Book Review: Carson’s Call to Spiritual Reformation

Review of D.A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation – This book will help you with your prayer life. 

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Donald A. Carson, in an effort to encourage and inform the church on both the theology and practice of prayer, writes this work which serves both as an exposition of some of Paul’s New Testament prayers, as well as primer on the practice and discipline of prayer. This book review will provide a summary of Carson’s work as well as assess his work. Then it will suggest a range of readers that will find this work valuable.

Summary of Content

Carson introduces his work by presenting several urgent needs of the church today, citing purity, mission, and expository preaching, to name a few.   After raising these urgent needs in the church, he raises his belief that knowledge of God stands as the greatest need of the church at large. He asserts, “The one thing we most urgently need in Western Christendom is a deeper knowledge of God. We need to know God better.
[1] Then Carson delimits his writing objective explaining that he does not intend to take on the challenge of meeting this need entirely, but he desires to facilitate that cause by addressing one of the first steps to knowing God, namely, “prayer–spiritual, persistent, Biblically minded prayer.“[2] Carson proceeds to lay out his method by purposing to work through several of Paul’s prayers in order to gain a working theology of prayer.

After his introduction, Carson proceeds to present some very practical advice for those who would endeavor to give themselves to prayer. After his practical chapter, Carson expounds upon Paul’s prayer in 2 Thessalonians 1 for the next two chapters. The first of these chapters establishes the importance of praying with thanksgiving and a grateful spirit, while the second focuses on petitions that aid the believer in knowing the content of appropriate petitions. Carson deviates from his Pauline exploration in the fourth chapter to discuss intercessory prayer and in this chapter he discusses the importance of prayer with a genuine concern for others.

This theme of focusing on the needs of others intensifies with Carson’s exposition of 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Here Carson asserts that believers and church leadership should actually possess a passion for people, and by that, he means a passion for the spiritual progress of people. The prayer for the spiritual growth for others continues into the next chapter when Carson interprets and applies Colossians 1:1-14.

Then, Carson deviates, again from his exposition of Paul’s prayer to discuss the matter of people making excuses for not praying. Among some of the excuses is busyness, contentedness with mediocrity, and ashamedness. This chapter, though a deviation from his exposition really provides the impetus for reading his next chapter, which is an exposition of Philippians 1:9-11 and discusses overcoming hurdles.

Once more Carson will provide an excurses from Biblical exposition in the ninth chapter to synthesize the nature of God as both sovereign and personal.   He establishes the need for seeing the harmony in these two attributes as well as raises some valid questions regarding this issue that he answers by working through Ephesians 1:15-23. Carson posits that a view of God as both high and personal will aid in a richer prayer life.

Finally, Carson teaches from Ephesians 3:14-21 and Romans 15:14-33 to demonstrate how to pray effectively for ministry both in ability and in opportunity.  Most notably he points out how good God is to go beyond what we pray or think. Carson accurately establishes prayer as essential in ministry.

Assessment of Content

Carson’s book serves as an excellently balanced treatment of Paul’s view of prayer. While Carson’s reputation as an exegetical scholar precedes him, Carson’s work here, is neither esoteric nor highly technical. Rather, Carson composes a book that readers will find Biblically based, practically beneficial, and highly motivational.

Carson’s Biblically Based Approach

Carson’s work stands highly commendable because it seeks to find the answer to the most urgent need of both the church and the individual believer in the Bible. While plenty of books offer churches advice on the latest methods, programs, and ideas, this book differs greatly. While Carson could have ascertained some level of application for the church by presenting a study of some other Scriptural genre such as Old Testament narrative, he most appropriately studies Paul’s prayers who were written to actual New Testament churches. This approach is of the most Biblically appropriate level. The refreshingly Biblical nature of this book differs greatly from many other books on prayer who err to the point of mysticism and a mishandling of the text.   Conversely, Carson’s loyalty to an accurate interpretation of the text results in a book with solid exegetical backing.

Carson’s Practically Beneficial Approach

Carson’s approach proves not only Biblical, but also beneficial practically. His practical chapters on prayer lessons, interceding for others, and his chapter on excuses prove extremely helpful beyond understanding the concept of prayer. With these chapters he provides experiential advice on the actual practice of prayer including setting aside times of prayer, developing prayer lists, having prayer partners, etc. In a world where an insufficient amount of mentoring occurs, these chapters may provide exactly the advice needed for implanting a solid, fervent, consistent prayer life.

Carson’s Highly Motivational Approach

Carson demonstrates quite well the urgency of the matter of prayer. His introduction immediately arrests the reader’s attention and causes him to realize the severe need for prayer in his own life and in the church. By listing other urgent needs and then positing that the most urgent need is a greater knowledge of God, he positions the reader to embrace the need for prayer as a significant step in meeting that urgent need. By shedding light on Paul’s emphasis on prayer, he substantiated his high elevation of the practice of prayer. Additionally, by providing practical advice for the implementation of prayer, Carson makes the practice of prayer seem attainable at least on some level and thereby, adding to the motivational value of this book.

At first Carson’s book may seem to lack a logical flow from one chapter to another. It appears that he shifts gears from an exposition of Paul’s prayers, which he states as his objective, to the practical, back to exposition without reason. But Carson evidently does this to keep the readers attention throughout the book by introducing topics related to prayer and then working through those topics by means of an exposition of one of Paul’s prayers. In this way Carson effectively keeps his reader engaged, motivating him to read the entire book.

Value of Content

This book will prove valuable to a broad range of Christians. First, the average Christian who desires to enhance his prayer life will benefit from reading this book. While Carson possesses the intellect and education to write for a more advanced reader, his simple, readable style will benefit nearly any Christian. Second, because of the ecclesiastical emphasis of this book, the church leader, such as a pastor, may find this book to be inspirational, informative, and instructional. Finally, the Bible student will also find this to a good source for material on the subject of prayer in the epistles as he endeavors to gain a fuller understanding of the scope of prayer throughout the Bible.

Not only will this book prove beneficial to a broad range of people, it will also prove beneficial in two specific areas. First, the book is valuable for its benefit to the heart. For example, Carson places emphasis both in the need to have a thankful and grateful heart in prayer, and he also expresses need to have a passion for people. Second, the reader will find benefit for the mind.   Since Carson presents such Scripturally based truth, it is sure to inform the mind.

Conclusion

Without question, the needed posture for a believer today is to be on his knees. Carson surely succeeds in his goal of encouraging, motivating, and informing believers on the incredibly important subject of prayer, to the degree that people read, retain, and apply its concepts. Those who read it will surely benefit greatly.

[1] D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Baker Academic, 1992), 15.

[2] Ibid., 16.

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