Jesus Did Us a Solid: a book review

Are you in God’s favor? Often we think about favor as the purview of the super saint. We cast ourselves at the mercy of God, but it is the prayers of ‘a righteous man’ that ‘avails much.’ Or we think of the favor of God as some health and wealth, prosperity gospel promise. If we seek first the kingdom, all these things will be added to our bank account. 

9780801093210Greg Gilbert is senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church, author (or co-author) of several resources for Crossway’s 9marks series ( resources for one of those manly men church movements). He explores the concept of favor in the aptly titled: Favor: Finding Life at the Center of God’s Affection.

Gilbert places the concept of God’s favor back in a theological frame. If you are in Christ, you exist, and subsist, in God’s favor. You didn’t earn it. God gave you his favor through Jesus, whose perfect life and sacrificial death earned us God’s favor the moment we trust in him, and live in growing intimacy with Him.

The book divides into two sections. In part 1, Gilbert explores what the favor of God is and how to get it? In chapter 1, he describes God’s favor as being pleasing to Him (25), having an intimate, personal relationship with God (26), being a recipient of God’s blessing (30-32) and being acceptable to Him (33-35).  Chapter 2 and 3 probe our inability to win God’s favor because of our sinfulness. Chapter 4 describes how Jesus won for us God’s favor through his life, death and resurrection, and chapter 5 how we enter into God’s favor by our union with Jesus:

Have you realized that God’s favor is not some cherry on top of the Christian life that only the really good Christians get? I hope so. I also hope you’ve discovered that the favor of God is not something you will ever be able to win for yourself, that your only hope of getting it—of being well pleasing to God—is to be united to the One of whom God said, “This is my beloved Son , with whom I am well pleased.” Rest in Jesus, dear Christian. Your salvation is secure in his strong hand. God is pleased with you, and he will cease to be pleased with you only when he ceases to be pleased with his own Son. (96).

In part 2, Gilbert explores the benefits of God’s favor: contentment (chapter 6), peace with God (chapter 7), the blessings of new life (chapter 8) and our adoption as sons and daughters of the King (chapter 9).

In a lot of ways, Gilbert is giving us old-school evangelicalism here. God’s favor is God’s grace and the ensuing blessing. Like grace, we can’t earn God’s favor. We experience it as we live in relationship to God through Christ.  As I read through the latter part of this book, I thought especially of Paul Little’s Know Why You Believe (IVP, 1966)which apart from being an ‘apologetics book,’ extolled the benefits available to us in Christ. The language of favor, may be a different way of talking about it, but the message remains unchanged.

I give this book three and a half stars. ★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

G is for Grace (an alphabet for penitents)

Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. (Jeremiah 31:2-3).

Grace is the ground we stand on, the word connotes “mercy” and “favor.” We are told we are ‘saved by grace’—God’s unmerited favor toward us, because of Christ and his cross. In the thought-world of Jeremiah the prophet(quoted above), grace meant that exile and destruction weren’t the final words. Because of God’s favor, faithfulness and everlasting love, there was Grace, for Israel, in the wilderness. The forty-day period of Lent gets its forty days from Jesus wilderness fast (Matthew 4:1-11). As we enter into wilderness space—through fasting and repentance—we do so with confidence, that we, too, will find grace in the wilderness.

No repentance is possible without the reality of grace. Theologians talk of Prevenient Grace—the Grace of God which precedes human repentance. Calvinists and everyone else argue about how irresistible this grace is.  I don’t know. But I do know without the existential hope of restoration and mercy, there is not much psychological need to ‘repent.’ A fast only makes sense in light of a rock-solid belief in God’s grace for us.

But God’s grace isn’t the only grace we need. We also need our own. As we strip away our comforts and take an honest stock of our heart condition, we may recoil at what we find there. We are the ones whose hands crafted idols. We justify sin and act selfishly. We have hurt other people and mistreated them. When we start to see this, we beat ourselves up and feel unworthy. Normally we dull our guilty feelings with the things that comfort us(ice cream, cookies, chocolate, etc). But the wilderness of Lent forces us to confront our demons in the den of self-loathing.

