Friday, October 11, 2019

Book Review: Safe & Sound: Standing Firm in Spiritual Battles, by David Powlison

David Powlison entered the presence of Jesus on June 7, 2019. The church lost one of its modern-day giants with his passing. But he left behind a great legacy of material for troubled souls, and those who minister to them.

His final gift to the church was this little, 103-page book about spiritual warfare. While intended primarily for those who minister to others, Safe & Sound is an excellent resource for those who are suffering themselves.

Part One deals with the reality and description of spiritual warfare. The first chapter urges the reader to acknowledge and accept the truth that Satan is real and life is a spiritual battle in which the enemy of our souls plays a terrible role. The following chapter consists of an exploration of the key passages in the Pauline corpus that instruct us as to how to understand and wage spiritual warfare. Chapter three examines the weapons of the whole armor in Ephesians 6, and shows us that the imagery is not drawn from the panoply of the Roman soldier (which is how most teach this passage), but rather from images of the Messiah in Isaiah and the Psalms. Jesus is our Divine Warrior (a term I first heard from Tremper Longman) who both battles for us, and shows us how to conduct spiritual warfare.

Part Two of the book applies the teaching of the first part to specific struggles. Powlison introduces this section by showing how, first, Jesus models this mode of warfare, and second, how Paul himself—taking his cues from Jesus—also employs this manner of fighting. For counselors and counselees—as for Paul and Jesus—prayer takes a central role as we seek the Lord on behalf of those who are suffering the moral and situational evil of this fallen world.

This chapter is followed by a selection of major issues that a counselor will encounter with those he helps. Fighting the normal battles of anger, fear, and escapism; the battle with the shadow of death; conflict with the occult; and the battle with animism; these are the chapters in which Powlison demonstrates that the classic mode of ministry—finding our answers in Christ and His gospel rather than some sort of direct encounter with a demon—is first of all that which Scripture commends, and secondly, able to deal with any problem God’s people face regardless of the presence or absence of demonic involvement.

Chapter 9 contains a case study of a truly bizarre encounter with a very troubled individual. Powlison’s intent is to show that the classic mode of ministry (as opposed to what he labels EMM—the ekballistic mode ministry which focuses on casting out demons) is called for even in such situations. By focusing on the person rather than the demonic aspect, and applying the gospel to that suffering heart with all its combination of hurts and sins, genuine deliverance is accomplished. “True spiritual warfare looks beyond the problems and sees the person” [76].

The last chapter is Powlison’s testimony of his own final battle with cancer, one that ultimately took his life. In it he demonstrates that Jesus Christ and the gospel are sufficient to enable us to meet with—and defeat—all of our troubles.

The book closes with an appendix in which Powlison contrasts classic mode ministry with EMM, and shows how classic mode is what the New Testament urges upon us. This brief appendix is a condensation of his larger exegetical studies on the matter, which are contained in a different, somewhat larger volume entitled Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare. That volume provides the foundation for the applications Powlison makes in Safe & Sound.

Safe & Sound is a book every biblical counselor should have. Five stars, highly recommended.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Clothes Horse

“Surely you’re not leaving the house like that. That tie doesn’t go with your shirt.”

These are among the most dreaded words a husband hears, normally spoken by his wife as a formula: “that <piece of clothing A> doesn’t go with that <piece of clothing B>.” I must confess, I hear these words frequently.

“What are you talking about?” I rejoined. “Of course the tie goes with the shirt. I’m wearing both of ‘em, so where ever I go the shirt and tie come too. The tie goes with the shirt just fine,” I insisted, knowing that I was fighting a losing battle. As surely as the day is long I was about to be sentenced to return to the bedroom to examine the contents of my closet and try again.

“That’s not what I meant,” she clarified. “I mean they don’t match.”

All I can figure is that there is this comprehensive color and pattern matching program running somewhere in every woman’s brain. There’s no other way to explain why she can dismantle in a glance what took me ten minutes of staring blankly into my closet to assemble.

Apparently there is this mystical rule book wholly unknown to the male species, a book containing an exhaustive list of what fabric patterns “go together,” and which do not. How else could someone come up with such an arbitrary rule that says plaids don’t go with polka dots? Why not?

Part two of the book contains the same sort of mysterious information about colors—which ones go together well, and which ones trigger an epileptic seizure if used together. To make matters worse it uses weird names for colors that men have never heard of, like mauve and puce.

