Book Review: Three Books by J. Oswald Sanders
J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership. 2017, Moody Publishers. 274 pps, $15.99.
J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Discipleship. 2017, Moody Publishers. 240 pps, $15.99.
J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Maturity. 2017, Moody Publishers. 288 pps, $15.99.
What are the most pressing needs of ministry leaders today? This question often drives Christian conferences, seminars, and books. What if I told you that I found a compelling answer to this question—not in the latest best-seller, but in a series of books written over 50 years ago?
Some books have a short shelf life because the content is too culturally and historically specific. But every now and then, books transcend their cultural moment while at the same remaining deeply rooted in Scripture. Three books by J. Oswald Sanders qualify: Spiritual Leadership, Spiritual Discipleship, and Spiritual Maturity.
HISTORY & SUMMARY
When I picked up Sanders’s most popular work, Spiritual Leadership, I was surprised to learn it was first published in 1967. It’s since sold over a million copies and, along with Spiritual Maturity and Spiritual Discipleship, has recently gone through a major revision and republishing. All three books were born of out Sanders’ time serving as the General Director of Overseas Missionary Fellowship, and they each prove to be timeless in both principle and application, therefore making them a valuable resource for ministry leaders today.
Spiritual Leadership lays out the need for what Sanders calls “honorable ambition” in contrast to self-serving ambition. He writes, “Ambition which centers on the glory of God and welfare of the church is a mighty force for good” (SL, 13). He then goes on to describe essential characteristics of spiritual leadership: humility, discipline, courage, wisdom, and sacrifice. Sanders unpacks essential disciplines of leadership such as prayer, reading, time management, and delegation. Throughout the chapters, Sanders effectively weaves stirring personal vignettes and historical examples.
In Spiritual Discipleship, Sanders defines the qualities of a true disciple of Jesus Christ, He provides the following definition of a disciple: “a learner of Jesus who accepts the teaching of his Master, not only in belief but in lifestyle” (SD, 29). Sanders affirms the biblical picture of a disciple who accepts the radical demands of Christ to take up one’s cross and follow him. And yet, his insights show that discipleship is ultimately rooted in grace-driven effort.
Finally, Spiritual Maturity is a three-fold reflection on the Trinity. He’s careful to give equal consideration to how each person of our Triune God shapes the life of a Christian. Spiritual Maturity offers devotional insight into the attributes of God.
Saturated with Scripture
First and foremost, Sanders’ writing is saturated with Scripture. It’s hard to find a page where he’s not quoting or alluding to the Bible. Of course, quoting Scripture doesn’t necessarily make a book great, but Sanders effectively roots every point in biblical truth. His writing remains so compelling because it’s so thoroughly biblical.
Not only does this demonstrate Sanders’ own primacy of God’s Word, but it also confirms his call for all Christians to prioritize God’s Word. At one point, he points out the significance of Jesus’ teaching that we must continue in his word if we are true disciples (John 8:31). He then explains, “To continue in His Word was to make it their rule of life in daily practice. Our discipleship begins with the reception of the Word. Continuance in the Word is the evidence of reality” (SD, 31). Sanders models in his writing what it looks like to continue in the Word.
Theological and Doctrinal Depth
Along with being Bible-saturated, Sanders’ writing exhibited a theological and doctrinal depth. For example, here’s what he write concerning salvation: “Obedience is evidence of the reality of our repentance and faith. . . . Present-day preaching finds little place for repentance, yet without repentance there can be no regeneration.” (SD, 22). On the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Sanders offers a concise and clear exegesis of the relevant texts, and follows it up with insightful application of the Spirit’s role in the Christian life (SD, 61–62).
In Spiritual Maturity, Sanders spends two chapters addressing the controversial issue of speaking in tongues. He does so with a diligent focus on what the biblical texts say on the issue. He acknowledges the many ways in which this spiritual gift has been misused and abused. And yet, at the same time, he frames the discussion with compassion and grace. He closes by offering suggestions for constructive dialog with others who hold differing views on the issue (SM, 248–250).
Pastoral Sensitivity and Practicality
One of Sanders’ greatest strengths is his ability to explain biblical truth in a way that’s both practical and pastoral. Sanders understands that any ministry leader will face criticism. In counseling leaders how to handle this, he quotes Samuel Brengle’s personal response to a critic: “From my heart I thank you for your rebuke. I think I deserved it. Will you, my friend, remember me in prayer?” (SL, 145).
In his chapter on the providence of God, Sanders elaborates on the scope of “all things” in Romans 8:28. He mentions the death of a loved one, illness, disappointment, dashed hopes, and wayward children. In the same sentence, he also includes a “lack of fruit in service despite earnest endeavor to fulfill conditions of fruit-bearing” (SM, 18).
As I read, it felt like Sanders was sitting next to me as a sympathetic older pastor who understands the struggles of ministry. His ability to articulate these struggles builds trust with his readers. Rather than simply imparting truth to my mind, Sanders lovingly spoke grace to my heart.
In these three books, there’s much more to commend than to critique. Furthermore, most of my critiques are trivial: the chapters are sometimes redundant, some in include paragraphs that don’t directly connect to the main theme, etc.
Some critiques, however, are more serious. For example, Sanders occasionally makes two statements that seem to contradict. For instance, at one point he claims that becoming godly “rests in our own hands” (SD, 147). And yet, by the end of the same chapter, he affirms sanctification as the work of the Spirit to produce fruit in our lives (SD, 155).
Finally, there are also a small number of illustrations that are unhelpfully distracting. The worst occurs when Sanders likens commitment to Christ to the Communist Party’s requirement of absolute commitment from its members (SD, 30).
To be honest, I expected very little from these books. I made assumptions about their relevance and biblical insights. But I’m glad to admit I was wrong. Not only did I find these books engaging and relevant, I found myself highlighting, taking notes, and recording helpful illustrations (all of which Sanders himself recommends in Spiritual Leadership, 128).
These resources would help any Christian who wants to understand how the nature of God impacts the Christian life, what it means to be a growing disciple of Jesus Christ, and how to grow into a mature leader for the glory of Christ. May these books continue to find themselves in the hands of Christians because I trust they will benefit from Sanders’ accessible, insightful, and biblical teaching.