This review of What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman, a book about productivity, may seem to start on a weird note: I find it to be one of the more helpful contributions to the recent justification/sanctification and law/grace discussions in the evangelical world. How does a book on productivity accomplish that?
It pulls it off because while it is robustly rooted in the reality that our acceptance before God is not rooted in our personal productivity, it also doesn’t leave you wondering at the end, “So I can’t do anything to make God accept me, and I just need to rest in Jesus…but then how do I get everything done that I need to do?” It’s a brilliant combination of gospel-centrality, biblical principles, common sense, and the best of general revelation as it applies to productivity.
The other unique aspect of Perman’s approach is that he does not simply talk about how I as an individual can be more productive, but he connects my own personal productivity to the two greatest commandments: love for God and love for neighbor. So often, personal productivity seems all about me: how I can get more done to make my life more fulfilled and organized and successful. But by showing how personal productivity should really be about loving God and loving others, he provides a much better way to look at how we ought to get things done in light of the gospel.
As noted above, though, Perman gets down to the details of how you can actually get things done: workflows, routines, schedules, lists, time maps, vision and goals planning, leadership and management, and much more. Each chapter ends with a restatement of the basic point, a key quote, a key verse, and a suggestion for an immediate action to take.
I plan to take a day soon and walk through essentially the steps advocated in the book for really getting things on track in my life to be most effective. I anticipate it being very helpful, because up till this point in my life, I’ve been able to juggle all the things in my life fairly well just by writing down to-do lists from time to time and making minimal use of a calendar. I process things quickly enough that this has worked for me. But I can feel that changing as the scale of some things I’m involved in has changed and the amount of things has increased. And given that I want to be maximally productive for the right reasons, I’m sold on implementing Perman’s system.
So hopefully I will begin to do so, and I’m going to reflect on a few things on the blog related to all that. But my opinion of the book should be clear: make time in your schedule to read it and then restructure your life to flow out of the gospel into something that helps you be productive for the right reasons.
The Puritans knew how to speak to the heart in a way that few people do today. I’ve just finished A Treatise on Earthly-Mindedness by the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs (see a brief bio on him here). I highly encourage reading the book, but the final chapter gives some power thoughts on how to get our hearts free from earthly-mindedness:
The First Direction: First, to that end, be watchful over your thoughts. Do not take liberty to let your hearts run too far in the things of the earth. What time you have for meditation, let it be as much as can be reserved for spiritual things.
The Second Direction: Be humbled much for sin, for that will take off the heart from earthly-mindedness.
The Third Direction: Further, set the example of the saints before you who have been the most previous servants of God in former times. Note how they counted themselves as pilgrims and strangers here on the earth.
The Fourth Direction: Then, if we consider the great account that we are to give for all earthly things, you will note that you only look upon the comfort for them.
The Fifth Direction: But above all, set Jesus Christ before you and be meditating on the death of Jesus Christ. That’s the great thing that will take the heart from the things of the earth.
I love how he does not shy away from giving practical directions for how to avoid being earthly-minded, while yet also making clear that ultimately we must find our satisfaction in Christ in order to avoid earthly-mindedness.
Dr. Timothy Tennent, in his Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the 21st Century, suggests that there are seven megatrends facing missiology in the 21st century:
Megatrend #1: The Collapse of Christendom The Western world can no longer be characterized as a Christian society/ culture in either its dominant ethos or in its worldview. Christendom has collapsed, and twenty-first-century missions must be reconceptualized on new assumptions.
Megatrend #2: The Rise of Postmodernism: Theological, Cultural, and Ecclesiastical Crisis The Western church has responded in very different ways to the collapse of Christendom and the emergence of postmodernity, but none has managed the transition without experiencing some form of crisis.
Megatrend #3: The Collapse of the “West-Reaches-the-Rest” Paradigm Western Christians have been slow to grasp the full missiological implications of the simultaneous emergence of a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christianity.
Megatrend #4: The Changing Face of Global Christianity The simultaneous emergence of multiple new centers of Christian vitality has created a multidirectional mission with six sending and receiving continents.
Megatrend #5: The Emergence of a Fourth Branch of Christianity We can no longer conceptualize the world Christian movement as belonging to Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox communions exclusively. The twenty-first century is characterized by enormous changes in Christian self-identity, which influence how the Christian message is understood and shared.
Megatrend #6: Globalization: Immigration, Urbanization, and New Technologies Globalization has fostered dramatic changes in immigration, urbanization, and technological connectivity. The result is that the traditional sending structures and geographic orientation that have dominated missions since the nineteenth century are no longer tenable.
Megatrend #7: A Deeper Ecumenism The simultaneous emergence of postdenominational identity among many, as well as the emergence of thousands of new denominations, requires the forging of new kinds of unity that transcend traditional denominational and confessional identities. (Chapter 1, Kindle Locations 106-462)
These are obviously descriptive “megatrends” rather than precise prescriptions for how the church ought to respond to these issues. They are, however, quite instructive for the types of questions that churches in the West will have to think through as they ponder the future of missiological endeavors.
