Review: Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His Son, Haley Goranson Jacob (Foreword by N. T. Wright). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: An in-depth exploration of the meaning of Romans 8:29b-30, arguing that conformity to the image of the His Son has to do with our participation in the Son’s rule over creation, which is our glorification.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Romans 8:29-30, English Standard Version

Generations of believers have thrilled to the language of this passage in Romans 8 and its description of the glorious destiny of believers to be conformed to the image of Christ the Son. But what does that all mean? This was the question Haley Goranson Jacob asked, and the answers she found in commentators, when they did address the language of “conformed to the image of his Son” and “glorified,” was all over the map. That question became Jacob’s dissertation study, and subsequently this book.

Jacob contends that instead of some form of spiritual, moral, physical or sacrificial conformity or a reference to a shared radiance with Christ’s glory, this verse points to our participation in the exalted calling of Christ as the last Adam and glorious king to rule with him over the creation as his vicegerents. And she argues that this is what it means for us to be glorified–to share in the Son’s glorious rule over creation.

Jacob makes a careful case for her thesis. She begins by a study of the background of the use of cognates for “glory” in the Septuagint and Apocalyptic literature, applying semiotic theory, and concludes that while there are varied usages, the most common, whether applied to humans or God is not radiance or splendor, but rather on exalted status or honor. She turns to Romans, noting echoes of Genesis 1:26-27 and Psalm 8, in the glory of the Son, the lost glory of humanity’s dominion over creation, and its restoration through the work of Christ. To strengthen the link between Christ the Son and humanity, she looks at the language of participation in Paul’s writing and contends that it is participation in the vocation of Christ, both in suffering and in exaltation over all creation.

Having laid this groundwork, she turns to Romans 8:29b-30. First she looks at the language of Sonship, and the echoes of the promised Davidic King and the last Adam. He is the firstborn, the first raised from the dead of a large family who rules over the creation he has redeemed. Believers participate as adopted sons in this rule and share in his glory–are glorified. One of the distinctives in Jacob’s argument is that she argues for the truth of this in the present and that we already participate in the Son’s work of redeeming a groaning creation, that this is the purpose Paul speaks of in Romans 8:28, that we participate in the working for good of all things.

The prospective reader should be warned that this is scholarly work, the turning of a doctoral thesis into a book, and that there is extensive use of Greek, and some Hebrew in the text. Nevertheless, Jacob’s writing is clear and her argument is set forth step by step for the reader to follow. Her intent is not mere scholarship, but scholarship in service to the church and the edification of believers.

Jacob’s point is not to deny the reality of moral transformation in Christ but to set it in the context of a larger vocation–to participate with the family of the redeemed in the rule of Christ over all creation, both now and in the new heaven and earth. This work challenges us to lift our eyes from our own spiritual progress, to the exalted Son, and the work he calls us to join him in. This is a calling to become who we were created, and then redeemed to be–image bearers who with mercy and love, care for the very good creation. The implication of this understanding extends meaning to all of our work, and has implications for the groaning creation in environmental crisis. To realize that all this comes through the foresight and wisdom of the exalted Father ought swell our hearts with renewed love and deepened affection toward the Father, Son, and Spirit whom we worship with wonder at the incredibly rich life we’ve been called to share.


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: Every Job a Parable

every job a parable

Every Job a Parable John Van Sloten. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2017.

Summary: A theology of work proposing that our different jobs are “parables” that reveal various aspects of the character and ways of God, and therefore that all work matters and that God speaks to the world through our callings.

John Van Sloten has approached the theology of work in a way I’ve not seen before. He notes how so many of the parables of Jesus focus on the various kinds of work his hearers would readily have recognized and observes:

“When Jesus wrapped a parable around a particular vocation, he was affirming the creational goodness of that job.

I think Jesus is still doing the same today–through the parable that is your job.”

For him, this sheds new light both on how we image God in all of our endeavors, how God is revealed in our work, and how we might more effectively image God in our work. He traces the significance of our work from creation where God speaks through our work and our world; the fall and the ways we are hindered from experiencing God in our work; redemption and the transforming power of naming God’s saving presence in the world, and the New Earth that reminds us that our work is a foretaste of our eternal destiny.

He did something else I’ve not seen before. He interviewed and studied scores of workers from different occupations: astronauts and Walmart greeters, forensic psychologists and restaurant servers, emergency response personnel and asphalt contractors and explored how God meets them in their work and reveals himself through it. One of the powerful experiences for both Van Sloten and the various workers was to see their work in new light as they revealed that it all matters to God.

Perhaps one of the chapters that most resonated with me was his discussion of our lives as part of God’s great story, that he speaks through us–where we have the sense that we are participating in something greater than ourselves, where Someone greater than ourselves is speaking or singing or composing or caring or building or crafting through us. He calls this entering into the spokenness of our work.

Through short chapters that weave stories of workers with theological reflection, Van Sloten offers one of the richest and most accessible treatments of the theology of work I’ve read. He invites individuals and groups to join him in this reflection on the significance of our work with reflection questions titled Lectio Vocatio at the end of each chapter. Van Sloten has also created a series of YouTube videos around different vocations. One example is a sermon on restaurant servers. He includes a list of links to all the videos in an index.

There are many people who sit in our churches who wonder what connection their work has with the things we speak of Sunday by Sunday. They spend the major portion of their waking hours at work in many cases. John Van Sloten offers the tremendous news that God not only speaks on Sundays but through us in our work, which matters greatly. God “calls” to the world through our callings. Rather than a necessary evil, our work images the good and beautiful and true God. The book may serve as a great resource for an adult education class, or a preaching series, giving people hope that it is not simply through their involvement in the church, but also through their work in the world that they may know the pleasure of God upon their lives.

Review: Called

CalledCalled, Mark Labberton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Understanding our calling to follow Jesus and seek God’s purposes for the flourishing of the world is key both to a life well-lived and a church that fulfills its mission. This book explores the contours of what it means to live a called life.

Mark Labberton has a vision of a church filled with people living out in daily life the call to follow Jesus and seek the flourishing of God’s purposes in God’s world. He sees the lack of the fulfillment of that vision expressed in lost churches that are self-absorbed, silo-ed, oppressive, invisible and often the bearers of bad news or no news. This lack is all the more urgent because he sees this church in the midst of a lost world characterized by free-floating values, disconnectedness from real community, consumeristic, and fearful–a place where the church which knows its calling could make a difference.

Having outlined the need, Labberton then charts the path. It begins by returning to the “first thing” of following Jesus. When Jesus called people, his call was “follow me.” Following means re-locating from the Promised Land of the American Dream to those who understand themselves to be exiles in Babylon. It means re-orienting by taking a hard look at how one is living out this call. It means re-focusing on who is calling and his fundamental call to character reflected in the fruit of the Spirit. It also means an embrace of wisdom, which he defines at “the truth and character of God lived in context.”

The next three chapters focus on three”ways” in which the called person lives. First is the Way of the Beloved–understanding ourselves individually and as communities as the beloved of God called to live in sacrificial love. The second is the Way of Wisdom, which is the translation of the truth and character of God into practical action that fits the needs of our context. Finally, he speaks of The Way of Suffering, in which faithfulness to Christ’s call is an invitation to enter into the sufferings of others, or even to suffer for the call itself.

Having laid out the need for a called people and the fundamental contours of the called life, Labberton turns to discerning the particular expression of calling for an individual. What is key here is keeping primary calling to Christ, to God’s purposes in the world, and to character, primary. Beyond this, individual call is discerned through the work of the Spirit, evidenced in the fruit of the Spirit, confirmed by the scriptures, attested to by the community, reflected in one’s spiritual gifts and strengths, and lived out in one’s context–one’s time, passions, work, finances and more.

The epilogue comes back to “first things” and challenges us with the idea that who we are as followers of Jesus is far more critical than what we do. All work that isn’t illegal or immoral is honorable and may be done unto the Lord. Opening ourselves up to pursue Jesus and listen to his call will lead us individually and together into well-lived lives and church communities that are salt and light in the world.

Each chapter concludes with a “Practice” section, allowing the reader to reflect on and put into practice the chapter content.

I can think of at least three audiences for which this book would be of value. First, church leadership teams could use this to great benefit to reflect on what it might be like to lead their churches in following Christ and hearing his call. Second, this could be helpful in adult ed contexts, particularly where the idea of “calling” is thought of as something for a special class of “saints”. Finally, this is a good gift for college students on the front end of discerning calling in their own lives.

The book size lends it to gift giving, and the short chapters and “Practice” sections lend this to use with groups. I would hope for wide circulation of this book, that Labberton’s vision of called people and renewed churches might be realized in many communities. Granted, that will take more than a book, but one never knows what the biblically-rooted vision found in this book under the grace of God might accomplish!


A Vocational Blind Spot

Blind spot test

Blind spot test

At the conference I am attending on the academic vocation, we talked today about a blind spot that occurs in many faith communities. In many of these we look at vocation only in terms of religious vocations or applying to those involved in spiritual ministries.

