Randy Alcorn’s Sexual Temptation: Establishing Guardrails and Winning the Battle

Randy Alcorn tweeted a couple of days ago that his little booklet, Sexual Temptation: Establishing Guardrails and Winning the Battle, was available for free as a .pdf download.

It is, in all, just under 60 pages. As I read it yesterday, it struck me as a wonderful little primer on an important issue that I think could be read with great benefit by Sunday School classes, small groups, youth groups, etc. I think the brevity and simplicity of his approach may make this especially helpful for young people (though a few of the case studies he points to at the very beginning are quite intense, if still briefly presented).

Alcorn first offers some basic facts about sexual temptation:

  • We are targeted for sexual immorality.
  • We are vulnerable to sexual immorality.
  • We are fully responsible for our moral choices.

He then offers helpful suggestions and advice concerning cultivating our inner lives, guarding our minds, and taking precautions with the opposite sex. He warns against subtle signs of attraction and the various ways we rationalize immoral behavior. Furthermore, he gives sound advice on cultivating your marriage, on being honest with your spouse, on accountability, and on confession and repentance.

His section on counting the cost of sin was very well done. In it, he offers a partial list of the effects of being caught in sexual sin. It is a sobering list and one well worth heeding. He concludes on a positive note, encouraging the reader to victory in this vital and difficult area of life.

Again, this is quite a good little look at the issue of sexual temptation. If you know somebody who could benefit from it, by all means send them the .pdf.

Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission

Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission is vintage Willard.  By that I mean that he here explores the same topics he explores in his other books:  discipleship, the disappearance of the idea and possibility of discipleship from modern Christian practice (thus, the title of this book), the disciplines, and Lordship salvation.  It is safe to say that Willard essentially writes the same book every times he writes a book.  Now, that sounds like a real criticism and possibly a slight, so let me clarify:  I am absolutely thrilled that Willard keeps writing the same book!  Indeed, I hope he does 20 more.

Why?  Because nobody is saying what Willard is saying in the convincing and powerful way in which he is saying it.  Furthermore, Willard has his hand on the great tragedy of modern Evangelicalism:  the disappearance of discipleship.  Thirdly, while he writes the same book in terms of focus and thesis, the wonder is in the nuances and shades he brings.  So his books really do form a kind of prism of discipleship which shimmer, shine, reflect, and refract as you turn them this way and that, and, as such, they form a wonderful whole.

I was first introduced to Dallas Willard sixteen years ago when the pastor of the church I was serving as a Minister of Youth gave me The Spirit of the Disciplines.  It absolutely rocked my world.  The Divine Conspiracydid the same, though I found parts of it troubling.  And now The Great Omission has threatened to top them all.  But not really, because these books need one another and I need all of them.

This book is actually a collection of various articles, lectures, and reviews on discipleship and the disciplines that Willard has written or delivered over the years.  They are occasional pieces, but they flow very well together in this book.

Willard repeats the following a half-dozen times in this book:  Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.

That’s a profound and simple way of putting a truth that we desperately need to get straight today.  Grace does not mean that we do not construct a deliberate, intentional, and solid plan for becoming more like Christ.  At the heart of this plan lie the disciplines that Willard summarize here but has spoken of in greater length elsewhere.

The absence of such concrete plans for conformity to Christ, as well as the absence of any apparent need to construct such a plan leads Willard to a shocking conclusion:  grace as we currently have defined it actually works against us being conformed into the image of Christ.

I agree.  It does.  This is evident and beyond dispute.

Willard is essentially seeking to strike a blow at the odd and gnosticized form of Christianity that fuels much of revivalistic Evangelicalism.  He is seeking to undermine that weird notion that one may have Christ as Savior but not Lord.  It is a blow that needs to be delivered, and Willard does so here with aplomb, clarity, and charity.

Trust me:  this is a book you will be glad you read.

Jonathan Edwards’ The Resolutions and Advice to Young Converts

This little booklet has a measure of sentimental value for me.  I bought it a few years ago from the bookstore at “Spurgeon’s Church” in London when Roni and I were over there for a DMin. seminar.  I’ve read selections of these, but have only just now read them all.  I regret waiting so long.

