Book Review: Church Discipline by Jonathan Leeman

Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus by Jonathan Leeman

OVERVIEW

Rating: 5 out of 5

Length: 4.5 – 5 hrs. To read (144 pages)

Short Summary:

Defining church discipline and explaining how it should be practiced can be difficult. Jonathan Leeman’s book, Church Discipline, draws from Scripture to help Christians understand church discipline so they can protect “the name and reputation of Jesus Christ on earth.”

Who Should Read This Book?
Some portions of this book are specifically geared toward pastors. However, as Leeman points out, church discipline is not the exclusive responsibility of church leaders. Any Christian will benefit from reading this book and developing a gospel-centered understanding of church discipline.

Given that church discipline has fallen to the wayside in many congregations, the health of the Church would be greatly improved if many non-pastors were to educate themselves about church discipline through this book. It is one volume in the ever-growing 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches series and is indispensable reading for anyone who appreciated the other volumes on discipling and church membership.

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SUMMARY

The How:
Jonathan Leeman’s’ conversational writing style is well-tuned for a general audience. A pastor with seminary training or an average church member will find the book equally accessible. Leeman’s pastoral concern that more Christians and churches grasp what the Bible has to say about church discipline is apparent throughout the book.

Church Discipline is structured in three parts. In the first part, which constitutes the majority of the book, Leeman carefully establishes a Gospel framework for understanding and applying church discipline. The second part consists of various “case studies” through which the author shows how the framework may be applied in particular situations. Finally, in the third part, which is geared most directly toward pastors, Leeman gives practical and helpful cautions to consider before practicing church discipline. A short conclusion and appendix give pastors a checklist for church discipline as well as a list of mistakes pastors make in practicing discipline.

The Why:

Church Discipline sets out to do far more than merely define church discipline and offer some case examples. Equally important to Leeman is helping Christians understand why the church should accept such a practice in the first place and what should be the motivating factor behind putting it into operation. In both cases, Leeman’s answer is the same: the Gospel.

The subtitle makes Leeman’s goal for this book clear: that the Church would protect the name of Jesus on earth. Of course, the church will never carry out that task perfectly. However, Leeman makes a compelling case that the church cannot even claim to be doing that job to the best of its ability when it neglects to discipline its members. Church discipline is something that has fallen out of use (and out of fashion) and this book is clearly aimed at reviving a practice that Leeman sees as being vital to the health of the church.

The What:

Starting with the basics of the Gospel, Leeman develops a framework for understanding and practicing church discipline that is infused with Scripture from start to finish. Defining the Gospel might seem like a point too basic to make in a book that is clearly targeted at those who are already followers of Christ. Yet as Leeman shows, there is a kind of thinned-out gospel that prevails in many churches that will poison a Christian’s understanding of church discipline if it is not exposed and corrected.

The book goes on to briefly answer questions like “What is a Christian?” and “What is church membership?” Without a clear, Biblical understanding of concepts such as these, it would do little good (and potentially cause considerable frustration and disagreement) to embark on a discussion of church discipline. Confusion about what the church is or about the nature of the individual Christian’s commitment to the local church must be resolved before coming to a right understanding of church discipline.

Practicing church discipline requires a Biblically-sound framework because churches will be faced with many situations for which there is no clear, Scriptural case study. Leeman offers a sampling of questions he received on the topic of church discipline, including “What should we do if one of our members completely abandons the faith and stops calling himself a Christian?” and “Is pursuing marriage with a non-Christian a disciplinable offense?” and “What should we do about a longtime attending nonmember who’s being divisive?”

Those are questions that do not have easy answers, but they are ones that churches should be prepared to address. They are the kinds of questions for which having a solid, Gospel-centered framework for practicing church discipline is essential.

According to this book, a lot of Christians are probably already doing more church discipline than they may realize. That is because most discipline happens informally and on a personal level, what Leeman calls formative discipline (in contrast to corrective church discipline). Each Sunday when we hear the preaching of the Word we are getting a form of church discipline. When Christians encourage one another throughout the week to pray and have their time of personal devotions, that is also a form of church discipline.

Ultimately, much church discipline will be bound up in another closely-related Biblical concept: discipling. As this book puts it: “To be discipled is, among other things, to be disciplined.” If Christians are discipling each other as they should–helping each other to follow Jesus–church discipline of the formative kind is already taking place and the need for corrective church discipline will tend to diminish.

“Corrective discipline,” as Leeman defines it, is probably what most people think of when they hear the phrase “church discipline.” It is the process that could, at the end, result in a person’s being removed from church membership, i.e., excommunication. The process of corrective church discipline, however, is to be reserved for those sins that are outward, serious, and unrepentant. That last factor is the most important in Leeman’s framework. Repentance must always be the motive of any act of church discipline, with restoration being the ultimate goal.

