“The Extent and Efficacy of the Life and Work of Jesus Christ” by James Fowler (Book Review)

It was revival week at the First Baptist Church of my hometown.  The sanctuary was filled to capacity as a rather well-known preacher brought the series of sermons for the week.

He spoke of truth (in scripture) using a pithy little phrase:  “God Said It!  I Believe It!  That Settles It!”   The following week, still experiencing the passion of the week’s revival, one of the teachers in the YOUTH DEPARTMENT led Sunday School Assembly.  “It’s like the preacher said in revival: ‘God Said It!  That Settles It!  I Believe It!”

Of course, the assembly leader misquoted the preacher.  Still, later in the classroom setting with the other high school students, a great debate emerged.  Of course, the debate is not new.  It is as old as the church itself.  It is as contemporary as “right now, here, today.”

If “GOD SAID IT,” isn’t it true, whether I believe it or not?  Or must there be some cooperation on my part – some confession, some expression, some action – that makes the statement true, at least in some personal way?

The preacher in revival, as I remember it, was speaking about the inspiration and authority of the scriptures.  The debate that is all the rage right now – at least in the so-called “grace community” – has to do with the objective and subjective nature of the gospel.   Is the gospel “objective truth?”  Is it the sort of thing that is true whether I believe it or not?   Is the gospel “subjective truth?”  Is it true only as I believe it and embrace it?

This is the debate that James Fowler engages in his scholarly, yet easy to read and very approachable book, The Extent and Efficacy of the Life and Work of Jesus Christ.

Fowler is a retired pastor, residing in Fallbrook, CA.  He is founder of  Christ In You Ministries.  He studied at the University of Edinburgh under both Thomas F. Torrance & James B. Torrance, and is the author of several books.  I have never met Jim, but one of his friends/associates was kind enough to provide me a complimentary copy of his book for review.

I think readers will appreciate the fair and balanced way in which the author explains the distinction between these two understandings of Christ’s work of redemption.  Instead seeing the two approaches as necessarily a polarizing dichotomy, Fowler sees a “… a both/and tension in which the two tenets may appear to be in conflict, but must always be maintained in a complimentary balance.”

Of course, maintaining these two extremes in “complimentary balance” is far easier said than done.  There is a lot of space between these two views – and lots of accusations of heresy, blasphemy, and sacrilege.  In fact, towards the end of his book, Fowler delves right into the fray with a critique of men like Steve McVey and C. Baxter Kruger.

Fowler handles these individuals with great respect and attempts to provide a fair foray into their theological understandings.  That said (as as an avid reader of each of these men’s books, a listener to many of their audios), I submit that Fowler does misunderstand some of their theology.   It is not my intention, however, to defend any of these men and their theology.  I got my own theology to worry about.  Plus, I could potentially muddy the waters by misstating what they believe.  So, instead, I recommend you review their own source materials.

Steve McVey directly responds to Fowler’s book in a very generous review your may find here.

C. Baxter Kruger has addressed some of the issues raised by Fowler (though not in response to Fowler).  These include and (which is an excerpt of his book “The Shack Revisited” (my review can be read when you click this link).

For my part, I found Fowler’s book very helpful and I highly recommend it for consideration by both clergy and laypersons.   Within my Baptist tradition, one of the theological battles that have been waged over the last several decades has been over soteriology (the doctrine of salvation).  Some have advocated the objective work of Christ (what Jesus did for us, whether we believe it or not).  Others have advocated the subjective aspect of his work (and have passionately campaigned for each person to offer a faith response).   Fowler’s book has help me further clarify my own understanding, as well helping me better discern the convictions of others, with whom I may not agree.     If you have strong convictions on either side of this debate, you will find this book to offer a fair presentation of your convictions as well as those of the other side.  You will also find a worthwhile critique of both perspectives.  In the final analysis, you might discover the answer might not be either/or, but both/and.



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