Knowing God

Thinking Man (B&W)

More than 200 names for God are recorded in the Bible.  All of them are important.  Each of them reveals and affirms certain characteristics of God.  While God is incomprehensible – we will never exhaust what there is to know about Him – He is nevertheless knowable.  He has revealed himself to us.  To know God is to recognize what He is like – and what He is not like.  As J.I. Packer once said:

“Those who know God have great thoughts of God.”

So what is God like?

This is not an academic question.  Though certainly there are some Academics in the news recently who may have been well served to have given a little more thought to the question before holding a press conference only to display syncretistic ignorance.  But even in that instance the question is not merely academic.  It is personal.

When asked: “What is the greatest commandment?”,  Jesus unhesitatingly declared: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  (Matthew 22.36-40; Deuteronomy 6.1-7) So let me ask a somewhat rhetorical question: “How can one love God if little to nothing is known about God?  Further, even if it is possible to love a god one knows little about, (and I suspect that it may be possible,) how can we claim to be keeping the command to “Love God with all your mind” if we do not engage our minds to learn more and more about him?

Now let me be clear about something: If you are reading this post, and you feel you are less knowledgeable theologically than you think you ought to be, I am not trying to shame you.  Truth is this: I am fairly theologically educated.  If you have any knowledge of God at all, the difference between your little knowledge and my educated knowledge is so minimal when compared to what knowledge there is to be known about God, that any sense of haughtiness I might be inclined to project would be laughable, if such pomposity would not be so pathetic.  My concern is not who knows more than who, but rather whether we  know God, and whether, in keeping with the greatest command, we are engaging our minds to be continually growing in our knowledge of God.

If you have a desire to love the Lord with all your mind, let me offer a handful of suggested books about God with which to feed your mind.  None of these are technical, but all are excellent. (To my mind, these are actually better than most of the technical theological books I have read.)

This list is far from exhaustive. There are many excellent books on this subject, and I welcome anyone who would like to add to this list to do so in the comment section.  Sadly, there are many, many, bad books under this heading as well.  Some of the better books I left off this list are Knowing God by J.I. Packer and Reason for God by Timothy Keller.  While I enjoyed and highly commend both of these, the list above reflects a thorough introduction and/or reflection, yet easy reads.  Keller’s is excellent for those asking the question: Is There a God? Packer’s would be on my list for next steps.

I will end with this: Earlier this year I heard a statement, attributed to John Piper (though I have been unable to confirm it is his), that stuck with me, resonates, and is appropriate to ponder:

“The mind provides kindling for the heart.”

Fatherhood of God

Neck Tie Quilt

After spending the better part of the past week preparing to preach about the Fatherhood of God, and the amazing doctrine of adoption, from Galatians 3.23-4.7, I am still pondering the richness and beauty of how the Heidelberg Catechism expresses it:

Q 26. What do you believe when you say: I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?

A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and all that is in them, and who still upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is, for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father. In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.

And this from the shortest chapter of the Westminster Confession, WCF 12:

All those who are justified God graciously guarantees to make partakers of the grace of adoption in and for his only Son, Jesus Christ. By this act they are taken into the number of God’s children and enjoy the liberties and privileges of that relationship; they are given his name; they receive the Spirit of adoption; they have access to the throne of grace with boldness; and they are enabled to cry, “Abba, Father.” Like a father, God has compassion on, protects, provides for, and chastens them; yet, they will never be cast off, but are sealed to the day of redemption, and will inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation.

These are more than definitions.  These are summaries of the the gospel that are worthy of contemplation.  For I suspect most of our spiritual problems, and even our emotional troubles, are in one way or another due to our unbelief or lack of understanding of these great truths: first, God is the Father of all who believe, and who are therefore “in Christ:; second, we who believe, and who are therefore “in Christ”, are the beloved Children of God, who is the Creator and sustainer of the universe.

New City Catechism

Over the weekend I spent some time reviewing the relatively new New City Catechism.  While it has been around for a couple years now, and I had heard about it even prior to it’s original publication, I had not really given it much attention, until now.

