A Comprehensive Look at Paul

wright - paul a biographyI’m not sure of the amount of time and effort that N.T. Wright has spent researching Paul, but I know that a considerable amount of his writings has focused on Paul. For those who are familiar with him, N.T. Wright has also written a considerable amount on the controversial topic of justification, his view on it, and Paul’s supposed view on it, a view which diverges from the traditional and reformed views of the subject.

With all of this effort on writing about Paul’s writings and his viewpoints on certain topics, it’s no surprise that the latest offering from N.T. Wright is a biography on the apostle. In “Paul – A Biography,” N.T. Wright writes a comprehensive account of Paul and firmly places his writings in their original context to help the reader have a deeper understanding of Paul’s Jewishness. He argues not that Paul was converted and that he was trying to establish a new religion, but that in his experience on the Damascus Road, he was actually enlightened in such a way as to realize that Jesus of Nazareth had come and was the full and complete fulfillment of the Jewish religion.

Wright starts with what would most likely have been Paul’s upbringing, a Jewish upbringing. He gives background enough for the reader to have a better idea just how Paul was raised and what kinds of things would have informed his worldview, a worldview that saw “religion” woven into all of life as opposed to the Western viewpoint which sees a compartmentalized life. He writes, “Today, “religion” for most Westerners designates a detached area of life, a kind of private hobby for those who like that sort of thing, separated by definition (and in some countries by law) from politics and public life, from science and technology. In Paul’s day, “religion” meant almost exactly the opposite.”

Following Paul’s missionary journeys, Wright walks the reader through his writings to the various churches that he has started. The reader gets a better understanding of the context of these writings and can better understand just what might have been going through Paul’s head as he wrote these letters which have become so familiar to the church.

Throughout this in depth look at the life of Paul, N.T. Wright doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. He shares his view that the Western church’s emphasis on heaven and hell. As he writes, “It never dawned on us that the “heaven and hell” framework we took for granted was a construct of the High Middle Ages, to which the sixteenth-century Reformers were providing important new twists but which was at best a distortion of the first-century perspective.” Paul’s viewpoint was much more focused on the Kingdom of God, God’s Kingdom coming down to earth rather than some earthly departure of all God’s saints to some ethereal destination.

Wright’s viewpoint on justification also comes through here. While he doesn’t expound on it to the depth that he does in some of his other writings, he gives his readers a window into how his view (and in his opinion, Paul’s view) of justification differs from the reformed view.

This is a great companion book to all of Paul’s writings. I could easily see myself going back to it as I read any of Paul’s letters to remind myself of just where Paul was, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, as he wrote. It will act as a resource and guide for anyone, clergy or laity. While it’s a lengthy book, it’s hard to imagine Wright cutting out much of what he has written here. In order to give this material the attention it deserves, he needed as much space as he takes up here.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

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Killing Spiders

kill the spiderWhat happens when we know that something is wrong in our life, something that needs change? We see the evidence of it throughout our lives, in our habits, in our relationships, in the nuances of how we go about living day to day. We begin to clean up the evidence of what’s wrong and never really go to find the source of it. It’s like a spider, we see the spider webs throughout the house, we clean the webs in order to make the house look tidy again, but that doesn’t remedy the problem. If we really want to get rid of the spider webs for good, we’ve got to kill the spider; otherwise, we’re just doing cursory work.

In his book, “Kill the Spider,” Carlos Whittaker tells his own story of getting to the heart of the issues that he faced in his life. His marriage was falling apart, he was losing his family, and he realized that he wasn’t fully convinced of the convictions upon which he had staked his life. He needed to find, identify, and kill the spider that was wreaking havoc on his life.

“Kill the Spider” is an autobiographical wisdom book. Whittaker shares his story with raw and deep details. He holds back on revealing everything, but it’s hard to read this book without feeling his feelings, thinking his thoughts, and perhaps even finding yourself identifying similar experiences in your own life. What Whittaker doesn’t capture with literary eloquence or powerful prose he makes up for with intense and reflective sharing of what he went through.

Whittaker journals his experience of losing his faith and finding it again in a week-long intense counseling retreat. He offers his insights into how he was able to push past the cobwebs and do the hard work of identifying the spider that was ruining his life. He never claims that answers are simple, easy, or quick. The old adage that “Rome wasn’t built in a day” proves true here when considering the amount of time it took Whittaker to get to the place from which he couldn’t escape on his own. In fact, he points out, although he was able to come to grips with the reality of identifying his spider, he wasn’t able to kill it on his own. The only one who could was Jesus.

Whittaker is no theologian, just a simple storyteller. This book is just the chronicle of someone who hits rock bottom and discovers an approach to getting back to the top again. Whittaker shares helpful insights from the Bible and even shares prayers that have been helpful for him. Whittaker was not able to come to grips with the heart of his problem until he was willing to get real and honest with himself. He shares the steps that brought him to that place.

“Kill the Spider” was a fast read. I finished it in just a few days. Whittaker’s ability to tell a story drew me back to the book and I found myself wanting to know just how he came out of the pit in which he found himself. Some might not appreciate the rawness with which Whittaker shares in the book. His cursing was most likely used to emphasize just how low he found himself and how raw he had become, and although they did not deter me, there are some who will close the book when they read those words.

If you’ve been struggling in your life to get to the heart of the things that have been bringing you down, “Kill the Spider” may be a helpful book for you. The way that Whittaker crafts and tells his story alone is a compelling enough reason to pick up this book and read it.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

The Comeback – A Book Review

The ComebackComeback stories seem to draw a lot of attention. Some might call them “Cinderella Stories” and others might talk about the underdog, but when it comes to comeback stories, most people seem drawn to them. Maybe it’s the unlikelihood of the stories or the cast of characters that seem to litter the landscape of such stories. Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve all probably experienced a moment or a time in our lives when we’ve needed our own comeback and we’ve been the underdog or the “Cinderella” in the story.

Louie Giglio writes of our own need to experience this and be part of these stories in his book “The Comeback.” We all have come to a place when we’ve needed a comeback. Perhaps we’ve gotten our lives off track by ourselves. Perhaps we’ve just had a number of unfortunate events happen to us. Regardless of the cause of the turmoil in our lives, many of us have come to a place where it’s the bottom of the ninth and we are seemingly down by an impossible number of runs. When we come to that place, we need a comeback.

With his balance of wit, wisdom, and Biblical truth, Louie Giglio shares stories of others who have experienced comebacks in their lives. Some of the people of whom he shares are in the Bible and others are people he’s met along the way. All of them have experienced some kind of comeback in their lives, a second chance, an opportunity to get their heads above the water and begin swimming again. That comeback that we need to experience can only be experienced in Jesus Christ.

It can be easy for those of us who are in need of a comeback to get to a place where we don’t think we deserve another chance. We think, and sometimes the church tells us, that we need to have it all together. Giglio writes, “See, we don’t need to shine ourselves up and sit in a beautiful church sanctuary. We don’t need to gather our children and spouse together and figure out how to become the world’s most functional family. We don’t need to get well before we meet Jesus. That’s what he does for us.” Jesus is the one who provides the comeback for us, we don’t do it ourselves.

Giglio shares a lot of stories in this book. Some of them seem almost as if they came straight from a Hollywood script. In fact, it was hard for me to read a good portion of the first half of this book as there were so many stories of success and comeback that it was difficult to take considering some of the experiences that I’ve had myself. I began to ask myself, “What happens when there is no comeback?”

At just the right time, Giglio gets into that, talking about how comebacks don’t always look like we’d like them to look. Sometimes there is just no cure. Sometimes there is no repairing the relationship. Sometimes the child just doesn’t come home. When we come to that place in our lives when the comebacks don’t match what we had envisioned in our heads, we need to remember that Jesus experienced the ultimate comeback in order that we might experience the same.

There is a life beyond the temporary comeback, a salvation that is eternal, and we can’t lose sight of that. As difficult as it is to accept, the answer doesn’t always match up to our expectation. But just like Lazarus was raised from the dead and would still eventually experience death again, there was something beyond that physical death and we need to remember God’s faithfulness and love in the midst of those times. We need to remember that because of the ultimate comeback of Jesus, we too can experience the same.

“The Comeback” was full of inspiring stories. Louie Giglio is engaging as a storyteller. At times, he can seem to ramble on and maybe overshoot his point, maybe even to the point of ramming it into the ground rather than gently sticking the landing. He never comes across preachy so much as he might come across as wordy. “The Comeback” probably could have been at least twenty to thirty pages shorter.

At times, when it felt like Giglio was edging out into a prosperity gospel, he reeled it back in again and brought in biblical truths that showed just where he stood.

