Do You Agree With This Statement?

“What we need more today is an expression of Him rather than a defense of Him.” This is what I have been feeling as I grow in my faith over the years. Hopefully, it won’t offend anybody.

I agree that But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15), but there have been too many apologetics who are marked with an argumentative spirit that is directly in contrast with Paul’s gentleness and respect expressed in this verse. (As you can guess as well, I prefer much more ‘to give an answer’ than to the translation of ‘to defend’.)

Of course, there are also many apologists who I respect, such as Hank Hanegraaff. Interestingly, having dedicated most of his life to apologetics, Hank decided to join the Eastern Orthodox Church after reading books by Watchman Nee and meeting Christians in China, “ I saw Chinese Christians who were deeply in love with the Lord, and I learned that while they may not have had as much intellectual acumen or knowledge as I did, they had life.” says Hank awhile back (This is his decision, and I hope brothers and sisters honour that.) Although I did not go his route, I, too, had a similar experience, where a group of brothers and sisters, full of His life and joy, rekindled my love for Him after my 10 years of being a Christian. Nee definitely has been a big influence.

To avoid confusion, let me clarify: for me, giving an answer to our faith comes naturally as part of an expression of Him: why would we not want to share Him and give answers if we have experienced His resurrected life? But without the Spirit, a mere intellectual defense filled with head-knowledge is empty. Our answer-giving originates from our overflowing affection for Christ and others, not from a desire to defend Him, ourselves, and our argument. The first kind serves Him and others; the latter kind serves our own ego. In the present age characterised by division and brokenness, we need a full expression of Him as a corporate instrument that is known for His love, His grace, His truth, and His power.

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Simply Good News by N.T. Wright

thFirst, let me quote Wright first from somewhere else, “The problem with being a theologian is that everyone expects you to say everything all the time. If you write a book about one part of the gospel, they think you don’t believe the rest.” 

I quote this because I am tired of people saying Wright denies the penal and substitutionary aspects of Jesus’ crucifixion, especially when page 46 of this book demolishes this misrepresentation very clearly. Just because Wright does what he often does, namely, emphasising the Christus Victor aspect of the crucifixion of Jesus, does not mean he denies penal substitution. Rather, as he has presented in this book, Penal Substitution falls into the bigger picture of Christus Victor. Like Tim Keller says, Paul uses many different paradigms, and we can too. I like how Wright puts it, that, on the cross, not only did Jesus died for us, but He put death to death and thus, claiming victory as King. As stressed by Wright, merely holding the view of Penal Substitution can often lead to a shallow understanding of the gospel, causing us to live as if it is not “in heaven as on earth” but rather “in heaven as in heaven”. In this view, the “Good News” often ends up being simply good advice with the back story being “we are going to hell”.

But the full gospel is more than “Jesus dying for our sins so that we can go to heaven”. What is so good about this news is that Jesus Christ, as God in person, has returned to become our King in accordance to the Bible (namely, O.T.) to fulfil God’s plan of rescuing the world through the call of Israel and revealing His glory to nations.

While I echo with Wright’s assessment, I personally find Simon Gathercole’s The Gospel of Paul And The Gospel of Kingdom in a way more comprehensive and helpful in tackling the problem. Gathercole explains how the gospel carries three major themes: 1) the identity of Jesus as Messiah, 2) his work of atoning sacrifice and justification, and 3) the inauguration of a new dominion. These three are inseparable, and we cannot minimise the importance of any single of them. The tendency of many, however, as Wright has argued, is that many often overlook 1 and 3.

Also, I find Wright sometimes bit wordy and repetitive. Still, just as many of his other work, Simply Good News is to be cherished. My favourite chapter is the humorous chapter 8. Wright observes that we often reverse the order (and thus the priorities) of the Lord’s Prayer because of our individualistic understanding of the gospel. Very true indeed!

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Honouring One Another

A few weeks ago, I heard one of the best messages in my life. It was given by John Snelgrove, one of the founding pastors of The Vine Church in Hong Kong. When Pastor John opened with the statement, “One of the greatest dangers today in the Kingdom of God is jealousy”, I knew it’s gonna be a great message. I am perhaps biased since this is a statement that resonates with me deeply.

He shared briefly of a recent experience he had with a local church leader throwing shades to another church by saying, “Yeah, their church is growing, but  _____________…” 

“Get off your ‘buts’!” said Pastor John.

That’s right. I have heard too many “but  __(insert complaints/ mockery/ distrust/ resentment______…” as well in my life. Lord have mercy, I am sure I have done the same. As someone who likes to follow ministry leaders on social media, I have also been shocked by the lack of grace many times. Where is the fruit of speaking well of one another? “Honour one another”: is this not what the Lord has taught us?

Drawing from Matthew 20 and Phillip Yancey’s well-known book What’s So Amazing About Grace, John left me with two incredible lessons: 1) When we are jealous about others, we are actually jealous about God’s generosity; 2) Listen to this when you are young: don’t get caught up in the world’s ranking. The way the world ranks men is not how God’s Kingdom works.

After the message, some new comers wanted to receive the Lord into their lives. What followed was a beautiful communion, in which John said, “Many church services often let the pastors, deacons, and elders take the bread and wine first, but today, we will do something different: we will serve these new ones first.” He then charged those sitting around the new believers to serve the bread and wine to these ones first. Meanwhile, he also asked the Philippino sisters, who laboured six days a week as maids, to partake of the bread and wine before the rest of us did. This kind of serving expresses the beauty of Matthew 20:16 “So the last will be first, and the first last.” This kind of honouring one another is indeed the way of Christ.

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Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time by Brian Walsh

1630879436I came across this book while viewing N.T. Wright’s Udemy course called Worldviews, the Bible, and the Believer. This book was first published in 1992 and was republished in 2014 with a postscript added in responses to the world change over the gap of 22 years. This book has received quite a mix of reactions. Some people love it while some find it quite disappointing. I think I kind of understand both types of response. Let me first give my two cents on why some may find the book dull:

First, this book, although short, is not an easy-read for general readers like me. Written with an academic tone, I did occasionally find it – mostly chapter three – dry to read. Second, some may find Walsh not “neutral” enough in this book in terms of politics. His critique of political parties such as the Bush Administration can get quite personal at times. But hey, this is his book, he surely is entitled to his views! Third, his critique of Fukuyama is lengthy in a way that blows the book out of portion. One would expect this critique to be an illustration to support his thesis but somehow, the critique itself ends up like the main course. Fourth, some believers may find it offensive (not me) that Walsh compares songwriter Cockburn and his songs to Jeremiah and his prophetic words. Fifth, at times, perhaps because of his long critique on political parties and social systems, Walsh seems to give readers an impression that he has his hope set on reconstructing the world by human effort (sort of on the edge of a social gospel) even though he did say that the Kingdom of God, meaning the restoration of creation, is not something we produce (pg. 94). Or, perhaps Walsh is a post-millennialist?

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the above, I still find the book worth reading with the following reasons:

  1. Walsh’s emphasis on our primary identities being image-bearers. One cannot deny the fact that many presentations of the gospel today begin with Genesis 3. Walsh nails it when he says we live in an image-conscious society just like the 6th century babylonians, yet just as the Israelites in those days, our experience of exile “cannot define reality for us”. Walsh also states beautifully that both female and male are equal co-partners and gardeners who function as stewards of creation (pg. 22). Work is therefore a form of worship where we serve our neighbour with stewardly care of creation.
  1. Walsh presents the concept of human having dominion over creation in a refreshing way. To have dominion over the creation, according to Walsh, means to follow the one we call Domine: Lord. To have dominion means ”to pick up the cross and follow Him” ; “to lay down one’s life for that which we have dominion over”; “to sacrifice one’s power and one’s gain for the sake of the other”. 
  1. Walsh pleas for a wake-up call for the Church. “While the Church is fighting among themselves, we are falling into a deeper sleep.” writes Walsh (pg. 30). While our sleep has made us insensitive to the spirits of the age, causing us to live a dualistic life, we have also forgotten the real battle is between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Darkness.
  2. Walsh emphasises the need of lament. Because of our deep sleep, the Church has forgotten how to lament like Jeremiah. To be a prophetic people, we need to lament over the sickness of our society while bringing hope by initiating self-critique and passionate speaking.
  1. Walsh offers sharp criticism towards idolising capitalism, nationalism, scientism, technicism, and economism, etc.
  2. Believe it or not, this is actually my favourite part, and I give Walsh lots of respect for it: Walsh, as a reformed Christian, criticises the “over-intellectualisation of the reformed faith”.  The intellectualisation of the Christian faith “makes professing Christ into a matter of saying ‘I do’ to a system of theological dogmas rather than I do to a bridegroom named Jesus who wants to enter into a relationship of passionate covenant keeping with you and me”. As a result, faith becomes static instead of dynamic, and Christians become reluctant to let reality inform our worldview. This humility is refreshing.
  3. Walsh encourages an active waiting for a miracle, that is, a full redemption of every aspect of our lives. What does an active waiting look like?“If your hope is to be found in a heavenly liar that is totally discontinuous with this earthly existence, then it is not surprising if the way in which that hope is manifest in simply in so-called spiritual exercises like fellowship church-going and personal evangelism. If however one has a hope in a new creation, a restoration of the creational life, then mundane things like buying fields behind enemy lines are powerful symbols of that hope. (92)