What is striking is that many of the academics I know see their work as a spiritual calling but often fail to hear any affirmation of this either in their institutions or in their faith communities. And it is not just academics. I’ve know people in the world of business, law, medicine and other fields who see their work as integral to being faithful to a spiritual calling. Sometimes they have been highly successful and impactful in this work. Sadly, in many cases the only affirmation they receive in faith communities is for how much money they contribute, but not for the work they do.

It’s not limited to academics and professionals. I’ve know plumbers and carpenters and electricians and many others who view their work as being “for God.” They seek to do quality work, deal honestly, and serve their customers.

One of our speakers asked the question of what it would mean if we wouldn’t simply feature the people in ministries or religious vocations or trumpet the big donors, but also celebrate the engineers and plumbers, lawyers and electricians, and all the others who are conscientiously offering the gifts of their work to God.

The apostle Paul wrote an early group of Christians saying, “And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). My sense is that “whatever” encompasses anything not specifically prohibited by the scriptures.

What would it mean if we broadened our sense of calling to encompass “whatever”? What if we honored the intrinsic value of the work people do, and not just what it is “good for”? What if we started affirming the 40 or more hours a week people spent in their workplaces as mattering to God, and not just the few hours they gave to church activity?

What if?

Those Who Can, Teach

170px-Brack_Vocabularius_rerumThe other day, I reviewed Mark Schwehn’s Exiles From Eden, which is a defense of the academic vocation of teaching. This idea was reinforced today at the conference I’m attending, which centers around the idea of the vocation of faculty.

One of our speakers, in a moment of refreshing honesty confessed that she has experienced real frustrations in teaching at times and that her temptation is to lash out at her students. Instead, she said she had felt God saying that she needed to be a “shepherd” and then referred to the Dead Sea scrolls reference to a “Teacher of Righteousness who would be a guide in the way of God’s heart.” She works with clinicians in a helping field and sees preparing empathetic and ethical people as holy work.

She spoke as one highly proficient in her field, both in research and clinical experience. And she gave the lie to the old saw “those who can’t do, teach.” She, and others I’ve met combine research excellence with a love for students and a sense that teaching and forming students in their disciplinary work is indeed a calling, not a painful distraction from research and publication.

Universities love to talk about how much they care about teaching and the experience of students. Yet the truth is that the value system in universities still values “knowledge-making” over teaching and the formation of students, even though many of the students who matriculate do not aspire to be academics or researchers. They will pursue commerce, politics, engineering, and various forms of work that foster human flourishing.

It seems it is time and past time to re-examine how important the one who teaches is to the preparation of the next generation who will shape our society. What we don’t need, as one commentator once noted is “highly skilled barbarians.” Yet this, I think is what will result if we continue to denigrate the important, indeed sacred, role of those who teach. I wonder, can we afford that?

Review: Exiles From Eden

ExilesExiles From Eden by Mark R. Schwehn. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Summary: Schwehn chronicles a shift in the academic vocation from one of formation of the mind and character of students to one of making knowledge, reflecting a change from religiously shaped values to a valuing of formal and procedural rationality, and from an integral sense of self to a multiplicity of “selves.”

This book begins with a group of faculty discussing what occupation they entered on their income tax forms, with responses like sociologist, anthropologist, psychologist and so forth. The author describes the looks of condescension he experienced when he answered “college teacher.”  He uses this as an illustration of the shift he believes has taken place in the academic vocation, which he believes is consequential for academics and students alike.

Schwehn argues that Max Weber was both a chronicler and leading exponent of this shift. He recounts his 1918 Munich University address “Wissenschaft als Beruf” as a key turning point in the definition of the academic vocation. Instead of the role of the academic being that of forming the character and intellect of students in a scholarly community, the academic’s vocation became one of “knowledge-making” and an increasingly individual quest to “do one’s own work” interrupted by the instruction of students and the necessities of academic administration. In the process, the religiously shaped virtues of that informed classical university education have been replaced by a kind of “procedural rationality.”

Schwehn observes that voices as diverse as Richard Rorty, Parker Palmer, and Jeffrey Stout have argued for the re-introduction of communities of spirited inquiry in higher education. Schwehn develops this proposal and argues for the importance of religious virtues such as humility, faith, self-denial, and charity. He also contends that all of this be centered by a renewed sense of the academic vocation as that of teaching rather than research, reconceiving research as part of the educative process and honoring excellence in teaching. In a question and answer section he defends and elaborates these proposals against such criticisms as this upholding mediocrity.

The latter part of the book takes a look at the Education of Henry Adams as an example of the life produced by the education system for which Weber advocates. He summarizes this as follows:

The creature Adams registers the disappearance of his Creator by becoming the author of himself—both creator and authority. His wandering spirit seeks, not reunion or reconciliation with the divine, but further estrangement from both divine and the human. In one sad, brave, wonderful book, Adams thereby charts the course of modern alienation by presenting one persona’s repeatedly futile efforts to discover meaning in the world around him. Yet the Education represents that very “formula of his own” by which the author made sense of his life to himself….At least, Adams confessed, the Education had succeeded in educating him. (p.109)

Schwehn concludes the book by returning to his title. We are all exiles from Eden. We can either resort to knowledge as power, or, realizing the impossibility of returning to Eden, we can with humility form communities of inquiry to address our finiteness and fallenness. Thus Schwehn argues for the essential difference religious values and virtues can made in the academic vocation.

In the twenty or so years since Schwehn wrote this book it seems that most of the academy has gone further down the Weberian road. By and large it is only religious institutions who have maintained something of the sense of calling Schwehn describes, and even here there are pressures. But the issues he raises have relevance for those who work in non-religious settings, both public and private, who are people of faith. The question he raises for them is whether they will live as people of faith or as people shaped by the “knowledge-making, knowledge as power” paradigm of the post-Weberian age.

The Month in Reviews: August 2014

During this month I traveled the spectrum of reading from the preaching of hell and damnation in pre-Civil War America to America’s gods. I read a fictional account exploring the dynamics of adultery and a couple of books on calling. I explored how capital is changing the economic landscape of the world, and what religious communities often think of when they use rhetoric about changing the world. I read about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the challenge of being both-and people in an either-or world. It felt like a bit of a “both-and” kind of month! So here’s the list:

1. Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction, Kathryn Gin Lum. The book explores the varying approaches to the subject of hell and judgment during this period as well as the appropriation of damnation language to the problem of slavery.

Damned Nationboth-andIsraeli-Palestinian


2. Both-And: Living the Christ-Centered Life in an Either-Or WorldRich Nathan with Insoo Kim. Pastors Nathan and Kim describe and narrate the vision of Vineyard Columbus to live as a both-and church that is both evangelical and charismatic, both united and racially diverse, both showing mercy and pursuing justice, and more.

3. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct AnswersDale Hanson Bourke. This book doesn’t take sides but seeks to provide background information about the conflict, the history, the context of daily life, and other players in the conflict. Well illustrated and concise.

4. Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty. This lengthy best-seller explores the growth of capital in relation to income and the growing inequities of wealth and poverty that may result in the US and Europe and other parts of the world.

to change the worldshooting starCapital

5. To Change the WorldJames Davison Hunter. Many organizations and movements in Christian circles have used the language of changing the world but have not been cognizant to the deeper dynamics of culture change nor its double-edged character.

6. A Shooting Star, Wallace Stegner. This novel not only traces the unraveling of a marriage following an incident of adultery but raises questions about the illusions and follies of the American dream for both people and places.

7. Visions of Vocation, Steven Garber. The main thesis of this book is that to live as a called person is to be implicated in what one knows, to have a sense of responsibility that flows out of understanding the world and our place and work in it. Garber does a wonderful job of unpacking this idea through narratives of his work in helping many young leaders discern vocation.

Visions of VocationAmerican GodsCalled to be saints

8. American Gods, Neil Gaiman. Shadow, a released prisoner gets caught up in a war between the old and new gods with which Gaiman populates the American landscape, and discovers his own identity in the process.

9. Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian MaturityGordon T. Smith. Smith articulates a vision of becoming a saint as union with Christ that results in holy character that is wise, works good, loves, and is joyful.

I thought there were some great books in this month’s collection, three of which I gave 5 star ratings and a few others were near misses.

What’s next? Well, I’m in the middle of a biography of Abraham Kuyper, theologian and prime minister of the Netherlands at the beginning of the 20th century, an autobiography of Chai Ling, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen Square Demonstrations in 1989, a collection of critical essays by George Steiner and a book on why study church history. After these, I will probably pick up a book on working class in Youngstown that I’ve been wanting to read for some time and an Ann Patchett novel.

Did you miss any of these reviews the first time? Follow the blog and never miss another review (you can even get it emailed to you!). I’d also love to hear what you’ve read in the last month!

Review: Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity

Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity
Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity by Gordon T. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book might change your thinking about “sainthood”. Sometimes, we conceive saints as these unworldly, serious, ascetic, and somewhat odd creatures. Gordon Smith would propose instead that being a saint is something to which all of us are called and what this means is growth into Christian maturity–a kind of perfection of holiness that isn’t perfectionism but rather a kind of completeness or wholeness of life.

