Improving Your Preaching in the Coming Year | Influence Podcast

Preaching is one of a pastor’s most important duties. It’s also one of the most difficult. Every week, pastors stand before their congregations and proclaim the Word of God. And often, they leave the pulpit feeling that they have failed.

So, how can preachers get better at their craft? That’s the question I’m talking about with Chris Colvin and Dick Hardy in this episode of the Influence Podcast.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. Chris Colvin is a sermon consultant, author, and regular contributor to Influence, both print and online. He teaches The Preaching Track at Dick Hardy is is cofounder of, which provides “online resources to unlock your church’s growth.”

Redeeming Power | Book Review

In his 1633 poem, “The Bag,” George Herbert depicted the Incarnation as a descent from almighty majesty to naked vulnerability:

The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestic robes of glorie,
Reserv’d to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.

This descent, which Paul described as an emptying (Greek, kenosis) in Philippians 2:7, presents profound metaphysical challenges to theologians. After all, how does God empty himself? It presents more practical problems to Christians, however, who are called to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (2:5). This is doubly true of Christian leaders, for how does one lead as a servant?

To the extent we have not felt the tension between a leader’s power and a servant’s vulnerability, we have not yet developed a Christlike mindset.

The intersection of power and vulnerability is the theme of Diane Langberg’s excellent new book, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church.

A Christian psychologist who cofounded the Global Trauma Recovery Institute at Philadelphia’s Mission Seminary, Langberg serves on the board of Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE), and cochairs the American Bible Society’s Trauma Advisory Council.

Over the past decade, her expertise in trauma and abuse has been sorely needed by many Christian churches and ministries.

For Langberg, the issue is not whether we can eschew power or overcome vulnerability entirely. All people have power to one degree or another. And all people are vulnerable. The issue, then, is how we use power in the face of vulnerability.

Too often, leaders use their powerful positions to abuse the vulnerability of their followers. This abuse always involves deception, and it often creates an abusive culture in the organization the abuser leads.

Langberg offers a depressing catalogue of the forms that abuse can take: physical, verbal, emotional, knowledge- and skill-based, economic, sexual, and even spiritual. Such abuse manifests in various relationships: between men and women, between racial/ethnic majorities and minorities, and between adults and children, among others.

Whatever the form or relationship, the powerful leverage their power to selfish ends, hiding their vulnerabilities even as they prey on the vulnerabilities of others. This is not the way of Jesus.

The antidote to such abuse is a closer following after Christ. “Because Jesus never wavered from choosing love and obedience to the Father as the driving force in his life,” Langberg writes, “he was a threat to both individuals and systems of his day, a holy dissident with a disruptive presence and disruptive words.”

She goes on to say, “This Christ disturbs massive systems and turns the world upside down. We, as his people, are to be like him.”

Christ followers should use their power to help and heal the vulnerable and to call out abuse and injustice.

Langberg believes the American church is passing through a “Valley of Achor” moment. (Achor is Hebrew for “trouble.”) In Joshua 7:26, this name describes the valley where God judged Achan for disobeying His commandment and enriching himself from the destruction of Jericho.

Like Achan, too many Christian leaders have abused their power and brought cultural discredit on Christ’s church.

“This Valley of Trouble is God ordained,” Langberg says, “and in this place, he is calling his people back to himself.” There is no way around this valley. American Christians can only go through it, repenting of their abuse of power and turning again and again to Christ.

Only in this way will God “make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (Hosea 2:15), for us and for the vulnerable Christ calls us to serve.

Book Reviewed
Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review appears in the November/December 2020 issue of Influence magazine.

The Uniqueness of Christ | Book Review

Chris Wright opens The Uniqueness of Christ by noting that “the supermarket mentality dominates popular thinking about religion” (12). This reduces religion to a “commodity” and a religionist to a “consumer” (13). Under this mentality, then, religion becomes a consumer product, and as the Latin aphorism puts it, De gustibus non disputandum est.

This mentality creates problems for those religions, such as Christianity, that makes absolute truth claims or require exclusive loyalty. With that in mind, Wright states the guiding question of the book: “So how then can we think clearly about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the midst of the religious supermarket in which we live?” (13).

