Featured Post on Discipleship

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My recent post at Gospel-Centered Discipleship is up today. It’s called “Discipling the Discipled,” and focuses on revitalizing discipleship in our lives and churches when it has become scarce or seems unnecessary. For some Christians, discipleship is something they went through when the Lord first saved them and has not remained a regular part of their lives. Biblically, this is a problem and this article provides some practical help to reshape our thinking.

You can check it out at the link below:

Discipling the Discipled

Reading Life Together, Pt 2 – The Day Together

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is a book that has revolutionized the way I understand the church. This post is part of a five-part series that will walk through the book, highlighting key themes throughout. Hopefully, this series will act as an encouragement for you to open the book for yourself.

The second chapter of Life Together makes its way through a day in the life of a Christian community, from Bonhoeffer’s perspective. It serves as a description of what a day in his underground seminary at Finkenwalde would have been like. The day of the community is lived together, in what could be considered an almost monastic style. The day and the chapter is built around Paul’s urge to the church in Colossae, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God,” (Col. 3:16, ESV). It is from this verse that the chapter takes shape.

The day begins with the Word of God, because, “the Holy Scriptures tell us that the first thought and the first word of the day belong to God: ‘O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch’ (Ps. 5:4),” (51). Specifically, it is the Psalms that are to be those first words of the day for the Christian community and it is the way in which Scripture calls us to speak to one another (Eph. 5:19). Bonhoeffer’s own view of the Psalms is that they are to be primarily understood in light of Christ. “The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his congregation…In the Psalter we learn to pray on the basis of Christ’s prayer,” (55). There are three ways Bonhoeffer explains that the Psalter teaches the Christian community to pray. “First, we learn here what prayer means: it means praying on the basis of the Word of God, on the basis of promises,” (55). Here he shows how prayer is at its foundation in response to the gospel. “Second, we learn from the prayer of the Psalms what we should pray,” (56). Bonhoeffer points to a truth that is longstanding in the church that the Scriptures give us what we should pray. “Third, the prayer of the Psalms teaches us to pray as a community,” (57). The Psalms are meant for the Christian community to pray together, thus showing that prayer in general is meant to happen together.

After the singing of a hymn, the community would then have a reading of Scripture. This is in line with the structure of the passage mentioned above from Colossians. Bonhoeffer says of the Scriptures:

“The Scriptures are God’s revealed Word as a whole. The full witness to Jesus Christ the Lord can be clearly heard only in its immeasurable inner relationships, in the connection of the Old and New Testaments, of promise and fulfillment, sacrifice and law, Law and Gospel, cross and resurrection, faith and obedience, having and hoping. That is why daily worship together must include a longer Old and New Testament lesson besides the prayer of the Psalms,” (60).

Bonhoeffer seems to show the centrality of the Scriptures in providing the truth and substance to the Christian community. He goes further to explain how the foundation of the Scriptures orient the community towards Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. God’s Word spoken in and to the Christian community brings to remembrance the truth of the gospel.  He recognizes that it can be quite easy to forget one’s place in Christ and to allow one’s heart to be fooled. Therefore, Bonhoeffer concludes, “It is not our heart that determines the course, but God’s Word,” (63). The community is then rooted in the truth of God’s Word.

The next element in the day together of a Christian community is singing, which displays the liturgical structure of how he forms the day. He describes how the Scriptures lead to the singing of the community. “Our earthly song is bound to the God’s Word of revelation in Jesus Christ,” (66). The singing of the Christian community is in response to God’s revelation in Jesus. The singing of the community happens in unison so that it is not individuals singing, but the church singing. This singing leads to the community’s prayer together.

This prayer is differentiated from praying through the Psalms, because it is focused on “the cares and needs, the joys and thanksgivings, the requests and hopes of the others,” (69).  The prayer is to be led by an individual praying on behalf of the community, who knows the aforementioned elements of the community. These prayers should be a reflection of the community itself and not of any one individual.

The next element of the day together is the breaking of bread. Bonhoeffer describes three types of breaking of bread that occurs within a Christian community: “the daily breaking of bread together at meals, the breaking of bread together at the Lord’s Supper, and the final breaking of bread together in the reign of God,” (72).  These three types of table fellowship means three things for the community. “It means, first, to recognize Christ as the giver of all gifts…Second, the congregation recognizes that all earthly gifts are given to it only for the sake of Christ…Third, the community of Jesus believes that its Lord desires to be present wherever it asks him to be present,” (72-73). Each element of table fellowship is a tangible means of expressing the community centered in Christ.

