Ten books to recommend to a new Christian

Have you ever wished you had something to give a new Christian to read alongside the Bible, to encourage them in their faith and help them begin to live for Christ from a Christ-centred Biblical worldview? Over the years I have recommended countless good books 1:1 or from the pulpit, but I thought it was about time to be more intentional about this habit, for my own sake, and that of our church members. Maybe what follows will help you too.

The idea of a “top ten” list (yes, I realise that such a thing is usually shameless marketing) came from a visit to Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in Manhattan two years ago during a sabbatical. The service was thoughtful and deeply Christ-honouring, but one of my main take-homes came afterwards, over coffee a couple of floors up from the worship auditorium. An unremarkable folding table was set out to one side of the room, with a selection of books for sale,  a couple of signs, and a friendly church member on hand.

What was the stroke of genius? A simple guideline as to which books to read, and in what order. The books were arranged into three groups, not by the usual categories, “Bible”, “Christian living”, “Prayer” etc, but as “Read first”, “Read next”, and “After those”  (maybe not the precise titles, but you get the idea). Keller had written a short explanation of the book-recommendation policy he had followed,

“instead of a bookstore for the whole community, we offer a book table carrying “next step” reading for worshippers at Redeemer…the order in which you read books has a big impact on the kind of believer you become…That is why many people will ask me – “Is this a good book to read?” and my answer is, ‘Yes – eventually, later, in the right place – but not now’.”

Keller had thought hard about the best books to start young believers with, and those to recommend later. I think that is incredibly good pastoral care, and am planning to introduce this wise approach when we move to pastor our new church in Norwich in the summer.

So here are my ten “Read First” books, copies of which I’d have always on hand to give away or to sell. The order doesn’t mean much. In future posts I will suggest my “Read next” and “After those” selections.

Read First (Top Ten):

Knowing God (J.I. Packer)

The Prodigal God (Tim Keller)

How to read the Bible for all its Worth (Gordon Fee/Douglas Stuart)

The Freedom of a Christian (Martin Luther)

Just do Something (Kevin DeYoung)

Discipling (Mark Dever)

How to Walk into Church (Tony Payne/Colin Marshall)

God’s Big Picture (Vaughan Roberts)

The Cross of Christ (John Stott)

Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis)

 

I hope this gets you asking what you would recommend to a new believer – and what you’d agree they should read, but only later. Let me know what you think.

How is Jesus still serving you today?

Forty days after the resurrection comes the ascension of Jesus. He was “declared Son of God” through his resurrection (Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4) and now he returned to God’s throne, having completed his work in atoning for our sins and giving his life to serve us (Mark 10:45).

Yet Jesus’ work for us does not end there. He  serves us still in his life in heaven, interceding for us (Hebrews 7:25), sending his Spirit to teach us the truth (John 14:26), and giving gifts to the church in the manner of a conquering king handing out treasures to his victorious people – except these gifts are not silver coins but spiritual roles in the Church (Ephesians 4:7-12).

The significance of Jesus’ ascension is not only that he reigns – now, today – over all things. This Sovereign also serves his people. Our risen Lord is still, wonderfully, our serving-without-sinking_3servant. He intercedes for us, teaches us, and equips us to serve Him.

In our book Of The Term “Serving without Sinking” (a unique gospel-shaped book about grace, not a guilt-inducing one about sacrifice) I have loved reading the three middle chapters which illustrate how Christ serves us.  His grace defines the nature of our serving Him in grateful response.

The three metaphors the author finds in the Bible for Christian life are all stunning privileges: we are not servants but friends of Jesus, not a self-justifying client but a forgiven bride of Christ, and not convenient slaves but forgiven sons of God. These chapters alone are worth the book price and worthy of reading over and over again.

Is Jesus serving you today? If you want to know more, “Serving without Sinking” is highly recommended.

 

 

How (not) to serve Christ

What makes you volunteer to serve at church? When the notices include an appeal for new people on the welcomers’ rota, what makes you stick your hand up? Are you motivated by what  I call the “NAG” way for churches to fill gaps: there is a Need, you are Available, and if you don’t do it, you would feel Guilty?