Although there are many passages undergirding Leeman’s case for church discipline, he focuses heavily on two familiar passages: Matthew 18:15-20 and I Corinthians 5-6. Other writers on the topic of church discipline have seen in those two passages, two differing approaches to church discipline in the words of Jesus and the writings of Paul. Leeman convincingly synthesizes those two passages and demonstrates that, in fact, Jesus and the Apostle Paul are in complete agreement with one another, despite the fact that they are describing different stages in the process of discipline.

There are five principles that form the core of this book’s church discipline framework. Churches should involve the smallest number of people possible to lead to repentance. Those who are older and wiser in the faith (including church leaders) should be the ones to lead the later stages of the process. There can be no set timeline for church discipline; the process must continue until the church is convinced that the person is characteristically unrepentant.

Heeding the admonition of James 1:19 (“let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger”), individuals should be given the benefit of the doubt. Finally, church leaders should bring the entire congregation into the process and instruct them as appropriate (although the timing and form of that involvement could vary significantly depending on the church’s form of governance).

What if the process of discipline yields the desired repentance? The church extends the person forgiveness and he or she is restored to church membership, which is an occasion for joy. There is no Scriptural basis for anything like a trial period. Rather, as Paul instructed the church at Corinth the church is to “comfort him” and “reaffirm your love for him.”

Again, however, Leeman emphasizes that the question of when restoration should occur will not always be immediately clear. Discerning whether there is sufficient evidence of repentance requires Christians to plead with God for His wisdom and to proceed carefully.

With a collection of nine case studies (constructed with elements of real-life situations he has encountered), Leeman goes on to demonstrate how the framework is applied. Each case study describes the situation, assesses the sin, assesses the repentance, notes any other factors, and describes the decision that the church reached.

It may be, Leeman admits, that some of the decisions were mistaken; he makes no claim that these decisions are the “final word.” However, the case studies are good examples of what it looks like when a church makes a well-meaning effort to apply the gospel to the area of church discipline as described in the first chapters of the book.

ANALYSIS

Personal Perspective:

Before reading this book, I had only a basic understanding of what church discipline was and how it was supposed to work. How superficial that understanding really was became clear to me the more I read. I certainly could have pointed to Matthew 18 and named the general steps there, but that was about the extent of my knowledge.

The reason Leeman started by defining the Gospel quickly came into sharp focus and I am thankful that he wrote that portion of the book. In fact, the sections that define the Gospel, the church, and what it means to be a Christian are worth reading for their own sake, even for someone who is not currently interested in the topic of church discipline.

Strengths

When Leeman goes to the words of the Bible he does not skate across the surface, but dives deep and picks passages apart to be sure that readers grasp the full meaning and all of its implications. For a book as relatively thin as this one (a mere 144 pages), its Scriptural interpretation is meaty.

Leeman makes clear on numerous occasions that church discipline cannot be boiled down to a set of rules, e.g., if someone commits this sin, then do that as an act of church discipline. Nevertheless, the case examples (based on real situations) are extremely helpful in understanding how the framework that is laid out in the first part of the book can be applied to specific circumstances.

Weaknesses
If there is any weakness in Church Discipline–and believe me, I had to wrack my brain to come up with one–I think it would be that it is tilted toward those churches that have an elder-led, congregational form of government. Leeman writes on the topic of church discipline generally (and he acknowledges differences in church governance), but those from churches with different structures might have specific questions about the application of church discipline that were not treated fully in this short work.

CONCLUSION

A number of other books have been written on this topic. However, I think readers would be hard-pressed to find one that succeeds in so succinctly and so clearly building a Biblical foundation for church discipline and laying out a framework for applying it.

Leeman cautions pastors not to dive head first into practicing church discipline without first teaching on the subject. It is not enough for the pastor himself to have a firm grasp on the concept of church discipline. Without a clear understanding of these topics in the congregation, a pastor trying to put these truths into practice is setting himself up for frustration.

In writing this book, however, Leeman has given pastors just the kind of tool they need to lay that foundation for their own local church. This is exactly the kind of book that could be distributed to a board of elders (or deacons or other non-staff church leaders, as the case may be in any particular church) to spark fruitful discussions on the topic of church discipline.

FAVORITE QUOTES

  • “Why would God ever leave things unclear? My guess is that, among other things, he means for us to cry out for wisdom, because crying out for wisdom requires naturally self-sufficient people like us to lean on him. All those gray areas in life function as training grounds for trust.” (pages 21-22)
  • “Broadly speaking, discipline is necessary whenever a disciple departs from the way of Christ by sinning. It’s necessary whenever a gap opens up between a Christian’s profession and life, and the so-called representative of Jesus fails to represent Jesus.” (page 48)
  • “Churches must not practice discipline for the sake of retribution, but for the sake of gospel love.” (page 130)

 

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Remember the Lord and Fight!

