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Dung Beetles in Heaven

“I’m bored,” the young man says, setting his golden harp down on the soft, white mound next to him.

His companion sits up quickly, sending small puffs of cloud scattering in every direction, several catching on the shimmering halo that had slipped slightly to one side at her sudden movement. “Stop saying that. You’re going to get us in trouble.”

“But I am bored. There’s nothing to do.” Reaching down he fiddles absently with one of the harp strings, sending soft notes through the golden light and causing the small cloud puffs to float rhythmically around his head. “All we ever do is play these stupid harps and sing.”

“Shhhh. Someone will hear you!” she says, glancing around in a futile effort to see if anyone was close enough to hear. Futile, of course, because in this place, someone always hears.

“What are they gonna do? Kick me out?” Jerking his head, he slaps at the swirling could puffs, looking every bit like an angry camper trying to disperse a swarm of hungry mosquitos. “I almost wish they would.”

She just stares at him, too stunned to reply. After a long silence, she whispers, “You want out?”

He responds with a deep sigh, “I don’t know. Four thousand years is a long time to sit on a cloud playing a harp. A little change might be nice.” Staring down at his white robes, he adds, “I know the other side is for bad people. But maybe they’re at least having some fun.”

Dave King (via Flickr)

I’m sorry to say that the way most people describe Heaven sounds rather boring to me. Ask what they’re looking forward to about Heaven, and many people will say something about finding lost loved ones—sometimes even lost pets—the end of pain and sorrow, finally being able to dunk a basketball, run a marathon, or possibly even fly through the clouds. And these are all great things, I suppose. But I’m guessing that after a few thousand years, they’d all grow a bit stale. I love my friends and family, but after a millennium or two, I can pretty much guarantee that I’d be hiding in a closet every time I heard one of them coming around the corner. It’s possible that I just have an unusually short attention span and get bored easily. But 4,000 years of the same old thing sounds boring.

The problem is that our idea of eternity is badly confused. Ask us about Heaven, and we start describing some ethereal city in the clouds. When people do that, I always ask, “Where are the trees?” After waiting a few seconds for that to sink in, I’ll add, “God made trees, so apparently he likes them. Where are the trees in Heaven?” Then, while they’re scrambling about for an adequate answer, I’ll follow up with, “And don’t forget dung beetles. God made those too, so we should figure out where the dung beetles will be in Heaven.” Finally, pausing for effect, I’ll add, “And the fleas.” That always gets their attention. Trees are okay. Everybody likes trees. But dung beetles sound rather disgusting. And who wants to believe that there will be fleas in Heaven? That can’t be right. Heaven is holy and spiritual. Surely there won’t be fleas in Heaven. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, the logic of this argument cannot be applied to cats since they were the result of an evil scientist’s failed experiment and were not actually created by God. It’s true, Google it.)

Since we see Heaven as a wholly spiritual place, we have a hard time conceiving of it having any room for such earthy things as insects. But “earthy” is exactly how the Bible describes our eternal destiny. The focus of the Bible is not on our eternal destiny up among the stars somewhere, but a new city coming down on a new earth completing the plan that God has had in mind since the beginning (Rev. 21).

Our picture of “Heaven” is wrong because we’re looking in the wrong place. Rather than gazing up in the clouds trying to picture what heaven will be like, look down at your feet. Take your shoes off and dig your toes into the damp soil. Reach down and tip the little pill bug over on its back. Watch its squiggly legs kick in the air. Then, turn it over again and let it scurry away. Nearby, see the earthworm wriggling deeper into the freshly turned earth. Look closer and examine the tiny grains of dirt, each a different shape and color, yet combining to form the lush hue of fertile soil. It even smells brown. Turn over the small rocks and explore the exquisite glories that hide in even the most innocuous crevices of creation. I can’t tell you what the new earth will be like. The Bible gives us very little detail. But I can say that this one’s pretty amazing. And, whatever God has in mind for our future, it will not be any less than this.

