February 2024
Book Reviews
Practicing the Way by John Mark Comer

A review of John Mark Comer's Practicing the Way

The difficulty with a popular label is that anyone can wear one without having to validate it. Such labels are applied with the same ease as name tag stickers. As long as you have a shirt and a marker, you're in. For years, I've thought of how Christians in the modern West can so easily pluck and apply the label "Christian" to themselves, even though Christianity is largely out of favor with the populace as we live in what Aaron Renn calls "the negative world."  But what about the validation? How do we know if someone really believes in orthodox biblical Christianity? These questions have been circulating since the formation of the church in the time of Christ and its ascension to power in the Roman Empire under Constantine. At first, martyrdom and persecution validated faith. Then, when Christianity became more accepted, it was asceticism: true believers were the ones who went out into the desert to meditate and starve themselves. Every generation of Christianity, it seems, has an answer to this question. So, what's ours in the 21st century West?

Maybe we could get at this by asking a different question. You could ask someone on the street, "Are you a Christian?" And the answer, in either direction, would be easy to give. But what if you asked, "Do you follow the Way?" You'd likely get a puzzled glare even from Christians, though the language comes right from the book of Acts (9:2; 22:4; 24:14). This is essentially what John Mark Comer does in Practicing the Way. He presents following Christ as a practice rather than a title. This doesn't at all mean that we earn our Christianity or that the title "Christian" has lost its value. It simply means that true Christians, for him and an increasing number of others, will be those who are, in the ancient Jewish sense, taking up apprenticeship under Jesus Christ. True Christians will be recognizable followers of "the Way." As the subtitle of Comer's book puts it, such people will be with Jesus, become like him, and do as he did.

What I Loved

What I found most refreshing about this book was its answer to that age-old question of Christian validation. How do you know if people really believe in Christ? Well, you look at their life. Are they "apprenticing" under Jesus Christ or under someone else? Put differently, "Who are they following?" (p. xi) And everyone, Comer argues, is following someone or something. Everyone is being shaped or formed. "If we're not being intentionally formed by Jesus himself, then it's highly likely we are being unintentionally formed by someone or something else" (p. xiii). Using different vocabulary that I find especially helpful for our generation: "In whom are you trusting? Who (or what) do you put your faith in to show you the way to the life you desire?" Trust is paramount for humans and always will be. I describe this in an article for Westminster Magazine as "cardiac rest," rest for the heart. The question isn't whether we have cardiac rest, whether we trust in someone; it's where or in whom we rest (or attempt to rest).

Comer does a fine job of capturing the spirit of this question in the book. And he chooses to develop his argument by showing what it means for us to be an apprentice of Jesus Christ, to be followers of "the Way." In short form, it means that we (1) spend time with Jesus; (2) become like him by the power of the Spirit; and (3) follow his example. Comer's conversational style helps readers feel more personally addressed in these pages, which provides easier access to some of the more challenging ideas. He ends the book with a call to surrender and obey the risen Christ, pointing readers back to the ancient practice of a "Rule of Life," a series of spiritual exercises or habits that shape and form you to Christ and the call of the gospel.

Scroll down to the "What I Would Have Liked" section to see some of my critiques.

Favorite Quotes

Here are some of my favorite quotes.

  • "If we're not being intentionally formed by Jesus himself, then it's highly likely we are being unintentionally formed by someone or something else" (xiii).
  • "The problem is, in the West, we have created a cultural milieu where you can be a Christian but not an apprentice of Jesus" (16).
  • "This is the first and most important goal of apprenticeship to Jesus: to be with him, to spend every waking moment aware of his presence and attentive to his voice. To cultivate a with-ness to Jesus as the baseline of your entire life" (35).
  • "In all of Jesus' teachings, what we call God is, in a mysterious but beautiful way, a flow of love between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. God is a community of self-giving love; each member of the Trinity, as theologians call them, is distinct yet somehow still one. To be with the Spirit is to be with Jesus, and to be with Jesus is to be with the Father. It's to enter the flow of love within the inner life of God himself" (36).
  • "Let your body become God's home" (39).
  • "Stasis is not on the menu. We are being either transformed into the love and beauty of Jesus or malformed by the entropy of sin and death" (71).
  • "This, then, is spiritual formation: the process of being formed into a person of self-giving love through deepening surrender to and union with the Trinity" (80).
  • "Pick your stories carefully. They will determine who you become" (98).
  • "The radical individualism of Western culture is not only a mental health crisis and growing social catastrophe; it's a death blow to any kind of serious formation into Christlike love. Because it's in relationships that we are formed and forged" (187).

What I Would Have Liked

There are a few areas worth noting here. I saw these things in grace, knowing personally that no book ever emphasizes what everyone wants in every way. And sometimes our best intentions don't find themselves comfortable in the words we clothe them with. Discussions are limited, and we're all in process. I've appreciated Comer's work over the years. Let that much be clear. Still, there are a few things to note for Reformed readers in particular.

First, Comer puts more emphasis on spiritual meditation in the presence of Christ than he does on actually reading the word of God in order to know and behold God's presence (his friend Strahan Coleman in the book Beholding has the same problem, but it's more severe in Coleman's work). And while I agree that many Christians today don't even know how to be in the presence of God (meditation), that shouldn't take emphatic precedence over reading the words of God, through which he is present with his people. In fact, the most direct way to know more about Jesus and experience his presence is by reading Scripture. Scripture is, afterall, the speech of God. As Herman Bavinck wrote, "Here on earth we never graduate beyond the need for the Scripture, for this Scripture is the only means to bring us into fellowship with the actual Christ, who was crucified, but now is seated at the right hand of God" (The Wonderful Works of God, p. 413). This shouldn't discount prayerful meditation in the simple presence of Christ. And it would be unfair to say that Comer even disagrees with this. I'm convinced he would see Scripture as the means for communing with God, but the emphasis he puts on meditation that is undirected by specific Scripture reading can be troubling or misleading. Meditation by the Spirit, with Christ, and before the Father should always take place under the direction of the word of God.

Meditation by the Spirit, with Christ, and before the Father should always take place under the direction of the word of God.

In One with God, I set out a practice of Christian meditation grounded on and governed by Scripture, following the work of Edmund P. Clowney in his book Christian Meditation. This sort of meditation follows three basic steps. Meditation should begin by being (1) centered on the truth of God (i.e., a particular passage of Scripture), before (2) moving us to the love of God, and then (3) directing us to the praise of God. I found that sort of practice keeps Scripture where it should be. For more on this and an example of what I call speechpaths, click HERE.

Second, I differ from Comer on the continuation of "spiritual gifts" in the church, especially things such as healing and prophecy. This issue isn't a focal one in the book, but it's important to consider where you stand, since the handling of spiritual gifts affects your expectations of what it looks like to be a true Christian. Much of this has to do with how you interpret the event of Pentecost and its relation to the Christian life. I've been convinced by the approach set forth by Richard B. Gaffin Jr. in his article "A Cessationist View," recently republished in his collected writings, Word & Spirit.  

Third, there is always a danger in treating Christ too much as a moral example and thus de-emphasizing his divine uniqueness as the incarnate Son. While we certainly want to become like Jesus and do as he did, it's equally important to set apart Christ not just as Rabbi but as Lord, as one worthy of our worship and commanding our full obedience. I believe Comer fully believes in this and sometimes mentions it explicitly, so this isn't a sharp critique. But the emphasis in Practicing the Way falls on following Jesus's example and treats his divine uniqueness less frequently. If read the wrong way, that could lead to people treating Jesus more as a moral template than a sovereign savior.

Should You Read It?

Despite my critiques above, yes, I think readers would benefit from the book a great deal. If nothing else, it presents the gospel with needed freshness for people raised in culture of Christian familiarity. Being a follower of Jesus does not just mean you claim his name. It means also that you take his yoke upon you (Matt. 11:29), and follow "the Way." 

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