New Life in Christ: What Really Happens When You’re Born Again and Why It Matters by Steven Lawson. Baker Books. 224 pages. 2020
In this book, pastor Steven Lawson considers the new birth by looking at Jesus’s well-known encounter nighttime encounter with Nicodemus in John 3. I have seen the author preach on numerous occasions, and as Sinclair Ferguson writes in the “Foreword”, you may, as I did, hear his voice preaching as you read this book, which reads like one of his preaching series, and is a nice companion to his Ligonier Ministries teaching series The New Birth.
What does it mean to be born again? The author tells us that being born again means that God implants divine life within our spiritually dead heart. He tells us that there are two sides of the entrance into the kingdom of God. On one side is the person’s activity. The other side involves God’s activity. God must cause a person to be born again, which, in turn, produces saving faith. It is the new birth that enables us to receive Jesus Christ into our life. Similarly, R.C. Sproul would often say that “regeneration proceeds faith”.
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BOOK REVIEWS ~ More of this review… and reviews of
~ Making a Difference: Impacting Culture and Society as a Christian by R.C. Sproul and
~ I Still Believe: A Memoir of Wreckage, Recovery, and Relentless Love. Russ and Tori Taff with Mark Smeby
BOOK NEWS ~ Links to Interesting Articles
BOOK CLUB ~ The Gospel According to Jesus by John MacArthur
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The author tells us that regeneration is not a cooperative effort between two parties or a joint project involving two equals. Instead, the new birth is exclusively a divine work of God in the human heart. God must first originate new life within each dead heart. He must create saving faith. Only then are we enabled to respond to the gospel.
The author takes us through the nighttime conversation between the religious leader Nicodemus and Jesus in John 3: 1-21. He then applies his teaching with challenges to the reader about your own life.
The author tells us that Nicodemus was strictly religious and highly successful. He was outwardly moral and supremely regarded. But, unknown to Nicodemus, what he needed was God Himself. He needed the spiritual life that only God can give. Nicodemus stands as a prime example of someone who can cognitively know many facts about the Bible but not personally know God, and can be so close to the kingdom of God, yet so far away from it.
As Nicodemus talked to Jesus, he had to address Who exactly was Jesus? Who was this One standing before him? Why should he believe Him? The author tells us that these are also the answers that determine whether each of us accepts Christ’s words. Who really is Jesus? It is the decisive question all of us must face.
This is a well-written and easy to understand book that would be a good one to read and discuss with a non-believer or a new believer.
Below are 10 of my favorite quotes from the book:
- Being born from above radically alters us to the very core of our being. Instead of chasing after the allure of the world, our heart is now bent toward the worship of the glorious God.
- The hardest people to reach with the gospel are those who falsely presume they have a right relationship with God. These individuals are often highly moral in their personal life. They never see that they must be born again.
- People can have a head full of doctrinal truths, a biblical worldview, the standing of a model citizen, a reputation as religious, and even church status as a leader. In their own eyes, they are in good standing in the family of God. But here is the sad reality: they do not possess eternal life.
- No one is too sinful to be beyond the saving power of God. Nor is anyone so good that they do not need it.
- Being born again does not mean a good person becomes better or a sick person becomes well. The new birth involves a far greater change than this. It is, more accurately, a dead person coming to life.
- Our obedience does not produce the new birth. Rather, it is the new life from God that causes this obedience.
- Wherever there is regeneration, there will be spiritual growth in sanctification.
- God must regenerate us before we can exercise saving faith. The new birth gives us the spiritual capacity to respond to the gospel.
- There are many things we can risk being wrong about, but we cannot risk being wrong about the state of our soul with God.
- Repentance is a renunciation of all confidence in yourself to commend you to God. It is the denial of your self-efforts in order to trust Jesus Christ with your life and eternal destiny.
Making a Difference: Impacting Culture and Society as a Christian by R.C. Sproul. Baker Books. 212 pages. 2019
This book was originally published in 1986 under the title Lifeviews: Understanding The Ideas That Shape Society Today. I noticed few updates to the original book. However, though written more than 30 years ago, the book is still very relevant today.
