Strong Morning Coffee and Stronger Morning Theology

I love mornings.  I only wish I had two hours instead of one to enjoy the great pleasure of a strong cup of coffee and a good book.  My morning routine begins with turning the coffee maker on and doing my Bible reading.  After the Bible reading, the coffee is ready and the first book is started.  I usually read 10 to 20 pages of about 3 books on the morning stack.

Sinclair Ferguson, a Scotsman who had spent lots of years pastoring and teaching in the U. S., is one of my favorite writers.  I first heard of him and actually heard him many years ago at a conference in Pensacola, Florida.  He spoke there on the Book of Ruth.  Or as he called it Rrrrrr-uth, with his Scottish accent.  He is a representative of the best of Scottish Reformed preaching and teaching.  Last year, I read his book In Christ Alone and thorougly loved it.

This book, however, is of a different nature.  This was some tough theology, for it was an examination of an older theological work titled The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher.  In its time, some 250 years ago, the Marrow controversy created quite a stir among the Scottish ministers.  Formost among the defenders of the Marrow proponents was Thomas Boston, pastor and author of the Reformed classic Human Nature in Its Fourfold State.

While this is not a fluff book, it is an amazing work, as Tim Challies has noted HERE.  What Ferguson does is to take this old, largely forgotten and obscure controversy and explain in an understandable way.  But his goal was not simply to weigh in with clarity on a historical theological dispute. Instead, he makes it pertinent to modern Christians.  Legalism still affects the Church and the Christian community.  Many think that antinomianism (without law) is the opposite reaction to legalism.

In other words, a person goes from obeying a set of partially Biblical and partially man-imposed laws as a means of or proof of salvation.  It is easy to see how this morphs into works-salvation.  In reaction to this, other Christians oversell grace and freedom in Christ and open the door to any kind of living or acting.  “We are not under law, but under grace.”

Ferguson contends that the opposite of legalism is not antinomianism, but rather is grace.  Also he contends that legalism and antinomianism are not opposites, but are quite closely connected.

Tim Challies writes, “The core issue was whether or not a person must first forsake his sins in order to come to Christ. The Marrow Men, those who agreed with Fisher’s book, believed that this demanded works as a precursor to faith and was, in that way, opposed to the free offer of the gospel. Their opponents taught that the gospel should only be offered to those who were beginning to show evidence of being among God’s elect.”

I commend Challies’ review as a fuller explanation of the problem and as a short way of getting to the heart of this book.  This work is not a “once through rapidly” kind of read.  I already look forward to reading this book again, perhaps supplemented by some readings in both Fisher’s original work and Boston’s work.

God’s Songbook, Prayer Book, and Daily Devotional

I began a project at the beginning of this year that I hope I never complete.  I am wanting to read more and more from the Book of Psalms.  While all of the Bible is God’s Word and is profitable for teaching, instruction, correction, and training in righteousness, there is an accessibility to the Psalms that is unsurpassed.

Whether a person is reading one psalm a day or more, that book of the Bible provides lots of direction, consolation, and encouragement.  On the one hand, there is the range of emotions and reactions of the psalmists, David and others.  These verses range from exuberant joy in serving God to severe depression, fear, and questioning.  Unlike the tendency toward the sentimental and syrupy in all too many modern songs and sentiments, the psalms are fresh, bold, manly, confrontational.  They have more the feel of Aslan than a kitty cat; they are filled with roaring, not purring.

The Psalms are also a prayer book.  We all fall into mindless repetition or self-centered want lists in our prayers.  On the one hand, God hears our stumbling prayers and the Holy Spirit corrects our spiritually mangled grammar and syntax.  On the other hand, we need to pray more Biblically.  The psalms are for praying.  When the enemies assailing the godly in the psalms don’t sound like the particular battles we are facing, we need to realize that quite often the psalms are prophetically describing what Jesus actually experienced.  The Book of Psalms in our Bibles may be several hundred pages away from the bitter details of Christ’s sufferings and death on the cross, but the experiences of the psalms are depictions (trailers, to use the movie term) of what Jesus endured on our behalf.

The Psalms are a song book.  For some churches and for many years, hymnals were Psalms recast into meter and music.  We tend to have a few songs in our hymn repertoires that emerge from the Psalms, most often Psalm 23.  But why do we not have 150 plus songs echoing the Psalms?

Near the end of last year, I received a copy of the Concordia Psalter from Concordia Publishing House.  The picture above doesn’t do this beautiful little volume justice.  Concordia is the publishing arm of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  As such, they publish a wide range of conservative Lutheran books and study materials.  As most of you know, I am Presbyterian and Reformed and am not a Lutheran in the specifics of my theology or worship.  But I love and have profited greatly from the books and materials from Concordia Publishing House.  (I even like the Martin Luther action figure!)

