Worship Leaders Must Read

VL01D336R8.jpgTwo weeks ago my fellow church staff guys and I got to attend the Shepherds’ Conference at Grace Community Church. There’s always so much I could say about this week each year, but right now I’ll limit it just to books. One of the benefits of going to conferences for pastors is the exposure to resources. At the Shepherds’ Conference they set up a huge circus-size tent, which becomes the conference bookstore. And one of the best things about these three days is having a bunch of chances between sessions to walk the book tent.

I got to thinking this week about my role as corporate worship director at my church, and how necessary it’s been for me to keep reading, even during the extra busy times of the year. For pastors (and I think for professionals in general), you’ve got to keep a regimen of regular reading, to immerse yourself in ideas and encouragements. It will fuel your spiritual health, and your practical creativity and productivity. You may only rarely, if ever, find the one book that totally changes your mindset about something, or gives you the practical tip to solve some ridiculous problem; but you’ll probably see fruit steadily over time, as your maturity and your creative chops refine.

It’s been a lotta work over the years to find the best books specifically written for worship leaders. So I thought I’d list a few of my top picks, for books that have been extra helpful and encouraging, and give you a few short reasons why.

DISCLAIMER: People who love books, and especially Christians who love books, talk all the time about “must-reads.” I often have to keep in mind that there are seriously important books out there that’ll absolutely benefit you as a Christian, and that you really should read. BUT, the only real “must-read” is the Bible, so don’t let anything take you away from time spent with God there.

So here goes with an uber-limited, non-inclusive list of some top picks:

  1. Worship Matters by Bob Kauflin. This book was the first really solid, biblical treatment of worship that I came across, and would still be the first one I’d recommend to a worship leader looking for books. It’s excellent, well-rounded, readable, clarifying, and includes both a general biblical theology of worship, and a great discussion of the role of a worship leader.
  2. Doxology and Theology by Matt Boswell (and other contributors). In my opinion, this one goes to the next layer of depth after Worship Matters. Boswell provides some helpful, practical stuff, in some areas that Worship Matters doesn’t get to. Each chapter hits a different topic, and is written by a different worship pastor; the whole book is worth it just for the first of these, by Boswell. He clarifies the job and role of worship and music leaders in the church perhaps better than I’ve read anywhere else.
  3. Engaging With God by David Peterson. This is the “deep end of the theological pool” book every worship leader should aspire to read at some point. And lots of church folks (leaders and otherwise) would benefit from it too. I was at a conference a few years ago where Bob Kauflin mentioned this book in one of his talks. He asked how many of us had read it, and challenged the over half of us who hadn’t, to read it by that time next year – that we really HAD to get to it. And after reading it, I knew why he loves it and has been helped by it so much. For what is, essentially, a shorter version of this book, check out True Worship by Vaughan Roberts. We sell it at our church book counter, and it’s a GREAT little primer on theology of worship in general, and in the gathered church.
  4. Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper. This book is really one of those rare game-changers, in my opinion. Another book that’s great for church leaders (not just the worship/music leaders), and also for any church member or attender. Cosper clarifies the purpose of the church worship gathering, and gives some invaluable practical advice for how it should be done according to Scripture’s principles.
  5. The Art of Worship by Greg Scheer. This is probably the best practical manual I’ve seen for worship leading, that’s also written from a great theological foundation. Here you’ll find commentary on worship trends, and practical tips for singing, arranging vocals and instruments, band dynamics, managing teams, running rehearsals, and lots of other good stuff. This will help you develop your skill set as a music and worship director, without getting gooey and weird, or unbiblical. Which is sometimes hard to find when you’re looking for practical tips.

So there you have it. I’ve left out a few, so maybe I’ll include a PART 2 post for some more in the near future. What did I leave off? Any “must-reads” you wish were mentioned above??


Book Review: “Eternity Changes Everything”

Eternity Changes Everything by Stephen Witmer. The Good Book Company, 2014. $10.49.

I really do agree with Stephen Witmer in this book, that “[there’s a] reason we’re not restless for the new creation: we’re not really certain it is our future” (71). As Christians, we have an incredibly joyous and hopeful future that has been secured for us by Christ’s death and resurrection. And many Christians either don’t know enough about what Scripture tells us about our future, or if we do, we’re so surrounded by distractions in our culture and our ever-busier schedules that we don’t look forward to our future. Witmer’s book is very helpful as a simple, joy-filled exhortation to think often and deeply about the new creation, and the surety of our life there with Christ. It must be hard to try to write a short book about such a weighty topic, but Witmer pulls it off, I think. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s concise and powerful, and effective in its friendly tone. Jared Wilson is right-on in his endorsement, that “Reading this is like enjoying a coffee with a new friend as he shares the secret of the universe with you.”

