Book Review

"Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ" by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola

Mark Vander Pol
Leonard Sweet
Monday, November 1st 2010
Nov/Dec 2010

"In this book, we are arguing that Christianity is ChristÂ?nothing more, nothing less" (23). "If the church does not reorient and become Christological at its core, any steps taken [in the future] will be backwards" (xiv). So say Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola in their co-authored volume Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ. These quotes and the subtitle of this book alone are enough to pique the interest of any Christian who truly loves Christ and his church.

The fact that much of the church, especially the American church, has lost its focus on Jesus Christ is not a new insight to readers of Modern Reformation. In fact, MR's editor-in-chief wrote a book on that very subject in 2008 titled Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church. However close the goals of these two books are, the similarities between the two end at the subtitles. In Christless Christianity, Michael Horton focused on recovering in the church not only the person of Christ but also his work in accomplishing the redemption of God's people, which is itself the gospel message. What is so startlingly absent from Jesus Manifesto is any real treatment of the work of Christ, which results in the authors improperly defining what the gospel itself is. In their identification of the problem and in part the recovery of the person of Christ, their lack of clarity on what Christ actually came to earth to do makes this promising volume deficient.

Before substantiating my claims above, I first need to offer a preliminary word of critique about the formatting of the book. For a book intended for Christian renewal, I found it most frustrating that all the Scripture citations were put in the endnotes instead of within the text itself. Having to stop your reading and go to the back of the book to find a Scripture reference makes it very cumbersome, not to mention the problem of gaining familiarity with Sweet and Viola's interpretation of the Scriptures. The reader also needs to beware of a lack of citations for many claims and few if any references for many of the Greek and Hebrew word studies contained within the text and footnotes.

Given that this book attempts to reclaim the supremacy of Christ, it is remarkable that Christ's reconciling work is not discussed until after some thirty pages. Even then, there is little about the vicarious penal substitution that propitiated God's wrath against sinners. The authors do rightly state that Christ, "the spotless one 'became sin' incarnate," and I applaud them for stating that because of the cross we "stand holy, spotless, blameless, without reproach and accusation in the sight of a holy God" (29, 30). Beyond this, however, there is no discussion of how these transactions actually are applied (imputation), no citation of Scripture texts (i.e., 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 5:12-19, etc.), and no connection with Christ's work as being the substance of the gospel. This leads to another serious flaw of this book: its confusion about what the gospel actually is.

According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel message is "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures." In contrast, Sweet and Viola define the gospel in various other ways: "The gospel is not the imitation of Christ; it is the implantation and impartation of Christ….We are called to manifest Jesus' presence" (72); "The good news is as scary as it is good. It is safe to be 'like' Jesus; it is scary to 'be' and 'do' Jesus" (74); "The glory of the gospel is that we who are fallen, tarnished, and marred have been invited to live our lives in the exact same way that Jesus lived his life: by an indwelling Lord" (127, emphases added). Finally, they state that "Jesus Christ is like a vast ocean. He is too immense to fully explore, and too rich to fathom. You are like a bottle. The wonder of the gospel is that the bottle is in the ocean, and the ocean is in the bottle" (34, emphasis original).

Out of the dozen or so times (by my count) the term "gospel" or "good news" is defined, explained, or used in the book, there is not a single instance where I could find it connected to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Surely there is some truth to some of the quotes above, but only as a result of the work of Christ for us; and these results are not to be considered part of the gospel message that directs our sight completely outside of ourselves and solely to Christ and his finished work. Sweet and Viola fall into the common trap of confusing law and gospel.

There is not enough space for me to critique many other aspects of the book to which readers of MR would take exception, such as the understanding of the church, various trinitarian formulations (one suspects they are beginning to resurrect some ancient heresies), and even the treatment of union with Christ in which the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is noticeably absent. I want to comment briefly, however, on what I found to be one of the more problematic chapters. Chapter 9, "A House of Figs," fleshes out the assertion that "there is no gospel" that is not a "social gospel" (108). The chapter is essentially an allegory relating to the town of Bethany, "which depicts what the Lord is looking for in every city across this planet" (146). In the process, the authors take significant liberties in their interpretation of this small town as it appears in the GospelsÂ?liberties that are in no way justified by the text. For example, they assert that Jesus found in Bethany "the beauty and music of the seashore" (146, footnote 19). This is a head-scratching claim given that Bethany is at least twelve miles as the crow flies from the closest body of water, which happens to be the Dead Sea (which is only debatably a beautiful and musical seashore). One wonders if the authors were thinking of Capernaum, which is actually on the Sea of Galilee and is a place where Jesus lived (Matt. 4:13) in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Isa. 9:1-2; cf. Matt. 4:15-16) and spent a good part of his ministryÂ?this despite the authors' claim that Bethany was the "only place on the planet where Jesus Christ was received with welcome" (145).

In conclusion, as I was reading this book I began to wonder if I was too critical a reader and if my Reformed theological understanding of the person and work of Christ for individual salvation was overshadowing my reading of some of their fair and helpful points. Unfortunately, the authors plainly state in the final pages of the book that they "have never discussed" issues of "ecclesiology, eschatology, soteriology, economics, globalism, or politics" (172, emphases added). In this reviewer's opinion, it is remarkable that in cowriting a 174-page book about Jesus Christ, the authors did not have the occasion to discuss the salvation he won for us. Given the title from which it begins, this is a very disappointing volume in the end.

Monday, November 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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