Saturday, October 13, 2018

Book Review: Reforming Joy

Reforming Joy: A Conversation between Paul, the Reformers, and the Church Today. Tim Chester. 2018. Crossway. 112 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: This book is a three-way conversation. We’ll start in sixteenth-century Europe with the Reformation. We’ll travel back to first-century Galatia and the foundations of the Reformation in the message of Paul. And then we’ll come home and explore their relevance in the twenty-first century. It's going to be a conversation about joy.

Is Reforming Joy a commentary on Galatians? No. Yes. Maybe. It is a study of the book of Galatians. But it is not a verse-by-verse analysis of Paul's letter to the Galatians. It examines Galatians within the first-century context, the sixteenth-century context, and the twenty-first century context.

Did the Reformers "recover" the gospel? Did Luther grasp again what Paul's letter actually meant? How did his understanding of Paul change his life? change history? Does the book of Galatians--so incredibly powerful in Luther's day--still change lives? Do modern-day Christians take the gospel for granted? Do Christians read the book of Galatians and truly grasp how amazing, how wonderful, how transformative the gospel is? Have modern-day Christians lost sight of the gospel is--what it IS and what it ISN'T. Do we assume that all "gospel" messages proclaimed by teachers, preachers, evangelists are the same? Are we quick or slow in distinguishing between true and false gospels and true and false preachers? Do we need to be more discerning? If we were more discerning would we have more joy? Would we be better rooted in the faith?

The chapter titles:

  • How To Hear God's Voice: The Reforming Joy of Scripture Alone (Galatians 1)
  • How To Know God's Approval: The Reforming Joy of Faith Alone in Christ Alone (Galatians 2)
  • How To Recognize God's People: The Reforming Joy of Mother Church (Galatians 3-4)
  • How to Enjoy God's Love: The Reforming Joy of Adoption (Galatians 4)
  • How To Do God's Will: The Reforming Joy of Life in the Spirit (Galatians 5)

This book celebrates the gospel first and foremost. But it is also a celebration of the Reformation. I would definitely recommend this one! I would love to see other Christian books written with a "time machine" perspective.
How do we know which is the true gospel? Where’s the true source of joy? We’ll address this issue by asking a series of connected questions. In Galatia one answer to the question of how we know what’s true was this: “You should submit to the founding church in Jerusalem.” People had come from Jerusalem telling the Gentiles (the non-Jews) that they needed to be circumcised. How do you know the true gospel? The Jerusalem church will tell you. Jump in our time machine, head to the sixteenth century, and we find the Catholic Church effectively giving the same answer. The only difference is that because the apostle Peter moved to Rome, it’s now the successor of Peter in Rome, the pope, who tells us what God wants. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and we find a new variation on the answer. Today many people say, “I’ll follow the one I like best.” They say things like, “I’m not a Christian because I don’t like the idea of a god who sends people to hell.” That’s about as logical as saying, “I don’t believe in wearing a lifejacket because I don’t like the idea of drowning.” Nevertheless, people think they can determine what’s true on the basis of their preference, as if they construct reality through their decisions. It’s time to let the engine of the time machine cool down but not before we make the journey back to find Paul. He answers the question of how we can know what’s true in Galatians 1:11–12: “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Is the Bible Enough? But who decides what the Scriptures say? That was the issue in the Reformation. The Catholic Church said that ordinary people weren’t sophisticated enough to read the Bible. They would only misunderstand it. “We’ll read the Bible for you,” they said, “and tell you what to believe.” It was the same issue in Galatia. The troublemakers weren’t saying, “Follow us instead of following the Bible.” They were saying, “You’ve misunderstood the Bible. Let us tell you what it really means. After all, we’re from the founding church of Jerusalem.” Paul’s response is to tell a lengthy two-part story. It’s a fascinating response. His job would have been so much easier if he had just said, “Actually, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem agree with me.” Because that was the case. But Paul doesn’t go straight from 1:12 to 2:9. Instead, he gives a lengthy travel itinerary in 1:13–2:10. He describes how he received his message directly from Christ (1:13–16) and didn’t even consult the apostles (1:16–24). If Paul had simply said, “The Jerusalem church agrees with me,” then he would have won one battle at the expense of another. He would have won the one over circumcision, but he would have conceded that Gentile Christians needed to obey the Jerusalem church rather than Scripture alone. He’s determined that we should realize that authority comes from God’s Word above all else. We’re not called to obey God’s Word plus a human institution or God’s Word interpreted by a human institution—not even the founding church in Jerusalem. So is the Bible enough? Yes. Our authority comes from Scripture alone. For us the challenge of Scripture alone comes primarily from the world around us... The challenge of Scripture alone is, Will we listen to God or to the world? But behind that is a bigger challenge: Do we live for God’s or other people’s approval? If the answer is other people’s, then we’ll inevitably end up compromising, neglecting, or reinterpreting the Bible to fit into the world around us. After all, no one wants to be thought of as a religious bigot or an outdated fool.
Favorite quotes:
  • There is nothing “more joyous” than the “joyous tidings” in the Bible that make us “leap for joy.” You get the picture: the Bible matters because it leads to joy.
  • The Reformation was the rediscovery of justification by faith alone in the work of Christ. But the foundation of the Reformation was the ultimate authority of Scripture alone. The majority of people, including the most powerful and most educated, said one thing. Scripture taught another. And the Reformers chose Scripture.
  • Paul’s letter to the Galatians was one of the key texts that shaped the Reformation. Galatians 1:6–7 says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one.” What was at stake in Galatia and the Reformation was the gospel. The word “gospel” means “good news.” The gospel is the good news that our sins are forgiven and that we’ve been rescued (1:4). It answers the question, How can we be right with God and escape his judgment?
  • When you pick up your Bible, you hold in your hands a message from God. And it’s a message more impressive, more intimate, and more reliable than a chat with any apostle or a vision of any angel!
  • How can I gain God’s approval? How can I be right with God so that I enjoy his love and escape his judgment? This question is the key to finding true joy. Indeed, it’s the most important question in the world. At stake is our eternal future. Yet in an act of staggering negligence, most people put it out of their minds.
  • At the heart of the Reformation was the issue of justification. And this is what it means: it’s the act whereby we become right with God, righteous, in the right. It anticipates a “not guilty” verdict when we stand before God on the day of judgment.
  • There were two breakthrough moments for Luther. The first was when he realized that the righteousness of God is not just a characteristic of God (that he judges justly) but also a gift from God. God gives righteousness. 
  • Luther’s second breakthrough moment was when he realized that God’s righteousness is not just a boost to help us become righteous. First and foremost, it’s the declaration that we are righteous.
  • When the Reformers emphasized faith alone, it wasn’t because faith itself is virtuous, somehow earning merit with God. It was because faith connects us to Christ. Faith is letting go of self-confidence (what Paul calls “the flesh”) and entrusting yourself entirely to Christ. But whenever you hear the words faith alone, you must also think Christ alone. Faith alone connects us to Christ, and Christ alone saves.
  • We need to realize that becoming a Christian is not just a change of opinion or a lifestyle choice. It’s a death and resurrection. You die to your old life, and you live a new life.
  • The Reformers said that there are two key marks of a true church: the preaching of the gospel word and the administration of the gospel sacraments.
  • It’s not the church that creates the gospel. It’s the gospel that creates the church. The authority over the church is not the pope in Rome or any human hierarchy. The Head is Christ. He’s our Husband, our Head, our King. 
  • The role of preachers and leaders in the church is to proclaim that Word. They have authority to the extent that they rightly teach God’s Word—nothing more and nothing less.
  • We need to believe justification by faith not only for ourselves but for others as well. Satan sees their faults and makes their faults the focus of his attention, which leads to accusation. God sees their faults and makes Christ the focus of his attention, which leads to affirmation. And we should be more like God than like Satan!
  • The secret to enjoying God is to realize that he enjoys you.
  • When we choose to reject Christ, we make a real choice. There are two options before us, and no one is forcing us to choose against our will. The problem is that our will is so set against God that we will not and cannot choose Christ. You can offer children a choice between sprouts and chocolate. It’s a real choice with both on the table in front of them. But a typical child is going to choose chocolate every time. In a similar way, but with much more inevitability, we’re presented with a choice. On the one hand, we see the pleasures of sin and living life as we choose. On the other hand, we see a pathetic figure hanging on a cross and the constraints of living under God’s restrictive rule. And every time, we choose sin instead of Christ. Our hearts are hardwired to reject God. We’re like the needle of a compass floating freely. It’s free to point in any direction, but it always points toward magnetic north. Likewise, we’re free to go in any direction, but we always point away from God and toward sin.
  • But then the Holy Spirit opens our eyes. Instead of the pleasures of sin, we see hatred, pain, and death. Instead of God’s rule seeming restrictive, we see him as a loving Father. And instead of a pathetic figure on the cross, we see our King, full of love, dying in our place to rescue us from our guilt. We see Jesus, the Morning Star of heaven, the perfect Image of God, the true Man, the kind Husband, the faithful Friend. We see that following him leads to forgiveness, freedom, life, and the promise of eternal glory. Our blind eyes are opened. Our deaf ears are cleared. Our dead hearts are renewed. And now we choose Christ—of course we do. But the “of course” is all down to the Spirit.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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