I hesitated to write this post because it is much more personal than anything I’ve written here before. If, however, it can be an encouragement to someone who has had an experience similar to mine or has experienced the same feelings and emotions, perhaps it will have been worth it to pull it out of my personal journal and publish it here.

This past Sunday one of the pastors at my church announced that he had accepted a pastoral position at another church in another state. To be more precise, I should say that our church’s only ordained pastor will soon be gone. Not only that, but his departure marks the fifth time since August of 2015 that a pastor has left my church. The circumstances of those departures are not the subject of this post, nor would I put anything in a public blog post that might cause any pain to other members of my church.

I know that this man, whom I consider a friend, has not accepted this new position lightly or without prayer and godly counsel. When he told the church that moving on brought sadness for him, I believe him. His continued service to our church over the past couple of years has been a source of great encouragement to me and I rejoice for his new church family that they will now be blessed by his ministry.

Still, his announcement brought with it a wave of discouragement for me. It’s a feeling that’s become too familiar over the past couple of years. I want nothing but God’s best for my pastor and friend, but I would be deceiving myself if I were to deny that it hurts that he will no longer be at my church. It is difficult not to feel somewhat abandoned and alone. Five men who have been spiritual mentors and guides, teachers, and friends have left my church family and I know that those relationships will never be quite the same.

It was no coincidence that my Bible reading plan for 2018 had me reading in Nehemiah 4 on the day of this announcement:

But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.

In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall. And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.” At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.” So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”

Nehemiah 4:10-14 (ESV)

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Rebuilding the Wall of Jerusalem under Nehemiah by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

 

Perhaps the discouragement I felt this Sunday compares in some small way to what was felt in Judah in Nehemiah’s day. The people were hard at work, but they met opposition. Their strength was failing, there was too much work to be done, and it became clear that the task was too much for them. But Nehemiah gave them a reminder, words of encouragement: “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.” No matter who opposed the Israelites or what circumstances stood in their way, they could fix their hearts and minds on the God whom they served and take courage from his awesome power. They could then turn that courage into action by being prepared to fight for their families and their homes.

I worship and serve the same God who has not changed at all from Nehemiah’s day. I strive to be a committed member of my church (although I know I do not fill that role perfectly). Sometimes the effort involved in committing myself to my church seems overwhelming. Often, I see the strain of that effort more in others than in myself. Given what my church has been through, it is easy to think about giving up on one’s commitment, feeling that we’ve been left to fend for ourselves.

But I have no reason to wallow in that kind of discouragement or believe the lie that we are abandoned. I remember the Lord, who is great and awesome. When the task before me seems too much to bear, I know that He is my strength. He supplies that strength for a purpose: that I may glorify him. The reconstruction of Jerusalem brought glory to God as well as safety for its inhabitants. The work that God has called me to do in my local church brings glory to him, but I can also draw motivation from the fact that the members of my church are my family. When your family is in danger, you prepare to fight.

The call to myself and to anyone else feeling discouraged (especially anyone in my own church family who might read this) is simple: do not fear enemies or circumstances, but remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and resolve to fight on behalf of those you love.

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Alas, Babylon: Insights on Government from the Book of Daniel

In a few previous posts I’ve written about how Christians should relate to the state. Having recently read through the book of Daniel in my time of personal devotions, I believe there are a number of things that Christians can glean from the first six chapters of Daniel about how we should relate to and interact with the state.

Before diving into my observations, however, I want to make a caveat. I am not claiming that these passages in Daniel are exclusively or even primarily about how Christians should relate to human governments. But considering how much of the narrative involves rulers, officials, laws, and decrees, it seems reasonable to consider whether we can draw any inferences from what we read there.

Daniel’s Dietary Dissent

A theme that runs through the first half of the book of Daniel is that no matter what the state claims, followers of the one true God are not ultimately accountable to government officials. This can be seen within the first few paragraphs of Daniel when the young Jewish captives are confronted with the choice to defile themselves by consuming foods that had not been prepared according to their dietary laws or to risk punishment.

Many a high school chapel or youth group message in my past was built on the foundation of Daniel 1:8: “But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank.” If we take nothing else away from Daniel’s story than the fact that he purposed in his heart to obey God at all costs, then I think we have done well. However, upon my most recent re-reading of this story, a different aspect of the story stood out to me.

First of all, in taking his stand in obedience to God, we should not make light of the fact that the confrontation is not against just anyone. It was the king that put the exiles under the supervision of his chief eunuch (1:3) and it was the king who “assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank” (1:5). Daniel is confronting (albeit somewhat indirectly) the king; he is standing up to the governing authority, the state, in the person of King Nebuchadnezzar.

Second, I noticed how Daniel approached the confrontation that he saw coming. He first approached the chief of the eunuchs (1:8), who apparently declined Daniel’s request because of the danger that it would cause him as one of the king’s officials. Rather than give up, we see that Daniel then petitioned “the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah” (1:11). When rebuffed, Daniel did not merely give up; it was that steward who accommodated Daniel’s request.

Why would Daniel do that? Of course, the most important reason Daniel went to the steward was that Daniel refused to do something he knew God had forbidden to him. But beyond that, can we say anything else about his tactics? I think we can draw at least one clear inference: Daniel did not believe he was under any compulsion to respect the “chain of command.” Appealing directly to the king was probably impossible in his situation and his appeal to the chief of the eunuchs was unsuccessful. Given that the steward was appointed by the chief of the eunuchs and the chief of the eunuchs himself was subordinate to the king, is it very likely that the steward actually had the authority to let Daniel and the other exiles eat from off the prescribed menu? There’s no clear answer from Scripture one way or the other, but the fact that Daniel went to him in the first place is certainly worth noticing.

Like Daniel, Christians today must recognize that the state’s authority is limited in scope and ultimately inferior to God’s authority. In addition, while it may often be prudent to go along with the state’s procedures (e.g., if the First Amendment protects religious freedom, then it’s not wrong for an America Christian to appeal to that part of the Constitution), our duty to obey God cannot be subjected to an earthly chain of command. We must obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:29)

Flouting the Fiery Furnace

Skipping ahead to Chapter 3, we come to one of those stories that many people probably remember from Sunday school lessons, even if it has been years since they went to church or opened a Bible: Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image and the fiery furnace.

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Franz Joseph Hermann, “The Fiery Furnace; from the Book of Daniel, 3”

In this passage, I am always struck most by one phrase: “But if not” (3:18). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were confident in God and his power to deliver them (3:17). Nevertheless, even when faced with the possibility that God might choose not to save them from a terrifying death, they let it be known to the king that they would give their worship to no one but the one true God. I can’t imagine a bolder way to take a stand for the faith than that.

Again, however, we have to note that their defiance was directed toward the state. Nebuchadnezzar was the governing authority (Romans 13:1). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego not only disobeyed his direct command, but the way in which they addressed the king was not terribly deferential to his position. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter” (3:16). Can you imagine telling your supervisor at work “I don’t answer to you,” let alone saying that to a monarch as powerful and as ruthless as Nebuchadnezzar?

Here we see a continuation of the theme that the authority of the state is limited and inferior. There are certain areas of our lives that the government can never reach. The state has no authority to demand that we violate God’s command to worship Him and only Him. Whatever other matters the state may claim for itself to which God’s followers ought to submit, this, said the Jewish exiles, is not one of them. They refused to obey the king’s command and God delivered them.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Arrogance Nullified

Chapter 4 recounts the second time that Nebuchadnezzar called upon Daniel to interpret one of his dreams. In this second encounter, Daniel tells the king that the strong and powerful tree in his dream represents the king himself, but also admonishes him to “break off [his] sins by practicing righteousness, and [his] iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed.” Failure to do so would lead to the fulfillment of the dream, the chopping down of the tree and the humiliation of Nebuchadnezzar.

How did Nebuchadnezzar react to that prophecy? It does not seem to have affected him at all:

All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.

Looking back at Chapter 2, however, we probably should not be surprised at the king’s dismissive reaction to Daniel’s interpretation of the dream in Chapter 4.

When Daniel interpreted the king’s first dream (in which Nebuchadnezzar was the head of gold on the statue), one might think the part of the dream where the rock destroys the entire statue would be the most important part. However, the fact that all of the kingdoms represented by the statue are ultimately destroyed does not seem to have made any impression on Nebuchadnezzar. At least as far as we know from the text of Scripture, the king did not ask Daniel what could be done to avert the destruction of his kingdom.

In both situations, then, we clearly see Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogance and in Chapter 4 God judges him for that arrogance. Nebuchadnezzar had ample opportunity to learn where his authority stood in relation to God’s, but he refused to do so. God is the same today as He was then. In many ways, the arrogance of Nebuchadnezzar is replicated in modern nations. If God judged the Babylonian ruler for his arrogance, is there any reason to think that God will withhold his judgment from those governments today that act just as arrogantly?

Defying the Den of Lions

Chapter 6 tells another one of those stories that is widely familiar, even to some who know very little else about the Bible. As with Chapter 3 it’s not hard to see the conflict coming: “The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays to any god or human being during the next thirty days, except to you, Your Majesty, shall be thrown into the lions’ den” (6:7).

