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Book review: The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott

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Copyright 2013 by Bob Rogers
John R. W. Stott, who was pastor of All Soul’s Anglican Church in London before passing away in 2011, was one of the most respected evangelical writers in Great Britain. I thoroughly enjoyed his classic book, The Cross of Christ (InterVarsity Press, 1986, 2006). I found it to be the best book I have ever read about the Cross. I’m not surprised that it received the 1988 Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Gold Medallion Award.

Stott wrote as an evangelical pastor and scholar. While he thought deeply, he wrote with clarity and frequent illustrations. In fact, I used his book as the basis for a series of sermons on the cross.

Stott’s book begins by making a passionate argument for the centrality of the cross to the Christian gospel. Then he explores the reasons for the crucifixion, and while describing many “images” of atonement, he zeros in on Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice to satisfy both the holiness and love of God. His discussion in chapter seven of propitiation, redemption, justification and reconciliation is perhaps the best chapter of the book. The book concludes with chapters on what it means to live as followers of the One who died on the cross, with excellent explanations of service, overcoming evil, and understanding suffering.

Stott has read widely on the subject and he graciously comments on opposing views from liberal scholars and Roman Catholic scholars. He takes other views seriously, but he is faithful to an orthodox evangelical interpretation of scripture. I found it interesting that he disagrees with the popular view of Jesus’ death as a “ransom” paid to the devil in a strictly literal sense. His discussion on the distinctions between Protestant and Roman Catholic views of justification is particularly insightful. Stott rejects the doctrine that God does not suffer, maintaining in chapter 13 that it is precisely because God did suffer on the cross that we are able to bear our suffering.

Many parts of the book read as if they were sermons. This is not surprising, since Stott was a pastor. Yet it comes together as a systematic theology of the cross. His conclusion makes an excellent sermon on how central the cross is to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

This is a book that I will read again and again in the years to come.

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“Prayer” by Philip Yancey is honest and inspiring

Philip Yancey did it again with his book on prayer. His book The Jesus I Never Knew is the best book I have read on Jesus. His book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? is the best book I have read about grace. His book, Prayer: Does it make any difference? (Zondervan, 2006) is the best book I have read on prayer. That is a strong statement for me to make, even as a person who loves the writings of Philip Yancey. I have read dozens of great books on prayer, including great books by people like Richard Foster, Ole Hallesby, Bill Hybels and Oswald Chambers.
What sets Yancey’s book apart is his brutal honesty about the struggles people have with prayer, balanced with inspiring stories of how prayer has changed people’s lives. Yancey is particularly self-effacing about his own struggles with prayer and his feelings of inadequacy in failing to pray. Yet by the end of the book, it is apparent that Yancey is much more of a prayer warrior than he admits at first.
The books’ 22 chapters are divided into five parts. Part One, “Keeping Company with God,” explores what prayer is. He points out that Jesus “virtually invented private prayer” (p. 63).
Part Two, “Unraveling the Mysteries,” discusses frustrations and questions that people have about the effectiveness of prayer. He gives a disarmingly profound answer to those who ask why we should bother to pray when some prayers seem unanswered: “Why pray? Because Jesus did” (p. 78). Later in the book he gives another simple but true answer: “Why pray? God likes to be asked” (p. 143).
Part Three, “The Language of Prayer,” discusses how to pray. He gives great practical advice on handling distractions to prayer, and reminds the reader that there is no right way to pray, because different styles of prayer fit different personalities. “Keep it simple, keep it honest, and keep it up” he advises (p. 191).
Part Four, “Prayer Dilemmas,” returns to questions people have about prayer, especially unanswered prayer. I would disagree slightly with his defintion of “unanswered prayer,” as he includes in that definition prayers that receive a “no” answer. Yancey’s approach to prayer for physical healing is balanced and insightful, as he reveals scientific research showing healing that cannot be explained, while recognizing the importance of using medicine and how God usually works through natural processes.
Part Five, “The Practice of Prayer,” provides motivation for faithful praying.
Yancey’s writing includes frequent illustrations from a variety of sources, from popular culture to literature to world history. Being a famous author and editor for Christianity Today magazine, Yancey has received many letters about prayer, and he shares this correspondence throughout the book. One unique quality about this book is that each chapter includes a couple of sidebars written by others, sharing personal experiences in prayer. For example, on p. 224-225 a prostitute whose prayer for deliverence resulted in her miraculous salvation. Although each sidebar story can be read alone, they relate to the chapters where they are inserted.
I disagree with Yancey in chapter 7, when he discusses Abraham’s prayer that “changed” God’s mind. Yancey does not notice that Genesis 18:33 says that it is God who ended the conversation with Abraham, not Abraham with God, so God did not change His mind.
Also, I believe that Yancey misinterprets Job 21:15 on p. 95. There he says that Job asks “What would we gain by praying to him?” However, the context of the chapter implies that Job quotes the wicked in this passage; Job does not say that he himself questions prayer.
It is remarkable that these were the only two places that I disagreed with Yancey, because he makes bold and strong statements throughout the book. I am sure many people will be offended or disagree with some things he said, just because he asserts so many strong opinions. But this is one of the values of the book: Yancey stimulates you to think deeply about prayer, and challenges your preconceived notions. Yet he does so while remaining fiercely loyal to the Bible’s teachings on prayer.
In summary, this book is destined to be a classic book on prayer, useful for group study or personal review and study over and over again.

Devotionals for the New Year

Daily prayer and Bible reading is critical to grow in the Christian life, and a helpful tool is a daily devotional.

Monthly and quarterly devotionals. There are many excellent monthly and quarterly magazines, including the non-denominational publications, Our Daily Bread, The Word for You Today, and Seeds of Hope. Our Daily Bread usually has an interesting illustration for a Biblical truth, and each daily devotion is written by a different author. The Word for You Today, written by Bob Gass of Northern Ireland, makes a practical application to a Biblical truth, often using humor. Seeds of Hope (formerly Seeds from the Sower), written by Michael and Lawrence Guido from Metter, Georgia, often uses humor to share an uplifting thought.

Southern Baptists publish Stand Firm (for men), Journey (for women), and Open Windows (written for all adults, it includes a middle section to pray by name for missionaries on their birthday). United Methodists publish The Upper Room.

Yearly devotional books. However, many people like to get a book with readings for the entire year. If you are shopping for a yearly devotional, the two classic, all-time best, in my opinion, are Experiencing God Day-by-Day, by Henry T. Blackaby and Richard Blackaby, and My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers (I recommend spending a little extra to get the updated edition of Chambers, because his work was originally written in 1917, and the language of the original can be difficult to follow.)

Another excellent classic, Morning and Evening, by Charles Spurgeon, provides readings for morning and evening every day. A Year with C.S. Lewis provides great selections from Lewis’s writings for every day of the year. The Songs of Jesus, by Timothy Keller, has a year of brief, Christ-centered daily devotionals through the Psalms. Keller has also published a new daily devotional on the Proverbs, God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life. The prayers Keller offers are particularly inspiring. All of the above devotionals will cause you to think deeply and inspire you.

Jesus Calling by Sarah Young is an extremely popular devotional that uses the literary device of speaking to the reader as if it is the words of Jesus Himself. The devotionals in Jesus Calling are very brief but quite encouraging, especially to those who need to find peace in their lives. However, the devotional has been criticized because the author claims she received the messages directly from Jesus, and some authors have pointed out minor errors in her book that prove not all messages were directly from God. (For more on this controversy, check the excellent book review by Tim Challies here.)  Despite these criticisms, I think her devotional is very helpful, and to her credit, Young includes scripture references at the end of each devotional. Young also has published spin-off devotionals that are similar, such as Dear Jesus. Daily Guideposts, published annually by Guideposts magazine, include many inspiring stories by a different author every day, and while they are well-written, they rarely cause you to think deeply. Voices of the Faithful, edited by Beth Moore, has devotional stories by missionaries. If you are looking for a devotional for married couples, Our Love Is Here to Stay: A Daily Devotional for Couples, by Tony and Lois Evans, is the best one I have read on the subject. It is well-written, interesting, and full of practical wisdom.

Bible reading. Of course, no devotional is a substitute for reading the Bible itself. If you have never read through the Bible, perhaps you could begin with a chapter of the New Testament every weekday, which would get you through the entire New Testament in a year. Or if you are ready to do more, you could add one Psalm a day and read through the Psalms twice in a year. If you read one chapter of Proverbs each day, you will read through the Proverbs in a month. If you wish to read the whole Bible in a year, read about three Old Testament chapters and one New Testament chapters a day. Try something different: A friend of mine says she starts her daily Bible reading in December, rather than January, so that she can read the Gospel of Matthew in the Christmas season. You may also want to consider using a new translation each year, so that you learn fresh insights. The Message and the New Living Translation are easy to read, but are not literal translations. Christian Standard Bible is a new revision of the Holman Christian Standard Bible; the CSB balances accuracy with clarity in reading. The English Standard Version is an accurate, literary translation that follows the traditional wording of scripture.

May God bless you as you dig into His word and seek His heart in prayer!