Getting Jesus Wrong - A Review

Getting Jesus Wrong: Giving Up Spiritual Vitamins and Checklist Christianity is a well-meant attempt to correct common but improper understandings of the nature of Christ. Matt Johnson is attempting to communicate to a young audience his own mistakes in understanding the gospel, which he characterizes as getting Jesus wrong.

He first tackles “life coach Jesus” which is the Christological model in which Jesus’ ethical demands take the form of the contemporary culture so that the gospel leads one to become a good husband, hard worker, etc. Often this version of Jesus results from sermons that emphasize steps to a better marriage and how to exceed for Christ in the workplace.

The next chapter critiques what Johnson calls “checklist Jesus.” This version of Christ sees the Christian life as an extensive to do list. Read your Bible, pray, attend church. According to Johnson, this version of Christianity leads people to believe that these basic activities are necessary to make God happy.

In Chapter Three, Johnson wrestles with “movement leader Jesus.” This is the sort of Christianity that values leaders that are trying to get bigger faster, often in the name of mission. Often churches in this version of Christianity rely on a strong leader to further their expansion.

The fourth chapter deals with a similar version of Christianity, which Johnson calls “visionary Jesus.” It’s not entirely clear what the difference between this category and the previous one is. Though he mentions no names, here he is clearly thinking of his former pastor, Mark Driscoll, and men like former pastor Perry Noble and Steven Furtick. Similarly, the prosperity preachers would generally fall in this category.

In the next chapter Johnson explains how following one of these several false versions of Christianity lead one to pride and eventually despair. His point here is valid. When the gospel is redefined or human effort in pleasing God over-emphasized, it can lead to a sense of pride in “my church” or “my denomination.” When leaders fail or churches fail to prosper, this can lead to disappointment leading to despair. Not surprisingly, this is part of Johnson’s own story that looms heavily over the entire volume.

Chapter Six begins a separate section of the book that Johnson entitles, “The Antidote to Pride and Despair.” In Chapter Six, Johnson outlines the problem with seeking justification through the law. In this chapter Johnson briefly references the three uses of the law (judge, bridle, and lamp), but camps out on the law as judge. He attempts to show that human efforts to live a holy life leads to spiritual deadness and pride.

In chapter seven, Johnson summarizes the gospel as Christ’s work on behalf that fulfills the law, since we are unable. He rightly emphasizes that forgiveness is freely available and that salvation is not a result of human works. However, the chapter on the gospel tends to emphasize a rebuttal of the law rather than a positive presentation of the glory of the gospel.

The final chapter presents Johnson’s vision of hope in Christ’s work. In this chapter Johnson spends as much time, however, talking about his own depression and struggles, which actually overshadow the entire book. His hope seems more like a vague sense of light than a glorious joy in the gospel.

Johnson should be commended for his efforts to debunk false gospels. For some, this may be exactly the message that needs to be received. If someone is tempted to believe a works-based salvation, then Johnson’s account of his spiritual journey may jostle them out of their beliefs.

The Christianity Johnson presents is anemic, however. He is so focused on debunking the versions of false gospel he journeyed through that he leaves out any implications of the gospel. In fact, one of the tragedies of this volume is that Johnson provides no mention of sanctification and, to some readers, gives the impression that the necessary human efforts toward sanctification are exactly the sort of false gospel that he is critiquing.

In fact, this volume seems to advocate a sort of antinomianism. Johnson is so concerned to present a gospel by grace alone through faith alone that he effectively demeans the very means of grace that facilitate the process of sanctification. This is a serious deficiency of this volume. The biblical gospel is one of salvation, followed by sanctification, followed by glorification. The gospel presented here is simply salvation, with apparent effort to minimize the importance of spiritual growth in life.

This is particularly apparent when Johnson avoids talking about the role of the law as a bridle and as a lamp. He is correct to note that the law condemns us because of our sin. At the same time, it also reveals God’s character and helps us understand what it means to try to be holy as God as holy, just as God commanded. The law also functions to restrain our sinful impulses by reminding us of God’s justice. Leaving out these aspects of the law impoverishes Johnson’s vision.

Johnson does not call out Driscoll or his former church, Mars Hill in Seattle, by name. However, this volume is marked heavily by Johnson’s experience as a lay elder in that church. It is clear that the well-known problems in Driscoll’s leadership and the subsequent collapse of the network of churches has scarred Johnson. He notes that while writing this volume he has been unemployed, undergoing marital difficulties, and, by the tone of the book, struggling with some form of a mid-life crisis. Johnson has a lot of the pieces of a good book here, but the effort is marred by his joyless tone throughout the book. I walked away from the volume feeling much like the Christian life is about enduring prison camp, where release is unlikely and hope is mainly for a painless death at the end leading to eventual resurrection. That’s a bleak vision and inconsistent with the hope we have in this life as a result of the gospel.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Forty Names of Jesus - Day 4 -


4. Immanuel

 Matthew 1:22-23

 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

 Optional – Isaiah 7:14, Psalm 139:7-12

 Where does God live? God is everywhere – there is nowhere you can go to escape from God. Anywhere you can go, God is already there. But at times throughout history God has especially revealed himself in certain places. In the Garden of Eden, God used to walk with Adam. God had created a perfect home for the first people, Adam and Eve, and God himself would be there in that place with them. That is amazing, and something none of us have ever experienced.

But you know what happened. Adam and Eve sinned, and they had to leave God’s presence. They had to leave the beautiful, flawless garden, and nothing has ever been completely, totally right since then. Because of Adam’s sin, God said that everything would be cursed. That means things are broken and messed up. Nothing is the way God designed it, with no death or problems. God put this curse on the whole universe and everything in it, including nature, animals, and people. The brokenness reminds us that we need God to send a rescuer. So ever since that time, people have not been able to be with God in the way Adam and Eve could be with him before their sin.

Because people aren’t perfect and sinless anymore, it would kill them to be in God’s perfect and holy presence. It would be dangerous – and deadly! Moses had to be protected from seeing God’s face when God spoke the ten commandments and the rest of the law to him. When God’s glory was with the Israelites, the tabernacle and the temple had to be surrounded by courtyards and walls and curtains. God’s glory was in the center room, called the Holy of Holies, and his holiness would destroy any sinful people who came near unprotected.

Think about how sad it would be, to know there is a wonderful, powerful, awesome God that we have no chance of ever meeting. But we can be with God, because Jesus came to be Immanuel – the name that means “God with us.” He came as God in a human body, to live just like humans, with other people, living the same kind of life. And he promised to someday take all who believe in him to be with God, forever, with no more sin or brokenness or sadness. Immanuel is the name that reminds us God has been with us and will be with us again! Let’s thank him and tell him how we look forward to that.

 Key idea: God with us


To read day five, click here. 


 

Are You Ready for Lent?

It’s nearly the start of Lent. For many Protestants, that doesn’t traditionally mean much. However, similar to Advent, Lent was established as a way to intentionally build up anticipation for Resurrection Sunday.

If you are looking for family activities to help celebrate the coming of Christmas, Advent has dozens of products from a Protestant perspective, but there aren't as many options for Lent.

I’ve always thought that Easter is just as significant as Christmas. However, in the low church tradition and in culture in general, Christmas gets a lot more attention. A lot of this has to do with the commercialization of Christmas.

We’ve picked up the Jesse Tree tradition and other intentional lead-ups to Christmas in order to focus the kids’ minds on Christ. Everyone is talking about it, so simple traditions that build on Scripture and focus on the nature and purpose of the incarnation and show how the whole biblical narrative points toward the coming of Christ are invaluable. They take the anticipation of the countdown and emphasize the hope that is the foundation of the holiday.

There are fewer options for Lent from a Protestant perspective to raise the anticipation of that important holiday.

That is why my lovely wife, Jennifer, wrote a series of Lenten devotionals for children. Each one highlights a name of Christ in Scripture. Each one takes about 5 minutes to read. They are focused at children ages 5-10. Additionally, Jennifer has recommended some basic activities (like building a chain), that can be fun for the family and lead to a visible reminder of the approach of Easter.

It’s not just for the kids, though. Parents, too, benefit from going through thoughtful preparation for Resurrection Sunday. After all, which one of us couldn’t do with a little more time seeking to understand and honor Christ?

As Jennifer writes in her introduction:

One of the books that greatly influenced me as a student was Knowing God, by J. I. Packer. In Chapter 1, he says, “Our concern must be to enlarge our acquaintance, not simply with the doctrine of God’s attributes, but with the living God whose attributes they are. As he is the subject of our study, and our helper in it, so he must himself be the end of it. We must seek, in studying God, to be led to God. It was for this purpose that revelation was given, and it is to this use that we must put it.” In writing this book, my hope was that I would use these discussions not only to inform my children about Jesus, but to lead them to him. Packer goes on to say that “…we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.” Reviewing these names and preparing to explain them to others is meditation, but I encourage you not to stop there. Take what you are thinking about and turn it towards Christ himself. Praise him along with your children as you allow these names and discussions to be a part of your life for 40 days.

Obviously, I’m a big fan of the project. So this isn’t a review, but a post to let you know that the devotional is out there on the market and available for purchase. It’s not about the money, but Amazon is a fairly universal platform and they make you charge.

In case you want to try it out, five days’ worth of posts will be made available online here at Ethics & Culture. There will be some free days coordinated in there.

Knowing Christ - A Review

J. I. Packer’s volume, Knowing God, is a classic for the ages. It is clearly written, theologically deep, and profoundly inspiring. Reading Packer is an experience every Christian should have as soon as they are able.

In the introduction to his recent volume, Knowing Christ, Mark Jones references Packer’s book and pitches his own volume as another attempt in the same vein. He aspires to help his readers to know Christ better, which is a significant goal to say the least.

Jones describes his book in these words:

This book is not polemical (i.e., disputational), but it is still theological. It is also (I pray) devotional. This is a book for God’s people, not the academy. This is a book designed to give God’s people a glimpse of the person of Christ. In short, I write that people may know Christ better than they already do, and so love him more.

Summary

With that target in mind, Jones divides his book into twenty-seven chapters. He covers topics like “Christ’s Dignity,” “Christ’s Faith,” “Christ’s Resurrection,” and “Christ’s Names.” Each of the chapters is eight to ten pages long with multiple headings. It is structured as a book that can be read easily and in segments. The prose is lucid, which makes the book accessible even when the theology is deep. Jones offers many references to Scripture throughout that point the careful reader back to the text, which is the source of much of our knowledge of Christ. He also quotes from the Puritans frequently and quotes some of them at length.

As a theologian, this was a fun book to sit down with at night in my armchair. It did lead me into a deeper appreciation for Christ. It reminded me of much truth about the Savior and helped me think through aspects of Christ’s existence, such as the faith that he demonstrated throughout his life. At the same time, it encouraged me to want to know Christ better and brought to mind the center of the Christian faith, which is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

This is the sort of book that an educated layperson could pick up and enjoy as well. The structure makes it suitable for a book study, with short chapters and study questions for each chapter in the back of the volume. In the end, whether someone agrees with everything Jones has written here, it is impossible to read this book as a Christian and walk away without having a deeper Christology in some way.

Critique

The weaknesses of the book fall along two fronts. First, Jones loves the Puritans and he draws from them very frequently. As someone who enjoys Puritan theology, I recognize that sometimes they said things so well and in prose that is just far enough removed from modern English to accentuate its theological profundity through shifting cadence. At the same time, those that lack the same love for the Puritans may wonder why some of the quotes are necessary and question the level of authority Jones grants them.

The second weakness of the volume is that at times Jones overstates his case on questionable points. For example, in his discussion of Jesus asking the beloved disciple to take care of his mother, Mary, Jones writes:

We might say that his death for sinners would have been completely ineffectual if he had not entrusted his mother to the care of John. That is to say, if Christ had not uttered these words from the cross, we would be in hell; but he kept God’s law in life and ‘in death’.

Clearly Jones is referring to Christ keeping the fifth commandment to honor his father and mother. However, Jones’ claim is overly strong for the evidence that we have in the text.

Since Christ did utter these words, and the result was the fulfillment of the fifth commandment, it is logically necessary for Christ to utter the words to perfectly fulfill the law. Yet, it does not seem to follow that if Christ had not uttered those words or if we had not received the words through divine revelation, that our salvation would be incomplete. In other words, there could have been other ways for Christ to fulfill the law that Jones has not considered; or it could have happened “off stage.”

This is a minor criticism, but there are a few places where overstatements by Jones made me scratch my head a bit. In the end, they led to some good discussions with my wife (who also read the book), and may prove to do the same if this is read in a group setting.

Conclusion

This is a good book and one that many Christians will find enlightening and inspiring. Pastors might consider recommending this for those that need stimulation to grow in their faith. Seminary students may read this to keep the fire of faith burning brightly. All Christians will find that reading this is well worth the time.

Knowing Christ
$14.25
By Mark Jones

Note: Banner of Truth provided a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.