The Hole in our Holiness

In 2016, I attended a pastors’ conference with a theme on holiness. One of the speakers commented that helping people understand the relationship between Law and Grace is one of the hardest things a pastor must do. By Law, he meant God’s standards of righteousness communicated throughout the entire Bible, but especially in the books of the Law. Grace points to God’s undeserved favor expressed by forgiving those who have transgressed His righteousness. Although this truth is also found throughout the Bible, it is seen most clearly in the person and work of Jesus Christ described in the gospels and explained in the epistles of the New Testament.

If we are not careful, we wrongly divorce Law and Grace from one another. We do this with statements like God is a of justice in the Old Testament but a God of grace in the New Testament. We almost act as if there are two gods in the Bible, the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New Testament.

This polarization often shows up in our approach to the Christian life. On one hand, there is the antinomian. This is a fancy word that describes those who say God does not care how someone lives after salvation. His grace places no demands upon us. He is just happy we looked to Christ for salvation.

On the other hand, there is the legalist. They prefer the Law of God. They create checklists of rules, then gauge their own godliness and everyone else’s based upon their capacity to keep the rules. In this system, it is common for people to think that God favors the rule followers over those who struggle with sin.

Both the antinomian and the legalist misunderstand the relationship between law and grace. One says it doesn’t matter how I live; God’s grace covers it all. The other says I must make myself acceptable to God through my actions. Most of us have a propensity in one direction or the other. Churches also tend to lean in one direction or the other.

But there is a third, biblical approach to the Christian life. It is a way that does not see law and grace as opponents, but as partners. God’s grace is sufficient for all our sin. We do not earn our standing before God; we receive it through the mediation of Christ. Yet God cares how His people live. He commands us to be holy because He, our God is holy. Therefore, His grace remains operative in us after salvation, enabling us to live a life of holiness. Learning to cooperate with God’s ongoing work of grace in our life is key to spiritual growth. 

This is why I am recommending Kevin DeYoung’s book The Hole in our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness as November’s book of the month. DeYoung is a skillful writer who has the ability to make big concepts understandable. This book is easy to read, practical, and most importantly, saturated with Scripture.  It captures well the tension found in Philippians 2:12-13, where we are commanded to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. But we do so with the knowledge that it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Newton on the Christian Life

October’s book of the month is Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ by Tony Reinke. Crossway has published a series of books focused on various historically significant pastors’ and theologians’ approach to growing into faithful followers of Christ. I have read and benefited from several of them, but this book is uniquely good.

Who was John Newton?

Most Christians have a vague idea of who John Newton was because of the enduring popularity of his hymn Amazing Grace. Most people know that he was captain of a slave trade ship who converted to Christianity and eventually wrote the famous hymn. What most people do not know is that Newton was a pastor, prolific hymn writer, publisher of books and hymnals, and spiritual mentor to pastors and laymen alike. He was one of the most influential Christians in England for much of his life. It was not until after his death that Amazing Grace became popular. 

What this book is

This book is not a biography of Newton’s life. If you would like to read a biography, I would recommend Jonathan Aitken’s book John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. Instead, it is a book that seeks to capture the heart of Newton’s pastoral ministry. The hope is that we learn from a skilled soul physician how to live the abundant life Christ redeemed us to have. Newton was a skilled letter writer. These letters serve as the primary source for the book’s explanation of how we live the Christian life.

Why I love the book

There are a lot of concepts thrown around in Christian circles that we can get very familiar with without truly experiencing them in our daily lives. Terms like born again, grace, abiding in Christ and walking by the Spirit are things we can define yet not know the transforming power of God in the experience of them. Talking about them is not the same thing as internalizing them.

I picked this book up in a season when I was weary and my relationship with God was not as intimate as it could have been. It was an instrument of God’s grace to me at the time. Newton helped me understand God’s grace better. He strengthened my walk and taught me more about what it means to abide in Christ. The book introduced me to a pastor who thought of himself as a physician for sick souls. His gentle yet courageous way of speaking truth into struggling people’s lives was instructive to me as a pastor.

I try to be a discipled and consistent reader. It is rare for me to read a book more than once, and it is even less rare for me to say that a book has made my list of top five books to affect me most. Yet I have read this book three times. Each time it has ministered to my soul. I have recommended it to others who gave similar reports. It is definitely in my list of top five books. I trust you will be blessed by it too if you choose to read it.

Culture, Context, and Kings

A couple weeks ago, I was asked why 1 Kings 10:22 highlights Solomon’s traders brought apes and peacocks to Jerusalem. I love questions like this. It shows that people are reading their Bibles, which is vital to spiritual growth. But more than that, it means they are paying attention to and thinking about what they read.

