Book Review: Letters to a Young Calvinist, by James K. A. Smith

  • Brazos Press
  • November 2010
  • 160 pp.

For many, Calvinism is nothing more than the theological concepts represented by TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. Yet, what does Calvinism offer the theological layman? In James K. A. Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition, readers are treated to a charitable, wide-sweeping view of how Calvinism includes TULIP and a whole lot more.

I love the letter format. Smith creates a fictional “Jesse” as the recipient. At the book’s start, Jesse has just discovered Calvinism and has begun a snail-mail conversation with Smith, a former mentor. Smith gently and truthfully guides Jesse through various stages, including TULIP obsession, theological snobbery, and spiritual amnesia. Thanks to the letter format, Smith is able to treat topics sparingly as he pursues each letter’s message.

And the overall message about Calvinism that Smith sends to Jesse is rewarding. Smith illustrates how Calvinism is about one word–grace–and about how that one word goes “all the way down” to the bottom of everything. He explains how creation itself is an act of unmerited grace, and how, because of the grace-nature of everything, God owes us absolutely nothing. One might suspect that the letters get dark here–but that’s far from the case! Smith goes on to discuss the history of Reformed theology, the “catholicity” of Reformed theology, Reformed confessions, God’s “people” (versus individual) purposes in salvation, the concept of covenant, and the “far as the curse is found” scope of Reformed theology.

Though I love all that stuff, it’s inevitable that someone who sets out to write a colloquial, epistolary discussion of a topic as big as Calvinism is bound to say things that readers will disagree with. Smith’s letters touch on a vast array of controversial topics, including dispensationalism, predestination, hell, infant baptism, male and female roles in the church, worship, and creeds. Though I don’t land with him on every issue, he’s writing personal letters, not theological treatises. If you’re able to read for the big picture, this is a winning book that invites readers in to the grandeur of Calvinism.

Buy it at Amazon.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commision’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Tim Keller Sermon Notes — Series: The Gospel, Hope, and the World — Sermon #5: Hope for your Work

Sermon preached on October 25, 2009.

The teaching is based on Titus 2:11-3:9.

Tim Keller preached this message. Dr. Keller is the Senior Pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He is also an author of the books Ministries of MercyThe Reason for God, Prodigal God, Counterfeit Gods, Gospel in LifeGenerous Justice, and King’s Cross.

Please note that these sermon notes are provided only to encourage, and that any or all parts of the notes may contain errors or omissions, due entirely to the note-taker. Full audio of the sermon may be found at the Redeemer Sermon Store.


I. The passion of hope

II. The case study of hope

III. The reason we can have this hope

I. The passion (or force) of this hope (v. 13)

  • We are people who are eager to do good.
  • In the Scriptures, the Second Coming is never brought up to get us to speculate on the end–it’s to get you passionate about living now.
  • The Second Coming is to fill bad lives with good news
    • Passionate and compassionate Christians want the second coming
    • the second coming accomplishes two things: everyone knows him, and everyone is treated justly
  • “righteous” means to live justly in the world
    • the righteous are those willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community
  • the just person sees their resources as belonging to those around them; the unjust see them as MINE (vv. 3:1-2)
  • righteousness/uprightness is not just about ethical goodness; it’s about the common good as well.

II. The Case Study of Hope

  • At Redeemer, we believe it’s important to teach how to incorporate faith and work
  • If you’re a moralist, you’ll want to know exactly what it looks like to be a Christian artist or teacher
    • But not all things have exacts; some things have trajectories; in this case, being a Christian in your job will have a trajectory along the lines of A) Motivation, B) Proportion, and C) Consolation
  • A) Motivation: Why do you work and take the job that you have?
    • some people take jobs to make money, some to get emotional fulfillment
    • Yet, this passage (Titus 2:11-3:9) asks, “Is my work helping human beings to flourish in some way?”
    • Adam and Eve: a gardener isn’t someone who does or doesn’t touch; it’s someone who gets in the soil and takes raw material to give us something we need, physically or emotionally
    • Writers and actors take the raw material of human experience and create stories that teach or help people in some way
  • B) Proportion: “inordinate desires” v. 3:3
    • Most people don’t come to NYC to have a life; they come wanting to get a self (out of their work, most often)
    • It’s overwork when we don’t feel good about ourselves unless we’re accomplishing something
    • If it’s true that he saves us not because of what we’ve done, then we aren’t justified by work (what we do), but by grace (what he’s done)
      • this means that we don’t need to come to our jobs in search of a self
  • C) Consolation: Not idealism, not cynicism
    • Jesus Christ has given us a blessed hope
      • First, we know it’s not going to get perfect now
      • Yet, we work towards it, because we know it exists
    • E.g., “A Leaf by Niggle,” by J. R. R. Tolkein

III. Why do we have a right to see the Second Coming as a hope?

  • It sounds great to think of the end of death, genocide, rape, graft, etc.
    • If there’s no judgment day, what hope does the world have?
    • If there is a judgment day, what hope do we have?
  • What if all of your thoughts were broadcast around the world for a day–just a day?
      • You would die of shame
  • This is exactly how we are before God

2,000 years ago, a man who would have had no shame from such a broadcast–the God-man–took upon himself the judgment day that we deserve. Jesus entered the city not looking for a self, but to lose himself; in so doing, he purchased us an identity that cannot be shaken, so we no longer have to look to our jobs to give us who we are.

Poem: My Greenhouse Bubble

My Greenhouse Bubble

From the polution of my heart
a bubble forms around my life;
like the greenhouse effect,
it diverts divine grace,
constantly sent sunbeams,
from reflecting from me
away from my gravity
as they were made to.

Instead, those untold graces
on their way out turn back to me.
I kneel to pray, but my prayers
constantly return in subject matter to their sender.
Naturally, I take the grace to pray
and use it to bless myself,
praying for my needs,
as if the earth, a tiny pebble,
need pray to the behemoth sun to receive his sunlight.

And, then, I intend
to praise him in prayer,
to pray for others,
yet constantly, like faithful dogs,
the words and thoughts
return to my needs, my day,
my desire to pray with pretty words.

“I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.”

Here is grace for grace,
to be given the unsearchable riches
of the gift of prayer,
and then the gift of actually seeking them.

Movie Notes – Star Wars, Episode I, The Phantom Menace

Crystal and I started watching the Star Wars movies last night with Episode I. She’s never watched them before and was pretty leery about making a start at it, but she’s hooked already. We decided before we watched them that we’d look for gospel parallels, just for fun. I know, we’re dorks, but what do you expect from Star Wars fans?

Here’s what we found:


  • “Fear gives way to anger, anger to hate, hate to suffering.” Yoda says this regarding Anakin. We’re not sure if it’s God’s timeless truth, but undoubtedly these things are all connected in the mess of our sinful hearts. Relying on a sinful “chosen one” spelled suffering for the entire universe in Star Wars.
  • Anakin is the “chosen one” (or is he?) who will bring balance to the force. Jesus came and brought His followers back to Himself by living a sinless life and taking our sins upon Himself on the cross. Anakin will eventually die for the galaxy by sacrificing his busted up body as Darth Vader in Episode VI.
  • Anakin is born to no father. “The Force” spawns him, allegedly. Perhaps God the Father is the force in these movies — the insurmountable problem with this, of course, is that the Force has a dark side, and God is infinitely far from darkness.
  • There is always hope for sinners, even for Anakin, who is given much and eventually uses what he’s given for evil.
  • We leave a legacy of ourselves in those we disciple, just as Qui Gon Jin leaves a legacy in Obi Wan Kenobi. At the start of the film, Obi Wan seems to be more of a straight-and-narrow type, but by the end, after Qui Gon is dead, Obi Wan seems to be ready to step into his defiant shoes.
  • The Jedi are an elite group, and they  gain entry into the group by born qualities and demonstrated ability. Christians are part of an incredibly amazing group (God’s children), but they are invited into an eternal family based not on their performance or abilities, but rather on Christ’s.
  • Anakin, the chosen one, is sinful. And his son, Luke Skywalker, who may be the real chosen one, is also sinful. Jesus isn’t. He’s perfect.