Once the formal aspects of the Christian community’s worship comes to an end, the community goes to work. The community scatters to whatever each individual’s vocation is. “Work puts human beings in the world of things,” (75). Work becomes the ground where the community’s worship is balanced with reality. “Without the burden and labor of the day, prayer is not prayer; and without prayer, work is not work,” (75). Bonhoeffer sees the necessary combination of work and worship for a healthy day in the life of a Christian. Once the work of the day is completed, the community bookends the day with another time for communal worship, finishing the day as it began.

Reading Life Together, Pt 1 – Community

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There are books that shape us and the way we think. Usually, they present us with new ideas or concepts. Sometimes, they make us think about familiar concepts in brand new ways. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is one such book for me. From the time that I was first introduced to the concepts it develops from one of my mentors, to the time I first read it, so much of my thinking about the church had changed. How could my thinking about the church be so impacted by a twentieth-century, Lutheran pastor and theologian? As I was first discovering the book, I was blown away by how relevant it was to the contemporary church. However, I didn’t just find it relevant to the church overall, but it seemed relevant to my church, to the Christian community of which I was a part.

Beginning with this post, I will run a five-part series that will walk through the book, highlighting key themes throughout. Hopefully, this series will act as an encouragement for you to open the book for yourself.

The book is laid out in five chapters, developed from lectures that were given at the underground seminary at Finkenwalde that Bonhoeffer ran during the Nazi rule of the German state church. Bonhoeffer’s close friend, Eberhard Bethge, helped him compile the lectures and ideas into what became published under the title Gemeinsames Laben (Life Together) in 1939, (3-6, all page #’s are from the DBWE, Vol 5 edition of Life Together). The first chapter is titled, “Community,” and provides the foundation for the main concepts of the book.

The book sets out to define life together under the Word. That phrase, under the Word, is an important element of the book, because it shows Bonhoeffer’s approach to the Scriptures. It is from that approach to the Word, that Bonhoeffer develops a theology of community throughout the book. He discusses Christian community, specifically that community which is developed in Christ and by his Word. He does not talk about community in a general sense, instead he assumes the reader knows what community is. However, one could argue that through the ways he describes Christian community, a definition of his general understanding of community can be ascertained. What is clear in his description of Christian community is that it is rooted in Jesus.

“Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ,” (31). With this statement he grounds Christian community in a center and that center is Jesus. This is so prevalent in his understanding of community that he says, “Only in Jesus Christ are we one; only through him are we bound together,” (33). His view of community is rooted in his understanding of Jesus Christ or his Christology. Who Christians now are in the community in light of Christ is meant to benefit the others in the community. Christ is what the community finds its foundation in and also what drives the community to serve one another. He says in explanation to this concept, “Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us,” (34). Christ is entirely what the community is about.

There are two key truths that drive the remainder of the chapter, “first, Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality; second, Christian community is a spiritual and not a psychic reality,” (35). The first truth finds its roots in his point of the Christocentric nature of community. For Christian community to be a divine reality, then it is by default a reality created by God in Christ. Thus, it is not an ideal for Christians to strive for, but something that already is, in Christ. The second truth rests closely to the first truth. The apostle Paul frequently makes a distinction between the Spirit and the flesh, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3b, ESV). Bonhoeffer’s own distinction between spiritual and psychic are best understood in a similar way. Thus, a community developed with a psychic reality would be a fleshly community, centered on fleshly things and concepts. However, a Christian community is a spiritual reality, centered on Spirit-driven, Christ-centered things.

The means of perpetuating such a Christian community is the Word of God. “The basis of all pneumatic, or spiritual, reality is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ,” (39). This is the antithesis of fleshly community, because fleshly community cannot be and is not based on the Word.

“In the spiritual community the Word of God alone rules; in the emotional, self-centered community the individual who is equipped with exceptional power, experience, and magical, suggestive abilities rules along with the Word. In the one, God’s Word alone is binding; in the other, besides the Word, human beings bind others to themselves,” (40).

He here explains the symptoms of a community without Christ at the center, which is by default self-centered. If Christ is not the center of the community, someone will be. That community will lead itself further into destruction. Consequently, Bonhoeffer suggests that a successful Christian community promotes “the ability to distinguish between a human ideal and God’s reality, between spiritual and emotional community,” (45). A Christ-centered community will enable those involved to discern truth from error, because the Word is the basis.

