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Of the three person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the most mysterious. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a clear Biblical way to teach on the Holy Spirit? One where people could experience the power of living in the Spirit? Keep listening.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Every month I review Faithlife’s Free Book of the Month and for the month of August, the free book is “Empowered: Experience Living in the Power of the Spirit” by Josh and Sean McDowell.
Josh, Sean and… Dave
This is a bit of a strange book to review because it’s not a book to read so much as a book to work through. It’s a workbook. A guidebook. It’s a book for the small group to learn and share together.
If you are looking for a book to read then you should get The Unshakeable Truth: How you can experience the 12 essentials of a relevant faith by Josh and Sean McDowell. Yes, that’s McDowell of ”Evidence that demands a verdict” fame. The book published 40 years ago that made apologetics accessible for everyone.
Let’s get back to today’s book, Empowered. On the cover in large print it says, Sean and Josh McDowell. When you open the book, there is a page titled, “About the Authors” and another page titled, “About the Writer”. The confusion is quickly resolved.
Authors Josh and Sean McDowell collaborated with their writer to bring you this Unshakable Truth Journey Growth Guide. The content is based upon Scripture and the McDowells’ book The Unshakable Truth.
And writer is Dave Bellis. He is according to the book:
… a ministry consultant focusing on ministry planning and product development. He is a writer, producer, and product developer. He and his wife, Becky, have two grown children and live in northeastern Ohio.
In another book, “77 FAQs about God and the Bible”, Josh describes Bellis as a friend and colleague of 35 years (which would now be 44 years) who collaborated on questions, researched the answers, wrote the rough draft and folded all the McDowells’ edits and revisions to create the final draft.
In short, Dave Bellis is a name unfamiliar to readers but a close friend and collaborator to the McDowell’s. Now that we have settled the authorship question, like any good commentary, how is the book?
Unshakeable Truth Journey Growth Guides
Let me state a disclaimer. I read this 80 page book in less than an hour. That’s not a testament to my speed reading, it’s because a big chunk of the guidebook is questions and instructions. I’m reading this by myself, not in a group. So this review is really me assessing this book for a study group, not for individual readers.
This book sits in the middle of a 12 book series, the “Unshakeable Truth Journey Growth Guides”. The first book in the series is titled, “Created: Experience Your Unique Purpose”, second is “Inspired: Experience the Power of God’s Word”, then “Broken: Experience Victory over Sin” and for the rest, I’ll skip the subtitle but you can guess the topic, we have number 4,5,6: Accepted, Sacrifice, Forgiven; number 7,8 and 9: Growing, Resurrected and Empowered, and 10, 11 and 12: Perspective, Community and Restored.
The book has a page describing the series:
The Unshakable Truth Journey gets to the core of what being a true follower of Christ means and what knowing Christ is all about. Together you and your group will begin a journey that will last a lifetime. It is a journey into what you as a follower of Christ are to believe biblically, how you process your beliefs into core values, and how you live them out in all your relationships.
The big question is do you need to read from the first book? Can I just read book 9, the book we are reviewing today without reading in sequence or reading the rest? Yes, you can. There is minimal link to previous material, there is no build up. But, as a guy who likes to read things in sequence, where possible, I would start from Book 1.
Next question, do you need to read the book that this guide is based on? Unshakeable Truth? No. It asks you to read some chapters as homework but you can ignore it. The chapters are self-contained and when needed, it prints the relevant excerpts. And to give credit where credit is due, the guide book does not seriously try to sell you more stuff. If anything, it wants you to buy a Bible so that you can read it to your small group.
Let’s now bite into the book itself.
This book is guiding Christians on living in the power of the Holy Spirit. The church’s teaching on the Holy Spirit has boomed in the last one hundred years. Before, the emphasis was on God the Father and Jesus the Son. Some credit the Charismatics/Pentecostals for reviving interest in the Holy Spirit. Hmmm… maybe. In any case, today, Christians of all stripes are more attentive to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is heard in our songs, prayers, sermons and small group teachings.
What form of teaching will the McDowells take in this book? Let’s find out.
There are five sections to this book.
