Don’t Waste Your Life

29 10 2007

I’ve just finished reading John Piper’s highly acclaimed book, ‘Don’t Waste Your Life’. This has been a popular publication for Piper, and has found a welcoming audience amongst many young people – even spawning its own website.

The book is an open challenge to Christians regarding the priorities and principles that underpin their existence. Piper calls, in no uncertain terms, for radical discipleship, for a Christianity which is at the heart and not the periphery of those who own its truths.

To me this is a landmark, and vitally important book. As is always the case with Piper, his message is counter-cultural in tone, theological in basis, and inspirational in effect. The word ‘passion’ has been evacuated of most its power in our generation, but it is certainly well used with regard to the heartbeat at the centre of the book. Piper believes, and believes strongly, in the lifestyle to which he calls his readers. He believes in the supremacy of God as applied to everyday existence. He believes in risk (in human terms) for the kingdom of God.

A number of features impressed me in this book. Firstly, there is the sense that it comes as the result of a personal engagement with the themes propounded. This is not a cold academic treatise on how others should live their lives on the advice of an author. For Piper the quest not to waste his life has been an almost lifelong obsession – and one which crystallised in his thinking during the 1960s amidst the gold rush of existential philosophy. His counsel and handling of Scripture come, therefore, with the tone of a veteran rather than a guru. This authorial tone is refreshing in the extreme.

Secondly, I value the rich imagery that the author employs in his demarcation of what qualifies as an unwasted life. He writes vividly about the sacrifices made by missionaries, of lives and deaths played out in obscurity, and yet lives and deaths which count, and count enormously. He contrasts this with the flatulent dream of success and contentment promised by our society. I’ll not spoil it, but the illustration about ‘shell collecting’ is legendary! Piper also writes about adopting a ‘wartime lifestyle’ and the differences that this makes in the everyday decisions we take. He proposes that all Christians need to seat the glorious work of Christ on the cross, and the hope of glory, at the centre of all that they do.

Thirdly, I value his balanced extremism. This is a paradox, I know, but one that is crucial to understanding Piper’s preaching and writing. There is no doubt that he calls every Christian reader to leave behind their materially obsessed world view and to follow Christ radically – but Piper’s definition of this in real terms is nuanced and sensitive. He is NOT calling for all Christians to leave their jobs and go to the mission field. He credits and dignifies the lives of those heroic Christians who ‘make much of Christ in the 8 to 5’, and gives practical teaching on how the workplace can become a meaningful and vital mission field. This is much needed teaching. Personally I’ve found myself agitated and insulted in countless missionary mobilisation meetings by the rhetoric used to describe the call to follow Christ. It is often delineated in terms of ‘leave your useless 9to5, 2.4 children existence, and join the missionary-hippy movement’. Not only is this demeaning to those who are called to live for Christ in the secular marketplace, but it is downright dangerous in terms of manipulating the lives and minds of young people who may or may not be called to do so. Piper takes a purer approach, and shows the need for radical living in the office or factory floor, as much as in the front line missionary setting.

In this regard Piper also presses the need for 10/40 window focused missions work, but doesn’t discredit those of us who feel that our calling is to strengthen the Church in countries that have been ‘reached by the Gospel’ but where theological understanding and exegetical ability is wanting.

All in all, then, this is an excellent book. If you’re new to Piper, it will take you a couple of chapters to train your eye and ear to his style. Under these circumstances I would advise a slow walk through the book, rather than a sprint run. It certainly will pay off in the long term. This is a message that I need to hear personally, that Christians need to hear generally, and that the world needs to feel effectually as Christians make determined decisions not waste their one life, but to spend it for Christ in every regard.
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Soulful Timing, Incredible Energy

25 10 2007

During the early hours of this morning, in the dregs of essay writing, I turned up some great Van Morrison resources on MySpace and on YouTube by way of distraction. Morrison was the first artist whose music really struck a deep chord with me, and I can remember my earliest pay packets being poured into building a library of his CDs. I’ve been uploading some of these to iTunes while I’ve been working and have been enjoying his early work in particular, with its energy and fat, soulful vibe. The following clip is from his performance at ‘The Last Waltz’, a fond farewell to The Band. His engagement with the material, Robbie Robertson’s clear enjoyment of accompanying Van the Man, and the escalation of intensity in the performance conspire to make it a moment of greatness…even if Van’s outfit may be a little questionable in today’s terms!
If you enjoyed this, then you’ll love this link even more – unfortunately it wouldn’t allow me to embed it for some reason…