Who came up with the idea that we’d be disembodied spirits living in some spiritual universe forever? The Bible never says anything about that. Indeed, the Bible describes our future lies as resurrection to a true physical body, appropriately fitted for our new life (1 Cor. 15).

And our picture of eternity is out of whack because we’re selfish. Once again we find that we tend to twist the story so that it’s primarily about us—no more pain, sadness, loss, or loneliness. We can be happy forever. It sounds great. Why wouldn’t it? It’s all about us. For deeply selfish people, this sounds like the ultimate paradise.

But once again we have to remind ourselves that this story isn’t about us. Sure, eternity will be great. God loves us and wouldn’t have anything less than the best for his people. But that doesn’t mean that this is all about us. The new earth is still about God (Rev. 21:22). And that’s good news. As long as eternity is about us, it will be a boring place to be. We’re just not that cool, and eventually we’ll get bored with ourselves and our own happiness. But God? He’s another story entirely. We could spend an entire eternity pursuing him in his infinite mystery: constantly learning new things, being challenged in new ways, rediscovering over and over again how far beyond us he truly is.


Setting his harp down on the velvety soft grass, he looks over at his companion. “That’s enough for now,” he says. “I’m going to go tend the garden for a while. The corn is almost ready.”

“Thank you,” she replies, “that was lovely.” She moves slowly away meditating on the song, already looking forward to sharing it with everyone at the feast later, so they can all sing it together. But right now, she’s going to the lake for a swim.

A dung beetle watches her pass.

God smiles.

[This post is part of a series on the Gospel and understanding the story of the Bible. You can check out the rest of the posts in the series on the Gospel book page.]

The Most Important Question?

Leaning back against the soft cushions, book held loosely in one hand, chocolate chip cookie in the other, coffee cup perched delicately on my knee, I snuggled in and looked forward to a quiet afternoon of reading. Does it get any better?

credit: atomicjeep (flickr)

The doorbell rang.

Of course.

Normally I would have ignored it, but I was staying at my parents’ house for a few days, and I thought I should at least see who it was. So, with a sigh, I thumped my cup on the table, set aside my barely tasted cookie, jammed a bookmark in its place, and hoisted myself out of the comfy confines of my parents’ couch.

Opening the front door, I was greeted by three older gentlemen in their Sunday finest. One even held a black leather Bible in front of his red tie. Another fiddled with several small pamphlets that looked suspiciously like evangelistic tracts. And, the third stepped forward with a warm smile: “Hi, we’re from First Baptist Church. You filled out a visitor card last Sunday and we’re following up to see if we can answer any questions for you.”

“Oh, I don’t live here,” I responded. “My parents moved to town a few weeks back and they’ve been checking out a few churches in the area.” Looking for a quick end to the conversation I quickly added, “If you want to leave some information, I’ll make sure they get it.”

But, these were men on a mission; they wouldn’t be dismissed that easily.

“Do you know Jesus?” Pamphlet Man asked. It probably wasn’t quite that abrupt, but that’s how I remember it.

Fortunately, I was just about to graduate from Bible college, so I was well-prepared for difficult theological questions like this. With a little smile, I looked him in the eye and confidently replied, “Yes.”

That was four years of college tuition well spent.

But, they still weren’t done. Leaning closer with his Bible clutched in both hands, the third man asked, “But, do you know where you’re going after you die?”

And there it was. The question that trumps all other questions. What could be more important than knowing the answer to a question about your eternal destiny?

Still a bit annoyed that I wasn’t back on the couch with my book, I nearly said, “Disneyland.” But, he didn’t seem like the type to appreciate a joke about eternal destinies. So, instead, I gave him what he was looking for. “I know that I’ll live forever in heaven after I die,” I said, “because I believe in Jesus with all my heart and trust him as my Lord.”