The Concordia Psalter is a gem.  It is a beautiful, handy, leather-type collection of the Book of Psalms.  Each psalm is preceded by a few bars of music.  I suppose the idea is to be able to chant the Psalms.  We don’t generally quote Johnny Cash songs or Christmas carols; rather, we sing them.  I like the idea of singing the Psalms.  I reckon it would help us memorize the contents and internalize the words.

There are also brief prayers at the end of each psalm.  These prayers were compiled by the Reverend F. Kuegele.  As part of my morning devotions, I was reading one or two psalms a day along with these heart-searching prayers.

This book is perfect for mornings, evenings, family devotions, and other times we can carve out for hearing God’s Word.  The book is just perfect for taking on a trip.  It would also make a great gift.  There are several plans given in the beginning of the book to show how the Psalms can read over 30 days or read over a two week period.

Since this book is published by our Lutheran brethren, it is fitting to quote from Brother Martin:

The Psalter is the book of all saints, and everyone, whatever his situation may be, finds psalms and words in it that fit his situation and apply to his case so exactly that it seems they were put in this way only for his sake.

Amen, Dr. Luther!

As if this one new Psalter is not enough (God always overspends on our behalf!), Premier Printing, LTD, out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, has published a beautiful edition titled New Genevan Psalter.  This collection is a hymn book for singing the Psalms.  The Psalms are recast into meter and expanded into verses with music for singing.

I am  still getting acquainted with this volume.  But it doesn’t take much looking to see its worth.  It, too, is a beautiful small book.  (Books typically have aesthetic qualities.)  This book is rooted in Calvin’s theology and labors to inculcate psalm singing in his congregation in Geneva.  We have to remember that the Reformation was a revolution in church music as well as in theology.

For more on this Psalter and the history and use of Psalms in worship and Christian living, take note of this blog by Dr. David Koyzis, who is both a Christian political scientist and a strong advocate of the Psalms.

Let’s hear what Calvin himself says about the singing of Psalms:

What is there now to do? It is to have songs not only honest, but also holy, which will be like spurs to incite us to pray to and praise God, and to meditate upon his works in order to love, fear, honor and glorify him. Moreover, that which St. Augustine has said is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from him. Therefore, when we have looked thoroughly, and searched here and there, we shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory.

This can be found in Calvin’s preface to the Genevan Psalter he implemented in his congregations.

So, Calvinists and Lutherans of the world unite:  Let us sing, pray, and proclaim the Psalms.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year…And Day

The title above, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year…And Day,” refers to the days, like today, that follow Christmas.  The thing most wanted during the holiday rush, from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day, is a time of rest and reflection.  There are moments and hints of rest and reflection along the way, but they are usually just that, moments.  We have Christmas concerts and programs to prepare for and attend, Advent sermons and worship services, gift buying, decorating, and many other things to rush about taking care of.  All that would be fine if the rest of life could come to a halt, but December is also the time for semester tests.  So the pace accelerates, with only occasional slow-ups.  To a large degree, at least for a school teacher, the whole frantic pace comes to a sudden stop on the evening of Christmas day.  Evenings and mornings on the days ahead will be, I hope, a time of slow, quiet, unrushed enjoyment.

Last night, I enjoyed watching “The Homecoming.”  It is a  yearly event for me.  I not only watch the movie, but I read the book.  (This was the subject of my last post on my former blog, and it can be read here.)

This morning, I resumed reading two books, complemented with coffee.  As I have often said and blogged, I need a book that is primarily prying into my soul and another that works the mind.  In the best of books, each pattern occurs.  I am given information and knowledge, but am also stirred and convicted.

Here are the two current reads:

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson was originally written in 1980.  I recently picked up a copy of the 20th Anniversary Edition, which came out 20 years and a hundred thousand copies later.  This book is a series of studies, probably originally sermons, on the Psalms of Ascent.  This means Psalms 120-134.  They were usually recited by pilgrims on their way up, hence ascent, to Jerusalem.  These Psalms are short, memorizable, varied as to content, and immensely connected to all the joys, troubles, travails, encouragements, and steps along the way of faith.  We are all on spiritual journeys.  Hopefully, we are all on journeys of ascent.  These Psalms are much needed by the church and are needed by individual Christians for praying, meditating, and applying.  This book is what I use to start my morning reading.

