Review: Changed Into His Likeness

Changed Into His Likeness (New Studies in Biblical Theology), J. Gary Miller. Downers Grove: IVP Academic/London: Apollos, 2021. (UK publisher link)

Summary: A biblical study of how personal transformation takes place in the life of a believer.

Change is hard. How many of us keep those New Year’s Resolutions? At the same time, one of the claims made by Christians is that new life in Christ is transformative. J. Gary Millar, in Changed Into His Likeness explores what may be asserted from the teaching of scripture about the change that is possible, avoiding the extremes of over- and under-realized eschatologies. He considers the clear teaching that we both have been changed in coming to new life in Christ, and we will be changed. Meanwhile, there is the question of what may be expected in between, where believers live their lives this side of eternity, which is the focus of this volume.

Before engaging this question, Millar asks the question of what do we mean by “us,” considering what is meant by the image of God, and the various words used addressing body, soul, spirit, mind, etc. This relates to current neurophysiological debates. If we are merely material, change is simply a matter of re-routing neural pathways. He seems most sympathetic to the idea of “holistic dualism.”

He then turns to the biblical account of change, considering first the Old Testament. His contention, considering case studies from Noah to Solomon showing that positive change was not possible for those who believe, but rather decline. He then asks an intriguing question: were Old Testament saints regenerate, particular if this Spirit was at most upon them rather than indwelling them? The theologians he references dance around the question and he leaves this unanswered as well. But the evidence shows that transformation is not evident in the Old Testament.

He then considers the New Testament. Jesus, unlike the Old Testament saints fulfilled the law and expanded his treatment from outward to inward, limiting the provisions for divorce, and transforming the lives of those who encounter him, like Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman. He frees from sin, and promises the indwelling of the Spirit, through whom he would bear fruit in their lives. Paul likewise speaks of the gospel’s transforming work. Believers abound in love, please God more and more, learn to discern his will, increasingly reflect the character of Jesus, are strengthened to serve, filled with God’s fullness, show a work of God moving forward to completion, and reflect God’s glory in Christ. He also traces the contributions of other New Testament writers. His summary of Hebrews could preach: We will grow in our knowledge of truth, focus on encouraging others, and experience the kindly discipline and training of God

He then does a historical theological survey from Augustine to the present, including fascinating material on Calvin and John Owen. He also characterizes James K. A. Smith’s focus on replacing cultural liturgies with richer, thicker Christian ones to be a flirtation with legalism. I think he misreads Smith here and does not distinguish what Smith proposes from his own recommended practices of a Word-shaped life. He makes these observations: Biblical change is complex, God’s work, trinitarian, flows from union with Christ, is word-driven, requires piety, and is comprehensive. This sets the stage for his own biblical theology of personal transformation. He highlights that it is a work of God, occurs through the gospel, enabling us to respond with repentance and faith. This change comes through our life in the church and in the world, and involves perseverance. Perhaps more simply, we change as we gaze upon Christ and are changed increasingly into people who reflect his glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18).

This is much needed work in an era where the gospel has been hi-jacked either for personal prosperity or political ends, all of which reveal a shrinking understanding of the true and glorious transforming power of the gospel. Only this holds hope for those who have been failed by all the self-help teachers and those in the grips of sin’s tyranny in all its forms–our idolatries, our besetting sins, our injustices, and our fearful animus toward our neighbors. God can transform all of these–not with a wave of a magic wand but as we focus on Christ, are discipled by his word, are impowered to repent, believe, and change by his Spirit, and drawn by a loving Father in a community of mutual encouragement. This theology of change speaks into the lives of quiet desperation of believers who wonder what there is between having first believed and going to be with the Lord and who feel they are just going through the motions. Millar’s study is a vital resource that I hope enjoys much use by pastors and all who commend the Lord who is changing us into his likeness.

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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: Growing in Holiness

growing in holiness

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: Sculptor Spirit

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Sculptor SpiritLeopoldo A. Sanchez M. (Foreword by Oscar Garcia-Johnson). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: Starting from a “Spirit Christology,” explores five models by which the Spirit shapes our lives in the likeness of Christ.

For many of us, this work will break ground in two ways. The first is that it will introduce us to the idea of “Spirit Christology.” In the author’s words:

“A Spirit Christology focuses on the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life and the mission of Jesus. It asks what the identity of Jesus as the receiver, bearer, and giver of God’s Spirit contributes to our theological reflection and Christian living.”

For Sanchez, this does not replace, but rather complement a “logos Christology,” which focuses on the meaning and nature of the Incarnation, of God become man, the Word become flesh, fully human and fully divine. Rather, to observe what it means for Jesus to live, die, and be raised in the fullness of the Spirit sheds valuable light on how we might be formed in Christ.

This brings us to the second way this book breaks ground. Sanchez proposes five models for the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctifying us, or “sculpting” us in Christ’s image. Each complements the others and is an aspect of this sculpting work. The five models are:

  1. Renewal: The recurring dying and being raised to new life as we return to the cross in daily repentance toward God, reconciliation toward others, and embrace of our new identity in Christ.
  2. Dramatic: This is the model of standing firm when faced with spiritual attacks through dependence upon the Spirit who intercedes for us in prayer and empowers the ministry of the Word and the affirmation of our baptism as a “little exorcism.”
  3. Sacrificial: Attention here is focused on the life of serving with excellence in our callings and sharing through “happy exchanges” of mutual care where we each give what we have and receive what we need in partnerships.
  4. Hospitality: Following the example of Jesus’ hospitality, the practice of welcoming strangers and the marginalized, participating in the Spirit’s work of calling people from the margins.
  5. Devotional: The worship of God through Spirit-given rhythms of work, play, and rest.

In elaborating these models, Sanchez considers pictures of the Spirit’s work in the life of Jesus and elsewhere in scripture, catechetical models drawing upon the early fathers who wrote about the Holy Spirit (Irenaeus of Lyon, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind,  Ambrose of Milan, and St. John Chrysostom). As a Lutheran theologian, he also draws on the theology of Martin Luther, making a case that Luther had a theology of sanctification, as well as one of justification. In his treatment of these theologians, he identifies catechetical images for each model from their writings.

One of the highlights of this work was to view this discussion through the eyes of a Hispanic theologian and church leader. This was most evident for me in the chapter on hospitality, or welcoming the stranger. For example, he writes of the bittersweet and painful experience of mestizaje, the forced coming together of races in the Spanish conquest and colonization of the New World. Despite the violence and even death, under the cross, a new people was created–mestizo people, yes–but also revealing the church catholic–not monocultural or monolinguistic–accepted without shame at the foot of the cross.

Sanchez concludes this work by sketching how these five models help us tell the story of Jesus in the world–how Jesus came filled with and bearing the Spirit, and how the Spirit meets us and forms us in Christ. An appendix offers a chart that summarizes the five models and his elaboration of them and an extensive bibliography is provided.

It has been encouraging in recent years to see the growth in Trinitarian theology. This book is an important contribution in exploring the intimate relationship of Jesus, the Spirit, and the believer. It moves away from inordinate focus on the Spirit or the silence of a binatarian theology. It offers a well-rounded vision of the work of the Spirit in forming us to be like Christ.

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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: Holiness

Holiness

Holiness, J.C. Ryle. Chios Classics (electronic text), 2015 (originally published 1877).

Summary: The classic collection by nineteenth century evangelical Anglican J.C. Ryle emphasizing that growth in Christ-like character (holiness) involves not only faith in Christ’s empowering work but effort in laying hold of that work and that this basic matter is far too often neglected in the church.

J. C. Ryle was an Anglican rector, and eventually bishop of the then-new Diocese of Liverpool. He lived from 1816-1900. Much of his work was among working class people, and it is evident in reading this collection of sermons why he was so popular. Unlike others who cultivated a dense eloquence, Ryle spoke plainly and clearly outlined his points such that anyone giving him their attention could follow. Even his titles were straightforward, the longest of which is only five words (“A Woman to be Remembered”, on Lot’s wife!).

Ryle’s main concern was for the decline in practical holiness in his day. Against the Keswick movement and others who took a type of “let go and let God” approach, Ryle argued that holy character was something assiduously fought for (one of the sermons in this collection is titled “The Fight!”), and that while faith in Christ’s working in one’s life was necessary, so also was effort and exertion.

The title sermon of this collection, “Holiness”, begins with an exposition of the nature of true holiness in one’s life, why such holiness ought to be pursued, and finally how such holiness may be attained, through striving and through dependence upon Christ. In the concluding section he writes:

That great divine, John Owen, the Dean of Christ Church, used to say, more than two hundred years ago, that there were people whose whole religion seemed to consist in going about complaining and telling everyone that they could do nothing of themselves. I am afraid that after two centuries, the same thing might be said with truth of some of Christ’s professing people in this day. I know there are texts in scripture which warrant such complaints. I do not object to them, when they come from men who walk in the steps of the apostle Paul and fight a good fight, as he did, against sin, the devil and the world. But I never like such complaints when I see ground for suspecting, as I often do — that they are only a cloak to cover spiritual laziness, and an excuse for spiritual sloth. If we say with Paul, “O wretched man that I am!” let us also be able to say with him, “I press toward the mark!”

The collection begins with a sermon on the nature of sin (“Sin”) and is followed by one on “Sanctification”, including the diligent use of means, and then the title sermon of “Holiness”.  He then follows up on the theme of the struggle in the Christian life with chapters on “The Fight” and “The Cost”. He writes of the marks of “Growth in Grace” being a deepening sense of sin coupled with stronger faith, brighter hope, and growing love and spiritual-mindedness. The sermon on “Assurance” both holds out the reality of confidence in the work of Christ, coupled with the knowledge that one may not experience this and yet belong to Christ.

Then come four sermons around figures in scripture. He looks at Moses as an example of living by faith, Lot as a “beacon” warning us of the example of less than full-hearted obedience and Lot’s wife as “A Woman to be Remembered” because of the privileges she enjoyed, the repudiation of it all in the backward look, and the judgment she experienced. Finally, “Christ’s Greatest Trophy!” concerns the thief on the cross who believed–one of the rare instances I’ve come across of a sermon on this episode.

The next sermons concern the Lordship of Jesus in adversity, (“Ruler of the Waves”), and over the church (“The Church Which Christ Builds” and “Visible Churches Warned”). Sermons fifteen to eighteen focus around our call to love the Lord (“Do You Love Me?”), the sobering reality of life “Without Christ”, how Christ addresses our deepest thirst, and through us addresses the thirst of others (“Thirst Relieved!”). He explores the “Unsearchable Riches” of life in Christ.

His concluding sermons in this collection focus first on the “Needs of the Times”, including the authority of scripture, a clear grasp of Christian doctrine, a pursuit of holiness, and perseverance in private devotion. This sermon does have some sharp words against the Catholicism of his day. The collection concludes on a high note as Ryle explores all the ways “Christ is All”, a wonderful resource for nurturing one’s worship!

Ryle’s frank and straightforward preaching is a breath of fresh air. Read Ryle if you want to learn how to preach plainly. Read him to understand how good shepherds of God’s people afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Read him to examine your own life and to stir you from indifference. Read him to appreciate the marvelous riches one has in Christ. And read him for the practical help he gives in pursuing a “practical” holiness.

A note on editions: All of the most inexpensive editions of Holiness are in electronic form, including that linked to in this post. As a public domain work, it may be found for free or very cheaply online in various e-formats. Amazon also sells print-on-demand editions. Crossway has a more expensive paperback that includes a biography of Ryle by J.I. Packer under the title Faithfulness and HolinessOne should check to see if the edition you are buying has all twenty sermons–some are abridged–and it is worth getting them all!