Spurgeon on the Christian life (book review)

Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ
Michael Reeves
Crossway, 2018

9781433543876

One of the strengths of Crossway’s ‘Theologians on the Christian Life’ series has been in the authors with which they’ve matched the theologians. This combination of Reeves and Spurgeon is a particularly good example. Just watch his talk with the same title at the Banner UK ministers’ conference and you’ll see the relish he has in sharing some of the quotations. A ‘doom and gloom’ Christian couldn’t have done justice to Spurgeon – and Reeves is anything but that. Nor could a pretentious one; both the theologian and his biographer realise that ‘To think that difficulty of style is an indicator of depth of substance is only the mistake of the intellectually proud’.

One of Reeves’s concerns is that outside Baptist circles, Spurgeon is treated merely as a ‘fund of delicious but disconnected proverbs’. This book provides plenty of these ‘delicious proverbs’ – but it does also help see how they fit together. Spurgeon and Reeves are healthy correctives to gloomy, graceless, speculative, non-Christ centred Christianity.

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

Faith. Hope. Love. (book review)

Faith. Hope. Love.: The Christ-Centered Way to Grow in Grace
Mark Jones
Crossway, 2017

9781433555664

The trailer for one of Crossway’s most recent releases, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, shows a family sitting round the dinner table singing psalms. It’s not exactly the sort of thing you expect from a publisher like Crossway, which leans more towards New Calvinism than Old. Not quite as eyebrow-raising, but still pleasantly surprising, is a book that advocates paedobaptism (and the hope we can have for the salvation of our children) and the threefold division of the law, has a chapter on the Lord’s Day, commends the psalms as Trinitarian and modern worship as not emotional enough in comparison, and advocates parenting in light of the indicatives and imperatives of the gospel. As well as that, the book has Jones’ usual Christ-centred and Trinitarian emphases, and is chock-full of quotations from church fathers, Reformers and (particularly) Puritans. The book contains 58 short chapters, each starting with a catechism-style question and answer that the chapter then fleshes out. A good few of them started life as Reformation 21 articles, so if you followed Jones before his writing got too controversial for the Alliance, you’ll recognise some of them. It’s surprising the variety of topics that can somehow be tied in to the themes of Faith, Hope and Love.

What’s not to like? 58 chapters is a bit excessive, even if they only take 5 minutes to read. They would be good pump-primers before your devotions, but 30 or 40 might have been sufficient. He also advocates lying in some circumstances as a form of love. On the whole though, this is a really strong book. I didn’t like it quite as much as his previous one, perhaps because it took so long to plough through. Both books however have the advantage of being modern works, but quote so much from a wide-variety of Puritans that you don’t feel as if you’re choosing the 21st century over the giants of the past.

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

Making All Things New (book review)

Making all things new: restoring joy to the sexually broken
David Powlison
Crossway, 2017

Making all things new

Tony Reinke, who I have a lot of time for, ranked this as the 8th best book of 2017. At the same time, the title and author combination might sound familiar to those who’ve read Crossway’s ‘Sex and the Supremacy of Christ’ (2005), where Powlison had a chapter by the same name. So is this a chapter’s worth of good content bulked out and marketed, or is it a worthy book in it’s own right? For the first half of the book I’d have said the former, and for the second half I’d have said the latter.

In this book Powlison attempts to address both the sinner and the sinned-against – those tempted to/committing sexual sin, as well as those whoare the victims of sexual sin. This is done from the conviction that the same gospel applies to both, which I wholeheartedly agree with – however I don’t think Powlison’s attempt to combine the two works, and two separate and shorter books would have been better.

I found the most helpful part of the book to be when he showed the sexual sin is usually symptomatic of something else, and he is good at showing both those struggling, and those counselling them, how to get to the sin behind the sin. As he puts it ‘The bible is about behaviour, but it is never only about behaviour’.

Not a revolutionary book, but helpful nonetheless.

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

God Is (book review)

God is: a devotional guide to the attributes of God
Mark Jones
Crossway, 2017

God is

I love Mark Jones. After all, he does say on p. 133 of this book: ‘You must love believers, even those who can be very unloveable’.

And I like this book. It’s a take on the attributes of God that shows how each of the attributes is seen most clearly in Jesus. After all, ‘Some even call Christ the ‘stage’ on which God displays his attributes in their harmony for the world to witness’. Each of the 26 short chapters is divided into three sections: the doctrine, how it’s fulfilled in Christ and application.
Apart from the Christ-centredness, the second best thing about the book is the liberal dollop of Puritan quotations throughout. Checking out the footnotes will open up a wealth of treasures.

In some ways this is a lite version of Charnock’s Existence and Attributes of God – which Jones notes in his introduction ‘requires the sort of time and effort that very few have’. At the same time however, this is still a book which seems to be aimed at ministers and (third-level educated) theologically-informed laymen. A Christ-centred book on the attributes of God with short chapters that could be handed out to an average congregation would be great – but this isn’t that.

Jones being Jones, he can’t resist a pop at exclusive psalmody, even when advocating psalm singing. He calls it a ‘crime’ – but seeing it’s a ‘crime’ that most of the Puritans he quotes would have been guilty of, those who still hold to the Westminster Confession’s position on worship won’t lose too much sleep over it.

There are a few other things that may raise an eyebrow. Jones says we should ‘envy’ God’s attributes. He repeats an argument on which he’s been critiqued before, namely that ‘God’s great end is the glory of his Son’. He also raises controversial questions when there’s no need, eg Was God gracious to Jesus? Could God have forgiven sins apart from Christ?

Overall this is a great book. The short chapters mean it could be used as a pump-primer before your devotions. It’s one I can see myself coming back to if I’m looking for a succinct, theologically precise, Christ-centred treatment of an attribute of God. I haven’t (yet) read Charnock, but I’ve now read God Is, which is another indication that the book has achieved what it set out to do.

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

Reformation Theology (book review)

Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary
Matthew Barrett (ed.)
Crossway, 2017

reformation theology

‘At the start of any book, it is always helpful to know…the drive behind the book’. Few would disagree with that statement. Some will be unconvinced by the next sentence however: ‘Reformation Theology is written by a group of theologians and historians who are committed to Reformation theology’. By the time someone reads that, they’ll have noticed that the prologue was written on ‘Pentecost Sunday’ (wrong on two levels!) and the book is edited by a Baptist. Those facts of course don’t invalidate the authors’ arguments, but they do flag up that this is yet another Crossway book that presents the theology of the past through the glasses of 21st century evangelicalism. This is particularly apparent, for example, in the chapter on ‘The Relationship of Church and State’. The author spends pages going into great depth on the Reformers’ attitude to resistance to tyranny but largely ignores the elephant in the room, which is that ‘the most widely-held view among conservative Christians in Britain and America…is fatally flawed’ and very far from the position held by the magisterial Reformers.

An example of the editor either misunderstanding or misrepresenting Luther occurs on p. 56. Barrett quotes Luther’s statement ‘Reading is not as profitable as hearing it, for the live voice teaches, exhorts, defends, and resists the spirit of error’ then adds ‘Luther concluded this thought with a startling statement: “Satan does not care a hoot for the written Word of God, but he flees at the speaking of the Word.” Barrett immediately concludes: ‘Satan does not worry about Bibles sitting around on shelves. He begins to worry when those Bibles are picked up and taken into pulpits’. It’s pretty clear from what he quotes that the distinction Luther is making is not between Bibles sitting on shelves and Bibles being opened and preached, but between reading the Bible and hearing it preached. Going back and reading Luther in context makes it crystal clear that that’s the case.

As would be expected from Crossway, the Reformation’s theology on worship is largely ignored. The regulative principle is mentioned twice (once in a footnote), and Barrett comments: ‘Calvin would have been horrified by the church’s obsession today with “putting on a show,” driven first and foremost by pragmatic, consumeristic motivations’ and ‘Calvin’s [services] were characterized by a noticeable simplicity — no symbols, ceremonies, and rituals’. Both of those are true statements, but also ones which most readers will agree with, perhaps not realising just how contrary the worship of most Reformed churches today is to Reformation principles and practice. The fact that the Reformers pulled out the organs is hidden away in a footnote, church government barely features, and ‘Sabbatarianism’ gets one mention, thanks to Carl Trueman.

The Anabaptists are generally mentioned favourably throughout, and the negative comments in the chapter on Baptism are saved for Calvin. Indeed, there seems to be some difference between the authors as to whether the radical Reformers were ‘radical biblicists’ who rejected traditional Christian categories (Reeves) or whether they were radical because they ‘abandonded the history and traditions of Christianity and went back to the Scriptures for a fresh beginning of Christianity’ (Lillback). There is also a disagreement as to whether ‘from a Protestant persepctive of history it is more appropriate to label Trent a Counter-Reformation’ (Barrett) or whether it should be labelled ‘the Catholic Reformation’ and even have its own section (Trueman and Kim).

This is not a bad book. There is much to be gleaned from it. However it is shaped to a large extent by the concerns of 21st century ‘Calvinistic’ evangelicalism. If you had assembled a group of theologians in the 19th century who were ‘committed to Reformation theology’ and given them this remit, they would have come up with a very different book with very different emphases.

Overall this is a book written by and for those who like to think of themselves as committed to Reformation theology – there are many places where this book could have challenged that assumption, but most of its punches are pulled.

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

For the Glory (book review)

For the Glory: the life of Eric Liddell, from Olympic hero to modern martyr
Duncan Hamilton
Doubleday, 2016

for the glory

Eric Liddell is one of my Christian heroes. Yet after reading Duncan Hamilton’s excellent biography, I was left asking: ‘Was he a Christian at all?’.

Liddell’s life was impeccable. Hamilton realises that some will be sceptical that someone could live such a good life, but he simply couldn’t find any record of Liddell being anything other than almost super-humanly virtuous.

But amidst all the self-denial, virtue and heroism, there’s almost nothing of the gospel. Undoubtedly part of that stems from the fact that (as far as I know) Hamilton doesn’t write from the standpoint of an evangelical Christian. Approaching Liddell purely from a secular perspective simply can’t do justice to someone who clearly had sincere and deeply-held religious beliefs.

In all the writings, speeches and sermons of Liddell quoted, there’s no sense that his amazing life flowed out of wonder at what Jesus had done for him – however one amazon review from a previous biographer (John Keddie) suggests that there are records of Liddell’s joy at the salvation of souls, they’re just not quoted.

Based on what’s presented here, the question I was left with was whether Liddell’s belief system was one of moralism, or whether the author just sees the fruit and not the root. Certainly, in what’s quoted from Liddell’s wife, there’s no sense that she understood the gospel or what a missionary’s calling was about.

In terms of the other facts of Liddell’s life, the book leaves no stone unturned. If you want to know the facts of his athletic career, missionary endeavours or internment in China, it’s all here. Parts that will remain long in the memory are the huge pressure he came from the British Olympic Association to compromise his beliefs and compete on the Sabbath – and also the folly of the missionary society he was with, separating Liddell’s family, and not trying to pull him out of a warzone until it was too late.
This is a great biography of Liddell from a secular perspective – and will probably move you to tears in places – but it will leave believers with more questions than answers.

Thanks to Doubleday for a complimentary copy of this book.