The driving point of the book is that contemplating eternity rightly will give us “restless patience,” which is a term Witmer coins and then uses throughout. This is a very helpful concept. We should be restless for Christ’s return and for the new heavens and new earth, and patient as we wait because we know that is all secured by Christ already. Witmer points us to Paul’s life for an illustration of this tension, saying, “Paul didn’t settle for now. Paul lived in the present, but he didn’t live for the present. He worked hard in the present, but he lived for the future;” and, “his circumstances neither destroyed nor propped up his contentment” (66-67). Witmer’s point is that a Christ-centered restless patience fuels our hard work in every area of our lives, specifically for Christ’s Kingdom; and that we can be patient through the worst of trials in this life, because we are confident of how little it all compares with the glory of the new creation. In one of my favorite sections of the book, Witmer says,

“If you’ve settled for now, you have placed yourself on a path to inevitable despair. Why? Because we live in a broken, sinful world. God still hasn’t fully asserted his kingly rule over the earth. Because it’s broken, this world cannot satisfy. The absolute best job won’t perfectly satisfy. Nor will the best house, marriage, food, or vacation. Settling for now is the path to despair.

“Here’s an irony: the best way to enjoy this world is to not settle for it. When you see this world as a preparation for the next, not as the be-all-end-all to your happiness, you can suffer its disappointments without being crushed, and savor its delights without forgetting there’s better to come” (69).

And this is the reality that Witmer encourages us to live in: that everything is changed by knowing about, and being confident in our eternal life, in the new heavens and new earth, with Christ as our King. We can work hard in every area of our lives, whether it’s painting our house or preaching the Gospel to our neighbors, because it’s all valuable to our King who is moving all of history toward a great, joyous culmination and completion. And we can suffer any wrong, and any trial that God ordains on the way, because of that secured future. No matter what happens, our bright future with Christ is totally fixed and secured, and we will enter into it. You’ll see Witmer, in this short book, fall in with authors like C.S. Lewis and John Piper, who work to exhort us to see every good thing in this life as both an echo of Eden, and a signpost pointing to the new creation; and see every trial as God-ordained, refining and preparing us for our eternal life with Christ. I heartily recommend this book. Its message is extremely valuable, especially in a materialistic culture that preaches faith in shallow, material, passing pleasures, and that doesn’t know how to deal with the actual brokenness of life. I pray it will encourage you to live in light of our glorious future as Christ’s redeemed church, and be restlessly patient for our true home, through every trial and joy.

Here’s one more great quote, which I hope illustrates how valuable of a read this is:

“Joy in an imperfect present flows to us from a perfect future. If our joy is in the things we have now, losing them is the worst thing that can happen; all our joy goes with them. [But if] our joy is in the things we will enjoy in our eternal future, nothing we might lose now can touch our joy. We’re free to enjoy the things we have now without worrying about their impermanence; we’re free to lose them without feeling that our life has gone, too” 69-70).

A Book Worship Leaders Should Read

The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Douglas Bond, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2013. *

Please forgive the long review, but I’d been looking forward to getting ahold of a copy The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts since I heard about the book about a month ago; I jumped in right away, and devoured it pretty quickly. It turned out to really be a 50/50 mix between a book that’s very necessary for our times, and a book that could’ve been, and (maybe) should’ve been more. But what I kept coming back to was this: Bond sets out to do something very specific with this volume, which is part of the larger “Long Line of Godly Men Profiles” (Steve Lawson, editor). It’s a book that has to be appreciated on its own terms, and for the purposes for which it was written. Ultimately, it’s a very good introduction to Isaac Watts’s life and work, and even more significantly, has much to say to both worshipers and worship leaders in the Western church.

The Drawbacks and Blessings of Brevity

Bond’s volume on Watts serves up equal parts biography, theological analysis, and overview of Watts’s major works and their significance. Bond does a decent job combining these three elements, which is no easy task in a fairly short, 163 page book (about the usual length of books in the “Long Line of Godly Men” series). But in spite of being brief, this book does a good job of giving us a good bit of everything. We learn the story of Watts’ early life and spiritual formation, how he came to develop his poetic gifts, and how God grew Watts’ convictions for church music and congregational song. I would’ve loved for the book to dive even more into Watts’ pastoral care of his congregation, and more of how we see that care employed in his songwriting. But again, that kind of detail might fit better in a longer book.

So, Why Isaac Watts?

In spite of the brevity, here’s why this book is important. In a culture where entertainment and the tyranny of the newest fad really fight to drive our preferences, Bond calls us to reexamine the influence Watts’ influence on congregational church music. Because our entertainment culture has affected the music churches choose to sing, and often not for the better, remembering a hymn writer like Watts and the good he has done for the English-speaking church is very valuable. Bond says,

“Our world clambers for the latest thing ,and as we wear ourselves out in the process, great poets such as Watts often get put in a box on the curb for the thrift store pickup. How could a gawky, male poet, living and writing three hundred years ago, be relevant today? Our postmodern, post-Christian, post-biblical culture has almost totally dismissed what was called poetry in Watts’ day. Few deny it: ours is a post-poetry culture” (xix).

In one of the most rich and valuable parts of the book, Bond goes on in the preface to compare Watts, who held to poetic form and structure, to Walt Whitman, the father of “vers libre” or free-verse poetry. The contrast is compelling because Bond points out that Whitman abandoned form, which was part and parcel of making himself his life’s object of worship; whereas Watts, writing poetry and hymns in rhythm and meter, sought to exalt Jesus Christ and make him look glorious. Underlying either the use of form, or the abandonment of it, is often a question of worship.

And yet, Watts avoided “‘excess baggage of intricate form as well as of poetic adornment.’ His was a gospel objective first and last” (xxiii). The pastoral purpose that often constrained Watts’ overuse of “poetic adornment” is what makes his hymns so good for church song leaders and song writers to learn from today. He faithfully employed his creative gifting and skill for his people, taking Scripture and a robust biblical theology and writing a hymn a week for his church, as a vehicle for them to connect heart and imagination to their theology.

