s church in California, he lives in Wyoming and isn’t currently known to be a member of any church. He’s a public figure and, unlike many other fledgling disciples, his life is on display for everyone to dissect and analyze. There’s a lot of pressure on him and one can only hope that influences like Adam Tyson will prevail. Why should we care? Simply because God can do amazing things, even with the vulgar and profane. Let’s watch and see what happens. Whatever the case may be, we shouldn’t look up to Kanye West as a Christian leader – he’s untested. Finally, if nothing else comes from this, even if West proves to be a false disciple, at least the truth about Jesus Christ was broadcast by him and others for a time: Jesus is King! So, “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18). Dr. Bredenhof blogs at yinkahdinay.wordpress.com. Kanye West picture is from Shutterstock.com....

People we should know

Getting to know J.I. Packer

J.I. Packer died on July 17, 2020, at the age of 93. In this profile, which first appeared in the May 2016 issue, Dr. Bredenhof explains what God gave us in this man. **** James Innell Packer is a rather well-known author in Reformed circles. In fact, many people assume that Packer himself must belong to a Reformed, or at least a Presbyterian, church. Instead, Packer has been an Anglican his entire life, first in England (the land of his birth) and then later in Canada. The son of working-class parents, Packer was born on July 22, 1926 in Gloucester, England. He became a Christian during his education at Oxford University. Through exposure to Puritan authors like John Owen, Packer also became a convinced Calvinist with regard to the doctrine of salvation. At several points in his life he was tempted away from the Church of England, but he has always remained a member. He was ordained in the Church of England, but only served in parish ministry for a short while before discovering his real vocation as a teacher of theology. In England, he taught at Tyndale Hall, Latimer House, and Trinity College. Finally, in 1979, he skipped over the pond to take up a professorship at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. WRITER AND EDITOR Packer has been well known as a conference speaker and writer, but probably less so as an editor. Notably, he’s been the general editor of the English Standard Version Bible, as well as the theological editor of the ESV Study Bible. He’s also served as an editor and advisor for Christianity Today. One of Packer’s most well-known books has been Knowing God, first published in 1973. By 2001, this book has sold more than 1.5 million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages. It’s a book that puts the doctrine of God in simple language. Even when Packer tackles difficult subjects like propitiation (the turning away of God’s wrath through the cross), he communicates winsomely. It’s really not surprising that some Canadian Reformed pastors have even used Knowing God for their pre-confession instruction. It’s a solid book! BACK AND FORTH AND BACK AGAIN While there are many ways in which we can appreciate what God has done through this man, we also have to honestly acknowledge some of his weaknesses and failings. There was, for example, his involvement with a 1994 statement entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). This was an effort to unite Roman Catholics and evangelicals on a common theological basis with a view to taking a stand against societal evils like abortion. Unfortunately, this common basis resulted in the lowest-common-denominator form of essential doctrines like justification. Packer was a key player in the events leading to ECT and a signer. Subsequently, Packer teamed with up with URC pastor Michael Horton to produce another document, Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue. Now this statement, also from 1994, was soundly orthodox on the issues highlighted by ECT. But then, what one hand gave, the other took away (again!). In 1998, Packer was involved with yet another ecumenical statement along with Roman Catholics, The Gift of Salvation. This statement again compromised on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It’s regrettable that Packer has been rather inconsistent on some key biblical teachings. As just mentioned, he claims in some places to maintain justification by faith alone as a foundational doctrine, yet he readily gives this up when working with Roman Catholics. As another example, he claims to hold to the ultimate authority of the Bible, yet is lenient when it comes to evolution. In his 2015 biography, Leland Ryken writes that he cannot understand why some people get so angry at Packer. It’s no mystery: it’s because of his inconsistency. STANDING ON SCRIPTURE However, one of Packer’s greatest controversies did see him taking a very bold stand. In 2008, Packer was pushed out of the Anglican Church of Canada because he refused to endorse same-sex marriage. This came at a great cost – he was defrocked as an Anglican clergyman. We can certainly commend him for his courage. Incidentally, soon afterwards, he was relicensed as clergy and admitted into the Anglican Church of North America. Thus, he continues to be an Anglican, though not in the “mainstream.” TWO MORE GREAT TITLES On a personal note, I’ve benefitted from especially two of Packer’s writings. The first I came across was his volume on the Puritans, A Quest for Godliness. This had a huge impact on shaping my attitude towards those saints of old. For many people, this book has been instrumental in overturning misconceptions of the Puritans. Later, when I pursued further studies in missiology, one of my required readings was one of Packer’s first books, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God. I loved it! This slender book powerfully argued that a Calvinistic belief in God’s sovereignty is anything but a death knell for outreach – quite the opposite. Armed with what I’ve said about some of his inconsistencies, I’d say that this is one author with whom Reformed Perspective readers should definitely get acquainted. Dr. Bredenhof blogs at yinkahdinay.wordpress.com.  THE QUOTABLE PACKER The Gospel in 3 words “ere I asked to focus the New Testament message in three words, my proposal would be adoption through propitiation, and I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that.” – Knowing God Real repentance “Repentance, as we know, is basically not moaning and remorse, but turning and change.” – on Twitter Human responsibility and God's sovereignty “God’s sovereignty is a reality, and man’s responsibility is a reality too.... To our finite minds, of course, the thing is inexplicable. It sounds like a contradiction, and our first reaction is to complain that it is absurd....We ought not, in any case, to be surprised when we find mysteries of this sort in God’s Word. For the Creator is incomprehensible to his creatures. A God whom we could understand exhaustively, and whose revelation of Himself confronted us with no mysteries whatsoever, would be a God in man’s image, and therefore an imaginary God, not the God of the Bible at all.” – Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God Wretched man that I am “A deepening sense of one’s sinfulness remains a touchstone of the genuine Christian life.” – Rediscovering Holiness Faith and works “Historical Exegesis is only the preliminary part of interpretation; application is its essence. Exegesis without application should not be called interpretation at all.” – Engaging the Written Word of God...

