Living for God

Living for God: A Short Introduction to the Christian Faith
Mark Jones
Crossway, 2020

I’ve been looking forward to reading Mark Jones’s latest book for a while and it doesn’t disappoint. Advertised as a ‘short’ introduction to the Christian faith, it’s no mere pamphlet (230 pages not including endnotes etc), nor is it simplistic. So while it is the type of book I’d like to see people in our congregations reading, don’t think of it as something you would hand a brand new Christian, unless they’re fairly academically-inclined.

The book is well structured, around the fundamentally import topics of Trinity, Christ, Spirit, Church and the future. There is plenty of scope for ministers to follow the same general structure and amend the material, eg for a sermon series, bible class, theological foundations course or perhaps a membership class.

As usual with Jones’s books, there are frequent quotations from church history, especially Puritans and Church Fathers. This is not theology that is historically adrift – rather it is done consciously in line with the Great Tradition of Christian thought.

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

The Whole Counsel of God

The Whole Counsel of God: Why and how to preach the entire Bible
Tim Patrick and Andrew Reid
Crossway, 2020

Someone posted a quote from Lloyd-Jones recently saying that Christians should be ashamed if they don’t read the whole Bible every year. I have a number of problems with such an assertion, but I think the authors of this book would respond by saying that Lloyd-Jones shouldn’t expect his congregation to value the entire Bible if he didn’t model that in his preaching ministry. The ML-J recordings trust lists 366 sermons on Romans, 262 on John, 232 on Ephesians, 120 on Acts and only 133 on the whole Old Testament (taken from just 15 books). And of course examples like that could be multiplied.

The authors of this book are concerned that in most evangelical churches, perhaps the majority of the Bible is never preached to the people of God, resulting in ‘the church being underfed and the Lord being only partly honoured’. They ask how can God’s people know God without knowing his word – and how can they know the fullness of God’s word unless it is systematically explained to them. It’s not just the Old Testament in view – the authors assert that many churches have never heard one of the gospels preached right through in living memory.

Their argument is based on more than simply all Scripture being God-breathed; examples of God’s entire word shaping God’s people are cited from Deut 17:18-19; 31:9-13; Josh 8:34-35; 2 Kings 23:1-3 and Nehemiah 8:1-8. They ask ‘How can it be that sincerely committed Bible-believing Christians who now have mostly unhindered access to the Scriptures – and whose spiritual forebears saw no greater priority than providing that access to the Scriptures – can still have relatively thin biblical knowledge?…Perhaps their piecemeal reading and studying of Scripture is just a reflection of what they have seen modelled by their ministers of the word’. And what does it say about about our doctrine of Scripture? If your church has never heard an expository sermon from the book of Jeremiah, ‘might that indicate that for some reason your church does not think that God has anything particularly important or relevant to say through his words inscripturated in that biblical book?’.

Their solution to all this is to call pastors to aim to preach through the entire Bible over the course of 35 years (ideally in the same congregation if possible), without resorting to ‘overview series’ or ‘highlights packages’. They have a helpful diagram where they show that the Bible divides fairly evenly into Torah (17%), Former Prophets (22%), Latter Prophets (22%), Writings (15%), Gospels (10%) and Other NT Books (13%). In light of that they would advocate that the preaching ministry in a local congregation should reflect that split, ideally over a 2 or 3 year period and certainly over the long term.

In general it’s a position I’m already convinced by, and they make it well, even if there’s much to quibble with in terms of how to actually go about it. My main criticism is they don’t envisage the minister preaching more than one sermon a week. As well as being historically adrift, they seem to be really shooting themselves in the foot in trying to achieve their goal, and means they have to outlaw preaching on any chapter you’ve ever preached on before, and restrict all topical series to church weekends etc. It also means that while not averse to preaching on single verses, they also suggest one sermon on the Ten Commandments (or I guess two if you preach Deuteronomy as well as Exodus) and one on, for example, Ezekiel 40-48 and Psalm 119 (Struthers style). If something unexpected happens in the life of the congregation, you are allowed to preach something different but the preaching programme is still so rigid that you should preach the ‘missing’ sermon separately by video. There’s also a fair smattering of crazy suggestions, like vary your sermon length depending on the passage, so five minutes for Psalm 117, twenty-two for Psalm 118 and an hour for Psalm 119!

The book could really have been improved with real-life examples of people who have actually preached through the Bible. Examples that come to my mind are Stuart Olyott (who gives his rationale and ten-year plan here) or David Silversides – and I’m sure they could have found others by asking around. That would also have let them show how different preachers have achieved the goal in different ways and at different speeds; as it is, the impression you’re left with is that their way is the only approach.

Overall though I’m hugely excited to see this book in print, and think that ministers need to wrestle with its core message. I would set it as a core text for training preachers if I had the opportunity.

May we not have the same regrets as one RPCS minister who said at an ordination in Stranraer in 1932:

“Give them the whole Bible. After more than forty years of attempts to preach I regret to have to confess that there still remain large and fertile tracts of Bible material which I have never tried to expound. I have, of course, taken many texts from the great Prophets of Israel, but I have not yet tried to travel right through Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and Daniel, to bring to my hearers some of the rich and luscious fruit of the linked thoughts of those grand, inspired men with their living and creative messages.”

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

With all your heart

With all your heart: orientating your mind, desires and will toward Christ
A. Craig Troxel
Crossway, 2020

To be honest I would probably have passed over this book if I hadn’t been alerted to it by the Bishop of Ealing. But that combined with glowing endorsements from Sinclair Ferguson, Beeke, Trueman and Van Dixhoorn persuaded me to have a look. And while I struggled to read it right through, it certainly seems to be a useful resource to have, which I suspect I will refer back to when preaching on certain passages.

The book is divided up into four sections: knowing, loving, choosing and keeping. I found the chapter on ‘the desires of your heart’ particularly helpful. The legend of Orpheus is a good illustration of how ‘we can pass some tests by restricting our bodies or limiting our access to temptation. But in the end, the holy desires of our heart must arise and conquer’.

I also found it helpful on the different words the Bible uses for sin.

Some chapters are so dense with references that they seem more like Bible dictionary entries. Also an illustration of people queuing up to buy a ‘Play Station 3’ in 2006 (the year before the iPhone was launched!) suggests that this is tried and tested material, but which perhaps hasn’t been updated for publication the way it could have been.

Overall though it’s a helpful resource which I’m sure I’ll come back to.

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

Gentle and Lowly

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers
Dane Ortlund
Crossway, 2020

This is an amazing book. It is written ‘for the discouraged, the frustrated, the weary, the disenchanted, the cynical, the empty. Those running on fumes. Those whose Christian lives feel constantly running up a descending escalator’.
Ortlund writes: ‘Ten years ago I had sound theology but I did not yet see how Jesus actually felt about weak, sinful me’. He credits the turnaround to God sending the writings of Thomas Goodwin into his life. This isn’t the case where you have to worry about whether you can justify reading something newly-released rather than an old classic. Ortlund draws most heavily on Goodwin (particularly his Heart of Christ), but he also on Sibbes, Flavel, Bunyan and Owen and Calvin.

As Tozer once said ‘What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us’. However the problem, as Calvin put it, is ‘Nothing that troubles our consciences more than when we think God is like ourselves’.
A potential problem with a book like this would be a lack of balance, but Ortlund does also talk about God’s wrath – and yet shows why the Puritans described that as his ‘strange’ work and mercy as his ‘natural’ work.

This is a book for those burned by legalism and exposed to a harsh, angry version of Christianity.
This is a book for everyone – seasoned preachers and new Christians alike. However, frustratingly it suffers from the problem many recently published Reformed books do – unnecessary use of language beyond the person in the pew. For example, the very first page contains this direct quote ‘…parsimonious. It is written, in other words for normal Christians’. But how many ‘normal Christians’ know what ‘parsimonious’ means?! Or ‘epistemology’. Also for something that deserves as wide a readership as possible, the cost is prohibitive – an RRP of £15.99 for a book that’s barely 200 pages. It’s partly a result of Crossway’s insistence in only publishing a hardcover and an ebook version. There really needs to be a paperback at half the price.

Still, read it, preach it, buy it for people. I can’t think of such a (largely) accessible book that could transform the lives of more people I know. And for those that never read it, we need to believe and preach these things.
‘Perhaps Satan’s greatest victory in your life today is not the sin in which you regularly indulge but the dark thoughts of God’s heart that cause you to go there in the first place and keep you cool toward him in the wake of it’.

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

Systematic Theology (Robert Letham)

Systematic Theology
Robert Letham
Crossway, 2019

Admittedly I haven’t worked my way through all of this, but from what I’ve seen it’s a strong contender for the best modern Systematic Theology. Letham says that his ‘main innovation’ is attempting to integrate soteriology and ecclesiology – though that in itself flows from his commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith’s teaching that outside the church ‘there is no ordinary possibility of salvation’. The book is very readable, broken up into nice short sections, and with study questions and a bibliography at the end of each chapter. He deals with some very current debates such as two kingdoms theology (which he amusingly describes as ‘reformed dispensationalism’) and paedocommunion. As Carl Trueman has written, ‘here we have the full fruits of a lifetime of thinking theologically’.

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

John Calvin: For a New Reformation

John Calvin: For a New Reformation
Derek Thomas and John Tweedale (eds)
Crossway, 2019

This seems like the sort of book that should have come out for the Calvin 500 commemorations back in 2009, but better late that never! It has chapters by 20 different contributors, and of particular interest to Reformed Presbyterians will be Edward Donnelly’s chapter about Calvin’s teaching the Christian Life. Other highlights include ‘Calvin the Pastor’ by David Calhoun and ‘The Law of God’ by Guy Waters. As someone who is usually a fan of John Fesko’s writing, I was looking forward to his chapter on ‘Creation and Humanity’. Two thirds of the chapter is great, but then he starts talking about Calvin’s view of the law (even though there is a separate chapter on the law), ignores the threefold division where it would be helpful, and claims Calvin as a proponent of modern so-called Reformed Two-Kingdoms (R2K) teaching. Unaware that Fesko was a two kingdoms advocate, I googled ‘Fesko two kingdoms’ and found a review by Robert Letham of an earlier book on his own denomination’s website (OPC), saying ‘Fesko smuggles in the currently popular two-kingdom idea’.
Apart from that frustration, I enjoyed what I read of the (600-page) book. It is a great resource when wanting to check Calvin’s teaching on something, as it references his commentaries, sermons and other writings as well as just the Institutes.

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