Book Review: The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission

The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • ISBN-10: 0310328632
  • ISBN-13: 978-0310328636
  • Amazon

Special thanks to the folks at Zondervan for a review copy!

I first heard about this little book on Michael Bird’s blog. When Zondervan announced on their blog that they would be doing a blog tour for this book, I eagerly threw my name into the hat. After reading the book, I’m glad that I did.

My thoughts on the book are largely positive. As a would-be budding scholar, I loved the care Dickson took with scripture and other sources. It’s clear that he has spent a great deal of time immersed in the literature of early Christianity. Perhaps the greatest expression of this is his definition of the word “gospel.” The Gospel is not merely the syllogism: Man is sinful + God is Holy = God sent Jesus, a savior. Rather, Dickson comes at the matter from a different angle. He lets monotheism drive his argument. If the God Jesus proclaims is the one true God, then people everywhere owe him their allegiance. The people of God, then, must promote this reality wherever they go. The gospel thus becomes the events of Jesus’ (the lord of all) life: his birth, healings, exorcisms, teachings (etc.), culminating in his death on the cross and his resurrection. This is a refreshing change from the aforementioned formula, and much more faithful to the NT’s logic. That’s not to say that Dickson thinks man isn’t sinful, or that we don’t need a savior, it just doesn’t play the absolutely central role for him that it does in other formulations of the Gospel.

One could comment more on the “scholariness” of the work. Dickson interacts with Greek directly where it’s appropriate, in ways that show he has a command of the language. More intricate details are handled in the end-notes, which is I think is appropriate for a wider audience. References to the original languages certainly don’t cloud or muddy up the work. Likewise, the work is full of references to well-respected scholars of the period. Martin Hengel is referenced several times. The end-notes contain references to everyone from Timothy Keller to Scott McKnight. Dickson is clearly well-read! One can easily see that he’s devoted much of his life to studying early Christianity.

Of course, Dickson is far from being a “stuffy scholar,” or as some like to say, an “ivory tower academic.” Dickson comes across more as passionate pastor and evangelist than an academic. The scholarly care is evident for those like me who notice such things. Most will notice instead his warmth and candor on the subject. The pages of the book are laced with stories from his own life (and the lives of others) that illustrate the point he’s trying to make. When discussing the importance of prayer in evangelism, he recounts his own story of coming to faith. This came about through a lady named Glenda, his scripture teacher from high school. The year that Dickson and several of his friends became Christians was marked by a renewed fervor for harvest in Glenda’s prayer group.

Dickson is also candid about his experiences as a pastor and evangelist. He is quick to tell stories from his own life, even embarrassing stories that illustrate “what not to do.” No less than the scholarly care, I enjoyed the many stories told in the book.

As with any book, there were a few quibbles. The charismatic in me wants to reserve a more “charismatic” definition for prophecy in 1 Cor 14. Dickson believes it merely refers to “intelligible speech.” On a different note, the book in a few places offers the common “religion = bad, Jesus = good” (to way oversimplify things) viewpoint that I’ve become frustrated with recently. Still, these are but minor quibbles. I’d heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in evangelism, or even those who have been “turned off” to evangelism by previous teaching or systems. Dickson’s book is a great antidote to the discomfort and fear many of us have concerning evangelism. It’s a timely read for me as I start back to classes at a secular school.

~alex

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission

  1. Alex,

    Thanks for your review of Dickson’s book! I have yet to read it, but have been noticing increasing publicity for it.

    I’m a little confused by your explanation of Dickson’s approach to defining the gospel. I agree that the Bible presents to us monotheistic view of God, and both Testaments proclaim that all men, everywhere are accountable to the Triune God. However, I’m unclear as to where/how Dickson chooses to place emphasis on the problem of sin and the person/work of Christ. It seems that you say Dickson presents a bit of a “pendulum shift”, per say, from focusing so much on sin to now focusing more on the person and work of Christ…? I’m not understanding the shift in light of the fact that the Scriptures, from Gen. 3:15 onward, present to us the story of how the one God, to whom all men are accountable, is accomplishing his eternal plan of gracious redemption from sin, ultimately centralizing in the person and work of Messiah Jesus. Undoubtedly, we cannot see anyone but Christ as the supreme person to whom all the Scriptures point, and in whom God’s plan of redemption finds its climax. But, if we minimize sin and the horrific cosmic treason that humankind has committed against the one true God, we will miss the magnitude of God’s grace to us in the gospel–The fact that I am saved from sin and the just wrath of God, based on nothing that I have done, but rather on the finished work (life, death, resurrection, and ascension) of Christ alone. How great it is to see in Jesus’ earthly ministry small scale reversals of the curse (as Dickson appears to note), but it is sin’s power/effects that Jesus is triumphing over.

    Maybe I’ve misunderstood the entire shift…? If I have, forgive me. Any clarifying thoughts you can offer regarding Dickson’s presentation would be helpful!

    Blessings.

  2. I struggled writing that section because I’m still piecing things together. Let’s see if the second time goes any better ;-).

    Dickson does not work at all to minimize sin, but he does move it’s place in the argument. He likes to say, “the gospel and the gospels are one.” What (I think) he means is that the Gospel is the good news about Jesus, which includes everything. His birth, teaching, miracles, and most of all, the surprising climax: his death and resurrection. In the resurrection and ascension, God has glorified Jesus and appointed him Lord of all. Triumphing over sin, death, and satan is all part of this. Dickson sees the Gospel as a bold proclamation to obey the one true God. Note Romans 10:9, where the early Christian confession is, “Jesus is Lord,” or Romans 1:3-4, which culminates in “Jesus Christ our Lord.” The Gospel is not first, “how can my sins be forgiven,” but a bold summons to obey the crucified and risen Lord. From within that framework, one can articulate the problem of sin, salvation through grace by faith, etc. It’s not that classical reformed concepts are absent, they’re simply reframed within a bigger picture. I *think* that’s what he’s getting at. But, I should probably revisit the chapter on “the Gospel” before I answer for sure ;-).

    Is that more clear?

  3. Alex,

    Thanks for the response! I appreciate you taking the time to dig into Dickson’s view a bit further. As I’ve done some more digging myself, I think that I don’t completely resonate with his views on all fronts. Especially when he says the following on p. 100:

    “Humanly speaking, hearing the gospel is the necessary and sufficient cause of faith in Christ. It is necessary inasmuch as people cannot put their faith in Jesus without first learning the gospel about him. It is sufficient in that the gospel can bring people to faith all on its own – it needs no other factor (other than the work of the Holy Spirit). However, none of this means that hearing the gospel is the only cause of faith, or even that it is always the primary cause of faith. Other factors (on the human side of the equation) will frequently play a minor role in winning people over to the One revealed on the gospel.”

    Dickson’s statement does not resonate with Paul’s words in Romans 1:16-17, ““For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith,as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”” Paul doesn’t say, it “a power” or “a secondary power”. He says the gospel is “THE power of God for salvation” (emphasis mine). Elsewhere Paul writes that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Paul doesn’t say that “faith can come by hearing the gospel, but it may actually come, in a more primary way, through the example of someone’s life around you.”

    To be sure, God uses us, and our lives, in the process of proclaiming the message of the gospel to the world (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-21), but it is, specifically, the gospel that is the power of God for salvation.

    One more thing, does Dickson write that Jesus’ death and resurrection were a “surprising climax”? If so, I would disagree with that as well, as the Law and the Prophets, as well as Messiah Jesus himself, testify to the fact that he would suffer, die, and be raised for the salvation of those who believe.

    Thanks for the generous dialogue!

    Blessings.

  4. I’ll try to respond in a way that Dickson might, but beware that these are my words and not his ;-).

    I think it would be helpful to broaden our definition of gospel. Dickson is very keen on making the entire story of Jesus’ life the Gospel. In this way, good works are “gospel” because they recapitulate the life of Jesus for someone else to see. When Paul says that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation, I don’t think he means it has to exclusively be appropriated through preaching. Surely that’s a key part of it, both in Paul’s ministry and in Jesus’. However, there were other important parts. Acts of compassions and miraculous deeds were other important components. I think these should be included in our understanding of “Gospel.” Thus, the Gospel is not only our proclamation about Christ, but his deeds within us, whether miraculous, or simply compassionate. This connects what we see in Acts, 1 Cor 2, and Titus 2:10 (deeds adorning our doctrines). The actual proclamation is important, but many people become Christians without ever feeling strongly convicted by a message. Many become Christians primarily through the kindness of a friend (or any other number of reasons). Dickson wants to highlight the other aspects that sometimes get neglected (he himself admits to being a talker).

    And “surprising climax” was my own phrase. If I had to guess, I’d say it came from NT Wright, but I don’t recall. The words refer, of course, to the surprise of Jesus’ contemporaries. No one expected a successful messianic claimant to be crucified, and the disciples don’t seem to have had a clue until after the resurrection. In retrospect, things look much clearer. Revelation portrays Jesus as crucified from the foundation of the world. But it was by no means clear to people pre-resurrection! (Or non-believes post-resurrection for that matter).

    I think that’s all the time I have to devote to the book for now. Feel free to respond, but I can’t promise a response!

    Grace and peace.

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