Book Reviews

Book Review: God Is, by Mark Jones

God IsMark Jones’ newest book, God Is, is a book about what is often called “theology proper.” That is, it is about the study of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. That in itself makes this volume a welcome addition. As Jones notes in his introduction, “books on the doctrine of God are few and far between” (p.16).

Don’t let the subtitle (“A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God”) fool you. This “devotional” is by no means lacking in substance the way that books of that genre often tend to do. I don’t know of many so-called devotional books that quote liberally from the likes of Thomas Watson, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, and Herman Bavinck (just to name a handful).

While there is a great deal of substance in this book, its relative brevity (only 215 pages, plus end notes) makes it very readable. As with his previous volume, Knowing Christ, here Jones once again takes what can be some rather complex theological concepts (like the simplicity of God!) and makes them much more accessible to the layperson. (For my review of Knowing Christ, see here.)

Each chapter, as the title suggests, deals with a different attribute or perfection of God. He opens with a chapter on the Trinity (“God Is Triune”), and follows that up with a chapter on the simplicity of God (“God Is Simple”), which is probably a concept that many readers will be unfamiliar with prior to reading this book.

Chapters 3 through 6 seem to echo the order of the attributes of God found in question and answer #4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which says,

“Q.4. What is God? A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

  • Chapter 3 – “God Is Spirit.”
  • Chapter 4 – “God Is Infinite.”
  • Chapter 5 – “God Is Eternal.”
  • Chapter 6 – “God Is Unchangeable.”

See? You’re learning the Shorter Catechism and didn’t even know it!

There are 26 chapters in all, and all of the chapters are relatively short. (None of them exceeds 9 pages in length.) This actually makes the book very useful for devotional reading. I read just one chapter per day, and found that very helpful.

Each chapter follows a distinct and easy to follow pattern: First Jones states the doctrine of God’s respective attributes. He then follows that with a brief section demonstrating how each particular attribute of God is known and understood rightly by us in Christ alone. And finally he offers a section dealing with how these things rightly apply to the Christian life (what some of the old Puritan writers often referred to as the “uses” of the doctrine). This is doctrine with hands and feet, doctrine for life.

If I were to offer any minor criticism, it would be only this – the final two chapters (on the anger of God and the anthropomorphic way that God reveals Himself in Scripture), while being very clear, helpful, and even necessary for the book to be in some sense complete, would probably be more fitting as appendixes of some kind, rather than formal chapters in the book.

What I mean is this – the book is entitled God Is, and so each chapter deals with an attribute of God. That being the case, each chapter title begins with “God Is ___.” Those last two chapters don’t really fit that same way. Strictly speaking God is not angry or anthropomorphic in and of Himself. In other words, those things are not His essential attributes. Jones, of course, makes this very clear in those chapters. He says, for example, that “God’s anger remains an expression of his outward will, not his essential being” (p.194).

So my criticism is not so much of the content itself, but rather one small part the arrangement of it. It is admittedly a minor nitpick on my part, and it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, I enjoyed this book very much and found it to be eminently clear and helpful. If you are looking for a good book on the attributes of God, I enthusiastically recommend it to you. And if you are not looking for such a book? You probably should be – pick up a copy and read it anyway! You’ll be glad that you did.

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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.