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The last of Zondervan’s The 5 Sola Series Christ Alone is written at a time when many celebrate the 500 anniversary of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.  Here is a basic and rather succinct explanation of Solus Christus through the lens of particular Reformers.  While Christ Alone acknowledges that Reformation Christology is much more complex and therefore lies beyond its scope, it nonetheless focuses on two aspects of Christology that it considers essential “if the church is to proclaim the same Christ as the Reformers” (20), namely: the exclusivity of his identity and the sufficiency of his work.  These two comprehends the first two parts of the book respectively followed by a final section that focuses on “why the Reformers taught Christ alone and how intellectual shifts over the last five hundred years have created a different cultural context for us” (26).  Christ Alone offers five reasons to defend its claim that this Solus Christus “is at the center of the Reformation solas and at the heart of Christian theology”; Christ alone is “linchpin of coherency for Reformation doctrine”; “Scripture places Christ alone at the center of God’s eternal plan for his creation”; Christ alone of the Reformation reflects the self-witnesses of Christ himself”; “the Reformers emphasized the centrality of Christ alone because they accepted the apostolic witness to the person and work of Christ”; and “Christ alone is the linchpin of coherency for all Christian theology” (20-24).

First, Christ Alone considers the exclusive identity of Christ by grounding it in the structure and storyline of Scripture.  Emerging out of a consideration of the Bible’s own structures, categories and intratextual dynamics particularly the biblical covenants, the author builds the case for the Scriptures as both Christocentric and Christotelic.  To this biblical identity of Christ is added the self-witness of Christ.  Christ is God the Son incarnate is implicitly manifested by “his baptism, the kingdom he inaugurated, his life and ministry, his death and resurrection and the worship he received” (59) and explicitly demonstrated by Jesus’s own statements as they relate to “his unique relationship with the Father and connections with his works” (67).   The Apostles also witnessed Christ as God the Son incarnate.  This is defended by the claim that theological studies do not need to erect the dichotomy between ontological and functional Christology for “Scripture holds them together to bear witnesses to both Jesus’ identity and humanity” (84) and then illustrated by the selection and brief explanation of four key texts in the New Testament (Romans 1:3-4; Phillipians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:1-3).  Finally, in this first part the author turns its attention to the work of Christ instead of the person by discussing not only the interrelationship but also the inseparability of Christ’s incarnation and atonement, a piece that centers on unpacking Hebrews 2:5-18 to understand and appreciate the biblical rationale.

Second, Christ Alone focuses on the sufficiency of the work of Christ.  The nature and the necessity of his sacrifice is explained in terms of his threefold office as prophet, priest and king.   This discussion is rooted in covenantal typology and guided by two questions: the basic function of the prophet, priest and king in the biblical storyline and the reasons why they are necessary.  Following this threefold office of Christ discussion, the author turns his attention to the atonement in historical perspective.  Various atonement theologies are described in particular church history eras (patristic, medieval, Reformation, current modern).  Recent and newer views of the atonement suffer the neglect, “dismissal or revision of the Reformation’s central theological insight: God cannot forgive sin without the complete satisfaction of his own holy, righteous, and moral demand” (191).  Central to this historical review is Reformation’s God-centered focus and penal substitution as key to “our understanding of the why and how of the cross” (191).  In the next two chapters (7, 8) that make up for the remainder of this second part the author moves from historical theology into biblical theology to explain and describe “why is penal substitution the best way to capture the central means of the cross?” (193).  The case for penal substitutionary atonement is first made by the biblical facts in regards to the cross as well as by the way the  problem of divine forgiveness in relation to the cross is resolved.  In addition, penal substitutionary atonement is defended as critical for the reasons the cross is necessary in light of the problem of forgiveness by alluding and discussing two texts (Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 9:15-28).  “Penal substitution – the Reformation theology of the cross – is the best way of capturing and making sense of all the biblical data … best captures[ing] the Bible’s own explanation for why Christ had to die as our Lord and Savior” (243).

