Someone lent this book to me about two years ago. Though I quickly started reading, I barely got through 20 or 30 pages before I got bored and quit. Since then I’ve read a chapter here and a chapter there but have never been able to get into it.
As I mentioned earlier this week I finally decided to finish reading all of the books people have lent me. So I came back to this one determined to finish it. And after a night’s worth of reading, I did.
I finished reading Miles Stanford’s The Complete Green Letters.
And now I want my night back.
It Isn’t All Bad…
When I was in school, I was taught to give constructive criticism as a compliment sandwich: say something nice at the beginning, give your criticism, and say something nice at the end. So I’m going to attempt to follow that advice with this review.
So let’s start out with the complimentary bun.
What did I appreciate about Stanford’s book?
Well, I can tell that Stanford is combating a legalism that does pose a real danger in Christian circles. Throughout the book (which is really 5 different works stitched together – we’ll get to that in a moment), Stanford describes Christian growth as if it always follows a set pattern. Though I believe this is a naive way to approach things, I can see how Stanford’s words would seem like gospel to those who have experienced what he describes.
I can also appreciate Stanford’s desire to guard against legalism. I fully support that endeavor. However, I don’t have to resort to nonsense to guard – or even fight – against legalism.
So, with that said, what did I not like about The Complete Green Letters?
Let’s talk about that.
But A Lot Of It Is…
A Framework for Spiritual Growth
Stanford describes Christian growth this way: “…there is a pattern throughout our spiritual development…we began to ‘reckon’ at the very beginning of our Christian life…By his grace we reckoned on the truth, and received Him as our personal Savior…All went well for a time, possibly several years. Then, imperceptibly, a deadly declension set in. We had been so busy enjoying the new experience and activities that we inadvertently began to neglect the Source of all true life and service…The inevitable result was the reassertion of the enslaving influence of sin, self, law, and the world…Finally, after years of failure in both life and service, we were prepared to see something of the wonderful truths concerning our identification with the Lord Jesus Christ…we believed, we struggled, we failed” (p.184).
Stanford seems to think that this pattern continues for everyone as long as they’re Christians. In every phase of Christian growth, we initially catch on, enjoy it, then end up struggling. I can imagine that this would be a powerful narrative for those whose experience align with it.
Stanford envisions a series of steps with breakthroughs at the end of each level. So when a person first hears and responds to the gospel, they’re on level one. They struggle until they understand certain truths which causes them to break through to level two. This process goes on and on.
But my experience doesn’t match it at all.
My experience was much more gradual. Since I responded to Christ’s call, I’ve been on a slow journey. Sometimes I move faster than others but I have very few ‘crisis-moments’. As a result, I can’t really relate to Stanford’s description of spiritual growth.
I think he makes the error of assuming that all Christians share his experience. But that simply isn’t the case. People grow at different paces and even in response to different things. There are no ‘laws’ of spiritual growth like Stanford seems to think.
Spirituality is not a science experiment. It’s not a matter of finding the correct stimulus. It’s the response to an active relationship with the living God.
The Identification Truths
Stanford’s view of spiritual growth also necessitates the ‘identification truths’ that he espouses. Essentially, the belief becomes the sanctifying power in a person’s life rather than the Spirit. This is one of the dangers that cropped up again and again in this book. It’s all about thinking the right thing, believing the right doctrine, identifying correctly. That is nonsense!
Sanctification and Christlikeness do not come as a result of holding the right beliefs. They come as a result of being led by the right Spirit. The mind isn’t the primary organ that needs to be changed, the heart is.
Stanford is also a huge proponent of the idea that we need to focus on our ‘position’ and ‘rest’ in that position, ‘reckoning’ whatever truth we seem to be struggling with. My reason for putting those words in scare-quotes is simple. Stanford’s entire book can be summarized with them.
If you believe Stanford, the entirety of the Christian life is merely a matter of seeing our ‘position’ in Christ, ‘reckoning’ the truth that we are in that position, and ‘resting’ in that truth. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This seems to be all there is to it. I’m amazed he was able to stretch these three simple ideas into over 300 pages. And this is one of the primary weaknesses with this book. It’s long. It’s too long in fact. Especially for what it says.
And since the book is really five books in one, there are numerous places where it repeats itself. Sometimes entire paragraphs are repeated nearly word-for-word. This might not be that big of a deal if you’re just reading a chapter here and there over the year – treating it like a devtional. But if you read it straight through, you’ll be asking yourself, “Didn’t he just say this?” again and again.
Because of this, I found the book as a whole to get progressively worse. Not because the first part is better or more accurate but simply because it becomes a chore to read.
One of the biggest dangers of Stanford’s theology (a child of Keswick theology) is the way he brushes off any danger of winding up lost after believing.
Jesus told his disciples that at the final judgment, there would be some who would come saying, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” His response is one of the most haunting in all of scripture: “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.'”
Since Stanford teaches such a strong form of eternal security, he encourages believers to “rest in our position and point to Christ” when we are questioned about “our condition in ourselves.” I fully agree that our faith and confidence is in Christ and the work he has done for us. Our salvation is not based on our own doing. However, Paul told the Corinthians, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you– unless indeed you fail the test?” This comes at the end of a letter in which Paul commands the Corinthians to begin living like Christ.
NOTE: I have been unable to find any translation in which Paul tells the Corinthians, “don’t worry about all the sin on the outside, just rest in your position and point to Christ.”
Contradicting the Apostle Paul
That reminds me! In chapter 38, ‘That I May Know Him’, Stanford writes, “We are not to know the Lord Jesus in order to emulate Him as our example.” I agree with Stanford’s later thoughts that we must be conformed to his image through the Spirit. But part of that conformation takes place through imitation. If it didn’t, why would Paul have written, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Here we find Stanford saying the exact opposite of what the Apostle Paul said. That’s a pretty good sign that you’ve gone off the rails somewhere.
Under Stanford’s paradigm, all we need to do is ‘reckon’ and ‘rest’ in our ‘position.’ In the New Testament, we’re called to much more. The New Testament is filled with commands to accept one another, to not complain or grumble, to be kind, to consider others first, to bear with one another, to pray, etc. Neither Jesus nor Paul nor James nor John ever paint the spiritual life in the kind of terms that Stanford does. In fact, the word ‘rest’ never appears in Paul’s writings in the way Stanford means it. Everything he says about ‘rest’ is built on a single chapter: Hebrews 4.
Likewise, the word ‘reckon’ appears three times in the New Testament: Matthew 18:24, Romans 6:11, and Romans 8:18.
I wish I could count the number of times Stanford uses these words in The Complete Green Letters. I didn’t have the time. Suffice it to say, he used them a lot more than scripture does.
And The Rest
In addition to all of that, Stanford constantly proof-texts. The chapters are filled with scripture but many are taken out of context and thrown together willy-nilly. In addition, the first section of the book is filled with chapters that are little more than strings of quotes, scriptures, and comments to loosely tie it all together.
Finally, the very last section of the book should not have been included. He rants about random topics including divine healing, tongues, Calvinism, Arminianism, and his favorite (and least favorite) books on spirituality. He also talks for several chapters about “Deeper-Life Conferences.” Apparently this was a thing in the ’70s. Churches would put on Keswick revivals where a speaker would come in and share on the ‘deeper’ truths of scripture. I had never heard of such a thing. I doubt whether many others have either.
The whole last fifth of the book could probably be dropped and nothing would be lost. Take note, Zondervan!
A Final Word
Since I’ve been relatively negative throughout this review (and trust me, there’s plenty more I could say), I’d like to end on a positive note. Stanford is clear that spirituality takes time. When we enter the Kingdom of God, it begins a lifetime of growing in grace and knowledge. This is an important fact that’s often overlooked. If nothing else, I’m thankful that Stanford acknowledges this.
Stanford’s theology may help some grow spiritually. I hope it does. After all, this seems to be a popular book. However, his paradigm is ultimately unbiblical and, at times, dangerous.
There are far better books on spiritual growth out there. Rather than read this, find those!
But if, after all of this (or perhaps in spite of it), you’re determined to see what all the fuss is about, stick to the first 74 pages or so.
Those are the only pages worth reading.
If you’d like to read it for yourself, you can order a copy here:
P.S. – Don’t forget to sign-up for our newsletter. Not only will you get my book, ‘A Disciple’s Manifesto’, for free, you’ll also be able to easily keep up-to-date with the book club – and other updates.