I was impressed by the combination of depth and simplicty this catechism posesses.  Broken into just 52 questions, it is a fairly comprehensive introduction to the substance of the Christian Faith, and yet it manages to avoid being verbose in any of it’s questions and answers.  I am now giving thought to ways we might make use of this tool in our church.

The video above is an Introduction to the New City Catechism from Knox Seminary.  The New City Catechism web site not only has the Q&A’s, but for each of the 52 Questions there is a tab with accompanying scripture support, a short commentary, and even a brief video explanation by a variety of renouned pastors and theologians.

Check out: New City Catechism

New City Catechism

Counterfeit Gospels

Having begun a new series of messages at our church, Freedom: A Study of Galatians, I am struck anew by the passion with which the Apostle Paul uncompromisingly declares: “There is NO OTHER Gospel!”  What Paul does throughout his letter to the Galatians, and vividly in the opening verses, is to impress that claim upon his readers as he points out and combats the counterfeit gospels – philosophies which purport themselves to be good news, but which are in reality fraudulent teachings dressed in Christianese garb.  Paul’s response to these philosophies is to declare: “Even if we (Apostles, including he himself), or an angel from heaven comes and teaches you something other than the gospel you originally received, let them be eternally cursed!.” The essence of what he says is: “Anyone who tries to teach a fraudulent gospel can just go to hell!”  He is obviously serious about this to offer such a severe retort.

Counterfeit gospels are not just something from the Apostolic age.  They are all too prevalent today – and not only in heterodox churches.  They are present in the best of churches, and in the hearts of some of the most sincere followers of Christ. I suspect it is in our spiritual DNA, part of our broken nature. Are hearts are deceitful. (Jeremiah 17.9)  We are susceptible to gospel distortions – which Paul reminds us “are no gospel at all”.

Some time ago I picked up and read a book by Trevin Wax, Counterfiet Gospels.  I found it to be among the most helpful books I have read.Counterfeit Gospels

In one sense, nothing in the book was new for me.  Still, Trevin does an excellent job of explaining the gospel in it’s various aspects:

  • Gospel Story: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration
  • Gospel Announcement: Life, Death, Resurrection, and Exaltation of Jesus
  • Gospel Community: The Church

Just as important, he takes some commonly held notions and connects them to the different dimensions of the gospel. Included among the categories he connects with and compares to the gospel:

  • Activist Gospel
  • Moralistic Gospel
  • Pietistic or Quietistic Gospel
  • Therapeutic Gospel
  • Judgmentlessness Gospel
  • Churchless Gospel

In exploring these ideas, he shows that while at root they are in may respects good, yet how when misunderstood or misapplied they are contributing to an erosion of  the Faith.

What I don’t think I had ever before adequately considered was the connection of the categories Trevin identifies with the gospel. And what I think I appreciated most is that he identifies and examines not only the negatives of these  ideas, but he also explains their positives points as well.  He astutely points out that it is the very real positive aspects that make these points popular and palatable, and yet which also make them easily confused and dangerous.

In the short video above Trevin Wax provides a quick overview of his book, and briefly explains the categories he identifies.  So even if you find my description of his book a little fuzzy or confusing, take a moment to watch the video so Trevin can clarify what I am trying to convey.

Easy Chairs & Hard Words

Easy Chairs

Some time ago I posted a series of fictional discussions between a young man from a Broadly Evangelical background and a seasoned minister in a more historical theological tradition.  The series is titled Easy Chairs & Hard Words. It was penned by Douglas Wilson of Christ Church of Moscow, Idaho, and first appeared in Credenda Agenda.

These engaging instructive narratives have come to mind in a few discussions over the past couple weeks, so I decided it might be good to republish the links to each of the six chapters:

Easy Chairs & Hard Words – Part 1

Easy Chairs & Hard Words – Part 2

Easy Chairs & Hard Words – Part 3

Easy Chairs & Hard Words – Part 4

Easy Chairs & Hard Words – Part 5

Easy Chairs & Hard Words – Part 6

Cotton Candy Christianity Scorecard

I don’t want to become one of those bloggers who becomes known for what he is against, or for pointing out how wrong other guys are, but this was just too funny to pass up.  It is also important to distinguish the gospel from all its counterfeits. For as Paul warns in Galatians 1.6-7:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.

