The Most Wonderful Time of the Year | Influence Podcast


Andy Williams sang that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” He was right, though for the wrong reasons. Now, don’t get me wrong! “Parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow” are great and everything, but they’re not what Christmas is ultimately about.

In Episode 161 of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Joseph Castleberry about the real reason why Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year. We also debunk a few myths people believe about Christmas.

Dr. Castleberry is president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, and a former missionary to Central America. More germane to this podcast, he’s author of 40 Days of Christmas, published by Broadstreet (which I reviewed here).

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Christians in the Age of Outrage | Influence Podcast


America is angry. Turn on TV news, tune into talk radio, check your timeline on social media, and chances are good you’ll see someone angry—outraged!—about something. Some commentators even worry that our nation is on the verge of a civil war.

It would be nice to say that Christians in America are tamping down the fires of outrage, but unfortunately, that’s not always true. Instead, some Christians are fanning the flames. They’re kicking outrage up to 11.

One Christian leader who’s trying to turn the outrage down is Ed Stetzer. He thinks outrage is unbiblical and anti-Great Commission. In his new book, Christians in the Age of Outrage, he explains why Americans are mad, why that’s bad, and what Christians should do about it.

Ed is Billy Graham Distinguished Professor of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College; dean of its School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership’ and executive director of the Billy Graham Center. He’s also my guest for Episode 159 of the Influence Podcast. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, and your host.

P.S. You can read my review of Ed Stetzer’s book here. If you like my review, please click “Helpful.”

The Preacher’s Catechism | Book Review


Preaching is the most important public ministry of pastors. Many books describe how preachers can improve their craft. The Preacher’s Catechismis not one of them. Instead, it focuses on how preachers can improve their character.

Lewis Allen offers this reminder of the greater importance of character to craft in his Introduction:

“And yet, having all of these tools [to improve preaching skills] will not ensure that you are a preacher after God’s own heart, someone who is really serving those who listen to you. Skills have an essential place, but more essential to our calling are a heart and mind captivated by God and his gospel.”

In other words, the heart of preachers is the heart of preaching.

Allen bases his counsel in The Preacher’s Catechismon three convictions:

  1. The church needs preachers who last and thrive.
  2. Preachers must understand how preaching works, and how their own souls work.
  3. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is an outstanding resource for the heart needs of every preacher.

The book organizes its material around 43 questions modeled on that catechism.

The first and second convictions should be uncontroversial points among evangelical Christians. I found the third conviction a bit of a stretch, at first glance anyway. I am Pentecostal — Arminian and egalitarian to boot — so what could I learn from a catechism produced by high Calvinist English Presbyterians? (Allen himself is a Calvinist Baptist.)

A lot, it turns out. Allen’s use of the catechism sheds light on heart issues that allChristian ministers need to address.

For example, consider his repurposing of the catechism’s teaching on the Ten Commandments. The catechism asks, “What does the _____ commandment teach us?” (with first, second, third, etc. filling in the blank). Here are Allen’s answers, which follow the order of the commandments (Exodus 20:2–17):

  1. You shall preach as a love expression to the Lord your God.
  2. You shall not make a preaching idol of your image or of anyone else’s.
  3. You shall honor the name of God as you preach.
  4. You shall rest from finding your justification in your preaching, and rest content and safe in the finished work of the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.
  5. You shall honor those who preached the Word of God to you, and obey what they taught you.
  6. You shall not use your ministry to harm in any way.
  7. You shall not be unfaithful to your ministry by failing to love those you preach to.
  8. You shall not withhold your heart and soul from the hard work of preaching.
  9. You shall not say anything untrue in your preaching.
  10. You shall not set your heart on another’s ministry and gifts.

There is far more to The Preacher’s Catechismthan these reworked commandments, which appear in Part 3, titled “Loving the Word,” of a four-part book. Part 1 is titled “The Glory of God and the Greatness of Preaching,” Part 2 “Jesus for Preachers,” and Part 3 “Preaching with Conviction.”

In fact, there is more to this book on preaching than preaching. Part 4 includes helpful chapters on baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Preaching may be a pastor’s most important public duty, but it is not the only one. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are New Testament ordinances, God-given means of grace that too many evangelical pastors — including Pentecostals — neglect.

Allen closes the book with this statement: “Our preaching will never satisfy us. It isn’t meant to. Let’s give our hearts to God.” In many ways, that’s the core message of this excellent little book.

Some books make for a good read, once. The Preacher’s Catechismis a volume I think I’ll take up and read again. And then again.

Book Reviewed
Lewis Allen, The Preacher’s Catechism(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Almost Gospel of Ebenezer Scrooge


“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

Thus begins Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s difficult to imagine Christmas today without this holiday classic. Ebenezer Scrooge’s last-minute transformation has been portrayed so many times on stage and screen that the story’s scenes, characters and plot have become a cultural meme imprinted on our brains. On mine, anyway, despite the fact that I had never read the story until this month.