1 Kings 21 describes Solomon’s great wealth. It tells the story of his trading ships which went all over the Mediterranean trading goods. Once every three years they returned to Jerusalem with various kinds of wealth, including apes and peacocks. These were exotic animals not native to Israel. They were novelties that only the wealthy could afford to enjoy. It is like a wealthy person owning a tiger or some other exotic pet today. It is a sign of wealth and privilege. The many zoos across America filled with animals from other continents point to a similar wealth among us.

This question reminds us how important it is to learn the times and cultures of the Bible. The most recent parts of the Bible were written almost 2000 years ago. The events in 1 Kings 10 took place nearly 3000 years ago. They lived in a very different time and place. Many things they thought, did, and prioritized seem strange to us. If we are to properly understand the Bible, we must become familiar with their culture and times.

One of the principles of sound bible interpretation is asking what did this mean to the original audience? To answer this question, we must know their times, setting, and culture. Only after we understand what the text meant to the original audience can we ask how does this apply to our times, setting, and culture?

This is why the ongoing study of the Bible is important. It takes time to build a catalogue of knowledge about Bible times and cultures. Through intentional study, we gain a working knowledge of these things that greatly aid our understanding of the text. Questions like the one above are healthy because they recognize that something is happening here that I do not understand, but I want to know why! 

Where do we learn about the various times and cultures of the Bible. Things like commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and Bible atlases are helpful tools. There are two resources that I have found particularly helpful.
The first is called Bible Manners & Customs by Howard Vox. I have never read it from cover to cover, but I pull it off the shelf regularly to look up information. It is full of pictures and succinct descriptions of the times, places, and manners of life found in the Bible. It has a great index in the back that helps you find the information you need quickly.
The second is a two-volume work called An Introduction to the Old Testament and An Introduction to the New Testament. These books contain chapters on every book of the Bible, giving important historical and cultural information for each of them. I always read this book before starting a new study on any book of the Bible. The church owns these books, which you are welcome to access. 

Context is king in Bible interpretation. Understanding the culture is vital to understanding the context. The Bible begins to yield its greatest treasures to us when we read it carefully, ask good questions of the text, and then find answers to those questions. 

Pilgrim’s Progress

September’s book of the month is John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress. I have heard (although never verified) that the Bible is the only book in history to be translated into more languages or sold more copies than Pilgrim’s Progress. English pastor John Newton, of Amazing Grace fame, read it so often that he memorized it. He spent over 2 years lecturing through it on Tuesday nights. The book as had a lasting impact on generations of Christians.

John Bunyan (1628-1688) was a tinkerer, meaning he fixed pots and pans and other household items made of metal for a living. He was also a flagrant sinner. Yet God had set him aside for an important work that continues to bear fruit today. Bunyan’s conversion was gradual, and the early days of his pilgrimage were marked by doubt. Yet God’s irresistible grace proved greater than these challenges. Eventually, Bunyan would become a famous Baptist preacher, author, and sufferer for Christ.

Bunyan lived during a time when English law required everyone to attend services in the Church of England at least once a month. Failure to do so could lead to arrest or even exile. It was also illegal to preach without a government license. Dissenting congregations, like the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians were illegal. Bunyan would spend 9 years in prison for preaching without a license. Yet God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purposes (Ro. 8:28). Just like Joseph in the OT, God had a plan for Bunyan’s imprisonment, for it was here that he wrote his famous allegory.

Pilgrim’s Progress narrates Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. It is an allegory of the Christian life, in which Bunyan demonstrates two great qualities. First, he demonstrated piercing insight into human nature. Characters like Pliable, Talkative, Faithful, Hopeful, Evangelist, Doubtful, and many more capture human qualities and weaknesses in a way that helps us understand ourselves and others.

Second, Bunyan had a masterful understanding of how hard faithfulness to Christ can be. Slough of Despond (despair), Vanity Fair, Doubters Castle, and Bypath Meadow all represent dangers we face as Christians. Through Christian’s victories and failures, we learn what it means to live as aliens and sojourners in the world.

Although I am not an enthusiast at the level as John Newton, I do think every Christian would benefit from reading Bunyan’s classic. I find myself returning to it every five years or so. Each time I read it, my appreciation for its insights grows. I also find myself referencing it more frequently in sermons than I used to. 

Because the book is past copywrite laws, there are many versions available. Not all of them are quality versions, so buying the cheapest version on Amazon may prove to be a disappointment. So read the reviews before you buy a copy. There are wonderful adaptations available for children. I have used Tyler Van Halteren’s Little Pilgrim’s Big Journey more than once for family devotions. There are also quality abridgements available that modernize the English. If you have never read a book from the 1600s before, I would recommend one of these, as 400-year-old English can be hard to follow. If you read it, you will join countless Christians helped along their own pilgrimage through Bunyan’s insightful allegory of the Christian life.