That’s what they needed—assurance that I’d reserved my spot in Heaven forever. So, they gave me some material about the church, shook my hand warmly, and went on about their business.

Too bad. They missed an excellent opportunity to explain what I’d gotten wrong.

Valery Everett (Flickr)

Where did we get this idea that the whole point of the story was to make sure that we make it into heaven, and that our primary concern should be where we go after we die?  Do you know that if you read through the entire New Testament, you’d end up with only a handful of verses that have anything to do with what happens to us after we die? They are there, and we shouldn’t neglect them. But, why make them such a central part of the story? Why make that the most important question you can ask someone?

Interestingly, that’s the one question Jesus almost never asked. And, he asked a lot of questions:

  • Do you really think it’s that impressive if you’re nice to people who are just like you?
  • Why are you anxious about little things like clothing?
  • Why do you spend so much time considering the flaws of other people and ignoring your own?
  • Why are you afraid?
  • Why do you think about evil things all the time?
  • Do you believe that I can do this?
  • Who is truly a part of my family?
  • Why did you doubt?
  • Who do people say that I am?
  • What could you possibly give in exchange for your life?
  • Can you endure what I will have to endure?
  • What do you want me to do for you?

Those are all great questions, just a few of the ones Jesus asks in a single book (Matthew). And, notice their focus: living faithfully in response to the Gospel today. As far as I can tell, in the entire book, Jesus only once asks a question about a person’s eternal destiny (Matthew 23:33). Instead, he focuses almost exclusively on making people think about what they are doing right now.

Jesus came to announce the arrival of the Kingdom. That’s not a message for some far off future, but it’s good news for right now. It has obvious implications for the future. We’d mess up the Gospel just as much if we thought that this story was only about the here and now. That would rob the story of purpose, hope, and direction. But, the mistake we more commonly make is thinking that the most important question we can ask is about where we’ll be in the end.

What’s the most important question that you can ask? It’s not, “Where will you go when you die?” That’s a fine question. And, it’s one that’s worth discussing. But, the most important question? I don’t think so. A far better question is, “Who will you follow while you live?” Answer that question, and the other will take care of itself.

[This is part of my series on unpacking the Gospel.]

Carson and Keller on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and the Gospel.

Don Carson and Tim Keller posted an excellent piece today: Reflections on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and Discipline. The post wass written primarily to explain The Gospel Coalition position on disagreement and correction among board members. But, it’s really an excellent read for understanding how boundaries and confessions work in any movement.

You should go read the article, but I wanted to highlight a couple of things that I found particularly interesting.

First, they use the distinction between an “boundary-bounded set” and a “center-bounded set” to describe their movement. This language has been around for a while now, and it differentiates between groups that try to establish clear in/out boundaries (e.g. confessional churches), and those that build their commitments on some central agreement(s) but leave lots of fuzziness around the edges (e.g. evangelicalism as a whole). This distinction has been around for a while, so it’s not unique to Carson and Keller. Indeed, Roger Olson recently used the same distinction to argue that evangelicalism is a “centered set” movement. So, what’s interesting here is that although Olson has been rather critical of groups like the Gospel Coalition for having an overly narrow and closed-minded understanding of evangelicalism, it would seem that Carson and Keller actually view the movement in very similar ways.

I also appreciated the discussion toward the end on the relationship between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Gospel, in which they draw a distinction between whether the Trinity is essential to the Gospel and whether having an orthodox view of the Trinity is necessary for salvation. As they rightly point out, those are two different issues:

In some discussion or other, we might claim, rightly, that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is irrefragably tied up with the gospel. Someone might object, “Surely not! Is an orthodox view of the Trinity necessary for salvation?” In reality, these are two differentiable issues. To say that the doctrine of the Trinity is tied up with the gospel is to make a claim about the structure of the gospel, about what the gospel is, about its content.

