Daily Devotionals: Recommendations

(This is a repost from May, 2012)

I’ve been asked by quite a few different people if I had any suggestions for a day-by-day devotional book.  Those little white pocket-size devotional booklets are often fluffy, moralistic, cheesy, or theologically weak – I can see why people are looking for something better.  To make a longer blog post short, here are a few I recommend:

 Holiness Day by Day by Jerry Bridges.  In this book, each day’s devotional starts with a verse from Scripture then consists of a one page reading from various books Bridges wrote.  This is a good one for most Christians – it is understandable, theologically sound, and gospel centered.  There is no fluff here!

Another one page daily devotional I recommend is J. M Boice’s Come to the Waters.  This daily reading starts with a verse from Scripture and then has a one page portion of Boice’s writing.  This book is also solid and understandable, though each devotional isn’t necessarily an explanation of the gospel. Come to The Waters is also readable for most Christians.

The J. I. Packer Classic Collection: Daily Readings for Your Spiritual Journey Here’s a day-by-day reading written by J. I. Packer: Daily Readings for Your Spiritual Journey.  This day-by-day devotional book is just like the first two I noted.  There is a verse and then a short section of Packer’s writing. This too is solid and understandable – it also covers a broad range of doctrines and application.

Comforts from the Cross: Celebrating the Gospel One Day at a Time (Revised Edition) Another one I’ve purchased and given out is Comforts from the Cross by E. Fitzpatrick.  This devotional is a little different from the above only because it is a little longer and specifically focuses on the cross.  Each daily reading is around two pages – and each day there is a verse and a closing prayer.  Also worth noting here is that this devotional is for one month, while the others listed here would take longer to complete.

Finally, I certainly should mention D. A. Carson’s two volumes called For the Love of God.  This daily, one page devotional is structured after M’Cheyne’s one year Bible reading plan.  Each day consists of a meditation on the day’s Scripture reading.  This one, like the others, is solid, biblical, and covers a variety of Biblical doctrines and application.

What we’ve done (here at church) is purchased several of these and handed them out to those in the congregation who were interested in a daily Christian reading.  I think this is a good idea.  Get rid of those little fluffy devotional booklets and replace them with some (or all!) of these books I’ve listed above.  And, as always, if you have other good suggestions, list them in the comments.

Shane Lems

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Love or Truth? Love and Truth? (Carson)

The Intolerance of Tolerance The main point of D. A. Carson’s 2012 book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, is a good one: “[The] new, contemporary tolerance is intrinsically intolerant” (p. 2).  Carson unpacks that statement pretty well throughout the book.  One thing I want to point out in light of this statement is how Carson discusses the Christian teachings of truth and love later on in chapter five:

“It is not uncommon for the new tolerance to pit truth against love in a zero-sum game: one or the other will be diminished.  If your church has a statement of faith, you may be trying to uphold biblical truth, but love for outsiders will be diminished.  If you think of the Christian faith as articulating, proclaiming, and defending the truth, you will diminish in love, for truth draws borders and establishes that those who disagree with you are ‘other,’ and the inevitable result is lovelessness and intolerance.  You cannot truly love and be passionate for the truth [they say].”

“Biblically speaking, this is a strange position, however popular it is today.  For instance, in his first letter the apostle John establishes three tests of genuine Christian profession: ‘a truth test’ (believers must believe certain things to be true), a love test (believers must genuinely love one another), and an obedience test (believers must do what Jesus says).  Transparently, all of us fail these tests, more or less frequently – and then the only comfort John provides (and it is entirely sufficient) is that the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.”

“The point to observe is that these three tests must be applied together: it is not best two out of three, nor is there an option to excel in one and flunk the other two.  In particular, John senses no discomfort in pushing both truth and love.  One must conclude, therefore, that if we are tempted to pit one against the other, then clearly there is something fundamentally amiss in our conception of truth, of love, or of both” (p. 121).

