Tag Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Marks of the Messenger

It’s been a pretty busy 2 weeks for me, so I haven’t been able to post with the normal regularity.  I did, however, want to post a brief review of a book I just finished up written by J. Mack Stiles entitled, Marks of the Messenger.  Most books on evangelism tend to either focus on the message or the methods that the evangelist must say or do.  These generally tend to reduce the Gospel message down to a tract-like message or emphasize pragmatic, results driven means of delivering that message, which Stiles says results in “an evangelism that is twisted and deformed.”  In his book, the focus rests squarely on the shoulders of the “messenger”.  Simply put, this is a much needed book.

The last 30-50 years have been highlighted in this country with a surge in emphasizing the Great Commission, particularly overseas.  While no doubt God has done many wondrous works in the sacrificial lives of missionaries in spreading the Gospel, there have also been many well-intentioned, though knowledge lacking, efforts that have presented an incomplete or incorrect Gospel.  In Romans 10:2, referring to his kinsmen of the flesh, Paul says they have “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge”.  This passage seems to best summarize many of the errant missionary efforts that have taken place.  I’ve often wrestled with the question myself, who should be a missionary?  Just anyone who “feels led”?  The young college student who barely has a grasp of the Gospel themselves?  Is anyone just to jump up one day and take off in any direction and wherever they end up is where God was “leading”?  These questions that I had are ones that get answered in this book.  In his first chapter, “Don’t Peddle the Gospel”, Stiles offers the following summary on this zealous approach by asking an important question, “So why have people jumped into action, in this case evangelistic action, before being people of faith?”  To which he offers, “Maybe it’s because they can.  We have not been watchful enough about the conditions of people’s hearts before we ask them to act, because with the right method or program, the condition of a person’s heart isn’t that important.  We have become pragmatists.”  Summarizing this “pragmatic evangelism” Stiles concludes that it counts, “converts, members, programs, but rarely counts faithfulness to the message or the faithfulness of the messenger.”

In his second chapter, “Students of the Message”, Stiles details the importance of Gospel study and understanding the message of evangelism.  This is where I think it’s important to make the distinction about who we send forth as missionaries and evangelists.  While it’s true, every Christian is to be a witness for Christ and share the Gospel, not everyone is adequately equipped with sufficient knowledge of the message they are charged with sharing and this is to their own detriment.  In this chapter we are encouraged to take the time to study and understand the Gospel message to avoid spreading a false Gospel. 

“Don’t assume the Gospel”.  That’s the subtitle to Chapter 3, “On your Guard” and it was probably one of the most helpful points for me in this book.  Stiles begins this chapter by recounting the story of Kevin Roose, a writer posing as a believer at Liberty University who participated in campus activities, Bible studies, prayer meetings, etc. all in research for his book detailing the lives of evangelicals.  In short, he played the part and talked the talk, but it was all an act in an effort to publish his book.  Roose’s story took a profound turn when he met an agnostic on campus and that student confessed that he was not a Christian and said that most people on campus just “assume you are Christian.”  To this Stiles says, assuming the Gospel is the first step in losing the Gospel and he outlines 4 helpful steps. 1) The Gospel is Accepted 2) The Gospel is Assumed 3) The Gospel is Confused 4) The Gospel is Lost.  Assuming is the first step in losing it.  Think about that.  Don’t assume because someone is sitting beside you in Church they are a Christian.  Don’t assume just because a person volunteers to run a Church program or is zealous about overseas missions that they are a believer.  Because if they aren’t, it leads to Gospel confusion, and the next step is the Gospel lost.  This is precisely what is happening overseas and is quite epidemic in our own country.  Depending on the poll you follow, upwards of 83% of Americans identify themselves as “Christian”.  83%!?!  If that were truly the case, wouldn’t we be the most God-fearing, God-honoring, God-loving country on the planet?  But this isn’t the case, as should be evident to anyone, America is on a moral decline.  Why?  Assuming the Gospel.  It’s assumed that 83% are Christians.  It’s assumed that the person next to you in Sunday service is truly a believer.  It’s time to stop assuming the Gospel and start proclaiming the Gospel.

J. Mack Stiles challenges his readers to walk the talk in chapter 4 and in chapter 5 he focuses on an oft-confused aspect of the Gospel, social change.  So many zealous evangelicals today confuse social change, social action, or social justice with the Gospel.  He rightly asserts the following, “For years Christians have separated social action and the gospel message.  Yet to separate the gospel message and social action is to assume that the gospel doesn’t produce social change.  But the gospel brings social change in and of itself.” (emphasis his)  This is where it seems so many “social justice Christians” go awry.  While it’s wrong to leave off the social aspect of Christianity, i.e. helping the poor, needy, orphans, and elderly, it’s equally wrong (arguably even more so!) to leave off the Gospel from social action.  Preaching the Gospel will bring about social change, but preaching social change is Gospel-less and therefore powerless.

In chapter 6 of this book, the author takes time to explain the nature of conversion and its impact in the life of the believer.  In other words, a change will be necessarily brought about by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and good spiritual fruit will be the evidence.  While not only describing conversion as a work of God in the hearts of hearers of the Gospel, Stiles points out those man-made methods which are so commonly used to “generate conversion”, apart from God’s work.  Chapter 7 is an important chapter for any faithful witness of the Gospel, namely the required boldness it takes.  J. Mack Stiles offers biblical encouragement for believers to share their faith, centered around Proverbs 29:25 “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.”

In chapter 8, subtitled “Mistaking the World’s love for God’s Love”, Mr. Stiles offers a helpful discussion on God’s love.  Much like what we discussed here in Lady Gaga, Rob Bell, and Misunderstanding the Love of God, this chapter highlights the confusion that so many have concerning God’s love and offers the following helpful warning, “If we only speak of God’s love while forsaking God’s other attributes (such as holiness, righteousness, and justice), we are tailoring God to a popular image, an idol really, and not the God of the Bible.”

In bringing his book to a close, chapter 9 highlights the importance of the Church and the love that Christians are to show to one another.  Interestingly, this chapter included a list of “16 ways to demonstrate love and unity in the Church and in doing so become a healthy evangelist”.  Highlights from this list include the practice of church discipline, discipleship, respect and reverence for the church, prayer, and reading helpful books such as C.J. Mahaney’s Humility (which I have not read, so cannot recommend) and Mark Dever’s  9 Marks of a Healthy Church (which I plan to read and review here).  Stiles concludes his book with a few actions steps for being a healthy evangelist: 1. Body check, i.e. is anything holding you back, 2. Prayer for those who don’t know Christ 3. Plan, i.e. think through where you’ll be what your doing for witnessing opportunities 4. Think through issues 5. Prepare or practice the Gospel in a minute (God, Man, Christ, Response) 6. Get started 7. Gather, i.e. events, Bible study, prayer groups, etc. 8. Serve 9. Speak of Jesus 10. Pursue 11. Invite.

Marks of the Messenger is a short, well-written, and easy to understand book.  Yet it is profound and timely for a generation of Gospel assumers and Gospel confusers.  This is one of those books that should be required reading for all those in ministry, whether it be the Sunday School teacher, the open-air preacher, or the country church pastor.  You can purchase this book by following the Amazon link below or by using the Recommended Reading tab above.

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Top-10 Books for 2010

Just in time for Christmas, if you’re looking for a good book recommendation for that bibliophile in your life, here is a list of the top-10 books I read this year and a brief summary of each.  If you purchase through the My Bookstore link above (which goes through Amazon.com), 4% of your total purchase will go to support this site and help defer costs for keeping it running.

1. On the Mortification of Sin – John Owen

An extensive review can be found here: http://voiceoftruthblog.com/?p=1861 This is perhaps Owen’s most famous work and is an exposition of Romans 8:13.  Owen, a 17th century Puritan was perhaps the greatest British theologian of all time.  This book demonstrates why, as Owen’s knowledge of the Bible is evident and he highlights the importance of eliminating sin from the life of a believer, through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Owen concludes, this is an ongoing battle throughout the life of a believer, one that won’t end until we’re united with Christ in heaven.  This book was part of Volume 6, Temptation and Sin, of Owen’s works published by Banner of Truth.

2. Knowing God – J.I. Packer

The best-selling Christian classic of Packer is without question a must read for everyone.  Packer delivers from the opening chapter on by challenging readers with the thought that there is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God.  To this thought he argues, 1) One can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of Him. 2) One can know a great deal about godliness without much knowledge of God.  Each of these thoughts, Packer develops fully. This could’ve easily been #1 for the year because of the depth and thought provoking assertions that Packer makes.  Simply put, this is an all-time Christian classic and an essential addition to everyone’s library.  

3. The Holiness of God – R.C. Sproul

Continuing the theme of author’s best-selling books, R.C. Sproul’s most popular work provides a solid biblical basis for establishing God’s holiness.  This book was a lot less intimidating than I thought it would be going into it.  It actually reads like a story and Sproul does an excellent job of drawing the reader in and maintaining interest.  He provides not only biblical analysis, but historical overview as well, including insight into the life of Martin Luther.  Sproul’s book is a must read for anyone wanting to know more about God, which should be all of us.

4. Ashamed of the Gospel – John MacArthur

The subtitle says it all: When the Church becomes like the World.  MacArthur’s newest book is actually a rereleased version of a book he wrote 1993, only updated and with additional commentary on the direction of the Church.  Dr. MacArthur includes a historical look at the “Downgrade Controversy” that Charles Spurgeon faced in the late 1800’s.  He provides a historical overview of this issue and then documents the very issues that plague the Church of our day.  Themes included are a heavy dose of analysis on pragmatism, the Purpose Driven Church (Rick Warren), and the Emergent Church.  Balanced as always, MacArthur doesn’t just focus on the negative, but also includes an in-depth look at areas of improvement for the Church.  An important book at a critical time in Church history.

5. The Power of God and the Plight of Man – Martyn Lloyd Jones

A more extensive review can be found here: http://voiceoftruthblog.com/?p=1884  This little book gives excellent insight into the depravity of man and God’s sovereignty through Lloyd-Jones’ brief exposition of Romans 1.  Born in 1899, Lloyd-Jones grew up in a time when the Church faced transition from Modernity into Post-modernism and he likely realized the importance of addressing sin in the lives of believers.  In this book he focuses on man’s attempts at “religion”, morality, the depth of our sinful nature, the wrath of God on sin, and the only solution, namely Jesus Christ.  This short, only 120-page, book gives excellent insight into the sinful depths of man’s soul and God’s power to rescue him. 

6. Trellis and the Vine – Colin Marshall and Tony Payne

Marshall and Payne have put together a book that analyzes current church structure and practice in the light of discipleship.   The premise is built around the analogy of a trellis and vine.  Vine work is what a Christian ministry does when they “preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of God’s Spirit, and to see people converted, changed and grow to maturity in that gospel.  That’s the work of planting, watering, fertilizing, and tending the vine.”  Just like a vine needs the trellis in order to grow, so too does Christian ministry need a supportive structure.  However, Marshall and Payne rightly point out that if the focus is too heavy on the trellis, i.e. programs and management, then this is to the neglect of the vine.  “Vine work,” they say, “is personal and requires much prayer.”  While trellis work often seems “easier and less personally threatening.”  This is a commendable work for anyone wishing to change the focus of their church from the pastor as CEO/business model to the pastor as discipler/discipleship model.  One in which the pastor and leaders focus on the development of future leaders in the church through training, ministry apprenticeships, and discipleship.  

7. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God – J.I. Packer

The second book of Packer’s that I read this year was nearly as good as the first.  I’m not sure why he made some questionable alliances later in life (see Evangels and Catholics Together), but early in his ministry Packer was without question a brilliant theologian.  This little book is a quick, but thorough and deep look into the necessity of Evangelism, but also addresses how that coincides with God’s divine sovereignty.  Packer concludes that “Divine Sovereignty”, “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibilities”, “Evangelism”, and “Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism” are essential components to understanding the fundamentals of the Gospel.  He poses and subsequently answers, “If God is in control of everything, can Christians sit back and not bother to evangelize?  Or does active evangelism imply that God is not really sovereign at all.”  Packer presents a solid and defensible argument of God’s sovereignty. 

8. What is the Gospel – Greg Gilbert

See author interview and previous discussion here: http://voiceoftruthblog.com/?p=2079   Greg Gilbert is sure to stay on the evangelical scene with the success of his helpful, straightforward book which highlights the importance of the Gospel and defines biblically what it is and what it is not.  Also included is a brief look at how common (and detrimental) it is when we get the Gospel wrong.  This is one of those books that needs to be read by even the most mature believers and then given to new believers or to those others during witnessing opportunities.  

9. Truth War – John MacArthur

For an in-depth review go here:  http://voiceoftruthblog.com/?p=2027

While MacArthur’s first book on this list focused on general problems within the Church, this book focuses mainly on the dangers and deceptions of the Emergent Church movement.  MacArthur accomplishes this through a biblical exposition of Jude, an epistle often used as a rallying call for apologetics and defending the faith.  As with most MacArthur books, he provides historical analysis and devotes chapter 5 to historical heresies.  Likewise, through his discussion of Jude, he shows the evidences that need attention when identifying heresy.  

