I thought I’d kick off my regular blogging with a discussion of a few books I’ve found not only insightful but actually helpful over a difficult decade for Denise and myself. After 41 years together, we’ve seen some huge changes, weathered a catastrophic illness, and lost loved ones. But, this was probably the most concentrated season of loss, sadness, and reorientation ever, reaching a crescendo these past three years.
We have been sustained through it all by the Gospel or the Good News: That Jesus died for our sins, according to the Scriptures — that He was buried, rose again the third day, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. By daily placing our faith in Jesus, we have experienced the power of the Gospel, reminding ourselves daily of who we are in Christ and where we stand in Him, regardless of the shaking taking place in and around us. Not only did Christ absorb the wrath of God to save us and set us free from sin two thousand years ago, but the Gospel reminds us today, that:
“we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” (Hebrews 6:18–20 ESV)
You don’t have to look far to notice that a number of streams within Evangelicalism have come together and are flowing in the current of the Gospel-Centered movement (GC). Any time we talk about a movement, particularly one with such a powerful label, concerns will be raised and red flags waved. I think that’s wise but, overall, I view this heightened emphasis on the Gospel as a positive development. I’ve seen a lot of harmful, divisive, and downright destructive causes come and go. So, perhaps I’ve set the bar pretty low, but I don’t think so.
With a movement comes books and we could become weary of them (Ecclesiastes 12:12) but, as Tim Challies points out in The Gospel-Centered Everything, “‘Gospel-centered’ books are consistently and patiently teaching us that the gospel really does apply to every area of life.” I’d like to highlight and discuss, briefly, just a few of the GC books I’ve found helpful in this genre. These will not be extensive book reviews – I don’t have the literary background, education, nor the sophistication to write a legitimate book review.
A lot of these books teach us how to “Gospel” others (treating Gospel as a verb), but in light of Jesus’ admonition to do some logging before performing delicate eye surgery on others (Luke 6:41&42), it probably wouldn’t hurt to learn how to Gospel ourselves before we take up the ministry of urging others on to a more robust Gospel identity. Joe Thorn’s booklet of 136 pages Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching To Yourself, is a great “how to,” when it comes to the discipline of proclaiming or announcing Good News to yourself.
The book is divided into three parts: The Gospel and God, The Gospel and Others, and The Gospel and You. But, make no mistake: although two of these three divisions address our relationships with others, the 48 sermonettes under each category always take aim at a target and the bullseye is on you, the reader. This is a catechism in which the reader is both catechist and catechumen, but each sermon takes the form of a note – a note to self.
So, what are some of the areas of our lives where we need to preach the Gospel to ourselves? Joe Thorn has assembled an extensive list and these are just a few of the chapter titles (by the way, each chapter is two or, at the most, 3 pages of double-spaced, large type, which only take a few moments to read): Sing, Remember Your Sins, Jesus is Big, Be Humble in Your Theology, Stop Judging, Stop Pretending, Sow Grace, Listen to Others, Hate Well, Kill Your Sin, You Are Proud, Theology is for Worship, Worship Out Loud, Don’t Be a Fanboy, Suffer Well, and Take Note. In each affirmation/confession/admonition/resolution, Joe leads the reader (you) through a thought-provoking discovery of your own unbelief and then helps to apply the remedy, that comes by preaching Gospel Goodness to yourself. Each time, you are reminded that Jesus Is Your Righteousness (His Life), Jesus Is Your Forgiveness (His Death), and Jesus Is Your Victory (His Resurrection).
So, what was my favorite… wait, that would be the wrong way to go at this. What was the most convicting sermon I preached to myself, as I read along with Joe?
Stop Complaining Let’s get something straight. You complain, and you know it. You complain in the car, in your home, at church, and about a number of different things. The problem with your complaining is that you don’t see it as complaining. You view it as harmless venting. You believe you are just stating facts, that a certain circumstance is frustrating. Your justification of complaining is truly unfortunate, because it certainly bothers God. The reason you complain is the reason it is wrong. You complain because you misunderstand (or just miss altogether) the grace you have received and the purposes of God in your life… And no, you do not get a pass because you can handle the big problems in life… but not the small ones… If God’s grace is big enough for you to handle the big problems, why isn’t it enough for you to walk meekly through the smaller issues… Perhaps the lesson is that you haven’t driven the gospel deep enough into your heart and mind. Otherwise it would bear fruit precisely where you need it… Consider the grace of God in all of life, and in the gospel particularly. Be assured of his purpose in all things inconvenient and tragic, and you will find the cure for complaining.
Ouch! I found this so convicting and helpful that I read it over and over for a couple of weeks and asked Denise to give me a Gospel progress report, in order to gauge how deep the Gospel’s been driven down into my heart. Of course, I felt some comfort knowing that I’m not alone in this lapse of faith – in my unbelief. I mean, how could Joe have written precisely what I’m thinking if he’s not wrestling with unbelief in complaining himself, huh?
Well, this is why the book is so effective and so popular! Because Joe’s transparency in writing the book gives us the courage to be transparent before God. And, in my case, before my spouse! I read that chapter on complaining out loud to Denise and, for some reason, she was grinning all the way through as if she knew something I didn’t! The fact is, all of us are ignorant of our own unbelief in areas that others can spot a mile away. Joe has done us all a great service by assembling some of the most common logs blocking our vision and helping us to remove them from our eyes with Gospel precision and care. It’s like performing surgery with a mirror – the Word of God.
Now, this is where I come about as close as I dare to a serious review of Note To Self. After reading it, I thought it was pretty good. But, I came away thinking that a booklet this size, with such stellar endorsements, excellent reviews, and this goal or purpose should be a bit punchier and compelling. But, after pummeling myself over and over with Stop Complaining and a couple other chapters that spoke to me, I realized that today, this week or this year, I’m probably not going to be as scandalized and exposed and ashamed by those other chapters as I may be a year or so down the road. Right now, in most of those other areas, I’m believing the Gospel and my identity in Jesus is pretty secure. So, those chapters seemed to lack punch as I read the book in about three days. But, in this present age, when unbelief is a daily battle in the war against sin and little gods are being regularly cranked out of that idol factory of my heart, I will certainly read through this book again and feel a punch, in a part of me I may never have before! In other words, I think this book has moves and I will find myself vulnerable to the wounding truths (a left hook or uppercut) that landed on me so lightly (like a jab) the first time around.
That’s the sort of book this is. It’s to be kept on your nightstand or facing out on a shelf, to return to and be read a chapter or two at a time, in times and seasons of life, yet to come. Each time I take it down from the shelf again, I expect to be punched where I felt nothing before. But, every time I will return to find Joe inviting me to believe, urging me on to look to Jesus or consoling me with the Gospel: And, always reminding me that:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christas a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:7–10 ESV)