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Some of the most significant theological books I have read…

Here is a list (in no particular order) of some of the most significant theological books I have read.*

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*This is a personal list of books that helped me in a particular way at a particular time. This is not a list on the best and most significant theological books; that list would look different.

The Pastoral Long-Suffering of Spurgeon and Boyce

Introduction

We see through James P. Boyce’s and Charles Spurgeon’s life that they were entrusted with great gifts but we also see through a survey of their biographies that they also suffered great grief. We have much to glean from them.[1] We will see that we are all called to be faithful stewards of what God has entrusted to us. Though it will be difficult to various degrees we can endure what God has called us to by the grace that He grants us.

Hear Spurgeon’s words:

I know you will tell me that the gold must be thrust into the fire, that believers must pass through much tribulation. I answer, Truly it must be so, but when the gold knows why and wherefore it is in the fire, when it understands who placed it there, who watches it while amid the coals, who is sworn to bring it out unhurt, and in what matchless purity it will soon appear, the gold, if it be gold indeed, will thank the Refiner for putting it into the crucible, and will find a sweet satisfaction even in the flames.[2]

Thus, even as we face difficulties we must entrust ourselves to a God, as Spurgeon did. Even in the midst of Spurgeon’s great suffering he “never doubted that his exquisite pain, frequent sicknesses, and even despondency were given him by God for his sanctification in a wise and holy purpose.”[3]

A Great Work At A Great Cost

Spurgeon and Boyce both had great life works but they both suffered great loss in their lives as a result. Boyce, who founded the seminary I went to, said that the seminary may die but that he would die first.[4] He would worked rain or shine for the prosperity of the school. He said that he did not own the seminary but rather it owned him. Boyce kept the seminary alive and fed it with almost his own heart’s blood.[5] Thus we see that Boyce clearly realized that he would have to imitate his Lord’s long-suffering. There was “mammoth energy and sacrifice involved” for Boyce “in setting the seminary securely during the trials of decades.”[6] “Boyce endured the press of ‘anxieties, trials, and labors” during days when the seminary’s future appeared bleak and exerted ‘herculean toils’ to surmount these seemingly invincible difficulties.”[7]

Similarly, Spurgeon was not a martyr, but he chose to die every day.[8] He suffered with gout; he gave his money, his time, and himself completely to the Lord. God used Spurgeon greatly. He wrote over 140 books, penned around 500 letters a week, spoke to thousands of people each week, started an orphanage, started a pastor’s college, and led countless people to Christ, among other things.[9] That was all possible because he gave himself entirely to the Lord. One of Spurgeon’s biographers, Arnold Dallimore, said, “Early in life he had lost all consideration of his own self, and his prayer that he might be hidden behind the cross, that Christ alone might be seen, had expressed his heart’s chief purpose.”[10]

Spurgeon said, “It is our duty and our privilege to exhaust our lives for Jesus.”[11] Boyce, similarly, had an “entire devotion.”[12] Likewise, Paul was greatly used by God because he gave himself unreservedly to Him; even to the point of much affliction. If we are going to be used by God, for His glory, we must unreservedly sacrifice all and He must get all, Christianity is all-encompassing.[13] May our chief boast be Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (Gal. 6:14).

Jesus held the weight of the world on His shoulders, even the sin of the whole world. Yet, Spurgeon and Boyce surely often felt as if the weight of the world was on their shoulders. However, they also felt that their burden was easy (cf. Matt. 11:30), and they knew that through Jesus Christ their reward would be great (2 Cor. 4:17). Both Spurgeon and Boyce knew that the cross came before the crown, trials before the triumphant Kingdom.[14] So, Spurgeon said, for instance, “Good men are promised tribulation in this world, and ministers may expect a larger share than others.”[15]

I would do well to remember the price that godly men and women have paid throughout the centuries when I become discouraged in my work. The writer to the Hebrews wrote about various faithful men and women to encourage the recipients of the letter to endure in the face of persecution (see Heb. 11). I need to remember “the great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), including Spurgeon and Boyce, and run on with endurance (cf. v. 1).

