Review: Growing in Holiness

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Growing in HolinessR. C. Sproul. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Compiled from the author’s lectures, the book offers both theological basis and practical help for the believer for growing in Christ-likeness.

This is one of those books I wish I had fifty years ago. I knew what it meant to become a Christian, but had no notion of what it meant to be a Christian. How should I live after I’ve believed? How do I overcome sin? How can I be assured of my salvation? How does Christ form his character in me? R. C. Sproul addresses all these questions and more in this book, which is a compilation of his lectures on growing in holiness, or our sanctification.

He begins by giving a very clear articulation of the goal of our life in Christ: “The goal of human life is to mirror and to reflect the very character of God.” Sproul acknowledges that coming to Christ can make more complicated as we are more aware of the gap between how we live, and the life to which we are called in Christ. Believing doesn’t make life easier, but rather we face opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil and our own powerlessness apart from God and the support of his people. Sproul talks about the call to righteousness as the inevitable fruit of Christ’s saving work, and yet the truth that our salvation is grounded in the righteousness of Christ, and not our imperfect efforts.

Sproul contends that we may enjoy the assurance of our salvation. This is not faith in faith, the church, or experience but comes out of the trust that obeys Christ, repents from sin, and lodges one’s hope in the finished work of Christ. Such assurance is great encouragement in continuing to press on to become more and more like Christ. Our confidence in Christ moves us to profess Christ with others, deepening our own assurance.

The next two chapters focus on the virtues also called “the fruit of the Spirit.” Sproul focuses a whole chapter on the first and greatest of these, love–love that is long suffering, characterized by kindness, humility, and self-control. He walks through the remaining fruit of the Spirit, explaining what each of these looks like in the life of the believer. Finally, he returns to the ultimate goal of becoming like God, like Christ in our character. This comes as we focus on Christ, trust and obey him implicitly like children, and over time, grow up to maturity as we diligently, year in and year out, diligently pursue the means of grace.

Sproul helps us understand both how our sanctification depends on the provision of Christ, but also that we must persist in laying hold of that provision, settling for nothing less than growing up to be like Jesus in character. In the words of Philippians 2:12-13, we work out the salvation that God is working in us. Sproul neither lowers the standard nor makes it simply an accomplishment of human effort. He consistently throughout this work points us to the goal of growing to be more and more like Christ, and encourages us that in one day we will indeed be glorified, that Christ will accomplish his goal for us.

R. C. Sproul went to be with the Lord in 2017. We are fortunate for the efforts of the Ligonier Library and Baker to compile his lectures offering theologically rich and practical to the chief end of our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Sacred Endurance

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Sacred EnduranceTrillia J. Newbell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Using the analogy of running a race, sets out the promises of God and the practices of the believer that enable us to finish the race of faith.

…being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience…” Colossians 1:11, NIV

Years ago, my first ministry supervisor and I were studying through the book of Colossians together when we came to this verse in the middle of Paul’s intercessory prayer for the Colossians. He asked me why “great endurance” is so important as a believer. As a young believer, I’m not sure I fully grasped why this mattered. But the question stayed with me, as well as the promise of God’s strengthening glorious might. The years since have made sense of the necessity of endurance through the parenting years, through disappointments, serious illnesses, deaths of close family and friends, failures, conflict, and the gradual encroachments of age on one’s body. Equally, there are those seasons of the ordinary, the routine tasks that we get up and do over and over. Most of us have wondered at some point, “how can I keep going on?” “How can I finish well?”

Trillia Newbell has written a marvelously encouraging book exploring this crucial topic of endurance. A former runner, she describes running the anchor leg of a 4 X 400 relay, running swiftly until the last 100 meters, when exhaustion left her summoning every last ounce to finish ahead of those on her heels. Throughout the book, she uses the image of a race to speak of both the provision of God to enable us to finish our race of faith, and what it means for us to live into that promise.

The book is filled with biblical passages, grounding our hope for enduring in the promises and instructions of God. She reminds us of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on, and the necessity to strip away any encumbering sins and to focus on Jesus. She explores our running motivations, particularly the “love of Christ” that compels. She confronts the lies of the gospel of success and prosperity and explores how the presence and power of God meets us in our suffering, troubles, and weakness. She addresses the importance of the mind to endurance and the call to be renewed in our minds.

I was particularly impressed with her chapter on enduring amid the troubles of society and the world. She acknowledges the particular challenges she faces as an African-American female confronting blatant racism, even white supremacism. She describes her own disciplines of stopping to remember God, taking heart in the truth that the Lord has overcome the world, that people are not the enemy, to persist in doing good, not giving way to cynicism, and knowing toward whom we are running when we can be distracted by other loyalties.

She explores abiding in Christ, and practical disciplines of abiding, particularly the word of God and prayer. She speaks of how God meets us in our brokenness and contrition, helps us press on when we fall and fail, the provision of running companions in the church, and the prize toward which we run. Even her appendix, on those who don’t endure, stresses how God is fully able to help us run to the finish.

There is nothing startlingly new here, but perhaps in our preoccupation with so many challenges in life, we need to hear these words afresh. Trillia Newbell is like the good track coach who keeps telling us the things we need as often as we need to hear them. She coaches out of her own journey with honesty, humility, and a contagious joy that arises from her own experience of the promises of God that help her run and endure with joy. She reminds us of all the resources God provides, the practices that help us keep running, the things we need to let go of, and the God who meets us at our weakest places and the Christ toward whom we run.

If you are asking yourself how you will get through the next year, or month, or even day, this is a great book to read. It is a good book for young parents balancing work, childcare and other responsibilities. It is good for those in the mid-life “sandwich,” wondering where they will find the strength to handle it all, and why it is worth it. It is a good book for those in their senior years, approaching the finish line, wanting to do it well. Endurance never goes out of season.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Forgiving My Father, Forgiving Myself

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Forgiving My Father, Forgiving MyselfRuth Graham with Cindy Lambert. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Through both personal narrative and biblical teaching, explores the power of forgiveness to bring freedom from bitterness, transforming our lives, and in at least some cases, our relationships.

Ruth Graham was leading a team into Angola Prison when she encountered Michael, on death row for murder, and yet at peace with God. Graham learns the amazing story of how the grandfather of the murderer’s victim had forgiven him and was praying for him. It led Ruth on a journey where forgiveness went from head knowledge to transformation in her life.

Ruth grew up in an extraordinary family. Her father was Billy Graham. Such a family carries its own stresses, that Ruth speaks about, never bitterly or cynically, but honestly. She made a series of bad choices in marriages, going through four divorces. Her mother’s advice was often less than helpful. She also began to see that she had a deep wound in her life from her father’s long absences. Despite her love for him, and his for her, she struggled with feelings of abandonment, and anger. Graham never excuses her own bad decisions, but weaves her journey of learning to forgive her father, forgive her self, and seek the forgiveness of others with biblical principles of how we forgive, and the tough issues of forgiving when forgiveness is not sought or rejected, when those we forgive are no longer around, and forgiving when the other person is not safe to be around.

She helps us see that forgiveness is neither fair nor easy, but that God has commanded it. She shows us that forgiveness is a process that does not depend on our feelings, but that God can help us to do something against which our feelings rebel. In forgiveness, bitter wounds become sacred wounds as we offer these to God and open our wounded places to Him. She teaches us how to ask forgiveness: “I did this. It was wrong. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me.”

Unlike Bryan Maier in Forgiveness and Justice (reviewed here) she believes that forgiveness can occur separately from repentance, reconciliation and restoration. Maier contends that forgiveness (which Graham might call reconciliation) can only occur when the offender confesses and repents from the wrong done. Maier contends that where there is no repentance, the proper response of the aggrieved is to take the grievance to God and trust God for justice

Graham would propose that forgiveness delivers us from bitterness, even in the absence of reconciliation, or when reconciliation is no longer safe or possible. Maier, I believe, would say that we take our anger to God as well as to pray, where it is possible, for the repentance of the offender, but not prematurely forgive.

I don’t believe Maier deals adequately with what one does when it is not possible to reconcile with an offender. At the same time, I think there is a point that Graham misses that was called to my attention in watching the documentary Emanuel on the deaths of nine people at the hands of Dylan Roof and participating on a panel with two black scholars who have studied the history and literature of violence against blacks. One of the remarkable things is how quickly a number of families forgive Roof, even though Roof never shows remorse (and other family and friends struggle to or refuse to forgive to this day). While we all recognized how these believers were shaped by biblical teaching, it was observed that it has often been the place of oppressed blacks to forgive, often accompanied by celebration that this has averted a more violent response. One scholar asked, “should not there be anger at the white supremacists and a system that produced Roof, at the history of violence in the forms of lynchings and church burnings against blacks?”

What I wonder is whether it is possible to forgive, as Christ forgave unrepentant enemies on the cross, and yet be angry, but not with bitterness, at the things which anger God, whether systemic racism, infidelity, sexual abuse, or morally corrupt leadership. There is an anger which is not hate, but which motivates advocacy, that does not relent in seeking justice. Sometimes, at least for some, forgiveness is a quick release from the hard feelings of grievance, or an escape from the hard work of seeking justice.

What I would say is that Graham does not minimize the challenge of forgiveness. She also offers a model of honestly facing her own need of forgiveness and what she hadn’t forgiven in others and herself. She helps us see the corrosive character of bitterness arising from an unforgiving heart and the grace God can give to forgive. Yet I think we also need teaching on forgiveness that teaches us how to know and live amazing grace while avoiding cheap grace, that does not heal personal or national wounds lightly.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Walking with Jesus on Campus

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Walking with Jesus on CampusStephen Kellough. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019.

Summary: A former college chaplain reflects on ten key issues students face.

Stephen Kellough is Chaplain Emeritus for Wheaton College. At twenty-five years, his was the longest tenure of any chaplain at Wheaton. In this book, he reflects on what he believes are the ten most important issues facing Christian college students today.

I love where he begins. He starts with what he thinks the most significant challenge, which he believes is that students know that they are loved by God and invites them into a relationship of growing in love for God, in discovering the love that casts out fear and that dispels false guilt and deals with true guilt.

Other chapters deal with weakness, perfectionism, doubt and depression, sabbath, sexuality and singleness, servanthood, safety in community, revival, and living as an apprentice to Jesus. Each chapter includes reflections on one key biblical passage. For example, the chapter on doubt and depression begins by frankly discussing symptoms of depression and other mental health issues. He explains why he discusses doubt and depression together, because these are often connected at an emotional level, he considers David’s lament in Psalm 13 and how it reflects the dilemmas of doubt (being in two minds) and depression and its debilitating character. He helpfully encourages seeking care and also talks about how doubt actually is a form of faith, indeed that we cannot know what faith is without having doubted at some point.

One of the most fascinating chapters is that on revival in which Kellough narrates the unfolding of the 1995 revival at Wheaton. It began when a student leader of the World Christian Fellowship confessed openly, calmly, and briefly his sin of pride as a leader. Here is what followed:

After a pause, another brave student came forward to a microphone and confessed his own sin of pride. Others came forward; and lines grew on each side of Pierce Chapel. After someone would honestly and vulnerably share a public confession, friends would huddle around and pray over that person while another student began speaking from the other side of the chapel.

What was confessed? There were confessions of pride, hatred, lust, sexual immorality, cheating, dishonesty, materialism, addictions, and self-destructive behavior. There were tears, and there were smiles. There was crying and singing. People confessed their sins to God and to each other, and there was healing. It was biblical. It was orderly. It was sincere. And it honored our Lord.

This went on nightly Sunday through Thursday of one week, involving as many as 1500 people a night. He describes powerful and ongoing racial reconciliation and forgiveness.

His concluding chapter is on being apprentices of Jesus–for life. He quotes Canon Andrew White of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Iraq, who said, “Don’t take care. Take risks.” He proposes that this is the life of faithful and obedient stewards of God’s gifts.

I recognized that Kellough is writing from a place of wisdom and yet there was nothing stuffy or stodgy about his writing. He speaks with deep compassion for students and admiration of students he knows. He freely quotes younger writers like Rosaria Butterfield and Wesley Hill in his chapter on sexuality. His work combines grace and biblical truth.

I’m not sure this is the book for the “churched” student who has never personally embraced the faith for him/herself and wants to get as far away from it as possible during college. I think this makes a good book for the committed Christian student who wants to live for Christ in college to understand some of the practical issues this involves. It could be a book first year students might discuss together and the reflection questions at the end of each chapter lend themselves to this. It’s a good book for parents of students as well, and it raises the question of whether we want our students just to be successful, or do we want them to whole-heartedly, and sometimes riskily following Jesus. It will certainly give parents ideas of how they might pray for their students.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Upside-Down Spirituality

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Upside-Down SpiritualityChad Bird. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Highlights nine areas in which Christian faith turns cultural conventions on their head, turning the world “upside-down.”

When you ask most people what they think a real Christian is, the answer is often some version of people who are nicer than those around them. Often, we buy that, adopting the way those around us think of a good, or even successful life, covering it with a veneer of Christian-y sounding language.

Years ago, I had a seminary course in New Testament Ethics, the primary text of which was Allen Verhey’s The Great ReversalI have to admit that at the time, I still regarded Christian ethics as a nicer version of the world’s, but was bothered by the title. Over the years of reading and re-reading the Bible, I began to suspect more and more that Jesus really did inaugurate a great reversal, literally turning the world’s ethics on their head, blessing the meek and the humble and making the least the greatest.

Chad Bird’s Upside-Down Spirituality develops a similar idea. Whereas we tend to celebrate good people who succeed, Bird proposes that this common sense needs to be turned on its head. He proposes:

“Failures of a faithful life–that’s what we’ll be talking about in the chapters that follow. What this world’s common-sense wisdom reckons as failures, anyway. The failure to be extraordinary, the failure to live independent lives, the failure to go big or go home, the failure to think love sustains our marriages, even the failure to have a personal relationship with Jesus….For there are areas in all our lives–personally, in our families and marriages, as well as in our churches–where we’ve become so habituated to the empty platitudes of our culture that we don’t even realize our hearts have gone astray” (p. 24).

Bird discusses nine failures under three categories. The first category is how we think of ourselves. He challenges the idea of believing in the God who believes in you. Instead, he argues that God doesn’t believe in us but through “Jesus only” we discover the God who loves us despite our failures. He contends that failing to make a name for ourselves, living what may be hidden lives of faithfulness carries the great assurance that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. He calls out a culture that urges us to follow our hearts, and invites us to follow not our hearts, but Jesus.

The second part considers how we think about our lives. He begins by puncturing the dream of being the perfect parent. He cites a Facebook post outlining a long litany of things the perfect mom does and contrasts it with the list used by former generations: “feed them sometimes.” The truth is that all of us who have been parents have done mediocre jobs, and that our real hope is that our children grow up, not in perfect houses with perfect parents, but in houses of grace where we all come to understand that our hope is being God’s forgiven children. Instead of questing for our ideal “calling,” Bird challenges us that there is no sacred-secular divide, and that we may live as called persons wherever we are, and in whatever we do.

The chapter in this part I loved the most was where he argues against the myth of finding one’s soulmate. When I hear marrying couples say this, I either gag or tremble, fearing that they are headed to an early divorce if they don’t wake up to the reality that no person can live up to that ideal. We are both unique, and often self-centered and marriage will sooner or later bring those differences and our fallenness to the surface. Bird proposes that it is not love that sustains marriages, but rather marriages that sustain love as we press into Christ for his help to do what is humanly impossible.

Finally he challenges some of the success myths of the church. One is the myth of us versus them, that to not conform to the world, we need to cut ourselves off from the world. He explores what it means to be resident aliens, building bridges into Babylon, seeking its peace and prosperity, even as we embrace our true citizenship in the kingdom. He gives the lie to having “a personal relationship with Jesus,” that faith is a private thing. Rather, we relate to Jesus as part of communities who are his body.

His final chapter wonders about something I’ve wondered about. Why do so many of us drive past fifty churches to go to the “big box” church across town rather than worshiping with those who live near where we live? He contends that instead of buying into “bigger is better,” we find contentment and joy wherever the crucified and risen Christ is preached.

Each chapter ends with a “beatitude,” all of which are summarized at the end. A couple of my favorites:

3. “Blessed are those who don’t follow their hearts, for they follow the Lamb where he goes.”

5. Blessed are those who fail to find their calling, for theirs is the kingdom where life and love and service find them.”

Bird writes with candor and vulnerability. He’s been through a divorce and done everything from pastor to drive a big rig. He punctures the success myths of contemporary Christianity as one who has failed and found grace, and a far more vibrant and honest life as a humble follower of Christ. He offers hope that when we fail, we may be closer than ever to the grace of God and the kingdom of Jesus, who turns the world upside down.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Transhumanism and the Image of God

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Transhumanism and the Image of GodJacob Shatzer. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An exploration of how developing technologies raise questions of what it will mean to be human as we are formed by, or even integrated more closely into our technological devices, along lines some have envisioned as a transhumanist or even post-humanist future.

A basic axiom of this book is that we shape our technology, and then our technology shapes us. There is a constant tendency once we fashion a technology to optimize its use. In introducing this subject, Jacob Shatzer considers the ways we have kept time, with ever more precise devices. Shatzer argues that the shaping quality of our technological devices has implications for our moral formation. These shape how we relate to other people and to our physical environment. They shape our sense of control over our world, our perception of our capacities.

The rise of transhumanism takes this further as we think about using devices to enhance our intelligence, physical strength, and sensory inputs. Going further, transhumanism leads to posthumanism, where our technological developments hold out the hope of transcending the limitations of our physical bodies, including the ultimate limitation of death. He traces the steps in the unfolding of a transhumanist future. First there is the idea of morphological freedom–that we have a right to alter our physical form to enhance our ability to achieve our potential. On the face of it, this seems unobjectionable, except that it may be premised on faulty notions of freedom and what it means to be human. Second, there is the idea of becoming “hybronauts,” in which we utilize technology to augment our perception of reality, whether through wearable technology, or even some of the functions of our smartphones. Where all this is going is a fusion of human and artificial intelligence, with everything from a host of robots attending to different functions of our lives to the copying or uploading of our brains, predicated on the idea that our minds are simply a complex network of data, that may be stored biologically, or digitally. Are such assumptions reductive of what it means to be humans in the image of God? Yet we must face the fact that the directions in which we have shaped our technology are shaping us toward such a life, that we have technological liturgies, as it were, that condition us toward such a future in how we think or act.

Shatzer does not suggest a Luddite approach. He sees technology as double-edged, offering both aspects that enhance human flourishing, and aspects that dehumanize. He believes the Christian faith offers practices and images that enable to resist the dehumanizing aspects of our technology. He explores the question of “what is real?”, and contends that the incarnation, and our embodied existence must be robustly maintained, and that the storyteller may play a pivotal role in delivering us from the virtual reality world detaching us from the body. He explores the question of “where is real?” in a virtual world where one loses place. He describes placemaking practices from gardening, homemaking, and hospitality, and the importance of the love of real neighbors. He asks, “who is real?” and notes our increasing attachments to virtual and robotic technology (think Pokemon and Tamagotchis) and our virtual communities of “friends.” He stresses the importance of the practice of the Lord’s supper, and the figure of the real friend. Finally, he considers the question, “am I real” and the ways we construct, project, and manage our online selves. Shatzer contrasts our efforts at self-construction with the humility of entering the kingdom as children, entrusting our identity to Christ.

One of the important aspects of this book is that Shatzer seeks to help us identify the technological “liturgies” that are shaping us toward a transhuman future. These are liturgies that propose an expansion of our control, a transcendence of limits of knowledge and existence, and control over our identify. What is most troubling though, and also something our social media prepares us for, is the sharing of everything. What happens when networking extends to our thoughts, when nothing is private for us and nothing is concealed from us? Shatzer helps us recognize how our technological liturgies, far from leading to flourishing, threaten to change in dehumanizing ways, what it means to be human.

Any of us who has acquired a smartphone has experienced the formative power of this technology, which we may be tempted to check hundreds of times a day. Shatzer’s final chapters explore the questions we must ask, the small steps we can take, the practices we can embrace beginning with sharing meals together that remind us of our embodied nature, our relationships with neighbors and friends, and create places for remembering our story.

Setting limits, setting tables, saying prayers, cultivating friendships, telling stores. I found myself asking, “Are these enough?” Perhaps the issue is, how many of us will just focus on what our technology will do, and how many of us will keep asking and prioritizing in our practice the question of “what kind of humans we are making.” Shatzer’s book helps us ask these important questions.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Basics for Believers

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Basics for Believers, D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018 (Re-packaged edition, originally published in 1996).

Summary: Expositions of the Letter to the Philippians focusing on the core concerns of Christian faith and life.

This work is part of a series of expository studies by D. A. Carson originally published from the late 1970’s to the mid-1990’s being re-issued in a reasonably priced, re-packaged form. In this case, Carson exposits the Letter to the Philippians. These messages are lightly edited versions of four messages given during Holy Week of 1994 at the “Word Alive” conference in Skegness England. The second message has been broken into two messages.

The title of the work, Basics for Believers, might give the impression that this is a book for new believers. The subtitle actually helps us see the importance of the book for all believers: “The Core of Christian Faith and Life.” He draws this from his study of Philippians, in which he sees a church perhaps ten years old, challenged in various ways, and needing encouragement to re-focus and maintain their commitment to the core of the Christian faith, centering around the gospel of Christ crucified and raised, and a life lived worthily of that gospel. I suspect we all can use this, kind of like an annual physical that reminds us of essentials of healthy physical life.

The five messages address the following themes:

  1. Put the Gospel First (Philippians 1:1-26)
  2. Focus on the Cross (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 2:5-11)
  3. Adopt Jesus’s Death as a Test of Your Outlook (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 1:27-2:4, 2:12-18)
  4. Emulate Worthy Christian Leaders (Philippians 2:19-3:21)
  5. Never Give Up the Christian Walk (Philippians 4:1-23)

Several qualities about these messages stood out to me. I appreciated the gracious and clearly articulated explanation of the propitiatory work of Christ in his chapter on the cross. This is not a popular idea in contemporary discusses, often caricatured. Those who would oppose propitiation ought to consider and engage Carson’s articulation of this doctrine. Carson carefully connects doctrine and life throughout.

While these are not exegetical commentaries, but rather expository studies, it is very clear that Carson’s messages reflect disciplined exegesis and that his preaching outline arises from careful textual study and reflection. An example I particularly appreciated was in his fourth message, “Emulate Worthy Christian Leaders.”

  1. Emulate those who are interested in the well-being of others, not in their own (Philippians 2:19-21)
  2. Emulate those who have proved themselves in hardship, not the untested upstart and the self-promoting peacock(!) (Philippians 2:22-30)
  3. Emulate those whose constant confidence and boast is in Jesus Christ and in nothing else (Philippians 3:1-9)
  4. Emulate those who are continuing to grow spiritually, not those who are stagnating (Philippians 3:10-16)
  5. Emulate those who eagerly await Jesus’s return, not those whose mind is on earthly things (Philippians 3:17-21)

The outline elaborates both the basic theme of the text (“emulate worthy Christian leaders”) and summarizes the content of each section in memorable form. The outline alone gives much grist for reflecting on the question of, after whom we are modeling our lives.

The other mark of good exposition evident in this work is incisive application. Once again, I will give but one example from the first message on putting the gospel first. He has just cited a scholar who traced the course of a movement who in one generation believed the gospel and advanced certain social, economic, and political entailments, the next generation assumed the gospel and identified with the entailments, and the third denied the gospel and made the entailments everything. Then he asks:

“What we must ask one another is this: What is it in the Christian faith that excites you? What consumes your time? What turns you on? Today there are endless subgroups of confessing Christians who invest enormous quantities of time and energy in one issue or another: abortion, pornography, homeschooling, women’s ordination (for or against), economic justice, a certain style of worship, the defense of a particular Bible version, and much more….Not for a moment am I suggesting that we should not think about such matters or throw our weight behind some of them. But when such matters devour most of our time and passion, each of us must ask: In what fashion am I confessing the centrality of the gospel?” (pp. 31-32).

Theological acuity, exegetical and expository clarity, and searching application. All of these challenge the reader to join the Apostle Paul in his aspiration: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Reviews of other D. A. Carson books in this series:

The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus

The Cross and Christian Ministry

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World

Review: Finding Holy in the Suburbs

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Finding Holy in the SuburbsAshley Hales (Foreword by Emily P. Freeman). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Suburbs reflect our longings for the good, that we often fill with gods of consumerism, individualism, busyness, and safety. Only when we repent and find our longings met in belonging to God, can daily life in the suburbs become a holy endeavor.

Nearly one-half of Americans live in suburbs, and yet many view the suburbs as a place of desolation, a deadening affluence and isolation that James Howard Kunstler has described “the geography of nowhere.” In many Christian circles, the “cutting edge” Christian life is one lived in urban neighborhoods. So what does one make of a call of God to leave an urban community that has been a thriving place of ministry and rich relationships to return to the California suburb of one’s youth? That was the challenge faced by Ashley Hales and her husband as they moved from urban Salt Lake City to that California suburb.

Hales discovered that there was a hunger in the suburbs, a longing for “home” that people filled with consumerism, individualism, busyness, and safety. In the first part of this book she described her own wrestlings with these false gods. She describes the consumeristic fantasies of granite countertops and therapeutic shopping at Target. She describes the individualism of measuring worth in the square footage of suburban castles that close us off from community. She narrates the busy life of the mom in a minivan ruled by the schedules entailed by all the childhood experiences our community says our children must have. She confesses the fears for safety that lead to walls and fences and gates that end up shutting out the joyous life of the kingdom.

Hales believes that “healing begins at the place of hunger.” It is when, in conversations over coffee, or the back fence, the doubts and frustrations arise that expose the brokenness of this life and the chance to “find holy” opens up. The middle part of the book deals with two movements that are critical. The first is repentance, when we acknowledge that the “glittering images” of suburban life mask an inner emptiness. The answer is not to double down or to look for a different place, but to acknowledge our mess, and stay put, waiting for God’s grace. The other part is to know that grace, that we are God’s beloved, and that our belovedness is not in how “ripped” or svelte we are, but in finding a better Lover who sees us in our beautiful brokenness and will not let us go. The challenge is to live in that reality each day in the little acts of suburban life.

The concluding chapters commend an alternative life in the suburbs that arises from repentance and belovedness. It begins with hospitality that doesn’t worry about how Pinterest-worthy our homes are but shares meals together as family and invites others into the warmth, with children interrupting, and crumbs in the sofa. Instead of consumerism, we live with an open-hearted and intentional generosity with our stuff and our time and our money. It means choosing vulnerability over safety in opening up our lives to our church and our neighborhood. It is living into the shalom of God in the midst of our broken-busy lives.

Hales writes in a style that at once evidences deep spiritual reflection, and personal honesty about her own moments of failure, repentance, and of rooting her life in the suburbs in an awareness of the presence of God in the ordinary. Each chapter concludes with some practices that individuals, families or groups may use.

As one who has lived in a suburban community for 28 years, there was much that I recognized, from the dreams of kitchen remodels to the minivan lineups at schools, practices, and fast-food drive-throughs, to the concerns for safety (far greater than in the urban community of my youth). I appreciate the insight of the author to see beyond these things to the hunger and longings of her neighbors, and the needed posture of Christians who live in this setting.

At the same time, I wonder if her and her husband’s commitment to minister in that community sets them apart from many. Our suburb significantly empties out during the day as people spend the bulk of their waking hours working somewhere else–often a place where they form their most significant friendships. She doesn’t deal with the transience of suburban communities (the house next to us has had four owners during the time we have lived here, the house behind us seven). Suburbs have life cycles from the squeaky clean “new build” stage to aging housing stock and changing demographics as many move to newer exurbs while some stay after raising families to become empty-nesters, and eventually, those who choose to “age in place.”

I hope the author and her husband will stay long enough to wrestle with these realities and work out the practices described in this book, which I believe reflect what kingdom presence looks like, as believers in the suburbs. Many suburbs really are a “geography of nowhere,” removed from shops, services and workplaces, and with attached garages that allow us to enter our “castles” without any interaction with neighbors. Many communities have no real identity and have little beyond the local schools to offer cohesion.  This work describes well the spiritual landscape of suburban life and the posture needed for those who will minister there. I look forward a sequel to this book, something like, “Further Adventures in Finding Holy in the Suburbs.” This is needed work!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Favor

Favor

FavorGreg Gilbert. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: An exploration of experiencing God’s favor on our lives, far greater than we can conceive, utterly dependent upon Christ, and leading us into the joyful worship of God.

Greg Gilbert thinks that many of us are either chasing after false notions of the favor of God, or repelled by the health-and-wealth preachers who promote these notions, and that as a result we may neglect the unfathomably rich gift of God’s favor, a theme running through scripture. About these false notions, he writes:

“For one thing, the favor of God is almost always defined as divine blessings being poured out in a person’s life so that good things start to happen to them right away. Most of the time, those good things take the form of financial blessings—debt reduction, increased income, surprise cash, unexpected windfalls—and the evidence of God’s favor in that person’s life is that they are able to live a certain lifestyle. It’s not just financial good, though, that’s said to come with God’s favor. A person will also have relational success with their spouse or children or friends, professional accomplishment at work, or even a new and unexpected personal charm that makes other people want to do kind things for them, even backing down and letting them have the best parking spot in the lot because somehow, in some way, they recognize that person is a child of the King. When those kinds of things are happening, the story goes, then the favor of God is all over you” (pp. 13-14)

Gilbert contends, in the words of C. S. Lewis, that this is like a child making mud pies in a slum because he or she can’t imagine a holiday at the sea. God has so much more for us and he elaborates this in a study of God’s favor in scripture, noting that critical to this is the idea of being acceptable to God. Favor is earned, yet the problem with this is that we are utterly incapable of earning this ourselves, contrary to the claims of health and wealth preachers who contend that the right prayer, or seed gifts will bring an avalanche of blessing. We have been rebels against God who fall short of the righteousness that gains God’s favor.

Thankfully, we have a “champion” in Christ–one who has won that favor for us through his life, death, and resurrection. The amazing thing is that through faith, we may be united with Christ, Christ in us and we in Christ. In him we have died, been raised, and we enjoy what he enjoys, the favor of God.

In the second part of his book, Gilbert goes on to delineate the blessings experienced by those who enjoy the favor of God. Far beyond what is promised by the health-and-wealth prosperity preachers, we enjoy contentment in an anxious world, the peace of those with a clear conscience, having been declared righteous by God, and enjoying life everlasting, where all that is left to death is to deliver us safely into God’s arms.

He concludes the book with a rallying cry to fight against sin for who we are as the adopted and favored children of the King. He reminds us that we do not fight alone but in the power of the Holy Spirit, who indwells us and destroys sin in our lives down to its roots. He holds before us a life as epic adventure as we live into our destiny as people of the King.

In one sense, there was nothing new here. What Gilbert does here is simply preach the gospel, a gospel that is often lost in our moral, therapeutic, self-help culture where we think of God’s blessings as a kind of quid pro quo for all that we contribute to God’s cause. Down inside, this is all unsatisfying, and we sense we need something far more profound than we can gin up on our own. As I read Gilbert, I found myself reflecting again with how good is this story of God’s favor to us in Christ. As I did so, I kept thinking of this verse of the Katherine Hankey/William G. Fischer hymn, “I Love to Tell the Story”:

I love to tell the story
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest

Indeed, what Gilbert offers here is the “old story,” one I’ve heard since childhood. Yet I found myself hungering, and thirsting, and delighting as I read Gilbert’s account of that story of God’s favor in Christ–far better than prosperity preaching and self-help dreams.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Life in the Presence of God

Life in the Presence of God

Life in the Presence of GodKenneth Boa. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A contemporary discussion of the idea that a vital Christian life is one increasingly lived on a moment by moment basis in the presence of God.

So what exactly is an authentic Christian life? A set of activities or practices does not quite seem enough. Nor is adherence to a set of beliefs. Kenneth Boa, in this book, joins generations of Christians in proposing that a vital Christian life is led increasingly in the moment by moment presence of God. In his introduction, he frames it this way:

“Sure, it’s good to give the first–or the last–moments of our day to God. But what about the rest of the day? It’s so easy for our hearts and heads to end up somewhere else. Is that how God really wants us to live? Is that what he really had in mind when he said he’d give us abundant life (John 10:10)?

I’m proposing that we take our life with God–and our awareness of his presence–with us everywhere, not just into our quiet times but into our noisy times too, incorporating practices into our lives that help us keep that awareness right in front of us, throughout the day, every day.”

Boa’s book is divided into two parts. The first explores the biblical basis of this idea. This wasn’t thought up by Brother Lawrence, but rooted in the reality of what it means to be in Christ. Boa explores the biblical images, biblical exemplars culminating in Christ, and the image of “walking” with God that runs through scripture.

The second part turns to how we may learn to practice God’s presence. Here he does commend Brother Lawrence, the experiment of Frank Laubach and other practices of learning increasingly to abide moment by moment in Christ. Boa points to modern neuroscience’s understanding of the plasticity of our brains and how they may be re-wired through repeated practice. This also involves learning to re-see our world, specifically that we see that all of it matters to God and seeing it in the light of eternity. How we see our time is critical, especially in an age of busy-ness. Taking time to surrender our days to God in our waking moments, finding time to recollect ourselves through the day, and to conclude our days in thanksgiving and reflection are all important as well as establishing rhythms of work, rest, and sabbath.

Suffering and sin are also realities that intrude upon our lives. In suffering, we learn both to lament and to walk in God’s presence in the way of the cross. In sin, growth in experiencing God’s presence means learning to recognize the stages of temptation (a section that was worth the price of the book for me!) and to quickly confess and repent.

The book concludes with two chapters that focus on our visions of community and of the well-lived life.  While we can have unhealthy notions of community, which Boa discusses, good communities practice encouragement that leads to growth, accountability, and living the gospel with “one another” in communities where good soul care is practiced. Finally, to live in God’s presence is to become who we were meant to be–to live into our calling–even as Strider the Ranger must become Aragorn the King in Lord of the Rings. To be in the Lord’s presence is to live with a different vision of the “good life” centered around a vision of eternity.

Each chapter concludes with practical exercises that help us hear God’s Word and to practice his presence. It is the practical element, combined with good biblical grounding and Boa’s own experience, that makes this book so helpful whether you are a recent convert or a lifelong believer. Boa focuses his attention on the everyday in our lives, which in fact make up most of life. To live in God’s presence here is to discover God’s presence in all of our lives from the seemingly mundane to the moments of crisis. And to live in God’s presence is to take creatures rooted in time, and help them live in the light of eternity. Could anything be more important?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.