Once again, the substance of the conflict relates, at least in part, to the state’s making demands that God’s people cannot obey. Although Daniel was not present in the story of the fiery furnace, we see that his boldness equals that of his fellow exiles. With the full knowledge that King Darius had made it illegal for him to do so, Daniel returned to his home and continued to worship God just as he had done before (6:10).

In contrast to Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction to the earlier defiance of the Jewish exiles, Darius was distressed at what his decree had done to Daniel. In fact, we are told that he tried to save Daniel from his fate. Because of the peculiarity of “the law of the Medes and the Persians” that the king’s pronouncement could not be changed, however, Darius’ efforts (the details of which we do now know) failed in the end.

Upon his deliverance from the lion’s den, Daniel’s response to Darius seems far less confrontational than that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Chapter 3. He makes it clear to the king that it was God who protected him because Daniel “was found blameless before him.” In addition, however, Daniel reminds the king that “also before you, O king, I have done no harm” (6:22). Even if Daniel’s indictment against the king is somewhat more subtle here, I think it is no less clear.

Daniel clearly and openly defied the king’s decree, but he maintained that he did not wrong the king in any way. Daniel could say this because he recognized the truth that the governing authority demanded of him something that it had no right to demand. It is the duty of the followers of God to disobey the state when it demands that they violate God’s law. The fact that God in his sovereignty ordained a purpose for human governments, does not give those inferior authorities free rein to do as they please. Let us followers of the one true God grasp ahold of the truths that Daniel and his friends learned over a lifetime and apply them to our own lives.

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Book Review — Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is the author’s memoir chronicling the stories of clients he represented when no one else would (perhaps when no one thought they could). Published in 2014 by Spiegel & Grau, the book paints a compelling narrative and highlights many of the problems that plague the American justice system today.

The troubling and lingering influences of racial bias, poverty, and mental illness are issues that the criminal justice system needs to face head-on and work to resolve now as much as ever. It’s clear just from Stevenson’s relatively short account in this book that much progress has been made, but it is equally clear that much remains yet to be done. Many Americans, however, have probably not really wrestled with the problems to which Stevenson draws attention. Whether that full accounting simply gets lost in a crowd of other issues or is drowned in the flood of the 24-hour news cycle, Just Mercy is the kind of medicine (strong, at times) that the average Americans needs. I highly recommend it.

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There are two reasons, however, that I cannot find full agreement with Stevenson.

First, although it would be difficult to write a book of this sort without the author injecting some of his political opinions, Stevenson does so unnecessarily on a number of occasions (as, for instance, when he refers to infant mortality rates in the United States as compared to other countries without putting those statistics in context). When issues as weighty as the systemic problems with the imposition and application of the death penalty are the topic, partisan political swipes (even as relatively sparse as they are in this book) have no place, I think. Which political party may be most to blame (aside from being a question with no perfect answer), really does very little to work toward a resolution of those kinds of issues, but rather puts people on the defensive and impedes progress. For as much as Stevenson rightfully decries prejudices that cause people to be treated as members of a group rather than as individuals, the few occasions on which he swiped at political opponents with a broad brush were jarring.

Secondly, and  more importantly, is the concept of “just mercy” itself. Justice, by definition, is getting what one deserves. Mercy, by contrast, is a withholding of justice and can never be deserved or it would not be mercy. So, in fact, what Stevenson argues for (and he makes a compelling case, no doubt) is really just plain mercy or plain justice, not the “just mercy” that forms the premise of his book. It was an injustice to imprison people for crimes they did not commit; releasing them was an act of justice. To call it an act of mercy is to do a disservice to those people by implying that their release, as an act of mercy, was not something that they really deserved. Perhaps Stevenson would acknowledge the distinction between the concepts, but if he does so, that is not entirely clear from his book.

It is especially important for Christians to distinguish between the concept of justice and the idea of mercy. Writing in a similar vein, Jacob Brunton pointed out the problem with making an “equivocation between charity and justice.”

Remember that I said charity is a picture of the gospel? That’s why it’s such an important practice for the Church: it demonstrates the grace of God. Now, ask yourself this: if charity is a picture of the grace of God in the gospel, then what message are we sending about the grace of God, and about the gospel, when we preach that charity is deserved? Answer: We are teaching that God’s grace is, likewise, deserved. When we teach that we owe money to the poor, we are teaching that God owed us the cross. When we teach that the poor deserve monetary assistance, we are teaching that we deserved what Christ accomplished for us. When we teach that “economic justice” consists of giving to those in need, we are teaching that divine justice consists of the same — and the inevitable result is a grace-less universalism in which everyone gets all the blessings of heaven, because they need it. You cannot pervert the meaning of justice in “society” or in the “economy,” and not expect it to bleed over into theology. You cannot have one standard of justice in Church on Sunday morning, and another for the world the rest of the week.