The trouble with “nag” volunteering is that it misrepresents God (as if He is unable to run His Church and I have to come to the rescue!) and it misrepresents church membership (as if anyone should serve God motivated by guilt). There are much healthier ways to serve God with the personality, passions and gifts I have, and our church has found the “SHAPE” course from Purpose-Driven church really helpful here. But in the first of these three articles about Christian service, prompted in part by reading our book of the term, the excellent “Serving Without Sinking” by John Hindley, I want to ask why serving Christ sometimes goes wrong and  becomes a burden to us instead of a joy.exhaustion2

For anyone who has taken on a serving role and it has become dry or burdensome, it may be good to take a break for a while or find a new ministry for a change. But it may also be good to ask if somewhere I am serving for the wrong motives, arising from a skewed image of God. I recommend John Hindley’s chapters 1-5. Here are three false images of God that make serving Him a burden instead of a delight:

Slot machine God. I may tell myself I know God loves me  as I am but in reality, deep down if I am honest, part of me is serving because I think that by what I do I put God in my debt. If I turn up and give two hours every Sunday to Him, He will give me something in return, like getting chocolate from a machine. He will mend my relationships, or further my career, or answer my prayers more. Of course, this is a false image of God, who showers blessings on us all the time not because we do good things but because He is a good God.

Am I serving God thinking I will get something in return?

Loan-shark God. It is good to recognise how much I am in debt to God for the gift of grace and forgiveness in Christ. It is good to serve in gratitude for what God has done for me. But gratitude can slide into grudging guilt: “God did me a favour, so I owe Him in return. Eternal life comes not as a gift”, I think to myself, “but like a loan which I am paying back every time I do something good.”

Am I serving God thinking that what I do will keep Him loving me?

Damsel-in-distress God. I look around at church and see gaps in the ministry teams: the creche has no helpers, nor does the youth ministry, and the catering team is clearly stressed and undermanned too. “Thank goodness I am here”, I think, “to rescue these people who clearly need my multiple gifts and dedication. I am here to get them, and their God, out of a hole. God needs me to do the things He clearly cannot take care of without me”.

Am I serving because “God needs me” as indispensable to the life of His Church?

All of these three images of God are false ones. God is not a slot machine, a loan-shark or a damsel-in-distress, but a beautiful and bountiful Being1. His service is perfect freedom. Work done for Him is delightful worship. False images dishonour Him and discourage me. They make serving a burden, where it should be “our duty and joy2.

So what is the healthy way to serve God? We start with a more accurate image of who God is as revealed in Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve us by giving his life for us3. That is where we pick up in the next article reflecting on “Serving Without Sinking”.

1   James 1:17 “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights.”
2  Communion Service Eucharistic Prayer A & C, Common Worship
3 Mark 10:45

How to walk out of church

Dressed-for-Church-19

The music finishes, the minister says the blessing: what next? Do I head for the door? Do I check my phone? Do I start thinking about work tomorrow?

During this series of articles about “church” we have discovered how transformative it can be if we all begin to prepare prayerfully before we walk into church on Sunday, and begin to think how we can encourage others during the service too. From key Bible texts such as Hebrews 10 and 1 Corinthians 14, we have learnt  about corporate (gathered) worship . We have seen how the Gospel about Jesus is to be the central theme and celebration of our services. We have noticed that much of our worship owes its forms to those in the Old Testament (Scripture reading, confession, praise, the language of sacrifice and priesthood) but that those forms were transformed in the coming of Jesus and the worship of the Church. I have recommended several excellent books about gathered worship in two previous articles for those who want to dig deeper.

What I have not found (others may help me here) is a book about what happens after “Amen”: how to walk out of church when the service finishes – or what to do even before I walk out. I now believe that this is a serious omission, as the time between the final prayer and the final exit is also a vitally important opportunity for worship through meeting and encouraging others, as Tony Payne points out in “How to Walk Into Church”.

Horizontal and vertical

We have seen in previous articles that although some say “worship” is all about my offering myself to God during a service, or (conversely) “worship”is all about my whole-life walk with God, strong Bible texts can be quote in support of BOTH – worship is adoration AND action. Similarly David Peterson argued that when we gather the focus should not be on God but on edifying (building up) each other. Again, we concluded this is a helpful focus since we can ONLY encourage each other when together (unless you count texts and emails), but that we gather BOTH for God AND for each other. Writers like DA Carson, John M Frame and Tim Keller come to the conclusion that when we gather, and indeed when not with other Christians, we ascribe God “worth” BOTH by praising Him and by encouraging others – what we call the  “vertical” and “horizontal” aspects of Church. I think this is right and wise.