That’s it. With a heavy book comes a heavy book review. I will end with the encouraging ending of the postscript,

“Build houses in a culture of homelessness. Plant gardens in polluted and contested soil. Get married in a culture of sexual consumerism. Make commitments in a world where we want to always keep our options open . Multiply in a world of debt. Have children at then of shirty. Seek shalom in a violent world of geo-political conflict and economic disparity. This is Jeremiah’s\s word to the exiles. This is Jeremiah’s subversive word to us. And in this vision we just might see, with Jeremiah, a future with hop. This is what means to work and wait for a miracle. This remains at the heart of a subversive Christianity.” (pg. 124)

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Revise Us Again by Frank Viola

41yhxbaij7l-_sx365_bo1204203200_Revise Us Again was the first Frank Viola book I read. I recently picked it up again because I remembered how much this book had taught me. This book came as a life-saving rope when I felt like a suffocating child who didn’t know how to swim. I was so weary of doing church, because  church has been so hard and everybody doesn’t get along. I thought whenever a group of people who love the Lord gather together, it’s church. But then there are so many labels, divisions, and pressure. Then so much gain, but then loss; so much joy, but then jealousy.

Even if you are not a struggling believer, this book can still edify you. I’ll share a taste of it by putting together here some quotes that have benefitted me greatly,

“Through some believers, He speaks as Prophet. Through others, He speaks as Priest. Still through others, He speaks as Sage.” (pg. 26)

“In addition, because Bill does not use the mystical jargon that fills Chris’s vocabulary, Chris concludes that Bill’s relationship with the Holy Spirit is subnormal. Worse still, Chris may judge Bill to not have the Holy Spirit at all, for if he did (he muses to himself), Bill would agree with him.” (pg. 48)

“Christian leaders have been telling God’s people that they must ‘be like Christ’ for the last six hundred years (at least). The well-known book by Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, was published around 1418.  Some 480 years later, Charles M. Sheldon’s book In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? was published. Ever since then, Christians have been trying to ‘do what Jesus did.’ But this ‘gospel’ hasn’t worked. The reason? It’s an instance of asking the wrong question. The question is not ‘What would Jesus do?’ I believe it’s ‘What is Jesus Christ doing through me … and through us?’ Jesus made pretty clear that we cannot live the Christian life. Instead, He must live it through us. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5) Notice that Jesus Himself couldn’t live the Christian life without His Father:2 Jesus gave them this answer: ‘I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing.’ (John 5:19) By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent.” (pp. 58-59)

“A large part of the gospel is to be awakened to an indwelling Christ—not as a doctrine or theology, but as a living, breathing Person whose life we can live by.” (pg. 60)

“In short, the goal of the gospel is not to get you out of hell and into heaven, but to get God out of heaven and into you so that He may be displayed visibly and glorified in His creation.” (pg. 61)

“I’ve observed this phenomenon all my Christian life. People express the same experiences differently. This is due to many varied factors, some of which are the person’s temperament, the specific vocabulary of one’s religious tradition, or a specific “effect” they wish to have on those who hear them testify. (Sometimes this isn’t so well motivated.)” (pg. 72)