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Know why you believe

by K. Scott Oliphint 2017 / 221 pages There’s a need for different types of books on apologetics. We need the books on theory – and there are plenty of them. Several efforts have been made over the years to write books specifically addressed to unbelieving skeptics. However, so far as I’m aware, there haven’t been too many books written for believers at a popular level. I’m talking about the kind of book you could give to your teenage son or daughter when they start asking hard questions about the Christian faith. This is that book. As a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr. Scott Oliphint is well-qualified to write this kind of work. He has a great grasp of the background philosophical and theological issues – and this is evident in his more scholarly apologetics books. Yet he also has a track record of accessible writing for popular audiences – for example, some years ago I reviewed his great series of biblical studies entitled The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith. He’s done it again. Except for a couple of more technical sections, most of Know Why You Believe should be comprehensible to the average reader from young adults upwards. And the book launches with this profound quote from C.S. Lewis at his best: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” That really sets the tone for everything following. One of the reasons I love this book and can highly recommend it is because it takes God’s Word seriously. It takes Psalm 36:9 seriously: “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” God’s light especially shines forth in his Word. If you want to see clearly, you need to see things God’s way. This is also true when it comes to the reasons for believing the Christian faith. The best and most trustworthy reasons come from God himself – the faithful God who never lies. That’s the basic approach undergirding Know Why You Believe – a biblical, Reformed approach to apologetics. Oliphint covers 10 questions we might struggle with: 1. Why believe in the Bible? 2. Why believe in God? 3. Why believe in Jesus? 4. Why believe in miracles? 5. Why believe Jesus rose from the dead? 6. Why believe in salvation? 7. Why believe in life after death? 8. Why believe in God in the face of modern science? 9. Why believe in God despite the evil in the world? 10. Why believe in Christianity alone? Each chapter deals with one of these questions. It explains the reasons and then also addresses responses or objections that might arise. There are also “Questions for Reflection” and recommended readings with every chapter. Just touching on one chapter, the second last deals with the problem of evil. It describes the problem and then explores two ways in which Christians have tried to address it, albeit unsatisfactorily. Instead, Oliphint attempts to offer biblical reasons as to how evil can co-exist with a good God. He points out that God has recognized the problem of evil from before creation. Furthermore, God created human beings in his image as responsible agents. When Adam and Eve fell, God rightly judged their sin. The real blame for evil is on them, not God. He then points out how God himself has dealt with, is dealing with, and will deal with the problem of evil through his Son Jesus Christ. This is a good explanation, but Oliphint might have said more. For instance, he could have added that because God is good, he must have a morally good reason for allowing whatever evil there is to exist. Not every Christian ponders the deeper questions of why we believe what we do. But if you or someone you know does, this will be a great read. It would also make a great gift for consistories to give to young people who make public profession of faith. A 12-part video series based on the book is also available. Here below you can see the episode based on "Chapter 5. Why Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead?" Dr. Bredenhof reviews many other books on his blog Yinkahdinay.wordpress.com. ...

Assorted

Why should we study Scripture together?

It’s too easy to take for granted the blessings God has heaped on us, so let’s stop for a moment and think about several of them. We still have the blessing to freely worship. Not only on Sunday, but during the week too, we’re free to gather together for fellowship and study. We also have the blessing of God’s Word in our own language. Unlike so many believers in the history of the New Testament church, we have the Bible in a language we can understand – and these Bibles are cheap and readily available. Finally, we have the blessing of literacy. The fact that you’re reading this puts you at a far greater advantage than many believers in the history of the church. What incredible riches our God has lavished on us! Do we have a heart for searching out God’s Word? Yet it does seem that many church members take these things for granted. In every church I’ve served, there is always the mass problem of Bible study. Every consistory discussed it. It’s the problem of encouraging individual believers to study the Bible for themselves. It’s also the problem of encouraging believers to study the Bible together. I’d venture to guess that, on average, probably 25% of the communicant members in the churches I’ve served regularly studied Scripture together. Actually, 25% is on the generous side. What can consistories do about it? Here’s the problem: office bearers can badger members into Bible study groups for a time. But if their heart is not in it, typically they won’t persevere. The heart is the issue – and how do you change someone’s heart? You can’t. The Holy Spirit does that. He does it, however, through us. He says in 1 Thess. 5:14, “And we urge you brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” We’re to do these things with the Word of God in our hand. In this article, I want to lay out the Bible’s answer for why believers should study Scripture together. There are two audiences I want to address. The first is the office bearer who wants to encourage Bible study in his congregation. The second is the believer who may be lagging in conviction about the value of this practice. Psalm 119 as a prayer for the way we want to be So, why study the Bible together? When our thoughts turn to Scripture and our attitude towards it, Psalm 119 is a frequent destination. This Psalm extols the Scriptures in exuberant terms. It also speaks of the believers’ emotions/affections about the Bible. For example, nine times the Psalmist speaks of his delight in God’s Word. Seven times he testifies of his love for the Scriptures. He witnesses to the joy that comes from the divine writings. It’s important to read all these things with our eyes on Jesus. He is the fulfillment of all these holy emotions – he exhibited them with an unparalleled depth and consistency. Moreover, Christ did that in the place of us who often sag in our feelings about God’s Word. His love and joy in the Word are credited to us by God. When we see Psalm 119 that way, it puts it in a new light for us. It speaks of our Saviour’s obedient life for us, but also his sanctifying power in us. We look at Psalm 119 as a prayer for the way we want to be. In our new nature, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we want to be like Christ. We want to reflect our union with him – we want to love the Scriptures like he does! When we do, we won’t have to be coaxed into Bible study. It’s something we will love to do because, being united to Christ, we love God and we love his Word. Personal Bible study will come from the heart, and so will group Bible study. Then the rest of what I’m going to write will sound perfectly persuasive. Getting to know our God The chief attraction of Bible study together is a better view of the glory of God. The Scriptures are all about revealing to us the glory of the Triune God, particularly in the gospel. I’m talking about his beauty, his splendor, his magnificence, his awesomeness. Scripture reveals God to us in all his transcendent excellence. When you study by yourself, you will see it. But when you study with others, you will see more and see further than you will by yourself. One person can only see so much. One person can have blind spots. But when several Christians gather together around God’s Word, they’ll find more to be amazed at about our God. He will receive more praise and honor. That’s what we want, isn’t it? Encouraging one another However, there is not only a vertical aspect here. It turns out that what brings more glory to God is also for our benefit. When we gather together with fellow believers around God’s Word, there’s encouragement to be found. We support one another. We pray together. We enjoy fellowship. When it’s going as it should, Bible study can feel like Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” We could also think of what Scripture says in Ephesians 4. There God speaks about how Christ has given the gift of office bearers to the church. He says their work is to “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” They do that work with the Scriptures. Bible study together will likewise build up the body of Christ and with exactly the same blessings described in Ephesians 4:13. Bible study together will lead to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of Christ. It will enable us to grow together in maturity. It will help pull us into the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Two objections Some church members have keenly developed reasons for not going to Bible study. They could go (they have the health and the time), but they refuse to. Let me briefly address two reasons I’ve heard over the years. One objection is that it’s all the same: “The same people talk and they always say the same thing. It makes for a boring hour or two. So it’s just not worth the time or effort.” I’m familiar with this one because I used it as a young man. I remember saying this at a friend’s house and his mom reamed me out. She said, “If you don’t like the way it is, then it’s up to you to make it different. You lead by example. You’ll only get out of it what you put into it.” She was exactly right. Another reason comes from a darker place: “Everyone at these Bible studies is so dull. They don’t have a good basic understanding of the Bible. It’s just frustrating listening to them ramble on in their ignorance. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is exasperating.” The essential problem here is pride. One’s pride leads to impatience with other believers. Bible study presents an opportunity to share our insights with one another. One may have to pray for growth in holiness to do that humbly and judiciously, but rather than flee from that challenge, we should embrace it. Moreover, we need to be open to the possibility that there is something to learn from other believers – perhaps we don’t have the exceptional level of knowledge we thought we had (cf. Phil. 2:3). Conclusion The Bible has famously been compared to a love letter from God. Of course, love letters are mostly a thing of the past, but the idea is still current. If you were to receive a love letter, you would treasure it and read it carefully several times. The Bible is God’s love letter to his people. Why would any recipient not want to read and study that letter as often as possible, both on your own and with other believers? If you’re part of a Bible study, stay consistent with it. If you’re not part of a Bible study, go and find one in your local church. With your meaningful contribution, God will be praised and you’ll be blessed. Dr. Wes Bredenhof blogs at Yinkahdinay.wordpress.com....

