Book Reviews In Short and At Length – Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

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In Short

This is a book that many readers will enjoy “living with.”  Volf’s stated purpose for the book is to encapsulate the whole of Christian living within two axiomatic concepts.  In other words, what does Christianity really look like when it is lived in a contemporary life?  In Free of Charge, Volf’s answer follows two principles – one that flows from the nature of who God is and, by way of extension, another that reveals the heart of the Gospel.  According to Volf, the Christian life can be summarized by participating with God in giving and forgiving.  Because God’s nature is so bound up in his ability to give purely, forgiveness becomes the backdrop of all of his interactions with a creation marred by sin.  If we truly follow, then our lives must mirror such giving and forgiving.

As such, the book serves as a wonderful devotional tool.  While it is deeply theological, it is admirably accessible.  He does not drown the text in technical writing or lofty language.  I have many friends that started reading this book a long time ago.  Often, in eager anticipation of their thoughts on the book, I’ll ask how it is going.  They always reply, “It is so good, but I can only get so far before I have to put it down and reflect on it.”  In this sense, this book is not only a wonderful resource for those that want to practice generosity or forgiveness, but it might just be the kind of reading experience that drives self-reflection in order to help those who struggle with selfish ambition or unforgiving hearts break those chains of bondage.

At Length

In Volf’s own words, the book does four things.  First, it is an examination of whether the landscape of Christian perspective can appropriately be viewed through the lens of giving and forgiving.  Honestly, while some will have no issue with such a conceptualization, I think there will be many others that will not be ale to fit all of their theological identity under both of these concepts – especially, not the way that Volf visualizes forgiving.

Second, the book is an interpretation of Paul’s theology.  This, however, is likely to be a perspective that is widely accessible and acceptable.  He confesses that he has not taken any scholarly stance, referencing the recent fighting going on over Pauline discourse (think N.T. Wright and John Piper).  It turns out, that this kind of spiritual rumination over Paul may be much needed medicine for the soul.  Honestly, though, I’d be surprised if those unfamiliar with theological discourse are not quite able to appreciate the nuanced way that Volf interacts with the primary source.

Third, we get a glimpse into Volf’s academic work on Martin Luther.  At every turn in the book, he interacts with Luther on important points of Protestant theology; namely, Luther’s time honored perspectives on grace and faith are explained in the context of practical Christian living.  I don’t want to spoil any of the content, but much of Volf’s interaction with Luther has the same freshness that his atypical approach to Pauline theology has.  The book is a beautiful demonstration of how deeply careful theological inquiry can impact our every day lives.

Finally, the book was selected by the Archbishop of Canterbury to be used as the church’s official Lenten reflection in 2006.  The spiritual formation facet of the book is perhaps best attested to by the fact that I have seen several friends carrying this book around with their Bibles for weeks on end.  The book deals with not only the deep things of faith, but also the deep things of life – which, ironically, are not concomitant in Christian writing often enough.

In my estimation, the greatest value of this book is the practical advice it provides on giving and forgiving as spiritual disciplines within the Christian life.  I have not seen many other books with a straightforward process for giving and forgiving.  Volf provides clearly defined and well thought out processes for each.  Consequently, the careful reader can come away with a list of things detailing what pure giving and true forgiveness really look like, as well as a process for disciplining oneself into becoming that kind of pure giver and true forgiver.

I must also confess, though, that there are stories in this book, the stories of real people and real hurt, that tore at my heart.  It is, at times, difficult to read, especially if you tend to put yourself in the place of the people in the stories you read.  Not once do you read Volf using a petty or trite situation as an affirmation of his points.  The issues he deals with are the real issues of humanity, the gut-wrenching issues – and he interacts with them in courage and a true sense of compassion.  There is no “feel good” theology going on here.

Perhaps the greatest praise I can give any book, I can give Free of Charge with out qualification.  I will come back to this book again.  It is worth reading over and over.

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