Christian Discipleship for the Rest of Us

What’s the most important ingredient needed for Christian discipleship?

Is it discipline? Time? How about effort or accountability?

Nope. Try again.

Grace and More Grace

In his latest book, The Imperfect Disciple, Jared Wilson writes that what we need most is God’s grace. We need grace because discipleship isn’t a destination—it’s a messy, faltering process.

I want to, by God’s grace, give you the freedom to own up to your not having your act together. I wrote this book for all who are tired of being tired. I wrote this book for all who read the typical discipleship manuals and wonder who they could possibly be written for, the ones that make us feel overly burdened and overly tasked and, because of all that, overly shamed. (The Imperfect Disciple, p.230)

Wilson was frustrated by the shiny, ever-victorious way discipleship was portrayed, and wanted to write for those who only took discouragement from these descriptions.

I tend to think that a lot of the ways the evangelical church teaches discipleship seem designed for people who don’t appear to really need it. (The Imperfect Disciple, p.13)

You see, grace is for everyone. It’s certainly for those who don’t yet know Jesus, who need to run to him for forgiveness, love, and righteousness.

But grace is for Christians, too. Put more strongly, grace is not just available for believers, it’s essential. How could we begin following Jesus by grace and continue on without it?

Romans 7 and 8

One of the highlights of the book is Wilson’s chapter on Romans 7 and 8.

He writes about waking up every day in Romans 7. You might know the passage. Paul is in agony as he realizes the power of his indwelling sin. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19) Those who follow Christ and know the standard of God’s word often find themselves in the same place.

Wilson reminds us that Romans doesn’t end with chapter 7! Chapter 8 is there to refresh and delight us when we get bogged down in sin.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1–2)

This is a helpful example of preaching the gospel to yourself. From the bog of Romans 7, reach for the life boat of Romans 8. Real, honest discipleship acknowledges this must be an ongoing pattern in your life.

This is how I like to think about discipleship, then—not just following Jesus, but refollowing Jesus every day. We go off track so easily. (The Imperfect Disciple, p.28)

Other Highlights

This is a valuable book, with several strong chapters. Let me highlight just a few.

In chapter 4, Wilson writes about Bible reading primarily as listening. He also describes this practice as feeling Scripture.

Chapter 6 is on the church. This is a very helpful note on the community of God’s people extending grace to one another. It also has a top-notch title: “The Revolution Will Not Be Instagrammed.”

I also loved chapter 8 on The Real You. Wilson reminded me of this beautiful, amazing truth: God loves the sinful me. Not just the me I aspire to, the real me.

But here’s the good news. That real you, the you inside that you hide, the you that you try to protect, the you that you hope nobody sees or knows—that’s the you that God loves. (The Imperfect Disciple, p.188)

It’s good news, isn’t it?!

Wilson writes as a fellow pilgrim in need of God’s grace. He knows what it’s like to fall down and be picked up—again and again. I recommend this book without any reservation. It’s terrific.

You don’t need a hyper-tanned guru, bouncing around on stage to get you fired up for Jesus. You need someone to remind you what following Jesus is really like. You don’t need the varnished, photoshopped version of discipleship that doesn’t work for anybody. You need grace.

And God gives you this grace in abundance.

Thanks to Baker Books for providing me with a review copy of this book.


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Christians Must Be Fluent in the Gospel

Gospel-Fluency

The gospel of Jesus Christ is more than a greeting at the door of the church. It is the bedrock truth that energizes, sustains, comforts, and motivates a Christian throughout his life.

Jeff Vanderstelt wrote his new book Gospel Fluency to help us see the gospel as a language we must learn to speak.

We need the gospel and we need to become gospel-fluent people. We need to know how to believe and speak the truths of the gospel—the good news of God—in and into the everyday stuff of life. In other words, we need to know how to address the struggles of life and the everyday activities we engage in with what is true of Jesus: the truths of what he accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection, and, as a result, what is true of us as we put our faith in him. The gospel has the power to affect everything in our lives. (Gospel Fluency, Kindle location 223)

The Gospel is How We Change

This is a strong, helpful book. Jeff Vanderstelt fills his writing with stories, suggestions, and biblical truth.

My favorite chapter was Chapter 9 (Fruit to Root). In this chapter he writes about diagnosing our beliefs and how the gospel shapes our repentance.

A basic assumption in this chapter is that our behaviors are not the worst sin problem we have.

Part of our job in growing in gospel fluency is paying attention to the overflow of our hearts. What comes out in the form of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors finds its origin inside of us. Too often, we focus our attention on changing the external rather than addressing the internal. (Gospel Fluency, Kindle location 1464)

At the bottom of our sinful behavior are usually lies we’re believing about God. Vanderstelt helps us see the bad fruit in our lives and trace it to the bad root. He uses four questions to uncover unbelief.

  1. What am I doing or experiencing right now?
  2. In light of what I am doing or experiencing, what do I believe about myself?
  3. What do I believe God is doing or has done?
  4. What do I believe God is like? (Gospel Fluency, Kindle location 1477)

Vanderstelt uses a story about his wife to help explain how these questions are used in practice. When uncovering unbelief, ask the questions in this order. You’ll arrive at the lie(s) you’re believing about God, at which point it’s time to confess your sin.

So often, when people are led to confess their sins, they only confess their sinful behaviors. In other words, they confess the fruit. They say: “I’m sorry I lied. Please forgive me.” Or: “I looked at pornography. I know that’s wrong. Please forgive me.” The problem, however, is that they need to confess their sinful beliefs—the roots, the stuff below the surface that is motivating and producing their behaviors, the sin beneath the sins. All sin stems from wrong beliefs—lies we believe—and ultimately from our unbelief in Jesus. And because we generally don’t go beyond the fruit to the root, we end up aiming at behavior modification instead of gospel transformation. “I’m sorry, I promise I won’t do it again” or “I’m going to try harder in the future” are among our typical responses. (Gospel Fluency, Kindle location 1535)

The gospel brings us to the truth about God. Vanderstelt then suggests working from “root to fruit” by asking those four questions in the reverse order. Our lives are changed as we confess our faith and see the grand implications of the gospel.

Commendable

Chapter 9 is worth the price of the book, but wait, there’s more. His chapter on listening was excellent. He sets all of his application within the context of a local church, showing how learning to speak fluent gospel is a community project.

I’m grateful to Jeff Vanderstelt for writing this book. I recommend it!

Thanks to Crossway for an advance reader’s copy of this book.


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Christians Are Curious People

animal-portrait-234836_640

We’re all familiar with Jesus’s summary of the law: love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:34–40). These two commands capture what it means to follow the Lord.

Until recently I hadn’t seen the role that curiosity plays in obeying these commands. It’s easy to miss, but Barnabas Piper helped me see the connection in his new book, The Curious Christian.

Loving God

If we’re to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, we need curiosity. What is God like? What does it mean to love him? Will he love me? We need answers to these questions, and we find the answers in the Bible.

Curiosity is about God and for God. It is an expression of worship and it honors Him by exploring the depths and breadth of His creation and nature. If we are to do something that honors God, then we must know Him, and Scripture is where He reveals Himself, where He tells what we need to know for a right and vibrant relationship with Him. For this reason Scripture is where our curiosity should be directed first and most consistently, not as a book or a text or a resource but as a revelation of our Creator. (The Curious Christian, p.160)

When we love God with our minds, we learn about him. We don’t hold onto our own ideas of what God must be like, but we humble ourselves and receive instruction.

Curiosity drives us to seek the deep truths of God. It leads us to discover aspects of His character and truths of His Word that hide behind a veil or aren’t readily visible in the mundane life. It overcomes the preconceptions we have of God that often make us like Him less, often from a legalistic background: God as boss, God as judge, God as distant, God as joyless, God as killjoy, God as impersonal, God as boring, God as powerless, God as puppet master. Curiosity enlarges God in our minds, or rather helps us see His largeness and His largesse, His closeness and His love, His plan and His promise. (The Curious Christian, pp.48–49)

And, amazingly, our curiosity will continue in heaven! We will get to know God better and better, and because he is infinite in all aspects of his character and person, we’ll never run out of material. We’ll be curious for eternity.

In this life every ounce of curiosity we have points toward God in some way. In eternity all curiosity goes deeper in relationship with Him. In this life there is a veil between us and the presence of God because of our sinfulness. In the next life we will live in the presence of God unhindered and unveiled. This is why heaven won’t get boring. (The Curious Christian, p.147)

What makes heaven heaven is not unlimited fun and games—though we will almost certainly have tons of unfettered fun. No, we would tire of those after a few centuries. What makes it a true paradise is being with God, fully and freely in His presence. Imagine a world unhindered by distraction or sin or pain. Imagine free access to the infinite depths of God’s person and character. You can’t. But in trying you may have seen that heaven can’t possibly become dull. (The Curious Christian, p.148)

Loving Our Neighbors

Curiosity is essential if we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves. How can you love someone—especially in a beyond-the-surface-stuff way—if you don’t get to know them?

