Sunday, May 10, 2009

Book Review—The Bookends of the Christian Life

Jerry Bridges & Bob Bevington, The Bookends of the Christian Life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009.

If you’re like me, you may feel a little uncomfortable if someone asks you how you’re doing in your Christian living, especially if he gets too specific. “How’s your prayer-life?” “Are you consistent with daily devotions?” “Are you getting victory over sin and winning others to Christ?” Truth be known, I’m deficient in all these areas. Too often my life gets out of balance and seems hopelessly messed up. And I’m not eager for others to notice, but I could use a little help.

Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington have co-written a book that aims to help believers stabilize their Christian lives in all of its aspects, whether “spiritual” or “temporal” (p. 13). The Bookends of the Christian Life, published by Crossway, is a 160-page exposition and application of two doctrines that are essential for successful Christian living. The authors use the illustration of books on a shelf supported by bookends to represent the various aspects of our lives being supported by these two doctrines.

The first bookend is the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is the righteousness that Christ earned for us by His life of perfect obedience all the way to death, even death on a cross. Why is this doctrine so important that believers must lean on it for support? Bridges and Bevington answer:

We know we need a Savior, so we trust in Christ to redeem us from the curse of God’s law. But though we believe we’re saved as far as our eternal destiny is concerned, we may not be sure about our day-to-day standing with God. Many of us embrace a vague but very real notion that God’s approval has to be earned by our conduct. We know we’re saved by grace, but we believe God blesses us according to our level of personal obedience. Consequently, our confidence that we abide in God’s favor ebbs and flows according to how we gauge our performance. (p. 21)

The authors show from Scripture that “[j]ust as God charged our sin to Christ, so he credits the perfect obedience of Jesus to all who trust in him” (p. 25). They also emphasize the scriptural truth that the believer’s justification for Christ’s sake is “a daily, present reality” and that “it’s this reliance on Christ alone, apart from any consideration of our good or bad deeds, that enables us to experience the daily reality of the first bookend, in which the believer finds peace and joy and comfort and gratitude” (p. 29).

Bridges and Bevington anticipate an objection to the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness: What does it matter how I live if God sees me as righteous because of what Christ did? This objection they answer in chapter 2, “The Motivation of the Gospel.” The authors reference three scriptural examples of people who experienced God’s grace, the third being the Apostle Paul. Rather than causing Paul to “slack off in his pursuit of Christlikeness,” the gospel “motivated him to press on and strain forward” out of “love and gratitude for the righteousness of Christ that was his by faith” (p. 38).

The second bookend is the power of the Holy Spirit to supply “the strength to carry out our motivation” (p. 81). Bridges and Bevington make an interesting and convincing argument that “the Spirit applies his power to our lives in two different ways” (p. 86)—through his synergistic work and his monergistic work. The synergistic work referred to “isn’t a pure synergism, as if we and the Spirit each contributed equal power to the task. Rather, we work as he enables us to work, so we use the expression qualified synergism” (p. 87). The authors point us to Philippians 2:12–13 where we are to work out our own salvation because God is working in us. “We are to work—to apply ourselves with utmost seriousness and vigilance. But we’re to do so with the recognition that God provides us with both the motivation (the will) and the power (the work) to obey” (pp. 87–88). The Spirit’s monergistic work means that “he works alone in us and for us but completely independent from us” (p. 88). The authors point to Scriptures showing that believers are born of the Spirit, given new responses to God through the Spirit, and given assurance of salvation and encouragement in spiritual warfare and temptation through the Spirit (pp. 88–90).

But how does the believer apply this teaching of the Spirit’s work? Bridges and Bevington urge believers to take an attitude of “dependent responsibility.” Again, the authors present Paul as an example of working hard to become more Christlike, trusting the Spirit to provide the necessary power. “The Spirit’s role was not to make Paul’s own energy unnecessary but, rather, to make it effective” (p. 96).

The authors teach that leaning on both of these bookends will promote stability, joy, and peace in our lives and help us avoid those detrimental attitudes they label “Gospel Enemies”: self-righteousness, persistent guilt, and self-reliance. They devote a chapter to each of these enemies, providing lists of piercing questions by which we may test ourselves to reveal and defeat the enemy within. The book concludes with “The Bookends Personal Worldview,” that answers the question, “What’s next?” In the authors’ own words:

Instead of page after page and chapter after chapter of a storyline filled with self-righteousness, persistent guilt, and self-reliance, the pages and chapters of books that are stabilized by the bookends should tell an action-packed story of selfless serving, radical giving, and sacrificial living. The impact of being covered by the perfect righteousness of Christ and being enabled by the infinite power of the Holy Spirit should change everything. The result of living between the bookends should be a resounding, “Here am I, Lord; send me!” (p. 154)

I found this book enjoyable, yet challenging to read. The writing style is easy to follow, and their approach to explaining and applying Scripture reminds me of the Puritans; there is scholarship in all these pages, but the presentation is warmly devotional. In fact, Bridges and Bevington quote or paraphrase John Owen, Thomas Wilcox, Thomas Chalmers, and John Newton, along with several contemporary writers.

All believers, regardless of occupation or level of Christian growth, should be able to profit from reading this book. The gospel is so well-presented that the book might even be used in evangelism with people who are more thoughtful and open to discussion about theological matters. Pastors would also be helped by the message of this relatively short book. Bridges and Bevington tell the story of a pastor of a performance-driven mega church who recently rediscovered the gospel of Christ’s imputed righteousness and how that has changed his outlook on himself and his ministry.

I found myself thanking the Lord several times for the precious scriptural truths expounded and illustrated in Bookends. Though I’ve been in Christ a long time now, it’s been only in recent years that I’ve come to a clearer understanding of what Christ’s perfect obedience means for me. With God’s enabling, perhaps the books of my life will stand on the shelf a little more neatly, leaning firmly on the bookends!