Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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Confessions of a (Recovering) Elder Brother

Growing up, when I would read Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (in Luke 15:11–32), it was always the younger brother, the prodigal son, that I felt was the focus of the story. After all, that was the title of the parable, right? But that all changed when I read two excellent books on this parable in 2008 – A Tale of Two Sons (later retitled as The Prodigal Son), by John MacArthur, and The Prodigal God by Tim Keller.
MacArthur tells us that the lesson of the elder brother, who symbolizes the Pharisees in the parable, is often overlooked in many popular retellings. And yet it is, he states, the main reason Jesus told the parable.  He tells us that there’s good reason this short story pulls at the heartstrings of so many hearers – we recognize ourselves in it. This is true whether we are believers, conscious of our own guilt but still unrepentant, sinners coming to repentance, or unbelievers.  This parable, and MacArthur’s and Keller’s books resonate with me so much because I unfortunately see the potential for too much of the elder brother in me. After attending Scotty Smith’s “Disciplines of Grace” class at Covenant Seminary a few years back, in which he used Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son (see above), I kept a poster of the painting in my office at work, and would often look up at the condemning elder son.
Here are a few ways in which I have seen myself demonstrate the traits of the elder brother:

  • Doctrinal Pride. Tim Keller writes that what elder brothers pride themselves above all is their right religion. He states that if a group believes God favors them because of their particularly true doctrine, ways of worship, and ethical behavior, their attitude toward those without these things can be hostile. I believe doctrine is important, very important. I don’t apologize for that. However, I often find myself being intolerant of believers who don’t adhere to the conservative, Reformed theology that I do. And I can be pretty critical (see next paragraph) about worship styles that are different from my preferences. What about you? Are you willing to respect the views of fellow believers that don’t align exactly with yours?
  • Critical or Judgmental Spirit. In Rembrandt’s painting, the elder brother is standing on a platform, elevated above his father and repentant younger brother. He looks down with a condemning spirit. Keller states that elder brothers have an unforgiving, judgmental spirit. Unfortunately, I find that I too often have a critical or judgmental spirit. This is something that I have to continually hold myself accountable for.
  • Duty and Compliance over Joy. Keller states that another sign of those with an elder brother spirit is joyless, fear-based compliance. He tells us that the elder brother shows that his obedience to his father is nothing but duty. There is no joy or love, and no reward in just seeing his father pleased. The elder brother is a perfect emblem for the Pharisees. He had no appreciation for grace because he thought he didn’t need it. Elder brothers live good lives out of fear, not out of joy and love. Notice in the three parables in Luke 15 that something was lost, something was found, and friends, neighbors and family are called together to celebrate and rejoice.
    I am a very compliant and obedient person. One of my top five Strengthsfinder themes is responsibility.  At times, I have to check my motivation for doing things. For example, why do I read the Bible each day? Is it a duty, or do I do it to learn more about God, so that I can love Him more?  Do you also at times struggle with compliance and duty over joy?I don’t want to be the elder brother, but unfortunately, at times I display some of his traits.  Do you find that you do so as well?
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Living Dangerously in Retirement

Are you still working? When are you going to retire? I hear that often these days when I see people I worked with in the past but haven’t seen for a while, or from friends or members of my extended family. And the truth be told, many people that I have worked with have retired over the past few years. It’s hard to believe; one day you are the youngest on the staff and then seemingly in no time, you are the oldest.
But I’m not one who has ever counted down the years, weeks or days until retirement. I still love my job and the people I work with, and that makes a big difference. But I know that some people hate their jobs and can’t wait to retire, the ultimate “Is it Friday yet?”
How should Christians think about retirement? Is it all about taking it easy, traveling and playing golf? Or perhaps taking a part-time job and doing some volunteer work? John Piper has been helpful in shaping my thoughts on retirement. Here are three ideas for you to consider based on his writings in his little book entitled, Rethinking Retirement: Finishing Life for the Glory of Christ:

  1. The Bible doesn’t explicitly talk about retirement. We don’t, for example, read about Moses or the Apostle Paul retiring at age 65. Piper writes: “Finishing life to the glory of Christ means resolutely resisting the typical American dream of retirement.” I know this will be unpopular with some readers and some will object to this concept, feeling that they deserve a life of leisure after working in jobs for perhaps fifty years. But I believe that this thinking is culturally based and ultimately unbiblical. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
  2. Finish strong. I want to finish strong, and be like Paul when he wrote in II Timothy 4:7 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”. I long to hear my Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”. On the occasion of his death not long ago, I wrote about Art Moser, my model for finishing strong. In my Divine Design Assessment completed in Dr. Douglass’s class at Covenant Seminary, I wrote about Art as one of the people in ministry I most admire. I served for years as an Elder with Art. I appreciated many things about him including his ability to finish strong. Well into his 80’s he was still mentoring young men, reading books and writing book reviews and articles for our church newsletter, which preceded this blog. May I say that Art “didn’t act his age”, and I mean that in the most positive and respectful way. Art modeled finishing strong for me – may I be like him as I finish my race.

Piper writes that finishing life to the glory of Christ means finishing life in a way that makes Christ look glorious. How about you? How do you plan to spend your final years to make a difference for Christ?

  1. Don’t Waste Your Retirement. John Piper’s excellent book Don’t Waste Your Life is one of my favorites, and one that I have read often. In that book Piper writes: “I will tell you what a tragedy is. I will show you how to waste your life. Consider a story from the February 1998 edition of Reader’s Digest, which tells about a couple who “took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.”  At first, when I read it I thought it might be a joke. A spoof on the American Dream. But it wasn’t. Tragically, this was the dream: Come to the end of your life—your one and only precious, God-given life—and let the last great work of your life before you give an account to your Creator be this: playing softball and collecting shells.  Picture them before Christ at the great Day of Judgment: ‘Look, Lord. See my shells.’ That is a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. Over against that, I put my protest: Don’t buy it. Don’t waste your life.”

If we retire in our late 50’s or early to mid-60’s, hopefully we will have many years before our physical and mental powers fail. Piper challenges us to live those final years for the glory of Christ. If you are retired, or within a few years of retiring, how do you plan to live them in such a way as to show that Christ is your highest Treasure?
Lord willing, I hope to not waste my retirement. Completing my seminary education served to equip me theologically. In God’s providence, I hope to serve my Jesus and my church through teaching, mentoring and discipling during my retirement for as long as I am physically and mentally able.
Piper charges us to: “Live dangerously for the one who loved you and died for you in his thirties. Don’t throw your life away on the American dream of retirement.”  How do you plan to live dangerously in your last season of life for Christ?


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Think Before You Sing ~ Part III

Revelation 7:9-10

Remember that question in Part I of Think Before You Sing (read Part I and Part II) I wanted you to mull over…  What is the purpose of worship?
Is it to give us an emotional impact by replicating stadium-style worship concerts?  Is it to bring young people into the church or brand our church?

Try this answer on for size:  We are to worship God how God wants us to worship Him.  Worship should first and foremost be designed to please God.

Worship must not be designed to please the unbeliever for evangelistic purposes or the believer to raise emotional fervor. The nineteenth-century pastor Charles Spurgeon said, “The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them.”  Entertainment can stir the emotions, but God uses the means of grace to change our affections. Yes, worship also raises our religious affections.  So who would have guessed that Jonathan Edwards from the 1700’s would write about religious affections?  A stuffy stodgy old Puritan?  I dare you to read more about it: https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/evangelical-history/2016/09/21/the-religious-affections-by-jonathan-edwards-a-qa-on-an-evangelical-classic/

Jesus taught the most basic principle for worship—“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Zeal of the heart is not sufficient to make our praise pleasing in God’s sight. One of the most enthusiastic worship services in history was the worship of the golden calf, and that did not end well for the worshipers (Ex. 32). Praise from the heart is not enough to please the Lord if we are not worshiping the true God, and so we must prize truth alongside ardor when we praise our Creator.   We must emphasize both heartfelt praise of our Creator and worship that is structured according to His Word.

Are you a Spectator on Sunday Morning?  I agree with modern hymn writer Keith Getty ~ Worship should also be the congregation singing to each other the goodness of the Lord; singing the Bible (Eph. 5:19Col. 3:16) and joining with the voices of Christians over thousands of years in singing timeless truths.    It’s time to tear down the performance-oriented/concert-style stage, make the Word and the pulpit central again, turn down the volume of the instruments, turn up the houselights and enjoy singing alongside and hearing our Christian brothers and sisters sing of God and His glory accompanied by a variety of instruments.  Can I get an Amen?

