Short review: This book is a great overview of Biblical teaching, that not only provides solid exegesis of the whole of the Gospel, but in the process also refutes much (maybe all?) of the major branches of flawed teaching that have infected the modern evangelical church. I would recommend this book for new Christians (I wish I had had it when I was converted, it might have saved me much grief in my first church), those who are curious about the message of the Bible, and those who are in a church where false teaching comes from the pulpit. It is also a good read for any Christian, as a reminder of what the Gospel is and isn't (don't we often need this reminder?), and how it should be constantly changing our lives. I know I was personally challenged by many sections, and I hope others will be to. This book is not a replacement for reading the Bible (and by that I mean reading the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments) for oneself, but it is a great summary of what is contained therein, and what it means for you and for me. Hint: God does not promise you your best life now! The longer review continues below.
First, I do want to say something about style. This book was very easy for me to read, and I think it would be very easy for anyone with an understanding of English to read. Dan is very good at combining different styles of writing, mixing fictional case studies, question and answer, personal anecdotes, relevant references to contemporary culture, and historical quotes (not always together in the same chapter) together in such a way that everything just fits and flows. I realize that Dan would probably say that is all due to the work of a good editor, but an editor can only make good use of the underlying materials.
Second, I appreciate that Dan makes his case using ALL of the Bible, with many scripture references and examples from both the Old and New Testaments. In the reformed camp this is generally a common approach, but I would imagine that to many of those who pick this book up off the shelf at their local bookstore, this may come as a shock that the God in the Old Testament is the same as the God in the New Testament.
Third, I am glad that Dan wrote this book, instead of writing some of the other books that could have been written, such as “teasing out the meaning of” Eph 1:4-6. Speaking of which, I do believe Dan is working on a book on Proverbs, which I’m sure will be very interesting, if this work is any indication. I also marveled again and again how Dan worked in responses to many of the most common heresies in the contemporary church without specific sections; such as the historicity of Adam and Eve, the eternal nature of the God’s plan, that redemption is limited, and that we are utterly incapable of turning from our sin to God without Him first giving us new hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit. By the way, if you disagree with any of that, read the book, his answers are really solid, and there is a lot more than those I have mentioned.
What follows is my commentary on each section of the book. There aren’t a lot of quotes, because honestly, most of the quotable parts were very dependent on previous sections, and so I would have ended up just quoting the whole thing anyways.
In the introduction, Dan lays out the major themes of the book, and what he believes is the cause of the current problems in the contemporary evangelical church. He begins with the proposition that the Gospel is world-tilting, i.e. it should (if communicated truthfully and believed correctly) invert our world-view from man-centered to God-centered, and asks why the ancient church changed peoples world-views and the contemporary church, for the most part, does not:
“Fast-forward to our day and glance around at evangelicanism. All the things that Group A (first-century church) lacked, Group B (modern evangelicanism) has: institutions, sway, numbers, technology, money, equipment, connections, glitz and glamour. Everything except world-tilting! Whatever you can say they are doing, you can’t say evangelicals are turning the world upside down. In fact, you could make a better case that the world has turned the church upside down.”In a series of points describing what the differences between the ancient and contemporary church practices are that lead to the current crop of problems, we find what I believe is the thesis of the book:
“Converts to Christ knew what they had been, what they had needed, and what God had done to rescue and transform them. They had a biblical worldview that explained the need for and nature of the Gospel. Modern evangelicals, too often, don’t.” (pg 17, Point 3)In the rest of the book, Dan lays out:
- who we are
- who God is
- how we got where we are
- what we need
- what God has done
- what difference it makes
Explaining each point based on exposition of key bible texts, and refuting common errors and heresies along the way. The book is grouped into four major sections: Part One deals with God, man’s current position before God, and how we came to be in this position. Part Two examines more deeply God’s nature, and how that informs His redemptive work on the cross. In Part Three “we learn how God’s “out there” work of salvation comes to have a revolutionary and transforming impact “in here,” in our own individual lives.” Part Four is focused on applying the Gospel message covered in the first three parts to confront teachings that are keeping Christians from the biblical Gospel model. Finally, Dan ties everything together to show how each Gospel truth should make each Christian a “world-tilter” and “barrier-buster”. In addition, at the end of each section, Dan also provides a helpful summary on how the particular truths expounded in that section are “world-tilting” and “barrier-busting”.
The three chapters in Part One set the stage for everything that comes after. The chapter titles here are very telling: Ch1: Knowing God and Man, Ch2: What Happened in the Garden, Ch3: Like Father, Like Son. In the first chapter, some common wrong answers as to our self-image are discussed and refuted, such as those who think we are just good people and need a bit of a leg up; those who know they need God, but don’t think they are utterly incapable of choosing to follow God; and those who not only think they contribute something to the process of redemption, but also need to empty themselves to let God completely take over (note that these misconceptions come up again later). Dan proceeds to lay out the Biblical case: that our hearts are utterly deceitful, and therefore, if we would know God and our position before Him, we need to look to the Bible. He then does so in the next two chapters. Chapter two examines the first three chapters of Genesis, with particular attention on “the Fall”, with chapter three illustrating what many would admit is true, that nothing in our sinful nature has changed since Adam and Eve listened to the Serpent and willfully rebelled, and the only cure is a supernatural act. This sets the stage for God’s redemptive plan in Part Two. Note that Dan makes the point that if Adam was not a historical figure, nor a special, direct creation of God (guarding against naturalistic interpretations of Genesis).
Here we have the Gospel: God’s plan to redeem man from his fallen, sinful state; gloriously described for us. Dan begins to lay out the Gospel in a way that I had not really considered before, by first demonstrating that what happened in Genesis 3 was not a surprise to God, and how His various attributes (holiness, love and wisdom) are central to the Gospel. All three of these attributes are key, because they are areas of focus that I know many Christians are often very confused on. We often make light of each of these, believing that our sin is less offensive than it really is; that God should love us “just as we are”; and that He is just really, really smart. I think that Dan would agree that much of the problem in the contemporary church is that God’s love is emphasized too much over His holiness (if holiness is mentioned at all), and that is why it is first in the list. Chapter fives subtitle says it all: “God’s Holy, Loving Wisdom Confronts Our Hopeless, Desperate Need”. The Gospel here is outlined starting in Genesis, and working through history and the progressive revelation given in God’s Word. In this chapter, there is also particular emphasis on core truths: the eternal nature of the plan and election (God has always known who would be saved, and is in control of that situation), the need for a bloody, sinless sacrifice, that was prophesied from Genesis 3 and throughout the Bible. The final chapter in this section goes into more detail of what Christ actually did, or the execution of the rescue plan. With this done, we are of course left with the question: How do we get in?
Chapter seven looks at being “declared righteous”, and the fact that those who are so declared are also justified, and the marks of one who is truly justified: hearing the word (this is why we still need preaching and evangelism), repentance (truly turning away from our sin), and vital faith. There can be no repentance without hearing the word, repentance is more than just a change in our minds, and biblical faith “is focused on information, on truth -- on statements of truth. The notion that Christianity is primarily a feeling or an experience is terribly misleading. Christian faith is distinguished by its focus on certain specific affirmations of truth.” Chapter eight then examines the truth of regeneration, or being born again (from above), and how this results in a completely new nature if we are truly born again, one that is increasingly growing in Christ-likeness.
This is where things really start to come together. Two chapters here deal with some very serious heresies that impede Christian growth, I particularly like the names Dan gives those who fall into these teachings: Gutless Gracers, Crisis Upgraders, and Muzzy Mystics. For each one, the reasoning behind the teaching is given, and then soundly refuted. In this day and age I think these types of chapters are really important in a book on the Gospel, given that these particular types of heretical teachings are so abundant, and it is very likely that a new believer will encounter them. There are of course many other types of false teachings making the rounds, but I think most of them are dealt with rather well throughout the main body of the book.
The next two chapters deal with “The Flesh” and “The Holy Spirit”, in each case what each of them are, and why they are important. Finally, the last chapter gives nine ramifications of the Gospel (note: Dan nowhere suggests that this list is exhaustive, rather these are what he sees as particularly important ideas resulting from our study of the Gospel over the course of the book). Just to give you an idea of what these are like, here is a quote from #5 (We Mustn’t Reason from “Is” to “Should”):
“Coming up with norms and standards of behavior by observing human society is like drawing up a motor vehicle handbook by filming a drunk driver, or concluding that the average weight is the ideal weight. What is, in this world, is not usually what should be.
The Bible alone shows the truth of the matter. A pristine universe flowed from the vast mind of the perfect God by the power of His word. All was beauty and harmony, and God was at the center. Then sin entered, and chaos erupted on every plane except the divine. The world as we see it is marred by sin. Normal human behavior is broken human behavior, abnormal behavior, when judged by the standard of God’s original intent and stated norms.
God’s unchanging, transcendent moral and spiritual absolutes shatter the world’s echo chamber of self-serving back-patting. This is a world-tilting truth.” (pg 289)In the afterword, Dan provides us with the scripture passage that served as the reference for this entire study. I would almost say that the book is actually an exegesis of this one passage. Those who are very familiar with their Bibles may be able to discern what the passage is, but for everyone else, I’m not going to give it away. For that, you’ll just have to read the book.
Thank you Dan for this book. I pray that it will find its way into many hands, stony hearts will be replaced with flesh, and eyes will be opened. Amen.