D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Morality, Media, and Philosophical Pluralism

Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism [15th Anniversary Edition] One dominate trait of our American culture is what Don Carson calls “philosophical pluralism.”  This is the belief or philosophy that no person, claim, or ideology is superior to another one.  “The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism.  No religion has the right to pronounce itself right or true, and the others false, or even (in the majority view) relatively inferior” (Carson, p. 19).  Since, they say, there is no absolute truth, no one can claim any high ground anywhere.  The effects of this philosophy or belief are numerous and tragic.  One that Carson points out is in the area of morality:

“In the moral realm, there is very little consensus left in Western countries over the proper basis of moral behavior.  And because of the power of the media, for millions of men and women the only venue where moral questions are discussed and weighed in is the talk show, where more often than not the primary aim is to entertain, even shock, not to think.  When Geraldo and Oprah become the arbiters of public morality, when the opinion of the latest media personality is sought on everything from abortion to transvestites, when banality is mistaken for profundity because uttered by a movie star or basketball player, it is not surprising that there is less thought than hype.”

“Oprah shapes more of the nation’s grasp of right and wrong than most of the pulpits in the land.  Personal and social ethics have been removed from the realms of truth and of structures of thought; they have not only been relativized, but they have been democratized and trivialized.  As a guest on a talk show dealing with pornography put it, ‘The great thing about our society is that you can have your opinion and I can have mine” (p. 24).

Carson is right: this kind of pluralism touches every part of society, right down to the moral framework of people’s thoughts and lives.  Thankfully, the gospel rescues us from such depressing pluralism and also gives us a reason and motive to share the good news with those in such a framework.  For more on this, see Carson’s The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism.  It’s a great book!

shane lems

Jesus’ Teaching On Hell

How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd ed.  Jesus talked about hell quite a bit; if you’ve read the Gospels, this is not a groundbreaking statement.  I appreciate how Don Carson reflects on Jesus’ “hard” teaching on hell:

1) On the whole Jesus himself is not shocked by the existence of hell, but by the hardness of people’s hearts.  As I already suggested, that may tell us that we need to wrestle much more diligently with how God looks at sin, and the degree and degradation and moral offensiveness of the sin that he sees.

2) There is no hint in the Bible that there is any repentance in hell.  There may be a cry for relief, or a plea, but there is no hint of repentance (Lk. 16:19-31).  Perhaps, then, we should think of hell as a place where people continue to rebel, continue to insist on their own way, continue societal structures of prejudice and hate, continue to defy the living God.  And as they continue to defy God, so he continues to punish them.  And the cycle goes on and on.

3) We must always remember that the Bible does not present us with a God who chances upon neutral men and women and arbitrarily consigns some to heaven and some to hell.  He takes guilty men and women, all of whom deserve his wrath, and in his great mercy and love he saves vast numbers of them.  Had he saved only one, it would have been an act of grace; that he saves a vast host affirms still more unmistakably the uncharted riches of that grace.

4) Heaven would surely be hell to those who do not enjoy and desire the blessing of the unshielded presence of God.

5) The God of the Bible is not unmoved by our suffering.  He is slow to anger, abundant in mercy.  Jesus, after saying “woes” to the religious hypocrites of his day, ends up weeping over the city of Jerusalem (Mt. 23).  Though the Bible speaks plainly [about hell], and sometimes in fury, it never does so without tears.  And Christians can never forget that they too, like the rest, are by nature objects of wrath.  They never warn others about the wrath of God from a position of intrinsic superiority, but from the broken experience and the relief of redemption they want to share.

These excellent quotes (edited for length) are found in D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord? p. 90-93.

shane lems

The Significance of Sin (Carson)

Fallen: A Theology of Sin (Theology in Community) Don Carson’s contribution to the book, Fallen: A Theology of Sin, is an excellent piece in which he talks about the significance of sin in Scripture and life.  Near the beginning of the essay he says,

“There can be no agreement as to what salvation is unless there is agreement as to that from which salvation rescues us.  The problem and the solution hang together: the one explicates the other.  It is impossible to gain a deep grasp of what the cross achieves without plunging into a deep grasp of what sin is; conversely, to augment one’s understanding of the cross is to augment one’s understanding of sin.”

