Book Review: Set Apart by Kent Hughes

Hughes, R. Kent. Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003. 176 pp. $15.00.

Introduction

R. Kent Hughes was senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois for 27 years. He has authored several books, including the best-selling Disciplines of a Godly Man and editor of 50-volume Preaching the Word series.

Summary

This volume is the product of the author’s sermon series on contemporary evangelicalism. The original idea came from his study on Lot’s lamentable accommodations to Sin City from Genesis 15 and his reading of Robert Gundry’s book Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian. The author believes that there is a great disconnect between what Christians believe and assimilate from sermons and Christian sources and how they actually live. Hence, according to the author the purpose of this volume is to attempt to correct the imbalance (10). There are eleven chapters, two appendixes, scripture index, and general index.

In Chapter 1 the author explains the depth of Lot’s unholy and compromised lifestyle. Lot’s life did not positively influence the city, let alone the people around him because he was so insubstantial. Even though Lot did not practice morally and sexually degraded lifestyle of Sodom, he did not speak out against them. The author posits that it was due to Lot’s accommodating character. According to Hughes:

Though the worldliness of Sodom vexed his righteous soul, he lived as close to the world as he could, hanging to it dear life until the bitter end. And the result was that though God judged all of Sodom except Lot and his daughters, Sodom was reborn in their very lives. We see, then, that it is possible for believing people like us who are truly distressed by the course of this world to live lives that are so profoundly influenced by culture that Sodom is reborn in the lives of those we love the most (15).

Likewise, the author argues that today’s evangelical churches are like Lot, namely, unholy and worldly. However, the Scripture clearly declares that the church is holy in both indicative (what the church is) and imperative sense (what the church is to be). In Chapter 2 the author points out another cause to church’s worldliness – i.e., materialism. He notes that setting apart from materialism has everything to do with the spread of the gospel among the nations. He writes:

We cannot be like the nations and at the same time a light to the nations. A worldly church will not reach the world. If our materialistic pursuits are no different from those of general culture, we will have little to say to culture. If the Gospel has not set us free from the gravity of materialism, if we do not soar above the culture of materialism, what can we have to say to the earthbound people of this world? If we live for the things of Sodom, how will we point others to the hills of salvation (27)?

Another hindrance to church’s holiness is self-focused, pleasure-seeking hedonism, which is the focus of Chapter 3. The author observes that today hedonism has spawned a generation of thrill seekers and the phenomenon of extreme sports. Even church worship is not exempt from hedonism as people go where music is most pleasurable, imagining that the worship of God exists to make them feel good. He argues that if the church is captive to the pursuit of pleasure, there is little opportunity that she will introduce others to the pleasures of God. Hence, according to Hughes, the solution is to allow the Scripture to define and direct our pleasures. Although the Scripture mentions that God’s people can find pleasure in nature, human artistry, family, romantic love and sexual fulfillment, and social life, it is never at the expense of outside of God.

In Chapter 4 the author discusses about watching sensuality. According to Hughes, the recent survey indicates that there is very little difference between what the professing evangelicals watch and the general population watch in regards to sexually immoral and immodest programs. He argues that use of the television is a spiritual matter. The author posits that Christians ought to be mirrors of God’s character to the present culture. Moreover, to claim to be Christian and yet not to feel emotional aversion when Christian moral standards are violated is, at best, to exhibit a kind of mental schizophrenia between our heads and hearts. Hence, the author asserts that to feel no emotion when God is defamed means that we are captive to culture – that the media has got us and that we are worldly.

In Chapter 5 the author points out another hindrance to church’s holiness, namely enjoying violent and voyeuristic entertainment. He offers various statistics to show the connection between young children who are exposed to violence through media and actually acting out violent behaviors. Sexual conduct is the topic of Chapter 6. At the onset the author points out several of the church fathers’ unfortunate misunderstanding of the subject, namely that sex is something carnal and dirty. Thankfully, he counterbalances the erroneous views with another group from the church’s history, namely the Puritan’s pro-sex view. According to Hughes, “The lovemaking of Christians should be deep and joyous and celebrative and lasting. The joy of sex, after which our culture chases headlong, is actually a gift from God” (emphasis his, 78). Although sex is God’s gift and ordained blessing to humanity, it has desecrated into a cultural muck, especially, due to accessibility, anonymity, and affordability of pornography. The author notes that apart from the Scripture’s call, the greatest argument for sexual purity is the living example of a faithful man and woman deeply in love. Furthermore, the world must see that Christ is the center of marriage and the answer to sexual immorality.

In continuance with the previous chapter’s theme, in Chapter 7 the author addresses the issue of immodesty in our culture and in our churches. Perhaps one of the worthy quotes comes from Disciplines of a Godly Woman by Barbara Hughes (the author’s wife), whom he quotes. In essence, she argues that today’s girls and women do not blush and have no shame for the way they dress. As a result, boys and men are tempted to think of the girls/women as mere sex objects. Hence, according to the author, immodesty devalues a woman’s worth, immodesty breeds shallowness, immodesty stumbles men, and immodesty confuses the line between holiness and worldliness.

