-- Radical by David Platt (Multnomah, 2010)
Platt, the popular young pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., is using his expanding national platform to urge Christians to rethink the “American dream,” their faith — and whether the two can co-exist.
A gifted Bible scholar and preacher, Platt quickly achieved the mega-church leadership many ambitious pastors seek. But his heart longed for something more. He realized he was “on a collision course with an American church culture where success is defined by bigger crowds, bigger budgets and bigger buildings.”
His visits to underground house churches in East Asia, where persecuted believers meet for fervent worship, drove him to reexamine the Jesus of the Gospels. The encounter convinced him that Jesus still demands what He demanded of His earliest disciples: that we take up our crosses and follow Him in radical obedience.
Such obedience requires daily self-sacrifice, surrender of our “rights,” suffering of one form or another, poverty (at least in comparison to the riches many of us enjoy), perhaps death.
The Jesus who told prospective disciples to leave their homes and families, to sell their possessions in order to follow Him into a lost and hurting world has not changed. “But we don’t want to believe it,” Platt writes. “We are afraid of what it might mean for our lives. So we rationalize those passages away. … And 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 materialism and who would never call us to give away everything we have. A Jesus who would not expect us to forsake our closest relationships so that He receives all our affection. 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. A Jesus who wants us to be balanced, who wants us to avoid dangerous extremes, and who, for that matter, wants us to avoid danger altogether. A Jesus who brings us comfort and prosperity as we live out our Christian spin on the American dream.”
Such a Jesus, Platt contends, is not Jesus at all, but an idol molded in our own image. It’s high time we take “an honest look at the Jesus of the Bible and dare to ask what the consequences might be if we really believed Him and really obeyed Him.”
Platt cites one Christian who dared: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The German pastor and theologian was hanged by the Nazis 65 years ago, at age 39, for publicly resisting their criminal rule. He bravely denounced Nazi usurpation of the German church — and even participated in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler — while many fellow believers stayed silent and did nothing. Platt quotes a famous line from Bonhoeffer’s classic, The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
My second recommendation for summer reading:
-- Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson, 2010)
This powerful biography shines new light on one of the giants of the 20th century. A bespectacled intellectual, Bonhoeffer was no revolutionary early on. But he rejected passive religion separated from action. And he despised what he called “cheap grace” — the grace we accept with our minds but not with our hearts or our wills, the grace that demands nothing from us. He considered it the “deadly enemy” of the church.
“Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate,” Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son.”
“Costly grace,” on the other hand, “is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son … and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. … Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
Bonhoeffer not only believed in costly grace, he lived and died by it.
On July 4, a missionary who serves in one of the least-free nations on earth preached at my church. The people in the land where he works are oppressed by poverty, superstition, tyranny and terrorism, but they are seeking freedom. Not just political and social freedom — spiritual freedom.
“It’s great to be here in America on ‘Freedom Day,’” he said. “As kingdom people first and Americans second, we rejoice in liberty.”
But he reminded his listeners that followers of Christ have been given liberty for a purpose: to bless all nations with the news of salvation. If we don’t use it for that purpose, we don’t deserve it.
Bonhoeffer probably would call it “cheap liberty.” God help us to trade it for costly grace.