Contemporary church culture has often valued hit records and radio play as the marks of worship music success, and we should remember men like Watts who wrote his hymns week-in and week-out with a pastoral purpose. He did this faithfully, without hope of reaching beyond the congregation he pastored. But his hymns did reach beyond that context, and we bless God for it.

The Hymns Themselves

One more benefit of the book for a worship leader in particular, is for the exposure to Watts’ poetry. Bond spends the last chapter giving an overview and explication of several of Watts’ best hymns, including a mix of both popular, and seldom sung choices. For instance, Bond takes us stanza-by-stanza through both “Joy to the World” which most readers know already, and “Jesus Shall Reign” which might be a little more obscure to many, depending. The poetry analysis is very helpful, but it does fall a little short in places. It errs on the side of very light analysis at times, risking summary of the poem rather than analysis of what makes it so great, which is more what I think Bond is going for in this section. But, in the best sections, the analysis is good and detailed, and does effectively present the quality of Watts’ imaginative expression, precision of structure, and richness of biblical content.

Douglas Bond has clearly done his research to get to know Watts’ life and work. He loves the poetry of this great hymn writer, and draws us into his own enjoyment of it. The book is a very good smaller biography and a hub of resources on Watts, especially good to put in the hands of church musicians, music leaders, and songwriters. I hope church music and worship folk do get their hands on it and that it edifies and inspires.

To close, here’s one more quote from Bond on Watts’ value for the church today:

“As we flounder about in the ‘liturgical fidget’ of the contemporary church, Watts can provide both the theological and liturgical ballast Christian worship so desperately needs. And he can give us an emotional rudder, a means of steering the passions in worship by objective propositional truth feelingly delivered. Without such a rudder, worship is shipwrecked on the shoals of cheap-trick emotionalism generated in much the same way it is at a concert or a football game. Tragically, in place of singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in worship to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16-17), raw feelings of  having done so may be supplanting the real thing” (134).

Let’s not just return to singing the hymns of Watts or any other songwriters from church history. Let’s study and sing the best of their work, and also look to freshly do what they did, writing and choosing songs with pastoral care for our churches.

* Many thanks to Reformation Trust Publishing for providing a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.

A Great Bible Study Resource: “Judges For You” By Tim Keller

Judges For You: For Reading, For Feeding, For Leading by Tim Keller. The Good Book Company, 2013. Print $16.55, Kindle: $9.99.

As our culture becomes more and more post-Christian, the responsibility for Christians to know their Bibles, and the whole council of God contained in it, is paramount. If we don’t, the tides of a culture indifferent and oftentimes hostile to the God of Scripture, threatens to toss the untethered Christian every which way in both doctrine and obedient, practical living. And this works not just for obedience, but also for our joy if we live in close communion with God and Christ. We need to know the Scriptures, the living and active God-breathed Scriptures, for our hearts to continue in the assurance of the joy set before us, as we pursue obedience and mission in our world.

Tim Keller’s Judges For You, is an excellent expository study through the Old Testament book, that will help you understand your Bible better. It’s well-written and readable, and fully engages in the practical side of theology. The greatest thing about this book is that Keller brings Judges to life as an immensely practical and engaging part of Scripture for our cultural moment today. And he’s absolutely right in doing so. You’ll potentially see fresh grandeur and richness in the Old Testament after this read.


Keller sets the story of Judges into the context of a “Biblical theology” look at the Scriptures. So everything is examined within the bigger context of God’s whole story of redemption, from before Creation, to the Fall, to ultimate redemption in Jesus. We see how God was dealing with His people in that particular Old Testament period, and how His grace still comes to Israel in her various captivities and subsequent rescues by each judge appointed by God. These cycles of disobedience, judgement, and rescue, Keller clearly shows, are ultimately imperfect and foreshadow Christ’s perfect rescue of God’s people. The centrality of Christ in this study is one of the high points to be sure, and is very helpful as a guide to seeing the centrality of Christ and the Gospel in all of Scripture. If you’ve ever had a hard time seeing how the Old and New Testaments fit together, this book is a great place to go to see how it’s all part of the redemptive story God is telling with all of history. This expository study will take you verse by verse and section by section, to understand the particulars of the story of Judges within God’s whole narrative of Scripture.

Pastorally Written

Keller also writes with a pastoral care that brings the theology of Scripture to bear on our lives. He’s a skilled and respected expositor, which makes for a very rich study. I also appreciate Keller’s writing very much because he doesn’t sacrifice depth and poignancy for understandability or relevance. And his goal is to lead the Christian to a fuller enjoyment of God, and of the Gospel. Here are a few quotes from the book, dealing with a mix of the themes there, from idolatry, to the Gospel, to the cross-centered life.

“It is not our lack of strength that prevents us from enjoying God’s blessings, or from worshiping God wholeheartedly; it is our lack of faith in his strength. When we rely on ourselves, and base our walk with God on our own calculations instead of simply obeying, we find ourselves making decisions like the Judaites […] It is halfway discipleship, and Judges will show us that it leads to no discipleship at all” (19).

“God will never put us in a position in a position where we cannot obey him. There is never a real ‘I cant’ moment” (24).

“Much of the book of Judges shows how God is faithful to us despite our disobedience – that is comforting. But Judges also shows us that God in his grace will insist on removing our self-deception about our motives and actions” (24).

“God does not save through expected means, or through strength. Most of the judges are unlikely, and the victories defy the world’s logic […] God does not simply work in spite of our weakness, but because of it. He says that his saving power does not work when we are strong or think we are strong – but rather, when we are weak, and know we are” (84).

“On the cross, Jesus brought the power of Satan to nothing, disarming him (Colossians 2:15). How did the cross achieve this? It took away the penalty for our idolatry – death – so that Satan could no longer successfully prosecute God’s people. And it took away the power of sin in our lives, enabling the Spirit to live in us to break the lure of idols in our hearts. Samson prefigures Jesus’ triumph, at the cost of his own death, over Satan. As Samson killed many as he died, so it took the death of Jesus to “kill” Satan – the unseen power of idolatry, and the power of death itself” (163).

All that to say, this study is helpful, clear, insightful, and faithful to the Bible and the Gospel. It works on several levels, and could be helpful for both young and mature Christians. As promised in the title, it’s a very valuable resource for reading Scripture with understanding, for feeding on the Word of God, and for leading and teaching others to love God and find joy in Him through the Gospel.

The Importance Of The Ascension (A Book Review)

The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God by Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow, Christian Focus, 2013. $8.09.

I had mostly heard cursory references to Christ’s ascension for most of my life as I’d been exposed to teaching on Scripture both as an unbeliever, and as a younger Christian. Christ ascended into the clouds after He makes His great commission. And it’s usually on to the next thing: we’re waiting for Jesus to return, and our job is to evangelize the lost. All true, but the fact that Jesus did ascend, and is ascended now as we wait for Him, is a truth to dwell on and make much of. I’m learning this more and more, and I’m so thankful for this book by Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow, that clearly and concisely gets us into the significance of Christ’s ascension, and makes sure we don’t miss the glory of this truth. Here are a few points about this little volume that you might consider:

First, the drawbacks (let’s get these out of the way).

This book fits the description of having a weighty subject, wrapped up into a very small package. So in a sense, this book can be a great starting place for a much more in-depth study about Christ’s ascension, and the Kingdom of God. If you find yourself not fully convinced by every point, take the book on its own terms – it’s intended to be a small, lively overview of the ascension for pastors and church leaders. Seen in another light, one might say this book is too ambitious for 94 pages.

That being said, the other drawback is the use of Biblical theology, and theology of Christ’s kingship in chapter two, entitled “Ascended King.” Be on your guard, as some of the points could prompt some head-scratching depending on who’s reading. Particularly in chapter two, Daniel 7 is compared with the scenes of Christ’s ascension in the Gospels and in Acts 1, arguing that Daniel 7 depicts the ascension from the other side of the clouds – that in the Gospels and Acts we see the ascension from the ground, but in Daniel 7 we see it from heaven as one “like a Son of Man” is presented to God and given a seat of authority. Also, chapter two asserts that Christ is reigning as the ascended King of the universe even now, which might’ve needed a little more space to unpack. This may or may not fit with the chronological events in one’s eschatology, depending. Again, be a discerning reader and a discerning student of Scripture, and deal with the book’s assertions accordingly.

The benefits of the book (and there are many).

In a recent book review, Doug Wilson talks about truths that are “radical truths — the kind that affect everything.” This book falls into such a category. For a short volume, it packs a punch and communicates much of the Savior for us to glory in.

The significance of the ascension – that Christ physically and bodily ascended, and is ascended now, affect everything related to our faith. For instance, in chapter one, entitled “Ascended Priest,” we read,

“Jesus ascended for your salvation. He is the memorial before God of your atonement. Can you see how powerful this is? Can you see how this is good news to those who doubt their salvation or feel the on-going weight of their sin or who sin in a spectacular way? In these moments we lift our eyes heavenwards and see Jesus in the presence of God on our behalf. He is the complete sacrifice who has taken away sin for ever. He is the eternal priest whose ministry never ends. While He stands in heaven you are secure in God’s family” (23 emphasis added).

The book is full of weighty, clearly-communicated truths like this, that we should take special care to believe, and to preach and teach in our churches. Our Savior is in the presence of God, in the real Holy of Holies, as both Priest and Sacrifice; He is there bodily as well, which assures us of a bodily resurrection, as well as both physical and spiritual eternal life with God, “secure in God’s family.” All that Christ is now as our ascended Savior is substituted to us by grace, through faith.

The book continues,

“The ascension of Jesus is the foretaste of the ascension of a new humanity to our royal status…Those in Christ will once again be what we were meant to be and what we were born to be…In the present our life is currently hidden with Christ (Col. 3:1-3). Until the revelation of the sons of glory at the return of Jesus we express our royalty in the power of the ascension…Until our glory is revealed, restored humanity looks like crucified humanity in the sense of people who embrace the sacrifice, submission, self-denial and service modelled in the cross” (77-79).

This is so very important  – our present life is hidden with Christ in God. But we will be revealed, and be like Christ when we see Him as He is at his second coming (1 John 3:2). But what Chester and Woodrow communicate as well here, is the importance of the way of the cross. We also unite ourselves with our King now, in this world the way it is, by taking up the way of life modeled by Jesus in the cross. It’s the truly redeemed, the people of the kingdom, who walk in the way of the cross in this life, because our true life in Christ has not been revealed yet. The truth of the ascended King causes us to walk in humility, sacrifice, and self-denial, enduring suffering and mistreatment just as Christ did. Until the ascended King returns, and puts the world to rights.

May we grasp the ascension better because of this great little book, and grasp our place in redemptive history better as we wait with great expectation for Christ to return and establish His kingdom on the earth for good. This book forced me to do my homework to be able to write this review, for which I’m thankful. Study the kingdom of God with diligence, and know your eschatology. And as a supplement, this is a great book for interaction with this glorious subject if read with a discerning mind, nourished by the Scriptures.

Thanks so much to Christian Focus Publications for the gift of a copy to read and review.

Book Review: “Blood Work” by Anthony Carter

Blood Work by Anthony Carter, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2013. $12.79. *

Christ’s blood, lest we forget, washes, redeems, saves, and pleads for us who have been born again by faith in Jesus. Anthony Carter’s short book Blood Work, deals a death blow to our forgetfulness with twelve chapters devoted to twelve specific benefits our Savior’s blood accomplishes for us. But Carter doesn’t just explain, he exults in Christ’s sacrifice; this is a book to help fuel a worshiping response to the Gospel. The truths here will help you fight sin, and fight for the high joys in God that He means to give us through the sacrifice of His Son.

“Our Bloody Religion”

The first chapter, “Our Bloody Religion,” reminds us that our Christian faith is a bloody faith. Bloodshed permeates Scripture from the earliest chapters – from God killing animals to clothe Adam and Eve, to Cain’s murder of his brother, to the wars between Israel and the pagan nations, to the sacrificial system, to the spilled blood of God’s Son – we can’t ignore the bloodshed if we’re faithful to the redemptive story the Bible tells. And Carter draws out the significance of this – when blood is shed it speaks, and cries out against the murderers responsible, and cries out for redemption from the sinful, bloody mess of the Fall. Ultimately, the Christian faith deals with the bloodshed and answers the cries with hope. God crushed His Son to provide the blood that would speak the better word (Heb. 12:24), that would fulfill what man owed God because of sin and the Fall. There’s pain in the history of our “bloody religion,” but the redemption from it is great because God Himself spared not His own Son to save us.

A Worshipful Book

If ever there was a book to inspire a heart to worship Christ, this would be one. Carter writes as a well-studied theologian, but also as a caring pastor and as a Christian who has deeply felt his own sin and his great salvation in Christ. Chapters 2-13 deal with the specific accomplishments of Christ’s blood. So if you’ve ever wondered, or wonder now why Christ had to shed blood on the cross, get into these chapters.

Carter explains how Jesus’ blood is a propitiation of God’s wrath; how His blood purchases us as God’s chosen people; how His blood justified, redeemed, brought us near, and ransomed us. And probably my favorite chapter, the last one explains how Christ’s blood avails for us, and the depths of what that means.

Sections of each chapter include verses of hymns as a response to what Carter just said in that section. The inclusion of the hymns are opportunities to respond to these glorious truths by reading the stanzas of poetry; and as I read, these were often exactly what my heart needed to complete the enjoyment of the chapters, and gave me words to sing after reading about what Christ has, and does accomplish for me, and for us. Again, the book doesn’t just explain, it exults in the blood of Christ. The book is so helpful in that it’s more than an intellectual treatise – it’s a book that will fuel your joy in Your Savior, and in His atonement for Your sins by His blood.

Carter says in chapter 6, about how Christ’s blood has brought us near,

“The blood of Christ gives us a home. The blood of Christ becomes the flag and color under which we stand. The blood of Christ takes those who were once strangers and makes them family. As the Bible says, we are ‘no longer strangers and aliens, but…fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph. 2:19). Simply put, the blood of Christ brings us near to God” (57).

*Sincere thanks to Reformation Trust Publishing for the free copy of the book to read and review.

Book Review: “Crucifying Morality” by R.W. Glenn

Crucifying Morality by R.W. Glenn, Shepherd Press, 2013, $10.39.

Every Christian has a tendency to revert to a pattern of moral religion, which isn’t the heart of the Gospel at all. Paul wrote to the Galations about this, and Christ called the Pharisees out for the same reason – if we think we’re pleasing God by any good work or merit on our part, we’re wrong. The Gospel calls us into the Kingdom of God on the basis of something far more glorious than our imperfect obedience.

Crucifying Morality is a study of the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-12, or what is basically the introduction to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Glenn’s thesis in the work is that  quite a lot of teaching on the Beatitudes, especially in Sunday school, has steered many Christians in the wrong direction about what Christ is really saying here. Glenn argues that the Beatitudes are not a series of commands on how one pleases God and gets into His kingdom. Instead, they’re the evidence of one who is already in it. Glenn demonstrates that “[i]t is no accident that the Beatitudes contain no imperatives whatsoever,” and that instead, “they are the qualities that begin to characterize sinners who encounter God’s grace in the gospel” (16). Christ isn’t commanding rigorous obedience in the Sermon on the Mount as the requirement for entering His kingdom. Instead, “[t]he Beatitudes are meant to jar you from your complacency and lead you to question whether you have entered the kingdom”  (16).

Glenn argues that the Beatitudes are the marks of a Christian, not the requirements for how you become one. His point is that “Jesus is the Beatitudes.” Glenn tells us,

“Do not seek the Beatitudes. Do not turn them into moralistic teaching. Seek Jesus Christ who alone embodies the Beatitudes, and the Beatitudes will then be true of you as well. Why? Because Jesus fulfills them […] Seek him through the gospel and you will be a new person, enjoying all the benefits of a relationship with God, living in the kingdom. Christianity is about coming over and over again to rest in the life that Jesus lived and the death that he died for you as a gift of sheer grace” (18-19).

This is glorious, life-changing news. We’re born again by no power of our own. And when we have the New Birth, we’re in God’s kingdom and we can’t be snatched out of His hand. Christ’s Beatitudes are the marks of one who is Christ’s.

Practical and Introspective

Here’s a breakdown of the book’s structure: Glenn writes one chapter for each of the Beatitudes, where he exposits the meaning and application of that Beatitude, and how that’s a mark of how a true Christian will live – meekness, for instance. Each chapter also begins with two quotes: one from a worldly perspective on the chapter’s topic, and one from Matthew 5 that flips that worldly idea upside down.

Each chapter ends with study questions that are unique from any book I’ve read. The questions are broken into four categories: “For Your Head,” “For Your Heart,” For Your Church,” and “For Your City.” Each category has a different type of question, all meant to encourage developing personal theology and devotion to Christ, and also taking that devotion to your local church family, and to your city and cultural context. Glenn’s chapters and study questions are all written with an edifying, pastoral purpose and love for the Church. These study questions are definitely a highlight of the book. Don’t skip them.

Rich With The Gospel

Really, the most wonderful thing about this book is how saturated it is with the Gospel. Glenn brings the text of Matthew 5 and the Beatitudes to bear in light of God’s grace to us through Christ, and the glory of being a part of God’s kingdom, through His grace. In our morality-idolizing Western culture, this book is a refreshing drink from the fountain of God’s grace and kindness in the Gospel. The church needs this kind of edification, and I, individually, need it to keep grasping for grace and for Christ, and not trying to pull myself up by my own bootstraps.

Glenn says that that the kind of teaching and preaching in the Church that makes a passage like the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 into mere rules or guidelines, is dangerous and tragic. And it misses the point completely. The point of it all is Jesus. Jesus fulfills the law on our behalf, as our Substitute and Advocate before God. Christ is the perfect fulfillment of the Beatitudes, and we can produce those qualities because Christ’s Spirit lives in us as Christians. Glenn states,

“[The Beatitudes] convey the essence of the gospel, but when reduced to flat moralistic teaching, they lose all their richness. In fact, that kind of teaching is just wrong […] So take a few steps back and marvel. The Beatitudes reveal the profile of the Christian, the character of the one who has had a life-changing encounter with the grace of God […] If your life bears any resemblance to the Beatitudes, it is because you are blessed in Jesus – you died with him so that you might live in him. The Beatitudes flesh out outrageous grace, which is yours as a gift through the gospel” (115-123).

This is wonderful news. This is the Gospel of Jesus. Get this book – I have nothing but good to say about it, and hearty recommendations to give. Take up and read, and I hope that it’s fuel for you to marvel at the Gospel. Thank you R.W. Glenn for writing it, and to Shepherd Press for the opportunity to read and review it.

Book Review (And Recommendation): “The Fiddler’s Gun” by A.S. Peterson

 I want to commend a book to you that’s very, very much worth the read: The Fiddler’s Gun by A.S. (Pete) Peterson. As kind of a self-proclaimed amateur appreciator of swashbuckling adventure stories, I was hoping I’d find a book with an awesome plot like this. It’s historical fiction, with equal parts American Revolution and piracy, and it’s writing is just about flawless as far as I could tell. The main character Fin (Phinea) Button is lovable but conflicted, realistic and complex. She’s also an orphan, and the book deals with some of those resulting struggles; this kind of thing is especially dear to our family since we finalized the adoption of our two oldest kids almost a year ago. Orphan care is a powerful and grand theme to explore. But, this is only a small part of why this book is so great.

Peterson is a Christian, but I wouldn’t put his book in any genre of “Christian fiction.” What I mean by that is, he doesn’t force his story to preach to the reader in an obvious way that constrains the plot. The Fiddler’s Gun is about the story and the characters first, not about getting a message preached. But don’t get me wrong, you do get a rich sense of the author’s worldview as you read; he just doesn’t sacrifice the story in the process. Peterson doesn’t hide anything, but builds up more I suppose, to the payoff when characters do bring up God, Christ, or redemption from sin. Those moments are very good, and natural when they do come along.

There are some Christian characters in the story (George Whitefield even makes an appearance), but like real life, the characters will surprise you. Sometimes the Christians behave in an unseemly way, and sometimes the unbelievers in the book put the Christians to shame with their kindness and joyfulness. The characters wrestle through some difficult problems, Fin especially, and there aren’t easy fixes to many of these problems in the story. Life is complicated, and very difficult. The story makes you feel the weight of this along with the characters, and it’s easy to care deeply for them as they fight for joy and seek salvation in a very broken world. The story doesn’t pull punches on the painful stuff, and I think that’s very good; stories shouldn’t treat their readers with kid gloves. We are no better off for closing our eyes to pain and darkness, since we live in a fundamentally broken world that’s not how it should be (yet). Again, I didn’t expect many of the turns the plot took, and I think I’m the better for it. Fiddler’s Gun really got in, made me think, and made me feel deeply for its very real characters.

