Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Revelation, by James M. Hamilton, Jr.

Book Review by Chris Haven

James Hamilton has written a fine commentary on the book of Revelation. As part of the “Preaching the Word” commentary series, he has followed the flavor of the series by keeping the content at a more popular level (avoiding extensive footnotes and highly technical discussions) with a large amount of meaningful application.

Although not stated explicitly in the book, Hamilton appears to write from a kind of idealist and futurist perspective. His view on Revelation 20 is Premillennial (historic). Hamilton parts ways with Dispensationalists regularly in this text, making it clear that he is not a Dispenationalist. For instance, Hamilton takes the perspective that God will preserve his elect through the tribulation, not remove them in a prior rapture (p. 116).  He understands “Daniel’s seventieth week” as the entire age between Christ’s first and second coming, not as a final seven year tribulation at the end of the church age (pp. 171-72, 194). He rejects a straight chronology, holding to a form of parallelism or recapitulation where the same period of time is depicted more than once using differing imagery (p. 188). He does not believe that a new temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem (p. 234), and he sees the two witnesses of Revelation 11 as representing not literal figures but the church proclaiming the gospel during the church era (p. 237).

This commentary had many strengths.

First, it was very readable. As mentioned above, one does not get bogged down in highly technical discussions or distracted by any number of potential scholarly debates. Hamilton tips his hat to other perspectives where it is appropriate, but keeps the flow moving.

Second, the commentary had a devotional quality missing from many commentaries. The length of the chapters (being ten to fifteen pages a piece) and the significant amount of application in each chapter made for great devotional reading. I actually used this commentary as a supplement to my daily Bible reading as I read through the book of Revelation. That was a tremendously edifying experience.

Finally, Hamilton models careful exegesis in making his decision of how to interpret the Millennium by comparing the casting of Satan out of heaven in Revelation 12 with the text of Revelation 20. While he ultimately is convinced that the millennium is future, he does not let his Millennialism dominate as Dispensational Premillennialists sometimes do, especially at the popular level. His careful work in the text shows that one's decision about the Millennium in reality does not radically affect how one interprets the rest of the book. For Hamilton, the millennium is not the main event of the book of Revelation. 

There are only a few minor weaknesses to mention.  

First, it would have been helpful to include an introduction that provided a bit more on the perspective from which Hamilton was writing. Is he writing as an idealist, a futurist or a preterist? Do sections overlap chronologically, and if so, where are the seams? What is the grand organizing principle of the book? His perspective, of course, comes out in his exegesis, and helpful chiastic structural diagrams are placed in appropriate chapters. But I’ve always found it beneficial to have some idea up front how a scholar is going to handle the book of Revelation in terms of its “big picture.”

Second, in certain places I was left wondering how a particular symbolic representation will take shape in real history. Chapters often seemed to move from Old Testament background to present day application without commenting adequately on how a given prophecy might be fulfilled in real time and space. For instance, it may be true that a locust plague referred to a human army in Deuteronomy 28 and Joel 1 and 2 (p. 215), but how will a human army literally be a part of God’s final dealings with this present age? What about the substantial destruction of the world’s natural resources? What about Armageddon? While I appreciate Hamilton’s seeming aversion to charting out an end times chronology, I think he might do well to address the propensity that readers still expect to find out something about what is really (rather than symbolically) going to happen. I suspect Hamilton has provided as much detail as he feels comfortable giving without going into wild speculation. He comments in one place that God “has given us symbols, not specifics” (p. 324).   

In conclusion, James Hamilton’s commentary on Revelation is well worth reading. Not only will you learn more about the book of Revelation, but you will learn much about how to apply this important book to your life.

I received this book for free from Crossway Publishing to provide a review. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why Church Matters, by Joshua Harris

Book Review by Chris Haven

Why Church Matters, previously published with the title Stop Dating the Church!, is a short and highly accessible introduction to what the church is and why every believer should be a part of its local expression.

In chapter one, Harris discusses what one misses when one fails to join the local church. The local church is God’s community, “the vehicle that Jesus chose to take the message of the gospel to every generation and people” (p. 10). He identifies what typifies someone who casually “dates” local churches rather than committing to them. “Church-daters” are portrayed as “me-centered” (what can the church do for me?), “independent” (avoiding meaningful involvement with people), and “critical” (having a fickle, consumeristic mentality) (pp. 6-7). In failing to become part of the local church, Harris says “you cheat cheat a church community…[and] you cheat the world” (p. 8).

In chapter two, the church is presented as God sees and defines it. Harris makes the biblical distinction between the “big C Church” (the Universal Church) and the “local church.” The big C Church is described in Scripture as God’s bride. Harris then highlights three descriptions of the local church from the book of Ephesians; the church is portrayed as a family, a body and a temple (pp. 23-25).

Chapter three argues for the importance of being part of the local church. Harris, like Charles Spurgeon and Mark Dever, is not timid in asserting that failure to be an active participant in the local church is tantamount to disobedience and gives possible evidence that one has not truly been converted. Harris agrees with Dever that the “church is there to verify or falsify our claims to be Christians”(p. 45).  A “new life,” says Harris, leads inevitably to a “new society.” This new society provides uniquely what no other organization on earth can (para-church ministries notwithstanding), namely, the ordinances of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and discipline (p. 39).

Chapter four addresses what it really means to be committed to the local church. Harris suggests the following seven indicators of commitment:
  1. You join.
  2. You make the local church a priority.
  3. You try to make your pastor’s job a joy.
  4. You find ways to serve.
  5. You give.
  6. You connect with people.
  7. You share your passion.

In chapter five, Harris provides ten “essential” things that one should consider when choosing a church. His “must-have” list is as follows:

  1. Is this a church where God’s Word is faithfully taught?
  2. Is this a church where sound doctrine matters?
  3. Is this a church in which the gospel is cherished and clearly proclaimed?
  4. Is this a church committed to reaching non-Christians with the gospel?
  5. Is this a church whose leaders are characterized by humility and integrity?
  6. Is this a church where people strive to live by God’s Word?
  7. Is this a church where I can find and cultivate godly relationships?
  8. Is this a church where members are challenged to serve?
  9. Is this a church that is willing to kick me out?
  10. Is this a church I’m willing to join “as is” with enthusiasm and faith in God?

In chapter six Harris suggests a number of ways one can get more mileage out of Sunday for our entire week.  While not a strict Sabbatarian, he suggests that we should un-clutter Sunday as “the Lords Day” (p. 93). We should prepare ahead of service by going to bed on time the night before and preparing our hearts for worship before the service (pp. 95-100). During the service, we should practice attentive listening to the sermon (pp. 100-103). After the service we should be looking at ways to apply the text all week long (pp. 103-106). 

In the final chapter, we our exhorted to be committed to the local church: “If you passionately love Jesus Christ but haven’t been committed to the church, I hope you’ve heard your Master come to you on the pages of this book” (p. 114).

This is one of those books that you can read in one sitting and absorb many great concepts and practical applications.

First, the book concisely sets forth a biblical theology of the church. That it is both universal and local, and that being a part of the former and not the latter is a massive inconsistency and a cause for spiritual concern. This is a helpful corrective to a dearth of teaching on the importance of the church as an institution of the highest spiritual significance.  Harris, vis-à-vis Mark Dever, strikes the right balance between stating the essential importance of local church participation for one’s spiritual life without teaching that the church is the font of salvation.

Second, the discussion on Christian unity was very helpful. Too often the fact of denominational differences is “Exhibit A” for disunity within the church. Harris rightly points out that denominationalism actually provides for people who disagree about secondary and tertiary issues to do church separately, while firmly upholding a common gospel and engaging in the mission of the church together. Groups like the Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals are examples of organizations made up of people from a variety of Evangelical denominations, while all monolithic with respect to the Gospel. In my view this is a far superior way to show unity than to bring all Christians under one umbrella to be part of a single institution and feign agreement or battle over very controversial non-essentials.

Third, Harris helpfully points out the uniqueness of the local church. The church does what no secular or para-church organization can do. As someone once said, the church is an education with teeth. I have long thought of local church membership in terms of one formally associating with a local group of believers under a commitment to share in the benefits and responsibilities of community life and to submit to the leadership and authority of God’s appointed church leaders. Thinking of church membership this way shows why the concept of a “casual-dater” of the church is so at odds with a New Testament worldview. How does the casual-dater obey the New Testament command to “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls?”

If you are a pastor or church leader, I would recommend buying this book in bulk and handing it out to visitors. This would also be a great book to have as a component to a membership class. 

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gospel-Centered Discipleship, by Jonathan K. Dodson

Publication Date: March 31, 2012

Book Review by Chris Haven

After a brief introductory chapter, Gospel-Centered Discipleship is organized into three major parts: Defining Discipleship, Getting to the Heart, and Applying the Gospel.

Part one is divided into two chapters. The first chapter addresses the controversial subject of whether the disciplemaking mandate of the Great Commission should be seen as a command to evangelize, a command to edify, or both. The second chapter in this part concerns the goal of discipleship, which is to become like Jesus.

Part two, Getting to the Heart, contains three chapters. The first chapter deals with the failure of discipleship. Specifically, the topic of improper motivations for discipleship is discussed. The second chapter then identifies the Gospel as the proper motivation for discipleship. The final chapter of this part suggests that the power of discipleship is found in the leading, guiding, and sanctifying of the Holy Spirit.

In the third part, Applying the Gospel, there are three final chapters: communal discipleship, practical discipleship, and the maturing and multiplying disciples. These final three chapters put “skin” on the discipleship model advocated in the book, showing examples for implementation in the contexts of traditional small groups and intensive one-anothering cell groups which Dodson calls “fight clubs.”

Gospel-Centered Discipleship has a number of strengths.

First, Dodson wades into the dialogue concerning whether we should see discipleship as primarily evangelism or edification and rightly goes with a “both/and” approach over and against an “either/or” approach. In summary, he states that “the gospel that ‘makes’ disciples is very same gospel that ‘matures’ disciples,” and that we should collapse “the dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship” such that we see that “disciples are made and matured through repentance and faith in the good news” (p. 40). This perspective is similar to the one discipleship guru Bill Hull advocated several years ago in his book, The Disciple-Making Pastor, wherein he suggests that disciples are “born to be made.” Dodson provides a helpful graphic depicting on an x-y axis the balance in discipleship between mission (evangelism) and holiness (maturity) as what he calls "integrated discipleship," represented as a diagonal line on the graph.

Second, Dodson rightly advocates for discipleship which is holistic, stating “the gospel-centered disciple serves Jesus at work and at home, in the study and in the projects, in church and in culture. His aim is public obedience of every kind” (p. 48). This is a needed reminder that discipleship not only happens while serving on a mission trip or during a personal quiet time, but it encompasses all of life.

Third, there is a helpful discussion of how accountability, wrongly understood, turns into either law enforcement or cheap grace. The former involves one Christian policing another Christian’s conduct. The latter turns accountability into a “confessional booth” where “I confess my sin; you confess yours. I pat your back. You pat mine. Then we pray. We depart absolved of any guilt” (p. 65). Dodson rightly suggests that both of these approaches to accountability are devoid of the gospel and its transformative power. Both legalism and license are deadly to the Christian life.

The book also contained some weak points.

First, I think Dodson’s synthesis of discipleship identity into component parts of rational, relational, and missional (pp. 30-31) is not quite comprehensive enough to capture the essence of New Testament discipleship. This formulation captures the cognitive (rational) and active (relational and missional) elements of discipleship, but leaves out the internal dimension. A more holistic synthesis involves the head, hands and heart. This is essentially the perspective that The Trellis and the Vine provides in stating that disciple-making “involves nurturing and teaching people in their understanding and knowledge (their convictions), in their godliness and way of life (character), and in their abilities and practical experience of ministering to others (their competence)” (Trellis, pp. 154-55). Discipleship must be about bringing every facet of ones humanity under the Lordship of Christ; discipleship is about biblically-directed knowing, doing and being.

Second, I appreciate Dodson’s concern to make Jesus the center of discipleship. He rightly says, “Jesus, alone, should take the center place in our lives, not our Bible reading, evangelism, character, or effort to be different or spiritual. No disciple will ever graduate from the school of grace” (p. 40). I wonder, however, if perhaps at places in the book he overcompensates a bit. For instance, Dodson contends that “Bible reading, prayer, fasting, [and] confession,” which he calls “vertical piety,” leads to a situation where “disciples unknowingly try to cultivate righteousness on their own apart from Christ” (p. 44). Certainly it is possible for a Christian to focus too much on pietistic exercises. However, I do not think this is the necessary consequence for those who engage in what other authors like Donald Whitney would call the spiritual disciplines. Whitney’s perspective in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life actually sees the danger for most people in being that they have too little vertical piety. I have yet to meet a person who reads his Bible and prays for too many hours per day. The reality is that Jesus and the gospel do not immediately come upon us, they are the result of means.

Third, while I agree with Dodson that the indwelling Holy Spirit is Who empowers disciples to live Godly lives and provides guidance, I have some difficulty with the way he formulates the Spirit’s directing influence in our lives.

One the one hand, he seems to overemphasize the subjective directing by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. One example he gives for how one can better be led by the Spirit is, “Instead of just deciding which coffee shop or restaurant you want to go to, ask the Spirit to lead you” (p. 93). It is true that the book of Acts has examples of the Spirit leading individuals to take certain specific action like Philip approaching the Ethiopian Eunuch (8:29), Peter going with the men sent from Cornelius (11:12), the church at Antioch setting aside Paul and Barnabas for ministry (13:2), and Paul and Silas being directed away from Asia (16:6-7). While the Spirit may lead in this way should He chose to do so, it seems that the references in Acts should not be used as proof-texts to suggest this kind of leading is a normative means of the Spirit working in the believer’s life any more than the Spirit’s activity witnessed in Acts 2:1-4, 8:14-17, 10:44-46, and 19:1-7 should be seen as normative or expected with every believer’s conversion. The problem with making this element of the Spirit's ministry the primary focus is that it often becomes very subjective if not solidly anchored to the other ways in which the Spirit works in the life of the believer (i.e., the renewed mind, godly counselors, and Scripture).

This leads to the other side of the imbalance, where Dodson seems to downplay the intellect in the process of decision-making when he states disparagingly, “Decision making is reduced to a personal inner dialogue with our reason, not an opportunity to relate the person of the Spirit. We succumb to a ploy of the Deceiver who would have us ‘mistake’ the Spirit for fleeting personal preference or a rational option. When we do this, we depersonalize the Spirit” (p. 100). My question is why do we need to choose between reason and the Spirit? Do we not have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16)? Have not our minds been renewed (Rom. 12:2)? More balance needs to be brought to this issue.

In conclusion, while some concepts in the book seem to be more satisfactorily addressed by other authors, Gospel-Centered Discipleship provides some solid material on how to view discipleship with Christ and the gospel driving the process. Particularly helpful is Part Three of the book where many practical suggestions are shared for implementation of small group discipleship ministry in the local church.

I received this book for free from Crossway Publishing for this review.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Radical Together, By David Platt

A Book Review by Chris Haven

In Radical Together, David Platt has once again written a book that excites, convicts, and sends one well outside of one’s comfort zone. In his first book, Radical, Platt focused on how individuals should live as committed Christians. In this new book, he takes similar concepts and applies them to the local church.

There are six chapters in the book. The first chapter delves into the issue of how churches do ministry. In short, Platt argues that local church ministries often slide into a mode of doing many good things that actually detract from the best thing, which is disciple making.

In chapter two, Platt clears up some possible misapplications of the call to be radical with respect to the gospel. Platt suggests that on the one hand a believer is saved from work, meaning justification is all about what Christ has done for us and nothing about what we do to earn God’s favor. On the other hand, the believer is saved to do good works. Good works should be the natural result of becoming a Christian. Platt writes that the proper stance of the Christian with respect to the gospel and work is: “In the Gospel I am free to follow [Christ’s] commands” (p. 30).

In chapter three, the focus is on the Word of God as the centerpiece of what it means to be a disciple making church. Platt argues that there needs to be a dependence upon the sufficient Word for both what the church is to be doing and the method for doing it. Chapter four addresses what Platt sees as the wrong method for doing local church ministry. For Platt, it is a strategic misstep for a church to subordinate the equipping of individual saints for ministry to the creating of cutting edge worship performances and environments, excessive programming and the reliance on “professionals” to do the work of the ministry.

Chapter five is a plea for foreign missions. Platt exhorts churches to have a burden not only for the lost in their immediate communities, but also the lost within the many unreached peoples around the world. In chapter six, Platt provides several examples of what it means to live more selflessly to advance God’s agenda.

There are many positive things to mention in this sequel. First, Platt’s tone is to be commended. While he has much to criticize about the contemporary American Evangelical church, he avoids what sometimes comes across in others with similar critiques as bitterness against the “establishment.” There are many examples where Platt shows modesty and humility. He acknowledges, for instance, “I have so much to learn” (p. 3), and later in the book reflects that as a rookie pastor “I had no clue how to be a part of, much less to lead, such a large church” (p. 42).

Second, Platt’s discussion of ministry planning is right on the mark. He highlights a very real proclivity among churches to stray from the main focus of the church, namely, the evangelizing the lost and discipling the saved. Anecdotally, he shares of one man in his congregation that confessed, “despite all the good things he had done in the church, he could not name one person outside his family who he had led to Christ and who was now walking with Christ and leading others to Christ.” I have no doubt this reality is widespread in Evangelicalism today. Platt is concerned about this, and we should be also. If the purpose Christ established the church to fulfill has been largely lost in the busy activities of the church there is a very serious problem.

I believe his critique of the contemporary formula for church growth is accurate. There is a tendency to create metrics of success in churches around the most visible and tangible elements which may have very little to do with achieving real spiritual growth. As performance, places, programs and professionals become the focus, the development of individuals into Christ-like maturity is left to a less-than-effective “system.”

As a corrective for this state of affairs, Platt exhorts churches to put everything but the theological non-negotiables “on the table.” We cannot simply ask “what’s wrong with certain programs and activities?” because that is not the issue. There are many good things that churches find themselves doing. The more productive and relevant question is whether current “programs and activities [are] the best way to spend our time, money, and energy for the spread of the gospel in our neighborhood and in all nations?”

Fortunately, Platt is not alone in his prescription. Others are thinking the same way. For example, Matthias Media, the publisher that recently released the popular book, The Trellis and the Vine, is an Evangelical Australian-based resource producer that has been publishing resources for several decades that are designed to aid churches in focusing on evangelism and edification as the main course of church life. They have also produced an excellent resource called Mission Minded to help churches strategically plan with the right priorities. Also, Kevin DeYoung’s and Greg Gilbert’s book released this year called What is the Mission of the Church? echoes many of the same ideas that Platt addresses with respect to focusing the churches resources around the mission/Great Commission of the church.

A third positive feature of the book worthy of highlighting is Platt’s reminder that while the recent popularity of missional living and local church planting is to be commended, we should not lose sight of our duty to reach the lost around the world. Human nature is the swinging of pendulums, and I think Platt has given us a helpful reminder to keep proper balance.

As for negative critique, there is a question I have about Platt’s move from the individual Christian to the collection of Christians as the local church. A social theorist might say Platt falls on more of the individualist rather than collectivist side of the scale. There is a sense that Platt perhaps makes a jump from what individual Christians ought to do (Radical) to what the church as a group of individuals ought to do (Radical Together). In other words, the mission of the whole can tend to sound identical to the mission of individuals. The places in the book where this seems to be most prominent is where he discusses what is today often referred to as “social justice.” It is completely appropriate to expect that individual Christians should be all about serving and giving to the physical needs of their fellow man around the world (p. 18). However, I think we need to be careful here. In What is the Mission of the Church?, DeYoung and Gilbert rightly speak of an important distinction between the “the church organic” and “the church institutional.” They suggest that “there is a difference between the individual Christian and the local church, and therefore we can’t just say that whatever we see commanded of the individual Christian is also commanded of the local church. For DeYoung and Gilbert, “the mission of the church…seems to be something narrower than the set of all commands given to individual Christians – it’s proclamation, witness, and disciple making.”

I suspect that Platt may not take real issue with this, however, I think Radical Together does not clearly articulate the distinction and may lead unintentionally to undermining the narrowing of ministry focus advocated in chapter one. Perhaps it would have been helpful for Platt to insert a few lines in chapter one addressing the need to see the church’s mission as a bit narrower than the duties of individual Christians.

In conclusion, Radical Together is a book that should be read widely. This would be a great book to study for a church leadership team who wants an introduction to what they need to be thinking about to assess their ministry. Other books with a complementary philosophy of ministry, like The Trellis and the Vine, Mission Minded, and What is the Mission of the Church?, would be helpful books to read along side this one. 

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.