Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian MaturityWritten by Gordon T. Smith Reviewed By Nathan A. Finn
Evangelical publishing houses continue to publish many books every year on spiritual formation, Christian spirituality, and related topics. Gordon Smith is one of the more prominent evangelical voices in this field. Smith, who serves as president and teaches systematic and spiritual theology at Ambrose University College and Seminary in Calgary, has made what is arguably his most important contribution to the discussion with his new book Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity.
Called to Be Saints is an evangelical spiritual theology that is framed around the theme of our sainthood in Christ. The first two chapters set the theological tone for the remainder of the book. In chapter one, Smith discusses the need for an evangelical theology of holiness that focuses on spiritual formation while avoiding the threats of moralism, perfectionism, and Pelagianism. He also suggests five criteria for a healthy understanding of spiritual maturity: 1) Trinitarian and Christocentric; 2) salvation as the fulfillment of God’s creation; 3) the interplay of sin and faith; 4) individual and communal holiness; 5) the ordinary and the mundane (including suffering). Chapter two grounds the Christian life in our union with Christ. For Smith, this doctrine is more about participation in the life of Christ than it is covenantal identification with Christ, though he explicitly distances himself from any Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Central to Smith’s vision is the idea that moral formation is derivative of our spiritual formation. Spiritual maturity is God-centered and grace always precedes effort.
The remaining four chapters focus on themes that arise from this theological foundation. Chapter three addresses wisdom, or what Smith calls sapiential holiness. Cultivating a Christian mind leads to moral wisdom, discernment, and the proper use of gifts and talents. Chapter four focuses upon vocational holiness. Smith draws upon the Lutheran doctrine of vocation and the Neo-Calvinist understanding of cosmic redemption to argue spiritual maturity includes owning your vocations as a faithful participant in God’s work of redemption and restoration. The fifth chapter discusses social holiness, or communal sanctification. Evangelism, service, hospitality, worship, teaching, and evangelism are best cultivated in a community of love that reflects the glory of the Triune God. Chapter six is concerned with emotional holiness. Following Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, Smith focuses on the work God does in gradually reshaping our affections and desires for his purposes. Corporate worship, spiritual friendships, and Sabbath are key disciplines God uses to this end.
Smith’s book also includes two chapter-length appendices that are excellent and worthy of book-length treatments unto themselves. Appendix A looks at the role local congregations play in forming believers into mature saints. Smith argues the church is called to be a liturgical community, a teaching-learning community, and a missional community. Each of these three orientations plays a role in the sanctification of the church’s members. Appendix B discusses spiritual maturity in Christian higher education. Again returning to the doctrine of vocation, Smith suggests ways for schools to cultivate a vibrant spirituality among students in various academic disciplines. He suggests, perhaps provocatively, that Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries should see their primary purpose as promoting sanctification among students while also promoting academic excellence. However, Smith is very clear that scholarship and spiritual maturity ought to go hand-in-hand in Christian higher education.
Called to Be Saints is a helpful work in evangelical spiritual theology. Smith writes from a perspective that is rooted in the Wesleyan-holiness tradition, but not narrowly so. He strongly criticizes perfectionist views of sanctification, denounces any sense of works-based righteousness, and draws upon Reformed and other non-Wesleyan thinkers to help him make his case. Those who have read his earlier book Transforming Conversion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010) will know he is also critical of decisionism, which is noteworthy for a theologian ordained in the historically revivalistic Christian and Missionary Alliance tradition.
Readers with a more Reformed understanding of sanctification should find his spiritual vision fundamentally sound, if perhaps in need of correction on a few key points. Smith’s view on the centrality of union with Christ is spot on, though his virtual ignoring of our positional union while focusing on our vital union is unfortunate; the latter arises from the former. His discussion of justification and sanctification is somewhat muddled, perhaps reflecting his Wesleyan roots. His sacramentalism will not resonate with many low church evangelicals, though his emphasis on the role baptism and especially communion play in spiritual formation will be appreciated by most readers.
Because of these shortcomings, Called to Be Saints is probably not the best book to hand to a church member interested in this topic. However, it will prove an essential and much-appreciated resource for pastors and professors, even those who are from non-Arminian traditions.
Nathan A. Finn
Nathan A. Finn (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as provost and dean of the university faculty at North Greenville University. He is co-editor of the forthcoming volume Historical Theology for the Church (B&H Academic, 2021).
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