Christianity and theology

A Review of God’s Grace in Your Suffering by David Powlison

Crossway asked me to consider applying and joining their Blog Review Program. I gladly did and was approved hence from time to time you will see or read reviews of their books on this blog. I trust and pray that these reviews will be helpful to you as you consider reading or recommending books. My reviews will focus more on books about Bible studies/devotions, spiritual growth, theology, Christian living, Christian leadership, and pastoral ministry. God’s Grace in Your Suffering by David Powlison is my first review in this program. Crossway has provided me with a complimentary copy of the book.

One wise and godly man once noted that there are always three groups of people in this world. Those who are just coming out of hard times, those who are passing through hard times, and those who are about to enter into hard times. He was very right. We are all acquainted with suffering, pain, sorrow and hardship. None of us is immune to it and God never promises immunity to suffering even for his own children as David Powlison rightly observes at the beginning of his book, God’s Grace in Your Suffering.

However, although God does not guarantee immunity, he does assure and provide his children with grace and help in their suffering. This is the point that Powlison is driving home in his book by answering two key questions: “When you face trouble, loss, disability, and pain, how does the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ meet you and comfort you? How does grace and goodness find you, touch you, work with you, and walk with you through deep waters?”

Powlison ably answers these questions by taking the reader through the verses of that famous hymn which is a favorite to many Christians, “How Firm the Foundation.” As he makes his way through the hymn Powlison also shares his personal experiences of how the truths of the hymn have positively impacted him. Although most words of the hymn are direct quotes from the Scriptures, the book could have failed miserably if it focused on the hymn alone. But I am thankful that Powlison takes us beyond the hymn to the Bible itself and to the Christ of the Bible as the true source of encouragement and comfort in our trials.

Another recommendable thing about God’s Grace in Your Suffering is that it is very practical. Powlison has endeavored to accomplish this by engaging the reader and asking probing questions that enables the reader to apply the truths of Scripture to his own situation. True to its own assertion, this book is a workshop of an afflicted soul.

I think I would be right to say that when passing through hard times one has no time for jargons or hard reading and would greatly appreciate a book that hammers the nail right on its head. Powlison has also managed to do just that in this book. God’s Grace in Your Suffering is an easy reading yet full of profound truths hewn from the ever-trustworthy word of God.

 

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Christianity and theology

What About the Confessions and Catechisms?

One thing that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches are known for is the confessions and catechisms. The Presbyterian churches tend to subscribe to the Westminster Standards, which consists of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The Reformed churches lean more towards the Three Forms of Unity, which consists of the Belgic Confession of Faith, Canons of Dort, and Heidelberg Catechism.

One question I often hear regarding the confessions and the catechisms is why do we have them? Is the Bible not enough? Of course, the Bible is enough and we always need to remind ourselves that the confessions and catechisms are subject to the authority of Scripture. The confessions are not there to compete with the Bible rather they are there to aid in understanding various doctrines of the Bible. They don’t have their own authority. Their authority is derived from the truths of Scripture contained in them.

In addition to assisting us understand the Bible’s teaching better, the confessions and catechisms also help us to let others know exactly what we believe. There are so many churches that claim to teach the Bible. However, not all these churches truly teach the Bible. Therefore since “we teach the Bible” can mean different things to different people, the confessions and catechisms help us to communicate exactly what we believe the Bible teaches. As one theologian put it, “We are not a cult where we hide our beliefs from others. We are a church, so we proclaim our faith to the world. Good (confessions and) catechisms help us to do that. They say, “Here’s what we believe. You can study them, question them, reject them, or embrace them.”

Catechisms are also essential tools when it comes to shepherding and teaching the little hearts of our children. I have in mind here the shorter catechism and the Catechism for Young Children. These summarize the key doctrines of the Bible in simpler terms that even a child can understand. But make no mistake to think that since they were written mainly with children in mind then adults cannot benefit from them. To the contrary many adults have also benefited from reading and memorizing these catechisms.

When I was a child, my grandfather bought me the shorter catechism and taught me God’s truth from it. I imbibed and memorized its truths with the innocent zeal of a child. Later in my teenage years I wandered away into the world but the Spirit of God continued to use those truths stored in my mind to convict me of my sin and eventually begin the gracious work of bringing me back to faith.