In short, curiosity turns us outward, away from selfishness. Our base desire is to turn every relationship to our benefit, to get what we can out of it. Curiosity, at its best, undermines this sinful desire because it locks in on the needs and interests and desires of the other person. Instead of “What can they do for me?” it becomes “Who is this person and what do they need?” (The Curious Christian, p.134)

Curiosity combined with courage presses in and digs deeper. We found out about their outward life—hobbies, preferences, history. But now we take the risk of finding out about their inner life—hopes, beliefs, passions, dreams, fears. Curiosity takes risks and steps into the unknown. It digs into shadowy places where there might be treasure or where there might be pain. This is the grounds for real friendship. The reality is that people are much more likely to open up to us than we think; we just need to go first. In fact, they’ve been hungering for someone to connect with as well. (The Curious Christian, p.46)

Curiosity will transform the church. Piper writes that if the church were full of curious people,

It would move toward being more diverse racially, socioeconomically, and educationally because people would be deeply interested in those different from themselves instead of frightened of them or intimidated by them. (The Curious Christian, p.53)

Takeaways

I’ve written about curiosity before, mostly in the context of asking good questions and being a good listener. But Piper’s book has convinced me that curiosity is an essential part of the whole life of the Christian.

If we’re to be faithful to God in the place where he’s put us, we need to make connections, ask questions, get to know our neighbors, and be good observers. If you’d like to learn more about how curiosity works itself out, I suggest you pick up The Curious Christian. (And check back next week—I’ll be giving away a copy of this book!)

Thanks to B&H Books for an advance reader’s copy of this book.


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: anonymous (2008), public domain

The Trinity Makes All the Difference

What is God like? It’s hard to imagine a more important question.

Different faiths answer this question differently. Is God the same as nature? Is God found inside every person? Is God one, all-powerful, and distant?

At the heart of Christianity stands a triune God.

For what makes Christianity absolutely distinct is the identity of our God. Which God we worship: that is the article of faith that stands before all others. The bedrock of our faith is nothing less than God himself, and every aspect of the gospel—creation, revelation, salvation—is only Christian insofar as it is the creation, revelation, and salvation of this God, the triune God. (Delighting in the Trinity, pp.15,16)

In reading Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves, I saw how vital God’s nature is to Christianity. It affects everything! If we begin elsewhere, we simply do not end up with biblical Christianity.

The Path to the Trinity

Most cultural discussions about God begin with (or assume) the foundation of God as creator. But is this the best starting place? Is God’s primary identity his role as Creator?

Michael Reeves says no.

First of all, if God’s very identity is to be The Creator, The Ruler, then he needs a creation to rule in order to be who he is. For all his cosmic power, then, this God turns out to be pitifully weak: he needs us. (Reeves, p.19)

Reeves goes on to show that the salvation a primarily-Creator God can offer is unsatisfying and, ultimately, self-contradictory. He writes that our relationship with such a god is similar to our relationship to the police.

If, as never happens, some fine cop were to catch me speeding and so breaking the rules, I would be punished; if, as never happens, he failed to spot me or I managed to shake him off after an exciting car chase, I would be relieved. But in neither case would I love him. And even if, like God, he chose to let me off the hook for my law-breaking, I still would not love him. I might feel grateful, and that gratitude might be deep, but that is not at all the same thing as love. And so it is with the divine policeman: if salvation simply means him letting me off and counting me as a law-abiding citizen, then gratitude (not love) is all I have. In other words, I can never really love the God who is essentially just The Ruler. And that, ironically, means I can never keep the greatest command: to love the Lord my God. (Reeves, p.20)

An alternative way to think about God is simply this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The fact that Jesus is a Son means that he has a Father. “That is who God has revealed himself to be: not first and foremost Creator or Ruler, but Father.” (Reeves, p.21)

This starting place is not merely philosophical, it is Jesus’s own stance. In John 17:24 Jesus says that the Father loved him (Jesus) before the foundation of the world. Before there was any created matter, with nothing to rule, God was a Father loving his Son.

The biblical faith is a Trinitarian faith, and the biblical calls to faith are thoroughly Trinitarian .

