Meeting Steve Strang brought me face-to-face with my unknowing. It was the first year of Boundless, and Strang — head of Strang Communications — visited the Boundless office (my cubicle) during a tour of Focus on the Family. Knowing he was publisher of Charisma magazine, head of a major media group and father of Cameron Strang (of Relevant fame), my husband, Steve, and I were interested to meet him. He only stayed a minute or two, saying hello and asking where we went to college and how we met.
“Before meeting at Regent,” Steve said, “Candice graduated from Calvin, and I graduated from Lee.”
He looked puzzled! “How does Calvin College (Dutch Reformed) marry Lee University (Church of God)?” he asked.
Huh? I thought. What is he talking about?
I knew the faith traditions of our respective schools were different, but I couldn’t have explained how or why it mattered. I didn’t see why it was such a big deal; it had little if any affect on the way Steve and I lived our daily lives. I thought that was a good thing.
It was oddly comforting to realize that evangelical-pastor-blogger-author Kevin DeYoung had a similar unknowing moment (albeit a decade earlier in life than mine) during his freshman year at Hope College. His realization of how little he knew came during a late-night conversation with his floormates. He describes it this way:
I don’t know whose fault it was, if it was anyone’s, but I remember staying awake into the wee hours thinking ‘I can’t articulate what I believe and why I believe it.’ I felt a bit embarrassed that after all those years I still didn’t have a good grasp on some of the most foundational doctrines of the Christian faith.
I fit Kevin DeYoung’s description of growing up in the church, liking it but not fully understanding it. He tells his story in the just-released Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day for which DeYoung serves as both contributor and editor.
This Book is For You
Given the history of the evangelical faith (something the book covers in chapter three) I suspect many Boundless readers have also had moments of wondering what all their time in church amounts to and what it all means. And they wouldn’t be alone. DeYoung says, “In recent years the term ‘evangelical’ has lost almost all of its meaning. Evangelical has come to mean everything and nothing.”
The book isn’t just for those who don’t know the substance of the faith they profess, the uninformed, but also for those who are misinformed about what the Bible says, how we’re saved, who God is and what He requires. (Amidst the rise of the emergent church movement — and most recently, Rob Bell’s book suggesting everyone makes it to heaven — there’s plenty of misinformation going around. See DeYoung’s Why We’re Not Emergent from Two Guys Who Should Be for more on that.)
Don’t Call It a Comeback explains what it means to think like Christians and translate that thought into actions. With chapter contributions from over a dozen 20- and 30-something rising leaders in the evangelical movement, all members of The Gospel Coalition, Don’t Call It a Comeback is masterfully edited by DeYoung who weaves various voices into a near seamless collection. Organized into three parts: Evangelical History, Evangelical Theology and Evangelical Practice, the common goal is to make it clear, in the course of 18 chapters, what are “the core convictions of the gospel handed down through the centuries.”
The first part of the book, the history section, is the shortest but also one of the most interesting. Beginning with Jesus, author Collin Hansen moves quickly to give an overview of all that happened before now. He covers the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedonia; the Azusa Street Revival; Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin; the Puritans, Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Pietists, Methodists and Baptists; and personalities as varied as Billy Graham, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, Lottie Moon, John Broadus, William Seymour, Carl Henry, Bill Bright, and Harold John Ockenga. I learned — and will probably remember — more from these 11 pages than from the long (and dry) semester of church history I took in college.
For all the variety of people and events he covers — people and events I had no idea were connected — Hansen shows what unifies them: the belief in “the good news that God justifies by faith alone those who believe in Jesus, whose atoning death and triumphant resurrection make it possible for sinners to be born again by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Aha! This is the core belief that mattered most to Steve and me and why we were able to marry from two very different backgrounds.)
The Only Way to God
The short history section complete, the book moves quickly into the substance of the faith: Evangelical Theology. Here Russell Moore, Owen Strachan, Tim Challies and others do the heavy lifting of explaining exactly what “the gospel” is; where the “kingdom” resides; what it means to be “born again” including what actually happens — not just what it feels like — in that moment of new birth; that “justification” is an event, not a process; that the process of “sanctification” — of becoming “more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives” — is better than “being authentically messed up;” and that Jesus Christ really is the only way to God.
This is the section of the book that introduces what DeYoung calls “the most important articles of our faith.” Included is the reassertion of the centrality of the cross to the good news of the gospel. Despite the best effort of some to downplay the “bloody cross religion,” Greg Gilbert’s chapter, “The Gospel,” brings us back to this:
Unless the Son of God died in our place, taking the punishment we deserve for our sins, we will not be saved, and we will not be citizens of his kingdom. Our guilt is too deep. If that is true, then we cannot soften the edges of the gospel message. We cannot move the penal, substitutionary death of Jesus to the side; we cannot replace it with any other truth, and we cannot reimagine it as something less offensive (and ultimately less wonderful!) than it really is. If we do, then we will present the world with something that is not saving, and that is therefore not good news at all.
Not only does a wrong understanding have dire consequences for our after-life, it affects this life, too. In Ben Peays’ chapter on “New Birth,” he writes:
Unfortunately, many Christians think of salvation only in terms of getting into heaven and avoiding hell. Christ becomes not a way unto life, but merely a way to avoid death, reduced to a get-out-of-jail-free card or — even worse — fire insurance (you’ve seen those bumper stickers). This leaves many Christians understanding what they are saved from, but not having a good understanding of what they are saved into. One danger of evangelism that reduced Christianity to making a decision between heaven and hell is that it overlooks the value of the new birth for our earthly life.
More Than Just Belief
Finally, part three applies evangelical theology to real life. Ted Kluck, Justin Taylor, Thabiti Anyabwile and more show how the gospel transforms work, social justice and gender roles, as well as our views on homosexuality, abortion, the local church, worship and missions.
All of these chapter are immediately relevant, but Darrin Patrick’s social justice chapter really stood out. Given the recent shift in focus on caring for the poor, especially among hip, urban churches, I was intrigued to find out what Patrick’s take would be. He pastors a church in the midst of St. Louis, a city that is “racially divided, poverty-stricken and abandoned by most churches in the urban core.” He talks about the tension between those who would care only about people’s souls to the neglect of their physical needs and those who care only about making sure people have food, clothes and shelter, to the neglect of their souls for eternity. He writes,
But here’s the tension again: we may not substitute social justice for spiritual transformation. While our heart for social justice grows out from the gospel, social justice by itself will not communicate the gospel. We need gospel proclamation, for as much as people may see our good deeds, they cannot hear the good news unless we tell them. Social justice, though valuable as an expression of Christian love, should, especially as a churchwide endeavor, serve the goal of gospel proclamation. We care for people because we love them as creatures made in God’s image and lament their suffering. But believing in the reality of eternal suffering, we also hope that giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name will win us a hearing for the gospel. We long to tell the story of Christ’s ultimate act of service, of his satisfying of divine justice, of his mercy toward the spiritually bankrupt sinner through his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.
Our evangelical faith should have implications for every aspect of our lives. It’s not enough to believe something (even the demons do that). What matters is the fruit of our beliefs, our actions (James 2:14–26).
At the time of our meet up with Steve Strang, his response seemed exaggerated and silly. “He just doesn’t realize how little denominational differences matter to our generation,” I said to Steve later, proudly, after he explained to me why Strang found our marriage surprising.
I used to think denominations were little more than labels and unhelpful ones at that. Now I realize they represent something — or are supposed to — and are supposed to influence and shape our belief and behavior. And in fact, they did. Steve’s and my approach to church membership, our ideas about the authority of Scripture, how we related as husband and wife, how we participated in entertainment, how we felt about sin, all this and more flowed out of our beliefs about God. When Paul said “be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” he knew we’d be changed by our thoughts, by what we believe. Our beliefs lead us closer to God or further away.
Don’t Call it a Comeback is for every Christian who not only wants to understand the meaning of their faith, but also wants their lives to be evidence that Jesus is Lord. This book is a get-it-done, one-stop-shop for everything you need to get grounded in your faith and practice; it’s the essentials. It would have been nice to have it 13 years ago, though I’m very glad to have it now.
Copyright 2011 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.