Out of Ashes. By Keith Phillips. Los Angeles: World Impact Press, 1996. 196 pp. Cloth, $10.00.
This book chronicles author Keith Phillips’s ministry of discipling and church planting in the racially-torn, depravity-dominated ghettos of America’s inner cities, with a special focus on Watts, that section of Los Angeles made famous by the 1965 riots. Phillips is reaching out—in a truly cross-cultural way—to people whom the traditional evangelical church has de-emphasized as a local missions target.
To Phillips’s credit, he has lived a “gutsy” and committed life of reaching high risk, largely unloved, and low-hope-for-life individuals with the practical and personal love of Jesus. Scores of children, teens, and adults in Watts have learned about God’s loving character from the author and his team.
But have they been introduced to the gospel of God’s grace? In a nebulous way, Phillips notes that human experience is fulfilled by knowing Christ (pp. 167-74), and then making Him known to others (p. 174). But, in making Christ known to others, the gospel presentation needs to accurately define God’s gift of salvation. How is this vital issue treated by Phillips? Perhaps the best answer to this question is a quotation from the book (pp. 173-74):
You “make disciples” [alluding here to the Great Commission] by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Baptism represents self death. When you are immersed under the baptismal waters, think of it as drowning. You lose control. You die.
Imagine that I was on that ill-fated 1996 TWA flight #800 that crashed off of Long Island. When the fuselage hit the ocean my lungs filled with water and I drowned. After two days, my corpse was still buried in the Atlantic Ocean when Jesus came to me and said, “Keith, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll breathe into you the breath of new life—you can be born again! But, it will cost you everything you have—you will have to go anywhere I ask, do anything I ask, for as long as I ask—no questions asked!”
Immediately I say, “No way. That’s slavery.” Then, I realize I am not in a good bargaining position, and I accept the grace of God for what it is—a gift.
Once I have died to myself (yielded control of my life to Christ), then I can be resurrected with Him to new life. The evidence of my new life (after self death) is the fruit of the Spirit and servanthood. I will go to Watts and raise a family, teach junior high boys in Bible club or Sunday School—do whatever God wants me to do.
John 12:24 says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies (self death), it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (reproduction).
Is the offer of salvation a “gift” or a “deal”? Is it free, or does it “cost you everything you have”? Is the gospel about the redemptive work Christ has finished—that He died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures—or, should we trust in another gospel, about future partnered work that the Holy Spirit is willing to begin if you “yield control of your life to Christ”?
If Phillips really means what he says above, he is denying that believing the good news of Christ’s finished redemptive work saves us. Rather, his words say that it is surrendering oneself to the Lord’s future work (which requires “self death” and the decision to pay the “cost” of “everything you have,” the reality of which can only be assured by the “evidence of the new life”).
Logically, if one’s salvation is grounded on a “new life” that is given in response to a Lordship-surrender decision, then the only reliable assurance one can have is to verify that one’s new life is evidenced by good works (such as going where Christ commands one to go, raising a family, making Christ known to others).
However, if one’s salvation is a free gift of God received by faith, then the basis of one’s assurance is the trustworthiness and the authority of the Scriptures (and thus also of their divine Author), that proclaim that such saving grace is given to believers.
If you want a chronicle of social action-oriented outreach to America’s inner-city unfortunates, I recommend this book for its methodologies and cross-cultural insights. If, however, you want a book on evangelizing inner-city people, one must look elsewhere, since, sad to say, this book promotes “another gospel” (Gal 1:6-9).
James J. Scofield Johnson