10. Faith Undone – Roger Oakland

Faith Undone is a well written book with extensive documentation on the dangers of the Emergent Church (a continual theme in the books I was drawn to this year).  Roger Oakland highlights behind the scenes relationships that shows the involvement Peter Drucker, Rick Warren, and the Leadership Network have had in the development of the Emergent Church.  Though not written as a direct attack on any particular person, Oakland does a good job of pointing out those leaders within the movement that should be avoided or viewed with caution such as Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Dan Kimball, Tony Campolo, Doug Pagitt, Leonard Sweet, Thomas Merton, Alice Bailey, C. Peter Wagner, Peter Drucker, Bob Buford, Rick Warren, Richard Foster, Eastern Mysticism, Contemplative Prayer/Meditation, Catholicism, Kingdom Now/Dominionism, and many other people/movements to steer clear of.  The only thing that did not strike me as particularly relevant to his argument was the insistence on weaving dispensational eschatology throughout chapters 9 & 13.  I realize this is the predominant view in today’s evangelical church, but Oakland presents his view in a way that almost makes all other views seem Emergent by default.  A position many in the reformed camp might take issue with.  That aside it’s an informative, well-documented book that provides an excellent introduction into what this Emergent movement is all about and where it is going.

Book Review: Radical, Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream

***Update 4/16/2012*** I’d like to preempt this book review with one of the best sermons I’ve heard.  David Platt at T4G 2012 – Divine Sovereignty: The Fuel of Death-Defying Missions. 

What is radical faith?  Is there a prescriptive plan to follow?  Does “radical faith” assume something above true faith?  These are the questions that should be asked when reading just the title of David Platt’s book, Radical.  While the subtitle, “Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream” fits perfectly with what we’ve been studying this week in Consumerism, The Stumbling Block of a Generation and The Century of Self, the question arises of how does one go about “reclaiming” their faith from the American Dream?

In his book, David Platt, Pastor of an Alabama mega-church, attempts to challenge readers to “leave behind security, money, convenience, even family” for Christ.  While his goal is admirable and scriptural support abounds for this worldly separation, his methods of using personal experiences, guilt, and several extreme stories to stimulate this lifestyle change falls short.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a message that the churches in America need to hear, but in my opinion there is a more direct, perhaps even more biblical avenue to take.   

Platt’s approach begins with a comparison of his own church and his role as the “youngest megachurch pastor in history” with his experiences found in the underground churches of Asia.  Likewise, Platt asks if his own church model is something that Scripture supports, namely in Jesus’ earthly ministry.  While no doubt there are night and day differences between churches in America and those in countries hostile to the Gospel, it really isn’t a fair comparison.  No matter how hard someone tries they cannot replicate the persecution, hostility, and often times even brutal murders of Christians in other countries.  It simply isn’t a reality here, so the question for Platt, and subsequently other pastors is “How then do you reach your congregation given the distractions of materialism and consumerism that this country faces?”  This I believe is a question Platt wants to answer, but his approach of developing a “Secret Church” (p. 27) at his own church in an attempt to replicate his Asian experience falls short.  However, Platt’s method of stripping down church to nothing but the Gospel has its own merits. 

There are some strong points in the first 2-4 chapters that if expanded on could prove very beneficial to the American church, however Platt stops short of developing these ideas further.  Examples include:

  • “We are settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves.” p.7
  • “Fundamentally, the gospel is the revelation of who God is, who we are, and how we can be reconciled to Him.  Yet in the American dream, where self reigns as king (or queen), we have a dangerous tendency to misunderstand, minimize, and even manipulate the gospel in order to accommodate our assumption and desire.” P. 28
  • “We prefer to sit back, enjoy our clichés, and picture God as a Father who might help us, all the while ignoring God as a Judge who might damn us.” p. 29
  • “The modern-day gospel says, ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.  Therefore follow these steps, and you can be saved.’  Meanwhile, the biblical gospel says, ‘You are an enemy of God, dead in your sin, and in your present state of rebellion,  you are not even able to see that you need life, much less to cause yourself to come to life.  Therefore you are radically dependent on God to do something in your life that you could never do.’” p. 32
  • “So how do we respond to this gospel?  Suddenly contemporary Christianity sales pitches don’t seem adequate anymore.  Ask Jesus to come into your heart.  Invite Jesus to come into  your life.  Pray this prayer, sign this card, walk down this aisle, and accept Jesus as your personal Savior.  Our attempt to reduce this gospel to a shrink-wrapped presentation that persuades someone to say or pray the right things back to us no longer seems appropriate.” p. 37
  • “If you were to ask the average Christian…on Sunday morning to summarize the message of Christianity, you would most likely hear…’The message of Christianity is that God loves me.’…or ‘The message of Christianity is that God loves me enough to send His Son, Jesus, to die for me.’  …is it biblical?…God loves me…Me…Christianity’s object is me.  This is the version of Christianity that largely prevails in our culture. “ p. 70

While these points are certainly valid (and there are others, i.e. Chapter 7 presents strong reformed theological ideas, See J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God for a more thorough study), Platt could’ve used additional development of these ideas because each in its own way is symptomatic of the problems in today’s church.

But while these are symptoms, we must ask what then is the remedy?  This is where the fundamental flaw in Radical lies.  Platt’s focus shifts toward radical discipleship and overseas mission work, culminating in his 5 challenges over the next year for the reader: 1) Pray for the entire world. 2) Read through the entire Bible. 3) Sacrifice money for a specific purpose. 4) Spend time in another context. 5) Commitment to multiplying community (a.k.a. discipleship).  This book places a heavy, perhaps overemphasis on the Great Commission and it’s for that reason that this last challenge of discipleship should have been more developed.  In reading Radical it feels as though Platt makes a strong push toward discipleship, but never gives a clear presentation of what’s involved or how to do it (see other recommendations below).  This likely leaves readers questioning the “next step” after completing the 5 challenges and would have them wondering where do we go from here.

While these are important fundamentals in the life of the believer, they are more secondary in nature.  Here’s what I mean.  Any effort to convince people to live more for God and separate themselves from the world has to begin with their heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37-38).  A list like what Platt builds up to and provides in the final chapter of Radical becomes nothing more than a moral checklist if the person’s heart, soul and mind is not completely surrendered to God.  This list is an external practice when what people really need is an internal exam.  This internal system check begins with knowing who God is.  This is why a balanced gospel presentation is so important.  Not only is it critical for a person to know the love of God and His grace and compassion, but to equally know the wrath of God to better understand His mercy and justice.  A person can only have a relationship with someone they know.  You cannot claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ if you do not know Him.  Just because you see a famous person on T.V. and may have knowledge of who they are does not mean you have a relationship with them. Jeremiah 9:24 says “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.  For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” 

Knowing who God is on a personal level results in a relationship with Him and a relationship with God has to coincide with a new relationship with sin.  A lack of discussion on sin is perhaps the weakest area of Radical.  It doesn’t matter how many times you can say you’ve read the Bible, how much money you give, or how much time you spend in a “another context”; the Bible calls believers to a life of holiness (Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:16).  A person’s relationship with God will always be hindered if they have not dealt with sin in their life (2 Timothy 2:20-21).  All the external activity of the “5 Radical challenges” becomes nothing more than a Pharisaic outward cleansing of the cup, while inside the cup is filthy (Matthew 23:25-26) unless sin is addressed.  Finally, people today need to know what it means to love and fear God and that stems from knowing who He is and it is the catalyst to a new relationship with sin (Proverbs 1:7, 8:13, 9:10, Romans 3:18, 1 John 2:1-17, 4:7-21).              

Overall the book is decent, with a few stretches to make a biblical passage fit what often feels like a social agenda (e.g. pg. 138 Matthew 19 and pg 164 Matthew 10), though he is firm to assert that the social agenda is powerless to save, he does state that those who ignore it are not truly saved themselves (pg. 115).  The subject Platt attempts to address in Radical is commendable and there are some strong points, however he falls short in his argument.  Platt probably accomplishes what he would least hope and that is to shift people from a life of licentiousness and pleasure through materialism to a life of legalism, lists and obligation, though maybe not to the extent that some feel Francis Chan did in his similar book Crazy Love.  It’s a fine line, one that believers must walk daily, but it begins not with a checklist and doing, but with knowing, loving, and fearing God and through that, working toward personal holiness through the power of the Holy Spirit.  With that ongoing process of sanctification, faith becomes not radical, but true and people are no longer motivated by guilt, but through a willingness to obey and serve their King.

I recommend reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, R.C. Sproul’s Holiness of God, John Owen’s On the Mortification of Sin, and for a comprehensive look at biblical discipleship Marshall and Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine.