Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Review: Extravagant Grace

God uses all the circumstances of life to shape the trajectory of our growth in grace, including the doctrines that we adopt and the churches that we attend. He is sovereign over each and every detail that will shape the trajectory of each individual growth curve. We will not all reach the same level of maturity in Christ, nor will we all believe identical things in this life, but every one of us will live and grow under his loving care and sovereign rule. (loc 439)

Every chapter of Barbara Duguid's book  Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness challenged my thinking. Using the writings of John Newton (author of the hymn "Amazing Grace"), Duguid makes a compelling argument that God uses our sin for His glory. I must admit, there were times I shook my head and wanted to throw my hands up in frustration as I read. As Duguid writes, "It is a radical and almost frightening thought to see that God is actually as much at work in our worst moments of sin and defeat as he is in our best moments of shining obedience." (loc 108)

It was not until Chapter Eight, "Grace to Fall", that I began to understand and accept Duguid's premise. She recounts advice she received from a counselor after confessing her battle with certain sins, "[God] will either give you grace to change and to grow in these two areas of great struggle with sin, or he will give you the grace to stay the same and survive your failure." (loc 1356)

Most of us, myself included, would much rather have the first grace than the second. We believe that God expects us to grow into spiritual giants. If we continue to struggle with sin, how can He love us? Yet the Bible is replete with stories of people falling into sin and the gracious God who uses the circumstances to draw the sinner to Himself (e.g. David, Peter)
 ...God could have saved us and made us instantly perfect, since all things are equally easy for God and he does all of his holy will. Instead, he chose to save us and leave indwelling sin in our souls to wage war with our new desires...If God were interested in simply decreasing the total number of sins committed in the universe, he would never have made such a decision. As much as he hates sin, there must be something else he values so highly that it is worth the cost of sin's destructiveness. Newton argues that this greater goal is the fashioning of humble and contrite hearts in God's chosen people as, through their ongoing weakness and sin, they come to trust in themselves less and less and to trust and delight in Christ more and more. (loc 1418)

If this is true, isn't grace even more amazing than we think? And if we are the recipients of such an extravagant grace, should we not be more gracious to others, knowing that God is also working in their sins?

Extravagant Grace has taught me much about my attitude toward others and my own struggles with sin. They are lessons that, by God's grace, I will try to implement in my life as I seek to live for His glory.

Thanks to NetGalley and P&R Publishing for providing me with copies of the book in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mark #9 of a Healthy Church: Biblical Church Leadership

In the 18 years we spent at our former church, we witnessed first hand the turmoil that being without proper leadership brings. Each time we were without a pastor, chaos ensued. Relationships and ministries suffered because the church had no clear leader. Perhaps that's why the church government of a different denomination appealed to us so strongly. We didn't set out to move to another denomination but when our pastor introduced the leadership model during our new members' class, my husband and I were thrilled.

The last mark of a healthy church is biblical church leadership. Mark Dever spends this final chapter discussing five facets of church leadership: congregational context, biblical qualifications, charismatic nature, Christlikeness, and relationship to God's nature and character.

I've spent this summer blogging through Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, and I've realized that, as much as we church members want to put the responsibility of the church's health on its leaders, we bear equal responsibility. Instead of dissecting the qualifications of biblical church leadership, I want to leave this series with Dever's charge to congregants: are to take an active part in your church not simply by attending, by praying, and by giving (though you should do all those things); more than such things, you should actively be getting to know your church family. You should be praying through the list of those other people with whom you have covenanted to serve God. You should listen as other members of the body tell about what God is doing in their lives or about their concerns - and then pray with them. You must realize that part of your obligation and privilege as a member of the church is to get to know other believers and to make yourself known to them. Study God's Word together. Learn to think as a church about God's Word. You should be growing in grace yourself, and in the knowledge of God's Word, in the knowledge of your own heart and of the hearts of your brothers and sisters, and in awareness of the opportunities God is putting in front of your church. (p. 227)
Finding a healthy church was not an easy task. We suffered heartbreak and frustration. We argued and prayed. As hard as it was, God was good. It is in obedience to Him by His grace, that my husband and I will seek to be healthy members of the church He has brought us to.

For further reading, check out What Is a Healthy Church Member? by Thabiti Anyabwile.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thankful Thursday

Praising the Lord this week for:

~tears of joy, gratitude, frustration, pain, and love

~family date night

~a surrogate mom who loves, listens to, and advises me as well as Mama did

~Elder interviews and our future church membership

~homemade whipped cream

~sisters in Christ who love me, accept me, and encourage me

~car pools

~the extravagant grace of God

~books that challenge my thinking

~the providence of God

~thought-provoking discussions with my girl

Blessings all mine, with 10,000 beside!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mark #8 of a Healthy Church: A Concern for Discipleship and Growth

Chances are, we all know someone who made a confession of faith at one time but now displays no evidences of conversion. Her church attendance is sporadic and her Bible knowledge sketchy. Worse yet, she shows absolutely no interest in spiritual growth. She prayed a prayer, punched her ticket to Heaven, and now she's living her life as if it never made a difference. Because it hasn't.