Upon further thought, it might not be as funny as I thought.  It would be funny, if it were not so serious & sad.

Thanks to the folks at Modern Reformation & White Horse Inn for the scorecard. As they said:

“It’s like Bingo… Only better.”

Tough Questions From a Pre-Teen Girl

The following are answers to questions asked by a then-12 year old girl.  This young lady had had a very, very difficult life, but was very bright and determined.   At the time she wrote the note to me asking these questions, she had only recently come to live with her father – a godly man.  Now twenty-something, she has grown into a beautiful and sharp young woman.

She has given her permission to use our correspondence for this post.


1.      Why do people look so depressing, sad, and miserable when we pray? 

This is a good question.  There is no good reason to be sad & miserable when we pray, but I think you are right that sometimes we look that way.

I guess the reason is that people want to be reverent, or to be serious, when they approach our Holy God.  This is a good thing, since the Bible calls us to “Fear the Lord”.  (Deuteronomy 6:13; Proverbs 9:10)   BUT, if Christians do not have joy as they pray, then they are forgetting that God loves us; that He is our Father, and wants us to come to him with joy & thanksgiving.  We are unbalanced between Fearing God & Loving God.

 2.      Why does God choose some people, but not all, to spread His Word?

I am guessing that you have two questions combined here.

First, Why does God not call everyone to be a Christian?  The answer is that everyone is to hear the call to follow Christ, but only those God chooses are able to become Christians.  Why does he choose some but not others? We don’t know.

Second, Why are not all Christians called to spread his Word?  The answer: All are called to spread his Word, by teaching and by our actions.  Some are called to spread his Word to other countries. Some are called to spread his Word by preaching in the church. Some to spread it by teaching Sunday school. Others are called to spread it to their friends, neighbors, and family.  Not everyone does it, but all are called to spread the Word somewhere & somehow.

3.      Why did God flood the earth when not everybody was being bad? 

Romans 3:10 and 3:23 tell us that there is no one who is good.  This is difficult to hear, but it is true. It is also important to help understand my answer to your question.

If you read Genesis 6:5 it says “The Lord saw …man’s wickedness…” There was no one good on the earth, everyone was being bad. Romans 6:23 says: “The wages of sin is death.”  This means that anyone & everyone who sins deserves death – in this case by drowning in a flood.

In Genesis 6:8-9 it says “Noah found favor in God’s eyes…” and “…he walked with God”.  This does not mean that Noah was perfect, and that he was not doing bad – though he was better than most men. (Remember Romans 3:23 “All sinned… fall short of the glory of God.”) That he “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” means that God chose to love him even though he was a sinner.  Genesis 6:9 says: “Noah was a righteous man”… this means that he believed in God, and trusted God for his salvation. Noah did not believe he was good enough, and knew he needed God’s grace.  (Romans 1:17 tells us that righteousness comes by faith. Hebrews 11:6 says: “Without faith it is impossible to please God…”)

Now the great thing about this is that God does the same thing with us.  You & I, and everyone else, are sinners.  We may be better than many people, but we are still not perfect like God wants us to be.

But read Romans 5:6-8… Is that great or what?!!

The important thing, though, is to believe what God has provided for our salvation from his punishment.  For Noah it was the Ark, but really it was a Savior.  For us (and for Noah, too, really) it is Jesus – a person not a boat!

Read 1 John 5, and it shows the importance of believing & trusting in Jesus for our salvation and forgiveness of our sin.

(A guy named Fritz Ridenhour has written a cool book for teenagers, How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious. It is about all this Romans stuff.  I have a copy if you want to borrow it from me.)

4.      Why does God make some peoples’ lives worse than others? 

This is a difficult question, and I am so sorry that you have had some very hard things happen in your life.  But the best way I can answer this is in two ways.

First, sin is in this world and hurts people –both those who sin and those they sin against.  It will continue to hurt people until Jesus returns to take us with Him.  This does not mean that God does not love us or care for us, or that he will not protect us.  He does, and He shows it all the time.  But what he also does is remind us that someday soon he will take us where there is no sin.

Look at it this way, before your Dad had you with him, he loved you, and cared for you. He gave you some good times, even though some bad things were happening around you. But he also told you that he wanted you to live with him.  Even before you got to live with him you had both good & bad times. You looked forward to when you could be with him, and this gave you hope.  Now that you have moved in with him many of the bad things are away from you.  God continues to give us this same type hope when he reminds us of heaven – except all bad things will be away from us in Heaven. Until then our lives will be mixed with good and bad.

Why are some worse than others? That I do not know. The book of Job is a good example of your question, but God does not totally answer it.  God simply says we should trust him, because we know He is good.

Second, some of our hardships come from decisions we make. There are consequences to our actions. If you commit a crime, you may go to jail. If unmarried teenagers are sexually active a pregnancy may result.

But even the consequences to our own actions are not all bad.  Hebrews 12:6 says: “The Lord disciplines those He loves.”  And please read 1 Peter 1:3-9 for encouragement.

Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit has garnered a few nicknames through the ages. Among the more appropriate and familiar:

  • The Shy member of the Trinity
  • The Forgotten member of the Trinity

When considering the person of the Holy Spirit, there are few things that are vital to remember:

  • The Holy Spirit is a person, a “He” not an “It”.
  • As the Third Person if the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is fully God, and equal with God the Father and God the Son (Jesus) in glory, honor, and power; and equally worthy to receive worship.

The Holy Spirit functions in specific ways:

  • Regeneration – giving life to those who are spiritually dead.
  • Salvation (Justification) – the Holy Spirit grants both faith and repentance as gifts of grace. Through these, and these alone, is man justified.
  • Sanctification – “For those whom God justifies he also sanctifies. ” In other words, there is no one who is “saved” who is not also “sanctified”.  Sanctification is both definite and an ongoing process.  In work of sanctification Believers are expected to “cooperate” with the Holy Spirit, employing the means of grace. These actions we engage in are not magical, nor automatic, as if anyone who does them will automatically grow in grace. But they are effective.  The Holy Spirit works grace in us through these means.  We normally see a corresponding maturity in those who regularly and rightly make use of the means of grace, while we see little to no change in those who are lax.  But the one constant dynamic is that the Holy Spirit grants both faith and repentance to the believer for sanctification just as he does for justification.  In other words, the Christian life consists of continual repentance and renewed belief in the gospel.
  • The Holy Spirit cultivates the Fruit of the Spirit in believers.
  • The Holy Spirit bestows Spiritual Gifts upon all who believe, for the use in participating and the building up of the local body – The Church – which together advances the Kingdom of God.

Here are some suggested readings to grow in our understanding of the Person & Work of the Holy Spirit:

Listen And I Will Tell You What God is Like

Listen and I will tell you what God is like:

He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  (Matthew 5.45)

Christ spent his last strength and his last moments in prayer for his enemies: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23.34)

When Jesus returned to Jerusalem for the last time and had no further means of saving the ungodly and rebellious city, he stood on the Mount of Olives and wept for the city.  His prophetic eye saw the terrible doom which would befall the city and from which there was no escape. (Matthew 23.37-39)

Such is God.

– From Ole Hallesby, Prayer

Elect or Elite?

A few years ago, soon after coming to Bristol, I was asked by a godly woman in our church: “What does it mean to be Reformed?”

She had been talking with someone from another church who had snidely claimed that their church did not associate with our church because we were not Reformed enough.

What arrogance!

My response to the inquiring woman was that we were not a TR church (Thoroughly Reformed), but we want to be a HR church (Humbly Reformed).  What’s the difference? Not substance.  Attitude.