“Numerous things about the Christian life amaze me. One of them has to do with a phenomenon that has repeated itself throughout church history. I call it ‘being captured by the same spirit you oppose.’” (pg. 85)

“It’s my strong feeling that a genuine revelation of the fullness of Christ will strip you and me of all exclusiveness and sectarianism. And it will demolish an elitist attitude.” (pg. 95)

“Let me pass on a word of advice. If you ever hit a fork in the road with the people with whom you do church (whatever that looks like), there’s one sure way that the Lord can get what He wants. Drop whatever is causing the problem, and let it go into death. There is nothing for us to cling to except the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing.” (pg. 127)

“Many Christians fear diversity. We all love unity, but we tend toward uniformity. This tendency is most clearly seen in denominationalism. But it exists vibrantly outside of denominational lines as well. Diversity, however, is part of the nature of the body of Christ. It’s also woven into the universe. Look at creation. Look at your physical body. Look at the eternal Trinity who brought both into existence. What do you find? Particularity with unity. Diversity with harmony.  Point: Diversity is a sign of fullness.” (pp. 138-139)

“Point: The church in Ephesus received the deepest and highest revelation of Christ through choice servants of God—Paul, John, Timothy, Titus, Apollos, etc. And yet, as the New Testament closes, we discover that the church in Ephesus was corrected by the Lord for leaving her first love (Rev. 2:1–4). What happened? If experience has taught me anything, I would guess that they simply stopped pursuing Him. They got stuck. They clung to the Christ they had been given by the greatest servants of God, and they stopped there. To put it another way, their Christ was too small!” (pg. 143)

“Embracing the gospel of libertinism or the gospel of legalism will tether you to the flesh. The fruit of libertinism is the defiling acts of the flesh. On another branch, but just as deadly, the fruit of legalism is the self-righteousness of the flesh.  Both gospels produce carnal activity and generate death rather than life. As a result, both clash with the new creation and have no place in the full-hearted gospel of Christ.  Only Paul’s gospel—the glorious gospel of grace, the gospel of Jesus Christ—has the capacity to bring you and me into the freedom that is ours in Christ. And the end of that gospel is the ageless purpose of God for which our Lord burns.” (pg. 145)

This will always be a book that I return to from time to time.

 

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Love That Lasts by Jefferson and Alyssa Bethke

love-that-lastsI received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher. 

I don’t know if you have watched Jeff Bethke’s My Wedding Toast – How Marriage Is Just a Shadow on YouTube. Go watch if you have not. Anyways, I remember when I did a few years ago, I had a hard time stopping myself from crying. Perhaps I was just a girl too prone to tears. But I was so moved by how excited he was, for not just his wedding with Alyssa, but for the one that is to come. Not that I have been to many weddings, but I indeed have never heard a man in his early 20s speak about marriage so truthfully and beautifully.

And fast forward, we now have this book, Love That Lasts: How We Discovered God’s Better Way for Love, Dating, Marriage, and Sex, from the Bethkes. This book feels like an expansion of that video message based on the journey of Jeff and Alyssa have had over the past years. This book did not make me cry like the video did, yet with its humour, Jeff and Alyssa successfully paints the glorious picture of marriage that is so often missed in our culture marked by loneliness, anxiety, pornography, and hook-ups.

Just as Jeff writes, “We can’t miss the truth found in that beautiful divine and mysterious and glorious moment. That when He created us and all the uniqueness of male and female bodies, He was choosing to communicate something about Himself.” (pg. 27) From Adam and Eve to Christ and the Church, our earthly marriage serves in the end an expression of Him and His love for us. Just as Alyssa writes as well, Jeff, as his husband, while complimenting her, does not complete her, for it is the Lord Jesus who ultimately fills her (pg. 74). As an individual, our true satisfaction comes from the Lord, not our spouse. Or else, it will turn into idolatry.

Perhaps you are someone who is not into reading. Perhaps you have come across many books that give you burdensome rules on dating. Love That Lasts, however, is different. It is an engaging read filled with grace that shows you don’t have to become more spiritual by being less human (borrowing Eugene Peterson here). I’d especially recommend it to high school students and people in their 20s-30s.

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