Review: The New Pastor’s Handbook

Jason Helopoulos, 2015, Baker, 208 pages, 4 of 5 stars

Summary: forty-eight brief chapters of warning and encouragement for new pastors

The genius of this book by Helopoulos (current pastor of University Reformed in Michigan) isn’t necessarily the insight or profundity but the short, direct, biblical, and practical chapters. One can imagine a busy pastor having a young pastor-to-be that needs mentoring. What resource could he turn to?

He grabs the Handbook along with the young intern, bows in prayer, reads the Scripture heading, and then studies the 2-4 page chapter together. Once the parson provides the necessary explanations and fillers on calling, leadership, sermon prep, candidating, hospital visits or whatever the topic may be, an hour and a half has flown by and the meeting is over. Continue reading

Review: Only a Prayer Meeting

Charles Spurgeon, Christian Heritage, 2010, 254 pages, 4 of 5 stars

What happened to the prayer meeting? First we changed the name to “mid-week service.” Now it’s gone altogether.

It is common these day for churches to abandon the Sunday PM gathering. The prayer meeting is even less popular. Surgeon grabs us by the lapels and urges the reader never to abandon this sacred task. “I would have you vow that the prayer meeting shall never be given up while you live” (137).

This book is a series of studies on prayer meetings and prayer meeting addresses. Most people would yawn and close the book at this point, but Spurgeon is so full of verve, insight, color and illustration, the pages turn quickly. Continue reading

Review: Pulpit Aflame

Eds. Beeke and Benge, Reformation Heritage, 2016, 188 pages, 4 of 5 stars

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-4-01-53-pmWe named one of our sons Lawson, so I was eager to read a book penned in Steve Lawson’s honor. Foundations of Grace is among the most influential books I have read. He is in the top three preachers I have ever heard and has always been a model of kindness in his conversations with me. Continue reading

Review: Paul’s Theology of Preaching

Duane Litfin, IVP, 2015, 400 pages, 3 of 5 stars

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-7-49-34-amFirst Corinthians 1-4 is the only place in Scripture where we find the specifics of Paul’s philosophy of rhetoric, or put more biblically, his theology of preaching. This is cast in the milieu of the Greco-Roman world, where the people prized oratory above all else. The ancient populous lionized the greatest speakers whose ultimate goal was to persuade, move, and win. Nothing in Greek culture was higher, more ideal, than the man of eloquence.

Shockingly, Paul smashes this ideology with the words of a herald, a proclaimer, not an orator of great rhetorical gifts. “Not with words of eloquent wisdom” had he come to speak (1Co. 1:17), but with a message of “folly” to the majority (v. 18). Such a message actually destroys the wisdom of the wise (v. 20) and places the onus of success not on results, but on faithfulness (4:2).

Does this mean Paul is opposed to all rhetoric? Do homiletics have any place in the preacher’s bag of tools? At first, it appears Litfin’s answer to this is no. He writes in Paul’s Theology of Preaching: “It is not the herald’s job to persuade but to convey” (264). He is a proclaimer, an announcer.

It was the proclaimer’s function to make certain that the recipients heard and understood, but it was not the proclaimer’s role to engage his rhetorical skills so as to induce his listeners to yield to the message (264).

These latter two quotes by Litfin reveal two things. First, Litfin has a habit of overreaching and overstating his point. I said to myself over and over while reading–“that can’t be true”, only to later say, “Oh, now I see where he’s coming from.” Second, Litfin is probably speaking more about persuasion as the ultimate force that makes the hearer yield, rather than the content of the sermon that urges the listen to change. Continue reading

Review: The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters

Albert Mohler, Bethany House, 2012, 225 pages, 4 of 5 stars

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-6-14-00-amMohler argues that far too much of what passes for leadership today is mere management. “Without convictions you might be able to manage, but you can never really lead.” (26-27)

The author has room to talk. At 33 years old, Mohler took over as President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary–an enormous but theologically sinking organization. Since then, he has led the school through one of the greatest institutional turnarounds in modern history. Seminaries almost always move left. Rarely do they become more conservative, but that is exactly what happened at SBTS. In the book he pulls often from what he learned through those difficult years and how it has helped him as a leader. He does a great job throughout the book of creating ethos.

This would be an excellent book for the church leadership to read through. Anyone who knows Mohler immediately recognizes his rare intellectual acumen. He is biblical, courageous, and relevant. As I read, I found myself greatly motivated to become a better leader in my church and home.  Continue reading

Review: Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Trueman, Christian Focus, 2000, 127 pages, 3 of 5 stars

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-6-02-55-amTrueman picks on problems in the contemporary church and addresses how the Reformers could help us improve and think biblically.

He criticizes such ecclesiastical activities as testimonies in church, most evangelical choruses and obsessive talk about the Spirit while praising church actions like catechising, Christ-centered preaching, and extra care in distributing the Lord’s Supper.

Trueman wrote this book some time ago when he was in his late thirties. It was nice to see how one of today’s foremost historians learned to write and–while nothing he said was directly contrary to what he believes today–he has definitely grown in his ability to argue and write since then.

