Book Review – “The Good and Beautiful Life” by James Bryan Smith

beautiful-life

I am always looking for fresh ways to explore who God is and how to live the Christian life.  When I originally read The Good and Beautiful God, I found some fresh ways of understanding who God is.  That book is the first in a three-book set by James Bryan Smith.  After finishing the first book, I wanted to continue to expand my views by reading the next book in the series, and InterVarsity Press graciously agreed to send me a copy of The Good and Beautiful Life.

Where the first book attempted to help us reexamine our views of who God is, The Good and Beautiful Life sets out to help us get a better sense of how to put on the character of Christ, to borrow from the subtitle.

Smith draws a lot of his inspiration from Dallas Willard, and, as I understand it, Smith’s three books are a sort of “curriculum of Christlikeness” that Willard encouraged him to write.  If you are familiar with Willard, you will certainly sense a lot of the same ideas coming through Smith’s writing.

The book takes the Sermon on the Mount and breaks it down by representing it as Christ’s blueprint for what a disciple’s (or to borrow Smith’s term, “apprentice’s”) life should look like as he or she increasingly follows Jesus.

The chapters follow the Sermon on the Mount in order, tackling ideas such as learning how to live without anger, without lust, and without vainglory, as well as learning how to bless those who curse you and living in the kingdom day by day.

After each chapter is a brief “Soul Training” exercise to try to apply the material to one’s life and help the process of inner transformation.

At the end of the book is a 32-page appendix that is a small group discussion guide to help walk small groups through that material as a way of supporting and encouraging one another to grow.

Smith points out throughout the book that the idea is not one of changing one’s outward life only (or even primarily).  The real focus is on allowing Christ to change one’s inner self so that the outward actions follow as a natural result.  It brings back the idea of Christ’s talking to the Pharisees and explaining that rather than cleaning the outside of the cup and dish while leaving the inside dirty, they should have cleaned the inside first, and the outside would have been clean also.

There are a few areas where I am not sure I agree with Smith, but I am still considering what he has to say.  For example, he tackles the idea of casting one’s pearls before pigs and argues that Jesus is not saying to withhold something precious from those who don’t deserve it (pages 192-195).  Rather, he interprets it as saying that pigs cannot digest pearls, so they will get hungry and turn on the owner, whom they can digest.  The idea being that the pearls represent condemnation and judging and that people cannot “digest” that, or handle it, so it won’t help them but will leave them starving for help.  Based on most interpretations I have read, Smith is definitely in a minority view here, and he acknowledges as much in the book.  I have to say that I am not totally convinced by his view yet, although it would make the passage flow better.  But to me, pearls always represent something expensive and precious (pearl of great price, the gates of pearl in Revelation, etc.); this would be one of the only places, if not the only, where that would not apply, especially if Smith’s view is correct, as judging and condemnation could not be interpreted as precious.

Overall, however, I found this book very refreshing, and there are many great ideas to take away from it.  Where Willard provides a lot of the theoretical side of kingdom living, Smith works more on the practical side, so combining Smith’s work with Willard’s will give a more well-rounded idea of the type of kingdom living they advocate.

If you are looking for a “curriculum” for Christlikeness, this book (and this series) is a good one to consider.

*Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

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Are We Blameless, or Are We Settling?

perfect

I both love it and dislike it when the Spirit convicts me.  I love it, because I know He is doing a work in me.  I dislike it because it is extremely uncomfortable.  I want to start by saying as clearly as I can, I have not arrived at what I am talking about on this blog post; I am learning and praying and studying, even as I am writing to encourage and challenge others.  With that said, let’s dive in.

My pastor today was preaching on the latter half of Romans 7.  He takes the minority view (as do I) that the latter part of Romans 7 is not referring to the normal Christian life.  Rather, he views it as Paul’s pre-conversion life, with parts of Romans 6 and 8 describing the Christian life as being one that is dead to sin and victorious and overcoming in Christ.  This message built in my life on a book I read this last week.

This last week was my Spring Break, so I had quite a bit of time to read and think.  One book I read was a reprint of a book by Andrew Murray.  The original title was Be Perfect, but the reprint is called God’s Gift of Perfection.  In the book, Murray explains that the Bible describes certain people as being perfect and wholeheartedly devoted to God.  Granted, he was using the KJV, and modern translations often use other terms, such as mature (in the New Testament) and blameless (in the Old Testament).  But the same ideas will hold true if we replace perfect with blameless.

In the Old Testament, Noah was described as being blameless in his generation.  Job was described as being blameless.  God commanded Abraham to walk before Him and be blameless.  Moses commanded the Israelites to be blameless.  Hezekiah could pray to God and say that he walked before Him with a whole heart.  We are also told to love the Lord with all our heart.

Here is my question (for myself, as well as for anyone who reads this): Can we say we are blameless?  Can we say we are living before God with a whole heart, or with wholehearted devotion to Him?  Can we say we love the Lord with all of our heart?  If not, why not?  Hezekiah could, and that was before Christ’s death and resurrection and the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Are we living blameless (or at least striving for blamelessness), or have we settled for something less?

Andrew Murray wrote:

In God’s record of the lives of His servants, there are some of whom it is written: his heart was perfect with the Lord his God. Is this, let each reader ask, what God sees and says of me?  Does my life, in the sight of God, bear the mark of intense, wholehearted consecration to God’s will and service? Does my life burn with the desire to be as perfect as it is possible for grace to make me? Let us yield ourselves to the searching light of this question. (You can find a copy of the text here; I believe it is public domain, now.)

Murray’s questions are hard-hitting.  I love the fact that Murray puts the question as one of what God knows about us, not what others may say or think.  God sees through our actions to our thoughts and heart.  He knows deep down who we really are.  Does God see us as blameless?  Does God see us as pursuing blamelessness (what Murray and the KJV called perfection)?

Murray points out that being blameless does not mean there is no growth.  He explains that a child may be able to do something perfectly for an 8 year old, but that he or she would do that same thing differently to do it perfectly as an adult.  The question is not “Are we as perfect as we will ever be?” but “Are we as perfect as we can be given our knowledge of God and His will and our growth?”

I think that we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that because we are still tempted and we still stumble on occasion, perfection is so unattainable that we just wait for it to happen to us when we are glorified and don’t need to strive for it now.  Because we all struggle and so many stumble, we just accept that we are always going to struggle.  The wording is usually something like, “We all sin in thought, word, or deed every day, so we just accept God’s forgiveness and try to do better, but we won’t be perfect until we reach Heaven, so we just accept where we are.”  I realize that many make a statement like that out of a desire to avoid trying to sound like they don’t need Christ’s forgiveness or God’s grace, and they ultimately want to avoid coming across as “holier-than-thou.” While most people making statements like those have good intentions, my personal belief is that you would be hard pressed to find scriptural support for that view. Granted, James does say that we all stumble in many ways.  But Scripture also says God is able to keep us from stumbling.  The emphasis in Scripture is toward holiness and blamelessness, not toward continuing to stumble.  God tells us to be holy for (and as) He is holy. (Leviticus 11:45; 1 Peter 1:15-16)  We are to strive for holiness.  (Hebrews 12:14)  We are to be perfect, as our Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48, even though this is often taught as a verse to show that we cannot be perfect)

Are we settling?  Are we allowing ourselves to become comfortable in certain ways of living, thinking, talking, and acting that are not in line with how we should live as followers of Jesus?  Are we permitting sins to stay in our lives and justifying it by saying we will never be perfect this side of Heaven?  If so, we need to step back and re-evaluate what the word of God says we are to do and how we are to live.

We should be increasingly growing to be more like Christ Himself.  We should be striving to be holy and perfect and blameless, to be able to say we serve the Lord with a whole heart (wholeheartedly).

Andrew Murray later writes:

“To take Jesus as Master, with the distinct desire and aim to be and live and act like Him–this is true Christianity. This is something far more than accepting Him as Savior and Helper.  It is far more than acknowledging Him as Lord and Master.

A servant may obey the commands of his master most faithfully, while he has little thought of rising up through them into the master’s likeness and spirit.  This alone is full discipleship, to long in everything to be as like the Master as possible–to count His life as the true expression of all that is perfect and to aim at nothing less than the perfection of being perfect as He was . . . .

With the perfect love of God as our standard, with that love revealed in Christ’s humanity and humility as our model and guide, with the Holy Spirit to strengthen us with might, that Christ may live in us, we will learn to know what it means that–everyone who is perfect will be as his Master.”

Murray, here, is expounding on Luke 6:40.  The KJV says perfect, where most translations now say fully trained.  The idea is the same, no matter which wording is used.  We are to continue following Christ and increasingly become more like Him.  Combined with the Old Testament idea of blamelessness, we are to pursue perfection actively.