PSALM 150

1 Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! 
2 Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! 
3 Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! 
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! 
6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!


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Think Before You Sing ~ Part II

In Part I while thinking about worship lyrics and theology, we discussed  “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong – you can read Part I here.   I’m reminded of a song popularized years ago by Michael W. Smith, “Above All”. I recall Contemporary Christian artist and now pastor, Steve Camp, commenting about the poor theology in the song, which contained the chorus:

Revelation 7:9-10

Crucified
Laid behind the stone
You lived to die
Rejected and alone
Like a rose trampled on the ground
You took the fall
And thought of me
Above all

The song does affirm the substitutionary atonement of Christ. But it tells us that when Christ was on the cross, he thought of us (man) above all. Is that correct? No, Jesus went to the cross out of obedience to his Father, pleading in the Garden of Gethsemane “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).  The Son entered into a sacred agreement (the covenant of redemption) with the Father in eternity past. He submitted Himself to the obligations of that covenantal agreement. An obligation was likewise assumed by the Father — to give His Son a reward for doing the work of redemption.  Christ became the heir of His Father’s promises and we are joint heirs with Christ.

We have to be careful when singing contemporary and traditional worship songs containing bad theology. Even the great hymn by Charles Wesley “And Can It Be” has lines that are questionable, indicating that Christ “emptied himself of all but love”.  This is called kenotic Christology and says the Son of God set aside certain divine attributes when He became incarnate. Such is impossible, for then He would not be fully God and could not save us. John Calvin comments, “Christ, indeed, could not divest himself of Godhead; but he kept it concealed for a time, that it might not be seen, under the weakness of the flesh. Hence he laid aside his glory in the view of men, not by lessening it, but by concealing it.”

What about Charles Wesley writing that God himself actually died on the cross?

Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Verse 2:  ’Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?  

Here’s a good article that addresses this error:  http://www.ligonier.org/blog/it-accurate-say-god-died-cross/

OK, can I just add an addendum…there’s bad theology in lyrics, and then there’s just bad lyrics.  Take for example “Knowing You” by Graham Kendrick:

Knowing you, Jesus
Knowing you, there is no greater thing
You’re my all, you’re the best

You’re the best?  Really?  Doesn’t it sound like a beer commercial?  Our worship leader changed those words to “you’re my rest” which is a lot better.

So, yes, the theology in our hymns does matter. Words Matter.  Fortunately, I’ve not had to worry about that at the church that I attend. One faithful servant has picked out the music to correspond with the text being preached for many years now.   She chooses the best of the old and the best of the new, and often chooses songs written by Keith Getty, who desires to revive congregational singing.  Check out his new book Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church.

I’d like to encourage all of us (myself included) to learn to sing out of the hymnbook that God has already provided for us.  No, not the Trinity Hymnal.  The Book of Psalms!!  You can’t go wrong with these lyrics.  Crown and Covenant has put out Singable Psalms in pocket size.  You can go to their website, crownandcovenant.com and also psalter.org and find companion resources such as a familiar hymn tune list & library, harmony helps, text search tool, phone apps and recordings.

So in Part III we’ll discuss the question… What is the purpose of worship?

Let me hear your answers!


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Think Before You Sing

Revelation 7:9-10

Back in May, while in Atlanta for business, we visited a large church in our denomination. One of the songs that was sung during the worship service was new to me. I later found out it was “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong.   The song is now being sung in worship services around the world, has become a best-selling song on the iTunes charts, and recently received Dove Award nominations for song of the year and worship song of the year (Dove Awards are the Christian music industry equivalent of the Grammy Awards). It is a song that is memorable musically, and allows Christians to focus on the name of the Lord, but does it contain some questionable theology? And does the theology of the worship songs we sing matter, or are they just intended to impact our emotions?
After the worship service, both my wife and I commented on lyrics from the song that hit both of us the wrong way. Those lyrics from the second verse were:

You didn’t want heaven without us
So Jesus, You brought heaven down   

My sin was great, Your love was greater
What could separate us now . . .
 

