One of the books was free. It was a give-away at a pastor's conference that Robert attended. I think it was the year he came home with such a big stack of free, but really great books, he wondered if he would have to pay extra for his return luggage due to one more bag or extra weight at least. I was just looking for a new book to read sometime last year, and picked it up. It was John Piper's Finally Alive.
The other was a recommendation from our friend, Gregory. There are only a few folks who, due my utter stubbornness and resistance-to-all-things-fad-ish, I will actually take up on a book recommendation. Gregory is one of them. I can trust him to recommend a book that is either very well written or full of exhortation to continue in a life surrendered to Christ ~ or both. So, when he said he thought Robert and I would enjoy Hammer of God by Bo Giertz, I placed an order rather immediately.
Without knowing it at the time, I was being given grace to respond to the Holy Spirit in the choosing of each of these books. The Lord had plans to use both books in my life ~ even the order in which they were read ~ to teach me of Himself and of myself.
Finally Alive is an entire book on the Christian doctrine of justification. Yes, a whole book on justification. And as boring and geek-y as it sounds, I actually have a handful of friends who would be willing to talk with me about it over tea. (I think that is a miracle.) It centers on Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus and the radical idea of "new birth" presented to Nicodemus ~ a Pharisee, teacher of the Law, and noble, God-honoring man. And even though Piper includes this disclaimer...
"In view of how disturbing this can be to the tender conscience as well as the hard heart, I want to be very careful. I do not want to cause tender souls any unnecessary distress. And I do not want to give false hope to those who have confused morality or religion for spiritual life. Pray as you read this book that it will not have either of these destructive effects." p. 27
...I still came away fairly distressed. (Maybe I forgot to pray as Mr. Piper suggested?)
Is my heart truly regenerate? Did I really receive new life? Was I born again? If Nicodemus didn't understand, do I? Have I truly been united with Christ? Do I sincerely "count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord?"
Upon investigation of my own heart and its tendencies, I was unconvinced that any of the above had actually happened to me. Fearful and desperate even. I began begging God to save me, if indeed He had not done so before. I pleaded with Him to not let me be deceived by my own morality and my first-born, type A, iron will to act righteously and follow all the rules. There were real tears in my crying out.
And then I picked up Gregory's book.
It took me about sixteen tries to get through the first five pages, probably because I always attempted to start it at 10pm, but I finally forged through Swedish names, locales, and high church and denominational references to the heart of the plot ~ or plots, that is. It's really three novellas about three different pastors in three different time periods but all in Sweden.
It was the story of the first pastor that affected me profoundly, and helped me to heal from the completely unnecessary fear the first book produced ~ and even warned about.
|I've never dog-eared and double-dog-eared a book more than this! (Not even Stepping Heavenward. Whoa.)|
On the way to the poor man's house, the man's brother-in-law, also a peasant, speaks to Savonius, the pastor:
"Pastor, can you tell me how one shall get a deeply distressed soul to believe in the grace of God?"
"You'll have to excuse me, Pastor. I was thinking of Johannes, the man who is sick. He is in such vexation of spirit that we fear for his sanity. He has for a long time been under a powerful conviction of sin. He has always been a godly man in externals and has not neglected the means of grace. But now these agonizings of soul have come upon him. He sees only his transgressions. He digs up all that has been forgiven and forgotten in the past thirty years. It is as though the devil had given him a witching glass that causes him to see nothing but hypocrisy and falseness within - and God knows that he sees very keenly, Pastor. It makes one cringe under one's own wickedness just to hear him. But grace he cannot see. He has eyes like a cat to see in the dark, but he is blind to the light."
(I think I've already told you how much I love a book that uses the word "vexation.")
It was as if the Lord was answering my cries directly in the reading of this relatable account, and I read on with great eagerness at the outcome of this poor man's (and my) dilemma. The interesting thing is that the pastor was at a total loss. He had no words. He had no theology. He had no scripture with which to minister to this dying man. He was completely helpless in the request that he "instruct a converted sinner about the signs of being in the state of grace" and he was fairly incredulous regarding this ridiculous mission. He tried to assure, but Johannes countered him at every turn with a scripture like this:
"Every idle word that men speak, they shall give an account thereof in the day of judgment."
Savonius was no match for the man's arguments and began to question his own pastoral calling. It didn't help his ego any when Katrina, a godly neighbor, showed up offer her services. She was kind, yet unruffled and unafraid in the face of the dying man's spiritual logic.
"Johannes," said the woman, almost sternly, "answer me this question: Do you really want your heart to be clean?"
"Yes, Katrina. God knows that I want that."
"Then your repentance is also as true as it can be in a corrupt child of Adam in this world. Your danger is not that you lack repentance, but that you have been drifting away from faith."
"What then shall I believe, Katrina?"
"You must believe the living Word of God: 'But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.' Up to this day you have believed in works and looked at your own heart. You saw only sin and wretchedness, because God anointed your eyes with the salve of the Spirit to see truth. Do you have sin in your heart, Johannes?"
"Yes," answered the sick man timidly, "much sin, altogether too much."
"Just that should make it clear to you that God has not forsaken you," said the woman firmly. "Only he can see his sin who has the Holy Spirit."
"Do you mean to say, Katrina, that it could be a work of God, that my heart is so unclean?"
"Not that your heart is unclean - that is the work of sin - but that you now see it, that is the work of God."
"But why, then, have I not received a clean heart?"
"That you might learn to love Jesus," said the woman as calmly as before.
It was this very passage that had me in tears again. Yes, I've been given new life. Yes, my heart is regenerate and yet it is also in the process of regeneration. Why not completely clean, and fully able to live in accordance with the Spirit at all times? So that I may learn to love Jesus. Some will never understand this and even think it a cruel requirement by an egotistical monster of a God. Those are the ones lacking the "rebirth" as of yet. I understand the need to "learn" Him, and am so grateful He allows such a process in my life.
And I also realize that I was reading the first book without the Gospel framework that was there the entire time...
"I want you to see for yourselves that, even when you fail to love as you ought, Christ's perfection stands before God in the place of that failure. And I want you to see that faith in Christ, not love for people, is the way you enjoy that union with Christ" Finally Alive, p. 133