Do You Watch the Theology of Your “Christian” Books?

There is certainly no shortage of “Christian” books to read. Many of them are definitely worth reading. Probably most of them will ruin your life. Few things are more destructive than “Christian” books with bad theology. They are like a Trojan Horse that you let into your view of God and yourself and everything that happens in your life. You drop your guard because it’s a “Christian” book—a gift, something safe—but inside it is an idea or view of God and Christ and Christianity that, like a plundering enemy at night while you sleep, destroys your soul and your ability to live the real Christian life.

In 1 Timothy 4:16, the apostle Paul tells Timothy—“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (TNIV). What Paul (and therefore the Bible) is telling us is that doctrine (theology) really matters. It’s not just something the super educated elite at seminaries needs to think about. In the verse right before this, Paul even makes his appeal more urgent, saying, “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them” (1 Tim 4:15).

In other words, when it comes to theology—doctrine—we should learn to be a bit anal. We should “watch our doctrine closely.” We should “persevere, be diligent, give our self wholly” to developing good, sound doctrine. Because only if you have good/true theology will you, as Paul writes, “save yourself and your hearers.” In other words, poor theology is devastating to our souls and our whole lives and, therefore, those we teach and influence. A lot of “Christian” books have such great appeal to our felt needs, but have such poor theology.

So here’s the question—
How do you know whether or not you’re reading a doctrinally sound Christian book?

At The Crossing, we have a few guidelines that are helpful in identifying good books (i.e., doctrinally sound books) versus books that Christians are drawn to, but that should raise some theological red flags. For example, in the Women’s Ministry at The Crossing we have developed five theological criteria in evaluating whether or not to use a particular book in our small group studies.

Here’s the list of five criteria…
Five sound-doctrine criteria vs. “red flags” to look for in any “Christian” book:

1. God/Christ centered vs. human centered

Now of course every Christian book claims to be God-centered. And every Christian would say that their favorite Christian book is God-centered. But the real test is deeper than just asking that question at face value. The real test is whether “the horse is in front of the cart,” or vise-versa.

For example, take a book on overcoming worry/anxiety with the peace of Christ. That certainly sounds God-centered, doesn’t it? But look deeper. Does it stop there? Is the focus of the book upon the solution to the problem? Is the focus on seeing Christ as a means for peace? Or, instead, is the focus on dealing with worry/anxiety by seeing how worry/anxiety (i.e., the lack of peace) is revealing my need for Christ—something I’m not believing about Christ? The former views peace as the ultimate desire. Whereas the latter understands Christ himself to be the ultimate desire.

It’s very easy to get the cart in front of the horse in our “Christian” thinking and teaching. If peace is the ultimate desire, and Christ becomes a good, helpful means of finding peace, then peace is what’s most important to me—at least more important to me than Christ. Peace is the desired end, so Christ is the means to a more desired end. Of course, that’s idolatry. But sound doctrine will focus on how any give dysfunction in our lives (i.e., our lack of peace) is revealing something about our view of Christ and real need for Christ, and it’s showing us functionally what’s really most important to us (what we seek/want/love most). It’s subtle. But it’s a cart/horse thing.

Now, in the gospels we read of Jesus healing people’s sicknesses and doing miracles like feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. People came to Jesus with their functional or dysfunctional needs (i.e., to be healed of leprosy or to get free food). They had their cart before the horse, so to speak, because they came to Jesus desiring him to give/do something for them far less than if they came to Jesus for Jesus. But Jesus still blessed them with a miracle, because he was using their dysfunctional/functional needs to show them something greater about himself. But eventually Jesus turned it the right direction, putting the emphasis on him and who he is—putting the horse back before the cart.

In John 6, after Jesus fed the 5,000 people and so they kept following him everywhere he went, it says this in John 6:26–27, 35—

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. …Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (TNIV).

When Jesus said these things—turning it away from solving their physical food problem and instead putting their real issue upon himself—the crowd left him. They wanted food. Not Jesus. Jesus turns around what we intuitively think our true needs are and instead shows us how they actually show us what our real, much greater need actually is—Jesus himself. A God/Christ-centered book does the same thing.

That’s what God/Christ-centered theology always does. It never lets us see or use God/Christ as a solution or means for something we want more. God does not help us in our idolatry. But he does use our dysfunctional problems to show us our idolatry so we can turn to him and find the true relief that comes by true and right worship. All of our dysfunctions can help us see that our greatest need is all that God is for us in Christ. So, evaluate your favorite books on worry, or self-image, or depression, or eating disorders, or pornography, or addictions, or money, or relationships, or marriage, and so on, based upon this doctrinally essential criterion.

2. Gospel driven vs. behavioral driven

Does this book/study focus more on redeeming our broken lives through Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection? Is Christ’s death and resurrection taught as the only means of our being accepted and loved and righteous and secure before God? Or does it put the focus upon our strength of our faith, our spirituality, our morals, our obedience, our spiritual maturity, or our ministry efforts? Certainly these things flow from a faith centered on redemption by the cross and resurrection of Christ, but never are these acceptable means for our security before God.

If the focus is on how to behave better rather than how to better believe in all the promises of God for his people in and through Christ, it is a poor and destructive doctrine. Here’s a quick way to find out: If it is a lesson or book that, for the most part, a good Mormon or (non-Christian) Jew could agree with, it is not a Gospel-driven doctrine. It is most likely not gospel-driven enough.

3. Process oriented sanctification vs. decision/event oriented

Sound doctrine rightly understands that Christian growth is a process, not a one-time decision. Therefore, the emphasis for true spiritual growth and living the Spirit-filled life is NOT on a one-time decision or a quick, inner spirituality, but rather on learning to keep in step with the Spirit over the long haul by practicing the Holy Spirit’s means of grace through reading and meditating upon God’s word, prayer, corporate worship, fellowship, etc. As many have correctly stated, the Christian life is often two steps forward, one step backward, then forward two more steps, etc. It’s a process. Real change takes time to sink new and deeper roots into the right beliefs. Every Christian will always be a mixed bag with a somewhat conflicted heart this side of heaven. No one can do a righteous act without a tainted, sinful heart in some way. Any book that seems to imply that the “victorious” Christian life is deciding to live a kind of immediate spirituality that’s absent of sin in our hearts is a poor and unsound theology that will eventually shipwreck your faith upon the hard rocks of reality. Jesus’ teaching on the four soils is a good example of rightly putting the emphasis on slow growth over the long-term versus the quick, sudden, inner spirituality of the “victorious” Christian life.

4. A primary emphasis is on God’s sovereignty and ability vs. human ability

There’s much to be said here. Let me just focus on one aspect for now. Any book that does not see all of our circumstances as under the sovereign control of a loving, watchful, perfectly wise Heavenly Father is a huge theological red flag. The gospel is that God is going to save his people and he will never let them go. They are already as good as “glorified” in the eternal kingdom of heaven because they are already marked as his people and saved by Christ (see Romans 8:28-37).

The Bible makes this mysterious truth so clear all throughout. In Matthew 10:29-31, Jesus affirms—

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (NIV).

Not even a single small sparrow “will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” And so Jesus makes an argument from lesser to greater in saying after that, “and even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Jesus is saying that there is never a circumstance in our lives where God is not intimately involved in and in complete control of. Others may have done evil to us, but God’s will is still in control of all of it, down to the hairs on your head. Nothing happens to you “apart from the will of your Father” who is intimately involved in every detail of your life. And he is bringing you safely into his eternal reward. In every circumstance, he is giving you his kingdom (see 2 Cor 4:16-17).

It’s the reason why, toward the end of Genesis, Joseph could look back at the evil his brothers did to him when they sold him into slavery, and confidently say to them later—

“Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. …God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. …You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 45:5, 7-8; 50:20 – TNIV).

Any book that does not emphasize God’s sovereignty in our life-circumstances as the context of all our circumstances is a very devastating and bad theology.

5. Values the importance of theology vs. an intuitive, postmodern approach

We live in a time where often Christians have a kind of spirituality that is not that much different than any other spirituality throughout human history. They look for signs from God and interpret those signs as God’s revelation to them. Of course, this is no different of a spirituality than the pagans practiced in Gaul thousands of years ago. This is the spiritually fallen, impulsive, intuitive human instinct without holding to God’s revealed word to us in Scripture. But good theology doesn’t develop from an intuitive, instinctual spirituality. It bases its beliefs upon what God has revealed to us about himself and about us and his promises to us in Christ found in the Scriptures. Not our spiritual intuition.

Try these five criteria when you evaluate the theology of your next “Christian” book. And be careful. Watch your life and doctrine closely.

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