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

2 to help us understand the Muslim holy book

WHAT EVERY CHRISTIAN NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT THE QUR'AN by James R. White 311 pages / 2013 More than ever, Christians need to be equipped to deal with the challenges posed by Islam.  We often live beside Muslims, work alongside them, and study with them.  It’s good to have helpful resources to inform our conversations with our Muslim neighbors.  Though it is now a couple of years old already, James White’s book on the Muslim sacred text is one of those valuable helps. White is the author of numerous non-fiction books.  He’s well-known as an author, speaker, and debater.  He is an elder in a Reformed Baptist church in Phoenix, Arizona, and the director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, an organization with a focus on apologetics (done in a Reformed, presuppositional manner). Rather than summarize everything in this book, let me just highlight two points which stood out for me. Qur-an’s caricature of the Trinity shows it isn’t perfect One has to do with what the Qur’an says about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  In chapter 4, White points out that the Qur’an says Christians believe the Trinity to consist of Allah, Jesus, and Mary. Christians are alleged to believe that Allah and Mary had relations to produce Jesus.  This is important because: Everyone affected would affirm that by the early decades of the seventh century, God Himself would have a perfect knowledge of what the doctrine of the Trinity actually says. And if that doctrine does not accurately represent His own self-revelation, He would be in the perfect position to refute its falsehoods with devastating precision.  But is this what we find in the Qur’an? The Qur’an doesn’t get the Trinity right, and so the Qur’an can’t be taken seriously as a revelation from God. Qur’an’s claim about itself is patently false In chapter 11, White has a penetrating discussion about the text of the Qur’an.  Muslims claim that it is a perfect, immutable text. Of course, that’s contrasted with the text of the Bible which, they allege, has been mutilated by Jews and Christians.  White gives a couple of examples from Muslim writers. This is one of them: Muslims and non-Muslims both agree that no change has ever occurred in the text of the Qur’an. The above prophecy for the eternal preservation and purity of the Qur’an came true not only for the text of the Qur’an, but also for the most minute details of its punctuation marks as well…It is a miracle of the Qur’an that no change has occurred in a single word, a single the alphabet, a single punctuation mark, or a single diacritical mark in the text of the Qur’an during the last fourteen centuries. White demonstrates that this claim is patently false. He notes that “even widely published editions of the Qur’an contain information indicating variations in the very text.”  He cites Yusuf Ali’s edition with its note on Surah 33:6.  In The Hidden Origins of Islam (ed. by Karl-Heinz Ohlig and Gerd-R. Puin), there is an essay by Alba Fedeli on variant readings in early Qur’anic manuscripts.  It is simply not true that there is a single immaculate Qur’an text preserved from the time of Muhammad. Conclusion One question I wish White would have addressed is whether these claims are made in ignorance or deliberately to deceive.  There is a doctrine in Islam known as al-Taqqiya.  This teaching says it is permissible to lie in order to advance the cause of Islam.  This is one of the things making Islam such a threat to western civilization in general, and Christianity in particular.  How can you tell when a Muslim is lying about Islam? I would recommend this book to anyone who has regular contact with Muslims.  Be aware though: most, if not all, of the points raised by White in the book have rebuttals by Muslim apologists somewhere online.  The rebuttals are weak, but if you are going to use White’s material in conversations it would be advisable to prepare yourself beforehand for what your Muslim neighbor may bring back in response. Dr. Wes Bredenhof blogs at Yinkahdinay.wordpress.com. ***** UNDERSTANDING THE KORAN by Mateen Elass 193 pages / 2009 If I were to offer a one-sentence review I'd describe this as the most readable and most loving Christian book on Islam I've yet read, and while it isn't a very big book, there is a lot packed in it. The advantage of this “Quick Christian guide to the Muslim Holy Book” is how much it packs into its small size. The author, Mateen Elass, wanted to craft an introduction to the Koran that anyone could pick up and read, and somehow he's managed to make it both easily digestible and 100% solid meat - there's no fluff here. Elass is a Presbyterian pastor who was raised in Saudi Arabia so he knows what he’s talking about it, and can offer a solid, biblically-grounded insight. He outlines how the Koran is a compilation of muddled Bible stories, Gnostic accounts, and Jewish folk tales, and compares and contrasts Christian views on our Bible with Muslim views about the Koran. The only caution I had regards Chapter 6 “Is Allah a False God?” where the author argues that, like the Samaritans in New Testament times (see John 4:22), Muslims worship the real God, but in ignorance. This is a controversial stance – Muslims insist that Allah has no Son – but it becomes less so when the author makes it clear he isn’t arguing for any sort of equivalence between Islam and Christianity or that Muslims can be saved apart from Jesus. Introductions to Islam can generally be divided into those that have nothing but good to say about Islam, and those that have nothing but bad. One strength of this title is that it takes a third approach – the author is Christian, but one knows and loves Muslims, so while he is direct, thorough, and quite devastating in his critique of the Koran, he always remains calm, and never resorts to rhetoric. Understanding the Koran is small and engaging enough to be read in a few evenings, but the depth of material, and the review questions for each chapter, make this one worth reading a second time at a slower more studious pace. Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at ReallyGoodReads.com....

