Why Study the Book of Acts?

Why Study the Book of Acts?

In addition to writing the notes on Acts for the Gospel Transformation Bible, I also wrote Acts: A 12-Week Study.

Author and Purpose

Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Both were written by Luke, a physician who traveled with the apostle Paul. Luke’s purpose for writing his Gospel (see Luke 1:3–4) applies to Acts as well: to give an “orderly” account of the early church after Christ’s resurrection. Acts is a historical account of how the resurrection of Jesus changes everything through the birth of the early church.

Geographical Expansion 

Acts is the story of God’s grace flooding out to the world. Nothing 
is more prominent in Acts than the spread of the gospel. Jesus promises
a geographic expansion at the outset (1:8), and Acts follows the news of his death and resurrection as it spreads from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the faraway capital of Rome.

This is why Acts 1:8 is a key verse to understanding all of Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”


The preaching of Jesus’ death and resurrection is central in Acts. The Greek verb for “preach the gospel” (euangelizo) occurs more in this book than in any other in the New Testament. About a third of the book of Acts consists of speeches, and most of these are speeches of Peter or Paul proclaiming the gospel. The good news of the salvation accomplished in Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit extends to the “ends of the earth” through preaching.

God is central to the gospel’s expansion. He is at the heart of the gospel message, the news that reconciliation with the Father is now possible through Jesus Christ. God the Holy Spirit is responsible for the growth of the church and its remarkable expansion.

God’s Passionate Pursuit

In Acts, “grace” is a parallel for “the gospel” or “salvation.” Jesus’ message is summarized as “the word of his grace,” believers are said to have received “grace” or to be “full of grace,” and they are challenged to continue in “grace.” The missionaries in Acts proclaim the grace of God, and it is through this grace that people are able to respond with faith.

Acts reveals God’s passionate pursuit of his people, beginning with his followers in Jerusalem, expanding to Samaria, then to the rest of the world. By the end of the book we see Paul living in Rome “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).

The gospel draws people in, constitutes them as the church centered on the grace of Jesus, and then sends them out in mission to the world. The new group of believers is marked by the Holy Spirit, who creates such a distinctive community that others are drawn in, experiencing God’s grace. At the same time, they take the gospel message to new people and new lands, making God’s grace known to the ends of the earth.

Barriers, Weakness, Opposition, and Persecution

The gospel spreads despite barriers of geography, ethnicity, culture, gender, and wealth. Many of these barriers appear so inviolable that when the gospel is preached to a new segment of society, riots ensue. But Luke makes clear that no one is beyond the scope of God’s saving power, nor is anyone exempt from the need for God’s redeeming grace.

In Acts, the gospel expands not through human strength, but through weakness, opposition, and persecution. Demonic forces, worldly powers and authorities, governmental opposition, language and cultural barriers, intense suffering and bloody persecution, unjust imprisonment, unbelief, internal disunity, and even shipwrecks and snakes all threaten to slow down the gospel’s advance. But opposition and suffering do not thwart the spread of Jesus’ grace; rather, they only fuel it.

Acts and the Rest of the Bible

Acts shows that the new Christian movement is not a fringe sect, but the culmination of God’s plan of redemption. What was seen only as shadows in the Old Testament, God reveals finally and fully through Jesus Christ. The book of Acts does not primarily provide us with human patterns to emulate or avoid. Instead, it repeatedly calls us to reflect upon the work of God, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, establishing the church by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The gospel’s expansion is the culmination of what God has been doing since the beginning. Acts consistently grounds salvation in the ancient purpose of God, which comes to fruition at God’s own initiative. This reveals God to be the great benefactor who pours out blessings on all people. Even the opportunity to repent is God’s gift.

Ninety-Five Theses (Free Bonus Chapter)

Ninety-Five Theses (Free Bonus Chapter)

Want a free bonus chapter from my book Know the Creeds and Councils? At the bottom of this post, there is link to download a PDF of a chapter on Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses that includes discussion questions and further reading.

Historical Background

If people know only one thing about the Protestant Reformation, it is the famous event when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Chapel in protest against the Catholic Church. Within a few years of this event, the church had splintered into not just the church’s camp or Luther’s camp but also the camps of churches led by theologians of all different stripes.

Luther is known mostly for his teachings about scripture and justification. Regarding scripture, Luther argued that scripture alone (sola scriptura) is our ultimate authority for faith and practice. About justification, Luther taught that we are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit. We are neither saved by our merits nor declared righteous by our good works. Additionally, we need to fully trust in God to save us from our sins, rather than partly relying on our own self-improvement. 


These teachings were radical departures from the Catholic orthodoxy of Luther’s day. But you might be surprised to learn that the Ninety-Five Theses, even though it was the document that sparked the Reformation, was not about these issues. Instead, Luther objected to the fact that the Catholic Church was offering to sell certificates of forgiveness, and that by doing so, it was substituting a false hope—that forgiveness can be earned or purchased—for the true hope of the gospel—that we receive forgiveness according to the riches of God’s grace.

The Roman Catholic Church claimed that it had been placed in charge of a “treasury of merits” of all of the good deeds that saints had done (not to mention the deeds of Christ, who made the treasury infinitely deep). For those who were trapped by their own sinfulness, the church could write a certificate transferring some of the merits of the saints to the sinner. The catch? These “indulgences” had a price tag.

This much needs to be understood to make sense of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: the selling of indulgences for full remission of sins intersected perfectly with the intense struggle Martin Luther had experienced regarding salvation and assurance for many years. And it is at this point of collision between one man’s hope in the gospel and the Catholic Church’s denial of that hope that the Ninety-Five Theses can be properly understood.

Content of the Ninety-Five Theses

Luther’s official response to indulgences came in the form of an academic document that he addressed to the local archbishop, who happened to be the same Albert of Mainz who had authorized the campaign. Significantly, Luther penned his grievance—titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but known to posterity as the Ninety-Five Theses—in Latin rather than in the common vernacular. That fact combined with the intended audience and the largely academic tone of the writing indicates that Luther did not write his document for mass consumption. Rather, he intended it to spark a scholarly debate. Regardless, the document was translated into the common Germanic language of Saxony and was reportedly posted on the door of the Schlosskirche (the Castle Church of Wittenberg) on October 31, 1517.

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses focuses on three main issues: selling forgiveness (via indulgences) to build a cathedral, the pope’s claimed power to distribute forgiveness, and the damage indulgences caused to grieving sinners. That his concern was pastoral (rather than trying to push a private agenda) is apparent from the document. He did not believe (at this point) that indulgences were altogether a bad idea; rather, he believed that they were misleading Christians regarding their spiritual state:

 41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.

 As well as their duty to others:

 43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.

 44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties. [Notice that Luther is not yet wholly against the theology of indulgences.]

 And even financial well-being:

46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.

 Luther’s attitude toward the pope in this document is also surprisingly ambivalent. In later years, he called the pope “the Antichrist” and burned his writings, but here his tone is merely cautionary, hoping the pope will come to his senses. For instance, in this passage he appears to be defending the pope against detractors, albeit in a backhanded way:

51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.

Obviously, since Leo X had begun the indulgences campaign in order to build the basilica, he did not “wish to give of his own money” to Tetzel’s victims. However, Luther phrased his criticism to suggest that the pope might be ignorant of the abuses and at any rate should be given the benefit of the doubt. It provided Leo a graceful exit from the indulgences campaign if he wished to take it.

So what made this document so controversial? Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses hit a nerve in the depths of the authority structure of the medieval church. Luther was calling the pope and those in power to repent—on no authority but the convictions he had gained from Scripture—and urged the leaders of the indulgences movement to direct their gaze to Christ, the only one who is able to pay the penalty due for sin.

Of all the portions of the document, Luther’s closing is perhaps the most memorable for its exhortation to look to Christ rather than to the power of the church:

92. Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where in there is no peace.

93. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross.

94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.

95. And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.

In the years following his initial posting of the Theses, Luther became emboldened in his resolve, strengthening his arguments with Scripture. At the same time, the church became more and more uncomfortable with the radical Luther, and in the following decades, the spark that he made grew into a flame of reformation that spread across Europe. Luther was ordered by the church to recant in 1520 and was eventually exiled in 1521.


Although the Ninety-Five Theses does not explicitly lay out a Protestant theology or agenda, it contains the seeds of the most important beliefs of the movement, especially the priority of understanding and applying the gospel. Luther developed his critique of the Catholic Church out of his struggle with doubt and guilt as well as his pastoral concern for his parishioners. Luther longed for the hope and security that only the gospel can bring, and he was frustrated with the structures that were using Christ to take advantage of people and prevent them from union with God. Furthermore, Luther’s focus on the teaching of the Bible is significant, because it provided the foundation upon which the great doctrines of the Reformation found their origin.

Indeed, Luther developed a robust notion of justification by faith and rejected even the notion of purgatory as unbiblical; he argued that indulgences and even hierarchical penance cannot lead to salvation; and perhaps most notable, he rebelled against the authority of the pope. All of these critiques were driven by Luther’s commitment, above all else, to Christ and the Scriptures that testify about him.

The courage and outspokenness that Luther demonstrated in writing and publishing the Ninety-Five Theses also spread to other influential leaders of the young Protestant Reformation.

Today, the Ninety-Five Theses may stand as the most well-known document from the Reformation era. Luther’s courage and his willingness to confront what he deemed to be clear error is just as important today as it was then. One of the greatest ways in which Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses affect us today—in addition to the wonderful inheritance of the five Reformation solas—is that it calls us to thoroughly examine the inherited practices of the church against the standard set forth in the Scriptures. Luther saw an abuse, was not afraid to address it, and was exiled as a result of his faithfulness to the Bible in the midst of harsh opposition.


For more on Ninety-Five These, download this free bonus chapter from Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils (Zondervan, 2014).

Making A Safety Plan

Making A Safety Plan


If you are experiencing physical, sexual, emotional, and/or verbal abuse from a partner, spouse, family member, etc., you can create a personalized safety plan. If you are supporting someone in an abusive relationship, you can help them make a safety plan.

In our book, Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence, Lindsey and I include “Making a Safety Plan” as an appendix.

A personalized safety plan will help you know what to do if/when you decide to leave or find yourself (and children) in an emergency.

You can create this safety plan even if you are not ready to leave.

There are some important things that need to be considered. Evidence shows that planning before leaving is really important and is more likely to help the women stay away.

Please ensure that safety is considered when creating, printing, and/or completing this document. Considering who will have access to it and where it will be stored are extremely important.


Is it My Fault? Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence

Is It My Fault? is a message of hope and healing to victims who know too well the depths of destruction and the overwhelming reality of domestic violence. This book addresses the abysmal issue of domestic violence with the powerful and transforming biblical message of grace and redemption. It deals with this devastating problem and sin honestly and directly without hiding its prevalence today.

Free Leader’s Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics

Free Leader’s Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics

Here are two FREE Leaders’ Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics.


Many Christians don’t know about the history of their faith, but they want to learn more. That is why I wrote these two books: Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils.

These accessible overviews walk readers through the most important expressions (and denials!) of the Christian tradition–not with dry focus on dates and places, but with an emphasis on the living traditions of Christian belief and why it matters for our lives today. They are ideal for group uses and study.

Anglican Reading Recommendations

Anglican Reading Recommendations

The Anglican Communion is the third largest body of Christians in the world, and the largest Protestant denomination. J. I. Packer writes that Anglicanism possesses “the truest, wisest and potentially richest heritage in all Christen­dom.”

Serving as Canon for Vocations for The Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, I get asked lots about resources on Anglican studies.  I started keeping a list of all the books and tools I find helpful.  It is a growing list that changes frequently, so I’m not claiming these are the best or only books that should be read.

