Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering – Timothy Keller (2013)

kellerI have yet to meet a person who enjoys pain and suffering.  Yet suffering is a part of the warp and woof of life.  It is not a part of God’s original intent for creation.  Since Adam’s first sin, pain and suffering have been an abnormal part of the cosmos.  Suffering is an unwelcome guest who bullies his way to the table and makes demands – much like a  soldier on a bloody battlefield.

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller addresses this topic with candor and clarity.  Keller leaves no stone unturned here.  The book is organized into three sections:

Understanding the Furnace

Keller introduces the problem of pain and suffering and explores some of the philosophical challenges that Christ-followers must understand and address.

“Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity,” writes Keller.  Yet our culture has a tendency to respond to suffering in ways that are helpful and wrongheaded.  The moralist response to suffering is to “do good.”  The fatalist’s response to suffering is to “hang in there” and “endure.”  The dualist response to suffering is “purified faithfulness.”  And the secular response to suffering is focussed on “technique.”  A combination of these erroneous responses to suffering litter the current milieu and produce a generation of confused and discouraged people.

Keller rightly alerts readers to the importance of worldviews and their relation to the subject of pain and suffering.  Ultimately, the matter of pain and suffering is a matter of faith.  “Faith,” writes Keller “is the promise of God.”  He adds, “We can be fully accepted and counted legally righteous in God’s sight through faith in Christ, solely by free grace … It means freedom from fear of the future, from any anxiety about your eternal destiny.  It is the most liberating idea possible and it ultimately enables you to face all suffering, knowing that because of the cross, God is absolutely for you and that because of the resurrection, everything will be all right in the end.”

Facing the Furnace

Part two provides readers with the theological muscle – a crucial part of the battle.  Keller unpacks the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and provides a painful but biblical rationale for the role of suffering the lives of people.

At the heart of this discussion is an important look at the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The author summarizes, “That is, in order to satisfy justice, in order to punish sin so that in love he could forgive and receive us, God had to bear the penalty for sin within himself.  God the Son took the punishment we deserved, including being cut off from the Father.  And so God took into his own self, his own heart, an infinite agony – out of love for us.”

Keller’s treatment in part two travels great distances to help resolve the problem of evil – the so-called “Achilles heal” of the Christian faith: “So while Christianity never claims to be able to offer a full explanation of all God’s reasons behind every instance of evil and suffering – it does have a final answer to it.  The answer will be given at the end of history and all who hear it and see its fulfillment will find it completely satisfying, infinitely sufficient.”

While Keller never attempts to provide a comprehensive answer to the problem of evil, his treatment of this thorny subject is some of the best in print.  He may not satisfy the disciples of David Hume, Voltaire, or Sam Harris – but he does give ample ammunition for believers who are looking for honest answers.

Walking With God in the Furnace

Parts one and two explore the philosophical and theological angles of pain and suffering.  Part three helps readers with practical application.  They are given practical tools for “walking with God in the furnace.”  The very notion of walking with God in the furnace assumes pain – pain that some are unwilling to admit.  But practical experience reveals that we live in a broken world; a world which has been torn to shreds by the consequences of sin.

Keller urges readers to walk with God in suffering: “If you go into the furnace without the gospel, it will not be possible to find God in there.  You will be sure he has done terrible wrong or you have and you will feel all alone.  Going into the fire without the gospel is the most dangerous thing anyone can do.”  So the gospel is the first and last defense of every Christ-follower; indeed it is the hope of the watching world.

Second, the author stresses the importance of weeping during seasons of adversity.  Elijah serves as an example of a man who cried out in great agony.  He was a man unafraid of weeping.  Such an approach is not only honest – it is a sign of emotional health.

Third, Keller demonstrates the need for trusting in God during days of pain and adversity.    Joseph is portrayed as an example of a man who trusted: If the story of Joseph and the whole of the Bible is true, then anything that comes into your life is something that, as painful as it is, you need in some way.”  Jesus too demonstrated trust in his Father and points believers in the identical direction.  Keller continues to alert readers to other tools that they should utilize during their dark days.

