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A call to action in light of the gospel
on February 24, 2010
First of all, thanks go out to Stephanie Chalfant at NavPress for this review copy of The Discipline of Grace and The Discipline of Grace Study Guide.
"So learn to 'preach the gospel to yourself' everyday, and in the joy and strength of knowing your sins are forgiven and sin's dominion is broken, press on to become holy as He is holy." This closing sentence succinctly lays out the major aims of The Discipline of Grace. Speaking with the heart of a pastor, Jerry Bridges encourages believers to take an active approach to discipleship, while keeping a proper grounding in the gospel as Christ-centered and Spirit-empowered. The message of the gospel as an essential element for both believer and unbeliever takes center stage. Bridges shows throughout the fallacy of thinking we can "earn" righteousness or holiness, while still lifting up a challenge to actively engage in the process of spiritual growth.
The heart of a pastor can be easily seen in the many stories and quotes offered, and a strong push towards action, towards application. The text strives to relate Biblical truth in an easily digestible form. Overall, Bridges is successful in demonstrating to the reader the need for personal and proactive action, and the need for dependence on God's gift of forgiveness and the empowering work of the Spirit as a foundation for discipleship. Bridges success in accomplishing his objective got better as the book progressed, especially after chapter 6. It is clear that this is not just some academic subject to Bridges, but rather worthy of deep, personal involvement, and with weighty implications for the life and mission of Christ's body.
Unfortunately, there is a certain lack of precision throughout. And while this does not necessarily affect the final outcome once the general tenor of Scripture is dealt with, when addressing specific verses and passages, Bridges sometimes makes some "blunders" that are common in popular "Bible study". The most common is over-reading, imbuing words with greater meaning, extent or specificity than a passage requires. This often puts his logic on an insecure footing exegetically, even when used to bolster a point that is in the end theologically sound. Frequent references to passive voice in the Greek language are used to make definite theological arguments about agency. This always makes me cringe a little, as very rarely is agency declared outright in these passages (the emphasis being on the subject's experience of the action, not on the action's agency), and when it is, it often is not so clearly or unambiguously the agent declared by Bridges.
In a couple places there are mistakes that seem to come from a failure to reference (or maybe a lack of availability of?) good background sources, trusting a "plain-sense" English reading of Scripture. For example, Bridges' use of the reference to "Daniel" in Ezekiel 14:44 (p. 158) is most likely inaccurate. And as this is used to make a multi-paragraph point, the whole logical progression is given a shaky footing. While the Mosaic Law is described and handled well for the most part, often it is described and related in terms and categories that are common (p. 116) but which are not found in the background material or in the historical understanding of these passages.
Bridges has a love for quotes in this book, and specifically for Puritan writers - though this is likely based on the subject matter of this book and the Puritan propensity to write on the topics of self-discipline, sin and the sin nature. That being said, I could have done with a few less quotes, paraphrased or otherwise. I felt that John Owen was quoted so much that were I to read him now, I would have a continuous experience of deja vu. John Murray also received a thorough coverage within these pages. I have nothing against quotes, and in more devotional or introspective works, this is somewhat common. But the length and frequency was probably excessive in light of his repeated need to paraphrase the antiquated quotes and the wealth of Scripture he was also trying to feed into his reasoning and pastoral musings.
While I may seem to have presented a lot of negatives, Bridges writing style is quite clear. A number of places stand out for their ability to relate theological truth in powerful ways. When he covers Deuteronomy 6, his progression (pp. 115-121) from love to obedience and the connection between the two is executed brilliantly. Similarly, the call to pursue holiness rather than passively wait is handled very effectively (p. 136).
Finally, if using this book in a group, I would suggest only the leader(s) getting the full book. The study guide covers much of each chapter verbatim, and what is not covered verbatim is rephrased into question form. These questions will provoke a lot of group thought. If reading on one's own without a group, I feel a struggle between suggesting just reading the book and also getting the study guide, thus having directed, response-generating questions. Having both the book and the study guide for personal study seems highly redundant based on the content. If you are just reading, I would make sure to read with Scripture close at hand, and plenty of time to pray over what you find.
Overall, a lack of exegetical and logical precision is overcome by some very powerful writing and keen insight into our sin nature and the spiritual tools at a believer's disposal. An overall emphasis on the gospel - on God's grace, Christ's suffering, and the Spirit's continued work - provides a solid foundation for spiritual growth.