Called to Be Saints seeks answers to three substantive questions: What is the beginning of the Christian life? What is the character of Christian maturity? What is the approach and means of formation so that we may grow up in our salvation (p. 9)? In response to the first question, Smith, who is president and professor of systematic and spiritual theology at Ambrose University College and Seminary, writes, “What makes a Christian a Christian is participation in the life of Christ Jesus, or union with Christ. One is a Christian because one is ‘in Christ’” (p. 37 cf pp 38-61). The remainder of the book addresses the final two questions developing what the author sees as the four essentials of Christian maturity (pp. 36, 184-185, 221-222). Holy people:
- Are wise (chapter three; pp. 63-87)
- Do good work (chapter four; pp. 89-125)
- Love others (chapter five; pp. 127-152)
- Have joy or are happy (chapter six; pp. 153-179)
Concerning this last essential, Smith quotes with favor an Eastern Orthodox theologian as saying, “I think God will forgive anything except the lack of joy…Joy is not one of the ‘components’ of Christianity, it is the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything” (p. 153). Of course, this concept cannot be supported by Scripture but is indicative of the authority base found throughout the book.
While there are nuggets of truth and valuable insights peppered throughout the volume, such as Christians mature as they participate in the life of Christ through radical dependence on the grace of the Spirit (pp. 19-25), sadly, Smith turns consistently to questionable authors, sources and traditions to support his views. This includes:
- Roman Catholic authors such as Thomas Aquinas (p. 26) and Simone Weil (p. 144)
- Secular authors such as Annie Dillard (p. 100) and Erick Erickson (p. 116)
- Liberal/social gospel promoters including: Gustavo Gutierrez (the father of Liberation Theology p. 80), Martin Luther King (pp. 82, 91), Lesslie Newbigin (pp. 157, 240) and Rowan Williams (pp. 56, 132-133)
Smith primarily draws, however, from monasticism, the spiritual formation movement and the desert fathers. Ancient founders of monasticism and Catholic/Orthodox mystic are referenced often: Ignatius (pp. 38, 91, 120-125, 149-151), Bernard (pp. 71, 177-178, 230), Teresa of Avila (p. 99), Julian of Norwich (pp. 121, 158-159), the desert fathers (p. 134), John of the Cross (p. 172), Jesuits (pp. 231-232), Benedict (pp. 238, 249), and the monastics (pp. 231, 238, 250). Modern popularizers are of course Richard Foster (p. 16), Dallas Willard (pp. 51, 215-216, 218), and Henri Nouwen (p. 100). Smith champions spiritual direction (p. 211) and the monastic forms of engagement with Scripture, call lectio divina (p. 238).
Called to Be Saints, while attempting to promote spiritual maturity and offering some helpful material, stumbles badly by turning to non-biblical sources of authority, in particular, Roman Catholic monastic mystics. The result is a confusing hodge-podge of biblical guidance and theological poison. The only reason I would encourage anyone to read this volume is to realize how deeply ingrained the Spiritual Formation Movement has become in evangelicalism today.
Called to Be Saints, An Invitation to Christian Maturity by Gordon T. Smith (Downer Grove: IVP Academic, 2014) 256 pp., $26.00 paperback
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel