Book Review: The Biggest Win by Josh Cooley

I love football. I love the pageantry and the rivalries. I love the battle in the trenches and the suspense of a scoring drive in the final two-minutes of a game. It’s glorious.

But there’s a different kind of glory that can find its way into the athletic arena—the glory of discipleship. Pastor Josh Cooley writes, “Because of its nature, sports can open doors for discipleship that might not have existed otherwise. As an athlete, you likely spend significant time with others at practice, in the locker room, traveling to games, and at dining tables. Sports helps create relationships, common interests, and shared goals” (77). In his new devotional, The Biggest Win: Pro Football Players Tackle Faith (New Growth Press, 2018), Cooley explores particular ways that spiritual growth and athletics can intersect. In particular, he Cooley unpacks the intersection of faith and football.

And who does Cooley choose as his test case for sports discipleship? It’s the believers who played together as part of the 2018 Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles!

The Core Elements of Discipleship

The leaders who run the website, Discipleship.org, have identified essential discipleship components. While I don’t think Cooley intended to include each of them, I found each one clearly present in his devotional. Here’s five components of discipleship that the believers on the Eagles have embodied:that stood out to me as I read.

  • Jesus. Sports is a glory machine, but we all have a tendency to grab that glory for ourselves instead of humbly reflecting it back to the Savior and finding our identity in him. In chapter two, Cooley tells how Eagles safety and special teams ace Chris Maragos has learned humility through the mundane rhythms of family life. In chapter 3, he writes about how Nick Foles learned to root his identity in Christ when he experienced failure. This is ultimately what discipleship is about. Jesus is the original disciple-maker and centerpiece of our discipleship. The goal of our growth is to know, treasure, and humbly promote him.

  • Intentionality. Growing as a Christian disciple, just like growing as an athlete, requires intentional training. During the 2017 NFL season, discipleship for the Eagles believers involved a Monday night couples Bible study, a Thursday night players Bible study, Saturday night chapel services, and Sunday morning worship gatherings (before afternoon games). Planning and maintaining consistency with this regular discipleship plan required effort—even at times from a player who wasn’t active with the team. Cooley describes how one player ran logistics for an away game chapel even after a season ending injury: “Chris Maragos’ torn posterior cruciate ligament two months earlier might have ended his season, but it didn’t sideline his passion for ministering to his Christian brothers” (68).

  • Relationships. Discipleship happens best within the context of genuine life-on-life connections grounded in Christ-like love. We’re all tempted toward isolation. Carson Wentz calls it “island syndrome,” but growth in Christ is fueled by laying down our pride and being mutually accountable. Cooley writes, ““Discipleship doesn’t happen magically… It involves listening to others and having a humble, non-judgmental attitude. It involves prayerful encouragement when another believer is struggling with sin, doubt, or fear. It requires honesty and openness about your own shortcomings. True accountability involves God-honoring transparency, as you strive toward a common goal” (77).

  • The Bible. The Word of God is the manual for making disciples. And chapter 7 directly addresses the right handling of God’s word. In this chapter Cooley identified a key Scripture—Philippians 4:13—that is often mishandled by athletes and he took time to help readers understand it contextually. The chapter helps young athletes to be discerning about the ways Bible passages are normally talked about in an athletic culture. And it teaches simple principles for understanding Bible passages in their original context.

  • Journey. For every disciple, there’s a traceable, but sometimes disjointed, growth story from the new birth to spiritual maturity. The Holy Spirit leads us on this formative journey. Each of the believing players on the Eagles has been on this kind of discipleship journey. But, for Trey Burton, it’s been quite a ride: “Burton has gone from single-parent childhood, to high school star, to breaking hallowed college records, to frustrated player on the verge of quitting, to unexpected twenty-one-year-old father, to undrafted free agent, to Super Bowl champion” (105). Throughout this journey, Burton has rested on the unchanging promises of God’s character. And this faith has grown him into a man who multiplies his impact by fighting sex trafficking through the International Justice Mission (IJM). What a journey!

I love these examples of notable sports figures modeling the key components of discipleship. Discipleship doesn’t require sports, but sports can be an incredible avenue within which a believer can train in the core elements of discipleship. Cooley writes, “Sports can’t save anyone; only Jesus can. But sports can help create opportunities and open doors that were once closed” (128).

If you’re working with a group of young athletes in a local church, or with Athletes in Action or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, this book is a great introduction to the basics of Christian growth. Every chapter includes pointed applications and discussion questions to use if you’re reading with a group. I highly recommend it!

For more from Josh Cooley, check out this article he wrote for GCF entitled, “Credentials.”

Storm-Tossed Homes Need Cross-Shaped Habits

It’s possible to accurately teach the message of the cross, but still miss Jesus.

In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of gospel-centered books, curriculum, and devotional resources for families. We’ve emphasized right teaching about gender and marriage, catechizing our kids, and grace-driven principles for parenting. Such tools give us more than biblical morality; they focus on big theological truths—God’s character and his redemptive work.

This cross-centered message is essential, but it must be accompanied by a cross-shaped value system. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, a Christian home may fathom all mysteries and knowledge and have a faith that can move mountains, but if it doesn’t have a cross-shaped love, it’s nothing (1 Cor. 13:2). The gospel message must lead our families to the crucified life.

That’s the chief concern of Russell Moore’s new book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home.

Our Homes Are Spiritual Firing Lines

Moore—president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention—reminds us that we’re all part of a family. It’s true whether we’re single or married, no matter if we’re longing for children or if each chair around the table is full.

According to Moore, particular temptations face family members at each point in a family’s lifespan. Indeed, family is “a place of spiritual warfare, a warfare that sometimes leaves us groaning in sighs too deep for words” (295).

And in this war, our enemy is telling us lies.

Sometimes the Devil tempts us to exaggerate the importance of family so that we make gifts like sex or having kids the single defining feature of our lives. A young couple, for instance, may think achieving orgasm has transcendent importance. In a similar vein, consider how a mechanistic parenting culture—one that gives certain parenting choices determinative significance for a child’s future—can haunt a church.

“Something has gone terribly wrong,” Moore observes, “when a Christian [mother] feels she must protect herself from the church, for fear that her daughter’s spiritual crisis will be discussed as part of a debate over whether she should have breastfed longer or . . . chosen homeschooling over public school” (16–17).

The gospel message must lead our families to the crucified life.

Satan can also deceive us into truncating the Bible’s vision of the home. The divorce culture, rising cohabitation, and abortion are all ways our society reduces and devalues family. Moore also points out how the children of immigrants are made “invisible by language—often presented culturally or politically as parasites or as ‘anchors’ for their parents to draw welfare benefits from a wealthier country” (196).

Families Echo the Gospel

How do we stand against these temptations? The answer is found at the cross. “The cross shaped life,” Moore writes, “frees us to neither idealize nor demonize the family” (295). Instead of glory-loading our homes or reducing life’s significance, we need what Martin Luther called “a theology of the cross,” one that simply names the family for what it is.

The family is a signpost (Eph. 3:15). Our homes are designed to point us away from ourselves to the Father whose glory we see most clearly in the face of our crucified Savior (John 14:92 Cor. 4:6).

How does this work practically?

This is the best part of The Storm-Tossed Family. Whether Moore is talking about sexuality, divorce, or aging, he carefully shows the reader what it means for family life to avoid reduction and exaggeration and instead be cruciform.

In his chapter on gender, for example, Moore writes, “A cross-shaped masculinity walks not with Esau’s swagger but with Jacob’s limp. A cross-shaped femininity comes not with the glamor of Potiphar’s wife but with the Bible-teaching prowess of Eunice and Lois” (82).

I could fill pages with more examples.

Safe in Our Nail-Scarred Home

The only safe harbor for a storm-tossed family is a nail-scarred home.

It’s true that sometimes a crucified life is chosen; Paul, for instance, tells us to put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13). Perhaps more often, though, life’s deaths and disappointments are simply encountered. Storms like infertility, a disability diagnosis, or a cheating spouse may gather on the horizon without any regard for what we choose. Sometimes we’re hung on our own family tree. Moore shares about how his childhood insecurities still drive him (44). He writes about a dark night of the soul triggered by nominal Christians he’d encountered at funerals (267). None of us chooses the home or culture into which we’re born. Moore’s vulnerability about his past drives this point home and then directs us ahead to where a better hope is found.

There is one thing about The Storm-Tossed Family that may be a minor concern for some. Moore is unapologetically a Southern Baptist. If you hail from a denomination that practices infant baptism, then the discussion of child dedication (199) and Moore’s convictional anecdote about baptizing his adolescent son (213–14) may be a stumbling block. But Moore’s sense of rootedness and the openness with which he shares about his denominational upbringing contributes in an important way to the book’s message.

Moore writes, “The only safe harbor for a storm-tossed family is a nail-scarred home” (5). In other words, the only way to find true life is to cling, in faith and love, to the Crucified (Gal. 2:20Phil. 3:10–11). Safe harbor is found when we make our home with Jesus Christ.

This post first appeared at The Gospel Coalition.

Book Review: Luther, A Visual Book

Today, we celebrate the 501st anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. I’ve been reading LUTHER: A Visual Book by Stephen McCaskell and Aaron Armstrong (Patrol Books, 2017) to our girls before bed this week.

The book is advertised as a gorgeously illustrated companion to the award-winning LUTHER documentary. The marketers aren’t kidding. Rommel Ruiz’s illustrations are amazing. My girls have noticed the facial expressions of the people in particular at several points.

But what I love most about the book is that it treats Luther so fairly. Martin Luther is known as one of the driving forces behind the Reformation, and a vital figure in the history of Christianity and the world. He was a remarkable yet flawed man. Honesty about his sins—both his brash language and anti-Semitism—have been a part of our conversations.

If Luther’s looking down from the great cloud of witnesses, I think he’d approve of this straight-forward treatment of his earthly life. The doctrine of justification that Luther helped recover reminds us that we are simul justus et peccator, that is, simultaneously declared to be righteous people as well as sinners. In this life, both of these identities cling to us. The book makes clear that the doctrine holds true for Luther as well.

The book of course also describes Luther’s conversion, his contribution of translating the Bible into the people’s common language, and the way he helped recover the good news of the gospel.

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This is not necessarily a kids book. The prose would be tough for younger children, but it has been perfect for our middle elementary and middle school girls. I’d encourage you to pick it up as a Christmas gift and consider working through it with your family next October.

If you liked this, you may also like… Happy 500th Birthday Protestants!

E-book Review: 5 Habits of a Healthy Marriage

Whatever we neglect will surely die or be overcome with chaos. Whatever we nurture, by God’s grace, will grow and flourish—your marriage included.
— Ryan Frederick
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Marriage can be tough, even under optimal conditions. It’s one thing to be married and it’s another thing for the marriage to be healthy. When one sinner is marrying another sinner, it shouldn’t surprise anyone when that sin interferes with their relationship. This ebook is a great reminder of what God intended marriage to be and how to help marriage flourish. It’s a good resource for both newlywed couples as well those who have been married for decades.

The free e-book is nice and short as well as easy to read. And it's intensely practical. Each chapter is loaded with practical ideas that are easy to implement. These ideas are things we tend to forget and need to be reminded of. But as we intentionally pursue these habits, our marriages will get healthier.

I plan on recommending this as a resource to any married couple who desires to deepen the health of their marriage. If that is something you’d be interested in, head over to the website for your free download.