Review: Called To Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity by Gordon T. Smith

Smith - Called to be SaintsGordon T. Smith, Called To Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 256 pages.

Amazon | IVP

Thank you to IVP Academic for providing a review copy.

The title caught my attention — Called To Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity — and the description of the book reminded me of an institution to which I had recently been introduced, Ambrose University College of Calgary, Alberta. Then I discovered that it was written by Smith - faculty photothe president of Ambrose, Gordon T. Smith. Though the name of the school is relatively new (about 6 years), the school has a long history of training Canadians for Christian ministry and service, particularly those from Nazarene and Christian & Missionary Alliance denominations. Smith’s book reflects the deeply-cherished focus of these traditions on sanctification. Infused with wisdom and beautifully expressed, this is a book to be savored. Called to Be Saints is an invitation to discover Christian maturity “in Christ” — a maturity expressed in wisdom, work, love, and joy.

Chapter 1 offers an overview of the book in which Smith distinguishes Christian maturity from moralism and perfectionism, both of which impose “an impossible burden” apart from union with Christ. Maturity is also not a matter of human effort (pelagianism), but instead a “human response to the call and enabling of God” (22). True Christian maturity must be Trinitarian and Christocentric. It must take seriously the reality of God’s creation and God’s plan to restore all things. It must recognize the severity of sin. It must be expressed in community and in everyday activities. The experience of suffering plays a key role in shaping our maturity in Christ.

Chapter 2 addresses the heart of what it means to be a Christian, union with Christ. For Smith, “participation” —knowing, loving, and serving him — is the defining feature of the Christian life. Justification and sanctification are therefore intimately connected to each other. He defines the mature Christian as “one who lives in consciousness and intentional response to the presence of the Spirit” (52). We are “drawn into his life” by faith, that is, “radical trust in the person and work of Christ” (53). The result of this deep trust is humility. When we take “union with Christ” seriously, it transforms our concept of evangelism from teaching certain propositions that must be believed to inviting others to encounter Jesus and commune with him. Jesus, not the potential convert, is the focus.

After laying this foundation, the next four chapters each highlight one aspect or dimension of Christian maturity (wisdom, work, love, and joy). In “Holy People are Wise People,” Smith argues that wisdom involves living out what you know is true and right. He identifies three “critical indicators of moral maturity”: finances, sexuality, and speech. Discernment becomes possible through union with Christ, as the Spirit bears witness and urges us to act courageously. Wisdom is a gift received with humility.

Smith’s reflections on vocation in chapter four are worth the price of the book. In “Called to Do God’s Work,” he speaks of three factors that play into the process of discernment:

  • a biblical theology of God’s work
  • a maturing self-knowledge
  • an accurate read on our life circumstances

In addition to these three factors, he identifies five variables to consider:

  • The cross—laying down our lives for others
  • The Spirit—radical dependence on God
  • Community—the orientation of our work and our sense of self
  • Justice—a calling to serve
  • Life stages—which provides limits and possibilities for service

Smith’s insightful reflection on each of these variables enables balanced reflection of one’s own life situation from a variety of angles. Undergirding and energizing all of this is communion with Jesus in prayer.

In his chapter, “Learning to Love,” Smith claims that no one is naturally good at love. All of us learn it as we develop humility. The law shows us the contours for expressing that love, and “genuine hospitality” gives others the space to disagree and still be respected. Forgiveness and service are essential expressions of this love in a broken world. Smith insists that we must love community not in its “ideal” sense, but in its actual expression—real people with real needs around us. This love for others is energized by abiding in the love of Christ and centering on him in worship.

Perhaps the boldest and most thought-provoking of Smith’s characterizations of Christian maturity is his chapter on joy. Smith insists that mature Christians have a deep and abiding joy that transcends their circumstances. This joy is rooted in their faith in God’s goodness. Mature Christians still feel angry, sad, or afraid at times, but their “emotional center” is joy. We cultivate this joy through worship, friendship, and Sabbath. In worship we practice “deep emotional honesty” (164), using the language of the psalms to express our abiding faith in God. Our friendships can be described as “rich and life-giving” (165). And our practice of Sabbath is energized by gratitude for God’s provision. In each of these dimensions our union with Christ is deepened and joy is developed. If Smith is right, then pessimism, cynicism, and even depression are flagged as evidence of spiritual immaturity. This is a radical claim in a world where negativity is tolerated as a feature of certain personalities and depression is characterized as something beyond our control. Thankfully, Smith offers an excursus on depression that very sensitively explores this “state of emotional dislocation” (172). He calls for us “to do all we can to expand our capacity for joy and to walk compassionately alongside those for whom this capacity seems so very elusive” (173). While this chapter is likely to provoke criticism, it is probably the one Christians in the West most need to read. Christian maturity encompasses more than our doctrine and our behavior—it transforms our attitudes and emotions as well.

With this the primary exposition of the book comes to a close, but the discussion is carried forward by twin appendices that explore implications for congregations and for Christian institutions of higher education. The church is the primary arena of our growth in Christian maturity. Liturgy (worship) is an especially effective vehicle—not when it is me-centered, crafted to tickle my fancy, but when it is Trinitarian, penitential, and participatory. Smith calls for “an adoration of the Father through Christ in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit” (188). We need to learn to pray the Psalms, and we need to celebrate both Word and sacrament, both of which must be Christ-centered. Not only should our preaching be Christocentric, but our celebration of the Lord’s Supper must be more than just remembering what he has done. It is the means of “real-time participation in the life of Christ” (195). Perhaps one of Smith’s most radical claims is that true “revival” does not come through prayer alone, but through teaching. A pastor is primarily to be a teacher (and, in his view, should also be able to lead music; see 213–14). The equipping ministry of the church involves helping individuals discern their calling—not just to “ministry” but to the extension of the kingdom in every sphere of life. The caring ministry of the church often involves meeting people in their time of need, listening well, and pointing them to Christ.

In the second appendix, Smith argues that Christian institutions do not primarily exist to promote a Christian worldview or vocational training, but rather to offer transformative learning (219). He says, “The greatest value that higher education offers the world—whether for the marketplace or the church—is wise men and women of mature character who are capable of providing vibrant moral leadership” (220). He integrates each of his four marks of maturity (wisdom, vocational discernment, love, and joy) with the task of higher education. Notably, he insists that “there is no learning without joy—no deep learning, no transforming learning, without delight in the very learning process” (228). However, he goes on to highlight wisdom as the “primary leverage point” for promoting growth in Christian maturity in a school setting. Prayer and worship energize study.

This book was a delight to read—thought-provoking and refreshing, wise and well-written. I found it personally helpful in discerning our next steps as a family. It would be a wonderful book for a small group, a church staff, or a faculty to read together and discuss. It could also fit well in a course on spiritual formation or sanctification. I expect to recommend it in the future, especially the chapters on vocational discernment and on joy. While the process of sanctification is something most Christians expect to undergo, the church doesn’t often define how it ought to take place. Smith examines the constituent parts of Christian maturity in a way that provides opportunity for self-reflection and careful re-alignment of personal trajectories in a variety of areas. Still, he insists throughout the book that maturity is a gift received through union with Christ.

I am hard-pressed to identify glaring problems in the book. One weakness is Smith’s rather narrow vision of pastoral ministry (primarily teaching and leading music), which leaves little room for men and women with a variety of gifts (shepherding, mercy, administration) to serve as leaders in the church. His insistence that pastors be skilled in leading music strikes one as a bit out of touch. Should someone who is tone deaf be disqualified from pastoral ministry? How many churches today expect the preacher to lead music? In spite of this rather idiosyncratic but brief discussion, Called to Be Saints delivers what it intends, An Invitation to Christian Maturity. It is both inviting and stimulating, and deserves a wide readership. I am eager to read his other new release: Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving and Receiving Direction.

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About Carmen Imes

I entered Wheaton's doctoral program in 2011 with an Old Testament concentration under Dr. Daniel Block. I have an MA in Biblical Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Charlotte campus), and a BA from Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. My husband, Danny, and I are missionaries with SIM and we have 3 great kids: Eliana, Emma, and Easton. You can find my personal blog at www.seminarymom.blogspot.com. I'm passionate about the Word of God, both written and incarnate, and I long to see our generation transformed so that we can truly know God and reflect Him to the world.
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2 Responses to Review: Called To Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity by Gordon T. Smith

  1. roberg2014 says:

    Thank you for a well written and informative review. I also appreciate the (difficult / controversial) topics that you are prepared to address. Have you read Smith’s book(let) on the Eucharist? BTW it is a pleasure to look at the pic of your family – I pray that God will continue to bless you with the peace, serenity that it radiates (oh, how I wish that the last words of your bio could be realised). I live in South Africa, a place that seems to be trapped in a vortex of accelerating self-destruction. And it could have been so different. Sigh! Maranatha!

  2. Carmen Imes says:

    Thanks for your comment. I have not had an opportunity to read any of Smith’s other works yet, but I look forward to doing so. He is a wise and thought-provoking writer.

    Blessings on your ministry in South Africa! May the Prince of Peace reign …

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