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering is a watershed book that deserves to be read.  Christ-followers will no doubt be encouraged by this Christ-exalting book; a book which drives readers to the cross of the suffering Savior.

Highly recommended!

No Final Conflict – Francis Schaeffer (1975)

“It is my conviction that the crucial area of discussion for evangelicalism in the next years will be Scripture.  At stake is whether evangelicalism will remain evangelical.”  So stated Francis Schaeffer in his 1975 landmine, No Final Conflict.  While this treasure was penned nearly thirty years ago, it remains relevant and applicable to 21st-century culture.

It was not unusual for Schaeffer to warn Christians.  He did it often during the seventies and eighties.  His chief warning in No Final Conflict is to cling to the propositional truth of the Scriptures:  “We must say that if evangelicals are to be evangelicals, we must not compromise our view of Scripture … The issue is clear: Is the Bible truth without error wherever it speaks, including where it touches history and the cosmos, or is it only in some sense revelational where it touches religious subjects?”  Schaeffer smelled a “rat” in 1975.  He always had a good sense of smell!  The pesky “rat” that Schaeffer detected continues to scurry about in postmodern culture; in fact that “rat” has produced offspring.  The liberalism of the 70’s is flourishing in the 21st century.  Schaffer’s antidote is simple – We must embrace the truth of Scripture: “In our day that point is the question of Scripture.  Holding to a strong view of Scripture or not holding to it is the watershed of the evangelical world … We must say most lovingly but clearly: evangelicalism is not consistently evangelical unless there is a line drawn between those who take a full view of Scripture and those who do not.”

One of Schaeffer’s key points is to clear up the confusion between reason and faith.  Indeed, this was one of the major notes of his writing.  He saw a unity between faith and reason; a unity that is marginalized especially by the new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.  Schaeffer posits, “There may be a difference between the methodology by which we gain knowledge from what God tells us in the Bible and the methodology by which we gain it from scientific study, but this does not lead to a dichotomy as to the facts … if both studies can be adequately pursued, there will be no final conflict.”  Truth is unified as Nancy Pearcey has reminded us.  There is no conflict between reason and faith.

Dr. Schaeffer went to be with his Lord in 1984.  If he were still with us, I’m convinced that he would never have an “I told you so attitude.”  Rather, he would continue to admonish believers to hold to a strong uncompromising view of Scripture.  He would challenge Christ-followers to cling to the rock of propositional truth.  And he would warn disciples of Christ to flee from anything that looks like a rat, smells, like a rat, or walks like a rat.  His warnings mattered almost thirty years ago.  They continue to be as relevant as ever!

 

He is There and He is Not Silent- Francis Schaeffer (1972)

I first read He is There and He is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer in 1992.  Multiple readings have ensued and I turn back to Schaeffer’s book again and again for help with apologetics.

Schaeffer argues for three basic areas of philosophical thought: metaphysics (being or existence), morals (the dilemma of man), and epistemology (the problem of knowing). Philosophy and religion are essentially devoted to the same questions, namely, metaphysics, morals, and epistemology.

Philosophy is concerned with either an academic subject or a person’s worldview.  It is the later, that Schaeffer is concerned with in this volume.  Schaeffer contends that every man is a philosopher of sorts because it is impossible for humans to live without a worldview.

Metaphysics

There are three basic answers to the question of metaphysics.  The first answer is that “everything that exists has come out of absolutely nothing.”  Naturalism’s answer suggests no energy, no mass, no motion, and no personality.  This answer is, as Schaeffer calls it, “nothing, nothing.”

The second answer is that everything had an impersonal beginning.  This answer leads automatically to reductionism.  “Beginning with the impersonal must be explained in terms of the impersonal plus time plus chance,” writes Schaeffer.  This answer poses many problems.  But the two primary problems fail to answer the major philosophical question: the need for unity and the need for diversity.

The third answer is the biblical answer.  The third answer is the only rational and satisfying answer.  This answer suggests that we must begin with a personal beginning.  And to have an adequate answer of a personal beginning, one must have a personal infinite God, and personal unity and diversity in God (found the holy Trinity).