Written in 1722 and 1723, Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions are as timely today as they were when first written.  This 2001 P&R publication is a handsome and well-organized little volume that respectfully preserves this gem of Christian devotional work.  When he wrote these, Edwards was just beginning his pastoral work.  The resolutions reflect a deep and genuine concern over honoring Christ  with and through his life.  Edwards makes resolutions concerning his use of time, how he eats and drinks, his approach to theology and ministry, and the use of his tongue.  He more than once uses the certainty of death as a motivating factor in his life.

I cherish these resolutions and intend to return to them again and again.  If you, like me, need a good dose of perspective from time to time, you could do much worse than turning to Edwards’ resolutions for help.

Calvin Miller’s Into the Depths of God

Every now and again you come across a book and are able to tell while reading it that what you’ve got is something special, something that (hopefully) will be around for a very long time. Into the Depths of God, by Calvin Miller, is one such work. I could not help but feel while reading it that I was encountering mature thoughts, the type which rarely surface in too many Christian books today. And, in a sense, I felt that I was reading a book which was the encapsulation and culmination of Calvin Miller’s own journey of faith and words. Into the Depths of God has done with prose what The Singer did with verse, and that is no small compliment.

It is difficult to describe this book. One might be tempted to feel a little frustrated that it doesn’t slavishly follow a tight outline, though the progression of the work is plain enough to see. Miller does not A,B,C his way towards the depths of God and he offers no fill-in-the-blank promises for those who hope to experience them. It becomes clear in reading this book why this is so. Miller sees our journeys into the depths of God as being journeys of relationship and intimacy with the Father, not journeys of workbooks and three point sermons. Furthermore, Miller is an artist, a linguistic craftsman who would be as out of place defragmenting such a topic as a mathematician would be trying to parse “The Wasteland.” While he certainly does not lapse into any sort of stream-of-consciousness free form, Miller has never been a fan of dissection and categorical systemization. This work, like so many of his, bears the marks of fluidity and freedom, the two virtues that will always escape lesser writers.

Into the Depths of God is a powerful and soul searching book that forces us to consider our own compromises and our own demi-god fascinations with the comforts of shallowness. Miller interacts profusely with the greater body of Christian mystical literature, yet he never seems to become detached in the airs of ethereal vagueness. Far from it. Here is a work that is often penetrating, frequently insightful, and truly provocative.

You will not be comfortable with this book, which is, in and of itself, another mark of its greatness. All great books disturb the universe. C.S. Lewis once said that reading Thomas A Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ was like a bird without wings reading about the stratosphere. For the sake of decorum, we will refrain from saying that Into the Depths of God rivals The Imitation of Christ. But it is only for the sake of decorum that we will refrain from doing so. In secret moments I might confess to you that I quite often found myself, while reading this book, pondering the stratosphere.

Henri Nouwen’s Out of Solitude

One could make the argument that the most powerful things in life are simple and brief – a passing word of encouragement from a friend, a glance from one’s spouse, a child’s laugh, a moving quotation from an esteemed leader, or a teaching of Jesus. In short, human beings are never truly moved by the mind boggling and the complex. We are moved by powerful simplicity. The greatest spiritual teachings have never needed an interpretive flow chart.

With this in mind, I would like to recommend to anyone reading this review that they purchase Henri Nouwen’s Out of Solitude and read this short and simple little book – not because of its shortness and simplicity, but because of its power. I was given this book by a friend who recently rediscovered the importance of solitude in his own walk with the Lord. His only instruction was that I read it more than once. I have just finished my second time through it. It will not be the last time.

This book consists of three sections that were originally delivered by Henri Nouwen as sermons at the United Church of Christ at Yale University. Section one deals with solitude. Section two deals with care. Section three deals with expectation. Through introductions and conclusions to each section, Nouwen shows that these three facets of the spiritual life (solitude – care – expectation) stand together and, properly understood, progress into each other. The book also includes photographs by Ron P. van den Bosch that mirror the content of the text in their subtle strength.

Nouwen makes a compelling case that solitude served as the primary component of Jesus’s ministry. He contends that it was in His moments of solitude that Jesus reveled in His “oneness” with the Father. Consequently, all other facets of His earthly ministry sprang from this solitude. He then contends that solitude is no less important in our lives. Without it, Nouwen argues that we will live our lives in constant search of success, affirmation, and the pleasing of others over and against unity with God. Solitude therefore stands as the cornerstone of our spiritual lives – “A life without a quiet place, that is, a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive.” (p.21)

It is only of out solitude that we will learn to care. As a pastor, I found this section to be perhaps the most powerful. Nouwen states that we are more consumed with fixing people’s problems than with caring for them. He notes that “care” essentially means “to suffer.” Who can deny that we are a results-oriented society? This is a very real temptation in ministry (i.e., to want to fix but to forget to care) but it is a truth that is no less applicable to all Christians.

Lastly, Nouwen points to the Christian’s eschatological hope as that which keeps care from becoming “a morbid preoccupation with pain” (p.51). In his discussion of expectation, he highlights two aspects: patience and joy. His discussion of patience is particularly moving. In it, he notes that we will not understand what it is to truly live until we understand that life’s unexpected surprises, calamities, and joys are themselves opportunities for living and growing in patience and hope. He ends with reminding all of us that the expected consummation of all things in the coming kingdom of God is the only basis for true joy.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to reexamine the most basic aspects of their walk with Jesus. Nouwen shows us that solitude, care, and expectation are much more difficult to attain and achieve than we had imagined. He also shows us that we simply cannot know what it is to be a Christian and a human until we do attain these things.

Jerry Bridges’ The Pursuit of Holiness

Let me begin this review with a point of tragic irony.  The version of Jerry Bridges’ The Pursuit of Holiness that I have is the 25th Anniversary Edition that was published by NavPress in 2003 (the book was published first in 1978).  For this edition, new endorsements were apparently collected from a number of respected authors and leaders:  J.I. Packer, Charles Colson, and John Piper to name a few.  Then there is this endorsement at the bottom of the back cover:  “The Pursuit of Holiness has helped so many believers navigate the tricky but vitally important road to personal holiness.  This book should be on every Christian leader’s shelf.”  The author of this endorsement?  “Ted Haggard, president, National Association of Evangelicals.”

My point in mentioning this is not to heap scorn on Haggard, but rather to illustrate a point:  holiness is a tricky business, and public avowals of holiness must be tempered with a recognition of how easily any of us might fall into the sin that besets us.

It was a friend of mine who recommended that I read this book.  I was pastoring a small church in Woodstock, Georgia, at the time, and my friend was a former pastor there.  I had seen Bridges’ book and knew of its status as a modern classic, but had never gotten around to reading it.  I’ve just finished doing so, and I must say I regret not reading this book earlier on.

Bridges is a meat and potatoes writer who does not delve much into literary flourish.  That’s a compliment, for too many frills would obscure the central contention of his book:  that a holy God has called a people to holiness through the sacrifice of His Son.

One of the Bridges themes is that we have made the matter too complicated.  We speak of needing “victory” over this or that, when, in reality, what we need to do is use the minds God has given us, work hard to develop sustained habits of obedience, and put some personal exertion into it.  Bridges rejects the notion that Christians are incapable of doing anything towards holiness.  Of course we rely on the Holy Spirit and the power of God, but we also study the Word, pray, avoid sin, and think carefully about what we’re doing.  In this, he sounds like some of Dallas Willard’s writings…or, rather, Dallas Willard sounds like him.

This is no semi-Palagian reliance on the self.  Bridges arguments are biblical, practical, and helpful.  They avoid the “quick fix” mentality that there’s a shortcut to holiness.  He calls for a sober recognition of the fact that the more we sin the more we’ll want to sin, but the more we walk in obedience, the more we’ll want to walk in obedience.  And the point is, we can walk in obedience. “Surely,” writes Bridges, “He has not commanded us to be holy without providing the means to be holy.  The privilege of being holy is yours, and the decision and responsibility to be holy is yours.  If you make that decision, you will experience the fullness of joy which Christ has promised to those who walk in obedience to Him” (212).

The only possible criticism I might have is that Bridges’ illustrations are, at times, a bit quaint:  the girl whose love for tennis got a little out of hand, Bridges’ realization that he was coming to love ice cream a little too much, etc.  They do make the point, but I wonder how the heroin addict would take all of this?

Regardless, this is a work of great importance that ought to be read widely…and it has been for thirty years now.  So I’m a latecomer to this classic, but that’s better than not coming to it at all.  I was challenged, encouraged, and convicted by this work.