Discipleship, as Murray mentioned above and as Willard explains throughout his writings, is to increasingly pursue Christ as His apprentices, learning from Him and becoming increasingly like Him, living as He did while on Earth.

Are we living with wholehearted devotion to God, and can we pray, as Hezekiah did, that we are?  Does God see us as blameless, not just because of Christ’s sacrifice for us, but because of our own lifestyle through the grace of God and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit since our decision to follow Christ?  If not, let us repent and ask God to enable us to live a holy life, one that is striving for blamelessness.

Again, that is not to say we will never grow.  Are we living blamelessly in light of what we know about God’s will right now?  We will always be learning, and we will always have room for growth in light of our increasing knowledge of God and His will.  But are we living up to what we have already attained?  (Philippians 3:16)

Let me leave you with some wonderful promises from God’s word, in 1 Peter 1:3-4: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (ESV)

May God’s grace strengthen you as you pursue Him and pursue blamelessness in Him!

Book Review – “Unleashed” by Eric Mason

Unleashed

Lately, I have been extremely focused on issues relating to growing in Christlikeness.  It should be a major aspect of our lives as Christians.  I was very interested to see how Unleashed by Eric Mason from B&H Publishing Group would add to my understanding.

The book is not overly long, at 185 pages including the notes.  But there is a lot of great information contained in those pages.  Throughout the book, Mason focuses on different aspects of how God conforms us to image of Christ, to paraphrase the subtitle.

Chapter 1 reminds us that being sanctified is ultimately tied in to the gospel of Christ.  Mason points out that “Paul shows us that we never ‘get beyond the gospel’  in our Christian life” (p. 9).  I think this is a much-needed reminder, as all that we are as Christians begins and ends with the gospel of what Christ has done for us; we live and grow out of that.

Chapter 2 focuses on how the Holy Spirit aids in our conformity to Christ.  He points out that the Holy Spirit is often not given His proper due for the work in our lives, either by underemphasizing Him (making mention of Him, but not much else) or overemphasizing Him (by focusing too much on gifts of the Spirit, etc.) (pp.29-30).  Mason seeks to provide a proper balance and explanation of how the Holy Spirit helps us grow in the image of Christ through our lives.

Chapter 3 focuses on the role of faith and repentance throughout the Christian life.  Faith and repentance establish us in Christ, but they are not merely something we use to enter into a relationship with God.  Rather, they are ongoing aspects of our lives with Christ.  We live lifestyles of repentance, constantly seeking to ensure we are walking as God would have us walk.

Chapter 4 discusses the role of the word of God in our sanctification.  In order to become more like Christ, we have to know what God says and instructs, and we can only know this as we read, memorize, study, and meditate on His word.

Chapter 5 explains the role of prayer in our spiritual growth.  Prayer is the way we draw near to God and bring ourselves in line with His will.

Chapter 6 is an exceptionally good chapter, focusing on the role of suffering in our growth in holiness.  This chapter is a wonderful way to help us look at our struggles and suffering through the lens of Scripture, seeing those things not as hindrances to our spiritual life, but often as the means God uses to help us conform to Christ’s image.  Christ Himself suffered, so we should not expect anything less.  Rather than losing hope, we find joy in the midst of our suffering and allow it to help us mature in our character.

Chapter 7 discusses strongholds in our lives and how to overcome them so that we may continue to grow rather than being hindered.

Chapter 8 is a wonderful examination of how marriage is often God’s means of helping people become more Christlike.  As husband and wife look after each other and take on the God-ordained roles laid out in Ephesians 5, they begin to help each other become more like Jesus in their lives.  With the husband loving his wife as Christ loved the church and the wife submitting to her husband as to Christ, the home becomes a constant place of mutual growth and encouragement as we “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, ESV).

Chapter 9 explains the importance of Christian community for our sanctification.  We need each other, and Mason lays out the “one another” passages in Scripture very clearly.  I think it is great to be reminded of how we need others in our Christian walk, especially in our extremely individualistic society.

Mason’s book, Unleashed, is very solid in terms of theology and biblical understanding.  While there were some new ways of wording things so that I could think through them differently, there was not much here I had not read in other places.  So for those who have been Christians for a while and have read and studied a lot, they may find this book more of a refresher than eye opening.  It would be an outstanding book for those new to the faith, however, as it would lay out sanctification in a clear and easy-to-understand way.  The back of the book hints at this with it’s question “You’re a Christian.  Now What?”

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in deepening their understanding of sanctification, but especially to new believers who are just getting started in their walk of faith.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.