Dr. Sproul tells us that we all have a mission field, if only our own neighborhood or office building. In all of life’s situations we are to be His witnesses. Our job is to make the invisible reign of Jesus visible. We have all been sent to bear witness to Christ. If we as Christian missionaries are to be able to communicate to our diverse society, we need to be aware of the dominant systems of thought that are at work within our society.
The author writes that the book is an attempt to describe the culture of the United States as it now exists, to show how this culture affects Christians, and to suggest how we can respond biblically to that culture as Christian witnesses. He writes that he doubts if there has been a period in all of Christian history when so many Christians are so ineffectual in shaping the culture in which they live as it is true right now in the United States.
The book is broken into two major sections. In the first half, the author looks at perspectives in life, or worldviews, unifying systems of thought prevalent in our culture today. In the second half of the book he looks at the Christian’s role in society. He turns our attention to several aspects of our society to see how they are influenced by these world views. Questions for discussion are included at the end of each chapter, making this a book that would be good to read and discuss in a group setting.
Below are a few helpful quotes from each chapter:
- The dominant ism of American culture, the ism reflected in the news media, the film industry, the novel, and the art world, is secularism.
- The secular refers then to this world in this time. Its point of focus is here and now. The biblical worldview has a long-term view of human life. The term is much longer than that of secularism.
- If there is one message that I can give to my generation it is this: Right now counts forever. What you and I do now has eternal significance.
- Secularism as an ism must include within its worldview at least an implicit atheism.
- Most of those who accept secularism and who are thinking people, ultimately embrace a philosophy of despair.
- Existentialism is a philosophy about human existence. It views man not so much in terms of his mind or his soul, but of his will, his feelings.
- The rapid spread and enormous impact of existential philosophy upon our culture has been uncanny. I doubt if there has been any philosophical system that has had as much influence on American culture in the twentieth century as this school of thought.
- We encounter the influence of existentialism virtually every day of our lives and in virtually every sphere of our culture.
- The arts have been major vehicles to communicate the ideas of existentialism to American society.
- Consistent humanism must be atheistic.
- Humanism is fundamentally irrational.
- The irony of our culture is that humanism has become the dominant philosophy of intellectuals.
- The principal vehicle for the dissemination of humanist philosophy is the public-school system. This is the clear strategy of the humanist.
- Christians, after decades, are beginning to wake up and see that our children are being taught one set of values in the home and in the church, while they get another philosophical system through public education.
- Modern humanism gets progressively more hostile toward Christianity, particularly at the level of public education.
- The battle between the Christian and the humanist is being fought and will continue to be fought in the arena of education.
- The pragmatist is concerned about right now. What works now?
- In pragmatism truth is inevitably relativized.
- If truth is determined by what works for the individual, then the test for truth ultimately becomes the individual himself.
- For the pragmatists, every end is a means. There are no ultimate goals. Every end is a short-term end, and that end becomes a means to another end, and so on, but you never get to a final solution.
- The real conflict between Christianity and pragmatism is the conflict between what is right and what is expedient.
- The quest for ultimate truth in philosophy is called the science of metaphysics.
- In the final analysis positivism offers a truncated science, a science so limited in scope that it ignores the wider realm of truth. It seeks to make science independent of other closely related fields of inquiry. It cuts us off from ultimate meaning.
Pluralism and Relativism
- Once we embrace relativism we live in a world of ultimate chaos.
- The question we must raise with relativism is, who decides what is important? On what basis are decisions made?
- Pluralism says not only are all views equally tolerable under the law, but all views are equally valid.
- The hedonist’s constant goal in life is to pursue those things that increase pleasure and decrease pain.
The Christian and World Economics
- Economics therefore has to do with managing the resources that ultimately belong to God.
- It is important to remember that labor does not come to us as a result of the fall. It originates from our God who is a working God.
- Integral to our vocations as human beings is God’s design for us to be productive, to bring forth the fruit of our labor.
The Christian and Science
- Christians are needed by the thousands to venture into the realm of nature, armed with the knowledge of grace. We can show that a God who exists on the other side of the wall is concerned with life on this side of that wall.
The Christian and Art
- What I find in much so-called Christian art today is that which is not only superficial and cheap—but what is also boring. The beautiful should never be boring.
- If art is good art, if it is true art, if it is beautiful art, then it is bearing witness to the Author of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
- As Christians in the realm of art, our impetus for producing Christian art is a desire for excellence.
