“Living In The Light” by John Piper: A Review

One of John Piper’s newer booklets is called “Living in the Light: Money, Sex, & Power.”  In it he shows some of the dangers of money, sex, and power and talks about how these three things find their proper place in the Christian life.  Basically, he argues that we often use money, sex, and power in ways that do not glorify God, but if we do glorify God rightly, then we begin to view and use these things in proper ways.

In the first chapter Piper gives definitions and explanations of money, sex, and power.  By sex he means “experiencing erotic stimulation” or seeking to give or get it (p.18).  Power is “the capacity to get what you want” (p. 19).  Money is “one cultural symbol that we use to show what we value” (p. 17).  Using Romans 1, Piper shows that sinful humans turn these three things into idols.  (As a side, it seemed to me like sex was discussed more than the other two topics).

In the chapter on sex we learn that “disordered sexuality” stems from “a disordered relationship with God” (p. 39).  However, a proper sexuality stems from a right relationship with God, when he is at the center and sex is not.  In the chapter on money, Piper laments how Christians pursue wealth even though it is a danger and will fail us “even before the end” (p. 67).  If, however, we are satisfied most in God, then money will find its proper place in the Christian life.  The chapter on power was the weakest chapter in my opinion; I didn’t quite catch all the details of his logic.  The basic message was that we are by nature power addicts and the only way to fix this solution is to be satisfied in God’s power.

The book was helpful in that it kept talking about how the Christian needs to have God at the center and must treasure Christ above all so that power, money, and sex have their proper place in life.  The general theme of the book was a good one.

However, this also was a weakness of the book: the theme of treasuring Christ became the overarching lens to interpret these three topics in Scripture.  While on the one hand it is true we must treasure Christ above all; on the other hand there are many more dimensions in Scripture about these things.  Having a single lens while approaching power, sex, and money detracted the helpfulness of the book for me in various ways:

First, I learned early on that Piper’s answer to the idols of power, money, and sex would be to treasure Christ above them.  Right away I thought, “Ok, but what else does the Bible say about them?”  He did note other Bible themes, but they all were subsets of the “treasure” theme.  Second, this overarching theme led me to question some of Piper’s explanations.  He came to certain texts with the “treasure Christ above all” grid, which I believe led to some questionable interpretations of Scripture.  For example, he said the first commandment means “embrace me as your supreme treasure and be content in me” (p. 60).  I’m not sure that’s the best way to explain the first commandment.  Piper also noted that the essence of sin is not treasuring God/Christ above all (p. 25).  Isn’t it more biblical to say that the essence of sin is lack of conformity to or transgression of God’s law (cf. WSC Q/A 14)?

The third way I thought this book was unhelpful was how the theme of treasuring Christ above power, money, and sex was at times ambiguous and subjective for me.  For example, he said that “the mark of the Christian is that at the root of our lives is this new treasuring of God over all things…” (p. 29).  This seems a little subjective and ambiguous.  I prefer the Belgic Confession’s more objective “marks” of the Christian, which is a short list from Scripture (e.g. faith, love, repentance, etc.; see BCF Article 29).  I also missed a discussion of obedience to God’s law in this book.

I realize I may be in the minority here; my brothers and sisters who read this book might not agree with my critiques.  I admit that I haven’t read much of Piper’s work, so I’m willing to listen if anyone has comments/clarifications.  No doubt some people will enjoy this book, Living in the Light; Money, Sex, & Power.  If you’re looking for a short book that applies the “treasure Christ above all things” to money, sex, and power, you’ll appreciate this one!  If you want a book that discusses these themes in a broader or biblical-theological way, you may want to pass.

(I received this book from the Cross Focused review program in exchange for an honest review.)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Reformed Scholasticism, the Puritans, and Text Criticism

(This is a re-post from April, 2008.)

Puritan and Reformed Scholasticism was built on an intense, scholarly, detailed, and humble study of the Scriptures – including original languages and semitic studies. The Reformed scholastics were not opposed to early textual criticism – what we may call “lower” criticism as opposed to “higher” criticism. Actually, the scholastics did massive textual and critical work.

Take Matthew Poole (d. 1679) for instance. In five large volumes, Poole gathered many different scholarly analyses of Scripture, called the Synopsis Criticorum and also wrote Annotations on the Holy Bible, along with other textual and critical works. Here is a sample of some of Poole’s textual and critical scholarship.

“Poole recognized that some of the statements in the Pentateuch could not have been written by Moses and were probably additions made by later prophets, and in the case of the account of the death of Moses, he could state quite categorically that the problem of authorship was ‘no more impeachment to Divine authority of this chapter, that the penman is unknown, which is also the lot of some other books of Scripture, than it is to the authority of the acts of the king or parliament, that they are written or printed by some unknown person'” (Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Volume Two [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003], 134).

