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.

The Lordship of Christ: Serving Our Savior All of the Time, In All of Life, With All of Our Heart – Vern Poythress

Vern Poythress. The Lordship of Christ: Serving Our Savior All of the Time, In All of Life, With All of Our Heart. Wheaton: Crosswaypoy
Books, 2016. 224 pp. $14.49

The Dutch statesman, Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine.’” Such is the theme of the recent book by Vern Poythress, The Lordship of Christ: Serving Our Savior All of the Time, In All of Life, with All of Our Heart.

Poythress attempts to show readers that the Lordship of Christ extends to every area of life, including politics, science, art, the future, education, and work. Nothing is excluded.

The author sets the stage by making the crucial assertion that the lordship of Christ extends to believers and unbelievers alike. No one is excluded. Every atheist, agnostic, neo-pagan, gnostic, new ager, evolutionist, and every Christian is subject to the lordship of Christ. The general tone of the book is to help readers understand the implications of living in a world where Christ is Lord over all.

Poythress carefully establishes the basis for a Christian worldview which is grounded in absolute surrender to Jesus Christ: “To confess Jesus to be Lord is to confess him to be God, the same God who is the God of Israel and who created the world.” Poythress continues, “Jesus is therefore worthy of absolute allegiance. In giving allegiance to Jesus we are at the same time giving allegiance to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, because the three persons are God.”

At the end of the day, every person who stands under Christ’s lordship also recognizes that glorifying him brings the highest measure of satisfaction. Poythress observes, “We find our deepest satisfaction and the deepest fulfillment of who we are – who we were created to be – when we serve God: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.’”

One of the most helpful aspects of this book is a basic repackaging of Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic method. Standing with Van Til, Poythress demonstrates the principle of antithesis (which was also popularized by Francis A. Schaeffer). The author demonstrates how knowledge is always derived from God and is therefore, never autonomous: “We must not seek knowledge autonomously, in independence from or isolation from God’s words. That is a form of rebellion, which dishonors God’s way of living. When there seems to be a tension between God’s word in Scripture and what we are learning from other sources, Scripture has the priority because it is the word of God.”

Some books are meant to be nibbled at; others are meant to be devoured. The Lordship of Christ is of the later sort. This is a serious book for anyone who is serious about pursuing Christ and glorifying him in every arena of life. College students and Seminarians should devour this wonderful book and find great freedom in living under the authority and lordship of Jesus.

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

Messiology

messGeorge Verwer. Messiology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016. 127 pp. $9.99

George Verwer, founder of Operation Mobilization writes with a wealth of ministry experience in his new book, Messiology. The author sets forth basic idea at the outset: “Messiology is the idea that God in His patience, mercy, and passion to bring men and women to Himself often does great things in the midst of a mess.” The book argues that God works in spite of people and will bring good out of church splits, division, and sinful behavior. “As always, “writes Verwer, “the concept of God working in the midst of the mess stares us in the face.” The subtitle summarizes the essence of the book: “The mystery of how God works even when it doesn’t make sense to us.”

Messiology is difficult to categorize in a specific genre. It is part personal/spiritual growth, mixed with missions, with an emphasis on discipleship and evangelism.

The biggest strength of Messiology is the experience that Verwer brings to the table. The life experiences of the author help readers gain a better understanding of his heart and convictions. Here is a man with a heart for God and a heart for the nations.

The author is exceedingly gracious and is willing to make certain allowances for the sake of the gospel. Verwer works hard to maintain the balance between truth and grace, yet it appears that grace edges truth out in a few places.

The biggest weakness I could detect in Messiology is a lack of structure and flow. While the author shares from the heart, many of the thoughts and ideas dangle without any sense of connectedness with the overall theme of the book.

At times, theology is sacrificed at the “altar of unity” in Messiology. This may merely be a reflection of the heart of the author which many people would naturally gravitate toward. For me, however, truth must inform our thinking, worldview, ministry philosophy, and our lives. Anything less may be undermined by pragmatism and can easily result in a ministry that becomes compromised and watered down.

Messiology is inspiring and well-intentioned. Randy Acorn sums up the book with typical graciousness: “God calls His people to high standards and honors their obedience, yet in His sovereignty can accomplish things despite their failures. By focusing on God’s greatness despite human failure, Messiology delivers an important message.” The final message of the book is that God can turn any situation for the good. Indeed, God’s Word reminds us of this great reality: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, ESV).

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

AWAKENING THE EVANGELICAL MIND – Owen Strachan (2015)

mindIn the late 1940’s, V.W. Steele resigned as the Senior pastor at Bethel Baptist in Everett, Washington. He stepped away from his pulpit at the height of a revival as he felt prompted by God to move to another ministry. He loaded up the car with his young family made the long journey to Los Angeles. Providentially, he was commissioned by Charles Fuller to partner together and preach the gospel in Idaho, Montana and North Dakota. Pastor Steele was my grandfather, so I have a particular interest in his venture with Charles Fuller, the popular preacher on the Old Fashioned Revival Hour radio broadcast.

My grandfather pastored churches in a day where the battle lines were drawn. He lived in a day when men were willing to lose life and limb for the sake of doctrinal convictions. But he also lived in a day when the church was in a titanic struggle against the cultural monster of modernism.

Dr. Owen Strachan’s book, Awakening the Evangelical Mind provides an invaluable service for the church as he explores where the battle lines were drawn and introduces readers to the key players. These neo-evangelicals, including Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and others helped establish the Christian mind in a culture awash in a sea of modernism.

Strachan traces the evangelical trajectory of these seminal thinkers by guiding readers through key historical turning points and decisions that were decisive for the establishment of the Christian mind in America. The author demonstrates how select Christian colleges and Seminaries were launched and the men who envisioned them. These are important historical details that the author skillfully tells; stories that have either been forgotten or worse yet, never heard!

R.C. Sproul and Mark Noll have both lamented about the decline of the Christian mind. Strachan’s excellent work is a much-needed corrective and salve for the soul. Strachan is eager to prop up the long history of the evangelical mind and optimistic about its future: “If the evangelical mind is not always appreciated, this simply cannot be because it does not exist. It does exist, and its contributions over two millennia are monumental.”

The author argues that evangelicals face some important decisions in the days ahead:

The church faces a profound choice: it can retreat and huddle, nursing its wounds as it accepts its intellectual marginalization. Or, it can learn once more from Ockenga, Henry, Graham, and the Cambridge evangelicals, and promote outstanding education that not only engages the questing heart but freshly awakens the evangelical mind.

Awakening the Evangelical Mind is a call to the next generation of Christian leaders to lead with biblical conviction and bold courage; to continue the legacy that was established by some great men of the faith.

 

A LOST GOD IN A LOST WORLD – Melvin Tinker (2015)

tinkerAugustine sounded the alarm in his magisterial work, The City of God.  The date was 426 A.D. Augustine’s battle cry alerted Christ-followers to the beauty, majesty, and sovereignty of a holy God.

Melvin Tinker sounds another alarm in his new book, A Lost God in a Lost World. His intent is to articulate the sobering truths that concern the lostness of people and to magnify the greatness and glory of God with the aim of encouraging Christ-followers to cling tenaciously to the Gospel of Jesus. They will, in the final analysis, be emboldened to stand strong in the grace which is found in their Savior. The author adds, “We shall become more effective instruments of righteousness in his hand for the salvation of many and the glorification of his name.”

Tinker diagnoses the problem and points his finger in the right direction – straight at idolatry. Calvin identified the propensity of people to turn to idols by describing their hearts as “idol factories.” The author elaborates on this problem which continues to plague humanity: “When we turn away in our hearts from the one true God we engage in a cheap exchange, swapping the one who is of infinite weight and worth for something which is empty and worthless.”

The remainder of the book describes the God-centeredness of God – the God who is crucified, the God who enters a life, the God who is proclaimed, the God who is embraced, the God who returns, and the God who makes all things new.

Tinker summarizes his excellent work in a concluding remark:

We have called this book, A Lost God in a Lost World because in the West an awareness of the real God has been lost and replaced by idolatrous thoughts with the result that people are lost, that is, they become disoriented, dissatisfied and detached form God and so from reality. It is not coincidental that this ‘loss of God’ and ‘loss of reality’ has gone hand in hand with a loss in the belief of heaven and hell – the ultimate realities.

Tinker’s work is a solid piece of work that will serve Christians well and will especially serve new comers to the Christian faith.

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

WE CANNOT BE SILENT – R. Albert Mohler (2015)

mohlerPostmodern culture is drowning in relativism and religious pluralism. The rising tide of liberalism and theological compromise has not only washed upon the secular shore; it has come crashing in upon the evangelical church with the force of a tsunami.

Dr. R. Albert Mohler explores this rising cultural storm in his new book, We Cannot Be Silent. The author describes the so-called sexual revolution in vivid terms; terms that sober readers and awaken them to this escalating challenge.

Mohler explains that this cultural revolution did not begin with same-sex marriage, however. Rather, four developments helped usher in the redefinition of marriage, namely, birth control and contraception, divorce, advanced reproductive technologies, and cohabitation.

The author guides readers through the various stages of cultural decay which include the acceptance of same-sex marriage, the transgender revolution, and the collapse of marriage.

Dr. Mohler provides the proper paradigm for thinking and acting biblically in these troubling times:

The fundamental axiom upon which evangelical Christians must base every response to homosexuality is this: God alone is sovereign, and he alone created the universe and everything within it by his own design and for his own good pleasure. Furthermore, he showed us his creative intention through Holy Scripture – and that intention is clearly to create and establish two distinct but complementary genders or sexes. The Genesis narrative demonstrates that this distinction of genders is neither accidental nor inconsequential to the divine design.

Navigating the cultural decay is no simple task, especially when more and more people appear to accept what the Bible prohibits – even in the church. Thankfully, we have the Word of God which reveals the heart of God in these matters. Indeed, the biblical testimony is clear and compelling: Mohler adds:

Homosexuality is a sin against God and a direct rejection of God’s intention and command in creation. All sin is a matter of eternal consequence. The redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ is the only hope for sinners. On the cross, Jesus paid the price for our sins and served as a substitute for the redeemed.

We Cannot Be Silent is essential reading for Christian leaders, Christian educators, and pastors. It contains a wealth of practical information, biblical responses, and draws readers into the center of the cultural tsunami. Mohler offers hope and Bible-soaked counsel for Christians who seek answers in the midst of the storm.

But the most important aspect of the author’s book is his heart which is clearly revealed. Mohler strikes a critical balance of love and grace from start to finish. He helps readers navigate the challenging waters of postmodern culture with biblical wisdom, skill, and winsomeness. Such an approach is imperative if the church intends on reaching people for the sake of the gospel.

I applaud We Cannot Be Silent for its depth, transparency, and clear commitment to Scripture. It deserves a wide reading and is bound to make an important difference in the lives of many people.

Highly recommended!

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

The Colson Way – Owen Strachan (2015)

colsonGospel-spreading, Jesus-loving, and worldview-shaping.  These short phrases describe a special man.  This man was bold, unafraid, and merciful.   He was filled with compassion for people and longed to see social justice in America and around the globe.  These are only a few brief descriptions of the former hatchet-man.  This man served under President Richard M. Nixon.  This man served time in a federal penitentiary.  His name – Charles Colson.

Owen Strachan provides an invaluable service to the church in his latest book, The Colson Way.  While the primary target is American millennial evangelicals, the author’s message should reach all age groups and is destined to not only inspire a new generation of leaders but also warn against moral decay and worldview erosion.  The book is a primer on the importance of loving one another and making a mark for the gospel – a gospel which is characterized by truth, grace, forgiveness, love, and mercy.

Strachan explores the formative years of Mr. Colson and walks readers through his days in the White House which ultimately led to a short stay in the “Big House.”  The Providential path of pain that Colson traveled led him to a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.  As a result, his life was transformed by Jesus which resulted in a series of unexpected events that would have an effect on people around him and thousands of people who never met him.

The author chronicles the various ministries of Chuck Colson, especially Prison Fellowship which spans around the world and offers hope, peace, and forgiveness to prisoners.

Strachan summarizes the Colson life creed:

“His God-given role in the kingdom was to go to the needy, the suffering, and the forgotten, and to minister grace to them … As a former prisoner, disgraced in the public eye, he never lost sight of just how freeing the gospel truly was.  He knew what it was to have lost everything, to be at the mercy of routines and regulations that were not of his choosing, and to taste shame and guilt that left only to return.”

This fascinating book not only introduces readers to the life and legacy of Charles Colson; it also serves as a primer for living with a bold faith in the public square.  It is a clarion call to young evangelical leaders.  It is an invitation to proclaim, defend, and live the truth in a world which is hostile to the truth of the gospel.

This much-needed book will serve the church well and prompt much discussion and debate.  Better yet, it will lead a new generation of leaders to the front lines where the battle is fought, and where our Commanding Officer beckons us to heed His sovereign call.

Highly recommended – 4.5 stars

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