Grace in the wilderness comes as we trust in the grace of God towards sinners and learn to be gracious with ourselves. We struggle and stumble along the way. Grace isn’t a belief in our worthiness so much as a belief that God thought we were worth it. We are more than our missteps. At our core, we are God’s beloved—the objects of God’s grace and His delight. He gives rest to us when we’re weary. He searches for us when we’re far away. He loves us with forever faithfulness. We are loved. Judgment and destruction do not have the final word. Grace in the wilderness!


The Write Man Was Convicted: a book review

Shaka Sengor was guilty. He killed a man in cold blood during a dispute over a drugs. He was convicted of murder in the second degree and went to prison for fifteen to fourty years. For much of his sentence he was not a model inmate. He had a botched escape attempt under his belt. He spent time in solitary (the hole) for assaulting prison guards. But during his nineteen years in prison he was transformed through reading, spiritual practice, and ultimately by writing his wrongs:  practicing the cathartic self reflection of journaling, writing fiction and letters.

27297084Despite Sengor’s guilt, don’t think for a moment that he wasn’t a  victim. Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison tells the story of his childhood, his experience of abuse, and his broken home, and how he was seduced into the drug trade. It also tells the story of the anger and fear he felt when he was shot as a seventeen year old and the lack of compassion he experienced from physicians and law enforcement. The experience made him afraid and angry enough to carry a gun. At nineteen, he killed a man aduring a drug transaction (Senghor was a crack dealer).

The injustice Senghor faced inside Michigan’s prisons is harrowing. He was the victim of systemic injustice and racism from prison guards. He witnessed the horrows of prison rape. He participated in violence. He experienced the psychological wounding of four-and-a-half years in solitary confinement after he assaulted a guard (his confrontation with the guard was a n0-win-situation).

Ultimately this book is a story of hope. Senghor comes to own his past, and the things he did wrong. He doesn’t make excuses for himself, but sets out to make amends through writing, community activism and mentoring youth. He finds love with an ctivist he begins a correspondence with. His transformation began mid-way through his prison sentence when the godmother of his victim wrote to him asking the why question. Senghor wrote back his regret and she forgave him. That began a correspondence (described in the prologue and afterword of this book). That set the stage for Senghor to grow and change.

I like memoirs and this is a good one. It is a compelling story. I recommend the book, but issues caution to readers which would be disturbed by violence (and language). Some of the events described are ugly: rape, feces fights, violence, abject racism. This may be difficult for some readers to take. Other books, such as Michelle Alexander,s The New Jim Crow or Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy tell the tale of of our broken legal system. This is an insider’s experience. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

40 Days of Grace: a book review

While I occasionally review devotional literature, I am not really a ‘devotional guy.’ This is especially true of the 40 day journey variety. Admittedly, I can lack the consistency and stick-to-itiveness to complete the ‘whole 40 days.’ I also have bad memories of being dragged through the 40 days of Purpose (twice).  My big issue is that I find devotional books somewhat shallow. I’d rather pick up the Bible, and maybe a good commentary and study something. So it was with a little bit of apprehension that I began Rich Miller’s 40 days of Grace. Except I did it in like 32. I’m not bragging or anything, I’m just letting you know I did it all wrong.

Miller is the president of Freedom in Christ Ministries, USA, an organization founded by Neil Anderson (Miller has also  co-written several books with Anderson).  Miller is the sole author of these devotions; however the book is designed to be used in concert with The Grace Course, a DVD curriculum featuring Steve Goss and Rich Miller (although it can also be enjoyed separately).

Miller’s six week (5 weeks, and 5 day) journey explores the different facets of Grace. The first week is devoted to describing what grace is, how amazing it is, and how good and gracious God is for giving us a gift we do not deserve. The following weeks expand on how  God’s grace ministers to various parts of our soul. God’s grace in Christ deals decisively with our sin and guilt (week 2), our shame (week 3), our fears (week 4), and our pride (week 5). The final five days are devoted to exhorted us to live the “Grace-rest life.”

Miller writes these devotional reflections with wit, insight and good humor.  My initial impression of this book was that it was overly basic. But there are many ways where we can ‘get grace’ intellectually yet still fail to live it out. Miller’s Mission) is to get us to understand experientially what we have been given in Christ, and help us to flourish as a result. This is a good goal, and sometimes a ‘back to the basics’ approach is good for the soul.  However, I think that I would recommend this more for new Christians than seasoned saints.  That isn’t to say that this book didn’t also make me hunger for a deeper, richer experience of God’s grace in my own life.  I loved that Miller is not content to leave his description of grace as God’s gift of salvation from sin.  By tracing the way Grace sets captives free (from sin, guilt, shame, fear, pride), Miller points us to a more grace-full life.

This was better than my previous 40 Day journeys (even if I got done eight days early).  Of course Miller doesn’t say everything about grace (anymore than Rick Warren speaks comprehensively about the purposes of God). What he does say here, is generally biblical, thoughtful and personally enriching. I give it 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Prayer for Lent Week 5/ St. Patrick’s Day

Luke 6:32–36 (NIV)

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

To love the loveable,

the kind,

the responsible,

the dependable,

the merciful,

is nice–

Nice and easy.

Who wouldn’t love those who love us,

those who are good to us,

those who dependably repay every debt?

Well. . .me I guess, at times. God knows

how often I fail

to offer up thanks.

How easy it is to take love for granted and

feel entitled to every kindness

and to call everyone to whom we lend

to account?

And yet today we remember Your servant Patrick who

saw all that he loved burn

and was dragged off

and forced to live the life of slave.

When by your Grace he met Jesus,

he found a kindred soul who

had been spurned, rejected, beaten and killed.

In the way of Jesus he proclaimed Love

and Kindness

and forgave all his debts.

May the love of this saint  challengel us

to likewise, give our lives away

to the undeserving,



and unreliable.

The way of Patick is the way of Christ,

and we’ve all been

enemies of God.

The Christian Romance: a book review

I almost didn’t want to read this book. There are a lot of books about grace. Many of them are underwhelming. They pit law against grace and New Testament against Old. Some books are fluffy and lack substance.   Some books mistake grace for poor quality control (the results are almost always bad).   I decided to go ahead and review The Romance of Grace anyway because the author lives in my hometown and is a teaching pastor at a church I drive by often. Then a strange thing happened: I liked it.

The Romance of Grace by Jim McNeely III

Jim McNeely III explores the operations of Grace in a winsome and engaging manner. In his opening chapter he explores  two of Jesus’ parables. The  first is  of the man who for the joy of it, sells all he has to buy a field with a hidden treasure. The second parable likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a merchant who sells all has to buy a pearl of great price. These parables tell us something about how grace works. When we get grace, joy motivates us to give our life a way to enjoy the treasure God has for us.

McNeely explores the implications of grace for the Christian life and how God saved us because of his great love.  McNeely interprets the Fall as the moment when humankind divorced God’s moral goodness from  the aesthetic Good(Eve saw that the fruit which God said not to eat was good for eating).  The implication of this is that our desires are disordered and we end up calling good, things which are not good (or lesser goods). God’s extravagant love brings  both senses of good together again.

In each of the chapters of this book, McNeely explores a facet of grace. Does grace mean that we can do whatever we want because we have a get-out-of-hell free card? Not anymore than the fact that your spouse loves you means you can cheat on them (BTW don’t even think it!). But it isn’t that grace demands or coerce.s  It compels. Like the man who buys the field for ‘the joy of it,’ we act graciously and faithfully because we know the love of God in our depths and it wells up within us.  McNeely  also explores how grace relates to predestination, spiritual gifts and the church, worship and wonder. God woos us with his love and his grace touches every part of our lives.

McNeely is a good communicator and I loved his illustrations (many drawn from movies and pop-culture, a few from his family life and personal experience). So many books about grace are fluffy but I found McNeely substantive and insightful.  This is a good picture of grace and the love of God. I happily give this book 4 stars and think that you will find its description of the romance of grace compelling.

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Read One (other) Book: a book Review

On this blog I review a number of books from a broad range of Christian perspectives. Charismatics, Reformed, Dispensationalists and mega church pastors have all been reviewed favorably here. While I am as opinionated as anyone, I also try to make sure I listen well to the book I’m reviewing and affirm whatever I can. I’m not out to slam any author and I try to communicate my criticisms in a way which is respectful if the author reads this blog.

One: The Gospel According to Mike by Michael Williams

I find One challenging to review because, well, I just didn’t like it. That isn’t to say that Michael Williams doesn’t have some interesting and challenging stuff to say. It could be that Williams storyjust  doesn’t resonate with me. He spent the early part of his Christian life in a Christian cult, became a Baptist, and then a charismatic Bible teacher in the Word of Faith movement. Coupled with this history, he also has come out as a homosexual (a sin he was once ‘delivered’ from). He has had to face the legalism, and spiritual manipulation of his past. My own religious experience (as a moderate, evangelical heterosexual male) has given me a healthier perspective on aspects of evangelicalism  than Williams has experienced. Along the way I have had my struggle with legalism and beating myself up for personal sins; yet I have not felt the need, as Williams has, to jettison the Evangelical convictions which formed me in the faith.

The best part of this book is the way that Williams articulates the gospel of grace in a way that is remarkably Christocentric.  For Williams, the cross of Christ put to death the need for any of us to earn, or achieve our own salvation. In Christ, ALL are saved (whether they’ve had the psychological event of having their ‘slate wiped clean.’ This is an impassioned presentation of Christian universalism. Unlike Rob Bell, he doesn’t present this in a series of ‘what ifs’ but states it clearly. Although he also resorts to awkward ALL CAPS in his prose to make his points.  This gets tedious.

But Williams big axe to grind is religion. He posits that ‘Christianity’ represents a perversion of Christ’s (and Paul’s) teaching and that if we are to experience the gospel we need to move beyond the institutional church. ‘Christians’ focus on morality, and water down the grace of God by requiring each other to do things like ‘confess sin,’  become righteous and ‘pray for forgiveness’ (God has already given us forgiveness through the cross).

Much of this is rooted in Williams own frustration with once trying to ‘pray away the gay.’  His botched attempts at walking the straight and narrow path led to severe depression, suicidal tendencies and a lengthy stay in a mental institution. He now looks askance at any religious attempt to change orientation. Instead he wants to articulate a vision of the gospel that is both Christocentric and radically self-affirming. I have no doubt that Williams’s faith is now much healthier than his former Christian self, but I found myself disagreeing with him in a number of respects.

And he makes some good points along the way. However, the gospel according to Mike lacks an ethical vision. This is intentional. Williams tries to separate the Gospel (The One Jesus becoming the righteousness for all humanity) from morality.  I honestly think  this is at best a truncated gospel. Paul follows his gospel indicatives with imperative therefores. The gospel is nothing less than the Kingdom of God come near, and that implies a social program and an ethic.  I do think he is right to emphasize salvation through grace but I felt he didn’t say enough about what this meant about how we should then live (although he does have good things to say about our ‘identity’ in Christ).

Does that mean that we shouldn’t heed Williams warning about legalism among evangelicals, protestants, and Catholics? No, we have enough legalists in the church, and certainly we can all be tempted to forsake the grace of God for a religious system. We need to know that we are delivered from the law of sin and death and that we are held in the grace of God. But if you read One book this year, make it the other one.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.