Book Notice: GOD FOR US: DISCOVERING THE HEART OF THE FATHER THROUGH THE LIFE OF THE SON, by Abby Ross Hutto

A Brief Book Notice from Books at a Glance

Is God really good?
Is he good to others?
Is he good to us?

And if the answer is yes, why does it often feel like he’s so far away?

God isn’t surprised by our wariness and distrust. But he has never been content to be misunderstood, either. John’s gospel tells us that God sent his Son to explain himself to us—to the distant, the wounded, the skeptical, the afflicted, the ashamed, the betrayed.

Walk with Abby as she follows Jesus through the book of John. In thirteen stories, we discover piece by piece, through Jesus, who God is—and we also see thirteen very different modern-day believers awake to these truths in their own lives. These personal and biblical stories, along with further Scripture and application and discussion questions, will show us that God is for us, not against us. He will draw our hearts back to himself.

About the Author

Abby Ross Hutto is the director of spiritual formation at Story Presbyterian Church in Westerville, Ohio. She also works as a group leader and trainer for Parakaleo, a nonprofit that comes alongside women in ministry. You can connect with Abby at godforusministries.com.

Endorsements

Scott Sauls:

Theologically sound . . . emotionally compelling.

Sara Wallace, Author, For the Love of Discipline:

A beacon of hope for anyone who has ever wondered if God’s love is enough. . . . Hutto shows us that no sin, struggle, or fear is beyond the power of the gospel. She has created a resource that can uniquely and individually bless people from all walks and stages of life.

Karen Hodge, Coordinator of Women’s Ministries, Presbyterian Church in America:

Abby’s genuine love for God’s beloved boy Jesus Christ imprints every page.

Ellen Dykas, Women’s Ministry Coordinator, Harvest USA:

A unique book that will comfort, challenge, and compel you. . . . I commend this book to all who need help understanding our God’s loving heart.

Kevin Heckathorn, Pastor, Johnstown Presbyterian Church, Johnstown, Ohio; Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, Directions Counseling:

God for Us is a refreshingly honest look at how the challenges we face in life can overwhelm us and severely taint our view of God. With masterful grace and vulnerability, Abby draws us into these painful places and reveals how an embattled heart can find its way back into the arms of a God who has always loved us deeply and without end. I will read and recommend this book many times over.

Buy the books

God for Us: Discovering the Heart of the Father through the Life of the Son

P&R Publishing, 2019 | 216 pages

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Philippians 3:8–9: One Way to Know You’re in Christ

Faith is the experience of Christ as our surpassing worth and all else as rubbish by comparison. In this lab, John Piper clarifies that fake faith can say the right creeds, sing the right songs, even pray the right words, but it cannot pretend to count all as loss compared to gaining Christ.

Some questions to ask as you read and study Philippians 3:8–9:

  1. How would you help people who want to know if they are really in Christ? How could they be sure?
  2. Read Philippians 3:3–9. What does it mean to be found in Christ? If Christ came today, do you believe that you would be found in him?
  3. Watch the lab. What is one way you know if you are in Christ?

Watch this video offline by downloading it from Vimeo or subscribing to the Look at the Book video podcast via iTunes or RSS.


Principles for Bible Reading

Cultivating New Love for Old Texts

Several verses in the Bible are much more familiar than others. Many very popular texts are deserving of the attention they receive, but if we are not careful, they can become so familiar that they lose their wonder in our eyes. The solution is not to stow certain verses away and come back to them later; the solution is to go deeper into them.

One way to do this is to trace the themes in the familiar verses throughout the book or letter. Often, the themes from beloved verses can be found in people, situations, and other statements in the same book of the Bible which can deepen our understanding and appreciation for the familiar.

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What To Do When Christians Clash!

What are we to do when Christians clash? I’m not thinking of momentary spats or minor disagreements, but of significant divisions and conflict grounded in equally sincere convictions about what is right and wise. If you’ve been a Christian for any period of time you’ve no doubt seen it or, sadly, been embroiled in one of your own.

Once again, one of the admirable things about the Bible is its often brutal honesty, its refusal to gloss over the glitches in believers’ lives. There are a number of examples I could cite, but none more pointed than the breakdown between Paul, Barnabas, and Mark, and their subsequent reconciliation.

If we are going to understand and learn from this “clash of Christians” we need to take note of a story that is recorded for us in Acts 15. Our principal characters are Paul (who needs no comment), Barnabas, and Mark.

Barnabas was the kind of man that everyone would want as a best friend. No matter how bad things got, no matter how low and lousy you might feel, no matter how badly you may have failed, when your world stinks, Barnabas is the sort who brings a sweet aroma to life. You can always count on him being there. He won’t close an eye to your sin. In fact, he’ll rebuke you if needed, but you know it’s because he really cares.

Much is said of Barnabas in the New Testament, all of which is worthy of imitation. He is described as generous in Acts 4:36-37 (if you’re in financial stress, he’ll give you what he’s got, even if it isn’t much). He has an uncanny knack for encouraging others when they are in distress (“Barnabas,” as most of you know, actually means “Son of Encouragement”), as Acts 4:36 and 11:23 bear witness (cf. Acts 9:27). He was a “good” man (Acts 11:24; what a brief but glorious epitaph!). He was “filled with the Spirit” and “full of faith” (Acts 11:24; i.e., rock solid and spiritually steady, no matter the circumstance, always looking confidently to the trustworthiness and sufficiency of Jesus). He was a teacher, prophet, evangelist, and apostle (Acts 11:26; 13:1; 14:14; obviously quite gifted!). Perhaps best of all, he could be counted on, which is to say, he was reliable (see Acts 11:29-30; 12:25).

Then there is Mark, called “John Mark” (it was common to have two names, one acceptable to Greeks and Romans and the other Jewish). He lived in Jerusalem with his mother, Mary, in his whose home prayer meetings were regularly held (Acts 12:12). We know he was the cousin of Barnabas (as Paul indicates in Colossians 4:10) and was selected by Paul (no doubt on Barnabas’s recommendation) to accompany them on their missionary journeys (Acts 12:25).

The problem, the “clash” if you will, was precipitated by something recorded for us in Acts 13:13-14 during Paul’s second missionary journey. There we read that “Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John [Mark] left them and returned to Jerusalem, but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia.” Luke doesn’t tell us at this point why John Mark “left them”, nor does he suggest at this stage that his decision was wrong or sinful.

Why did Mark leave? There are any number of possibilities. For example, he may have been homesick. Perhaps he missed his mother, their spacious home in Jerusalem, and the comfort provided by the servants present there.

Others believe that he had come to resent Paul for eclipsing his cousin Barnabas in importance and fame. Paul was now the acknowledged leader of the group. Was it familial jealousy that drove this young man?

The explanation could be as simple as physical exhaustion. Mark may not have been accustomed to the rigors of travel, or perhaps he was a bit lazy, as least by Paul’s standards. Was he having second thoughts about his calling as a missionary (“Did I really hear God?”). Was he discouraged (“This isn’t what I had in mind at all!”)?

When Paul reached the cities of south Galatia, he was quite ill (see Galatians 4:13-15). He may have contracted malarial fever which could be reduced by leaving the climate of the low-lying coastal plain and going to the coolness of the Taurus plateau some 3,500 ft. above sea level. A few have argued that perhaps Mark thought Paul was foolish in making the decision to go north over the mountains and decided it was unwise to accompany him.

There is also the possibility that as a loyal member of the church in Jerusalem he disagreed with Paul’s policy of evangelizing Gentiles and granting them equal status in the church. Some suggest it was Mark who provoked the Judaizers in Jerusalem into opposing Paul (cf. Acts 15:1ff; but we have no explicit evidence to support this).

