Taking the Mustard Seed View

Some pastors and writers I respect most often recommend taking a wider, bigger picture view of things. Of the past, the present, the future, of the church, of Scripture, etc. It’s always helpful to look past our own little worlds, whether they be our immediate individual sphere or national sphere. I’ve found this especially helpful when thinking about eschatology and missions; if we let our theology be shaped by our own little spheres, by social media headlines, by the headlines, by sensationalist media (where negativity and exaggeration sell), we would be, first, like most Christians in America, but more importantly, impoverishing our spiritual outlook and betraying our weak faith and trust in the amazingly big promises of God in Scripture.

In Sunday School we discussed the reality of the Christian’s life mimicking a graph of the stock market with its ups and downs rather than a straight line upward. That is, by only looking at a specific microcosm of the Christian’s life, it could be said to be on the decline or stuck in a downward trend. But taking the view of one’s entire life shows it to be ultimately one of progressive sanctification.

Later, we applied this to the history, present reality, and future trajectory of God’s church, namely in light of an article he recently read. If we take a micro view of history, things might look bleak. But consider the article, “Cracks in the Atheist Edifice,” published in The Economist in November. It discusses the exponential growth of Christianity in China. Namely, there were an estimated 67 million Christians in China in 2010, and many experts (foreign and Chinese) “now accept that there are probably more Christians than there are members of the 87m-strong Communist Party. Most are evangelical Protestants.”

Further, one expert says that with the current growth of the Christian church in China, there will be 250 million Christians there by 2030, making China’s Christian population the largest in the world. This rapid rate of growth is akin to that “seen in fourth-century Rome just before the conversion of Constantine, which paved the way for Christianity to become the religion of his empire. Even further, there are more than 2,000 illegal Christian schools in China, and half of the 50 most senior civil rights attorneys in China are Christian. Even more stunning: “missionaries have begun to go out from China to the developing world.”

Of course, the exponential growth of Christianity brings with it possible future issues related to the probable establishment of religious freedom, as the article insightfully explains:

“The paradox, as they all know, is that religious freedom, if it ever takes hold, might harm the Christian church in two ways. The church might become institutionalised, wealthy and hence corrupt, as happened in Rome in the high Middle Ages, and is already happening a little in the businessmen’s churches of Wenzhou. Alternatively the church, long strengthened by repression, may become a feebler part of society in a climate of toleration. As one Beijing house-church elder declared, with a nod to the erosion of Christian faith in western Europe: “If we get full religious freedom, then the church is finished.”

Ultimately, let’s not get caught up in headline reading chronological snobbery, geographical or political self-centeredness, or woe-is-the-American church cries. Just because things don’t look so good in the American church doesn’t mean God’s worldwide gospel plan isn’t ongoing. Let’s be encouraged and take the perspective the Bible takes on history and the trajectory of the world: the long view, the mustard seed view, the leaven view. After all, the church started with only 12 men.

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(Face)Book Challenge

There is a chain-letter-esque “book challenge” going around on Facebook, and since I haven’t posted in a long while, I thought I would register my protest of chain letters here. Ten books that have “stayed with you in some way,” complete with brief commentary.

  1. Book of Sorrows – Walter Wangerin, Jr. Incredibly emotional, potent, allegorical, moving; a work of art. The sequel to the almost equally powerful Book of the Dun Cow.
  2. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 were thisclose to bumping Huxley out, but I went with Huxley since he was the most accurate, prophetically speaking (see: Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death).
  3. Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky. You haven’t lived until you’ve read Russian fiction. Or something like that. Dostoevsky’s insights into human nature are beyond profound.
  4. Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis. Short parable on the afterlife; very influential for me.
  5. Heidelberg Catechism – Ursinus, et al. Beautiful, concise, and intimately personal, especially compared with the precise and verbose Westminster catechisms.
  6. Love in the Ruins – Walker Percy. What does it say about me that my favorite author is a Southern Catholic existentialist? This was my first, and is still my favorite, Percy work.
  7. Reforming Marriage – Doug Wilson. Great insights on a biblical view on marriage. Concepts and ideas, if not specifics, have shaped and continue to inform our marriage.
  8. Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection – Robert Farrar Capon. I’d love to be able to think and write like Capon. His artistic writings on hospitality, food, and life are invaluable.
  9. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology – Neil Postman. Postman has had a profound influence on my life and thought, though probably not as much lately. Time to read more Postman!
  10. Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World – James Jordan. I don’t remember too many specifics about this one, but the biblical typologies were mind blowing and definitely changed the way I read scripture.

2014 Books: 1Q

Here are the books I read from January through March. My next quarterly reading list is available by clicking here.

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation – Lynne Truss (2006); Print // Fun, insightful look at the history and usage of punctuation. Less a user’s manual and more an interesting collection of reflections on colons, commas, dashes, semi-colons, periods, and all other punctuation marks. My only gripe was her lack of respect for the Oxford comma.

Empire of Bones – N.D. Wilson (2013); Print // Third installment of the Ashtown Burials series, and possibly the best of the three. Loads of fun, suspense, action, and bravery. Here’s to hoping there’s a fourth!

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1902); Print // Read mainly because of our obsession with BBC’s Sherlock series, and it’s about time I read Doyle. Very enjoyable, witty, and smart. Wish I had read him sooner.

J.C. Ryle: That Man of GraniteEric Russell (2008); Print // Decent biography, if a bit long winded. Heavy on facts, light on analysis or engaging storytelling, unfortunately. Good to learn about Ryle’s life and ministry, but this was on the dry side.

Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis (1938); Print // A re-read for “book club;” Lewis’ Space Trilogy is still among my all time favorite series. Looking forward to reading the next two this year also. Interesting that Lewis thought this series was among his worst writings, though Tolkien liked them. I’m with Tolkien.

Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worship – Robbie Castleman (2013); Print // I was hoping for more, though my high expectations were perhaps a bit unfair. The principles and theory discussed were good, but I was really hoping for more practical insight. Where’s the easy fix for my kids when I need it?!

Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope – Keith Mathison (1999); Print // Very good, and now my go-to recommendation for a defense of postmillennialism. It is balanced, biblical, fair, thorough, and engaging. He helpfully devotes many pages to arguing for an early dating of the writing of Revelation, which further bolsters the preterist aspect of his arguments. I’m honestly not sure how a Christian could not be postmillennial after reading this, but that’s easy for me to say.

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis (1958); Print // Glad I finally got around to reading this. Lewis explains that he wrote this collection of essays as an amateur writing to other amateurs. In that regard, it was very good. Chapters on praise and prophecy in the psalms were especially insightful. Some of Lewis’ slightly unorthodox leanings are evident, but not troublesome for me.

A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 – Wendell Berry (1999); Print // Excellent collection of poetry by Berry. A collection that spans such a long period of time is fascinating, as it gives a glimpse into Berry’s ongoing maturity as a poet and thinker. He does not claim to be a professional poet, but merely an amateur writing these poems in conjunction with his weekly Sunday walks. Earthy, profound, understandable, and really, really enjoyable.

Why Christian Kids Need a Christian Education – Doug Wilson (2013); Print // Short, almost pamphlet-sized work defending a Christian education for Christian kids. Goes to the foundational reasons for a Christian education rather than refuting the surface/practical arguments of the other side. In that regard, it was very helpful.

Let the Nations Be Glad

It’s difficult to read Scripture with the eyes of faith and not come away with an optimistic view of the future in light of the myriad promises of God that are breathtaking in scope and which promise success for the spread of the gospel. Though most of the Psalms are laments, the Psalms especially are filled with such global optimism and promises for the successful reign of Christ. Keith Mathison, in his excellent book Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope, devotes an entire chapter to the optimism of the Psalms. His summary at the end of the chapter is especially helpful, and I quote it here:

“In each of the psalms we have examined, a different facet of the reign of the Messiah is brought to light:

1. Psalm 2. Christ is the rightful heir of all the nations.
2. Psalm 22. The same Christ who was crucified and is now exalted will fulfill the Abrahamic promise, and all the nations of the earth will remember and turn to God.
3. Psalm 47. All nations of the earth will be united to Christ and will become the one people of the God of Abraham.
4. Psalm 67. Although national Israel has failed, Christ will succeed as the mediator of the Abrahamic blessing to the nations of the earth.
5. Psalm 72. The people of God should faithfully pray for Christ to have worldwide dominion, to have all nations bow before Him, and to have all nations call Him blessed.
6. Psalm 86. The same omnipotent God who made all the nations will convert all the nations.
7. Psalm 110. Christ will reign from the right hand of God until He has brought all His enemies into either willing or unwilling submission.

“The Psalms continue to expand upon the covenant promises of the Pentateuch and the Historical Books by expressing Israel’s faith in the sure fulfillment of those promises. In doing so, they reinforce the postmillennial foundation, even as they begin to build upon it.”

-Keith Mathison in Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope (P&R, 1999), pp. 81-82

Heaven is Not My Home, I’m Just a-Passin’ Through

Moving away from controversial issues, let’s move to something a little more safe: eschatology. The end times. Doug Wilson’s Heaven Misplaced is all about eschatology, and is not a systematic defense of one view or a long-winded discussion about Bible prophecies. Instead, it’s a short, lyrical theology of God’s radical, large, and sometimes unbelievable promises regarding the efficacy and triumph of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s something we can (or should) all get behind. The Bible is very clear that it is not “all gonna burn, man.”

Up front, Wilson asks for a suspension of disbelief, an understood agreement between author and reader in works of fiction (especially fantasy). After all, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). When Tolkien was asked if he thought Middle Earth was real, he replied “one hopes.” That’s the perspective Wilson is writing from – an historical, optimistic theology of the trajectory of the gospel in the world. “One hopes.”

Though Wilson is a postmillennialist, the book isn’t a full-blown defense of postmillennialism, but more a scriptural view of heaven, earth, the gospel, and eternity. He doesn’t mention any of the three major eschatological camps until the glossary in Appendix A. Below is a lengthy excerpt from the book, where Wilson talks about heaven and earth. He is worth quoting at length because he says it better than I can.

What he writes here makes sense especially when compared to Jesus’ words about preparing a place for us with the Father in John 14. The word for “rooms” He uses refers to more temporary lodging than permanent lodging: nicer than any resort we’ve ever imagined, as Wilson says elsewhere. This excerpt also makes sense in light of Jesus’ “rapture” passages, where it is actually the wicked who are carried away to judgment, like in Noah’s day. Christ’s people will be the ones “left behind” in the glorious new heavens and new earth. It also jives with Paul’s description of Christ’s return in 1 Thessalonians 4, with believers meeting Him in the air to escort the victorious King back to earth. It also makes sense in light of the myriad glorious Old Testament prophecies about a renewed earth that seem too good to be true. The excerpt is in a discussion of Philippians 3:20-21, and follows the verses (any emphasis is his):

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

“As N.T. Wright notes, Caesar Augustus established the Roman colony of Philippi after the battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. and the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. He did this by settling his veterans there, many of whom were Roman citizens. This is the backdrop for Paul’s comment to the church that was located at this same Philippi. The Roman citizens of Philippi were there as Roman colonists, intended to extend the range and force of Roman influence throughout the Mediterranean world. They were not there in order for them to leave Philippi in order to come back to Rome for retirement.

“In this passage, St. Paul is using this striking metaphor for a reason. He says that our citizenship is in heaven. We look toward heaven because that is where Jesus went, which means that heaven is the place he is going to come from when He returns to earth. The metaphor translated, this means that Jesus was going to come from ‘Rome’ to ‘Philippi.’ He was not going to take ‘Philippi’ to ‘Rome’…

“If we take this simple metaphor of Paul’s at face value, it clears up a great deal for us. Christians now are living in the colonies of heaven. Now colonies are not established as feeder towns for the mother country – just the opposite actually. The mother country feeds the colonies.

“How you take the line of the story matters a great deal. Many Christians believe the cosmos has an upper and lower story, with earth as the lower story and heaven as the upper story. You live the first chapters of your life here. Then you die, and you move upstairs to live with the nice people – because only nice people are allowed on the second story. There might be some kind of sequel after that, but it is all kind of hazy. Maybe we all go live in the attic. But the basic movement in this thinking is from a Philippi ‘below’ to a Rome ‘above.’

“But what Paul teaches us here is quite different. We are establishing the colonies of heaven here, now. When we die, we get the privilege of visiting the heavenly motherland, which is quite different than moving there permanently. After this brief visit, the Lord will bring us all back here for the final and great transformation of the colonists (and the colonies). In short, our time in heaven is the intermediate state. It is not the case that our time here is the intermediate state. There is an old folk song that says, ‘This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.’ This captures the mistake almost perfectly. But as the saints gather in heaven – which is the real intermediate state – the growing question is, ‘When do we get to go back home?’ And so this means that heaven  is the place that we are just ‘passing through.’

-Doug Wilson in Heaven Misplaced: Christ’s Kingdom on Earth (Canon Press, 2008), pages 23-24

A needle touched by the loadstone

John Owen truly had a profuse pen, and was the most proficient, if not the greatest, Puritan writer and theologian. His meditative work on the glories of Christ is pastoral, encouraging, and soul-stirring. It is noteworthy that Owen thought it of such importance as to write on the glories of his Savior while nearing death, as this was his final work (it was at the press when he died). Here are some various encouraging passages from the first chapter of this excellent book.

“The hearts of believers are like the needle touched by the loadstone, which cannot rest until it comes to the point whereunto, by the secret virtue of it, it is directed. For being once touched by the love of Christ, receiving therein an impression of secret ineffable virtue, they will ever be in motion, and restless, until they come unto him, and behold his glory. That soul which can be satisfied without it – that cannot be eternally satisfied with it – is not partaker of the efficacy of his intercession… 

“One of the greatest privileges and advancements of believers, both in this world and unto eternity, consists in their beholding the glory of Christ… 

“No man shall ever behold the glory of Christ by sight hereafter, who does not in some measure behold it by faith here in this world. Grace is a necessary preparation for glory, and faith for sight. Where the subject (the soul) is not previously seasoned with grace and faith, it is not capable of glory or vision.”

-John Owen in The Glory of Christ (1684)

Face washed and pants on

“I took to studying the ones of my teachers who were also preachers, and also the preachers who came to speak in chapel and at various exercises. In most of them I saw the old division of body and soul that I had known at The Good Shepherd. The same rift ran through everything at Pigeonville College; the only difference was that I was able to see it more clearly, and to wonder at it. Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. if the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins – hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust – came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and its pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world. And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body.”

-Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow: A Novel (Counterpoint, 2000), p.49