It’s commonly said about Tolkien that his stories are glorious because they invest our own world with beauty and wonder, rather than trying to take us out of our world and into fantasy. Middle-earth is filled with good food and drink, warm fires and laughter. And we return from Tolkien’s stories with renewed sensitivity to the goodness and warmth, and struggle and tension, in our own world which is part of God’s great Story. Every so often you run into other stories that accomplish some of this too, and Fiddler’s Gun is one for me – it’s no surprise that Peterson is a big fan of Tolkien and Lewis and their like. I came away from the book super anxious to continue with the 2nd part of Fin’s story, The Fiddler’s Green, but also freshly awake to the fight for joy in my own life. Fin pushes back against the darkness in her life, fighting for joy in the midst of brokenness; she’s humbled by the great grace and love undeservingly given her by others; and like other good writers, Peterson makes the experiences of his characters and of his readers a common experience. You leave the book feeling like we’re all in this together.

Rather than spoil the story with summary, I thought I’d end with one quote from the book to show a little of the depth and richness of the storytelling. Here, we have a sea battle:

“Every head spun around, and for a splinter of time all was silent and still. The ship in front of them was mere feet away, its deck crowded […] An ocean swell heaved the prow of the Justice up so that in that moment it seemed they towered over the British warship, descending like a thunderbird from airy heights, talons thrust forth, wreathed in the ancient, red aura of war. For that singular second, the men aboard both vessels peered across the gulf at one another, rigid with fear and frozen by memories of home, and of women loved and children born, and of all others they might never see again. And in response they called out of the dark reaches of man’s collective nightmare that beast that stirs and quickens to violence […] Then, like a thunderclap, the ships smashed one upon the other.”

Book Review: John Calvin: After Darkness Light

Catherine Mackenzie. John Calvin: After Darkness Light. CF4K, 2009. 160 pages. $8.99.

This biography was really a pleasant surprise for a few reasons. I’m skeptical at times about biographies for children or young adults, as a good number of the ones I’ve read end up dumbing down the real issues at stake in the story. Especially in Christian biographies, the subject matter tends to be a little light on the theological side of things, focusing sometimes on moral lessons from the subject’s life rather than really delving unashamedly into the trials and glories of the Christian life. Kids can handle this kind of stuff, and biographies would do well to include more of the whole story, because the Christian life isn’t just nice, or “chipper” as John Piper has said. The Christian story has its dark moments, but light really does win out in the end. And we would all do well to glory in our King’s victory over sin and the enemy, all the more because we’ve seen sin and the enemy for the adversaries they are.

Good Writing and Storytelling Really Matter

This particular biography is very well written from the start as it tells the story of John Calvin in narrative form. Some creative liberties are taken by Mackenzie, but overall they don’t detract from, or change the real substance of the story of Calvin’s life; the well-paced narrative puts Calvin in historical context and brings to life the wondrous work God brought accomplished through the reformers.The quality of the storytelling is truly a valuable mark for this little book. For example, the opening sentences read,

“Thundering hooves clattered along the cobbled streets. The heaving breath of a hard ridden horse left soft clouds of steam in the rider’s wake […] Occasional street torches cast a dull amber light at the corners of chapels and inns as the horse and rider rode on – otherwise the city of Noyon was both dark and silent.”

Mackenzie doesn’t divorce theological study and debate from the real adventure that it is to live as part of God’s big story of redemption. The Reformation, and Calvin’s life took place in the real world, where “thundering hooves” of horses “clattered on cobbled streets.” Theology doesn’t just affect the intellectual world, it affects everything. And the way Mackenzie tells her story reinforces this, and is what she shows about Calvin’s life – that knowing God rightly is truly an adventure, affecting all of life. Her storytelling is very, very important.

A Theological Study

The book really is part biography, part theological study. Again, it’s wonderful how Mackenzie combines the storytelling of Calvin’s life, with the important theological truths that he defended. The heavy theology could also be seen as a drawback, as there are parts where Calvin takes an aside with another character, together expounding or conversing over a point of theological debate. The downside would be that it interrupts the flow of the story, but it’s really pretty valuable all the same.

Mackenzie even goes so far as to include an appendix at the end of the book, explaining the Doctrines of Grace in case readers are wondering about Reformed theology at all, which they probably won’t be after the clear treatment of Calvin’s theology they’ve already had in the book proper. The storytelling, and the theology are robust and biblical.

Here’s a wonderful quote from Calvin at the end of his life, that Mackenzie includes among several, and which sums up the kind of picture her book paints of the Reformer:

“I cherish no other hope for my salvation than God’s merciful adoption on which alone my salvation depends. I accept the mercy God shows me through Jesus Christ, on whose atonement for all my sins I completely rely, because his blood cleanses and purifies me, so that I may now stand in his image before his judgement seat… I have endeavored in my sermons and in my writings to teach and explain the Word of God purely and faithfully. I have never, in my conflict with the enemies of the Gospel made use of cunning and subtlety, but have always defended the truth candidly and sincerely…”

Book Review: “John Stott: The Humble Leader” by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron. John Stott: The Humble Leader. CF4K, 2012. 160 pages. $8.99.

Many thanks to Christian Focus Publications, who generously gave a group of bloggers the opportunity to read and review they’re brand new young adult biography on John Stott.

A few other biographies have been written about the life and work of John Stott, but this one stands out in that it’s geared toward a young audience. I was extra excited for the chance to read and review it because of this, since I have two small kids and a third on the way. I feel, as a reader myself, that I’m frequently on the lookout for good books to read to and with my kids in the next few years. And this biography does well at making the life of Stott accessible to kids, and drawing out the significance of what God did through Stott for the good of the Church. However, I also only gave The Humble Leader 3 out of 5 stars on my Goodreads account; so I’ll try both to explain the great value in this small volume, as well as the weak points.

The biography starts with the story of Stott’s early life, and is both informative, and just plain fun. I learned much about Stott I did not know before: that his nanny often took him and his sister on walks through Regent’s Park, home of the London Zoo, where they would sometimes see the future queen Elizabeth II (who was 5 years younger than Stott) and her sister Margaret. This is the time that Stott grew up in – very formative times for our modern world and culture. Stott was also arrogant and rebellious as a youth, and that he was an unlikely conversion to Christ, humanly-speaking. In the first chapter, Cameron paints a picture of Stott’s life with family and at school that helps the reader see even stalwart shepherds in the faith like John Stott are saved from the darkness of sin and blindness to the Gospel. He was by no means an angelic youth, destined for a life of faithfulness to God. None of us are, apart from God’s sovereign, gracious call, and preserving power.

The Drawbacks

Before I continue to even more of the biography’s good points, I do want to point out the couple of its drawbacks. These are worth mentioning, though they do not take much away from the value of this volume, especially for young readers.

1. Choppy Narrative

First, after about the first half of the book’s chapters, the narrative becomes very choppy and disjointed in places. I found myself, as an adult reader, lost as a result of the choppiness. What happens is this: the author is narrating Stott’s life, but breaks to develop an aspect of Stott’s character further, often referring to events from another period in his life. These breaks in narrative take up some space in places, and it takes a little bit figure out where the story left off.

Also, there are “Fact File” blurbs at the ends of the chapters that add interesting thoughts about a particular aspect of culture connecting to Stott’s story, or other isolated anecdotes from his life. These are often very interesting and fun to read, but they’re also disjointed back and forth across the chronology of Stott’s life that the chapters try to follow. Again, lots of good information that could be better organized.

2. Generational Pigeonholing

This point has pros and cons. The author gears the biography toward the current generation of young readers, by mentioning iPhones, emailing, etc. This happens several times throughout the book. For this reason it’s a very relevant treatment of John Stott for today’s segment of young readers, but, in many ways, only them. This biography pigeonholes itself into a brief window of cultural relevancy, and will very likely be dated in a few years, in how it relates to its readers. Again, it’s perhaps a sacrifice of timelessness, for the sake of relevancy.

More Great Things

Here’s why I really enjoyed this biography, and would absolutely read it with my kids in a few years when they’re old enough to appreciate it (they’re 4 and 2 at present). We live in a culture of sensationalism – lots of folks have written about this elsewhere, but basically, our attention is usually drawn to the extraordinary, the unusual, or the shocking. We tend to value celebrities and model ourselves after them, rather than after faithful “everyday people.” John Stott became a “celebrity” of sorts a little way into his life, but he became so because he was a faithful shepherd, teacher, writer, and preacher of the Word of God, for the sake of God’s Church. Cameron’s biography showcases this – nothing “sensational” is really discussed in this short story of Stott’s life; but his story really is made interesting, and great value is placed on his faithfulness as a humble servant of Christ.

Young readers would do well to read a biography like this, or have it read to them, hopefully to take some of the focus off of the empty value our culture gives to sensational celebrities. This type of biography can work alongside the more “unusual” stories from Church history, to provide a picture of what it means to thoroughly love God in thankfulness, to be a disciplined, diligent student of God’s Word, and to faithfully shepherd the Church and proclaim the message of Christ crucified.

Here is an example of the book’s emphasis on Stott’s radical faithfulness and discipline:

“Each day began with Bible reading, following the McCheyne reading plan. John wanted to master the whole Bible. Or rather, he wanted the whole Bible to master him.”

And also,

“John Stott was truly radical. He worked from the roots, and he himself was firmly rooted. His days were rooted in Christ from the moment he got out of bed, and said ‘Good morning’ to the Holy Trinity. This was the secret of his effectiveness.”

What the book really does end up showing in places like these is that spiritual discipline and faithfulness make one truly radical, in a world that constantly shifts and changes, abandoning old truths for the next new thing. John Stott made some phenomenal contributions to the Church, that aren’t things our culture would necessarily find exciting. He was one of the main writers of the Lausanne Covenant, and was appointed chaplain to Elizabeth II – just a couple of many outstanding achievements for the sake of the Gospel. All in all, even in spite of some drawbacks, this little biography is a great volume to read as an adult, and/or to add to the repertoire of your young reader.