How many times have you tried to change and failed? How many New Year’s resolutions have you given up before the end of January? More significantly, how many times have you promised God that you will change: that you will pray more, stop being so angry, or start being less selfish? It’s enough to make you stop believing that you can change at all. Maybe the problem with our beliefs about change is that they are ultimately beliefs about ourselves. “I can change if I just try hard enough” becomes “I didn’t change, so I must not be trying enough.” If we really are going to change, we need to believe in something other than our willpower.
Klaus Issler, professor of Christian education and theology at Talbot School of Theology, believes in Jesus. He believes that Jesus died for our sins. He believes that Jesus gives meaning to our lives. He also believes Jesus transforms us. None of these is a novel belief, but what’s rare is just how seriously Issler takes this hope in Christ’s transforming power. He doesn’t suggest we ought to try to be different because Jesus is real, nor does not say that living more faithfully would be a good way to express gratitude. He believes that a transformed life is the proper, even normal, consequence of being a Christian. Thus, if we aren’t changed, and consistently don’t grow, then something has gone terribly wrong.
Readers familiar with Dallas Willard will see echoes here, particularly Willard’s “Vision, Intention, Means” understanding of growth. Living into the Life of Jesus is a significant contribution to the “means” of this equation. Issler seeks to guide readers frustrated with a lack of change through a process of growth that truly does something. However, he avoids two of the most common traps found in many writers addressing spiritual formation. He doesn’t simply give an invitation to start a journey of growth, but instead offers rigorously practical guidance. Yet he also avoids merely listing spiritual disciplines and common sense wisdom. Issler operates at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and educational theory. His greatest strength is in the union of a strong theoretical foundation with practical application. This is true both for the overall picture of Christian growth that he develops and particular elements.
Why does merely understanding and trying hard to follow the example of Jesus often yield little progress—and even less joy and peace? In this foundational work of Christian formation, Klaus Issler derives insights from the life of Jesus in the Gospels to uncover the dynamics of becoming Christlike. You will discover how you can forge much deeper connections with Jesus so that his life begins to permeate your own character.
In addressing the process of change (70–74), for example, Issler describes a model of growth that is distinctively Christian yet comprehensive enough to avoid simplistic sacred/secular distinctions. The process begins with the awareness of a “gap,” an area in which either an element of Christian worldview is missing or where that worldview has not been applied to heart and life in a deep and habitual way. Issler describes the difficulty of facing this gap (illustrated with his own occasional struggle with anger), thoughtful formation and experimentation addressing this gap, and the movement from self-conscious practice to well-integrated habit. He addresses relapses in this process, both as common occurrences to be expected and a sign of freedom as they grow less frequent over a long period of growth. In all of this, Issler consistently mentions the “dependence on the Spirit” as a necessary element of this growth process. While the nature and role of this dependence isn’t always clearly defined, his personal illustrations and the consistent attention to the Spirit should more than assuage any concern that this is a plan for personal growth apart from dependence on God. Further, Issler provides a detailed treatment of dependence on God later in the book, focusing on Jesus as a model of dependence and on the diverse ways in which the Holy Spirit empowers believers.
The central theoretical treatment of growth is found in the first third of the book. This is followed by a second major section treating essential theological themes related to growth. Here, Issler treats a variety of issues, and each of his chapters on love, the Holy Spirit (particularly in relationship with Jesus in his earthly life), and Scripture could serve as a substantial stand-alone essay. I hope and expect seminary professors will make use of them in a variety of courses. The final section applies the model of the first section and suggests practical exercises for addressing relationships, money, and work. These are deep and rich sections offering serious insight despite the size of the topics Issler is tackling in relatively brief chapters. Readers will benefit from them as models of application, but I suspect they will also find much to apply. In fact, I found myself hoping for a small group curriculum to accompany the text. I also filled index cards with personal notes about practices I would like to try in the near future.
One topic that does seem missing from the text, however, is the church. Issler includes both relationships and the role of community in formation. His approach to formation is not typical American evangelical individualism. However, his treatment of these themes focuses primarily on the nearest circle of relationships (family and close friends). One could certainly make a strong case for an open and serious small group as an aide to growth on the basis of this book. However, if a Christian is studying Scripture and has close Christian relationships, it is difficult to see why being involved in a local church would be either necessary or even beneficial on the basis of the model of growth Issler describes in this book. Granted, this criticism risks falling into the category of “I like this book, but here’s a whole different book I wish he’d written.” However, Issler trains pastors (both future and veteran) and (having attended the same church in the past) I know that he is a committed participant in his own church. It would be helpful to have a more clearly described connection between the life of shared worship and teaching and communion, as well as the role of church as family and culture, in his description of transformation. Perhaps this is enough to require another entire book, but if so it would a natural and valuable extension of Living into the Life of Jesus. I hope that Klaus Issler writes such a follow-up, because this book leaves me eager to learn more from him.