As I survey the landscape of these questions in literature today, one thing that I seem to notice is that Reformed theologians and churchmen are not typically at the forefront of wrestling with these questions. Given my own commitment to the Reformed faith and its implications for missiology, I would love to see more from within my own tradition pondering and writing on these questions.
Though I have read the warnings to the seven churches in Revelation 1-3 many times in the past, the warning to the church at Ephesus struck me in a
powerful painful light this morning.
“I know your works, your toil, and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:2-7)
The reason this passage struck was this this: it is possible for me to be correct and accurate in fighting against false teaching and false teachers, and yet have lost my first love for Jesus.
That, to me, is a scary thought. It is possible for me to have all the outward appearance of discernment in the world, and yet have lost my first love for Jesus. It is possible for me to find false teachers to be false, and yet have lost my first love for Jesus.
Sobering words. But important words. Those who seem to think that loving Jesus means we just have to not worry about disagreements and not rebuke false teaching would have to manipulate these verses in order to hold that view. But those of us like yours truly who are at times all too interested to be on the right side of a theological dispute need to take stock in the midst of controversy and ask: have I lost my first love for Jesus?
Have I been doing all of this “striving” for the sake of his name really for the sake of mine? As Jesus says to the church at Ephesus, those of us like that need to repent–not from our contending for the sake of the gospel, but of losing our first love.
I want to be discerning. But I don’t want to lose my first love.
Michael Bird’s recent work, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, departs from the typical organization of systematic theologies by intentionally structuring his systematic around the gospel. That is, he defines the gospel in the prolegomena, and then he seeks to connect each heading of theology to the gospel. Thus the table of contents flows as follows:
Part 1: Prolegomena: Beginning to Talk about God
Part 2: The God of the Gospel: The Triune God in Being and Action
Part 3: The Gospel of the Kingdom: The Now and the Not Yet
Part 4: The Gospel of God’s Son: The Lord Jesus Christ
Part 5: The Gospel of Salvation
Part 6: The Promise and Power of the Gospel: The Holy Spirit
Part 7: The Gospel and Humanity
Part 8: The Community of the Gospelized
Putting aside the major distinctives of his work, this approach is what defines Evangelical Theology. Thus in discussing “Why an Evangelical Theology?” Bird explains his approach:
“In terms of Christian theology, the gospel is the glue between doctrine, experience, mission, and practice. I submit that an authentic evangelical theology should be a working out of the gospel in the various loci of Christian theology (i.e., the topics in theology like the nature of God, the person and work of Christ, the church, last things, etc.) and then be applied to the sphere of daily Christian life and the offices of Christian leaders. The gospel is the fulcrum of Christian doctrine. The gospel is where God meets us and where we introduce the world to God. So my task is to lay out what a theology driven and defined by the gospel looks like. I will defend the view that at its essence theology is the art of gospelizing, that is, making the gospel shape our thinking, praying, preaching, teaching, and ministering in relation to God.” (Kindle Locations 297-303).
Bird sees this approach as having particular relevance for what he calls “post-denominational evangelicalism,” in that he sees a gospel-centric approach to systematic theology can help evangelicals keep primary and secondary (and tertiary) theological matters separate, and thus provide a new gospel basis for unity.
Insofar as the central thrust of his approach, I have two primary thoughts: (1) I’m intrigued by his restructuring of systematics around the gospel. Given the considerable emphasis on gospel centrality in many avenues of evangelicalism, intentionally approaching systematics with this in mind seems to have some prime facie appeal. (2) I have some doubts about whether this really changes anything in terms of systematics because the overall flow of the systematic is still quite similar, and also because even how one defines the gospel is affected by the other loci of systematic theology (e.g., he uses a definition from N.T. Wright as his starting point, which may not exactly rally the evangelicals around his approach). Nonetheless, it will be fascinating to see the response and extension of the conversation that he has raised through this approach.
In terms of some other notes about this volume, here are a few distinctive features of the book.
(1) Bird is a New Testament scholar, rather than a systematician. One of the helpful implications of that is that in numerous places he spends more time examining biblical texts and images relating to key facets of systematics than some others do. This is not to say he doesn’t engage with other theologians; he relates his approach to church tradition and history and a wide range of theologians regularly. The ration of exegesis to engagement with theologians is perhaps uneven in certain parts of the book, but given that it is only an introduction, that is to be expected.
(2) Bird takes a rather interesting smattering of positions in the book: he advocates Amyraldianism, premillennialism, a preterist reading of Matthew 24 (but not Revelation), unity between Baptists and paedobaptists (while himself advocating paedobaptism), rejection of the active righteousness of Christ (at least in its usual formulations), allegory as possibly legitimate interpretation, Christus Victor as the integrating and overarching model of the atonement, and many others.
(3) Bird writes in a mostly engaging, at times amusing style. From little sidebars entitled Comic Belief to various theologically comedic quips, he tries to keep the reader’s interest. But this is also at times left aside for statements like this, “Fourth, an integral feature of discipleship is anastasity” (Kindle Locations 10083-10084). While I appreciate his generally readable style, I’m not sure that using such a term along with the claim that it is an “integral feature of discipleship” fits with that style. Nonetheless, given the massive undertaking that is a systematic theology, a little unevenness in style is probably reasonable.
(4) While there are numerous examples of helpful, cogent argumentation, I must say that there are a few places where the arguments are quite weak in my opinion. His rejection of postmillennialism is what I would describe as a stereotypically stale approach to the question (“but everything in the newspapers is bad!” is one of his main arguments). His rejection of traditional covenant theology—in particular, of merit in the pre-fall covenant and consequent spurning of the active righteousness of Christ—seems to badly caricature covenant theology. He goes so far as to say that “The scheme of salvation in some covenant theologies, when reduced to its basic tenets, is essentially Pelagian” (Kindle Locations 4948-4949). He essentially eradicates a distinction between the pre-fall covenant between God and Adam and the post-fall covenant, which I know is popular in some circles currently. And given his lack of an essentially confessional approach to systematics, it shouldn’t be surprising. But I found the argumentation on that point particularly weak.
I’m curious to see how accepted this work becomes among evangelicals. I also hope to see critical and fruitful interaction between other scholars and Bird on his key proposal to make the gospel central to each area of systematic theology. And while I will recommend it as a great Reformed systematic theology, it does add to the evangelical conversation, and I’m glad that he spurred me on to think through classic theological issues in a new way at times.
In the recently released book, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, Michael Bird provocatively entitled his chapter, “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA.” He introduces his chapter by saying this:
I will endeavor to show that while the American inerrancy tradition possessed a certain utility in the “Battle for the Bible” in the twentieth century, it is not and should not be a universally prescriptive article of faith for the global evangelical church. That is because the American inerrancy tradition, though largely a positive concept, is essentially modernist in construct, parochially American in context, and occasionally creates more exegetical problems than it solves. (Kindle Locations 2452-2456)
His basic point is that inerrancy, in the strict, technical sense it’s taken on as opposed to infallibility, though helpful in battling certain modernistic attacks against the veracity of Scripture, is ultimately an American construct that is not necessary for the preservation of belief in Scripture’s truthfulness. Of course, he discusses many facets of the inerrancy question, and he roughly ends up where someone like Al Mohler is, though he says some things that will make inerrantists like Mohler concerned.
However, regardless of whether Bird’s specific approach to inerrancy is correct or not, I’m particularly interested in his claim that it is not necessary outside of the USA. On the one hand, I am sympathetic to his concern that a statement drafted in Chicago decades ago be required in institutions and churches outside of America–and even the English-speaking world–as a test of doctrinal faithfulness. I do think it is better for churches in diverse contexts to each wrestle with the phenomena and trustworthiness of Scripture individually so as to put things in their own words in ways that address their contexts better than just translations of other documents. An example is that in Arabic, there are not separate words for “infallibility” and “inerrancy,” so it can be difficult to apply the discussion that happened in American to Arabic-speaking contexts in a one-to-one fashion.
However, I do also wonder if even Bird himself writes from a less than “global” perspective. I.e., he’s a white, middle-class scholar writing from English-speaking Australia. Not exactly representative of the “global south” of evangelicalism today. And given my own interest in Arabic-speaking contexts, I wonder if in areas dominated by Islam, if commitment to inerrancy may be seen on the same level as it was during the “battle for the Bible” several decades ago in the USA.
As Kevin Vanhoozer noted (and I greatly enjoyed his contributions to the book), if Starbucks is present, Ehrman and others are likely not far behind. It is common for Muslim apologists to use Ehrman and others in their attacks on Scripture. So it seems that formulating something akin to inerrancy may be necessary in many other contexts, even if it has not, up till now, been the or even a pressing issue in the majority of global evangelicalism.
Recognizing that inerrancy has been misused, though, I do think that something like Vanhoozer’s “well-versed” inerrancy is key, so as to make it something of actual use to the church as it wrestles with using God’s word in contemporary contexts.
So is inerrancy only necessary in the USA? I suppose the answer depends on what you mean by the question. If you mean that in some places, the same questions aren’t being asked of the text, and so getting into the details of inerrancy hasn’t yet seemed to be important, then sure.
But in an increasingly interconnected world, the very questions that inerrancy is meant to address (regardless of how precisely it has been applied by those claiming the label of inerrantists) will necessitate wrestling with how the truthfulness and infallibility of Scripture relates to any historical, geographical, or scientific data present in the biblical text (while recognizing that the Bible is not simply a book of history, geography, or science. So in that sense, the inerrancy question is globally important. I do, however, hope that inerrancy will be addressed well within diverse contexts without necessarily parroting the Chicago statement.