On Being a Christian
Thoughts from John the Apostle

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 07/09/2010 by Mark Tubbs.

Recommended. A book of solid and winsome sermons on 1 John, a summary of the true Christian life.

Anyone who has grown up in the Church knows the Apostle John as the Apostle of Love. Along with his brother James, he was one of the "Sons of Thunder," whom Jesus nicknamed to indicate their incendiary tempers; yet he was also the one whose temper was reduced to patient gentleness after walking with Jesus for three years. He was the the disciple who reclined on Jesus' chest - a sign of affection - during the Last Supper. After the Apostle Paul, he was the one who penned most of the New Testament: the Gospel According to John, the Johannine Epistles, and the Revelation of Jesus Christ. He was a man whose heart beat more and more like that of his Lord and Master.

If any of the books the Apostle John (hereafter "John") wrote can be called a précis of the Christian life, it is 1 John. As John N. Oswalt (hereafter "Oswalt") paraphrases in his little book On Being a Christian: Thoughts from John the Apostle, the writer of this epistle is saying to his audience, "Thank God you do believe. You do obey. You do love. I am so glad that's true and I'm encouraging you to go farther, to go deeper."

In this collection of sermons, Oswalt employs the image of a three-legged stool to illustrate the integral trifecta of the Christian life: love, obedience and faith. Fittingly, as a reflection on the original epistolary author, two chapters are dedicated to what Oswalt calls "the test of love," and one each to "the test of obedience" and "the test of faith."

I first came across the work of John N. Oswalt in his excellent book The Bible Among the Myths. Subsequently I discovered that he was the Old Testament scholar responsible for the volumes on Isaiah in the extensive New International Commentary on the Old Testament series published by Eerdmans. In those volumes he comes across as the seasoned scholar that he is, but it is in the little book at hand that we see/hear/read Oswalt at his most relaxed. Since these are transcribed sermons, we readers are privy to a few stories from his childhood and perceive a sense of urgency about the importance of God's Word that isn't often conveyed in more scholarly works.

If you know your American church history, you will know that Francis Asbury was a major Methodist/Wesleyan figure. Asbury Seminary is named after him, at which Oswalt taught for many years. Fear not, Reformed readers: I did read with my Reformed antennae on high alert. And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that apart from a solitary dig at the Reformed doctrine of eternal security and the perserverance of the true believer (which I felt was somewhat misrepresented, likely because it was merely glossed over), 99% of Oswalt's text was compatible with Reformed theology. The study questions at the end of each chapter, prepared by a different author, convey proportionately more Wesleyanism than the actual text. But even these would be valuable for a Reformed person to interact with, coming at soteriology from a different angle.

One other minor quibble I had with Oswalt was his strange idea that Yahweh was not King before He created anything. Oswalt seems to maintain that Yahweh was Father, and not King, before He had subjects to worship Him. I suppose I can see Oswalt's reasoning here, but I see no reason to make any intellectual investment in Yahweh's potential roles, pre-creation.

Perhaps the strongest image in the book is that of the Christian life as a Gordion Knot. In using this image, Oswalt is attempting to illustrate the coherence and integrity of the true Christian life: it is "a kind of Gordion Knot, but it is not to be undone. The person who undoes it, in fact, destroys himself or herself. Rather, is when the strands are all tied together as John has pictured it for us that we experience the glory and the joy or Christian life."

Oswalt's book sets the novice student of 1 John on the right track: a holistic approach to the Christian life, encompassing love, obedience, and faith. For further study, Warren Wiersbe's Be Real is a longer Evangelical exposition of 1 John, while David Jackman's The Message of John's Letters is a layperson's commentary with a Reformed bent, proceeding verse-by-verse through this rich epistle, and 2 and 3 John besides.