Chapter 1 outlines different aspects of the meaning of religious pluralism, among other things drawing a distinction between “plurality,” the undeniable sociological fact of diverse religions, and “pluralism,” a controversial interpretation of this fact that relativizes all religions.

Chapters 2–4 survey “three main positions that have been adopted by Christian theologians toward other religions” (35). The first is exclusivism, the view that “if Jesus Christ be uniquely the truth, and the only way of salvation for mankind, then that excludes the possibility of other faiths being true in the same way, or being ways of salvation” (38). The second is inclusivism, the view that “ultimately all truth is God’s truth, wherever it is found. So Christ, who is the Truth, must therefore include all that is true in other faiths” (58). As different as these two positions are, Wright notes, “The one, central, and all-important point that exclusivism and inclusivism have in common is their commitment to the centrality of Jesus Christ” (57).

This commonality sets them apart from pluralism, the third position, which holds that “all religions, including Christianity, are related in some way to this ‘God at the centre’, but none of those religions and none of the ‘gods’ they name and claim, is actually the central place” (73). Wright goes on, “It is the basic assumption of pluralism that no single religious tradition can claim to have or to be ‘the truth’. In fact, there is no absolute truth available to us through any religion. There are only partial understandings which are historically and culturally relative. So a theology of religious pluralism goes along with a philosophy of relativism — i.e., the denial of any absolute truth” (74).

Wright believes that pluralism is contrary to orthodox Christianity. “The shift to pluralism … requires either a complete surrender of the uniqueness of Christ, or such a radical redefinition of it that it loses all value” (72). He ends the chapter on pluralism (chapter 4) with this warning: “At best, ‘Christ’ becomes so universal as to be of no real value except as a symbol. At worst, he is exposed as an idol for those who worship him, and as dispensable for those who don’t” (85).

Chapters 5–6 turn to the Bible to help readers “think more clearly about the question of the uniqueness of Jesus” (87). (Wright is a British evangelical, and The Uniqueness of Christ was written with evangelical readers in mind.)

Chapter 5 explores what the Bible in toto says about the Jesus. It argues “first, that the Bible presents us with a radical and comprehensive understanding of the sinful predicament of the human race. It thus prepares us to appreciate what salvation has to be and that only God can save us. In the face of such depth, to talk of Jesus as merely one among any number of ‘saving points of contact with God’ seems an altogether trivial account of his significance” (104). Wright goes on to summarize the biblical data this way: “In Jesus, then, the uniqueness of Israel and the uniqueness of Yahweh flow together for he embodied the one and he incarnated the other. So he shares and fulfils the identity and the mission of both” (105). On this reading of the Bible, pluralism is a nonstarter.

Chapter 6 surveys the biblical narrative to determine what the Bible says about human religions. Wright concludes: “Religion like all things human, has good and bad dimensions, but is never portrayed in the Bible as the means of salvation. The Bible is concerned about people and God, and about the need for the nations to recognise who the true and saving God really is — revealed as Yahweh in the Old Testament and in Jesus Christ in the New Testament. It shows us that God can and does speak to people within the framework of religious understanding that they already have. But this is not in order to endorse that prior religion, but to lead beyond it to the fullness of revelation and salvation in Christ” (139).

Wright concludes The Uniqueness of Christ by exhorting evangelical Christians to do three things: “to clarify our thinkingabout the truth … . We need to strengthen our contending for the truth. And we need to renew our living of the truth” (143). If religion is a matter of truth rather than merely of consumer choice, something like Wright’s position is the only available option for evangelical Christians.

If Christ is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), then Christians should be able to demonstrate and defend this, with this caveat: “There is little point proclaiming how the gospel is true if people cannot see that it works. The fact of our contemporary western world is that for many people Christianity is not so much regarded as untrue (in the sense that they have considered its claims and rejected them for rational reasons), as simply implausible” (149). For that reason, “the church should be the ‘plausibility structure’ for the truth of the gospel” (idem).

If contemporary Westerners reject the truth of Christianity, in other words, it may because too few Christians live out the truth in their own lives.

Book Reviewed
Chris Wright, The Uniqueness of Christ (London: Monarch Books, 2001).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

To Fulfil, Not to Destroy | Book Review

Ivan M. Satyavrata’s To Fulfil, Not to Destroy is an epitome of the author’s doctoral dissertation, published as God Not Left Himself Without Witness.

The “fundamental question” the book asks is this: “Is there a way of relating the Christian faith and experience to other religions, which ascribes genuine value to the religious experience of people of other faiths, while affirming the essential claims of the Christian faith?” (Loc. 93).

Satyavrata argues that fulfillment theology offers an affirmative answer. He defines “fulfilment theology” as the theory which teaches that “all religious traditions have partial access to the truth, to spirituality, and to transcendence, but Christianity has access to them in all their fulness” (Loc. 108).

The history of Christian theology offers three models of fulfillment theology: “First, in the emergence of the Gospel from its theological cradle, the Jewish faith. Secondly, in the early Church’s encounter with Greek culture in the second and third centuries. Thirdly, in the nineteenth century Protestant missionary encounter with the religions of India” (Loc. 115). Satyavrata names these the “prophetic or promise” (Loc. 132), “Logos-historical” (Loc. 138), and “evolutionary fulfilment” (Loc. 152), models of fulfillment, respectively.

While there are differences between these models, Satyavrata writes: “All models of fulfilment accept the provisional nature of other religions with varying degrees of emphasis. All agree that these religions express human anticipation of something fuller, the fulness offered only in Christ. As Christ becomes known, he transforms, subsumes, and replaces all pre-Christian religions” (Loc. 160).

With this definition and typology in mind, Satyavrata spends the remainder of the book outlining the use of fulfillment theology in Christian mission to the Indian subcontinent. He looks specifically at the Scottish missionary John Nicol Farquhar and the Hindu converts Krishna Mohan Banarjea and Sundar Singh.

Early evangelical missions to India were negative and polemical, deeming “Hinduism” (a scholarly construct of the indigenous religious of the Indian subcontinent) as wholly without value. In combination with British imperialism, this confrontational approach alienated the Indian population from the gospel. The approaches taken by Farquhar, Banarjea, and Singh were positive and irenic, without, however, surrendering the finality of Christian revelation.

Although fulfillment theology won the theological day among missiologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has fallen out of favor today for two reasons. First, it presumes a continuity between general revelation and specific revelation, whereby non-Christian religions can reflect the former and thus be fulfilled by the latter. However, in the mid-twentieth century, Hendrik Kraemer’s Barth-like missiology, which made the two radically discontinuous, won the day. Second, it presumes the finality of Christian revelation, which is controversial among religious pluralists, who believe, roughly, that all religions are equally valid, albeit partial, expressions of spiritual reality.

Satyavrata nonetheless concludes that fulfillment theology should be a live option for Christian mission in India, especially to counter the rise of Hindutva, which maintains that Christianity is a Western imperial intervention contrary to indigenous Indian spirituality. He concludes:

“Fulfilment theology enables the church to be faithful to its stewardship of the story of God’s decisive word and action in Christ, while demonstrating that there is nothing intrinsic to Christian faith that threatens the future of any indigenous cultural heritage. It can provide a basis for the Church to co-operate with people of all faiths in furthering the kingdom purpose of God for a better world, free of poverty, injustice and strife, challenging what is deficient and affirming what is of value in every religion, including Christianity as a religious system” (Loc. 808).

Book Reviewed
Ivan M. Satyavrata, To Fulfil, Not to Destroy: Christ as the Fulfilment of Hindu Experience in Indian Christian Theology,Kindle (Oxford, UK: Regnum, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

NIV Greek and English New Testament | Book Review

Nearly 30 years past my seminary education, I found that my facility with the Greek New Testament was much diminished. I purchased the NIV Greek and English New Testament to remedy that situation. It presents the Greek text underlying the New International Version (NIV) translation on facing pages. (See picture.) I find that this presentation makes it easier for me to determine what Greek words I need to focus on as I write articles or prepare sermons (for those occasions when I preach).

When the NIV translation was updated in 2011, the standard scholarly texts of the Greek New Testament at the time were the United Bible Society’s 4th edition and Nestle-Aland’s 27th edition. UBS and NA are now at 5th and 28th editions, respectively. Like UBS4 and NA27, the Greek text underlying the NIV (NIVGT) is eclectic. It is also largely the same as UBS4 and NA27, though there are 720 footnotes to document its differences from them.