Schaeffer concludes: “The reason we have the metaphysical answer is because the infinite-personal God, the full Trinitarian God is there and he is not silent.”

Morals

There are only two basic answers to the question of morals.  The first: Everything had an impersonal beginning.  The is the answer of atheism.  Schaeffer never minces words.  He writes, “Beginning with the impersonal, there is no explanation for the complexity of the universe or the personality of man.”  When one begins with the impersonal, one eliminates the possibility of morals or ethics.

The second answer is the biblical reality of a personal beginning.  Man was created by an infinite-personal God.  Man sinned or “made a decision to change himself” as Schaeffer notes.

“The starting point,” writes Schaeffer “to the answer (of the question of morals) as with metaphysics is the fact that God is there and he is not silent.”

Epistemology

Schaeffer concludes by setting forth the problem concerning epistemology and the epistemological answer.

The epistemological problem concerns the tension between nature (particulars) and grace (universals).  When nature becomes autonomous, the universal is lost with the hope of giving the particulars meaning.  The problem is that when nature becomes autonomous, nature “eats up” grace.  Schaeffer argues that when we are left with only particulars, we become lost in the areas of metaphysics, morality, and epistemology.

The epistemological answer was summarized by the Reformers.  The Reformers did not allow for a dichotomy between nature and grace.  The reason: they had verbal propositional revelation.  The Reformers were vocal about the reality of God’s existence and the reality of his revelation.  Schaeffer popularized this view in the title of his book, He is There and He is Not Silent.  God has spoken truly about himself.  However, he has not spoken exhaustively about himself.

Schaeffer urges readers to come face to face with two gigantic presuppositions – “the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system and the uniformity of natural causes in an open system and in a limited time span.”  Ultimately, readers must determine which worldview fits with the facts.

Schaeffer summarizes, then, the basic presuppositions in historic Christianity.

1. God is there.

2. God is the infinite-personal God who has made man in his image.

3. God made man a verbalizer in the area of propositions in his horizontal communications with other men.

4. God communicates to us on the basis of propositions, viz, he is there and his is not silent.

Schaeffer maintains, “Under the unity of the apex of the infinite-personal God, in all of these areas we can have meaning, we can have reality, and we can have beauty.”

He is There and He is Not Silent is an essential work of apologetics.  It should be required reading for every Bible College/Seminary student.  Schaeffer put his finger on the essential issues of the day – even in the early 70’s and especially in our day.

 

Two Contents, Two Realities – Francis Schaeffer (1974)

Francis-Schaeffer-560x328Sometimes the best things come in small packages.  Case in point: Two Contents, Two Realities by Francis Schaeffer.  To call it a booklet would be inaccurate.  To call it a pamphlet would be insulting.  The worst accusation one could hurl at this work is irrelevant or outdated.  Originally published in 1974 as a position paper that was presented at the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, Schaeffer’s work (as usual) is prophetic, timely, and challenging.  His writing aims squarely at the Christian mind but always impacts the heart.  And whenever the mind and heart are inflamed by Christian truth, the hands and feet are quick to follow.

Schaeffer’s proposition in this piece is simple.  The culture is getting increasingly more secular and ungodly.  There are two contents and two realities:

Content # 1: Sound Doctrine

Content # 2: Honest Answers to Honest Questions

Reality # 1: True Spirituality

Reality # 2: The Beauty of Human Relationships

The First Content: Sound Doctrine

Schaeffer argues, “We must have the courage to make no compromise with liberal theology and especially neo-orthodox existential theology.”  He argues strenuously against any system that abandons the role of the intellect which is tantamount to rejecting propositional revelation.  In regards to the doctrinal content, Schaeffer maintains there are three things we must recognize:

1) There must be a strong emphasis on content.

2) There must be a strong emphasis on the propositional nature of the Bible, especially the early chapters of Genesis.

3) There must be a strong emphasis on the practice of truth.

