Category Archives: Books

My thoughts on unmarried Christian couples holidaying alone together

I’m going to get straight to the point: unmarried Christian couples holidaying alone together is a really bad idea.

Before I go on, let me clarify. I am talking to Christian couples. I assume that Christian couples are committed to sexual purity before marriage. If you are reading this and not Christian, this isn’t a word for you (though by all means keep on reading). I am also talking about unmarried couples. That includes engaged but not-yet-married ones. Furthermore, the issue is holidaying alone. I have less of an issue if they are with other Christian couples and definitely no problem if they are holidaying with one of the couple’s family, or if there’s a chaperone. No problem there.

Okay, now that’s settled, let me keep going…

I know all the arguments for this practice. And it seems to me that it’s growing in popularity among young adults in churches. Some of the reasons I’ve heard are: “It’s not like we’ll be sharing a room.” “Don’t you trust us?” “I know couple x and y and they did it and they were okay.” “Where in the Bible does it say we can’t do this?” etc. etc.

Here are some reasons I would still strongly advise against it: (And at the risk of sounding harsh, I may actually remove someone from leadership if, against all advice, they still went ahead and did it.)

  • Don’t trust yourselves. Friends, the heart is deceitful beyond all things (Jer. 17:9). The devil, your flesh and the world are against you. 1 Peter 5:8 tells us that ‘your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.’ In sum, no, I don’t trust you and neither should you trust yourself. Don’t trust yourself that, in a place of no accountability, under some beautiful starry moonlight night, when you’re both tired and maybe had a few drinks, you’re not going to seriously compromise your sexual purity. Don’t trust yourself.
  • God doesn’t want us just to be minimalists in obedience. The ‘how far before I cross the line’ mentality behind these kinds of holidays is flawed to begin with. This is what the Pharisees did. In contrast Jesus called on them to go for maximum heart-obedience. You might set all these artificial lines for yourself, such as: ‘If we were sharing a bed/room, then that wouldn’t be okay; but if we’re not sharing a room, then it’s okay.’ Jesus said, ‘If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out.’ (Matt. 5:29-30) Elsewhere, we’re called to flee temptation (2 Tim. 2:22). Friends, don’t be a legalist and a minimalist. Figure out the kind of life that pleases the Lord and pursue that maximally.
  • We are called as Christians to be above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 2:7-8). This is a call for church leaders in particular (and that’s why I may remove someone from leadership over this). Our reputation with outsiders matter… a lot! When your unbelieving friends hear that you’re holidaying alone together, their assumption is that you’ll be sharing a room, having a ‘romantic time’, sexually compromising in all sorts of ways. Now of course you can take the time and effort to explain: ‘No, we’ll be sleeping in separate rooms; we’ll keep our hands off each other; we’ll have a curfew; we won’t get drunk…’ But are you going to be able to explain that to all the outsiders you know? Furthermore, is it going to be convincing, or just sound to them like you really want to do what everyone else does but want to save a little bit of moral integrity? Again, why not aim for ‘above and beyond reproach’? Your Lord Jesus’ reputation is on the line. Why not instead give no one any cause to whisper or doubt?
  • You can wait. You really can. Our generation is particularly bad at ‘delayed gratification’. My fear is that God’s people are, on this issue, just becoming more and more like the world. Why can’t you wait for marriage to have that holiday alone? It really is much more gratifying then, believe me! You can share a room, share a bed, share lots of romantic moments, and (sorry for the crassness) ‘go at it like rabbits’… all for the glory of God! Is waiting a year, two years, however long, really that much of a problem given you might have a lifetime together?
  • Fight the idol of pleasure at any cost. Yes we Christians are being sucked into the hedonism of our world. And we need to actively fight the idolatry of pleasure, which in recent decades, because of wealth and cheaper airfares, is this thing called ‘travel’. Travel isn’t wrong. There are lots of good and pleasurable things about it. But any good thing becomes a ‘god-thing’ when you are willing to sacrifice more important things for it. What are you putting on the altar of this false god? Your reputation? Your purity? Your example and model to younger Christians? Friends, it’s not worth it. Know that there is a greater pleasure in waiting and pursuing God’s will for you with all of your heart.

Okay, over to you. Comments?

Steve Jobs, Death, and the Question of Worldviews

As the obituaries pour in at the news of Steve Jobs’ death, many Christians have noted and quoted his very sobering view of life, death and the pursuit of dreams. It’s from his 2005 Stanford University commencement address. In it he says:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Now I don’t particularly want to bring Biblical commentary on that. It’s obviously got so much to commend it as a perspective on life – something I wish more hedonistic non-Christians would share. However, Biblical Christians would clearly also want to take his statements further – much further, into eternity, and think about that should affect the way the sons and daughters of eternity ought to live. That’s for another person and perhaps another blog to comment on. (One such blog is here.)

The only thing I want to pick up on is to suggest that many Christians wouldn’t know that Steve Jobs’ worldview as articulated in that quote is something known as Existentialism (or at least something very similar to it). Whether Jobs himself is an existentialist or knows it is beside the point (in fact, he’s apparently a Buddhist). The point is simply that his words don’t come in a vacuum, they come from within a worldview.

And so it got me thinking: how many Christians know enough about other worldviews to know what Existentialism is, how it evolved from naturalism and nihilism (the non-theistic varieties anyhow), and how it can be understood and critiqued from within? I want to suggest that unless Christians do grapple with these philosophical questions and spend some time reading about and understanding worldviews, we’re going to be very shortchanged when it comes to engaging with people who embrace Steve Job’s (or anyone else’s) philosophy of life.

So where’s a good place to start? Let me recommend a fabulous book that’s helped me and so many in introducing the different kinds of worldviews. I think it’s essential reading for all Christians. It’s by James W. Sire called The Universe Next Door.

In the mean time, here’s the full video of Jobs’ commencement address.

Sometimes It Really Sucks Being a Pastor

Okay, so the heading of the post is a bit of an attention grabber. I actually really love being a pastor.

Don’t surf away from this blog yet though! I wanted to draw attention to the ‘suckiness’ factor of being a pastor because sometimes it really is quite difficult. A good chapter I read yesterday from this book, Pastor to Pastor by Erwin Lutzer, really highlighted it. Chapter 2 deals with ‘A Congregation’s Expectations’.

So here it is. Pastors are in a Catch-22 situation when it comes to the expectations of the congregation. It’s often “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. As Lutzer writes:

If he should lose the congregation’s goodwill, his ministry might soon be over. But if he consciously attempts to establish and maintain a correct impression, he courts spiritual disaster.

I don’t want to care about how my congregation feels about me, but as a pastor, I know how important perceptions are. If they perceive me in a generally negative light, then no matter what I do they’ll read it through a negative grid. Whereas a pastor who is loved and trusted by his flock will be able to get away with “multitude of sins”. Who doesn’t want to have a congregation whose “love tanks” towards their pastor is full? And yet as the quote rightly points out, if you seek it, you’re seeking an idol.

So what’s the solution? Lutzer helpfully points us to Christ, who was the most complete and satisfied human being ever because he was completely free from men’s opinions about him. He sought the approval and audience of One person alone – his Father in Heaven. And if I could build on Lutzer’s point, we Christians ought to be as secure as Christ was. Why? Because of the wonderful doctrines of justification by faith, Christ’s imputed righteousness, our union with him and our adoption through him. In short, in Christ we are completely approved and accepted, completely apart from our merits. This ought to provide the fatal blow against the idol of others’ approval. My Father’s will is what I should seek; his approval is something I already have and can’t lose. This frees me to truly perform to an audience of One.

