Knowing and Doing the Will of God - A Review

One of the most common questions that I’ve had to answer as a Sunday School teacher has been, “How can I know God’s will?” This is, after all, one of the central questions of ethics. Christian ethics especially is centered around the idea that some actions glorify God and others dishonor him; some are sinful and others are sanctifying. This includes actions that Scripture clearly authorizes or prohibits (i.e., generosity and worship), but it also includes subjective situations that involve unique and personalized circumstances (i.e., should Sally marry Johnny or should I take this job).

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I’m pleased to say that a new, concise resource to help Christians answer this question has recently been published by David Jones, an ethicist at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This volume is the product of a course he has taught multiple times to a variety of audiences, so it represents thinking that has been stretched, tested, and refined.

His book, Knowing and Doing the Will of God, is a concise, practical introduction to this vital activity by Christians of every age. Though this has come from a seminary course, Jones has written a book that is accessible to the average person in the pew. He manages to provide both a theoretical foundation and practical framework in under 100 pages.

After a brief introduction, this volume contains an additional five chapters. Chapter Two provides examples from God’s word of people discerning God’s will. He also shows how some of the examples in Scripture are not positive and offers background information about pagan practices for knowing the will of the gods, many of which are still with us today.

Chapter Three critiques some of the most prevalent means of attempting to know God’s will that are often advocated among Christians today. Jones writes, “Advocates of the contemporary view teach that since an individual will of God for Christians is presently hidden and unknown, it must be discovered over time by every believer in order to progress in spiritual maturity and to flourish in the Christian life.” (34) In other words, God has a special plan for your life and your task is to decode the secret plan that he’s got in mind for you. Jones debunks this approach, which is liberating as he puts the reader on to the main purpose of the Christian life: to pursue holiness and thereby glorify God.

Chapter Four outlines what Jones calls the Traditional View, which is evidenced throughout most of Christian history, especially in the Protestant tradition: namely, reading Scripture and applying that to life. Recognizing common objections to that view, Chapter Five deals with questions relating to prayer, the Holy Spirit, and Christian liberty in relation to knowing and doing the will of God. The volume concludes in Chapter Six, with encouragement to pursue basic Christian disciplines that will aid believers in knowing God’s will and acting upon it.

David Jones is an exceptionally clear and careful writer. He has published a number of books over the past two decades that are all thoughtful, well-researched, and accessible to modern readers. This volume is no exception. Knowing and Doing the Will of God is a useful volume that will benefit the church.

This is the sort of volume that belongs on a pastor’s shelf for loan to his congregants and on church resource shelves for sale to people who honestly long to serve God faithfully, but aren’t sure how to get from that desire to practical action. Knowing and Doing the Will of God would also make a helpful resource for a small group or Sunday School study. I was pleased to be asked by Jones to endorse this book, and I’m pleased to commend it to you as a resource for your personal or congregational benefit.

NOTE: I received a pre-publication copy of this volume with a request to endorse. I did so because I believe the contents are helpful and sound, not on the basis of the gratis book.

An Account of Meeting C. S. Lewis

Early on in my time at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, I had the opportunity to attend one of the best academic conferences I've ever been to. It was a conference on the life and work of C. S. Lewis.

The breakout sessions were ok, but this hour-long lecture by Walter Hooper, Lewis' editor and curator of his literary remains, was worth the trip. Hooper is known for carefully guarding Lewis' image (which one might expect, given his job), so there might be a bit of hagiography here. However, I still find the lecture very enjoyable.

I pass this resource on to you, for your enjoyment.

For the Cause - A Tribute to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

I started seminary in the fall of 2005. I’ve been a student at Southeastern since the Spring of 2007. I graduated with my PhD in December, 2016. It’s been a long road.

Despite that long road, however, I look back and am grateful for the opportunity to have studied at Southeastern. As a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, I know something about loyalty to an alma mater. (By the way: Beat Army!) Everything at USNA is geared toward imbuing the ethos of a professional naval officer. It’s in the facts that are memorized, the habits that are inculcated, and the courses that are studied.

I enjoyed (most of) my time at USNA, but was always somewhat surprised at the number of people that didn’t really believe in the mission. The thing is, you could be a good Company Officer or a good midshipman and not really believe in the mission. After all, people would say, it doesn’t really matter if your shoes are shined, it’s whether you can get the job done. There was often a subversive disbelief under the veneer of compliant excellence.

That contrasts distinctly with ethos of Southeastern. I have both worked there and been a student there. There are few shined shoes, but the school as a whole is one that has bought into its mission. That makes a huge difference.

Southeastern’s mission is pretty simple: “We seek to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission.”

I had that mission memorized long before we moved to Wake Forest because every chapel sermon includes an introduction with Danny Akin’s voice announcing it. No one can get away from it because it hangs on many of the light poles throughout the campus and adorns the syllabus of each course offered through the institution.

More significantly, Southeastern’s mission animates the institution.

The school is certainly not a perfect organization. However, even its failings tend to lead to it falling in roughly the right direction. Having a clear mission and broad buy-in for that mission keeps the institution on track and calls it back even when it strays.

In this case the mission is easy to get behind. It’s an institution of higher learning, but one distinctly organized around theological education. The students, staff, and faculty that are drawn to the institution are those who have a strong desire to do something (they may not know what) for the glory of Christ and in service of his church.

Recently, the institution adopted a new school hymn. That was good, because the previous one was a dirge that did little to inspire. Southeastern’s school hymn is now a song by the modern hymn-writers, Keith and Kristyn Getty, called “For the Cause.”

As I listened to the song the first time, and the hundred times after, I could not help but recognize that it reflects exactly the ethos of the institution. It’s not just a slogan, it’s actually the driving idea behind the institution.

At graduation rehearsal, Danny Akin addressed the prospective graduates. In his simple address, it became apparent that his mission is the same as Southeastern’s mission. That’s part of why everyone else’s mission tends to blend in with it and become just like it.

If I were to do a study on the impact that a unified mission and vision could have on an organizational structure, I might choose to use Southeastern as an example. It’s an institution of higher learning dedicated to a simple, but important ministry: equipping men and women for service for kingdom of Christ.

I’m thankful for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Being surrounded by such a cloud of witness as the students, staff, and faculty pulling in the same direction was a terrific experience. It shaped me in ways I probably do not understand.

Southeastern is a going seminary, so I have friends in places of service around the globe. They were all equipped by Southeastern. More importantly, however, they were shaped and focused by the culture at the institution.

We sang “For the Cause” at the conclusion of the ceremony on Friday. It was a powerful moment, standing in the front row of a crowded chapel, hearing hundreds of voices heartily singing out in unison:

Let it be my life’s refrain
To live is Christ, to die is gain.
Deny myself
Take up my cross and follow the Son.

I'm confident the students and faculty meant it deeply, too. That makes a huge difference. In fact, it’s what makes Southeastern as special place. I’m now employed at Oklahoma Baptist University, but I will always appreciate my time at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Every Waking Hour - A Review

Every Waking Hour is the third installment of volumes published as part of the Economic Wisdom project at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This brief volume, written by Benjamin Quinn and Walter Strickland, focuses on the doctrine of vocation and presents it at a level accessible to the average church member.

The book consists of five content chapters in addition to its introduction, conclusion, and three brief appendices. Chapter one presents an overview of the theology of work. The next two chapters outline the concept of work as it is presented in Old and New Testaments, respectively. Chapter four focuses on the relationship between Christ, wisdom, and work. The last content chapter synthesizes the biblical data and relates it to the idea of working for God’s kingdom, being on mission, and being a good disciple. The three appendices answer the potentially sticky question of how to work with and for non-believers, describe how to evaluate your job in relation to your vocation, and offer suggestions for further reading.

Every Waking Hour is a clear, basic introduction to an important topic. After all, people spend a great deal more time working for a living than they do in church or actively praying. If we cannot redeem those hours spent on the job for the kingdom of God, then one wonders how Christianity is really valid as a totalizing worldview. The text begins with Scripture and remains close to that touchstone throughout. This is a volume that does not seek to baptize vocation, but to explain what the Bible says about it.

Strickland and Quinn exhibit a pastoral concern for Christians trying to figure out how to reconcile their workaday roles with their Christianity. They reinforce the reality that the pastor’s work is not holier than the janitors. The lowliest employee on the job has the potential to bring about redemption of some part of the world through his work. Upon reading this, one can hope readers will respond with gratitude as they have the value of their vocations affirmed beyond their ability to earn a paycheck and fund the church’s various endeavors.

For those well read in the faith and work movement, this volume adds little that is new. It is not a scholarly volume designed to stretch the field or innovatively explain the topic. Rather, it is a basic primer for the uninitiated. At just over one hundred small format pages of text, this is the sort of book that can be devoured in an airplane ride. It could also serve as a resource for a several week Sunday School elective on the intersection of faith and work.

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has produced three volumes like this, which offer simple, clear, and basic introductions to important topics. Although such resources lack the scholarly weight of a technical monograph, this sort of resource created for the Church is likely to contribute to the welfare of a significantly larger number of Christians. As such, this book and the entire series are a welcome addition to a pastor’s library.

Some Lessons from Dissertation Writing

This week I turned in my dissertation. Now I wait for my defense. In the moment of euphoria before I find out everything that is wrong with the project I’ve been working on for a year, I decided to jot down some of the things that I’ve learned so far about the process.

Some of these lessons are based on advice and counsel that others gave me, but that I’ve since found to be wise. We’ll find out how well I did on the final product in a couple of months. Even if there are flaws (there are, trust me) in my dissertation, here are some things that I have learned through writing the longest academic work I’ve ever attempted.

1.         It’s never going to be perfect. – One of the hardest things to recognize just prior to my submittal of my dissertation was that there were still going to be some imperfections in the manuscript. I’ve read the completed manuscript multiple times. So has my wife. I have no doubt that there are still a few typos, missing words, extra spaces, or the like throughout. At some point you have to let it go.

2.         You can’t read every possible source. – I wrote each of my chapters, referencing those volumes and thinkers that best related to my point in the text. However, as I was doing my final read through of the dissertation before submitting it, I kept on thinking of additional sources that could have bolstered my point or that I could have read. There are new books in the academic catalogs that are begging to be included in my bibliography and dozens of articles that I downloaded that I never got to read. I could have tried to read and cite more, but sooner or later you have to turn the project in.

3.         Having someone else read it is invaluable. – My amazingly patient wife also serves as my editor. She doesn’t do style manual stuff, but she does read for grammar, clarity, and typographical issues. Having her read my chapters to tell me where I made no sense or where I had errors made a huge difference in the end, I think. There were a number of places she called my attention to that were unclear and needed simple rewording to make the project better.

4.         This isn’t the best thing you will ever write. – Looking at the 358 pages of manuscript is pretty impressive. It’s the longest piece of scholarship I’ve ever written. In fact, most of the chapters are longer than any paper I’d previously written. What I had to continually fight back was the goal to make this my magnum opus. I will write something better later on, so I need to make a good effort but not think that this is the pinnacle of my scholarship. My scholarship and writing should get better in the future. That’s not a ding against my dissertation, it’s a reflection of academic maturation.

5.         Doing a read-through at the end is important. – Before I had the final proofreading done by my wife, I read through the dissertation from cover to cover in about two days. Since some of my chapters had been written about a year before, this was an important step in the editing process. By the end of the writing process I had developed some key phrases and learned to avoid others. I was able to edit the earlier chapters to reflect the language of the later chapters (chronologically) by the end. This step helps the project read more like a cohesive work of scholarship, instead of a collection of essays. I was also able to find some places where I could clarify my own explanations, which, I think, made the end product more readable for someone else.

6.         Creating a project plan with deadlines is vital. – The internet is flooded with “dissertation writing as project planning” sites. There is value in the approach. I only met a couple of my deadlines, so I had to keep revising and extending the project plan. However, by delineating the steps and what it would take to get there, I could focus on the next thing instead of getting overwhelmed by the size of the project. By having an internal deadline (with plenty of margin built in to the institutional deadline) I had something to keep me moving. Because I had looked at the institutional deadline and built my project plan based on that, I knew what I had to do to get the project in on time. This made it easier to prioritize so that I could know when I needed to lock myself away to write or when I could play another game of Monopoly with the kids.

7.         Stay on topic. – There were about a million times in the process of writing that I found interesting rabbit trails to go down. I even ventured down a few of them. I’ve got extensive notes and footnotes to prove it. However, when I was polishing my dissertation, most of the work of those rabbit trails ended up deleted from the final product. I may use some of the material for essays later on, but I sometimes spent a week on research that was interesting, but did little to support my final dissertation. A bit more discipline would have benefited me significantly.

8.         Keep notes on the side ideas. – I wasted some time along the way exploring rabbit trails. However, one of the things that I think will bear some fruit in the future is using some of that material and the ideas that I got while writing my dissertation to produce journal articles at a later date. I’ve got a list of potential topics with some sources that I can chase down now that I’ve finished my dissertation. These don’t all relate directly to my dissertation topic, but there is room for further research. I now have more ideas for the future than my life and schedule can possibly support.

There are probably more things that I’ve learned. Perhaps after my defense I’ll pick up the topic again. Or, I may discover that some of my lessons learned aren’t as helpful as I thought. I’ll let you know what the readers think.

Every Good Thing - A Review

Some Christians seem to doubt the goodness of the world around. They take the opposition of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” to mean that somehow the material world around is sinful and must be repudiated.

This position has its roots in an exaggerated application of Jesus’ commands to seek the kingdom first and store up treasures in heaven. These commands are intended to call Christians away from the this-worldly focus that tends to consume our minds by virtue of proximity.

The anti-world attitude has been popularized in Christian hymns like, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.”

We have reason to hope in the coming restoration of all things. This is an eschatological hope. However, that hope should inspire action in this world, not cause Christians to withdraw into a bunker mindset.

The balancing act between hoping in heaven and working in this world can be difficult, but it is absolutely necessary.

The recent book from David W. Jones, Every Good Thing, is a valuable resource for Christians seeking to balance heavenly mindedness with this-worldy goodness.

Every Good Thing is an intentionally introductory volume, which has as its main goal the reunification of the Christian life. We are called to be seven-day Christians, who apply biblical ethics to each decision, and every situation. We are driven, because of the demands of a biblical worldview, to see each area of our life as subordinate to the lordship of Jesus-Christ. Jones’ recent book helps with that reunification.

Summary

The book is brief, with a little over 100 pages of text, but in a small format. It is designed to be easily read, digested by a wide audience, with clear lines of application. The format is ideal for a short term book study in a small group or use as a text in a discipleship context.

The first of six chapters provides a foundation for the remainder of the volume, defining terms and outlining how Jesus’ life and ministry fits into the discussion of goodness and the material world. Chapter two deals with work and vocation. The topic is en vogue in conservative Christian circles, but mainly because it has been neglected for a number of years. This chapter charts a course for reuniting the Christian life through a better understanding of calling.

The third chapter seeks to balance out the idea of work and vocation with a discussion of rest and Sabbath. One of the possible side-effects of viewing work as an opportunity to serve God is that it will cause a restless, relentless push for productivity. That isn’t the point, as Jones stresses in the third chapter. Rather, rest and Sabbath are gifts from God to balance the goodness of human productivity with the joy of God’s provision.

Chapter four outlines a biblical theology of wealth and poverty. Here, Jones pushes back against attitudes that see spirituality as necessarily connected to financial prosperity. He fights the errors of the so-called Prosperity Gospel as well as the competing errors like asceticism. Christians need to value the world properly, which generally means walking a narrow road between extreme errors.

In the fifth chapter, Jones takes on the idea of valuing creation and stewardship. Environmental ethics has generally gotten a bad rap among conservative Christians. Part of this is that much of the environmental movement has gone head over heels for anti-human attitudes that run contrary to Scripture. However, there is a strong place in Christian theology for rightly caring for the creation God has entrusted to humans. Jones makes a good case for that in this chapter. He then closed in Chapter Six with some summary comments, pointing toward areas for further study.

Analysis and Critique

This book’s greatest limitations are in its format. The accomplished scholar will pick up this brief volume and wonder what it adds to the scholarly discussion. The answer to that is simply, nothing. No chapter is comprehensive. There are no footnotes. Every rabbit trail is not chased. A particular set of assumptions about Scripture and theological method are made and not defended. That is the nature of this book as an introductory volume.

Conversely, the greatest strengths of this book are in its format. The layperson or young theological student can pick this book up and gain a quick understanding of a conservative perspective on the relationship between Christianity and the surrounding world. It is grounded in a distinctly orthodox worldview, and intended to bring people into the conversation that might otherwise not be exposed to these important ideas. 

