Book Review: Carson's Call for Spiritual Reformation

by Matthew Raley D. A. Carson. A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his PrayersGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.

D. A. Carson’s enriching book is more than a manifesto for revival. It is a searching meditation on the imperative, the power, and the generative attitudes of prayer. First published in 1992, the book may be an even more sobering read today, more than twenty years later. The decline of the American church has continued without interruption, and the contributing factors and cultural symptoms of our decline are now worse. Carson’s exegetical depth, however, gives me fresh hope.

Carson opens with an analysis of the American church’s prayerlessness (Introduction), the conclusion of which is that we do not know God well enough. He opens the nature and focus of prayer in a series of chapters drawing on the example of other Christians (Chapter 1), the model of 2 Thessalonians 1 (Chapters 2 and 3), the overall burden for people in Paul’s prayers (Chapters 4-5), and the model of Colossians 1 (Chapter 6). Carson pauses to examine various excuses for prayerlessness and to expound the motivations for overcoming them (Chapters 7-8). He then develops much-needed theological rationales for prayer, dealing with the nature of God (Chapters 9-10), the nature of spiritual power (Chapter 11), and vision for ministry (Chapter 12).

In order to find fault with any of Carson’s exegesis, one would have to marshal detailed technical objections. Even where that might be possible, his devotion to expounding the Scriptures accurately is displayed on every page. Carson’s examination of 2 Thessalonians 1 is rich with applications derived meticulously from context (Chapter 3). On page after page, Carson gives appropriate details about Paul’s inferential and referential particles to clarify why Paul prays and what he prays for. In fact, one of the most edifying features of Carson’s book is his frequent reproduction of lengthy passages that the reader can mull over without any commentary.

Many books are filled with solid exegetical details that nevertheless clutter big themes. Carson’s book is not one of them. He shows the Bible’s big picture of prayer.

In particular, the book corrects the overly individualistic concept of prayer many evangelicals have. Carson doesn’t belabor the inadequacy of a prayer life that is exclusively private, or attack individualism outright. Instead, he shows the communal prayer life of Paul in high definition. And that is rebuke enough. In chapter 4, Carson reproduces prayers from all of Paul’s letters to show how immersed he was in the lives of his fellow believers. Chapter 5 is devoted to an even more detailed treatment of this theme, unpacking 2 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Also, Carson demonstrates that this relational aspect of prayer, taught so exhaustively in the New Testament, was a feature of God’s people more recently. He tells many stories of how the people in his life influenced his praying in chapter 1, and he consistently draws on the history of revivals throughout the book.

This emphasis on human relationships in prayer continues to be neglected, and Carson’s faithfulness to the biblical model remains urgently needed.

There are issues about which I would like to learn more from Carson. For example, he addresses spiritual warfare briefly in chapter 12, which focuses on Romans 15. Prayer in this connection is almost exclusively the preserve of charismatic believers, as it was when Carson first wrote the book. The role of angels and demons in the life of Christ and the growth of the church is a prominent theme of the New Testament. I would like to have seen more about such issues in relation to prayer, especially in light of the mainstreaming of New Age spirituality that has occurred in the last twenty years.

Still, Carson’s book is a powerful antidote to the prayerlessness that has poisoned our spirits.

Jesus Projection

by Matthew Raley The name "Jesus" has been a blank screen in America for a long time. If I embrace the name, I acknowledge that "Jesus" is the epitome of goodness. But, in a neat trick, I can project onto the name whatever righteous shape I hold dear.

Evangelicals, among whom I count myself, are some of the most skilled projectionists, and many people are now wary of our "Jesus."

We evangelicals are quick to deplore the progressive "Jesus" who thought up socialism before there was even a proletariat, or the Buddhist "Jesus" who did a semester in India. We rejected the self-doubting "Jesus" of "Godspell," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Last Temptation of Christ," molded to match faddish ideals of personal authenticity. More recently, we've inveighed against the gnostic "Jesus" who had a child with Mary Magdalene -- a savior for conspiracy theorists.

Our culture only accepts gods it has re-imagined in its own image. We're right to dismiss all these Jesus-projections. But we can't seem to reject the blank screen itself. We've profited too heavily from it. If we were to set the bar at intellectual honesty, we'd undermine our salesmanship.

For the last forty years at least the evangelical "Jesus" has looked as close to the American consumer as possible. Consider the Jesus-projection you are most likely to watch in an evangelical church.

In appearance, he is an Anglo-German woodsman with great hair. In attitude, he's way non-threatening. In manner, he uses open gestures. He doesn't lecture or argue. He uses sports analogies when talking to men and tear-jerking stories with women. He says, "Dude!"

This "Jesus" can be narrated like a sitcom in 18 minutes (minus commercials). Each week, the live studio audience laughs at the right times, but there comes a moment when they feel really bad for "Jesus," maybe shed a tear. They realize how nice "Jesus" is to us, and how mean we are to him, and this hushed epiphany motivates them to try harder at being positive.

The Jesus of the New Testament is nothing like this.

The real Jesus is ancient. He cannot be understood, much less received, without a basic knowledge of his culture and history, and that is why pastors used to think of themselves as teachers. Many Christians see that Jesus is not the Now Guy evangelicals project, and the good news for them is that he can still be known. We know him through the ancient method by which our minds labor in the Bible's words and in prayer, interacting with the real one who rose from the dead.

Furthermore, the real Jesus had a message about the outworking of history. He did not give inspirational chats about living positively, like some huckster from Houston. The classic distillation of his teaching is, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." God is driving events toward his goals, and those events can sweep an individual away no matter how positively she thinks. That word repent is almost illegal in churches today, probably because it contains the one message contemporary people can't abide: "God's plan isn't all about you."

But there is more good news for the people who already know this. Though the projection of the hyper-compassionate woodsman who is on call for you 24/7 is bowlderized, there is still the real Jesus. He is our Sovereign, whose power has swept us into his plan. The injustice and violence of our world will dissolve in the heat of his stare, and the new city we hope for will be built.

Ultimately, the real Jesus defied those in his own time who wanted to use him as a blank screen. Many people followed Jesus, John reports, but had agendas for him to fulfill. Jesus "did not entrust himself to them." (John 2.24) When many wanted him to overthrow the Romans, for example, "Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself." (John 6.15)

So there is still more good news. In the swirl of efforts to re-imagine Jesus after our likeness, the real Savior has a mind of his own. And he's still commanding, "Follow me."

Sermon for My Grandpa's Memorial

by Matthew Raley As I remembered Grandpa in the hours after he died, I thought of 1 John 3.1-3.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

I struggled with my memories of Grandpa that night. Each memory was good without giving me comfort. In fact, some of my most important memories of him were like a slap in the face. Grandpa is gone. I won’t see him again in this life. There were some gifts that only he could give because he was Grandpa, and no one can replace him. Though I can remember what he gave, he won’t give anything more.

The words from John helped me understand something about Grandpa’s life and death. Meditate on them with me.

John’s point is that the Father has given us a unique relationship. Look, John says, at “what kind of love” the Father has given. John doesn’t marvel that there is so much of God’s love, or that God’s love toward us is so deep, but that God’s love is a specific kind. His love is the kind that calls us his children.

John explains what he means elsewhere in this letter. Human beings are sinners, and have no fellowship with God (1.6, 8). So we do not become his children because we love him, but because he loves us first. And the Father loved us by giving his Son Jesus on the cross to pay for our sins (4.10). When we believe in Christ, John says that we are “born of God,” that God “abides in us” (4.13-16; 5.1).

The love that calls us children of God is the kind that bought us a second birth in Christ.

Grandpa believed these things. He and Grandma realized who Jesus is and began to follow him at a Billy Graham crusade. Grandpa knew that God’s love is not a generic benevolence, but a sacrificing love.

The next statement John makes is stark. He describes the alienation between the world and the Father. “The reason why the world did not know us,” John says of himself and the other apostles, “is that it did not know him.” John also explains and repeats this statement throughout his letter. There is no darkness is God, and darkness does not have any fellowship with him (1.5-6). “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John writes (2.15). “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

This kind of alienation from the world was something Grandpa knew too. He told me that, before he started following Christ, he had been made Sunday school director at his church. Grandpa realized that he had been in charge of teaching children about Christ, but hadn’t been following Christ. So he went to the pastor and resigned.  The pastor didn’t see that Grandpa’s lack of personal experience with Christ made any difference, and declined his resignation. Grandpa was astonished. “You mean, it doesn’t matter to you whether your Sunday school director is a Christian?” A major reason why he and Grandma moved here in 1955 was the realization that their church didn’t think being “born of God” was important.

In fact, the new birth is constantly being downgraded from essential to optional. Those of us who claim to follow Christ tend to rejoice in our sins being paid without looking too carefully over the itemized bill. The logic of John—the logic of the Bible as a whole—is relentless on this point: sins by nature are destructive and incur a cost. Grandpa’s sins were costly. His redemption came at a price. The logic drives on: if that cost is paid for me, then I do not belong to myself anymore. Grandpa struggled to reach that conclusion. And so we all do. We sometimes wish that we could take some of the world’s plastic into the streets of gold.

John’s next sentence is the reason I thought of these verses the night Grandpa died. “We are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared.” There are two points in those words. He says we have this amazing identity right now: we are God’s children. All the acceptance, security, and love of God’s household belong to us. The story has passed the turning-point. But then John says that we can’t picture what we will be. The Last Day hasn’t come. Our final image hasn’t downloaded yet. The story isn’t over.

So when Grandpa was with us, he belonged in the Father’s household. He was a child of God. But there is more to Grandpa that remains hidden.

These words from John helped me because I realized that the best gifts I received from Grandpa were from Christ. In this life, Grandpa was born of God, and the many good things Grandpa gave were the overflow of that new birth.

Some of those things were simple.

He knew how to delight and amaze his grandkids. He could twist an apple in half with his bare hands. He made all sorts of toys: trucks, puzzles, guns. He taught me the first lessons I can remember in creativity. When I was 8 or 9, I asked if he would make me a rifle. All I had in mind was the shape of a rifle cut out of wood. Grandpa went to his shop, drew a rifle onto a scrap of plywood, and proceeded to cut it out. But I could see that the barrel was way too short. I was worried. Didn’t Grandpa know about rifles? Didn’t he know that the whole point of a rifle was the long barrel? I gently pointed this out to him, but he didn’t seem concerned at all. So I figured it could still pass for a sawed-off shotgun. But Grandpa had other ideas. What I thought was the barrel was actually just the stock. For the barrel he used a couple feet of half-inch PVC pipe. When the bad guys saw me coming with that rifle, they all ran.

The first lesson in creativity was, “Don’t rush the genius.” The second was, “A creation is the best gift.”

Grandpa could be extremely funny. He was the master of deadpan storytelling. I can’t tell his masterpiece the way he told it, but I can give you the gist.

Across the road from the family home was a field that Grandpa was clearing, and in the field was a stump. He decided that, instead of cutting the stump out, it’d be faster to blast it. So he went to town to buy dynamite from the only place you could get it, and that was the Baptist pastor’s wife. She sold him the dynamite, but she gave him some advice. “Don’t pack too much under the stump. Only use a little.”

He nodded but thought, “What does she know?”

When he was finished packing all the explosives he had under the stump, he lit the fuse and took off running. The blast shot the stump into the air, past Grandpa, across the road, over the family home, and into the back yard.

Moral: listen to the pastor’s wife.

The simple gifts are worth a lot, whether a toy or a tall tale. But some of the things Grandpa gave me were deeper.

I worked with him on his rentals for two summers as a teenager. I learned from working alongside him, and I learned from watching how he related to people—open, polite, understated. I saw these things and more because he gave me time.

He also gave me understanding.

One summer I preached a sermon at a Free Church youth conference in Denver in front of a panel of three judges. I was seventeen. My model for public speaking was William F. Buckley, Jr. When I finished and sat down with my youth pastor, Dan Tedder, and the judges, one of them held up my notes and said, “What is this? What are you trying to do?”

Grandpa was on the church board at the time, and he heard from Dan about how the judges reacted. A couple weeks later Grandpa and I were reroofing one of the 7th Street houses, and somehow we started talking about Denver. He stopped, set his hammer down, and said, “I heard what that judge said about your sermon. That wasn’t right. You just keep following the path you’re on, and the Lord will use you.”

I was blessed in my teens to have people in my life who understood me, my parents and Dan Tedder included. Grandpa’s gift of understanding at that moment was powerful.

John’s words helped me understand that Grandpa’s gifts to me really came from Christ’s work in Grandpa. God used Grandpa’s gifts to stir and strengthen my spiritual life, and I continue to grow because of them.

John’s next words helped me understand Grandpa’s death. “But we know that when [Christ] appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” John picks up the idea that we don’t know yet what we will be in eternity. The end of the story is when Christ returns. We will finally have an unobstructed view of him. No more speculation about what he is really like, no more wondering what he would do or say. We will see Christ as he is, and John says we will then become like him—just the way children learn.

What is Christ like? Glorious, gentle, meek, true, life-giving, gracious, loving.

Grandpa had some of those qualities some of the time, and because he was a child of God those good things built us up. Now Grandpa sees Christ as he is. Grandpa is like Christ. He has all of Christ’s qualities eternally. His story is finished.

John’s last words in these verses give us a glimpse of Christian integrity. “And everyone who thus hopes in [Christ] purifies himself as he is pure.” We don’t purify ourselves by willing away our sins, nor by rationalizing them. We purify ourselves by setting our hope as God’s children on the Last Day, the hope that we will see Jesus Christ in his perfection, and that we’ll become complete in him. This hope arouses us to reject the plastic gloss of this world and strive for the prize of the upward call.