The implications of this for pastors, according to Lutzer, are:

  1. We wouldn’t let people push us into their mold.
  2. We would profit from criticism.
  3. We won’t be afraid to let our humanity (and failings) show
  4. We wouldn’t see the success of another as a threat to our own ministry.
I desperately need each and every one of the above four points to be true of me. Like you, I live for the approval of others far too much. May Christ free me, and you, from this in order that our service of him might be a joy and not a burden.
If you want a free read of this book, I just found it on GoogleBooks here. (Note: I’ve only read two chapters so can’t comment on how good the rest of the book is.)

What is the Mission of the Church? (A Review)

I don’t like writing book reviews. The main reason is, I’m a quick reader but not a detailed reader. I assume that for a book review to be decent, some attention has to be paid to the details, and I don’t particularly want to do that.

However, as someone who is one of the first in my circles to have gotten hold of this book (via Kindle) and read it, I thought it would be worth putting some thoughts down on a page somewhere. There will no doubt be better reviews than this one, and when they turn up, I’ll link them to this article.

I picked up this book because of its premise and its recommendations. Its premise is to “make sense of social justice, shalom and the Great Commission”. The first two items: social justice and shalom, have been the flavour of a new generation of young evangelicals who have been exposed to writers such as N.T. Wright and Christopher J.H. Wright (among others – those are the two who have influenced me). The recommendations of this book come from such respected luminaries as Mark Dever, D.A. Carson, Michael S. Horton, Thomas Shreiner, and P.T. O’Brien. When they write in such glowing terms, you gotta take notice.

Having read the book in nearly one sitting (I spent a lot of time on the train yesterday), I can say that it’s been ultra-helpful for me personally as I’ve been wrestling theologically with some of these issues for awhile now, ever since I picked up Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. I can say now that it’s probably one of the top three books I’ve read this year and I hope its influence will spread and its central thesis carefully chewed over, examined and appraised by my generation of socially active younger evangelicals.

Rather than going through a chapter-by-chapter analysis, here are my highlights from the book.

1. Attention to exegesis. The authors don’t allow us to be swept into convincing rhetoric that stays at the big picture level without dealing with specific texts.They do this so deftly, since this is not intended to be a scholarly work. Don’t be fooled though! Though they write as pastors, the exegetical work no doubt lies in the background and surfaces just enough to make their case very convincing.

2. Clarifying important concepts and ideas. The book rightly identifies that there is a lot of murkiness and slipperiness in a lot of recent talk about this issue. Much of the recent literature is very enthusiastic about concepts such ‘mission’, ‘social justice’, ‘shalom’ and ‘kingdom’ but never spend time to defend it exegetically or even clarify what is meant by these terms. They very helpfully ask (and deal with) important questions such as: Is there a difference between God’s mission and the church’s mission? Is the gospel primarily about cosmic renewal or forgiveness of sins? Is it biblical to speak about Christians ‘building the Kingdom’ through social or other means? What do we mean by ‘social justice’? Is ‘incarnational’ ministry a valid way of speaking about what Christians are called to do? What is biblical shalom and how does it come about? Will the new creation be continuous or discontinuous with this old one? Those are exactly the kinds of questions discerning young evangelicals should be asking in the midst of current enthusiasm for social concerns.

3. Recovering the centrality of the gospel. The best thing for me is that DeYoung and Gilbert show that the ‘old stuff’ that we young evangelicals have been taught isn’t that wrong: the mission of the church is essentially the Great Commission. Our mission is primarily that of bearing witness to, proclaiming and preaching a good news of forgiveness and reconciliation achieved by the work of Christ and calling people to repentance and faith in him. Our mission is to make disciples of all nations. That’s it. To summarise their central thesis:

The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father. (p. 62)

4. Locating our social and mercy ministries under the category of ‘love’ rather than ‘social justice’. The authors are very clear that what they do not want to do is to discourage or deflate a concern for the poor, socially disadvantaged or enslaved peoples of the world. However, they want this concern to be Biblical both in its source and in its demonstration. Rather than locating it under the blurry term of ‘social justice’, they see that Christ’s command to ‘love our neighbours’ is sufficiently important as a motivator to get moving to care about those around us in holistic ways.

The Christian will be generous and compassionate toward the suffering and the disadvantaged, realizing that all we have is a gift from God and that we share God’s image with the poor. But in the constrained vision, this care is a matter of love and compassion, not automatically a matter of justice. (p. 182)

5. A call to Biblical realism.  Some of the calls for Christians to social action is enjoined with a grand vision of ‘participating in Kingdom building’ on earth as it is in heaven. It is the classic liberal vision of bringing God’s Kingdom here on earth through radical transformation of social structures. A lot of this talk neglects to take into account the ‘not yet’ aspect of eschatology, as well as (most importantly I think), the way in which the Bible speaks about God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is God’s work, God’s mission, God’s accomplishment through Christ, not ours. We receive the Kingdom, enter the Kingdom, but are never told to ‘build the Kingdom’. In their words:

God certainly uses means and employs us in his work. But we are not makers or bringers of the kingdom. The kingdom can be received by more and more people but this does not entail growth of the kingdom. We herald the kingdom and live according to its rules. But we do not build it or cause it to grow because it already is and already has come. (p. 134)

There is a tendency towards a sort of triumphalism when we think of being able to ‘transform cities’ and ‘build God’s Kingdom’ in the here-and-now before Jesus returns. That’s a great vision but has always made me a little uncomfortable, as I don’t see that in the mission of the disciples in Acts or in the pages of the New Testament. The authors argue that Jeremiah 29 is a better way of understanding God’s call to his people while we live in the tension of the ‘now and not yet’. We’re to seek the welfare of the cities we are in, love people around us, do as much good as we can, but our hope is in God’s new city coming from heaven to earth, not in our ability to transform our cities to be the New Jerusalem before Jesus returns.

The new heavens and new earth are not something that we build for ourselves out of the ruins of our fallen world. They are a gift from God to his redeemed people. Christians do not build the holy city, New Jerusalem, from the ground up; it doesn’t rise from the ashes of Babylon (Revelation 18–19). Rather, it comes down from heaven (Rev. 21:2), a gift of God to his people. It is “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). (p. 206)

There’s a lot more I could write about, but I won’t given the length of this post already. If I have one criticism of this book it would be that I wish they would engage more openly with Tim Keller as they do with Chris Wright when it comes to these issues. They do quote Keller, but only in positive and supporting terms. I wonder however, if there are aspects of Keller’s vision for Redeemer and cultural / city transformation that should stand up to more direct scrutiny. I would also want to read Chris Wright’s Mission of God in more detail so I can see if all their critiques are fair, but I can’t help but feel that he is their main target in terms of evangelical scholarship on this topic.

And before I sign off, I reckon their last chapter, written as a sort of imagined dialogue between a young fiery new pastor and a seasoned evangelical pastor ought to be required reading for every young man wanting to head into the pastorate. I just wish I had read it when I finished Bible College 7 years ago.

Now read a “proper” book review by John Starke from the Gospel Coalition here.

My Preaching Mentors

I love preaching. Aside from its importance in the life and growth of the church, I personally find that it’s one of the most exciting and stimulating things to be engaged in.

I gave my first ‘talk’ about half a lifetime ago (half of my lifetime – that’s 17 years) at a summer mission in Gunnedah and I’ve been passionate about it since. Half a lifetime later, I’m still learning.

Anyways, I got thinking about my biggest influences in preaching. So here they are. I’m grateful to God for each and every one of these men who’ve taught me so much through their example, preaching, writing, and workshopping.

1. “Chappo” (John Chapman) 

He taught me a formula of preaching that really does produce “better than average sermons” every single time. His stuff from Setting Hearts on Fire was foundational: especially for a rookie preacher. And it was Chappo who famously taught us that the first 50 years are the hardest. I’ve got another 33 to go (that’s an entire lifetime for me!).

2. Dominic Steele

I did my MTS apprenticeship with Dominic. He put Chappo’s stuff into practice for me and set a model of how it worked itself out in actual sermons. He’s a great communicator of the gospel and I’m grateful for how he helped me hone the craft of preaching.

3. Mark Driscoll

It was hearing Driscoll that freed me up from a certain kind of rigidity I had gotten myself into a few years after College. Sure my sermons were polished, 25 mins, well-illustrated and clear, but they lacked a certain ‘fire’. Driscoll (indirectly) helped me get free from full-notes, begin to think more about application not just as an afterthought, and going for sermons that were more like 40-50 mins rather than 20 (if appropriate).

4. Tim Keller

Tim Keller has been the biggest shaper of my preaching in the last couple of  years. He is a good counter-balance to the Driscoll-type stuff I picked up. Also, Keller taught me how to actually go deeper with the hearers by going for heart idols in my application.

So my advice to younger preachers? Make sure you have a good foundation. Go buy and soak up Chappo (or the SMBC preaching manual). Make sure you get lots of practise with a good personal mentor. Make sure you widen your listening. Make sure you hear seasoned preachers with a lot of depth, not just a lot of communication skills.

And finally, make sure you’re comfortable finding your own style. I’m still working that out.

Shall we come to them with a joke?

When I stand to welcome the people to worship on Sunday morning, I know there are William Cowpers in the congregation. There are spouses who can barely talk. There are sullen teenagers living double lives at home and school. There are widows who still feel the amputation of a fifty-year partner. There are single people who have not been hugged for twenty years. There are men in the prime of their lives with cancer. There are moms who have carried two tiny caskets. There are soldiers of the cross who have risked all for Jesus and bear the scars. There are tired and discouraged and lonely strugglers. Shall we come to them with a joke?

They can read the comics every day. What they need from me is not more bouncy, frisky smiles and stories. What they need is a kind of joyful earnestness that makes the broken heart feel hopeful and helps the ones who are drunk with trifles sober up for greater joys.

(John Piper, Tested by Fire: The fruit of suffering in the lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper and David Brainerd, p. 167)

Exclusion and Embrace

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Got my copy of Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf delivered for free from Book Depository in the UK. This paragraph in chapter 1 caught my attention:

What are the implications of the Pauline kind of universalism? Each culture can retain its own cultural specificity; Christians need not “loose their cultural identity as Jew or Gentile and become one new humanity which is neither” (Campbell 1991, vi). At the same time, no culture can retain its own tribal deities; religion must be de-ethnicized so that ethnicity can be de-sacralized. Paul deprived each culture of ultimacy in order to give them all legitimacy in the wider family of cultures. Through faith one must “depart” from one’s culture because the ultimate allegiance is given to God and God’s Messiah who transcend every culture. And yet precisely because of the ultimate allegiance to God of all cultures and to Christ who offers his “body” as a home for all people Christian children of Abraham can “depart” from their culture without having to leave it […] Departure is no longer a spatial category; it can take place within the cultural space one inhabits. And it involves neither a typically modern attempt to build a new heaven out of the worldly hell nor a typically postmodern restless movement that fears to arrive home. Never simply distance, a genuinely Christian departure is always also presence; never simply work and struggle, it is always already rest and joy. (p. 49)

For those of us like me doing ethnic-specific ministry, it’s a challenge on the one hand to allow the gospel to critique one’s culture and yet on the other hand not to dismiss or obliterate cultural distinctives. The gospel is meant to be like salt: it seasons many dishes and yet does not make every dish taste the same. Rather, the gospel brings out and enhances the glory of each culture’s distinctiveness, all to the praise of the God who created unity in diversity and diversity in unity.

That’s the easy part. The difficult part is figuring how all of this works out in practice, especially in ethnic or cultural specific churches. Thoughts?

Mortification of Sin

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I’ll let John Owen speak for himself:

An unmortified lust will drink up the spirit and all the vigour of the soul, and weaken it for all duties […] It untunes and unframes the heart itself, by entangling its affections. It diverts the heart from that spiritual frame that is required for vigorous communion with God. It lays hold on the affections, rendering its object beloved and desirable, and so expelling the love of the Father (1 John 2:15; 3:17). So that the soul cannot say uprightly and truly to God, ‘Thou art my portion’, having something else that it loves. Fear, desire, hope, which are the choice affections of the soul, that should be full of God, will be one way or other entangled with it. (The Mortification of Sin; Christian Focus edition, pp. 51-52).

The Everlasting God

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The second of the books which have rocked my world  is The Everlasting God by D.B. Knox. It’s now published by Matthias Media in Volume I of his Selected Works.

I remember reading this sometime during my university days, having already read (and suffered indigestion) from reading another classic work on the doctrine of God – Knowing God by J.I. Packer – and wondering what a book a third of the length could offer that the thicker one couldn’t. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Knowing God, but I found The Everlasting God even more impacting and even more profound.

To this day Knox’s chapter on “God in Trinity” is still the chapter I go back to in order to understand the Biblical teaching on this most profound of doctrines. And I love it not just because he summarises the Bible’s teaching on the Trinity. I love it because he engages with the doctrine as a good theologian does. He expounds the Biblical doctrine and then teases out its implications far and wide.

It was Knox who taught me that the doctrine of the Trinity, far from an obscure teaching that Christians ought to be embarrassed to speak about, was actually the cornerstone, capstone and glory of the Christian faith. The Trinity reveals the very ‘stuff’ of reality: God in his very essence is love. He didn’t become loving only when he created an-other to love, for within himself he was and is and will be eternally in loving relationship. And we were created to image God and thus to be, in our very constitution, other-person-centred and relational. This relationship furthermore is ordered. There is an order without subservience or inequality. From here stems our belief that male-female relationships can be ‘equal but different’. 

Now all of this stuff is probably not new to a lot of people today, but I think Knox’s book is the first one that I came across which spelt it out so clearly and so succinctly. For that reason alone it deserves to be read and re-read.

Books which have ROCKED MY WORLD!

I thought I’d begin a series of posts on books which have been of utmost influence in my Christian walk. They’ve all been, in one way or another, foundation-shaking and paradigm-shifting. I’m going to begin more or less chronologically (as much as I can) and take a trip down memory lane while I do it.

First book that I remember significantly rocking my world was Days Are Coming by Mark Strom.

Days Are Coming

(This book has been out of print for many years, and so I couldn’t even find a pic of it on the web. Instead, I scanned my own tattered and well-worn copy.)

I remember hearing about this book at Katoomba Youth Leadership Convention (now Next Generation) in January 1993. I was going into year 11, having just done strand 1, and hearing about how this book was a key book for the stuff we were going to do in strand 2. 

So, being a good Asian student, I thought I’d pick it up a year in advance and read up on it first. What I came across simply blew my mind.

If you’re not familiar with the book, basically this is a book on Biblical Theology. It’s largely based on Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom, but is Goldsworthy fleshed out a bit (I think this was before According to Plan came out). Strom takes you through the entire Bible from creation to new creation, from old to new covenant, and shows how, at the centre of it all, stands the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Bible is linked together as one continuous story of redemption, with the theme of “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule” as the way we are to discern its unity.

Being a Sunday school kid as long as I can remember, I had never read or come across anything until then that made all the disparate elements of the Bible link together like that. This book did that for me, and got me hooked on Biblical Theology. From there, I read Goldsworthy, Bill Dumbrell, and anything else I could get my hands on. I still remember the ‘lightbulb’ moments I had again and again as I was drawn into the marvelous revelation of God through the Scriptures and his mighty work through Jesus the Messiah to bring his people into his place under his rule. It was this book that gave me an insatiable hunger for the Bible – the whole Bible – and set my course into wanting to study theology later on in life.

It’s a pity this book’s out of print. In my mind, it’s still a more accessible read than According To Plan. However, I think Vaughan Roberts’ more recent book God’s Big Picture is a gem and might be a worthy (if not as detailed) replacement.

For those who’d like to leave comments, I’d love to hear about what you remember as your first paradigm-shifting, world-rockin’ sort of book.