A Small Book About A Big Problem - A Review

Sometimes short books can be some of the most helpful. Ed Welch recently published a diminutive volume that promises to be instructive for many people.

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The title of Welch’s latest volume is, A Small Book About a Big Problem: Meditations on Anger, Patience, and Peace. Really, the title writes a large portion of the review.

This volume consists of fifty brief devotional meditations to help people consider the problem of anger and impatience, and to pursue a godly peace. Welch addresses the topic with his characteristic clarity and biblical insight. He clearly explains the nature and typical underlying causes of anger, with helpful techniques for subverting the attitudes and behaviors that often lead to anger.

Thankfully, Welch does not address the topic of anger as a fundamentally behavioral problem. Certainly, anger has behavioral aspects, but it is actually a spiritually rooted sin. With the obvious (but exceedingly rare) exception of “godly anger,” human anger is sinful. Each of us struggles with it in differing degrees, with different symptoms, and for different reasons. However, the struggle with anger is unavoidable.

The solution to an indwelling sin, like anger, is to change one’s character. That is, anger is not usually simply a knowledge problem. This makes the format of Welch’s book very appropriate. The book has fifty daily readings. Each of them is only a few pages long in this gift-sized book. Many of them have questions for further thought embedded in them.

It would be easy to read this small volume in an hour. But the book is intended to be digested over weeks. Perhaps even repeated several times. The result should be the beginning of the heart change and soul formation that will encourage the gospel to shine through instead of anger.

Although we try to rationalize it away, anger is a denial of the power of the gospel. Anger is nearly always driven by a sense of offended personal dignity: “I wasn’t treated appropriately” or “Did you see what that person did to my child?” These are perfectly understandable responses to inconveniences and even the sin of others, which we are certain to encounter in this fallen world.

However, the gospel tells us the story of the one who was entirely without fault and took the penalty for our sin on our behalf. That story is of one who never sinned and whose anger, when he was anger, was truly righteous. In fact, the center of the gospel is that Christ took the just wrath of God on our behalf; he stood in the way of the ultimately justifiable anger in the universe so that we wouldn’t be destroyed by it.

In light of the gospel, we have no basis for being angry at the sins of others or at the inconveniences of this world. How can we who have been forgiven so much not forgive those who sin against us?

This is the sort of message Ed Welch proclaims over and over again in his little book. It has a mix of theological truth and practical application based on that truth. The result is a helpful little volume that can help to change the reader’s heart and encourage his or her pursuit of holiness. That makes this small book an important one and a resource that pastors and other ministry leaders may find useful to recommend.

Note: I was given a complimentary review copy with no expectation of a positive review.

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.

The Radical Book For Kids - A Review

The Radical Book for Kids is one of those books that makes you exclaim, “I wish I’d had this when I was a kid.” In fact, I said this so many times while reading this book, I risked annoying my wife. Turns out, one of the endorsers had the same thought I did, but I didn’t notice that until I was half way through the book.

The simplest way to explain this volume is to compare it to a basic overview of Christianity presented in the format of the Dangerous Book for Boys (or girls). The closest equivalent to this book that was around when I was a kid would have been a Boy Scout Handbook.

This description, however, risks making this sound like a Christian knock off. That wouldn’t be fair to the author, Champ Thornton. He may have been inspired by the format, but this is a book that deserves to be considered on its own merits.

The Radical Book for Kids: Exploring the Roots and Shoots of Faith is filled with brilliant colors, attractive graphic design, and oodles of information. This is the sort of book that draws you into reading it, if just to admire the pictures.

There are no chapters or clear segments in the book, though there is an order and progression to it when reading it from cover to cover. It’s the sort of book meant for opening randomly on a Sunday afternoon.

When you open the book, you might find yourself reading a summary of the biblical story line, learning how to make a sling, or reading a biography of a great Christian. At another reading, you could discover the different systems of money used in the Bible, learn why manners matter, or getting introduced to the structure of a New Testament Epistle. At a different time, you might find yourself learning the Greek alphabet, exploring images of Christ in literature, or reading tips on how to memorize something.

Thornton combines biblical survey, typological teaching, hermeneutics, systematic theology, and church history into a coherent jumble of discipleship. He’s included a few jokes, some trivia, and occasional games with eternal truths that will really help kids understand more about the Christian faith.

The whole book pitches important topics at the right level for kids to understand. If I had to give an age range, I’d say 7-140 is about right. I am confident my first graders will enjoy this as much as my preteen.

This lively book will be a great gift for the kid who has been sitting through church, Sunday school, and AWANA for years, but still hasn’t gotten the big picture. That’s the greatest strength of this volume, it continually shows how the gospel holds everything together. Even though it is filled with a variety of information, it has one consistent theme.

Once you give this to your kids, expect to be peppered with random facts about Christianity. You may also be roped into playing “Dogs and Jackals” or making a ‘clay’ pot with them. You’ll probably have to make sure all the kids get a turn with it, too, though that will likely settle down in a few weeks.

If there is one critique of the book, it is that there are some pop culture references that may seem dated in 20 years. However, none of them are critical to the book, and at that point you’re considering the value for your grandkids.

So, buy the book, give it to a kid you know, and watch them enjoy exploring the depths of it. This really is an excellent volume that deserves a place in your home.

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