These lyrics seem to infer that Jesus (and by implication the Father and Holy Spirit), was somehow lonely and incomplete without mankind. Jesus didn’t want heaven without man so He brought heaven down? But that is not the case at all of course. The Trinity has been in perfect fellowship, love and unity since before the beginning of time.   And the only time heaven will be brought down is when the new heaven and the new earth is revealed (Revelation 21).
Two pastors and theologians that I greatly admire also share concerns about the song. For example, John MacArthur states “The writer of “What a Beautiful Name” would have us believe that the reason for Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was because He “didn’t want heaven without us.” That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not remotely biblical. In fact, it’s doctrinal malpractice by people who should know better.”
And John Piper, in responding to a concerned listener on his “Ask Pastor John” podcast, states “It fits too easily into a theology of a God who created because he was lonely, and then saved people for the same reason. He just can’t be happy without us.”
Jesus taught the most basic principle for worship—“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Zeal of the heart is not sufficient to make our praise pleasing in God’s sight. Praise from the heart is not enough to please the Lord if we are not worshiping the true God, and so we must prize truth alongside ardor when we praise our Creator.   We must emphasize both heartfelt praise of our Creator and worship that is structured according to His Word.”  (From Glorifying God in Worship – Ligonier Ministries)  We should thoughtfully participate in worship every Sunday, and be aware of the words that we are singing to God.

What other hymns or worship songs would you call out that have questionable theology?   I’ll have a few more for you in Part II of “Think Before You Sing”.  And while you’re waiting for those, mull over this question for me: What is the purpose of worship?  Stay tuned for Part III !!!


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Will There Be Work in Heaven?

How about you? Do you now or have you at one time thought that the only work that had value in God’s eyes was “full-time Christian work”, such as serving in the ministry as a pastor or missionary? Do you feel that there is “sacred” or “religious” work, and everything else is “secular work”, and that secular work is a necessary evil, just to pay the bills and support your family, and contribute to God’s mission, but having no real value in God’s eyes?  That is what many Christians think.

If we were to admit it, many of those we work with, and perhaps some of us, view work as a necessary evil. Most don’t look at their work as a vocation, a calling, or even a career. No, it’s just a job. They embrace Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” philosophy, celebrate reaching “Hump Day”, ask “Is it Friday yet?”, get the “Sunday Night Blues” as they think about going to work on Monday morning, and count down the days until they can retire.

I wonder if many have a low value of work because they think it is temporal. Many believe that work is something that we will only do on earth.  But is that true? Some reading I’ve been doing recently would seem to contradict that thinking.

Randy Alcorn, author of Heaven, writes of our work continuing in Heaven. He states “Work in Heaven won’t be frustrating or fruitless; instead it will involve lasting accomplishment, unhindered by decay and fatigue, enhanced by unlimited resources. We’ll approach our work with the enthusiasm we bring to our favorite sport or hobby. Because there will be continuity from the old Earth to the new, it’s possible we’ll continue some of the work we started on the old Earth.”

Paul Stevens in his book Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture writes that our final destiny is not a workless utopia, but a renewed world in which we will work with infinite creativity and fulfillment.

In his chapter “What Does the Culture Say?” in the new book The Gospel & Work, Daniel Darling writes that many, if not most, Christians see their workplaces as simple vehicles by which they can provide for their families, tithe their incomes to the church, and perhaps engage in occasional evangelistic conversations. The actual work seems unimportant in light of eternity. But he tells us, our job on Monday is not a means to an end—it is part of your divine calling to fulfill the mandate given to us as God’s image bearers. The cubicle, the garage, the classroom—these are sanctuaries where you are called to worship your Creator with your best work. Our work on earth, when done for the glory of Christ, passes the test of fire (1 Cor. 3:12–13) and is mere preparation for our perfected vocations in eternity.

Here are a few Bible passages to ponder on the subject:

  • We will serve Him day and night in His temple – Revelation 7:15
  • His servants reign forever and ever – Revelation 22:5
  • We will rule over many things – Matthew 25:23

How about you? Do you believe that work is only temporal and that we won’t have work in Heaven?  Why or why not?


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MY 2017 FAVORITES…so far


It’s hard to believe that we are at mid-year already. I wanted to share with you some of my favorites from the first half of 2017 in a variety of categories. Except for books, these are all items that were released or took place in 2017. For books, I include my favorite books that I’ve actually read thus far during 2017.  Enjoy, and please let me know what you think of my list and share some of your favorites.