Lastly but not least, the confessions and catechisms also help those who have been called to serve as ministers or elders to be accountable to their fellow elders and ministers. When one is ordained into the office of an elder or pastor they declare to their fellow elders or ministers their subscription to the confessions and by doing that they are in essence saying, “Brothers, I believe the same things you believe and what our forefathers in the faith have always believed over the centuries. If at any time my life or my teaching is not in agreement with these truths, please hold me accountable. Show me my error and help me back on the path of truth.” The confessions and catechisms, therefore, help elders or ministers to be brother’s keeper.

 

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Martin Bucer: Faithfulness in Obscurity

Many readers of this post would know Martin Luther and John Calvin. These are the names that usually come to mind whenever we think of the Sixteenth Century Protestant Reformation. But how many are familiar with Martin Bucer? How many of us will be able to write at least a paragraph on this reformer? The point I am trying to drive home by these questions is that unlike Luther and Calvin, Bucer is one of obscure reformers of the Sixteenth century. Yet he was the man the Lord used to mentor the great theologian of the Reformation era, John Calvin.

Martin Bucer was born on November 11, 1491 in the town of Schlettstdat in France. Later, he became a Roman Catholic monk in Dominican order. In 1581, Bucer was in the city of Heidelberg, Germany when Martin Luther came to the city for a disputation. In the debate, Luther asserted God’s sovereign grace in salvation and that salvation is by faith alone. This marked the turning point for Bucer who attended the disputation. He fully embraced the doctrines of grace and began to preach the same. He later settled in Strasbourg and labored faithfully in teaching, preaching, and shepherding God’s people for years.

Somehow, John Calvin came to know Bucer and wanted to spend the rest of his life in Strasbourg writing and laboring alongside him. So in April 1536, Calvin left Paris for Strasbourg. But due to the war between King Franz I of France and Emperor Karl of Austria, he could not take a direct route. He decided to go through Geneva.

In Geneva, William Farel, another reformer, persuaded him to stay and co-labour with him. So Calvin settled in Geneva and began to biblically reforming the church but some resisted Calvin’s reformation efforts. Eventually the Genevan city council expelled Calvin from the city in 1538 and he headed to Strasbourg where he labored with Bucer and pastored a French refugees church for three years.

In the period of three years, the Lord used Bucer to mentor the younger Calvin. Calvin himself wrote this of Bucer: “(Bucer is the man of) profound scholarship, his bounteous knowledge about a wide range of subjects, his keen mind, his wide reading, and many other different virtues, remains unsurpassed today by anyone, can be compared with only a few, and excels the vast majority.”[1] Undoubtedly, Bucer had a great impact upon the great theologian and pastor yet Bucer remains little known to many today.

Again, the point I am trying to put across is that just like in the Bible where we have saints who were used mightily by God but are little known, we also have little known reformers who played a great role in the Reformation. Bucer is an encouragement to many who are laboring faithfully for the Lord yet the world knows little or even nothing about them. Your faithfulness is not nullified by your obscurity. The Lord sees it and he will surely reward it. Not all of us were predestined to be the “Calvins.” Some of us are the “Bucers,” but in everything we ought to be thankful and give glory to Christ for he is really the one who is at work through us all (1 Cor. 3:6-11).

[1] Keith Mathison, Ligoneir Ministries, http://www.ligonier.org/blog/martin-bucer-reformer-and-his-times/ accessed on November 30, 2017.

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Christianity and Society

A Lament: Why I feel betrayed by my fellow Christians who support disparaging remarks of Africa and Africans

About a week ago, the President of United States of America, Donald Trump allegedly used vulgar language to disparage the country of Haiti and the continent of Africa. The president has since denied using vulgar language but admitted to have spoken tough on the issue of illegal immigration in the USA.

Ever since the news was reported in the media, there have been two main reactions. Some have condemned what the president said while others have supported what the president said. However, what has greatly disheartened me is to hear fellow Christians categorically supporting the degrading language that the president allegedly used to describe a continent that is a home to many of their brothers and sisters in Christ. When I read and heard some of the comments I felt like David in Psalm 41:9: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted…has lifted his heel against me.

Now, before I proceed to bemoan what I strongly feel as betrayal I need to highlight the following: first, I strongly believe that the USA just like any other country in the world has a right to decide who enters and stays within its boarders. This is absolutely right. It is only wrong if the USA chooses basing on skin color or the conditions of where one comes from. Secondly, I also strongly agree with the USA government that illegal immigration is wrong. When somebody enters the USA, they agree to stay in the country as long as they are permitted by their visa or other immigration documents. It is sinful and wrong to overstay.

That said, I feel let down by fellow Christians who have unconditionally supported what the president of USA said regarding the continent of Africa where I come from for the following reasons: first as I have already highlighted above, your fellow brothers and sisters live in this continent. It is just normal and human to feel hurt when one demeans your sibling. No matter how poor or unattractive your brother is, he is your brother. Even the secular world recognizes this and acknowledges that blood is thicker than water. The Bible even says it better that all Christians are one body of Christ and “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).

Second, no one can deny that the USA is more wealthy and powerful than the countries of Africa. I have often confessed it to my brothers and sisters from the USA that the Lord has blessed their country with many material blessings. There are many opportunities of personal advancement and growth in America. Life is more comfortable and easier in many ways in the USA. This is the Lord’s doing and should not make American Christians accept the tendency to look down upon Africa. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

Third, consider the Christian testimony in Africa. An unconditional support of the president’s remarks has serious implications for evangelism more especially among Moslem communities in Africa. In many Moslem strongholds, people are told that what they see in the West, more especially, in America is what Christianity stands for. To many in these places, America is a Christian nation and everything that people do or say in America is what the Bible teaches. Now, guess what will the Muslim say. “Christianity believes that Africa is the most unpleasant place in the world.” Of course not all people will believe that, praise the Lord for his grace. But if one person finds the president’s remarks a stumbling broke to believe in Christ just because some Christians did not condemn and distance themselves from the remarks, we ought to be greatly concerned for that soul.

Again, let me reiterate that not all Christians have unconditionally supported the President’s remarks and I am thankful for that. A Sunday following the reporting of what the president said, one of my pastors came to me after the service and said, “How do you feel about what our president said?” I told him that I was hurt and I felt my eyes warming up with tears as I spoke to him. He then said to me, “I am sorry. I know…It’s hurtful. But I don’t think of you or your country that way, my brother.” He then put his arm around my shoulders and said, “You are my brother forever.” Oh, what a comfort it was to hear those words and know that there are still brothers and sisters who care for this brother from the so-called unpleasant continent.

“You are my brother forever,” that’s is very true. Here on earth, God has made us to live in different parts of the planet as Paul points out, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,” (Acts 17:26-27). But a day is coming when all the boundaries will be abolished and as one family in Christ we will live together forever.

 

 

 

 

 

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What about Fasting, Reformed Brothers and Sisters?

I don’t think I will exaggerate if I say that fasting is one of the dwindling practices among the Reformed Christians today. Some time ago, I was attending a workshop on the topic of fasting. All the attendees were Reformed Christians. It was a confession time when the facilitator of the workshop asked how many of us fasted regularly. Less than ten hands out of about forty participants went up.

There could be a number of factors that have contributed to this sad development, which I cannot speculate. But I believe we can all agree that this ought not to be so. Both the Bible and our Reformed tradition encourage us to engage in this practice as often as possible. But before I look at the Bible and our Reformed heritage let me highlight that there are two types of fasting: public and private or individual. Public fasting involves the body of Christ coming together to either pray for a particular issue or to thank the Lord for his mercies. The Westminster Directory of Worship is one of the best documents that ably expounds on this type of fasting.

The individual fasting is more private in the sense that a Christian fasts and prays for personal issues which might include confession of sin, thanksgiving, God’s guidance or wisdom in a situation. There are a number of Bible passages that teach and model for us this practice.

We first see individual fasting in Exodus 34:28. Moses fasts for forty days and forty nights (no food or drink) while meeting with the Lord for the second tablets of the Law. This type of fasting is a special one and certainly Moses was sustained in these forty days and nights by the special power of God. Christ will also later fast forty days after the Holy Spirit would lead him into the wilderness to be tested at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:1-2). Like Moses’ fasting, Christ’s fasting was special and extraordinary.

In 2 Samuel 12:16 we read that David also fasted and prayed. He had committed adultery with Bathsheba and later murdered Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. The Lord was displeased and declared that the child that was born out of this sin will die. David fasted and prayed probably confessing his sin and certainly pleading with the Lord that the child should be spared. However, God’s word stood and the child went to be with the Lord although David’s sin was forgiven (2 Sam. 12:13). Here Scripture models for us the fast that is both repentance of sin and supplication.