Concerning 1 and 2 Samuel, Poole admits unknown authorship: he says it could have been written by more than one author (Ibid.). Furthermore Poole notes that Solomon didn’t write the entire book of Proverbs – after chapter 24, the book was “gathered by others” (Ibid.). In today’s language, Poole would not have denied some sort of a redactor concerning the “gathering” of some OT books.

What does this teach us? A few things. First of all, as Muller well says, “there is no clear division [in Reformed Scholasticism] between ‘pre-critical’ and ‘critical exegesis'” (Ibid., 135). Secondly, the Reformed and Puritan scholastics contributed positively to the development of textual criticism; textual criticism is not a “naughty word” in Reformed studies (Ibid.). Thirdly, textual criticism can and sometimes does take a negative turn, but only when approached rationalistically.  Francis Turretin’s son, J. A. Turretin, for example, in a more rationalistic way than Poole opened the door to a wedge between textual criticism and orthodox Reformed doctrine (Ibid., 145). Finally, the hermeneutical principles (principles of interpretation) of Reformed scholasticism were indeed pre-critical. That is to say, though the later Reformed and Puritan teachers interacted with and utilized later critical methods, they did not utilize later critical hermeneutics. They interpreted Scripture side-by-side with Calvin, Ursinus, and the other earlier Reformers while digging deeper into textual criticism than their predecessors.

For more on the above, and before asking deep questions, read Volume II of Muller’s PRRD, especially the above listed pages/sections, along with 248-255. Better yet, read Poole if you can get your hands on it!

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI

The NLT and Young Readers

The Tyndale Blog Network recently sent me a NLT to review.  It’s a regular Bible except for the fact that the cover is a nice black/blue and it is marketed as a “Guys Slimline” Bible.  The font is readable (though probably small for some eyes), the binding is solid, and it seems like a good Bible to have.  One of my boys really liked it and even asked if he could take it to school for Bible class.  The only flaw I noticed is that if bent, the cover will show the bend marks.

It’s also worth mentioning here that the NLT is a good Bible to own and use (as I’ve noted before).  We sometimes use it around the dinner table for family devotions, since the kids can understand it pretty well.  As I mentioned before, I’ve also used the NLT in situations where people aren’t always familiar with biblical language (e.g. jails, nursing homes, and funerals).

As I was recently preaching through Galatians and Luke, there were a few times I was frustrated with the ESV.  Sometimes it was a bit wooden and the English was rough (e.g. Gal. 2:2, 3:15, 4:8, 4:29; or the use of the word “thus”), sometimes the translation wasn’t so great (e.g. Luke 13:25), and sometimes it was hard to explain the ESV translation when it was a bit cumbersome (e.g. the word “impudence” in Luke 11:8; who uses that word?).  I use the ESV from the pulpit and in the study, and I very much recommend it as a solid translation, but I won’t ever be an “ESV-only” person.

All this to say that even if the ESV is the popular evangelical Bible endorsed by popular evangelicals, we should also often utilize other translations in our Bible reading and studies. I like the NASB, the HCSB, and the NIV.  I also use the NKJV and the NET Bible from time to time and I even look at the Message, a paraphrase of the Bible.  I believe that when I use several translations, it benefits my studies, sermons, Scripture knowledge, and of course my spiritual life.  Feel free to comment on your uses of various translations!

As I mentioned above, I was given The Guys Slimline Bible NLT by the Tyndale Blog network in exchange for an honest review.

Shane Lems


Worshiping Worship (or Making an Idol of Worship)

Worship by the Book Ironically, sometimes people who are constantly seeking better worship might just be worshiping the worship “experience” instead of God.  Yes, our hearts are sinful to the extent that we’d make an idol out of worship or a worship “experience.”  God help us!  Don Carson put it this way:

“It is disturbingly easy to plot surveys of people, especially young people, drifting from a church of excellent preaching and teaching to one with excellent music because, it is alleged, there is ‘better worship’ there.  But we need to think carefully about this matter.  …Although there are things that can be done to enhance corporate worship, there is a profound sense in which excellent worship cannot be attained merely by pursuing excellent worship.  In the same way that, according to Jesus, you cannot find yourself until you lose yourself, so also you cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent corporate worship and pursue God himself. …It’s a bit like those who begin admiring the sunset and soon begin to admire themselves admiring the sunset.”

“This point is acknowledged in a praise chorus like ‘Let’s forget about ourselves, and magnify the Lord, and worship him.’  The trouble is that after you have sung this repetitious chorus three or four times, you are no farther ahead.  The way you forget about yourself is by focusing on God – not by singing about doing it, but by doing it.  There are far too few choruses and services and sermons that expand our vision of God – his attributes, his works, his character, his words.”