So, when I noticed an inexpensive copy for five dollars while standing in line a week ago at Barnes & Noble, I snapped it up. A Christmas Carol is a quick, fun read—Dickens at his best. The story’s setting is Victorian London, with Britain in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, but its themes bespeak a timeless, universal longing for wellbeing within ourselves and among our neighbors.

The particulars of the tale are recognizably Christian. Most obviously, its setting is Christmas. There are biblical allusions scattered throughout, including to Jesus’ birth and ministry. The Cratchit family is churchgoing and devout, even to the point of seeing Tiny Tim’s handicap as a spiritual lesson reminding others of Jesus’ healing ministry.

At a broader level, its themes are also Christian. It is a tale of metanoia, the New Testament word for repentance, which entails not just a change of mind but the transformation of an entire way of life.  Scrooge’s transformation itself begins because of what we might call supernatural revelation, first of Marley’s ghost and then of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. And Dicken’s excoriation of Scrooge’s greed and praise of his later generosity to the poor reminds readers of Jesus’ own teachings on this matter.

…the almost gospel of Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t even almost good news, insofar as it leaves us in the predicament of knowledgeable sin: We already know, but we still don’t change.

As I read A Christmas Carol, I kept thinking of Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13–21). Like Scrooge, the rich fool accumulated wealth for himself. (Unlike Scrooge, however, the rich fool encouraged himself, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”) Like Scrooge, however, he never thought of the needy. So, like Scrooge, he died alone and possessionless. Jesus provided the moral to the story: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God,” that is, to the poor.

Dickens’ very Christian point is that wealth is either a tool or an idol. We can use it, like the shrewd manager in Jesus’ parable, to “gain friends” (Luke 16:1–15), to establish solidarity with others. Or we can worship it as a kind of god, valuing it above others and even God himself. In many ways, A Christmas Carol is a Dickensian riff on Jesus’ dictum: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

Even so, A Christmas Carol is an almost gospel, not good news. To see why, consider another parable Jesus told in Luke 16, that of the rich man and Lazarus (verses 19–31). In this parable, a rich man ignores the beggar (Lazarus) at his gate, a beggar who longed “to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.”

When both men die, they experience a reversal of fortune: the rich man in torment in “Hades,” Lazarus receiving comfort at “Abraham’s side.” The rich man begs Father Abraham to send him Lazarus “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” relief in hell. Being told that is impossible, he then begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his “five brothers,” warning them of the peril of hell.

Abraham’s response? “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” But the rich man replies, “No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” To which Abraham’s final riposte is this: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

A Christmas Carol turns on Ebenezer Scrooge seeing his past, present and future, specifically with regard to his sinful use of wealth and lack of solidarity with others. Dickens is telling us, “If you only knew what wrong turns you made in the past, what opportunities you’ve passed up in the present and what mortal fate awaits you in the future, you would repent.”

Jesus parable of the rich man and Lazarus tells a different story: You already know. In this life, the rich man could see Lazarus sore and hungry at his gate. In this life, his brothers knew what the law of Moses required of the haves with regard to the have nots. And yet they didn’t change. Knowing these things mattered not a whit to them, however.

Knowledge is a necessary component of transformation, but insufficient by itself. We don’t need more information. Romans 2:25 demonstrates that even pagans have sufficient baseline of information to accuse or defend them before God.

What is needed is not information per se—or even more information—but something else. An agent of change outside ourselves. Not an informer but a transformer. The Transformer. As Paul David Tripp explains in his devotional, Come Let Us Adore Him:

God’s response [to our sin] wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t the establishment of an institution. It wasn’t a process of intervention. It wasn’t some new divine program. In his infinite wisdom God knew that the only thing that could rescue us from ourselves and repair the horrendous damage that sin had done to the world was not a thing at all. It was a person, his Son, the Lord Jesus.

Seen this way, the almost gospel of Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t even almost good news, insofar as it leaves us in the predicament of knowledgeable sin: We already know, but we still don’t change. Like Marley, we are dead as a doornail and need someone to raise us to life.

Joy to the world, then, that the Lord has come. Let earth receive her King!

 

P.S. This article was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. So, technically, this is an article, not a book review, but I posted it on Amazon.com anyway. If you like the article, could consider voting “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page?

 

 

Basic Christianity | Book Review


What does it mean to be evangelical? Derived from the Greek euaggelion — “gospel” or “good news” — the word describes things that are related to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Since the Reformation, it has been used as shorthand for Protestants generally. With the Great Awakening, it began to be used of a specific type of Protestant: Bible-based, Cross-centered, conversion-required and action-oriented.

Now in the United States, the word more often than not is used to describe a brand of partisan politics, at least in the popular press. This is unfortunate, because the gospel itself cannot be reduced to partisan politics. It is bigger and more fundamental than that. John Stott’s Basic Christianity helps readers remember this by outlining a truly evangelical understanding of Christianity.

Stott writes: “Christianity is a rescue religion. It declares that God has taken the initiative in Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sins. This is the main theme of the Bible.”

Over the course of 11 short chapters, Stott covers who Christ is, the nature and consequences of sin, the atoning work of the Cross, and the necessity of responding to Christ personally.

In the Preface, Stott pens this brief description of basic Christianity:

We must commit ourselves, heart and mind, soul and will, home and life, personally and unreservedly, to Jesus Christ. We must humble ourselves before him. We must trust in him as our Savior and submit to him as our Lord; and then go on to take our place as loyal members of the church and responsible citizens in the community.

Over the course of its nearly 60 years in print, Stott’s little book has found a remarkably broad audience — internationally and ecumenically — and for good reason. It is biblical, orthodox and evangelical in the best sense of the word. I recommend it highly. An individual can read it profitably, but I think the best way to read it is with a group. The third edition helpfully includes group discussion questions at the end of the book.

Stott first wrote Basic Christianity in 1958 for a British audience. It has been revised twice, in 1971 and 2008. As far as I can tell, this 2017 Eerdmans reissue is nearly identical to the third edition. Changes include a new cover and minor reformatting of the text. The biggest change is that all Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the 2011 edition of the New International Version.

 

Book Reviewed:
John Stott, Basic Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘Hidden in Plain View’ by Lydia McGrew


Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (Chillicothe, Ohio: DeWard, 2017).

Are the Gospels and the Book of Acts historically reliable? Its authors certainly thought so.

For example, Luke stated that his Gospel narrated “things … handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:1–2). Far from taking this eyewitnesses testimony for granted, however, he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning … so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3–4).

Similarly, John’s Gospel ends with these words from its final editors: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). The “disciple” was an eyewitness, in other words, and his unnamed editors (“we”) vouched for his testimony. As in Luke, the purpose of the goal of this testimony was faith: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

In the modern era, skeptical Bible critics have challenged the historical reliability of the first five books of the New Testament. They allege that contradictions both within and between the Gospels and Acts — and what is known about the time from external sources — call the plot of New Testament history into question. The defense of the New Testament’s historical reliability has thus revolved around demonstrating that its accounts of Jesus’ life and of the history of the Early Church are internally coherent and externally corroborated by known facts.

Lydia McGrew offers a third line of defense in her new book, Hidden in Plain View. According to her, “undesigned coincidences” in the Gospels and Acts suggest that the events they report are historically accurate because they rest on eyewitness testimony. She defines undesigned coincidences this way:

An undesigned coincidence is a notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that doesn’t seem to have been planned by the person or people giving the accounts. Despite their apparent independence, the items fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

McGrew outlines 47 such coincidences in the book. For brevity’s sake, let me focus on just one. Each of the Synoptic Gospels offers a list of the 12 apostles: Matthew 10:2–4; Mark 3:16–19; and Luke 6:14–16. These lists differ in some details, especially the order in which the writers present Andrew’s, Matthew’s, and Thaddeus’ names. And while Matthew and Mark refer to one disciple as Thaddeus, Luke refers to him as Judas, even though they’re most likely the same person.

The most interesting difference between these lists is grammatical. Mark and Luke connect each name using the Greek conjunction kai (“and”). So, “Simon and James and John and Andrew, etc.” in Mark and “Simon and Andrew and James and John, etc.” in Luke. This emphasizes the disciples as individuals. Matthew, on the other hand, uses kai to connect six sets of names. So, “Simon and Andrew, James and John, etc.” This emphasizes the disciples as pairs.

Matthew doesn’t explain why he lists the disciples as pairs, but Mark 6:7 offers a plausible suggestion: “Calling the Twelve to him, [Jesus] began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.” In other words, Matthew’s list most likely reflects the pairs of apostles that Jesus sent out in ministry, a pairing that only Mark mentions in an unrelated passage. We need both Gospels to see the whole picture.

Admittedly, this is a small detail. The historical reliability of the New Testament does not depend on this one undesigned coincidence. Still, the undesigned coincidences pile up, as McGrew demonstrates in her book. They revolve around incidental details, which suggests that they are not the results of a hoax, since hoaxers wouldn’t be so subtle. And while, theoretically, one could argue that such coincidences really are the result of pure luck, only the foolish gambler would place money on that table.

No, undesigned coincidences, taken cumulatively, suggest that the accounts of events in the Gospels and Acts have the ring of truth. They agree, not because a trickster designed them to agree (hoax) or because they just happen to agree (luck), but because they reflect the testimony of people who were there and whose reports of detail have made their way into the published narratives.

