Review: Saved By Grace Alone

savedbygracealonecover2-416x659

Saved By Grace Alone: Sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2018.

Summary: Fourteen sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36, demonstrating from this text that salvation is by grace alone, due to our inability because of sin, and God’s loving initiative for his glory and our salvation.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a Welsh preacher who succeeded G. Campbell Morgan as pastor of Westminster Chapel in London. His ministry at Westminster began in 1939 and concluded because of health reasons in 1968. For a time he was president of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in the UK. His ministry was marked by consecutive exposition of different portions of scripture, combining careful exegesis of the text, treatment of the broader theological implications of the passage, and personal applicative appeals to his listeners. One series on Romans was published in fourteen volumes. In the case of this book, he takes fourteen sermons, preached over three months, to cover twenty-one verses in Ezekiel.

If that seems daunting, you are in for a surprise if you read this book. Lloyd-Jones preaches for the lay person and not the academic. Here is an example from one of the early chapters, on the Bible:

“This book is not a human book, it is not man’s ideas. It is the word of the Lord. Ezekiel had not been spending weeks and months in study, trying to understand the situation, and at last felt that he had discovered it and went to address the people; not at all. While he was sitting in helplessness and hopelessness with his fellow countrymen, the word of the Lord came to him. And that is still the only hope for our world. The word that comes to the world today is precisely this old word. Here is a perfect summary of the gospel” (p. 18).

The gospel in fact is the theme of this series of sermons, each on a verse or two from Ezekiel 36. As the title indicates, Lloyd-George is contending that this passage teaches us about God’s saving work, and that it is by grace alone. Following the passage, he traces Israel’s rebellion, their folly, and inability of themselves to live up to God’s standards. That is why Ezekiel is writing to exiles in Babylon. Exile reflects his just judgment on their sin, and there is nothing they can do to escape it or make up for their wrong. Yet God does not stop there. This would only be bad news, not gospel. Although they profaned God’s name among the nations, God will vindicate his name by restoring them, separating them unto holiness, bringing them back to Canaan, cleansing them from sin, giving them hearts able to obey, a new Spirit within them, a salvation that touches every aspect of their existence.

In each sermon, Lloyd-Jones moves from what salvation meant for the people of Israel to the parallel of what salvation means in the New Testament, accomplished through the work of Christ, confronting us with and cleansing us from sin, restoring us to life in Christ, reclaiming and going beyond what was lost in Eden. While showing the damage of human rebellion against God upon every dimension of life, and life’s futility under this regime, Lloyd-George repeatedly goes on to explore all the ways God in his grace meets us to liberate us from its hold, bringing forgiveness, and the indwelling Spirit, and an expanded vision of the purposes of God in us.

He also addresses his hearers (and readers), coming back again and again to commend the grace of God in Christ as our only hope. The sermons are wonderful examples of calling people to faith. Here is one example:

“Can you say, ‘My God?’ Do you know him personally? That is what Christ came to give you: not only forgiveness, not only new understanding, not only cleansing and holiness, but all that in order that we might be enabled to go into the holiest of all with full assurance of faith and know that we will always be there. Have you got that? Are you in that position? That is Christianity. That is the ultimate of it; the acme, the glory of it. He gave himself for us that he might bring us to God” (p. 147).

These sermons are not only valuable for exploring this passage in Ezekiel, and its gospel implications and as a model of appealing to someone to come to faith. They also preach the gospel to those of us who have believed. My heart was warmed by these truths afresh in reading Lloyd-Jones, even though I first believed them as a child. I can never get beyond but only go deeper into all that it means to be saved by grace alone through Christ alone. This book was a valuable aid in that journey.

________________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Favor

Favor

FavorGreg Gilbert. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: An exploration of experiencing God’s favor on our lives, far greater than we can conceive, utterly dependent upon Christ, and leading us into the joyful worship of God.

