Book Review – “The Story of Everything” by Jared C. Wilson

story of everything

Ever since I read Randy Alcorn’s Heaven, I have been extremely interested in deepening my understanding of eternity and how the current world fits in to God’s plan.  The Story of Everything by Jared C. Wilson is an excellent addition to my library and my thoughts in this area.

In the book, Wilson examines multiple aspects of the world to arrive at a theological understanding of how it all fits in to the story God is telling.  He examines history, creation, politics, culture, evil, pain, fun, and marriage (along with sex and family).  By looking it at from the view of a story God is telling, he manages to unify these things and tie them together with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He also points out that all of these aspects will ultimately not be overturned in total, but will find their fulfillment at the end of all things, when all things are made new.

I found the book to be very biblically sound and gospel centered.

I think my biggest takeaway is the chapter on “God’s Plan for Romance, Marriage, and Sex.”  Wilson does a tremendous job of examining how the gospel orients husbands and wives and provides that guidance and union necessary to make a marriage work.  He reminds us that marriage is a covenant, not a contract, and that, as such, we can love no matter what, just as Christ has loved us despite our shortcomings and failures.  The entire chapter is a pointed reminder that ultimately we are to serve our spouse rather than being served, and that ultimately our marriage is about God:

“The story that God is telling with the world calls us back to a radical reshaping of what we think marriage is for.  Personal happiness and romantic fulfillment can be the by-products of a healthy marriage, but the husband’s and wife’s primary purpose in marriage is not happiness and romance.  The primary purpose of marriage is giving God glory by bearing witness to the gospel. The primary purpose of marriage is to make Jesus look big.” (Kindle location 3135)

If we could keep this in mind, really if we could memorize the whole chapter and live it out, our marriages would be transformed.  To me, the chapter on marriage alone is worth getting the book.

So, what do we do with the information in Wilson’s book?  We remember this quote and live it out: “Jesus is indeed making all things new. The purpose of life now is to live in such a way that everything we do with everything points to his remaking of everything.” (Kindle location 3665)  We orient our lives so that we are constantly living out the reality that everything is working toward a renewal that God will bring about.  Imagine how attractive the gospel will become in our lives if we live this out daily with everyone we meet!

I would strongly encourage everyone to pick up this book and read through it slowly, soaking it in.  You won’t regret it!

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Crossway through their Blog Review Program in exchange for my honest review.

Book (and DVD) Review – “Living in Christ’s Presence” by Dallas Willard

Living in Christ's

I have long been a fan of Dallas Willard.  He has a way of presenting things that opens our eyes to ideas we have missed or misunderstood to a greater or lesser degree in Scripture, especially as it comes to discipleship and the kingdom of God.

Living in Christ’s Presence is a book based off of a conference Willard spoke at before he passed on to glory.  I have had the privilege of reviewing both the book and the DVD based off of this conference.

It truly serves as a summary or overview of many of Willard’s ideas that have been presented in other books, articles, and speeches.

The topics covered (taken from the Table of Contents of the book) are as follows: How to live well (eternal life begins now); Who are the experts on life transformation?; How to step into the kingdom and live there; Experiential knowledge of the trinity; Understanding the person (including the invisible parts); The importance of Christian disciplines; and Blessing.  Anyone who has read much of Willard will quickly notice that these are major themes covered throughout his other books.

Interestingly, while Willard’s name is the only one on the cover of the book, John Ortberg has contributed over half of the material in the conference and book.  The chapters alternate between Willard and Ortberg presenting, and after each presentation there is a discussion between Willard and Ortberg (and in one case a Question and Answer session with Ortberg).  Ortberg has been jokingly referred to as “Dallas Willard for Dummies,” so I am not surprised at his inclusion in the conference.  I wonder why he was not listed as author anywhere on the book, however.  He is listed as co-contributor on the front of the DVD case.

As mentioned above, the conference came first, and the DVD is a recording of it.  The book has been edited lightly (very lightly) from the conference to make it easier to read.  For the most part, however, one can follow word-for-word with the DVD by reading along.

In this case, I actually think I prefer the DVD to the book.  The tone of Willard’s and Ortberg’s presentations and discussions is lost somewhat in the book.  In some instances, this tone of voice and way of presenting the material is very beneficial to understanding what is said and intended.  That is not to say the book is not good, and for somewhat who wants to be able to quickly reference something that either speaker said the book would be invaluable.  But if I could only have one, I think I would opt for the DVD.