So in Colossians 3:16 Paul tells us to “let the message of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing with gratitude in your hearts to God“. We sing to God AND each other. And see Ephesians 5:19,”Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” We sing to God AND each other. Gospel-shaped Words (brought to life in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion) form the core means of worshipping God and encouraging each other. As so often, John Calvin achieved a wise balance of Word and symbol, avoiding over-theatrical display without rejecting all ceremony, as some Reformers were doing. “To secure due moderation, it is necessary to retain that fewness in number, facility in performance and significance of meaning which consists in clarity.” (Institutes 4.10.14).

During and ‘after’

I also believe that we can exercise the horizontal and vertical dimensions of worship (God and others) not only by how we sing, or listen, or pray, during a service, but in what we do after the “Amen.” How is this possible over coffee, you ask? Here are four suggestions:

  1. Take notes on the sermon, so that afterwards you have a question in mind which interests you and which you can discuss with someone. “You know what the preacher said about prayer: what did you think of that?”
  2. Instead of talking to someone over coffee about the weather, football scores, children, or perils of Christmas shopping, ask them what they found most helpful in the service, or if there was a verse in the Bible reading they want to remember and use.
  3. Ask each other “What can I pray for you this week?” That not only encourages us that someone has our back in prayer, it reminds us that it is good to pray for whole-life discipleship at work, in the family, in our own personal walk with God.
  4. Resolve to gather with the others at church next week, again. As Tony Payne suggests, there are some who leave churches because of disillusionment with the gospel, or scandals affecting members or leaders, but the commonest way people leave churches is just drifting away through distraction or lack of discipline. We miss weeks out, we get into the habit of arriving very late. Beware this drift by resolving to be here on time before you leave: the walk into church next week starts as I walk out of church this week.

So let’s pray for God to have the glory, and ourselves to be richly encouraged, as we gather this Sunday again,

“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving, and extol him with music and song. For the LORD is a great God; the great King above all gods.”

(Psalm 95:1-3)

Virtue: not rocket science

FAITH + 2015

David Voas, a sociology of religion professor, recently accused the Church of worrying about why people no longer come to church, without ever asking why they would want to. His point? That in the busy modern world, young adults have so many attractive alternatives that only seeing a compelling benefit in churchgoing will make them come. He thinks that is “community” (which, he notes, people can get without church) but I think the answer is richer than that.

So the problem is that the results of faith are mostly spiritual – eternal life, peace with God – and not as immediate as gym membership, afterwork cocktails and a digital screen. Yet there is a Christian answer: the gospel gives the one tangible thing nothing else can: the way to live a good life. Reintroducing the language of “goodness” or “virtue” into our discipleship, and thence into our families and workplaces for others to see, is essential for others to be drawn to “wearing God” with us.

The “good” life is described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, by Paul (eg Galatians 5:22-23 and Colossians 3), by James, and in 2 Peter 1:5-7 (our church verses for 2015). Here is what a “good” life (virtue) looks like.

Virtue is not duty

Make every effort (to add to your faith) – 2 Peter repeats this phrase three times. Making effort appeals to those of us who are activistic types. We love to DO things.

But living a good life is impossible without spiritual change first – Peter says “make every effort” only once he has reminded us about God’s gift of faith and hope in Christ (“for this reason”) in verses 1-4.

Calling for a good life out of duty is like telling a dead person to walk. Start with faith in Jesus which brings you to know Him. Start with his power which promises immortality. Goodness comes from gratitude, not duty.

Virtue is not optional

Peter is deeply concerned that when he has gone, his readers will not give up on the gospel. He calls on them not to stumble & fall back (2:20), and to be pure & ready for the new creation (3:13-14).

It is true that “nothing will separate us from the love of God” and that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion”. Calvinism teaches the “perseverance of the saints”, and the Church of England Article 17 says that we,

“are called, justified, adopted, made like Christ, live by good works and by God’s mercy reach eternal happiness”

But…

James says that faith without works is dead (2:20). Paul says that a Spirit-filled person will produce “fruit” and has “clothed” themselves with the virtues of the gospel. Calvin – before he unpacks in detail how Christ’s death on the cross is all we need for salvation – urges that faith is inseparable from works, as the sun is inseparable from its rays.

For us who are Anglican, Article 12 of The 39 Articles says:

“good works are the fruit of faith; they follow justification and cannot pay for our sins; yet they please God, and spring necessarily from a true and living faith. You know living faith from good works as you know a tree from its fruit.”

The life of virtue (goodness or godliness) is not optional.

Virtue is not automatic

Make every effort” – learning virtue is like learning a language.  You need to turn up to class, listen, take notes, try out the sound of the words, learn the right way to put sentences together.

Make every effort, Peter says,  to furnish your faith – the image is of fitting out a stage for a show, hiring the best possible choirs and singers, with lavish provision.

Make every effort: virtue is not automatic.

Virtue is not ‘being nice’

Many of the seven “virtues” Peter lists are favourite Greek ones (goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, mutual kindness).

Yet he makes them Christ-shaped: perseverance is not just Stoical Greek or Churchill’s “never surrender” but Christian hope – we survive anything the world throws at us, not because we are tough but because Jesus is coming, not because the pain is small but because the promise of new creation is great.

And he tops and tails the list with two unique Christian virtues – faith, with which we start, and love, with which we continue and which lasts forever.

Virtue is not complicated

Peter’s list of eight virtues begins with faith, ends with love, and has gospel hope in the centre. These three “theological virtues” are the key ones, from which all others flow, in the New Testament1 and early theologians such as Augustine2.

The seven virtues which Peter lists flowing out of “faith” can be divided into: two by which I interact within myself (goodness/strength and  knowledge/wisdom); three by which I interact with the world (self-control, perseverance, godliness); and two by which I interact with others (mutual kindness and, supremely, love).

None of these eight things is complicated, all are about the daily habit of loving God and others, and all are based on faith in Christ.

So how do I ‘add virtue to my faith’?

Pray for it

If virtue is the gift of God beginning with faith and culminating in love, it makes sense to ask for it. The Anglican Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Easter Sunday in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer) puts it well:

 “Almighty God who through Jesus Christ has overcome death and opened the gate of glory, grant that, as by your grace going before us, you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help, we may bring them to good effect.”

Practise it

That is, reflect on it, rehearse it, react using it, as you would learning a language. In practice this means immersing my life in what many call “the means of grace” such as baptism, reading Scripture, studying the lives of godly Christians, praise & thanksgiving, confession, prayer together and alone, serving others, giving, and sharing communion.

Is my life a silent sermon?

What would the world think if we began to live as Peter describes here in God’s grace?

Here’s how Victorian bishop JC Ryle urges us to live holy lives for the sake of others,

“We must be holy, because this is the most likely way to do good to others…Our lives will always be doing either good or harm to those who see them. It is sad indeed when they are a sermon for the devil’s cause, and not for God’s…far more is done for Christ’s kingdom by the holy living of believers than we are aware of…(People) may not understand justification, but they will understand love.”3

1 See especially 1 Corinthians 13
2 Augustine, Enchiridion, a book of “basic” teaching on the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer
3 JC Ryle “Holiness”, 3.2.f

Is prudence a virtue?

Prudence-by-Piero-del-Pollaiuolo

Is prudence a Biblical virtue?

In a previous post I argued that the notion of Christian virtue is a lost but powerful component of the Church’s call to “make disciples”, to help members of our churches to move from the early stages of faith towards maturity. This seems crucial both to fulfil the Great Commission in making disciples, not just converts, and in forming Christians who will “wear God” by clothing themselves in virtues which, unlike theological truths, the world around can see.

Cultivating virtue matters both to discipleship and evangelism in a post -Christian world.

Before we look at the key virtues of faith, hope and love, I want to explore whether Augustine and Thomas were right to claim for faith the four Greek “cardinal” virtues of prudence, self-control, courage and justice, especially prudence, which Aristotle saw as the key to all moral virtue.

Prudence (Latin prudentia , Greek phronesis or sophia, Hebrew hokmah or da’at) is not simply, despite its adoption in at least one insurance company name, caution with money. Prudence may save for a rainy day because it knows this is wise, and it may drive carefully because it is encouraged by French road signs (“soyez prudent!”) but it can equally be bold and take risks when needed. It learns from the past and plans for the future (symbolised in the classic image above by Piero del Pollaiuolo with looking glass and serpent-on-pole).

Prudence in Aristotle resembles the practical “wisdom” of Proverbs and James in the Scriptures. It is shrewdness in the tasks and decisions of life, what we might call common sense, and what Paul and Peter call “insight”. Jesus speaks of the “wisdom” of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:8, who uses material resources to insure against imminent punishment.

For Aristotle, prudence is key – each moral virtue relies upon prudence (you cannot be courageous until you are also prudent, for instance), and prudence demands each virtue:

“It is not possible to be good without prudence, or prudent without being good.” (Nichomachean Ethics VI 13).

The Biblical picture of “wisdom” or “prudence” goes deeper than Aristotle’s, however. It comes from knowing God, and is a gift of God (supremely granted to Solomon, 1 Kings 3:5-14). It links closely to knowledge of the Law in Proverbs (see eg 8:1-13; 9:10) just as its opposite, folly, goes along with a godless life. Hence Gabriel promises that John the Baptist will prepare people for the Messiah by “turning the hearts of many to the wisdom (phronesis) of the righteous” (Luke 1:17) – prudence is connected to righteous life. The boy Jesus astonishes the Nazerenes with his “wisdom” (sophia, Mark 6:2), and Luke 2 twice emphasises how Jesus grew in “wisdom” in his youth (40, 47).

Although his use of the word is rare, Jesus describes the man who builds his house on the rock as “wise” in a context which is clearly not just about common sense but spiritual insight and kingdom loyalty (Matthew 7:24). The same is true of the “wise” virgins and stewards of Matthew 24. Prudence in gospel terms is about radical decision to follow Christ.

Paul importantly critiques worldly “wisdom” for its pride, and argues that true knowledge lies in Christ, and in the “right thinking” (phronesis) of humility (Romans 12:3, Philippians 2:3). So prudence is about spiritual discernment, applying our minds to think about what is best or “virtuous” (Philippians 4:8, the only place where Paul uses the word arete or “virtue”). It is in this sense that prudence/wisdom is a key virtue in exercising others – it enables the person to know the best thing to do and to choose it. James urges his readers to pray for wisdom (1:5), and identifies true wisdom as the root of moral virtue (purity, peace, submissiveness, mercy, justice and sincerity, 3:17-18).

How does the gospel redefine “prudence”?

So on one hand, the gospel agrees that prudence is the key cardinal virtue because it enables us to learn and show the other virtues through discernment, working out what is best. One the other, the gospel radically transforms even the cardinal virtues such as prudence, by connecting them ruthlessly to God (the author of wisdom), to Christ (whose wisdom makes us all see ourselves in humility as we truly are), and to Christian faith, hope, and love (the theological virtues through which alone cardinal virtues are truly expressed).

Aquinas follows Scripture and agrees with Aristotle, that all moral virtues depend upon prudence and vice versa (Summa Theologica I-II, q.58, aa 4-5).

“All the virtues of the appetitive part of man, which are called the moral virtues, in so far as they are virtues are caused by prudence.” (Questiones disputatis de virtutibus in communi 6)

“Without prudence there cannot be discipline, or moderation, or any moral virtue.” (Quaestiones disputatae de veritate 14, 6)

He also takes the view that the cardinal virtues are “natural” and do not require faith or grace for a person to display them. This makes for an interesting debate about why, then, Paul and Peter both included “self-control” and “perseverance” in their lists of virtues to add to faith: for them, these are the fruit of the Spirit and grace, not of nature and humanity – did Aquinas get this wrong? Is wisdom/prudence  natural, nurtured, or supernatural?

Aquinas, however, disagrees with Aristotle that all humans have the capacity for moral virtue in the same way, regardless of belief. For Aquinas (from his reading of Scripture), unless directed to God through love, all moral virtues, including prudence, fall short. Perhaps this is the answer to the above question: for the Scriptural authors, prudence as “common sense” is possible for all people, but in the deeper and true sense, prudence as “wisdom” is only possible through faith in God.

“Prudence considers the ways by which we arrive at happiness; but wisdom considers the very object of happiness.” (Summa Theologica I-II 66, 5 ad 2)

So it is a consistent claim of Scripture that knowledge of God brings wisdom, and the reverse, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no god”.

How does a person cultivate prudence and wisdom today?

  • Pray for it – if Solomon did, and James tells us to, I’d be a “fool” not to
  • Study for it – knowledge of the will of God in Scripture brings the wisdom of God
  • Search for it – all wisdom is found in knowing Christ, so find Him, and you find prudence
  • Practise it – the habit of “thinking” about goodness, purity and beauty trains me to know and choose what is best