John wrote his gospel, he tells us, so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). But even that most basic call to believe in the Son of God is an invitation to a Trinitarian faith. Jesus is described as the Son of God. God is his Father. And he is the Christ, the one anointed with the Spirit. When you start with the Jesus of the Bible, it is a triune God that you get. (Reeves, p.37)

Creation

reevesI’m late to the party on Delighting in the Trinity. The book was published in 2012 and appeared on several best-of lists that year. But the truths in this book are timeless, and Reeves writes with such clarity, cheer, and care that this was easily the best book I read in 2016. My socks, as they say, were knocked clear off.

Throughout the book, Reeves contrasts the Trinity with a single-person god. More than just a philosophical exercise, this strategy shows just how different the God of the Bible is and how dramatically his trinitarian nature affects everything.

Take creation—would a single-person god create?

Single-person gods, having spent eternity alone, are inevitably self-centered beings, and so it becomes hard to see why they would ever cause anything else to exist. Wouldn’t the existence of a universe be an irritating distraction for the god whose greatest pleasure is looking in a mirror? Creating just looks like a deeply unnatural thing for such a god to do. And if such gods do create, they always seem to do so out of an essential neediness or desire to use what they create merely for their own self-gratification. (Reeves, p.41)

Following Karl Barth, Reeves explains why creating is natural for the Christian God.

Since God the Father has eternally loved his Son, it is entirely characteristic of him to turn and create others that he might also love them. Now Barth is absolutely not saying that God the Son was created or is in any way less than fully God. It is that the Father has always enjoyed loving another, and so the act of creation by which he creates others to love seems utterly appropriate for him. (42)

Reeves explains that the fellowship and love within the Trinity overflows in creation. Our God is not primarily aloof and alone, but he enjoys loving, blessing, and declaring creation “good.”

Salvation

The triune nature of God also makes sense of our sin and salvation.

The nature of the triune God makes all the difference in the world to understanding what went wrong when Adam and Eve fell. It means something happened deeper than rule-breaking and misbehavior: we perverted love and rejected him, the one who made us to love and be loved by him. (Reeves, p.68)

If God is trinitarian and made us in his image, then “we are created to delight in harmonious relationship, to love God, to love each other.” (Reeves, p.65) Our sin is fundamentally a lack of love or a turning of our love.

So, why did Jesus come? Why did God want to restore relationship with us?

Without the cross, we could never have imagined the depth and seriousness of what it means to say that God is love. […] Jesus’ self-giving love is entirely unconstrained and free. It comes, not from any necessity, but entirely out of who he is, the glory of his Father. Through the cross we see a God who delights to give himself. […][T]he Father sent his son to make himself known—meaning not that he wanted simply to download some information about himself, but that the love the Father eternally had for the Son might be in those who believe in him, and that we might enjoy the Son as the Father always has. (Reeves, p.69)

This underlines the uniqueness of the trinitarian nature of God.

Here, then, is a salvation no single-person God would offer even if they wanted to: the Father so delights in his eternal love for the Son that he desires to share it with all who will believe. Ultimately, the Father sent the Son because the Father so loved the Son—and wanted to share that love and fellowship. His love for the world is the overflow of his almighty love for his Son. (Reeves, p.69–70)

The result of the salvation Jesus accomplished is therefore also trinitarian.

The Father so loves that he desires to catch us up into that loving fellowship he enjoys with the Son. And that means I can know God as he truly is: as Father. In fact, I can know the Father as my Father. (Reeves, p.71)

Clearly the salvation of this God is better even than forgiveness, and certainly more secure. Other gods might offer forgiveness, but this God welcomes and embraces us as his children, never to send us away. (For children do not get disowned for being naughty.) (Reeves, p.76)

How would salvation look different with a single-person God?

If God was not a Father, he could never give us the right to be his children. If he did not enjoy eternal fellowship with his Son, one has to wonder if he would have any fellowship to share with us, or if he would even know what fellowship looks like. […] If the Son himself had never been close to the Father, how could he bring us close? (Reeves, p.77)

Everything Else

The triune nature of God affects everything: creation, salvation, and so much more. Here’s just a sample.

Because God is triune, the church is a family.

But the triune God’s delight in family still stands. And so the Father sends the Son, not only to reconcile us to himself, but to reconcile us to each other in order that the world might be a place of harmony, reflecting their harmony. […] The Spirit wins male and female, black and white, Jew and Gentile all to the same uniting love of God which spills over into a heartfelt love of one another. He unites us to the Son so that together we cry “Abba” and begin to know each other truly as brothers and sisters. For the new humanity is a new family; it is the spreading family of the Father. (Reeves, p.103)

Because God is triune, missions are about the nature of God.