Elliot Grudem offers a wonderful encouragement to cultivate an HR attitude, in an article from the Acts 29 Network blog: Elect or Elite? Why Arrogance Has No Place in Reformed Theology. Below is an edited version of Grudem’s message.  To read the original, or to hear the audio message delivered at an Acts 29 Bootcamp, click the link.


Keller, Calvin, Predestination – BINGO!

When I was in seminary, my friends and I would occasionally play bingo during the classes: what we’d do is write the names of people in our class in the bingo squares, and if that person spoke in class, you got that square – and if you got all the squares in a row then you got ‘bingo.’ We’d always make sure we filled our squares with a couple of ringers that we knew we could get to talk by tipping off their hot-button issues. So if you needed the ringer’s name, you’d ask a questions like, “can someone please tell me what this has to do with homeschooling?” and you knew that individual would ask the next question – and – BINGO!

We do something similar in Reformed circles.  We have our key names and key phrases that fill our “bingo board” in our minds. And if people mention Keller and Calvin, and “the gospel” two or three times, if they say “predestination” then we think they’re orthodox.

And if they miss those things – the key phrases and names that make up what we think it means to be Reformed – then we say they’re not Reformed, they’re not “gospel-centered,” they’re not orthodox, regardless of what they have really said.

Are We Elect or Elite?

We can rely on our theology too much, thinking that our theological precision is the key to our church’s growth rather than the Holy Spirit. We can fall into phrase-righteousness or name-righteousness thinking that a sermon is heretical if it sounds more like it came from the book of James than from one of Paul’s epistles. We can begin to think that the reason our church is small is because we’re right. And we’re the only one in town that’s truly preaching the truth. We can become theological snobs believing that we and our two or three heroes have a corner on right theology. Or that the Holy Spirit stopped speaking to the church on May 27, 1564 – the day that Calvin died.

We have a word for people like that, don’t we? The word is proud.

But unfortunately in our circles we tend to see this type of pride, especially among those who have just discovered the truths of the Reformed tradition.  It doesn’t take much to move from elect to elite.

But it shouldn’t be that way.

What Does it mean to be Humbly Reformed?

To be Reformed one does have to hold to a Reformed soteriology.  But if we’re not talking Reformed Bingo phrase-dropping, what do we mean by that?

J.I. Packer sums it up: “To Calvinism there is really only one point to be made in the field of soteriology: the point that God saves sinners.”

Packer is saying that salvation is entirely of the Lord, and sinners have nothing to do with their salvation. That God saves you out of his own good pleasure as an act of his delight. Sinners do not save themselves in any sense at all. Every step is an act of grace. Salvation is entirely an act of God.

What room does this gospel of grace leave you to boast? What room does it leave you for self-promotion? What need do you have to prove yourself to God and others? If what Paul writes is true, you have none.

If you really understand this gospel, this message that “God saves sinners,” and really understand Reformed soteriology, then you should be known for your humility, not your pride. You know that everything you have is a gift of grace.

And the Answer Is…

John Frame is the Chuck Norris of Systematic Theology, and he also is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Once I heard him ask a question of a man when I was with him during a mock ordination exam. I don’t remember what Frame’s question was but the student took a long time before giving a faltering answer. And Frame laughed and said “that is the best answer I have ever heard in any type of theology exam.”

What was the student’s answer to the question? “I don’t know.”

When’s the last time you answered a question like that? Are you really that good? Are there secret things that belong to the Lord? Or is it, like, the Lord and you? How long has it been since you answered a question with ‘I don’t know’?


By the way, when I was in seminary my friend David Zavadil and I also played BINGO during classes.  We became somewhat infamous for it.  I guess our tradition lived on… and spread.

Practical Importance of Doctrine

If there was one thing I could impart to the members of our church, or to other pastors, it would be an appreciation for the practical importance of doctrine.  I think it was R.C. Sproul who pointed out: “We are all theologians… the question is whether we are good theologians.”

Sprouls’ point is valid.  Everything we think, feel, and do is rooted in what we think about God.  Some may not give this conscious attention. Some even repress it or deny it, but then this a-theism is what they think or feel about God, and these folks will act accordingly.

I suppose that many are turned off by the very idea of doctrine because it has been abused so frequently. I imagine others have been guilty of taking these awesome truths and boring folks with them – something I am sure I share a guilt in.  But the inadequacies of a teacher should not turn people away from seeking to know God better by knowing about God, any more than a bad meal or a bad cook should make people turn away from food.

In this brief video, pastor/theologian Tim Keller offers a few simple insights about the practical importance of doctrine.  Even if you are a skeptic, give what Tim says at least a few moments thought.

Get the Gospel Right

If pressed for a quick summary of my philosophy of ministry, I would probably express it something like this:

  • Get the Gospel Right
  • Get the Gospel Out
  • Get the Gospel Out Right

Without a message there is no mission.

Unfortunately, it seems, many are so zealous to get about the mission that they make little time getting the message of the gospel right.  They do not stand amazed at what God has done for us in the person of Christ. Consequently, they are not being formed or transformed by the gospel.  They are more anxious about what they will do for God than excited by what God has done for us, and what he is doing in us, and what God has promised to do through us – if only we would root ourselves in the gospel.  And because some are neither formed or being transformed, they go out uninformed.

If we are not conscious of what God is doing in us, what do we think we have to offer those who are around us?

While no doubt knowledge without zeal is dead.  It is equally true that zeal without knowledge is deadly.

Does Doctrine Merely Divide Us?

In this video, Lane Chaplin convincingly explains the God-given mandate to dig into theology. He also illustrates the practical importance.

Does doctrine divide us? Sadly, sometimes it does – or rather, sometime Christians do divide over doctrine.  But doctrine also unites. It unites us with other believers, both of our own day and of ages past.  And, when properly discerned, doctrine unites our minds with the mind of God.  I would say that is worth a little work.

Does Doctrine REALLY Matter?

In the first chapter of his excellent book, Dug Down Deep, Joshua Harris writes:

I know the idea of “studying” God often rubs people the wrong way. It sounds cold and theoretical, as if God were a frog carcass to dissect in a lab or a set of ideas that we memorize like math proofs.

I know  many professing Christians who personify what Josh describes, including some within our church. There are a number of reasons they find theology – study of God – distasteful.  One reason is that it is difficult. Another reason is that doctrine has been a point of contention between Christians for ages, and no one with any sanity enjoys being at odds with others. And for many, previous exposure to theology has been just plain boring.

Harris goes on in his observation, and addresses the concern about doctrine being boring:

But studying God doesn’t have to be like that. You can study him the way you study a sunset that leaves you speechless. You can study him the way a man studies the wife he passionately loves. Does anyone fault him for noting her every like and dislike? Is it clinical for him to desire to know the thoughts and longings of her heart? Or to want to hear her speak?

Knowledge doesn’t have to be dry and lifeless. And when you think about it, exactly what is our alternative? Ignorance? Falsehood?

We’re either building our lives on the reality of what God is truly like and what he’s about, or we’re basing our lives on our own imagination and misconceptions.

We’re all theologians. The question is whether what we know about God true.

I think Josh is correct: The study of theology does not have to be boring.

My own motive for studying and teaching theology is not to put myself above anyone else, nor to find grounds to debate and prove others wrong.  My motive is that I have found what Josh describes to be true – I have found beauty in the nature of God.  I have found joy through the discovery of his amazing grace.  I have experienced – and I am experiencing – the transforming power of his promises and principles in the gospel. And while I have found points where I disagree with others, those disagreements do not diminish my friendships with anyone.  So I engage in the study of theology to enhance my own life. And I endeavor to teach theology to offer those same benefits to others who are willing to enjoy them.

As for the study of theology being difficult, well that might be true. Especially when dealing with some important complex issues, such as our Union with Christ.  However, in his book, Josh describes an epiphany he had while vacationing in Florida.  One morning, while at the beach, it dawned on him that in order to “build a house on rock not sand” requires that we dig until we find the rock.  (Matthew 7.24-27) And digging takes work.  But in the end the benefits are worth the work.