Preaching: A Biblical Theology is by Jason C. Meyer and is published by Crossway Books. I should certainly hope Pastor Meyer has a Biblical theology of preaching because he is occupying the pulpit of Bethlehem Baptist Church which was formerly held by John Piper.  Piper wrote the foreword to this book, so he approves the man.  This is a serious and weighty study of preaching.  The man needing some easy numbered steps to facilitate sermon prep will find little here to help.  Meyer devotes a large portion of the book to a survey of the role of God’s servants and ministers of the Word in the Bible.  Meyer makes, repeats, and applies three points throughout the book.  He states, “My thesis is that the ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word.”  Note the three points:  Stewardship, Heralding, and Encountering.  This book is both mind-provoking and heart-convicting.  I will be reviewing it in more detail later, but for now, I will have to be content with reeling in conviction.  I should also point out that a large section of the book focuses upon expository preaching.

Any Christian could profit from reading Eugene Peterson’s book.  Meyer’s book is directed toward preachers in the pulpit and in training (and those of the former category should also be in the latter.  The strong coffee that accelerates the mental processes is your choice.

Covenantal Apologetics

I have two tendencies toward the subject of apologetics, and both have to be severely tempered.  First of all, apologetics is a field of study, a sub-set of theology, a close companion (we hope) to evangelism, that focuses upon defending Christianity.  It is the answering of the claims against faith and presenting the Christian faith as the answer.

One of my tendencies is to get too drawn in to the subject.  One good apologetic study, and Dr. Oliphint’s book is a good one, leads to another.  I could delightfully get lost in the recommended readings from this book.  I have quite a few books on apologetics, and that collection includes quite a few books I read and usually enjoyed in the past with many more that have never been given the reading they deserve.  Christian apologetics studies include both those answers that we give to the unbelievers, the skeptics, the opponents and the intramural debates among believers as to what methods and means of apologetics we should use.   Like I say, I could get lost in the pages and never step outside the door again. (Don’t tempt me.)

The other tendency I have is to wish to stay away from apologetics.  To use some oversimplified language, apologetics appeals to the head, while other types of Christian books appeal to the heart.  I really need to read books on prayer, Bible study, pastoral ministry, and preaching.  (Listen to the loud “amen” from the congregation on that last one.) I really need more on the spiritual disciplines.  I need Bible studies that help me glean more from Jeremiah, which I just finished, and Ezekiel, which I will soon start.  And boy, do I ever need to be a more dedicated husband and father.  These needs outweigh my need to answer the materialist, the naturalist, the atheist, Muslim, Hindu, or liberal theologian.

I think that when I really face the question of whether to read for the mind or the heart, whether to focus on apologetics or practical Christianity, to be more edgy at confronting the world or more pastoral, the answer is unequivocally clear.  God says, “Yes.”  It is imperative that pastors and teachers be grounded in the defense of the faith.  Most other Christians need some grounding in apologetics as well.  As has often been pointed out, the primary audience, the main group in need, in apologetics is believers.  We Christians need to be reminded and assured that Christianity can answer the counter-claims of the unbelievers.  At the same time, as situations and forums present themselves, Christians need to be able to speak boldly to non-believers and objectors regarding the faith.

In some cases, unbelievers are genuinely stumped over what we believe.  They are not innocent, but it is easy to believe that faith is the opposite of reason, that religion is non-rational, and that Christianity is foolish if you have been inundated with such teachings.  If Richard Dawkins says that anyone who does not believe in evolution is “ignorant, stupid, or insane,” the unbeliever swallows that creed sooner rather than later.  Again, I am not excusing those living in a sea of unbelief for developing unbelieving gills.  We have to remember that some people simply have not heard reasonable, credible, and intellectual arguments for Christianity.

The hostile unbeliever is a much harder person to confront.  In many cases, unbelievers are bullies who have not encountered strong apologists for the faith.  Years ago, a man told me he had never read an intellectual book about Christianity.  I gave him a Francis Schaeffer book, but he never responded to it.  (And Francis Schaeffer, wonderful as he was, was not and did not see himself as the intellectual defender of the faith.)

Covenantal Apologetics by Dr. Scott Oliphant of Westminster Theological Seminary builds upon the apologetical principles of Oliphint’s predecessor at Westminster, Dr. Cornelius Van Til.  There are a series of debates and discussion that often ensue when one mentions Van Tillian apologetics.  I am generally favorable to Van Til’s approach, but am not insistent on it being the exclusive approach.  I do believe that it is too easy for Christian apologists to get too caught up in debating methods in Jerusalem and not stepping out into the streets of Athens to confront the lost and skeptical.

Dr. Oliphint lists Ten Tenets upon which he bases his approach and his book.  (Thanks to Justin Taylor for posting them on his blog.)

  1. The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the triune God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.
  2. God’s covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what is, and any covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on and utilize that authority in order to defend Christianity.
  3. It is the truth of God’s revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.
  4. Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the triune God for eternity.
  5. All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.
  6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see truth for what it is.
  7. There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.
  8. Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus every unbelieving position will necessarily have within it ideas, concepts, notions, and the like that it has taken and wrenched from their true, Christian context.
  9. The true, covenantal knowledge of God in man, together with God’s universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.
  10. Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal, all-controlling plan and purpose of God.

