This Gospel | Book Review


The first time I heard veteran missionary Dick Brogden preach was in August 2014 at the Centennial Celebration of the Assemblies of God in Springfield, Missouri. Karl Adams once quipped that Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans dropped a “bombshell on the playground of the theologians.” After hearing Brogden’s sermon, I commented on social media that he had just dropped a bombshell on the playground of comfortable Pentecostals.

That sermon — “Abide, Apostle, Abandon” — is included in This Gospel (pages 85–94). “We’ve probably all heard about what has happened in Iraq,” Brogden began. “Children butchered, women raped, men forced to convert to false religion, villages attacked, fear spread throughout the region, heads cut off and displayed to intimidate any who dare resist.”

Most thought, reasonably enough, that he was talking about the depredations that ISIS was committing at that very time. But Brogden was talking about “the Assyrians in the time of Jonah, 2,500 years ago.” The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems. “To me,” he went on, “the miracle of Jonah is not that the sea calmed when Jonah was thrown in or that the fish swallowed Jonah in order to save him.” Rather, “the great miracle is that the intimidating, bloodthirsty, disobedient, false-religion-spouting city of Nineveh repented!” If God could do that then, He can do that now as well. “All He needs are a few Jonahs.”

Modern-day Jonahs, Brogden explained, will be characterized by three traits: First, they will abide (John 15:5) “We must return to and maintain the simplicity of just having Jesus.” Second, they will apostle, that is, “advance together in planting the church where it does not exist” (Romans 15:20). And third, they will abandon. “We must embrace suffering for Jesus’ sake as part of our normal reality” (Acts 9:16).

Summarized this way, Brogden’s points may not strike you as all that bombshellish. But it seemed to me when I first heard this message, and it still seems to me as I reread it, that his points are indeed explosive, for they confront the comfortableness of American Christianity.

Take abide. Jesus said, “If you remain [i.e., abide] in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Here, abiding and fruitfulness are sequential. Do the one, and the other will result. But how often do we rest our hopes for fruitfulness in ministry on our wealth, education methods, programs, worship styles and whatnot rather than on spending “extravagant time with Jesus”? This challenges the depth of American Christian spiritual discipline.

Or consider apostle. “Missions is not even strictly an issue of lostness,” Brogden writes, “for there are lost people everywhere in the world.” Instead, he goes on, missions is “an issue of access. Missions means that we take the gospel where it has not gone.” The problem, though, is that today, there are too few missionaries in those regions of the world that have the least access to the gospel. This challenges the distribution of American Christian missionary resources.

Then, abandon. The idea of embracing suffering as normal challenges the American Christian expectation of prosperity at its core. So much so that Brogden builds a biblical case for the notion that Christians will suffer as they take the gospel around the world, drawing especially on the example of the apostle Paul, whose missionary commission included the promise of suffering (Acts 9:11–16). Of course, Paul was to simply follow Christ, so, Brogden asks: “Christ loved us enough to die for us. Do we love Christ enough to die for Him? If the price of world evangelization is our own discomfort and demise, will we not willingly and joyfully pay it?” That strikes at the core of our desires, does it not?

“Abide, Apostle, Abandon” is one of 25 “missions sermons” included in This Gospel. The others expand on these themes or introduce new ones. I’ve selected the Centennial sermon because it captures the core of Brogden’s convictions as a missionary, as well as the central practices of the Live Dead movement, in which he is a leader.

A final, personal note. Dick Brogden is a friend. His messages are earnest and to the point. What words on a page don’t capture, however, is the spirit of joyfulness that Dick exudes personally. That’s something to keep in mind as you read these sermons, which challenge but also inspire.

Book Reviewed
Dick Brogden, This Gospel: A Collection of Missions Sermons (Springfield, MO: Live Dead Publishing, 2018).

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Review of ‘What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?’ by Brian Han Gregg


what-does-the-bible-say-about-sufferingBrian Han Gregg, What Does the Bible Say About Suffering? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

“Suffering is one of the great universals of human life,” Brian Han Gregg writes in What Does the Bible Say About Suffering? For the Christian, the experience of suffering poses a difficult theological question: “Why has my God, who is both wholly good and completely powerful, allowed this to unfold?” To answer that question, Gregg turns to the Bible and outlines its response.

Or perhaps I should say responses (plural), for Gregg argues that “there is no single way forward,” as far as the Bible is concerned. Instead, it includes “a number of different responses to the problem of suffering, and we do ourselves and the Bible a great disservice by adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.” He compares the “biblical witness” to a “talented choir” that sings in a “complex harmony.”

