'Irresistible' by Andy Stanley (Book Review)
“As Christians we need to unhitch our faith from the Old Testament.”
This statement has created waves in the Evangelical church.
What in the world does he mean?
Is he suggesting that the Old Testament has no value to the Christian faith? Is he dismissing the first half of the Bible and encouraging Christians to throw it out? Is he neglecting the promises of the prophets? Is he dismissing the Jewish people?
What does he mean by this statement?
This will be the focus of this article as I review Andy Stanley’s book, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed in the World.
I will break this review into three parts. First, I will give a summary of the contents of the book – an overview. Second, I will highlight some of the key themes and give some thoughts on parts of the book that might be controversial. Finally, I will give my assessment on the value of this book for Christians.
Summary and Overview
From the first few pages of the book, Andy Stanley makes a bold claim that the modern Evangelical church has become incredibly resistible. Simply put, many people have no desire to become part of a church. Stanley has wrestled with this question and has concluded that a big part of this has to do with the fact that for decades the Evangelical church has been guilty of doing what he terms mixing, matching, and blending the Old and New Testament.
In his opinion, this has created confusion and done more harm than good.
Stanley starts the first part of the book by walking the reader through the origins of the Mosaic Covenant. He emphasizes the temporary nature of the Temple system and the Law.
When it came to these things he writes, “God had an agenda. His agenda had implications for all nations, not anation.” He goes on to argue, “…these were all means to a specific end. And they were all designed to end. Everything on that list had a shelf life.”
In other words, the Mosaic covenant, the Temple system, and the Laws were a means to an end. God had an expiration date for these and they were not intended to survive for all time. A simple way to put it, these things were “necessary but temporary.”
When Jesus came, he initiated a new thing. This new thing was not an addition to the old, it was a fulfillment and replacement of the whole old system.
This was met with joy by some and was incredibly hard for others to swallow – mainly the religious people of the day.
For the Pharisees and others Jewish people who were devout to the Law, the newthat Jesus initiated was outright insane at best and blasphemous at worst.
After Jesus rose from the grave and ascended into heaven, a new group (tribe) was born, The Way. These were the first followers of Jesus. They were sold out to the cause of Jesus. But even from the start, there was confusion about where the Old Covenant ended and where the New began.
Stanley describes a classic example of this:
In the years following the death of the apostles, Gentile church leaders claimed the Jewish Scriptures as their own and insisted they were binding on the church…Suffice it to say here, these non-Jewish church leaders viewed and thus interpreted the ancient Jewish texts through the lens of their developing Christian theology…It wasn’t long before old covenant values and imperatives began to inform the teaching of the church.
In short, Old Covenant rules were being mixed into the New Covenant.
He points to early church fathers mixing and matching the old and new covenants to try and harmonize them. He writes, “They reinterpreted, allegorized, and rebranded them to make them line up with developing Christian thought and theology.”
This led to bad practice; one example being fourth century Christians persecuting pagans based on the Old Covenant command that idol worshippers be put to death.
Stanley argues that the “mixing old with new” continues even to today.
The result is, “We are dragging along a litany of Old Covenant concepts and assumptions that slow us down, divide us up, and confuse those standing on the outside peering in.”
As a result, there is a prominent version of the Christian faith filled with leftovers from the covenant Jesus fulfilled and replaced.
This creates all kinds of negative issues including bad church experiences, the result of which Stanley contests are almost always related to Old Covenant remnants.
“Much confusion, not to mention bad theology, stems from our proclivity to cherry-pick, edit, and apply portions of God’s covenant with Israel (or texts referencing God’s covenant with Israel).”
He even suggests that it was this mistaken mix and match approach throughout Christian history that paved the way for church support for slavery, anti-Semitism, inquisitions, forced conversions, and a host of other unJesus-like (sic) enterprises.”
Stanley is emphatic that the Old Testament be read with an understanding that the promises and laws were given to the particular nation of Israel. All of which came to an end with Jesus. Christians are not obliged to live by these standards. He reminds the reader that “The Bible is God’s Word…to somebody. But it’s not all God’s word to everybody.”
He clarifies by saying, “I’m not suggesting that the two testaments are not equally inspired. My point is that they aren’t equally applicable.”
“In the Old Testament,” Stanley writes, “God played by the rules of the kingdoms of this world in order to usher in a kingdom not of this world through a covenant that stands as an invitation to everyone in the world.”