Anglican Heritage and Tradition

Anglican Theology

Book of Common Prayer

Where to start? Start with a copy of the the Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer is packed with devotional and teaching resources for individuals and congregations. The Book of Common Prayer (1979) is the latest, complete BCP used by the American branch of Anglicans, the Episcopal Church.


These books serve as guides to the use of the Book of Common Prayer that is sensitive both to its liturgical and theological backgrounds and to the practical and pastoral issues surrounding public worship.

The Episcopal Church

Anglican Spiritual Tradition

Thomas Cranmer

  • Divine Allurement: Cranmer’s Comfortable Words by Ashley Null investigates Cranmer’s gospel of divine allurement. Because justification by faith emphasized personal faith, persuasion was important to the Protestant Reformers. The verb “allure” was thus closely connected with their expression of the Gospel, and this is reflected in the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer.
  • Thomas Cranmer: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch is the definitive account, by an English Reformation scholar, of Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, architect of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, King Henry VIII’s guide through three divorces, and ultimately a martyr for his Protestant faith.
  • Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love by Ashley Null.  Null is one of my favorite Anglican theologians.  In this book, he explores Cranmer’s cultural heritage, why he would have been attracted to Luther’s thought, and then provides convincing evidence for the Reformed Protestant Augustinianism which Cranmer enshrined in the formularies of the Church of England.
  • The Collects of Thomas Cranmer by Paul F. M Zahl and C. Frederick Barbee presents the Collects (prayers) written by Cranmer in  their original form and order.  Cranmer’s Collects are each followed by succinct commentary on their historical context and an insightful meditation crafted with contemporary Christians in mind.
  • “Thomas Cranmer’s Reading of Paul’s Letters” by Ashley Null in Reformation Readings of Paul: Explorations in History and Exegesis, eds., Michael Allen and Jonathan A. Linebaugh
  • “The Texts of Paul and the Theology of Cranmer” by Jonathan A. Linebaugh in Reformation Readings of Paul: Explorations in History and Exegesis, eds., Michael Allen and Jonathan A. Linebaugh


Thirty-nine Articles

  • The Thirty-nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today by J. I. Packer and R. T. Beckwith aims to show how the sixteenth-century Articles should be viewed in the twenty-first century. They argue that the Articles should be given a voice within the Church, not merely as an historical curiosity but an authoritative doctrinal statement.
  • “Thirty-nine Articles of Religion” in Know the Creeds and Councils by Justin S. Holcomb provides a short overview of the  historical background, content, legacy, and relevance of the Articles. As the Church of England found itself in a sort of middle ground between the papacy of Rome and the Protestant Reformers, it recognized the need to set out its general beliefs. It is this need that the Thirty-nine Articles addresses.

Welcome to the Episcopal Church

The series “Welcome to the Episcopal Church” is a helpful place to start.  It covers all the main distinctive elements of the Episcopal tradition:

Canterbury Trail

  • Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail by Robert Webber and Lester Ruth focuses on Anglicanism’s “six gifts”, as Webber puts it: mystery, Christ-centered worship, sacraments, historic identity, catholic traditions, and holistic spirituality.

Non-Anglicans on Sacraments

Here are some introductions to  the sacraments from non-Anglicans.

  • For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy by Alexander Schmemann.  As a seminary professor, I assign this book as much as possible because it is a compelling presentation of sacraments by an Orthodox priest. He discusses secularism and Christian culture from the perspective of the Church’s liturgy — “the sacrament of the world, the sacrament of the kingdom.”
  • Eucharist and Eschatology by Geoffrey Wainwright, a Methodist minister and seminary professor focuses on an eschatological understanding of the eucharist for the mission and unity of the church.

Logos Anglican Library

The Logos Anglican library is packed with amazing and helpful tools for Bible study and exploring the resources of the Anglican tradition. I use Logos for preparation for preaching and teaching, personal Bible study, and academic research. If you purchase it, use this coupon code (HOLCOMB7) to receive a 10% discount.

Release of Is it My Fault?

Release of Is it My Fault?

Lindsey and I wrote a book about domestic violence that releases today: Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence.

The number of occurrences of domestic violence in the United States is staggering: at least one in four women become victims of domestic violence in their lifetime.

Is It My Fault? was written for those suffering domestic abuse—typically women—and serves as a resource on healing from the emotional pain resulting from domestic violence by giving a clear understanding of what the Bible says about violence against women.  Combining the authors’ theological training with straightforward and practical advice, the book addresses questions like:  What does the Bible say about women?  What does the Bible say about God delivering victims?  Does the Bible say I should suffer abuse and violence?

Is It My Fault? points readers toward the consistent thread that runs throughout the Old and New Testaments emphasizing God’s love, compassion, and mercy, while opposing cruelty, violence, and abuse.  In light of this, the authors state that there is simply no justification for abuse. Importantly, the book helps women take critical next steps to identify whether they are currently in an abusive relationship, how to get help immediately and how to make a safety plan.

“Our hope is that this book will encourage you to believe that God knows and sees your suffering, and that God cares about you and hears your cries and prayers.  He cares for you so much that He wants you safe from threat and violence.  If you have children, He wants them safe, too.  But even beyond physical safety, God wants you to heal from the many ways you’ve been hurt and wounded.”

Is it My Fault? also serves as a valuable resource for pastors, ministry leaders, friends, and family, providing guidance on how to care for victims of domestic violence.

Know the Heretics

Know the Heretics

There is a lot of talk about heresy these days. The frequency and volume of accusations suggest that some Christians have lost a sense of the gravity of the word. On the other hand, many believers have little to no familiarity with orthodox doctrine or the historic distortions of it. What’s needed is a strong dose of humility and restraint, and also a clear and informed definition of orthodoxy and heresy. Know the Heretics is an accessible “travel guide” to the key heresies of Christian history.

This book started as a series of blog posts, which are listed here:

Know the Creeds and Councils is the companion book to Know the Heretics.

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils is an accessible and relevant overview of Christianity’s most significant statements of faith. In every generation, the Christian church must interpret and restate its bedrock beliefs, answering the challenges and concerns of the day. This accessible overview walks readers through centuries of creeds, councils, catechisms, and confessions–not with a dry focus on dates and places, but with an emphasis on the living tradition of Christian belief and why it matters for our lives today.

This book started as a series of blog posts, which are listed here:

Know the Heretics is the companion book to Know the Creeds and Councils.

Desiring the Kingdom (Book Highlights)

Desiring the Kingdom (Book Highlights)

“What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?  That is actually the wager of this book:  It is an invitation to re-vision Christian education as formative rather than just an informative project.” 

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

by James K. A. Smith


In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith sets forth a vision of Christian formation that seeks to challenge preconceived notions of what education should be and the assumptions that undergird those conceptions.  He envisions his work being used by pastors, campus ministers, worship leaders, and others who are in charge of forming worship in local congregations.

Two assumptions shape the book and guide the discussion.  First, in part one, Smith contests one common understanding of human beings (anthropology) which sees them primarily as “knowing” individuals.  Instead Smith asks, “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?  That is actually the wager of this book:  It is an invitation to re-vision Christian education as formative rather than just an informative project.” (17-18).  Second, in part two, Smith challenges the idea that education or any other practice can be religiously “neutral,” and argues for an expansive understanding of “liturgy” as love shaping habits:  “The core claim of this book is that liturgies – whether “sacred” or “secular” – shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world.  In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love” (25).

Part One

Chapter One outlines Smith’s theological anthropology.  In contrast to both “person-as-thinker” and “person-as believer” models of the human person, he articulates what he refers to as a “more robustly Augustinian anthropology” which “sees humans as most fundamentally oriented by love” (46).  Because humans are most properly defined by these loves and their pursuit, Christian education is best conceived as a set of practices that form and shape what a person desires.  Smith identifies several elements in the “person-as-lover” model:  “Human persons are intentional creatures whose fundamental way of ‘intending’ the world is love or desire. This love or desire—which is unconscious or noncognitive—is always aimed as some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom. What primes us to be so oriented—and act accordingly—is a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination, which is closely lined to our bodily senses” (62-63).  This “person-as lover” model suggests an alternative set of assumptions that should shape Christian education and offers what Smith calls a “social imaginary view.”  Rather than focusing merely on the content of education and ignoring the practices by which this content is communicated (and the everyday activities with which it competes), Smith states that on the social imaginary view, the imagination takes place over the intellect. By implication this means first that humans are typically religious well before they develop a theology, and second that formative practices cannot be reduced into mere ideas, belief, or doctrines.  Practices, habits, and routines of worship and life shape who we are, what we love, and how we believe.  Finally, he emphasizes that this process is not merely one that people experience as individuals, but through relationships and institutions.

Therefore, and with this understanding of the human person in mind, in Chapter Two Smith argues that the church should address desires in order to channel them into a desire for God.  In order to describe how the church should do this he makes a distinction between “thick” (meaningful) and “thin” (mundane) practices.  Although this distinction may at times be somewhat blurry its purpose is to emphasize that “no habit or practice is neutral” (83).  Furthermore, it is important to remember that some practices that may superficially seem “thin” are in reality “thick.”  Research has shown that the way our “dispositions toward goals” become “habituated” in us is often automatic and unintentional, and therefore proper Christian education must appreciate that many of our loves are acquired unintentionally through everyday practices which we take for granted (85).  Therefore, Smith invokes the concept of “liturgy” in an innovative way.  He writes, “I want to ramp this up just one more notch and suggest that our thickest practices constitute and function as liturgies” (85). While we typically think of liturgies in terms of religious practice, Smith says that “some so-called secular rituals actually constitute liturgies” (86).  Smith defines liturgies as “species of practice” or “rituals of ultimate concern” which are “formative for identity,” “inculcate particular visions of the good life,” and “do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations” (86).  The reason Smith thinks using the term liturgy is important is because it raises the stakes of what is taking place in our cultural practices and rituals.

In Chapter Three, Smith models what he refers to as a “cultural exegesis” of our secular rituals and practices.  This cultural exegesis involves asking “What vision of human flourishing is implicit in this or that practice? What does the good life look like as embedded in cultural rituals? What sort of person will I become after being immersed in this or that cultural liturgy?” (89).  Therefore, cultural exegesis, much like biblical apocalyptic literature, is a mode of “unmasking” or “unveiling the realities around us for what they really are” (92).  Smith’s hope is that “the shift of focus from ideas to practices, from beliefs to liturgy, will function as a methodological jolt that gets us into a position to see cultural practices and institutions in ways we’ve never seen them before” (92-93).  By way of example, he offers three liturgical analyses of cultural institutions by examining the mall, the stadium, and the modern university demonstrating that “implicit in their liturgies are visions of the kingdom—visions of human flourishing—that are antithetical to the biblical vision of shalom” (121). However, even these secular liturgies point to the fact that we are liturgical animals.  “Secular liturgies don’t create our desire; they point it, aim it, direct it to certain ends” (122).  Here Smith appeals to Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, which he suggests—differing from the popular interpretation—speaks of our proclivity towards worship (as opposed to theistic belief/knowledge).

Part Two

Whereas Part One formed the theoretical groundwork for Smith’s argument, Part Two consists of his constructive task.  Chapter Four introduces this constructive account of Christian worship and formation by arguing for the primacy of sacramental worship over and against the communication of a particular worldview.  Smith claims that the anthropology of Part One demands not a “top-down, ideas first picture that prioritizes beliefs and doctrines (‘worldview’) but rather a bottom-up, practices-first model that prioritizes worship as a practice of desire” (136).  Eschewing what he asserts to be “dualistic” or “Gnostic” worship, he argues for a sacramental understanding of the world that resists the temptation to separate nature from grace (141).  Smith writes that “Aspects of the material world like bread and water are not “made” to be sacramental by some kind of magical divine fiat that transforms their created nature; rather, when they are taken up as sacraments in the context of worship, their ‘natural sacramentality’ is simply intensified and completed. So, too, worship is not some odd, extravagant, extra-human thing we do as an add-on to our earthly, physical, material nature; rather worship is the epiphany of the world” (143).  This sacramental leveling entails the twin temptations to marginalize the church or to minimize the significance of the liturgy of Christian worship, and both temptations ought to be resisted (148-9).  Finally, he points out that all Christian worship is “liturgical in the sense that it is governed by norms, draws on a tradition, includes bodily rituals or routines, and involves formative practices” (152).  The question is not whether we have a liturgy, but what the liturgy which we necessarily have says about who we are being shaped to be.

Chapter Five in Smith’s own words consists of the “heart of the book,” (131) and presents the best and most easily accessible summary of his constructive project. In this chapter, Smith exegetes what he understands to be the standard practices of the Christian liturgy:  The Christian Calendar, The Call to Worship, God’s Greeting and Mutual Greeting, Singing, The Reading of the Law, The Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon, Baptism, The Creed, Prayer, The Scripture and Sermon, Eucharist, Offering, and Sending as Witnesses.  In each case his purpose is to articulate how the presence or absence of the given aspect of the liturgy and the manner in which it is carried out will affect those who participate.  Finally, Smith concludes the chapter by considering that Christian worship entails a relatively brief portion of the week.  However, this reality can be moderated by the power of carefully attended Christian worship practices coupled with sensitivity to (and frequently avoidance of) the power of secular liturgies.  Additionally the power of corporate worship practices should be supplemented with habits of daily devotion that also take place in the context of families and other relationships along the lines of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.

Finally, in Chapter 6 Smith outlines the implications of his project for the Christian University.  Returning to the his opening question, “What is education for?”, Smith now asks “What is a Christian college for?”  Whereas Christian universities are most commonly thought to provide a Christian perspective on the world to their students, according to Smith merely thinking “from a Christian perspective” often does little to transform practice.  So then what is the goal of Christian education? “Its goal, I’m suggesting, is the same goal of Christian worship: to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being God’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation—but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor…In short, the task of Christian education needs to be reconnected to the thick practices of the church” (220).  Instead of speaking of “Christian colleges” Smith wishes that we would speak of “ecclesial colleges” and “ecclesial universities.”  In this way he wishes to express the notion that the university should be nourished by the heart of the church.  He sees this happening in at least three practical “monastic” ways.  First, he desires to reconnect the church with the chapel (as a mediating institution) and the classroom, thus making worship more directly connected with education.  Second, he wishes to reconnect the classroom with the dorm room and the neighborhood (as well as relationships between students and faculty outside of the classroom), hence avoiding the disconnect from “real life” relationships often experienced by college students.  Third he desires to reconnect the body and the mind, which would involve a pedagogy that is “liturgically informed,” thus enabling Christian education to be primarily concerned with formation and not just information.


By way of Summary, Smith makes three primary claims in this book:  first, we are liturgical animals formed by what we desire; second, some practices are thicker than others, carrying more formative weight; and third, Christianity is not fundamentally a worldview but rather what we believe and think grows out of what we do.

Desiring the Kingdom is not so much about what Christians think—that is, a book about “worldview”—but rather on what Christians love and then do, which articulates, “the shape of a Christian ‘social imaginary’ as it is embedded in the practices of Christian worship” 911). Smith’s goal is “to push down through worldview to worship as the matrix from which a Christian worldview is born—and to consider what that means for the task of Christian education and the shape of Christian worship” (11).

Learning must not be limited to practices that view humans as merely thinking things. Christian education needs to be primarily concerned with formation, not just information, which Smith summarizes clearly, “Any Christian scholarship worth the name must emerge from the matrix of worship. In short, Christian scholarship must be ecclesial scholarship” (230).