Greg Gilbert thinks that many of us are either chasing after false notions of the favor of God, or repelled by the health-and-wealth preachers who promote these notions, and that as a result we may neglect the unfathomably rich gift of God’s favor, a theme running through scripture. About these false notions, he writes:

“For one thing, the favor of God is almost always defined as divine blessings being poured out in a person’s life so that good things start to happen to them right away. Most of the time, those good things take the form of financial blessings—debt reduction, increased income, surprise cash, unexpected windfalls—and the evidence of God’s favor in that person’s life is that they are able to live a certain lifestyle. It’s not just financial good, though, that’s said to come with God’s favor. A person will also have relational success with their spouse or children or friends, professional accomplishment at work, or even a new and unexpected personal charm that makes other people want to do kind things for them, even backing down and letting them have the best parking spot in the lot because somehow, in some way, they recognize that person is a child of the King. When those kinds of things are happening, the story goes, then the favor of God is all over you” (pp. 13-14)

Gilbert contends, in the words of C. S. Lewis, that this is like a child making mud pies in a slum because he or she can’t imagine a holiday at the sea. God has so much more for us and he elaborates this in a study of God’s favor in scripture, noting that critical to this is the idea of being acceptable to God. Favor is earned, yet the problem with this is that we are utterly incapable of earning this ourselves, contrary to the claims of health and wealth preachers who contend that the right prayer, or seed gifts will bring an avalanche of blessing. We have been rebels against God who fall short of the righteousness that gains God’s favor.

Thankfully, we have a “champion” in Christ–one who has won that favor for us through his life, death, and resurrection. The amazing thing is that through faith, we may be united with Christ, Christ in us and we in Christ. In him we have died, been raised, and we enjoy what he enjoys, the favor of God.

In the second part of his book, Gilbert goes on to delineate the blessings experienced by those who enjoy the favor of God. Far beyond what is promised by the health-and-wealth prosperity preachers, we enjoy contentment in an anxious world, the peace of those with a clear conscience, having been declared righteous by God, and enjoying life everlasting, where all that is left to death is to deliver us safely into God’s arms.

He concludes the book with a rallying cry to fight against sin for who we are as the adopted and favored children of the King. He reminds us that we do not fight alone but in the power of the Holy Spirit, who indwells us and destroys sin in our lives down to its roots. He holds before us a life as epic adventure as we live into our destiny as people of the King.

In one sense, there was nothing new here. What Gilbert does here is simply preach the gospel, a gospel that is often lost in our moral, therapeutic, self-help culture where we think of God’s blessings as a kind of quid pro quo for all that we contribute to God’s cause. Down inside, this is all unsatisfying, and we sense we need something far more profound than we can gin up on our own. As I read Gilbert, I found myself reflecting again with how good is this story of God’s favor to us in Christ. As I did so, I kept thinking of this verse of the Katherine Hankey/William G. Fischer hymn, “I Love to Tell the Story”:

I love to tell the story
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest

Indeed, what Gilbert offers here is the “old story,” one I’ve heard since childhood. Yet I found myself hungering, and thirsting, and delighting as I read Gilbert’s account of that story of God’s favor in Christ–far better than prosperity preaching and self-help dreams.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Who Is Not At Our Table?

pexels-photo-269676

Photo by Whitney Greenwell, [CC0] via Pexels

Yesterday, I wrote about the table as an important symbol of the realities Christians enjoy in Christ–God’s gracious welcome to intimate relationship both with him, and with each other as communities nourished by Christ. For many of us, we can think of sweet experiences of table fellowship, where we know and are known and share life together offering everything from emotional support to material help to helping each other see Christ more clearly.

The question is whether it is fitting, and in keeping with God’s intention for the table, to keep these good things to ourselves. It reminds me of the four lepers in 2 Kings 7 who are living just outside the city gates while Arameans beseige Samaria in order to capture Elisha, the prophet. The city is delivered when the Lord causes them to hear the sound of chariots, horses and an approaching army, causing them to flee and fear. But the people hiding behind the gates do not know this. The lepers discover the flight when they decide to risk death to plead for food from the Arameans and discover no one there. They find tents full of food, clothing, and treasure that they accumulate until they conclude that this is too good to keep to themselves but ought to be shared with the rest of the city.

Truth is that we often don’t want our others to come to our table, for fear that we might lose the intimacy we enjoy. To welcome others to our tables will change everything, we fear. And of course we are right. To welcome others to our table, and particularly those not like us will take us out of our comfort zone. Yet just like cardio exercises strengthen our hearts, so also the hard work of welcoming the stranger will strengthen our capacities to love with the heart of God. Learning to love those different from us (and really that is just about anyone) reminds us that we were once strangers both to God and his people.

When we unintentionally, or sometimes intentionally fail to welcome the other to our table, particularly those who differ in some way the world reckons difference–race, economic status, or even church denomination–we deny the power of the saving work of Jesus. In Galatians 2, when Peter was with Paul in Antioch, he joined in table fellowship with Gentile believers until a group of Jews associated with James came from Jerusalem. Peter, the other Jews with him, and even Paul’s companion Barnabas stepped back. Paul harshly rebukes Peter publicly, not for a social faux pas, but because “they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). The great scandal of naming the name of Christ while advocating racial supremacy of one race, or simply justifying segregated tables, and other arrangements is that we hollow out the gospel message of its power to bring together people across these divides.

