Monday, August 13, 2012

The Disciplines of the Christian Life, by Eric Liddell


A book(let) on developing the devotional life, by well-known runner and missionary Eric Liddell.  Yes, the Chariots of Fire guy.

Liddell is best known for two things:  refusing to run on a Sunday in the 1924 Paris Olympics, and for moving to China to be a missionary.  His willingness to obey his conscience at great cost to himself is admirable, and should be noted (and emulated) by modern Christians, myself included, who are far too willing to compromise conscience for the save of preserving or attaining comfort.  Not that I myself think it's sinful to run a race on Sunday, but I applaud his willingness to comply with the mandates of his own conscience and hope I would be willing to do the same.

It's not all that surprising, then, that this book concentrates so vigorously on the importance of obedience, almost to the exclusion of the gospel.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  First, a brief summary of the book.

After a lackluster-but-heartfelt introduction on the importance of the Christian disciplines (by which Liddell essentially means 'a life of obedience'), Liddell walks the reader through a series of short meditations--one per month for 12 months.  The topics of these monthly meditations are rather scattered and disconnected, and seem to be just 12 random things Liddell felt strongly about, as opposed to a cohesive 12-part meditation on Christian disciplines. (In case you're wondering, the 12 topics were: God, the life of Christ (spread out over 2 months), the Law, the character of Jesus, the kingdom of God, love, the life of Paul, Romans, the Holy Spirit, victory, and the Church.)  He then closes with a discussion of the intersection between the individual and the church, as demonstrated in baptism, communion, and the Three Great Festivals--Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.  There is a brief appendix setting forth Liddell's defense of infant baptism.

I readily admit that many of the disciples/devotional behaviors/acts of obedience Liddell advocates are by no means wrong.  They are, in fact, very good things indeed.  Unfortunately, he tends to get bogged down in all the things we should do, and spends very little time--if any--on what has already been done.  There is some discussion of Christ's death on the cross, and our 'salvation', but there is precious little discussion of what it is we need to be saved from.  In Liddell's eyes, we are not so much depraved as weak, unable to live up to God's holy demands until Jesus comes along and empowers us.  Which is true, in a sense, but leave out a good bit of the story.  Liddell acknowledges that Christ died for our sin (though he doesn't really get into why  he needed to die at all--that is, that the penalty for sin is death).  Sin is failure, not rebellion.  The resulting tone is more of a 'whoops! I tripped and fell on the sidewalk, but Jesus will fix it' rather than a 'orphaned young bride is deliberately--and repeatedly--unfaithful to her kind and generous husband.'  The seriousness of sin is greatly demeaned by this tone.  And as a result, the glory of the gospel is diminished.  After all, which is a more striking picture of God's love:  a father teaching his cute (and well-intentioned) tot to walk, or a cuckholded husband dying to save his treacherous bride?  As the darkness of our sin becomes clearer, the glory of the gospel shine brighter.  Liddell, at least in this volume, seems to underestimate both.

This deficient portrayal of the gospel seeps out across his various admonitions.  Apparently, the Christian life (according to Liddell) is all about what we do, not what Jesus has already done.  We pray, and read, and go to church, and love our neighbor, and try to live like Christ, and so on.  There is, I think, far too much doing in this book and not nearly enough done.  Again, not that Liddell's wrong, exactly.  Christians should pray and read our bibles and the fruit of the Spirit should be manifest in our lives.  But the overall posture of a Christian is not solely as an actor.  Rather, we are passive recipients of God's grace, and it is that grace that produces action in us.

To be fair, I realize this is a book about Christian disciplines, so of course Liddell is going to spend a fair amount of time talking about, well, disciplines--things we do.  I just wish he'd made the gospel clearer and built his practical suggestions on a more explicit foundation of grace.

A note about the edition:  Simon Vance has narrated something like 400 audiobooks (according to a quick search on, including the recent Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books.  The man knows what he's doing, is what I'm saying. For this production, the Brit dons a serviceable Scottish accent, which lends a nice touch of credibility to the book, as Liddell was a Scotsman himself.  Kudos to ChristianAudio for not bringing in an American to do the job.

[This audiobook is available as a free download from during the month of August.]

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