According to the Bible,

  1. “[S]uffering may be punishment from God” (e.g., Deuteronomy 30:15–20).
  2. It may result “from the sinful choices of others” (e.g., Genesis 4:1–8).
  3. Regardless, “God’s redemptive power is stronger than the suffering that afflicts us” (Genesis 45:4–8).
  4. Suffering can be “the work of Satan…to cause [us] to fall away from Jesus” (Luke 22:31–34).
  5. Sometimes, we must humbly accept “the mystery of suffering,” which is beyond our power to comprehend (Job 40:8–14).
  6. Often, suffering takes place “within the context of God’s redemptive purposes” (Romans 8:18–25).
  7. Other times, it plays “an important role in our spiritual growth and development” (Hebrews 12:1–13).
  8. On occasion, God himself uses suffering “to test our faith” (Exodus 17:1–7).
  9. On other occasions, we experience “the power of God’s new life” only when “we embrace suffering in solidarity with Christ in his death” (2 Corinthians 4:7–12).
  10. At all times, “God is our comfort in the midst of suffering” (2 Corinthians 1:3–7).
  11. “We are invited to join [Christ] in emptying ourselves for the sake of others so that we might also share in his glory” (Philippians 2:5–11).
  12. Our suffering participates in “God’s own suffering as it unfolds in the already and not yet” of the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:24).

When we realize the “complex harmony” of the Bible’s message about suffering, we shy away from simplistic answers about suffering. For example, sin—whether ours or someone else’s—is sometimes the cause of our suffering (answers 1 and 2), but not always (answer 5). The temptation Satan uses to trip us up (answer 4) can be the test God uses to build us up (answer 8). The number of different responses to suffering requires that we use discernment when counseling the sufferer, lest we misdiagnose the cause of their suffering and prescribe the wrong treatment for it.

While these twelve responses differ among themselves, they have this in common: “Each…draws us back to God,” Gregg writes. “Together they encourage us to seek him in the midst of our suffering so that hope may be reborn.”

What Does the Bible Says About Suffering? is a short-but-wise book. Pastors will find it useful in their preaching and counseling ministries. Similarly, small groups and book clubs will find that it generates helpful conversations about the church’s response to suffering. I highly recommend it.

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P.P.S. This review was cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Review of ‘Between Pain and Grace’ by Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer


Between-Pain-and-GraceGerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer, Between Pain and Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering (Chicago: Moody, 2016).

American Christians don’t know how to suffer well. On the one hand, we think the life of faith should be victorious and joyful, so suffering seems like a defeat and a downer. On the other hand, because suffering seems like a defeat and a downer, it must be caused by insufficient faith or obedience on our part.

Neither hand is biblical, of course. Instead, both reflect the chirpy optimism and can-do individualism of modern culture. “If it’s going to be,” we often hear, “it’s up to me.” The corollary of this sentiment is obvious but ignored: “If it doesn’t happen, it’s my fault.”

What American Christians need is a biblical theology of suffering—one that recognizes life’s hardness without blaming the victims. Between Pain and Grace by Gerald Peterman and Andrew Schmutzer does just that. It situates Christian experience smack dab in the middle of the now-but-not-yet of the gospel:

In our current metanarrative—the overarching narrative of human life for those of Christian faith—we find two opposing qualities existing side by side; indeed, they are sometimes mixed together. First, there is death and those things that go along with it, such as suffering, sin, frustration, betrayal, violence, corruption, and groaning. Second, there are blessings of the gospel: new life, redemption, the indwelling Spirit, adoption, hope, life in God’s community, and ongoing transformation.

Truly, the Christian life means to exist between two worlds: the old world of sin, alienation, and death and the new world of righteousness, holiness, and life.

Until Christ returns, this both-and quality cannot be resolved. God alone can “wipe every tear from their eyes” with finality (Revelation 21:4). That doesn’t mean there are no actions the Christian community can take to ameliorate existing suffering or to prevent future suffering. We can and must do both. Indeed, “God always uses human agents to carry his plan forward” (emphasis in original).

Still, suffering is an intrinsic part of life in the present age, so it is a duty of Christians to understand it better so they can minister to its victims with greater compassion and healing. The authors contribute to a better understanding of suffering by outlining the “basics of affliction in Scripture” in chapter 1. Chapter 2 turns to “the relational ecosystem of sin and suffering,” that is, the relationship of God to humanity, of humans to one another, to animals, and to the inanimate created order.

Chapters 3 and 4 are theological. They describe the suffering of God and of Jesus. Against classical philosophical theism, which teaches that God does not suffer, and against panentheism, which teaches that God is not sovereign over suffering, the authors describe God as a “caring King,” the One characterized by “willing vulnerability” (emphasis in original).

Chapter 5 argues that the Church needs to recover the practice of lamentation, that is, “the language of lament.” The lament—whether individual or corporate—is the most common form of prayer in the Psalms. Contemporary Christians are often uncomfortable with laments’ frank complaining to God—e.g., “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1). Without lament, however, sufferers can’t make sense of what’s happening to or in themselves. “The very structure of lament brings shape to the formlessness of suffering.” For me personally, this was the best chapter in the book.

The remaining chapters discuss a variety of topics: “redemptive anger” (chapter 6); “suffering, prayer, and worldview” (chapter 7); “leadership and tears” (chapter 8); “family toxins” (chapter 9); sexual abuse (chapter 10); mental illness (chapter 11); and the role of the Christian community in ameliorating and preventing suffering (chapter 12). Each of these chapters mines Scripture for wisdom on the topics, as well as draws on the best of the social sciences. The discussion of “family toxins” in chapter 9, for example, puts the story of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) into fruitful dialogue with family systems therapy. It is a tour de force. Chapter 13 brings the book to a conclusion by reflecting on the “metanarrative” of Scripture, which progressives in the arc of “Creation è Devastation è Restoration.” In Christ, God’s devastated creation is being restored—at the individual, social, and cosmic levels.

Between Pain and Grace is not always easy reading, and like most books on hard topics, readers will find all sorts of nits to pick. Nonetheless, Gerald Peterman and Andrew Schmutzer have written a valuable treatment of a difficult subject. I highly recommend it.

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Review of ‘Strong and Weak’ by Andy Crouch


Strong-and-WeakThis review first appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

“Two questions haunt every human life and every human community,” writes Andy Crouch. “The first: What are we meant to be? The second: Why are we so far from what we’re meant to be?” (emphasis in original). Strong and Weak offers an answer to that question which focuses on “the paradox of flourishing,” the necessity of pursuing “greater authority and greater vulnerability at the same time” (emphasis in original).

Crouch defines authority as “the capacity for meaningful action” and vulnerability as “exposure to meaningful risk.” Most people—including many Christians—view authority and vulnerability in either/or terms. To the degree that we exercise authority, we insulate ourselves from meaningful risk. To the degree that we experience vulnerability, we lack capacity to take meaningful action. Given the choice between being a millionaire and a homeless person, who in their right mind would choose the latter?

This choice is a false one, however. Without vulnerability, authority becomes exploitative. Indeed, Crouch argues that “the real root of the problem,” the answer to the question of why we are so far from what we’re meant to be, is “the quest for authority without vulnerability.” Without authority, on the other hand, the capacity for meaningful action, vulnerability reduces simply to suffering. The real choice we face is whether to withdraw from lives of meaningful action and risk or to embrace them both. Authority and vulnerability together lead to flourishing, “the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:19).

“No human being ever embodied flourishing more than Jesus of Nazareth,” Crouch writes. “And precisely for this reason, no other life brings the paradox of flourishing so clear into focus.” Christ “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:8–9, emphasis added). Whether in Christ’s life or in ours, flourishing = authority + vulnerability.

Why did Christ live in such a way? For the sake of others, and this fact has a special application for Christian leaders. “Leadership begins the moment you are more concerned about others’ flourishing than you are about your own.” After all, even Christ refused to “consider [His] equality with God something to be used to his own advantage,” choosing instead to make himself “nothing,” taking on “the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6–7).

Crouch goes on to note that Christlike leadership carries two burdens: “If we want to be agents of transformation in the world, we must be willing to bear the burden of visible authority with hidden vulnerability.” A leader’s visible authority is what everyone sees, but hidden vulnerability means “to bear the risks that only you can see.” Christ’s visible authority was heard in His teaching and seen in His miracles. His hidden vulnerability, borne by himself alone throughout His public ministry, was His foreordained march to the Cross. Crouch notes the challenge of simultaneously exhibiting visible authority while bearing hidden vulnerability: “This will expose us to the temptation to become idols or tyrants ourselves—and yet without learning to bear hidden vulnerability, we will never truly be able to serve the flourishing of others.” Instead, we will use our manifest vulnerabilities to garner sympathy and manipulate allegiance.

Strong and Weak is a small book—approximately 175 pages. But for me, it packed a large punch, almost with the force of a revelation. As a Christian and as a leader, I try so hard to insulate myself, my family, and those around me from risk, all the while enlarging the scope of my effective action and theirs. Far from contributing to my flourishing, however—or theirs—this effort makes it impossible to grow spiritually or to minister effectively. To do either, we must like Jesus descend from privilege into pain, for only by accepting meaningful risk can we also develop capacity for effective action. To borrow’s Paul’s phrase, when we are weak, then we are strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). And only then.

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Suffering: The Second Mark of the Ideal Church (Revelation 2:8-11)


The first mark of the church is love. The second is suffering.