I think the same holds true for the meaning of “mercy.” The stories Stevenson tells and the problems he addresses are ones that Christians should know about and should do something about to the extent that they can. At the same time, Christians must be vigilant to guard against anything that would distort or dilute the message of the Gospel.

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Puritanical Self-Interest

Self-denial is a topic I’ve discussed in this space before and a related topic would be self-interest. For a primer on the Biblical basis for rational self-interest see what Cody Libolt wrote here. He and Jacob Brunton also discuss the topic of holy self-interest in a little more depth on an episode of their podcast, For the New Christian Intellectual. They more than ably lay a foundation for the idea that rational self-interest is an important concept for Christians not only to understand, but also to embrace.

What I want to do here is show that their ideas are not new. In fact, the idea of a holy self-interest rooted in the character of God himself and based on the Bible is one that can be found in some unexpected places. Hence the title of this post.

Sadly,  the most that many people know about the Puritans consists what they remember from reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter in literature class, or, perhaps, Arthur Miller’s stage play The Crucible.  In these and other works, Puritans tend to be represented as one-dimensional figures who are characterized by their sour and prudish disposition. Popular misconceptions of the Puritans were probably best summed up by the famous American writer H. L. Mencken who gave this definition: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

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Lillian Gish portrays Hester Prynne in the 1926 silent film version of The Scarlett Letter.

One might be left with the notion that the main goal of the Puritans was the repression of desire. However, if we let the Puritans speak for themselves what we find is quite different from the popular literary caricature.

First, consider the writing of one Puritan, John Owen. He lived from 1616-1683 and was periodically a chaplain to Oliver Cromwell who ruled England after the beheading of King Charles I. In his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ Owen wrote:

His [God’s] Autarkeia, or self-sufficiency, will not allow that he should do any thing with an ultimate respect to any thing but himself. . . . God desireth nothing, neither is there any thing desirable to him, but only for himself. To suppose a good desirable to God for its own sake is intolerable.
Here we see in John Owen’s writing the very concept of a holy self-interest noted in the beginning of this post. God is all-powerful and is sufficient for all of his own purposes; he does not need anything from anyone. That does not mean that God has no desires, but that he fulfills all of his own desires. God, as Jacob Brunton puts it, “is the Ultimate Egoist, doing absolutely all that He does for the sake of enjoying His own greatness. — Psalm 115:3.” Perhaps John Owen might not have used the word “egoist,” but he clearly recognizes the same concept.
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Thomas Watson (1620-1686)

 

Another Puritan worth noting on this topic is Thomas Watson.  He lived from 1620-1686, was a pastor at a church in London, and was briefly imprisoned for his association with a plot to restore Charles II as king. In his work The Godly Man’s Picture, he wrote the following about prayer:

Prayers which lack a good aim–lack a good answer. A godly man has spiritual goals in prayer. He sends out his prayer as a merchant sends out his ship, so that he may have large returns of spiritual blessings. His design in prayer is that his heart may be more holy and that he may have more communion with God. A godly man engages in the trade of prayer– so that he may increase the stock of grace.

In the absence of desires, what would be the point of prayer? In fact, the concept of prayer presupposes a person with desires. Clearly, a group of people like the Puritans who placed great emphasis on prayer cannot be against desires as such. Watson not only shares the presupposition that prayer requires desire, but says that the truly godly person should pray with his own benefit in mind, “so that he may increase his stock of grace.” Furthermore, consider how Jesus taught his followers to pray:

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

According to Jesus, a significant part of prayer is asking God for things: “give us, forgive us, lead us, etc.

On this topic of self-interest, Jonathan Edwards deserves special mention. Technically, historians might not consider him a Puritan. He was an American pastor and philosopher, who lived from 1703-1758, and is probably best known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I put him alongside the Puritans because he had so much in common with them from a theological standpoint. In addition, his efforts in what later became known as the Great Awakening were aimed at purifying the American church which had lost its roots in ways very similar to what the English Puritans experienced in the generations before Edwards.

 

 

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Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

 

In his work Charity and Its Fruits Edwards wrote the following:

It is not a thing contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself, or, which is the same thing, should love his own happiness. If Christianity did indeed tend to destroy a man’s love to himself, and to his own happiness, it would therein tend to destroy the very spirit of humanity; but the very announcement of the gospel, as a system of peace on earth and goodwill toward men (Luke 2:14), shows that it is not only not destructive of humanity, but in the highest degree promotive of its spirit. That a man should love his own happiness, is as necessary to his nature as the faculty of the will is; and it is impossible that such a love should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being. The saints love their own happiness. Yea, those that are perfect in happiness, the saints and angels in heaven, love their own happiness; otherwise that happiness which God hath given them would be no happiness to them; for that which anyone does not love he cannot enjoy any happiness in.