Anyone who takes a serious look at the church in the 21st century must admit that we have clearly moved away from these important components in Schaeffer’s system.  Theology is marginalized in most churches.  Propositional truth is relegated to modernity and cast aside in favor of mysticism and existentialism.  And while practicing the truth may be in vogue, one wonders which truth is being practiced given the shaky epistemological groundwork.

The Second Content: Honest Answers to Honest Questions

Schaeffer identifies the strong Platonic worldview that has been embraced by mainstream evangelicals – a view that divides man into two parts, namely, spiritual and physical.  He rightly adds, “We must consciously reject the Platonic element which has been added to Christianity.  God made the whole man; the whole man is redeemed in Christ.  And after we are Christians, the Lordship of Christ covers the whole man.”

Herein lies the rub.  Since historic Christianity is the truth (what Schaeffer calls elsewhere, “true truth),  it must therefore “touch every aspect of life.”  Difficult questions may be challenging, but answers must be given nonetheless.  Forever gone are the days when one answers, “You must just believe.”  Such a mindset is tantamount to blind faith – which in all reality is no faith at all!

Schaeffer adds, “Answers are not salvation.  Salvation is bowing and accepting God as Creator and Christ as Savior.  I must bow twice to become a Christian.  I must bow and acknowledge that I am not autonomous; I am a creature created by the Creator.  And I must bow and acknowledge that I am a guilty sinner who needs the finished work of Christ for my salvation.”

The church must address cultural questions as well as questions that come from within.  Schaeffer maintains that in order for this to take place, there must be sufficient training in both the church as well as the academy.

The First Reality: True Spirituality

Behind true spirituality is a commitment to truth which is stated in propositions.  Schaeffer spoke to the liberals in his day and echoes that same reality to emergent types and neo-liberals with this bold challenge: Anybody who diminishes the concept of the propositionalness of the Word of God is playing into … non-Christian hands.” He proceeds to encourage readers to grasp propositional truth by making truth come alive in the streets and in the marketplace of ideas.  He reacts strongly to any system that is a mere end in itself: “A dead, ugly orthodoxy with no real spiritual reality must be rejected as sub-Christian.”

The Second Reality: The Beauty of Human Relationships

Schaeffer observes, “We are to show something to the watching world on the basis of the human relationships we have with other people, not just other Christians.”  Schaeffer illustrates how we are called to love people without compromise.  He uses the liberal theologian as an example.  He adds, “Yes, we are to stand against his theology.  We are to practice truth, and we are not to compromise.  We are to stand in antithesis to his theology.  But even though we cannot cooperate with him in religious things, we are to treat the liberal theologian in such a way that we try from our side to bring our discussion into the circle of truly human relationships … We can have the beauty of human relationships even when we must say no.”

Francis Schaeffer’s understanding and exposition of two contents and two realities is very helpful as one seeks to make inroads with secular people.  I commend it and trust that this excellent work will be read and digested by many.

Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl

tilt

N.D. Wilson, Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009, 197 pp.  $7.13

Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, by N.D. Wilson is a fascinating look at God’s creation from a creative perspective.

Several features are worth noting.  First, Wilson reminds readers of the importance of a personal Creator: “For those who believe in ex nihilo creation, the world is inevitably art, and it is inevitably art from top to bottom, in every time and in every place.  The world cannot exist apart from the voice of God.  It is the voicings of God.”  The author demonstrates the absurdity of a creation devoid of a personal Creator.

Second, Wilson demonstrates the utter foolishness of atheism, relativism, and Darwinian natural selection.  He chides the evolutionist and sets his eyes on God’s good creation.  He makes it clear (and rightly so) that he will enjoy God’s good creation.

Third, I appreciate Wilson’s interaction with philosophers like Hume and Kant.  But especially noteworthy is his interaction with the German philosopher, Nietzsche.  I sense he respects Nietzsche and would have savored the opportunity to sit and visit with him in a German tavern.  But Wilson admits a frustration with Nietzsche: “I want to ruffle his hair.  I want to take the poor Lutheran boy’s head in my hands and kiss his creased forehead.  It is all I can do.  I cannot set a bone, let alone a soul.”  Wilson continues with an unforgettable line: “He [Nietzsche] moves on, preaching unbelief to an empty street.”

Finally, the author effectively reminds readers of an eternal hell: “Heaven or Hell is about love and hate.  Do you love God or do you hate him?  Is He foul in your nostrils?  Do you see His art and wish your arm was long enough to reach His face?  Do you spit and curse like Nietzsche?  Would you trade places with the damned thief so that you might see Him die and know that God Himself heard your challenges?”  Wilson continues, “Then Hell is for you.  Hell is for you because God is kind and reserves a place for those who loathe Him to the end, an eternal exile, a joyless haven for those who would eternally add to their guilt, a place where blasphemy will be new every morning … If you displease Him, He will displease you.  He will put you away and remove the grace you have experienced in this world.  With the crutches of His goodness gone, He will leave people to themselves, leave them to their own corrupt desires and devices.”

Thankfully, the author does not leave the reader groveling in hopelessness at the prospect of an eternal hell: “If you want to love Him, then He has already begun giving you change.  He has already begun unclenching your fists, taking your filth to be laundered on the cross.”

Wilson demonstrates that he is well-read and tuned in theologically and philosophically.  For instance, one of my favorite lines in the book is directed Godward: “An infinite God is I AM, and all else must be measured in terms of His nature, His loves, and His loathings.”  This is heady, creative writing.  In fact, some of this stuff is pure genius!  The writing is a strange mixture of Don Miller, Dennis Miller, C.S. Lewis, and G.K Chesterton.

The goodness in Wilson’s work, however, is overshadowed at times by his insistence on using profanity.    For instance, the author skillfully demonstrates the foolishness of rejecting transcendent absolute standards and argues against a relativistic worldview:  “I look in the atheist’s mirror.  I look at his faith in the nonexistence of meaning.  I look at his preaching and painting.  I see nothing but a shi*-storm.”  This kind of banter is totally unnecessary and undercuts the weight of the otherwise legitimate argument.

This growing trend toward the glorification of the profane is an alarming trend in the church, one that needlessly offends and accomplishes absolutely nothing.  This kind of writing is clearly not consistent with the Scriptural mandate, especially Paul’s warning to the Ephesian church: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking which are out-of-place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Eph. 5:4, ESV).  Colossians 3:8 makes it clear that Christ followers are to put away “obscene talk.”  For we have been “renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10, ESV).  I can already anticipate the quick response I will receive from postmodern pastors, emergent sympathizers, and enthusiastic bloggers.  But I stand with Scripture on my side.  For “my conscience is held captive by the Word of God.  To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”  Indeed, it is ironic to lay claim to Luther’s words, given his propensity to use vulgarity.  However, I argue that Luther should have taken the scrub brush to his mouth as well.

I know some Christ-followers who would toss this book into the ash heap because of the vulgarity.  I am not prepared to go that far.  I am not ready toss the baby out with the bathwater.  There is too much good in Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl to justify such a knee-jerk reaction.

Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl made me dizzy.  But it also made me think.  Sometimes it angered me.  At the end of the day, I am glad I came to the “carnival.”  I am glad I decided to jump on the ride.  At times, I felt as if I’d eaten too much cotton candy.  But other times, I felt like buying another “ticket” and riding again – and again!

Meet Generation Z (2017)

zJames Emery White, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017, 219 pp. $10.11

Most people are familiar with the respective generations which are generally designated as the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945), the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (born 1965-1980), Older Millennials (born 1981-1989), and the Younger Millennials (born 1990-1996). But a new group of people is emerging: Meet Generation Z. Born after 1996, this fascinating people group is the first truly post-Christian tribe. And as the author ofMeet Generation Z says, they “will be the most influential religious force int he West and the heart of the missional challenge facing the Christian church.”

James Emery White is the author of Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World. The author alerts readers to the growing secularization of culture. Built within this unique secular culture lies the “squishy center,” which includes people who are shapable but bear little in the area of convictions. These people have a propensity to move in the direction of the prevailing culture winds, which creates a special challenge to Christ-followers who long to make an impact on this generation.

