Book Review: Things Unseen, By J. Gresham Machen

Things Unseen, by J. Gresham Machen, is (as the subtitle puts it), “a systematic introduction to the Christian faith and reformed theology.” And what an introduction it is!

For those who may not be familiar with Dr. Machen (1881-1937), he might be the greatest theologian of the 20th century whom no one has ever heard of before. He was a long-time professor at Princeton Seminary, before leaving that institution to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1929. He was instrumental in forming the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination in 1936 as well. (If you would like to learn more about Machen, Stephen J. Nichols has written a very good biography which I would enthusiastically commend to you – J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought.)

The chapters in this book were originally written for a series of radio broadcasts via the WIP radio station in Philadelphia. Those broadcasts were intended for a general audience, in many ways even with unbelievers in view. There is a decidedly evangelistic tone throughout.

He lays out the basic essentials of the Christian faith in a systematic fashion, in much the same logical order found in much more complex systematic theology texts, and yet he somehow does so in such a way as to remain remarkably accessible and readable.

He cites the Westminster Shorter Catechism liberally (pun!) throughout. At least half of the 50 chapters of the book contain direct references and quotes from the catechism. He also refers the reader to such eminent Reformed theologians as Charles Hodge, Benjamin B. Warfield, John Murray, and Geerhardus Vos throughout the book.

He addresses such topics as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, God’s sovereignty and the freedom of man, predestination (3 full chapters), Providence, the doctrine of original sin, the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, and King), the atonement of Christ, and the active obedience of Christ. And somehow he manages to make all of these things clear and accessible to regular, everyday Christians.

I just wish the book were longer, and that he could have lived to complete the work. Nevertheless, the ground that he covers is more than enough to get anyone well on their way in seeking to understand the Christian faith and reformed theology. If you are looking for an accessible & readable introduction to the Reformed faith, I would highly recommend this volume to you.

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: The Hole In Our Holiness


Kevin DeYoung’s book, The Hole In Our Holiness (2012, Crossway) is one of the most helpful books that I have read in a long time regarding the Christian life.

In its brief 146 pages, DeYoung puts the horse (the gospel) firmly before the cart (living the Christian life), as it should be.  The cart can never truly get very far without the horse!  In our day it seems that many pastors and writers either put the cart before the horse (or practically omit the gospel altogether) by legalistic or moralistic teaching, or they focus on the gospel nearly to the point of omitting the cart (what can often amount to a soft form of antinomianism).  DeYoung ably shows that the writers of Scripture did no such thing – they taught doctrine and practice, faith and life – and that in the correct order.

So this book is both instructive and corrective.  He shows us that the right motivation and fuel for living the Christian life (to borrow Jerry Bridge’s phrase – the pursuit of holiness) is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We who are in Christ have been saved by God for God – for holiness (chapter 2).  He also shows the correct biblical relationship between the gospel and the law of God (chapter 4).    In this chapter he fights against the unbiblical extremes of both legalism and antinomianism.

He notes what should be common knowledge among Christians today, but often is just not clearly understood – that sanctification, while a work of God’s grace in the lives of all true believers, still takes effort on our part.  He writes,

It is the consistent witness of the New testament that growth in godliness requires exertion on the part of the Christian. (p.88)

Amen to that!  Growth in godliness doesn’t just happen; it isn’t just automatic.  There is no “cruise control” or “autopilot” in the Christian life.

There is also a chapter devoted to the topic of “Saints And Sexual Immorality” (chapter 8).  This section is sadly all too necessary in our day and age.  DeYoung notes that often when it comes to sexual immorality, those within the church just do not seem much different from those without.  He writes,

If we could transport Christians from almost any other century to any of today’s “Christian” countries in the West, I believe what would surprise them most (besides our phenomenal affluence) is how at home Christians are with sexual impurity. It doesn’t shock us. It doesn’t upset us. It doesn’t offend our consciences. In fact, unless it’s really bad, sexual impurity seems normal, just a way of life, and often downright entertaining. (p.108)

If you are looking for a book to help you understand the Christian life – the what, why, and how of pursuing holiness and following Christ, then I highly recommend this book to you!  It is easily the best book on that subject that I have read in quite some time. (Other helpful books on the subject include J.I. Packer’s book, Rediscovering Holiness, Jerry Bridges’ book, The Discipline of Grace, and J.C. Ryle’s classic book, Holiness.)

You can order a copy here: The Hole In Our Holiness

Book Review: The Creedal Imperative


This might just be the best book I have read all year.  It’s that good.

It is a very timely book about a seemingly ancient subject (the creeds and confessions of the church).  We live in a day when knowledge of the creeds and confessions of the Christian church is at an all-time low.  Some of that ignorance is caused by neglect (i.e. the failure of the churches to utilize the creeds in worship and instruction), but a lot of the ignorance in our day is sadly of the willful variety.  Many in our churches are all but openly hostile to the use of creeds and confessions – they simply reject them out of hand.

There are many (far too many!) Christians in our day who acknowledge ‘no creed but the Bible.’  As Trueman ably demonstrates, this is truly nothing but pious-sounding nonsense.  Everyone has a creed (even if not articulated or written down for posterity) because everyone believes something.  A creed or confession is simply a statement of belief, however minimal or far-reaching.  He notes that “even those churches and Christians who repudiate the whole notion of creeds and confessions will yet tend to operate with an implicit creed” (p.15).  Good point.

In this book, Trueman shows us the need, history, and usefulness of creeds and confessions.  He also explains the biblical basis for creeds. (This section alone is worth the price of the book.)  He writes,

To claim to have no creed but the Bible, then, is problematic: the Bible itself seems to demand that we have forms of sound words, and that is what creeds are. (p.76)

This book is not exactly light-reading, although it is not really all that long (197 pages).  That being said, it is well-worth the time and effort required to read it.  As a bonus of sorts, Trueman sprinkles in a healthy dose of wit and irony throughout. (More than once I found myself nearly laughing out loud.)

In my humble opinion, every pastor should read this book.  Anyone who is even thinking about becoming a pastor should read this book.  The subject matter is that crucial, and Trueman’s treatment of it is that helpful.

If you want to better understand why we have creeds and confessions, why we need them, how they are subordinate to the Scriptures, how they have developed over the centuries, and how they are inestimably useful for the health and well-being of the church (and so individual believers as well), I would highly recommend this book to you.  It could be the most important book (other than the Bible itself, of course) that you read all year.

You can order a copy here: The Creedal Imperative

Book Review: Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart


This book was written in order to help believers in Jesus Christ to (in the words of the author himself) “know, beyond all doubt, that they are saved” (p.3).  In other words, it is about assurance of salvation.  That is always a timely topic, as many sincere believers in Christ struggle with a lack of assurance for a whole host of different reasons.

The title grabs your attention right from the get-go (which is, no doubt, the intention).  How many of us have heard a pastor or evangelist present the call to faith in Christ in terms of asking Jesus into your heart?  It is an all-too-common formula.  And, as Greear points out, it is nowhere to be found in Scripture. (Hence the title of the book.)

Ultimately, though, the author’s concern is not so much the expressions that we commonly use to articulate the gospel (although he is rightly concerned about that as well), but that such practices in evangelism often lead to problems down the road in the form of a lack of assurance for believers who find themselves questioning whether or not they ‘did it right,’ so to speak.  The result is that many sincere believers (including the author!) have asked Jesus into their hearts over and over again down through the years.

The book is filled with the gospel of Jesus Christ, as any book on assurance worth its salt should be.  He notes the biblical basis for having assurance of salvation (chapter 2), as well as the benefits of having it (strength & motivation for living the Christian life).  He even emphasizes the active and passive obedience of Christ (although he does not use those terms to do so), and double-imputation (i.e. our sins imputed to Christ on the Cross and His perfect righteousness imputed to believers by faith alone).

He includes a whole chapter (5) entitled, “What Is Belief?” where he defines saving faith, followed by a chapter devoted to the topic of repentance (chapter 6).  He clearly defines what it is, what it is not, and why it is necessary as part of saving faith.  These chapters are very helpful.

A few points of criticism:

There are a lot of typos in the book (on p.12, 18, 21, 65 & 82 – find them for yourself if you care to do so).  That is not a big deal in and of itself, but that is a lot of typos for such a short book (121 pages).  Maybe his editor(s) needed more coffee that day? I found it to be somewhat distracting.

Also, there are a number of attempts at humor throughout the book that I found to be a little forced.  The humor seems to be a part of his writing style, and no doubt reflects his personality (not a bad thing in itself by any means), but I found it to be a bit distracting at times as well.

Of a more pressing concern is his advice in Appendix 1 (“What About Baptism?”).  The question that he is seeking to answer is what should you do about baptism if you become convinced that you were born again after you were initially baptized?  His advice? Get re-baptized (p.113)!  In other words, stop asking Jesus into your heart after the first time, but get baptized again?!?

As a Baptist, he does not believe in paedo-baptism (baptizing the infant children of believers), so he is just being consistent with his own view.  The problem is that he addresses such an important topic as baptism in such a brief way (not even three full pages).  In my opinion his readers would have been much better-served if he had either treated the subject at some length or simply ignored it altogether.

He flatly (and wrongly, I might add) states that “Every baptism we see in the New Testament . . .was a believer confessing his or her own faith” (p.113).  There are a number of instances in the book of Acts where entire households were baptized (e.g. 16:15, 33). To simply assume that there were no children in those households seems more than a bit arbitrary.  Not only that, but for the Apostles to suddenly and without any explanation abandon the application of the sign & seal of the New Covenant to infants when the sign & seal of the Old Covenant had been commonly applied to infants for about two thousand years (i.e. since the days of Abraham) would be strange, to say the least.

That being said, I did find the book to be generally helpful and would recommend it to anyone who is struggling with a lack of assurance of salvation.   His words in the final chapter of the book are well-worth repeating here:

I’m simply saying that whenever you doubt your standing with God, the solution is the same: trust in the finished work of Jesus (p.107).

Very good advice!  If you want assurance, don’t look primarily to something that you have done in the past; don’t even look primarily to what you are doing now; certainly don’t look to what you promise to do in the future. Instead, look to what Jesus has done on your behalf in the past in His death and resurrection.  Look to what Jesus is doing for you even now – interceding for you at the right hand of the Father and preparing a place for you.  And look to what He has promised to do for you in the future (come back for you, that you might be with Him forever).  That is the primary way to assurance.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a lack of assurance, this book may prove to be very helpful and encouraging.

You can order a copy of the book here: Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart

Helpful Resources on the Mission of the Church

There is a lot of confusion today about what the central mission of the church is.   Here are a couple of very helpful books on the subject.

1.  The Gospel Commission, by Michael Horton

2.  What is the Mission of the Church?, by Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert

If you want clarity about what Jesus wants (commands!) the church to do, I highly recommend these two books to you.

Both of them ground our mission in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).