Christian community under the Word is a gift and a grace that God gives to his children. Bonhoeffer is clear on this throughout the book as well as in his other writings. He was someone who greatly valued and benefited from it at crucial points in his life, especially as he developed the content for the book in his underground seminary, dodging Nazi rule, with his brothers in Christ. Yet as much as he valued Christian community and loved it, he warned, “It is not the experience of Christian community, but firm and certain faith within Christian community that holds us together,” (47). His words remind us to stay focused on Christ and his Word in the communities in which we find ourselves. He will sustain us therein.

 

Featured Post on Mission in New Places

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My recent post over at Gospel-Centered Discipleship is up today, called “On Mission In New Places.” It talks about entering new places (new job, school, community, etc.) with a mind for mission. It also deals with the fact that we may have been in a place for some time without recognizing the gospel’s impact on that place. The method for this is rooted in Paul’s gospel work in Athens from Acts 17.

You can check it out at the link below:

On Mission In New Places

Praying Through the Psalms

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Almost seven or eight months ago I was heading home from the church and listening to a podcast, which I normally do. That day I was catching up on a few episodes from the Ask Pastor John podcast that I had been meaning to listen to for a while. The last one that I listened to as I was nearly to my house was How to Pray the Psalms. That particular episode featured Tim Keller discussing his book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God when it had come out. In this episode, which I would highly recommend you check out at the link above, he talks about his practice of praying through the Psalms.

In the past, I have read through the Psalms many different times, sometimes along with reading through the book of Proverbs. However, I had never went through the Psalms with the intention of praying them. As I listened to this podcast episode, I resolved to give it a shot. My practice was as follows:

  • Read through one Psalm per day (I split 119 into 3 days)
  • When I sat down to read through it, I read through the Psalm slowly twice and then once out loud.
  • I would then let the Psalm inform how I prayed and what I prayed about.

I wish that I could say that it only took me 150 days (or actually 152 since I split up Psalm 119), but it took a bit longer than that as I did miss a few days here and there. However, I recently finished and I am so thankful for the Psalms. The practice of restricting my prayer after reading only to what the Psalm contained was an especially helpful discipline to introduce. This was for me how I could make the Psalm my prayer. Of course, there are many places in the Psalms that are just honestly hard to pray, especially the imprecatory Psalms. In Bonhoeffer’s small book on the Psalms, The Prayerbook of the Bible (which is grouped with Life Together in the DBW series), he makes the point that we can only pray the Psalms in and through Jesus Christ. He goes on, “If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ,” (Bonhoeffer, 157). It was Bonhoeffer’s words that helped me through some of the Psalms that I found most difficult to make my prayer as well as my overall view of the Psalter.

I would commend to you the discipline of praying through the Psalms. There are of course lots of ways to do so. Keller mentions a different way than what I explain above in the aforementioned podcast episode. However you may choose to do it, the time spent is not wasted.

I plan to revisit this discipline again soon and for that next round through I picked up Crossway’s The Psalms edition. Also, I plan to read Tim Keller’s book on prayer before I dive in again. I’m thankful for the many resources we have at our disposal to help point us to the depths of God’s Word.

A Review of A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology by Kelly Kapic

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Kelly Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Georgia. He has authored other books such as God So Loved, He Gave and Communion with God. Kapic wrote A Little Book For New Theologians to act as a primer for the study of theology. He also seeks to frame a proper way of approaching theology. He has used much of the content in the book as part of one of his classes that he teaches at Covenant College.

In part one of the book, which contains the first three chapters, he seeks to make a case for why one should study theology. He begins by stating that one enters an ongoing conversation when seeking to study theology, because each person thinks particular things about God and those things in turn impact how he or she lives. Kapic then explains that the purpose for studying God and thereby getting to know him is to enjoy him. However, the process of seeking to know God is a journey that takes time and an awareness of one’s human limitations.

In part two of the book, Kapic outlines characteristics of faithful theology and theologians. He begins the section by making the important point that true theology is lived out in the realm of spirituality, and is not simply doctrinal knowledge for its own sake. Next, he says that proper theology does not set reason aside, but in fact necessitates the use of reason. Thirdly, in relation to true theology needing to be lived out, he says that prayer should always accompany proper theological study. He then argues that theology should lead people to humility and repentance, because one increasingly faces the reality of a holy God as the study of theology progresses. Next, he says that theology not only changes one’s personal way of living, but also the way one interacts with others, namely through the increase of love and compassion for others. He then explains that proper theological study is in and based on the tradition of the church as well as in the community of the church. Finally, true theological study should lead people to a love for scripture because it is in scripture that theology is founded.