James Emery White writes with urgency and passion. But he also writes with a sober-minded concern. His chief concern is that the church is missing an opportunity to reach Generation Z: ”But this is about more than losing an ideological bridge. We are also losing a relational bridge – one we can walk across to reach the largest generation in American history.”

The book is divided into two parts. Part One explores the New Realityand captures the pertinent demographic data that concerns Generation Z. The author introduces readers to the nones, that is, people are have little to no religious affiliation. This growing group represents one of of every five Americans. The nones are characterized by their commitment to secularism. They have been influenced by an age pummeled by economic recession. They are linked to computers and Wi-Fi. They tend to be multi-racial and sexually fluid. That is, they offer strong support to social causes such as transgender rights and “gay marriage.” They are, for the most part, biblically illiterate, that is, they fail to understand the redemptive themes in the Bible, let alone the basic stories in the Bible. And the nones, as described above, are radically post-Christian.

Part Two explores A New Approach. The author reexamines ways of reaching Generation Z and encourages pastors and Christian workers to think outside the box. He cites Ron Dreher approvingly: “Christians must pioneer new ways to bind ourselves to Scripture, to our traditions, and to each other – not for mere survival, but so that the church can be the authentic light of Christ to a world lost in darkness.” Our task, then is to be truly Christ-centered by modeling the gospel to a lost generation.

There is a plea here for “finding our voice,” something that appears to be increasingly difficult for many evangelicals: “There is a thin line between maintaining an earned voice through which to speak to culture and compromising the very message we long to share.” Ultimately, our task is to communicate the gospel in an uncompromising way to a generation that does not understand the Bible. The problem is that many people are compromising. The author notes, “If we harden ourselves against revelation’s voice, then again, like clay, we can only crumble in response to its touch.”

Finally, there is a challenge to rethink apologetics and evangelism directed to the Generation X generation. James Emery White offers these wise words: “At the most basic level, the goal is to hold both grace and truth together. Truth without grace is just judgment. Grace without truth is license. Only authentic Christianity brings together both truth and grace … The only kind of voice that will arrest the attention of the world will be convictional in nature, clear in its message, substantive in its content, and bold in its challenge.”

Meet Generation X is a much-needed book, especially in light of the challenges we face in the days ahead. For me personally, there are some things in the book that could be discarded. But to throw out the baby with the bathwater would be a huge overstep. Much of the wisdom here is sound and biblical. I commend this book to a new generation of pastors and Christian workers who have a heart for building a bridge to the next generation, namely, Generation X.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower

secularTom Krattenmaker, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. New York: Convergent, 2016, 245 pp. $18.75

Jesus Christ stands at the very center of human history. He has inspired and transformed millions of people from the small town of Nazareth to the great cities of the world. He has revolutionized the humble and humbled the affluent. Church historian Jaroslav Pelican writes, “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries.”

Tom Krattenmaker acknowledges the influence of Jesus on our world and would like to see more people emulate his example and embrace his teachings. Yet the proposal which is advanced in the book under consideration is different than most people might expect.

A MODEST PROPOSAL

We live in an unprecedented time of secularism. A growing tide of godlessness is on the rise and the corresponding rejection of absolute truth and exclusivity are quickly fading in the dark cavern of relativism. This reality is echoed in Tom Krattenmaker’s latest book, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. The author rightly describes the cultural milieu and evaluates the spirit of the age with a stunning degree of clarity.

The author addresses real concerns and offers meaningful solutions. He advocates loving and valuing fellow human beings. His inclination is to be empathetic and generous. He strongly opposes violence. He encourages radical hospitality and is quick to offer a “second chance” to the marginalized and the oppressed.

As a self-confessed liberal thinker, Tom Krattenmaker will surely surprise many readers as he commends people from all backgrounds to consider the option of following Jesus. He writes, “In the end, I hope you will see the ways in which this adds up to a surprising conclusion about Jesus: that his way can be helpful and, indeed, available to non-Christians, and that no one can stop us seculars from following this ethical leader even if we do not or cannot believe the religious aspects of the story.”

The modest proposal to “follow Jesus” and accept him as “the answer” is both refreshing and perplexing. On the one hand, it is refreshing to hear an avowed progressive writer give credit to Jesus and pay homage to him in some respects. But this proposal is also perplexing because it confuses what it truly means to “follow” him. For example, while Krattenmaker is impressed with Jesus’s teaching and credentials, and even considers himself a “secular Jesus follower,” he repudiates the most important aspects of his person and work. For example, Krattenmaker does not believe that Jesus died on the cross to forgive sinners. He does not believe that Jesus is God. He rejects the resurrection of Jesus. He rejects the doctrines of hell and heaven. And he refuses to believe a “discrete set of theological propositions.”

Krattenmaker leaves no room for ambiguity. After jettisoning some of the most important aspects of Jesus’s person and work, he writes, “And despite my inability to accept the religious claims about his cosmic status, I believe Jesus is the answer, or at least a large part of it – if only we can work out what question we are asking and the language we are using to address it.” So a “secular follower of Jesus” appears to accept what one deems acceptable and rejects what goes against the grain of contemporary progressive thought.

A MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE

The modest proposal in Confessions of a Jesus Follower invites meaningful dialogue. I suspect the author appreciates a good debate and would welcome opposing views. Liberal writers are champions for tolerance so there should be little risk in opposing his views and offering humble, yet direct criticism. But first, a commendation is in order.

COMMENDATION

Tom Krattenmaker is a gifted writer whose heart for people is clear throughout the book. I thoroughly enjoy his writing style and the passion he shares with his readers.

I would enjoy the chance to sit down with Tom Krattenmaker over a large cup of coffee and discuss his book. Given that opportunity, I would seek to listen and learn. My desire would be to build a bridge of friendship with someone I have a genuine disagreement with, yet respect nonetheless. I would seek to apologize for any hurt that he has experienced at the hands of Christians. It is very clear that the author has been wounded by Christians, a travesty which needs to be reconciled. More than anyone else, Christ-followers should be quick to admit fault and seek the forgiveness of an offended party.

As a part of this exchange, I would offer several lines of thought in the hopes of sparking deep discussion and genuine response.

I would commend Krattenmaker for forcing readers to think critically. I would also thank him for his willingness to dialogue about controversial themes with grace and tact, a rare art form in a culture that claims to value tolerance and diversity but is, in the final analysis, deeply judgmental when the “chips are down.” My suspicion is that he would receive this as a great compliment, and indeed it is.

I would compliment Krattenmaker for his eagerness to “follow Jesus.” Ours is a cynical world where most secular progressives are quick to marginalize Jesus before a discussion even begins. Such an arena only breeds contempt and stifles honest conversation.

Critique

But a critique is also in order. I would challenge Krattenmaker’s worldview by pleading with him to reconsider the person and work of Jesus Christ through a biblical filter.

First, it is untenable to “follow” the socially acceptable teachings of Jesus, yet at the same time, reject his soteriological demands. The author writes, “It doesn’t matter whether you think Jesus is the true son of God, or whether you buy the Christian doctrine about his sacrificial death washing away your sins (and I wish to disabuse no one who believes it).” The truth is, however, that everything hinges on embracing Jesus’s claim to be the Son of God. Everything hinges on Jesus’s claim to be God!

Jesus spoke plainly to Pilate: “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37, ESV). The credentials of the One who “bears witness” are undeniable:

  • Jesus is eternal. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
  • Jesus stood face-to-face with the Father. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1-2).
  • Jesus is a member of the Trinity which has been in fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit from all eternity. “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).

Additionally, Jesus is a loving king (Matt. 11:28-30), a saving king (Luke 19:10; John 3:17), a ruling king (John 18:36), a forgiving king (Col. 1:14), a creator king (Col. 1:16), a sovereign king (Heb. 1:3; 1 Tim. 6:15). Indeed, this king is fully God (Col. 2:9; John 10:30). This king, as Jesus testifies, is the embodiment of Truth. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, ESV).