“Some think that corporate worship is good because it is lively where it had been dull.  But it may also be shallow where it is lively, leaving people dissatisfied and restless in a few months’ time.  Sheep lie down when they are well fed (cf. Ps 23:2); they are more likely to be restless when they are hungry.  ‘Feed my sheep,’ Jesus commanded Peter (John 21); and many sheep are unfed.  If you wish to deepen the worship of the people of God, above all deepen their grasp of his ineffable majesty in his person and in all his works” (p. 30-31).

D. A. Carson,  “Worship Under The Word” in Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI

The Preacher and the Congregation (Kuyper)

I appreciate some of the things Abraham Kuyper (d. 1920) said about the pastor and the congregation in chapter 29 of Our Worship.  Here are a few examples.

“It is important… to think carefully about the position of the minister in relation to the congregation. …He lives in the midst of his congregation as an ambassador of his Sender.  Yet he is also a brother among brothers, but only insofar as he shares in the same needs and survives because of the same grace.  He who preaches must preach to himself first of all.  His preaching must first grip his soul, and must be a testimony from God to his own soul.  The sermon must have stood the test that his own being was humbled by it, raised up, gripped, comforted, and edified.”

“He must take [the] command that is God’s and appropriate it, feel it, and understand it for himself.  The work of God, the word of God, the decrees of God, the promises of God, or whatever it may be that he will preach on, must have seized and moved and stirred him.”

‘[The preacher] does not appear before the congregation as a stranger, but as a family member in the house of the Lord.  The foundation therefore is a spiritual unity, and a mutual trust rests on that.  The preacher is not a professor who teaches from behind a lectern; he is not a general addressing the troops; he is not a populist speaker who tries to win over the crowd; but he is a participant in the good news who speaks to the other participants about the good news.”

“A good preacher does not cast his eyes and words beyond the congregation, but looks at them, engages them, and talks to them.”

“…A long exposition of the facts or propositions with a short application is in conflict with the nature of a sermon.  The application must not be the dinghy behind the ship.  Rather, the purpose of the sermon is really in the application.  The whole service of the Word centers on the edification and building up of the congregation.”

“The gospel must certainly always be preached.  But preaching the gospel is not a monotonous repetition of the same thing all the time; rather, it is to let the rich tints of the light beams of the gospel sparkle as through a prism.”

“A sermon does not have to be long.  Stretching it out serves no useful purpose.  There is, after all, another sermon in the evening.  And after six days one starts again.  There should be no attempt to say everything at once; neither should there be a wasting of time on all sorts of things that nobody is interested in.  …The sermon must in every part and every sentence give something to the listener.  Not bread and stones, but bread only, with all the stones removed.”

Abraham Kuyper, Our Worship, trans. and ed. Henry Boonstra, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI

Dealing With Church “Troublers”

Most pastors, elders, and members know what it’s like to have a person in the church who is a troubler.  I’m not writing this based on any current issues or troublers in the church I serve now, but I know from past experience and other people’s stories that not every church member is content with peace and unity.  Some people are always grumbling, griping, and complaining about one thing or another in the church.  I appreciate how Presbyterian pastor Thomas Murphy (b. 1823) wrote about those that trouble the church.  Murphy was specifically talking to pastors, but his words are helpful for us all to read:

The pastor need not be surprised if he finds troublers in his church. The discovery of such persons among the professed people of God sometimes shocks ministers, especially inexperienced ones, and discourages them, and sometimes leads them unwisely to give up their charges. But it should be understood as a lamentable fact that such persons are most likely to be found in every church, that the pastor will almost certainly encounter them, and that he ought to be prepared for the discovery, and not to be too much cast down by it.

It is well for the pastor to be forewarned on this subject, and to be undismayed if he encounters many dispositions which are calculated to disturb the peace of the church. He will find that some are sadly inconsistent, bringing constant reproach upon the cause ; some are complainers and fault-finders, acute at finding or inventing things to annoy ; some take pleasure in criticizing and opposing everything that is done or said by the pastor ; some are so utterly unreasonable that they will listen to neither argument nor entreaty ; some are restless, always finding something to agitate and distract ; some are quarrelsome, as if they found their greatest satisfaction in strife ; and others again there are whose business it seems to be to pull down, never to extend a helping hand even to the cause which they profess to love. The injustice and the cruelty of such persons toward him — and that, too, when he is conscious of doing the very best in his power — will sometimes almost break the minister’s heart.

Murphy next explained how the pastor should handle such people:

We would recommend as the sovereign remedy for such troublers in the church simply to let them alone.  Our advice would be, Do not notice them ; do not speak of them ; do not oppose them ; if possible, do not think of them ; and [then they will be] disarmed for evil. If they cannot excite any commotion, they soon become weary of their fruitless efforts to annoy.

There are other ways to handle such people.  I don’t think this is the only way – in fact, sometimes (often?) church discipline might be the right thing to do if a person is purposely disrupting Christian unity.  However, sometimes when the troubler gets no attention, he leaves or stops trying to annoy people (sort of like an immature child sulks away when no one pays attention to him).

Murphy followed up these notes with a few considerations to think of on this topic (I’ve shortened them a little):

  1. It is impossible to satisfy them (troublers) by any excellency of preaching or action.
  2. Though there may be one or more such persons in the church, remember their number is but small compared with the great body of the true-hearted members who are ever ready to stand by the pastor and help him in his work.
  3. Even such troublers and the dissatisfied and the constitutionally unhappy are a part of the material upon which the minister is appointed to work as he strives to build up and beautify that spiritual temple which will be perfected only when the Church’s earthly work is done (when Jesus returns).
  4. Troublers are not without their use; if the knowledge that we are watched by critical or unfriendly eyes serves to make us [pastors] more vigilant, more consistent, and more active, then even this, one of the pastor’s sorest trials, may be turned to good account.

I really appreciate these four points!  These are great things for us – pastors, elders, and members – to remember when dealing with a person that is “constitutionally unhappy” with the pastor’s ministry and the local church.  In God’s sovereignty, sometimes he uses bad people to make us better.

You can find this section in Murphy’s book, Pastoral Theology, chapter 10.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Historical Background of “Irresistible Grace”

Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation One of the doctrines of grace has commonly been called “irresistible grace.”  This basically means that a sinful heart cannot refuse the sovereign work of God in regeneration.  God is sovereign over the human heart and will.  The term “irresistible grace” can be misunderstood and wrongly interpreted, so some have favored other terms like “effectual grace” or “efficacious grace.”  Herman Bavinck wrote some helpful notes on the background of this term:

The term “irresistible grace” is not really of Reformed origin but was used by Jesuits and Remonstrants to characterize the doctrine of the efficacy of grace as it was advocated by Augustine and those who believed as he did. The Reformed in fact had some objections to the term because it was absolutely not their intent to deny that grace is often and indeed always resisted by the unregenerate person and therefore could be resisted. They therefore preferred to speak of the efficacy or of the insuperability of grace, or interpreted the term “irresistible” in the sense that grace is ultimately irresistible.

The point of the disagreement, accordingly, was not whether humans continually resisted and could resist God’s grace, but whether they could ultimately — at the specific moment in which God wanted to regenerate them and work with his efficacious grace in their heart — still reject that grace. The answer to this question, as is clearly evident from the five articles of the Remonstrants, is most intimately tied in with the doctrine of the corruption of human nature; with election (based or not based on foreseen faith); the universality and particularity of Christ’s atonement; the identification of, or the distinction between, the sufficient call (external) and the efficacious call (internal); and the correctness of the distinction between the will of God’s good pleasure and the revealed will in the divine being.

Whereas the Remonstrants appealed to Isa. 5:1–8; 65:2–3; Ezek. 12:2; Matt. 11:21–23; 23:37; Luke 7:30; John 5:34; and Acts 7:51, and to all the exhortations to faith and repentance occurring in Scripture, the Reformed theologians took their cue from the picture Scripture offers of fallen humanity as blind, powerless, natural, dead in sins and trespasses (Jer. 13:23; Matt. 6:23; 7:18; John 8:34; Rom. 6:17; 8:7; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 2:1; etc.), and from all the forceful words and images with which the work of grace in the human soul is described (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:31; Ezek. 36:26; John 3:3, 5; 6:44; Eph. 2:1, 6; Phil. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:3; etc.). So they spoke of the efficacy and invincibility of God’s grace in regeneration and articulated this truth in a confession at the Synod of Dort.

So in its 3rd/4th section, the Canons of Dort reject the errors of those who say that “when God intends man’s regeneration and wills to regenerate him,” man may resist God and the Holy Spirit; “and that it therefore remains in man’s power to be regenerated or not.” (RE Para. 8).  If a person says that ultimately a human can reject the will of God and the power of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, that person is denying the efficiency of God’s grace in our conversion, and subjecting the working of God to the will of man, which is contrary to what Scripture teaches (Eph. 1:19, 2 Thes. 1:11, 2 Pet. 1:3, etc.).  In other words, those who deny that God’s grace is ultimately irresistible are denying God’s sovereignty.

The above quotes are found in: Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 82–83.

Shane Lems

Hammond, WI