God has called us to change, to experience real, heart-level transformation into the image of Jesus Christ. But so many Christians see almost no amount of recognizable change in their lives. Despite the small groups, the Bible studies, regular church attendance, and even counseling, too many people struggle to change their sinful behavior, much less their desires.

How People Change is a fascinating book that presents absolutely nothing new whatsoever…which is why I like it so much. There are no seven easy steps, no 5 p’s of progress or ch’s of change. All that authors Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp do is present the gospel, thoroughly worked out in the trivial and mundane, but critical, moments of our lives.

6a00d8341c7a1453ef0133f4a17ed0970b-320wiThe problem for most of us, they say in the first chapter, is that we don’t understand how the gospel works right now. We get that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again; we get that he’s coming back and we get to spend eternity with him; but we don’t understand what all this means for overcoming my anger, lust, pride, envy, and so on. Our trouble stems from three blindnesses: 1) We are blind to the depth and pervasiveness of our sin; 2) We are blind to what God has provided for us to live the life he has called us to live; and 3) We are blind to the process by which God refines our character.

These blindnesses create a gap in our understanding of the gospel, and we inevitably find gospel substitutes to fill that gap. The authors have identified seven gospel substitutes that inevitably focus more on externals than on the condition of our hearts.

  1. Formalism | Participating in every conceivable church activity under the sun.
  2. Legalism | Always striving to keep the rules.
  3. Mysticism | Jumping from spiritual experience to spiritual experience–always looking for that spiritual high.
  4. Activism | Getting involved in the most important social causes.
  5. Biblicism | Focusing on acquiring biblical knowledge and theological correctness. (Nothing wrong with this one. Move along, move along.)
  6. “Socialism | Maintaining and developing friendships in the church through constant fellowship.
  7. “Psycholgy-ism” | Seeing every issue in life through the lens of psychology.

These are all false ways of understanding and living the gospel. “The lies that capture us as Christians usually seem to fit well within the borders of our Christianity.” (11)

The authors offer five gospel perspectives that will reorient us to the true gospel and away from the seven gospel substitutes that merely focus on externals. These five perspectives are:

  1. The Extent and Gravity of Our Sin | “Only when you accept the bad news of the gospel does the good news make any sense.”
  2. The Centrality of the Heart | “Everything we do is shaped and controlled by what our hearts desire.”
  3. The Present Benefits of Christ | “The hope of every Christian is a person, the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.”
  4. God’s Call to Growth and Change | “[God’s] goal is to free us from our slavery to sin, our bondage to self, and our functional idolatry, so that we actually take on his character!”
  5. A Lifestyle of Repentance and Faith | “The Christian life makes God’s work of change our paradigm for living, while we celebrate the grace that makes it possible.”

And that’s all in the first chapter! This is a tremendous book, but it is not light reading. This will take time, but it’s well worth it. Many of the most popular Christian spirituality books take shortcuts. This one doesn’t. I highly recommend this book to you. Chew it over. Read it carefully. Reflect upon it. You can thank me later.

Christians are the worst. So say the critics, many of whom come from within the Church. Everyone has a story of some Christian acting like a hypocrite, lying, committing adultery (or worse), or just plain being mean. The book UnChristian found that Christains (and Evangelicals in particular) have an image problem among nonChristians in America.

9780764207464Bradley Wright, a sociologist at UConn, says, “Not so fast my friend.” He believes that Christians don’t have an image problem so much as pollsters have a numbers problem. He doesn’t believe the polls, and doesn’t think you should either. The date, he claims, indicates that Christianity (and Evangelicalism in particular) is alive and well in this country.

To prove his point about the numbers game, Wright comments on a recent, shocking poll that claimed the only group of people who were viewed more unfavorably than Evangelicals were prostitutes. The truth, however, requires a closer look at the numbers. A disproportionately large number of people responded “Don’t Know” when asked if they had a favorable opinion of Evangelicals—more than twice the number of the next highest group. Maybe a lot of folks don’t know what an Evangelical is. The poll also asked people their opinions of Born-Again Christians. Maybe others didn’t know the difference between Evangelicals and Born-Agains. The point is, according to Wright, you can’t always trust a poll, nor can you always trust the pollster’s conclusions.

While I don’t have space to address all of the data (mostly encouraging) that Wright presents in the book, I do want to look at one issue that gets bandied about a lot these days, and that is the fear that Christianity is dying in America. Maybe you’ve heard some of the following statistics (11):

  • “Christianity will die out in this generation unless we do something now.”
  • “Only 4 percent of this generation is Christian.”
  • “Ninety-four percent of teenagers drop out of church, never to return again.”

These are frightening statistics! And they’re also demonstrably false. Almost 76% of Americans self-identify as Christian, and 26% say they’re Evangelical. While 16% claim the title Unaffiliated, only 4% of our population are agnostic or atheist. (35) Not quite the death-knell of Christianity, is it?

Evangelicalism isn’t shrinking either, having held steady at 26% of the population for 30 years. While the number of religiously unaffiliated people has grown in recent years (largely from the exodus of political liberals from mainline denominations), a majority of those believe in God, believe the Bible is the Word of God, pray regularly, and consider themselves to be religious and/or spiritual.

The truth is that atheism is not taking over America. Despite the fears of many Christians, atheism has not grown in the past 20 years, and atheists constitute less than 2% of the total population.

This is a very readable book that will help to dispel some of the myths about Christians and Christianity in America. Things are not nearly as bad as they seem. And if you read UnChristian (like I did), and thought that things were hopeless for Christians (like I was), then this book will be a great encouragement to you. Cheer up, Christian. You’re not really the worst!

That screaming sound you hear is me pulling the arrows from my soul after reading Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods. His incisive writing cuts straight to the heart of the issue of personal and corporate idolatry, those “counterfeit gods” we worship and serve rather than Jesus Christ. Keller tackles four of the most prominent American gods—love, money, success, and power—unveiling their worthlessness and the inevitability of disappointment we will experience when we worship them.

counterfeit godsEach chapter reads like a sermon and concludes with a call to worship the true God and his son Jesus Christ. Through this repetition of structure, Keller calls his readers to abandon their false gods and worship and serve Jesus only. It is an effective literary and rhetorical technique (I can only assume that these chapters were originally written as sermons) in which the false gods are crushed and the true God is elevated to his rightful place on the throne of our hearts.

The real cunning of idolatry, he argues, is that we make idols of good things (or at least things that are morally neutral). Money, Sex, Power, and Success are not evil entities. They corrupt us not because they are inherently corrupting, but because we are inherently corruptible. “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’” (xviii) Idols occupy a place in our hearts that belongs only to God.

Many of the books I have been reading lately have an academic bent. Counterfeit Gods, while being intellectually rigorous in its own right, is a book that all Christians (and nonChristians, for that matter) should read. It will help you unmask your idols, and to see the deeper needs of your soul that you’re trying to meet through your idolatry. Only when we remove our idols from the throne of our hearts will we be free to fully worship the true, living God who loves us and sent his Son to die for us.

The Church has a leadership problem. So argues Leonard Sweet in his new book, I Am a Follower. The problem, however, is not that we don’t have enough leaders, or that our leaders have lost their way. The problem is that we have become enamored with leadership culture, obsessed with leading, and supremely focused on raising up the next generation of leaders. The trouble is, Jesus never told us to lead. He told us to follow.

The evangelical church has bought into a brand of leadership that, since the economic crisis of 2008, has gone bankrupt. But the lonely, trailblazing, genius-coming-down-from-the-mountain model of leadership is not what Jesus had in mind for his bride. The picture of leadership in Jesus’ mind was himself, and the rest of us are called to follow him. “What the world defines as leadership is not the way God works through his people in the world. …Christians are called to live by faith in a world that lives by fame.” (28-9)117084166

Christians are not to be leaders, Sweet argues. They are to be followers. First followers. In other words, Christians should find where Jesus is going, discover where he is at work, and then take up their crosses and follow him there. “In posing the paradox of the ox with an easy yoke and a light burden, Jesus is inviting followers to ‘walk alongside me. Just be with me, and the doing will come naturally.’ …Leadership is a functional position of power and authority. Followership is a relational posture of love and trust.” (39-40)

I Am a Follower is a prophetic call to abandon the culture of leadership, with it’s cultic practices of celebrity-worship and the fruitless pursuit of power and fame. Instead, we must take up the position of a sheep, humbling ourselves, and permitting Jesus to be the Good Shepherd of us—yes, even us church “leaders”! Sweet’s call is one to return to a position of relationship to God in Jesus Christ, and to forsake our position of function within the institution of Church. “All too often these days, the church’s stories are about success, leadership, justice, happiness. When ministers become social workers, preachers become motivational speakers, and evangelism becomes marketing, the result is a gimcrack gospel that is tawdry, tacky, and cheap. Asked, ‘What story do you love to tell?’ a first follower’s first answer is, ‘I love to tell the story of…Jesus and his love.’” (144)

I Am a Follower is a necessary, if imperfect, book for our times. Evangelicalism is swimming deeper and deeper into the ocean of celebrity and leadership. But there are sharks here, and there is blood in the water! If our primary aim is to focus on leaders, then who will care for the flock? If the image of the ideal Christian is a leader, then what hope is there for followers? The truth is, we are all followers, and Christ will be more glorified when we learn to accept that reality and let him lead.

