J.D. Greear reviews Andy Stanley’s ‘Irresistible’ and invites him to respond.
Background: Over the last couple months, pastor and author J.D. Greear finished writing a review of the new and much-discussed book Irresistible by pastor and author Andy Stanley. Instead of simply hitting the “publish button,” J.D. instead first sent his review to Andy for his feedback and to seek clarification. What follows is a 3-part series where Andy and J.D. put on public display their entire back-and-forth exchange, along with J.D.’s full review, in an attempt to model a better way to exchange ideas and even disagree.
J.D. Greear is the pastor of The Summit Church, in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. He is currently serving as the 62nd president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Communicator, author, and pastor Andy Stanley is the founder of Atlanta-based North Point Ministries, which today consists of six churches in the Atlanta area and a network of more than 90 churches.
PART 1: INITIAL EXCHANGE AND J.D. GREEAR’S REVIEW
J.D. Greear: Andy, I hope you are good. I finished your Irresistible. Profound, provocative, though in some places disturbing. Of course, I know you’ve heard all that before, ad nauseam, but I have an idea I’d love you to consider if you’re open to it. I am wondering if it might be helpful to have a public conversation about the book between you and me (someone who is very sympathetic to you but is more “orthodox/traditional” and struggling with what you are saying).
Anyway, I know it is a big idea, just bouncing it off of you—either way, I’d love to send my review to you to see if you think I am treating you fairly and representing you correctly (Could I get an email to send that to?). I think a lot of you, you’ve had a profound impact on me, and your friendship (though I realize we haven’t gone that deep) means a great deal to me, so I don’t want to posture myself as a public critic. We can certainly hash this out over the phone if easier. Thanks, bro
Andy Stanley: Good to hear from you. I can’t imagine how busy you must be. Your idea is certainly intriguing. First of all, thanks for allowing me to read the review before posting it. You and John Piper are the only two folks who have ever afforded me that opportunity. So, if I understand your idea, you would send a review, I would respond, you would respond to my response, etc.?
JDG: Right …
AS: You got time for that?
JDG: I think your book/message is important enough that it warrants that. You don’t have to decide right now, of course. We could start with you reading the review and go from there.
AS: Sounds good to me! Seriously, thank you.
J.D. Greear’s Review of Andy Stanley’s Irresistible
For the record, I think Andy Stanley is one of the best communicators in America. And I believe he is one of our generation’s most effective evangelists. Recently, I took a group of unchurched people in my neighborhood through his Starting Point, and I don’t think I know of a better resource for engaging people outside the church—whether dechurched or unchurched—with the claims of Christ. It sparked some incredible conversations in our group and ended with two of my unchurched neighbors getting baptized.
So, it was with great anticipation that I picked up his Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World. Like Andy, I am obsessed with deconversion stories. What makes people who grew up in the faith walk away from it? With four children of my own and a church full of 20-somethings, this is personal to me. And like Andy, I believe many, if not most, of these post-Christian de-converts ended up walking away from a version of the faith that never existed to begin with. I am disturbed at how little impact evangelical churches seem to be making, reaching very few outside of our own children—and even doing that more and more sporadically. As Andy asks, why is it that Jesus attracted people who were unlike him and we tend to repel them? What made those early expressions of Christianity so irresistible and ours so anemic, even repulsive?
Andy provides a number of answers to that question, but the most predominant one is this: We need to “unhitch” our faith from the Old Testament. He says:
“Christianity has a compelling, verifiable historical story to tell. But the moment we anchor our story to an old covenant narrative and worldview, we lose our case in the marketplace.” (158)
The Old Testament, he says, proves problematic to modern people on a number of fronts. They stumble over its archaic laws, certain historical and textual problems (the age of the earth, the factuality of certain miracles), and seeming embrace of morally offensive practices like genocide, polygamy and the like. But the writer of Hebrews said the old covenant was obsolete, so why do we present it as essential to our faith? Andy says that when we employ Old Testament stories and laws to compel behavior, we make someone’s faith conditional on their acceptance of the inerrancy of the Old Testament. In so doing, we distract them from Christianity’s most compelling claim: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Andy is, of course, partially right, and where he is, he is profoundly so. I found his explanation of how Christ has released believers from the old covenant to be poignant, and in some places, even breathtaking. He tells us that if we put ourselves under certain of the laws in the old covenant, we are obligating ourselves to all of them (166). One can’t help but hear in this the powerful voice of the great Reformer, Martin Luther:
“Some would like to subjugate us to certain parts of the Mosaic law. But this is not to be permitted under any circumstances. If we permit Moses to rule over us in one thing, we must obey him in all things.” (Commentary on Galatians)
Believers may find the Old Testament helpful for understanding who God is and what he wants, but it puts forward terms for a contract the New Testament tells us believers are no longer under. Its laws, no matter how good, are no more binding on us than the laws of England are on American citizens, or the terms of your neighbor’s mortgage are on you.
Andy thus explains the difficulty of the clumsy mix-and-match approach to the Old Testament that most Christians use, as if certain parts were binding while others are not. For instance, we usually teach people they should keep the Ten Commandments, but we also tell them it’s OK to disregard Moses’s commands about diet, dress and stoning adulterers. We sample from Solomon’s relationship wisdom in Proverbs or Song of Solomon, but we discard his embrace of polygamy, feasting on the gnats and ignoring the camel.
“Mix and match and you don’t get the best of either. You get the worst of both. You get the prosperity gospel, the crusades, anti-Semitism, legalism, exclusivism, judgmentalism, 14th century Catholicism, don’t-touch-God’s-anointedism, God-will-get-’emism, and other -isms …” (158)
Indeed, we would all be wise to heed Andy’s counsel:
“Don’t do anything the Old Testament tells you to do because someone in the Old Testament tells you to do it or because they did it themselves.” (166)
Andy then beautifully explains how Christ released into the world a new law, a better law, built on this question, “What would love have me to do?” This means a couple of things. First, no longer can believers be content merely to observe the commands of the law. True righteousness is desiring the good of our neighbor, not merely fulfilling one’s legal obligations. Second, to truly love our neighbor will often take us far beyond what the law requires.
This, again, is Lutheresque. It is the message that sparked the Reformation of the church in the 16th century and led to the greatest expansion of Christianity in modern history. If our faith is to be irresistible, Andy is right, we must recover the glory of the new covenant and its superiority over the dead letter of the law. The fact that Andy’s book at times makes us feel uncomfortable with our Old Testament is a good thing. Luther himself said that if Moses had read some of the things written about his law by Paul in Galatians he would probably have been offended, too.
To Abolish or to Fulfill?
Unfortunately, Andy goes much farther than Luther ever did; in fact, in entirely new directions. Andy claims that the new covenant message can stand on its own two feet apart from the old. Furthermore, he says whereas the old covenant compelled behavior by saying “Thus says the Lord,” new covenant behavior is driven by the question, “What would love require of me?” Or, even better, “What does Jesus’ love model for me?” Andy calls these the “golden rule” and the “platinum rule” (234).
Andy claims that when we attempt to compel behavior—either our own, our children’s or our neighbor’s—by citing the Bible, we are reverting back to an old covenant methodology. Andy says, for example, that the motivation for Christian husbands treating their wives with love or prioritizing her needs above theirs is not “because the Bible says so.” In a Christian marriage, Andy contends:
“Husbands lay down their lives for their wives. Not because of what the Bible says. Because of what Jesus did.” (214)
In fact, Andy says:
“Paul never leverages the old covenant as the basis for new covenant behavior.” (209)
This is, as theologian Michael Kruger points out, a curious claim. Paul quite often uses old covenant commands as the basis for a New Testament directive. He says, for example, in Ephesians 6:1, that children should obey their parents because “this was,” after all, “the first commandment with a promise.” Paul is of course not saying that children should obey their parents because they are under obligation to the Mosaic law, but they should do so because the nature of the God from whom these laws emanate and his designs on creation have not changed. If God thought so highly of this command as to attach a promise to it, the first of its kind, that’s all the more reason to heed it today! The same is true for old covenant directives on sexual immorality, giving, marriage, keeping a Sabbath-style rest and many others. The God behind these directives, and his designs for a flourishing creation, have not changed even though we are no longer under Mosaic law.
Nor is this unique to Paul. Jesus himself, in his Sermon on the Mount, explores what new covenant fulfillment of the old covenant law looks like. The Sermon on the Mount is an exercise in reading old covenant laws through new covenant eyes. Far from unhitching itself entirely from the old covenant, it leverages the old covenant as the basis for new covenant behavior. The new covenant, he explains, points to the heart behind these commands. New covenant believers should fulfill these commands in ways old covenant believers didn’t know they were obligated to. Thus, being free of the legal, covenantal obligations to the law does not mean they are no longer relevant or instructive to us. It means we hear old covenant instructions with new ears.
For 2,000 years, Christians have followed the example of Paul and taught that Old Testament law serves two ongoing purposes in the life of a New Covenant believer:
• A Mirror: Biblical commandments reveal to us how sinful we are and at the same time what a truly righteous heart should look like. By looking into the mirror of the law, we realize how sinful and twisted our hearts are and how desperate we are for a Savior. Paul, for example, said that he would never have known he really loved himself when he thought he was loving God had he not encountered the command, “Thou shalt not covet.” We will not run to the Savior until we know we need him. The law is our schoolmaster, Paul explains, to show us our need (Gal. 3:24). (Interestingly, church historians say that every major awakening in U.S. history, including a couple in America’s early history when people were very secular, had at its core a preaching of the Ten Commandments.)
• A Guide: After being saved, the law shows us the best way we can please the God we love. It perfectly reveals God’s character to us and shows us what a life pleasing to him looks like. The law is like railroad tracks: It can point us in the right direction, but it is powerless to move us along the tracks. After we’ve been given the engine power to obey through the gospel, the law can still help us know the direction we should go. As Jen Wilkin says, “When you are an unbeliever, the law points to your need for grace. When you are a believer, grace points to your need for the law.”
Apart from the Old Testament, we often won’t really know how to answer Andy’s question, “What does love require of me?” As Paul demonstrates, old covenant laws teach us what love in action—both toward God and others—really looks like. Jesus explained that loving God and loving others was what undergirded Old Testament laws, so we are right to seek illumination from the Old Testament on what love in action looks like, even if its laws are no longer legally binding on us the way they were on Israel.
This is what Jesus meant when he said he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill them. “Fulfill” means that there is something present in partial form in the law that finds its fullest expression in Christ. We expect Christ not to contradict these laws, but to provide their fullest expression, as he exemplified in his interactions and expounded in the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore, Christians teach that every old covenant law finds its fullest expression in Jesus: the ceremonial laws pointed toward his life, death and resurrection; the civil laws created the nation and the religious mindset out of which salvation could emerge; the moral laws depicted the righteousness he would fulfill and find their purest expression in his life.
Thus, if you want to know, “What does love require of me?” you need to understand the Law and the Prophets. In other words, the New Testament was never designed to be read as a one-stop “WWJD” handbook. It depends on the Old Testament to make sense. The Old Testament has an essential revelatory role in showing us who God, and who Jesus, really is. This is why Christians have always kept the Old Testament in their Bibles, and why Paul says that Old Testament Scriptures are profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction in righteousness and without which we can never hope to be spiritually complete (2 Tim. 3:16–17). As the old adage goes, “The old covenant reveals the new and the new covenant contains the old.”
Apart from the revelation of the law, how can we be sure we are encountering the real God and not God as we want him to be? Sin is endlessly deceptive, so how do we know that what we see as loving is actually loving in God’s eyes? If someone feels that same-sex marriage is “love,” do Christians have anything to say in response? What about polygamy? Or incest? What if one race convinces themselves that it is superior in nature to all other races, and the most loving thing they can do is rule over them? What are we to say to those who feel that the most loving thing to do with a mentally handicapped child is to euthanize them? Or to those who think the best way to love women in crisis is to help them get abortions? Will we not have to borrow from something “the Bible says” to oppose these unbiblical ideas?
