The Mystery Of The Cross: Bringing Ancient Christian Images To life by Judith Couchman

It goes without saying that the Cross is one of history’s most iconic symbols. Its image recalls THE one event and THE one person of human history – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

But how did the image of the cross develop in the early church from a symbol of torture and deathto a sign of Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

Judith Couchman takes you on a delightful journey through Church History examining images of the cross in the early church. The book is divided into seven parts; The Cross in Pre-Christian Times; The Cross and the Suffering Savior; The Cross and the First Believers; The Cross and Early Religious Freedom; The Cross In Everyday Life; The Cross In Early Church Life and The Cross and Its Eternal Power.

Each chapter is filled with wonderful pieces of information, from the historical to the implausible yet fascinating stories of Hebrew tradition. Couchman writes in a clear, easy and flowing way that at times is so disarmingly personal as to touch your emotions. But there is much more to this book than information – there is a strong spiritual content and winsome insight. At the end of each short chapter Couchman manages to bring the subject back to the solid foundation of faith, rooting it into a real context of our life in Jesus Christ and his salvation.

There are 40  chapters in this book that makes it ideal for a Lenten Mediation. However, don’t wait until Lent to buy this book. Buy it now, read it and then re-read it slowly, and meditatively during Lent. At least that it what I am going to do!

Buy the book HERE

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Trust In An Age Of Arrogance by C. Fitzsimons Allison

Wisdom is not just about knowledge. True wisdom has a spiritual edge. One who is truly wise is one who has grown in knowledge and love of God – who sees and understands their own true state of weakness from the firm rock of faith and trust in Christ; who has traveled the road of faith, not faultlessly but with perseverance and humility.

Bishop Fitz Allison is wise. Having spent some time hearing him preach and teach, I know he is a man who is still learning and growing, despite his learning, status and achievements, ecclesiastically and academically. 

This book is filled with wisdom. Ttaking Matthew 16:6  (“beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”) Fitz tackles the huge twin issues within the church of the secularism and arrogance of the Sadducees (I am SURE this world is all that there is), the self-righteousness of the Pharisees (I can achieve this / I am not that bad) both of which reveal the insidious view that we are in some sense free to ‘make’ decisions. 

Fitz’s thesis is that we are not free. We are in bondage. We are selfish. Our natural tendency is to want the universe to revolve round us.

It is only in Christ, and by submitting to Christ that we can be set free. It is only when we understand that those around are not free but in bondage that we will begin to love as Christ loved us – knowing that people need Jesus – they need his love, his justice – his forgivness.

 This book is packed with a lifetime of learning, understanding and reflection. Fitz takes us on a powerful and humbling journey as he unpacks these issues with a wisdom which comes from a deep relationship and love of Christ.

This is a true elder of the church speaking. Buy this book – read it – and be richly blest.

The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great by Benjamin Merkle

Why should you read a book about Alfred the Great. Who IS Alfred the Great. Alfred lived in the 800’s (born 849) and was a King in the British Isles (England). During this time the Vikings (the Danes, from Europe) would travel the English Channel and attack and plunder parts of the British Isles. By the time Alfred was of age the Vikings had attacked and conquered most of the British Isles. Only Alfred’s kingdom was left and the Vikings were determined to take it. The rest of Alfred’s like was spent as a King repelling the Vikings attack.

This does not read like normal history books – it is easy and has a nice flow to it. It is definitely for those who do not know much about this period of history.

Why should you read the book? Alfred is quite a remarkable man. One who began his public life by leading an army into battle without any experience and yet realized that whatever else he must do – he must stand at the front of the army, shoulder to shoulder with his men. This was a pattern that continued throughout his life – being at the front of his armies as he fought the invading Vikings, achieving victory after victory. And even in defeat Alfred learned and grew in wisdom. A natural strategist Alfred changed the face of England. He created a standing army, ready to meet any invaders (the traditional method had been to call the men from their farms and crops to gather to fight an invading army, a slow and laborious process – Alfred soon realized that the delay in gathering these men from their farms damaged their ability fight and be flexible.) He also realized that those who died and did not return to their farms damaged local economies through lost crops.

He became a master at out witting the Viking and was a mighty fighting machine. And yet he showed mercy and compassion – allowing defeated armies to leave instead of just slaughtering them.

Alfred is smart, savy, brave and a born leader who never let set backs defeat him, but adapts and finds a way to move forward and win.

That’s why you should this book.

THE TRELLIS AND THE VINE: The ministry Mind Shift That Changes Everything by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne

Mark Dever has put this book in the top ten reads of 2009. He says “This is the best book I’ve read on the nature of church ministry.”

Possibly.

My first impression was “Welcome to the conversation – a little late, but welcome nonetheless.” What Marshall and Payne have written about here has been written about many, many times in the past 10 years or so, mainly by Emergent type folk.

A lot of their suggestions and conclusions have already been suggested and concluded in various books about church ministry. What Marshall and Payne do here is articulate it through a very biblical framework – more so than other books – as well as offer a concrete way of doing church differently, and that is what makes the book good.

Their fundamental point is simple – yet transformational if churches understood it – Disciple making should be the normal agenda and priority of every church AND every Christian disciple.

EVERY Christian’s focus should be to BE a disciple and to MAKE disciples and Churches and pastors are meant to be facilitating that process.

This requires a shift of focus for churches and ministries. Early on in the book they give 11 such shifts that must take place:

1. From running programs to building people
2. From running events to training people
3. From using people to growing people (huge shift away from church ‘volunteers’)
4. From filling gaps to training new workers
5. From solving problems to helping people make progress
6. From clinging to ordained ministry to developing team leadership
7. From Focusing on Church polity to forging ministry partnerships
8. From relying on training institutions to establishing local training
9. From focusing on immediate pressures to aiming for longterm expansion
10. From engaging in management to engaging in ministry
11. From seeking church growth to desiring gospel growth.

This cannot be achieved through superficial change, or implementing small groups. In fact, for Marshall and Payne the issue goes far deeper than just starting small groups. In fact, they argue that small groups are not the issue. The small groups need to be TRAINING groups; trained on how to read the Bible, pray with each other, work on spiritual growth. Without this drive and focus small groups are useless. Even preaching is not sufficient. Yes, you heard that right; Tony Payne and Colin Marshall say on pg 102 that, Sunday sermons are necessary but not sufficient. Preaching is ONE form of the ministry of the word – not THE form.

It is always coming back to the issue of ongoing, continuous training and discipling of ALL members of the church.

One of the most interesting discussions in the book revolves around calling. How does one know that they are called to ministry, The current model is to wait for someone to say ‘I feel called to ministry” and then the process begins.

This is not a biblical approach for the authors. They say that pastors and elders should be talent scouts. Scripture suggests that people are called and set apart by others (see Timothy). Pastors should be actively recruiting suitable people within their churches and challenging them to expend their lives for the work of the gospel.

They write:

“When we try and discern what it is that makes that role special [the one called out for ministry] in the New Testament it’s not full time verses part time or paid verses unpaid. It’s not that some belong to a special priestly class and others don’t. It’s not even that some are gifted and others aren’t because all have gifts to contribute to the building of Christ’s congregation. The key thing seems to be that some are set apart or recognized or chosen, because of their convictions, character and competency and entrusted with the responsibility under God for particular ministries.”

Their summary proposals are:

Summary Propositions

1. Our goal is to make disciples
2. Churches tend towards institutionalism as sparks fly upwards
3. The heart of disciple-making is prayerful teaching
4. The goal of all ministry – not just one-to-one work – is to nurture disciples
5. To be a disciple is to be a disciple-maker
6. Disciple-makers need to be trained and equipped in conviction, character and competence
7. There is only one class of disciples, regardless of different roles or responsibilities
8. The Great Commission, and its disciple-making imperative, needs to drive fresh thinking about our Sunday meetings and the place of training in congregational life
9. Training almost always starts small and grows by multiplying workers
10. We need to challenge and recruit the next generation of pastors, teachers and evangelists

As I have said, while the main content and issues have been raised many times, what makes this book special is the solutions and suggested models which the authors put forward as a way forward. Too many books in the past have raised the problems but have never given substantial proposals or suggestions for a way forward. This book gives a biblically focused framework to allow you to work through the 11 required shifts thus becoming a church which trains disciples to be disciple-making disciples.

Imperium by Robert Harris

I love historical fiction – and my word, this is historical fiction at its best. I loved this book. The story revolves around Cicero and his climb into the top places of Roman politics. The story is told from the perspective of Cicero’s slave who is also his scribe.

Right from the beginning Harris draws you into the world of ancient Rome. His descriptions are rich but not over done – you easily image the scenes as he describes to you the Senate room, Pompey’s villa, Cicero’s home. The book never stalls and you are constantly taken to each event in Cicero’s life without over dramatization or unlikely segues. A great read. I will now read the rest of Harris’ books in this series.

Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ by Thomas Torrance (edited by Robert Walker)

This is the companion book to `Incarnation’ and in a similar fashion its contents have been complied from the notes of the late Thomas Torrance, comprising of over 25 years of lectures given to students in Christology at New College Edinburgh.

As with the first volume, this is really a remarkable work. Torrance takes you on a journey through the theology of the atonement, examining it from every possible angle. As you read through this book you soon realize two things; Firstly, this is theology at the very highest level; scholarly, in-depth, and yet readable. Secondly, it is immensely pastoral. You can sense the passion and love that Torrance had for Jesus Christ. This is true theological reflection – not just for academic purposes, but also in order to elicit a change in our thinking and in our spiritual life. This is what has struck me reading these two books. I have not just `learned’ information about the Incarnation and Atonement, but I have been challenged, encouraged and even moved by understanding deeper the immense work of Jesus Christ in his life and ministry; his death and resurrection. Is this not what theological study should lead to? Such is Torrance’s skill in his prose that I found myself drawn into each chapter not just by what he wrote but also by how he wrote. I challenge any reader not to come away from this book enriched and rejoicing at what Jesus Christ achieved through the atonement.

Far be it for me to declare these books as future classics (that must be done by those with far more influence and weight than myself) – these are two of the very finest books I have ever read on Christology.

GOD IS GOOD, GOD IS GREAT: Why Believing In God Is Reasonable and Responsible Edited by William Lane Craig & Chad Meister

Atheism is no longer simply about ‘not believing’ in a God or an intelligent designer. New Atheism has arrived and it has gone on the offensive. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others are now not just refuting the existence of God, spirituality, heaven or hell, they are proclaiming the message that to believe in a God, or in intelligent design is irrational and dangerous. The only sure and true ‘truth’ that can be relied upon is science.

These new atheists are pro-active – almost evangelistic in their zeal. Their mission is simple – to actively turn people away from any form of theistic belief.

This book is a powerful and substantial response to the claims and arguments of the new atheists.

The authors take on Dawkins et-al head on, unafraid of tackling the toughest of subjects including ‘Are The Old Testament Laws Evil’, ‘How Could God Create Hell’, ‘God Evil and Morality’. There are also chapters on ‘Arguments for God’, ‘The failure of Scientific Atheism’, ‘God and Physics’& ‘God and Evolution.’

What I find wonderful about this book is the breadth of the scholarship from Christians, philosophers, theologians and  scientists. From Dr William Lane-Craig, a philosopher, theologian and strong apologist of the Christian faith, to Michael Behe, a top scientist in the area biochemistry and Anthony Flew a well known former atheist who have both declared that evolution is not possible without an intelligent designer.

This book is by no means anti-science. Indeed, the aim of this book is to show clearly that the claims and arguments of the new atheists simply do not stand up to intellectual, scientific and philosophical scrutiny. And it succeeds.

God Is Good, God Is Great provides the reader with a wealth of wonderful information that, while scholarly, is readable and most importantly encouraging. But for me, the most impressive thing about this book is that it is incredibly balanced. Each author writes carefully, clearly and logically not making any outlandish statements or rash leaps in their argument.

There is now no need to worry about what Dawkins, or Hitchens or Harris says. There really is no need to be on the defensive when people raise the apparent objects to theism which is advocated by the new atheists. This book will give you the depth, understanding and confidence to respond directly and to the heart of the issues.

This book is for both christians and non-christians, those interested in science, those who have no scientific background, those who simply want to be better informed and those who wish to study the arguments fully and those who want to be apologetically armed.