Please do not misunderstand me. Christians are not masochists. We do not fetishize suffering or go looking for martyrdom. But if two thousand years of Christian history are a reliable guide, martyrdom may come looking for us.

I freely concede that persecution and martyrdom are far from the minds of most American Christians. For all the religiously conservative complaints about secular humanist domination of the media, the fact is that Americans have near-total freedom to practice, publicize, and proselytize for their respective faiths—or non-faiths, as the case may be. No one, to my knowledge, rots in an American jail because he or she is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, or atheist.

The same freedom of religion does not obtain for many Christians around the world. Nina Shea marks the disparity with these words:

Millions of American Christians pray in their churches each week, oblivious to the fact that Christians in many parts of the world suffer brutal torture, arrest, imprisonment, and even death—their homes and communities laid waste—for no other reason than that they are Christians. The shocking untold story of our time is that more Christians have died this century simply for being Christians than in the first nineteen centuries after the birth of Christ. [Think about that!] They have been persecuted and martyred before an unknowing, indifferent world and a largely silent Christian community. And as their suffering intensifies, our silence becomes more stark.[i]

John’s Apocalypse is not silent about the persecution of believers. Rather, for John, Jesus is a martyred Christ and his followers form a martyr’s church. Revelation 1:5 and 3:14 describe Jesus as “the faithful witness.” (“Witness” translates the Greek word martys, from which we get the English word martyr.) Antipas, the Pergameme martyr mentioned in 2:13 is also a “faithful witness.” We share Christ’s title, it seems, when we share his fate—the cross.

These days, we ask ourselves. “What would Jesus do?” But as John Howard Yoder points out, “there is no general concept of living like Jesus in the New Testament.” He goes on to argue, “There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds…. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus—and only thus—are we bound by New Testament thought to ‘be like Jesus.’”[ii]

Like Jesus, the church at Smyrna faced persecution and death (Rev. 2:8–11). And like Jesus, the Smyrnans were promised “the crown of life” for enduring those horrible realities (verse 10; cf. Heb. 12:1–2). Although they did not seek suffering, they were willing to endure it for Christ’s sake.

Why? Because of love. John thus correlates love and suffering as the church’s first two marks. Indeed, they are inseparable, for as John Stott notes, “A willingness to suffer for Christ proves the genuineness of our love for him.”[iii]

 

[i] Nina Shea, In the Lion’s Den: A Shocking Account of Perseuction and Martyrdom of Christians Today and How We Should Respond (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1997), 1; emphasis added.

[ii] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 130, 131.

[iii] Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 178.

The Christian Life (Revelation 1:9–11)


Revelation 1:9–11 introduces a new section of the Apocalypse, a vision of Jesus Christ in glory, dictating letters to John for the seven churches. The vision extends from 1:9 to 3:22. Before we look at Jesus, however, let us look at John, noting these things especially:

  • Self-description: “your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus”
  • Location: “the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus”
  • Situation: “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day”
  • Commission: “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches”

Several important truths about the Christian life are apparent in these words.

First, Christian life is lived with others. The church is a family in which all are brothers and sisters. It is a “close mutual relationship” (koinonia) in which each is a “partner” (synkoinonos) to all. No Christian is an orphan; none should be alone.

Second, Christian life is difficult. In general, “Life is hard,” as M. Scott Peck famously put it. But the Christian life is particularly hard. And we experience its hardness “in Jesus.”

For some modern believers, a suffering Christian is an oxymoron. According to them, a Christian by definition is healthy, wealthy, and safe. Disease, poverty, and setbacks in life demonstrate a lack of faith, not an abundance of it. The New Testament everywhere refutes this pernicious error. “Indeed,” Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:12, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The word of God and the testimony of Jesus did not save John from imprisonment on Patmos; they put him there!

But third, Christian life is rewarding. Christians experience difficulty in the present, but they hope for “the kingdom” in the future. The kingdom of God is a main theme of the Bible. It describes both God’s right to exercise authority over us and the righteousness, peace, and joy that result when he does so.

Fourth, between the suffering and the reward, between the tribulation and the kingdom, Christian life demands patient endurance.

But it is not powerless endurance. John speaks of being “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” In the New Testament, the Spirit is the preeminent sign of the inauguration of God’s kingdom in “the last days” (Acts 2:14–21). And “the Lord’s Day”—that is, Sunday—is so named because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on that day. We await a future resurrection, but even now we experience divine power: “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19–20). Jesus Christ lives within us. The Holy Spirit is poured out upon us. These twin realities make our endurance of tribulation possible.

Finally, then, Christian life is evangelistic. Jesus Christ commanded John, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches.” Christians are not the only people who suffer the world’s difficulties. But we are the people who know the joyous good news of God’s coming kingdom. Even now, we experience its power. We must share this joyous gospel with others.