Saturday, 14 May 2016

J.C. Ryle - General Reason #3 for Exhorting Young Men

(3)  For another thing, what young men will be, in all probability depends on what they are now, and they seem to forget this.

   Youth is the seed-time of full age, -- the moulding season in the little space of human life, -- the turning-point in the history of man's mind.

   By the shoot, we judge of the tree, -- by the blossoms we judge of the fruit, -- by the spring we judge of the harvest, -- by the morning we judge of the day, -- and by the character of the young man, we may generally judge what he will be when he grows up.

   Young men, be not deceived.  Think not you can, at will, serve lusts and pleasures in your beginning, and then go and serve God with east at your latter end.  Think not you can live with Esau, and then die with Jacob.  It is a mockery to deal with God and your souls in such a fashion.  It is an awful mockery to suppose you can give the flower of your strength to the world and the devil, and then put off the King of kings with the scraps and leavings of your hearts, -- the wreck and remnant of your powers.  It is an awful mockery, and you may find to your cost the thing cannot be done. 

   I daresay you are reckoning on a late repentance.  You know not what you are doing.  You are reckoning without God.  Repentance and faith are the gifts of God, and gifts that he often withholds, when they have been long offered in vain.  I grant you true repentance is never too late, but I warn you at the same time, late repentance is seldom true.  I grant you, one penitent thief was converted in his last hours, that no man might despair; but I warn you, only one was converted, that no man might presume.  I grant you it is written, Jesus is 'able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him' (Heb. 7:25).  But I warn you, it is also written by the same Spirit, 'Because I have called, and ye refused, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh' (Prov. 1:224, 26).

   Believe me, you will find it no easy matter to turn to God just when you please.  It is a true saying of good Archbishop Leighton: 'The way of sin is down hill; a man cannot stop when he would.'  Holy desires and serious convictions are not like the servants of the centurion, ready to come and go at your desire (Matt. 8:5); rather are they like the unicorn in Job, -- they will not obey your voice, nor attend to your bidding (Job 39:9).  It was said of a famous general of old, when he could have taken the city he warred against, he would not, and by and by when he would, he could not.  Beware, lest the same kind of event befall you in the matter of eternal life.

   Why do I say all this?  I say it because of the force of habit.  I say it because experience tells me that people's hearts are seldom changed if they are not changed when young.  Seldom indeed are men converted when they are old.  Habits have long roots.  Sin once allowed to nestle in your bosom, will not be turned out at your bidding.  Custom becomes second nature, and its chains are threefold cords not easily broken.  Well says the prophet, 'Can an Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil' (Jer. 13:23).  Habits are like stones rolling down hill, -- the further they roll, the faster and more ungovernable is their course.  Habits, like trees, are strengthened by age.  A boy may bend an oak, when it is a sapling, -- a hundred men cannot root it up, when it is a full-grown tree.  A child can wade over the Thames at its fountain-head, -- the largest ship in the world can float in it when it gets near the sea.  So it is with habits: the older the stronger, -- the longer they have held possession, the harder they will be to cast out.  They grow with our growth, and strengthen with our strength.  Custom is the nurse of sin.  Every fresh act of sin lessens fear and remorse, hardens our hearts, blunts the edge of our conscience, and increases our evil inclination. 

   Young men, you may fancy I am laying too much stress on this point.  If you had seen old men, as I have done, on the brink of the grave, feelingless, seared, callous, dead, cold, hard as the nether mill-stone, -- you would not think so.  Believe me, you cannot stand still in the affairs of your souls.  Habits of good or evil are daily strengthening in your hearts.  Every day you are either getting nearer to God, or further off.  Every year that you continue impenitent, the wall of division between you and heaven becomes higher and thicker, and the gulf to be crossed deeper and broader.  Oh, dread the hardening effect of constant lingering in sin!  Now is the accepted time.  See that your flight be not in the winter of your days.  If you seek not the Lord when young, the strength of habit is such that your will probably never seek him at all. 

   I fear this, and therefore I exhort you.

                          - J.C. Ryle, Thoughts for Young Men, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 9-12

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Review: Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Adam J. Johnson

From my Amazon and goodreads review of Adam Johnson's Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, published by Bloomsbury.

You don't have to be perplexed to benefit from this very good discussion of the atonement.  In a nut shell, Adam Johnson advocates for a comprehensive view of the atonement which focuses on how each of the attributes of the Triune God are displayed and/or satisfied in the atonement. Johnson focuses not only on the traditionally anthropocentric aspects of the atonement (aspects directly affecting humanity's sinful and lost condition) but also draws the reader to look at the creation-wide purposes and effects of Christ's atoning work. He points not only to what God is saving humanity and the whole created realm from but also what he is saving it for, both the negative and positive aspects of God's atoning work in Christ (redeeming/rescuing as well as restoring). Johnson purposefully avoids favouring one theory of the atonement over another, seeing that as a tacit favouring of one (or some) of God's attributes over others, as if certain aspects of who God is could be more important than other aspects of who he is.