If you have been experiencing frustration and difficulty in your life and you need encouragement, “The Comeback” is for you. This book is geared towards those who are looking for answers and encouragement and Giglio provides both. They might not always be the answers you’re looking for, but they’re the ones you probably need to hear.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Saving the Saved – A Book Review

saving-the-savedOn the second to last page of his book “Saving the Saved,” Bryan Loritts writes, “”You don’t ever have to perform for me to get me to love and accept you.” End of story. Of course, God wants us to confess and trust him to wash and change us; these are not things we do to gain his love, but these are things we do in response to his amazing, performance-free love for us.” With this quote, he has summed up the premise of his book: we are not saved by what we do but what has been done for us.

Over and over again within the pages of this book, Loritts reminds his reader of the performance-free and unshakeable love of our savior, Jesus Christ. He reminds us that all of our white-knuckle efforts will not get us any closer to earning our salvation. In fact, many of the strong words that Jesus used during his time on earth were reserved for those who thought that they had a handle on that white-knuckle mentality, who thought that they had it all together.

Loritts tells his reader that, “God didn’t wait for me to get cleaned up before he loved me. Instead, he saw me as is, loved me as is, and saved me as is. Performance-free, unshakeable love.” Too often, evangelical Christianity can make it seem that we are to clean ourselves up in order to be worthy of coming to Christ. But the message of the gospel is a come-as-you-are message, not one that warrants a meritocracy where we earn everything that we get, but one that is based on the grace that is given to us through and from Jesus Christ.

Bryan Loritts breaks his book into three parts: What Goodness Isn’t, Authentic Goodness, and Living In and Reflecting God’s Performance-Free Love. He breaks it down for his reader to talk about what the gospel isn’t, what it is, and how we go about living into it. While he promotes the performance-free life, he is quick to point out that salvation does not mean sitting back and doing nothing. What we do, we do not to gain the love of God but in response to the love of God. As the Apostle John so eloquently put it, we love him because he first loved us.

Our lives are a response to what we have received, but we continue to struggle with the outward manifestation of that. As Loritts writes, “External righteousness is, at best, plated gold or a wood veneer, where the outside looks good but will never pass the authenticity test. This was the righteousness of the Pharisees. And maybe it’s yours as well.” If our righteousness is based on what we do, it’s a sham, a fake, but if we take on the righteousness that is ours through Christ, than we have come to the place of understanding.

This book was a refreshing read. Loritts has a way of challenging his reader all the while making them laugh as he shares his insights. There are so many tweetable quotes within “Saving the Saved” that I couldn’t help myself but tweeting them out as I read. It was a fast read that never felt laborious or condemning, but it challenged in a way that was a helpful reminder of just why I strive to perform in my life.

If you have found yourself struggling with this white-knuckle, Pharisaical life that commands you to perform in order to get in the good graces of your Heavenly Father, “Saving the Saved” is a book for you. If you need a reminder that God’s performance-free, unshakeable love is available for you, then go and pick up a copy of this book. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Rescuing the Gospel – A Book Review

Rescuing the GospelWhat relevance is the Reformation today? Are the issues that were in question hundreds of years ago still in question within the church today? How about the growing unity between Protestants and Roman Catholics? Are there differences in theology that prevent a true unity within the church? In his book “Rescuing the Gospel,” Erwin Lutzer seeks to give an overview of the events and the people of the Reformation and to bring some clarity and, possibly, answers to these questions.

Lutzer writes, “The better we understand yesterday, the better we will understand today.” His purpose in writing the book is to remind the reader of the issues that caused the Reformation to happen in the first place. In analyzing these issues and becoming more familiar with them, we can look more objectively and intelligently at the things that are taking place within the church today.

The majority of the book is spent on Martin Luther, fitting considering that he is known as the Father of the Reformation for most people. Lutzer opens his narrative by talking about some of the abuses within the church. Lutzer reminds the reader that, “He (Martin Luther) had no intention of breaking from the church; the idea that his actions would eventually change the map of Europe didn’t even enter his mind.” Martin Luther’s intention was to correct the errors that he saw and move forward together, he didn’t expect the results that would eventually come, some of which he saw in his lifetime, others which he did not.

What were the main reasons that Luther hung his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg? Abuses within the papacy caused Luther concern but there were also theological differences that he saw that he believed needed to be remedied. He believed that the Bible should be put into the hands of the people and that the mass should be done in the language of the people as well. He also saw that there were issues which centered around salvation, works, and justification which needed to conform more to what he believed could be read and interpreted in Scripture.

Protestants and Catholics, Lutzer writes, disagree over the idea of justification. Does salvation come through grace perfected in the work of Jesus Christ or is something more necessary? Was Christ’s work sufficient or do we need to add something to his work? The Catholic view of salvation can be described as a “works based salvation,” signifying that Christ’s work was not enough for our salvation. This was the conclusion that Luther came to as he dug deeper into Scripture and it is the same belief that is held within the Evangelical Protestant church today, according to Lutzer. As he puts it, “…no matter how many changes the Catholic Church makes, it will not – indeed cannot – endorse and evangelical view of salvation.”

Lutzer doesn’t paint a rosy picture of Luther and the other Reformers. He is honest about some of their missteps, their faults, and their sins. About Luther and his last days, Lutzer writes, “when the irritability of age and disease took over, he said many things that would have been best left unsaid.” Zwingli watched and added sarcastic commentary as his former friend, Felix Manz, was drowned within a river for his view on baptism. Calvin was responsible for the burning at the stake of Michael Servetus. While all of these men contributed significant writings and thought to the Reformation, Lutzer makes it clear that they were not to be worshipped and that they were just as fallible as you and I.

Throughout Lutzer’s book are illustrations and pictures of various people, places, and things associated with the Reformation. For those who are not world travelers or who may have a limited exposure to the Reformation and its key figures, these are helpful to bring some context to them. Lutzer’s writing is engaging and he does a good job condensing such an expansive subject within the pages of this book.

This book is not intended for the scholar who has devoted significant amount of time to the study of the Reformation, although it may serve as a good overview to remind those already familiar with the Reformation of key events and figures. It may invoke, for some, a desire to do further study and research for one’s self. “Rescuing the Gospel” is well-written and an easy read. Whether the information is new to you or if you simply want a refresher, it’s a worthwhile read.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Kept For Jesus – A Book Review

kept for jesusIf you are a follower of Christ, you will most likely wrestle with many different questions along your spiritual journey. Was Jesus really fully human and fully God? Did Adam and Eve really live? Was Mary truly a virgin? The list could go on and on. We live in an age of skepticism, so it seems natural for us to have some amount of skepticism about issues that seem impossible to us.

One question that will most likely plague every believer at some point in their life has to do with eternal security. Is it really possible that once a person is saved they are always saved? Is it possible to lose your salvation once you have professed faith in Jesus Christ?

While many have tackled this subject in the past, Sam Storms does a masterful job of writing a book that is effective and accessible for a wide array of readers. Coming from a Reformed perspective, Storms presents his argument in favor of the belief that a person is “once saved, always saved.” Storms sets out to convince those who hold to an Arminian or antinomian viewpoint that the Reformed viewpoint is the correct one. He also sets out to deepen the reader’s confidence in the supremacy of God and his preserving grace.

As Storms takes the reader through this issue, he presents the various arguments against eternal security. These arguments come in the form of verses in the Bible that both Arminians and antinomians use for support. Along with those arguments, he presents the Reformed view and gives his rationale for why it’s the right approach.

Storms offers up an example of a fictitious character named Charley who seems to have made an outward and public profession of Christ as Lord and Savior. After some time of seemingly walking with Christ, Charley steps away from his beliefs and his changed life. The question presented, “Is Charley saved?” A valid question, and as I mentioned, most likely a question that many have wrestled with, especially if they have had a personal experience similar to this, either themselves or someone they love.

From the outset, Storms makes it clear what he believes. He believes that salvation does not come about because of our works or because we have earned it. Salvation simply comes because God is gracious and he offered up his Son as a sacrifice for the sins of those who repent and confess him as Lord and Savior. He believes that those who put faith in Jesus Christ are given to Jesus, given before even time began. He also believes that while we are not saved by our good works, those good works are evidence of the fact that we have been saved.

While Storms has a definite bias and opinion in the matter, he doesn’t present it in an arrogant manner. He presents the various sides and explains why he thinks his view makes the most sense in light of the various Scripture passages that he shares. He even ends the book dealing with some of the problem passages in Scripture which seem to contradict the idea of “once saved, always saved.” He readily admits that he continues to have struggles with some of the passages yet reminds the reader that it’s important to look at Scripture in context with itself and not isolate passages for our own advantage.

“Kept For Jesus” is an encouraging book for those who have struggled with doubts about whether or not they are truly saved. It’s a great resource as well for those who find themselves counseling individuals who struggle with the idea as well. I highly recommend it for your bookshelf to refer back to again and again.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from NetGalley.com. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Heirs

My parents were not rich, but they were smart and frugal. For years, my mom would buy my brother and I clothes from a local thrift store. She did her best to make sure that we still managed to “fit in” among our peers. We never took lavish vacations but instead opted for family road trips to South Carolina, Chicago, Florida, and upstate New York. My father was almost obsessive about saving money so that he was safe and comfortable for retirement.

When my parents died, my brother and I didn’t quite become millionaires, but we inherited money that my parents had saved in the form of retirement funds, cash, and other investments. We were the heirs to the estate, inheriting everything that they had worked so hard for years to save. We hadn’t done anything to earn that money other than be born of my parents, yet we reaped the benefits of being their heirs.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, he talks to them of the fact that they are heirs of God. They inherit from the estate of God by being adopted to sonship. He tells them that they, and subsequently we, are no longer slaves but children and heirs of God. We receive an inheritance not because we have done anything but because we are God’s children.

It’s one thing to think about the inheritance that my brother and I received as natural born children of my mom and dad. It’s another thing to think about the inheritance that we receive as children of God because we were not naturally born into his family, we were adopted, chosen, selected to be part of that family, and because of that selection and adoption, we become heirs with Christ Jesus.

Too often, we can fall into the trap of thinking that we earn our salvation. But our adoption wasn’t because we made ourselves look good, in fact, while we were still separated from God, Christ died for us. We couldn’t make ourselves look good enough to be adopted, but by his grace, God chose to graft us into his family.

It’s always interesting to watch the fiasco that can play out when someone dies and all of the heirs come together to claim what they “rightfully” are due. It seems that people can become so selfish and self-consumed when it comes to something that they really didn’t earn to begin with. Multiple times over the past few years, my brother and I have talked about the fact that we would give all of the money back just to have Mom and Dad back again. The inheritance wasn’t something that we felt that we deserved, but there are so many people who will fight and bicker over their inheritance.

An inheritance is a gift given. Gifts aren’t usually deserved or earned, they are given as gifts because a person wants to be generous and loving. That is what our inheritance from God is…..a gift. We may act like we deserve it or are rightfully due it, but that’s not the case. It’s a gift and we need to be grateful for that gift.

This was a good reminder to me this morning. It was a humbling thought to help me remember that my inheritance was a gift for which I am grateful. I’ve done nothing and yet God has given me everything. That’s a thought that I can take with me through the rest of this day.

Merry Christmas

MerrHappy-Birthday-31y Christmas!

There is so much to be thankful for this year.  It’s hard to be spending this Christmas without my parents, but as I watched my children unwrap presents and saw the joy in their faces, I got the sense that Mom and Dad were there in spirit.  The legacy of who they are lives on in me and my children and I could imagine their smiles as they saw the joy in my children that they had probably observed on the faces of me and my brother so many times in years gone by.

As difficult as holidays can be even years after loss, I was reminded of the fragility of life again as on the eve of Christmas Eve, a friend of my wife’s and many other women in my church lost her husband after his own battle with cancer.  While it’s difficult to face holidays after a loss, to have that loss occur during the holidays has to be incredibly difficult.  Every year is marked by the celebration of the holiday and the pangs of loss that never quite go away.

I heard the story of a mother who had to return Christmas presents in order to pay for her gas to get to work.  Somewhere in parts of the world where I have never been, little children are opening up shoeboxes prepared for people and delivered by Samaritan’s Purse.  These are probably the only gifts that these children have.  These realities are good reminders to what I have and am blessed with, not the things that are rights, but privileges for me and my family.  It helps me to remember that thankfulness needs to start with the smallest things…..everything else is just a bonus.

As old as I get, I never grow tired of watching the joy on someone’s face when they receive a gift.  When someone knows that you thought of them enough to give them something, it’s a feeling that cannot be compared.

Today is the day that we celebrate the greatest gift that has ever been given to us.  Sure, Jesus was probably born in the Spring.  Away In A Manger is most likely wrong, because what baby doesn’t cry?  The wise men weren’t at the manger.  And Jesus wasn’t blonde haired and blue eyed, looking like he walked out of an Abercrombie ad.  He was much darker than Caucasians think he was and he was probably not much to look at, at least according to Isaiah’s prophecies.

But he came….

He lived…..

He died…..

And he rose…..

He gave us the gift of life that we could never give ourselves.  That’s the one thing that I have tried hard to let my kids understand this year, and I think they can see it….at least the two older ones.

Merry Christmas.  I hope that today you feel the love of family and friends.  I hope that today you can find thankfulness amidst the gifts that you have been given, regardless of whether or not they were wrapped and under a tree.  I pray that you might know the greatest gift that you could ever receive.

Merry Christmas…….and Happy Birthday, Jesus!