Physical Suffering

Martin Luther talked about the theology of the cross.[16] I think both Spurgeon and Boyce had a clear understanding of this theology. In fact, I think Spurgeon could have written his own tome on it.[17] Both Spurgeon and Boyce lived a life of strenuous endeavor, to borrow Theodore Roosevelt’s words.[18] Yet, they did not box as one beating the air (1 Cor. 9:26). Rather, they knew for what they labored, they labored for the Lord, and thus knew their labor was not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). Spurgeon, as he loved Bunyan’s great work and read it around one hundred times, certainly would have agreed with Lloyd-Jones’s observation: “The great truth in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is not that Christian endured great hardships on his way to the eternal city, but that Christian thought it to be worth his while to endure those hardships.”[19]

Spurgeon and Boyce ironically suffered with some of the same physical bodily afflictions. They both suffered with bouts of gout, for instance.[20] Gout is typically the worst when body temperature is lower. Gout very often targets the big toe but can also cause joint pain in wrists and fingers as well as fatigue. Symptoms from gout can actually be so intense that the weight of a sheet can be unbearable. However, the physical pain was multiplied for these great men when you consider all that they were incapable of doing when they were laid up because of their pain. Though they sought to make the best of this time, surely they often felt anxiety and perhaps guilt over what they were unable to accomplish during these bouts.

Yet, their great enemy, to borrow the words of Spurgeon, was also a great teacher. We see in Spurgeon’s biography that his great suffering enabled him to better relate to people (cf. 2 Cor. 1:4).[21] Suffering taught both Spurgeon and Boyce humble reliance on the Lord. This brings to mind Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7). Even as Boyce and Spurgeon were writhing in pain I am sure they thought (1) that God was sufficient to use frail jars of clay (2 Cor. 4:7), (2) that God is sovereign and when they weep He still reigns and cares for His Church, and (3) that though they were indeed experiencing great suffering it was nothing compared to the eternal wrath that the suffering of the Son of God had averted for them. Thus, though these great men knew great suffering, they both grew instead of grumbling. Their gout was a rod that dished out sanctification.

I would do well to look at these men’s example and hear again, “Good men are promised tribulation in this world, and ministers may expect a larger share than others.”[22] I may or may not deal with the physical pain that they dealt with but I can certainly learn from their patience in the midst of it. I must also remember “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matt. 10:24). If Jesus my Master suffered then I can expect nothing less.

Depression

During one of Spurgeon’s bouts with depression he said, “I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.”[23] Not only did Spurgeon have a natural disposition to depression[24] but the weight of his position and responsibilities also was heavy upon him.[25] He said,

Our work, when earnestly undertaken, lays us open to attacks in the direction of depression. Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust? Passionate longings after men’s conversion, if not fully satisfied (and when are they?), consume the soul with anxiety and disappointment… The kingdom comes not as we would, the reverend name is not hallowed as we desire, and for this we must weep… How often, on Lord’s-day evening, do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us![26]

Thus we see that Spurgeon, “the prince of preacher,” was sometimes even depressed about his sermon on Monday or even as he walked down from the pulpit on Sunday. He said these words to a group of ministers, “We come out of the pulpit, at times, feeling that we are less fit than ever for the holy work. Our last sermon we judge to be our worst.”[27] “We experience dreary intervals of fruitless toil, and then it is no wonder that a man’s spirit faints within him.”[28]

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30 Insights to remember from Preaching as Reminding

I really appreciated Jeffrey D. Arthurs’s book, Preaching as Reminding. Here are thirty things I especially want to remember…

“The Scriptures themselves are the invitation to remember: Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; remember the Exodus; make a pile of stones; remember the Sabbath. Come again to the table, break the bread, drink the cup. Remember” (Jeffrey D. Arthurs, Preaching as Reminding, p. ix).

Preachers “remind the faithful of what they already know when knowledge has faded and conviction cooled. We fan the flames. That’s what we see when we look at the work of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles” (p. 3). “Preachers are remembrancers” (p. ix). We see this for example through what Peter says in 2 Peter 1:12-13 (“…to stir you up by way of reminder…”). And so, “Ministers must learn to stir memory, not simply repeat threadbare platitudes” (p. 5).

“It matters that we preach. It matters that we call people to remember their God and their deepest values and their truest selves and the story that has maybe shaped their lives and for sure has shaped their world. It matters that we preach with all the fidelity and urgency and learning and purity and creativity that God allows us to muster” (p. ix-x).

“If we have no memory we are adrift, because memory is the mooring to which we are tied. Memory of the past interprets the present and charts a course for the future” (p. 1). “Without memory, we are lost souls. That is why the Bible is replete with statements, stories, sermons, and ceremonies designed to stir memory. Even nature—the rainbow after the flood—serves as a reminder of God’s faithfulness (Gen 9:13-17)” (p. 3).

Read More…

Remember Death by Matthew McCullough

“Even if your life plays out in precisely the way you imagine for yourself in your wildest dreams, death will steal away everything you have and destroy everything you accomplish. As long as we’re consumed by the quest for more out of this life, Jesus’s promise will always seem otherworldly to us. He doesn’t offer more of what death will only steal from us in the end. He offers us righteousness, adoption, God honoring purpose, eternal life—things that taste sweet to us only when death is a regular companion” (Matthew McCullough, Remember Death, p. 25)

“If we want to live with resilient joy—a joy that’s tethered not to shifting circumstances but to the rock-solid accomplishments of Jesus—we must look honestly at the problem of death. That may be ironic, but it’s biblical, and it’s true” (McCullough, Remember Death, p. 27).

“If death tells us we’re not too important to die, the gospel tells us we’re so important that Christ died for us” (p. 28).

McCullough quotes Ernest Becker from his book The Denial of Death: “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.” McCullough goes on to say, “There is a massive disconnect between what we feel about ourselves and what death implies about who we are” (p. 68).

“Death says your less important than you’ve ever allowed yourself to believe. The gospel says you’re more loved than you’ve ever imagined” (p. 74).

“Wisdom never pretends things are better than they are. Never shrinks back from acknowledging the harsh realities of life” (p. 87).

“Death has an unmatched ability to expose the flimsiness of the things we believe give substance to our lives” (p. 99).

“Death exposes our idols for what they are: false gods with no power to save” (p. 107).

“It is Resurrection or vanity” (p. 110).

“The God who made us has come to us, entered the darkness we have chosen for ourselves, absorbed the just punishment for our sin in his death, and made new life possible in his resurrection” (p. 113).

“Loss is universal, not exceptional. It’s guaranteed, not unexpected. Every relationship is lost to time. So is every penny of everyone’s wealth, and ultimately so is every life. Loss isn’t surprising. It is basic to the course of every life” (p. 122).

“Life works like a savings account in reverse. Zoomed out to the span of an entire life cycle, you see that no one is actually stockpiling anything… Everything you have—your healthy body, your marketable skills, your sharp mind, your treasured possessions, your loving relationships—will one day be everything you’ve lost” (p. 122-23).

“It’s useful to practice paying careful attention to the experiences of people who have lived before you” (p. 123).

“We need to recognize that our problem is far worse that we’ve admitted so that we can recognize that Jesus is a far greater Savior than we’ve known… Honesty about death is the only sure path to living hope—hope that can weather the problems of life under the sun, that doesn’t depend on lies for credibility” (p. 150).

“The Bible never asks us to pretend life isn’t hard… The Bible never asks us to lighten up about the problems of life” (p. 153).

“Death-awareness resets my baseline expectation about life in the world” (p. 160).

“The brokenness I experience—the frustration, disappointments, dissatisfaction, pain—is not a sign of God’s absence. It is the reason for his presence in Christ” (p. 160).

Things to remember from Timothy Keller’s book Center Church

1. “Moralistic behavior change bends a person into a different pattern through fear of consequences rather than melting a person into a new shape. But this does not work. If you try to bend a piece of metal without the softening effect of heat, it is likely to snap back to its former position. This is why we see people try to change through moralistic behaviorism find themselves repeatedly lapsing into sin… But the gospel of God’s grace doesn’t try to bend a heart into a new pattern; it melts it and re-forms it into a new shape. The gospel can produce a new joy, love, and gratitude—new inclinations of the heart that eat away at deadly self-regard and self-concentration” (Timothy Keller, Center Church [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012], p. 67).
 
2. “It is quite easy to assume that if we understand the gospel accurately and preach it faithfully, our ministry will necessarily be shaped by it—but this is not true. Many churches subscribe to gospel doctrines but do not have a ministry that is shaped by, centered on, and empowered through the gospel. Its implications have not yet worked their way into the fabric of how the church actually does ministry” (Timothy Keller, Center Church, p. 28).

Read More…

Esther and the Purim Party

I read the book of Esther last week and was struck again by what an amazing book it is. What a true work of literature. There is a heroine, suspense, irony, reversal, and surprising coincidences.
 
Chapters 1-2
Israel is in exile, under the reign of King Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus, as the King of Persia, has a ton of wealth. So he shows his wealth by having a party for 180 days (1:4).[1] With that much partying it is no wonder that he is somewhat of a drunk and pushover. However, it appears that he’s trying to combat his pushover persona (but not his alcoholism!) with the help of his friends and so he makes an example of his wife Vashti who did not obey his every whim.
 
He gets rid of his old wife and throws a lavish beauty pageant to find the most beautiful and pleasing bride in the kingdom (2:2-4). In somewhat of a Cinderella story, the king “fell in love” with Esther more than all the other women and so he put the royal crown on her head and made her queen (v. 17).

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8 Quotes from *Simple Church* by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger

1. “To have a simple church, you must design a simple discipleship process. This process must be clear. And must move people toward maturity. They must be integrated fully into your church, and you must get rid of the clutter around it” (Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church, 26).
 
2. “A simple church is a congregation designed around a straightforward strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth” (p. 60).
 
3. “Alignment is the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process” (p. 74).
 

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