While I generally like Willard’s and Ortberg’s material, there is one major concern I have had with Willard’s writing, and this concern was brought out here very strongly.

Now, before I discuss this concern, I want to point out that Willard himself does not claim to be perfect in everything he says.  Willard states clearly, “Now, while saying as much as I am, I am probably going to say one or two things that are wrong.” (p. 13)  Based on my understanding of Scripture, I think he certainly did at one point, and the error is possibly a big one.  So I wanted to take time here to make others aware of it before they purchase the book or DVD.

In part of an extended discussion between Ortberg and Willard, we find this exchange:

John: When people say, “I believe in God, and I want to believe in God, but I have doubts sometimes; I want to follow Christ, but I fail sometimes; I am not as certain as I want to be,” can they say with confidence or integrity that they know Christ? What needs to be true in their life, in their mind and their life, for them to be able to say they know Christ?

Dallas: Put his words into practice and find them to be true.

John: Is it possible that somebody might know Christ but not realize that they know Christ?

Dallas: Oh, yes. Many people know things, but they don’t know that they know. That’s the nature of knowledge. Like children, for example, or unsophisticates of various kinds–they don’t even know what knowledge is. But our lives are filled with knowledge. You know something when you are able to deal with it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. (p. 31)

I wanted to quote it at length to catch as much of the context as possible.  It sounds as if Willard is leaning toward some form of inclusivism, that is that people can be Christians and not realize that they are.  While I think most of us would like that to be true, I find it very difficult to reconcile that with Scripture.  I realize God is loving, and that God does not want anyone to perish, but the Scriptures about Christ’s being the only way and needing to confess Him seem too strong for me to be able to easily dismiss them (see John 14:6, Acts 4:12, and Romans 10:9-10).  In addition, I don’t think we ever see anyone in the New Testament who is considered saved without their willful acceptance of the life and death of Christ on their behalf and their willful submission to Him as Lord and Savior.

I realize Willard is not the only one to hold an inclusivistic view, and I understand the idea is that God’s grace is so large that He will accept people by His grace and mercy based on their response to the light they have, but that He does so in such a way that it is only through the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf, with God applying that to them without their conscious, willful acceptance of it. I also understand that with Willard’s view of salvation being more about entering a kingdom life now than about “God seeing to it that individuals [don’t] go to the bad place” (p. 10), it leans away from salvation as a one-time decision to avoid punishment for sins and begin a life of submission to Christ.  As a result, the issue I am bringing up is based on a certain perspective of salvation that Willard doesn’t seem to hold to.  I may be misunderstanding Willard here, but it seems that is how Willard’s argument works.

Following along with this, Willard confronts the idea that “God is mad all the time” (p. 33). This helps understand his view above, regarding following Christ without knowing it, as he doesn’t seem to look much at the idea of the wrath of God.

Admittedly, God’s wrath and God’s love are hard to reconcile.  But we cannot ignore them.  Scripture says that those who don’t believe in Christ are “condemned already” (John 3:18, ESV) and that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18, ESV), among other passages.  Perhaps I am misunderstanding “wrath” here, but I don’t think we can just dismiss it by pointing to God’s love.  God is love, that is true, but God is also holy and just.

In reality, these are the only two things that really stood out to me in the entire book.  The rest of the book is great!  But to some people, those will be two major issues to overcome, and that is why I have spent so much time on them.  As long as people read Willard discerningly, there should be no issue.  Willard also thinks, talks, and writes so deeply that it is possible I am completely misunderstanding him here.  I have not read everything Willard has written, so I am open to correction.  That is why I would not let this part of the presentation scare people off from reading the book.  It is, however, something important enough to take some time on.

Overall, the book is a great reminder, however, about living in the presence of Christ and His kingdom.  In a day when discipleship is still marginalized, and attendance at church or subscribing to a certain set of beliefs is lauded as being the determining factor in being considered a Christian, Willard and Ortberg sound a much needed call to awaken us to the reality that living the kingdom life is so much more.

Willard points out, “One of the problems that many Christians today have is that, since they are Christians, they have found it and they stop seeking.  But seeking is the way we live.  We never get beyond seeking” (p. 71).  Amen!  What does this mean? “To seek the kingdom of God is to look for it to be present and for it to be an action, and then to identify yourself with that action” (p. 74).

Later in the book, Ortberg brings in the ideas of spiritual disciplines to help us understand how to seek the kingdom and live in it.  He reminds us that disciplines are about training, not trying (see p. 139), and he goes on to lay out a very succinct explanation of how to practice disciplines in our lives, both in areas of ommision and commision.  For someone looking for a very brief overview of the disciplines in the overall context of living in the kingdom of God as a follower of Jesus, this chapter is wonderful.

The section about blessings, what they are and how we give and receive them, was also very enlightening.

One final reason to consider getting the book as well as the DVD is the inclusion of a study guide in the back, written by Gary Moon.  The study guide is a great way to walk through the material either individually or with a group.  With Willard’s work, you really do need to slow down and find ways to process it all, as it is both broad and deep at the same time.  A simple skim of the material will not be nearly as beneficial as a thoughtful pondering of the ideas he presents.

If you are looking for an overview of Willard’s thoughts in one place, either as a summary or an introduction, Living in Christ’s Presence is a good purchase.  If you can only choose one, I would encourage you to get the DVD, but both together make a nice set, and they complement each other very well.

Note: I was provided with a complimentary copy of the book and DVD from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.  

 

 

 

Book Review – “40 Days of Decrease” by Alicia Britt Chole

40 days of decrease

My Christian upbringing has always been in denominations that did not celebrate Lent in any way.  I saw a screenshot of a page of 40 Days of Decrease by Alicia Britt Cole somewhere, and the information there looked interesting, so I requested a copy to read and review.

The book is meant to be read during the Lent season, one chapter per day.  In order to review it faster, I chose to read straight through.

The chapters are set up with a retelling of part of the passion story, a reflection on that, a recommended fast for the day, some background information on the history and current practice of Lent, a small Scripture passage to read for the day (starting in John 12 on day 1 and ending with John 21 on day 40), and some blank space for taking notes.

The fasts are not merely physical things, such as food or electronics or purchasing, but they also include fasting things such as regrets, collecting praise, rationalism, religious profiling, and criticism, among others.

I, personally, struggle with devotionals.  While I knew this book was broken down into 40 sections corresponding to Lent, I think I was expecting more reading than mixture of reading, reflection, writing, etc.  If you like devotionals or workbooks, this book will be great for you.  While it is geared toward the Lent season, I don’t see why one couldn’t do it at any point in the year to focus again on Christ’s death and resurrection.

Some of the fasts would be better suited as a weekly or monthly thing, focusing solely on it before moving on to something else.  I think it would take me a lot longer than one day to really gain from fasting from discontentment, for example.

The book is well written, and it has some great insights into associating with Christ’s death.  The historical and explanatory passages regarding the practice of Lent were tough for me to get through, but someone who practices Lent as part of their Christian faith would probably benefit from it.

If you practice Lent or if you just want a book to help you focus on the death and resurrection of Christ (and how we can use that focus to reorient our lives), pick up 40 Days of Decrease.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher through the Book Look Bloggers program in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review – “Love Kindness” by Barry H. Corey

love kindness

Let’s face it.  It is an unfortunate truth that Christians are often not immediately identified by their kindness.  Either we are known as being very firm in our beliefs but not kind in expressing them, or we are known for being overly kind but losing any sense of standing firm in convictions and the truth.  In fact, if you polled those who are not Christians and asked them what primary trait stands out from Christians they have met, it is probable that love and kindness would not necessarily be the first thing that comes to mind. (The book UnChristian illustrates this very well.)

Barry Corey, president of Biola University as of the time of this review, noticed it as well, and he wanted to offer some correction to it.  He does a great job in his book Love Kindness, published by Tyndale Publishers.

In the book, Corey walks through what it means to love kindness as Christians.  He does this largely through personal stories and anecdotes, providing real-life examples as illustrations of what it means to be kind toward others in the name of Christ.

Some of the ideas he writes about are what it means to be kind (it requires us to be receivable, thought not necessarily received, it can be messy, and it requires humility), how to be kind when we disagree with people, that kindness can take time, how hypocrisy ruins kindness, and how we can let kindness lead us to mentor others, among other topics. All of this is rooted in a God who is kind.  As Corey reminds us, God’s kindness leads us to repentance (see Romans 2:4).  As a result, we are kind to others, which is a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.