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews, Theology

On the proper role of Government (and the footnoted Belgic Confession article 36)

A review of P.J. Hoedemaker’s Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper  ***** Anyone who has ever studied the Belgic Confession, even on a superficial level, is aware of an oddity in article 36. This is the only place in the Three Forms of Unity where we find a footnote in most versions of the Confession. Whether it is the United Reformed, Canadian Reformed, or Protestant Reformed Churches in North America, or the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, all have an additional footnote. Article 36 is titled “The Civil Government” or sometimes “Of Magistrates” and addresses what we confess about the role of the government. The relevant text in the body of the confession originally read: task of restraining and sustaining is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed, the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word. (Italics added) But the clauses that I've italicized above were moved from the body and relegated to footnote status a century ago, as is explained in the Canadian Reformed edition here: The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed. I’ve been a pastor in both the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and to my knowledge, neither federation has ever made an official decision about the status of this footnote. Do we confess this or not? It is an odd ambiguity in our Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort). FOOTNOTE'S BACKGROUND That’s why it was with great interest that I began reading a small book, recently translated, on this very topic. Article 36…vindicated against Dr. Abraham Kuyper comes from the controversy which led to the words being deleted in 1905. It provides some of the historical background, illustrating that the deletion was not without its opponents. This book also provides an occasion to reflect on whether it may be time to revisit the matter in an official, ecclesiastical way. The author, Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker (1839-1910), was a curious figure. While he grew up in a family with roots in the 1834 Secession (in which a number of congregations split from the Dutch national church) he himself became a minister in the Dutch national church. However, unlike so many others in the State church, Hoedemaker was a conservative, and confessionally Reformed. This book is a response to a series of articles written by Dutch theologian and journalist (and future Dutch prime minister) Abraham Kuyper in his newspaper The Herald in 1899-1900. In these articles, Kuyper argued against the original wording of article 36 – he did not agree with the civil government being called on to address idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of the antichrist. In 1896, Kuyper went a step further. Together with other notable theologians in his denomination (the Gereformeerde Kerkenor Reformed Churches), including Herman Bavinck, Kuyper put forward a gravamen against article 36. A “gravamen” is an official objection to a point of doctrine. These eight ministers alleged that article 36 did not conform to the Word of God and they asked the Synod of 1896 to make a judgment on the matter. The Synod decided to appoint a committee to study the matter, a committee which bizarrely included Bavinck and Kuyper (!). It was the work of this committee which would later result in Synod 1905 deleting the allegedly unbiblical words. GOING BACK TO THE ORIGINAL? Let me make a few comments about the translation. There are a few idiosyncrasies that readers should be aware of. When Hoedemaker refers to "Lord's Days" in the Heidelberg Catechism the translator literally renders them “Sundays” instead. And instead of the Secession of 1834 (Afscheiding), he uses the term “Separation.” Elsewhere he uses the term “Nonconformity,” and I believe he is translating the term "Doleantie." Aside from those sorts of minor things, the book reads quite well in English. In his book, Hoedemaker argues for the original form of article 36. Or, more accurately, he argues against Kuyper’s objections to the original form of article 36. He maintains that Kuyper was inconsistent. On the one hand, Kuyper wanted to honor King Jesus as the Lord of all of life. But on the other hand, Kuyper was arguing that King Jesus has no crown rights over the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of antichrist. Hoedemaker alleged that this inconsistency was owing to political expediency. Abraham Kuyper was getting into politics and article 36 was an embarrassment in trying to build bridges with Roman Catholic politicians. Early on Hoedemaker makes a point I find especially compelling. He alleges that the discovery of “the fatal defect” in article 36 is “not the result of the ongoing investigation of the Scripture; but exclusively causes which lie in the times, and in apostasy from the living God.” He states repeatedly that Kuyper and others were not arguing from exegesis, but from pragmatic considerations and false inferences. The pragmatic considerations had to do with Dutch politics. The false inferences were along the lines of the Confession requiring the civil magistrate to persecute unbelievers and false believers. Hoedemaker is especially persuasive in addressing that notion. CONCLUSION I should note that this book is not exclusively about Belgic Confession article 36 – it also serves as something of a polemic against the 1886 Doleantie (another church split). Hoedemaker writes, “The first step on the road to Reformation is the recovery of the normal relations of church and state.” But in wanting to undo the 1886 Doleantie, he’s arguing that all Reformed believers should have gone back to the national church despite its waywardness! So who should read this book? I would especially commend it to those with an interest in politics. When we have so little in our Three Forms of Unity about politics, what little there is should get our attention. Is it time to revisit the formulation of article 36? This is where I believe office bearers and especially ministers would do well to give this book a read too. Perhaps we need a proposal to a synod to clarify the status of the footnote and perhaps even to restore it. Note well: we are not talking about changing the Confession or adding something to the Confession that was never there to begin with. This is something completely different. In a 1979 article for Clarion, the Canadian Reformed Churches’ Dr. J. Faber argued for completely rewriting that part of article 36. That is a possibility. But if the footnote can be re-examined from a biblical standpoint, perhaps it would be as simple as cutting and pasting the text back into place. Dr. Bredenhof blogs at yinkahdinay.wordpress.com where a slightly longer version of this review is available here. He is the pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania....