So a question I encourage the communities I work with to wrestle with regularly is that of who is not at our tables? In the world I work in, this can include those from ethnic minorities, academic departments that are not represented in our group, particular national groups represented on our campus but not among us. It might include those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans-gendered. It might include people from Muslim countries studying in the U.S.

It might be that our first step is not inviting them to our tables, but rather spending some time at theirs. I can’t think of a time in scripture when Jesus turns down an invitation to someone’s table–tax collectors, “sinners,” and teachers of the law and Pharisees, unattached women like Mary and Martha, and others. Once, Jesus even invited himself to the home of the most notorious tax collector in town–Zacchaeus. To accept hospitality, to be the guest and not in control, to be the one on the outside coming in both prepares us to be better, more sensitive hosts, and may open the hearts of our hosts.

Another step is that of making room at our tables. If we have just enough chairs for those who always come, it is awkward if our guests are left standing. Or maybe our tables are crowded and we need to add tables (and make sure to mix up who sits at them!). The physical instances of this are the most easily remedied. The structural and cultural ones may be harder. If we only sing Hillsongs, and only in English, what does this say to those from other countries and backgrounds? Does our conversation divide the world into “us” and “them,” or reflect our conviction that Jesus is making one new humanity. Greg Coles, in Single, Gay, Christian speaks of how weird it can be as a celibate, gay man to be in a church context where people are unaware of his sexual identity and listen to them talk about the “LGBT community” as a “them” that lives a certain way, has a certain agenda, unaware that someone who would identify as gay, but doesn’t fit any of these stereotypes and loves Jesus, is right in front of them. I could multiply examples of this kind of talk about “the Black community,” “the Muslim community,” the “Asian community,” or even “English majors”! I’ve even been guilty of them!

Perhaps my greatest challenge is simply, how intentional and persistent will I be in this effort? After a dinner with some Pharisees where Jesus is treated rather shabbily, he tells the parable of the great banquet, where a host sends his servants to notify his previously invited guests that the dinner is ready. A number of them snub him for a number of lame reasons. But he doesn’t give up or content himself with those who came. He sends his servants out onto the town streets to invite anyone they encounter. And when that doesn’t fill up his tables, he sends them out to do another round of invitations in the countryside (Luke 14:15-24). I love that the master and his servants keep inviting until he has a full house. Will I love the Master, and people well enough to keep inviting until the Master’s house is full?

It all begins with the question of “who is not at our table?”

Review: The Very Good Gospel

very-good-gospel

The Very Good GospelLisa Sharon Harper (foreward by Walter Brueggemann). New York: Waterbrook, 2016.

Summary. Through a study of the early chapters of Genesis with application to contemporary life, Harper explores the theme of shalom and how this enlarges our understanding of the good news.

Have you ever felt that there must be more to the gospel? This is a question that Lisa Sharon Harper has struggled with in her own life and for which she found profound answers as she explored the biblical theme of shalom as well as the early the early chapters of Genesis, that begin with a vision of shalom, explore how shalom was broken, and the effects of that brokenness on our relationships with God, ourselves, between genders, in the creation, in families, around issues of race, and relations between nations.

In each chapter, Harper explores the Genesis text, develops the idea of shalom, and through this weaves in other biblical material from both testaments. In the process, she weaves in her own life as a black woman, from a flawed family, experiencing issues with her own self-image, with relationships, and in the journey to pursue racial reconciliation and justice. As she does so, she develops a vision of the gospel that is so much larger than just me and my sin and Jesus rescuing me from hell so I can spend eternity with Him. It is a gospel that explains both God’s incredibly wonderful intention for the world, and how our choice to love something more than God and believe a lie damaged the fabric of relationships, broke shalom. From the sacrifice of an animal in Genesis 3 to the sacrifice of Christ, she explores how God has restored shalom, which is indeed very good news.

The final chapter was the most moving. She talks about death, and her own struggle with dealing with death, including her silence when a close friend lost her father. And she movingly describes the breakthrough she experienced when Richard Twiss, a Lakota Indian ministry leader was dying and she had a vision of anointing his feet with oil, confirmed by a friend who had a similar vision.

     “On the way to the hospital, I read the story of Lazarus and the grave (see John 11:1-44) and felt called to read it over Richard. When I arrived, I learned during the day, Richard’s kidneys had failed. I shared the two visions–mine and my friend’s–with Katherine, Richard’s wife and cofounder of Wiconi. She gave me permission to read the passage over Richard and to anoint his feet. As I read, we all wept. I never noticed this before, but the passage begins with an explanation that Lazarus was the brother of Mary, the woman who anointed Jesus feet for burial. I anointed Richard’s feet and prayed.

. . .

“I can’t help but think back to the moment when I anointed Richard’s feet. It is clear now. We were anointing our brother’s feet for burial. As I moved the oil over his feet, I repeated the words that Richard’s editor had said to me when we talked earlier that night: “Beautiful are the feet of the one who brings good news.”

I think there are many like Lisa who have feared death, who never have been alongside someone as they were dying in the hope of Christ, the hope of Jesus’ resurrection, whose body with anointed feet was laid in a grave, only to walk out on those feet when the stone was rolled away. Lisa described this moment as “devastating and sweet.” She describes how we both grieve and yet hope because of this very good news.

This is a book for the believing person who is wondering, “is that all there is?” when they think of the gospel, particularly if they wonder about the relevance of the gospel to the brokenness they see around them. This is a book for new believers to help them understand the fullness of what they have believed. And it is a book that the person considering faith might also read, both because of its exposition of this “very good gospel” and for the honest yet winsome account Harper gives of her own growing understanding of that gospel.

_______________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Lay It Down

Lay It DownLay It Down, Bill Tell. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2015.

Summary: Through a personal crisis, the author discovers the freedom of the gospel in terms of three miracles.

You are a successful ministry leader and suddenly experience a series of incapacitating panic attacks when facing ministry opportunities. After a season of rest you take the step of trying to find out what is going on and whether life can be different.

That is the situation Bill Tell faced as a senior leader in a prominent discipleship ministry. He discovered that deep down he struggled with issues of self-worth that went back to his childhood and that to cope, he had devoted himself to a life of achievement in ministry that had become an exhausting treadmill. He longed for freedom from such existence, and paradoxically discovered it in the message that he had proclaimed but had not really lived into for many years.

In a season of counselling and personal study, he discovered three miracles of surrounding the work of Christ that spelled freedom. The first of these was that God viewed him differently. The good news of the cross was of God’s unconditional acceptance apart from any good behavior and in spite of any bad behavior. This meant he no longer needed to “perform” to merit God’s love. He was freed from condemnation, punishment, and fear, and freed for living in peace and grace.

The second miracle was realizing that in Christ, God makes us different. The gospel transforms us from the inside out. We are freed from working on not sinning and to mature into who we are in Christ. This doesn’t preclude effort, but he observes that “the gospel of grace is never opposed to effort–it is opposed to earning” (p. 140). We are freed to obey, to love, and to bear fruit, all of which emerge out of a relationship of being loved by Christ. He contends that:

“When we have a new heart, freedom does not make us want to run wild and sin more. It makes us want to walk with Jesus” (p. 107).

The final miracle is that God relates to us differently. We are adopted children, family, with Jesus as our brother. This frees us from an identity rooted in shame to one in which we are the beloved of God.

Martin Luther reportedly urged those around him to “preach the gospel to yourself every day” (source unknown). It seems to me that this is what Bill Tell has done compellingly in this book, beginning with his story of transformation from panic attacks and burnout as a senior ministry leader to one who discovered a new freedom in the gospel. What Tell writes in his chapters around the “three miracles” is simply a very clear and personal restatement of the basic Christian message–that we are saved by grace alone through the work of Christ alone, that we are transformed by Christ’s indwelling presence that enables our loving obedience and growth in Christian character, and that we are adopted as God’s beloved children. Meditating on this book chapter by chapter can be a good way to preach the gospel to oneself.

The only thing that would have made this book better for me would be if Tell would have woven more of his narrative subsequent to his crisis through the chapters on the three miracles, particularly in how this has shaped his ministry leadership, how life is different because of this transformed perspective, and how he applies this in mentoring emerging leaders. Perhaps that is too specific or too much for this book, but I hope he will address this in the future. What Tell has given us is a vulnerable account of his own personal crisis and how even Christian leaders can have distorted understandings of gospel, often because of deep wounds in one’s own life. He points us to a kind of “second conversion” where the “truths” of the gospel become lived, and life-giving realities that are in fact the birthright of every believer.

_____________________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”