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Review: The Gospel-Driven Life

Continuing with our series on recent books about the Gospel (you can read earlier reviews here, here, and here), today we’re looking at Michael Horton’s The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World (Baker 2009).

Horton divides the book into two sections. The first half deals with how Horton understands the Gospel, and the second addresses how the Gospel informs what it means to be a Christian community. Right away, then, we see that Horton sees Gospel and community as inseparable. As he says, “It is not merely that there is a gospel and then a community made up of people who believe it; the gospel creates the kind of community that is even now an imperfect preview of the kingdom’s marriage feast that awaits us.” (11)

Without a doubt, one of the best things about the book was Horton’s emphasis on the Gospel has as “a dramatic narrative that replots our identity” (12). It isn’t simply a set of beliefs that we must affirm, but it is the historical unfolding of God’s faithfulness that culminates the crossas the fulfillment of “his promise that he made to Israel and to the world by sending his Son for the forgiveness of sins and the inauguration of his new creation” (89-90). And, it’s a narrative that fundamentally shapes and reshapes who we are as human persons. Although most would agree with this, Horton is one of the few who actually takes some time to unpack the narrative as he explains the Gospel. And, for Horton, getting this story right is central to understanding the Gospel. Without the narrative, you will misconstrue the good news.

I also appreciated the way that this emphasis on the Gospel as dramatic narrative led to his use of “news” as a central motif in the book, much of which is structured around sections in a newspaper. Seeing the Gospel as news shapes how we view the Gospel in two ways. First, it makes us realize that the Gospel is something that has already been done, not something that we do.

The heart of Christianity is Good News. It comes not as a task for us to fulfill, a mission for us to accomplish, a game plan for us to follow with the help of life coaches, but as a report that someone else has already fulfilled, accomplished, followed, and achieved everything for us. (20)

This leads to a consistent resistance to understanding the Gospel as something that we accomplish or contribute to. Indeed, he deals with a number of misconceptions about the Gospel, most of which have something to do with shifting the focus of the Gospel from God to ourselves. Rather than finding the good news in God’s faithfulness and glory, we want to make our own transformation . And, in this way, we make the Gospel merely a means to an end – improving ourselves. Instead, we need to see that the “big story” is about God.

But, this doesn’t mean that Horton doesn’t think the Gospel has anything to do with personal transformation. He also contends that if the Gospel is news then it also means that it is potentially surprising, unsettling, and transformative.

If the ‘Good News’ that we proclaim is determined by what we already know—or think we know—and experience, it isn’t really news….It can never throw us off balance or cause us to reevaluate our priorities and interpretations of reality. (20)

So, the Gospel transforms us as we allow the truth of the narrative to sink in, reshape our understanding of everything, and respond appropriately. That’s how Horton explains sanctification (77).

And, I also appreciate Horton’s strong emphasis on the Church as integral to understanding the Gospel. Unlike many books on the Gospel, Horton’s perspective is not limited to or even particularly focused on the salvation of the individual. He absolutely talks about the salvation of individuals, but he presents the good news of the Gospel as being more about the restoration of God’s people to their proper place and role in the world. It’s a vision that is bigger than me, though it does include me. And, his chapter on how the Gospel creates a “cross-cultural community” was particularly engaging.

However, the book does have a few significant drawbacks. First, given Horton’s strong emphasis on the importance of understanding the dramatic narrative, I was startled by how little time he spent discussing the creation narratives and the status of God’s plans and his people prior to the Fall. He does talk about creation, of course, but it plays a relatively insignificant role in his overall account. That’s unfortunate. The dramatic narrative that reshapes my identify must include the plans and purposes that God had from the beginning.