Carson goes on in the article to lay out and explain some theological structures that are shaped by what the Bible teaches about sin – and that therefore shape our understanding of sin.  Here they are:

1) Sin is tied to passages that disclose important things about God [who he is and what he’s like].
2) Sin is tied to the work of Satan.
3) Sin is depicted in many ways [in the Bible].
4) Sin is enmeshed in theological constructions [e.g. anthropology, pneumatology, soteriology, etc.].
5) Reflection on sin is necessary to understand suffering and evil.

If you want to read Carson’s discussion of these points, you’ll have to get the book. Here’s one more helpful note where Carson summarizes the importance of understanding sin’s significance in the Bible:

“…If we do not comprehend the massive role that sin plays in the Bible…, we shall misread the Bible.  Positively, a sober and realistic grasp of sin is one of the things necessary to read the Bible in a percipient [perceptive – spl] fashion; it is one of the required criteria for a responsible hermeneutic.”

D. A. Carson, “Sin’s Contemporary Significance” in Fallen: A Theology of Sin, chapter 1.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Two (and a Half) New Don Carson Titles

This one is just out: Don Carson’s Collected Writings on Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).  It looks just as promising as most of his other writings.  The first 190 pages or so are essays of Carson’s that discuss the Bible: historiography, literary aspects, hermeneutics, criticism, authority, theology, and other such themes.  The second half of the book – roughly from page 190 to 300 – is a collection of Carson’s book reviews.  These consist of his reviews on books about the Bible, like James Barr’s The Scope and Authority of the Bible, Pete Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation, along with several more.  You can get a PDF snapshot of this collection here.

Also, I’ve mentioned this before, but you can also now order his other new one, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010). The God Who Is There is kind of a beginner’s guide to biblical and systematic theology – basically Carson goes through the main themes of the Bible in a way that showcases God’s glory in his work in/through history.  Looks like it would make for good Sunday School or book club material.

This one isn’t really a full book – it is more of a booklet (under 100 pages): From The Resurrection to His Return: Living Faithfully in the Last Days (Christian Focus, 2010).  The publisher says it is sort of a commentary on 2 Timothy 3.  It has to do with Christians living in light of Jesus’ return.  Looks good!  You can see a PDF preview here.

Enjoy!

shane

The Church as Cultural Ghetto?

 These are outstanding words from Don Carson, found in his chapter (“Challenges for the Twenty-first Century Pulpit”) of Preach the Word, a collection of essays on preaching in honor of R. Kent Hughes (edited by Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson).  In one section of his chapter, Carson talks about how the United States and Canada are becoming more and more ethnically diverse.  He says it is something we as preachers (and churches) can appreciate and something we should be aware of.

“The last thing the church needs in a city like Toronto or New York is a church that hunkers down into ethnically and culturally pure enclaves.  That is wrong biblically and stupid strategically.”

“Preachers who serve in most of our large urban centers, and even in many small centers, will face increasing cultural diversity in the populace where their church is located.  Woe to the church that lags way behind these demographic changes, for it is destined to become a narrow (and narrow-minded) enclave, instead of joyfully anticipating the day, in the new heaven and new earth, when men and women from every language and people and nation will gather around the throne.”

“Churches comprised of believers from diverse cultures will include different tastes in food, different views on how to bring up their children, different perspectives on individualism and family identity, different traditions with which they choose to identify themselves.  Yet what unites them in Christ Jesus is far richer than what divides them.  The preacher sensitive to these changes will be eager to establish a growing, empathetic, and biblically faithful distinction between ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3 NIV) and an immense array of cultural differences over which it is unwise to divide.”

Carson also notes the danger of a church trying so hard to preserve the language and ethnic culture of its members – it is dangerous because preserving people’s language and culture can sometimes push the gospel out of the center.  In other words, a church has to be careful not to let its traditions, culture, or language trump the gospel. 

There’s a lot more in this chapter; I highly recommend it, along with the rest of this helpful book on preaching.

shane lems

sunnyside wa