This book provides a helpful foundation for those seeking to begin the study of theology. It also serves as a reminder of some of the important aspects and goals of studying theology for those that have done so for a considerable amount of time. The book hits several important aspects of the practice of theological study, however the content of the chapters is a bit overrun with quotes at times. Kapic’s own points are occasionally drowned out by the amount of quotes used. This does not ruin the overall thrust of the book, but it does present a minor weakness in the book. Nevertheless, the points made in the book deem it useful for beginning students in Bible college or seminary, as well as beginning pastors or lay leaders. I would consider it a very useful discipleship tool.

A Review of Visit The Sick: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Illness by Brian Croft

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I will never forget the first hospital visit I made as someone’s pastor. Though I had known the lady that I was visiting from church, I was so nervous making my way through the hospital to her room. I don’t particularly like hospitals, going to the doctor, or being sick, yet it is a part of my life and a part of those in any congregation. I leaned heavily on the wisdom of those that had gone before me in pastoral ministry as I continued to visit this dear saint throughout her illness. Had it not been for the theological, biblical, and very practical instruction I received, I fear I would have failed miserably in my visitation calls. The book, Visit the Sick: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Illness by Brian Croft seeks to be that source of theological, biblical, and practical instruction regarding the topic of visiting the sick.

The book rings in at 92 pages plus a few pages of notes, yet it delivers a very helpful handling of the topic. Croft begins with the Bible, making a case from scripture for the need for the visitation of the sick, not just for pastors, but for the saints overall. He also roots much of his thought in Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor, which heavily emphasizes the importance of pastoral visitation. If a reader needed convincing about the need for visiting the sick, the first chapter tackles that.

Croft then moves to ways to spiritually care for those we may visit. This chapter is full of basic, practical advice from suggestions for scriptures to read, how to pray for the sick, and how to steer the conversation in a Christlike manner. Croft points out the need to pray the gospel as a way to not only remind the sick of that truth, but also as a way to share the gospel with them. He also encourages to remind those we visit of the promises and attributes of God, helping them to stay focused on truth. All this is done trusting that God is working through what we do and even our presence there.

Croft then provides some wisdom on the overall tone of the visit. He calls us to prepare our hearts, mind the time that we spend, be sure to listen instead of talking the whole time, and to enjoy our time with those we visit. He points out that often God is molding and shaping us through these visits. This is something I can attest to with the dear saint I began talking about. I had the privilege of walking with her through her illness and on through when she stepped into glory as I shared in performing her funeral. Her name was Margie and God used her to make a tremendous impact in my wife and I’s lives.

Croft provides other practical advice for the visits dealing with issues like eye contact, our facial expressions, the content of our small talk, physical touch, the need for fresh breath. For those that find the whole idea of visitation uncomfortable at first, these pointers are very helpful as Croft doesn’t assume that we should just know these things.

Croft finishes the book with a call to pastors to call congregations to the visitation of the sick. He calls us to exhort the congregation through preaching and to lead by example when it comes to visitation. One of the things that I can brag on our church about is the blessing that so many in our church have a heart to visit and check in with those that are sick. It is the hopeful result of a pastor who is dutiful at visitation that the congregation catches that spirit.

In the appendices, Croft provides a checklist to bring with us when visiting to bring to mind important aspects mentioned in the book. He also outlines a conversation with the aim to help the reader steer the visitation time to a conversation about Christ. He also provides a FAQ section with other issues not covered in the book like visiting new parents in the hospital. Lastly, an abridged version of J.C. Ryle’s booklet called Sickness is included at the end, to which Croft refers occasionally throughout the book.

I would highly recommend this book to any pastor looking to gain wisdom and encouragement for the practice of visitation. The book is accessible for pastors and lay-people and is a quick, but rich read.

Brian Croft is senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. He is the founder of Practical Shepherding, a nonprofit organization committed to equipping pastors all over the world in the practical matter of pastoral ministry. In addition to Visit the Sick: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Illness, he is also the coauthor of The Pastor’s Family: Shepherding Your Family Through the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry and of the upcoming book Caring For Widows.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

A Review of Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh

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Charles Marsh is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and director of the Project on Lived Theology. He is the author of several other books including Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His TheologyMarsh was a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009 and the 2010 Ellen Maria Gorrissen Berlin Prize fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin.

