Book Reviews

Book Review: Devoted to God, by Sinclair Ferguson

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315There is a great deal of ignorance and confusion regarding the subject of sanctification in our day. Perhaps that has always been the case. There are, however, some very helpful books on the subject that are available to the modern reader. (See here.) Thankfully, you can add this recent book by Sinclair Ferguson to that list as well.

The title of the book points the reader to Ferguson’s working definition of holiness or sanctification as primarily involving devotion. He writes:

“To be holy, to be sanctified, therefore, to be a ‘saint’, is in simple terms to be devoted to God.” (p.4)

This is not exactly your typical book on sanctification (not that books on that particular subject are by any means common to begin with). As Ferguson himself puts it in his Introduction:

“This is not so much a ‘how to’ book as it is a ‘how God does it’ one. It is not one dominated by techniques for growing in holiness.”

What sets this book on holiness apart (Yes, that was a pun!) is that Ferguson provides us with what he calls a “manual of biblical teaching on holiness” (xi) that is almost entirely passagetical and exegetical. In other words, each chapter deals with a particular passage of Scripture on the subject of sanctification, and largely consists of an exegesis or interpretation of that passage.

That is not to say that there is not a systematic bent or logical progression of topics from one chapter to the next, merely that the overall thrust of the book is exegetical rather than strictly systematic. This, I think, is one of the real strengths of the book.

The passages that he deals with are as follows:

  • 1 Peter 1:1-25
  • Romans 12:1-2
  • Galatians 2:20
  • Romans 6:1-14
  • Galatians 5:16-17
  • Colossians 3:1-17
  • Romans 8:13
  • Matthew 5:17-20
  • Hebrews 12:1-14
  • Romans 8:29

You may notice that the above list consists exclusively of passages from the New Testament. While that is the case, Ferguson does refer to the Old Testament quite a bit throughout the book. If I were to nitpick, the only (admittedly small) thing that I would question would be the absence of a text from the epistles of the Apostle John.

Exegetical books can at times be a bit tedious to read, especially for the lay person, but this volume is not written like an exegetical commentary. Instead, it is both scholarly and accessible, which is one of the many strengths of this book. It serves as a basic introduction to the subject of sanctification, all the while teaching or modeling for the reader the ‘how to’ of exegesis or interpretation as a bonus of sorts.

So if you are looking for a helpful book on the subject of holiness or sanctification, and one that drives you more directly into a study of the Scriptures themselves, this is just the book for you! Read it devotionally, one chapter at a time. Read it with your Bible open in front of you as well. Either way just read it – you will be glad that you did!

You can order a copy for yourself here: Devoted to God

Book Review: The Elder and His Work

Elder DicksonDavid Dickson (1821-1885) served as an elder in his church in Edinburgh, Scotland for over 30 years. That being the case, it gives his book on the office of elder much more weight than its relative brevity (under 100 pages, not counting the Introduction and study questions added by the editors of this edition) might suggest.

The individual chapters are surprisingly short, which makes the book very readable. It is not written in an overly academic fashion and is easily accessible for anyone who might be looking for a basic introduction to this important subject.

Dickson includes chapters on the importance of the office of elder, which is sometimes overlooked in our day.  This is followed by a chapter dealing with the biblical qualifications for the office of elder. There he does not simply go through the lists of qualifications found in 1 Timothy and Titus, but also refers the reader to many of the other New Testament passages that speak of the qualities and qualifications of a good elder. If anything, he boils all of these things down and summarizes them for the reader.

Most of the remaining chapters of the book are devoted to the duties and work of the elder, including such things as visitation (to which he devotes at least two chapters), encouraging family worship among the church’s membership, prayer meetings,  and dealing with cases of church discipline. Considering the relative absence of many of these very things in our churches today, surely we need to recover the biblical picture of the importance of the office of elder, as well as the duties involved.

He finishes the book with very helpful chapters on the elder’s relationship with his minister and session (i.e. fellow elders), and on various “incidents” that the faithful elder may encounter in his ministry, some encouraging, and others quite the contrary. These (like most of the book) are based on his considerable firsthand experience in the field of labor as an elder himself.

The editors of this volume (George Kennedy McFarland & Philip Graham Ryken) served together at 10th Presbyyerian Church, in Philadelphia, PA. The former is a ruling elder and the latter is a teaching elder (i.e. pastor). They added a great deal to this edition by means of the Introduction, the study questions at the end of each chapter (which makes it useful for study in groups, such as elder training), and a good number of footnotes, which serve to explain certain terms, highlight some of the more notable names that Dickson mentions in his quotes or illustrations, etc.

If you are looking for a resource on the subject of elders in the church, this is a very good place to start. It is by no means an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but Dickson packs quite a bit of information and insight into this brief primer. If you yourself are currently serving as a ruling elder (or are considering doing so), you may find this to be a very helpful and encouraging book!

You can order a copy of the book for yourself here: The Elder and His Work

Book Review: Union With Christ (by Robert Letham)

union__lethamIn the opening sentences of the Introduction to his book, Robert Letham writes,

“Union with Christ is right at the center of the Christian doctrine of salvation. The whole of our relationship with God can be summed up in such terms” (p.1).

All of that is certainly true, and yet when was the last time that you recall reading a book or hearing a sermon on this core doctrine of the Christian faith? In his book, The Hole in Our Holiness (reviewed here), Kevin DeYoung goes so far as to say,

“Union with Christ may be the most important doctrine you’ve never heard of.” (p.94)

Sadly, for far too many Christians those words ring true. But even for those who have heard of it and are at least somewhat familiar with this vitally important doctrine of the Christian faith, there are just not that many books and other resources on the subject that are both readily available and accessible to help us grow in our understanding of it.

Robert Letham’s book, Union With Christ, is a welcome exception. It is a very helpful, but not overwhelming volume (totaling a mere 141 pages!). It’s brevity adds to its helpfulness. It is a scholarly work, but not so academic as to be inaccessible to the lay person without an advanced theological degree. As the subtitle of the book makes clear, he makes his case plainly from Scripture, history (citing various ecumenical councils and controversies in the early church), and theology (citing a multitude of Reformed theologians from John Calvin to Charles Hodge).

The layout of the book is simple and easy to follow. Letham opens with a chapter showing how the basis of our union with Christ can be found in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis and its account of creation. Man was created in the image of God in order to be compatible with God. He then moves on in the second chapter to show that “[T]he basis of our union with Christ is Christ’s union with us in the incarnation” (p.21). In chapter three he discusses Pentecost and the Holy Spirit’s role in effecting or applying our union with Christ by grace through faith. Letham very helpfully and succinctly sums up the first three (3) chapters at the end of chapter 3 before moving on to the next section of the book.

In the final three (3) chapters of the book, Letham demonstrates the vital relationship that union with Christ has upon our standing before God with regard to our justification (representation – chapter 4), our sanctification (transformation – chapter 5), and, finally, our glorification at Christ’s return (resurrection – chapter 6).  As he states on p.137, “Union with Christ is realized in its fullness at the resurrection itself, when we will be like Christ (1 John 3:1-2).”

If there is a weakness in the book, it may be in the somewhat parenthetical section on the doctrine of “theosis” (on p.91-102). Theosis (also known as deification) is a central tenet of the Eastern church’s doctrine of salvation, but is largely unheard of in the Western church. The terminology used can sometimes sound (especially to Western ears) as if the Creator-creature distinction were being blurred. I found Letham’s treatment of this subject here to be a bit confusing, even distracting. If you are reading through this book, and find this section to be too difficult, you could (in my humble opinion) easily skip over these pages and not miss a beat. It is interesting enough, but not in any way essential to his argument.

And on the very last page of the book, he makes a wonderful evangelistic appeal to the reader, lest anyone read this book and yet still not be united to Christ by faith. As Letham states there, this wonderful doctrine is much “more than an academic question. It is greater than life and death” (p.141).

This book covers a topic that is as important as it is neglected, and (Lord willing) many in our day may find it to be a helpful remedy for that neglect.

Book Review: Knowing Christ, by Mark Jones

Knowing ChristKnowing Christ (as the title seems to suggest) is something of a companion volume or follow-up to J.I. Packer’s classic work, Knowing God (which is probably my all-time favorite Christian book). Packer’s Foreword in the beginning of the book makes it clear that he himself enthusiastically commends it.

It is no secret that J.I. Packer is a long-time aficionado of and expert on the Puritans, so it is especially fitting that someone like Jones (whom Packer calls “an established expert on many aspects of puritan thought”) would be the one to take up the proverbial mantel in writing this volume.

The influence of the Puritans is clearly evident throughout the book, as Jones freely cites such luminaries as Thomas Brooks, Stephen Charnock, John Flavel, Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, Richard Sibbes, and Thomas Watson. There are also numerous quotations from other giants in the Reformed tradition, such as John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield, Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, and Geerhardus Vos. Most importantly, Jones grounds everything in Scripture, and backs up much of what he says with references to the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms.

Having said all of that in the above paragraph, what if I told you that this is truly one of the finest devotional books that you will ever read? That is one of the most remarkable things about this book – Jones takes what can be a very complex subject (Christology), brings the writings of some of the greatest theological minds in the history of the church to bear on the subject, and somehow makes it all eminently readable and accessible. And he does all of that in only 232 pages! Perhaps my only complaint (if anything) is that I wish the book were about twice as long. (I also wish it were available in hardback, but I digress.)

There are few things more needful for Christians in our day (or any day!) than to know Christ better. And yet there are (as Jones himself points out in the Introduction) shockingly few books available on that subject. This book will go a long way toward helping to fill that void. It is far and away my favorite new book of 2015.

Get this book. Read this book. Re-read this book.

May the Lord Jesus Christ be pleased to grant this book a wide readership for many years and decades to come. And may many people come to know Christ and/or know Him better through what is found within its pages

Book Review: Taking God At His Word, by Kevin DeYoung

DeYoung

This is a very good book about the Good Book.

It is also a timely and important book. Granted, a book like this would be timely in any age, as attacks on the inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture have basically been around as long as Scripture itself. Indeed the original temptation by the serpent in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3) in many ways took the form of an attack on the veracity and truthfulness of the Word of God.

I have a confession to make: I have enjoyed and benefited from a number of books by Kevin DeYoung. It would not feel right to call myself a “fan” of his, but he is as close to “automatic” for me as any current Christian author gets. In other words, whenever he writes a new book, chances are pretty good that I am going to obtain a copy for my personal library, read it, and highlight it extensively.

Part of the reason for that is that I have never read one of his books and felt like my time was wasted.  He seems to have a knack for writing on subjects that are both timely and important. He also seems to have a knack for writing with both pastor and lay person alike in mind. His works are scholarly, but not overly academic.  They are accessible, but not overly simplistic. In other words, he writes as a pastor. And this particular book is no exception.

DeYoung states the goal of his book as follows:

I want to convince you (and make sure I’m convinced myself) that the Bible makes no mistakes, can be understood, cannot be overturned, and is the most important word in your life, the most relevant thing you can read each day. (p.14)

In order to accomplish this goal, DeYoung goes into some detail about the four (4) attributes or characteristics of Scripture: Sufficiency, Clarity, Authority, and Necessity (often abbreviated by the acronym, SCAN). He spends no less than 4 of the 8 chapters (half of the book!) in this brief volume dealing with these attributes. This section is very helpful.

The final two (2) chapters of the book deal with Jesus’ view of Scripture (by examining in the Gospels what Jesus has to say about Scripture, how He used Scripture, etc.) and the inspiration of Scripture (primarily focusing on 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and the surrounding context).  He closes with an appendix of “Thirty of the Best Books on the Good Book.” The books on this list vary from those that are easily accessible to the highly academic. (Clearly DeYoung is not claiming to have written the last word about God’s Word.)

One of the strengths of this book is that throughout its pages, DeYoung demonstrates the very view of Scripture that he is seeking to impart to the reader.  In other words, much of his argument consists of the exposition of various passages of Scripture itself.  And by making his case in this way, he not only tells us, but also shows us that the Bible really is sufficient, clear, authoritative, and necessary.

I highly recommend this book and sincerely hope that it enjoys a wide (and long-lasting) readership. You can order a copy here: Taking God At His Word

Book Review: Finding Faithful Elders And Deacons

Thabiti M. Anyabwile

How do I love this book? Let me count the ways!

First, it is thoroughly biblical from start to finish.  Anyabwile firmly grounds everything he says in Scripture.  His treatment of the qualifications of both deacons and elders (in that order) largely consists of a verse-by-verse or even phrase-by-phrase exegesis of 1 Timothy chapters 3-4.

Second, this book is short and to the point.  There is no filler or wasted space.  He gets right to the point and stays on point in each chapter.

Third, both church officer & laity alike will benefit from this book.  As a pastor, I not only found this book to be useful in clarifying my understanding of the nature and work of the offices of elder & deacon, but also found it to be more than a little edifying & encouraging as well.  Church members who want to be more well-informed in their nomination & election of church officers will also find it immensely helpful.

Another thing that I greatly appreciated was that Anyabwile did not just focus on the qualifications of elders or pastors (part 2 of the book), but also dedicated the entire third section of the book to the work that they are called to do.  Again, this section would be good for pastor/elder & laity alike.  We often have unbiblical notions or expectations about what our pastors and ruling elders are called to do,  and this can cause much confusion and unnecessary difficulty in the church.

There is much more that could be said, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend this book.  I will almost certainly be referring to it (and re-reading it!) in the future.  And I hope that I am not alone in that regard.

Book Review: J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought

0875526209

J. Gresham Machen may very well be the most under-appreciated theologian of the 20th century. Thankfully his influence and accomplishments far outstrip his fame (or lack thereof) in the Christian community.

Within a span of only about seven (7) years he started Westminster Theological Seminary (1929), the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions (1933), and the denomination known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, or OPC (1936).  Not only that, but his writings continue to instruct and edify believers over 75 years after He went home to be with the Lord.

If you are looking for a book to serve as a basic introduction and overview of his life & teaching, then look no further than Stephen J. Nichols’s book, J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought.  It is a very good mix of both biography and literary analysis.

Nichols spends the first three (3) chapters on the basic biographical details of Machen’s life, and the last nine (9) chapters delving into his writings on such subjects as theology, culture, and the church.  One of the most helpful aspects of the chapters on the writings of Machen was the way in which the author discusses the background and history surrounding those writings. (In other words, he does not abandon history after chapter three.)

He also ends each chapter with a brief note about the sources used in putting those chapters together.  This may seem tedious to some, but for the student who wants to know more about Machen, it is very helpful.

Of particular note are the chapters on what are perhaps Machen’s most well-known books, Christianity & Liberalism and What Is Faith?  He does a very good job summarizing Machen’s arguments for the reader.  Concerning Christianity & Liberalism, Nichols writes,

Machen captures the essence of Paul’s summary of the gospel in the early verses of that chapter [i.e. 1 Corinthians 15] when he writes, “‘Christ died’ – that is history; ‘Christ died for our sins’ – that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity” (p.89).

This book not only made me want to read more about Machen, but more by Machen as well.  I highly recommend this volume to you.  You can order a copy here: J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought