Adoniram Judson: Devoted For Life

I have a stack of books from the summer that I plan to review here. Some I need to review as an obligation to Baker Books. But most are just great books that I want to pass on to other readers (that would be you!).

The latter is the case with Adoniram Judson: Devoted For Life, by Vance Christie. Christie has done a bang-up job presenting the life and ministry of Judson. I hadn’t read much on Judson before this book, and now I feel pretty familiar with him and his life. A small, well-researched and well-written biography did that. So kudos to Vance Christie for a work well done.

But a biography can only be as interesting and helpful as the subject of the biography. There is a reason no one is writing biographies on that angry guy who lives down the road and never has people over. Nothing to see here, folks, keep it moving.

Not so with Adoniram Judson. He lived an extraordinary life full of passion, sacrifice, and adventure. Judson was one of America’s first missionaries (there is a slight debate going as to whether he was America’s very first missionary, but who cares). He served for almost 40 years in Asia, mostly as a missionary to Burman people groups.

I think it would be fair to summarize Judson’s life with three words. Judson was convictional. He was devoted. And Judson suffered.

Convictional

On a sea voyage to Asia with his wife, Judson began to study what the Bible teaches about baptism. When his ship set sail, he was a Congregationalist and fully a pedobaptist (supporter of infant baptism). By the time his ship came into port 114-days later, Judson was a convinced credobaptist (only those who confess faith in Jesus should be baptized). And it was the Bible that made the difference. Judson wrestled with the Scriptures and, in the end, he yielded to them. And that is why the first American missionary was a Baptist.

This is just one example of how convictional Judson lived, often at significant cost to himself. Becoming a credobaptist was a really big deal, requiring a restructuring of his missions support and resulting in many strained relationships back home. But Judson would submit to the Scriptures, no matter the cost. There is certainly a lesson to be learned in that, no matter what you think about baptism.

Devoted

The subtitle of the book is ‘Devoted for Life’ and that is because Judson believed that “the motto for every missionary, whether preacher, printer, or schoolmaster, ought to be ‘Devoted for Life.’” Granted, lots of eager missionary candidates talk like that, but Judson proved the motto with his life.

Judson once wrote, “I will not leave Burma until the cross of Christ is planted everywhere.” There were many, many times when leaving would have been far easier than staying, and when no one would have questioned him for quitting. But Judson stayed to keep planting the cross of Christ everywhere. Oh, what a challenge that is to me!

Suffered

To say Judson suffered feels almost trite. His entire ministry was marked by suffering. He knew prison, beatings, torture; he felt grief for children and spouses who died too early. In the end, Judson was widowed 3 times. He tasted rejection, poverty, and illness. His life and ministry were marked by acute suffering.

And yet, he never gave up. He trusted in God’s providence in his life and served him in suffering, rather than trying to escape it.

Interestingly, I read this book while enduring a very small trial which I can’t really call suffering. That little trial made me want to give up on ministry. Oh, how I was challenged and convicted by the life of Judson to persevere and to run the race and to suffer when God brings suffering!

Read This Book!

This is a worthy read. Life is so short, and we have only one shot at it. The life of Adoniram Judson is full of lessons that can help us do this life well. Lessons on running the race convictionally, lessons on living fully devoted to Jesus Christ, and lessons on suffering. Judson’s life was a good teacher. And would that we would be good students!

One last thing. In the church that I serve as pastor, almost every Sunday there are many refugees from Burma who attend the gatherings. Most are from the Karen people and grew up with Christian parents. They can trace their Christian heritage right back to a man who sailed away from America’s shore in 1812 and devoted his life to planting the cross of Christ everywhere in Burma. In fact, many bring their Judson Bibles to church with them.

Let us praise God for the life and legacy of Adoniram Judson. And resolve to not waste our own lives. Order your copy of Adoniram Judson: Devoted for Life at Amazon.com.

Why You Should Not Use The Passion Translation

The Passion Translation is causing a lot of buzz. Several people locally have asked me for my thoughts on this new English “translation” (scare quotes on purpose). So, last year I bought a copy and read it. You’ve probably guessed from the title that I’m not a fan.

Brian Simmons is the sole translator of this work. By his account, several years ago Jesus Christ came into his room and breathed on him and commissioned him to write a new translation. He also says that God promised that he would make him understand “secrets of the Hebrew”. And that he “immediately began receiving downloads”.

Simmons claims qualifications for the very technical work of Bible translation, but they are questionable at best. His training in linguistics was through New Tribes Mission (now Ethnos360) back in the 1970’s*. At that time, NTM’s linguistic training was a one-year course that focused on language and cultural acquisition, not translation. NTM does have training beyond this for linguists and Bible translators, but my understanding is that Simmons didn’t take that training.

He also claims to have translated the New Testament into a tribal language in Panama. However, that is disputed by others who worked with him at the time. Indeed, he was in Panama as a church-planter for a few years, but he didn’t participate in the NT translation.

Simmons also doesn’t appear to have any formal instruction in the biblical languages. Has he achieved proficiency in the languages in some other way? Perhaps self study? Or is he relying on special revelation and divine downloads to translate from ancient languages into contemporary English?

At any rate, God breathed on Simmons, gave him downloads and special insight into the original languages and he was thus commissioned to complete this project. And, along the way, he has greatly exaggerated his credentials as a translator. Alone, these things are very concerning. But these aren’t the only reasons why I think Christians should avoid this “translation”. The work itself is why I think this one is bad.

There are too many issues to mention and still keep this a single post. And others have done a wonderful job of showing the problems with The Passion Translation. Andrew Shead published an excellent and accurate review of the Psalms for the journal, Themelios. Andrew Wilson has published some clear criticisms of the work on his blog. And Mike Winger has done a fantastic job outlining some concerns with his hour-long YouTube video.

Added to those is Michel Heiser’s short and poignant word on it in which he references George Athas’ critical review of TPT’s handling of Song of Songs. If you are interested in comprehensiveness, those are good places to begin.

My two biggest concerns have to do with the disconnection between the actual biblical text and Simmons’ words. First, at many, many points there are renderings that simply have no textual warrant whatsoever. Many of them seem to be aimed at making the text more emotive. So he unilaterally adds to the text so that it will have a more emotive appeal (to speak to the heart, as it were). I love you, Lord, my strength in Psalm 18:1 becomes, Lord, I passionately love you and am bonded to you, I want to embrace you… There is zero textual warrant to do that.

At other places, the changes appear aimed at making the passages more compatible with Simmons’ views. Ephesians 5:24, which says, “Now as the church submits (ὑποτάσσεται) to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands...” becomes “In the same way the church is devoted to Christ, let the wives be devoted to their husbands in everything…”

Doesn’t he know that this is the Word of God? We don’t have a license to make our own improvements. And Christians cannot trust “translations” which do this.

And second, while Simmons denies that this is a sectarian publication, it is hard to see it as anything other than that. He has loaded into the text language and parlance that is very common now in the circles in which Simmons runs, but are completely absent in the text of Scripture.

So Galatians 1:3 becomes I pray over you a release of the blessings of God’s undeserved kindness and total well-being that flows from our Father-God and from the Lord Jesus… There isn’t any justification from the text itself (χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) to render it that way. So the only conceivable reason is a desire to reverse-engineer the Scriptures to make one’s lingo (and ideas) appear to be biblical.

Note that I am not making an argument here that Christians shouldn’t speak this way. That is another question – one to which I haven’t given much thought. My point is more basic: we don’t have the liberty to treat God’s Word this way!

The Passion Translation is not a translation – and it is not even a paraphrase – of the actual Scriptures. It is something else entirely. In my opinion, Christians who love God’s Word would do well to avoid it.

*For full disclosure, I served with New Tribes Mission (now Ethnos360) from 1996 to 2008. I don’t think I have ever met Brian Simmons.

Book Review: Roman but Not Catholic

In the last several years, I have found myself reading more about the differences between Protestants and the Roman Church. I have read many official Catholic documents and scholarly books, as well as popular-level apologetics from both Catholic and Protestant perspectives.

Roman but Not Catholic, by Collins and Walls is the best-written book I have read so far in its genre. I gave it a read late last year and then picked it up again recently. Its tone is charitable and it portrays the debate in a way that both sides can actually recognize their positions. It also dismantles the caricatures and straw men that are everywhere present in this debate (especially in popular-level apologetics books). The authors do more arguing than asserting, which is super rare these days. And they footnote extensively throughout the book to show transparency in their source material.

The premise of Roman But Not Catholic is, unsurprisingly, that the Roman church’s claims of catholicity (i.e., that it is the one true universal church) and primacy do not stand up to careful scrutiny. I think they made this case very compellingly.

I especially appreciated three parts of this work. First, I loved the authors’ review of John Henry Newman’s influential work concerning doctrinal development. Newman “solved” the problem of the Roman church concerning late and innovative Catholic doctrines which lack support in the Scriptures or the in the earliest of the patristic sources. He argued that the seeds of every essential doctrine the Roman church believes can be found in those sources because the church believes them now, and so the church always believed those things. The Roman church, in articulating a doctrine, is always merely bringing to maturity what was always there and has always been believed.  The authors’ even-handed treatment of Newman’s flawed arguments was worth the price of the book to me. I have yet to read a credible counter-argument (though I have heard lots of brow-beating on it).

Second, I was glad the authors interacted primarily with official Roman Catholic documents and scholarly Catholic sources and avoided the more rhetorically extravagant popular-level ones. This kept the discussion credible, in my opinion. Although this leads to the next thing I appreciated.

Third, I was happy to see these authors interact with two popular popular-level Catholic apologetics books. The books are The Protestants Dilemma and Surprised by Truth. I am not happy that they addressed these books because the arguments in these books are so compelling. Indeed, it is difficult to take these two books seriously, in my opinion. They are little more than echo-chamber books (though these works might cause angst in very new or untaught Christians – which is a serious thing to me, pastorally). Nevertheless, the caricatures, straw men, confusing and fallacious arguments in these books are also everywhere present in Catholic apologetic materials (Catholic radio, apologetic books and sites like Catholic.com, etc.). The authors helpfully make short work of them.

My only major disagreement with the work is the enthusiasm the authors share for a kind of ecumenism that is reticent to call to repentance those who believe and teach false things, especially false things about the gospel. However, I think that issue, serious as it is, is dwarfed by the many positive things about this work.

If you are looking for a very well-written book about the differences between Protestants and followers of the Roman Church, and an excellent defense of Protestant convictions and doctrine, you won’t be disappointed by Roman but Not Catholic. Buy it now on Amazon.com.

 

Basics for Believers, by D. A. Carson

I feel a little strange reviewing a book that was first published in 1996 – and one that I first read at least a decade ago. This is almost a classic. But since Baker Books has repackaged and published a fresh edition, I get to publish a fresh review. For full disclosure, Baker Books sent me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Okay, I will just come right out and say it: I love this book. D. A. Carson is one of my favorite NT expositors and Philippians is one of my favorite NT books. And since Basics for Believers is Carson’s exposition of Philippians… it’s like having one’s cake and eating it too.

I read it again for this review. Not much seems to have changed from my older edition. Which is fine with me; the older edition is awesome too. This is more of an exposition than a commentary. The difference, I think, is that a good commentary doesn’t try to do all the work for the reader. Commentaries (esp. the ones I read for my studies: scholarly, technical works that take a bit of caffeine and seminary training to use) walk you through the grammar and particulars of the original language, translation, context, and the reasoning of the text. Commentaries usually don’t present a smooth, finished, almost-preachable product.

Expositions, on the other hand, are polished and far less technical. Published expositions are often sermons-turned-into-books. That would describe Basics for Believers. Carson preached the meat of this book at a conference in 1994And those sermons were adapted to form this book. So this is an exposition (not unlike all of John MacArthur’s “commentaries” or Kent Hughes’ Preaching the Word series).

Carson is always insightful. He pays close attention to the text and he presses in to see the flow of argument running through the epistle. This work is Carson at his popular-level (i.e., non-academic) finest.

I can think of several very helpful uses for this book. It would be an excellent supplement to a small-group Bible study on the book of Philippians; something everyone would read during the week to prepare for the meeting. You could read this book devotionally, alongside your Bible opened to the epistle itself. You could use this book to check your conclusions after you have done the work of exegesis and exposition yourself.

One word of caution for those who preach. If you’re anything like me then you probably should NOT read the authors who are most influential to you before you write your sermon. If you do, you will simply see everything just the way they saw it. And in this case it isn’t that that is a terrible thing – I can’t think of a place in Basics for Believers where Carson really misses the point. It’s just that you won’t do the hard work yourself, and you’ll be in danger of simply being a second-hander, passing on Carson’s discoveries to your listeners without trying to see them for yourself.

I heartily recommend Basics for Believers to anyone interested in the book of Philippians. Carson’s insights are a gift to the church. And he is, of course, eminently readable, interesting, and helpful. So go buy it: you’ll thank me later.

Find it here on Amazon.com.

Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan

In Letters to the Church, Francis Chan tries to accomplish two things. He wants to call out the modern American church for its failings, especially its culture of consumerism. And Chan is proposing what he thinks is a vastly better model: the home church model that he has launched in California.

The book is somewhat autobiographical, tracing Chan’s history from planting a church in Simi Valley, to seeing that church grow into a “megachurch” and then Chan growing dissatisfied with his church, leaving it and taking his family overseas for a short season. His point in sharing that history was to recount how he missed the boat before and how he has now come to understand what church really is or should be.

The value of the book is that it forcefully identifies significant failures in many American churches. That value is tempered, unfortunately, by the overly-sweeping nature of those criticisms. He is aiming this critique at all churches in America. And his criticisms are over-the-top condemning: the church in America is not loving, not a community, does not pray or read the Scriptures, and is full of shallow consumerists. Of course, all of us should hear these criticisms and be warned against these things. But there isn’t an acknowledgment that there are many loving churches in America, full of sincere Christ-followers living life on mission. There are many churches that don’t follow the house church model and yet are, by the grace of God, healthy New Testament churches. Chan doesn’t seem aware of this.

I think the book has 4 serious shortcomings. First, it takes enormous hubris to say You are ALL doing church wrong. We are doing it right, and you should do it like us. Chan doesn’t say it nearly that bluntly, and he throws in humble lingo at many points. And while I don’t question his sincerity, I do think that is the message he is conveying and it takes hubris to convey. I have no doubt that Chan’s house church model/movement is going well, but the church was not rediscovered in America five years ago when he launched We Are the Church. He seems to think otherwise.

Second, Letters to the Church gives a rather short-sighted presentation of what the church is. Chan’s criticisms seem to hover mainly over church gatherings (especially in large churches) because all the members are not, in the gatherings, exercising all their gifts all at once. He fails to note that the gathering is merely one aspect of the church. Surely, he is aware that the church is all of life, and in that 24/7 context, every member is able to exercise his or her gifts, even if a smaller number are able to do that at gatherings.

Third, Letters to the Church gives a grass-is-always-greener view of the local church in other countries. I can’t question Chan’s experiences overseas, but I can say that my own observation after spending many years in other countries is that churches in other countries have problems too. Lots of them. Very similar to, say, the church in America. Many churches in those places have far fewer resources so they might not be tempted towards church-consumerism in the same way, but they still struggle with pride, loving one another, fostering community and protecting unity just as we do.

Fourth, Letters to the Church gives a grass-is-always-greener view of the early church. We should, of course, learn from the early church in many ways (and the apostolic teaching – the Scriptures – is the infallible authority for how to do church). But concerning its example, it is helpful to remember that the early church didn’t always get things right. Read any of Paul’s letters to the churches!!! I’m preaching through 1 Corinthians in my church right now, so that’s the early church I was thinking about as I read Letters to the Church. The early church was in so many ways like the modern church. Full of people, and therefore often full of problems.

In the end, I’m not sure this book will be helpful to the church. The shortcomings outweigh the strengths, in my opinion. And since many Christians will read this book uncritically, it is sure to cause problems in many local churches. This book doesn’t, on the whole, urge people to love their churches. It urges people to be critical and negative. For that reason, I hope it doesn’t gain the traction that I fear it will.