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews, Children’s non-fiction

Visual theology for young and old

VISUAL THEOLOGY: Seeing and understanding the truth about God by Tim Challies and Josh Byers 2016 / 155 pages I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies. These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students. They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way. Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end. Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it. Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew. It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style. So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics. All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful. Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things. Visual Theology is different; it has four parts: grow close to Christ understand the work of Christ become like Christ live for Christ. It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented. It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness.” You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ. Visual Theology shows why and how. I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly. As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed. For example, the use of creeds is affirmed; the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted; the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed; and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness. Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election. By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine.” Some readers will detect gaps. Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two. Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings. That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors. Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing. There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace. I have one noteworthy concern: the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism: “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life.” The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said. The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism. As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace. However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position. This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class. For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and more: visualtheology.church. Visual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation. You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying! And you can view dozens of samples of what's in the book on Tim Challies' Pinterest page here. – Wes Bredenhof ***** GOD'S TIMELINE: The big book of Church history by Linda Finlayson 80 pages / 2018 This book will be a well-used treasure for Christian families and classrooms. It combines text, color, symbols, visuals, infographic timelines and photographs to illustrate how Christ has been building His Church since AD 33. Finlayson divides the time from AD 33 to 2010 into five periods: Early (33-500), Medieval (497-1500), Reforming (1500-1685), Missionary (1700-1900), and Modern (1900-2010). These are further divided into sub-periods on the timelines. This book is intended for ages 9-15, but it is helpful for any learner including adults. Within each chapter there are definitions of special terms: heresy, council, creed, canon, Islam, crusade, the five “solas,” ecumenical, etc. The history ranges over all the major denominations and leading personalities of each of the smaller timelines. Some minor criticisms: The maps could be a little larger, and there is little or no mention of the Black Church, Martin Luther King Jr., etc – the ending of the slave trade is there but not their churches or history. The Missionary and Modern chapters need to be expanded to reflect the building of the church of Christ in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Overall, the book covers all the major events, issues, and personages that are always recounted. This is helpful for the intended audience. And the bibliography gives great resources for further study. You can find a couple sample pages here. – Dennis A. Bratcher   ***** JUST THINKING: 95 doodles to noodle over by Jason Bouwman 2017 / 188 pages If you’re a regular reader of Reformed Perspective you may recall some of the Just Thinking “cartoons that have appeared in our pages over the last few years. Author Jason Bouwman, a graphic designer by trade, and a theologian by inclination, has collected 95 of these “theological doodles” and paired each with an appropriate quote, or a few words of explanation, and made the most remarkable book out of them all. Every two-page is a complete though – doodle on one side, reflection on the other, and together they grab the readers’ attention and then hold it. This is a book that can’t be read through quickly – each spread is worth contemplating. To put it another way, this is theology with an artistic flair, and a devotional of sorts. This is that rare book that would make the perfect high school grad gift, as well as a fantastic birthday present for a seminary professor; we’ve given copies to our teenage nephews as well as to our 80-year-old aunt. Bouwman has crafted something remarkable here, somehow managing to package “insightful and challenging” with “accessible and creative.” I can’t recommend it enough. You can order a copy and see sample pages at JustThinkingBook.com. – Jon Dykstra *****...

