For a long time I have been wanting to find a book on basic Christian living – the sort of thing to give to a new Christian, or to any Christian wanting to take living as a Christian seriously – which isn’t either too complex, or too basic, or so focused on salvation that it largely leaves out any of the actual detail of what living as a Christian means. Following Jesus by Andrew Randall is pretty much exactly the book I’ve been looking for, and I will be recommending it to many, many people in the future.
I should say at this point that Andrew Randall is a friend of mine and a fellow-minister in the same presbytery, so I can hardly claim that this review is impartial. I can however say that I didn’t know he had written this book until I saw it for sale, and that he has not asked me to write this, so my comments on it are entirely my own.
This is not an apologetics book. It makes no attempt to argue a case for Christianity nor to argue against unbelief (although I do think that an interested non-Christian would gain a lot from reading it). Its purpose is to set out, as the subtitle says, the essentials of Christian discipleship. It does this in fifteen short chapters, each on one aspect of following Jesus. It starts with the essentials of faith in Jesus, and takes in the Bible, church, prayer, growth in holiness by the Spirit’s work, and practicalities of the real-life issues of work, marriage, parenting, money, evangelism and suffering.
There are many great strengths to the book. In ascending order of importance:
It is both simple and profound. The language is accessible, the style is easy and engaging, and although it is perhaps on the long side for some readers each chapter is very digestible on its own. Yet the content is anything but dumbed-down, and the book presents Christian living with considerable depth and challenge. For example, chapter 6 on holiness explains the concept starting with an illustration about spot-the-difference puzzles, and really makes it feel that simple. But he manages to cover both the tripartite division of the law and its threefold use (without using those terms) with great clarity and in a way many Christians, confused by what Christian morality means, will find immensely helpful.
It shows the whole-life nature of Christianity. In his introduction, Randall says one of his essential convictions is that the truth is not about religion, but about everything, and the book demonstrates this. Being a Christian is about your pay packet as much as it is about prayer. ‘That means its implications stretch from one end of your week to the other, and into every aspect of your life.’(p xi) In an age when secularism demands Christians to keep their religion as an internal matter of the heart, and far too many Christians are all to willing to comply, this is much-needed.
It models the integration of the theological and the practical. Related to the previous point, no-one reading this book carefully could fail to see that the way Christians are to live flows out of the doctrinal content of the gospel. An example would be the way Randall bases his approach to parenting on a biblical eschatology. Pointing to the desire of most Christian parents for their children just to be healthy and happy, he says: ‘Let me say it clearly: in a Christian, that is a sorry excuse for an ambition for your children. If all that you want for them is that they might be healthy and happy for a few years here on this earth, then you have not understood the gospel.’ He goes on to explain a far better approach, starting from 1 Corinthians 2:9. Another example is in his treatment of suffering; he provides a theological explanation to why suffering happens, but puts it in an appendix, because he knows that for real Christians the practical questions of responding to suffering come first. It is these which he deals with in the chapter on suffering in the body of the book. He does something similar with an appendix on marriage.
Next, and related to this, it emphasises the importance of church and family in the Christian life, in a way which is rarely seen in British evangelical authors. This is in some ways an application of the previous two points, for these two are huge elements in the life of every Christian, for good or for ill. But it goes deeper than that. Randall tackles the Church in chapter 3, after faith and Scripture, making it clear that Christian life is life lived in the church from day one. Not many ‘basic Christianity’ books set out what happens in a church service, and explain why this matters so much, at all; fewer still would do it almost at the front of the book. But Randall’s presentation of why following Jesus means meeting with, and meeting him in, his church is thoroughly winsome and persuasive. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.
Finally, and most importantly, this is a book all about following Jesus. It is thoroughly Christ-centred, and here is where it is most valuable. Far too often evangelical Christians present the gospel as a set of facts, or an impersonal message, about the mechanisms of salvation. But from the outset, and as the name suggests, Randall presents the Christian life as being a life of personal trust in and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ himself. He names the conviction that ‘love for Christ should shape our lives’ as his first conviction, at the outset of the book, and both the structure and content of the book bear this out.
What about weaknesses? There are a few, though none serious. Although the chapter on the Holy Spirit gives a good basic outline of the Trinity (p61), there were a few places where I felt a more explicitly Trinitarian approach would have helped. These include the chapters on Scripture and on the Church. The chapter on Holiness is excellently placed after the chapter on the Holy Spirit, although it’s a little odd that holiness itself is never defined. And there is a strange definition of justification as being ‘counted holy’ (p75), in contrast to sanctification as being ‘made holy’. That distinction is important, but better described as between two aspects of sanctification – definitive and progressive – while justification is something else, being counted righteous. That said, the implications are minimal and what is lost in precision is perhaps made up for in simplicity. Finally, while the chapter on true love, and therefore majoring on marriage, is superb, it doesn’t really deal with how dating and courtship should be conducted in a godly way, which is clearly the vital issue for many in applying this issue in their own lives. This would be a great addition in any subsequent editions of the book. Another thing which I would have welcomed was a chapter on following Jesus in temptation: dealing with the perennial issue of what to do with the sinful desires of my heart. This is such a significant part of the life of the Christian that a treatment of it would have been very welcome.
Overall, I cannot recommend this book strongly enough, for Christians of all maturities. It will be our church’s standard book which we will encourage new and young Christians to read. I plan to make it our church’s ‘book of the term’ this coming autumn, and I hope and pray it will be widely read and given away by Christians and non-Christians alike.