The irony of the exchange between Jesus and Pilate is this: It is Jesus himself who graciously gives Pilate the breath which was used to question his identity and his kingly authority. Yet, this man has the audacity to ask Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

Second, it is untenable to “follow” the ethic of Jesus, yet and at the same time, reject the eschatological reality of Jesus. Krattenmaker says, “If you’re like me, the notion of Jesus as your savior, as the formula to wipe out your sin and secure your ticket to heaven, leaves you unmoved.” But it was Jesus who said, “I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to me” (John 18:37). It would seem reasonable, then, that we listen to and embrace everything that Jesus taught. Simply put, we do not have the option of picking and choosing what we like about Jesus. We do not have the luxury of “swallowing the meat” but “spitting out the bones.” Jesus Christ is an all or nothing proposition.

Yet, Krattenmaker is content to “cherry-pick” what he likes about Jesus and discard what he finds either offensive or unreasonable. For example, he denies the resurrection of Jesus. Yet, Scripture is clear on this matter: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). The apostle Paul continues, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). The upshot is that if the resurrection never happened, all the other teachings of Jesus are invalid. All the teaching that the author finds so appealing collapse and are rendered null and void.

My humble appeal to Tom Krattenmaker is to fully accept and embrace the whole of Jesus’s teaching. “The truth”, writes Sinclair Ferguson, “ is that unless the significance of what Christ did at the first Christmas shakes us, we can scarcely be said to have understood much of what it means or who He really is.”1 My hope is that Krattenmaker would be moved by the notion of Jesus as Savior; that he would rest in that great reality and rejoice in the promise of eternal life!

SUMMARY

What emerges in Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower is a view of Jesus which has been inspired by theological liberalism. Stephen Wellum observes, “Classical liberalism rejected the historic position of the church in regard to Christ, but it still tried to maintain a unique identity for Jesus Christ in moral categories.”2 Liberalism creatively repudiates what appears unsavory in Jesus and replaces the biblical portrait with an imposter. Gresham Machen reminds us that the real nemesis for Christians is not secularism. The real problem is liberalism: “The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism,’ not secularist thought, for ‘Christianity is founded upon the Bible,’ while liberalism is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.” John Frame writes with similar passion: “The very nature of liberal theology, for the past three hundred years, has been to assert human autonomy.”3

While Krattenmaker’s version of a “secular follower of Jesus” is the minority report, his proposals in Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower will no doubt, appeal to some people. Indeed, the liberal “Jesus” does appeal to many people. Yet David Wells reminds us, “Their christ’s might be admired, but they cannot be worshipped.  They might inspire religious devotion, but they cannot sustain or explain Christian faith … Their appeal is not that of the biblical Christ, the One who was God with us, the means of forgiveness for our sin, and the agent of our reconciliation.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are what we need centrally.  We need to know there is someone there to forgive us, someone who can forgive and heal us, and that was why the Word was incarnate.” (David Wells, Cited in God the Son Incarnate, 91).

Like many today, Pilate was unwilling to accept the identity of Jesus and his claims. He suppressed the truth (Rom. 1:18) and exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:25). And in the final analysis, he refused to listen to the truth. Jesus says, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:47).

Our challenge is to fully embrace the Jesus of the Bible. That is, we not only embrace his teachings, we embrace his claims, most notably to be the God-man who came to die for the sins of everyone who would ever believe. To believe anything less fails to honor the Savior, Jesus Christ!

Plato said, “It may be that some day there will come forth from God a Word who will reveal all mysteries and make everything plain.” Jesus Christ is that Word. Christ has revealed the mystery of the Gospel. He has clearly revealed God the Father. The quest for truth ends with Jesus. Indeed, he was born in order to bear witness to the truth!

John Piper observes, “Faith is being satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ.” This is precisely what the psalmist calls us to: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8, ESV). May we stand with millions of men and women and boys and girls who demonstrate faith in the Son of God. May we truly believe the claims of Jesus. May we turn from our sins and trust in his all-sufficient work on the cross. May we bank all our hope and future on an infinite Savior who has an infinite love for his people. Then and only then can we call ourselves followers of Jesus!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

  1. Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2007), 18.
  2. Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate (Wheaton: Crossway Book, 2016), 76.
  3. John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002), 12.