Those who view penal substitutionary atonement as the one true understanding of the atonement over against all others will certainly dismay over this work. Those who view penal substitution as the commanding or central theory among many legitimate and biblical but lesser facets of the atoning work of Christ will have good reason to rethink the balance. [For example, Johnson argues that God's wrath is not an essential characteristic of God.  After all, there was a time, pre-creation and pre-sin, when this was not part of God's attributes and, as all things will one day be restored to perfection and peace, that time will come again. Wrath is a reaction of God's holiness to sin, not an actual attribute of God.]  Those who would like the church to abandon all thought of substitutionary atonement (with or without "penal") will also be dissatisfied with Johnson's treatment. He fully recognizes that Scripture speaks of Christ taking the place of sinners - substitution - and suffering the just penalty for sin. However, Johnson (if I recall correctly) prefers to steer clear of language of the Father pouring out his wrath upon or punishing Christ, favouring instead that the Father judged and punished sin in Christ while simultaneously magnifying the obedience and self-giving service of Christ.

Johnson argues ultimately that only a holistic view of the nature, character, purposes and works of God will give us a full view of what God has done in/is doing through the atonement. Toward this end, Johnson sees Christ's atoning work as not merely what he did on the cross, or even in the cross and resurrection, but what he did from incarnation to ascension and outpouring of the Spirit. This work is not that full-orbed view of the atonement that the author advocates for (its less than 200 pages of text). Indeed, such an expansive view of the atonement will continually grow as theologians expand their exploration of the eternal and inexhaustible glories of the person and works of the triune God. However, this work is a call to and a brief pattern of what the ever-expanding theological exploration into the atonement could look like.

I highly recommend this work. I hope to see more studies like this, exercises in theological maximalism, which seek not to prove one view or aspect of theology by arguing against all competitors but rather which examine the many aspects of a given point of theology from the various perspectives afforded when one considers the multifaceted nature, character, purposes and interactions of God with himself, with humanity, and with all creation.

Monday, 25 April 2016

N.D. Wilson on the virtues of scary stories for children

Monsters can give children nightmares.  Some parents will go out of their way to shield children from stories about scary things.  But children will have nightmares about monsters and goblins anyway.  Kids know, both inherently and from their (limited) experience, that there are nasty things in the world.  But the right kind of monster stories will set kids up with the tools to deal with those frightening things in the right way, and I'm not only talking about imaginary monsters, but the kind in the real world as well.  Good monster stories can give children courage and peace of mind; such stories can nurture their faith. 

Thanks to Justin Taylor for pointing out a very good article by N.D. Wilson on why the right kind of scary stories are good for children.

Here is Wilson's article in the Atlantic.

Some of our family's favourite "scary" Wilson stories are Leepike Ridge, Boys of Blur, the 100 Cupboards series, the Ashtown Burials series (still waiting for the rest to be published!), and his latest, Outlaws of Time: the Legend of Sam Miracle, is bound to be good too.

Wilson mentions some of the books that shaped him in his childhood reading, like C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  These stories have evil characters in them and frightening confrontations with darkness.  However, I agree whole-heartedly with kids reading these stories.  There are many other "dark" stories that some parents shy away from but which I think are good at imparting the very things Wilson speaks about in his article.  Some of our family's favourites are by Neil Gaiman: Coraline, and The Graveyard Book.  Certainly every parent should find out if their kids are ready for some of these darker-leaning books and I would suggest that parents should either read these tales to their children, or else read them along with their children, in order to be able to discuss the very themes Wilson talks about in his article (at least the first time the child experiences these stories).  But I most ardently advocate that these types of stories should be a regular part of a child's, and family's, reading diet. 

If you are unconvinced by Wilson's reasoning about why children should read scary or dark stories which teach them about virtue and courage and good ultimately triumphing over evil in the end, be sure to check out the blog post by Taylor mentioned above, which includes some quotes by authors arguing for the same thing.  Quotes like this one by G.K. Chesterton: 
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
                                                                                                 - The Red Angel

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Good place to start for biblical leadership wisdom

The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters, is very, very good. Most books on leadership are all about methods and management, and while the author admits those things are important and he speaks to them in this volume, Al Mohler very correctly explains that solid and effective leadership begins and ends with the leaders convictions. For leadership to truly seek and result in the success of the cause or organization being lead, that leadership must be based upon, nurtured through, and be measured against the truth-based convictions of the leader(s). If leading your organization or movement doesn't start with, persevere in and point toward firmly held convictions which are themselves based solidly in reality and in transcendental or "timeless" truths, no amount of pragmatic methods or strategic management will matter. While this book would benefit any leader at any level, it is particularly beneficial to those at the very top of their organizations and also those in some form of Christian ministry or endeavor as Mohler's biblical Christian worldview is the basis for his own firmly held convictions and comes out in all he writes. The reader benefits from Mohler's own experience as a successful leader in a few different contexts as well as from the wisdom he has gleaned from his own prodigious and varied reading. This book is (thankfully) devoid of corporate-speak, pop-culture and self-improvement jargon and is written clearly and argued plainly, making it accessible for anyone, including those for whom this is their first entry into leadership literature. This book will remain as relevant and timeless as the truths it is based upon. Very highly recommended.

(Originally reviewed on amazon.ca, May 20, 2014)

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Easter has come and (not) gone

The Easter season of the year of our Lord 2016 has come and gone, but the reality of Easter has not gone anywhere.  The reality of Easter has come and remained. 

What happened at the first Easter, the atoning death and triumphal resurrection of Jesus Christ, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2), is a reality that we continually live within.  For those whose trust is placed in Jesus as Saviour and Lord, all of life is now lived in the transforming light of his redeeming death and restoring resurrection. 

More than this, the reality of Easter has come, has remained and is still extending.  Whenever the gospel is preached from a pulpit or from a kindness done in Christ's name, whenever a dad patiently loves his (noisy) kids at the end of an exhausting day at work in imitation of our loving and long-suffering heavenly Father, whenever a person sacrifices their own preferences and interests to put another ahead of self in imitation of Christ, whenever a mom shepherds her little (perpetually dirty) children around the home with a melody of praise to the Lord Jesus in her heart, whenever a husband, in imitation of Jesus, gives himself and his desire to be first up for his bride (and does the dishes for her when he'd rather be watching the game), whenever a wife submits to and respects her husband and models the love of church for Jesus, whenever we speak of what Christ has done for us to a neighbour or co-worker or soccer mom, whenever a child obeys their parents in the Lord, whenever an artist or a craftsman or a cook or a tradesman creates something with their God-given abilities and magnifies God's nature through their sweat and blisters and imagination, whenever a teenager refuses to cave to the pressure to live like a fool as part of the crowd and stands firm in the wisdom of God's Word, whenever someone in obedience to Jesus does not return evil for evil but loves those who persecute them, whenever someone prays for their enemy, whenever the church gathers before the elect and fallen angels and puts the unity of the body of Christ on cosmic display in our worship and our participation in the Lord's Supper......whenever any of these things happen, and much more besides, the reality of Easter is extending. 

Each act of obedience to Jesus Christ and his Word is a tiny ripple in the water of eternity, a small wave on the surface of history.  Each act of Christian love and obedience is a small death to sin and self and a choice to instead live and walk in the resurrection life of the indwelling and empowering Spirit of Christ.  The ripples began when Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.  The waves on the still surface began when Jesus rolled away the stone that sealed his tomb and cast that stone into the waters of time.  And from that moment, the waves have gone out, the concentric circles have widened, and the ripples continue to broaden, spreading the triumph of Easter to every corner of the earth and every area of human experience.  The ripples will spread by the working of the Holy Spirit, until all things are brought under the dominion of the Lord Jesus Christ, all to the glory of God the Father.  Easter will continue to send out waves until every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Physician Assisted Death and the conscience of a nation

Thanks to Tim Challies for pointing out this thoughtful response to the recent legislative moves in Canada to make Physician Assisted Dying (PAD) legal and available to suffering patients. 

There is much more to say on this issue, some of which I've said here.  The church is going to have to be aware and engaged on this issue, prepared to give an answer for why we stand against human beings dictating the time and circumstances of how to end their lives. 

Who should have the final word about when and under what conditions an individual's life ends? 

If we say, as secular humanism does, that humans are the ultimate and highest beings in the universe, then I suppose the circumstances of death is our call to make.  Of course this is the argument of those who say that it is up to the individual to decide when their life ceases to be worth living.  Unfortunately, many calling themselves Christians (especially from the liberal mainline denominations) are lending support to this perspective. 

However, a thoroughly (socially) Darwinian perspective within secular humanism would not give that decision to the sufferer themselves.  A consistent secular humanist Darwinian would likely assign the decision to the strongest members of society, those in positions of power, rather than those who, by definition, are the weakest and most vulnerable: the suffering and sick.  For now, it is the sufferer that the Canadian government says should make the decision about when to end their life.  But in a secular worldview, there is really nothing other than the inertia of current cultural acceptance and moral opinion (as well as the remnants of a lingering Christian moral ethos) holding us back from having people other than the suffering individual themselves make this decision.  Recall Nazi Germany, where the decision to end the lives of the sick, weak and handicapped was left to a state funded and supervised medical system.  It was seen and justified not only as a benefit to society as a whole (not having to expend precious resources on such sub-par, and therefore subhuman, lives) but defended as an act of mercy toward the "patient" as well. 

If, however, we are created by a sovereign God and all people are made in his image, than all people, even those who are suffering or handicapped, have value.  And if God is always working out his redemptive purposes in human history, which includes his working in the lives of every particular individual, this puts the this question in a very different light.  This means that human suffering is not arbitrary and meaningless or that those who suffer are less important or less fully human or less capable of contributing to human flourishing and interrelationship. 

In light of these (and more) considerations, we best leave matters of when a person dies in God's hands.  We better focus on relieving the suffering of the hurting, caring for the sick and dying, and ministering to the aged and infirm, and we should strive toward curing and treating disease and illness.  These are things we have specific Scriptural warrant for.  We do not have any warrant to end the lives of those who are suffering, even if it is their desire to do so, and not even if we are the ones suffering and it is our own lives we are talking about.  For we are not merely our own and we are answerable to a higher authority than ourselves.   

Friday, 8 April 2016

When connecting with people online means disconnecting from actual people...you know, like the one who just asked you for a snack

Tony Reinke interviews Kevin Vanhoozer over at Desiring God on what it means to be a disciple of Christ in a culture of short attention spans, media spectacle, constant and global cyber-connectedness, virtual reality, gaming, and the fear of being disconnected from our virtual communities or missing out on the next big news. 

Always Connecting but Disconnected 

There are some very important observations here on  technology-related habits and patterns that all too often get an automatic pass and go completely unexamined by large numbers of Christians.  If, for example, you find yourself spending significant amounts of time reading Christian blogs, or texting, tweeting, facebooking, emailing or chat-rooming about Christian subjects online (like how to be a better, more effective Christian) instead of fellowshipping or interacting with people in the same room as you, you may be hurting yourself and your local church body far more than you are benefitting anyone you may "connect" with online.  In other words, while there is a healthy place for online Christian ministry and resources (this is a blog post linking to an online interview, after all), if it comes at a cost to our own marriages, families, neighbours or brothers and sisters in Christ in the local church - actual real life, face-to-face relationships and interaction - we may be bowing to a cultural idol rather than following a living Savior. 

Multiplayer Interactive Gaming as Anti-Social Behavior

There are also some critical cautions to parents here regarding "screen time" and in particular, gaming.  And I'm not talking about the content of what our children watch or play, but rather the formative power over time of the media and technologies they use regardless of the moral content of the applications.  Don't hear me wrong: content is important as well.  (A brief reflection on content can be found here.)  However, I would argue in the long run content is of lesser lasting importance to the formation of children's patterns of thought and life than the technologies themselves that children spend large amounts of time exposed to, even if the moral content of what they are playing or watching is "G" rated.  I would say this for the same reason I would say that children who grow up in a home where the parents are always arguing and at odds with other will be harmed and maladjusted even if the parents always use proper English and never use four-letter words when they argue.  The real (de)formative part for the children is the consistently broken relationship, the constant conflict in the parents' interaction, more than the cutting remarks themselves that the children overhear their parents yelling at each other.  We are formed by what we do, especially by what we do often because we desire doing it.  We are formed far more by the patterns and habits and time-uses of life than by what we claim to think or say we believe or by what we give mental ascent to.  Gaming, especially frequent and prolonged, can be training your child to disconnect from real life relationships in their preference for virtual characters.  And gaming can be forming them to dislike real world activities in favour of virtual accomplishments - completing the quest, getting to the next level, achieving the high score.  These are things that have no significance in this life or in the world to come and they can keep you from things that have eternal significance.  Are your kid's screen-time habits feeding or starving their eternal souls?  For that matter, what about yours and my screen-time habits?

I would encourage setting aside about 25 minutes or so to thoughtfully read and ponder this insightful piece of theological cultural engagement and critique.  Pouring yourself a good strong coffee might not be a bad idea either. 

I also humbly propose that as you read the interview with Vanhoozer, if you find yourself tempted to tweet catchy phrases or to check your email or texts part way through, or to put on a movie or video game for your kids so you can get some quiet time to read this without interruptions (from real people), you may be self-authenticating some of the key observations in this interview.  And that's not really a good thing.  If you really want to be counter cultural, read this and then get together with someone, you know, like, face-to-face, and discuss it.  Perhaps then a second cup of coffee is in order.