Other possible explanations are his fear of bandits, thieves, and muggers who infested the Taurus mountains into which Paul insisted they go (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:26), or perhaps his fear of persecution (cf. Acts 14:19).

Whatever the reason for Mark’s refusal to continue with Paul and Barnabas, whatever excuse he used to make a hasty retreat to Jerusalem and the comforts of home, Paul took it as a sign of weakness and immaturity and unreliability. So did Barnabas, I suspect, although later they would differ greatly on how best to deal with the problem.

Following the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are” (Acts 15:36). Barnabas wanted Mark to come along, “but Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work” (Acts 15:37-38).

Note well what happened next: “And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord” (Acts 15:39-40). It testifies to the historical reliability of Acts that Luke makes no effort to cover up this dispute. He’s not afraid to face reality or point a finger at warts on the face of the church.

Barnabas would not have disputed the fact that Mark blew it badly when he deserted them in Cyprus. Sin is sin. He no doubt agreed with Paul that Mark failed miserably on his first outing, but he also believed Mark had sincerely repented and should be welcomed back and given a second chance.

There’s no reason to think Paul doubted Mark’s sincerity in repenting. But the great apostle could not afford to risk the lives of others and the success of the mission on a man who, in his opinion, had yet to prove himself reliable and trustworthy in the heat of battle. Perhaps Paul said to Barnabas (using modern lingo): “When the going gets tough, the tough get going; but Barnabas, don’t you remember Cyprus? When the going got tough there, Mark turned tailed and ran away. It’s not that I don’t love the young man, but too much is at stake to trust him this early in his recovery.”

Who was right, Paul or Barnabas or both? Paul believed that Mark needed to prove his reliability before being entrusted with such an awesome responsibility. That’s probably true. But Barnabas believed he also needed encouragement and love and acceptance. Again, no argument there. But with neither man willing to concede, the split was unavoidable.

So what ultimately happened with Mark? How did he end up with Paul during his imprisonment in Rome? And how is it that Paul commends him to the church in Colossae (Col. 4:10). And what lessons can we learn from it all?

Luke describes the incident between Paul and Barnabas as a “sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:39). I don’t know, but it may have sounded something like this:

Barnabas: “Paul! You’re being unreasonable. I know you’re a man of conviction, but for heaven’s sake ease up a bit.”

Paul: “I may be unreasonable in your estimation, Barnabas, but you are showing a distinct lack of wisdom. Don’t let the fact that he’s your cousin blind you to his failures. We need to think first and foremost about the welfare of this ministry God has entrusted to us.”

Barnabas: “I am thinking of the ministry. But Mark is a sensitive and loving young man. Your inflexibility could crush his spirit. Must you be so harsh?”

Paul: “Must you be so soft? I love Mark. Really, I do. But you’re letting your compassion override your convictions.”

Barnabas: “And you’re letting your principles override your pity.”

In any case, the split must have been painful for everyone involved. I suspect even Mark felt guilty for being the cause of a separation between these two friends and co-workers. But let’s learn from what happened. There are five valuable lessons we can ill-afford to ignore.

First, we mustn’t forget that Paul and Barnabas, not just Mark, are also human and prone to sin. I can’t get over the fact that two apostles, that’s right, apostles(!), are engaged in a verbal brawl. I’m not in the least suggesting this justifies such behavior in us or that what occurred wasn’t grievous to the heart of God. But it reminds us that no one in this life achieves perfection or rises above the promptings of the flesh. These two men had worked miracles by the Spirit of God. They had laid hands on the sick and healed them. They both prayed in tongues (at least Paul did). They both loved Jesus. Yet here they are shouting angrily at each other!

If you had witnessed this clash, what conclusions would you have drawn? Or let’s bring it into the twenty-first century. If you were a new Christian, visiting a local church for the first time, and you happened upon such an argument in the parking lot or even the foyer of the church, what might you think?

Perhaps: “These men obviously can’t be Christians.”

Or perhaps: “I won’t believe anything either of them teaches. They are obviously disqualified from instructing others when they can’t get along with each other.”

Or maybe: “Who appointed these guys to be missionaries? Someone needs to re-evaluate the screening process!”

Or again: “I’ll bet you God never blesses or anoints either of them again. No more signs and wonders through their hands!”

Or lastly: “Hypocrites! The church is full of them. I’ll never again darken the door of this place as long as people like that are around.”

If nothing else, we learn from this not to judge too quickly or draw decisive conclusions about the goodness of people from a singular incident.

Second, is there anything we can learn from Paul’s position? I think his decision reminds us that you don’t entrust the young and immature with major tasks (cf. 1 Timothy 3:10). Don’t push people into ministry or positions of leadership and authority who may not be capable of bearing the burden or dealing with the pressure. A proven track record and proven character are indispensable.

Can we learn something important from Barnabas? Certainly. We learn that even those who fail are not to be abandoned and forever spurned. They are to be lovingly rebuked and corrected and then encouraged until conviction grips their hearts and repentance is forthcoming. We learn that failure such as this is not grounds for permanent exclusion from ministry.

Third, observe how God providentially brought good out of this tragic turn of events. With Paul and Barnabas splitting up and going their separate ways, two missionary teams instead of one are unleashed on the unbelieving world. Paul took Silas with him, while Barnabas took Mark. We must never justify our failures or sins by appealing to the overriding role of divine providence, but it is reassuring to know that God can redeem for his glory even the most petty as well as substantive clashes among his children.

Fourth, there are important lessons to learn from the experience of Mark himself. It would appear that although Mark abandoned them, he has returned on his own initiative. This was a courageous and humbling act on his part, demonstrative of the reality of his repentance.

Note also that Mark was not only received back by Paul, but was restored to ministry as well! In Colossians 4:10 Paul sends the church greetings from Mark and adds this comment: “concerning whom you have received instructions – if he comes to you, welcome him.” Evidently Mark’s restoration had not been fully acknowledged by all. I suspect that some in Colossae were suspicious of him, which is why Paul insists that they receive him warmly and wholeheartedly.

If that weren’t enough to restore confidence in Mark, Paul explicitly calls him his “fellow worker” in Philemon 24. Better still is what Paul wrote to Timothy in his second epistle. Remember, Paul is in prison in Rome, perhaps only weeks, at most months, away from execution. Virtually everyone had either abandoned him or left for other ministry opportunities (cf. 2 Timothy 4:9-10). “Luke alone is with me” (2 Timothy 4:11a), wrote Paul.

It’s a bit depressing, isn’t it? Paul is at the end of his life. His ministry is nearly over. Of all the people he could have asked to come and support and encourage him, guess whom he mentions? “Get Mark(!) and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11b). Mark? Useful? For ministry? Indeed! Isn’t God’s grace amazing?

Fifth, how was Mark restored to ministry? I suspect there were at least three human contributors through whom the Spirit worked.

There was, first of all, Barnabas and his constant encouragement and friendship.

Then there was Peter, Mark’s spiritual father (1 Peter 5:13). Peter knew a bit about failure himself! He knew the joy of restoration as well. No doubt his advice and prayers and support proved invaluable to Mark on his journey back.

Finally, Paul’s principles, his rebuke, and the discipline on which he insisted must also have played a role (“Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy,” Proverbs 27:5-6). I suspect Mark would have been the first to say that all three men were indispensable to him.

We’ve learned much from the clash of Paul and Barnabas over Mark. But there’s one more lesson to note. It comes by way of a painful contrast. Among those listed in the concluding paragraph of Colossians is a man named Demas (Colossians 4:14). He, too, was with Paul in Rome, faithfully serving the apostle alongside of Mark, Luke, Epaphras, and others. But not for long.

Is there a more painful experience than being abandoned by a friend? One struggles to find words adequate for the distress that is felt when a close, trusted companion and fellow-worker (see Philemon 24) walks away.

It’s important to remember that this was Paul’s first Roman imprisonment when conditions were not so threatening. But things were to change. When Paul wrote again from prison in Rome, his life was in the balance. Here are his words to his spiritual son, Timothy: “Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:9-10). Ouch! Double ouch!!

Was Demas a “convenient” Christian, one who was happy to follow Jesus and assist the apostle so long as it was rewarding and safe? We can’t be sure, but it’s clear that Demas wanted nothing to do with Paul. The verb translated “deserted” in 2 Timothy 4:10 implies not simply that Demas had “left” but had “left him in the lurch,” had abandoned and forsaken him.

Paul would have recalled the wisdom of Solomon: “Trusting in a treacherous man in time of trouble is like a bad tooth or a foot that slips” (Proverbs 25:19). Nothing hurts quite like the disloyalty and betrayal of someone you trusted. It’s like a decaying, rotten tooth and a palsied, disjointed foot. Not only are they functionally useless (for chewing and walking), they hurt!

For some of you, no doubt, your experience with this sort of person has made you hesitant to trust another. Perhaps you’ve closed your heart to starting new friendships or found yourself keeping folk at arm’s length. But Paul didn’t let the betrayal and abandonment of Demas and others scare him off or sour him to friendship altogether. He didn’t say, “Oh, Timothy, how do I know you won’t abandon me like Demas did?” There’s an important lesson in that.

Demas abandoned Paul in his hour of need because he had fallen “in love with this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10a). He preferred material prosperity to spiritual blessings. Comfort and wealth and safety meant more to him than the advance of the gospel and the welfare of the apostle.

What lessons might we learn from the contrast between Demas and Mark?

First, when you look on these two men for the first time, Demas appeared faithful and loyal while Mark gave every indication of cowardice and weakness. But as time passed, their situations reversed. Demas proved himself to be disloyal and unreliable and Mark grew into the sort of trusted friend whom Paul wanted at his side in his final days on earth.

Don’t be hasty in making snap judgments about people. Initially, Paul thought Demas would never leave and Mark would never be of use. Now, Demas has left and Mark is back! We’re reminded by this that more important than how you start a race is how you finish. It’s been said before and I’ll say it again: the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint! So let’s be careful and not place excessive responsibility on those who do well at first, nor give up entirely on those who appear to have slipped at the starting line.

Second, some say Mark was not a Christian when he abandoned Paul and Barnabas but converted later on. They also argue that Demas was a Christian but lost his salvation when he deserted Paul for love of the world.

But this is based on the assumption that a true believer is incapable of the sin of fear or cowardice (Mark’s transgression; Peter’s too!). It also assumes that someone who is born again cannot fall into the grip of materialism and self-protection (which may well have been Demas’s struggle).

I suspect, but can’t prove, that Demas was a Christian with whom God dealt no differently than he did with Mark. He would have come under the conviction of the Spirit and felt the call to repentance. Short of his restoration, divine discipline would have ensued. Was he restored? We don’t know. There are other instances in Scripture where discipline is temporally (but not spiritually) fatal (cf. Acts 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 11:30-32). In the case of Demas, the Bible is silent, and we must be content with that.

Third, and finally, Barnabas received Mark back. Peter received Mark back. Paul received Mark back. The Church as a whole received Mark back. But what about God? God used him to write the gospel of his Son! This miserable failure who initially proved so unreliable was received and restored by God to fulfill a task of awesome and eternal significance. As I said before, isn’t grace amazing!

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Weekly Recap, March 23

Book Summary:

CRUCIAL QUESTIONS ABOUT THE KINGDOM OF GOD, by George Eldon Ladd

A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance By Steve West   About the Author George Eldon Ladd was a biblical scholar who specialized in New Testament theology. His writings on eschatology and the nature of the kingdom of…

Author Interview:

Interview with Michael Horton, author of JUSTIFICATION, 2 VOLUMES (NEW STUDIES IN DOGMATICS)

An Author Interview from Books At a Glance   It’s the doctrine on which the church stands or falls, and every generation of Christians must come to grips with it afresh if the church is to remain faithful. I’m Fred…

Book Review:

BEYOND CHAPTER AND VERSE: THE THEOLOGY AND PRACTICE OF BIBLICAL APPLICATION, by Ken Casillas

A Book Review from Books At a Glance By Cory M. Marsh   Ken Casillas (Ph.D., Old Testament Interpretation, Bob Jones University) is Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University Seminary in South Carolina where he also serves…

Kids & Moms:

GOD’S WISDOM (MAKING HIM KNOWN), by Sally Michael

A Book Review from Books At a Glance By Kristin Stiles   What would it look like if you took a Sunday School curriculum from Children Desiring God and put it in paperback form that was accessible to parents at…

Our Blog:

Book Notice: PASSIONS OF THE HEART: BIBLICAL COUNSEL FOR STUBBORN SEXUAL SINS, by John D. Street

A Brief Book Notice from Books at a Glance   Enticed by rage, sensuality, or pride, anyone can become caught up in previously unimaginable acts. Experienced biblical counselor John Street takes a hard look at the heart idolatries that lead…

Book Notice: GOD FOR US: DISCOVERING THE HEART OF THE FATHER THROUGH THE LIFE OF THE SON, by Abby Ross Hutto

A Brief Book Notice from Books at a Glance   Is God really good? Is he good to others? Is he good to us? And if the answer is yes, why does it often feel like he’s so far away?…

Book Notice: OUR ANCIENT FOE: THE HISTORY, ACTIVITY, AND DEMISE OF THE DEVIL, by Ronald L. Kohl

A Brief Book Notice from Books at a Glance   Christians are at war with an enemy who delights in rendering believers powerless, ruining their testimonies, and destroying their lives. But are we taking Satan seriously? Are we on guard…

~ The Books At a Glance Team

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Book Notice: PASSIONS OF THE HEART: BIBLICAL COUNSEL FOR STUBBORN SEXUAL SINS, by John D. Street

A Brief Book Notice from Books at a Glance

Enticed by rage, sensuality, or pride, anyone can become caught up in previously unimaginable acts. Experienced biblical counselor John Street takes a hard look at the heart idolatries that lead even Christians to commit egregious sexual sin . . . showing how to bring lasting change by identifying the underlying motivations of the heart.

Here there is hope: any sin can be forgiven, and Christ gives men and women the grace to mortify fleshly desires and to humbly live for him.

About the Author

John D. Street (MDiv, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary; DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary) is chair of the graduate program in biblical counseling at The Master’s University and Seminary and president of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors’ board of trustees.

Endorsements

Dale Johnson, Executive Director, Association of Certified Biblical Counselors

Dr. Street applies his confidence in the Scriptures from years of experience counseling those entangled in sexual sin. There is hope, and Street makes clear and practical the path to biblical freedom.

Amy Baker, Instructor and Counselor, Faith Biblical Counseling Ministry:

John speaks with great wisdom and unpacks Scripture in a beautifully relevant way. I commend this excellent book to all those who struggle with stubborn sexual sins.

Jim Newheiser, Associate Professor of Practical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte:

John Street goes beyond ‘stop it’ to address the sometimes hidden or surprising inward motivations that lead to unrighteous expressions of passion. . . . He also offers practical wisdom for counselors . . . . An important resource that will help many to be set free.

Wayne Mack, Director, ACBC Africa:

Dr. John Street has done a marvelous job in writing a book that will assist pastors and others who counsel people struggling with various forms of sexual temptation. . . . I will heartily recommend it to my students and others who . . . desire a solid biblical understanding of this increasingly common problem.

Buy the books

Passions of the Heart: Biblical Counsel for Stubborn Sexual Sins

P&R Publishing, 2019 | 336 pages

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The Harlot, the Virgin, and the Bride: How God Makes Us Sexually Whole

Few stains cling so stubbornly to the soul as sexual sin. Memories linger. Distorted desires rise up unbidden. Old temptations find your new address and come knocking.

Even those without a dark sexual past know something of sexual brokenness. Married or single, seasoned saint or new believer, former adulterer or lifelong virgin — none of us is yet what we ought to be. We are not yet rid of the inner swamp that gives rise to sexual sins big and “small”: fantasies, lingering glances, impulsive evaluations of another’s body, vanity, a lust for emotional intimacy, inordinate curiosity. The path to complete sexual purity ends only in heaven.

On this lifelong journey, we can easily lose our way. The path is long, and we grow tired. The path is hard, and we crave comfort. The path is beset with temptations, and we get deceived. In the grind of daily self-denial, we can forget where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

From time to time, we need to lift our eyes above tactics and strategies — essential as those are — and take a look backward and forward: We are not what we once were, and we are not yet what we will be. God has already clothed us in Christ’s purity (Isaiah 61:10), and God will one day make us “like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Strength for taking daily steps toward sexual purity comes, in part, from celebrating what God has already done and where God is taking us.

The prophet Hosea gives us a story to grip our imaginations: God’s justifying grace turns a harlot into a virgin, and his sanctifying grace turns the virgin into a faithful bride.

The Harlot

She was a stunning bride. Delivered from misery in Egypt, Israel traded her slave’s rags for a wedding dress, her chains for silver and gold (Hosea 2:8). She lived as a queen in the midst of the nations. Until she slowly forgot the husband who saved her, and climbed into the bed of other lovers (Hosea 2:13).

Israel’s descent into adultery is an abiding picture of the madness of sin, including sexual sin. Israel left her God to search for intimacy, forgetting that his arms were open (Hosea 2:5). She spurned him to find pleasure, not realizing that the best pleasures are at his right hand (Hosea 2:8). She gave herself away to other lovers, only to find herself stripped and enslaved (Hosea 2:10; 3:1–2).

Twice, God responds with the terrible consequences — two therefores that display the just wages of Israel’s adultery:

Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. (Hosea 2:6)

Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. (Hosea 2:9)

No matter how pleasurable in the moment, the paths of sexual sin inevitably lead us here: naked, forsaken, and caught in the thorns of our iniquity.

Unless God intervenes. Hosea goes on to give us a third therefore, but this one entirely unexpected — a coal flung from the fires of heavenly logic, burning with mercy and grace.

The Virgin

In the midst of judgment, mercy speaks: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14). This is deeper logic from before the dawn of time. God finds his unfaithful wife in the very bed of her impurity — and instead of condemning her, he saves her. Irresistible grace rips her from the arms of her enslavers and takes her for himself.

The salvation is so thorough that, through the mouth of another prophet, God could call his people, “O virgin Israel!” (Jeremiah 31:4). Not “O adulteress Israel,” “O shame-faced Israel,” or even “O should-have-known-better Israel,” but “O virgin Israel” — O spotless, undefiled, virgin Israel! Not content to merely pardon her sin, God makes her (and us!) new. The adulteress has become a virgin.

Only in the New Testament do we find the fountain of such redeeming love. The adulteress can become a virgin only because the Husband spread himself upon a cross — naked, forsaken, and wearing the thorns of her iniquity. Only at the cross can we hear the news of a fresh beginning: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Every dark, distorted, and damning stain disappears beneath this river of justifying grace.

The power for sexual purity begins with Christ crucified, and from Christ crucified renews its strength. Here, repentant strugglers remember that Jesus is their righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). They feel the love of God poured into their hearts (Romans 5:5–6). They listen again to that glorious, heavenly therefore, and breathe in the grace of God.

The Bride

The glory of what God has done, however, is just the first verse in Hosea’s song of redemption. He goes on to take out the tambourine and the lyre, the flute and the harp, and to sing of what God will do:

I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:19–20)

Righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness. These are not only the qualities God brings to the marriage, but also the qualities he creates in us — progressively now, completely later (Hosea 2:16). Now, we fight and ache for perfect purity, and feel the thrill of God’s sanctifying grace going to war with our sexual madness. Later, we will no longer fight and ache to be pure as he is pure, because we will be (1 John 3:2).

The result will be peace. Peace within ourselves, peace with the world around us, and peace with our God (Hosea 2:18, 21–23). Our sexuality will no longer be a swamp of impurities and distortions, but will become like the very garden of the Lord. Every desire, thought, and impulse will say, “You are my God” (Hosea 2:23). The virgin will become, once and for all, a faithful bride.

The power for sexual purity comes not only from looking backward to Christ crucified, but also from looking forward to Christ glorified in a new heaven and new earth. When the beauty of that country rises in our hearts, we will feel renewed strength to turn from today’s dark pleasures (1 John 3:3). We will tremble at the thought of giving up the journey and making a home among the thorns (Hebrews 4:1). We will treasure up God’s promise of a sure arrival (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24). And we will find that one day, we’ve stepped into a new country, where our Groom reigns in glory.

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The Sufferer I Want to Be: Why I Love the Apostle Paul

The apostle Paul did not let his suffering for Christ turn him against Christ or away from his mission.

That doesn’t mean his sufferings were light or few. In fact, they were heavy and many. For example, “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned” (2 Corinthians 11:24–25). Think with me about how your own mind might work in the midst of such recurrent sufferings.

Paul has devoted himself utterly to obeying Jesus Christ. The result of this faithfulness to the risen, all-powerful Christ is that Paul is wounded over and over again in the path of obedience. How would you respond? I have known professing Christians who become so embittered at the hardships in their lives that they turn away from the Christian faith.

Who Is the Decisive Cause?

Some of you might think: What such people need is to be taught that God did not bring these miseries, and so they should not turn away from him as though he did. Paul did not agree with that. He was too steeped in the Old Testament. He knew how things actually went, for example, with Job.

Why I Love the Apostle Paul

Why I Love the Apostle Paul

30 Reasons

John Piper

Apart from Jesus, no one has shaped John Piper more than Paul, the famous persecutor-turned-missionary. In 30 short meditations, Piper explains why.

To be sure Satan was a great mover in the miseries of Job. He is the one who went before God and unleashed the deaths of Job’s children and the miseries of Job’s boils (Job 1:6–19; 2:7). But when Job expressed his own understanding of what happened in these calamities, he ascribed the decisive cause to God. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). And in both cases — the loss of his children and the horrible boils — the writer of the book said, “Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 1:22; 2:10).

And when all was said and done, in the last chapter of the book of Job, the inspired writer says that Job’s family “showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). So, we may put aside any idea that Paul thought his sufferings were random, or that they were only demonic or decisively from the hands of man. He knew they were from the Lord Jesus himself, who had told him they were coming (Acts 9:16).

When Trouble Arises

Now, back to my suggestion above that we put ourselves in Paul’s place and try to imagine what we might feel under his relentless sufferings, and how your mind might work.

I can hear some people in Paul’s place respond by saying, “Look, Jesus, I have pledged my life to you. I have heard you say that your yoke is easy, and your burden is light (Matthew 11:30). You have promised me peace and contentment (Philippians 4:7, 11–13). But almost every time I try to bear witness to you, what do I get? Pain. This is not the kind of reward I expect from a strong and kind Leader. This is not the way I thought you would treat your faithful followers. So, unless you use your power to make my life easier rather than harder, I’m finished with this Christianity.”

Jesus predicted that there would be such seeming converts who would respond like this. He said, “They have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17).

“I have known professing Christians so embittered at the hardships in their lives that they turn away from the faith.”

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Jesus had warned his followers to expect abuse: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:16) “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute” (Luke 11:49). And when Jesus turned Paul’s life around on the Damascus road and gave him his life mission, he was explicit: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).

So, when Paul suffered in the path of faithful obedience to Jesus, he did not accuse Jesus of bait and switch. He did not criticize his ways or murmur against his sovereign wisdom. He did ask for deliverance. Sometimes it came (Acts 22:25–29); sometimes it didn’t.

Passion for Christ in Suffering

One time in particular, when deliverance from suffering did not come, was especially difficult for Paul. He called it a “thorn . . . in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) and tells about it:.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8–9)

How does this land on you? It is an astonishing response from Jesus. How would you have reacted to Jesus’s words? Would you say, “Your power! Your power is made perfect in my weakness! Jesus, for goodness’ sake, it’s my body that’s in pain! And your power gets the glory? How about some grace for deliverance!”

It is frightening how many Christians in the affluent West respond like this to suffering in their lives. They get angry at God. And if they were told that God’s design is to magnify the glory of his grace in their suffering, they would be furious at God and the one who suggested such a thing.

Content with Calamity

That kind of fury throws in the sharpest relief the way Paul responded to Jesus’s words when he was told his thorn would not be removed. Paul said,

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)

Can we even imagine such an emotion? Gladly! After crying out three times for relief, and being told no, to say “I will boast all the more gladly” in the weakness brought by this thorn.

“Paul did ask for deliverance. Sometimes it came; sometimes it didn’t.”

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This is how much Paul loved Jesus Christ. This is how much he lived for the glory of Christ. If Christ says that his glory will shine more brightly through Paul’s suffering, then Paul, amazingly, rejoices in suffering. That is how his heart works. His supreme value is magnifying the glory of Christ. So, I will be content with persecutions and calamities.

This is the kind of person I admire most, the kind of person I want to be — the kind of person I love.

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Weekly Recap, March 16

Book Summary:

THE GOSPEL COMES WITH A HOUSE KEY, by Rosaria Butterfield

A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance By Jeff Block   Introduction The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a clarion call to what the author calls “radically ordinary hospitality.” The book is written by Dr. Rosaria…

Author Interview:

Interview with Benjamin Forrest and Dwayne Milioni, two of the co-editors of THE LEGACY OF PREACHING: APOSTLES TO THE PRESENT DAY

An Author Interview from Books At a Glance   When a work like this comes around we just have to give it notice. I’m Fred Zaspel with Books At a Glance, and I’m talking about the new two-volume work, A…

Book Review:

THE LAMB WINS: A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE BOOK OF REVELATION, by Richard Bewes

A Book Review from Books At a Glance by Matthew J. McMains   G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his…

Our Blog:

Book Notice: A MERCIFUL AND FAITHFUL HIGH PRIEST: STUDIES IN THE BOOK OF HEBREWS, by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

A Brief Book Notice from Books At a Glance   The book of Hebrews was written to magnify the greatness of our Savior and the importance of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and who better than Martyn Lloyd-Jones to expound…

10ofThose

Introducing Jonathan Carswell and 10ofThose Publishing   Editor’s Note: We want you to get to know Jonathan Carswell and his excellent work at 10ofThose Publishing. Please take a moment and read his story! Texting, tweeting, scrolling and flicking. Where do…

Book Notice: MERE CALVINISM, by Jim Scott Orrick

A Brief Book Notice from Books at a Glance   WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT CALVINISM? There are so many misconceptions about Calvinism that it is safe to say that even most Christians do not truly know what it teaches.…

~ The Books At a Glance Team

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When You Do Not Know What to Do

When was the last time a trial came so swiftly and forcefully that you did not know what to do?

My wife has lived in chronic pain for eight years. Recently, however, she woke up one morning with new health concerns that brought another hard, confusing, and frightening reality — a heavy one laid on top of the one we’re already living with day to day. We had just moved to a new home, and were going to a new church. I was the new pastor of that church. Our newborn was only six weeks old.

We felt like the armies of our circumstances were closing in around us with nowhere to go. As a husband and father, I felt completely off-balance. No one could encourage me. I felt helpless to help my wife, overwhelmed by the weight of her suffering. Why, God? Even after years of her chronic pain — and seeing the good God does through it — I felt like I was back to square one of faith, just clinging by a thread. I was supposed to be pastoring others, but I felt like I could speak but one word to God: “Help.”

Pretending Self-Sufficiency

Around that time, I found a story of a king who felt helpless to protect and care for the people he was responsible for. A king also overwhelmed with fear. King Jehoshaphat finds out that there is a “great multitude” coming soon to attack his people (2 Chronicles 20:1–2) — an army they know they cannot compete with on their own.

Most of us will never feel what he felt; we will never literally be under the attack of a great army marching up to our door. But we can all relate to overwhelming circumstances in our life that make us feel trapped, helpless, and certain we won’t make it much longer. The Bible is honest about how King Jehoshaphat felt when he got the news about the army of certain doom heading his way — he was afraid (2 Chronicles 20:3). His response to that fear is remarkable. He calls a fast in all of Judah and gathers the people to seek the Lord and his help (2 Chronicles 20:4).

This is not a natural human response. If someone asks us how we are doing at church, the answer almost automatically spills out, “I’m good.” Our profiles put our best, most carefully portrayed images of strength and sufficiency forward. We don’t readily admit that we’re often afraid, broken, lonely, despairing, failing in sin, and struggling to see or trust God.

Jehoshaphat could have pretended he wasn’t afraid. He could have acted like he had it all together. He could have gathered the generals and made the best plan possible. Instead, he gathered the people, admitted his weakness, and sought the help of the Lord together — instead, he prayed. He prays, “We are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). He not only runs to God in prayer himself, but he also calls others to pray with him.

Did You Not, Our God?

While Jehoshaphat is admittedly afraid and without a good plan himself, he is not despairing. In fact, his prayer rings with boldness and steady hope in the God of his people. Where does his courage come from?

Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? And they have lived in it and have built for you in it a sanctuary for your name, saying, “If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you — for your name is in this house — and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save.” (2 Chronicles 20:7–9)

Jehoshaphat’s hope is built on the promises and presence of God. It is God’s name that dwells in Judah, and therefore his glory is at stake in this great horde marching against them. Jehoshaphat knows that God is passionate about his glory and faithful to keep all his promises, so he appeals to him with great confidence and directness knowing he’ll find well-timed help because of the covenant love of God (Hebrews 4:14–16).

In the same way, even when we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances, steady hope lives and endures in the promises of God to us in Christ. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who will lead us even in the valley of the shadow of death, pursuing us with his goodness and mercy all the days of our lives (Psalm 23:4, 6). Jesus will not break a bruised reed or put out a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3). Jesus will pour out his all-sufficient grace as we boast in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:7–10). Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord as he works all things for our good (Romans 8:28–39).

When we are afraid, we pray with confidence because of these sure and steady promises — promises that are ours because Jesus bled and died to make us sons and daughters of God.

God Spoke Through Whom?

As Jehoshaphat draws the people together to pray, God sends strength and encouragement in an unexpected way. The Spirit of God fills, not Jehoshaphat, but a man named Jahaziel (2 Chronicles 20:14). Jahaziel rises and declares, “Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s’” (2 Chronicles 20:15). Do not fear; God will fight for us. And despite everything we can see, we will win (2 Chronicles 20:17).

The particular word of hope that needs to be spoken does not always come to the king — or, in our day, to the pastor or small-group leader. As we suffer, share our burdens with one another, and seek the Lord together through prayer, God very often will speak through someone else.

Our individualized society, at least in the West, has often invaded our churches. We gather together once a week to sing, pray, take the Lord’s Table, and hear God’s word preached (still a beautiful thing!), but often don’t actually live like a blood-bought family — at least not like the one we see in the New Testament (Acts 2:42–47; 20:28).

Members of the early church were so close, and the self-giving love of Christ was so prevalent among them, that none of them counted any of their possessions as their own. They gladly met the needs of one another. The apostle Paul calls Christians to join him in prayer, so that as many pray and God answers, God gets more glory (2 Corinthians 1:11). It feels simpler and easier and more comfortable to keep our struggles to ourselves and search for our own answers. But God has placed believers in a body — in a family where he manifests his love through mutual care and prayer.

In other words, if we don’t let other people into our trials and crises, we miss out on the blessing we might have received from God.

What Is Our Victory?

The people of Judah received Jahaziel’s word with joy. The next morning, Jehoshaphat calls them to believe the word of the Lord, and they march out to face the army. Oh, that we would pause when the circumstances are hard and ask ourselves if we believe the word of the Lord, receiving the Spirit’s witness of the Father’s care for us in our hearts (Romans 8:15–16).

Again, they do a surprising thing. They send the band out first (2 Chronicles 20:21–22). This is not sound practice for winning a battle. It is sound practice for worship, when you trust the God who has given you a promise. As they begin to sing, the Lord routes the greater, stronger army. Israel praises his name for the great victory.

You might be thinking, How can I worship when it seems like the Lord is not winning the battle that way for me? How can we worship as we march into what seems like overwhelming odds, without a specific word from God about our situation?

The answer is that our victory in Christ is as sure as the victory promised to Judah, if we believe what God has said in Christ. The Bible promises us that, whatever we may face or suffer or lose in this life, those whom God predestined are called, those called are justified, and those justified are glorified. It is certain. Our future is secure. For us “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Welcome God (and Others)

We can lay down our self-sufficiency, invite others into our fears, and then pray and worship expectantly, knowing that one way or another, our victory is sure. As sure as Judah’s victory over the Moabites and Ammonites.

As my bride and I have walked through our current trial, we’ve felt God lead us to let people into the war with us. And we have been overwhelmed by the prayers and encouragement we have received. Under God, they have sustained us and held up our eyes to Jesus in the midst of what feels, at times, like overwhelming pain and fear.

God will work in and among his people to save and sustain us as we boldly approach him together. He has designed his universe to work this way, so that we are weaned off of self-sufficiency, into fuller dependence on him for everything we need, so that, over and over again, he gets the glory.

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A Fisherman in Ireland: The Enduring Relevance of Patrick

We are pleased today to run this guest post by church historian Jason G. Duesing, author of Mere Hope: Life in An Age of Cynicism (B&H Books, 2018). Dr. Duesing serves as Provost and Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Midwestern Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter.


For evangelicals, the enduring relevance of Patrick of Ireland (c. 390–460) lies in a sacrificial heart motivated by the Great Commission and burdened for the lost.

Christianity likely arrived in Britain from European missionaries during the third century, though it did not emerge as an established tradition until the late fourth century while still under the rule of the Roman Empire. Or, as Malcolm Lambert has said, “Christianity came late to the province.”

After surviving Germanic attack in the fifth century, Christians in Britain contributed to theological development by engaging with controversialists like Pelagius and Faustus, and they spread the faith to neighboring Ireland.

And there we find the role of Patrick (the would-be saint), son of a deacon, who was first kidnapped and taken as a slave to Ireland when a teen.

During his enslavement, Patrick sought God and was converted. Six years later he found a path to return to Britain. While resettling there he sensed the call of God to the ministry of the Gospel. Specifically, he grew convicted that he should return to Ireland.

In his Confession Patrick shares that he went in response to the call of God to “come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel . . . so that I might give up my free birthright for the advantage of others.”

He continued:

I did not proceed to Ireland of my own accord until I was almost giving up, but through this I was corrected by the Lord, and he prepared me so that today I should be what was once far from me, in order that I should have the care of—or rather, I should be concerned for—the salvation of others, when at that time, still, I was only concerned for myself. . . . 

I will tell briefly how most holy God frequently delivered me, from slavery, and from the twelve trials with which my soul was threatened, from man traps as well, and from things I am not able to put into words. I would not cause offence to readers, but I have God as witness who knew all things even before they happened, that, though I was a poor, ignorant waif, still he gave me abundant warnings through divine prophecy.

Whence came to me this wisdom which was not my own, I who neither knew the number of days nor had knowledge of God? Whence came the so great and so healthful gift of knowing or rather loving God, though I should lose homeland and family?

I am greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God, and soon after confirmed, and that clergy would be ordained everywhere for them, the masses lately come to belief, whom the Lord drew from the ends of the earth, just as he once promised through his prophets: ‘To you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth, and shall say, “Our fathers have inherited naught but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit.”’ And again: ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the uttermost ends of the earth.’

And I wish to wait then for his promise which is never unfulfilled, just as it is promised in the Gospel: ‘Many shall come from east and west and shall sit at table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.’ Just as we believe that believers will come from all the world, So for that reason one should, in fact, fish well and diligently, just as the Lord foretells and teaches, saying, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,’ and, again, through the prophets: ‘“Behold, I am sending forth many fishers and hunters,” says the Lord,’ et cetera. So it behoved us to spread our nets, that a vast multitude and throng might be caught for God.

Patrick would give his life as a gospel minister in Ireland for over 30 years.

This selfless motivation is as timeless as the Apostle Paul’s desire to become all things to all people that he might save some (1 Cor. 9:22), and as relevant for the 21st-century family from Illinois called to live among the people of India.

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Book Notice: MERE CALVINISM, by Jim Scott Orrick

A Brief Book Notice from Books at a Glance

WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT CALVINISM?

There are so many misconceptions about Calvinism that it is safe to say that even most Christians do not truly know what it teaches. You may have grown up in a Reformed church, or you may have heard about Calvinism mostly in arguments. Either way, it may surprise you to know that this belief has huge, and very positive, implications for a believer’s daily life!

Jim Orrick clears up misinformation about Calvinism and explains its basic yet profound ideas and teachings—using the Bible as the basis for everything he says.

Making use of relatable life illustrations, as well as an engaging, clear, and friendly style, he sets out the basics of what Calvinism teaches, explores each of the five points that summarize its positions, and addresses rebuttals and misunderstandings. Learn why the teachings of Calvinism not only matter, but can renew your trust and hope in the gospel!

About the Author

Jim Scott Orrick is professor at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as the author of A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems.

Endorsements

Iain M. Duguid, Professor of Old Testament, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia:

Some people make it sound as though you need a college degree to understand the Bible. Orrick presents profound theology in a simple, clear, and thoroughly scriptural way.

Thomas J. Nettles, Senior Professor of Historical Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky:

Has characteristics that stand out beyond . . . other worthy expositions. . . . Reads like a good story, incorporating a literary artfulness that is rare in this subject matter.

Mark Goldman, Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church, Herrin, Illinois:

Explains each doctrine with patience and clarity. . . . If you are looking for a clear explanation of Calvinism that is neither condescending nor overly academic, this book will greatly benefit you.

Buy the books

Mere Calvinism

P&R, 2019 | 224 pages

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Leave Behind the Weariness of Bitterness

The gears of God’s justice sometimes grind slowly — so slowly that we may not even notice them turning during our brief sojourn on earth. We even begin to wonder if they’re really turning at all.

Asaph writes, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But . . .” (Psalm 73:1–2). But what? But Asaph had really struggled to believe that. His biblical theology and history told him God is good and God is just, but as he looked on the way things evidently operated in the “real” world around him, Asaph read a different narrative.

He watched unashamedly wicked people prosper, seeming to avoid the hardships most of humanity is subject to (Psalm 73:3–5). He watched them violently oppress others without God seeming to lift a finger to stop them or protect the oppressed (Psalm 73:6–8). He watched them in their luxuriant ease blaspheme God with apparent impunity (Psalm 73:9–12). Like many suffering Christians today, he watched while the godless flourished.

Hard on Those He Loves?

Meanwhile, when Asaph looked at his own experience, he couldn’t help wondering why in the world he was fighting so hard to keep his heart clean and his hands innocent, only to find himself “stricken and rebuked [by God] every morning” (Psalm 73:13–14). What’s with that?

Hard on those who love him, and seemingly easy on those who hate him — that looks a lot like turning justice on its head. Asaph’s “feet . . . almost stumbled” over whether God truly is good to Israel (Psalm 73:2). He could have said, as Teresa of Ávila allegedly did, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!”

Thus, Asaph is endeared to us — an ancient friend who understands. He understands the hard experience of living in what can look and feel like a world of inverted justice.

Where Bitterness Takes Root

We know deep down God can’t approve of this inversion. The fact that humanity shares such a massive consensus regarding what’s just and unjust bears witness to what God considers just and unjust. Philosophers call this the “moral law.” Theologians call it God’s law written on the heart (Romans 2:15–16). Even the unjust bear witness to this reality by what they desperately try to conceal (or rationalize if their power is removed and they are held to account for their actions).

But when they aren’t held to account, when they do as they unjustly and wickedly please and God doesn’t intervene, we try to understand. And, like Asaph, we can find it “a wearisome task” (Psalm 73:16). We can become “pricked in heart” and embittered in soul (Psalm 73:21).

Here’s the real danger: the indignance we feel toward injustice — the way we’re supposed to feel toward injustice — can metastasize into bitterness in our soul toward God and his apparent lack of concern and willingness to take action against injustice. This can turn us “brutish and ignorant” (Psalm 73:22), leading us to fall away from God (Hebrews 3:12) or to distort his word into saying what it does not say, because in our lack of faith, we cannot bear it. Few things drive us to twist the Scriptures like the problem we have with evil and the pain it can cause us or those we love. This is a “root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deuteronomy 29:18) that defiles many, as Hebrews warns us (Hebrews 12:15).

Counsel for the Embittered Soul

So, what do we do when, like Asaph, our heart is pricked and we feel that bitterness in our soul that makes us question if God really sees, if he cares, if he’s really in control, if he really exists? The remedy God provides us against the brutish ignorance of unbelief is simple, but it is profound, and it is pervasive:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Proverbs 3:5–8)

This can sound so trite, so cliché, when what we want from God are answers — and, more immediately, action! This is not cliché. This is the Bible — all of it. The Bible is God’s book of justice. The whole thing is about God’s justice — about his ultimately making every wrong right and exhaustively settling every account of every moral agent, visible and invisible to us, that has ever perpetrated even the smallest injustice. Nothing will be missed, for God “will by no means clear the guilty” (Numbers 14:18) without fully satisfying his holy, righteous law — the one to which all our consciences bear witness.

God is working with a timetable toward this end that is long — and our lives are short. We may not see the justice needle move much during our time under the sun. That doesn’t at all mean God is not relentlessly and fearfully moving toward the terrible, unfathomable destruction of evil.

We must trust him with all our hearts and not lean on our own very limited perspective and understanding of the “real” world. If the catastrophe of Eden teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are ill-equipped to manage the knowledge of good and evil. The bitterness of soul that Asaph describes is a warning that it is time to hand God back the fruit before it bears something poisonous and bitter in us.

How God Treats His Friends

If the eucatastrophe of the cross of Jesus teaches us anything, it teaches us that God does not take injustice lightly — that he is, in fact, willing to go to extremes we would never imagine in order to fully settle accounts. At the cross, God’s righteous unwillingness to clear the unjust kisses his righteous desire to pardon the repentant unjust and be at peace with them (Psalm 85:10). It is the miraculous moment when the righteous Judge takes upon himself our unrighteousness, paying for it in full that we might become his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). It is the place where God becomes both just and the justifier of the unjust ones who put their faith fully in Jesus (Romans 3:26).

This is how God treats his friends: he gives his only Son for them in order to give them eternal life (John 3:16).

It is this God, and the remembrance of his mercy foreshadowed in the old covenant, that Asaph beheld when he “went into the sanctuary of God” (Psalm 73:17). Then his perspective on justice changed. He saw the long-term end of the short-lived unrepentant wicked. God was not inattentive or inactive as they brazenly oppressed and blasphemed.

Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms. (Psalm 73:18–20)

He saw the mercy in his being “stricken and rebuked,” for it was this very discipline that kept him from going astray (Proverbs 3:11–12; Psalm 119:67). And he saw an approaching judgment upon those who were not being led to repentance by the kindness of God (Romans 2:4). He remembered the long-term end of his short-lived afflictions: “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:24), the same hope the apostle Paul expressed (2 Corinthians 4:17).

How Bitterness Leaves

And when Asaph gave up his wearisome task of trying to understand how God can let injustice and evil persist, and instead trusted God with all his heart, the bitterness left him. And out of the healing and refreshment he experienced, he sang,

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25–26)

Thus, if we have ears to hear, God is endeared to us — our far more ancient and future Friend who understands how hard it can be for us to endure evil while he “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). For it was his compassion that moved him to inspire these words in our friend, Asaph, and make sure his song of the rescued cynic was preserved in the canon to help rescue us from our bitterness of soul.

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The Answer to God’s Seeming Megalomania

I recently returned to reading John Piper’s book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally, and was stunned yet again by a truth that has utterly transformed my life. That’s not an overstatement. I can’t think of another theological principle that has meant more to me than what you are about to read. I have often in my books tried to say the same thing, but it always seems to fall short of how John has expressed it.

John begins by citing C. S. Lewis and his description of how he struggled with the incessant demand by God that all creation praise him. Lewis confessed that God sounded like “a vain woman who wants compliments.” Then came the discovery that changed Lewis’s life too:

“But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. . . . The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars. My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are, the delight is incomplete till it is expressed” (Reflections on the Psalms [New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1958], 93–95).

John then follows by teasing out this truth in a remarkable way. He writes:

“In other words, genuine, heartfelt praise is not artificially added to joy. It is the consummation of joy itself. The joy we have in something beautiful or precious is not complete until it is expressed in some kind of praise.

Lewis saw the implication of this for God’s seemingly vain command that we worship him. Now he saw that this was not vanity or megalomania. This was love. This was God seeking the consummation of our joy in what is supremely enjoyable—himself.

If God demeaned his supreme worth in the name of humility, we would be the losers, not God. God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest virtue. For there is only one supremely beautiful being in the universe. There is only one all-satisfying person in the universe. And because of his supreme beauty and greatness, what the psalmist says in Psalm 16:11 is true: ‘In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.’ If God hides that, or denies that, he might seem humble, but he would be hiding from us the very thing that would make us completely happy forever.

But if God loves us the way the Bible says he does, then he will give us what is best for us. And what is best for us is himself. So if God loves us fully, God will give us God, for our enjoyment and nothing less. But if our enjoyment is not complete until it comes to completion in praise, then God would not be loving if he was indifferent to our praise. If he didn’t pursue our praise in all that he does (as we have seen!), he would not be pursuing the fullness of our satisfaction. He would not be loving.

So what emerges is that God’s pervasive self-exaltation in the Bible— his doing everything to display his glory and to win our worship—is not unloving; it is the way an infinitely all-glorious God loves. His greatest gift of love is to give us a share in the very satisfaction that he has in his own excellence, and then to call that satisfaction to its fullest consummation in praise. This is why I maintain that the supremely authentic and intense worship of God’s worth and beauty is the ultimate aim of all his work and word” (Reading the Bible Supernaturally [Wheaton: Crossway, 2017], 58-59).

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Am I Sitting Under Healthy Preaching?

Organic? Free-range? Many of us are learning to consider the long-term effects of what we’re eating. What consequences will the hormones pumped into the chickens and cows produce for me and my family over time? How harmless is it to consume a “genetically modified organism”?

Such questions, of course, can be overdone, but for many, these are sober-minded, diligent concerns. Especially when we’re not just choosing our own food, but sustenance for others, even our children. And if such bodily concerns can be of some value (1 Timothy 4:8), should we be any less careful about our spiritual diet?

Week after week, Christians sit under the preaching of God’s word in worship. How do we know if the food we’re receiving is spiritually healthy? What will be its long-term effects on our soul-health? If I keep feeding on this teaching, will my spirit be better off for it, or will I look back someday and wish I’d made wiser choices?

Determining Factor

More to the point, how will we know whether the full sweep of Christian content we’re regularly feeding on is healthy — not just weekly sermons, but daily devotionals, Christian books and podcasts, social feeds, and even real-life spiritual conversations? Aside from generally knowing the Scriptures better from cover to cover, which is a lifelong pursuit, how can we tell along the way that the places from which we’re feeding are nourishing?

Put another way, might there be any key indicator or determining factor for discerning whether Christian teaching or doctrine is healthy or not? Is there any litmus test, or organizing principle, or heart, or core, or touchstone, of what makes teaching “sound” or unsound? Healthy or unhealthy? Paul doesn’t provide a comprehensive plan, but he does give us something tangible to lean on in 1 Timothy 1:10–11.

Dividing Line

The phrase “sound doctrine” (literally “healthy teaching”) at the end of verse 10 is one of the most important concepts in 1 Timothy, as well as 2 Timothy and Titus (“the Pastoral Epistles”). Paul paints a stark contrast between good teaching and bad. Between healthy teaching and unhealthy. Between the kind of teaching that produces healthy spiritual lives (“godliness”) and the kind that does not. False teaching will produce spiritual sickness (1 Timothy 1:3; 6:3–4). True teaching will produce long-term spiritual health (2 Timothy 4:3–4; Titus 1:9; 2:1).

And what’s especially important about this first mention of “healthy teaching” in 1 Timothy 1:10 is that, more than anywhere else, it answers for us what is the key to “healthy teaching” or “sound doctrine.”

Healthy Teaching

“Sound doctrine,” Paul says, is “in accordance with the gospel.” At first, this might seem too simple to be true. The heart and core and center and organizing principle of Christian theology is the gospel — in the words of verse 15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” That’s the good news. That’s the heart and soul of the Christian message in all its expressions. True doctrine explains and supports and complements the Christian gospel, and false teaching blurs and mutes and obscures it.

God sent his Son into the world, as the pinnacle of all time and history, to save sinners through his death and resurrection, and to ascend to the throne as the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords. This is the gospel, or good news, of the Christian faith: Jesus saves sinners. This is the climax and heart and core of why God made the world, and all that Christians believe and confess relates in some way to this. Not just the truths we think of as exciting and comforting, like God’s love and mercy, but also the dark and difficult and unsettling truths like sin and divine wrath and eternal punishment in hell.

“Sound doctrine,” Paul says, is “in accordance with the gospel.” Christian doctrine, in all its details, gets its bearings from a particular message. Good, healthy teaching (that produces healthy Christian living) has the gospel of Jesus Christ at its center. It explains and upholds and expresses and is relentlessly shaped by Jesus’s person and work as its unifying theme. When there’s no nutrition label on the side, apply the litmus test of the gospel.

Not Enough to End with Gospel

But it’s not enough here to end with “the gospel.” Paul says healthy teaching is “in accordance with the gospel” — but he doesn’t stop at “gospel.” He continues: “. . . the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” I’m so glad he does. Because the words that follow give us an amazing look into what makes the good news so good.

At first glance, this phrase (“gospel of the glory of the blessed God”) may not seem all that extraordinary to us, but these are not throwaway words for the apostle Paul. Here we find, piled on top of each other, three of the most important words in Scripture, three of the most important realities in the universe, and three words Christians can be prone to hear and say so often that we miss the depth of their meaning. Gospel. Glory. Blessed. “The gospel of the glory of the blessed God.”

Gospel, as we’ve seen, is the good news that God himself, in the person of his Son, has made a way to rescue us, by faith, from our sins and the eternal death we justly deserve. The heart of our faith is gospel, not law. Good news, not good advice. Glory is the beauty of God’s diverse perfections, or the visible display of God’s infinite value and worth. “God made us for his glory” means he designed us to show his greatness in the world (and in a special way: “in his own image” as Genesis 1:27 says). And what is God doing in all of history in this visible, tangible world? Showing us his glory — the height of which, Ephesians 1:6 says, is “the glory of his grace.” Jesus and his rescue, called the gospel, is where God’s glory shines out the clearest and brightest.

Happiness Himself

Blessed may be the trickiest of all. What does it mean that God is “the blessed God”?

Blessed here doesn’t simply mean he’s worthy of worship, that we should “bless” him in praise. That’s true, but as an adjective for God, it’s deeper than that. He is worthy of our worship, but his being “the blessed God” means, in essence, he is “the happy God,” and in no trite way. He is infinitely, unassailably, unimpeachably happy. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). He has and is infinite bliss.

At the outset of his recent Kistemaker Lectures at RTS-Orlando on “the blessedness of God,” Fred Sanders begins with this striking phrase in 1 Timothy 1:11 and says this about God’s blessedness:

The good news is about the particular character of this God, the one whose nature it is to shine out in glory and to repose in blessedness. God is not only the God of salvation, the sovereign rescuer of lost humanity. God is not only the King in his splendor bursting forth in unimaginable glory. Above or beyond or behind that, in a secret sanctuary of the depths of divinity, God is something even more astonishingly unimprovable. God is blessed.

And this blessedness, this divine happiness, in all its glory, is the ground of the possibility of his creatures being truly, deeply, enduringly happy in him, forever. God is not the cosmic killjoy many of us may have feared. He is not frustrated and sad. He is not grumpy and sour. No, he is blessed. He has infinite happiness, and is infinite happiness, and shares infinite happiness.

When Daddy Is Happy

This infinitely happy God, in his mind-stretching fullness, has gone public in creation and redemption with his infinite value and worth, called his glory. And the height of his glory is the demonstration of his fullness in the sacrifice of his Son for the eternal happiness of his people, called the gospel. And what good news it is for natural-born law-breakers like us. Not just that God rescues sinners. But that he is glorious. And he is gloriously happy.

And when Daddy is contagiously happy, the whole house is happy, and it’s a safe place to be honest about your disappointments and struggles. As his people, we are God’s household, “the church of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15) — and what good news it is that the Father of this household is happy. Such a church is a good place to heal, and be restored to joy, and find joy that is deeper than all your pains.

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