In Chapter 8 the author focuses on pluralism. He argues that today’s pluralism holds all religions to be equally true. And because all religions are equally true, any claim to the truth is absolutist and bigoted. Moreover, those who insist that they have truth are divisive, un-American, anti-American, and worst of all sinners! – so they say, according to the author. Although the notion of pluralism is good and wonderful (such as diversity in food, culture, ethnicity, music, etc.), what the author warns against is the demand that philosophical and/or theological differences to be all equal, which is utterly impossible since the Bible and Christ are radically exclusive from the fallen world.

Marriage is the topic of Chapter 9. At the onset the author informs that churches in the South have a higher divorce rate than any other parts of the country. He gives three reasons: 1) antinomianism, 2) narcissism, and 3) hedonism. He also argues that what makes a marriage uniquely Christian is because of the cross (i.e., dying to self), the covenant (not a contract), and Christ. Another issue that reflects the worldliness in today’s churches is having a low view of the church and not keeping the Lord’s day holy. Such is the focus of Chapter 10. The author labels some of the uncommitted people into following categories: 1) hitchhiker Christians, 2) the consumer mentality, 3) spectator Christianity, 4) drive-through Christians, 5) relationless Christianity, and 6) churchless “worshippers.” He sees two causes for de-churching: 1) overemphasis on the “invisible” body of Christ and 2) general attitude against authority. Hence, one of the antidotes that the author offers is for the people to recover a biblical vision of what the church truly is.

In Chapter 11 the author argues for a new old fundamentalism that is in line with the paleofundamentalism of John’s Gospel, namely a fundamentalism that while being in the world is morally separated from the world and that unashamedly preaches the gospel. Unfortunately, fundamentalism is often connected to saying no to smoking, drinking, dancing, movie-going, gambling, and the like. However, the author believes that churches also need to tackle against materialism, pleasure-seeking, indiscriminate enjoyment of salacious and violent entertainment, immodesty of dress, voyeurism, sexual laxity, and divorce – with life-transforming gospel. Perhaps the most important point of this chapter is the reminder that whatever the church says no to (e.g. immodesty of dress) it must be replaced with a godly attitude/action (e.g. modesty of dress).

The author concludes the volume with two appendixes. In the first appendix he explains what the gospel is. He rightly points out that the gospel or God story does not begin in the New Testament. Rather, the story of God’s redemption begins in the Old. In the second appendix the author provides a list of websites for movie reviews and other helpful internet filters and safety tips.

Critical Evaluation

This book has some strength. First, the author offers many practical and wise counsels throughout the volume. There is no doubt that this is due to his long tenure as a pastor. He speaks not only from his academic training that includes his biblical and theological convictions, but also from his ministry experiences, which are precious to both new and seasoned ministers. He is not afraid to address difficult or controversial subjects or issues in the church. For instance, even if there is a legitimate ground for divorce (e.g. marital unfaithfulness), he warns against immediate filing for divorcement. Unlike other marriage counselors or pastors, the author is not trigger happy about divorce even though one may have a biblical reason. According to Hughes, “It’s so easy to look for a way out instead of working through the problems. We should not regard a one-time affair as an easy excuse for divorce” (120). In this day and age when many people do not understand the meaning of longsuffering or perseverance, such statement aforementioned is so needed. Likewise, this reviewer believes that this principle should also be applied when a church is on the verge of a church-split or a person wants to leave his local church. Instead of calling a quit out of a kneejerk reaction, people should always try to err on the side of exhausting all options toward reconciliation. This reviewer also appreciates the author’s honest reality of marriage, namely that there is no way to “divorce proof” one’s marriage as some books suggest (121). Apart from the grace of God, it’s a miracle that most couples have not killed each other by now.

Second, Chapter 10 on the church and the Lord’s Day is perhaps the apex of this volume. The fundamental reason why so many churches today are worldly, unholy, and spiritually sick is because many simply do not know what a church is. This writer echoes the author’s solution that churches today need to “recover a biblical vision of what the church truly is” (131).

While the book has strengths, it also has a few weaknesses. First, clarification is needed due to a discrepant statement. For instance, in regards to holiness the author writes, “The call to be holy is not a call to a bootstrap moralistic improvement. Rather, it is a call to live out the practical implications of our holiness in Christ by pursuing holiness as a lifestyle” (21). But why does it have to be either or? Is it possible that to live out the practical implications of our holiness in Christ by pursuing holiness as a lifestyle includes moralistic improvement? For instance, consider Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”

Second, the author’s three reasons for higher divorce rate in the South (i.e., antinomianism, narcissism, and hedonism) is not convincing because he makes it seem as if those reasons are unique to churches in the South alone. However, sin is not prone to only geographical location. Unfortunately, those reasons are also prevalent in the West as it is in Northeast and outside of America. Lastly, couldn’t Chapter 6 be tied to Chapter 4? Why another chapter when both are addressing the same issue?

Conclusion

While the present volume is not a book on preaching, preachers will certainly be benefited as it addresses the urgent subject for this hour in the church, namely holiness. It will stoke the fire within the preacher’s heart as it already has for this reviewer. This volume is surely a welcoming addition to preacher’s library.

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