But there is hope, men. After thirty years of indecision I have finally solved the sock problem. Simply buy black socks, maybe ten identical pairs. First, that limits your choices, shaving perhaps twenty minutes off your daily pondering of what will pass inspection. Second, as an added bonus, since your washing machine always eats just one sock (never both socks), just throw the single into your sock drawer, knowing it has eighteen more identical friends in there.

I also have helpful information about suits. The really great thing about a suit is that you don’t have to decide which jacket will go with your trousers. That decision has been made for you. Hurray!

But the really bad thing about suits is that, it is, after all, a suit. You never get near as much work done wearing a suit as you do in a pair of jeans. And besides, suits are magnets for catsup, pizza, and spaghetti. Your wife might make you wear a bib with your suit when you’re eating.

But of this you can be assured: the bib will match the suit. Perfectly.

Friday, October 4, 2019

The Great Separation

Genesis 1 is a straight-forward account of the creation of the heavens and the earth. Multiple themes appear in this chapter, most of which highlight aspects of God’s character. His divine power is on display, His goodness is revealed, His creational intent is revealed—that mankind should fill and subdue the earth (this is not a command to exploit, but to be a steward exercising benevolent responsibility). His creative genius is manifested—an aspect of God’s character that becomes ever clearer the more we learn of the complex and symbiotic systems of both the animate and inanimate parts of the cosmos.

We also learn that God is a God of order, who brings forth order out of chaos. This is an attribute of God seen through the divine separations that appear in Genesis 1. He separates light from darkness (v 4), the waters below the expanse from those above (v 7), the waters below from the dry land (v 9), the heavenly bodies that separate day from night, again, separating light from darkness (vv 14, 18). And though the verb itself does not appear, He separates man from all other creatures by declaring him to be made “in His own image” (v 27).

God’s sense of order is further seen in the separation of the ability to reproduce: His created beings multiply after their “kind,” horses producing more horses, not producing birds. The principle of separation is revealed in the Law, as the children of Israel were not to mix seed in their fields, nor wear garments of mixed material (Leviticus 19:19), nor plow with a mixed team (Deuteronomy 22:10), and so on. These laws were designed to reinforce to the Israelites that God is a God who separates things according to their nature. The principle of separation is revealed in a spiritual sense as God calls His people to be separate from the rest of the world (Leviticus 20:24, 26). The Bible speaks of two separate spiritual seeds, or lineages: the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent—the Devil (Genesis 3:15).

So fast-forward to the present day. Creation has been finished for a long time, the Old Testament era is in the rear-view mirror, the Law has been fulfilled by Christ. In what sense is God’s attribute of order, manifested by separating things, still operative? Since God does not change in His essential character (Malachi 3:6), He must still be separating things as He maintains order in His creation. And indeed He does. For instance, He calls Christians to be separated from the world (2 Corinthians 6:17).

But there is a tragic, final separation coming when He makes a new heavens and earth (2 Peter 3:13). That final separation is mentioned many times in Scripture. One place is in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. There Jesus relates a parable of the kingdom of heaven in terms of a wheat field into which an enemy (Satan) secretly sows tares, or darnel. At the end of the age, the angels will separate the wheat, the “sons of the kingdom,” from the tares, the “the sons of the evil one.”

Into which group will you fall? Make no mistake—no matter when the final separation occurs, you will be alive and conscious. You will participate, willingly or not. When God separates you into your destination—whether heaven or hell—He is acting in complete consistency with His character. In Scripture He has forewarned us repeatedly, making it very clear what we must do to be saved, to be a “son of the kingdom.”

“. . . Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”” (Mark 1:14–15)

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

When despair threatens to overcome faith

When John the Baptist was imprisoned he probably had a good idea of what his fate would be. He’d gone from being the most impactful evangelist of his day to a dark, dank prison cell, and now his faith was shaken despite his track record with Jesus. He’d reluctantly baptized Jesus (Matt 3:13-15) while acknowledging that he himself should be the one being baptized, he’d seen the Holy Spirit alight upon Jesus like a dove (John 1:32), and seen his closest disciples become the followers of Jesus (John 3:30). He had awareness of his own redemptive-historical role (John 3:27-29).

And in the darkness of a prison cell he wrestled with nagging doubts. Finally he succumbed to his fears and sent a delegation of his remaining disciples to ask Jesus point blank: Are you really the Messiah? (Matt 11:3). Perhaps John expected that as the herald of the Coming One he himself would have a glorious end, would see the kingdom inaugurated, would see Herod and the Romans overthrown. Perhaps he didn’t expect his life to end this way. Are you really the Messiah?

The answer he received was interesting. It was oblique, not direct. Go and tell John what you see and hear (Matt 11:4). Jesus went full Isaiah with John, citing Isaiah 35:5 and 61:1. Both passages are of the glories of the coming kingdom (see all of Isaiah 35 and 61).

But here are two interesting points: first, instead of giving a direct yes, Jesus was saying, John, here is the Scripture, and here is what you see: compare them and draw your own conclusions. Jesus was gently nudging John back to his wavering faith.

The second point is that both Isaiah passages are passages of comfort—not rebuke: “to bring good news to the afflicted... to comfort those who mourn...” (Isaiah 61:1-2); “encourage the exhausted and strengthen the feeble, say to those with anxious heart, take courage, fear not...” (Isaiah 35:3-4).

This is especially remarkable when compared to the way Jesus addresses the crowd around him when the disciples of John depart (Matt 11:7-19). He goes full Malachi which, contextually, is a book of dire warning: God will send Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord, to restore His people to repentance, lest He “come and smite the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:6).

The difference between the modes of address has to do with the difference between the two audiences: fearful doubt in the darkness of great trial, versus persistent unbelief in the face of obvious evidence.

Be not shaken, Christian, by nagging doubt in the presence of unexpected trial and suffering. John the Baptist was the greatest of prophets, yet even he fell into fearful doubt in the gloom of his cell. Jesus dealt with him very gently, sending him back to the Scripture to strengthen his faith. Paul was the greatest of apostles, yet there were times he despaired of life in his own sufferings (2 Corinthians 1:8). When Paul came through his trial, looking back he saw that the same events which had shaken his faith eventually worked to strengthen it (2 Corinthians 1:9).

““A bruised reed He will not break And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isaiah 42:3)

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

For Christian workers you've never heard of

Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Him.” (Matthew 10:2–4)

Looking over the list of Jesus’ disciples, I see interesting distinctions. Jesus had an inner circle composed of Peter, James, and John. Peter was singled out as the disciples’ primary spokesman in the early days of the church. There were twelve, but only Peter, John, and Matthew became writers of Scripture. After Acts 1:13, most of the twelve you never hear of again, at least not in Scripture. At first glance, they seem to play nothing more than bit parts.

After Acts 1:13, Andrew’s name disappears from the text, yet he is the one God used to announce the coming of Messiah to Peter (John 1:40). Philip the apostle likewise disappears, whereas a different Philip, the deacon/evangelist, appears sixteen times from Acts 6 on. Even though Matthew writes one of the gospels, his name also disappears from the New Testament.

After Acts 1:13, Bartholomew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot vanish into history, known only through tradition (and there our knowledge is not completely reliable).

That same pattern continues today. God promotes some of His servants to the role of well-known writers (for instance, David Powlison, or R.C. Sproul). Others are famous preachers (John MacArthur, John Piper). But most of God’s faithful servants you’ve never heard of and never will this side of eternity.

God has made ten-city servants and five-city servants (Luke 19:11-19), five-talent servants and two-talent servants (Matt 25:14-28). When Jesus prophesied of Peter’s future martyrdom, and Peter asks about John’s future (John 21:18-23), Jesus response is basically, my plans for him are none of your business—you be faithful to what I have called you to do.

Are you one whom Jesus has called to labor in obscurity? Do you sometimes look around at the apparent success of others and wonder why you don’t see the same fruitfulness in your own work? Do you feel sometimes as if you don’t receive recognition for your labors, while others around you are recognized for theirs?

Five things to keep in mind: (1) the same pattern of recognition/obscurity can be seen in Jesus’ hand-picked disciples—it’s not just you. (2) If you know Christ you enjoy the same redemption as do your better-known brothers and sisters in Christ. (3) Those better-known believers sometimes suffer from things you might know nothing of—physical ailments, family heartaches, loss, etc—and face pressures and difficulties you might not experience. Celebrity has its own dangers you’ll not face. (4) God has formed you for your unique ministry—it is your faithfulness, not your “success” that He will reward. If you labor in obscurity it is because God has given you that path out of His love for you. God who sees in secret will one day reward you openly (Matt 6:4). (5) Heed the counsel God gave to Baruch, Jeremiah’s secretary: “‘But you, are you seeking great things for yourself? Do not seek them; for behold, I am going to bring disaster on all flesh,’ declares the Lord, ‘but I will give your life to you as booty in all the places where you may go.’ ”” (Jeremiah 45:5).

Keep at it, my brothers and sisters. God sees your heart, and it is your heart He rewards (Matt 6:33). “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)