165 pages including appendices.
There is little in this book that sets it apart from how a moderate fundamentalist might handle the subject of worldliness and separation. That is both a compliment and a criticism.
R. Kent Hughes sets the stage for his book by pointing out that if we had only the Old Testament account of Lot’s life, we wouldn’t suspect he was truly a believer, yet the New Testament tells us that Lot was a righteous man and was distressed by the sin of Sodom. Hughes concludes “though Lot was revolted by Sodom, Sodom was in his soul. It is possible, then, for a believer to be distressed by the world while wilfully clinging to the world” (13). Hughes draws a direct link from here to Lot’s lack of spiritual influence on those around him and introduces his main point: “A worldly church cannot and will not reach the world. The church must be distinct from the world to reach the world. We must set ourselves apart to God if we hope to reach the world. In a word, the only hope for us and the lost world is a holy church” (17).
In the chapters following the introduction, Set Apart addresses a series of areas in which the author feels the modern church is prone to worldliness: materialism, hedonism, viewing sensuality, violence and voyeurism, sexual conduct, modesty, pluralism, marriage, and church and the Lord’s Day. The high points in this discussion, in my view, are the chapters on materialism and pluralism. I would consider the chapters on violence and voyeurism and church and the Lord’s Day to be the low points of the book.
Hughes closes the book by emphasising that Christianity is not primarily about saying no over and over again, but is rather an “unending yes” to God.
Probably the biggest win for this book is that it attempts to address worldliness at a heart level rather than simply addressing a set of cultural taboos. In other words, it tries to focus on what you love instead of on what you do. The degree to which it succeeds in this pursuit is a matter for debate, but the intention is clear and commendable.
Another significant win for this book is its repeated warnings against “bootstrap moralism.” The author constantly seeks to bring Jesus Christ and his gospel into the picture.
Application would be a strong point in this book as well. If you are a new believer and have difficulty applying biblical principles to the areas addressed in this book, you’ll get a lot of helpful insight on application.
Kudos to the publishers for including a general topic index at the back of the book and for using chapter endnotes. While I prefer footnotes to endnotes, chapter endnotes are much preferred to having to flip to the back of the book to find a note.
This book tends to read like a manual for the Moral Majority political movement in the United States. Not only is it very ethnocentric (even quoting a British minister as if he referred to an American context), but at times it feels more conservative than Christian. There were too many moments when the writing was reminiscent of an elderly fundamentalist preacher talking about how bad the world is becoming. While this may be true in the context of the United States in the last century (note: “may”), it tends to be blind to the broader world context and to the broader historical context.
Additionally, and related to the previous point, this book seems to spend a lot of time on specific cultural applications. This may be a plus as noted earlier for new believers and is perhaps more helpful to the broader evangelical audience the author had in mind, but for Fundamentalists, it may feel like beating a dead horse.
Finally, the amount of weak and invalid logic in this book is not what I would have expected from this author or this publisher.
R. Kent Hughes offers a clear and convicting call to personal holiness. While this book probably has less value for some, particularly in the fundamentalist stream, it will certainly be helpful to others. If you are a new believer just learning personal separation, if you are a young fundamentalist trying to discern legalism from licence, or if you have doubt that a new evangelical can take personal separation seriously, then I would encourage you to read this book.