For it is not, then, that God lounges back in heaven, simply phoning in his order that we get on with evangelism so that he might get more servants. If that were the case, evangelism would take a lot of self-motivation—and you can always tell when the church thinks like that, for that’s when evangelism gets left to the more adrenaline-stoked salespeople/professionals. But the reality is so different. The truth is that God is already on mission: in love, the Father has sent his Son and his Spirit. It is the outworking of his very nature. (Reeves, p.105)

Reeves goes on to show how the biblical picture of God informs many of the words we use about God, like holiness, wrath, and glory.

Because the Trinity affects everything, there’s more to ponder. For example, how does the Trinity affect apologetics? Reeves argues that:

It is crucially important, then, that Christians be clear and specific about which God we believe in. We must not be heard to believe in just any “God,” but in this God. Today that seems especially vital. (Reeves, p.112)

How should we talk about God with unbelievers? Should we introduce the Trinity right away, or should we establish some common ground first?

This is a short book, and so it cannot and should not cover everything. But it covers so much, so well. The glorious, loving truth of the triune nature of God will probably take a lifetime (and then some) to unpack, but I’m glad I’ve started the journey. If you’d like to begin a similar hike, I can’t recommend Delighting in the Trinity more highly.


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: InterVarsity Press

Knowable Word: A Book Review

Imagine walking into an Italian restaurant and learning that pizza was not on the menu. Aside from the understandable wails of grief and loss, how would you respond? You would be shocked! After all, for Americans, pizza seems foundational to an Italian menu. Many such restaurants are judged purely on the quality of their pies. A restaurant without pizza lacks something vital for the ongoing health of the business.

So it is with a Christian who does not study the Bible. Since Christians believe that the Bible is the word of God, nothing can be more important or foundational to the Christian life than understanding the Bible. The Bible is crucial for our understanding of God, ourselves, our world, and how we are to live. And yet, for all its importance, individual Bible study is not a widespread practice. Christians, when they do read the Bible, usually read briefly and lightly, perhaps more concerned with fulfilling their Christian duty than understanding and applying what God has said. Some Christians depend on pastors or authors to explain what the Bible really means and they feel unprepared or unable to face the text themselves.

KW-coverPeter Krol wrote the book Knowable Word to help “ordinary people learn to study the Bible.” Whether you are a Christian who has read and studied the Bible for years or you are coming to the Bible for the first time, this book will provide just the assistance you need. Though I am familiar with the method Krol teaches, I learned and gained much from the book. This is not just for newbies. I highly recommend it.

At the heart of Knowable Word is the OIA (Observation, Interpretation, Application) method of Bible study. Though this method is known in other circles by other names, Krol makes a convincing argument for its value over and against more common ways people approach the Bible.

As Krol discusses the steps of the OIA method, he punctuates each explanation with an example. (He returns to Genesis 1:1–2:3 throughout.) The descriptions were thorough and the instructions were easy to grasp. I also appreciated the cautions Krol gives—what dangers might arise as you begin OIA? What might stand in your way of seeking the Lord at each phase? How can you avoid getting sidetracked?

The book is thoroughly practical. Krol has designed simple worksheets to help with each phase of Bible study; these appear throughout the book and are also available on the author’s website. I recommend printing them out and using them during the first few times that you study the Bible using OIA.

Though Krol models each step of Bible study for the reader, a shining strength of the book comes in the section on application. All along, Krol guides the reader to understand the main point of Genesis 1:1–2:3. When the time comes for application, Krol shows just how extensive and far-reaching our application of the Bible can and should be. Would you believe that several paragraphs in this section are concerned with home improvement projects?

The phrase that recurs in my mind when summarizing this book is “helpful tool.” An engaged reader will find here many aids not just for personal growth in Bible study but also for preparing to lead small groups. I plan to consult the book frequently when I teach an adult Sunday school on Bible study at my church in the fall.

I love that this book is self-consciously not an end in itself. Over and over again, Krol points us back to the Bible. If we only read his book and do not begin to implement his recommendations, we have not really read the book. I love how this book pushes me, equipped, with hope, to study the Bible with the express purpose of seeking and knowing God through Jesus Christ.


Disclosure #1: The author of this book, Peter Krol, is a good friend of mine. I have written for his blog before. Yet this review is an honest one, made without any coercion or consultation with the author.

Disclosure #2: The links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through one of these links.