Book Review: My Almost for His Highest, by John Barber
Anyone who is familiar with John Barber's magisterial The Road from Eden could use a disclaimer from the outset concerning his new book, My Almost for His Highest: this is an entirely different sort of book, accessible to an entirely different kind of audience. The former work was lengthy, scholarly, and sweeping in its historical survey and analyses. This one is brief, easy to read, and touches only upon that which is of immediate and central concern to today's western Church. Is it hard-hitting? Yes. Will it make you uncomfortable? Probably, at points. But is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. If you are a Christian in America today, I cannot imagine that you could read this book and not profit. It is a passionate appeal, driven by a strong conviction that the Church is presently in dire need of a sobering, yet hopeful message. And that this is truly the case is made firm beyond argument in the crystal clear and insightful comments that lace the book from cover to cover.
Of course, it is no secret that contemporary Evangelicalism has suffered a great decline in doctrinal stability, true gospel holiness, and influence in the broader culture. Several excellent books have come out rather recently to speak to that fact. So what is it about Barber's contribution that makes it different from these? I would suggest two characteristics:
First, it is one of the most accessible books you will find on the topic. Perhaps the outstanding literary feature of Barber's book is its economy with words, its pithy, forthright sentences that hit hard and forcefully confront hidden attitudes and presuppositions. Although examples could be drawn from almost every page, I've culled a few specimens to give a taste of his style and blunt wisdom:
â€œFundamentally, people aren't products of culture. They're products of Adamâ€ (p. 13).
â€œ...overly sophisticated churches of today see little to no benefit in articulating their oneness with other churches. In reality, when it comes to the historic creeds and confessions of the Church their attitude tends to be wholly dismissiveâ€ (p. 24).
"Innovation is not a sign of the Church" (p. 24).
"Jesus doesn't call us to attract people to our churches. He calls us to minister the gospel through which He attracts people to Himself. This is what men have forgotten today: the inherent power of the cross to draw people to Jesus!â€ (p. 26).
â€œWhy have many evangelical pastors abandoned the message of the cross in favor of innovation in the ministry? They no longer believe in the power of the gospel!" (p. 28).
â€œ...there's a world of difference between talking about Jesus and preaching Christ. To preach Christ is not to talk about how Jesus is the answer for your mid-life crisis. To preach Christ is to preach the realities of sin, salvation, heaven, hell, His passion, the glorious grace of God to sinners as repentance from sin, trust alone on Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and holiness of livingâ€ (p. 28).
â€œTruth be told, we have already arrived at a time when those that still wish to live radical lives for Jesus are perceived as a greater threat to the life of the Church than those who live in open sinâ€ (p. 37).
â€œThe person and work of Christ is the central message of every passage of scripture. Christ is the Bible's subject and objectâ€ (p. 37).
â€œThe problem people have with biblically prescribed church discipline flows from their deeper problem with God's justiceâ€ (p. 44).
â€œThe evangelical movement is no longer a threat to the world systemâ€ (p. 69).
Second, Barber's work stands out in its hope-filled tenor and confident expectation of the swiftly-hastening triumph of Christ's Church, regardless of how bad the current malaise has become. Drawing from examples in the bible and throughout Church history, Barber's enthusiastic prognosis is that revival, change, and reformation will certainly come again. God's Spirit will soon begin to stir the hearts of God's people, granting them anew a true sense of their utter depravity and helplessness, and causing them to cry out from the depths of their hearts for the sovereign mercy of Christ in his unchanging gospel. When the Church has become exceedingly corrupt in times past, God has done this very thing; and to the end of the age, he will continue to work in like manner, until the world is full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.
Now, if there is one quibble I have with the book, it has to do with the largely positive (although brief) treatment Barber gives of the Second Great Awakening in particular, which, in my opinion, has much more to do with the contemporary problems that he so forcefully argues against throughout the book than he lets on, being a movement, as I suppose, which inherently contained some of the seed ideas and doctrines which could not but have brought forth the devastating fruit we have experienced in our generation. But whether or not I am right on this point, I am at least confident that Barber both diagnoses the current problems accurately, and basically offers the way forward with unerring skill â€“ with the only possible exception, in my mind, being a hint of a more Keswickian-leaning flavor of sanctification than I am comfortable with, in the last chapter, and which, I suspect, has something to do with a too positive view of the second awakening which gave it so much impetus. But that is a minor point of disagreement from a book that otherwise I very enthusiastically recommend for its deep and desperately-needed wisdom on so many points of vital concern.
In the final few chapters of the book, Barber gives a scriptural explanation of the largely forgotten and misunderstood doctrines of gospel repentance and faith that it would do well for any Christian at all to read and consider very seriously. In those brief chapters, there is much helpful medicine for today's ailing Church, that has been very wanting in Evangelicalism at large since the days of the Puritans. If anyone purchases the book for nothing else but to read those chapters carefully and in a spirit of self-searching, Spirit-assisted reflection, he will doubtless find the time and money so invested to be very richly rewarded in spiritual gain.
Update: I have been personally assured by John Barber that he is thoroughly opposed to Keswick theology, esp. as seen in Henrietta Mears, Bill Bright, et al, and that, although he appreciates some more Reformed elements of the Second Great Awakening, he also recognizes the deviant doctrine integral to much of it. My difficulties with some of his teaching on sanctification may lie, in part, with the lack of any sustained argumentation and clarification on his part, given the brevity of the book, as well as with an unfortunate coincidence of terminology (but not necessarily of actual doctrine) in some of the Keswickian/Revivalistic experiences of my own past.