Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Instruments In The Redeemer's Hands: Book Review

This was a book I read with my pastor, Owen, last year while I was doing ministry apprenticeship. It's one of my favorite books on not just ministry, but Christian relationships in general. I highly recommend it to all Christians.

  “As we listen to eternity, we realize that the kingdom is about God radically changing people, but not in the self-absorbed sense our culture assumes. Christ came to break our allegiance to such an atrophied agenda and call us to the one goal worth living for. His kingdom is about the display of his glory and people who are holy. This is the change he came, lived, died, and rose to produce.” (5)

       Paul Tripp's book, Instruments In The Hands Of The Redeemer, reads, more than anything else, like a chameleon. Different people with different life situations will pick up this book and read it as exactly what they needed to hear. A pastor will read it as a guide for doing biblically faithful pastoral counseling. A married couple may read it as a guide for understanding what is wrong with their troubled marriage in God's eyes. Any Christian can use it as a resource for understanding Christian relationships and what God intended for our marriages, our friendships, our families, etc. Perhaps the most fundamental way to describe this book is, “a biblical treatise on God's agenda for his saved people in a world still broken by sin, with a focus on its implications for Christian relationships.
       Tripp's book is is divided into two sections. In the first section, he establishes his central thesis, which is that “the heart is the target”. And in the second section, he outlines the implications of this thesis for ministry as well as Christian relationships in general.
       Tripp's main point is that, in personal ministry and Christian relationships, the focus must first and foremost be on an individual's heart orientation and the object of his worship rather than on errant behavior or sinful habits. He reasons from a biblical view of human nature. Every person's life is oriented in one of two directions; towards God or away from God. That orientation is determined by the heart. “The Bible uses the heart to describe the inner person. Scripture divides the human being into two parts, the inner and outer being.” (59) Tripp goes on to argue that an individual's entire life is determined by the state of that inner being, even his actions and behavior.
       For Tripp, true healing and transformation takes place when the heart is changed by the gospel. The source of every kind of brokenness, anxiety, depression, insecurity, neurosis, identity issue, or addiction is rooted in the idolatry of the heart. “An idol of the heart is anything that rules me other than God.” (66). Thus the main task of every kind of personal ministry, pastoral counseling, 1-1 discipleship, or even a simple Christian friendship must be to help the other individual to re-orient his heart to worship God. Tripp repeats this idea throughout the entire book and grounds all of his practical insights for personal ministry on this.
By stating that idolatry is anything that steals a heart's affections from God, Tripp also grounds his personal ministry in God's glory. To bring healing and transformation into a broken life is not only to bring them joy and liberation from the bondage of sin, but also to bring praise and glory to the great healer, Christ, whose saving cross work is the enabler of true healing.
       Tripp's thesis is invaluable not just because it is so thoroughly biblical, but also because he identifies a tragic mistake we tend to make as pastors. Oftentimes, we are too concerned with the errant external behavior of our people rather than the fountainhead of that behavior, which is idolatry. We do this to our own detriment and to the detriment of our people. By addressing behavior, we are allowing sin to rule our people while at the same time merely suppressing the symptoms of that sin. In doing this, we do an incomplete job of transformation that stops short of helping a person become a new creation in the gospel. For pastors, the challenge of seeking heart change is intensified by people's natural propensities away from dealing with heart issues. “When most people seek change, they seldom have the heart in view. They want change in their circumstances, change in the other person, or change in their emotions... But when the focus is put only on the outward circumstances, the solutions are seldom more than temporary and superficial” (109). But according to Tripp, the only gospel-centered and gospel-informed way is to do the messy work of dealing with the heart.
       In the second part of the book, Tripp seeks to set out some practical principles for dealing with the heart. The framework that he uses is “Love, know, speak, do”. By starting with love and knowledge, Tripp asserts that truly effective personal ministry requires both enormous commitment and Christ-like sacrifice. It requires sacrifice in order to love a flawed, sinful, and oftentimes disagreeable person, but it is a necessary start. The chapter on “Knowing” was perhaps one of the most insightful chapters to me. It highlights the importance of seeking a deeper relationship that gets beyond a casual acquaintance. “Our effectiveness as ambassadors (of change) is blunted because we don't know others well enough to know where change is needed or where God is actively at work” (163). In the chapter, Tripp implores people to avoid making the mistake of assuming certain knowledge, to take the effort to make sure that our conclusions are correct, to ask good, focused questions, and to be committed to the often slow, laborious, and confusing process of really understanding a person.
       The transformation process does not stop at “knowing”. It must be followed by ascertaining where change is needed, and speaking truth about that change. Personal ministry seeks to apply the gospel and the implications of the gospel into a person's life so that his errant, idol-worshiping heart seeks to reorient itself towards God. It is only by the application of the gospel that a person can find true, lasting transformation.
The great strength of Dr. Tripp's work is that it is eminently biblical and gospel-centered. In his first chapter, rather than diving straight into the main substance, he first outlines God's grand redemptive agenda in the world as it centers on Christ. In doing so, Tripp sets the context of Christian relationships within the redemptive story, thus making sure that our agenda for life transformation starts with and fits into God's greater agenda for his world. And all throughout the book, Tripp makes an exceptional effort to connect the practical to the theological, reminding his readers that ultimately all of the work of personal ministry, discipleship, pastoral counseling, or simple “iron sharpening iron” Christian friendships must be grounded in the gospel.
       I highly recommend this book to be used as a resource for churches. Another strength of Paul's book is that its principles can be contextualized in all manners of Christian relationships. To that end, I would recommend this book for pastors seeking to improve their pastoral ministry, for husbands and wives seeking to strengthen their marriage and make their spouse more Christlike, for Bible study leaders working out how to better understand the needs of their people, or even simply for a Christian seeking to put all of his relationships with other people under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

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