Gospel Formed by J.A. Medders

It seems that the last couple of books I’ve reviewed have been bombs.  Honestly, I was having a hard time getting excited about reading another book to review because I was wanting to read something good for a change – so when Gospel Formed appeared in my mailbox I left it lying on the table until the very last minute before the blog review was due.  Boy was that a mistake.  I am not sure I’ve read a book this spot-on in a very long time.  Medder’s style is conversational, yet the truths he expresses are deeply profound and transformational.  Every word is packed with intense meaning; this is one of those books where just reading two paragraphs made my mind spin as I contemplated what he was talking about – and hopefully that’s a reflection of the depth and richness of what he writes and not of the simplicity of my mind!

With very few exceptions, I’m not sure I’ve read many books that focused me more on the life and work of Jesus than Gospel Formed did.  Every word of every paragraph on every page was about Jesus.  Medders didn’t talk about being gospel-centered in his book, he actually demonstrated it.  This is one you’re going to want to read with a pen in hand because you’ll be underlining and writing in the margins (and when I didn’t have my pen I felt like I was missing more than I was taking in).  His thesis is simple: the secret to Christian growth is Christ, and then he spends the rest of the book showing how that is true.   He writes,

“The gospel is the center of the Bible, and it ought to be the center of our lives, homes, churches, ministries, spiritual disciplines, songs, parenting, marriages, jobs, – everything.  The focal point of the Christian life is one cross and one empty tomb.  Without the gospel, we lack the proper understanding of any doctrine, and especially a robust knowing of God himself…The gospel is the message of the church.  Christians are made strong because of the gospel…It’s all gospel.  All the time….The gospel, the news of the eternal Son of God dying in our place for our sins, is not only the center of the Bible; it’s also the center of history.”

And he’s just getting started.  Like a boxer delivering one bone-jarring jab after another, Medders doesn’t pull any punches, continually putting us in contact with what is central to life in Christ: namely, Jesus himself.

If I could give a book a higher rating I would, but I’m limited to a perfect 5/5 stars.  You need to get this book and read it, and you need to let the truths of it seep deeply into your soul.  I don’t say this lightly, but if you’re looking to be reminded of what it means to live your life in light of (and response to) the Gospel, this is by far the best book I have ever read and reviewed on the subject.

Yes, for the record, I did receive a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.  And since I’m offering such  strong recommendation on this particular book I don’t want anyone reading this to think I only offer “good” reviews – in fact, there are plenty of books I’ve given poor marks to and which end up in my trash can.  This is probably the strongest review I can give: normally when I finish a book I either throw it away (if it’s no good) or give it away (if it was worth reading).  When a friend saw this sitting on my table and asked about it I told him that when I finished reading it I’d let him borrow it; as I started reading it I was kind of sad I said that because I don’t want to give it up, so when he told me he secured a copy on Kindle through a sale I was actually relieved that I wouldn’t have to let this one get out of my hands.  This is one I’m going to have to read a second time.


A Christian Survival Guide by Ed Cyzewski

A Christian Survival Guide claims to offer an “accessible and safe place to deal with issues that can give Christians sleepless nights.”  While it addresses many of the issues, I can’t recommend the book.

Perhaps I was just unrealistic in my expectations, but they certainly weren’t met.  Based on the description of the book and the table of contents I expected a primer on basic theology and spiritual disciplines.  And the introduction and first chapter (Prayer) was actually enjoyable.  Cyzewski wrote about how as our survival “as followers of Jesus may hinge on our preparations for the decisions we make and the challenges we face,” saying that we need to learn to “rest daily in Christ, our solid foundation.”  When I read the statement, “This book aims to help the saints persevere” and that “surviving as a Christian demands having the right beliefs, putting them into practice in community with other Christians, and most importantly, meeting with God regularly” I was actually excited.  While I believe in the concept of grace – that we can’t do anything to become saved – I also understand that the Bible speaks much to sanctification and working out that salvation, so I felt like the book was going to offer a great balance to those books that almost seem to suggest we can just keep sinning and never experience the transforming power of God all because of grace.

So where did I start struggling?  It was in chapter 2 when he starts to talk about the Bible.  My objection is probably obvious to Cyzewski (and probably not unanticipated – not from me personally, but from readers in general).  He does a great job of trying to balance a lot of different ideas in the chapter, but the one that I struggled with the most was his view on creation.  While he never comes out and specifically says he doesn’t believe the Biblical account of a literal six days for creation, he suggests that perhaps that view is a very acceptable view in scripture and that perhaps evolution and creation can co-exist.  He offers the usual arguments, most notably that the Hebrew word translated “day” can refer to a 24 hour period or to a longer period of time, and they were all arguments I’ve heard before.  Yet he (and everyone else) always gloss over the rest of the verse where scripture says, “And there was evening and there was morning”.

And, to be honest, normally this wouldn’t be that big of a deal for me.  But in the very next chapter he begins to address some of the more difficult concepts presented in scripture – like God being violent – and offers up the explanation that since Scripture is inspired we have to both believe it and accept it, even when we don’t understand it.  And that’s where I started to get the rub.  Why is it that he (we?) can accept the stories of God destroying entire nations in the Old Testament and explain it away as “because the Bible says so,” but when it comes to creation in six days apparently “because the Bible says so” isn’t good enough.  In other words, where do we draw the line on what is solid ground and what allows for interpretation?  In the same book – in adjacent chapters – Cyzewski seems to argue both points.  And that’s my ultimate issue.

If you want to believe that God took more than six days to create the world that’s honestly fine with me; we can disagree on it, and I’m not going to say you’re not a Christian.  But you can’t have it both ways – you can’t say that scripture is open to interpretation and also suggest that there are things we don’t understand and just need to accept.  Cyzewski – even if he doesn’t say it outright it is there if you read between the lines – seems to suggest both are true, but he never offers any guidance for when to disregard something and when to accept it, outside of the typical “pray about it”, “listen to what God is saying”, and “confer with other believers”.  But the problem I have with this is that it places the ultimate source of authority for interpretation and understanding not in what God has already said, but in our own mind and perceptions.  The authority on God can’t be us; it needs to be God.

Does the book offer some great, practical suggestions for how to live a Christan life?  Absolutely.  But are there better books out there on the subject that won’t leave readers walking away scratching their heads going, “So how can you say one thing in chapter 3 and another in chapter 4?”.  Certainly.

Overall I’ll give this book 1.5/5 stars.  His style is great, he’s easy to read, and the tone of the book is very comfortable and conversational.  I just think that if you read the book you’ll see there are glaring inconsistencies in it that just leave you more confused than when you started.

For the record, I did receive a complementary copy of this book in exchange for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.

Book Review: How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home by Derek WH Thomas

When one conversations arise regarding the book in the Bible that most clearly teaches doctrine and theology Romans immediately comes to the forefront.  Some of the deepest chapters in Romans are found in the middle of the book, with Chapter 8 being one of those chapters.  How the Gospel Brings Us All The Way Home by Derek WH Thomas takes us, verse-by-verse, through Romans chapter 8.  While the chapters are short and easy to read (meaning their syntax and word choice are not difficult to follow), each paragraph is packed with deep truths regarding God and our relationship with Him – like the entire book of Romans (and especially chapter 8), one could read this commentary over and over and over and still find new insights.

For those unfamiliar with Romans 8, it is the section in scripture where Paul exposits truths such as

  • There is no condemnation in Christ
  • We are set free by the Spirit
  • The Spirit dwells in us
  • We are co-heirs with Chris
  • God is our Daddy (“Abba”)
  • Present sufferings do not compare with future glories
  • The entire earth is experiencing birth pains because of the fall
  • The Spirit prays on our behalf
  • All things work for good for God’s children
  • The purpose of our election
  • No one can bring any charge against us
  • No one can condemn us
  • Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ
  • We are more than conquerors in Christ

The book was written after the author delivered a series of sermons on Romans 8, and, as such, each chapter reads like a concise, well-delivered sermon.  Each of the bullets above is explored in the book, and, as such, this would be a great book for both new Christians in need of a solid foundation and veteran believers who need a good reminder of the foundations of our faith.  I’ll give this book 4.5/5 stars and highly recommend it (I wish I would have read it years ago and it is certainly one I’ll go back and read again!)  I was honesty surprised at how easy the book was to read – so many theology books read like seminary textbooks, but this one was very conversational in tone and easy to understand.  While a certain level of basic doctrine would help one understand it, most terms are defined within the book itself and so it would be easily navigable by just about anyone.

For the record, I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.

Book Review: Earthen Vessels by Matthew Lee Anderson

This was not one of the easier books I have ever read – in fact, I’ve been at it for months.  To be honest, I just couldn’t get into it.  I ordered the book at the beginning of the year thinking that it was going to be about how we need to take care of our bodies – you know, eat healthy, exercise, etc – and how that was one way in which to honor God (with our bodies).  But it wasn’t.  The book was really more about laying out what I’ll call the theology of the body – addressing some of the false doctrines that remain from the period of the Gnostics (the whole “flesh is bad” thing).  Honestly, what I was looking for was Every Body Matters by Gary Thomas – a book I ordered at the same time and reviewed back in February.  What I got was significantly more academic than I desired, and the focus wasn’t what I was anticipating.  Perhaps that my fault for misunderstanding what was written about the book in its description, but either way I never could get into this book.

I’ll give it 2/5 stars.  For the record, yes I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.

Book Review: Every Body Matters by Gary Thomas (Blog Tour)

Several months ago I was honored to be selected to participate in a blog tour of Gary Thomas’ new book Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul.  Thomas is one of my all-time favorite authors, one I’ve referenced before.  This particular book initially seemed a departure from Thomas’ other works, since most of his works are much more, how shall I say it… Contemplative in nature.  But the book is worth the read.

Thomas argues that our physical health directly impacts our spiritual health, and he makes the argument very well.  My concern as I began reading the book was that it would focus more on the physical body and not enough on Christ, but I did not find that the case.  As with all of Thomas’ works, this book repeatedly focused me on the finished work of Christ and motivated me to examine my own theology of the body in a way no one else has ever done (I’m actually reading another book on the body which I’ll be reviewing soon).

As an example of this constant reminder of God’s grace offered through Christ, read this quote from page 72: “Because of God’s grace, yesterday doesn’t count.  Because of God’s hope, worry about tomorrow is inappropriate.  This moment, this day, this hour, are we being faithful toward God, honoring him with what we eat and don’t eat, and taking care of our bodies accordingly?”

Later on in the book Thomas pulls no punches in his accusations against us as Christians: “Laziness is the great spiritual assassin of our time…Laziness is more than a sin – it’s an attitude that undercuts our sens of duty to God and our obligation to our neighbor, and an attitude that wastes our lives.” (p101)  He then offers physical fitness as the cure for laziness and compares it to farming: “Much of the work that produces [physical fitness] is unseen.  No one is applauding or even recognizing our efforts.  But the life it creates can be used by God to bless and serve many.”  (p107)

Overall, he challenges us to maintain our physical fitness not for our sake or for our body’s sake, but because unless we are physically fit we will be unable to fulfill the jobs God has left for us: “God has given you many gifts and hard-won experience – are you maintaining your body in such a way that you can be a good steward of these gifts until God chooses to take you home?” (p121-22)  He then spends the rest of the book laying out this theology – this plan to honor God by keeping our bodies healthy so we are physically able to serve him for this lifetime.

I’m giving this book 4.5/5 stars.  For the record, yes I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.

Book Review: Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope by Trevin Wax

Counterfeit Gospels is one of those books every Christian leader – and every Christian should put on their “required reading list”.  It pulls no punches and will probably convict (offend?) everyone who reads it at some point within its pages.  Trevin Wax tackles one of the most important questions the Church is struggle with today: namely, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”  The heart of Christianity is the Gospel, but there is so much uncertainty and disagreement among Christians leaders (and Christians in general) over what “the gospel” is, it leads to disagreement over what it means to be a Christian.

Wax identifies a three-pronged approach to understanding and sharing the gospel: The Gospel Story, The Gospel Announcement, and The Gospel Community.  He identifies six different counterfeits in this book: The Therapeutic, The Jugmentless, The Moralistic, The Quietist, The Activist, and the Churchless Gospels, first identifying what the real Gospel is and then disarming each of these counterfeits.  I’ll be honest to tell you I was convicted during my reading of this book that I’ve fallen sway to varying degrees to some of these counterfeits, and I believe any honest believer would find themselves hard pressed not not find themselves in the same boat.  If you’re comfortable in your understanding of The Gospel and how you live your Christian life then this book probably isn’t for you, but if you want to honestly examine whether your beliefs measure up against the truths of Scripture then take the time to read this book and contemplate the truth found within its pages.  This is a definite 5/5 stars.