Stanley spends much time on the “mix-and-match” approach to the Christian faith because he believes that it is one of the primary stumbling blocks for non- and post-Christians.
It is this mixing and matching that makes the Christian faith highly resistible.
In the third section of the book, Stanley focuses on the new ethic that Jesus came to introduce. He contrasts Jesus new approach of love for others (horizontal emphasis) with the Old Testament focus on holiness before God (vertical emphasis).
Stanley uses the teachings of Jesus to argue that part of the newthat Jesus initiated involved a focus on horizonal relationships rather than a vertical relationship. One example of this is Jesus’ command to reconcile with a brother or sister before offering a gift on the altar in the temple. Jesus inaugurated a new mindset that made reconciliation and love for people have precedence over ritual.
In other words, “Love for God was best demonstrated and authenticated by loving one’s neighbor.”
Thus, the new ethic, according to Stanley, that Jesus initiated was the “platinum standard” and simply required the obedience of one single command – as I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
The basis, then, for Jesus followers was not Old Testament laws and commands, but rather the sacrificial love of Jesus.
In the final section of the book, Stanley makes a case for a new approach that churches should consider in order to free themselves from mix-and-match theology and reach non and post Christians more effectively.
He argues that the modern church movement has made church more attractive, but fewer people are actually attracted.
“In our post-Christian culture, making better churches isn’t the answer,” Stanley writes. “The answer is a return to the resurrection-centered, new covenant, love-one-another version of our faith.”
He also argues that an approach to Scripture that appeals to the authors who wrote the text and not using the phrase, “The Bible says” will do better to establish credibility. Stanley insists that Christianity was not created by the Bible, rather, the Bible was created because of Christianity. The truth of what it conveys can stand on its own two feet and does not need to be propped up by the Jewish Scriptures. The Christian faith began with the resurrection of Jesus, not a document.
He goes on to say, “Our faith doesn’t teeter on the brink of extinction based on the archaeology or the history of the Old Testament. Anyone who lost faith in Jesus because they lost faith in the historical and archaeological credibility of the Old Testament lost faith unnecessarily.”
Stanley concludes by challenging church leaders to consider a new approach to their teaching and their emphasis in order to reach the next generation, non- and post-Christians in a more effective way. He challenges them to move away from mix-and-match theology and embrace the new Christian ethic of loving others as the primary command that should be focused on. He challenges pastors to stop using the phrase “The Bible says” and instead appeal to the truths written in the Bible based on the men who wrote the accounts of Jesus. Finally, he challenges pastors to foster a care and concern for those outside the Christian faith and be willing to, like Paul, do whatever is necessary to win some for Christ.
Commentary on Themes
The book contains no shortage of controversial components. In this next section, I will highlight a few of these areas.
The Mixing of Old and New
Stanley spends a considerable amount of time explaining what mixing the old and new covenants looks like practically in the church today. Here are some examples that he gives of what he terms “Old Covenant leftovers:”
The posting of the 10 commandments in public places
Christians calling their pastors “anointed”
Christian leaders warning of God’s judgment
Christians kicking their son or daughter out of the house for being pregnant or gay
Christians taking marriage and dating advice from King Solomon
Stanley argues that when it comes to reading the Bible most Christians have been taught to read a little bit of old and a little bit of new. He refers to this as a “blender” approach that is practiced by preachers and Sunday school teachers, Christian authors, devotional books, etc. This approach has caused confusion and leads to misapplication of texts that were never intended to be applied today. As he writes, “The Old Testament is great for inspiration, but not application.”
When I initially read some of Stanley’s pushback on mixing old and new it was alarming to me. How can you read this statement and not be: “So, just accept the fact that everything in Exodus through Malachi, while fascinating, is not binding. It’s not your covenant.” That is startling! It seems as though Stanley is negating the Old Testament, right?
Not so fast.
A full reading of his argument demonstrates that Stanley in no way is trying to negate the Old Testament, rather, he is trying to show that a wrong approach to the Old Testament can lead to faulty interpretations which leads to misapplication which can result in devastating consequences. In short, “Old Covenant leftovers” have crept into the church and it needs to be addressed.
What, then, is the status of the Old Testament? Does it have any value? The answer is a certain yes, but perhaps not in the way that it has been presented for many decades in the church. The value of the Old Testament does not lie in the fact that it is applicable for today, rather, the value is in the history that it provides for the Christian faith. In addition, the Old Testament provides us with rich stories of God’s working through the Israelite people.
Pastors and preachers should take Andy Stanley’s caution about mixing the old with the new, but this should not cause them to be fearful of the Old Testament or avoid it. Rather, it should inspire a new approach that will ultimately enhance the richness of the Christian faith.
A great example of the misapplication of the Old Testament is the verse found in Jeremiah 29:11. Stanley points out that this verse was a promise to the nation of Israel who was in exile at the time they received it. The immediate context is God’s prophetic word to the Israelites that he has not forgotten about them and will restore them. Applying this outside of the immediate context leads to confusion and inaccuracy. Rather than using this verse as a proof text for God’s blessing, pastors and preachers would do well to see how the principle of this scripture is applied as a result of the New Covenant in Jesus.
What About the Jewish People?
Christian Zionists might have the hardest time with this book as Stanley continually emphasizes God’s conditionaland temporary covenant with the Israelites.
As we look at his argument, however, Stanley pretty much exclusively focuses on the Mosaic Covenant. This covenant was asuzerain treatymeaning that it was a two-way covenant with obligations that needed to be upheld by both sides. Clearly, the Israelites were never able to live up to their obligations in this covenant – and God never expected them to. The writers in the New Testament emphasize that the Law was temporary until Jesus. Jesus fulfilled and put an end to the Mosaic Covenant.
There should be little argument over the viability of the Mosaic Covenant. According to every writer in the New Testament, it is over, fulfilled, and certainly not binding. What is not addressed is the Abrahamic Covenant and the ramifications of that covenant for the Jewish people. This covenant differs from the Mosaic Covenant in that it was a promissory covenant. This type of covenant is unilateral and unconditional. The status of the Jewish people, therefore, would not be in jeopardy. Regardless, God’s relationship with the Jewish people is outside the purview of Andy Stanley’s argument.
Sanitizing the Old Testament
Stanley talks extensively about the tendency for Christians to try to sanitize and glamorize the Old Testament in order to harmonize with the New Testament. In the process of doing this, Stanley argues that Christians tend to miss the real story. Rather than appreciating the mess that God entered into and seeing the story of redemption within it, Christians tend to make excuses for God.
He emphasizes that God played by the rules of the kingdoms of the world in order to usher in a kingdom that is not of this world. With this in mind, there are going to be some things about the Old Testament that are simply difficult to reconcile through a 21stcentury context. However, if you accept the Old Testament for what it is, Stanley argues that we will feel less pressure to tidy up, sand off the rough edges, or ignore certain portions all together.
Relationship with God or People
Stanley claims that the emphasis in the Old Testament was a vertical relationship with God. In other words, “being right with God” was seen as doing the right things, avoiding wrong things, and going through a system of penance if a law was violated. “Closeness with God,” therefore, would have been determined by behavior.
Stanley argues that this changed with the New Covenant. Jesus ushered in a new system where to demonstrate their devotion to God, Jesus followers would look to those around them and put others first. In other words, according to Andy Stanley, following Jesus is less about living up to a set of principles and more about following one big principle – love others.
Christianity and the Old Testament
Stanley writes, “The Christian faith doesn’t need to be propped up by the Jewish Scriptures.” This is another shocking statement. It seems as though his point is that Christianity finds its greatest anchor in the resurrection of Jesus. This is what the New Testament authors appealed to and leveraged. Stanley thinks that we should follow their example and do the same.
Assessment of the Book
This book challenged me in monumental ways. First, it reinforced my already held belief that whenever Scripture is assessed and interpreted it needs to be done so responsibly. The Old Testament cannot and should not be used as a measure for the Christian faith. Stanley’s call to “unhitch from the Old Testament,” while shocking, is well founded and must be considered by pastors if they are seriously wanting to convey Christianity in a clear way.
While Stanley tends to use shocking language to get the reader’s attention, once his thoughts are laid out it seems clear that Stanley has not violated any major doctrinal or core beliefs of the Christian faith.
Finally, this book is a wakeup call to those in ministry of the reality of the post-Christian nation we live in. Many people have been hurt, burned, or incredibly confused by the church. Some of this has come because of a mix-and-match approach to Christianity. In order for the next generation to not fall victim to this it is incumbent on us to do whatever is necessary to not put any roadblock in front of anyone for the sake of coming to know Jesus.
Andy Stanley, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleased for the World(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 25.