Book review: Progress – lifelong growth for gospel workers

Progress is part of the FIEC Ministry Journeys series. In it, Adrian Reynolds wants to encourage us – particularly those in active gospel ministry – to continue in Christian growth. He notes the tendency to see much growth during our ministry training, and perhaps even early on in ministry, but soon our progress drops off and we find ourselves relying upon growth by experience and time served. Whilst there is a recognition that such growth does happen and is valuable, it falls well short of the biblical call to ‘strive for holiness’ and work to progress in the faith.

The book is a relatively straightforward read. At just under 100 pages, and its small format, it took me around 2 hours start to finish. Although there may be one or two who would struggle, the style is pretty accessible and there is nothing complicated in it that would trouble most readers. Certainly for the average gospel worker with their head in the scriptures, it is an easy read.

The book follows a simple progression(!) It begins by encouraging us to establish lifelong patterns for growth. It follows this up with an explanation of how progress in the Christian life doesn’t undercut the concept of grace, neither in our justification (which isn’t really in view) nor sanctification (which very much is). This then leads into the case for how we may progress in godliness in the areas of speech, conduct, love, faith and purity as per 1 Timothy 4, the text that forms the foundation of the book. Finally, there is a chapter on progress in gifting.

Within each of the chapters on godliness, I found two features particularly useful. First, each came with five questions to help us diagnose where we may be at risk of stagnation. These helpfully prompted us to consider how we may address a lack of growth within ourselves. This, in my view, was probably the most valuable feature of the book as a whole. Second, trebling up as a summary of the chapter, a call to prayerfulness and an effective prompt to action, the suggested prayer at the end of each chapter was also a valuable addition. It gave a clear sense of how we might pray for progress in these areas and restated, in the form of prayer, how we might practically grow as a result.

There were two areas I felt were not so great. First, in the opening chapter, a potential problem was noted regarding how grace and working for growth are compatible. Specifically, ‘this language of progress does get some Christians worried. To them it sounds profoundly anti-gospel, contradicting the grace God has freely shown us in Christ’. I appreciated the fact that this concern was going to be addressed head-on. The chapter titled ‘Progress and Grace’ was designed to do this.

Unfortunately, almost inevitably and quite understandably due to the format and length of the book, the concern isn’t addressed as fully as one might hope. The chapter helpfully distinguishes between justification and sanctification, noting that our hang-up may result from a misunderstanding over which we are talking about. However, in my view, not enough was done to overcome the objection that sanctification is a work of God within us. I strongly suspect Adrian and I would have similar, if not identical, views on this issue. Nonetheless, the book didn’t seem to do enough to adequately address the concerns of someone sincerely asking the question. With that said, whole books have been dedicated to both the broader operation of the Spirit and the nature of cooperation more specifically and it would be well beyond the scope of such a short book to handle the question comprehensively.

Second, the final chapter regarding progress in gifting addressed the subject with a particular view of ministry and gifting in mind. The chapter argued that calling is both supernatural and natural (both are important) and, likewise, training must take account of both supernatural gifting as well as human endeavour. The view of gifting, or so it read, was that Timothy had been gifted with pastoral/teaching ability by God but this also had to be ‘fanned into flame’ through Timothy’s human endeavour.

At the risk of disagreeing with somebody eminently more learned and wise than me, I think this is a wrong view of both calling and gifting. I would follow Ken Berding’s view of gifting and argue that the gift Paul is talking about is neither Timothy’s pastoral or teaching ability, but rather his call to pastoral ministry. That is, the office is the gift. The gift given by the council of elders (cf. 1 Ti 4:14; 6:20; 2Ti 1:6) was his office. The calling was the same as his gifting which came through the laying on of hands; that is, his call to pastoral ministry. I would also point to this for further thoughts.

This view actually undercuts the paradox of the chapter. In many ways, the view outlined above of gifting is the question of the whole book – how can we progress in our ministry functions gifted to us by God. The question is, why do we need a supernatural view of teaching but not of eating or writing ability, administrative abilties, or any other talent we might possess? Isn’t the bottom line that God grants us a range of abilities (some typically thought of as ‘spiritual’ and others as ‘ordinary’, for want of better terms) that come to us through a combination of upbringing, circumstance, volition and (apparent) natural proclivity all under God’s divine sovereignty? To drive a wedge between the natural and supernatural is artificial. I, therefore, agree with Adrian that we must nurture and cultivate our abilities (including teaching) – and this is the point he is trying to elucidate in the final chapter – but I arrive at that conclusion on the grounds of God’s sovereignty and our cooperation for which he argued earlier. A more fulsome discussion of sovereignty, cooperation and gifting might have drawn this out.

That said, the suggestions on how we might improve our public reading of the scriptures and the section tackling our attitudes to preaching were very helpful. The call to continually assess our preaching, to seek help and critique from others is a message we all need to hear. It is so easy to find a ‘formula’ and feel our preparation and approach has made it. Once again, the five questions on preaching were helpful in diagnosing areas of strength and weakness. Also, the final prayer offers a valuable summary of the key argument and prompts us to think again about our approach as well as cementing in the mind how we might progress in the area of preaching and teaching.

Overall, I’d recommend the book as a genuinely helpful resource to anybody serious about wanting to maintain growth in godly character and progress in the ministries God has gifted to them. It won’t take you long to read, it won’t cost you much to buy and you almost certainly won’t regret having done so.

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