The most notable difference between NIVGT and UB4/NA27 is formatting: “the NIVGT is formatted exactly like the NIV and uses NIV subheads and lists of parallel passages. This presentation makes it much easier to compare the Greek and English.”

One benefit of laying the Greek text alongside the NIV translation is that readers get to see where the NIV’s translation philosophy moves beyond word-for-word translation (formal equivalence) to something more like thought-for-thought translation (functional equivalence).

Take John 1:16, for example. The English Standard Version offers a straightforward formally equivalent translation: “For from his fulness we have all received, grace upon grace.” The NIV, on the other hand, renders it more functionally: “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” The Greek phrase underlying the difference between these two translations in the second half of the sentence is kai charin anti charitos. As a reader/preacher, it is helpful to be able to identify where the NIV has gone thought-for-thought to check the reliability of its functional translation in the commentaries, where grammatical considerations such as the kai/anti construction are discussed.

NIV Greek and English New Testament is a well-made product, easy to read, and easy to hold. If you are interested in keeping your Greek skills sharp and use the NIV as your primary translation, this is a good investment. It has been for me at least.

Book Reviewed
NIV Greek and English New Testament, ed. John R. Kohlenberger III (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Pioneers, Settlers, and the Local Church | Influence Podcast

“God calls people to pioneer,” says Jeffery Portmann, “and simultaneously He calls others to become settlers.” Portmann isn’t talking about the settlement of new frontiers, however. He’s talking about ministry through the local church.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Portmann about why the Church needs both pioneers and settlers, as well as how best to be one or the other.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. Jeffery Portmann is executive director of the Church Multiplication Network, the church planting arm of the Assemblies of God (USA). He authored “Developing Leaders from Within” in the July/August 2020 issue of Influence magazine.

The Catch | Book Review

Mick Herron’s Slough House is where MI5 deposits the spooks it wants to fire but can’t, hoping they will quit out of shame, boredom, or fear of Jackson Lamb, the unhygienic Cold Warrior who rules the place like a personal fiefdom. Despite their incompetence—or perhaps because of it—the “slow horses,” as they’re derisively called, keep finding themselves in the middle of a national emergency or an MI5 op, which seem to be the same thing at times. And Jackson Lamb knows how to leverage these crises for the benefit of him and his crew.

Herron has published six novels in this series, with the seventh, Slough House, scheduled to release February 5, 2021. Each of them combines poetic prose (check out the openings and closings of each book especially), a convoluted plot worthy of John Le Carré, and some of the funniest characters and scenes in suspense noveldom. (You might hold your nose at Jackson Lamb’s vulgarity and stench, but he will make you laugh.)

In between novels, Herron occasionally produces novellas, such as The List (2015), The Drop (2018), and The Catch(2020). All of them feature John Bachelor, an MI5 “milkman” or handler of aged or retired MI5 assets, whose wife got the house and pension in the divorce and whose part-time salary doesn’t really cover expenses. So, as The Catch opens, he’s living in the apartment of the late Solomon Dortmund, last seen alive in The Drop and whose permanent retirement has not yet been noticed by “the Park” (MI5 HQ).

Or has it been? When Bachelor gets rousted out of Dortmund’s bed by Park employees, it’s clear HQ knows what’s going on. Bachelor is tasked with finding Benny Manors, a former asset he’s supposed to keep track of but lost long ago. In the process of finding him, Bachelor realizes Manors has the Jeffrey-Epstein goods on HRH What’s His Face, and alerts Lady Diana Tavener, the Park’s master, about Manors’ con in the offing. But when it comes to MI5, who’s conning whom?

Neither Jackson Lamb nor his Slough House epigones show their faces in The Catch, but Herron always seems to weave the threads of these novellas into his novels, so don’t be surprised if something here shows up in his forthcoming book in one way or another.

If you haven’t read the Slough House novels, you can skip The Catch, but if you’re current with the series and have a hankering for Herron, The Catch is a good, well, catch.

Book Reviewed
Mick Herron, The Catch (New York: SoHo Crime, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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