Why You Should Really Consider This 30-Year-Old Book: Keller, Powlison, and Ortlund
Richard Lovelace’s The Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (IVP, 1979) is a unique work. I know of nothing like it. Once you finish it you will feel like you’ve read at least three books. If you agree with everything in it, you are likely a bit eccentric. But every page—agree or disagree—is worth wrestling with.
I asked three brothers who have been influenced by the book—Tim Keller, David Powlison, and Ray Ortlund—if they would share how the book has influenced their own lives.
I took several courses with Richard Lovelace at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, including the first course “Dynamics of Spiritual Life” in Fall of 1972 that eventually became Lovelace’s book. Along with that course I also took a course he did on Evangelical Awakenings–a history of revivals. To say that these courses were seminal to my thinking and way of doing ministry is a pretty big understatement. Anyone who knows my ministry and reads this book will say, “So that’s where Keller got all this stuff!”
Twenty-five years ago, when church planters came to me and asked me “what should I read?” I always gave them two books–Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life and Michael Green’s Evangelism through the Local Church. The former gave them a way of using the gospel in people’s lives that not only brought them to saving faith but also kept renewing them individually and corporately. The Green book was a practical how-to book on getting that gospel out in a hundred different ways. Dynamics of Spiritual Life is somewhat long and a bit repetitious–but it’s still a book that I think we can’t do without. It was amazingly prescient and will be found still quite relevant to many of today’s debates.
There is nothing quite like learning from a church historian who really cares about the outcome of the church’s history—who wants to shape what could happen, not just study what did happen. Richard Lovelace, who formerly taught at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, is just such a pastoral historian. With good reason, his Dynamics of the Spiritual Life is still in print after 30+ years, whereas many current best-sellers will be forgotten by next year.
I read this book multiple times in the 1980s. Though I’ve not reread it since, I still cite from memory many significant Lovelace insights: “characteristic flesh,” “the sanctification gap,” “n-step sanctification,” “the need for a tuned and adapted form of nouthetic counseling.” We all gain from his wisdom on the interrelationship of individual and corporate sanctification, and on the relationship between justification and sanctification.
Lovelace’s breadth of knowledge and judicious sense for “We’ve seen that before” can shape wise ministries able to combine both earnestness and patience, able to combine the right kind of enthusiasm with the right kind of caution. Of course, some of his examples are dated, and you may not always draw the same conclusions he did. But Lovelace’s sense for how Christian wisdom balances many complementary emphases is worth more than gold.
Dynamics of Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace is rarely far from my thoughts. The same is true for certain works by Jonathan Edwards, Francis Schaeffer and my dad. These writers have shaped how I see the gospel, life and ministry at a level as deep as perception itself.
Lovelace’s Preface defines his book as “a manual of spiritual theology”—in my view, a rare and precious genre. On page 58 he boldly asserts that “virtually all of the problems in the church, including bad theology, issue from defective spirituality.” I wonder what you think of that. My hunch is, some of us doubt that analysis. But I get ahead of myself. Lovelace’s Table of Contents alone deserves thoughtful contemplation. (Page 75 reproduces this outline in briefly expanded form.) It sets a compelling agenda for pastoring and church planting.
In the first 200 pages, Part One, “Dynamics of Renewal,” Lovelace proposes convictions for shaping a church as revival-ready:
Chapter 1: Jonathan Edwards and the Jesus Movement
Originally published in 1979, DOSL uses the Jesus Movement of that decade as its immediate context. Today this seems dated. I hope you won’t be put off by that. Although DOSL is situated in that moment, it remains relevant because of the broad historical survey of renewal movements this chapter offers, with the various models of revival proposed along the way.
“The leaders and shapers of the Reformation, the Puritan and Pietist movements, and the first two awakenings, included trained theologians who combined spiritual urgency with profound learning, men who had mastered the culture of their time and were in command of the instruments needed to destroy its idols and subdue its innovations” (page 49).
Chapter 2: Biblical Models of Cyclical and Continuous Renewal
Lovelace notes the cyclical history of Israel rising and declining in the Old Testament, compared with the continuous renewal of the church in the book of Acts. But why, as New Covenant people today, do we seem to resemble the unstable patterns of the Old Covenant people of God? Is there a theologically responsible, non-mechanistic way to structure our pursuit of gospel spirituality today so as to press more fruitfully into our union with Christ? This brief chapter sets up Lovelace’s following proposals.
Chapter 3: Preconditions of Continuous Renewal
There are two essentials in a church environment for renewal to get traction: (1) clarity about who God really is, and (2) clarity about who we really are.
“What men wake up to in the light of a revival is their own condition and the nature of the true God” (page 82). “Many American congregations were in effect paying their ministers to protect them from the real God” (page 84). “The apprehension of God’s presence is the ultimate core of genuine Christian experience” (page 85).
“. . . even [man's] virtues are organized as weapons against the rule of God” (page 86).
“Luther was right: the root behind all other manifestations of sin is compulsive unbelief” (page 90).
“Modern man is not immune to the impact of traditional Christian terminology; he is simply inert in the presence of answers to questions he has not yet been induced to ask” (page 92).
Chapter 4: Primary Elements of Continuous Renewal: Depth Penetration of the Gospel
Our union with Christ brings to us powers for renewal through (1) justification, (2) sanctification, (3) the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and (4) authority in spiritual conflict. Lovelace is brilliant, in my opinion, in his fresh articulation of the reviving powers we can experience as the gospel is pressed into us deeply and regularly.
“In order for a pure and lasting work of spiritual renewal to take place within the church, multitudes within it must be led to build their lives on this foundation [i.e., acceptance in Christ alone, apart from our performance]” (pages 101-102).
“The Protestant disease of cheap grace can produce some of the most selfish and contentious leaders and lay people on earth, more difficult to bear in a state of grace than they would be in a state of nature” (pages 103-104).
“Luther too recognized its validity [i.e., Roman Catholic awareness of Satan] and conceived of his work as an assault against the entrenched powers of hell within the church.” “It takes time, and the penetration of truth, to make a mature saint” (page 143).
Chapter 5: Secondary Elements in Renewal: Outworking of the Gospel in the Church’s Life
The great and primary powers of the gospel prove themselves in a church’s experience through (1) orientation toward mission, (2) dependent prayer, (3) believers in community, (4) theological integration and (5) disenculturation. By “disenculturation,” Lovelace means the objectivity that can disentangle the essential realities of Christianity from the particular cultural forms it takes in one’s own church. With this more mature outlook, we are freer to spread the gospel in its purity and power – uncomplicated, simple, rust-free.
“Converts are won more by the observable blessedness of a whole way of life than by the arguments of individuals” (page 148).
“Our fallen nature is actually allergic to God and never wants to get too close to him. Thus our fallen nature constantly pulls us away from prayer” (page 155).
“As pain tells us of the need for healing, worry tells us of the need for prayer” (page 160).
“In our quest for the fullness of the Spirit, we have sometimes forgotten that a Spirit-filled intelligence is one of the powerful weapons for pulling down satanic strongholds” (page 183).
“When men’s hearts are not full of God, they become full of the world around like a sponge full of clear water that has been squeezed empty and thrown into a mud puddle” (page 184).
Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life offers clear convictions and compelling priorities to shape our churches for revival in our time. I know of no other work with such potential impact.
In 1985 Lovelace also published a simplified version of DOSL entitled Renewal as a Way of Life, with discussion questions. It would be a powerful tool for a whole church to use in small groups when ramping up for a new era of gospel advance.