Jacob Brunton has a very helpful commentary on this passage from Edwards in his post “Jonathan Edwards on Egoism.”

However, at this point someone might say “What about I Corinthians 13:5?” That verse says that “Charity . . . seeketh not her own.” Because Edwards, despite his brilliance, did not write under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Apostle Paul did, his conclusions must be judged against the truths of Scripture.

Christians can rest assured that there is no contradiction with Scripture here because, in fact, Charity and Its Fruits is Edwards’ series of lectures on the entirety of I Corinthians 13. The quote above is from the beginning of the lecture in which Edwards discussed verse 5, the very phrase that might give Christians pause about the idea of self-interest. Before he goes on to explain what “seeketh not her own” means for the Christian, Edwards gave an explanation of what it did not mean. He was emphatic that it did not mean that a Christian should shun his own happiness, his own self-interest. In other words, not only is Christianity not opposed to man “loving his own happiness,” but, as Jacob Brunton pointed out, Jonathan Edwards “implicitly condemns [anyone who supports that idea] as a destroyer of mankind.”

Finally, I want to draw attention to Richard Baxter, a pastor and author of theological works who lived from 1615-1691. He was, at one time, imprisoned for unlawful religious assembly apart from the Church of England. In his work, The Saint’s Everlasting Rest, he wrote:

[God’s] glorifying himself and the saving of his people are not two decrees with God, but one decree, to glorify his mercy in their salvation, though we may say that one is the end of the other: so I think they should be with us together indeed.

Coming back to the original point about self-interest being rooted in God’s holy character, we can see that even in the case of God’s saving his chosen people God ultimately does so for his own sake and for his own glory. Christians benefit from God’s act of redemption tremendously, “Nevertheless He saved them for the sake of His name, That He might make His power known.” Psalm 106:8.

I hope these examples are enough to at least cause readers to reconsider their perceptions of who the Puritans were and what they really believed. In contrast to the dreary, joyless picture of Puritans painted elsewhere, this group has much to teach Christians today and I have found their writings a great source of encouragement.

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The First and Last Thing I’ll Ever Write About Joel Osteen

No television preacher’s name likely evokes more visceral reactions than Joel Osteen’s. Some love his style of preaching while others denounce him (Google Christian rapper Shai Linne’s Fal$e Teacher$ for one example). I have to admit that until fairly recently I had never really paid very close attention to what Osteen said or wrote. Recognizing that it would be unfair of me to come to any conclusions about what he believes without letting the man speak for himself, a few years ago I checked out two of his books from the local library, Become a Better You and Every Day a Friday.

I started writing this note back then and had thoughts of doing a series of posts, pointing out both the good and the bad from Osteen’s works.  Brutal honesty time: I really couldn’t get into his books. I read the first few chapters of Become a Better You, but I just gave up after a while.  Aside from any theological issues, I just found the book repetitive and not engaging.  Those are issues of personal preference, however, and I certainly don’t hold those against Osteen or those who find value in his writing.

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Be that as it may, the few paragraphs below are more along the lines of what I wanted to write about.  I don’t intend to read any of Osteen’s books in the future nor do I intend to spend very much time (if any) trying to discern whether his teaching is biblical or helpful.  I’ll leave that to others who can do it more effectively and who have the time to devote to it.

In the first few pages of Become a Better You I came across the following passage. I quote it at some length here to provide context.  The emphasis is in the original.

Too many people don’t have the confidence and self-esteem they should because they’re constantly dwelling on negative thoughts about themselves. I don’t say this arrogantly, but in my mind, all day long I try to remind myself: I am anointed. I am creative. I am talented. I am successful. I have the favor of God. People like me. I’m a victor and not a victim.

Try it! If you go around thinking those kinds of thoughts, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, or inferiority won’t have a chance with you. Throw your shoulders back, put a smile on your face, and be looking for opportunities to stretch into the next level.

Back in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve at the forbidden fruit, they hid. In the cool of the day, God came to them and said. “Adam, Eve, where are your?”

They said, “God, we’re hiding because we are naked.”

I love the way God answered them. He said, “Adam, who told you that you were naked?” In other words, “Who told you that something was wrong with you?” God immediately knew that the enemy had been talking to them.

God is saying to you today, “Who told you that you don’t have what it takes to succeed? Who told you that the best grades you could make in school would be C’s rather than A’s? Who told you that you are not attractive enough to succeed in your personal relationships or talented enough to flourish in your career? Who told you that your marriage is never going to last?

Those paragraphs come from the first chapter of the book entitled “Stretching to the Next Level.”  The focus of the chapter should be obvious from the excerpt above: don’t let what other people tell you about yourself (negative thoughts) overshadow who you are as a child of God (at least that’s the best way I can think of to summarize Osteen’s writing).  As far as that statement goes, it’s unobjectionable and, I think, is not inconsistent with Scripture.

In the passage above, however, after some reflection, I think there are two problems.  At first blush, the Scripture passage to which Osteen refers seems to support his general point about rejecting negative thoughts put in one’s mind by someone else.  But upon closer examination, I think that Osteen has divorced this particular story from its context (perhaps dangerously so).

Indeed, God did pose the question to “Adam, who told you that you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11).  Osteen’s next sentences, however, are where I think he goes astray.  First of all, looking back a few verses we see that Adam and Eve “realized they were naked.”  (Gen. 3:7 NIV).  So the answer to the question God posed was not, as Osteen seems to imply, that the serpent (“the enemy”) had told them they were naked; rather Adam and Eve came to understand it on their own. Failing to read Scripture in context is an error.  It’s an error that’s rampant, of course, and each of us has our favorite verses to which we resort with little or no regard for the context.  To that extent, I can’t fault Osteen more than anyone else for making the same mistake that I’ve made on more occasions than I can probably even remember. Nevertheless, the error seems pretty clear in this instance.

The second and more significant problem with this passage from Osteen’s book is that the error is not harmless. Osteen suggests that God, as he did with the first people, asks each of us, “Who told you that something was wrong with you?”  His line of reasoning is that people should reject negative thoughts about themselves and focus instead on telling themselves things like, “I am successful. I have the favor of God. People like me.

Here’s the problem with using the passage about Adam and Eve to make that point: there was something wrong with Adam and Eve.  They had sinned, thereby requiring God to separate Himself from His creation.  Even if God meant to ask them “Who told you that something was wrong with you?” there can be no doubt that He certainly did not mean to imply that there was nothing wrong with them.

Osteen thus obscures the source of the first human beings’ sense that something was not right with them.  Removing sin from the story is, I think, the most harmful error one could possibly make.  To the extent that people today sometimes feel that something is missing from their lives or that something is wrong with them they are correct.  The only solution to that problem is salvation.  Absent a recognition of one’s sin nature and repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ there is no salvation.

Encouraging Christians with truths about the standing they enjoy with God because of Jesus’ work is one thing.  That seems to be the basis on which some defend the tone and content of Osteen’s preaching.  Confusing the lost by obscuring the effects of sin is indefensible for anyone who claims to be preaching the true Gospel.  Non-Christians very well may leave a service at Lakewood Church feeling better about themselves, but if they don’t come away with a clear understanding of their own sin and their need for repentance they have been deceived and they are likely much worse off than they were before.

That, I think, is the danger of the teaching of Joel Osteen and others like him.  I don’t doubt his sincerity and he does seem to be a genuinely happy person.  It is possible, however, to be very sincere, but, at the same time, to be sincerely wrong.

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A Time Management Tip from a Puritan Minister

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Jeremiah Burroughs, c. 1600 –  November 13, 1646

What can we learn from the Puritans about the frenetic pace of modern life? Most would probably assume that their world and ours are so different that nothing they had to say could have much relevance for present-day followers of Christ. I think, however, that we should not be so quick to jump to that conclusion. Consider the following excerpt from Jeremiah Burroughs’ work The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment:

 

By murmuring and discontent in your hearts, you come to lose a great deal of time. How many times do men and women, when they are discontented, let their thoughts run, and are musing and contriving, through their present discontentedness and let their discontented thoughts work in them for some hours together, and they spend their time in vain! When you are alone you should spend your time in holy meditation, but you are spending your time in discontented thoughts. You complain that you cannot meditate, you cannot think on good things, but if you begin to think of them a little, soon your thoughts are off from them. But if you are discontented with anything, then you can go alone, and muse, and roll things up and down in your thoughts to feed a discontented humor. Oh, labor to see this evil effect of murmuring, the losing of your time

The Puritans, of course, could never have known anything of our technological advancements, but we can still learn from them because God never changes and because fallen human nature remains the same as well. If anything, modern Christians (especially those in the United States and other wealthy countries) are more susceptible to murmuring than the average Englishman of the 1600s. We have so many more distractions that the ways in which we can come to be discontent and prone to murmuring are almost without end.

What if we took Burroughs’ advice? What if we took all the time we spend thinking about things we think we ought to have or afflictions we think we should not have to bear and instead spent that time worshipping God and thinking on whatever is true and lovely and of a good report? (Philippians 4:8) I can’t help but wonder how much more productive we can be for the cause of Christ if we could rid ourselves of murmuring. We modern American Christians claim (murmur?) about how busy our lives are, but how much of that busyness could we shed merely by being content with God?

 

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