In Brief: Work Matters

2016 - Work MattersTitle: Work Matters
Author: Tom Nelson

Pages: 203 (plus notes)

Because of a forthcoming Sunday school series on the topic of vocation, I have been on the lookout for simple but helpful writings to supplement our secondary resource. I came across this book by Tom Nelson at the college library. Because of the author’s association with TEDS (I have much respect for the institution!), the recommendation by Ravi Zacharias, and the trendy cover (by which, sadly, you can occasionally judge an actual book), I decided to give it a shot.

I am glad I read the book, and I would gladly have given it 4 stars had it not been for the 9th chapter. Sadly, I considered 2 stars because of the 9th chapter. Harsh? Perhaps. But there are certain subjects that have such an effect on me.

I’ll start with the merits, and there are many:

Nelson is faithful to advocate for a “robust doctrine of vocation.” He is personally and pastorally committed to connecting Sunday worship to Monday work. I am a fan of this aspect of his ideology. Far too many churches elevate Sunday at the expense of the other six days of the week, providing an experience instead of equipping the saints to live. Nelson is determined to reclaim Sunday as not only a day of worship, but also of thankfulness, encouragement, and preparation for a life of worship. After all, if worship means to ascribe worth, then certainly we should desire to ascribe worth to the person and work of Christ through a life of faith by God’s grace.

 

“It is not a question of whether we are being formed spiritually, but rather, are we being spiritually formed in the inexhaustible riches of the gospel as we live and work in the already and not yet kingdom reign of Christ.” (p. 107)

 

Even if not by conscious decision, Christians live in danger of equating church work with ministry. Nelson advocates (I would say, rightly so) the intentional application of matters of the gospel to the many and varied vocational callings of Christians. The church does not exist that the world may run to us, but rather we are called to be the body of Christ exactly where the Lord finds us. If we fail to communicate God’s good – and now redeemed – plan for everyday work, our brothers and sisters in the faith may struggle with dissatisfaction and discontent at the life and means provided by God’s grace, wishing away six of every seven days just to get back to Sunday.

Nelson also strongly defends God’s common grace, and the connection between work and the common good. The value in work is found, not in compensation or benefits, but rather in God-ordained human contribution to the common good of creation. Early in the work, Nelson pronounces the value of work like this:

 

“Not only would the crown of creation (referring to humanity) have joyful intimacy with their Creator, but they would also be given the joyful privilege of contributing to the work of God in his good world.” (p. 24 emphasis mine)

 

God provides for his creation through common means. Human connection is one such glorious means. We use the gifts and talents endowed to us as a contribution, an offering to the benefit of the Father’s world. This was God’s plan. In Christ, we have the opportunity again to find the true value of work as a gift of God, an avenue of sacrificial worship in his name, and a distinct way to love others. Our misunderstanding (or sinful dismissal) of the value of every vocational calling leads us to undervalue work, or worse yet to undervalue the image-bearers God has gifted to perform the work.

Nelson also spends time on the significance of work in the believer’s sanctification. Work provides one crucible in which the Christian is sanctified, molded in holiness through common trials and successes. Considering the hours of life spent in vocation, a failure to understand the value of work could easily result in decades wasted with regard to the intentional pursuit of Christ and Christlikeness. If we believe ministry and worship only happen on Sunday, then we will surely downplay the spiritual significance of work.

It is in the matter of trials that I offer my only disappointment in the book. Chapter nine addresses the challenges of work, the dangers and temptations of working in a fallen world. From matters of honesty to sexuality, the workplace is yet another setting in which humanity unfortunately displays the depth and outworking of original sin. I do not disagree with Nelson’s premise, but rather his proposed remedy. For a book that so heavily leans on the gospel as God’s means of redeeming work, Nelson leaves Jesus out of the discussion of temptation.

Blatantly absent is the account of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. Absent is the reality that a Christian’s ability to resist temptation comes from Christ who endured temptation on our behalf (Hebrews 4:14-16). Absent is the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting our hearts. And, sadly, absent is the hope born of the sacrificial blood of Christ, offered for a world full of failures. There is none who is righteous – no not one. 

Subtly, and tragically, present is a works-based righteousness through the mishandling of prominent Old Testament personalities. Daniel made good decisions, so should you. Joseph made good decisions, so should you. Moses made good decisions, so should you, because God blesses good decisions. Chapter nine presents these men as flawless models to emulate, instead of sinners in need of God’s grace. Chapter nine presents these men as heroes to worship rather than sinful and fatally flawed forerunners of the only authentic hero. Daniel’s good decisions were filthy rags without the sacrifice of Christ (Isaiah 58), as were those of Joseph and Moses. Even their finest work required the purity of Jesus. By the account of chapter 9, God may provide the trap door to escape temptation, but you can take care of the rest on your own.

I would strongly argue for the removal of chapter 9, or better yet crafting it anew in light of grace.

 

In conclusion, the book is good, but not great. I would argue that it lays a wonderful foundation, but that it casts a dangerous gaze away from Christ at a critical junction.

 

 

“All vocations are intended by God to manifest his love in the world.” (Thomas Merton – p. 19)

  “If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep the streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.” (Martin Luther King, Jr. – p. 83)

 

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In Brief: Calvin on the Christian Life

2016 - Calvin on the Xn LifeTitle: Calvin on the Christian Life (Theologians on the Christian Life series)
Author: Michael Horton

Pages: 262

As I passed by the closeout section at a not-so-local Christian bookstore, I couldn’t pass this one up for $3.75. I now know this will be my first dip into the Theologians on the Christian Life series. I am happy to have stumbled upon a great bargain, and a great read to start the new year. Broadly speaking, the series aims to get beyond the common caricatures of popular pastors & theologians. Too often, folks grab hold of the wildest imaginative exaggeration of a person’s beliefs and build an unfortunately lasting case. Or, as is often the case with matters of religion, the summaries of critics – written in response to “followers” who themselves misinterpret original intentions – rule the day in terms of determining an individual’s legacy. I am thankful for a series whose outright aim is to dispel the fiction that has all-too-long cast harsh dividing lines among Christian brothers and sisters.

The book is well written and engaging, not a doctrinal defense but rather an engagement of Calvin’s life in light of his beliefs. His writings are widely quoted, not just from the Institutes, but also from letters and commentaries that provide greater insight into the heart behind the weighty texts. It is encouraging to read of Calvin’s engagement with his supporters as well as his critics, of his love for his wife Idelette, and his involvement in matters of the public arena.

I found the final chapter, regarding Calvin’s view of the future life while simultaneously looking at his own death, to be the most moving. In particular, the words of his last will and testament reveal not a cold Christian (again, the all-too-common caricature), but rather a man humbly dependent on the grace of God in the sacrifice of Christ.

 

“I have no other defense or refuge for salvation than his gratuitous adoption on which alone my salvation depends. With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which he has exercised towards me through Jesus Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of his death and passion, that in this way he might satisfy for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from his remembrance. 

I testify also and declare that I suppliantly beg of Him that he may be pleased so to wash and purify me in the blood which my Sovereign Redeemer has shed for the sins of the human race, that under his shadow I may be able to stand at the judgment seat. I likewise declare that, according to the measure of grace and goodness which the Lord hath employed toward me, I have endeavored, both in my sermons and also in my writings and commentaries, to preach his Word purely and chastely, and faithfully to interpret His sacred Scriptures.

But, woe is me! My ardor and zeal (if indeed worthy of the name) have been so careless and languid, that I confess I have failed innumerable times to execute my office properly, and had not He, of His boundless goodness, assisted me, all that zeal had been fleeting and vain. Nay, I even acknowledge that if the same goodness had not assisted me, those mental endowments which the Lord bestowed upon me would, at His judgment seat, prove me most guilty of sin and sloth. For all these reasons, I testify and declare that I trust no other security for my salvation than this, and this only, viz., that as God is the Father of mercy, he will show himself such a Father to me, who acknowledge myself to be a miserable sinner.” 

 

In his death, he longed to be buried in obscurity, to give all he had to those in need, and to move one step closer to the future life. Never desiring a movement or theological position to be based upon his name, witnesses testify that he spent his final weeks in prayer, attending worship and meeting with friends and city officials. He served the Lord faithfully to the end.

Many of the Reformed church, as well as those under the Calvinist moniker, are known for intellectual and theological rigor. Yet the example of Calvin was one of heart and humility, all too aware of human frailty, yet confident in the goodness of God as Creator, Sustainer, Provider, Redeemer, and Joy. His views of common grace opened the door to an appreciation of creation and human creativity. His veracity in pursuit of God through the Scriptures is encouraging to any who seek to know God through his inerrant Word.

Indeed, many disagree with his theological positions. But in an age where we reduce individuals to a label, I am grateful for a book (and a series) which serves to restore humanity and compassion to the individuals who so faithfully gave themselves to the bride of Christ.

 

Just finished…

I’m not one to write detailed (or even accurate) book reviews. But since I read (and read, and read, and read), and then talk (and talk, and talk, and talk) to people about things I read, I figured this was, at the very least, an OK idea. If it’s like anything else I do in blog format, I’ll start and then never finish… (see my previous series, which I will someday finish) So let’s see if I can assemble broadly sweeping, mildly coherent thoughts about a book.

ShadowI wrapped up Andrew Wilson’s Shadow of the Titanic today. Weeks ago, as I was preparing a series of messages for a college fall retreat, I grabbed this book. My series was to be about the biblical narrative of Noah. The morbid notion of “death by water” brought the Titanic to mind.

When I think of survival, and in particular of life-after-survival, I tend to think happy thoughts. Escaping something tragic sounds like a good thing. But one aspect of the biblical flood narrative that always intrigued (and on some levels troubled) me involves the survival of sin after the flood. In other words, if the flood is a picture of deliverance, what are we to do with the continuing stain of sin after the deluge? What are we to do with our (spoiler alert) drunk & naked flood survivor?

These thoughts & questions led me to Wilson’s Shadow.

Of the 700 or so that survived the icy waters of the Atlantic on the morning of April 14-15, 1912, some carried on with a new lease on life. You know, happy stuff.

For so many, though, the sinking of the Titanic was only the beginning of suffering. For so many, the great story of survival tragically carried the weight of living while others had perished. Wilson captures many of these less-than-happy stories in a narrative that shines light on what life was like for those who, though they lived, couldn’t escape the sunken vessel.

Sounds cheery, right?

I found the book quite interesting in considering the biblical story of Noah. Obviously a great deal of my thoughts are speculative, as the Word doesn’t get into the psychology of our beloved ark-builder, but surviving the deluge had to be challenging for him and his family, particularly as the realities of sin and brokenness carried on so powerfully after the waters subsided.

As I read these stories of Titanic’s survivors, I was drawn into their brokenness. Obviously I’ve not experienced their particular despair. I can identify with being a recipient of salvation and yet having to daily struggle with ongoing sin, pain, and shame. I can only imagine, though, the burden of their experience.

One story that really grabbed me was that of Madeleine Astor. Eighteen years old on Titanic, Madeleine was the wife of John Jacob Astor, one of the wealthiest men to die aboard the ship. Young Madeleine inherited a fortune and a lifestyle, conditional (according to Astor’s will) on her remaining a widow for the remainder of her life. She chose to step away from the fortune, marrying a childhood sweetheart four years later. Her life seemed to take one tragic turn after another. She married for a third time in 1932, this time to a prizefighter who would “subsequently leach her of her money and use her as his punching bag.” Tales like Astor’s are apparently more common than you might think among the survivors of Titanic.

Despite the tragic nature of the book, I enjoyed it. On a far different scale, I could identify with the brokenness. As I read story after gray story, I couldn’t help but notice that the trappings of these stories began long before the maiden voyage of the unsinkable Titanic. The pain and shame of the survivors was rooted much earlier and much deeper, only exacerbated by the magnitude of the experience of Titanic.

When I jump into books like these, I look for common experience – on any level. I look for scarlet threads of God’s eternal Truth running throughout. In Shadow, I couldn’t help but see the survival of brokenness. I couldn’t help but see a glimpse of Noah’s life after the flood, the reality of continuing sin and pain. Though it may not have been the author’s intent, Shadow stirred in me a longing for a day when every tear will be wiped away, when death shall be no more, when mourning, crying, pain and the former things have passed away, and One who is greater makes all things new.

If you’re interested, you can check out Andrew Wilson’s book on Amazon