Hermeneutical Humility: New and Old

24 10 2007

There’s a lot of talk in the Christian world concerning humility and the handling of God’s Word. Prominent in this discussion are some of the statements emanating from America’s branch of the Emerging Church. According to this school of thought, humility as applied to Scripture entails a sense of uncertainty about Scripture’s meaning, message, or authority. Kristen Bell’s now famous statement in the November 2004 edition of ‘Christianity Today’ is fairly representative of this new brand of ‘humility’:

‘I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible, that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like like is big again – like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color’.

Such statements are always full of poison-candy charm. It sounds appealing, meek, and culturally sensitive to say that we don’t know, we’re not sure, we’re too humble to make positive or concrete statements. It sounds as though such an approach is an attractive alternative to the burgeoning certainty of those of us who describe ourselves as conservative evangelicals. It sounds as though this kind of ‘humility’ should resonate well with our culture, and should give it a unique selling point to a generation which doesn’t know where its centre of seat of authority is located.

Sadly, the truth is very different.

This ‘hermeneutic humility’ leaves the Church, and individual Christians, in exaclty the kind of moral and interpretative morass that theological liberalism effected a century ago. We are left with a Bible whose truth is suspect, whose authority is not only questionable but denied, and a faith whose epistemological basis is no more certain than the whim and fancy of the latest guru interpreter who might enter the ‘conversation’. It renders the Bible an intellectually suspect, devotionally compromised, theologically open document which has no more authority to speak to man’s heart or conscience than the latest edition of ‘Hello’ magazine – a hopelessly subjective source of non-certainty, non-authority, non-exclusive truth. It provides the Church with a Bible which cannot speak with any clarity in church life, public discourse, or personal discipleship. It is a Bible which will not work in teaching the heart, convicting the conscience, or engendering faith. It is a Bible which will make no sense in the ICU waiting room, in the hospice ward, or at the graveside of a loved one. It is a Bible which has no right to teach us how to live, or to view the world. It is a Bible evacuated of its power to convey the solid Truth of God to a generation floundering for want of certainty, and hungry for it. In short it leaves the Church and individual with a Bible which won’t speak at any meaningful level.

The hermeneutic humility articulated by J.C. Ryle in the introduction to his ‘Expository Thoughts on John’ is much more consistent, God-honouring and intellectually viable. His ‘humility’ is not the synonym for relativistic ignorance that Bell advocates – a humility which exalts man and situation over the text. Rather his is the humility of a finite mind brought low before the powerful Word of God; a conscience convicted of its own weakness and profound inability:

‘I believe that the inspired writers were infallibly guided by the Holy Ghost, both in their selection of matter and their choice of words. I believe that even now, when we cannot explain alleged difficulties in Holy Scripture, the wisest course is to blame the interpreter and not the text, to suspect our own ignorance to be in fault, and not any defect in God’s Word…I believe that the want of our age is not more “free” handling of the Bible, but more “reverent” handling, more humility, more patient study, more prayer. I repeat my own firm conviction, that no theory of inspiration involves so few difficulties as that of “plenary verbal inspiration”. To that theory I entirely adhere.’

Oh, for more of this kind of humility. Broken-hearted, bowed-knee, wounded-conscience humility which seeks certainty in spite of our fallen propensity to misunderstand, misinterpret and misappropriate. How we need it, how the Church needs it; how our sin-obsessed, moral freefall generation needs to see it embodied in our bold proclamation of ‘Thus says the Lord’!

An Outstanding Interview

12 10 2007

As well as Double Usefulness, I run a blog for the ‘Men for Ministry’ initiative of the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland. This is a prayerful endeavour to see men inspired, equipped, and used in the work of preaching. Part of our ministry is a semi-regular interview series with men whose lives and preaching have touched others, and whose reflections and meditations on the theme will be instructive. The latest interview has just been posted on the blog here, and is with Pastor Geoffrey Thomas of Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth. Geoff has replied extensively, thoughtfully, and convictingly to the questions posed, and it is a blessing to read his thoughts and counsel. I commend it to you.

Sidebar Shuffle

11 10 2007

I’ve been doing a little bit of clearing up on my blog, and have placed a few new features and links on my sidebar…happy browsing.

The Point of Contention Pt.1 – The Truth War

4 10 2007

This evening I finished reading The Truth War by John MacArthur. Since I first read one of his paperbacks twelve or thirteen years ago, I have found myself repeatedly challenged by MacArthur’s strict adherence to the Word of God and bold public defense of its truths. The Truth War finds him in stirring form, writing passionately and powerfully about the need for the contemporary Christian to stand up for truth amidst a postmodern, emergent, prevaricating culture – both within and without the church.

The basis for the book is the New Testament epistle of Jude, with its urgent call to Christians to ‘contend for the faith’ in the face of widespread apostasy and unbelief. MacArthur’s focus is at once expository (considering the threats of which Jude was writing), ideological (thinking through the means and methods by which Satan uses false teaching to undermine the church generally) and practical (suggesting ways in which believers might arm themselves for the ‘Truth War’). Much of his application is directed against the ‘Emerging Church’ movement, and he spares no blows when dealing with some of the statements made by Brian McLaren and Rob Bell on issues of orthodoxy and truth.

I imagine that some reviewers of this book in days to come will make much of MacArthur’s militant language, and accuse him of being ungracious, uncouth and unloving. Nothing could be further from the truth. Time and again the author emphasises that he is not advocating sectarianism or divisiveness, and argues strongly in the final chapter that love should characterise every engagement with those who undermine gospel truth – even when dealing with those who are propagating and teaching error. Anyone who accuses MacArthur of an unloving stance simply hasn’t read this book closely enough, nor understood the urgency of the issues with which he deals.

In many sections MacArthur’s earnest love for, and defense of, truth are on clear display. Here’s a sample:

‘My heart resonates with Jude’s concern for the church, his love for the gospel, and his passion for the truth. I too would prefer to write about something positive – concerning such things as the riches of salvation and all the joy and blessings that belong to all who are truly in Christ; our love for the Lord; and especially His grace and glory. In fact, this book is ultimately about those things and how to safeguard them, because they are precisely the points of truth that are ultimately at stake in the Truth War.’ [xxvi]

One other clever aspect of the book is its use of episodes from church history to illustrate the need to stand for truth. As I read these sections it brought out something which has risen to the forefront of my thoughts over the past few months as I have worked my way through the biographies of great men in church history: namely how many were called to wage war and contend for the truth of the gospel. MacArthur writes:

‘The handful of vignettes from church history we have examined together in this book are only a brief introduction to how the Truth War has been fought over the past two millennia. I hope what we have examined here will provoke you to pursue the study further on your own. Look at any period of church history and you will discover this significant fact: Whenever the people of God have sought peace with the world or made alliances with false religions, it has meant a period of serious spritual decline, even to the point where at times the truth seemed almost to be in total eclipse. But whenever Christians have contended earnestly for the faith, the church has grown and the cause of truth has prospered. May it be so in our time.’ [184]

Over the next while I hope to follow this counsel and post some thoughts on contention from my biographical readings, and from ‘The Truth War’, drawing out the difference that contention has made for the truth of the gospel and the expansion of Christ’s kingdom. It will be a sporadic series over the next number of months, Lord willing.

Finally, I heartily commend this book to all. As with any publication there are elements with which I am not entirely comfortable. His use of metaphors from America’s ‘War on Terror’ leave me a little uneasy at times, and a slight tendency to sweep all those who are propounding various errors into the emergent camp is somewhat offputting. But these are minor concerns to say the least.

If you’re interested in reading The Truth War for yourself, or in the issues with which it deals, Pyromaniacs are hosting a discussion post sometime this month which will be interesting, provocative, and well worth looking out for.

Pray for MEET

3 10 2007

The Missions Experience and Exposure Team (MEET), a group of young people being sent to Peru with Baptist Missions for 9 months of ministry, left today for Peru. Please pray for them, that the Lord would use their efforts and labours for Him in days to come. In particular, please pray for team member Graham McCracken who, for medical reasons, has not been able to travel with the team. Pray that the Lord would bless, strengthen, and settle him amidst the disappointment he is now facing.

Up to date news on the work of MEET can be read here.