Music ~ I enjoy music in a variety of genres. My favorites thus far are:

Albums ~Top Pick: Crooked – Propaganda

Here are the rest of my favorite albums (in no particular order) thus far:

  • The Joshua Tree (Super Deluxe) – U2
  • Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Deluxe Edition) – Beatles
  • Triplicate – Bob Dylan
  • The Misadventures of Fern & Marty – Social Club Misfits
  • Cinco – Jim Gaffigan
  • Flowers in the Dirt (Special Edition) – Paul McCartney

Songs ~ Top pick: Blessings – Lecrae (featuring TY Dollar $ign)                

Here are the rest of my favorite songs (in no particular order), thus far:

  • Revival – Third Day
  • I’ll Find You – Lecrae featuring Tori Kelly
  • My Song is Love Unknown – Fernando Ortega
  • Your Cross Changes Everything – Matt Redman
  • Your Love Defends Me – Matt Maher

Concerts  ~ Top Pick: U2’s The Joshua Tree Tour at Soldier Field in Chicago with the Lumineers opening.

Musicals  ~ Top Pick: Hamilton in Chicago

Books ~ In this category, while many of the books were published in 2017, I list the best of the books I actually read in 2017. My favorites thus far are:

Top pick: The Legacy of Luther, edited by R.C. Sproul and Stephen Nichols

Here are the rest of my favorite books (in no particular order), thus far:

  • The Gospel According to Paul: Embracing the Good News at the Heart of Paul’s Teachings – John MacArthur
  • Glory in the Ordinary: Why Your Work in the Home Matters to God – Courtney Reisigg
  • Learning to Love the Psalms – Robert Godfrey
  • Calling to Christ: Where’s My Place? – Robert Smart
  • Discipleship with Monday in Mind: How Churches Across the Country Are Helping Their People Connect Faith and Work – Skye Jethani and Luke Bobo
  • Between Heaven and the Real World: My Story – Steven Curtis Chapman
  • Leaders Made Here: Building a Leadership Culture – Mark Miller
  • Workplace Grace – Bill Peel and Walt Larimore
  • Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear – Scott Sauls
  • Reset – David Murray
  • Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen

See what I’m reading now.

Movies ~ I usually see at least one movie a week. Here is the best – and the worst – of what I’ve seen thus far:

Top Pick:  Hidden Figures

Here are the rest of my favorite movies (in no particular order), thus far:

  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  • Gifted
  • The Case for Christ
  • A United Kingdom
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Get Out
  • Lion
  • Baby Driver
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Unfortunately, there have also been a few poor movies I’ve seen as well. Here are the two worst movies I’ve seen thus far:

  • The Resurrection of Gavin Stone
  • The Zookeeper’s Wife

Television Program

Top Pick:  The Profit. Season 4 is finally here. If you are not familiar with this show, read more about it here.

Podcasts

Top Pick: Albert Mohler’s The Briefing. Each weekday morning, Albert Mohler hosts a podcast providing worldview analysis about the leading news headlines and cultural conversations.  This is required listening for me. Check out Dr. Mohler’s website.

Also, I was happy to hear recently that Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent podcast Revisionist History returning for season two. Listen to the first episode “A Good Walk Spoiled” here.

Blogs

Top Pick: Tim Challies’ Ala Carte. This is required reading for me each Monday through Saturday. Challies includes helpful Kindle deals, links to a good variety of helpful articles and a quote.  Check out Tim’s website.

Another blog that is required reading for me each day is HeadHeartHand from David Murray, author of the excellent new book Reset.

Recommended New Teaching Series

The Lord’s Prayer by Albert Mohler. In this twelve-part series, Dr. Albert Mohler shows that the pattern of prayer Jesus provides is few in words, yet massive in meaning. His prayer reflects true theology and proper doxology—a perfect guide for our own lives. I listened to this series as our book club was studying Tim Keller’s book Prayer.

Recommended Resources

Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer.  See my review of this excellent new documentary.

Dispatches from the Front: The Fourth Man. If you are not familiar with this set of videos from Frontline Missions and Tim Keesee you should be. For more information go here.

Conference

Top Pick: Ligonier Ministries National Conference: The Next 500 Years. Watch or listen to all of the messages here.

These are my favorites in a variety of categories.  What about you? Please share your favorites.