Mark Jones

Book Review: Living For God, by Mark Jones

The subtitle of Mark Jones’ latest book, Living for God, calls it “A Short Introduction to the Christian Faith.” I believe that there is a great need for a book such as this. There is no shortage of lengthy systematic theology volumes available, but finding one that is both concise and substantial is not so easy.

As a pastor, I am occasionally asked which books I would recommend to someone who is either new to the Christian faith or who is just beginning to read and study theology for the first time. I usually end up recommending a number of different books, such as Basic Christianity, by John Stott, Knowing God, by J.I. Packer, the Westminster Standards, among others. Frankly, I have not found a lot of books that cover all of the basics without either being far too simplistic on the one hand, or way too long and academic on the other. Not everyone is ready to sit down with a 500-or-so-page systematic theology text.

Let me just say that this little book (only 227 pages in length) just vaulted to the top of my list. It covers the essential truths of the Christian faith in a way that is both thorough and accessible.

It is divided up into 5 parts, which focus on what he calls the “five foundational pillars” of basic Christianity (p.16). They are the doctrine of the Trinity (part 1), the doctrine of Christ (part 2), the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (part 3), the doctrine of the church (part 4), and the doctrine of the last things (part 5).  In this way the book simply follows the outline or flow of thought of the Apostles’ Creed.

That being said, Jones thoughtfully demonstrates how each of these foundational Christian doctrines is to be applied to the Christian life. This is not just doctrine left in the abstract, but doctrine which is both well-explained and well-applied. In the Introduction, Jones explains:

“Our approach to the Christian life must be grounded in the conviction that sound doctrine and godly living go hand in hand, with the former providing the foundation for the latter.” (p.11-12)

He then goes on to cite the Puritan writer William Ames, who wrote, “Theology is the doctrine or teaching of living to God.” This sets the stage for everything that follows in the rest of the book. The Christian faith (what we believe) and the Christian life (how we are to live in light of what we believe) must always go together. They can be distinguished, but never separated.

And so, for example, the section of the book dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity is entitled, “The Trinity-Oriented Life,” and includes not only a chapter which briefly explains the Trinity, but also a chapter on “Communion with the Triune God.” Likewise the section on the person & work of Christ is entitled, “The Christ-Focused Life.” The other three sections of the book are similarly titled and outlined. This is doctrine for life.

One of my favorite things about Jones’ books (not just this one) is that he has a knack for presenting complex theological doctrines in a simple (not simplistic) and accessible way. Not only that, but he consistently draws from theological sources that span nearly all of church history, including everything from the Apostles’ Creed to the Westminster Standards; from Cyprian and Augustine to John Calvin; numerous Puritan writers, Charles Hodge, Herman Bavinck, and many others. And yet the book remains both accessible and readable.

This is easily my new favorite concise & readable theology text. The next time someone asks me which book I would recommend to someone who is either new to the Christian faith or who is beginning to read and study theology for the first time, this is the book that I will point them to – Living for God.

Whether you are relatively new to the Christian faith, or if you just want to grow in your understanding of the Christian faith and life, I would enthusiastically commend this book to you. I sincerely hope it enjoys a wide and enduring readership for decades to come.

You can order a copy for yourself here: Living for God

The Importance of Singing the Psalms in Worship

Faith-hope-love (Mark Jones)It should go without saying that the content of the songs that we sing in corporate worship must be biblical. In Colossians 3:16 the Apostle Paul writes,

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (ESV)

And so one of the ways that we are to let the “word of Christ dwell in us richly” is not only by “teaching and admonishing one another,” but also by “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God”!

Is the Word of Christ found in the songs that we sing in worship? It ought to be. (If not, we are doing each other a great disservice.) And surely one of the best ways to ensure that this is the case is to sing the Psalms. Even if you don’t hold to exclusive Psalmody (I personally do not), there is simply no good reason not to include the singing of Psalms whenever possible.

In his book, Faith. Hope. Love., Mark Jones writes,

“How many churches today regularly sing the Psalms, which are the very words of God? Some complain that so much contemporary worship is too emotional. I would argue that, in some sense, it is not emotional enough. By this I mean that much contemporary worship needs to lay aside the superficial feel-good approach in exchange for the range of emotions expressed in the Psalms that characterize the Christian life (e.g., lament, joy, thanksgiving, duress). What better way to express our love for God than to use the words he has inspired through those who have loved him?” (p.192)

Good point. The Psalms reflect a wide range of experience and emotion -the very same range of experience and emotion that we as believers are subject to in this life. The superficial happy-clappy model of worship simply does not do justice to this, and so in some sense leaves us ill-equipped to worship and serve God in all the seasons of life.

Our worship (even among Presbyterians!) ought to be more emotional, not less! And what better way to accomplish that than to incorporate the singing (not to mention the reading, praying, and preaching!) of the Psalms into our corporate worship on the Lord’s day!

 

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.

The Antinomianism of the Pharisees

drama-312318_1280

What is antinomianism? Antinomianism is not as easy to define as it sounds; it is even more difficult to recognize.  The word itself means to be against (anti) law (nomos = law), and so the most basic definition is that an antinomian is one who is against the law of God in some way.

But as Mark Jones has so ably points out in his book on this very subject (Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest), antinomianism cannot be rightly understood merely in terms of its etymology. In fact, there are many different forms of antinomianism, which makes it even more difficult to define or diagnose.

Perhaps the most common form of antinomianism might be referred to simply as practical antinomianism. 1 John 3:4 speaks of this kind when it says,

“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” (ESV)

The person who “makes a practice of sinning” lives in such a way as to be without law or anti-law. Licentiousness, then, is a common form of antinomianism, and is probably the form that most readily comes to mind when one thinks of antinomianism in the first place.

But what if I told you that legalism is often just as antinomian at heart as licentiousness? Legalism (ironically enough), when all is said and done, really just devolves into another form of antinomianism.  One need look no further than the Pharisees to prove this point. Were the Pharisees anti-law? Did they not teach God’s law? Were they not experts in God’s law? Certainly. But the effect of their teaching was such that it actually led people away from obeying God’s commandments.

In Mark chapter 7 Jesus essentially rebukes them for a form of antinomianism. Of course, He doesn’t use the word itself, but just look at what He says to them in v.6-9:

“And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (ESV)

They left and rejected “the commandment of God” (v.8, 9) in order to establish and uphold their own tradition. A legalist may be all about rules, but it is often the case that it is not really God’s rules or commandments that he or she is most concerned about keeping, but rather their own!

In case anyone thought that Jesus was exaggerating, He even gives an example. He mentions their traditional practice of “Corban” (v.11). Notice how Jesus shows us that this was in direct contradiction to the law of Moses. In v.10-11 He tells them,

“Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—”

To declare your property as “corban” was to declare it as dedicated or reserved for God. Think of it as leaving property to the church in your will. Once it was declared as “corban,” it could not be sold to be used for other things, even for helping one’s elderly parents who are in need! And what was the result? They, in effect, ‘no longer permitted’ a person to do anything for father or mother! They essentially prevented people from obeying God by their own tradition! And this was not an isolated instance! Jesus adds in v.13, “And many such things  you do.”

Think about that for a moment –  it is possible to actually teach God’s law, and yet do so in a way that is essentially antinomian at-heart! (See why it can be so difficult to define?) It is not without reason that Jeremiah 17:9 says,

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Here we see that antinomianism & legalism are often really just two sides of the very same coin – they really aren’t that different after all! Were the Pharisees legalists? Certainly. But even so, they were just as antinomian as any licentious person, for they rejected the commandment of God in order to establish their tradition in its place.

The Prayer Life of Jesus

Knowing ChristMark 6:45-52 is the account of one of the most well-known miracles of the Lord Jesus Christ, His walking on water. But notice that the first thing that we see in that text is Jesus praying. In v.45-46 Mark writes,

“Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray.”

Now, it is easy to overlook this detail of the story, especially when it is found in such close proximity to such a jaw-dropping miracle as Jesus walking on water. But if you stop to really think about, the most amazing thing (in a sense) in this passage might not be so much that Jesus walked on water, but that He spent so much time in prayer.

Why did Jesus pray? If He is God, did He really need to pray? Or was it just for show, as an example for us? These can be perplexing questions for us at times. We sometimes struggle even as as Bible-believing, evangelical Christians, with how to properly understand and articulate what it means to say that Jesus is (in the words of Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.21), “God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.” We also struggle at times to understand the implications of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And that certainly holds true when it comes to the prayer life of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In his book, Knowing Christ, Mark Jones helpfully addresses it this way:

“Our apparent dilemma disappears when we remember that Jesus was not only divine, but also fully human. Even as the perfect man, he no doubt still needed to pray. A robust, reverential, dependent prayer life was suitable and necessary given the various trials and distresses that he faced as the suffering servant. The Scriptures certainly give the impression that his prayer life was as indispensable for him as it is for us. His prayer life described so vividly in the New Testament leaves us in awe. What a thought: the Son of God praying to God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit!” (p.93)

We must be careful to do justice, not only to the true divinity of Christ (that He is really and truly God almighty), but also to His true humanity. Theological liberals and cults very often fail to do justice to the former; we who are Bible-believing evangelicals at times fail to do justice to the latter. But we must be careful to affirm both the true divinity and true humanity of Jesus Christ. Without the truth both of those things, we would have no true Mediator between God and man. (See Westminster Larger Catechism Q.40.)

Now, as we examine our Lord praying in the above text, we also see that this was no hurried, perfunctory prayer. In fact, Mark strongly implies that this time of prayer lasted quite a while. In v.47 the next thing Mark tells us is that it was “when evening came” that Jesus saw the disciples straining at the oars due to the wind. So Jesus was praying well into the night! This is a pretty consistent theme in the Gospels. Our Lord Jesus often took time away from everything else to spend time with His Father in prayer. (See also Matthew 14:23; Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:28.) Is it any wonder that the apostles asked the Lord Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1)?

After a long, tiring day of ministering to the crowds (after the feeding of the 5,000 – v.30-44, Jesus needed rest. So what did He do? He went away by Himself to spend time with His Father in prayer. Isn’t that often just about the last thing that we think to do when we are tired? I don’t know about you, but after a long day at work, especially work that is mentally-taxing, the last thing that comes to my mind is to stop and pray. Stop and eat? Sure. Stop and shut off my brain in front of the television? Yep. Waste time scrolling through social media sites on my “smart” phone? Guilty as charged. But what about prayer?

In his book, Expository Thoughts on Mark, J.C. Ryle writes,

“There are few things, it may be feared, in which Christians come so far short of Christ’s example, as they do in the matter of prayer. Our Master’s strong crying and tears, his continuing all night in prayer to God, his frequent withdrawal to private places to hold close communion with the Father – are things more talked of and admired than imitated. We live in an age of hurry, bustle, and so-called activity. Men are tempted continually to cut short their private devotions, and abridge their prayers. When this is the case, we need not wonder that the church of Christ does little in proportion to its machinery. The church must learn to copy its Head more closely. Its members must be more in their closets. ‘We have little,’ because little is asked (James 4:2).” (p.102, emphasis mine)

So let us look to God for help to pray. We have the intercession of both Christ Himself (Hebrews 7:25) and the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:27) to encourage us and to help us. Let us, with the help of the Holy Spirit, seek not just to admire, but to imitate the prayer life of our Head, so that as His church we might not ‘do so little in proportion to our machinery.’ If we want to see our Lord bless and use us as His church to reach our neighbors with the gospel, we simply must become a praying church.

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