- The relational Meaning of the Trinity
- Who is the Holy Spirit?
- The Purpose of the Holy Spirit
- Living in the Power of the Holy Spirit
- Reflecting God’s Light Within Your Community.
The book is chock full of questions for your small group to explore. The very first paragraph of the book begins like this:
According to Genesis 2:24, when a man and woman are joined as husband and wife, “the two are united into one.” For you who are married or have been married, what does relational oneness mean? In other words, what are some examples of how your oneness is or maybe even isn’t always reflected in your relationship?
The second paragraph goes like this:
How do you think God came up with the idea of creating a man and woman who could experience relational unity and oneness of heart? Where did the original idea come from?
So the first thing we notice from this book is the questions. The questions range from ice-breakers, to what does the Bible say, to what can we learn and apply?
The third paragraph is just one instruction.
Someone read Genesis 1:26-27.
And that’s the second observation from this book. You don’t need McDowell’s book but you do need the Bible at hand. In the first chapter, I count eight times he asks someone to read from the Bible. So we can say that like any good apologist, the emphasis is to build an understanding from Scripture directly.
Next we come to the content. You might have noticed that this book on the Holy Spirit begins with the Trinity. The relationship of the Holy Spirit with God the Father and Jesus the Son. It begins by asking what does relational oneness mean in marriage. It then asks us to read Bible passages that describe Jesus and the Father. And in comes real tough questions.
Does Jesus have authority over the Father, or does the Father have authority over the Son? Let that sink in for a while.
Here are some leading questions that hint at the answer.
Does someone have to be in charge to make a relationship work? Why or why not?
Can a human loving relationship work in which the parties give of themselves freely out of love for one another without interjecting the question of who is over whom? Why or why not?
These questions are from the book and I can see a small group wrestling to give an answer. I promise you don’t need a seminarian to guide you through this book. The book offers answers and a clear doctrinal statement.
We believe the truth that there is one God who is eternally co-existing as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a perfect relationship of oneness.
And I think, this is a wonderful start to teach the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it seems to me, teaching on the Holy Spirit is very functional (what he does for me) or moral (how he sanctifies me) when it should begin with who he is.
Truth Encounter, Truth Talk
The book continues with a section titled Truth Encounter. The book describes this section this way:
This section is an invitation for you to stop and carefully reflect on the truth of each session. You’ll be asked to encounter a truth of God as you relate personally with Jesus, as you live out the truth of God’s Word with your small group, or as you relate personally with his people. Please don’t rush past these Truth Encounters. They are designed to equip you in how to experience truth right in the room you’re in!
How it looks like is, you are asked to read a bible verse and to reflect on it with the help of guided questions or exercises.
For example, it says:
Break into couples and take turns experiencing Philippians 2:4 with each other. Paraphrasing that verse, consider saying something like this to your partner: “I don’t want to think only about my own affairs. I am interested in you and what you are doing and what you are going through right now. Please share what you are going through—what you’re dealing with, good or bad. And I will listen. And I will have the attitude of Jesus and let you know I care about what you’re going through.”
Let me remind you, I was reading this book by myself. But I can imagine a group, if you are willing to go along and give it a try, this could be a breakthrough moment. I can imagine someone saying, “This is the first time someone actually listened to what I’m going through” or someone saying, “This is the first time I actually shut up and listened to someone else’s life.” By following the instructions, we could experience the Bible verse.
Every chapter closes with TruthTalk, an Assignment of the Week. The book describes it thus:
The TruthTalks are designed as conversation starters—ways to engage others in spiritual discussions. They will create opportunities for you to share what you’ve experienced in this course with others around you. This will help you communicate God’s truth with others as you share vulnerably about your own Unshakable Truth Journey.
So an example of this is:
God… made humans in his image, and that image was reflective of the perfect relationship of the three persons of the Godhead—a relationship so infinitely loving that it produced an intimate oneness, a bonding, a togetherness, and a connectedness unparalleled in the universe. This week take time with a family member or friend to make their concerns and affairs more important than your own. Consider saying something like:
And it gives an example script to say to your family or friend. You will notice it takes what we learnt in the chapter, the relational oneness of the Trinity, and brings that doctrine into experience into the community.
Then the chapter ends with some homework. It asks you to read the Unshakeable Truth but the guide book is good for the lazy students, or I would say, the busy student. You can attend the class without doing the homework but, of course, it’s better if you do. And we close in prayer.
The next session opens up by asking, “Hey, how did it go? Did you talk to someone like we told you to? How was it?”
I’ve given you a very full description of the first session or first chapter. I won’t be doing so for the other four sessions. One big difference between the first chapter and the rest is the first chapter is unusually long in comparison. If the group was sincerely trying to answer all the questions, it would take more than one hour, nearly two. This of course depends on how many people you have in the group, how chatty they are and how is the facilitator. Session Two to Five is not nearly as long.
Spirit and Spirit Gifts
What I think listeners might want to know is how does the book treat the Spiritual Gifts. Sadly, to me, the Holy Spirit is sometimes synonymous with the Spiritual Gifts. If you are looking for a Spiritual Gifts inventory description, this is not the book for your group. There is no juicy chapter of discovering your spiritual gifts. Not that I have anything against that as I will explain later.
I just think that Jesus and the Apostles speak more of the Holy Spirit in other terms. Like what you say?
John 14:25-26, where the Lord Jesus says “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Or Galatians 5:25, where the Apostle Paul says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
The guidebook is more in keeping with the main message of the Holy Spirit and less on the periphery, which is where I would place the Spiritual Gifts. I’m not shaming those who want to learn on the Spiritual Gifts. On the contrary, I assert that the most important chapters on this topic is 1 Corinthians 12, 13 and 14. Cessationists and continuationists, both depend on these three chapters to teach the spiritual gifts. And if you read it properly, for yourself, you will see that central to Paul’s teaching on the spiritual gifts, is the Trinity. The relational oneness. You don’t believe me, listen to this:
1 Corinthians 12:4-6, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.”
Begin with God, and in knowing who he is, you will see the blessings and gifts as he intends.
I Can’t Tell You How Good the Book is
How good is the book? You have heard it said, “The truth of the pudding is in the eating.” And that’s true of a guidebook like this. If you are going to read this cover to cover in an hour, you can’t really say you gained. Sure, there are bits and pieces of knowing stuff, and I love to know stuff, but this is an experiential book. It’s in the subtitle! Experience living in the power of the Holy Spirit. So you should experience it. By learning together. By doing what it tells you to do. By taking the handy scripts and performing it on the real stage, the world.
I know there is a cottage industry of small group study guides for many big name books out there. So what does this book have going for it? The McDowells’ are trusted apologists and their study guide here on the Holy Spirit rests firmly on the Bible. Meaning you are in safe hands here.
One of the hardest things to do for a study leader is to hunt for the next book to study. While there are many book-based study guides, I don’t think there are as many series-based study guides? Unshakeable Truth Journey contains 12 books. With five sessions each, you are looking at 60 sessions. So for the busy small group leader, you possibly looking at year’s worth of small group studies all neatly scheduled for you. How does that sound?
Honestly, to do this review justice, I should read the 500 page book on which this series of guides is based on. I’m more comfortable telling you whether a book is good or not, than whether a study guide is good or not. The enjoyment or profit from a book is very much dependent on the author’s way with words. In contrast, the enjoyment of a small group guide is more dependent on how the small group discussion went. There is only so much that a book of questions and instructions can do if people don’t want to answer the questions or follow the instructions.
This is a Reading and Readers review of Empowered: Experience Living in the Power of the Holy Spirit by Josh and Sean McDowell.
Before you go, I have one question and one instruction for you. The question is, “Do you enjoy the Reading and Readers episodes so far?” You might be interested to know that the most downloaded episode so far is my side-by-side review of Fault Lines, Cynical Theories, and Ministers of Reconciliation, followed by my review of Piper’s 700 page Providence. So check them out if you haven’t done so. And my one instruction is: “If you like the show, share it with a friend.” The reader or would-be reader will thank you for it.
Until next time, keep on reading.