Common Grace, The Gospel-Centered Life and The Kingdom of God — Great Books

Last week I described the new Tim Keller book, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your1 -  every good e.jpg Work to God’s Work (see my review, here.  We have it offered at a sale price of about 25% off, by the way.)  You know our passion for cultural engagement, for selling books about taking faith into the public square, about what we sometimes call “whole life discipleship.”  That is, our faith compels us to love our neighbors in ways that are concrete as we embody our faith in every area of life; we learn to think Christianly so we can live Christianly, “in but not of” the surrounding culture. 

For many of us, the main place in which we must respond to this gospel call is in the marketplace, the job site, the work-world.  Books like the excellent one by Mr. Keller help us “connect Sunday worship and Monday work” as the subtitle of the equally excellent Work Matters by Tom Nelson (Crossway; $14.95) puts it.  I suggested that it is nearly clergy malpractice if pastors don’t help their parishioners navigate these missional matters, and help them think about how to serve God in their public lives as citizens, employers or employees, people who shop, vote, play, work. You know all this: we live out our lives in daily ways that indicate our deepest desire to honor Christ as King. Liturgy and worship and prayer shape us, but our worship of God must spill over into life outside the sanctuary.

Two things that I said in my comments about Every Good Endeavor generated a question or two from readers.  These are both huge matters, so I thought I’d address them.

Firstly, I mentioned common grace.  “Common grace for the common good” is a lovely phrase, often used by my friend Steve Garber (for instance, here, in a piece about baseball stadiums) and this reminds us that we serve God as ordinary humans in God’s real world and therefore are not somehow living in a spiritual realm disconnected from our fellows.  There is no “other” world; we all bear God’s image in a world stamped by the Creator.  Our co-workers and colleagues, neighbors, and fellow citizens, regardless of their own faiths (or lack of faith) are, we believe, recipients of blessings from a good God who has gifted us with a good creation, laden with possibilities.  That we help to nurture human and cultural flourishing — through the arts, through business, through education, through entertainment, through engineering and research — matters to God.  “All truth is God’s truth” we used to say, and the theological expression for why that is so is “common grace.”  In God’s benevolence  good stuff happens and we can be glad. Non-believers can do good work and we can be glad.

There is one greamouw he shines.jpgt book on this topic that we highly recommend, and its title draws on a line from a well-known hymn, a favorite from my childhood, “This Is Our Father’s World.” 

He Shines In All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace by Richard Mouw (Eerdmans; $14.00) explores the tricky theological implications of this line of thought and admits to some of the debates about this profound doctrine. Of course, Mouw is a Calvinist, but this is urgent stuff for all of us and I suggest this to our mainline friends and our evangelical friends.  I am glad that Tim Keller draws upon it, and think it is one essential aspect of sound Christian thinking about sin and grace and goodness and the state of the world and the meaning of our work.  If the sentence from the hymn is true — that God is honored and Christ “shines” in the good things that happen in life (a well played jazz tune, a great baseball fastball, and joke well told, a good marriage, a good invention a good law on the books) it does two things, at least.  It “justifies” or gives theological significance to real life in the real world and it can prevent secularization and cultural accommodation since God shines in “fair” things, the good and beautiful.  It is revolutionary, in many way, to both celebrate the good and to realize that not all things are to be celebrated; common grace thinking should not glibly uphold the status quo or affirm just any old cultural contribution.  It is complicated, and this book will help you think about things you maybe never even knew to think about!  (That is what a good book can do, no?)

 Anyway, Dr. Mouw’s book is fantastic on this curious stuff and we recommend it.  I don’t need to explicate it more, now, but it is, after all, an important theological foundation for our bookstore — we believe in reading widely, we stock non-Christian books by non-Christian authors.  So there it is, common grace for the common good, on the shelves of any good bookstore.

Secondly, I mentioned that Every Good Endeavor, unlike some thoughtful books on the integration of faith and work, might be called “gospel-centered.”  Keller makes it clear that we must guard against triumphalistic notions that our live’s meaning derives from our work or that we somehow “build” God’s Kingdom by our efforts; rather, a more (perhaps Lutheran?) idea is offered, that we serve in work, as in all of life, in response to grace, in union with Christ.  That “gospel-centered” line is a phrase that has come to have some particular meaning in some circles, and I thought I’d try to explain that.  For those who find themselves in conservative but culturally engaged Reformed churches, it is a phrase that will resonate.  Others, too, I trust.

The phrase “gospel-centered life” seems to me to be more than a general slogan indicating a “Christian perspective” or a generic sort of nod to the good news of Christian hope.  It is, rather, a phrase that points to the essential centrality of the first things of the gospel: salvation by grace and the transforming power of God’s work in our lives as we realize we cannot rescue ourselves.   God’s atoning and forgiving work — “the cross” is how the apostle Paul names it, using shorthand for the glorious, complex restoration of the covenant that God works in justification and sanctification — allows us to be adopted back into God’s family; we are beloved and we belong.  There is much fruitful thinking going on about the radical implications of being grafted into this tribe, of being re-made as sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, transformed by Christ alone.  The more we know the holiness and sovereign grace of God, the more we realize our need.  And, therefore, the more we know we must depend upon the huge significance of the cross.  Like Paul, that rowdy, cross-cultural, anti-Imperial missionary for Christ, we come to think that everything and anything other than the cross is (as he indelicately puts it in Philippians) just crap.  All that matters is the glory of God being manifested by a newly adopted community that is being formed by the blood of the crucified One, agents of goodness through grace.  As we reject any and all substitutes for our salvation, we become increasingly changed by God’s own grace.  To be gospel-centered is to reject all idols, to rely on God alone, to rest in the confidence of the cross’s work in our lives.  There is a gentle sweetness to this approach, something different than pompou
s religiosity and unlike uptight moralism.  Another hymn I grew up singing: “tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, just to take Him at his word…”

A rather intense Bible study curriculum that invited people into small group communities to study gospel transformation was created years ago by a wholistic missionary outfit near Philadelphia, World Harvest Mission.  Their stories of how a focus on grace, on the gospel being not only a “ticket to eternal life” but the source of how people change, of a transformation of our character, were stunning; it seemed this emphasis and rubric was really working, helping focus come alive as they trusted God to do what only God can do—make us into the image of Christ, fit for Kingdom service!  This doubling down on grace was the key to maturity and growth and holiness and a fruitful basis for daily discipleship that wasn’t strict or goofy.  It was grace-based and gracious. It also takes our sinful tendencies seriously so offers gospel-centered ways of dealing with our own temptations, with conflict resolution, with rejecting idols.  It works on perennial stuff on the relationship of law and grace.  Picky moralism was rejected as unhelpful and a generic liberal religiosity was equally rejected.  Our righteousness, Jesus insisted, must be more than that of the Pharisees.  There are tons of great Bible study guides and discipleship essentials, but this WHM stuff is rich.

gospel-centered-life-leaders-guide-bob-thune-paperback-cover-art.jpgThis robust and profound approach to radical Christian living reminds us that we don’t serve God merely out of duty or on our own strength.  God’s grace isn’t earned or deserved, it isn’t achieved but happily just received.  Their Bible study material was recently refined as a 9-week study and published by New Growth Press. It is simply called The Gospel-Centered Life.  There is a  Leaders Guide edition ($12.99) and a Participant’s Guide ($7.99) and it really is pretty serious stuff. It uses simple and direct language and helps people apply the gospel to their lives.

The same good folks at World Harvest Mission who have this passion for grace-based discipleship and gracious disciple-making — helping equip folks to be clear about God’s overtures in our lives and a cross-centered formation — had another larger curriculum that in their parlance was called “Gospel Transformation”  (it was 36-weeks!)   This fabulous stuff was also recently reformatted and re-issued by New Growth Press in a three volume set of Bible study guides selling for $12.99 each.  (A good friend of ours, a guy who shops at our bookstore, helped with the editing of these new Bible studies.)  I suppose one could do them in any order, but they are best used in this order:
Gospel Identity: Discover Who You Really Are
(New Growth Press) $12.99

Gospel Growth: Becoming a Faith Filled Person (New Growth Press) $12.99

Gospel Love: Relationships & Everything That Gets in the Way (New Growth Press) $12.99


I like what Steve Brown (author of Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You (Howard Books; $14.99) — a gospelngpress.jpg-saturated book if ever there was one) says about these Bible study guides: “It is very easy to lose the ‘main thing’ about the Christian faith in the religious morass. These books remind me that it’s all about Jesus, and Jesus is all about the Good News (the Gospel.)  They are refreshing, informative, and life changing.” 

Paul Miller (author of personal favorites Love Walked Among Us and A Praying Life) writes that these resources are unique in that they “work at the very heart of our faith…It is all about getting the central passion of Christianity — the cross of Jesus Christ — at the center of your life.  And not just your thinking, but your doing and experiencing life. So it is good theology  and good practice combined.  If you get the cross right, then everything else works.”

We stock these study guides and are happy to commend them to you and your group.  We love WHM and carry everything New Growth Press has released.  This is good stuff.


Yet, I have one concern. 

For Jesus, the gospel is not explained in systematic detail, and it isn’t explained in propositions about how His Cross is an atoning sacrifice that we receive by faith alone. It just isn’t.  We know that this formulation is a true one — it is clear that the rest of the New Testament uses this language, and the Protestant Reformation’s recovery of this is, I believe, essential.  But for the synoptic gospels, as anyone who pays attention to them knows, the gospel, taught in perplexing parables and miracles, is the announcement of the news that the Kingdom of God has broken into human history. God’s faithfulness is being seen in the rightful King a-coming. The cross is the way into the Kingdom, but it is the proclamation of the advent of the Kingdom that is the great news that is to be proclaimed as gospel.  If we overstate the personal nature of individual salvation, no matter how appropriately based on grace and no matter how wonderfully linked to the cross, if we don’t talk about the Kingdom, we aren’t talking about the same good news that Jesus and the apostles proclaimed.

I’m sure you have heard that the word itself, gospel (εὐαγγέλιον), in the Roman Empire, was not used just for any old happy news.  A “gospel” was the glad tidings, the great front page news of an announcement from the King that the realm was being expanded.  It was the report from the battlefield, the public, political assertion thatvespasian-pax-romana-coin1.jpg Caesar had won the day, that his rule was secure, that his battle was victorious, that He Ruled. This become central to Pax Romana, the “peace” that Rome could bring.  It is no accident that the early church used this word to describe Jesus’ counter victory not just over the small potatoes of the Roman rulers, but of all dysfunction and distortion that had brought brokenness to the cosmos.  Jesus, in Pauline language, defeated Death.  Like in that great scene in the Chronicles of Narnia, Winter is undone and Spring has come.  All things are made new! 

The gospel is not just a self improvement course, no matter how piously construed, and it is my one concern about the gospel-centered life fixation on personal sanctification:
it runs the risk of missing the full-orbed Kingdom proclamation of Jesus’ reign. Spending too much time naval gazing, rooting out our idols, seeking God’s sufficiency for all our fears and foibles, well, it could detour us from Kingdom living.  Jesus, we should recall, after healing a person oppressed by the demonic, says, essentially, that that is kid’s stuff.  If I cast out demons (with my finger) that is merely pointing (he says in Luke 11:20 ) to the bigger fact that He is inaugurating His project of restoring all things.  The good news is not mere personal salvation or even a gospel-centered life.  It is the announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand!  Anyone who talks about the gospel but doesn’t talk about the Kingdom is, in my view, being less than fully faithful to the Biblical testimony.

Jesus’ first sermon, after all (Luke 4:16-20) was an announcement of His divinity, His Kingdomchurchyear.jpg work, His relationship to the law and prophets (through the Jubilee tradition of Leviticus 25 and Isaiah 62 from which he read) and his inclusion of outsiders, the move that almost got him killed (vv 25-29.)  So we need a Jubilee vision of an inaugurated Kingdom in which we live (“already but not yet”) if we are going to talk faithfully about the gospel.

Here are several excellent books that I think will help you explore all this.  I think, together, these kinds of books will create the right kinds of conversations to help us recover the full gospel-centered life in a way that is transforming, and that is true to the best reading of Scripture.  None of these are too academic, but they each are thoughtful and provocative.

Please consider using the study guides listed above.  We stock them and promote them with confidence; they were written by folks we admire and they have proven to be helpful.  Learn to be formed by the gospel.  Realize the necessity of the cross of Christ.  Refresh yourself with the basics of the Christian living, relying on grace. It is sweet to trust in Jesus.  (The third verse of that old favorite promises “life and rest, and joy and peace.”)  Learn about and buy (from us) other books from New Growth Press, too.

But allow the sorts of truths in these sorts of books below to frame and shape any Bible study you do and any longing you have for gospel-transformation.  Because it is a true truth: the Kingdom of God is at hand!

All of these, of course, are on sale here at BookNotes — just click on the links below.  Thanks for caring. Thanks for reading widely.  Thanks for helping us spread the word. 

K1 kingdom.gifingdom Come: How Jesus Wants to Change the World  Alan Wakabayashi (IVP) $15.00 This is one of the books we often recommend when one wants an introduction to the theme of the Kingdom of God. It is an excellent starter book, and highly recommended.  The author was a campus evangelist, leading many to a life-changing relationship with Christ, but he came to believe he wasn’t really announcing the coming the Kingdom.  Such a realization drove him back to the Bible to study the theme of the Kingdom, and this book is a happy result.  Nicely done.

T1 community of k.gifhe Community of the King  Howard A. Snyder (IVP) $18.00  I have long said that this is one of my all time favorite books, a fine exploration of the Kingdom of God throughout the Bible and the ways the local church can be a crucible of the coming reign of God.  Imagine a wheel, with spokes radiating out to the far reaches of the rim, and imagine the hub.  Perhaps Snyder can help us get the hub right, as central for the work of living on the rim.  The Kingdom and the church are deeply related, of course, but we live to promote the Kingdom, not merely the church.  This fine book was prescient, describing what many now called missional.  A must-read by a fine Wesleyan scholar.

T1 explicit g.gifhe Explicit Gospel  Matt Chandler (Crossway)  $17.99  This is a remarkable book that I have recommended before.  He has two major sections — one is about the gospel-centered life, learning from systematic theology about the atonement and the grace of the gospel, applied “on the ground” to ordinary lives. The second is the narrative vision of the unfolding work of God in the world, the Kingdom vision of the restoration of all things.  From the personal to the social, both of these interpretations of the gospel are essential, and both—one drawn from evangelical theology and the other perhaps more drawn from the Biblical narrative itself — complement each other.  Very interesting.  It is good how he invites those who are more comfortable with one approach to recall the facets they tend to minimize.

T1 gospel driven life.gifhe Gospel Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World  Michael Horton (Baker) $17.99  This powerful book is not just an indictment of how we have missed the orthodox, Protestant proclamation of Christ, but points towards how to live into the truths of the gospel of grace.  “Don’t just do something, sit there” he playfully suggests.  This is a serious-minded, weighty book. As Anthony Carter (On Being Black and Reformed) puts it, “More than a fad, a twelve- step program or a forty-day challenge, Horton reminds us that the gospel is the everyday brick and mortar of a life built on the promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ.”  In some ways, this is a follow up to his powerful Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Baker; $16.99.)

K1 k ap.gifingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective edited by Ryan McIlhenny (P&R) $24.99  This is, admittedly, an obscure new book about a rather obscure recent debate among culturally-engaged Reformed folks.  It draws on Kuyper and Bavinck and Dooyeweerd and other “neo-Calvinists” to push back against Horton, VanDrunen, and others who have been critical of notions of common grace and cultural engagement.  Gideon Strauss, James Skillen, Al Wolters, and other mentors of mine endorse this as a must-needed book with vast implications for those wanting a clear and orthodox perspective on the mandates of cultural transformation and the scope of the gospel’s power.  See a somewhat longer review I did for Comment, here.  The other book I reviewed there, by the way, the new All Things New: God’s Dream for Global Justice by R. York Moore (IVP; $16.00) is fantastic, too, and very germane to this discussion about the true gospel, the role of grac
e, and a robust vision of new creation, social change, and the hope of the Kingdom coming.  Right on!

G1 - good news and.gifood News and Good Works: A Theology of the Whole Gospel Ronald J. Sider (Vaker) $20.00  Again, this is a book I often recommend, and one of the best overviews of the (relevant) discussion about the relationship of word and deed, of evangelism and social action, of the clarity of grace and the cost of discipleship.  Sider spells out a beautiful vision of the full-orbed restoration of creation promised in Scripture and shows how the rubric which unites all of this is the language of the Kingdom of God.  As an Anabaptist, Sider gets the poignant power of Christ’s counter-cultural ways, and how we, to be gospel-centered, must embrace and live, by the power of the Spirit, the gracious (even nonviolent?) ways of Jesus.  Highly recommended.

H1-how god.gifow God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels  N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $25.99  I’ve been telling everyone to read this, one of Wright’s best, offering a helpful overview of Jesus’ view of the Kingdom, and how we have too often missed it.  I suppose you know that Wright is a major contributor to this conversation, and this book, again, shows his sensible, informed, and solid view of the the study of the gospels.  Certainly one of the best books of the year! (We are partial since he lectured from this in our back yard last spring, but who’s name-dropping?  Ha!)  Seriously, this is great, great stuff.  The one that was published earlier in the year is a good prequel to it, Simply Jesus: Who He Is, What He Did, and Why He Matters (HarperOne; $25.99.) Excellent. 

1 - king j gospel.gifhe King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight (Zondervan; $19.99.)  This is in many ways similar to Wright’s important book and is equally important to understand the Biblical theme of the Kingdom.  Really useful, especially for evangelical readers…  This one carries two wonderful forewords by both Dallas Willard and N.T. Wright.  Three cheers for McKnight.  And three cheers that his Embraced by Grace: Discovering the Gospel that Restores Us to God, Creation, and Ourselves was just re-issued in an new edition by Paraclete Press ($16.99.)  Certainly germane to this discussion is the quote on the back by John Ortberg who writes, “This is a book for people who want not only to be saved by grace, but to live by grace.”  Very, very nice.

1-cr.gifolossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire Brian Walsh
& Sylvia Keesmaat (IVP) $23.00  In my brief ruminations above I did not mean to give the impression that the “gospel-centered life” is drawn
from Paul, but the theme of the Kingdom only comes from Jesus. 
Clearly, Jesus taught and embodied God’s grace and Paul, properly
understood, proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom.  Few books open up a
New Testament letter with such creative and fruitful energy as this
stunning, provocative, subversive work.  Keesmaat is a New Testament
scholar (whose PhD under NT Wright was about shades and echoes of Old
Testament liberation motifs [from Exodus] that appear in the New Testament) and Walsh
is a campus minister and worldview scholar.  Together they steward a
homestead and sustainable farm outside of Toronto. You want gospel?  Read this.

Th1 gps.gife Gospel in a Pluralist Society Lesslie Newbigin (Eerdmans) $26.00
Do you know the former Anglican missionary to India?  His work is greatly esteemed, and he was a very, very important figure  in global Christianity.  He was keen on how to be faithful in articulating and living the gospel narrative in ways that were unique to one’s cultural context. This isn’t too far afield, and I think Newbigin’s profound insights on the nature of the gospel
are well worth considering.  I hope you know his “reverse mission”
work, an exceptional book, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and
Western Culture
(Eerdmans; $16.00) which is also a “must-read” in these

Cc ming.gifulture
Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling
  Andy Crouch (IVP) $26.00  You
know I love this book and it is always worth naming, especially when we are reflecting on the need for a Kingdom vision, seeing the gospel as central to the larger story of God’s care for creation and development of its potential.  Most who pick up this much-cited book find it
very engaging, surprisingly fresh, loaded with new insight, and a great vision
that brings together themes of the cultural mandate, the hope of urban
restoration, the beauty of common grace, and the ways the gospel of the
Kingdom under-girds all we do, including manifestations of creativity
and healing social initiatives.


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