Category Archives: Book Review

God’s Promises are His Insurance Office

Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) writes in The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment about how to claim the promises of God as your own in order to develop contentment. He says the covenant of grace in general and the promises of God in particular are like “a great insurance office for the saints.”

Here is an insurance office indeed, a great insurance office for the saints, at which they are not charged, except in the exercising of grace, for they may go to this insurance office to insure everything that they venture, either to have the thing itself, or to be paid for it. In an insurance office you cannot be sure to have the very goods that you insured, but if they are lost the insurers pledge themselves to make it good to you. And this covenant of grace that God has made with his people is God’s insurance office, and the saints in all their fears may and ought to go to the covenant to insure all things, to insure their wealth and to insure their lives… It is a special sign of true grace in any soul, that when any affliction befalls him, in a kind of natural way he repairs immediately to the covenant… If you find that your heart works in this way, immediately running to the covenant, it is an excellent sign of true grace.

Burroughs then goes on to consider the particular promises:

  • Psalm 91:1-2, He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty…For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence
  • Isaiah 43:2, When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers they will not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you.
  • Isaiah 54:17, No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment.
  • Joshua 1:5, I will not leave you or forsake you
  • Hebrews 13:5, Keep your life free from the love of money and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
  • Psalm 34:10, The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
  • Psalm 37:5-6, Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.
  • Isaiah 58:10, If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

But Burroughs reminds the Christian that when considering the promises of God, we should always “consider their connection to the root, the great covenant that God has made with them in Christ.” He reminds his reader, “Now if I had lived in the time of the law, perhaps I might have been somewhat more confident of the literal performance of the promise, than I can be now in the time of the gospel.” Or again, he says we “ought not to lay too much upon the literal sense,” but rather remember that “all the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20). In other words, we must be careful how we make use of the old covenant promises.

But they are nonetheless for us. “Every time a godly man reads Scripture (remember this when you are reading Scripture) and there meets with a promise, he ought to lay his hand upon it and say, This is part of my inheritance, it is mine, and I am to live upon it. This will make you contented.”

By recalling the promises of God, connecting all the promises to their ultimate fulfillment in Christ, and turning to these promises as our insurance policy in the midst of any affliction, we will grow in obtaining the rare jewel of Christian contentment.

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B. B. Warfield’s Avalanche of Inspiration

warfielddrawingI recently finished reading B. B. Warfield’s classic The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. My dad actually gave me the copy from his own library, which he purchased just after its sixth printing in 1970. I’ve often heard the book cited, but now it was time for me to read it. I usually do my reading between 5:00-8:00am, so Warfield was like a strong shot of caffeine for me each morning. Over breakfast I would tell my wife what I had read from Brain Blowing Warfield that morning. He blew my mind.

But one of the most memorable parts of the book for me (there were many) was his illustration of the quantity of textual evidence for the inerrancy of Scripture. The Bible speaks all over of it’s own inerrancy. In the words of Jesus, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). To describe the ubiquity of textual evidence, Warfield uses the illustration of an avalanche. Here it is…enjoy:

But no grosser misconception could be conceived than that the Scriptures bear witness to their own plenary inspiration in these outstanding texts alone. These are but the culminating passages of a pervasive testimony to the divine character of Scripture, which fills the whole New Testament; and which includes not only such direct assertions of divinity and infallibility for Scripture as these, but, along with them, an endless variety of expressions of confidence in, and phenomena of use of, Scripture which are irresistible in their teaching when it is once fairly apprehended.

The induction must be broad enough to embrace, and give their full weight to, a great variety of such facts as these: the lofty titles which are given to Scripture, and by which it is cited, such as “Scripture,” “the Scriptures,” even that almost awful title, “the Oracles of God”; the significant formulæ by which it is quoted, “It is written,” “It is spoken,” “It says,” “God says”; such modes of adducing it as betray that to the writer “Scripture says” is equivalent to “God says,” and even its narrative parts are conceived as direct utterances of God; the attribution to Scripture, as such, of divine qualities and acts, as in such phrases as “the Scriptures foresaw”; the ascription of the Scriptures, in whole or in their several parts as occasionally adduced, to the Holy Spirit as their author, while the human writers are treated as merely his media of expression; the reverence and trust shown, and the significance and authority ascribed, to the very words of Scripture; and the general attitude of entire subjection to every declaration of Scripture of whatever kind, which characterizes every line of the New Testament.

The effort to explain away the Bible’s witness to its plenary inspiration reminds one of a man standing safely in his laboratory and elaborately expounding—possibly by the aid of diagrams and mathematical formulæ—how every stone in an avalanche has a defined pathway and may easily be dodged by one of some presence of mind. We may fancy such an elaborate trifler’s triumph as he would analyze the avalanche into its constituent stones, and demonstrate of stone after stone that its pathway is definite, limited, and may easily be avoided. But avalanches, unfortunately, do not come upon us, stone by stone, one at a time, courteously leaving us opportunity to withdraw from the pathway of each in turn: but all at once, in a roaring mass of destruction. Just so we may explain away a text or two which teach plenary inspiration, to our own closet satisfaction, dealing with them each without reference to its relation to the others: but these texts of ours, again, unfortunately do not come upon us in this artificial isolation; neither are they few in number. There are scores, hundreds, of them: and they come bursting upon us in one solid mass. Explain them away? We should have to explain away the whole New Testament. What a pity it is that we cannot see and feel the avalanche of texts beneath which we may lie hopelessly buried, as clearly as we may see and feel an avalanche of stones!

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, (Philadephia; Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1948), Sixth Printing 1970, 119-120.

The Scars That Have Shaped Me

full_the-scars-that-have-shaped-me-8mx0s41nI just finished reading a friend’s newly released book, The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Our Suffering. I can’t think of a better way to have spent my Monday. My wife Stacy read the book as well, so as we went for a long walk on Monday afternoon, we reflected on our reading.

The personal tone of the book and the short chapters make it a perfectly suitable gift to give someone in the midst of suffering. This is no abstract, academic approach. It’s raw and revealing (as is her blog).

Embracing Lament

In numerous places Vaneetha highlights the importance of not glossing over our suffering with plastic happiness. “Lament highlights the gospel more than stoicism ever could” (33). “Deadening our desires may make us stoics, but it won’t make us passionate followers of Christ” (87-88). Don’t encourage those who are suffering to simply think positively. The Christian can fully acknowledge the pain of life, and in fact, this leads all the more to casting ourselves on Christ. She points to Spurgeon’s saying, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages” (94).

She points out that we are often uncomfortable listening to the lament of others (35). I know this is true of me. I confess this as my own sin, and was reminded that both in my marriage and in ministry, I am called to acknowledge the full reality of suffering in order to help others suffer well.

Her counsel for the one suffering is to avoid a positive thinking facade and embrace grief fully (141). Don’t cover up your grief with happy stoicism. Only those who can lament and grieve understand their need for God.

Personalities and Suffering

Vaneetha describes how personality types can multiply the experience of suffering. She suffers from post-polio syndrome, which severely limits her physical stamina and capabilities. This often renders her unable to serve others in ways she’d like to. This would be difficult for anyone, yet its even harder for Vaneetha who is very much wired to serve others. She sees herself as a “helper personality.” This is hardwired into who she is, which only heightens the grief of her inabilities  (87). Although her suffering has opened up opportunities to serve that she never imagined, it also limits her capability to serve in so many other ways.

Individual personality and desires can intensify the experience of suffering. Some losses are felt more acutely based on pre-existing desires. For someone who loves the outdoors and enjoys exercise, it will be extremely difficult to deal with physical limitations like chronic joint pain. Whereas for someone who likes being inside and would rather read a book than go for a walk, physical limitations while still difficult, might be easier to bear.

This is important to remember in walking with someone through pain or suffering. If they seem to be “blowing things out of proportion,” we should remember that what might seem like it should be small or manageable to us may be of much greater significance to another person. We should avoid dealing with problems by offering solutions, and rather deal with individual people by listening to their experience of suffering and how they are processing it.

Pray for Healing?

“In the midst of broken dreams and reinventing pain, how should we pray? Should we pray for healing and deliverance, believing that we just need to ask because God can do anything? Or should we relinquish our desires to God, trusting that even in our anguish he has the perfect plan for us? Yes. When life falls apart, God invites us to do both.”

In this section and throughout the book, Vaneetha strikes a helpful balance in encouraging prayer for healing without putting hope in the healing itself. Our hope is in God and not in his gifts (66). Abraham’s faith wasn’t in the promise alone. His faith was rooted in the Promisor (80). God’s refusals remain his mercies (82).

In this sense she says we can consider the future and ask God for healing. There is no need to fear the “what if” of the future. What if the healing doesn’t come. What if the suffering doesn’t end. Rather, we can pray for change, and yet remain confident in God’s mercy “even if” the change never comes. “Replacing what if with even if in our mental vocabulary is one of the most liberating exchanges” (118)

Where to Go in Suffering

At one point, Vaneetha says that the best place to go in the midst of suffering is the Bible and prayer. “Read the Bible even when it feels like eating cardboard. And pray even when it feels like talking to a wall” (123). These answers might sound simplistic if they didn’t come from someone  who has walked through so much suffering and has found through the experience the reliability of this counsel.

Throughout the book she shows how God’s Word has ministered to her in the midst of her suffering. It was instructive to me to see many familiar passages from “the sufferer’s perspective” (71-72).

The Word and prayer are deep wells. I should encourage the sufferer to return to these wells even when they seem dry. And then I should pray that the Lord would give refreshing through these means of grace.

Seeking to minister to a friend in suffering will include asking God to bring them comfort and hope through his Word and through their prayers. While it may not always be right for me to instruct a sufferer in truth (as in the ill-timed exhortations of Job’s friends), I ought to pray that God would speak to the heart of my suffering friend through the Spirt and by the Word.

The Two Values that Bind Americans Together: The Isolating Coherence of an Incoherent Culture

What are the shared beliefs or “values” that hold our society together?

I’ve just finished reading a sociological work titled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, a collaborative effort by five sociologists led by Robert Bellah (University of California, Berkeley).

They highlight the central role of individualism in American life going all the way back to the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835 and 1840). Tocqueville wrote about the mores (cultural values) of colonial America, which he called “habits of the heart.” And it was Tocqueville that helped to give currency to a new word. “‘Individualism’ is a word recently coined to express a new idea,” he said. Tocqueville went on,

Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.

As the authors note, Tocqueville saw the isolation to which Americans are prone as ominous for the future of our freedom. They point out that individualism has a fragmenting and separating effect on society. As everyone pursues his own interest, society tears at the seams.

As they put it, the main question is “whether an individualism in which the self has become the main form of reality can really be sustained.” Is such a society sustainable? Their conclusion is that individualism develops into an incoherent society, “separation and individuation” become pervasive.

So they ask, “how is it that our culture holds together at all?” In the midst of incoherence, what common values hold us together?

  1. First, the dream of personal success, usually defined in material or economic terms. Whatever economic rung a person is on, they want to climb higher. This economic ambition is fed by television and media, which present a “consumption-centered version of the good life.” This is utilitarian individualism.
  2. Second, the portrayal of vivid personal feelings. This is expressive individualism, where the most important thing in life is to be true to one’s feelings. To accurately understand the self and effectively pursue the interests of the self in each situation or relationship.

But these two integrating themes of society are really “pseudo-integration,” not really binding us together but isolating us further as each pursues his own good but neglects societal good. As Matthew Arnold said in 1852, “in the sea of life ensiled… / We mortal millions live alone.”

Thus, the only two unifying narratives of American society turn out not to be unifying at all, but rather isolating. The values we have chosen to bring coherence actually bring further incoherence.

The sociologists not only critique, they also offer hope. Many of those whom they interviewed were hopeful, that “though the processes of separation and individuation were necessary to free us from the tyrannical structures of the past, they must be balanced by a renewal of commitment and community if they are not to end in self-destruction or turn into their opposites. Such a renewal is indeed a world waiting to be born if we only had the courage to see it.”

They envision a society that holds in balance the dignity and freedom of each individual, but also obligation to and participation in the wider community.

It struck me that the church should be a model of this kind of society. The church is a community bound together by an integrating narrative, the gospel. And around this narrative we affirm the role and dignity of the individual, as well as the necessity of the whole community and vital participation in it.

 

Billy Graham: America’s Pastor

Billy Graham may have addressed more people face-to-face than anyone else in history, with the possible exception of Pope John Paul II.[1] By the numbers, his effectiveness was spectacular. He addressed face-to-face with the gospel more than 210 million people spanning over 185 countries in 417 crusades over nearly sixty years.[2] Distinguished historian Martin Marty said that the Mt. Rushmore of Protestant American shapers includes Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham.[3] And George H. W. Bush had called him “America’s pastor.”[4] Not bad for a farm boy who got his start in the rural piedmont region of North Carolina.

And few people could be more suited to write a biography on Graham than Grant Wacker, the Gilbert T. Rowe professor of Christian history at Duke University Divinity School. I was introduced to Wacker through his work on early Pentecostals and American culture, Heaven Below. Wacker’s outstanding new biography on Graham is scholarly and disciplined, “an interpretation rather than a strictly chronological account” (5). He portrays Graham as one of the architects of new evangelicalism (perhaps the primary) and as the face of American religion in the public square.

Wacker says his book is propelled by three questions:

  1. How did Graham become the “least colorful and most powerful preacher in America”?
  2. How did he help expand traditional evangelical rhetoric into the moral vocabulary that millions of American used to make sense of both their private and their public experiences?
  3. How did he help mold the culture that created him and that he created? How did he speak both for and to modern America?

To answer these three questions, Wacker proposes one answer which is the core of his book:

From first to last, Graham displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral reform purposes.

I found Wacker to be extremely fair at every turn, in interpreting the life and significance of a man who would be easy to malign (as did Reinhold Niebuhr) or divinize (as have many biographers). Wacker critiques the crusades as theatrical (140), noting that they “embodied the entrepreneurial spirit of American evangelicalism at its most efficient best” (151). Yet he portrays Graham as a man of deep integrity, guilty of little more than “flashes of vanity.”

Wacker’s historical analysis would make it easy to criticize Graham as a naive showman, employing entrepreneurial vision for self-aggrandizement. And yet Graham’s steady faithfulness to the gospel message and his persistent moral integrity should give us pause at such uncharitable assessments.

Graham’s critics repeatedly objected that his gospel had no bite. He called them to Christ but did not expect them to change in any fundamental way….

[But] there is danger in overthinking the data… Hundreds of thousands–perhaps millions–of Americans attested that Graham had played a pivotal role in their journeys. Other pastors had their jobs. He had his. It was to nurture the private life of a public faith.

Whether you are a Graham critic or fan, you will appreciate Wacker’s far-reaching and insightful analysis of American culture, religious culture in particular, and Billy Graham’s role in shaping it.

[1] Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, Mass: Bellknap Press, 2014), 21.

[2] These numbers are generally agreed upon with slight variation. This particular set of numbers comes from Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the Whitehouse (New York: Center Street, 2007), vii. But the biography of Graham on the BGEA website provides similar data, available at http://billygraham.org/about/biographies/billy-graham/.

[3] Martin E. Marty, “Billy Graham Taught Christians New Ways of Being in the World” (September 30, 2013), Martin Marty Center, University of Chicago Divinity School, accessed January 8, 2015, https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/billy-graham-taught-christians-new-ways-being-world-martin-e-marty.

[4] George H. W. Bush, quoted without direct citation in David Aikman, Billy Graham: His Life and Influence (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 234.