Richard Lovelace: Dynamics of Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979)
I am intentionally reserved about recommending books and resources. I would be rich if I had a dollar for every lame manuscript that is shamelessly hyped to consumers as the “next big thing.” But of all the books I read during my sabbatical, one stands out to me as a must-read for every thinking Christian: Dynamics of Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace. [Part I of this book – which is really the most significant section – is updated and summarized in Lovelace’s shorter work Renewal as a Way of Life.]
Lovelace is a Princeton-educated historian who served for decades as professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is now in the waning years of his life and rarely darkens the classroom door. But in his prime, he was a true old-school professor: an expert in his field and a steward of knowledge, not a publication-happy status-seeker. He instructed countless Christian leaders in the dynamics of spiritual renewal, including New York pastor Tim Keller, who counts Lovelace as one of his most formative theological mentors.
Dynamics of Spiritual Life is a work of historical theology centered on the theme of spiritual renewal. In the preface, Lovelace explains his aim: “For several decades I have studied the history and theology of religious awakenings… In doing so I have sought to isolate the main streams of spiritual vitality which have flowed through the church’s history and to determine the principles which govern the force of these. Gradually I have come to formulate a general theory of individual and corporate spiritual health.” In other words, Dr. Lovelace has isolated the “common denominators,” the distinguishing marks that seem to be present every time the Holy Spirit brings dramatic spiritual revival within the church. He believes that if Christians would remain devoted to these things, the church would experience continual spiritual renewal and ongoing empowerment for effective mission.
To those familiar with Coram Deo’s teaching of the cross chart, Lovelace’s work will seem a long-lost friend. “The proclamation of the gospel in depth is the most important condition in the renewal of the church,” he writes. And his understanding of the gospel revolves around two familiar poles: awareness of the holiness of God and awareness of the depth of sin. The genius of Lovelace’s work is the depth to which he takes his readers in understanding why the gospel is essential to spiritual renewal. Those who have learned the what of the gospel through Coram Deo’s ministry will understand why the gospel has transformed their hearts so deeply. They will also begin to see why they find much of current-day Christianity shallow and anemic. But rather than fomenting a critical and judgmental spirit, Lovelace’s book will motivate hopeful prayer that the Spirit of God will bring gospel renewal dynamics to life in the church at large.
Why is Lovelace’s writing a must-read? I find myself unable to do that question justice. Here’s the best I can do: it’s a madly efficient use of your mental and spiritual energy. It has taken me years of study to become familiar with the vast landscape of church history, to understand the work of the Holy Spirit in my own life, to comprehend the interaction of gospel and culture, and to gain my bearings in the current evangelical milieu. Those who read either book will have a massive head-start in all these areas. Lovelace’s writing communicates a vast universe of content simply, succinctly, and clearly. It reads like a pastoral theology (think Eugene Peterson or AW Tozer or Thomas Merton) but it communicates a depth of information and insight more appropriate to a serious historical tome. Like Jonathan Edwards and John Piper, Lovelace is both a Puritan and a Pietist. He models well the Reformation heritage of a high and worshipful theology anchored in the deep personal experience of regeneration and spiritual renewal.
Don’t get me wrong: this book is not a breezy read. Mental effort and close concentration is required. Brand-new Christians might find themselves behind the ball contextually, as Lovelace assumes a measure of familiarity with history and with the American religious landscape. But for pastors, church planters, missional leaders, and thinking Christians, the benefits of this book will be well worth the effort.