Ignoring for a second that they actually used the word “irrefragably,” this is a great point. Doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation provide an essential shape and structure to the Gospel. Without them, the Gospel is undermined in critical ways. But, that doesn’t mean that someone who rejects them necessarily rejects the Gospel. It just means that they’re operating with an understanding of the Gospel that has some real weak spots. But, fortunately for us all, the standard of salvation is not how well we understand orthodox theology, as important as that might be.

NT Wright at ETS (final reflections)

We’ve been taking a look at the paper that N.T. Wright presented at the recently concluded Evangelical Theological Society annual conference (see part 1 and part 2). Unfortunately, I was only able to stay for a few minutes of the discussion time that followed Wright’s paper and the three prepared responses. I will say that from what I saw, the interaction continued to be characterized by mutual respect and warm cordiality. Throughout, I thought this was a model for how Christians should interact with one another on areas of important theological difference.

I have to say that I learned a lot from these three papers and the ensuing discussion. But, let me see if I can narrow things down to my most important take-aways.

  1. Final justification. Unquestionably, the biggest take-away for me was Wright’s clarification that he sees final justification as being “in accordance with” rather than “on the basis of” works. Although Wright has always been clear that the works of a Christian are produced by grace through the Spirit, I have always understood him to say that final justification was based on works in a way that made it sound like final justification was not ultimately grounded in the righteousness of Christ alone. By referring to final justification as “in accordance with” works, he makes it clearer that final justification will take our works into account and will be consistent with those works, but that the final justification will ultimately be grounded in God’s grace through Jesus Christ. That clears up what has been a major stumbling block for me in Wright’s system. (In comments on Denny Burk’s blog, Wright argues that this is not a shift on his part, but a clarification of what he has always thought. If so, it would have been nice had he moved earlier to clarify what people have long identified as a major concern in his work.)
  2. Soteriological common ground. The second biggest take-away for me was a clearer understanding that all of these guys are on the same basic page soteriologically. They all agree the you enter into salvation by grace through faith and that final justification is by grace through faith in accordance with the life lived. Although there are significant differences about the specific locus of justification within that soteriological narrative, this discussion helped me understand that the differences are not about salvation itself. That makes a rather significant difference in how one understands the nature of the debate.
  3. The importance of the big picture. Wright has a well-deserved reputation for crafting a compelling “big picture” – i.e. an understanding of the entire biblical narrative the explains each particular part. And, he’s been critiqued for forcing that narrative onto particular passages – massaging and reshaping them until they fit his overall story. But, as Wright rightfully pointed out, we all read Scripture through the lens of some big picture narrative. The only difference is that he is more intentional and explicit about doing so.
  4. The role of Israel in the big picture. I’ve also come to appreciate more why Wright argues so strongly against the role of Israel in traditional Protestant narratives. One of Schreiner’s critiques is that Wright makes too much of Israel’s failure to bless the nations and instead argued that the purpose of Israel was to demonstrate the impossibility of salvation-through-Law. But, in doing so, he basically turned Israel into a universal example – they have no fundamental role of their own in the story of salvation. That seems clearly inadequate to describe the purpose that Israel is actually given in the Bible – God’s people manifesting God’s glory in God’s land as a blessing to everyone everywhere. That they failed in this task must also be considered, but that doesn’t mean that failure was their divinely intended purpose.
  5. The continued exile. I’ve never been sure why so many people argued so vehemently against Wright’s idea that intertestamental and NT data portray Israel as still being in exile even after they’d returned to the land. I’ve always liked this aspect of Wright’s narrative and have long included it in my understanding of the big picture. So, it was very nice to see both Schreiner and Thielman indicate that they were comfortable with this as well. I’d have liked to hear an explanation for why others are critical and what exactly it is that makes them more comfortable with it than others are. But, even without this explanation, it was nice to see consensus on this point. (For more on this and link to a recent paper by Wright on the subject, see this post.)

I’ve learned more than just this from these debates, but those are the issues that have been on my mind the most as I’ve reflected back on the papers. At the same time, though, I still have a few unresolved issues/questions.