I must admit that when I first started to read the book, I was concerned it might be one of those books that insists on kindness to the exclusion of standing for what is true in terms of right beliefs and right practices.  Corey very quickly offers a reassuring explanation of what kindness does, and does not, mean.  He writes:

In today’s polarized culture, we are often pulled toward one extreme or the other, soft centers or hard edges.  I’m proposing a different approach, a third way. Rather than the harshness of firm centers and hard edges, and rather than the weakness of spongy centers and soft edges, why don’t we start with kindness? Kindness is the way of firm centers and soft edges. (p. xv)

In other words, while we firmly believe certain things (and refuse to compromise on those beliefs), we still do so in such a way as to be kind and loving towards others.  It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.  This is such a relief in light of books that encourage us to be so firm we lose kindness or so kind we lose any sense of a firm center.  Corey manages to maintain this balance in every chapter of the book.

In the next-to-last chapter, Corey provides seven ways we can live this out in our lives.  In order to live out the firm center and soft edges of kindness in our lives, we should do the following:

  1. A firm center and soft edges means we become more involved in the culturally unfamiliar.
  2.  A firm center and soft edges means we are creators of goodness and beauty.
  3. A firm center and soft edges means we approach the growing opposition in our day by leading with humility.
  4. A firm center and soft edges means we fear not when our grace is met with hostility.
  5. A firm center and soft edges means we remain even more deeply rooted in biblical faithfulness.
  6. A firm center and soft edges means that evangelism is at the heart of why we live this way.
  7. A firm center and soft edges means we need to remember that Christ-centeredness means we will never be marginalized.  (taken from subheadings on pp. 201-217)

If you are looking for a good book to help increase your growth in kindness as a Christian, I would strongly encourage you to pick up Love Kindness.  It is a wonderfully written and insightful examination into this topic, that is kind in its reminder of how to live out this fruit of the Spirit every day.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book from Tyndale House Publishers in exchange for my honest review.  

 

 

Family Worship

family praying

One area I have really done a poor job on is being the spiritual leader of my family.  While I read the Bible and study a lot for my personal edification, I have never really done well at reading it with my family.  For a while, we used The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones, and I loved it, but it was very hit-or-miss.  I also have not done a good job at praying with my family.

This is something that has convicted me for quite some time.  I wanted to remedy it, but I was not sure how.

A week or so ago, Crossway Publishers posted a link to sign up to receive emails for a five-day mini-video series by Don Whitney on family worship.  I immediately signed up.  The videos are around 5 minutes long each, and provide a basic overview of family worship.  I would recommend others sign up for it if they are able. (I posted a hyperlink in the text above to make it easier for those interested.)

The three aspects of worship that Whitney encourages families to practice are Scripture reading, prayer, and singing.

So far, we have read the Bible and prayed together briefly every day for the past week and a half or so, with only one missed evening.  For us, this is a huge step!

I decided to read through the gospel of Mark with my wife and children.  So far, we have read through four chapters of the gospel in the ESV.  I try to stop and explain the Scriptures as we go.  This has also been eye opening as I realize how many things I either don’t know or never thought about in such a way as to be able to explain it to a 6-year-old and 4-year-old child.

I then ask everyone if there is anything they would like us to pray for, and we take a couple of minutes to pray together.

We have not yet tried singing together (more than one time with just my children and me, but that didn’t go so well).  I hope to try to add that soon.

I’m also working on memorizing a little with my children.  I am starting with the Lord’s prayer from Matthew 6.  That, too, has been more sporadic than the reading and praying, but I am taking baby steps.

Honestly, this still feels a bit unnatural and uncomfortable.  I hate that I have to type those words, but it’s true.  I believe that with time, it will be an expected and natural part of our family life.  I was encouraged the one night we missed the time of family worship when, as I was tucking my son into bed, he reminded me that we didn’t read the Bible.  I apologized to him and told him we would the next day.  The fact that he asked was exciting, as it showed that it is becoming routine to him.

My prayer is that my children will grow up knowing and believing God’s word.  That they will learn to pray from me, and will desire to talk to God on their own.  That they will feel comfortable asking me questions on the Scriptures, and that I will be able to help them wade through those questions in a way that is faithful to the Bible.  And that ultimately they will carry on this tradition with their own families in the future.

If you have not set up a time for family worship, I would strongly encourage you to do so.  We need Christ to be central in our home, and what better way to start than to set aside a time every day to learn about and talk to Him as a family?

If you already have a time of family worship, I would love for you to comment and let me know what you do.  Since we are just getting started on this endeavor, I am open to ideas and suggestions!

Blessings!