This book fills a desperate need for the Church. It helps form the connection between a Christian worldview and the world around. Jones has written winsomely and carefully. This is a book that would serve well in a number of settings in the local church, and would be a particularly useful tool in discipleship activities with young Christians.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the author with no expectation of a positive review.

A Theology for the Church - A Review

A Theology for the Church
$42.98
B&H Academic

Only seven years after the first edition of Danny Akin’s A Theology for the Church, B & H Academic has issued a revised edition. I read the first edition when it came out  and have been interested to see what changed. 

One of the best changes about the book is the formatting. The revised edition is a larger format with more information on each page. Personally, I find this change beneficial and the newer edition feels like it has more room to breathe. For the seminarian reading thousands of pages, typeface and formatting really do make a difference.

Updates and Revisions

Four chapters saw significant changes in this revised edition. The theological method chapter was replaced by a newly written chapter by Bruce Ashford and Keith Whitfield. They commend a missional approach to theology, which tries to root the study of theology in the greater picture of God’s redemptive work through the whole of Scripture. In my opinion, this is a helpful approach, as it avoids some systemic pitfalls that come from an overly emphatic interest in some particulars of Scripture over others. It also tends to avoid the abstraction that is native to some philosophical approaches to theology.

Chad Brand’s chapter on the work of God is a helpful new chapter. Additionally, David Dockery revised his chapter on Special Revelation and John Hammett updated his chapter on the Doctrine of Humanity. These new chapters include more recent scholarship and some improvements over the previous offerings. In particular, Hammett’s chapter shows the fruit of his ongoing work toward a monograph on the Doctrine of Humanity.

Approach and Content

The chapters are staged to ask for main questions, in this order: “(1) What does the Bible say? (2) What has the church believed? (3) How does it all fit together? and (4) How does this doctrine impact the church today?” Scripture is given preeminence in the discussion, but not to the exclusion of history, system, and application. This is a healthy thing and helps make the volume a valuable introductory resource.

Each chapter has a separate author, so this is a Systematic Theology text by committee. Beginning with four constant questions helps prevent this from becoming a structural Frankenstein. Akin and the other editors did well to ensure the chapters stay true to the formula, which provides cohesion in the chapters. One real advantage of this approach is that the authors often specialized in the topics on which they wrote. It also means they were able to drill down into one doctrine and do more thorough research (or as thorough research in a shorter time) than one theologian could do in a comparable volume. Each of the chapters, then, is lively and well researched.

Analysis

There are two weaknesses of this approach. First, the theological diversity of the authors prevents it from being a truly systematic theology. In other words, each author has his own theological system that he brings to the table. While there is unity in this diversity, it is a somewhat less cohesive unity than would be possible with a single authored Systematics. The second weakness is that the writing style of each chapter is different, which it makes it harder to get into a reading groove. This can make sustained reading somewhat more laborious.

Despite these weaknesses, which are native to the approach and not problems unique to this volume, the diversity adds value. Not only, as discussed above, does it allow for more thorough and timely research, but it ensures that one individual’s system does not overrun the text. While there are distinct advantages to single authored Systematics, in the sometimes divisive world of Baptist thought, it is good to see men with different perspectives on a host of issues working together to do theology for the church.

Conclusion

Both editions of this text have been, as the title claims, A Theology for the Church. The preposition in the title is hugely important, as it is not a theology of the church or to the church, but one designed to be accessible for the church. In other words, unlike many Systematics, which are written by theologians for other theologians, Akin’s text was written with the intelligent but theologically untrained in mind. Thus it does not get caught in jargon and leave insider references unexplained. It is crafted so a person in the pew can pick it up and benefit from it. Because of that, it makes an outstanding introductory Systematics for a Bible college or seminary.

The one improvement that could be made, if there is another edition released, is to add a glossary to the back. While the indices are helpful and the chapters are written well, that would make this an even more beneficial reference volume.

If you are theologically inclined, or thinking about seminary in the future, this is a theology text I would recommend as a place to start. It is accessible, orthodox, and sufficient to make a sound beginning in the study of theology for the benefit of the church and the glory of God.

A Theology for the Church
$42.98
B&H Academic

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.