Book Review: No Silver Bullets – 5 Small Shifts that will Transform Your Ministry by Daniel Im

No Silver Bullets: Five Small Shifts that will Transform Your Ministry

Daniel Im’s basic argument in No Silver Bullets is that there is no one single “magical” thing that pastors or church leaders can do to transform their church’s ministry. Instead, he suggests making five shifts in how we think and perform ministry.

Daniel thinks as much like an engineer/project manager as he does like a pastor. That’s probably part of the reason I related so well to this book. He thinks in terms of systems, of how the pieces of the systems work, how they work together, and how they accomplish the ultimate goal. In a church, the goal is discipleship, and the “big system” is the discipleship pathway. (Aside: This book likely stands on its own but I’m grateful that I had read Simple Church first. It lays the groundwork for how a discipleship pathway – or process – works.)

Daniel Im’s shifts, then, primarily have to do with the discipleship pathway with the goal of helping people become mature (and missionary) disciples of Jesus.

#1: From Destination to Direction

This shift has to do with how we define discipleship. Daniel Im’s working definition of a disciple is someone who is moving towards Christ. For Im, discipleship is more about the direction than the destination. The destination matters, of course, because it sets the direction. But it’s the movement in that direction towards the destination – Christ – that is the essence of discipleship. From a church ministry perspective, then, discipleship is not something that we can complete, or check-off, or finish, but an ongoing “obedience in the same direction.”

#2: From Output to Input

Daniel Im distinguishes between two kinds of goals, input goals and output goals. If you want to get healthier, your output goal might be to lose 10 pounds. To reach that output you would set several input goals: reduce the number of calories you eat, exercise 5 times a week, etc.

In the church setting, Im suggests we use eight discipleship indicators developed by LifeWay. These measure relative maturity among disciples. Then Im points out several input goals – concrete activities that statistically lead to someone achieving the output goals. The three input goals that had the biggest impact were Bible reading, regularly attending a worship service, and participating in a small group.

The shift is to think not only about output goals, but about what inputs we need to put into the system to achieve those goals.

#3: Frame Sage to Guide

Im’s third shift primarily has to do with how adults learn. He emphasizes two principles of education. 1) We usually teach the same way we were taught. 2) Adults learn differently from children. If we put these two together we see a serious gap: Most of the teaching we received were as children, so we don’t teach in the best way for adults to learn.

To correct this, Im suggests we shift from being a “sage on the stage to a guide by the side.” Specifically, this involves overcoming some barriers that adult learners face, starting with experience and moving to the abstract (instead of starting with abstract and moving to experience), and “flipping the classroom.”

The idea of “flipping the classroom” combines some of the principles discussed earlier with newer technologies. One way to “flip the classroom” would be to provide the content or training in video form (5-10 minutes) to be consumed individually, then make the classroom time a time for discussion and application.

#4: From Form to Function

Daniel Im prioritizes function over form. We need to allow our form to follow our function, or adjust our forms in order to accomplish the goal of making disciples.

Another interesting concept of this chapter was the principle that we function socially differently in different sized groups. Im provides four group sizes, or “sapces”: public, social, personal, and intimate. Each of these “spaces” functions differently. He noted that churches often have public spaces (worship service), personal spaces (small groups), and intimate spaces (one-on-one discipleship) but often neglect social spaces.

That’s a potential problem, because social spaces work equally well for introverts and extroverts. In his ministry experience he found that he had a lot of trouble moving people from public spaces (worship service) to the personal spaces (small groups). It was hard for people to make the transition. Then he introduced the concept of mid-sized communities (MSCs) provided the social spaces for people to connect in a more comfortable environment – and then more naturally form small groups. He emphasizes that his implementation of MSCs isn’t a silver bullet. What matters is the function of helping newcomers connect to the church than the particular form that takes.

#5: From Maturity to Missionary

In his final shift, he notes that when we aim for maturity (particularly in terms of knowledge), those maturing disciples will sometimes also become missionary disciples. But, if we aim for making missionary disciples from the beginning, we’ll get maturing disciples as a natural result. I’m not totally sure I agree with him, but he makes some good points. To accomplish this shift Im recommends that churches provide both conviction and constructs. That is, we need to teach biblically on the topic, and we need to provide systems and ministries to empower people to act.

And More…

The last part of the book offers resources for how to implement these shifts within the discipleship process. There’s a lot there, but more than I can cover in this review.

Conclusion

This book offers pastors and church leaders a lot to chew on. It’s dense from a ministry perspective, but also very practical. I’m definitely going to have to reread a few sections and brainstorm with the leadership team at my church to see how this might apply to our church. I recommend it to any church leader. You won’t find a silver bullet, but it’s full of wisdom.

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What does Paul mean when he says “do not be partners with them”?

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.

Ephesians 5:5-7

What does Paul mean when he says we should not be partners with the “immoral, impure, or greedy” person? More specifically, what does he mean by “partner”?

Let’s cover the obvious first. He doesn’t mean that we should be completely isolated from the world. We’re called into the world in order to share the love of Christ with the world. Jesus Himself spent a lot of time with sinners without violating this – or any – command of God.

On the other side, it’s obvious that, at a minimum, we shouldn’t participate in sin ourselves. We shouldn’t be immoral, impure, or greedy. At least Paul means that we shouldn’t sin, but I think he means more than that here. He’s already called us to live obediently. No, his concern here is with believers “partnership” with people in their wicked acts.

Lessons from the Old Testament

The first Scriptural reference that comes to mind – since my pastor is currently preaching through Kings – is the story of Jehoshaphat. It’s an interesting story because it’s not very cut and dry. Jehoshaphat, who was the good king of Judah, allied himself with Ahab, the wicked king of Israel. His first alliance was for a war. He rode out with Ahab to fight Ramoth Gilead. The battle was a trap that God set for Ahab, who was mortally wounded. Jehoshaphat (who was dressed up like Ahab) had a brush with death, but was spared by God (2 Chronicles 18:31). Later, Jehoshaphat had an alliance with Ahab’s (almost as wicked) son Joram. In this case, God gave the alliance victory, but only because of Jehoshaphat (” Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, if I did not have respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not pay any attention to you.”) So, Jehoshaphat didn’t suffer any consequence for his military alliances with Ahab, at least nothing explicitly stated in Scripture. But, there’s an important clue that Jehoshaphat shouldn’t have made this alliance and was only spared because of he otherwise served the Lord.

Here’s how Jehoshaphat’s story is wrapped up in 2 Chronicles 20:

35 Later, Jehoshaphat king of Judah made an alliance with Ahaziah king of Israel, whose ways were wicked. 36 He agreed with him to construct a fleet of trading ships. After these were built at Ezion Geber, 37 Eliezer son of Dodavahu of Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat, saying, “Because you have made an alliance with Ahaziah, the Lord will destroy what you have made.” The ships were wrecked and were not able to set sail to trade.

This follows the principle from Ephesians 5:6-7. Jehoshaphat partnered with a man under God’s judgment, and because of that experienced some of that judgment himself, though he was also spared from what could have been a lot worse.

The other example that comes to mind is when Israel was about to be invaded by the Babylonians. To try to avoid military defeat, they turned to Egypt. Here’s what I wrote last year:

As the threat of invasion loomed and the prophets warned of God’s judgment the leaders and people of Israel looked to Egypt for answers. Remember, it was the Egyptians who enslaved Israel. The Egyptians were still enemies of God and they were still under God’s judgment. Going to Egypt was a tactical move, but it was not a move that pleased God. Going to Egypt was an attempt to thwart or escape the Babylonians, but it was also a moral compromise.

Jeremiah warned Israel that their peace with Egypt would prove futile: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it to the ground” (Jeremiah 37:7-8). If you go to the Egyptians, Jeremiah says, “You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria” (Jeremiah 2:36).

Modern Examples

The news this week offers two possible modern examples. Both are political and controversial. Sorry about that. I’m less interested in an individual’s conclusion on the matters, than on illustrating the process.

The Wedding Cake: Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. Phillips refused to make a wedding cake for a gay wedding and was found in violation of an anti-discrimination law. Phillips appealed to the Supreme Court. The legal question (or one of them) is over whether baking a cake is an artistic expression and thus protected speech. If it is, then the Court will likely rule for Phillips. Or, the court could view the case through the lens of discrimination and say that Phillips refused to bake the cake simply because his customers were gay. If they do that, then they will likely rule against Phillips.

Legal questions aside, we can also view this case from the perspective of Ephesians 5:7. Was Phillips right morally to refuse to bake the cake for the gay wedding? If we believe what the Bible says about homosexual behavior, and we see baking a wedding cake as – to some degree – a religious expression and thus even an act of worship, then Phillips decision makes sense. He would be actively and creatively partnering in an activity is morally objectionable.

But how far should Christians take this? An owner of a auto body shop in West Michigan once said he wouldn’t provide services to gay couples. That seems like a different kind of thing altogether. I’m sure it wouldn’t be legally protected, nor do I think it falls under Ephesians 5:7. Why? Because the auto body shop owner isn’t partnering in any sinful behavior, he would just be working on a car. His would be a clear act of discrimination from a legal perspective, and unwarranted from a biblical one.

The Sleazy Politician: We’re less than a week away from a special election for an Alabama senate seat. The Republican in the race is Roy Moore, a man who has portrayed himself as a man with Christian values. He has, however, been accused of sexual assault against girls, by multiple people. He denies these charges, but even what he has admitted to is creepy. It’s hard to prove one way or the other what happened but the volume of accusers, plus the things we do know, make him look guilty (to me, anyway). If we believe he is being falsely accused, that’s another matter, but if you believed he were guilty, would voting for him be a violation of Ephesians 5:7?

Like the cake shop question, it’s not entirely clear. What is a vote anyway? What message are you sending with a vote? Is it always a decision between two evils, or can it just be a decision between two “bads”. Do you have an obligation to vote for one or another or is it okay to opt out? Indeed, would a Christian be obligated to opt out in this case? (See this excellent post by pastor Kevin DeYoung on Voting in a Two-Party System)

If I were voting in Alabama, I would opt out for multiple reasons, and one of them would be to avoid violating Ephesians 5:7. To me, a vote is an endorsement. It sends a message. It’s a partnership. It’s what sends a person into office. So, in this case I could not in good conscience partner with someone who appears to me, based on the evidence, to be a wicked man. Neither could I vote for someone who supports abortion. Again, for me this would be partnership in a systematic evil.

Questions to ask 

Both the Old Testament examples, and the modern day examples, illustrate that it’s hard to know where to draw the lines. Why would Jehoshaphat experience judgment for creating a fleet of trade ships with Ahaziah, but not for the shared military campaigns with Ahab and his son? Should we avoid putting money into mutual funds because we could be funding businesses with unethical practices or goals? How bad does a politicians character or policies have to be for us to refuse to vote for them? There’s considerable gray area here, and it can be hard to know what constitutes partnership and what doesn’t. But that doesn’t get us out of the obligation of doing the hard work. Complete isolation or disregarding the command aren’t options. We’re called to the hard work of wisdom – and grace towards others in hard decisions.

When faced with a possible instance of “partnership” with someone engaged in doing wrong, these diagnostic questions might be helpful to ask:

Will this partnership cause me to participate in an evil act? There’s nothing wrong with driving a car, but if you’re driving the getaway car for an armed robbery you’re knowingly providing material support to someone doing wrong. Even if you’re a taxi driver and it’s your job, if you know what you’re doing, it would be wrong to participate.

Will this partnership lead me to moral compromise? The initial establishment of the agreement might not be wrong in itself, but it could lead to later compromise. For instance, getting involved with someone with shady business practices, or getting support with a lot of strings attached, is a good way to lead to moral compromises down the road.

What message does this partnership send? Not only: “What do I mean by this partnership?” but “How will this partnership be reasonably understood?” Voting for a sleazy politician sends a message, intended or not. It sends a message to political parties that they don’t need to put forward a candidate of character. In this case it sends a message that all this talk of the importance of character and morality doesn’t really matter when it comes to election time. Specifically baking a cake for a gay wedding would be reasonably interpreted as an endorsement of that wedding. On the other hand, buying mutual funds would probably not be see as an endorsement of every company that the mutual fund is split between.

How significant is the partnership? Jehoshaphat’s partnerships with Ahab weren’t mere business transactions. They had an alliance. The more meaningful an alliance the more dangerous it would be to participate. Voting for someone is different from running their campaign, for example, though both might be a problem. This also gets to a related question: What do you know or what should you know? If I sell a car to someone who uses it to run down some pedestrians, I’m probably not guilty of anything. But if I knew that he was going to use the car for that purpose, I’d be guilty as sin.

There are probably more diagnostic questions we could ask, but my main point is that we need to ask them. This is an area where simple answers don’t often work. We need the Holy Spirit to grant us discernment.

A quick personal story: I work in the area of aviation, and have frequently worked on projects for the U.S. military. I would constitute this a partnership. I had to wrestle with the question of whether or not I was okay with working on aircraft which would likely be used in military operations to deploy troops or fire weapons. If I objected to military force (or America’s use of military force) I should have avoided this partnership and either asked to only work on civil projects, or found another job. I decided, ultimately, that if I were conscripted I would serve in the military. Since I would not object to serving in the military, I decided that my very tangential role in the “military industrial complex” would not be a problem. My point here is simply that we need to do the work and ask the questions. By God’s grace, He will bring all things to light. That light gives us guidance, but it also exposes evil and makes it open to judgment. We need to be illuminated by the light, not exposed – and judged – for partnerships that displease God.

Misusing and Misunderstanding the doctrine of Human Fallenness

The belief that humans are fallen – that we’re inclined to selfish and harmful behavior – is one of the most essential and demonstrateably true doctrines in Christianity. But it can also be misused and misunderstood.

Not long ago I posted a link to an article from National Review’s David French. The article defended the so-called “Pence Rule”. French’s basic logic was that we should recognize that people are fallen and then build in appropriate boundaries to account for such fallenness. This seems like sound logic to me, though there are dangers in the particulars, like in cases of gender discrimination that could arise with overly inflexible or legalistic rules. The details of the “Pence Rule” aside, a friend of mine took issue with the underlying logic. He understood French as using the doctrine of human fallenness as a way to “excuse” bad behavior from men. That is, he seemed to understand the concept as a dangerous way to lower moral standards and reduce moral responsibility.

This is a significant misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine. For, while in the concept of “fallenness” Christianity offers an explanation of why people often act in wicked ways, it does not provide them with an excuse – it does not reduce our moral responsibility to act right. My response to my friend was as follows:

“I want to clarify a pretty major misunderstanding of what the author or I would mean by the word “fallen.” You portray “falleness” as excuse for bad behavior. That couldn’t be further from the truth. From a Christian perspective, human nature is, indeed, fallen. That is, we are by nature selfish. But we are both guilty of this condition and also guilty for acting in accordance with it. I would certainly never accept “well, I’m fallen” as an excuse in myself or in others for inappropriate behavior. That would be a mere flimsy rationalization.

Of course, the term “fallen” is a religious term and I would use it in a religious way, but the concept of recognizing that human nature isn’t exactly perfect can be understood in secular terms as well. I just saw a very interesting lecture from atheist sociologist Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) who described human nature as “tribal” and biased. This is our nature, he said, but that doesn’t mean we have to act that way. Even someone who doesn’t believe in moral absolutes (in the same way that I do) believes that we are responsible for “rising above” our “nature”.

The idea that humans are fallen is built into our system of government. Our founders recognized that power was often used badly and that it led to tyranny and corruption. And so, they devised a system of checks and balances and gave power to the States and to individuals. They recognized something about human nature and built in systems and safeguards to prevent the damage it could do.

In fact, the concept of flawed and frail human nature is all-pervasive, whether it’s given a secular or a religious connotation. Stores have security cameras, police patrol the streets, DQA audits our verification results. In none of these instances is the recognition that people sometimes steal, sometimes commit crimes, and sometimes cut corners used as an excuse for that behavior. Instead, the recognition that this happens is used to protect against that bad behavior.”

At first, I was surprised that my friend would understand the doctrine of human fallenness in this way and be so guarded against its misuse. But upon further reflection, I shouldn’t have been. In fact, I’ve been seeing Christians regularly misuse the doctrine in exactly the way my friend worried about – to excuse bad behavior or lower moral standards – for a good two years now.

This came up again recently in the case of Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore who has been credibly accused of molesting young teenage girls when he was in his 30s. I recently read an article from a philosopher who argued that even if Moore is guilty of was he is accused of, Christians should still vote for him, and do so without moral qualms. His argument rests, in large part, upon the doctrine of fallenness. He argues that everybody sins (true) and that all politics is dirty (probably also true) and that therefore we can never engage in politics if we want to remain morally pure. For the author, then, all politics is a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils. Every choice is binary, and the moral character of our elected officials shouldn’t really matter. Or, they might matter but, in this case, we shouldn’t apply them.

There are several problems with this article, and David French (yup, the guy from above) gave an excellent response. But my concern is what the author does with the doctrine of fallenness. He uses it to excuse and minimize sin – everybody sins so we shouldn’t be so concerned with a guy taking advantage of young girls. Then he uses it to remove standards – nobody’s perfect so we shouldn’t apply a moral standard of elected officials.

So, allow me to set the record straight: Yes, we’re all fallen. Yes, we all sin. But that doesn’t excuse our bad behavior. We have a moral responsibility, and God will not hold us guiltless because we are “fallen”. Furthermore, moral standards still matter – especially for those in leadership. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that private sins don’t stay private, and that bad personal character among public leaders inevitably has a negative affect on the public – in a church, a business, or a government.

We can’t do without the doctrine of fallenness: It helps us setup appropriate boundaries to account for it. Perhaps most critically it helps us see and receive the grace and mercy God offers us in Jesus. But it doesn’t offer us an excuse for sin. It doesn’t remove the need for moral standards and accountability.

3 behaviors that have the biggest impact on spiritual growth (according to data)

I’m currently reading No Silver Bullets by Daniel Im. This is a book written primarily for pastors and church leaders, to help their ministries become more effective in making disciples.

No Silver Bullets relies heavily on research conducted by LifeWay. LifeWay’s research examined two types of data. First, they identified eight characteristics of a spiritually mature disciple. The eight characteristics were: biblical engagement, obeying God and denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, building relationships, and living transparently. Second, they looked at around forty behaviors which they thought could contribute to those eight characteristics. Then, they measured which behaviors had an effect.

Not surprisingly, some behaviors had strong correlations to some outcomes. For instance, regularly praying for friends or family who aren’t believers was a strong predictor of whether or not someone shared their faith. Some of the correlations were surprising. For instance, there was a strong correlation between confessing your sins and sharing your faith.

But, there were three behaviors which had the biggest impact on the eight indicators of spiritual maturity, and they had an impact on all of the indicators. In other words, these three behaviors don’t just help you grow in one area, but in all areas.

As a pastor, they’re not all the surprising to me. But they are often neglected. Here they are.

Reading the Bible: We’re not talking about in depth Bible study here, we’re just talking about regularly opening up your Bible and reading it. This behavior helps people grow not only in Bible engagement, but in serving God, denying self, building relationships, and all the other indicators of mature discipleship.

Attending church worship services: The more people attended worship services, the more they grew spiritually. It’s pretty simple, really. It makes sense. And yet, regular attendance is waning, even among the committed. Don’t neglect it.

Attending a small group (Bible study, Sunday school class, etc.): Those who engaged with smaller groups of believers didn’t just grow in building relationships, but, again, in each of the key indicators.

Are you serious about growing in your faith? We can’t manufacture growth – it’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. But, we can be faithful and wise. The fact that these behaviors correlated to spiritual growth makes sense. They’re biblically mandated behaviors. We’re called to meditate on God’s Word, to not forsake the fellowship of unbelievers, and to practically find ways to love brothers and sisters in Christ. It should be no surprise that in doing those things which Christ commands, we will grow closer to Christ Himself.

Book Recommendation
No Silver Bullets: Five Small Shifts that will Transform Your Ministry

Book Review: Galatians Backstory/Christory by Phillip A. Ross

Because of my blog, I occasionally get requests from independent authors to review their books. As an aspiring independent author myself (I have a book in the works right now) I want to support others. Also, free books! The latest book is Galatians – Backstory/Christory by Phillip A Ross. Thanks for the book, Phil. Here’s my review.

Summary

Galatians – Backstory/Christory is a commentary of sorts on the book of Galatians though it differs from a traditional commentary in several key respects. The first chapter of the book is about what Ross calls “The Backstory,” or the metanarrative of Scripture that lies behind the major themes in Galatians. Ross’s goal in sharing this backstory is for us to have the right lens to read Galatians. This chapter is by far the longest and sets the foundation for the rest of the book. The rest of the book walks through Galatians section by section, applying components from the backstory as it goes. You get an interesting mix of Systematic theology and biblical exposition, where the backstory functions as Ross’s systematic theology, the lens by which he performs his biblical exposition on Galatians. In another blog post he refers to this process as “biblical discernment.”

The Backstory: Ross begins by re-telling the story of the Old and New Testaments. The principle theme here is of God bringing people and culture to a greater level of maturity and conformity to God’s law. To do this God adopts the symbols of fallen humanity to seek perfect obedience. For instance, he adopts the symbol of child-sacrifice in order to test Abraham’s faith. He adopts the symbols of sacrifice for Israel’s sacrificial system to reveal His nature to them.

On the one side, then we have God teaching humanity by using symbols and language they can understand. On the other side you have humanity confusing symbol for reality and gradually moving away from God. So, for Ross, first the Tabernacle, then the Kingdom, and then the Temple were departures from God’s original plan. Even though God worked in each of these, they represent a failure on Israel’s part to fully follow God.

There’s a similar movement with the law: The 10 commandments represent the purity of God’s speech, the standard of obedience. The Deuteronomic code represents the work of Israel’s elders – still sanctioned by God but only for a specific time and place. The Torah, which Ross describes as both the biblical material and extra-biblical material developed by the Pharisees, is yet another application. We need to apply God’s law to specific situations, but we have a problem when we attempt to apply that single application to every time and place. What we need is a fresh understanding of the law and a fresh application of it. The “calcification” of the law leads to slavery. A reformation to the original purity of God’s will leads to freedom.

This is the lens through which Ross reads Jesus’s ministry, particularly seen in his cleansing of the Temple. Jesus sees how the symbols of religion have been confused with a true relationship with God and he sees how the law has become a burden. Both are characteristics of the Temple Establishment, the religious leaders who held sway over the Temple and Israel’s religion. In clearing the Temple, Jesus was calling for prophetic reform. He was calling people past the symbolism of religion to the reality of God. In condensing God’s commandments into two: Loving God and loving neighbor he was doing something similar with the law.

The Backstory in Galatians: The primary enemy Paul faces in Galatians, then, is the Temple establishment, which stressed the importance of religious ritual and obedience to the whole of the Torah, including extrabiblical laws. Paul argues instead that that what we need is not more laws, but a new heart. We get that new heart through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. It is that same regenerating work of the Spirit which enables us to repent and believe in Jesus. That is not to say that Galatians is opposed to the law. Instead, Paul affirms that faith is what leads us to obey the law of Christ. But we’re not called to obey the Old Testament laws, but to hear Christ’s call to the original code: Love God and love your neighbor, and then figure out how to apply it (through the Spirit) to our current age.

We principally apply the law of Christ by being characterized by the virtues outlined in the fruit of the Spirit. Ross takes a unique approach in interpreting the fruit – at least one I had not heard before – where he describes the fruit as the “food for the seed.” That is, the Spirit is planted and grows where the virtues of love, joy, peace, etc. are present. So, the regenerating work of the Spirit gives us new hearts, and out of those new hearts we provide fertile ground for the Spirit to continue to grow.

How does all this relate to freedom? Ross summarizes as follows: “Paul’s point was that the laws and customs of Moses were being trumped by the laws and customs of Christ… Paul was not trying to institutionalize [the law of Christ], but to contrast the freedom in Christ to interpret and apply the Ten Commandments for a new age. They had freedom from the inherited laws and customs of Moses and the errant Second Temple establishment – not the freedom to do whatever they wanted, but the freedom to do what God originally wanted humanity to so…” (207, emphasis added) Again, “the freedom that Paul was talking about was the freedom to abandon the Second Temple in order to build the Temple of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (209)

Galatians and culture: This book is thick and covers a lot of topics and many of them can’t be covered in this review. However, I wanted to make a note on Ross’s description of culture. Culture is often seen as something that is maturing. It starts out very immature, and God had to condescend to speak a language it could understand. But culture has matured and is maturing. This maturation process primarily happens through the work of Christ in the world. Like the yeast that leavens the whole bread or like the mustard seed that grows into a large tree, so will Christ’s work be in the world. The end times are not a moment, but a process worked by the Spirit. We participate in the work by understanding God’s word for our time and providing that “fruit” for the Spirit to work: the virtues of Christ in us.

Again, quoting Ross: “God’s purpose is to put an end to sin, to reduce the destructiveness of sin, one person at a time. God’s purpose is the regeneration of humanity, and the establishment of shalom by creating a great harvest of the fruits of the Spirit… And the success of this grand plan requires planting Christ’s seed – the grace of Jesus Christ – in every culture, in every individual.” (290) Indeed, Ross insists God has made gradual but meaningful progress: “Humanity today is not the same as humanity was during previous eras… The establishment of Christian culture is a central feature of Christ’s mission.” (297)

It’s difficult to summarize such a long and multi-faceted work. Ross dealt with a wide range of topics. But the main points I pulled out of the book are these: (1) The primary lens we should view Galatians from is the conflict between the Temple establishment and the work of the Holy Spirit. (2) Old Testament laws need to be re-understood and re-applied in the light of Christ. (3) The Holy Spirit regenerates believers. (4) The work of Christ, through the Spirit, is the redemption of all human culture, a gradual but sure process.

Analysis

It is clear that Ross has spent a lot of time studying and interacting with Scripture. I really appreciate his emphasis on the metanarrative and on attempting to understand Galatians in the light of the whole story of the Bible. He weaves together Old Testament stories, passages from Galatians, and the life and work of Christ into a single work. I also appreciate his desire to be faithful to what he refers to as the “veracity” of Scripture. He holds it in high regard. On that and many other points in the book we agree.

We do, however, have a different systematic theology. My purpose in this post isn’t to argue which is right, but to highlight the consequences of those differences.

First: What is the primary conflict in Galatians? And what, then, is freedom? For Ross the enemies are those who say that you must follow the Second Temple law. Freedom is the power, through the Spirit, to re-interpret and re-apply those laws in the light of Christ. I would agree that this is a component of the conversation, but my perspective is that the real conflict goes to the question: How can we be saved? Is it by obeying the law (any law) or by grace through faith alone. Paul’s opponents argued that circumcision – a work – was necessary. Paul argued it was all grace. This question, how can one be made right with God, is at the heart of Galatians. Freedom from the law, then, is freedom from the law as a means of salvation. We’re now free to obey God from a position of gratitude.

Second: What’s happening to culture and what is the Christian’s response to culture? For Ross, the formation of culture through the Christian witness is central to Christianity. Indeed, it’s one of God’s ultimate goals. I’m not sure I agree, at least not in this age. In this age, God’s goal is the salvation and formation of a particular people: the Church. The church’s relationship with the culture is complex. Some parts of culture can be affirmed. Some should be critiqued and rejected. We should be a witness to the culture. We invite people to follow Christ. But the formation of culture isn’t our primary task.

Third: What does The End look like? My perspective on the mission of the Church and the task of Christianity is closely related to my view of the end of the world. I see in Scripture a sudden event, a time which constitutes Christ’s return, the Day of the Lord, the day of ultimate salvation and judgment. Before that time culture will get better and worse. It will show both improvement and corruption. Culture cannot be “fixed” until that point. But on that day God will make all things new and evil will be swept away in judgment. Goodness will be firmly and irrevocably established. The task of the church is to prepare people for that day, or for their own day, the day of their death when they face the judgment seat of Christ. We still try to be salt and light in our culture, of course, because we love our neighbors. For their sake we want a world with less poverty, less violence, less oppression, less greed, less hatred, etc. But our first task is declaring the good news, not just that God brings about improvement, but that He brings about rescue.

Postscript: Galatians and Christian Reconstructionism: In an email exchange with the author I learned that he was interacting specifically with what is called Christian Reconstructionism. Christian reconstructionism advocates a theonomy (not to be confused with ecclesiocracy): “A Christian form of government in which society is ruled by Divine Law” (via Wikipedia). Most atheists I come across believe that most Christians want a theonomy, even though this is actually a minority position. This is not a movement I know a lot about, but it was behind much of Ross’s thought.

Ross interacts with the Christian Reconstructionist movement on several key points. First, he shares the view of a gradual improvement and Christianization of society and he sees that as something Christians should work towards as a primary aim.

Second, though, he disagrees with many in the movement who believe that Old Testament law applies to our world today. Instead, he would say that we’re free from that law, that we should instead look to the law of Christ: love God and love neighbor, and then through the aid of the Spirit, discern how it applies to our modern world.

Third, he seems to argue for a bottom-up instead of top-down approach. The Christianization of culture/society/government happens not with a coercive approach, but through the personal regeneration of the Holy Spirit, the spreading of the seed of the gospel, and the fruit of the Spirit manifest in the lives of believers. While I’d still disagree that the Christianization of culture is a primary task of the church, I appreciate critique of the Christian Reconstructionist movement.

* For a test case in how I see the interaction between the church and one aspect of culture – particularly political engagement – see this post on refugees and immigration.

The gospel of sin management vs. the gospel of new creation

22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22-24

In the book Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis asks the question: Is Christianity hard or easy? His response is that it is both hard and easy. It’s hard in that we’re called to give up our selves to follow Jesus – a nearly impossibly hard thing to do. It’s easy in the sense that God enables us to do it by giving us a new identity. It’s easier than doing what many of us try to do: trying to be good without doing the first step of having been made new.

C.S. Lewis puts it like this:

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves’, to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time to be ‘good’. We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centered on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown. – Mere Christianity

What Lewis is describing here is what other authors have referred to as “the gospel of sin management.” The gospel of sin management says that following God is all about managing our sin, trying to control it, trying to get rid of what is bad and increase what is good. Now, I’m all for self-control, for less sin and more righteousness, but “the gospel of sin management” tries to get to this step first and by itself, as though we can simply will ourselves into moral perfection.

Lewis argues that we need to be made new creations. We need new identities. He likens it to being toy tin soldiers being made into real people. And, for that to happen, we need to have come in contact with the One truly real person: Jesus Christ.

His argument aligns perfectly with Ephesians 4:22-24 quoted above. In the passage Paul calls us to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” This isn’t just code for “try to do less bad and more good” but live in accordance with the new identity we have in Christ. This new identity is closely associated a new mindset, a new way of thinking and looking at the world.

Only after this inner transformation are we called to the transformation of our actions, to sin management. Again quoting Lewis: “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

But what if we’ve already been saved, we’re already receiving the new life of Christ, and we are still often on the losing end of temptation in our lives? How then does this apply? Perhaps we need to shift to the idea of surrender. We need to surrender “ourselves”, our own desires, our own happiness, to the will of God, and live instead in accordance with who he is making us to be. As James 4:7 says “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Submission precedes resistance.

That is when self-control comes back into play – self-control as a fruit of the Spirit – as something that doesn’t arise from our own natures, but a supernatural gift from God, a natural outcome of living as new creations.

What’s the role of the mind in overcoming sin?

How do we overcome sin, especially habitual sins which frequently defeat us? This is a challenge for many Christians and there are many different answers. I’m preparing for a sermon in a few weeks on Ephesians 4:27-24, verses which hold two major keys for victory over sin. One of those keys I want to talk about in this post: the importance of renewing our minds.

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24)

The first thing that struck me about this passage is how important right thinking is to Paul. Paul is urging the believers in Ephesus to “live a life worthy of the calling they have received” (4:1). That means a radical change, a departure from one way of life and entrance into another, a change of identity.

He urges them to stop living like “the Gentiles.” Here he uses this word as a stand-in for those who are separated from the life of God (see 4:18). Their lives are characterized by (1) a spiritual condition that is hardened against God, (2) a mind that is futile, darkened, and ignorant, and (3) a lifestyle that is characterized by a lack of moral sensitivity. If there’s an ordering of events here it would likely be that the spiritual condition leads to a darkening of the mind, which leads to a lifestyle opposed to God, but both my experience and the text lead me to believe that these are more interrelated.

My interest here is the emphasis Paul puts on the second part, the role of the mind. Paul describes the fallenness of the “Gentile” thinking in three ways. First, their thinking is “futile”, that is, it doesn’t get them anywhere. There’s motion, but no progress. Having denied God, they have denied reality. In denying reality, their thoughts get no traction, they’re ultimately futile. Second, their understanding is darkened. It lacks light and illumination. Third, they’re “separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.” Sometimes ignorance makes someone more forgivable (“they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong.”) But Paul isn’t describing ignorance in this way, but as something which makes them more guilty. They’re not ignorant because they haven’t had a chance to learn, but because they rejected the learning available to them.

Paul’s purpose isn’t to set up an “us-versus-them” polemic here, but to urge those Gentiles who had put their faith in Christ to “put off” this old way of thinking. It’s not “us-versus-them” but “who we were” vs “who God is making us to be.” How does this transformation from old to new happen? Well, if the problem is in the mind then the solution will also be in the mind. They were taught to be “made new in the attitude of their minds.” Having had their spiritual condition already transformed through salvation, they needed now to allow the transformation of their minds.

This renewal happens by understanding what they have been taught, namely, “the truth that is in Jesus.” This happens decisively when we hear and respond to the gospel, but Paul also has a continual process in mind. In other words, we need to be regularly taking in truth, remembering the truth that we have learned, and applying truth to our lives.

How does this apply to overcoming sin? We can, and should, deal with our sinful behaviors directly. However, sinful behavior is often fueled by lies. “I can’t stop sinning so why bother trying” is a lie. In the first place, those who are in Christ are no longer slaves to sin. In the second, the reality that we will never be perfect should never stop our pursuit of holiness. “This sin doesn’t hurt anyone” is a lie. All sin has destructive consequences and at the minimum it is harmful to you. Some lies are more subtle, even subconscious. No one would say that a woman is a mere object, but when men look at porn that’s how they’re treating them. It’s a denial of their full humanity. There are many other lies, or corruptions of the mind, which fuel sinful behavior. To deal with the root of the behavior, then, we need to deal with our minds – they need to be renewed.

We need to regularly meditate on the truth of the gospel. In the gospel we see the seriousness and destructiveness of sin alongside the grace of God, both to forgive and to enable obedience. The truth of the gospel undermines the lies we believe to justify our sin. We need to watch closely what goes into our minds. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” still rings true. Just as regularly feeding on the truth works its way into behavior that is pleasing to God, regularly feeding on lies, or on those things which will make us spiritually callous or morally desensitized leads to behavior that is displeasing to God. Paul is wise when he calls us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.” (Philippians 4:8)

Of course, we can know all the right answers and still be riddled with sin. We need an inner transformation that goes beyond mere cognition. We need a shift in the will. At the same time, we’re foolish to neglect the role that our minds and thoughts in our spiritual formation. Want to overcome sin? Start by allowing God to transform your mind.