We depend on God’s revelation to instruct us about the goodness or wickedness of certain actions. To say it plainly: We can’t obey Jesus’ new commandment to “love each other” or his Great Commandment to “love God and others as we love ourselves” apart from the law, because apart from the law we will have a skewed view of love.
Again, Paul says, “All Scripture (referring specifically to the old covenant) is breathed out by God and profitable for doctrine (understanding what love really is), for reproof (understanding what it is not), for correction and for training in righteousness (understanding how to live it out), that the man of God may be complete, not lacking in anything.” According to Paul, apart from the Old Testament, we can never be complete in our faith.
Does Unhitching From the Old Testament Really Limit the Bible’s Offensiveness?
Skeptics’ main objection to Christian faith, in my experience, is not why Christians today borrow from the Old Testament, but how we could ever believe God had said in it the things that he said. If Jesus and the apostles are to be believed, they think, they should have lamented and repudiated the Old Testament, acknowledging it as complete nationalistic fraud, a religious smokescreen to mask prejudice and justify the quest for power. They certainly should not have spoken it as “from God.”
In two short pages Andy provides a beginning of his answer to that question—and this is where I wish he had spent more time:
“The energy we expend sanding off the rough edges of God’s Old Testament behavior is energy we should apply to appreciating the mess God waded into in order to see the story of redemption played out to the bitter, bloody, “Crucify him, crucify him!” … God does not need us to make excuses for him. He doesn’t expect us to explain (or explain away) his old covenant behavior. To do so is insulting. Yes, his behavior was uncivilized by our modern standards. So what? While we think of God in terms of Father, in the Old Testament he was playing the role of founder, and founding a nation from dirt required a different set of tools.”
And then, just like that, Andy moves on. He concedes the Old Testament was given by God, and that God is the author of many confusing things therein. “But hey, give God a break,” Andy says, “founding a nation is dirty work and God didn’t have much to work with back then.” I understand what Andy is getting at, but I doubt many skeptics would find that argument very compelling.
In that paragraph, however, are the seeds of some potentially fruitful exploration:
• Is there a progressive nature to revelation?
• In what ways did God accommodate to a broken system, planting into it the seeds of healing rather than fixing it all at once?
• Were the Old Testament wars actually conquest and genocide, or is there a more appropriate way to view them?
• Is God still in the business of nation-building?
While we’re on the topic of questions, here’s one of the biggest suggested by Andy’s book: Do skeptics have fewer issues with the New Testament than the Old? Those I talk to certainly don’t. Andy doesn’t address how the New Testament, far from removing the Old Testament’s most offensive features, often intensifies them. For example, Jesus and the apostles’ description of the coming, violent judgment of God against sin is much starker in the New Testament than the Old. How could any sensible person, atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris ask, believe in Jesus’ teaching on hell (Luke 16:15–31; Rev. 20:11–15)? Indeed, Bertrand Russell famously called Christ’s firm belief in hell, “The one great moral defect in his character.” Or, how can Christians teach that some babies are born with spina bifida because some couple they’ve never met ate from a forbidden fruit aeons ago (Rom. 5:12–21)? And if skeptics don’t like what Leviticus has to say about homosexuality, are they likely to accept the more explicit statements Paul makes about how God feels about same-sex behavior in Romans 1:18–31? The skeptics I encounter don’t want to know, “Why do you keep that old half of your Bible?” They ask, “How could you believe a loving God could say any of these things?”
I agree with Andy that those seeking to present the claims of Christ to our culture need to be ready to explain what to do with the Old Testament. Tragically, most Christians do not, mixing and matching lazily and inconsistently, and in so doing, we have created enormous obstacles to faith for our generation. But I don’t think Andy has provided a satisfying alternative for the thoughtful skeptic. Those who desire to find the internal coherence of the Bible’s message are not likely to be satisfied with Andy’s approach. Nor are any—believers, skeptics or otherwise—likely to find a helpful answer to the question of why Jesus and the apostles held the Hebrew Scriptures in such high regard.
“Christianity can stand on its own two new covenant, first-century feet. The Christian faith doesn’t need to be propped up by the Jewish Scriptures.” (278)
But as for me, it was study of the Old Testament that saved my faith. In a time of great doubt, it was through seeing how all the Law and Prophets pointed to Jesus that I became convinced that the Bible had to be from God. I had convinced myself (wrongly) that overzealous believers might have exaggerated (or made up) the stories of the resurrection. It was when I saw that every story, and every page, of the Old Testament whispers his name that solidified my faith into rock. After diving deeply into the Old Testament, when Jesus finally stepped foot onto the pages of Matthew, my heart said, “There you are. We’ve all been waiting for you.”
I’m certainly not alone in this experience. Even after witnessing the compelling evidence of the resurrection, it was through hearing how all the Old Testament pointed to Jesus that two of Jesus’ disciples finally found faith (Luke 24). For them, the New Testament gained its believability by its continuity with the Old. What God has joined together, dare we put asunder?
Wait … Unhitching Ourselves From Our Bibles Altogether?
Andy’s most radical and disturbing claim is perhaps this one:
“When you anchor the authority of your teaching to the Bible, you reinforce an assumption that has the potential to weaken rather than establish faith.”
He claims that in the first three centuries of church history believers never (or, rarely) did that, since they did not even have a Bible, appealing instead to Jesus’ “new” law, which gained its authority from the fact that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Insofar as it might be prudent when talking to an unbeliever to refrain from appealing to “because the Bible says so,” I can agree. Tying our message to the authority and resurrection of Jesus in the public square, as Paul did, is sound missionary wisdom. And, for what it’s worth, I also found myself sympathetic to Andy’s suggestion that we print our Bibles with the New Testament in the front, leading off with Luke, and I think I could even be persuaded to rename our Bible sections the “new covenant” and the “obsolete covenant” (153).
But to remove the centrality of revealed, authoritative, divinely-inspired truth in the life of the church is to ensure certain disaster. The words of Jesus, as recorded by the apostles, Jesus asserted, would be the rock on which the church is built (Matt. 7:24–27; Eph. 2:20).
The claim that Scripture was not central in the early church—that they were just a bunch of people assured of Christ’s resurrection by eyewitness testimony trying to figure out what this new command—love in action—looked like, is just not historically accurate. Of course it is true that in the 1st three centuries they did not carry around the completed, leather-bound Bible we currently do. But Paul’s letters were passed around between the churches and were already being referred to, during Paul’s life, as ‘Scripture,’ like the Old Testament (2 Peter 3:16). Critics of the early Christian movement, in fact, made fun of them for being a bookish people. Paul told the Corinthians that if they were truly spiritual they would acknowledge his writings as the very commandments of the Lord (1 Cor. 14:37).
In other words, even without a completed Bible the early church was still a “thus says the Lord” community, centered on the Scriptures. They may not have yet known the full boundaries of what God had said, but they knew that he had spoken, that the apostles were his mouthpiece, and that their words had to be obeyed as if they were God’s words. Thus, we frequently hear both Jesus and the apostles saying, “It is written,” a 1st century Jewish way of saying, “The Bible says …”
New Testament authors, including Jesus, regularly equated the words of Old Testament prophets with God himself. The writer of Hebrews quotes David and says, “Thus the Holy Spirit testifies to us …” Jesus quotes Moses and says, “Thus God says to you …” The early church was a community that found its security in the phrase, “It is written.”
Has God Really Said?
As with all of Andy’s books, I found my own faith stretched and strengthened as I read it. He challenged me to rethink my approach to unbelievers. We need more thinkers and leaders like Andy advocating a missionary approach to our culture, and Andy serves us well here.
But my fear is that when it is all said and done Irresistible encourages that lie that has been at work in the world from the very beginning. In the Garden of Eden Satan subtly whispered to Eve, “Has God really said? …” Is God really the author of the Old Testament? Are the recorded words of his apostles really his words? Are the Scriptures—both those comprising our old and new covenants—indeed profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness? Are they infallible and inerrant? These are the questions Andy largely ignores, writing them off as irrelevant. Thoughtful critics and doubting Christians will not be able to do so.
In regard to how we present our message to our culture—our missionary posture—Andy is right. It will often be wise to refrain from leading off with a flat “because the Bible says so” (306–07). Better to follow the cue of the apostle Paul in these settings and show how Jesus completes the story our culture has been trying to write, and that God punctuated his answer to their longings by raising Jesus from the dead. It might be more prudent to begin with a critic by saying, “The apostle John said such and such and I believe him because he was very close to Jesus and we have solid evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.” But for believers, at whatever stage of maturity, unless that quickly transitions into, “God has told us in his Word (through the apostle John …)” then our faith lacks a sufficient basis to give us the clarity or confidence to withstand in the day of persecution and trial.
When Jesus encountered Satan’s lies in the wilderness, his primary response was, “But it is written …”A Christianity that is not built on “it is written” is insufficient for personal faith, much less sparking a worldwide resurgence of the Christian movement.
Andy is 100 percent correct that a skeptic does not need to assume the inerrancy of the Bible to arrive at faith, and it is helpful not to make inerrancy central in our opening reasoning with them. Take the Gospels and the letters of Paul at face value—eyewitness testimony to an extraordinary, undeniable event. I regularly encourage skeptics to punt the question of inerrancy, as well as their objections to a number of Jesus’ more offensive teachings, and wrestle with the person and work of Christ. Jesus seems to have done that himself (John 16:12).
Furthermore, I agree that if my understanding (for instance) of the age of the earth is wrong, or if one day I discover that there were poetic, metaphorical statements that I took too literally, my faith will not be wrecked. It will just mean that I needed to grow in my understanding of how to interpret Scripture. Jesus is the primary point of the Bible—and knowing him does not presuppose a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible or an understanding of how to properly interpret the finer details of every pericope. But the Old Testament has an essential role in bringing Jesus to us, and in helping us to understand him once he is with us. If we unhitch ourselves from it, we will lose a significant part of him. Apart from the Old Testament, we have an insufficient view of Christ, and the more the Jesus we preach will end up looking like only a deified version of ourselves.
Andy’s statements about Scripture are even more disturbing when you consider how similar they are to statements used by German higher critics to launch 19th century theological liberalism. Having removed the locus of inspiration from the writings that recorded the events to the events themselves, or the authors who recorded them, the critics were able to question the apostles’ interpretations. Maybe, they said, the apostle John was wrong when he said Jesus was divine. Maybe the resurrection they spoke of was spiritual, not physical in nature. After all, why did God need an empty tomb to save humanity? And maybe Peter was trapped in his own tribalism when he claimed Jesus was the only way to heaven. Maybe Paul was a victim of his own priggish cultural milieu in insisting that marriage was between a man and woman for life. I don’t think Andy would say any of these things, but the point is that once you have removed divine authority from the writings, all that is left is conjecture.
At the end of the day, a humble, simple trust in Jesus and his Word is an essential component of faith. Walking with him requires living in the tension of unanswered questions—sometimes about our origins, sometimes about the future, and sometimes about difficult passages in the Bible.
In a fascinating article on de-conversion stories carried by The Gospel Coalition, Alisa Childers explains how the loss of this humble, trusting submission characterized many of the most famous de-conversions. This lack of trusting submission led first to a slide into progressive Christianity (in which certain parts of the Bible most out of sync with modern sensibilities are discarded), and eventually, for those “courageous” enough to follow their thought pattern to its logical end, to atheism. I fear that Andy’s book, while well-intentioned, might have made such a tragic transition all the more accessible.