The Transforming Power of the GospelWritten by Jerry Bridges Reviewed By Drew Hunter
Well-titled, The Transforming Power of the Gospel is about just that: the role of the gospel in personal transformation. This isn’t a comprehensive work on the doctrine of progressive sanctification, but a seminar in written form that focuses on what Bridges has learned more deeply about the topic over the past 25 years.
Bridges begins by recounting his journey into gospel-centeredness. Perhaps surprisingly, we learn that the truths emphasized in this book, which have become the theme of his ministry, were not fully grasped until after writing his most popular book, The Pursuit of Holiness, in 1978. “I still had more to learn,” he writes (p. 15). This implies that The Pursuit of Holiness, while perhaps his best-known work, is not the place to go to hear what makes him tick. What has he learned since then? While we are certainly called to “pursue holiness,” he discovered that the gospel is what motivates this pursuit and also what keeps us from being discouraged when we fail. These themes of gospel-motivation and gospel-encouragement form two chapters at the heart of the book (chs. 5, 6) and are also intentionally threaded throughout the whole.
Although one can’t tell by looking at the Table of Contents, the book is clearly and intentionally structured. It falls into essentially two parts. The first unpacks the gospel as the foundation and motivation for transformation. Chapters 2–4 address the holiness of God, our guilt because of sin, and the grace of the gospel. While this may sound like “gospel 101,” Bridges is convinced that although “we know we are saved by faith in Christ alone” we often revert to assuming “we earn God’s acceptance and blessing in our daily lives by our performance” (p. 55).
This sets up the two key chapters (chs. 5–6). Here we learn that a gospel-centered life is one in which we embrace the gospel daily, standing in the “present reality” of our justification (ch. 5), and one in which gratitude for the gospel motivates our obedience (ch. 6). Chapter 7 closes this broader section by addressing the question of whether this presentation of gospel motivation is “cheap grace” that leads to lawlessness. Just the opposite, argues Bridges, is the case. It is transforming grace that “is the only sure foundation for progress in spiritual transformation” (p. 78). Shifting to the process of transformation, Bridges then carefully clarifies the Spirit’s role and our role (chs. 8–9). As we depend on God’s Spirit, we must use the “instruments of grace” God provides for us. This includes daily “time alone with God,” where we focus on the gospel, reading the Bible, and prayer. Other instruments of grace include preaching, the Lord’s Supper, and even suffering (chs. 10–12).
What makes this book unique among other resources about gospel-centered living? First, Bridges is particularly well-suited to write on the topic. With concerns afoot about a lack of emphasis on holiness among those who promote gospel-centrality, Bridges is a steady, faithful guide. His theme is not just the gospel of grace, but how this gospel changes us to become like Christ. He hasn’t abandoned his call for Christians to embrace “the pursuit of holiness”; rather, he has learned how that pursuit is driven and sustained.
Second, because of his personal writing style, the book is a delight to read. The tone throughout is marked by his humble maturity. He often lets us peer into his own life. Addressed at one point as “dear friend,” we learn his favorite verse, favorite quote, and even how he approaches his daily “time alone with God,” as he calls it. By the end, we are left with the impression that we have not simply gained new information; we have been mentored.
If there is one thing lacking, it is an emphasis on Christian community in the process of transformation. While Bridges encourages Christians avail themselves of the “instruments” that God uses to change us, his emphasis is overly individualistic. If Christians are to “preach the gospel to ourselves” every day, we should also “preach the gospel to one another” every day (cf. Heb 3:12–14). Finally—and this is not so much a weakness as it is a lingering question to ponder—I wonder where Bridges’s emphasis on gratitude as the primary motivator for obedience fits with other biblical incentives. For instance, where do warnings of judgment or promises of future rewards fit here?
Overall, the book repays the time given to it. It is particularly well-suited to introduce the concept of gospel-centered living to Christians who have not yet grasped its importance. And since we need this message all the time and since Bridges mentors readers as he writes, it would also be a refreshing read for Christians who have grasped this for decades.
Drew Hunter is the teaching pastor of Zionsville Fellowship in Zionsville, Indiana.