Nehemiah also fasted and prayed confessing the sins of Israel as well as asking the Lord to restore and rebuild the ruined walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 1). The young man Daniel too regularly fasted and prayed for forgiveness of Israel’s sins and that God would grant mercy to his people (Dan. 9:1-23; 10:3).

Lest we think that this practice was observed only in the Old Testament, Christ instructs us on what we should do when we fast in Matthew 6:16-18: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

We also read of early Christians fasting and praying in Acts 13:1-3 probably asking for God’s guidance in their ministry of reaching out to the lost. Therefore, there is no doubt that Christians except for those who have health reasons or limitations should fast and pray. This fasting should not only be limited to food and drink but also to other activities including conjugal obligations (1 Cor. 7:5) and use of electronics and Internet. (Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. I just said, “internet”).

Our forefathers in the faith also rightly taught on the importance of fasting and praying. We will take a brief overview at what some of our forefathers said and wrote about this practice. John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.12.15-19 wrote, “A holy and lawful fast has three ends in view. We use it either to mortify and subdue the flesh, that it may not wanton, or to prepare the better for prayer and holy meditation; or to give evidence of humbling ourselves before God, when we would confess our guilt before him.”

Calvin also warned of three errors when fasting. First, we should not think of fasting superstitiously. By this he means that we should not be deceived and think that although our hearts are not right with God, fasting might still help us getting special blessings from God. Fasting is futile when practiced by unregenerate and unrepentant heart.

Second, related to the first error, we should not think of fasting as a means to merit God’s blessings. I have met some Christians who think that by fasting they can somehow force God to act according to their will. This is absolutely wrong and even blasphemous. Man can never manipulate God and force him to act against his will. Lastly, Calvin warns us of thinking that fasting exalts us to a higher position above other Christians who do not fast. While we are to encourage this practice, we should not think that those who fast are spiritually superior to those that do not.

The Dutch theologian and pastor, Wilhemus A Brakel (1635-1711), bemoaned the dying of this practice among the Reformed Christians of his day and urged them to fast regularly. “It is sad—a sign of great decay in the church—that so little work is made of fasting, both in public as well as secretly. Therefore all who wish to lead a life of tender godliness and desire to see the good of Zion ought to stir themselves up to exercise this duty… Therefore, as obedient children of God and followers of the saints, fast frequently. This was the practice of the original Christian church and of believers at the outset of the Reformation—and even long thereafter. Do not allow this practice to die out” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service Vol. 4, p. 9).

As already observed the Westminster Directory of Worship also has a lot to say about fasting. Although its emphasis is on public fasting, it has a number of important insights we can also apply to individual fasting. For instance the directory reminds us: “A religious fast requires total abstinence, not only from all food, (unless bodily weakness do manifestly disable from holding out till the fast be ended, in which case somewhat may be taken, yet very sparingly, to support nature, when ready to faint,) but also from all worldly labour, discourses, and thoughts, and from all bodily delights, and such like, (although at other times lawful,) rich apparel, ornaments, and such like, during the fast; and much more from whatever is in the nature or use scandalous and offensive, as gaudish attire, lascivious habits and gestures, and other vanities of either sex.”

So, beloved Reformed brothers and sisters, we need to rekindle this dying practice. The status quo needs to be challenged not because we become superior Christians when we fast and pray but because it pleases our Lord when we live in obedience to his revealed will.

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The Virgin Mary: God’s Submissive Servant

One important lesson we can learn from the life of Mary the mother of Christ is her submission to God’s will. By grace, she submitted to God and trusted him to accomplish what is impossible with man (Luke 1:37). The late RC Sproul once described Mary as a Christian’s model of submission.

In Luke’s account of Mary and the angel Gabriel we learn that after Mary was told that she  will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit,  she surrendered  herself to God’s word and said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

There are two important lessons we glean from Mary’s submission. First, she submitted despite having unanswered questions. In Luke 1:34 she asked how she will be able to give birth while she is a virgin. The angel explained that this will happen by the Holy Spirit. But I don’t think Mary fully understood how all things will come about just as we, today, cannot fully explain the incarnation. Remember that this had never happened before in the history of humanity. Mary was the first and the only young woman to be told that she will conceive without a man.

Then there was the question of Joseph. What will he think about this and how will he react? Will he not decide to divorce her once he discovers that she is pregnant and not by him? Mind you at this moment, the angel has not yet gone to Joseph and informed him that Mary will conceive by the Holy Spirit.

Second, Mary submitted knowing that this could cost her life. Probably, we don’t often think about it when we read this account. But have you ever wondered what would have happened if Joseph divorced Mary and told the people that he was not responsible for the pregnancy? The obvious conclusion would have been that Mary committed adultery and the sentence for this “crime” was death by stoning (Deut. 22:23). This was a costly submission. Again, Mary did not know that the angel will also go to Joseph and told him not to divorce her as we read in the gospel of Matthew. Yet she submitted to God’s will.

I am very certain that there will never be another Mary in this world. God will never come to another young woman and ask her to be the mother of Christ. However, again and again God in his word and through the work of the Holy Spirit comes to us and asks us to do some things for him and his kingdom. Some of these things might not make sense and we might not fully understand them. Others might be costly. It could be that we have to make huge sacrifices to fulfill God’s will in our lives. How will we respond to God’s call? I strongly believe that Mary’s response is the best response for every Christian called to do God’s will. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”

At the core of our daily walk with Christ is the call to obey and trust him. The hymn writer was right:

Trust and Obey

For there is no other way

To be happy in Jesus

But to trust and obey

By his  grace, Christ enables us to trust and obey just as he enabled Mary to trust and obey.

(This material first appeared in a form of a sermon which was preached at London Free Reformed Church in London, Ontario, Canada on December 17, 2017).
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A New Year’s Sermon

This is an excerpt from the sermon which Rev. Charles Haddon Spurgeon preached on January 1, 1860. The title of the message was “A New Year’s Benediction,” and it was taken from 1 Peter 5:10

I wish, my brothers and sisters, that during this year you may live nearer to Christ than you have ever done before. Depend upon it, it is when we think much of Christ that we think little of ourselves, little of our troubles, and little of the doubts and fears that surround us. Begin from this day, and may God help you. Never let a single day pass over your head without a visit to the garden of Gethsemane, and the cross on Calvary.

And as for some of you who are not saved, and know not the Redeemer, I would to God that this very day you would come to Christ. I dare say you think coming to Christ is some terrible thing: that you need to be prepared before you come; that he is hard and harsh with you. When men have to go to a lawyer they need to tremble; when they have to go to the doctor they may fear; though both those persons, however unwelcome, may be often necessary. But when you come to Christ, you may come boldly. There is no fee required; there is no preparation necessary. You may come just as you are.

It was a brave saying of Martin Luther’s, when he said, “I would run into Christ’s arms even if he had a drawn sword in his hand.” Now, he has not a drawn sword, but he has his wounds in his hands. Run into his arms, poor sinner. “Oh,” you say, “May I come?” How can you ask the question? you are commanded to come. The great command of the gospel is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus.” Those who disobey this command disobey God. It is as much a command of God that man should believe on Christ, as that we should love our neighbor.

Now, what is a command I have certainly a right to obey. There can be no question you see; a sinner has liberty to believe in Christ because he is told to do so. God would not have told him to do a thing which he must not do. You are allowed to believe. “Oh,” saith one, “that is all I want to know. I do believe that Christ is able to save to the uttermost. May I rest my soul on him, and say, sink or swim, most blessed Jesus, thou art my Lord?” May do it! man? Why you are commanded to do it. Oh that you may be enabled to do it.

Remember, this is not a thing which you will do at a risk. The risk is in not doing it. Cast yourself on Christ, sinner. Throw away every other dependence and rest alone on him. “No,” says one, “I am not prepared.” Prepared! sir? Then you do not understand me. There is no preparation needed; it is, just as you are. “Oh, I do not feel my need enough.” I know you do not. What has that to do with it? You are commanded to cast yourself on Christ. Be you never so black or never so bad, trust to him. He that believeth on Christ shall be saved, be his sins never so many, he that believeth not must be damned be his sins never so few.

The great command of the gospel is, “Believe.” “Oh,” but saith one, “am I to say I know that Christ died for me?” Ah, I did not say that, you shall learn that by-and-bye. You have nothing to do with that question now, your business is to believe on Christ and trust him; to cast yourself into his hands. And may God the Spirit now sweetly compel you to do it. Now, sinner, hands off your own righteousness. Drop all idea of becoming better through your own strength. Cast yourself flat on the promise.

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