Adult non-fiction

BOOK REVIEW: Greg Koukl's "The Story of Reality"

The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important That Happens in Between by Gregory Koukl 2017 / 198 pages There are two types of apologetics books: there are the ones that tell you about defending the faith and then there are the ones that show you how to defend the faith. Greg Koukl’s new book falls into the latter category. It’s a book written with two main types of readers in mind. It’s for Christians who are struggling for answers to the big questions that come with the Christian faith. It’s also written for unbelievers who are open to considering the claims of the Christian faith. For both readers (and others), I think Koukl has something powerful to offer. The Story of Reality is a basic overview of most of the key elements of a Christian worldview. When I say it’s basic, I mean that it’s not written at a highly academic level. A high school or college student should be able to manage it. However, behind the basic level of communication, one familiar with the issues will recognize that Koukl is no slouch. The deeper stuff is in his grasp, but he has distilled it into something readily understood. A story but not fiction The concept of “worldview” is increasingly being criticized in Christian circles as something created by modern philosophy. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Koukl recasts the notion in terms of a story. In this story, there are characters and there is a plot. The main characters are God and man. The plot involves creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. But unlike other stories, the Christian story (laid out in the Bible) is objectively true — it is reality. Koukl addresses other competing “stories” such as: materialism mysticism/pantheism Islam He critiques these stories and shows how they’re inadequate for explaining the state of things as we see them. He then also provides ample argumentation to illustrate that it’s only the Christian story (or worldview) that can be true. Christianity is true because of the impossibility of the contrary. Readers familiar with Reformed presuppositional apologetics will recognize what Koukl is doing. His method is generally in that school. As I’ve noted before (in my review of his previous book Tactics), Koukl is a student of Francis Schaeffer, who in turn had been a student of Cornelius Van Til. Van Til was one of the pioneers of Reformed presuppositional apologetics. One of the key features of that school is a commitment to the place of Scripture in apologetics, not only as a foundation, but also as part of the actual method. Similarly, throughout The Story of Reality, Koukl is constantly either quoting or, more often, paraphrasing the Bible. This is highly commendable! Couple of cautions This is not to say that Koukl is always consistently in the Reformed school of apologetics. There are a couple of places where I put some question marks. In chapter 21, he discusses faith. He correctly notes that faith, in itself, does not save. Rather, faith is the instrument through which we are saved. Then he writes this: "This is why reason and evidence matter in the story. It is critical to get certain facts right. Put simply — reason assesses, faith trusts. That is the relationship of reason to faith. Reason helps us know what is actually true, leading to accurate belief. Faith is our step of trust to rely on what we have good reason to believe is so." There is some truth in this. You can say that faith needs and uses reason as a tool. However, there are also important limits to this. Above all, the unregenerate mind misuses and abuses reason because of sin. Unregenerate reasoning is not going to assess facts correctly. Deadened by sin, reason does not help you know what is actually true. Moreover, even when regeneration comes into the picture, human reason is going to run stuck with certain pieces of the Christian worldview (or story). Think of the Trinity. Reason assesses that doctrine and says, “Sorry, it doesn’t make sense.” Does faith then stop trusting? Faith has reasons for believing in the Trinity, but those reasons come down to the faithfulness and reliability of the One who revealed it to us, not the logical self-evidence of it. There were a few other questionable statements. In this blog post, I interacted with his suggestion on page 51 that the Big Bang is compatible with Genesis. In chapter 11, he opines that the Bible teaches that animals have souls. The biblical evidence offered for this is debatable. One addition would have been good I also want to draw attention to an omission. The subtitle tells us that the book will tell us “everything important that happens in between” the beginning and the end. But in Koukl’s story, an important part is missing. It’s the part where the lives of believers are transformed by the gospel. It’s the part where the Holy Spirit works to change us and make us into new people who take every thought captive for Christ in every area of life. I was hoping to read at least a paragraph, preferably a chapter, about that vital and wonderful part of the Story. It’s incomplete without it. A book worth buying for – and reading with – a friend Despite my criticisms, overall this is a well-written and well-argued book. Koukl deftly anticipates questions and objections. He uses helpful illustrations. The chapters are of such a length as not to be intimidating. If you know an unbeliever who is showing interest in the faith, I’d suggest buying two copies — one for yourself, and one for her or him. Offer to read it together and discuss it. You’d for sure find yourself enriched and, who knows, perhaps it would be God’s instrument to work faith in the heart of your friend too. For 5 great quotes from "The Story of Reality" click here. Dr. Bredenhof blogs at Creation Without Compromise and Yinkahdinay where this article first appeared. It is reprinted here with permission....

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Good habits help us minimize trouble...

Though his name has long escaped me, I will never forget his rage.  We had just moved to a new city and my mom was looking for a family dentist. Why a relative recommended this fellow, I'll never understand – he was the angriest dentist I’ve ever encountered.  His patience for children was non-existent.  Once the door was closed and I was cut off from my mother, if my mouth didn’t open wide enough, his mouth opened wide with the most foul cursing I’d ever heard, all directed at me.  Thankfully, Mom only took us there a couple of times. While our next dentist was a far kinder man, his dental hygienist was another story. I called her “Carol the Butcher” as there was a butcher shop next door and I was quite convinced she went back and forth. These two forever put the fear of dentistry (ondontophobia) in my blood. It can be hard to get past traumatic childhood experiences.  As a result, I’ve always hated going to the dentist: the blood, the pain, the way my body seizes up in the chair.  I come away sore and worn right out. Minimizing trouble Eventually it dawned on me that I could minimize some of my trouble through regular dental hygiene.  Other, more friendly, dental hygienists down the track taught me some helpful disciplines.  I learned that regular brushing with a soft toothbrush was a key.  I couldn’t really floss because I have sensitive gums (and I’m a bit clumsy), but a hygienist recommended some soft inter-dental brushes that could help in cleaning between my teeth.  Regularly using these would make my visits to the dentist a bit less traumatic.  As I developed better habits in dental hygiene (with some helpful tips), I was experiencing far less grief in the dental chair. So much of our grief in life can be alleviated through developing good habits.  Sometimes we just need to be taught.  At other times, we need to become teachable and it can take some time.  This is true when it comes to dental hygiene, but also when it comes to spiritual hygiene. I’ve learned that developing good spiritual habits or disciplines is just as valuable to our spiritual health as good habits are to our dental hygiene.  When you ignore your spiritual hygiene, you oftentimes bring grief on yourself.  For example, if you think that you can be spiritually healthy while seldom going to church to be under the Word, you’re just deceiving yourself.  It’d be like thinking that you’re going to have healthy teeth while seldom brushing.  Or if you think that you can be spiritually sound without reading and studying the Bible for yourself on a regular basis, you’re in a dream-world.  It’d be like thinking that your next dental visit will go fine without you having regularly flossed, or using something like an inter-dental brush.  Good hygiene is essential to good health — and it always requires effort and discipline. A good habit for my soul My lowest points, spiritually speaking, have always come when I’ve been neglecting discipline in my spiritual life, especially the reading and study of God’s Word.  I will always be thankful for an elder who challenged me on this point about five years ago.  You may think it odd for a pastor to admit this.  It’s true that I’m always busy with the Bible, but usually I’m busy with it for the benefit of others.  Yes, I’ve always gotten some benefit from it too.  But this elder challenged me to be busy with Scripture on a daily basis for my own benefit.  He said, “Have you ever tried reading through the Bible in a year?”  I hadn’t up to that point, but he really got me thinking.  I was getting into good habits for my dental health, but what about good habits for my spiritual health?  And which is more important?  The Lord worked through that elder to introduce me to the habit of reading Scripture every day, two or three chapters, for my own benefit.  Good dental hygienists introduced me to good habits for my teeth; a good elder introduced me to a good habit for my soul.  For both, I’m forever grateful. Looking for a Bible reading plan to start on a good habit for your spiritual health?  Here’s a place to start. Dr. Wes Bredenhof is the pastor of Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania, and blogs at Yinkahdinay where a version of this article first appeared....