[Review] Theological Fitness by Aimee Byrd

“I think we often think of perseverance as passive endurance. I hope to change that.” Thus writes Aimee Byrd, author of Theological Fitness: Why We Need a Fighting Faith, published by P&R Publishing in May 2015. Her goal is admirable and her theology is solid, yet the statement above reveals her audience’s elementary level understanding of the Christian life. While I enjoyed parts of the book, I would not recommend the Reformed Forum audience add this to their “to read” pile; it was too simplistic and left me numerous times wishing I was reading the various theologians she was drawing from rather than Byrd herself. That said, Byrd’s theology is solid and her focus is solidly on the gospel, so this book could be used as a tool to help a less-mature believer grow in their faith.

In ten chapters, Byrd fleshes out Hebrews 10:23 “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” She breaks down the verse into five parts, each with two chapters, and includes questions at the end of each chapter to facilitate use for small group study. The book weaves a fitness metaphor throughout, which I found helpful in chapter ten when discussing the Sabbath, but distracting at most other times. She gives many illustrations from her fitness experience and the martial arts, of which she seems very knowledgeable. Yet to carry a metaphor throughout the entire work felt forced and even distracting, especially when karate movie fight scenes or Ultimate Fighting Championship fights were included at length.

Byrd uses the first three chapters to affirm and defend the belief that it takes theological fitness to hold fast. She has some good takeaway lines: “Our theology shapes the way we live.” “I propose that perseverance is an exciting exhortation for every Christian.” “How do we expect to run the race with endurance if we do not know the One we are running to?” “I am suggesting that our perseverance in the Christian faith is connected to our theological health.” She also defines the title of the book in this section:

Faith is a gift of God, but faith is a fighting grace. Theological fitness, then, refers to that persistent fight to exercise our faith by actively engaging in the gospel truth revealed in God’s Word . . . a trust in his promises that motivates us in holy living.

Chapter four goes into the particular fitness that all Christians have: Christ. A high point was her discussion of various ideas in Christendom that are man-centered and have a low view of the faithfulness of God. By way of contrast, these ideas show us what perseverance is not. The first Byrd presents is the “once saved, always saved” belief; pray the prayer and you’re in. In this view, however, the transformation into a disciple is forgotten. Byrd writes: “For them, perseverance isn’t like a race at all, but like a confidence in their own words, and maybe in the way they felt when they prayed them.” This view expects little of the faithfulness of God, says Byrd. The other view she discusses is that sin could forfeit one’s salvation; here, there is no assurance. Byrd writes, “This teaching also has a low view of the faithfulness of God. Its focus is on the faithfulness of the believer.” It leads to legalistic boundaries and fear. Byrd has some helpful reflections on what is true and false in both views. She diagnoses both as man-focused, and drawing upon the words of John Calvin, points the reader back to God’s grace to us in Christ.

The next two chapters look at the “confession of our hope,” or rather who Jesus is and what he has done for us. She asks a good question:

Do you affirm the sufficiency of God’s Word revealed to us in Scripture, or do you find yourself looking for outside revelations?

Later, she includes a quote from Kevin DeYoung listing various “versions” of Jesus (Republican Jesus, Starbucks Jesus, etc.), and follows with some good analysis: “As passionate as we may feel about some of the above causes, these versions of Jesus are too weak. They are unable to save. Rather, they are different strategies for us to save ourselves.” She goes on: “We may be quick to proclaim a Jesus who gets behind our good causes, but this means of grace reminds us how evil our own sin is. Our Savior was cursed because of us, not only for the injustice in our midst. Are we as fervent to proclaim a bloody Savior? And if we identify ourselves with him, are we also willing to carry our own cross in his path?” Byrd clings tightly to Christ, and this section was a high point of the work.

What follows in chapters seven through nine, however, was not as strong. She leans heavily on others, including Arthur Pink and Joel Beeke, but doesn’t add a lot herself. That said, who she leans on is solid! She challenges the reader to be honest about one’s own spiritual state:

The picture that we have of our own sanctification is far different from reality. We often have a tendency to think we are much farther along the path to holiness than we actually are.

What follows is a look at the discipline we undergo as children of God, and here I wished I was reading Pink’s An Exposition of Hebrews instead. The strength of this section came from the various theological quotes Byrd included. This became especially clear in chapter nine, where her inclusion of several sections of The Westminster Confession of Faith and some quotes from Michael Horton nearly destroyed her narrative altogether.

Byrd has a high view of Christ and wants to point her readers to God and our eternal blessings in him. Near the end of this section, following some content by Joel Beeke, Byrd reflects,

We chase situational happiness over enduring joy . . . There’s nothing wrong with eating a good bowl of stew to the glory of the Lord. But in the life of Esau we see another example of misplaced trust. He looked to external means to be fulfilled. He was so sensual that even when he sought repentance it could not be found. Esau wasn’t sorry for his irreverence to his covenant relationship with the Lord; he was wallowing in his own self-pity when he realized the consequences. This is a grave warning for all who profess that our hope is in the Lord to live as we are called.

She also holds a high view of Scripture, and sees humanity in light of this truth: “Even when Adam was without sin, his goodness was dependent on obedience to God’s Word, to what God says is good.” Her words of warning are poignant yet pastoral:

All those who refuse to dwell on Mt. Zion with him for eternity insist on their own righteousness. By laboring to fulfill righteousness on their own, they will be faced with even greater horrors than Israel did on Mt. Sinai. But those of us who believe are counted as righteous, Abraham’s children of faith.

Perhaps this is why chapter ten was a fitting climax for the book. Here she connects her reason for physical fitness with Resurrection Day and eternity. Her inclusion of a CDC report on the importance of a rest and recovery period for a successful fitness routine is helpful. On fitness, Byrd writes, “For me, the goal of training and conditioning is active rest. I condition my body to have the fitness for an active life.” She then reflects on an exhortation from Spurgeon, “Just as Sunday is a taste of the believer’s heavenly rest in Christ, the constant restlessness of unbelievers in their own efforts is a taste of their eternal state. Here is an opportunity for us to share the good news of the gospel to those tired of struggling in their own efforts.” Unfortunately, this chapter is also filled with the ways she has felt validated in her life. I am glad she feels validated, but the text is much too personal and becomes distracting and very open to criticism. She should let the reader validate her work; I found it especially problematic when she discusses her writing projects.

Byrd’s last chapter is focused again on Christ: “We keep looking to ourselves and need to be reminded of the gospel message.” She discusses our eternal rest as both a place and a status, and sanctification as “being conditioned for holiness.” The connection to eternity is made:“Active rest is freedom in our full recovery to holiness, freedom to fulfill our purpose to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Byrd paints a hopeful picture:

This is the magnificent picture of active rest: living, worshiping, serving, and loving our great God without toil, without sin, in unity together, bearing his image perfectly.

The worth of this book, perhaps like all other books, is deemed as much from the work itself as its comparison to other books on the market today. When compared to other books written by female Christians, Theological Fitness is likely more gospel-centered, more theologically sound, more reformed, and, at least at times, more insightful. When compared to theological books as a whole, however, Byrd’s book is not as eloquent, thought-provoking, or rich as many other works its size. Depending on your preference as a reader or goal as a small-group or Bible study, thinking through these factors will help you determine if this book is worth picking up or passing over. I hope we hear more from Byrd, and as she develops her voice and strength as a writer, her next book doesn’t depend on an over-developed metaphor but dares to stand up on its own.

 

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