Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs

Concise Theology ★★★★★ (5/5)

Concise Theology is well worth the read. In short bursts of two to three pages each (usually), J.I. Packer proceeds to lay out historic Christian beliefs for his readers. While I would have loved to see just a bit more at times, overall, I thought the pacing and breakdown was excellent.

Packer is pastoral, caring for the body of Christ, and passionate, reveling in the glories of Christ, the work of the Spirit and the majesty of the Father. Even when I either disagreed or would have stated something slightly differently, I found him to demonstrate humility and patience, no easy task when your intent is to be concise.

The Law

For example, in addressing the old testament law, I would argue against the tri-partite breakdown of a “moral, judicial and ritual law”, fleshed out more fully as “moral…political…and ceremonial.” (pp.90-92). Certainly, the Mosaic law contained all of these, but that it had a self-aware division along these lines, such that the ceremonial/ritual law could be of “limited application” in contrast to the moral law, is not immediately apparent. Instead, the whole law, even the decalogue, seems to intermix these various statutes and regulations in a way that is difficult to unwind.


Dealing with baptism, I found his handling to be amazingly understanding. He acknowledges historical and present disagreements, while maintaining the deep connection among those with a reformed soteriology (specifically speaking of Presbyterian and Baptistic formulations). From a baptistic perspective, I wished that he was applying the regulative principle, rather than just stating it, as I believe he would likely find the admitted lack of scriptural warrant for paedo-baptism (p.214) as a powerful argument in favor of believer’s baptism. But I was thoroughly appreciative of his patient and measured approach. His last statement gives just a bit of the flavor of that: “The ongoing debate is not about nurture but about God’s way of defining the church.” (p.216) I heartily agree!

And as a way of wrapping that thought up, and finishing my response to this book, I offer the following quote:

The task of the church is to make the invisible kingdom visible through faithful Christian living and witness-bearing. The gospel of Christ is still the gospel of the kingdom (Matt. 4:23; 24:14; Acts 20:25; 28:23, 31), the good news of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit through entering a disciple’s relationship to the living Lord (Rom. 14:17). The church must make its message credible by manifesting the reality of kingdom life.

Concise Theology, p.194

If the task of the church is to “make the invisible kingdom visible”, and I whole-heartedly agree it is, then let’s baptize accordingly!

Again, a well-written, helpfully concise overview of historic Christian beliefs. Get it, read it, and dig deep into God’s word.


Sabbatical Progress – Week 1

So, today was the first Sunday of my September sabbatical. It’s been a restful time so far, and that time has also been put to some good use! Thought I’d stop a moment each Sunday and consider the week. Primarily, this is a help to me, helping me remember what God is doing.

  • So, for starters, there has been a bunch of prayer. Prayer for my local church, prayer for my wife and kids, prayer for direction. Especially, I’ve been in prayer asking God to raise up leaders and servants, and to provide opportunities for purposeful discipleship.
  • I actually jump-started my sabbatical finishing one of my first reading goals. The book in question was Leeman’s Church Membership. I shared a couple quotes and thoughts here and here. Great book, if you are looking for something to help you think through meaningful membership.
  • I followed that up with another book in the same series, Dever’s Discipling. You can find some thoughts I posted here. Also a good read, with some great motivation for discipling with purpose, especially as it approached the final chapters.
  • I’m keeping up daily with 6 Ways the Old Testament Speaks Today. Last week, I commented on how he addressed worship. Today, I began the next “voice”, the voice of prophecy. I’m excited to get into the daily “devotional” portion, as last week bible readings were great reminders of how God calls us into worship.
  • I sprinted ahead in my Hebrew textbook, finally stopping at chapter 12. That basically got me through the Qal-stem forms (qatal, yiqtol, weqatal, and wayyiqtol, plus the infinitive construct). Now to go back and do some more systematic review. I’m still much further back in the workbook. I’ve also been busy loading up my Anki deck. Anki has really helped with memorization of vocabulary. Debating if I should put time into using SIL’s FLEx to begin capturing nominal/verbal system rules…debating if it is worth the time/effort. I haven’t done much with infixing in the tool, which would be critical.
  • I helped my father-in-law find a Bible translation that was good for reading. He specifically was looking for one that would be good for reading more for the fuller story, the flow. A nice, cheap HCSB arrived more quickly than I could have imagined.
  • The family spent the long weekend up in the North Carolina mountains visiting Kim’s parents, “camping” out in the front yard. Also a lot of hikes with the dogs. It’s been a blast, but tomorrow we will head back home.

Well, that is a lot! But it honestly has been quite restful. Getting some time set aside for determined reading means books are no longer building dust on the shelf, which is a weight off the shoulders! If you find the right moment, pray for me, that I might continue to use my time wisely.

How Membership Is The Same Everywhere

In the final chapter of “Church Membership”, Leeman discusses how locale and context affects church membership. In light of all that is going on in Afghanistan of late, but also the experience of churches in China and some parts of Africa, and increasingly here, this chapter reflecting on what membership looks like under different societal and political forces is helpful. It bears out the flexibility and wisdom Leeman brings, rather than a rigid set of rules.

And as discussions of viruses and vaccines continue to dominate our lives, this section hits home:

Now, Satan uses different devices in different locations to undermine Christ’s kingdom. A favorite device in the West is cultural Christianity. The American brand of cultural Christianity results from well-intending adults handing out the candy of cheap grace to five-year olds and twenty-five year olds alike. You ask them if they want to be with mommy and daddy in heaven or pressure them into walking an aisle. The point is, you play on their fears, emotions, or appetites in order to get quick, unconsidered professions of faith. Then you immediately affirm those professions. The European state-church brand, on the other hand, is much more civilized. Cheap grace comes with a birth certificate.

The genius of this device in both locations is that it allows Satan to inoculate their hosts against real Christianity. It’s nearly impossible to share the gospel with a cultural Christian because he already gives lip service to it. “Yes, I believe that.” But there’s no repentance. He merely baptizes a slightly sanitized version of his old self into Christianity.

Church Membership, pp. 122-23

Before getting into what membership looks like in those locales experiencing more pervasive and physical persecution, he makes the point that “cultural Christianity…fools churches into thinking that they don’t live in enemy territory.” (p.123) It should be enough to remind us of James 4:4: You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

The local church exists to show off God’s glory and mercy. Leeman is on solid ground when he remarks that, “the local church protects the gospel from all kinds of attack by taking great care in who it receives as a member. Every church must ask the basic questions: Who do you say that Jesus is? Are you sure you’re really ready to take up your cross and give yourself to identifying with him and his body?” (p.124)

A persecuted church may not have a physical membership role, and may not even vote on incoming members, but you can trust every member knows who is “with them”, who is a part of the body, who is set apart as a disciple and who is not. In a world of easy membership with no responsibility, and little to no accountability, I think churches are wise to put extra effort on the front end, to ensure that the resulting body is actually Christ’s body. Not a perfect or sinless one, but one that lives and proclaims the gospel by being set apart for God’s work.


On Submitting to the Local Church

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of Jonathan Leeman over the last few days, and I’m definitely benefiting from his skill in teaching. I’ve read him writing in a more academic tone, and loved it. Pleasant to find he can write equally well in a style that is more down-to-earth.

I’m almost done with Church Membership, in the 9Marks series, and I would definitely recommend it for every Christian. This is a quick and easy read to situate the believer as a citizen of a kingdom and a member of a body, striking at both the structural and the organic nature of the church in the life of a believer.

Chapter 6, “How Does a Christian Submit to a Church? (Being a Member)”, stands out powerfully. Beginning with yet another image, another metaphor, for the body of believers – stars in the night sky (see Philippians 2:12-16) – he moves on to eight practical ways to submit to the local church. I can hardly quote it all, but as just a taste, Leeman offers the following. Christians can submit to the local church:

  • Publicly – “…by which I mean formally or officially…Jesus publicly identified himself with his church. We should publicly identify with him and his people as well…” (p.95)
  • Physically/Geographically – “Now, let me raise the stakes a little. If you can, ‘consider others better than yourselves’ and ‘look to the interests of others’ by living geographically close to the church…it’s easier to invite people to one’s house for dinner, to watch one another’s children while running errands, to pick up bread or milk at the store for one another.” (p.96) Better yet, “Did Jesus submit himself physically and geographically for our good? He left heaven!” (p.97)
  • Socially – “Christian friends are surely valuable inside or outside the same local church. But friends within a local church will be formed by the same ministry of the Word, giving them the opportunity to extend that ministry more carefully into one another’s lives throughout the week.” (p.98)
  • Affectionately – “He commands us to rejoice with the brother who gets a big job promotion and all the money and prestige that comes with it. Can we? He commands the thirty-year-old single woman who longs for marriage to rejoice with the twenty-two-year-old woman when she marries. Can she? Can the poor man mourn with the rich man when he loses his job? Saying yes to these questions – rather than saying yes to ‘selfish ambition and vain conceit’ – requires something more than sentiment. It requires a heart to be altered by the gospel and the Spirit.” (p.99)
  • Financially – “This will look different from context to context. But however it’s done, Christians should look for ways to fulfil biblical commands like these…” (p.99)
  • Vocationally – “I know men and women in secular employment who, for the sake of serving in their local churches, have turned down promotions and more money, who have moved from larger, more reputable firms to smaller ones, who have refused to move to another city…because he or she knew that it would have hindered the ability to care for the church and family.” (p.100)
  • Ethically – “…Christians should look to the church for ethical instruction, counsel, accountability, and discipline in matters that are addressed in God’s Word.” (p.101)
  • Spiritually – “By this I mean three specific things: First, this community is where we should seek to exercise our spiritual gifts…Second, the local church is the community where Christians should build one another up in the faith through God’s Word…Third, it’s the people for whom we should intercede regularly in our prayers.” (p.102)

As you can hopefully see, Leeman offers spiritual wisdom that grounds the believer in reality. Being a Christian, and thus being a member of a local church, is more than just words, more than just “ideal”. It has real implications for how we live our lives together before a watching world. It calls us to consider how our actions impact one another, how our decisions represent Jesus and the gospel proclamation in our communities.

As a final quote, wrapping up the chapter:

Truth be told, people are not afraid to submit. They just want to submit to beauty, like the valiant hero who submits himself to rescuing the damsel in distress.

What’s unexpected about Christianity is that its hero doesn’t risk all for the damsel but for what the Bible likens to a harlot. Then he calls everyone that he saves to submit themselves to this same harlot – the bride still being made ready, the church.

Now submitting to ugliness does scare people. And that’s what submitting to the local church can be. Churches are filled with other sinners whose visions of glory contradict our own. But this is how Christ loved us: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV)

Christ’s love wonderfully transforms the ugly into the beautiful (see Eph. 5:22-31). Our love for one another should do the same thing – help the ugly become beautiful.

Who can love in this way? Only the ones whose eyes have been opened and whose hearts have been freed from the slavery of loving this world: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 ESV)

Church Membership, pp.102-3

In The Mail: T4G

I picked up a short list of books from T4G’s online store a week or so back. I may not have been able to attend, but I think I am well supplied for the moment!

Plenty to read for the remainder of lockdown, and beyond!

I already have the other volume from Murray & Murray, “Reset”, which I haven’t gotten to. I was a little choose-y on the 9Marks series. I chose ones I thought would be more helpful as an elder and helping the body work towards meaningful membership in the near future; and also some I thought would help stretch me in areas I need stretching.