Second, like most of the other books that we’ve reviewed so far, unfortunately little is said about the role of the Spirit in this dramatic narrative. Even when Horton moves on to discuss the transformation that results from the Gospel, he explains it in largely cognitive terms – letting the truth sink in – and says very little about the transforming work of the Spirit. Fortunately, Horton doesn’t make the mistake of allowing this pneumatological lack to devolve into a “just do it” response to the Gospel. That is antithetical to the message Horton wants to get across, and he’s careful to argue that the Christian life flows from the transformative nature of the Gospel. We don’t do it ourselves. But, his presentation would have been significantly improved with greater attention to the work of the Spirit here. And this lack was particularly disappointing given his emphasis on the community as it relates to the Gospel. This, at least, would have been a great place to introduce the work of the spirit in empowering the people of God to be kingdom witnesses in the world.

And, finally, I would have liked to see a more extended discussion of what it looks like for the church to live as heralds of the kingdom in the world. He claims that the church is now a “new political order” (186) in the world, but says very little about what this means, placing most of his emphasis on declaring the truth of the gospel and saying very little about whether heralding the new kingdom might mean more than that.

But, all things considered, this is a very good book and well worth reading if you’d like to understand the Gospel and it’s significance for life and ministry.

The giant wobbly two-legged naked mole rat

Okay, I’m going to out on a bit of limb here. I mentioned a while back that I was doing some teaching with the high school group at my church on the gospel. Along the way, I’ve been doing some writing and trying to decide if I was going to try and work this into a book. Since my previous writing experience has been entirely academic, this is a very different style of writing for me. So, I may post something every now and then just to see what you think. I realize this is a bit risky since you are not really the audience I”m writing for, but I’ll take my chances.

To give you some context for responding, the basic idea is to tell a “thick Gospel narrative” – that is, to tell enough of the story for the good news to make sense – to a lay audience. You’ll see pretty quickly that I’m trying to have some fun with the material, even while engaging some significant issues.

With that background, let me throw a clip out there and see what you think. Right now I have this positioned as the beginning of a chapter on the imago Dei and how that relates to the Gospel. I’d appreciate any and all feedback you want to toss in my direction.

So, God is busy creating things. And, when God creates stuff, he usually does a pretty good job—mountains, canyons, oceans, rainbows, stars, chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream (okay, that one came later, but it’s still genius). I like to imagine that each time God finishes creating something, it joins all the others in watching what he’s going to do next. So, after God makes Earth and Sea they stand quietly together and look on as he makes the plants grow and bear fruit. I can even see Earth leaning over to Sea and whispering, “Ooh, kumquats!” Then Earth, Sea, and Kumquat watch in amazement as God produces Sun and Moon. And together they witness God’s creativity unfold as he makes Jellyfish, Dodo, Rhinoceros, Orangutan, and all the other animals that fill this new world. I’m sure that through the whole process, the world rang with the ooohs and aaahs of all creation as it bowed in amazement before God’s creative power.

As the sixth day drew to a close, I think they all knew that God’s work was reaching a crescendo. The firework-like display of God’s glory was reaching an end. Surely God must have something pretty impressive in mind for the grand finale. But, what could it be? What could possibly compare with the power and brilliance of Lightning and Thunder, the fragile beauty of Snowflake, or the nearly transparent wonder of Mist in the Morning? I can see all of creation leaning forward, holding its breath, wondering what God will do next.

Look, he’s doing something. I think this is it! What could it be?

Then, all creation watches in amazement as God brings creation to a climax and out steps….Um, what exactly is that?

“I think it’s another naked mole rat,” Dodo whispers.

“No,” Jellyfish responds, “It’s too big.”

“It looks pretty unsteady,” Rhinoceros says. “And, it only has two legs. I bet I can knock it down.”

Orangutan doesn’t say anything. He’s a little embarrassed for the new creature. It looks like God forgot to put the fur on. Maybe it’ll grow some later. Or, it could go roll in some mud.

And, they’re all thinking the same thing. This is the climax of God’s creation? This is his crowning achievement? What was God thinking? What is that?

We’ve already seen that the first part of God’s plan was to create the whole universe as a demonstration of his grace and glory. This would be his “place”, the theater in which he would accomplish his purpose. But, God had even more in mind:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

Seriously? The giant wobbly two-legged naked mole rat that God just created is supposed to have something to do with his “image” and “likeness”? How can that be? What does that even mean?

Okay, fling away. But, be gentle. It’s Tuesday.

So, God is busy creating things. And, when God creates stuff, he usually does a pretty good job—mountains, canyons, oceans, rainbows, stars, chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream (okay, that one came later, but it’s still genius). I like to imagine that each time God finishes creating something, it joins all the others in watching what he’s going to do next. So, after God makes Earth and Sea they stand quietly together and look on as he makes the plants grow and bear fruit. I can even see Earth leaning over to Sea and whispering, “Ooh, kumquats!” Then Earth, Sea, and Kumquat watch in amazement as God produces Sun and Moon. And together they witness God’s creativity unfold as he makes Jellyfish, Dodo, Rhinoceros, Orangutan, and all the other animals that fill this new world. I’m sure that through the whole process, the world rang with the ooohs and aaahs of all creation as it bowed in amazement before God’s creative power.

As the sixth day drew to a close, I think they all knew that God’s work was reaching a crescendo. The firework-like display of God’s glory was reaching an end. Surely God must have something pretty impressive in mind for the grand finale. But, what could it be? What could possibly compare with the power and brilliance of Lightning and Thunder, the fragile beauty of Snowflake, or the nearly transparent wonder of Mist in the Morning? I can see all of creation leaning forward, holding its breath, wondering what God will do next.

Look, he’s doing something. I think this is it! What could it be?

Then, all creation watches in amazement as God brings creation to a climax and out steps….Um, what exactly is that?

“I think it’s another naked mole rat,” Dodo whispers.

“No,” Jellyfish responds, “It’s too big.”

“It looks pretty unsteady,” Rhinoceros says. “And, it only has two legs. I bet I can knock it down.”

Orangutan doesn’t say anything. He’s a little embarrassed for the new creature. It looks like God forgot to put the fur on. Maybe it’ll grow some later. Or, it could go roll in some mud.

And, they’re all thinking the same thing. This is the climax of God’s creation? This is his crowning achievement? What was God thinking? What is that?

We’ve already seen that the first part of God’s plan was to create the whole universe as a demonstration of his grace and glory. This would be his “place”, the theater in which he would accomplish his purpose. But, God had even more in mind:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

Seriously? The giant wobbly two-legged naked mole rat that God just created is supposed to have something to do with his “image” and “likeness”? How can that be? What does that even mean?

Beale on the “Adams” of the biblical narrative

Many thanks to Dane Ortlund at Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology for posting this excerpt from G. K. Beale on the adamic flow of the biblical narratives:

The first Adam should have obeyed and subdued the entire earth, but he did not.

After the flood, Noah was commissioned to subdue the earth, but he had his own ‘fall’ in a garden-like environment, also in connection with the image of nakedness.

Subsequently, God creates a corporate Adam, Israel, who was to be obedient to God in the promised land, which the OT refers to repeatedly as ‘like the garden of Eden.’ They were to go out from the promised land and subdue the rest of the earth. Appropriately, Israel was called by Adamic names, like ‘Son of Adam (Man)’ and ‘Son of God.’ Israel had her ‘fall’ at the golden calf episode, the effects of which were devastating for the nation’s destiny. Instead of subduing the earth, she was subdued by it.

Lastly, God raises up another individual Adamic figure, Jesus Christ, who finally does what Adam should have done, and so he inaugurates a new creation which will not be corrupted but find its culmination in a new heavens and earth. And his names ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’ also allude to him, not only as the Last Adam, but also as true Israel.

G. K. Beale, ‘The Eschatological Conception of New Testament Theology,’ in The Reader Must Understand: Eschatology in Bible and Theology (IVP 1997)