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.

Because They’re Not Fair You See!: A Book Review

Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of OverZealous Faith by Larry Osborne

A Christian camp song I loved as a child, I Just Want to Be a Sheep, had a verse with these words:

I don’t want to be a Pharisee

I don’t want to be a Pharisee

Because they’re not Fair You See,

I don’t want to be a Pharisee.

And indeed, nobody wants to be a Pharisee. And yet, for those of us who take the Bible and our Christian duty seriously, it is so easy to become one.  When we become overzealous and ‘biblically unaligned,’  our fervent desire to follow God makes us ‘jerks for Jesus.’  We become legalists, hypocrites and we hoist impossible standards on our neighbors.  We might not mean to do it, but we do. We are “Accidental Pharisees.”

Author and Pastor Larry Osborne has written this book to help us stop being Pharisees. The thing is the Pharisees themselves didn’t start out trying to be ‘Pharisees’ in the sense we use the term today. These were people who cared about following the Bible and moral formation.  They had lots of rules and regulations because they wanted to make sure their behavior was pleasing to God, but along the way they lost sight of God’s grace.  Osborne examines the  ways that we too can get ourselves offtrack by emphasizing having right behavior or right theology. Not that these things aren’t important, but when you look at the type of people Jesus loved, accepted, justified and restored, it wasn’t because of what they did, but because of his  mercy and love. Osborne helps us cut through our own attempts to justify ourselves.

The book is divided into seven parts. In part one, Osborne introduces the concept of ‘accidental pharisees’ and provides a case study of Joseph of Arimathia (the guy whose tomb Jesus was buried in, a Pharisee and ‘secret disciple’).  While we would be tempted to not number Joseph among the disciples for his failure to stand up for Christ before the Sanhedrin, he is described as a disciple in the gospels.

In the rest of the book Osborne describes the characteristics of of our pharisee-ism. In part two he describes the sin of pride.  We are all tempted to compare ourselves to others, and see their faults more clearly than we see our own (Log-Eye disease).  In  part three, he discusses exclusivity and the way that we want to ‘thin the heard’ and call people to greater commitment is antithetical to the gospel of grace. In part four, Osborne shows how our desire to have ‘litmus tests’ to prove that we are ‘real Christians’ shows how we are legalists who rely on our own righteousness (rather than God’s mercy).  Part five discusses our tendency to ‘idolize the past’ and the ways in which our idealism distorts reality. In part six, Osborne shows how we confuse unity with uniformity and demand other Christians conform with our theology and peculiar cultural distinctives.  In part seven, Osborne discusses how the way we compare ourselves to others cause us to either feel arrogant because we got it together and other people don’t or guilty because other people are gifted in ways that we are not. He also discusses the ways in which we Christians have a tendency to judge one another for the ways we handle money (not being good stewards, not being generous enough, etc).

Each of the seven parts of this book concludes with discussion questions which would be useful in a small group discussion (over seven weeks) or for personal reflection. This is the sort of book that demands that you ask hard questions about the condition of your own heart and attitude. More than once I felt that Osborne had rightly named my sin–my self justification and judgmental attitudes.  This is a book that you should read prayerfully, and with a willingness to engage in some self examination.

In a couple of places I felt like Osborne overstates his case and marginalizes Biblical texts which exhort us to our Christian duty. However, what he writes here is a good corrective and I loved the ways in which he commends us to rest in God’s grace rather than the burden of obedience. There is something right about what Osborne is saying even if he runs the risk of minimizing some of the Christian call to action. We are recipients of God’s grace before we are missional activists. I like that Osborne challenges me to make sure my gospel presentation rests on the mercy of God and that everyone is included. Still part of me worries that he doesn’t emphasize enough the need to ‘count the cost’ and take up our cross and following Jesus.’ Certainly, I am a pharisee and I need to be called to account for it. There is a such thing as the scandal of grace and I can’t earn my salvation. On the other hand, I am called to a life of discipleship which demands something from me.  In several places in this book, I wrote in the margins, “Yes, but . . .”.

None of this is to say I didn’t like the book, or that I don’t warmly commend it. I think this is the sort of book which we all need to read and we need to watch out for the ways in which we can fall into exclusivity, pride and legalism. This book is well worth reading. May God use it to make us disciples who are humble, hospitable and gracious to one another.

Thank you to Cross Focused Review and Zondervan for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my review.