  1. Justification and ecclesiology. I’m still not convinced by Wright’s arguments that justification is ultimately about “covenantalness” and ecclesiology. I now have a much clearer understanding of what he means by this, and I’m less troubled by his position. But, that doesn’t mean that I’m convinced. It could be that I’m just too deeply steeped in a traditional understanding, but I simply can’t read Romans 1-4 and come to the same conclusions that Wright does.
  2. Union with Christ. If there’s one theme that I have often felt was insufficiently developed in Wright’s work, it would have to be the idea of union with Christ. And, I can’t say that I heard much in this debate to rectify that problem. I was very pleased to hear Wright expressed exuberant support for Vanhoozer’s recent paper on the importance of incorporation and adoption for understanding justification. Now, I’d like to see Wright make this a more integral part of his overall system.
  3. Imputation. This one sits more as an unresolved question for me. Wright has convinced me that justification is not a part of the law court metaphor that serves as the primary background for understanding justification. But, that doesn’t mean that the idea might not be emphasized elsewhere. Wright had some interesting arguments for how we should understand the idea of righteousness as gift (it’s okay to say that the forensic declaration is a gift, but we shouldn’t picture righteousness as a thing that can be gifted from one person to the next) and what it means to say that “we become the righteousness of God” (we take on Christ’s mission of declaring reconciliation to the world). But, I need to reflect on these arguments a bit more.
  4. Scripture and tradition. One of the bigger ironies in this whole discussion is that the Anglican is the one arguing for the primacy of Scripture against his largely free-church interlocutors. That’s just funny. But, at the same time, I would have liked to see a little more push back on this one. I am firmly committed to the primacy of Scripture in the church. But, I also think that Scripture is best interpreted in community, and this community must include all of those who have gone before. That doesn’t mean that new interpretations of scripture are necessarily excluded, but it does mean that we disagree with tradition carefully and with great trepidation. Although ultimately we’re all on the same page here – Scripture trumps tradition – I would have liked to see more careful, theological discussion of what a proper relationship between the two might be.

The best I can offer as a final conclusion at this point, then, is that Wright has sharpened my thinking in a number of important areas, and I’m far more comfortable with his overall way of thinking than I was before the debates. But, I remain unconvinced on a couple of critical points. However, now that I have come to see that most of the differences are intramural and do not seem to touch on what I would consider to be the core aspects of the Gospel, I’m far more comfortable with his ideas and their overall fit within evangelical Christianity.

If you’re looking for more information, here are a few other good posts on the justification debate.

  • Collin Hansen (this is the best one out there that I’ve seen – other than mine, of course)
  • Denny Burk (mostly just a comment on Wright’s “in accordance with” comment; notable for two comments from Wright on the issue)
  • Justin Taylor (outline of Schreiner’s paper)
  • Dane Ortlund (general reflections on ETS, with several comments on Wright)
  • Mike Wittmer (general reflections)

If you know of any other posts that would be good to include in this roundup, please let me know.

Aquinas on the victory view of the atonement (ETS paper)

Jonathan Morgan, a doctoral student at Marquette, presented a paper titled, “Christus Victor Motifs in the Soteriology of Thomas Aquinas.” The paper argued that people have wrongly associated Aquinas almost exclusively with Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, neglecting the many ways in which he affirmed victory as an important aspect of the atonement. Rather than neglecting this motif entirely as many do or seeing it as merely tangential to his true understanding of the atonement as Gustav Aulen does, Morgan argues that it is fundamental for understanding Aquinas’ soteriology.