In its third and last part, Christ Alone seeks to describe and explain how the Reformers taught Solus Christus and then delves into some of the intellectual shifts that have taken place in the last five hundred years and its resulting cultural contexts.  Christological orthodoxy (by Chalcedonian definition) is shared by both Protestants and Roman Catholics.  However, the Reformers disagreed with Rome in terms of the sufficiency of Christ particularly for their opposition to sacramental theology.  In the last two chapters, the author laments what he affirms to be a current challenge: the loss of the exclusivity of Christ and invites and exhort the reader to reaffirm Christ alone today.  This is argued to be the result of a “massive shift in plausibility structures,” (277) “the secularization and pluralization of the West” (277) and the ideas and consequences derived from the Enlightenment that have impacted the church’s confession of Christ alone.  The ideas are two-fold: “from a revelational to a rational epistemology” (282) and “from Christian theism to naturalistic theism” (284).  The consequences are the loss of Christ’s exclusivity and the loss of Christ’s exclusive history.  An exhortation to reaffirm Christ alone today is done after explaining the impact that the Enlightenment has had in terms of its epistemology and theology when people’s ability has been impaired to accept the plausibility of Christ alone resulting in subjectivism and non-personalization of God.  The way forward is not to work “within the contemporary views on the nature of knowledge and the relationship between the autonomous individual, the world, and the divine (Christology from below)” (307) but to do a Christology from above i.e. establishing Christ alone by starting with Scripture …” (308) and to “build on sola Scriptura” (309).  The author claims that Scripture alone does not entail ignoring tradition and historical theology but understanding and appreciating these as hermeneutical servants” (309).  “Scripture alone has magisterial authority” (310) and “tradition functions in a ministerial capacity to aid our interpretation and application of Scripture” (310).   Concluding, the author reflects on how the exclusivity and sufficiency of Christ relates and applies to the life of the Christian.  “Doctrinal truth must affect the entirety of who we are” (312).  Growing in the knowledge, love and devotion of Christ demands and requires total allegiance and commitment to the truths re-discovered by the Reformers as the center of the Reformation solas and at the heart of Christian theology, Christ Alone.

Christ Alone is extremely easy to read and therefore accessible to the average reader.  Some things stand out in this text.  First, Christ Alone is saturated by Scripture.  In fact, the author discusses particular Scriptural passages and the meanings of particular concepts from grammatical structures to the diversity of language for the cross that appears in the Bible (obedience, sacrifice, propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, justice, conquest and moral example).  Second, Christ Alone (the author a professor of Christian theology) engages with some of the debates that pertain to key doctrines of the Christian faith such as the atonement.  Third, Christ Alone delves into some of the most formidable challenges that faces the Christian church postmodernity.  Finally, Christ Alone invites the Christian not only to reaffirm his or her faith but also communicates that doctrine is paramount for spiritual formation and growth.

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wsaints
Introduced by Anglican minister and theologian J.I. Packer “as a fine presentation of the Puritan outlook” (p. xvi) and underscoring the Puritans for the legacy
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A Quest for Godliness The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life pic
Anglican minister and theologian J.I. Packer introduces his book A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 2010) by reflecting on
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spirituality
Grounded in the lives, ministries and writings of the Dutch Further Reformation divines, Arie De Reuver’s Sweet Communion, Trajectories of Spirituality from the Middle Ages
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Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love

wesley

Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love 

(Crossway, 2015) by Fred Sanders

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WESLEY TODAY

Wesley on the Christian Life begins by making two assertions: first that “evangelicals inside of Methodism are well aware that the Methodist movement has become what it was once a reaction against” (p. 15) and second that “Wesley’s kind of stirring” (p. 15) is needed because “his message is medicinal for much that ails us all today” (p. 15). Regarding this latter point, Wesley on the Christian Life states of Wesley:

He perceived the inherent unity of things that we have, to our harm, learned to think of as separate, or even as opposites. He saw that holiness of heart and life was internally and necessarily linked to the free forgiveness of sins. He saw the connection between justification and sanctification, and was able to communicate it powerfully. He was possesses of one central faith, that man is justified by faith and perfected by love. (p. 15)

THE TASK

The task of Wesley on the Christian Life is two-fold: (1) to introduce Wesley’s theology and spirituality and (2) “to recommend (with a few caveats) a generally Wesleyan approach to living a balanced Christian life.” (p. 15). Before delving into these purposes in 10 chapters, the author (a Wesleyan theologian) of Wesley on the Christian Life is fully aware of the following: the wide range of voices and perspectives of who was Wesley and of its accompanying multiple interpretations (So Many Wesleys, So Little Time) and of the following: that many ignore or revise parts of Wesley they do not like and that Wesley was able to cross lines and mixed traditions that are today rarely combined.