I know too many of those people. They fill pews, choir lofts, and leadership positions in many churches - churches that are not concerned for discipleship and growth, the 8th mark of a healthy church.

How does a church promote discipleship and growth in its members? Mark Dever explains that the other eight "marks" of a healthy church have an effect on the growth we will experience, individually and as a church.

Expositional Preaching focuses on God's Word. Dever says the church is built upon "hearing God's Word speak to us as His Holy Spirit uses it in our hearts. Through His Word, we come to know more of God and of His character than you or I could ever guess or suppose." (p. 206)
There will not be any great reformation in our churches or our personal lives if [spiritual] thirst is absent. If we are content to hear one sermon a week lasting twenty minutes, then we are displaying a condition of spiritual sickness. Unless we cultivate an appetite for the exposition of Scripture, we will never grow as Christians. Instead of being among those who are always wanting less exposition, we should be among those always desiring more.
Biblical Theology helps us "understand more of the truth about God and about us...We are encouraged by seeing the big picture, the plan, the meaning. We see more of God's character. We begin to grow in our knowledge of Him. We begin to trust Him more." (Dever, p. 206) 

A chuch that has a Biblical Understanding of the Gospel "will help you grow in confidence as you know the love of God. Indeed you cannot help but grow as you understand more and more of what God has done for you in Christ." (p. 208)

"As we begin to recognize our own salvation as the fruit of God's work in our lives, we're not even tempted to feel the wrong kind of pride in our spiritual life, because we have understood from the Bible what conversion is. We have understood more of what a true Christian is, and how we become one - by the grace of God." (p.209). This is why a healthy church must have a Biblical understanding of conversion.

Closely related is a Biblical understanding of evangelism. Dever states, "When we begin to understand more of what the Bible teaches about evangelism, we will begin to trust God in helping us to spread the Good News. We will feel more like obeying Him as we realize that it is not our duty to convert anyone but simply to faithfully tell the news." (p. 209)

A church with a Biblical understanding of church membership realizes that in "dealing with each other, we are forced to deal with ares of our lives that we would otherwise avoid...God doesn't call us to run this race alone. Being rooted in a church also encourages accountability." (p. 210)

It is important for a church to have a Biblical understanding of church discipline because an "unintended consequence of a church's neglect of proper discipline is that it gets much harder to produce disciples. In an undisciplined church, examples are unclear and models are confused." (p. 210)

Finally, attending a church with a Biblical understanding of church leadership is important because "[a]s God brings people into our lives whom He has called to be spiritual leaders, we gain practical role models and godly vision." (p. 211)

The Lord blessed my family by allowing us to find a church that displays these eight marks of a healthy church. As a result, we're growing spiritually and learning to follow Jesus better.

This summer, I'm blogging through Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Find out why here.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Thankful Thursday

Praising the Lord this week for:

~Unseasonably cool temperatures

~An opportunity to fellowship with our pastor's family

~My eldest niece's wedding

~Hugging my 91-year old grandmother

~A husband whose calming presence I too often take for granted

~Forgiveness when I'm not the wife and mother I should be

~Sisters in Christ

~Driving by cornfields while listening to the morning traffic report in the "big city"

~Fewer blogs in my feed reader. Making the cuts was hard, but it's been worth it.

Blessings all mine, with 10,000 beside!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mark #7 of a Healthy Church: Biblical Church Discipline

We need to live lives that back up our professions of faith. We need to love each other. We need to hold each other accountable because all of us will have times when our flesh wants to go in a way different that what God has revealed in Scripture. And part of the way we love each other is by being honest and establishing relationships with each other and speaking in love to each other. We need to love each other and we need to love those outside the church whom our witness affects; and we need to love God, who is holy, and who calls us not to bear His name in vain, but to be holy as He is holy. That's a tremendous privilege and a great responsibility.
~Mark Dever

In response to last week's post regarding church membership, my friend Aimee offered this comment
Another important point about church membership is discipline. How can you expect your church family to help you grow, and protect you as a part of it, if you will not publicly place yourself under the authority of the leaders? And since discipline is a mark of a healthy church, membership is all the more important.
I remember many years ago a friend's husband was caught in an inappropriate relationship. They were part of a church that practiced church discipline, and she told me what steps the church was taking to discipline him and protect their marriage. Quite honestly, I was taken aback that the church leadership assumed such a role. I believed the elders were meddling where they didn't belong. My friend knew something I didn't - that marriage isn't about the individuals, but about representing Christ and the church. My friends reconciled. I didn't give any thought to church discipline after that. Then I started reading Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. The Lord opened our eyes to the importance of belonging to a church that practices discipline.

