Can we trust the gospels? (book review)

Can we trust the gospels?
Peter J. Williams
Crossway, 2018

can-we-trust-the-gospels

This is a book that’s been a long time coming. Peter Williams says he’s been speaking about this subject for over 20 years, but waiting for time to write it down (and also says that the material improved with feedback). That explains why much of it sounded familiar to me after watching/listening to a lot of his stuff back in 2011.

It really is a brilliant book. Given the subject, some of it is fairly technical, but if it’s a choice between working through this and basing your eternal future on The Da Vinci Code it’s a no brainer. I would give this to everyone heading off to university. He says ‘this book is not about proving that the Gospels are true but about demonstrationing that they can be rationally trusted’. Yet it’s hard not to finish the book coming to the conclusion: ‘If the picture of Jesus in the Gospels is true, it logically demands that we give up possession of our lives to serve Jesus Christ, who said repeatedly in every Gospel, “Follow me.”’

So many Christians books are padded out, but in Williams’s 140 pages every word counts. Whether in audio or video format (or mixed into sermons or introductions to Bible readings), this is content that you’ll want to get into as many peoples’ hands as possible.

Some more recent videos from him are available here.

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

Reformed Preaching (book review)

Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People
Joel R. Beeke
Crossway, 2018

reformed preaching

Joel Beeke has called this the most important book he’s ever written. It’s also not quite the book you might expect – in terms of page count it’s more church history / historical theology (254 pages) than homiletical instruction (165 pages). As a lover of historical theology I enjoy that aspect of it, but others might not. While the majority of the historical content deals with how those of the past (Reformers, Puritans, Dutch Reformed and a few more recent) preached and wrote about preaching, some of it leaves you scratching your head as to its relevance to the book’s topic – eg much of the chapter on Calvin, or the section where he summarises Richard Rogers’s book on the Christian life and private means of grace. This is perhaps due to the fact that various sections of the book have previously appeared in other books and articles – it’s not all written from scratch with an emphasis on preaching.

Beeke says that he would have preferred to call the book Reformed ‘Experiential’ Preaching. And though the word experiential was dropped for the sake of simplicity, he does spend a fair amount of time defending not just the concepts behind ‘experiential’ and ‘experimental’, but the words themselves. In a similar vein, while unsurprising, it’s a pity to see a modern book from the publishers of the ESV using the archaic KJV. Some parts of the book also seem overly prescriptive. For example ‘The Christian life…continues and deepens with…reading published sermons’. At times you wonder if the emphasis on piety drifts into pietism. (In fact, Beeke speaks positively of ‘pietistic and mystical tendencies’, even though one of the endorsements says the book tries to separate experiential preaching from pietism and mysticism).

Overall though, this is a great resource. At the risk of being simplistic, American Reformed Christianity particularly needs reminded that ‘too often preaching aims at educating big brains while neglecting withered hearts’ while British Reformed Christianity particularly needs reminded that our forefathers ‘had a profound sense that God builds his church primarily by the instrument of preaching’.

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

The Spirit of the Age (book review)

The Spirit of the Age: the nineteenth-century debate over the Holy Spirit and the Westminster Confession
J. V. Fesko
Reformation Heritage, 2017

While there are some who will immediately be enthused by the subtitle, others will wonder why they would want to read a book about a nineteenth century debate over Confessional revision…

(To read the rest, see the January 2019 Banner of Truth magazine, pp 30-31)

The Rule of Love (book review)

The Rule of Love: How the local church should reflect God’s love and authority
Jonathan Leeman
Crossway, 2018

9781433559631

It’s not unusual to hear people respond to church discipline – experienced either by themselves or someone else – with phrases like ‘That’s not very loving’. ‘That’s very judgemental’. This book is really a response to those sort of objections.
It also has a few chapters on the theology of God’s love – questioning whether it’s completely correct to describe God’s love as ‘unconditional’. He suggests that the view of God’s love held by early church fathers such as Augustine has changed since the Reformation – at least in the writings of some of those who interpret the Reformers.
Having loved Leeman’s book on Church Membership, I thought this was going to be brilliant. I certainly found it helpful, but it wasn’t quite as focussed as I would have liked. There was also quite a bit about race, which might be more necessary in the American context, but seemed a bit irrelevant to the topic. On occasion he pushes congregationalism, which reminds me of a great Driscoll quote (from before he was completely discredited): ‘As I studied the Bible, I found more warrant for a church led by unicorns than by majority vote’.
On the whole though, I found the book helpful, and have lots of quotes saved to return to and work through in the future.

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

The 10 Commandments (book review)

The 10 Commandments: what they mean, why they matter, and why we should obey them
Kevin DeYoung
Crossway, 2018

9781433559679

A month or so ago I told my congregation that anything Kevin DeYoung has written is worth reading. Having read his latest book, I wouldn’t say anything different, but I would add an asterisk.
This book is pretty good on nine of the commandments. The application is good, and he gets to Jesus.
The chapter on the fourth commandment is a real let down though. It’s particularly disappointing as he was brought up by parents who had a strict view of the Sabbath, which he’s grateful for, but says that in light of Romans 14 and Colossians 2 he can’t justify that approach exegetically.

Discussing the phrase ‘festivals, new moons and Sabbaths’, he says ‘I don’t know how to make sense of the three items if “Sabbaths” means something other than the seventh day of the weekly Sabbath’. However, as Philip Ross points out in From the Finger of God, ‘on the six other occasions where feasts, new moons, and sabbaths are grouped together in the Old Testament they are always bound up with offerings, suggesting that the term is concerned more with the sacrificial activity of those occasions than with the days themselves’, so they ‘serve as shorthand for the offerings and rituals common to those occasions…all these things were the shadow of which Christ himself was the substance’.

There is also no recognition of the fact that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, though he does make the strange statement that ‘the fourth commandment is the only one of the ten which the Lord clearly gave to the nation of Israel before they reached Mount Sinai (see Exodus 16)’. Did the nation of Israel look back and think it was ok for Cain to murder Abel, for Ham to dishonour his father, for Abraham to lie and for Potiphar’s wife to try and seduce Joseph? These things were in place since the creation of the world, so such a distinction is unhelpful. In fact, one of the most significant things about Exodus 16 is that Moses didn’t need to explain the concept of or rationale for the Sabbath.

As a result, whereas DeYoung says ‘Strip away the cultural context and the case law, and the main takeaway from the Mosaic Sabbath is that we must rest from our labors and trust in God’, the Puritans would have said ‘Strip away the cultural context and case law and you’re back to the Sabbath there was from the day God rested until the day he gave all that case law – just on a different day now Jesus has risen’. The Sabbath existed before sin and therefore can’t be ceremonial. Strip off the ceremonial aspects, and the moral law remains.

DeYoung also tries to play the Westminster and Continental views of the Sabbath off against each other, stating ‘Even within the Reformed tradition there are different understandings of what it means to observe the Sabbath’, before quoting from both standpoints. However as Richard Gaffin has cautioned, ‘the difference between the Puritan Sabbath and Continental Sunday should not be exaggerated, especially so far as the actual practices of churches in the Reformed tradition are in view…following the Synod of Dort, British-American Presbyterianism and Continental Calvinism became of one mind on what Sunday observance should look like…We may speak here of a Reformed consensus’.

DeYoung here departs from that consensus. He may be thankful that he grew up with his parents’ unswerving commitment to morning and evening worship, but what he says in this chapter will further militate against the same commitment in this generation. For example, he calls his own decision not to do homework on Sundays ‘a bold decision’, rather than obedience to a commandment of God which is binding on all.

American Christianity has taken away the practice of the Sabbath, and then revised their theology accordingly. DeYoung may want to keep the practice, but once the theological backbone is removed, the practice will soon disappear.

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

6 ways the Old Testament speaks today

6 ways the Old Testament speaks today: an interactive guide
Alec Motyer
Crossway, 2018

6 ways the OT speaks today

A new book by Alec Motyer is always an exciting event, especially coming two years after he was promoted to glory. In actual fact, this is the North American title for the second edition of his Scenic Route through the Old Testament.
As the subtitle suggests, this isn’t really a book to be read straight through. It has six chapters, each introducing a different Old Testament genre, and then a week’s worth of Bible readings, with comments (and an additional month of readings and comments in the appendix).
Being Motyer, there are plenty of gems scattered throughout. I particularly liked his comment on p. 42: ‘pagan religions those who penetrated into the innermost sanctuary came face-to-face with some idol, but in the tabernacle they came face-to-face with the moral law’. He also uses the phrase ‘social righteousness’, which seems preferably to ‘social justice’. Nor does he shy away from the less popular parts of the Old Testament, commenting helpfully on the imprecatory psalms. Elsewhere he asks the question ‘Do the Psalms point to the Lord Jesus Christ’, and part of his answer (about how they reflect the hope of a perfect king) is worth quoting in full:

“The Psalms reflect it as they sing of a king who faces world opposition (2:1–3; 110:1–2) but is victorious (45:3–5; 89:22–23). By the Lord’s help (18:46–50; 21:1–13) he establishes world rule (2:8–12; 45:17; 72:8–11; 110:5–6), which is based at Zion (2:6) and marked by righteousness (45:4, 6–7; 72:2–3; 101:1–8). His rule is everlasting (21:4; 45:6; 72:5), peaceful (72:7), prosperous (72:16), and devoted (72:5). The king is preeminent among people (45:2, 7), friend of the poor, and enemy of the oppressor (72:2–4, 12–14). He owns an everlasting name (72:17) and enjoys ever- lasting blessing (45:2). He is heir to David’s covenant (89:28–37; 132:11–12) and to Melchizedek’s priesthood (110:4). He belongs to the Lord (89:18), is his Son (2:7; 89:27), sits at his right hand (110:1), and is himself divine (45:6). It is very likely that these psalms were used as coronation an- thems, sung before the new king as he took his throne, in order to “hold him to the highest.” But the reality was always more than any mere son of David could be. It awaited the unique Son of David who is also the Son of God (Luke 1:32).”

I think that’s a yes.

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