This is especially important for many evangelicals, who may excel at seeing people come to faith but have little idea of how to direct them into becoming holy (or sanctified, a word drawn from the same root as saint–in other words, saintified). Most often, since we do the crisis experience of conversion so well, we simply propose additional crisis experiences. Smith proposes a different route.

Smith begins with what he sees as the essence of the Christian life, which is union with Christ. To be in Christ is to be united with Christ through his Spirit, which is a profoundly humbling thing that promotes our dependence upon Christ, our focus on the person and work of Christ, and our Spirit-enabled obedience of faith. In a later appendix, Smith applies this to the scholarly life, which is a life grounded in prayerful dependence upon Christ and illumined by Christ.

Smith then talks about four expressions of holiness that might surprise you. The first of these is wisdom, the practical understanding and knowledge of how to live well in the fear of the Lord. This can be expressed as having the mind of Christ, of seeing all of life through the lenses of creation, fall, and Christ’s redemptive work. Wisdom that understands the cross understands suffering in light of the cross.

The second expression of holiness is vocational holiness. By this, Smith means a life of good work that flows out of a sense of being called both into union with Christ, and into the world. Vocational holiness understands our agency in the world as fallen but redeemed image-bearers of God. It involves self-understanding of our temperament, skills, gifts and situation and lives in hopeful realism throughout the seasons of one’s life.

The third expression of holiness is social holiness expressed in our love for others in the communities to which we are called. This will find expression in radical hospitality where we welcome each other as we have been welcomed in Christ, forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation, and in generous service to others. All of these are formed in the worship, teaching, and witness of our churches.

Finally, and surprisingly, Smith speaks of joyful holiness–the ordering of our emotional lives around our hope in Christ. He sees these particularly worked out in the practices of worship, friendship, and sabbath. This last is especially radical because in sabbath, we trust that while we must rest God doesn’t and his work is prior to and over ours.

The book concludes with two extended appendices, one addressed to applying these truths to the life of the church, and the other to the life of the academy, particularly, but not exclusively the Christian university and seminary.

I came away from this book with a different rubric for thinking about Christian maturity that is neither obsessed with sin nor activity, but rather in the kind of person we become in union with Christ–wise, called, loving, and joyful. That is a kind of “sainthood” that seems quite attractive, and one to which all, and not simply some “spiritual elite”, might aspire.

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Review: Visions of Vocation

The main thesis of this book is that to live as a called person is to be implicated in what one knows, to have a sense of responsibility that flows out of understanding the world and our place and work in it.

Steven Garber writes this book out of a lifetime experience of helping people discern the calling of God in their everyday lives. He has particularly worked in recent years among young leaders who come to Washington, DC on various internships as the principal of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture. Much of this book is a weave of thinking about vocation and stories of calling culled from the many people he has walked with on this journey.

He begins with talking about what it means to know the world as it is in all its ugliness and love it. Such a love is sacramental and joins with God in his care for the world. Later on, Garber speaks about how those who know and love most deeply also mourn deeply while yet living in hope. Seeing and knowing for a person living attentively to God’s call must eventuate in doing. Yet as he talks about in his chapter “the landscape of our lives”, we live in the midst of a mind- and soul-numbing glut of information that can leave us indifferent to any and everything. He talks about the sobering example of an Eichmann who could read Goethe, listen to Schubert, and plan the destruction of thousands of Jews and somehow see himself not implicated in their deaths.

Perhaps the only remedy, Garber thinks, is to “come and see” afresh the incarnate Christ, the Word become Flesh. The coming of Jesus tells us that words have to become flesh and have to be lived out in our actions in the physical world. He then gives us narratives of friends who have done this in fields as diverse as cattle ranching to health care in indigent communities. He tells of Kwang Kim, who starts asking as a student “what should the world be like” and “what should I be doing” and has translated that into decades of work in the World Bank shaping development plans that are sustainable for loan recipients and not just profitable for the bank.

The latter part of the book explores the dangers of cynicism and the necessity of realizing that all of our efforts to live out our callings will be proximate rather than perfect. We realize that we live between the already and the not yet of the kingdom and do what we can rather than what we cannot. He concludes with the story of his father whose life brought him joy and was contrasted with the high-roller with whom he was a seatmate on a flight and was stopped in his boastful tracks by the simple question of whether any of this had brought him happiness. We are left to conclude that only the life lived attending to the call of God to love the world for the good of the world can bring a deep sense of joy and satisfaction with one’s life. Garber’s book both leaves us wanting that and points the way.