Mark Dever gives five reasons to practice church discipline:

1. The good of the person disciplined
2. The Good of the other Christians, as they see the danger of sin
3. The health of the church as a whole
4. The corporate witness of the church
5. The glory of God, as we reflect His holiness 

Looking through the material we would cover in our new members class, I was happy to see that we would cover the topic of church discipline. I came into that session with no idea what to expect.  The pastor shared an incident that occurred several years earlier. (I believe I have the story, or at least its substance, correct.) An elderly widower was keeping company with a woman who had been estranged from her husband for many years. The pastor confronted him about dating a married woman. After some time, the gentleman repented and broke off the relationship. The couple later reconciled when they were free to do so, and married in the church.

What struck me most about the story was our pastor's boldness to go to the gentleman - someone he loved and respected - and confront him about sin that many would be tempted to overlook, considering the parties' ages and circumstances. We left church that day a little in awe of our pastor and his resolve to lovingly practice church discipline. We knew we had found a church that considers itself a family and takes seriously the responsibilities that go along with such a privilege.
When we begin to view the church as a family, we then begin to see the purpose and blessing of church discipline. Just as fathers and mothers who dearly love their children must take the time to correct and encourage them, pastors and elders who love the Lord and the Lord's people must take the time to correct and encourage them.
~Fred Greco
"Church Discipline", Tabletalk , August 2013 (p. 24)

This summer, I'm blogging through Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Find out why here.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Thankful Thursday

Praising the Lord this week for:

~His provision. It never ceases to amaze me how He orchestrates the events of our lives to bless us in ways we might never have imagined. (Isaiah 55:8-9, Ephesians 3:20)

~Lunch with a dear friend.

~Friends who are willing to impart their God-given wisdom in difficult situations.

~A husband who isn't afraid to to tell me the truth and to correct me with love and gentleness.

~The Gospel Coalition's 2014 National Women's Conference. I registered this week!

~Cooler temperatures.

~The arrival of August, which means that the "ber" months are just around the corner.

Blessings all mine with 10,000 beside!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Mark #6 of a Healthy Church: a Biblical Understanding of Church Membership

When my husband and I left the church where we had been members for 18+ years, we didn't know where the Lord would direct us. We felt a little beaten up; leaving a church family we loved and that loved us was painful, even though we knew we were being obedient to the Lord. After years of serving in various ministries, we thought that we might like a place where we could just sit back, be fed and allow our bruised hearts time to heal.

Then I came to the sixth mark of a healthy church - a biblical understanding of church membership - and these words:
[Church] membership is not simply the record of a statement we once made or of an affection toward a familiar place. It must be the reflection of a living commitment or it is worthless. Worse than being worthless, it is dangerous. Uninvolved members confuse both real members and non-Christians about what it means to be a Christian. We "active" members do the voluntary "inactive" members no service when we allow them to remain members of the church. Membership is the church's corporate endorsement of a person's salvation. Yet how can a congregation honestly testify that someone invisible to it is faithfully running the race? (p. 163)
Did we really want to join a church that would allow us to be uninvolved?

If you've been looking for a church recently, you may well know finding these churches is easy. Too easy. Many churches have membership rolls that are more than double (in some cases, even triple!) the average Sunday attendance. Should we be surprised when people who have visited for a while, made an emotional decision during an altar call, and joined without any understanding of biblical church membership suddenly disappear from the church?

We did not want to join a church where attendance and commitment is optional. We had heard of churches that require prospective members to complete a new members class in order to understand what the church believes, the leadership structure, and the expectations of members. Finding a church that had such a class was important to us; what better way to understand a church, its leaders & congregation?

The month following our first visit at our new church home, the pastor began a new members class. We opted to attend, although we didn't know if we would join the church. These sessions were extremely beneficial and the Lord used them to generate some wonderful discussions in our home. We learned we are attending a church that values membership and the responsibilities that go along with it. Along with the materials, we were given a church membership application that, among other questions, asks where the applicant would like to serve. We are blessed to have found a church that encourages members to use their gifts (1 Peter 4:10) and serve wholeheartedly (Ephesians 6:7-8).

This summer, I'm blogging through Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Find out why here.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Thankful Thursday

Praising the Lord this week for:

~Pink crepe myrtles that line both sides of one of the streets on my daily commute. For some strange reason, they make me think of statuesque ladies wearing lovely pink hats.

~Time to read. I just finished Jane Eyre. I started what I thought was a re-read, but realized I'd never read it! I wonder what else I only think I've read.

~A dinner date with my dad.

~The Word of God and commentaries that give me a deeper understanding of it.

~An impromptu evening with friends.


~Sunday morning worship

Blessings all mine, with 10,000 beside!