Counter Culture and the Gospel

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“Consequently, we must be careful across the church not to minimize the magnitude of what it means to follow Christ . . . The gospel is a call for everyone of us to die – to die to sin and to die to self – and to live with unshakable trust in Christ, choosing to follow his Word even when it brings us into clear confrontation with out culture.”

David Platt Counter Culture, p. 180

I recently read David Platt’s new book Counter Culture. Platt, former pastor of the mega church The Hills at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, and New York Times bestselling author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From The American Dream, is now the head of the International Mission Board for the Southern Baptist Convention. Counter Culture is an extraordinary book especially within the cultural milieu the church currently is in. His book is a passionate call to rouse a dormant church in the midst of a culture desperately in need of the gospel, urging for faithfulness to that call regardless of the costs.

In the book he discusses nearly all of the contentious issues of the day, not simply by quoting Scripture, but also showing the rationale and ultimately the compassion of the Christian position. At one point near the end, he references Galatians 2:20:

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (NIV)

In this passage, he reminds Christians that a past action (“I have been crucified with Christ) brings a new identity (“I now live by faith”). But with this new identity comes a call that at times the Church seems to minimize, or lessen in severity in a feeble attempt to attract more people to the gospel. That is where the opening quote comes from (please read it again!).

Succinctly, in my view, Platt reminds all Christians that:

  • To minimize the call of the gospel is to distort the gospel;
  • The call of Christ is unmistakable – come and die, so that you can truly live!
  • Obeying this call will bring us into confrontation with culture at large!

Allow me to close by raising a few questions based on these three points:

  • How have you seen the church attempt to minimize the call of Christ?
  • If the call of Christ is unmistakable, and it truly is “come and die”, have you?
  • Why are we so fearful of clashing with a culture that admittedly doesn’t know God?

I pray you’ll wrestle with these questions today as they challenge you to evaluate your call from God, and as soon as you can get Platt’s book, and feast on it!

RA

Two Books on Prayer

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Lucado, Max. Before Amen: The Power of a Simple Prayer. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014.

Keller, Timothy. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. New York: Dutton, 2014.

Recently prayer has unwittingly become the topic of the day. Frankly, this is a subject that most of us would rather not address. Why? Many reasons could be listed, but I would suggest part of it is because prayer raises difficult questions. For instance:

  • We are told in the Bible to ask God for things – “you have not because you ask not” (James 4:2) – yet we know that God is sovereign, infallible, and has a plan. So in other words, why ask God for something if he already has everything set and according to some great plan? How do you resolve that?
  • Additionally, any discussion regarding prayer surely raises the issues of how we should pray, how often, publicly or privately, and an array of other questions.
  • Lastly, what about unanswered prayers, or more troubling to me, how about when the prayer is answered, but you don’t like the answer!

Thankfully, this critical topic has been addressed by two of evangelical Christianity’s best authors – Timothy Keller and Max Lucado. Both men are pastors, successful writers, and very good at what they do, yet in their respective books, they tackle the issue of prayer very differently. But as you will see, we are the ones who benefit from that!

So here are my thoughts on both of these exceptional books on prayer.

Lucado’s Before Amen:

  • This is a book about prayer for everyone! Lucado’s thesis is that when Jesus was urged by the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray”, he taught them what we call today “The Lord’s Prayer.” Lucado has taken this prayer, and basically all other prayers in the Bible, and succinctly distilled them into what he dubs a “pocket-size prayer:”

You are good.
I need help. Heal me and forgive me.
They need help.
Thank you.
In Jesus’ name, amen.

     Subsequently, each chapter of his book investigates the individual parts of this “pocket-
size prayer”.

  • This is a highly motivational and encouraging book to read on prayer and easily comprehended, especially in comparison to Keller’s scholarly tome. Lucado’s book is only 163 pages, and 60 of those pages consist of a study guide at the end of the book!
  • The one critique I’d make is I would have enjoyed more substantiation for his claim that this pocket-size prayer is really an accurate summation of all the prayers in the Bible. He declares such, but with no support offered for this bold claim.
  • Some notable quotes from Lucado:

“In an effort to see him as our friend, we have lost his immensity. In our desire to understand him, we have sought to contain him. The God of the Bible cannot be contained.” (p. 23)

“He will heal you – instantly or gradually or ultimately.” (p. 52)

“He will heal you, my friend. I pray he heals you instantly. He may choose to heal you gradually. But this much is sure; Jesus will heal us all ultimately. Wheelchairs, ointments, treatments, and bandages are confiscated at the gateway to heaven. God’s children will once again be whole. (p. 56)

“Jesus never refused an intercessory request. Ever!” (p. 70)

{On Moses interceding to God to spare the Israelites} This is the promise of prayer! We can change God’s mind! His ultimate will is inflexible, but the implementation of his will is not. He does not change in his character and purpose, but he does alter his strategy because of the appeals of his children. We do not change his intention, but we can influence his actions.” (p. 74)

“When we pray in the name of Jesus, we come to God on the basis of Jesus’ accomplishment.” (p. 98)

“The phrase “In Jesus’ name” is not an empty motto or talisman. It is a declaration of truth: My cancer is not in charge; Jesus is. The economy is not in charge; Jesus is. The grumpy neighbor doesn’t run the world; Jesus, you do!” (p. 100)

Keller’s Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God:

  • Undoubtedly, this is the more scholarly of the two, and I believe a great summation of the history of prayer and the beliefs of key figures on the issue such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, just to name a few.
  • Keller wanted to write a book on prayer that investigated it as both a conversation and encounter with the living God, all in a resource that addresses prayer from a theological, experiential, and methodological perspective (p. 1).
  • In his pursuit of that goal, this book is divided into five sections: Desiring Prayer, Understanding Prayer, Learning Prayer, Deepening Prayer, and Doing Prayer.
  • With such a formidable goal, I fear many readers may start this book, and unfortunately put it aside in the midst of all of this impressive, detailed exploration on prayer.
  • As to a critique, I feel so inadequate. I learned so much from reading this book. The only critique I can muster would be based on what I said in the preceding point – ultimately Keller may have attempted to put too much in one book, and sadly that may lead to some readers putting the book down and never finishing it.
  • I was fascinated by Keller’s evaluation of the modern daily Quiet Time. He reminds the reader that this is a recent phenomenon, propelled by the publication of an InterVarsity booklet in 1945. Keller stresses he fears the modern Quiet Time is lacking for several reasons, and he himself has a morning and evening time of prayer and Bible reading mixed with meditation.
  • Some notable quotes from Keller:

“It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances. . . He does not see prayer as merely a way to get things from God but as a way to get more of God himself. Prayer is a striving to ‘take hold of God’ (Isa. 64:7) the way in ancient times people took hold of the cloak of a great man as they appealed to him, or the way in modern times we embrace someone to show love.” (p. 20-21)

“What is prayer, then, in the fullest sense? Prayer is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him.” (p. 48)

“Prayer is the way to experience a powerful confidence that God is handling our lives well, that our bad things will turn out for good, and our good things cannot be taken from us, and the best things are yet to come.” (p. 73)

“To pray in Jesus’ name is not meant to be a magic formula, as if the pronunciation of the words coerces God’s power or mechanically taps into supernatural forces. Jesus’ name is shorthand for his divine person and saving work. To come to the Father in Jesus’ name, not our own, is to come fully cognizant that we are being heard because of the costly grace in which we stand.” (p. 125)

“There are three basic kinds of prayer to God. There is ‘upward’ prayer – praise and thanksgiving that focuses on God himself. . . Then there is ‘inward’ prayer – self-examination and confession that bring a deeper sense of sin and, in return, a higher experience of grace and assurance of love . . . Finally, there is ‘outward’ prayer – supplication and intercession that focuses on our needs and the needs of others in the world.” (p. 189)

“Jesus was the only human being in history who deserved to have all his prayers answered because of his perfect life. Yet he was turned down as if he cherished iniquity in his heart. Why? The answer, of course, is in the gospel. God treated Jesus as we deserve – he took our penalty – so that, when we believe in him, God can then treat us as Jesus deserved (2 Cor. 5:21).” (p. 237-8)

At last, I would venture to say that both books should be read if one wants to get the fullest, most comprehensive view of prayer. In my estimation, they truly do complement each other. As stated earlier, Lucado’s book is great motivation for actually praying, and a marvelous tool on how we should pray. And Keller’s project takes the reader deeper into how prayer has been used in the church, how prominent leaders viewed and practiced it, methods of meditation, and ultimately laying a strong theological basis for the entire endeavor of prayer.

Thanks to both gentlemen for their rich and lavish gift to the church at large.

RA

Book Reviews: Christmas 2014

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Yes, I can’t believe it but I’m already in Christmas mode, and it’s not even Thanksgiving week yet! The good news is there’s plenty to read if you’re interested in some new Christmas books. Here are three new Christmas books that I’ve read and also recommend (to some degree!).

Robert Tate Miller. Forever Christmas. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014. (Click here)

Miller, a former screenwriter for the Hallmark Channel, has written a good novel for the Christmas fiction genre. I do recommend this book, but with these comments:

  • It is an enjoyable book and quick read! I finished its 182 pages in one afternoon.
  • While I enjoyed the journey our protagonist Andrew and his wife Beth took, it was predictable. The story is almost like a Christmas Groundhog Day, but you only get one chance to learn your lesson. And yes, as I alluded to earlier, I knew the ending before Miller took me there.
  • The story is not explicitly Christian in any way, but it is implicit. While it’s true I haven’t read much from this genre in recent years, I did expect it to have more of a direct Christian message, since it’s published by Thomas Nelson, a large Christian publisher, and especially since the story centers around Christmas day! But no. Without ruining the story, at the end, it does lend itself to allegorical interpretations with the Christian message, and Miller obviously seems to even prompt this interpretation with a number of questions in a “Reading Group Guide” at the end of the book.
  • So ultimately, I do recommend this book because it will put you in the holiday mood, and it could lead to some good discussions with family and friends if you initiate it.
  • Lastly, I could easily see this being one of those Hallmark Christmas movies they play endlessly during the holiday season (I love those sappy movies, but I can already hear my wife mocking me!).

I’ve also read two new Advent books for this season that were both inspirational:

Louie Giglio. Waiting Here For You: An Advent Journey of Hope. Atlanta: Passion Publishing, 2014 (Click here)

John Piper. The Dawning of Indestructible Joy: Daily Readings for Advent. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. (Click here)

Louie Giglio, the founder and speaker of the widely successful Passion Conferences, and now the pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, centers his diminutive advent book on these four themes:

  • God works while we wait,
  • If we are truly waiting on God we won’t miss anything,
  • While we are waiting on God, we are waiting with God. God is there the whole time (I love that truth!)
  • Who you become while you are waiting is just as important as what you are waiting for.

Interspersed with his comments, he has plenty of poems, lyrics from hymns, and even pictures (unexpected in such a small book).

John Piper, popular author who also pastored the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis for over thirty years before he retired, has a message for each day during December. His messages don’t have much in the way of poetry or hymns, but are filled with short, direct explanations and applications of the Scripture for the day. The highlight of this book is the last chapter, which is a Christmas sermon from Piper. Everyone should get this book for that alone – it’s that good!

In closing, here’s a beautiful example from Piper of what Christmas is: “Christmas means: The infinitely self-sufficient God has come not to be assisted but to be enjoyed.” (62)

May we all recover the true meaning of Christmas this holiday season!

RA