It doesn’t take much effort to notice the recent rise in popularity of the study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While he has been the subject of much study and discussion for decades, his work is being discovered by a new generation. In some ways, this popularity could be due to Eric Metaxas’ 2011 biography of him, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Wheaton College focused their annual Theology Conference on Bonhoeffer in 2012, at which Charles Marsh spoke and read a portion of the now complete Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Metaxas’ biography of the German pastor and theologian reads like a novel and seems geared to a 21st century evangelical audience. Marsh’s biography is very much a scholarly biography in comparison to Metaxas’ as is evident from the nearly eighty-six pages of notes and bibliography. Marsh also writes for a particular audience, as did Metaxas, which is a scholarly audience and I would argue a slightly more liberal one as well.

Marsh’s research for his biography of Bonhoeffer was rooted in access to private letters and detailed study of the man. This is peppered throughout the biography as personal correspondence is used to flavor the investigation of the often studied works of Bonhoeffer’s like Life Together, The Cost of Discipleship, and others. Marsh’s study adds a personal layer to the biography that helps the reader get to know the complex nature of Bonhoeffer. In fact, in some ways the book is formatted to follow Bonhoeffer’s life through the progression of his published works beginning with Sanctorum Communio and working through Act and Being, Creation and Fall, The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and Ethics. This format brings about some interesting insights to these works from various correspondence. For example, in relation to Life Together, some of his Finkenwalde students did not enjoy the life under Bonhoeffer in the illegal seminary. Though Bonhoeffer sought after an ideal communal life as he reflects in Life Together, it did not always flesh out with every pupil the way he had hoped. This is an interesting insight because it offers an objective or perhaps even slightly critical view of Life Together that may not always come out in studies of the great work.

Marsh also spends a great deal of time focusing on Bonhoeffer’s roots in and views of early protestant liberalism. From his great appreciation for Adolf von Harnack and his sitting under the teaching of Karl Holl, Bonhoeffer was impacted by these well-known scholars. He also stretches into his exposure to American liberal scholars such as Reinhold Niebuhr and others at Union Seminary. From another theological angle, a great deal of time is given to Karl Barth and his influence on Bonhoeffer both directly and indirectly. In some ways, there is a micro-biographical sketch of Barth in this book. This is traced through both the correspondence between Barth and Bonhoeffer, but also through Barth’s writing and publishing of his great multi-volume work, Church Dogmatics.

Looking at historical figures is often more complex than a typical history class’ research of that person. In the same vein, history is often left up to interpretation, though there is an objective root of truth to history. In other words, something either happened or it didn’t, someone was either one way or another, an event was either caused by something or it was not, someone either believed such and such or did not. History is not a grey soup of uncertainty. Yet one cannot help but read history backwards through the lens of contemporary circumstances, beliefs, and presuppositions.

This subjectivity in regards to history seems to come to light in Marsh’s treatment of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Eberhard Bethge. Bethge was initially a student of Bonhoeffer and they formed a close friendship thereafter. Many other reviews of this book point out the fact that Marsh seems to try to paint Bonhoeffer and Bethge having been in love. After their relationship is introduced and their friendship begins to build, it doesn’t take Marsh long to begin to dig into personal letters and other information, such as Bonhoeffer and Bethge’s shared bank account. From these tidbits of information, Marsh attempts to build a case for the nature of their relationship. While their relationship was a unique one and there were elements of it that may seem atypical to a 21st century audience that can have a skewed, at best, understanding of manhood derivative from the current culture, Marsh does not make a convincing case for a supposed romantic relationship. The topic becomes an almost forced sub-narrative in the latter parts of the book. Marsh does make the point at various times that Bonhoeffer greatly desired deep friendship and community (c.f. Life Together), but it seems a stretch to try to paint it in a romantic tone. It feels more of an attempt to repaint Bonhoeffer for a certain audience, just as Metaxas did for a certain audience. Though I disagree with Marsh’s conclusion about Bonhoeffer and Bethge’s relationship, it does not and did not spoil the book.

Bonhoeffer’s works have been formative for my own understandings of church and biblical spirituality. I consider him to be one of the many voices of the historical church that speak into my life and continue to disciple me in my walk with Christ. This biography was a treasure to read in many ways, because it presents a personal look at Bonhoeffer. It delves into all of his occasional quirky behavior, his privileged upbringing and sensibilities, and his heart behind his writings. I’m not convinced this biography would be a good introduction to Bonhoeffer. If I did not have a foundation in the man, I’m not sure that this would have helped build one. This is due to its depth and detail, which lends itself more to a deeper secondary study of the man and his ministry. I would recommend this to a discerning reader that desires to dig deeper into Bonhoeffer the man.