Review: Paul & The Power of Grace

Paul & the Power of Grace, John M. G. Barclay. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Looks at the theology of Paul through the lens of grace, an unconditioned and incongruous gift for Jew and Gentile alike, personally and socially transformative.

John M. G. Barclay stirred up a conversation in Pauline studies in 2015 with the publication of Paul and the Gift, an analysis of what Paul meant by “grace.” This book represents both a distillation and extension of the ideas of the former book. It is less technical, expands the analysis beyond Galatians and Romans while summarizing the previous work in these texts well, and does more to consider the present implications of these ideas.

His central contention, based on analysis of charis in other Second Temple Jewish texts, and especially of Paul in Galatians and Romans, is that grace may be understood as God’s unconditioned and incongruous gift that is both personally and socially transformative. “Unconditioned” emphasizes that there is nothing the individual does to deserve the gift. It is not unconditional, because the empowering presence of God’s grace in those who trust in Christ, is meant to transform people who live new lives in dying bodies, and transforms social relationships, creating a new community making no distinctions by ethnicity, gender, or status. All this is redounds to the glory of God. It is also incongruous whether for the Gentiles as uncircumcised outsiders or for disobedient Jews. Indeed, Barclay points to Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 as an example of the incongruity of grace in saving all Israel.

In this work, Barclay extends his analysis to the Corinthian correspondence and Philippians. He notes Paul’s treatment of grace and power in Corinth, how the incongruity of grace overturns the power value system of Corinth. and what it means to be “in Christ,” as Christ’s gift of himself to the believer in Philippians. He then extends the significance of grace as gift in inspiring giving communities, generously given to one another where all are cared for, as well as to other communities, as in the offering for Jerusalem, from when the gift of Christ arose.

Barclay addresses the various “perspectives” on Paul and what his own contributes to each. To the traditional Protestant view, his unconditioned but not unconditional reconciles the free aspect of grace and the obedience of faith as the consequence of grace. To Catholics, there are not two stages of grace, but grace transforms, eventuating in good works. For the New Perspective folks, the incongruity of grace explains the inclusion of the Gentiles and the hope for the nation of Israel. For the “Paul within Judaism” people, the incongruity of grace reconfigures his understanding of the law in ways that offer hope both for Israel and the nations.

A concluding chapter considers contemporary implications. Incongruous grace doesn’t recognize distinctions when it comes to who is included. The generosity of giving is one that recognizes all are “gifted,” regardless of economic status. And we all need the gifts of each other as manifestations of God’s incongruous gift.

I appreciate the explicit focus on “grace” in Paul, both for the correctives Barclay brings to notions that smack of “cheap grace” while focusing on the incongruous, unconditioned initiative of God. I’ve often sensed that grace gets eclipsed in the covenantal nomism and focus on faithfulness in various renderings of the New Perspective. Yet Barclay draws on the wealth of learning about Second Temple Judaism to sharpen our understanding of grace such that we don’t read the Reformation back into the New Testament language of grace. And the material about how grace transforms in this volume casts a joyful vision of the possible of our life in Christ, where incongruent grace transforms us into people living congruently with that grace.

Review: Becoming an Ordinary Mystic

Becoming an Ordinary Mystic

Becoming an Ordinary MysticAlbert Haase, OFM. Downers Grove: IVP/Formatio, 2019.

Summary: Explores what it means to be a friend of God, to walk in an awareness of God’s grace, in the ordinary of life.

From the time the author’s mother defined a mystic as “a friend of God,” Albert Haase wanted to be one of those friends. Years later he found himself frustrated, feeling he was walking in circles, wondering:

  • I should be further along on the spiritual journey.
  • Why don’t I see any progress?
  • What am I doing wrong?

His spiritual director observed that many of the great mystics felt like this, and that the fact that he felt like this signaled that he was a mystic as well, an ordinary mystic. Instead of striving, he began to learn what it means to be open to God’s grace. In this book, he shares some of the practices by which he learned that awareness of God and God’s grace through his days.

It begins with a mindfulness of the present of stopping to recollect, looking to attend, listening to reflect, and then going in response. In the first of the exercises that conclude each chapter, he urges this practice several times a day. He then moves on to the examination of conscience, a ruthless review of our sins and the ego obsessions that underlie them, opening us even more to the grace of God. He explores how meditation on the Sermon on the Mount can re-wire our thinking and ego obsessions. He invites us into the cardiac spirituality of love that is at the heart of the law. He teaches us to be transparent through the Welcoming Prayer, a prayer in which we welcome the unseemly emotions.

He moves into our experiences of the absence of God, the times of doubt and darkness, where all we can do is to surrender to we know not what. There is the struggle of forgiveness–of God, of ourselves, and others. He commends the practice of CPR: Confession, Pressing the “stop” button on our memories when they arise, and Relaxation that acknowledges what frail creatures we are and trusts God’s transformative work on his timetable. He draws us into exploring our inadequate images of God and the images of God we see in the life of Jesus.

He tackles the challenges we have with prayer and suggests we begin with the “Come as you are” prayer. He helps us to recognize prayer both as words and the silences between them, much like the notes and rests in music. He proposes that our life experiences are God’s megaphone and the question is not whether God’s speaking, or even whether can we hear him, but what is he saying so loudly in our experiences?

Perhaps some of the best counsel in the book are the principles he outlines regarding various spiritual practices:

  1. They are our response to God’s ardent longing for us, inviting us to go deeper with him.
  2. Whatever the discipline, it should foster a heightened awareness of God’s grace.
  3. This, in turn ought lead to our surrender to the will of God.
  4. One size does not fit all. Traditional practices are not helpful for every person.
  5. Any practice that makes us mindful of God’s ardent longing is acceptable.

He concludes with describing the practice of spiritual direction and how such a person can be a help in becoming aware of God and gives practical recommendations for finding direction.

I found much to commend in this encouraging little book. I found myself identifying again and again with Haase–the glimpses of grace, the profound awareness of sin’s depths in my life, the moments of perplexity, the times where God seems distant, and dealing with and welcoming into God’s presence my unseemly emotions. This is a book that may be taken on retreat, or read and used as a group. And it just may be that we will discuss that God ardently desires us, that we may also be “friends of God,” ordinary mystics.


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: Surprised by Paradox

surprised by paradox

Surprised by ParadoxJen Pollock Michel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: In a world where things are often defined in either-or terms and a quest for certainty, Michel proposes there are many things, beginning with basic biblical realities that are both-and, inviting our continuing curiosity.

Whether it is schism in the church, political divides, or just a good old marital conflict, the parties often have defined things sharply in either-or terms, one way or another. Jen Pollock Michel explains how she began to look for a third way, and to write this book. A family member had been lying to her, repeatedly. She described her dilemma to her counselor.

“…I needed light for groping my way out of this tunnel with two exits: should I suffer lying or sever the relationship?

‘What if there’s a third way?’ she asked gently. Her language sounded like a struck bell, especially because ‘third way’ language was something my spiritual director often used with me. It was as if here was yet another invitation to find a sure-footed way on some undiscovered path–to find and where I had previously imagined only either and or. Here was an invitation to ‘lean not on my own understanding’ and find wisdom in the way of paradox” (pp. 22-23).

She discovered that paradox ran through the pages of scripture, that Christian orthodoxy is full of and, beginning with the incarnation, this idea that the Son of God came to earth, fully God, and also fully human. If paradox is at the heart of the nature of the Lord we trust and follow, might we look for God in the and, rather than insisting on answers to either-or questions. This paradox also suggests that we find the spiritual in the material, the living God in the stuff of everyday life. It also suggests that to conform to God’s ideal for our lives, is to live fully the “one wild and precious life” that is ours, expressing in our own uniqueness, the image of God in our lives.

She goes on to explore three other paradoxes. There is the paradox of the kingdom, which is already here and not fully come, where the least are the greatest, where we both give lavishly and enjoy lavishly what we are given, and where strength takes the form of vulnerability whose crowning hour is the cross. Grace confronts us with other paradoxes. Treasured, yet not for any personal excellency. Finding favor when the wrath we deserved falls upon his favored Son. Michel writes, “We don’t get grace because we change our lives–but our lives are indelibly changed because we get grace. Finally there is lament, the raw, unvarnished plea to God of people in pain that God has not shielded them from, that is a paradoxical kind of faith. It takes God seriously enough to become angry, to speak with blunt honesty rather than pretty pieties when what has happened in one’s life doesn’t square with our understanding of who God is.

Michel is a compelling author, one who can relate the depths of theology to teaching her daughter to drive, and her need for grace. She weaves scripture, teaching of the theological “greats,” contemporary realities, images, and personal stories into a narrative that sings and helps us examine with fresh eyes what we thought we knew down pat, helping us by asking, “did you notice this and this?”

A friend once observed that when we try to get rid of the tensions in our faith, or our lives by getting rid of one side of the tension to focus on the other, we make life simpler, but also smaller and more confined. Jen Pollock Michel invites us to live with paradoxes, and to celebrate the ands of God. She proposes that this opens us up to mystery, to surprise, and to the depth of the riches of knowing our God and what it means to live in the and of his purposes, to experience how grace transforms our work, and how our laments in all their perplexity may be among the most robust acts of faith. What might this “third way” mean as Christians are present to a world mired in “either-or?”


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: Saved By Grace Alone


Saved By Grace Alone: Sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2018.

Summary: Fourteen sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36, demonstrating from this text that salvation is by grace alone, due to our inability because of sin, and God’s loving initiative for his glory and our salvation.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a Welsh preacher who succeeded G. Campbell Morgan as pastor of Westminster Chapel in London. His ministry at Westminster began in 1939 and concluded because of health reasons in 1968. For a time he was president of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in the UK. His ministry was marked by consecutive exposition of different portions of scripture, combining careful exegesis of the text, treatment of the broader theological implications of the passage, and personal applicative appeals to his listeners. One series on Romans was published in fourteen volumes. In the case of this book, he takes fourteen sermons, preached over three months, to cover twenty-one verses in Ezekiel.

If that seems daunting, you are in for a surprise if you read this book. Lloyd-Jones preaches for the lay person and not the academic. Here is an example from one of the early chapters, on the Bible:

“This book is not a human book, it is not man’s ideas. It is the word of the Lord. Ezekiel had not been spending weeks and months in study, trying to understand the situation, and at last felt that he had discovered it and went to address the people; not at all. While he was sitting in helplessness and hopelessness with his fellow countrymen, the word of the Lord came to him. And that is still the only hope for our world. The word that comes to the world today is precisely this old word. Here is a perfect summary of the gospel” (p. 18).

The gospel in fact is the theme of this series of sermons, each on a verse or two from Ezekiel 36. As the title indicates, Lloyd-Jones is contending that this passage teaches us about God’s saving work, and that it is by grace alone. Following the passage, he traces Israel’s rebellion, their folly, and inability of themselves to live up to God’s standards. That is why Ezekiel is writing to exiles in Babylon. Exile reflects his just judgment on their sin, and there is nothing they can do to escape it or make up for their wrong. Yet God does not stop there. This would only be bad news, not gospel. Although they profaned God’s name among the nations, God will vindicate his name by restoring them, separating them unto holiness, bringing them back to Canaan, cleansing them from sin, giving them hearts able to obey, a new Spirit within them, a salvation that touches every aspect of their existence.

In each sermon, Lloyd-Jones moves from what salvation meant for the people of Israel to the parallel of what salvation means in the New Testament, accomplished through the work of Christ, confronting us with and cleansing us from sin, restoring us to life in Christ, reclaiming and going beyond what was lost in Eden. While showing the damage of human rebellion against God upon every dimension of life, and life’s futility under this regime, Lloyd-Jones repeatedly goes on to explore all the ways God in his grace meets us to liberate us from its hold, bringing forgiveness, and the indwelling Spirit, and an expanded vision of the purposes of God in us.

He also addresses his hearers (and readers), coming back again and again to commend the grace of God in Christ as our only hope. The sermons are wonderful examples of calling people to faith. Here is one example:

“Can you say, ‘My God?’ Do you know him personally? That is what Christ came to give you: not only forgiveness, not only new understanding, not only cleansing and holiness, but all that in order that we might be enabled to go into the holiest of all with full assurance of faith and know that we will always be there. Have you got that? Are you in that position? That is Christianity. That is the ultimate of it; the acme, the glory of it. He gave himself for us that he might bring us to God” (p. 147).

These sermons are not only valuable for exploring this passage in Ezekiel, and its gospel implications and as a model of appealing to someone to come to faith. They also preach the gospel to those of us who have believed. My heart was warmed by these truths afresh in reading Lloyd-Jones, even though I first believed them as a child. I can never get beyond but only go deeper into all that it means to be saved by grace alone through Christ alone. This book was a valuable aid in that journey.


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: On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of EverythingParker J. Palmer. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A series of reflections on aging, living with grace and vitality as we age, and facing our deaths.

Perhaps one of the greatest unknowns that shape our lives either by denial, or conscious reflection is our own deaths. Like so much else, we have no clue what to expect until we get there. For some of us, our religious beliefs offer the hope of life beyond taking our last breath, or perhaps a return in another incarnation, or a oneness with the universe. We believe, perhaps with good reasons, but none of us knows. We wonder if death is going over the brink of nothingness. For Parker J. Palmer, at the end of his eighth decade, death is the “brink of everything.” This work consists of collected reflections around the question both of “how shall we die?” and how consequently we live, particularly in the autumn years of our lives, a season he believes has its own beauty.

Palmer had me from the “Prelude” where he writes: “Age brings diminishments, but more than a few come with benefits. I’ve lost the capacity for multitasking, but I’ve discovered the joy of doing one thing at a time.” In seven chapters, Palmer organizes his reflections and poetry around several topics. In “The View from the Brink: What I Can See From Here” he proposes that instead of asking “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?” that we ask “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?” Like Erikson, he sees that living generatively and giving ourselves to rising generations is essential to our vitality. That leads into a chapter on “Young and Old” A highlight in this chapter was a letter to a collaborator in the “On Being” program, Courtney Martin, and his observations about gender relationships. The chapter also includes one of the pithier and substantive commencement addresses I’ve heard or read.

“Getting Real” recounts the influence of Thomas Merton on his life and the journey from illusion to reality in his own life, from false self to true self. He describes an epiphany when a therapist observed about his perception of his struggle with depression (qualifying this as applying only to his own experience):

“You seem to image what’s happening to you as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to image it instead as a hand of a friend pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”

The chapter concludes with journal reflections from a winter retreat week, which includes more Merton.

His chapter on “Work and Vocation” centers on his life as a writer. He confesses, “I became a writer because I was born baffled.” It was helpful to find someone else who thinks this. I often find myself writing to find words to express an “inchoate something” that is rumbling around inside. “Keep Reaching Out” speaks to the necessity of remaining engaged with our world, which he models in how he wrestles what that means in a country led by a president whose character and values are at utter odds with his. As a Quaker, he wrestles through the question of how to be angry and yet live one’s commitments to non-violence. A short essay in this section on “The Soul of a Patriot” included a succinct statement from William Sloan Coffin that expressed with precision something I’ve been groping for:

“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers, and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”

We also need to “Keep Reaching In,” His insights on the connection between pain and violence were thought-provoking to me, reminding me of Henri Nouwen and how wounds can become toxic or sacred to us, depending on the inner work we do:

“What can we do with our pain? How might we hold it and work with it? How do we turn the power of suffering toward new life? The way we answer those questions is critical because violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” 

This relates to his final chapter “Over the Edge,” in which he calls out the great challenge of wholeness, which is to live with and embrace all the contradictions of our lives–our noble and petty qualities–saying “I am all of the above.” He reminds us that we are never other than beautiful and broken persons and to face the truth about ourselves allows us both to live and die well. As for what is “beyond,” the most he will cautiously advance is that he believes that somehow body and spirit are intertwined and indivisible, whether in simply making new life possible or something more.

In this last, it is clear that this is not a book that presents an orthodox Christian view of death and future hope (although the resurrection is a marvelous expression, I think, of his intuitions of the indivisibility of body and spirit). Rather his reflections, the questions he explores in his writing, as well as the bonus downloadable music by retreat collaborator and musician Carrie Newcomer, explore how we might grow old with grace and generativity, rather than crankiness and frustration and sadness. His insights about anger and pain, and the temptations to violence seem very relevant whether we are old or young in this angry and violent culture.

I live in a place of seasons and I love the approach of each one and think each has its own beauty. Palmer helps me to see this in life, that the approach of autumn, and the winter to follow have their own beauty. Contrary to Dylan Thomas, Palmer suggests that we can go gently into the good night. He proposes that this is a season that has its own richness, that he invites us to join with him in exploring as we all approach the brink of everything.

Review: Transforming Grace

Transforming Grace

Transforming Grace, Jerry Bridges. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2017 (book originally published in 1991, study guide, 2008).

Summary: A comprehensive study of the nature of grace and the experience of grace throughout the life of the believer accompanied by a study guide for group use.

“Sola Gratia!” was one of the rallying cries of the Reformation. We believed we are saved by God’s grace alone rather than through anything we’ve done or will do. Yet we often have a hard time believing in and living into grace as a transforming, ongoing reality in our lives. More often, it seems it is simply a theological formula or a point in our presentations of the gospel message.

Jerry Bridges, who died in 2016, wrote this book to address the question of how we may live in grace and experience God’s gracious transformation in our lives. Recently, the publisher released a new edition of this work, combining the text of the earlier work with a subsequently published study guide for groups.

The first couple chapters address a struggle facing many of us. We often profess to believe in grace but live Christian lives that are performance-based, where we tie God’s work in us to the balance of our own merits and demerits. Our crucial need is to come to the place of understanding our utter, permanent bankruptcy. Bridges writes:

“To the extent you are clinging to any vestiges of self-righteousness or are putting any confidence in your own spiritual attainments, to that extent you are not living by the grace of God in your life” (p. 24, italics in original).

Part of the remedy for us is to understand how truly amazing is the grace of God that utterly blots out our sins and remembers them no more. God is like the generous landowner in Matthew 20, who pays those who work only an hour a day’s wage, who gives us what we need and not what we deserve. This leads to godly lives motivated by the extravagant love we have received. Obedience is no longer adherence to a set of rules, but rather recognizing that the commands of God express how we might love him in response to the grace we have experienced.

We are called to live holy lives, even as we are already freely declared holy in the sight of God through grace. Grace also is evident in our growth into the holy character that is already ours as gift, a character enumerated in the fruit of the Spirit. This call to holiness is a call to freedom. Bridges uses the helpful illustration of a raised road running through a swamp where living by grace informed by the law of love that leads to liberty is contrast with going off one side into the  swamp of legalism or the other side of license. As we progress in grace, we discover that grace is sufficient in our lives, meeting us in our weakness and debilities, challenging our self-sufficiency, and bringing us to an awareness of both our own inadequacy and God’s utter adequacy.

Chapter Twelve was perhaps one of the most helpful in the book, on appropriating grace. We often struggle between our own desires and the will of God, and need to appropriate God’s grace to become what we believe. Bridges believes this occurs as we seek God in prayer for this ability to do what God bids, as we lay hold of scriptural promises and principles (which in true Navigators ministry is scripture we have memorized), and as we submit to the providential working of God in our lives. Bridges also commends the importance of trusted companions with whom we honestly share our struggles.

Finally, Bridges encourages us to put on “garments of grace” as we put on the qualities of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness, and an overarching love, as commended in Colossians 3:12-14. He concludes the book in observing how forgiveness is possible because we recognize our own indebtedness or bankruptcy toward God, and thus forgive the small debts we are owed by others. In this, Bridges nicely closes the book where he begins.

I thought this book a very clear, biblical, and practical explanation about how we might live into the grace of God. Bridges own humility in sharing his experiences of struggling with this in his own life make this even more winsome. The incorporation of the discussion guide (a bit more than 100 pages) into this work enhances its usefulness to groups. Although there are thirteen chapters, the guide is organized into eight discussions. For each, the guide summarizes the central idea for the covered material, offers a warm-up exercise, provides selected text from the book to read ahead, questions to help in “exploring grace,” a closing prayer, going deeper questions if there is time for this, and quotes from famous Christians to help us “ponder grace.”

As a Christ-follower for five decades, it was a delight to be reminded of these foundational truths and how we may live into them. Yet the text is clear and basic enough to be understood by new believers, and rich enough to provide fresh nourishment for those who have walked long with Christ. All of us have in common the reality that we more easily profess grace than appropriate it for our lives.


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

Review: Lila


LilaMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2014.

Summary: The story of the unlikely marriage between Lila, a homeless drifter, and Rev. John Ames, a widowed older pastor.

“And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live.” (Ezekiel 16:4-6, American Standard Version)

These verses and the remainder of Ezekiel 16 are ones to which Lila is strangely drawn when she begins reading the Bible she took from the pews of John Ames church. The verses, really a parable of Israel, seem to parallel her life, and perhaps more than she knows.

Lila was a neglected toddler, stolen away from her family by Doll, which probably saved her life. They fell in with other drifters on the road during the Depression and became fiercely loyal to one another. Eventually Doll is in a knife fight where she kills a man, possibly Lila’s father, nearly dies, but eventually escapes custody and disappears. Lila drifts to St. Louis, works for a time in a house of ill repute, and then flees the city with a woman returning to Iowa and ends up in a shack near Gilead, Iowa. One Sunday, she wanders into the church of Rev. John Ames, an older, widowed pastor. And so begins a relationship, a searching dialogue between the two with questions like “why do things happen the way they do?” He and the church help her out and give her work. She asks him to baptize her. She tends the grave of his wife, cultivating roses. At one point Ames thanks her for caring for the grave and wishes there were something he could do for her. She says, “You ought to marry me.” and he answers, “Yes, you’re right. I will.”

And so begins a most unusual marriage, where Lila, who has never trusted anyone but Doll, must somehow believe this man really loves her. The beauty of the story is that he does, and yet gives her the room to believe it for herself. And in the midst of it all, she finds herself pregnant with his child. Much of the story is her reflections on being the motherless child, and her life on the road as the months of her pregnancy progress, interwoven with the careful, tender love of Ames, never forced, but ever present; fearing she might leave, yet never compelling her to stay, but simply offering his love, his home, and himself.

Robinson uses the device of telling the story of her former life as memories Lila reflects upon as she embarks on this new life with Ames. She muses on the strange, dangerous, and sometimes unseemly life she has lived even as she wrestles with the possibility of having really found a home, a love with this man, and that she can be the mother she never had apart from Doll. The answer to her question of why things happen they way they do must remain somehow with the sovereign God, but the working out of the way things happen is a story of grace, the discovering of an incomprehensible but unwavering love.

The third of the “Gilead” stories, Lila explores the deepest questions of existence and the searching question of how far may grace reach. Can it reach Lila? Doll? And what about us the readers? It’s worth reading to find out.

Review: Covenant and Commandment

covenant and commandment

Covenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life.

The Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith has been a doctrine of joyful liberation for so many who have despaired of ever being good enough for God. At the same time, it has been a point of contention, particularly when it is framed in a way that denies any role for works in the subsequent Christian life. Bradley G. Green argues in this installment (#33) of the New Studies in Biblical Theology that the traditional Reformation doctrine in fact supports a vibrant expression of works, obedience, and faithfulness, not as the basis of justification, but as the inevitable outgrowth of union with Christ and the transforming and empowering work of God’s Spirit.

He begins this study with a survey of relevant New Testament texts under fourteen categories demonstrating the reality and necessity of works, obedience and faithfulness. Then chapter 2 turns to the Old Testament books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel to show how the anticipate a wide outpouring of the Spirit and obedience from the heart and how the New Testament sees these prophetic words fulfilled in the first century new covenant people. Chapter 3 goes on to explore the relationship of law and grace and the relation of Old and New Covenants and argues that while we need not argue a radical contrast between law and grace between the two covenants and that believers under both were saved by grace, there is a qualitative and quantitative difference in the experience of New Testament believers of that grace.

Chapter 4 works out the relationship between Christ’s atoning work and the works of the believer. Green argues that the cross is not only outside and for us but works transformation in us, the death of the bridegroom to purify and prepare his bride for her wedding day. Chapter 5 then explores our union with Christ and how it is both we who obey and Christ who is obeying through us. Chapter 6 engages contemporary discussions about the future aspects of justification, the place of works, and the judgment. Green argues, against N.T Wright, that our understanding of justification does not need updating by appealing to the Reformers who in fact argue for the place of works in our ultimate justification.

The concluding chapter seems to tie up a number of loose ends and reiterate some themes demonstrating the contribution of the Reformers in the whole discussion. The epilogue then summarizes the argument of the book.

The great contribution of this book is to highlight how clearly the scriptures affirm that justification by grace and the life of works, obedience and faithfulness are not contradictory. Green’s survey of Reformers from Calvin to Henri Blocher is a valuable contribution. Yet I thought the brief engagement with N. T. Wright’s work was inadequate to demonstrate the superiority of his argument to that of Wright (but he wasn’t writing an 800 page tome but a 170 page monograph!).

A valuable study that demonstrates the richness of the biblical material and the Reformers theological work on the transformation worked in the life of the believer through union with Christ and the work of the Spirit.


Review: The Relational Soul

Relational SoulThe Relational Soul, Richard Plass and James Cofield. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Our relational capacity is essential to being human but often hindered by the false self that struggles with trust, but may be transformed through God’s gracious intervention, often through other people, that allows us to receive the gift of discovering our true self.

It is too rare that I read a book that develops an idea with a succinct, logical flow that connects head, heart and human spirit, and does so with just enough explanation and illustration and nothing extra. This is such a book, and on a subject so basic to the nature of being human — our hunger and drive for meaningful relationships.

Plass and Cofield begin the book by contending that we were created for relationship, for enjoying meaningful connections with others. How we make, or fail to make attachments is formed very early in life and our “emotional thermostat” is set by our early attachment patterns–avoidant, ambivalent, scattered, or stable. Growing in our capacity begins with awareness of these patterns and our conscious and even unconscious memories and a receptivity of moving from distrust to trust.

They then turn to a construct others such as David Benner have discussed in formational work, the “false self”. These authors particularly focus on the mistrusting soul, that is both guarded in its trust of others and reliant upon oneself to project a self that we can control that we think will gain us affirmation while protecting ourselves from hurt. The breakthrough in relationships comes when Christ comes to us in grace, often through another person, and we experience relational connection as a gift rather than an achievement we control. This opens the door to discovery of our true selves, which comes through receptivity that begins to accept oneself with all our limits and losses, because we are accepted by Christ.

The second half of the book goes deeper into this journey of discovering true self in relationship by first of all exploring how our stories connect to God’s story and help connect head and heart. Community is crucial in deepening our relational connections–community that is particular, mysterious, and messy–in other words real rather than some idealized place. Plass and Cofield commend the four disciplines of silence, solitude, contemplative reading of scripture and contemplative prayer as disciplines that nurture the relational soul. They conclude by talking about the long, patient journey of love into relational wholeness, one that involves openness, curiosity, and acceptance of limits and loss.

The book includes a bibliography of further readings, helps in developing one’s life map, and a brief introduction to the Enneagram (probably the least helpful aspect of the book because of the lack of instruction in how to discern one’s personality style). Each chapter includes helpful reflection questions for personal or group discussion.

It seems to me that this is a good book to read in the context of working with a spiritual director or for individuals or groups wanting to go deeper in their understanding of relational alienation and relational disconnectedness. This seems especially important in this age of projected selves on social media where we may have many “friends” but rarely if ever experience deep connection with humans or God.

Review: Erasmus and Luther: The Battle Over Free Will

Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will Luther Erasmus edited by Clarence H. Miller, translated by Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012.

Summary: This work is a compilation of the argument between Erasmus and Luther over the place of free will and grace in salvation, excluding most of the supporting exegesis but giving the gist of the argument.

How free is the human will? This is a theological and philosophical discussion that has been ongoing for at least two millenia. In our present context the question arises in light of research findings in evolutionary biology and neuroscience. More narrowly, this has been a point of contention within Christian theology from the disputes between Augustine and the Pelagians (fourth century) to more present-day discussions between Calvinists and Arminians. The argument between Luther and Erasmus at the beginning of the Reformation comes a bit over midway in this history and helps us understand some of the theological fault lines between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church that are still under discussion to the present day.

The “battle” is really a disputation in a formal sense that was initiated somewhat reluctantly by Erasmus who was actually sympathetic to many of Luther’s contentions for reform but felt that Luther’s Augustinian embrace of sovereign grace alone with no place for human will in salvation to be extreme. His initial discourse with Luther was a somewhat moderated appeal that sought to thread a path between grace alone and some allowance for the place of human will assisted by grace. Luther’s reply, which we know as The Bondage of the Will argues forcefully, and at times acerbically, that when it comes to our salvation “free” will is a non-existent entity. Erasmus responded with a two part reply, known under the title of The Shield-Bearer Defending in which he more forcefully defends the place of human will in salvation.

The arguments are lengthy, detailed and at points repetitious and thus the group I read this work with were glad for a compilation rather than the full versions of both works. In the introductory material, the editor outlines the works, showing in bold print the sections included in the compilation. This edition is well-annotated, providing background material for allusions and helpful connections back to opposing arguments when these are referred to.

As I mentioned, this debate helped delineate some of the fault lines between Catholic and Reformation churches:

  • The question of the perspicacity of scripture–how easy or difficult is it for the individual reader to understand scripture?
  • How important is the tradition of how the church has read scripture versus the priority of the individual reader, particularly Luther?
  • Assumptions about “fallen” human nature. Are we utterly incapable of doing anything to contribute to our salvation or is there some “spark” of goodness which may be assisted by grace?
  • Related to this, is our salvation to be attributed exclusively to the sovereign grace of God or is there some place for the human will in seeking and believing?

We concluded that the arguments did not resolve these questions for us. In our reading group were those leaning toward Luther and those toward Erasmus, although most of us were troubled on the one hand by Luther’s exclusive emphasis on sovereign grace, and on the other by Erasmus’s language of “meriting” grace and his implication that justification is a process, confusing justification and sanctification. We wondered if the word “free” might be a sticking point and a discussion of human agency might have been more helpful. We recognized that we are dealing with things that are either paradoxical (apparently contradictory) or antinomies (two contrary things that are both true). We saw the challenge of attempting to reconcile as abstractions (“free will” vs. “grace”) realities lived out in the existential life of faith where we experience both our “chosenness” and our “choosing” under the grace of God.

Hence, if one is looking for a “pat” answer to this discussion, this work will either simply confirm your pre-understanding or not help. But if you wish to understand the discussion, listening to these two great figures will prove illuminating and perhaps help you think more deeply about some of the fundamental questions in Christian theology.