Edwards on the Christian Life (book review)

Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God
Dane C. Ortlund
Crossway, 2014

ortlund edwards

‘If all we know of Van Gogh’, writes Dane Ortlund, ‘is what we read in art history books without ever actually viewing a Van Gogh painting, we will have an impoverished appreciation of this great artist. We must go to the artistry itself’.
I tend to subscribe to the idea that it’s better to read the great theologians of the past themselves, rather than read books about them. And so, although Ortlund seeks to avoid that problem by quoting plenty of Edwards himself, he, along with the other authors of Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series have to give us reasons to read their books rather than the giants they write about. While I hoped Ortlund’s book would succeed in this area, especially after it made third place on Desiring God’s 14 Best Books of 2014, I was in the end left disappointed by a book which tells the reader at least as much about Ortlund and New Calvinism as it does about Edwards.

The book starts rather jarringly, giving the reader no introduction or historical context to who Jonathan Edwards actually was, apart from a few scattered details – he was ejected from his church, died in 1758 and never watched the Super Bowl or Skyped. It feels like someone has just walked into your house without any greeting and begun talking theology. In fact that Ortlund feels he has to persuade Christians that they can still learn from someone who has never spent their Lord’s Day watching sport is an early indication of the angle that the author is coming from.

Those expecting an academic treatment like Sinclair Ferguson’s John Owen on the Christian Life are going to be disappointed. Ortlund tries to apply Edward’s theology to the lives of his readers, which is an admirable aim, but ends up turning the book into ‘Jonathan Edwards – and the random thoughts of Dane Ortlund – on the Christian life’. Ortlund’s sources include Doug Wilson’s blog, a Mark Driscoll interview and the film version of the Hobbit. He asks the reader to imagine people saying ‘Why so somber, Jonathan?’. Somehow a corny joke (‘The soul is not the bottom of your foot. That’s your sole’) which would be cringeworthy even at a youth group makes it into a published book. And Ortlund (a PhD and professional book editor) manages to mix up the verb ‘envelop’ with the noun ‘envelope’ as he points us towards the day that joy will do something to us that involves a flat rectangular piece of paper. Another evidence of poor editing is an Edwards quote which is cited twice in full (pp 132 and 174) with apparently no awareness that it’s already been used. It’s also filled with American illustrations and phrases (NASCAR, ‘ ‘picking up meds in Walgreens’, ‘where’s Waldo and castle Legos’) showing no awareness of a wider audience and meaning that this book will date a lot faster than Edwards. Ortlund also feels that a fairly straightforward quote from a recent academic book needs to be followed by his own ‘Translation’ (p. 168, n. 1). Sinclair Ferguson this is not. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison (despite the similarities of the titles) and it may just be the approach this series is taking, but it’s difficult to imagine that this week’s release of Luther on the Christian Life (the latest in the series, authored by Carl Trueman) will be anything like Ortlund’s effort.

Apart from Edwards, Ortlund probably quotes or references C. S. Lewis the most (19 times on a rough count – quite a lot for a 195 page book). Now I’m a big Lewis fan, but a couple of times I was left wondering whether Ortlund was using Lewis as a further example of something Edwards taught, or whether he was forcing Edwards through a Lewis filter. This comes across particularly with his treatment of joy and desire, where he fails to provide much evidence that he’s starting with JE rather than CSL. I haven’t read enough Edwards to say for sure, but it doesn’t fill the reader with much confidence when Ortlund builds his entire case mainly on one quote, which could easily be taken another way. The same is true in the chapter on obedience, where Ortlund quotes starts off by quoting Lewis about true obedience as doing what we want to do, but doesn’t wrestle with texts like Romans 7 or Heb 12:4 (resisting to the point of shedding blood), or prove that Edwards and Lewis were in agreement.

Old Calvinists and anyone who treasures the Shorter Catechism will also be alarmed that for Ortlund it is just the soul that is united to Christ (contra WSC #37). There also seems to be a bit of a fascination with sex – reading it into Edwards the way Driscoll reads it into the Song of Solomon. And do we really need the o-word?

All of this isn’t to say there weren’t parts of the book I liked, and not just from Edwards. Some of Ortlund’s illustrations were very helpful. Some of the strongest parts of the book are where Ortlund disagrees with Edwards, and in some of them I would agree with Ortlund (at least on the basis of the evidence he cites). However the annoyances were just too frequent to properly enjoy the book. There’s too much Ortlund and not enough Edwards to recommend someone spending their time reading this. Normally I would feel bad about such a negative review, but seeing as Ortlund writes off Steve Lawson’s recent work on Edwards as ‘hagiography’, let’s hope he can take it as well as give it out.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Another BBC programme on the Psalms

Then Sings My Soul (Episode 1) is the latest BBC programme to feature the psalms and the RPCI – this time focusing on Trinity RPC. Marie-Louise Muir traces the history of hymn singing, with the bit on psalms starting about 16 minutes in.

abi - psalm programme

joel psalms

A few quotes from the presenter:

“It made me feel that while I may have been raised a Roman Catholic, inside in my heart, having sung these Psalms I think I must be a Covenanter”.

“What I absolutely did not miss was any accompaniment”.

“Hearing the Reformed Presbyterians singing breathed new life into the psalms for me”.

gmo psalms

warren psalms 2

nelsons psalms

Previous Programmes:

Make a Joyful Noise: The Metrical Psalms (2003 BBC TV Programme)
An Independent People (2013 3-part BBC series on Ulster Presbyterianism)
A Kist o Wurds on the Psalms (2014 BBC Radio Ulster Programme)

Some quotes for Ordination Season

“We ought to feel deeply thankful that the building of the true Church is laid on the shoulders of One that is mighty. If the work depended on man, it would soon stand still. But, blessed be God, the work is in the hands of a Builder who never fails to accomplish His designs! Christ is the almighty Builder. He will carry on His work, though nations and visible Churches may not know their duty. Christ will never fail. That which He has undertaken He will certainly accomplish.” – J. C. Ryle, Holiness, p. 312.

“This in ministers of the gospel ought to be to that degree, as to shine forth brightly in all their conversation; and there should as it were be a light about them wherever they go, exhibiting to all that behold them, the amiable, delightful image of the beauty and brightness of their glorious Master.” - Jonathan Edwards, WJE, 25:94.

The Pastor’s Justification (book review)

The Pastor’s Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry
Jared C. Wilson
Crossway, 2013

pastors justification

I would probably have given this book a miss if Mez McConnell hadn’t listed it as his top book of 2014 and said ‘It should be required reading for seminary students’. As the subtitle says, Wilson’s aim is to apply the truth of who we are in Christ to all aspects of ministry. In doing so he seeks to save pastors from self-pity and bitterness at one extreme and pride and self-sufficiency at the other. It’s a refreshing read, but will make you wince at times – many of the negative tendencies he picks out are all too close to home. The first half of the book, on ‘The Pastor’s Heart’, is especially helpful. Wilson writes powerfully and is eminently quotable. On what prayerlessness says about us: ‘Prayer is essentially acknowledged helplessness’. On the importance of theology: ‘A pastor not interested in theology is like a computer programmer not interested in technology’. On those who complain about church discipline: ‘We do not say to a surgeon that he is harming a body by cutting a tumour out of it’.
In the second half of the books he applies the Five Solas to ministry. This part isn’t perhaps as consistently strong, and occasionally repeats things already covered in the first section, but is still very helpful.
Overall this is an honestly written, realistic yet hope-filled and encouraging book, which would doubtless be helpful both to seminary students and those in ministry. Nor is it just a book to be read once, because we’re always in need of the gospel that it seeks to bring home to the ministry setting. It lifts the broken and brings down the proud becomes it reminds us that it’s not about us and our personal success or failure – it’s all about Jesus. As Wilson concludes: ‘Let’s pastor in this reality, brothers, until our hearts burst with joy.’

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

God’s not deaf – don’t be so mournful! (Spurgeon)

“Prayer should be mingled with praise. I have heard that in New England after the Puritans had settled there a long while, they used to have very often a day of humiliation, fasting and prayer, till they had so many days of fasting, humiliation and prayer, at last a good senator proposed that they should change it for once, and have a day of thanksgiving. It is of little use to be always fasting. We ought sometimes to give thanks for mercies received. Now, during this week, there are to be days of prayer. Take care that they are days of praise, too! Why should we go to God as mournful beings, who plead piteously with a hard Master who loves not to give? When you give a penny to a beggar in the street, you like to see him smile at you—do you not? Is he a crossing-sweeper and you have given him a trifle? He looks extremely grateful and happy and you think within yourself, “What a small expense has made that man happy! I think I will buy another pennyworth of joy the next time I pass by.” So you give him all the more because of his thankfulness to you. Now, go not before God with a rueful face, you people of God, as though He had never heard you before, and you were about to try a great experiment on One who was exceedingly deaf, and did not like to give you mercies!


God is as pleased to give you His blessing as ever you are to receive it; it is as much to His honour as it is to your comfort; He takes more pleasure in your prayers than you do in His answers! Come therefore, boldly. Come with thankfulness in your heart and upon your lips, and join the hymn of praise with the cry of prayer. Be thankful for what God has done. Look at the past year. I commend it to your consideration when you meet for prayer. Has there been for the last 20 years such a year as the last? If any man had said seven years ago there would be preaching in St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, we should never have believed him! But it is, has been, and it is to be again! If any friends had said that nearly all the theatres in London would be filled on the Sabbath, “Oh,” you would have said, “it is ridiculous, it is an absurd notion!” But it is done, Sirs; it is done. If any had said to you seven years ago there would have been a congregation of many thousands who, without any drawback in numbers, would always assemble every Sabbath to listen to one minister, you would have said, “Ridiculous! There is no precedent for it. It is impossible! It is not at all possible that the Spirit of God can incline a people’s heart so long to listen to one man.” It is done, Sirs; by God’s Grace it is done! And what are we to do but to give God thanks for it? When we come before Him to ask Him for fresh mercies, let us not be so foolish as to forget the past. “Sing unto Him, sing unto Him, sing Psalms unto Him! Come into His Presence with thanksgivings, and show yourself glad in Him with Psalms—for the Lord is God, and a great King above all gods.” So thank Him for the past, and pray to Him for the future. Thank Him, too, for the power to pray; thank Him for the privilege of taking the Church’s needs before Him. And do still better—thank Him for the mercy which is to come.”

Spurgeon sermon #354 on Col 4:2 (PDF)

Paul Tripp – New Morning Mercies (book review)

New Morning Mercies: A Daily Gospel Devotional
Paul David Tripp
Crossway, 2014 (IVP in the UK)

fesko theology of the westminster standards

If you’re looking for a devotional book for the New Year, it’s worth checking out Paul Tripp’s New Morning Mercies.

These devotions started off as tweets from Tripp that others saw and encouraged him to do something with. Each day starts with a lightly edited tweet-length thought, and then a 2/3 of a page meditation based on it. The book is classic Tripp – focusing not on the surface problems of our lives, but the underlying thoughts and attitudes at the root of them. Each day’s devotion ends with a Bible reference the reader can look up for further study and encouragement. The majority of these are from the New Testament, though Isaiah, and especially the Psalms, feature heavily too.

The short length of each day’s reading makes this book an ideal pump-primer before coming to God’s Word. The book is published by IVP in the UK, whose blurb states: ‘Focused less on behaviour modification and more on helping people encounter the living God’. That dichotomy may not be the most helpful in light of the recent debates on sanctification and antinomianism (with the man at the heart of it, Tullian Tchividjian, providing an endorsement of the book), but given his counselling role, we can be sure that Tripp’s concern is that as people encounter the living God each day, it would lead to changed lives.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.