I slowly read Covenantal Apologetics during September and October.  I really feel that this book must be read again soon.  Apologetics is not light reading.  Even the strong coffee each morning didn’t unlock enough of the brain for me.  Reading this book caused to survey what other Oliphint books I had.  I reckon I will need to read them also.

Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology

The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture For Defending Our Faith

 

R. C. Sproul’s Early Morning Visits

It is always a delight to hear the coffee maker begin the hissings and drippings that mean that the morning coffee is ready.  Morning Bible readings and prayer are the only way to start the day.

Then I turn to the books. Speaking of good starts for the day, R. C. Sproul often shows up at my house.  At least once a week, he drops by and lately, he has been visiting with me each morning.  I wish I could say that R. C. and I were close buddies and he actually was coming into my house each morning and engaging me in some discussion.  I have to settle instead for some of his many good books.

A few months back, Dr. Sproul’s commentary on the Gospel of Matthew was published by Crossway Books.  This book is a hefty hardback of over 800 pages and 129 chapters.  It consists of expository sermons that Sproul preached over Matthew’s Gospel.  It is part of a series by Sproul called St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary.  Other commentaries in the series include studies through Acts, Romans, and 1 & 2 Peter.

Sproul is an extremely gifted communicator.  Sometimes, Reformed preachers have dug so deeply in the mines of theology that they cannot speak to normal audiences, including both churched and un-churched people.  Sproul is no backwoods fundamentalist.  He got his doctorate at the Free University of Amsterdam, which was the center of academic Reformed scholarship in the 20th century.  Sproul taught theology at various seminaries, but he is best known for his work at Ligonier Ministries.  But in spite of his degrees, his years inside the classrooms of seminaries, and his studies, he is an effective and popular communicator.

Through Ligonier, Sproul has had tapes, videos, and books produced and sent out all over the world.  Ligonier also publishes a monthly devotional magazine called Table Talk.  He has written theological studies, books on every day Christian living, books on Christianity and culture, books on philosophy, and even some children’s books.  He also does radio broadcasts.

It was late in his career when he turned his ministry work to pastoral ministry. He now pastors St. Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida.  From his expository (chapter by chapter, verse by verse) preaching, he is now producing his commentary series.

Sproul does not do in-depth explications or studies in the texts of Matthew.  The person wanting more of the theological detail would need to look elsewhere. (I find William Hendriksen’s commentary on Matthew very helpful, and I just acquired Leon Morris’ work, and Charles Spurgeon did a commentary on Matthew.)  Anyone wanting to read more extensive sermons would do well to read Daniel Doriani’s 2 volumes or John MacArthur’s 4 volumes.

What Sproul does best is to give a short, thought provoking, convicting sound look at the text.  His book is excellent for a morning reading.  It would work for family time (which we need to restore once again).  It is great for the person who is not theologically well grounded, but does not want fluff.  It works for the man in a hurry or the woman with too many kids and not enough time.  It is good for beginners; it is a good refresher for long-time Bible students.

Sproul presents good morning theology.  You will pick up on a number of key figures in history–both church and secular history.  You will better understand the texts. You will see applications of the Gospel to everyday life and to the broader culture.  You will find doctrine, correction, reproof, and instruction (2 Timothy 3:16).

Since December, I have been preaching through Matthew.  Now, 26 sermons into the series, I am working slowly through the Sermon on the Mount.  Now, just beginning chapter 6, I will be working even more slowly through the Lord’s Prayer (or the Model Prayer).  Sproul has nine sermons on the Lord’s Prayer.  I usually read Sproul early in the week, just to help bring the coming week’s text into focus.  And often, later in the week, after I have plowed through some other fine books, I go back to Sproul again.

A great and worship-causing book on worship.

 

Right now, I am also reading A Taste of Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity by R. C. Sproul.  This book was recommended to me by singer and worship leader (at Parish Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee) Nathan Clark George.  This is a brief (172 page) study on worship.  It is easy to war over worship and liturgy, and those wars really help use up energy that could be devoted to advancing the kingdom.  This book is warm and encouraging.  And, it has the Sproul hallmarks:  good theology, good stories and illustrations, and practical application.  Also, it is a uniting, not dividing book.  Note, Dr. Sproul is a Presbyterian, so there are practices that some of you  might not cotton to.  (But never just read those with whom you agree.)

A Taste of Heaven was  published by Reformation Trust, the book publishing arm of Ligonier Ministries.  It has recently been reprinted and retitled as How Then Shall We Worship: Biblical Principles to Guide Us Today.

Same book, only in paperback with a different title.