This should be of real help as you seek to grow in Christ:
The truth is, we never stop growing as Christians. We never stop learning. We never have reached perfection. And the longer we walk with the Lord, the more it sinks in that we have such a very long way to go. Sure, justification means that God now looks at believers through Christ. What we could not do in ourselves, Christ did for us at Calvary.
So our getting right with God is based solely on the finished work of Christ, which we appropriate by faith and repentance. But justification must be followed up by sanctification. And that is indeed a lifelong process. We seek to become more and more Christlike and less and less like our old sinful, selfish selves.
Here I want to refer to just two books that I have been reading recently. And I should say at this point that some of you might think I like to read a lot. I do, but it is not just for the love of reading or learning. Much of it is to help me become a better believer and to grow in sanctification.
And good theology ties in with good living here. Bad theology can well hinder our Christian life, while good theology can help it. Let me explain. The other day I did a theological/devotional piece on some unbiblical extremes that we must avoid.
That piece spoke of how legalism and licence are both errors that we must avoid like the plague. You can see that piece here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/08/04/on-legalism-and-license/
When I wrote that, I went through my library list to see if I had any books devoted exclusively to that theme. While many dozens of my books would deal with it in part, I could not find a whole volume devoted to it. So I sniffed around and noticed one that did.
Thus I ordered and read The Liberating Life of Jesus: Finding Freedom in Christ Between the Two Extremes of Law and License by John Van Gelderen (Evangel Focus, 2020). He does a really good job of showing how harmful those two extremes are, and how we need to focus on, and devote ourselves to, Jesus as the way forward.
He gets us to concentrate on what really matters in the Christian life: Jesus Christ. However, I was left wanting just a bit more. This may sound a bit odd, coming from someone who has been a believer for over half a century now, and who is a hardcore theology fan, but I actually wanted a bit more practicality here.
Perhaps it is just me and not the author, but while I fully agreed that Jesus must be front and centre, I actually wanted a bit of a ‘how-to’ component here. Again, this might sound odd: have I not figured this out by now, after 50+ years of being a Christian?
And are there not kazillions of these how-to books out there: books on how to live the Christian life; how to be a better believer; how to major on Christ; how to have victory and real growth; etc.? Yes indeed, and I would have read many over the years. But as I say, I am still a work in progress, and I still need to learn how to keep growing and maturing as a believer.
So that is where the second new book purchase comes in. The author is actually a Queensland pastor, and his book has been out for a year now. I refer to Truth on Fire by Adam Ramsey (The Good Book Company, 2021). The subtitle of the book sorta follows in the line of thought as the other book:”Gazing at God Until Your Heart Sings”.
As one who already owns so many books, and one who does not generally get too many basic Christian living books, I was glad to see some of the authors that he was quoting from: Schaeffer, Bavinck, Piper, Packer, Tozer, Lloyd-Jones, Augustine, Lewis, Sibbes, Pink and others. Thus good theology is coupled with good devotional thoughts and writing.
Just as Van Gelderen starts his book by discussing how he was into the extremes before maturing into biblical balance, so too Ramsey. He says he was raised in a church scene that stressed experience and emotions, but had very little by way of the intellect and sound theology. He moved on to embrace both, and he got that biblical balance right. As he says about his earlier days:
But the older I became, the more I began to notice something: the Bible was present but not central. Vital doctrines were actively avoided. At best, the gospel would sometimes make an appearance at the end of a sermon, but it certainly didn’t have any real implications for the daily Christian life. Our emotions were engaged, but our minds were neglected, for fear that we’d be guilty of the great sin of “boredom.” People had a good time on Sundays, but weren’t equipped to navigate suffering or disappointment well, because they had a view of God that didn’t line up with reality.
I began to wrestle with the Scriptures; especially the parts I had never once heard a sermon about. Words like sovereignty and election, propitiation and providence were like signposts in a new country that I was eager to explore. I decided to lay all my cards on the table—everything I thought I knew about God—and push it all through the filter of the Bible to see what would come out the other side. I opened God’s word with new appetite. I read the 4th and 5th-century Church Fathers (like Athanasius and Augustine), the 16th-century Reformers (like Martin Luther and John Calvin), and the 17th and 18th-century Puritans (pretty much any guy who wore black and was named John or Thomas). I even engaged in an epic battle of counterpoints and arguments with the (21st-century) preacher John Piper through his books and online sermons—which he of course was completely unaware of, but that he still managed to win. And here’s what happened: as my mental image of God increased in magnitude, I discovered that so too did my desire for holiness, my gratitude for grace, my delight in worship, and my boldness in mission.
Before proceeding, I do not share this because I am trying to convert you to a particular theological viewpoint. Ramsey rightly says he did not abandon emotion and experience, but he became more well-rounded by adding theology and the intellect to his Christian life.
And I am reminded of a story that I have shared before. The fiery Pentecostal preacher David Wilkerson was going through a tough and depressing period in his life. The fiery revivalist Leonard Ravenhill came around one day with a large batch of Puritan works. Wilkerson devoured them like mad and went through a remarkable change, and experienced great growth as a Christian. See the exciting details of this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/08/09/in-praise-of-the-puritans/
But back to Ramsey. I just want to share one quote that I found to be so very helpful and liberating. Sure, I would have heard things like this before over the years, but sometimes God speaks to you afresh via other believers or authors. So here is a lengthy but quite helpful quote:
The gospel means that I’m not all that awesome. But I am loved. And that’s awesome. The gospel frees me to be honest about the ways I fall short instead of being crushed by them, because it reminds me that Jesus was crushed for me. The gospel means I don’t have to hide, because the good news of what the holy and all-knowing Savior did on the cross is true for me too. The gospel means I don’t need to impress, because Christ has eternally secured for me the smile of my Maker. If that’s true, then let’s burn those useless fig leaves of our self-justifying excuses and lean wholly into the justification of God. As my friend Alex Early has written, “Jesus is not in love with some future version of you or what you used to be. He loves you right where you are, sitting in that chair.”
Do you hate your sin? Do you find yourself turning to Jesus again and again with cries of confession and desires for change? Then take heart, beloved struggler. You are undoubtedly a child of God. The fact that you are fighting sin is the evidence of spiritual life. Dead things don’t fight, only living things do. So press onward into the light of holiness.
God will not despise our honesty; he meets us in it with renewing tenderness; he rushes to us there and smothers our confessions with kisses of acceptance. We often think that honesty makes us poorer. But judging from the Father’s reaction to his prodigal son’s return, we could not be more wrong. He dignifies our repentance with the family ring, reminding us of our true identity. Honesty means exchanging the pig food of our sins for the banquet of God’s grace; the tattered clothes of our foolish decisions for the clean suit of Christ’s sinlessness; the cold loneliness of the mud, for the warm embrace of the Father. It is the way back home.
How would your own pursuit of holiness change, how might you honestly embrace life in the light, if you became convinced that the doorway of openness before God and others does not lead into a prison but out of one? Jesus is not disillusioned with you, because he never had any illusions about who you ever were in the first place. He knew exactly, precisely, completely who you are and he gave his life for you. Not the Instagrammable you; the real you. He knows that you to the depths of your being and commits to loving, disciplining, and sanctifying all the way to glory. It is here, and only here, in the place of honesty, that our hearts can find shelter from every condemning accusation, even as we press onward into the beauty of holiness.
Great stuff indeed. This book is well worth getting and studying. And do not let me deter you from getting the other volume I have mentioned. Both are very good indeed. They both will help you if your desire is to become more like Christ – a desire we all should have.