Habits of Grace, Theology as Discipleship, and Preaching The Whole Counsel of God

March 9, 2016 — Leave a comment

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I believe I mentioned this already, but I’ve been teaching a spiritual disciplines class at church. We opted to call it Rhythms of The Christian Life, and at this point we’re 4/5 done. Because of that, I went back through my books on spiritual disciplines to prepare. Earlier this month, Habits of Grace:Enjoying Jesus Through The Spiritual Disciplines by David Mathis came out and its a book I wish I had from the beginning. But, thanks to Crossway, I was able to get a PDF to read and review.

Mathis provides an excellent, yet concise, foundation for the disciplines in the introduction (which you can read in full here). He reminds us that these can be means of grace, through which God works in our lives. He then divides would could be an unruly collection of practices into three headings:

  • Hear His Voice (Word)
  • Have His Ear (Prayer)
  • Belong to His Body (Fellowship)

There is a fourth part that serves as a coda, but this three-fold division does much to simplify the topic. John Frame makes several appearances in the book so I’m wondering if there’s a latent triperspectivalism.

For the class that I’m teaching we started with a week on Sabbath and then inserted a separate week on fasting/silence/solitude after prayer. Mathis includes fasting, silence, and solitude under his section on prayer. He also includes journaling there. This certainly makes sense, given that these are the most private disciplines and taking time away for silence and solitude gives space for journaling, fasting, and prayer.

I’m glad that Mathis included the final section on fellowship and there also discussed the typical means of grace (the preached word, communion, baptism). This underscores the overall framework he has placed the disciplines within. It is also helpful for people like me who might opt to stick with the private disciplines. I need to be reminded that just as I read my Bible expectantly, I should gather for corporate worship and community with similar expectations for God to show grace.

If you’re looking for a good intro book on the spiritual disciplines, I’d highly recommend starting here. It’s what I’ll be recommending to my class as our time together closes out next week. It might also be the suggested reading on the front end for this class when I teach it again, hopefully sooner rather than later.

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In a related vein, you might also want to check out Keith L. Johnson’s Theology as Discipleship. Thanks to IVP Academic, I was able to read this one toward the end of last year. In this book, Johnson argues that “the discipline of theology and a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ are integrally related because the practice of theology is one of the ways we participate in the life of the triune God.” He hopes to “show how the study of theology enriches Christian practice and how faithful obedience to Christ enables the learning of theology” (12).

This book arises out of an introductory course in theology Johnson teaches at Wheaton. As his argument proceeds, it is presented through close theological readings of Scripture (13). Before that, the opening chapter gives some background on how theological study fell on hard times. After talking about ways to move forward, the following chapters dig deeper into topics like union with Christ (chapters 2-3), the nature of the Word of God and our posture toward it (chapters 4-5), and the mind of Christ (chapter 6).

The final chapter lays out some principles for what “theology in Christ” looks like. Ultimately, we practice theology as disciples of Christ when:

  • We measure our thinking and speaking about God by the person and work of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture (156)
  • Our thinking stays within the limits of our faith in Jesus Christ (158)
  • We seek to live obediently in the pattern of the incarnate Jesus Christ’s obedience to God (161)
  • We do our theological work for the benefit of others (166)
  • We use our theological work to serve the church and its mission (171)
  • We pursue both truth and unity (176)
  • We display confidence while avoiding defensiveness (179)
  • We utilizing the insights of non-theological disciplines to enrich our thinking (182)
  • We pursue our theological work with joy (186)

While this is a fairly short book, it packs a punch. It is a good example of theological reading of Scripture being used to defend theology as a practice of Christian discipleship. At places, it can feel a bit dense. In terms of tone, style, and content, it’s a book for people like me primarily. But, in terms of argument, it is aimed at those who are questioning whether the study of theology is worth pursuing. That might make the book itself a hard sell, since I’m already convinced it’s worth pursuing, but I don’t think I could give this book to one of my college students who is questioning the pursuit of theology, because that usually goes hand in hand with an aversion to reading. If they liked reading, they’d already be an easy sell to do some theological reading. If they’re not, I wouldn’t see this book as convincing them, even though I think it has a strong argument. Not necessarily a reason to not check this book out, but a potential issue it might have in making an impact.

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Lastly, thanks to Zondervan I was able to read Julius Kim’s Preaching The Whole Counsel of God: Design and Deliver Gospel-Centered Sermons. I’m not typically a fan of things with “gospel-centered” in the title or subtitle. Not because I don’t like the gospel, or want things “centered” on it (whatever that might actually mean), but rather because it can be faddish. Kim’s book however, is not.

I was interested in picking this up since I joined the preaching planning team at our church this past fall. I had been helping with research for a couple of years off and on. Recently, our church transitioned from being a campus of a larger church movement to an independent church. As that was happening, our pastor setup up a weekly preaching meeting to collaborate and plan the sermons and series. The mechanics of it all, might make for another interesting post. Here, I’ll just note that although I don’t preach often (outside of chapel at school really, and even that is not usually a “sermon”) I am interested in the design and delivery of sermons.

The first two parts of the book cover the basics of Christ-centered preaching. The final two parts of the book are devoted to the delivery and design of sermons so that they might not only be true and good, but also beautiful. This latter focus is what sets Kim’s book apart. Having sermons that are true and good are common goals among preaching books. The latter, while not ignored, is not usually as explicit as Kim makes it. In the last part specifically, Kim incorporates insights from recent studies in neuroscience in order to unpack how to design and deliver the sermon. He also deals with verbal and non-verbal communication as it pertains to the delivery.

All in all, this makes Kim’s book worth checking out if you preach regularly. It is concise (just over 220 pp), but covers quite a bit of ground. In some ways, it might be a better book for people who are already familiar with the techniques of Christ-centered preaching and have either been practicing it for a while or are well read in these kinds of books. It is introductory enough to work well as a class textbook, but maybe not as a stand alone read. Because of what Kim includes about design and delivery though, I think it definitely deserves to be in the mix of books that provide good instruction for preaching.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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