Review: Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simply Preaching

Alec Motyer, Christian Focus, 2013, 148 pages, 3 of 5 stars

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-1-49-40-pmThe renowned British scholar Alec Motyer passed on to glory a few months ago. For all of his academic accomplishments, his book on Bible proclamation shows he was first and foremost a preacher.

Why have a book on preaching anyway? Aren’t preachers born, not made? Motyer says most sermons are poor because they are muddled (“muddle is the characteristic mark of the ill dressed window, the careless baker, and the bad sermon”). So a preacher can improve if only he learns to be plain and unmistakable. Not everyone can be a good preacher, says the author, but no one need be a bad preacher. Continue reading

Review: The Power of Speaking God’s Word

Ellsworth, Christian Focus, 2000, 144 pages, 3 of 5 stars

screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-9-22-55-pmPaper is a poor conduit of heat. So are sermon manuscripts poor conduits for preaching. So says Ellsworth on this paperback about preaching memorable sermons.

Here is a book on the oral nature of preaching, an exploration of what spoken communication (orality) means for the proclamation of God’s Word. Continue reading

Review: How to Help People Change

Jay Adams, Zondervan, 2010, 224 pages, 4 of 5 stars

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 12.57.27 PMJay Adams is old school, confident, biblical, and one of my favorite authors. For those interested in counseling and wanting an introduction to his work, this would be a start. Pastors are his audience but a thoughtful mother or layman could handle it.

The author’s big point is that preachers teach in order to change lives. We do not proffer bare facts for the intellect. Our byword is Colossians 1:9-10. How does such change come about? It begins on the inside. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for only having outward righteousness (Mt. 5:20).

Adams says this divine inward change comes by carefully following the four steps in 2 Timothy 3:16 (teaching, conviction, correction, disciplined training in righteousness), which divides the four major portions of this book.

A Summary

The first section is on “teaching for the long haul”, as Adams puts it. He encourages pastors to resist their natural reaction to skimp in their instruction by ending counseling upon the first sin of relief, and then hoping the problem won’t recur. Often the drunkenness or fornication continues and God’s name is dishonored. His solution is to teach (i.e. explain and apply) Jesus’ words about radical amputation and the need to take preemptive measures against future sin. He makes heavy use of milieu teaching, homework, and the three-step promise in 1 Cor. 10:13.

Continue reading

Review: Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal

David Gordon, P & R, 2010, 192 pages, 3 of 5 stars

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 12.20.06 PMThe author of this fascinating book is an Anglican who listens to Black Sabbath and Led Zepplin on weekdays but sings high church hymns on Sunday. Why can’t Johnny sing hymns? According to Gordon, it is because he’s addicted to pop culture.

Gordon’s goal is to find out why we have a preference for music that is often literarily, theologically, or musically inferior. He labors to show the inferiority of CCM and why it is an example of “impoverished congregational praise.”

Gordon is wary of using contemporary music in worship services at all, objects to its common use and zealously opposes exclusive use.

Strengths

The greatest value of this book is its emphasis on the style of music, a subject most modern worship books avoid altogether. I once asked Keith Getty if style was neutral. He said yes. But for Gordon, style matters.

Why do we attend a birthday party in a clown suit but not a funeral? Why not use a kazoo at a wedding? Style is not just a matter of personal taste. Style sends a message, like when Rick Warren wears open casual shirts to preach but a suit at Obama’s inaugural address. All music sends a message. Gordon thinks that the message of CCM is entertainment.

Another area where Gordon excels is that he forces those who comply with his perspective to go all the way. You can’t agree with his position and then listen to “Joyful, Joyful” while changing the oil in your car. Sacred music is that which is deliberately and self-consciously different from other forms of music. What does this say about those traditions that listen to Christian music all the time?

Continue reading

Book Review: Addictions

Edward Welch, P&R (2001), 320 pages, 4 of 5 stars

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 4.26.50 PMVoluntary slavery. This is how Edward Welch defines addiction. His thesis: the root problem of our addictions is not genetic makeup but ultimately a disorder of worship. He centers on addictions like alcohol and drugs but also addresses lying, pornography, overeating, and laziness.

Regarding the last point, my wife once asked our neighbor if she has any hobbies. “Sleeping”, was her reply. This book could help her.

Welch gets the big issue right. Addictions are not the fault of chemical imbalances. The deepest problem is sin, meaning the greatest solution is the gospel. He also shines when digging deeply into the psychological nature of sin, by “psychological” I mean in relation to the mind, not lying on a couch hitting a pillow tagged “Dad”. He is a bit soft on Alcoholics Anonymous but that is quibbling.

Husband, Father, Pastor, Preacher

As father and husband, I was convicted that anger is an addiction (see quote #8 below). As a pastor, I was convicted for not being more approachable. “Ask family members. Are you perceived as humble and patient by those close to you? Are you quick to anger? If so, no one is going to be eager to speak honestly with you” (70).