Morgan offers three lines of evidence to support this conclusion:

  1. Aquinas’ interpretation of Scripture. The first part of the paper offered several examples of Aquinas interaction with Scripture, noting that he regularly identifies Christ’s victory over death and the demonic as fundamental for understanding the atonement.
  2. Aquinas’ dependence on the patristics. Morgan rightly points out that Aquinas interacts extensively with patristic writers. And, he also points out how odd it is that people routinely see the patristic thinkers as affirming a “classical” understanding of the atonement (victory), but seldom see the influence that this had on medieval thinkers like Aquinas who were so keen on interacting with and remaining faithful to earlier thinkers.
  3. The theological necessity of the victory motif. Finally, Morgan points out that Aquinas’ understanding of sin requires more than the satisfaction theory alone suggests. Aquinas sees sin as a condition of bondage that has enslaved all human persons to the demonic, and Morgan argues that the satisfaction theory really does not address this aspect of the sin problem. So, the victory motif is soteriologically necessary given the nature of Aquinas’ view of sin.

The paper was somewhat interesting in helping me recognize the importance of the victory motif in the medieval period as a whole. Many have critiqued Aulen over the years for an overly schematized understanding of the atonement through history, one that regularly forces people into simplistic categories that are simply inadequate for the complexity of their theology as a whole. Aquinas is definitely the kind of person who cannot be simply categorized as “classical”. And, this is true of most great thinkers.

Synergism is not semi-Pelagianism

During the interaction with N.T. Wright at the last ETS plenary session, Tom Schreiner casually tossed out the all-too-common assertion that synergism is semi-Pelagian. Implicit behind the claim  seems to be the  idea that anything other than pure monergism is borderline heresy – it’s not quite rampant heresy (Pelagianism), but it’s really close (semi-Pelagianism).

There are both historical and theological reasons for rejecting this claim. Historically, we should at least recognize that semi-Pelagianism was a movement that arose after the time of Pelagius, primarily associated with certain monastic groups in the 5th and early-6th centuries, and condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Orange  (529). So, historically speaking, if you call someone a semi-Pelagian, you actually are calling him/her a heretic – not just a near-heretic.

Theologically, it is not true that synergists are necessarily semi-Pelagian. Here it is important that we define our terms. I understand the terms as follows

Pelagian: any system in which the human person is capable of achieving salvation entirely on his/her own with no divine assistance other than common grace (i.e. the grace necessary for any being to exist).

Semi-Pelagian: any system in which the process of salvation is initiated by the human person apart from any grace other than common grace, but in which the process of salvation is synergistically completed by the cooperative interaction of both divine and human.

Synergism: any system that affirms some kind of cooperative interaction between the divine and the human in the process of salvation

Based on these definitions, we can draw the following conclusions:

  1. Pelagians are not synergists since salvation is achievable by the human person alone.
  2. Semi-Pelagians are synergists since the salvation process requires the cooperative interaction of both divine and human.
  3. Synergists are not Pelagians and are not necessarily semi-Pelagian since it is entirely possible for one to affirm the cooperative interaction of both divine and human while still affirming that the process of salvation begins entirely with God’s salvific (not common) grace.

So, using these (admittedly cursory) definitions, we can say that a number of very prominent soteriologies are synergistic but not semi-Pelagian (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Wesleyan, etc.). When theologians make blanket statements to the effect that all synergists are semi-Pelagian, they (hopefully unwittingly) question the orthodoxy of vast swaths of Christianity, including nearly all of the Church Fathers.

So, please take this as a plea to all monergists – please stop making the claim that synergism simply is semi-Pelagian. That claim is neither historically nor theologically correct.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/18)

Flotsam and jetsam (6/13)

  • Peter Leithart posts a brief comment on “the prophethood of all believers.” He didn’t address the question of prophecy being a gift that seems limited to particular individuals in the NT, but the post was still thought provoking.
  • Tyndale House has a nice resource page of Bible study software (free and commercial) that you should keep an eye one. (HT Andreas Köstenberger)
  • Mike Bird finds both old and new perspectives in the Epistle to Diognetus. I’m not sure that he’s actually found the “missing link” between the two camps, but it was interesting to see the interweaving of soteriological and ecclesiological concerns like this.
  • Jeremy Pierce suggests that the predominance of son/slave language in the NT can be connected to the Father/Lord – i.e. we relate to the Father as Sons and to the Lord Jesus as slaves.
  • And, as of a few minutes ago, Slovenia is now on top of Group C at the World Cup.

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 Gospel for Real Life

Continuing our series of reviews on books about the Gospel, today I’m going to look at Jerry Bridges’ The Gospel for Real Life: Turning to the Liberating Power of the Cross…Every Day (NavPress 2003).

According to Bridges, the book focuses on combating the problems that many Christians face in their spiritual lives because they’re operating with either a truncated understanding of the Gospel or a utilitarian view of the Gospel, or both (p. 14). So, Bridges sets out to provide an explanation of the Gospel that is neither truncated nor utilitarian, and he is partially successful.

In seeking to offer a less truncated view, Bridges does a nice job unpacking a very traditional (and pretty reformed) understanding of the cross as lying at the heart of the Gospel. Most of the first hundred pages or so really serves as an explanation of the atonement, with strong emphasis on substitutionary atonement and justification. But, he doesn’t stay there. Once he’s finished unpacking the atonement, he does move on to discuss the gift of the Spirit, adoption, assurance, sanctification, and the eschatological telos of the whole story. So, to some extent Bridges succeeds in staying focused on the cross at the heart of the Gospel, while avoiding the truncated Gospel by showing how other important aspects of the good news are connected to the cross.

Bridges is also concerned to avoid the utilitarian Gospel. Having attended far too many churches where baptismal testimonies focus on “how great my life is now that I’m a Christian,” I can definitely sympathize with this desire. So, Bridges directs our attention throughout to the nature and character of God as the focus of the story. But, he does not make the mistake of thinking that this means he can’t say anything about what the Gospel does for us.

Nonetheless, the book has at least four significant weaknesses that made it pretty disappointing. First, although one of Bridges stated purposes was to protect people from having a truncated view of the Gospel, he was only partially successful. That’s because although he did a nice job centering the Gospel in the cross, he did very little to place the cross in the broader biblical narrative that provides the only context in which it can be properly understood. He talked about sin, of course, but said very little about God’s creative purposes, his covenantal faithfulness with Israel, his promises, or even the kingdom. Without these, the good news simply will not be fully understood for being the really good news that it is.

Similarly, although Bridges focuses much of the book on the atonement, I would have liked to see a more robust presentation of all that the cross means. Bridges includes discussions of reconciliation and ransom in addition to substitutionary atonement. But, what about victory, revelation, and healing, among others? If we’re going to celebrate the cross as the heart of the Gospel, let’s make sure we celebrate all of it.

And, unfortunately, as with many books that make the cross central to the good news, Bridges evidences very little interest in the incarnation, the resurrection, or the ascension as having any real role to play in grounding the good news. There seems to be a hesitation in some circles to discuss these as part of the Gospel story because of a concern that they will detract from the centrality of the cross. But, surely we can recognize the significance of all Christ’s life for the good news that he brought into the world, without losing sight of the atonement in the process.

And, connected to the lack of discussion about the kingdom was a corresponding lack of any real talk about the church. The good news that Bridges brings is largely centered on the salvation of the individual. That’s not Bridges exclusive focus, but it’s close. Once again it seems that a legitimate concern to protect one important aspect of the Gospel (its individual aspect) caused him to neglect something else (its corporate aspect).

But, probably the biggest disappointment in the book, especially given its subtitle, was the fact that it actually had very little to say about what the Gospel has to do with real life. He did address sanctification and the Spirit-empowered life of the believer. But, everything remained at a pretty high level of abstraction. What does the Gospel have to do with doing housework or selling cars, raising kids or watching football? If this is the Gospel “for real life,” then let’s talk about real life and how the power of the Gospel touches and transforms every aspect of our existence. That’s what I was hoping in find in this book, and in that I was disappointed.