The argument from undesigned coincidences thus adds a third line of argument to those who would defend the Bible’s historical reliability: coherence, corroboration and coincidence. This third line of argument is not new, interestingly enough. It was pioneered in the 19th century by British apologists such as William Paley and J. J. Blunt. Lydia McGrew is to be congratulated for reviving it for use against the skeptical arguments of our day.

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Thursday, May 12, 2011


What is the gospel? Dallas Willard’s answer: “How to get into heaven before you die.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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A Leap of Truth explores the relationship between Christian theology and evolutionary theory.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Allen C. Guelzo asks, “Whither the Evangelical Colleges?” Hunter Baker replies with a thither.

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“Presbyterian Church to ordain gays as ministers.” The Rev. Dr. Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister, considers this a “moral awakening.”Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at Duke University, comments: “They’re making this change amid a larger cultural change. General public opinion on gay rights is trending pretty dramatically in the liberal direction.” On a (cor)related (but not necessarily caused) note, mainline church attendance is tanking. Perhaps this illustrates the truth of W. R. Inge’s comment that those who marry the spirit of the age will find themselves a widower in the next.

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“Catholic Church should reverse opposition to in vitro fertilization.” What’s interesting about this story is that the author, Sean Savage, and his wife, Carolyn, used IVF. Due to a lab mistake, she was implanted with the wrong embryo. Incredibly, she not only gave birth to the child but also gave the boy back to his biological parents. Sean and Carolyn tell their story in Inconceivable: A Medical Mistake, the Baby We Couldn’t Keep, and Our Choice to Deliver the Ultimate Gift.

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Robert H. Gundry on “The Hopelessness of the Unevangelized.”

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Just what we need: Yet another English translation of the Bible. And does anyone else find it odd that a graduate school—my alma mater—prefers a translation “written at the seventh or eighth grade reading level”?

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“Scientology in Illinois’ public schools?” Only in Springfield would L. Ron Hubbard and Bart Simpson make common cause.

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“Adolescents, Identity and Spirituality.” Something for parents to keep in mind:

While adolescents may question or review their spirituality, it remains a critical aspect of adolescent stability. While research on spirituality and adolescence is limited, studies of religiosity have found a positive correlation with an adolescent sense of well-being, positive life attitudes, altruism, resiliency, school success, health and positive identity, as well as a negative correlation with alcohol and drug use, delinquency, depression, excessive risk-taking and early sexual activity.

In short, as adolescents develop, they will need to confront their own spirituality and incorporate it into their sense of identity. Continuing the dialog while respecting that process and acknowledging the quest may be difficult. Yet it really remains the only option.

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Is Buddhist pacifism a Western myth?

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Over at Patheos.com, J. E. Dyer pens these words in “Social Conservatism and the Quality of Mercy”:

The moral horizon of our society has been narrowing for some time to a closed equation featuring selfish vindication and death, and it is this process that only God and His concept of mercy can reverse. If Christians are “salt and light” in the earth, as Jesus said we would be, then we cannot do better, in the project of propagating God’s mercy, than to start by absorbing its meaning ourselves.

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“Black Preacher: Why I forgave George Wallace”: Because George Wallace needed forgiveness? According to the Rev. Kelvin Croom, “If a lot of us would forgive people, we could find healing. We could find peace.” Another path to peace would be if a lot of us would repent of our sins against others.

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A little bit of philosophical theology in closing: How do we reconcile the social ought with the personal good? Thaddeus J. Kozinski answers:

The phenomenological dialectic of right and good could be resolved if we could understand what is at the heart of human moral experience; but to understand this heart, we require more than what, unaided, human moral experience and purely philosophical speculation on this experience can provide. My argument for this conclusion is thus: What the duty aspect of moral experience suggests is the reality of justice, which is inherently relational and thus irreducible to any interpretation of morality as mere personal fulfillment. What the happiness aspect of moral experience suggests is the reality of desirefor-the-good, which is inherently personal and thus irreducible to an interpretation of morality as mere social or divine obligation. So, any explanation of the moral ought must include both others-related justice and self-related desire, and this is precisely what is provided by a theological ethics of creation and gift: If we are creatures, then we are inherently relational, with any actions related, above all, to our creator; and if creation is a gift, then we are supposed to enjoy creation as a good. And if God Himself, in essence, is a relation of three persons eternally bestowing upon each other and enjoying each other’s perfect divine goodness—God giving and receiving Himself—and if humans are made in the image and likeness of this Trinitarian gift-friendship, then we have the definitive—though still inexhaustibly mysterious—archetype in which the paradoxical human experience of simultaneous goodness and oughtness can ultimately be resolved.

You might also want to check out Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality by David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls.