Book Review

"Hoping for Something Better: Refusing to Settle for Life as Usual" by Nancy Guthrie

A. Paige Britton
Nancy Guthrie
Friday, August 31st 2007
Sep/Oct 2007

I've been hoping for something better from evangelical Bible studies for women, and Nancy Guthrie's 10-week study of Hebrews almost delivers. With a confident, winsome voice, Guthrie conducts the reader through a verse-by-verse exposition of this epistle, combining biblical instruction with personal anecdotes and application in a very appealing way. Guthrie's emphasis on in-depth study is admirable, and her wisdom regarding the life of faith, wrought in the crucible of intense personal loss, is sound and godly. However, at times her teaching reflects the felt-needs and self-sanctification messages of contemporary Christian culture, and Reformed readers will notice some significant theological omissions.

Certainly much of the instruction Guthrie offers here is right and helpful. Two fundamental strands run through this study: first, the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ; and second, the efficacy of the living Word for transforming the character and attitudes of believers. Other commendable aspects include a nicely corrective angelology, a realistic portrayal of human sin, a sensitive discussion of the fear of death, and clear explanations of theological ideas such as perseverance, revelation, and typology. With a few minor exceptions, her exposition of the book of Hebrews is well informed and careful. A new believer (or an old believer with a new hunger for the Word) would benefit from much of this teaching, and indeed Guthrie seems to intend her book to be a kind of primer or review of the faith. An individual study guide is appended to the book, making it immediately useful for small groups.

Precisely because this attractive study could play an influential part in a believer's Christian education, some of its underlying theological assumptions are troubling. For example, Guthrie bows to a popular trend in contemporary Christian teaching and worship when she appeals to readers' longing for "authenticity" and "closeness" in their relationship with God.

Especially in her lengthy introduction to this book, Guthrie seems to be selling her teaching as a panacea for spiritual wistfulness, a disappointingly human-centered purpose for what is generally a very Christ-centered study. Drawing near to God will indeed be one glad result of dwelling in the Word; but if my motivation for study is just the fulfillment of my longing for intimacy, authenticity, and "new spiritual breakthroughs" (15, 17), I am merely reinforcing my love of self.

Of special concern to Reformed readers will be Guthrie's treatment of conversion and sanctification. It is admittedly a delicate task, especially in a popularly written overview of the faith, to choose language that captures the monergistic nature of our coming to Christ and the synergistic nature of our growth in grace. Judging by Guthrie's choice of language, however, coming to faith is a synergistic process ultimately dependent on a person's will; and our sanctification, like a good exercise program, is only as effective as we are able and willing to make it.

To her credit, our sinful state and the gospel of our justification through Christ's finished work are presented eloquently and repeatedly throughout the book, and readers are frequently urged to examine themselves for saving faith. But Guthrie's straightforwardness about sin begs a question that is never answered in her text: how can such rebellious creatures as we even begin to ask for saving help? Coming to Christ is depicted variously as our decision or choice to believe, "tying up our air mattress to this salvation harbor" (42), joining ourselves to God, and the like-all of which leave the impression that one may, at some level, enter into the kingdom on one's own terms. Reformed readers will regret that the distinctives of God's electing call and irresistible grace are absent from her presentation. In Guthrie's words, "The Holy Spirit will give us a taste of the richness of Christ, but he will not make us eat" (112).

It is not entirely clear from this study what role the Holy Spirit plays in the sanctification of the believer, either. The third member of the Trinity is mentioned rarely, as Guthrie prefers to emphasize that the living Scriptures-specifically, in this case, the great truths about Christ in Hebrews-will themselves transform our hearts and minds, if we remain diligent and teachable. Her focus is an admirable one, but incomplete. She leaves the reader with only a handful of disparate ideas about the Spirit, and thus an inadequate picture of how we are assisted to please God and throw off sin. Although she briefly discusses supernaturally produced spiritual fruit (113) and the God-given "want-to" (126), Guthrie generally offers little insight about what divine help is present for Christians beyond revelation, conviction of sin, Christ's example, and, rather impersonally, the "energy" to do what is right (183).

As a result, most of her exhortations to godliness are merely appeals to the reader's will (e.g., "Will you determine to keep on believing, no matter what?" [152]). In these moments we do not hear of our dependence on the Spirit, who personally "stirs our sluggishness, sharpens our insight, soothes our guilty consciences, sweetens our tempers, supports us under pressure, and strengthens us for righteousness," as J. I. Packer puts it. (1)

Shifting between passive and active ideas, Guthrie instead explains that "the process of being sanctified means that the aim of our lives becomes to close the gap between what we've been declared to be in Christ and who we are in the flesh" (134). "It is our longing for him, our love for him, and our obsession with him that prod us to get moving, to enter the race, and to complete the race of faith," she informs us (179). The overall impression here is that the bulk of this work is ours, not God's-a lonely and depressing prospect.

I have to confess to a decided snobbishness when it comes to Bible studies written for women. You might say that, if the bookstore shelves labeled "Women's Devotionals" were a box of chocolates, I have already nibbled enough of them to know that the next one isn't likely to please me, either. Guthrie's study is different: her honest, warm tone is palatable, and her elevation of Christ and the Word of God is rich and sweet. But there is a bitter aftertaste in the message that I am largely responsible for my own sanctification, and that I was the one who "tethered myself" to God in the first place. (What if I didn't tie the knot tightly enough?) In the final analysis, I miss the flavor of a strong theology of the Holy Spirit.

1 [ Back ] J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), p. 49.
Friday, August 31st 2007

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