08 June 2010

Book review — Marks of the Messenger, by J. Mack Stiles

by Dan Phillips

Marks of the Messenger, by J. Mack Stiles
(Downers Grove: IVP, 2010; 128 pages)

I requested a review copy of this book specifically on the strength of D. A. Carson's endorsement: "I do not think I have ever read a book on evangelism that makes me more eager to pass it on than this one—better, that makes me more eager to evangelize than this one." Recently I was shaken when my boss, whom I like very much, spent a long spell in ICU, unconscious and in grave condition with septic pneumonia... and I realized in all our talks I had never told him the Gospel. So the promise of this book, with that fresh in my mind, sounded as if it might address that failing.

Stiles works, worships and witnesses in the United Arab Emirates, a very hostile environment for the Gospel. As Mark Dever promises in his Foreword, it is engaging and easy reading, like listening to Stiles talk about the Bible and his experiences.

One no longer looks to IVP for reliably Biblical, Reformed books, which makes Marks of the Messenger a very pleasant surprise in both regards. His stance is equally rigorously evangelistic and Biblical, which is to say Calvinistic.  He issues a ringing warning against the bane of pragmatism, which he regards as "the greatest obstacle to healthy evangelism" (19). The Gospel is not a product to be peddled. He also stresses God's sovereignty in salvation, and sweeps aside the un-Biblical notion of "free will" (77).

While Stiles recognizes the need to be mindful of one's context, he insists that the message must not be changed, citing Galatians 1:8 (30). Guy could be a Pyro.

I also appreciate how Stiles relates the Gospel to social change. He insists that "the gospel brings social change in and of itself" (63). He inveighs against programs which aim to feed the hungry and then hopefully maybe get around to the Gospel. Specifically, Stiles rejects the axiom, "The hungry man has no ears" (63ff.). He cites evidence that the Gospel itself ends up doing more to feed the hungry than starting with food and maybe bringing in the Gospel later, after the free giveaways.  "Do the hungry have ears?" Stiles asks. "You bet they do" (64). Clarifying further: "Caring for others represents the gospel, it upholds the gospel, it points to the gospel, it's an implication of the gospel, but it is not the gospel, and it is not equal to the gospel" (69).

Chapter 8 is "Worldly Love and Its Fruits" (91ff.), a really bracing set of contrasts between "pop culture's" notions of love on the one hand, and Biblical truth on the other. To wit:
  • Pop culture believes that God's love is sentimental
  • Pop culture believes that God's love is universal and unconditional
  • Pop culture believes that God's love is me-centered
It's a terrific corrective.

So, what is the book? I frankly thought it would be some kind of a how-to on evangelism. It really isn't, and I was disappointed in that, though I was not disappointed in the book. Stiles' emphasis actually is not on evangelizing, but being the kind of person who should and does evangelize. He starts off in the first chapter with his boss' question to him, "Mack, who do you want to be?" (15). This is the book's launchpad and focus.  Stiles thinks very poorly of trying to "guilt" people into evangelizing, or just setting out a mechanical program. His emphasis is on our heart, on being sure that we ourselves understand and have embraced the Gospel, before taking another step. 

So the book treats of the realities of conversion, of being sure to hold fast the Gospel rather than assuming it, of being bold due to fear of God rather than of man, of being Gospelly counter-cultural, and of joining ourselves to a local church. Each chapter begins with a story, and then gets right into the Word.

Do I have gripes? A few. For instance, endnotes. 'Nuff said?

Also, I found a couple of things Stiles said a bit brain-snaggy. I'd like to ask him a few questions. For instance, he starts off chapter 3 telling about a treacherous unbeliever who deceived Liberty students into thinking he was a Christian so he could write a book about them. Stiles' point is that the unbeliever was able to "fit in" by keeping to certain rules of behavior. This concerns Stiles, understandably.

Is Stiles saying Christianity isn't defined by rules? If so, I'm right there with him. But is he saying that Jesus doesn't have any rules for His people, that He doesn't issue commands which He expects Christians to obey? That you shouldn't be able to look at those red shiny globes and say, "That's an apple tree"? You know I wouldn't agree. I don't think that's Stiles' point at all, but I found that discussion incomplete and a tad annoying.

If we can only identify other Christians by seeing their hearts, then we'll never have any reason to think anyone is a Christian, because we can't see others' hearts — except as revealed in their words and deeds. Trees are known by their fruits. This treacherous "tree" just taped plastic fruits on its branches and fooled kids. Shame on it.

Also, Stiles tells a story in chapter four about a Christian suing a Christian employer. Stiles meets with both, and tells the Christian to drop his lawsuit. Yay, and duh (1 Corinthians 6; my "duh" directed at the hordes of Christians who don't seem to get this). But then Stiles also tells the employer simply to give the suer (suitor?) hundreds of thousands of dollars, regardless of the merits of the case — all of this in the name of sitting at the foot of the Cross. I'm not so sure about that one. I don't see Paul saying only that in 1 Corinthians 6 (cf. vv. 1-3, 5).

So, like all books except the Bible, it's imperfect. I'm sure if I reviewed my own books when they come out, I'd have gripes about them, too. But these gripes hardly affect the value of Stiles' book, which I do recommend. It's short, eminently readable, yet solid and thought-provoking. It isn't the book I was expecting, but it's a good book.

In fact, now I want to read Stiles' previous book, Speaking of Jesus.

Dan Phillips's signature

26 comments:

donsands said...

"•Pop culture believes that God's love is sentimental
•Pop culture believes that God's love is universal and unconditional
•Pop culture believes that God's love is me-centered"

That descibes my local Christian radio station. Pop-culture-Christianity.

Thanks for the review. I may get this book. Can always use all the help I can get in sharing the Gospel in a hostile world.

Mark | hereiblog said...

Dan, thanks for this review. I recently did a short review on this book. I enjoyed it.

Mack is a friend of mine. I'm sure he would answer your questions. Maybe I'll shoot him an email and ask.

I typed out the story from chapter 4 of the businessmen and their lawsuit. It gives an example of the stories Mack shares in the book. So, if anyone wants to read it is in my short review. I got to hear this story at my church before it was published. He has many of them.

I think what Mack was saying about Kevin Roose, the Liberty student, was that intentional, intimate relationships were not formed around the gospel. Rather, the Liberty U. fitting in experience was all rule (law?) based. It's just a guess.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"Caring for others represents the gospel, it upholds the gospel, it points to the gospel, it's an implication of the gospel, but it is not the gospel, and it is not equal to the gospel" (69)."

That's a really good quote for you to have cited. Really good.

That alone makes me want to go out and buy the book.

Because I imagine that such remarks will serve as a jarring reminder to the Social Gospel folks like mainline liberal Christians, liberal Emergers, and many Evangelicals and Reform Christians too.

Thanks for writing this review.

Robert said...

They gave this book to us at T4G and I started reading it on the drive home (a lot of time to read on a 16 hour drive). I love this book and thought it really does give you the marks of the messenger (as well as some marks of false/failed messengers). I would recommend this book for any Christian to read.

BwayneM said...

Thank alot Dan! (sarcasm) I intentionally read this review and told myself I wasn't going feel the need to get the book. Well, it didn't work. Now I have another book on my already long reading list. (that's not really a bad thing btw)

Hayden said...

Dan

I agree with your assessment of the book. I have over the years become less programmatic in my approach to evangelism and I think Stiles put into words why!

Very good book. One of the best so far that they gave out at T4g!

Robert said...

Hayden,

Glad to see I am not alone in thinking this is one of the best they gave out. Have you read "The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love", by Jonathan Leeman yet? I think this is a must-read for all Christians as he gives a biblical view of church membership and discipline and takes the time to show how many churches have wound up far from representing loving families.

VcdeChagn said...

That descibes my local Christian radio station. Pop-culture-Christianity.

That describes K-LOVE. Oh, wait..you were talking about YOUR local Christian Radio Station.

Is Stiles saying Christianity isn't defined by rules? If so, I'm right there with him. But is he saying that Jesus doesn't have any rules for His people, that He doesn't issue commands which He expects Christians to obey? That you shouldn't be able to look at those red shiny globes and say, "That's an apple tree"? You know I wouldn't agree. I don't think that's Stiles' point at all, but I found that discussion incomplete and a tad annoying.

If we can only identify other Christians by seeing their hearts, then we'll never have any reason to think anyone is a Christian, because we can't see others' hearts — except as revealed in their words and deeds. Trees are known by their fruits. This treacherous "tree" just taped plastic fruits on its branches and fooled kids. Shame on it.


I'm not sure I understand what you mean here?

Are you saying that we still have rules to obey, and that this can sometimes lead to deception because obeying the rules appears as fruit?

I had to read the paragraphs three times (and the linked article) to get that (I'm a bit thick sometimes).

If that's what you are saying, of course. We will know them by their fruits, BUT we will sometimes have tares among the wheat which will only be revealed at judgment, right?

Just wanted to make sure I got your point :)

a lot of time to read on a 16 hour drive

You do mean, 16 hour RIDE, right???

DJP said...

I'm saying that, but I'm also saying that I've heard complaints a bit like Stiles', and think they're not thought-through. Some could read them as saying that Christianity is about Jesus, not obeying commandments... which is a false dichotomy, since Jesus issued commandments.

Add the word "merely," and I'm there.

Mark | hereiblog said...

Robert,

I too got "The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love", by Jonathan Leeman at T4G this year. Leeman is a friend of two of my pastors. I really want to dig into that book, but right now it's another one in the stack.

Dan,

Have you considered emailing Mack?

VcdeChagn said...

I'm saying that, but I'm also saying that I've heard complaints a bit like Stiles', and think they're not thought-through. Some could read them as saying that Christianity is about Jesus, not obeying commandments... which is a false dichotomy, since Jesus issued commandments.

Thanks..that makes a lot more sense.

DJP said...

Have you considered emailing Mack?

For the book review? No, I'm reviewing the book, not the man. But since he has internet access, if he'd like to interact here, I'd gladly welcome it.

GrammaMack said...

"I'm sure if I reviewed my own books when they come out..."

Wondering if this is a clue to your announcement-to-come...and adding this book to my list.

Brad Williams said...

You're right, Dan. Obeying Jesus, or apostolic command, is not legalism. I made this point Sunday when we got to Colossians 4:2 with the imperative "Continue steadfastly in prayer." It is not legalism to tell folks that they have to pray. If someone gets upset that they are told that they must pray, or that they must share the gospel, then it isn't the messenger's fault, no pun intended.

Now, if it devolves into "You must do this to be saved," then you have true legalism. But if it is, "You must do this to be faithful," then that is altogether different.

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Saved By Faith Alone said...

Dan,

You said: "I'm sure if I reviewed my own books when they come out, I'd have gripes about them, too."

I kind of doubt that! ;-)

Thanks for the review!

Dan H.

Robert said...

I would say that if we don't make Christ our Lord and follow Him, then I don't know that we can truly say we accpet Him as our Savior. For that is part in parcel for accepting Jesus for Who He is. Why believe me, though...just listen to the words of Jesus Himself..."And he said to all, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.'" (Luke 9:23-24) If you want to be a Christian then you have to deny yourself and obey Jesus.

We are by no means perfect while on this earth, but we should be changing to become more like Jesus (as Paul would say we go from from glory to glory...increasing in His glory). And we can't implement a list for people to say they have to be "just like this" to say they are saved (but we can lovingly disciple our fellow brothers in Christ and receive loving counsel from others to help become more sanctified). I think we have to ask God to examine us and read His Word to apply it in our lives and be convicted where need be (which hopefully leads to repentance).

I don't think that Stiles necessarily goes against Lordship salvation, but I think that would be a question he would have to answer. Of course, I don't expect that even everybody reading here will agree with Lordship salvation, either. I have a hard time seeing a strong biblical argument against it, though.

Frank Turk said...

I can't find a way to derail this comment thread. It's just too good.

VcdeChagn said...

I can't find a way to derail this comment thread. It's just too good.

Is there a passive-aggressive comment award out there somewhere?

Anyone? Anyone?

Victoria said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DJP said...

Please check blog rules in sidebar. Our meta's aren't community bulletin-boards.

David Wayne said...

And now I shall acquire this book on your recommendation!

Bobby Grow said...

What is Stile's background? Like his education? Did he go to the Master's Seminary, or RTS, Westminster? I always find this helpful, at least in trying to understand at a seminal level where an author might be coming from (ie. who are their informing voices, etc.). The book sounds great, though!

Bobby Grow said...

Hey David Wayne,

Great to see you out and about, I hope you're doing okay, bro!

Mark said...

Sorry Dan, I'm going to have to sue you for the use of "launchpad" in this review, which is waaaaay too similar to my use of "pre-launch systems check" in the May 24th DiscerningReader.com review of Mack's book.

Nice review and sharp insights on a great book.

DJP said...

Onoes!

Good thing I hadn't read your review. I mightn't have bothered, beyond saying, "Here, go read this."

(c: