When I was given the opportunity to review Aaron Armstrong's book, "Awaiting a Savior," I confess that I did not know what the book was about. What I did know, however, was that Armstrong was a blogger ("Blogging Theologically") from Ontario who consistently provides much edification via his blog posts and tweets (@AaronStrongarm). I was also aware of the publisher of the book (Cruciform Press), a relatively small company that continues to bless the church by releasing solid gospel-centered titles by sound authors (Al Martin, Brian Hedges, Joe Coffey, Dan Cruver, Greg Lucas, Tim Challies, Joel Beeke, and others) in the midst of an industry that peddles fluff and doctrinally weak material. I'm not only impressed by Cruciform's depth chart and selection of books... but I am also intrigued by their business model, creativity and marketing strategies. I look forward to reading more of their titles in the future.
Since I have never written a book review, I was unsure about how exactly I would go about it. Though the past few months have been hectic with moving, doctor's appointments (my wife and I are expecting a daughter in February!), trying to get plugged in to a local church, and illness, I have finally finished reading and reviewing it (with the help of Adobe Acrobat on my smart phone). I hope you enjoy my review and recommendation of Aaron Armstrong's "Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty".
As I mentioned before, my knowledge of this book was limited, and it was not until I received it and read the subtitle that I knew what it was about. When I saw the word "poverty" in the subtitle, a number of things came to mind. I thought about the current "missional" phenomenon in American Evangelicalism, I thought about the "health, wealth, and prosperity" heresy and I thought about the "social gospel" (which is a false gospel... in fact, no gospel at all) amongst other things. Some of my concerns were alleviated as I read David Murray's endorsement. Murray writes, "Aaron Armstrong has not only thought hard about alleviating poverty, he’s also worked hard at it." Armstrong explains further in the book, "This is no academic exercise for me. As an employee of a Christian charity that works with the Church to care for the poor, I have seen real poverty firsthand—and I have seen the rich hope that the gospel brings to those who live in it," (p. 10). This experience, coupled with an understanding of the truth of gospel-transformation, is a recipe for a biblical and practical treatise on the subject of poverty.
Whenever I read a book, I pay careful attention to the endorsements... who wrote them, and what is said about that particular book. "Awaiting a Savior" is endorsed by several people whom I consider brothers in Christ... and though I do not know them personally, these are brothers that are influential, biblically-oriented and gifted servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what some of them have to say:
"Awaiting a Savior reorients our mercy ministry around the gospel, seeking to show how a life of love is the overflow of a grace-filled heart.” (Trevin Wax)
"This biblical theology of poverty is a mixture of pessimism, optimism, and realism. He’s rightly pessimistic about humanistic solutions, he’s brightly optimistic about God’s ultimate solution, and he’s practically realistic about the best and most the Church can do in this present age.” (David Murray)
"Awaiting a Savior is that it empowers us to care for the poor by making much of Jesus.” (Dan Cruver)
So, a synthesis of these statements indicate that the book is a gospel-centered biblical theology of poverty that makes much of Jesus... I like the sound of that.
Armstrong begins by rightly assessing the plight of man and the limitations of humanity (even those who are regenerate) in attempting to eradicate poverty. He asserts that, "as Christians, we need to be very clear about something. Resources and awareness and policies are important, but poverty is not fundamentally about any of these things. The root cause of poverty is sin," (p. 9). He points to the unfortunate fact that "the pervasiveness and nature of sin is missing completely from most of today’s discussion surrounding poverty. The idea that we can wipe out injustice and inequality for good overlooks the fundamental problem of our sinful nature. Therefore, the basic premise of this book is that our good faith efforts to address legitimate questions of poverty and injustice must never lose sight of the fact that poverty will persist as long as the heart of man is ruled by sin," (pp. 9-10). This is not surprising when we read the apostle Paul's teaching on what theologians call the "noetic effects" of sin in 1 Corinthians 2:12-16.
With a biblical-theological trajectory, the author begins with the doctrine of original sin to show how our lives are affected by the "cosmic treason" of Adam and Eve, with regard to poverty. He writes, "Everything about Adam and Eve’s fall makes economic prosperity difficult and elusive. In fact, the fall has made poverty the default setting, an ever-present gravitational pull intent on dragging us down. This is true not only because it is now harder to produce material wealth but also because the fall triggered an ongoing cascade of relational challenges characterized by blame-shifting and excuses about our sin, as well as an ongoing desire in each of us to play God over one another," (p. 20). This is clearly seen in Genesis 3, when God curses both the earth and humanity. When we understand the implications of the curse, we view the world we live in correctly. As Armstrong puts it, "Today, as it has been since the fall of Adam and Eve, all our efforts to provide and prosper meet with opposition. From subsistence farmers in forgotten corners of the globe to CEOs in corner offices, all progress requires toil. The curse on labor is still in effect, and this has extensive implications for how we understand and respond to poverty," (pp. 18-19). He adds, frankly..."If you don’t understand what happened in the Garden of Eden, you are missing the single biggest factor that contributes to poverty," (p. 20).
The main premise of this book, "poverty is the result of sin," should not be misunderstood as, "the poor suffer due to a specific manifestation of God's judgment upon their individual sin." Rather, Armstrong clarifies, "I am not saying that material poverty comes when God punishes particular individuals or particular people for particular sins. At times, God may choose to discipline people through material means, but a 'punishment' view of poverty is not necessary to account for the poverty we see. We live in a fallen world, a world living under a curse as the direct result of Adam and Eve’s sin, and that in itself is more than enough to account for the world’s poverty," (p. 23). Since all of mankind has sinned in Adam, as the apostle Paul writes in Romans 5, and the guilt of and penalty for sin has been imputed to them as well, we are in a helpless state and spiraling downward... and it is not just an external reality; the depths of depravity run deep: "Sin is not an environmental condition or something that varies in its essence from one person to another. It’s a universal heart issue," (p.26). The universality of the effects are indeed personally deep, but they are also interpersonally broad: "Sin has marred our identity as God’s image bearers and crippled our relationship with God, one another, and the world around us. Sin thus not only causes poverty but also poisons our attitude toward those suffering within it," (p. 46).
In light of these aspects of the curse, the identification of the underlying problem is laid bare. The tragedy of poverty, as well as the motivation for the solution of it, are both "heart-issues." Armstrong points out that "the issue before God is not whether you understand the essential challenges underlying poverty. The issue is your heart motivation for pursuing its eradication," (p. 32). Sin is so pervasive, that even our noble efforts to combat poverty might be motivated by evil desires. The author is aware of this and addresses the internal motive as well as the external act: "My concern is not that people are calling attention to the plight of the global poor. If anything, we may need to be reminded more often, not less. My concern, and even my fear, is whether we have gotten off-track and become more concerned with our own legacies and our own kingdoms than with Christ’s... We must carefully and prayerfully examine our hearts and motives when considering our approach to caring for the poor," (p. 33).
The dangers of neglecting God's providence in and sovereignty over poverty is stark. "We want to wrestle control of our destinies away from God," writes Armstrong, "Being the only creatures called to exercise dominion on God’s behalf isn’t quite enough for us. We don’t want to settle for being God’s representatives, we want to be more “like God” than that—we want control... this desire to force outcomes and control destinies has come to dominate much of the antipoverty movement," (p. 17). As the author shows, even a good thing like the fight to end poverty, can be fueled by sinful desire. The idolatry of humanism, while often camouflaged by good intentions, creates a Babel-esque atmosphere: "When Adam and Eve sinned, it was because they wanted to be like God. As humanity multiplied and filled the earth, sin multiplied with them. Our desire for significance, twisted by sin, always drives us to rob God of his glory and make a name for ourselves instead. This pursuit will always fail, and quite often we will do substantial harm to our fellow man in the process," (pp. 37-38; cf. Genesis 11).
So what is the solution, if any, to the problem of global poverty? The author explains: "The ultimate answer to poverty is circumcised hearts, hearts that know the God who forms and keeps covenant with poor, undeserving sinners," (p. 47). He continues to expound upon the lovingkindness of God in relation to His covenant children... and their response to His gospel of love: "Covenant faithfulness is obedience—obedience motivated not out of obligation or duty or a desire to score points with God but out of love for God," (p. 55; cf. 1 John 4:10). The Lord Jesus commands His followers to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind," and to "love your neighbor as yourself," (Matthew 22:37-40). Armstrong then presents to us the reality of our Savior's teaching: "Loving our neighbor in real, tangible ways is as much a 'proof' of our salvation as anything else. How we relate to God directly affects how we relate to others. Unfaithfulness to the Lord will lead to a lack of concern for our neighbor—but the opposite should also be true," (p. 56). "Covenant faithfulness," he adds, "always leads to ethical faithfulness. The faithful will seek to care for the poor around them, to 'share [their] bread with the hungry', to 'cover the naked', and to 'let the oppressed go free.' They will 'bear fruit in keeping with repentance.' They will pursue justice in the full biblical sense of the term," (p. 56-57).
This is the power of the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ's substitutionary atonement as a wrath-satisfying sacrifice on behalf of sinners frees us to properly approach the tragedy of poverty. "If we expect to end poverty, we need to deal with our sin problem first. To deal with our sin problem, we need a heart that’s inclined toward the Lord. And this heart is something only God can give us," (p. 59). Yes! We need a new heart, and only God can give us that heart (Ezekiel 36:22-32)... only God can change our negative disposition towards Him and correct our misplaced motives in interpersonal relationships by the power of His Spirit. Poverty is not chiefly an ethical issue, it is a spiritual issue... and by the grace of God we are given new life in Christ.
This irresistible and unmerited favor is unconditional and beckons humble adoration of the One who gives it. Armstrong describes the results of grace: "Grace kills our hypocrisy and our desire for the approval of man. Grace destroys our plan to try to meet God’s demands out of our own will. Grace sweeps away our anxiety. Grace allows us to persevere in prayer, trusting that the Father will give good gifts to those who ask. Grace allows us to be careful of how we judge, examining our own hearts before passing judgment on another. Grace allows us to put others before ourselves, doing to them what we would have them do to us," (p. 66). We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds and submit to His authoritative Word, but this impossible prior to being graced with His Spirit. We must not put the cart before the horse... "We must recognize that before Jesus ever offers ethics, he offers grace," writes Armstrong, "If we don’t see that ... we will use the Sermon on the Mount as a hammer, a means of trying to force ourselves or others to act in a way we never could act without the grace of the Holy Spirit. This legalism is the natural inclination of our hearts. We want law, not gospel. We want deeds, not creeds. We want the demands of the law—even if it’s just so we can disobey them. But the good news of the gospel includes the fact that grace always comes before the demands of the kingdom. Jesus is not telling us what is required to earn blessing. He’s telling us what to do in light of the fact that we are already blessed," (pp. 65-66).
Armstrong hits the nail on the head concerning the poverty issue... the gospel is where we need to begin. He shows that "Caring for the poor starts with understanding the grace Jesus has given to those who believe in him. We must get this straight in our heads—and in our hearts," (p. 66-67). When we understand grace in our heads and hearts, it should be transferred and implemented by our hands. He continues to explain, "What we do is the fruit of what we believe about Jesus... it’s not enough that the Christian care for the needs of the poor—you don’t have to be a Christian to want to help the unfortunate. As we seek to help in genuine, meaningful ways, through it all we have a greater goal: the glory of Jesus Christ," (p. 67). We should not see our fight against poverty as an end in itself; our end should be the glory of God through the means of helping the poor: "We are called to care for the poor because God is glorified in our doing so. We care for the poor because we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of grace," (p. 68).
One of my favorite parts of the book is at the end of chapter 5. Armstrong gives a clear gospel presentation and shares how we should live in light of the gospel with regard to the impoverished:
"Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father, then took the punishment we deserved by dying on the cross for our sins. Jesus took our sinfulness and gave us his righteousness so that we, on the Day of Judgment, can stand confidently before God and spend eternity with him.
That is the grace he offers. That is the grace that frees us from guilt and shame over our sin. That is the grace that sustains us even in the midst of difficulty. That is the grace that enables us to consider others as greater and more important than ourselves. And that is the grace that we share when we begin to invest in the lives of the poor," (p. 68)
Another intriguing part of the book is the author's retelling of John 12... specifically when Jesus says, "the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me," (v. 8). Armstrong explains, "In telling the disciples that the poor would always be among them (and us), Jesus does us all a great service, freeing us... to serve the poor with a biblical attitude," (p. 73). The perpetual existence of poverty is an opportunity for us to serve; to bring glory to Christ by proclaiming Him to the poor and needy while offering tangible assistance to their material needs. In fact, "caring for the poor is a worship issue... The poor always with us means we have virtually endless opportunities to practically worship Christ, expressing our love for God through caring for the poor of this world," (pp. 74-75). Again, we must not see the means of worship as the end... the worshipful means of serving the poor to the glory of God should see that glory most richly manifest in the conversion and discipleship of the sinner. In other words, "Humanistic goals like ending extreme global poverty within our lifetime add a condition to our caring for the poor. Ministry that should be focused on people instead becomes focused on targets. Targets aren’t bad in themselves, but they can be devastating to those we’re trying to help, and to Christian service in general. As Christians, our agenda should be to see rebellious sinners reconciled to the Father. That includes doing what we can to minister to the poor amid their suffering, but it obviously goes well beyond it as well. Our ultimate desire should be to see God glorified as he becomes their Savior," (p. 74).
Finally, Armstrong points us to the eschatological reality that awaits us and how we are to live in the present evil age...
"Without the hope of the coming of the new creation, we have nothing to offer those who suffer in poverty. It is this hope we must share, whether we’re working for relief, development, or social reform. We must bring immediate relief to those suffering from severe drought and famine, but we must also bring them the promise that there is one who will someday relieve all their suffering. We must give the young man who has been trapped in a familial cycle of crime and poverty the skills he needs to leave the system, but we must also offer him the promise of a new identity that comes from the one who died for his sins. We must confront a social system that abuses and breaks the backs of its people, but we must also share the promise of a world where perfect peace and justice will reign forever... It is the best of all possible hopes we can offer the poor. The hope for an eternal end to poverty—one not found in human effort, but in the return of Jesus, when he will make all things new and wipe away every tear from every eye." (pp. 97-98)
"Awaiting a Savior" is an immensely practical book; but it is also theologically-oriented. It is a product of biblical study/prayer/meditation coupled with faithful application by doing the word and not just hearing it. I highly recommend this book to those who suffer from legalistic methods of performance, those who find it difficult to put their faith into action, and also those who are already worshiping Christ by serving the poor to the glory of God.
In conclusion, I'd like to present some practical wisdom/advice from the author. My prayer is that it stirs you, the reader, up to good works and that people see the fruit of your labor and glorify God:
"I want you to see the unique opportunities God has placed before you—opportunities to serve others for his glory and your joy. Maybe a place to start is by taking one night this week to help at your local street mission, intentionally getting to know one person being assisted there. Maybe it’s talking to the local men’s or women’s shelters about how you or your church can be a resource. Maybe it’s supporting a child who lives in poverty through a reputable Christian organization. If you stop and look, the opportunities are virtually limitless." (p. 78)
Effective December 1, 2009, Federal Trade Commission guidelines state that bloggers receiving any kind of compensation should disclose that information clearly on their blog when posting a review of the product... that being said: I RECEIVED A FREE PDF VERSION OF THE BOOK. CLEAR ENOUGH?