As I have been preaching through the Gospel of Mark this year I have been reminded repeatedly how often Christians divide the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus from his life and teachings. I hope no one would articulate it this way, but at times I have a feeling that some Christians view the point of Jesus' life as his death on the cross ("he came to die") and his life and teachings were a nice bonus that he gave us on the way to his true purpose.
So it's wonderful to come across a book - written for everyday Christians - that encourages believers to take seriously the full gospel of Jesus. Dr. David Platt is the lead pastor of the Church at Brook Hills, a four-thousand-member congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Cynically one might expect a mega-church pastor to be writing books about self-actualization in order to draw in more Christian consumers. But Platt has written a wonderful and challenging book calling believers to be Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.
Platt wrote the book after realizing that he "was on a collision course with an American church culture where success is defined by bigger crowds, bigger budgets, and bigger buildings." The problem for him was that the Jesus he encountered in the Scripture "actually spurned the things that my church culture said were most important." And so he had to decide whether or not he was going to take Jesus seriously. And he is hoping the reader will wrestle with the same dilemma. As he puts it, "...this is where we need to pause. Because we are starting to redefine Christianity. We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with. A nice, middle-class, American Jesus. A Jesus who doesn't mind our materialism and who would never call us to give away everything we have... A Jesus who is fine with nominal devotion that does not infringe on our comforts, because, after all, he loves us just the way we are."
The strength of Dr. Platt's book is its accessibility. This is a perfect book for a Sunday school class or a small group to wrestle with. There are two things I especially like in what he does. First, he forces readers to consider if American Christians have merged the "American dream" with the gospel - thus giving into a form of idolatry. As he states, "While the goal of the American dream is to make much of us, the goal of the gospel is to make much of God."
Secondly, Platt exposes the way in which all of us tend to think that the hard claims of the gospel are for someone else. The call to "go into the world" with the gospel is not just a call upon those called to be missionaries. It is a call for the entire Church. As a pastor and preacher I especially loved his section on "receivers and reproducers." Platt argues that all believers are called to be reproducers of God's Word in the world but we tend to be receivers. Here is the difference:
Imagine being in Sudan. You walk into a thatched hut with a small group of Sudanese church leaders, and you sit down to teach them God's Word. As soon as you start, you lose eye contact with all of them. No one is looking at you, and you hardly see their eyes the rest of the time. The reason is because they're writing down every word you say, "Teacher, we are going to take everything we have learned from God's Word, translate it into our languages, and teach it to our tribes." They were not listening to receive but to reproduce.
Now journey with me to a contemporary worship service in the United States. Some people have their Bibles open, while others don't have a Bible with them. A few people are taking notes, but for the most part they are passively sitting in the audience. While some are probably disengaged, others are intently focused on what the preacher is saying, listening to God's Word to hear how it applies to their lives. But the reality is, few are listening to reproduce.
We are, by nature, receivers. Even if we have a desire to learn God's word, we still listen from a default self-centered mind-set that is always asking, "What can I get out of this?" But as we have seen, this is unbiblical Christianity. What if we changed the question whenever we gathered to learn God's Word? What if we began to think, "How can I listen to his Word so that I am equipped to teach this Word to others?"
This changes everything. All of a sudden the pen and paper come out...
As a pastor and preacher, I loved this! What if the congregation came to understand that they were not there to be receivers but were there to learn what they needed to become reproducers of the gospel in the world? I can't imagine how fun it would be to preach if people believed that they would have to in turn teach this same material to others.
Dr. Platt has a Ph.D from New Orleans Baptist Seminary and my one complaint with the book is likely just a Wesleyan one. Although Platt does a nice job calling Christians to take seriously both the cross and the teachings of Jesus, I don't think he connects them together very well. His description of Christ's work on the cross is entirely substitutional in nature. (On the cross Christ becomes our substitute and bears God's wrath against sin). Although this is an important aspect of the cross, it is not they only work Christ accomplishes there. The cross is also Christ's victory over sin and death and it is the very way of the kingdom. Let me give you three examples of how this narrow view of the cross hurts the book.
First, although Platt does an amazing job of taking seriously some of the hard claims of Christ's teaching, he ignores the one that I think is central to the gospel - "If any want to become my disciple, they must take up their cross daily and follow me." This is the central claim of discipleship but it's essentially ignored in the book. If the cross is only the means by which Jesus took on God's wrath, then I'm not sure what it would mean for a disciple to take it up. But if the cross is the way of the kingdom and the central means by which Christ overcomes evil with good, then the disciple's cross makes sense.
Second, although he mentions the kingdom of God in several places it is usually associated with heaven or the life to come. The more I wrestle with the four Gospels in the New Testament, the more I am convinced that the primary message is that "the Kingdom of God is at hand." I think Platt leans a little too far toward associating the good news with going to heaven when we die. The good news is not that we go to heaven, the good news is that heaven has come here (and we can live in it now and for eternity). For example, when Platt talks about the death of Stephen he is primarily described as an example of how the blood of martyrs (ancient and contemporary) is seed for the Church. But I think it is equally important to recognize that when he dies that Stephen sees "the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the Father." That is kingdom language. Stephen lives as a member of the kingdom now and therefore he can pray a prayer of forgiveness upon those killing him because they don't (or won't) see that the kingdom of God is already at hand.
Third, I wish he took more seriously the redemption of creation. He has a very interesting reading of Romans that rightly calls all believers to be instruments of the gospel in the world. But I think he ends before getting to the "groaning of all creation" as it waits for redemption. Platt rightly calls people to enter into places of poverty and brokenness in the world, but more often than not he thinks we should do that because Jesus calls us to be compassionate and because we need to help the lost get to heaven. I just think Platt would be better served with a more robust understanding of the presence of the kingdom and God's desire to redeem all of creation. The result would be the same. Believers would be going to every corner of creation. But we would go not just to obey a command or to get people to heaven, but we would go because God's kingdom has claimed every inch of the creation and where God's kingdom is, his justice and righteousness must be also.
I think these issues are more than just nit-picking. (It's not a good thing that the resurrection is only mentioned twice). But I don't think any of these critiques invalidate how helpful this book would be for groups of Christians to wrestle with.
The best, and most unique, part of Platt's book are his five suggestions at the end of the book for believers to dare to live out. I won't tell you what the five are, because I think you ought to buy the book and read it. There are other books out there that call Christians to live out the radical claims of discipleship, but most of them end in somewhat idealistic and impractical places. I really appreciated Dr. Platt's suggestions for believers who want to take first steps toward radical discipleship and I think you will appreciate them also.
If you are looking for a wonderful book that will create some exciting, lively, and important discussion in your Sunday school class or small group, get Radical.