The Christian and Literature
- I’ve often wondered where Jesus would apply His hastily made whip if He were to visit our culture. My guess is that it would not be money-changing tables in the temple that would feel His wrath, but the display racks in Christian bookstores.
- Often what we find in contemporary literature is a sense of the absence of God. There is a haunting feeling of loneliness.
- In much of modern literature there are also stains of bitterness toward religion and even overt hostility to the church.
- As missionaries to our culture, we need to support Christians who will make a serious contribution to the medium of literature, a contribution that will communicate with our culture and influence it for good.
The Christian and Government
- In Romans 13, the call to obedience is to those who have actual authority, not to those who merely possess de facto power.
- Whenever the earthly authority commands us to do something that God forbids, or forbids us from doing something God commands, it is our duty to disobey the earthly authorities. God’s authority is always higher than His delegated officers.
- The biblical principle is to render obedience wherever we can unless our doing so conflicts with our obeying God.
- Biblically speaking, the Christian is asked to bend over backward to respect authority wherever he sees it. He is to exhibit a spirit of obedience rather than of lawlessness.
- If the civil authority commands us to do something that God has forbidden, or forbids us from doing something that God has commanded, not only may we disobey, but we must disobey! We must always obey God rather than man.
- For many people, the concept of separation of church and state has come to mean the separation of state and God, as if the state ruled autonomously on the basis of its own intrinsic authority. Christians must never believe that. Instead, we must see that state as answerable to God, ordained by God, and as a legitimate vehicle for the people of God to serve God.
I Still Believe: A Memoir of Wreckage, Recovery, and Relentless Love. Russ and Tori Taff with Mark Smeby. Post Hill Press. 240 pages. 2019.
I’ve enjoyed Russ Taff’s music from his days in the Imperials through his excellent 2018 album Believe. This book is a companion to the film Russ Taff: I Still Believe, and is about his life of childhood trauma, depression and addiction to alcohol, and the impact on his wife Tori and their children. The book is written in both Russ and wife Tori’s voices. It also includes a number of reflections from family members and friends from the Christian music industry, as well as lyrics from many songs that Russ and Tori wrote over the years. The authors write that the purpose of telling their story is to “unflinchingly shine a light on the devastating, long-term effects of trauma, abuse, and addiction—and bear witness to other hurting families that recovery, forgiveness, and restoration are truly possible.”
Russ, who was born in California, writes about his father, who had been a hard drinker during his army years, but stopped when he got saved. He felt called to the ministry, and was at various times a Pentecostal pastor of a local church, and at other times would preach revivals for a month in Arkansas and Missouri. Russ writes when his father was in the pulpit was the only time he felt good about himself. After a prescription for pain medication ran out, Russ’s Dad began drinking again. Their home life swung from one extreme to another. His father would be in the pulpit preaching a hard holiness gospel one day, then another day he would just disappear getting drunk. The family home with all its dysfunction (alcoholic father, depressed mother, verbal and physical abuse, etc.) was not a safe place for Russ and his young brother Earl (who would die from addiction at age 45).
When Russ was fifteen the family moved from California to Arkansas. It was there that he and a few guys from his church formed a band called Sounds of Joy. The band would open for the Imperials at a concert in his hometown, which would lead to an opportunity to try out with the band later.
Russ was able to experience a revival at his high school, with 85 percent of the student body professing faith in Jesus the year he graduated.
After high school Russ attended Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas. He was only able to stay one semester until he was called home with the family in shambles again. The family decided to move back to California, while Russ stayed in Arkansas, where he moved in with the Smedleys, which changed his changed my life as he got to see what a normal family looked like.
Russ became the youth and music pastor at a new church. It was at a church event that he would first meet Tori.
He then worked with evangelist Jerry Savelle, leading worship for two years, which he writes were some of the best years of his life. From there he joined the Imperials, one of the top contemporary Christians groups at the time. It was disappointing to read that Russ was not treated well during his time with the group, getting paid poorly and being threatened that there was a line of singers would love to replace him. He writes that it was like he was back in his house in California, trying to earn approval and show that he was worth something. He writes that after spending two and a half years with Jerry Savelle, who was a caring, encouraging person, he joined a group where it wasn’t like that anymore. He did reconcile with a member of the group shortly before leaving the group just before their 1987 album Priority was released.
Tori writes that she started noticing differences, such as mood changes, in Russ in the first year and a year of their marriage. He would eventually be diagnosed with depression.
The early days of their marriage, when Russ’s career was taking off, were good days for the Taffs, as Tori often traveled with the Imperials and with Russ when he started his solo career.
Russ writes of starting to drink, which made the pain of the childhood trauma and covert incest go away. The alcohol softened the edges and his life didn’t feel so hopeless. But after a relatively short amount of time, the alcohol turned on him, and he didn’t feel the euphoria anymore. The drinking began to increase the pain because there was so much guilt.
He kept this from Tori for a number of years. She started sensing that he was becoming secretive, that he was hiding something. She saw it come out as anger and later lying. She felt something dark and shadowy in him for the first time. He was moody and deeply, but quietly angry. She could feel their marriage crumbling, but couldn’t identify the enemy because he was leading a secret life. He then began to smoke, which made no sense to Tori.
Some of the best times for them were also some of the worst times. A successful album like Medals, and tour, was immediately followed by a drop into sullenness and despair.
Eventually Tori would become aware of his addiction to alcohol. Russ had been diagnosed with a disorder called dysthymia, a long-term chronic form of depression that causes people to lose interest in normal daily activities, have low self-esteem, and feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness. He had probably suffered from it most of his life. Over time, the depression and alcohol sucked the life out of their marriage. Russ was destroying everything around him, his marriage, other relationships and his career.
From this time, Russ would seek out rehab treatment three times, attending AA meetings, with Tori attending Al-Anon meetings. But he would continue to have relapses when difficult times happened, such as the death of his father. This was difficult for Russ to process as he writes that he was raised in a denomination where you were told to pray it away and fast it away. A major event in his story is when he appeared drunk at the Timeless: Concert of Faith & Inspiration event in which he was to reunite with the Imperials.
Finally, Russ was told that his core problem was untreated trauma and PTSD, and until that was truly dealt with he was going to continue to relapse every time the pain got to be unbearable. He then travelled to the Life Healing Center in Santa Fe, California for 65 days of treatment. It was there that he could finally see his parents as damaged people who had unwittingly passed their generational wounds on down to their children.
Tori’s role in this story is very important. Through it all, she continued to love Russ, and stay with him, when many, if not most wives, would have left. She writes that Russ’ trauma was his childhood and her trauma was Russ’ addiction. Russ writes that Tori is the true champion of this story, as she fought for him when he couldn’t fight for himself.
I enjoyed the part of the book in which Russ took a break from the story of his depression and addiction to write about his music.
The Taffs have two daughters – Madeleine Rose and Charlotte. Russ tells us that he is finally telling his story so God can get the glory for all that he has done for him and his family.
Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga and Why We Need Fantasy. Ginger Blomberg writes “Seeing truths embodied through characters in stories persuades us of their truth at the deepest level of our being.”
BOOK CLUB – Won’t you read along with us?
We are reading through John MacArthur’s classic book The Gospel According to Jesus. What did Jesus mean when He said, “Follow me”? MacArthur tackled that seemingly simple question and provided the evangelical world with the biblical answer. For many, the reality of Jesus’ demands has proved thoroughly searching, profoundly disturbing, and uncomfortably invasive; and yet, heeding His words is eternally rewarding. The 20th anniversary edition of the book has revised and expanded the original version to handle contemporary challenges. The debate over what some have called “lordship salvation” hasn’t ended—every generation must face the demands Christ’s lordship. Will you read along with us?
Here are a few takeaways from Chapter 8 “He Seeks and Saves the Lost”:
- There is no more glorious truth in the Bible than the words of Luke 19:10: “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” That verse sums up the work of Christ on earth.
- Whatever terms Jesus employed — receiving eternal life, entering the kingdom, or being saved — the essence of His message was always the gospel of salvation.
- Humble repentance is the only acceptable response to the gospel according to Jesus.
- Genuine saving faith changes behavior, transforms thinking, and puts within a person a new heart.
- Contemporary Christianity often accepts a shallow repentance that bears no fruit.