As a preacher, I need to be more practical in the pulpit. Welsh gives 7 behaviors to spot addicts, 8 ideas for private worship, and 14 ways to remember you are in a battle. P-r-a-c-t-i-c-a-l. He uses every weapon available, be it role-play, homework, or illustrations. Who said Presbyterians aren’t teetotalers? He rails against gateway drugs like cigarettes and alcohol and reminds us that addiction is monolithic. “Everything is alcohol (drug, food, sex) soluble.” Whatever the addiction, it can dilute guilt, alleviate depression, bring pleasure and quiet loss.

Excerpts

  1. Perhaps no other narrative portrays the irrational nature of sin so clearly [than Samson in Judg. 13-16]. With Delilah his lust defied all reason. Over and over she was exposed as a betrayer, yet Samson was intoxicated with her. Although aware of her plotting, his desire still blinded him. (57).
  2. Satan and sin are like wild animals (1Pt. 5:8; Gn. 4:7). There is no subtlety here. No wooing, attractive women. No idol that holds out promises it can’t keep. This is just plain old in-your-face, rip-you-apart warfare. Sin and Satan victimize. They enslave. (60)
  3. Addicts must know that they are being given a gift, and those who are helping addicts must know how to give this gift in a way that reflects its cost and beauty. Beautiful gifts must be presented in the most attractive way possible. Ask the person, “Does what we talk about sound like condemnation, or does it sound like a beautiful gift?” (63)
  4. When an addict is caught, excuses are masterful. They are offered immediately, without hesitation. They are bold, without averted eyes or a hint of “I just got found out.” Inevitably, they will somehow make friends and loved ones feel guilty. (75)
  5. [Use a gentle tongue]. If there is going to be a battle, you want it to be between the person and God, not between the person and yourself. (94)
  6. Being rebuked is not the same thing as being hypocritically judged. (114)
  7. We can quickly identify [evil] temptations by asking ourselves which of our desires prefer to stay in the dark. Which desires do we want to hide from certain people? (230)
  8. Let’s say a husband and father is dominated by anger. When he gives into his rage, he verbally abuses his family and destroys property. Rage is his addiction; he wants it. (241)

Review: What is the Mission of the Church?

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, Crossway, 2011, 283 pages

missionI enjoyed this book. Here’s a whirlwind summary of the ten chapters. (1) The mission of the church is the Great Commission (i.e. making disciples, preaching the gospel). “Mission” is hard to define because it is not a biblical word and it is so broad. Don’t use “ought” for so many kinds of ministries. (2) Several of the most common social justice texts (e.g. Lk. 4:16-21) don’t stand up to scrutiny. The Great Commission is so important because it is a command, the NT has more weight than the OT, it contains Jesus’ final words and it sums up the gospel. “Missions” takes “mission” one step further.

(3) The gospel. (4) Wide and narrow focus on the gospel. (5) An already, not yet, George Ladd-like explanation of the kingdom. (6) A lengthy discussion on the 12 most common social justice passages: Lev. 19:9-18 (love and be generous but oppression doesn’t equal inequality), Year of Jubilee (this was given to a Jewish, agrarian society under the Mosaic covenant), Isaiah 1 (oppression is sinful, not inequality), Isaiah 58 (we should help the poor), Jeremiah 22 (kings should judge fairly and not exploit), Amos 5 (do not excessively tax), Micah 6:8 (don’t steal, bribe or cheat), Matt. 25:31-46 (care for God’s messengers and you’ll be caring for Christ), Luke 10 (don’t love according to race or gender), Luke 16 (don’t love money more than Jesus), 2 Cor. 8-9 (voluntarily be generous with the poor), James 1,2,5 (don’t show favoritism but treat the poor with dignity.

(7) Seven modest proposals on social justice. Help the poor but focus on Christians. A theology of money is complex. “Social justice” is nebulous. The closer the need the greater moral obligation. Capitalism is good. (8) Shalom. (9) There are many good reasons for doing good, such as love, obedience, the gospel and character. (10) The mission of the church is the Great Commission. The worst thing in the world is not poverty, contrary to common belief.

DeYoung is relentlessly biblical—something somewhat unexpected from a young evangelical. If nothing else they successfully hammer home the point that social ministry is secondary because if the church does not plant, nurture and establish new churches, no one else will.

Some of their assertions made me pause and consider and nod and shake. These would be good discussion points around the kitchen table.

  1. Is it true that the “poor in Scripture are usually pious poor”? (175)
  2. Is it true that “we are not told that the Kingdom grows” and that Jesus is not teaching (Mark 4:26-29; 4:30-32) about the growth of the kingdom but that though unimpressive now it will have a glorious end? (133)
  3. Is it true that Christians, regarding God’s good gifts, should “enjoy them the most, need them the least, and give them away most freely”? (179)
  4. Is it true that “supporting AIDS relief in Africa is a wonderful thing to do” (186)
  5. Is it true that “poor nations are not poor because they are less industrious or less capable than workers in the West [but because they live in a corrupt society]”? (189)
  6. Is it true that we must be on guard against the counterfeit gospels of affluence and asceticism? (264).