AUTHOR’S APPROACH

The author of Wesley on the Christian Life, one who got saved in a Methodist youth group, presents the warmhearted evangelical Protestant John Wesley. His approach is as follows:

His teaching on the Christian life trades heavily on being born again, on deeply felt heart religion, on justification by faith alone, on awareness of original sin and total dependence on God’s grace, on active cultivation of spiritual disciplines, and on striving for growth in knowledge and grace. His view of the Christian life is fed by the great tradition of Christian orthodoxy and is crowned by an experiential, evangelical Trinitarianism. (p. 18)

Wesley on the Christian Life closes its introduction by acknowledging the role of Charles Wesley as supporting witness and by underscoring that Wesley “was above all a preacher and a pastoral theologian” (p. 21), one whose field of expertise can be called ‘practical divinity’.

CHAPTERS’ CONTENT

Chapter 1 of Wesley on the Christian Life briefly describes John Wesley’s life and character. The aim here is to present John Wesley as a spiritual guide. Chapter 1 of Wesley on the Christian Life narrates his early life, the background of his grandparents (nonconformists or dissenters from the Church of England), his evangelical conversion at Aldersgate, his role in the 1740s revival, the ways he built and organized the Methodist movement and facets of his personal life particularly his marriage (a disaster).

Chapter 2 of Wesley on the Christian Life focuses on John Wesley’s evangelical conversion at Aldersgate. The aim here is to present why John Wesley considered that Anglicans in the 1700s were almost Christians: namely, his theological convictions guiding the doctrine of justification and regeneration. Chapter 2 of Wesley on the Christian Life explains in detail Wesley’s conversion at Aldersgate, his theological convictions regarding salvation by faith and his challenge and call for the church in his time to live and embrace Scriptural Christianity.

Chapter 3 of Wesley on the Christian Life explores John Wesley’s approached to Christianity: heart religion. The aim here is to present John Wesley’s view of Christianity as heart religion and defend it against misunderstandings. Chapter 3 of Wesley on the Christian Life states the reasons for Wesley’s view: a spiritual decline in eighteenth century England that call for a focus on regeneration and justification; the human problem is a heart problem; his indebtedness to George Whitefield and Puritanism; the impact and relationship of heart religion to singing and hymnology; and the transition from holy temper to holy mercy one that causes John Wesley to affirm that “mere knowledge is confessedly too week” (p. 101) and one that causes John Wesley to call (writing to Wilberforce) for the abolition of slavery in England. “It was heart religion that brought down slavery” (p. 100).

Chapter 4 of Wesley on the Christian Life examines in what ways the first epistle of John defined John Wesley as a theologian. The aim here is to present why 1 John was John Wesley’s favorite book. Chapter 4 of Wesley on the Christian Life cautions about the danger of a ‘canon within a canon’; states the fact that 1 John called the attention of John Wesley because in this epistle he found “a portrayal of the Christian life as fellowship with God” (p. 105); help us understand Wesley’s theology by reading it as ‘John first, then Paul’ or ‘John plus Paul’ and Wesley’s drawing from Protestant and Catholic traditions for his Protestant doctrine of holiness.

Chapter 5 of Wesley on the Christian Life delves into John Wesley’s explanation of the role of justification by faith for both conversion and as the basis for sanctification. The aim here is to present how John Wesley sough to affirm article eleventh of the Thirty-Ninth articles of the Church of England while guarding it from or against antinomian understandings. Chapter 5 of Wesley on the Christian Life describes various events that shaped John Wesley: namely, his reading and reaction to James Hervey’s work Theron and Aspasio which was indebted to Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification; his sermon entitled ‘The Lord of Righteousness’ preached as a reflection on the disagreements that led to division in the church and his troubled engagement with the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (due to his intuition that it can led to believers shielding themselves from the demands of the law resulting in antinomianism).

Chapter 6 of Wesley on the Christian Life describes John Wesley’s articulation of the doctrine of grace and it marries aspects of forgiveness and empowerment. The aim here is to describe John Wesley’s holistic doctrine of grace. Chapter 6 of Wesley on the Christian Life describes the following: John Wesley’s doctrine as ‘first grace, then law’; John Wesley’s outline of his nomophilic doctrine of grace as seen in the table of contents of the Standard Sermons and in the principles derived from his exposition of the Sermon of the Mount and that his doctrine of grace permeates his preaching (which led to evangelical awakening in the eighteenth century) and which includes “the power of God for transformation” (p. 170).

Chapter 7 of Wesley on the Christian Life focuses on John Wesley’s articulation of the means of grace. The aim here is to state and explain that John Wesley’s goal for ministry was “to bring the soul into personal contact with the gracious God” (p. 173) by God’s appointed means of grace. Chapter 7 of Wesley on the Christian Life delves into John Wesley’s calls for balance between the Moravians’ theological presuppositions (meaning their underestimation of the means) and others’ overestimation of the means of grace; Charles Wesley’s singing of John Wesley’s means of grace; the danger of lumping together the means of grace and the spiritual disciplines and John Wesley’s exhaustive list of spiritual disciplines which includes: prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Prayer, meditating and Christian conference.

Chapter 8 of Wesley on the Christian Life tackles John Wesley’s teaching that Jesus ‘saves to the uttermost’ also called in the following ways; entire sanctification, Christian perfection, and perfect love. The aim here is to present John Wesley’s vision of the perfect life. Chapter 8 of Wesley on the Christian Life acknowledges that this is perhaps the most controversial teaching and the one that separates the Methodist from the Calvinist-Evangelical wings of the Revival and then provides Wesley’s definition of sanctification and whether it can be completed; examines the principle of real change; Wesley’s characterization of the benefits of union with Christ; explains what is Christian perfection; elaborates on the major objections to Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection and lays out for the reader a Reformed critique and commendation (J.I. Packer’s Keep in Step with the Spirit) of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection.

Chapter 9 of Wesley on the Christian Life delves into John Wesley’s articulation of catholicity meaning that “a Christian’s life could not live out in isolation from the universal church” (p. 219). The aim here is to present the catholic spirit of John Wesley. Chapter 9 of Wesley on the Christian Life describes the great tradition of Christian spirituality; Wesley’s admonition against triumphalism and narrowness in his sermons and Wesley’s efforts at an ecumenism that reached “across time, through the great tradition” (p. 235) and Wesley’s cooperation across the Calvinist-Arminian divide. Spurgeon, a Calvinist Baptist, stated that “Wesleyanism wasn’t the main danger of his, or any, age. The main danger is Christians failing to be wide awake, failing to be fully Christian” (p. 239-240).

Finally, chapter 10 of Wesley on the Christian Life briefly explain the Trinitarian character and pattern of John Wesley’s theology and how it undergirds his spirituality. The aim here is to present the Trinitarian theology of John Wesley. Chapter 10 of Wesley on the Christian Life begins with an appreciation Wesley’s trinitarianism; focuses on the gospel-centeredness and experientially-based character of Wesley’s trinitarianism; shortly notes the Trinitarian theology of Methodism in Charles Wesley’s hymns and cites evidence in Wesley’s sermons that “true religion is Trinitarian” (p. 250).

MY CONCLUSION

There are two things that I appreciate about Wesley on the Christian Life. One is the potential for learning (and for retrieving the Christian tradition for the renewal of the church) that the theology of John Wesley has for the contemporary American evangelical church. The other thing that I value about this biography is the practical character and identity of John Wesley. We may disagree about particular and core doctrinal issues. But we need to treasure that practical theology and divinity as well as practical concerns of the Anglican minister who is celebrated and esteemed not only by the Christ followers and disciples of Wesleyan, Methodist, Holiness, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches worldwide but also by any Gospel-lover and serious student of the Scriptures and church history who should be wholeheartedly grateful for Wesley’s thinking on what it means to live as a Christian.

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faith alone
Faith alone – sola fide – is one of the five rallying cries of the Reformation. In Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification (Zondervan, 2015),
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