Scot McKnight’s latest book, The King Jesus Gospel, is a revolution for evangelicalism. It is an incredibly important and timely work, one which calls us to leave behind our “salvation-culture” and take up, once again, the “gospel-culture” set forth by the preaching of Jesus and the apostles.

I’ve worked through a little over half of the book on the blog already. My discussion of the first three chapters, which lays the groundwork by establishing the problem McKnight sets out to address, can be found here. The second post on the book, which dealt exclusively with chapter four, in which he lays out the book’s thesis and defines the apostolic Gospel, can be found here. The last post I wrote on the book covered chapter 5, where Scot discusses how salvation overtook the Gospel.

9780310492986-1Here is a brief sketch of the main points of the book:

We evangelicals have mistaken the Plan of Salvation for the Gospel.
We have traded in a gospel culture for a salvation culture.
Our evangelism focuses exclusively on bringing people to a point of decision.
As a result, we do a poor job of making genuine disciples of Jesus.
The biblical gospel is the Story of Jesus, found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5

In that last post I promised to cover the final two chapters of the book in a future post. So without further ado, I shall keep my promise.

Chapter 9: Gospeling Today

The way that we “gospel”, or evangelize, today is different from the way the early believers, including the apostles, evangelized. (Scot likes to use the word “gospel” as a verb, so I’ll put it that way from now on.) He sees several points of comparison, the first of which is what gospeling seeks to accomplish. “The gospeling of Acts, because it declares the saving significance of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as their Savior.” (133) He goes on to say, “the gospeling of the apostles in the book of Acts is bold declaration that leads to a summons while much of evangelism today is crafty persuasion.” (134) Ouch!

I’ll skip to the fourth point of comparison between the gospeling of the first Christians and our own evangelism–the problem gospeling resolves. What is the problem that the Gospel solves? Without minimizing sin and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation, Scot frames the solution this way: “The fundamental solution in the gospel is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord; this means there was a fundamental need for a ruler, a king, and a lord.” (137) He says much more on this point, and I want to tempt you to get the book and read it for yourself with this quote:

Gospeling declares that Jesus is [the] rightful Lord, gospeling summons people to turn from their idols to worship and live under that Lord who saves, and gospeling actually puts us in the co-mediating and co-ruling tasks under our Lord Jesus. (142)

Chapter 10: Creating a Gospel Culture

So now what? How do we go about creating this gospel culture that we so desperately need? The first thing we must do is become people of the story. “To become a gospel culture we’ve got to begin with becoming people of the Book, but not just as a Book but as the story that shapes us.” (153) Too many of us are functionally biblically illiterate. We are more profoundly shaped by the doctrines and dogmas that we extract from the Scriptures than by the overarching story God is telling within them; and while there are many dogmas, there is only one Story.

We must also become people of the story of Jesus. “We need to immerse ourselves even more into the Story of Jesus. The gospel is that the Story of Israel comes to its definitive completeness in the Story of Jesus, and this means we have to become People of the Story-that-is-complete-in-Jesus.” (153) We must return to the four Gospels!

Thirdly, we must become people of the church’s story. “We need to see how the apostles’ writings take the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus into the next generation and into a different culture, and how this generation led all the way to our generation.” (155) Christianity was not invented in 1865; it has come down to us through nearly 100 generations of believers. There is much we can learn from them. “We have no right to ignore what God has been doing in the community of Jesus since the day he sent the Spirit to empower it, ennoble it, and guide it.” (156)

There is more to say on these points, and Scot presents two other important points to create a gospel culture, but this is a book review, not a book report. Here is my review: Read this book!

Now I want to say one thing that Scot doesn’t about how to create a gospel culture, and I say this to my fellow preachers out there. Preach the Gospel! Stop participating in the damnable story of American Consumerism & Pragmatism. Stop trying to draw a crowd. Stop preaching the no-Gospel of Success & Self-Improvement. That is not your task. That is not your calling. You are a minister of the Gospel, so preach it!

Your sermons shape your congregation and define its culture, and too many of you are creating a culture that is nothing more than a slightly more moral version of the wider American culture. You’re telling the wrong story. You cannot create a gospel-culture unless and until you preach the Gospel. This will most likely take you down a new path, one that you probably won’t like. You will have to say goodbye to the Story of Success and Fame and Power. But you’ll discover that the Gospel is worth it.

May the Church’s preachers become gospelers, that we all might learn to live out the Gospel, boldly proclaiming that Jesus Christ is King-over-All.

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