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A deeply flawed book
on December 10, 2011
Mahaney's short book was recommended to me by my pastor, so I read it with great expectation in one sitting. My initial reaction was disappointment; the book has a simple and indeed almost simplistic central tenet - the centrality of the cross and Christ's redemptive act - yet somehow Mahaney pads this out into 165 pages with anecdote, repetition and an embellished and rather sensational retelling of Scripture. For example, on page 91 Mahaney suggests that Christ's final words of anguish on the cross were "screamed out". Yes the Gospels talk about "crying out with a loud voice", which is not quite the same.
So when I finished the book I felt somewhat dissatisfied, but without quite knowing why, other than the insubstantiality of its content. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realise why I was unsettled: I could not remember reading anywhere in the 165 pages of the resurrection!
On p14, Mahaney points to 1 Corinthians 15:3 as the central thrust of his book: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins." (ESV translation)
The rest of the book is Mahaney's expansion of this truth of 'first importance' and in particular, his belief that given our innate sinfulness we need to eschew "feelings" (even if the Holy Spirit sometimes leads us through our feelings - look at Paul in Acts 20:22) and focus wholly on the 'truth' of the cross.
But hang on, isn't 1 Corinthians 15 that great chapter where Paul expounds not on the cross but...on the resurrection? We then discover that Mahaney has mischievously inserted a full stop into 1 Corinthians 15:3 where no full stop exists! This is the passage in full (vv3-5):
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve."
So why does Mahaney stop with the cross? It reminds me of the 1970s musical Jesus Christ Superstar, which finishes with Christ on the cross. Most Christians condemned the musical for that reason, yet CJ Mahaney writes a book with the same message and it is hailed as a Christian masterpiece!
The deeper you dig, the more flawed is Mahaney's theology. He devotes a whole chapter to how the message of the cross is summarised in Isaiah 53, and this is indeed true. But he is highly selective, skipping quickly over Isaiah 53:10-11 which is clearly a reference to the resurrection:
"Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied..."
Yes, the cross is important, but it cannot be disconnected from Christ's resurrection, and we are seriously in error if we focus on one and not the other. As someone has said: the cross freed us from the penalty of sin, but the resurrection freed us from the power of sin. Paul stated this clearly in Romans 6 (vv8-9 - "Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.")
Paul also put it elegantly in Philippians 3:10:
"I want to know Christ - yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead."
The whole of the Book of Acts is about the power of the resurrection, not the power of the cross. This may be an 'inconvenient truth' for CJ Mahaney, but the early Christians lived resurrection-centred lives, not cross-centred lives! In Acts 1:22, the Apostles selected a replacement for Judas who was to "become a witness with us of his resurrection". In Acts 4:33 we read that "the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection." In Acts 17:18 Paul "was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection."
Some have criticised CJ Mahaney's Sovereign Grace Ministries for its authoritarianism [...] and if this selective reading of Scripture is anything to go by, once can see how SGM has gone off track.
Read this book with great care!