Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Book review -- Truth At All Costs

One of my Facebook friends, W. Logan Dixon, who is a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor about an hour up I-40 from me in Russellville, Arkansas, preached a series of sermons on the epistle of Jude in the fall of 2021. Recently, he decided to edit his sermon notes and publish them as a book called Truth at All Costs: Sermon Notes on Jude from a Concerned Cumberland Presbyterian Candidate. He posted about it on Facebook about the same time in November 2022 that my own pastors were starting a 3-week series on the epistle, so I was interested in seeing how Rev. Dixon approached the text. Here is my review of the material.

Dixon breaks the epistle up into the following chunks: Jude 1-4; Jude 5 (with an excursus into 1 Corinthians 10:1-12); Jude 5-16; and Jude 17-25. Each segment is covered in between 8 to 16 pages of the book, making this little work quite easy to read through in one sitting (though to get the most out of it, I would advise a second and third pass at a slower pace to digest the material more and let it sink into your heart and mind).

The texts of the sermons themselves include pertinent illustrations from church history and common life, which help drive home the points Dixon wants his hearers/readers to understand. 

As a conservative Pentecostal who is serious about the biblical text, I found lots of quotes in Dixon's book that resonated with me. I'll include a few here to whet your appetite.

Many times I believe preachers go looking for verses to solve people’s problems and answer their questions instead of just opening the book, proclaiming what it says, and allowing the text of Scripture to answer deeper questions that the congregation probably didn’t even know that they were asking. (Introduction, v)

Scripture has a way of reading us as we read the sacred text. Sometimes preachers and writers can overdo it trying to be clever, rather than just letting the Word of God do its work as a two-edged sword.

Normally, when people talk about sanctification, they talk about behavior - “do this, don’t do this” but behavior comes as a result of sanctification, not as a way to earn sanctification. (6)

The moral therapeutic deism so common in American Christianity can often get the behavioral cart before the horse of affections. If we can get people to truly fall in love with the holy God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, setting themselves apart in allegiance to the saving King, the changed heart will lead to changed behavior. (As an aside, if Christians in America spent more time and effort trying to get people to know God, and fall in love with Jesus, rather than expecting unbelievers to live like believers through legislative measures and legal manipulations, then we might actually see a biblical revival.)

There are many good things that God intends for us to have in life, but we’re often not ready for them.(18)

Our characters must be formed (and conformed to the image of Christ) before we can expect God to trust us with His blessings. If we are not properly formed through discipleship, then even God's good gifts can become sources of destruction and woe.

Sin starts as a seed of evil desire that we refuse to deal with...What’s interesting is that Jesus describes faith as a mustard seed. The reason I bring that up is because something is always growing in our lives, and we need to determine whether what’s growing is from faith or whether it’s from our own selfish desires. (22)

As Barney Fife so often said on The Andy Griffith Show, we have to "Nip it!" As soon as I recognize a strange plant growing in the soil of my life, I need to yank it up by the roots, before it has time to produce fruit of destruction.

Idols and false gods always require a sacrifice from you to give them power. Romans 12 tells us that we are to be living sacrifices for God, but our sacrifice to God doesn’t give Him power, our sacrifice winds up giving us power to live for Him. (24)

Anything God asks us to give up for the sake of following Jesus actually increases our lives, rather than taking away from them.

Reminding one another of God’s promises is a community project. (29)

The Christian life is not a solo performance. Each member of Christ's body needs all the other members. Even the most mature, experiences believer, with whole books of the Bible committed to memory, should benefit from sharing and interacting with other believers (both in-person in a local assembly, as well as through reading the writings of great men and women of God and the works of devout scholars with whom God has gifted His church).

Dixon gives one of the best treatments of false teachers and "worldliness" I think I have ever read. 

Someone can wear a suit and tie, preach out of a King James Bible, and do church just like it was in the allegedly “good old days” and still be worldly because worldliness is all about your preferences and desires and not about what God wants.
Worldliness can look traditional, or it can look contemporary.
Worldliness can look liberal, or it can look conservative.
Worldliness can look life in the city or life in the country.
Worldliness can look like a little country church, or it can look like a big mega church in a metal warehouse building.
Worldliness can look like whatever your heart desires because worldliness is all about giving you exactly what you want on your own terms. (47)

There were a few details here and there that the biblical scholar in me would pick at. For example, the author seems to conflate the tabernacle with the tent of meeting, which a close reading of the text of the books of Moses seems to indicate were not the same structure. He also talks about Korah's rebellion being about wanting to take the people of Israel back to Egypt, when Numbers 12 seems to indicate it was a power struggle by a group of Levites and Reubenites over leadership with Moses and Aaron. Just a little more attention to the details of the text would fix this.

While the author is clear in the preface/disclaimer that this is a collection of sermon notes, and some spelling, punctuation, and formatting errors can be expected, it would have been beneficial if Dixon had asked a couple of people to review and provide editorial assistance before committing it to publication. Maybe a local English teacher could have reviewed for grammar, another minister or Bible student for accuracy on the details of the biblical references, and someone with publishing experience for formatting issues, which seems to be where most of the problems arise. I frequently found myself being distracted by inconsistent formatting, or excessive indentation that left a lot of space on the left side of the page. Those little details can break a reader's train of thought and impede the author's message from getting through as clearly as desired. 

There are also places where words were obviously omitted, which are no problem when preachers are reading from their own notes in the pulpit, because they have spent so much time in preparation that their brain automatically fills in the missing words. But these missing words can cause consternation for the reader and make them have to try to fill in the gaps themselves, and could lead to misunderstandings if the reader doesn't pick the right words. As short as the book is, it would have taken a competent editor no more than a day or two to review and clean up the text and format, and would have made the project look much better to the purchaser.

Overall, the content of this little book is stellar, and a much-needed message for the church today. I recommend it as an added resource for anyone wanting to go a little deeper into Jude's letter, with practical applications for personal and ecclesial life.

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