We all love the extraordinary – of course! And given that every Christian is himself (or herself) a living miracle, we might expect that our lives should be marked by the spectacular. Yet we all feel so very ordinary, and our “religious routines” seem very ordinary also. Are we missing something? Should we be doing more? Should we expect to experience more? And just what does a “radical” life that is “sold out” for Christ look like?
Michael Horton has for years tried to keep his finger on the pulse of the evangelical world in order to make needed corrections and direct us back to a gospel-informed faith and practice. In his latest book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, he once again bucks a trend as he presses the (spectacular!) value of “ordinary” Christian life and ministry. Today he talks to us about his book.
Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel):
Perhaps it will help if we begin with the broader scene. Not just the church but society generally is marked by what you call a “disdain for the ordinary.” Explain for us what you mean.
Yes, in fact, historians have argued that American revivalism even helped to create the culture of “The Next Big Thing” in the first place. Genuine craftsmanship, sports, painting and music: excellence in every field is made up countless ordinary moments — usually with mentors — in which we develop and hone those skills. The problem is we’d rather win the lottery than invest in all those boring moments. We want a short cut. We’ve never had higher demands for our own achievements with less long-term commitment. A wonderful marriage, a Christmas-letter-worthy family, and an important job: we want it all, but as much as possible without the work, drudgery, and relational stuff whose outcomes can’t be measured on the Richter scale.
I don’t want to be a part of an ordinary church, looking to the ordinary means of grace week-in and week-out. I’m always looking for the next event, movement, guru, cause, or other way of avoiding actual people and their claims on my life. God easily becomes a means rather than the end in this picture. We don’t realize what we’re doing to ourselves at the time; it feels exhilarating as we bungee-jump into the canyons or soar on the clouds. But we get tired of one fad and move on to the next one — until we just become cynical and burn out. Contrasting “the righteousness that is by works” with “the righteousness that is by faith,” the Apostle Paul tells us that the latter doesn’t try to ascend into heaven to bring Christ down or descend into the depths as if to pull him out of the grave; he’s as near as the gospel that’s preached (Rom 10:1-17). How can little things like human speech, water, bread and wine, the fellowship of other repentant sinners, prayer, singing the word, and confessing our sins and our faith together transform us into citizens of the new creation? No, it has to be more spectacular than that. Yet God has always worked through the things that are foolish, small, and seemingly insignificant. Even exceptional saints from church history were simply ordinary believers fulfilling their ordinary callings, which God used over time in an extraordinary way.
Books At a Glance:
Whether or not your book is a formal “response” to David Platt’s Radical, the contrast is unmistakable – from the title and front cover onwards! Maybe it would be helpful if you could state what you agree with and appreciate about the call to the “radical” Christian life that is so popular today.
It’s not a response to David Platt’s book. As I point out in the opening pages, I’m the target! Restlessness with the everyday is my struggle. And I agree with many of Platt’s points about discipleship being more than an addendum to our suburban consumerism. I get the impression that interest in foreign missions has been waning among younger generations of evangelicals. I hope that many find the Lord calling them to that work through Platt’s stirring challenge.
Books At a Glance:
So what are your concerns with it? How might it be misunderstood, misconstrued, or potentially dangerous? And maybe you could clarify along the way what you are not saying.
I’ve lived my whole life in an evangelical subculture that is basically a string of radical experiments. Each ends in failure and burn-out, like diets and workout programs that promise immediate and measurable results. For the most part, we can’t measure our sanctification or our impact. So how do we know it’s “working”? Because of God’s promise. Whatever our Lord has ordained as his means of grace his Spirit will bless in his time. And whatever is not explicitly ordained by our Lord cannot be required of believers.
“Ordinary” is not synonymous with “lazy.” It’s not the opposite of excellence; on the contrary, our obsession with the big stuff is the single greatest obstacle to excellence in every aspect of our life. Anyone who acquires expertise in any calling pays attention to the details and cares enough about the calling to invest in its everyday duties without always measuring the results. A Christian disciple is above all someone who sits at Jesus’ feet, like Mary, and submits to fellow disciples in order to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). As they do, they find that they are not only receiving sustenance from the body but supplying the rest of the body with gifts and reaching out in love to their neighbors.
Books At a Glance:
State your thesis for us, then. What is the “ordinary” that you are calling us to reconsider and appreciate? What is the ordinary Christian life? What is ordinary ministry? And what is so extraordinary about it all?
The Triune God works every day in ordinary providence in support of the world he has made, including non-Christians who use his gifts to oppose his reign. He answers our prayer for daily bread, delivering it not miraculously from heaven but through farmers, bakers, truck drivers, check-out clerks, and so forth. In his saving grace, Christ has promised to deliver himself with all of his benefits first and foremost through the preaching of the gospel. He certifies that this promise belongs to us through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. What could be more ordinary than these creaturely means of human speech, water, bread and wine?
What makes it extraordinary is God’s promise and the Spirit’s mysterious and miraculous operation. In Genesis 1, we read of course God’s fiat declaration, “‘Let there be light!’ And there was light.” But then there are other verses in the passage in which he commands the earth to bring forth fruit, the seas to bring forth swimming things, the skies to bring forth flying things, and so on. “Be fruitful and multiply,” he declares. In the new creation as well, we are brought from death to life by God’s fiat word. But then we grow and mature through ordinary processes that he has ordained in his word. By the Spirit’s grace, united to Christ, we bring forth the fruit of the Spirit. It’s hard to watch a garden grow. You have to care for it, tend to it, and love it enough to do the things every day that cause it to grow into a fruitful harvest. Jesus does love his garden that much.
Books At a Glance:
Okay, Jim Smith becomes a Christian. By the Spirit’s work through the gospel Jim has now become a radically different person in many important ways. What should he expect next? What should he be looking to be or to do? How should he shape his ambitions? What is “faithfulness” for him, and by what means can he expect to achieve it?
First, as a new branch of Christ’s vine, Jim needs to …
Note: Stay tuned! We will conclude our interview with Michael Horton here tomorrow.
Buy the books
ORDINARY: SUSTAINABLE FAITH IN A RADICAL, RESTLESS WORLD