Peterson has iconic status in evangelical Christian scholarship, spirituality, pastoral ministry, and publishing. He introduces his most recent book this way: “This is a conversation on becoming a mature Christian, Christian formation, growing up to the stature of Christ” (p. 1). The primary conversation partners include his readers and the New Testament epistle to the Ephesians. Peterson explains: “So what I want to do here is engage in an extended and serious conversation with my brother and sister Christians around the phrase ‘growing up in Christ.’ And I want to bring an old and wise and trusted voice into the conversation, the voice of St. Paul, the man who coined the ‘growing up’ metaphor. The words he wrote in a letter to a congregation of Christians in Ephesus two thousand years ago is as up-to-date as anything we are likely to hear these days, and strategically crucial for what faces us. I want him to have a major voice in the conversation” (p. 8). As the conversation unfolds, Paul is the authoritative voice in the conversation. He is joined by Markus Barth, Wendell Berry, Martin Buber, Gregory of Nyssa, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Friedrich von Hugel, among others. All of these voices add insights and advice to those who are practicing resurrection. Interspersed are illustrations from Peterson’s own pastoral ministry, as people and their stories both illustrate the biblical teaching and challenge readers to grow up together in Christ.
Fans of Peterson’s writings will recognize in this volume his extraordinary picturesque and memorable use of the English language. Several examples should be sufficient to whet the reader’s appetite for the feast that awaits in this excellent book. On Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:7–8, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us,” Peterson observes: “Does Paul overdo it? I don’t think so. In matters of God’s grace, hyperboles are understatements” (p. 63). Later this experienced pastor reflects on his ministry. “In fifty years of being a pastor, my most difficult assignment continues to be the task of developing a sense among the people I serve of the soul-transforming implications of grace—a comprehensive, foundational reorientation from living anxiously by my wits and muscle to living effortlessly in the world of God’s active presence. The prevailing North American culture (not much different from the Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman cultures in which our biblical ancestors lived) is, to all intents and purposes, a context of persistent denial of grace” (p. 96).
On Ephesians 2:8–10 Peterson observes that “the mature Christian life involves a congruence of grace and work. Nothing in the Christian life matures apart from work and works” (p. 101). This is not a defense of works righteousness or sanctification through human effort. Rather, Peterson calls attention to the significance of the Incarnation, that Jesus (including His work) is the form in which the invisible God became visible. In a poignant expression Peterson concludes, “It is one of the great ironies of Jesus’ life that what people saw Jesus do—Jesus at work feeding the hungry on a hillside, Jesus in their neighborhood, Jesus reaching out to the marginal, Jesus healing a ‘mother-in-law’ and a twelve-year-old child (both unnamed) in the synagogues where they worshipped each Sabbath—were the very things that provoked criticism and mistrust and outright rejection of him as the incarnation of God. His contemporaries found it far easier to believe in an invisible god than in a visible God” (p. 102).
Peterson’s spirituality is an appropriate blend of the individual and the corporate. In short Peterson has a robust ecclesiology. He criticizes those who define and defend the church on the grounds of her activity. “This way of understanding church,” he writes, “is very, very American and very, very wrong. We can no more understand church functionally than we can understand Jesus functionally. We have to submit ourselves to the revelation and receive church as the gift of Christ as he embodies himself in this world. Paul tells us that Christ is the head of a body and the body is church. Head and body are one thing” (p. 118). He defends the role of the arts in the church when he explains, “The artist helps us see what we have always seen but never seen, hear what we hear daily but don’t hear, feel what we have touched a hundred times but never been touched by, recognize that we are living a story and not just drifting through fragments of journal jottings or disconnected bits of gossip” (p. 139). The significance of the arts is also seen in Peterson’s argument that “there is a lot more to church than we can see, hear, or read. It also means that everything we do, see, hear, and read in church is church. There is no invisible church that exists apart from what our five physical senses bring to us. Those that want to save themselves the embarrassment and trouble of dealing with the church as God’s ‘manifold wisdom’ by creating out of thin air a ‘mystical church’ are headed up a dead end street” (p. 141, italics his).
As in all his writings Peterson in this book repays the careful and thoughtful reader. Those who attempt to read quickly will often be stopped by a clever turn of phrase or by a powerful illustration. This is an excellent companion volume to Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. It should be read alongside the biblical book. Students, church leaders, pastors, and anyone interested in growth in spiritual maturity should read this book. It will help God’s people practice resurrection life as they grow to maturity in Christ.
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