BOOK REVIEWS

On the Road With St. Augustine – James K.A. Smith (2019)

James K.A. Smith, On the Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019), 240 pp.

The postmodern prophet and rock star, Bono Vox laments, “I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls, these city walls, only to be with you. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” U2 isn’t the only one tapped into the inner drive and existential angst of the ages. Augustine had them beat by 1,600 years! “Oh Lord, you have created us for yourself but our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” It appears that Bono and Augustine have something in common!

James K.A. Smith is on a similar quest and is eager to share the fruit of his efforts in his most recent book, On the Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Smith’s work is an invitation to meet Augustine on the path that will lead to the culmination of his hopes, dreams, and desires.

Readers are in for a treat, especially the ones who have caricatured Augustine as a stuffy academician who puffs on a pipe, panders to the educated elite, and pontificates with an accent. Smith notes, “The Christian gospel, for Augustine, wasn’t just the answer to an intellectual question (though it was that); it was more like a shelter in a storm, a port for a wayward soul, nourishment for a prodigal who was famished, whose own heart had become, he said, ‘a famished land.’” As such, the “famished land” of many professing Christians will be laid bare. The fertile soil of Augustine will help nurture, strengthen, and revitalize travelers who dare to follow his lead.

The most endearing feature of Smith’s work is the emphasis on what he refers to as a “refugee spirituality.” Such an approach is desperately needed in our day, especially when most people seem content in the here and now and are satisfied with temporal trinkets: “Imagine a refugee spirituality,” writes Smith, “an understanding of human longing and estrangement that not only honors those experiences of not-at-homeness but also affirms the hope of finding a home, finding oneself … it’s about knowing how to make the journey, how to adopt the posture of the refugee who travels light.” Tragically, many American Christians are so burdened with temporal trinkets, they cannot even envision Augustine’s prescribed pursuit.

Smith traces the Augustinian path and focuses on several fascinating subjects that every pilgrim must wrestle with: freedom, ambition, sex, and death to name a few. On the Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts is a treasure map of sorts. Readers will see a totally new side of the Bishop of Hippo. Thoughtful readers will be prodded and poked. But they will also be encouraged and edified. They will be forced into a corner and challenged to weigh these heavenly realities and ultimately find their rest in God and the gospel of His Son.

Highly recommended!

BOOK REVIEWS

Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future – Gavin Ortlund (2019)

athoelGavin Ortlund, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Wheaton: Crossway, Books, 2019), 218 pp.

Interest among evangelicals in the Protestant Reformation has been on the rise for several years. With the recent quatercentenary commemoration of the Reformation, interest continues to blaze hotter than ever.

Gavin Ortlund, himself a student of the Reformation argues in his recent book, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future that a modified approach is in order. The author observes that some evangelicals are growing restless. They yearn to understand what lies at the heart of their faith. And they lack a theological grounded that both informs and inspires.

Ortlund’s book is arranged in two parts. Part one sets forth the case for theological retrieval. Is it even possible for evangelicals to retrieve patristic and medieval theology? The author interacts with the various view of Warfield, Calvin, and Luther and argues that it is indeed possible to draw from the rich theological past. Such a retrieval, according to the author, serves like a map that serves the weary pilgrim. Various benefits of theological retrieval are proposed along with some of the pitfalls that may accompany such a pursuit.

Part two includes several case studies that reveal the various strengths of pursuing the theological retrieval that the author is proposing. The most interesting case study involves a detailed look at substitution as both satisfaction and recapitulation through the lenses of Athanasius, Irenaeus, and Anslem.

I found Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals both illuminating and informing. Ortlund’s insight and passion for church history is greatly appreciated and need in our myopic age. Too often, we are quick to throw the “theological baby” out with the bathwater. As a committed follower of Christ in the Protestant tradition, I also found parts of the book troubling. I understand the intent of the author but fear that some readers will put too much stock in Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox dogma and wind up on the wrong path at the end of the day. Overall, the book is worthy of careful study and consideration.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

BOOK REVIEWS

John Calvin: For a New Reformation (2019)

calDerek W.H. Thomas and John W. Tweeddale, Ed. John Calvin: For a New Reformation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 608 pp.

Over two thousand years of church history have produced a wide assortment of Christian leaders, theologians, and churchmen.  One man who exerted an enormous amount of influence in his day was John Calvin. In recent years, theologians and pastors have revived an interest in Calvin including, A Godward Gaze: The Holy Pursuit of John Calvin, by yours truly.

The most recent and comprehensive offering is an edited volume by Derek W.H. Thomas and John W. Tweeddale. This massive volume that spans over 600 pages includes contributions from well-known scholars such as Stephen Nichols, Steven Lawson, Burk Parsons, Paul Helm and others. The afterward by R.C. Sproul is a fitting conclusion from the man who should be credited for restoring an interest in Reformed theology in the twentieth-century church. Dr. Sproul’s words are especially moving and significant, since this is his last published writing before his death in 2017.

John Calvin: For a New Reformation is arranged in two parts. Part 1 explores the life and work of John Calvin. The contributors share a wealth of biographical information on Calvin including his early years, conversion, and friendships. Especially significant is the piece by Steven Lawson that summarizes the expository preaching of Calvin.

Part 2 explores the teaching of John Calvin. The contributors weigh in on several doctrinal subjects including the providence of God, the person and work of Christ, predestination, the sacraments, perseverance of the saints, and Calvin’s approach to eschatology. Edward Donnelly’s chapter, The Christian Life stands out the most. Donnelly helps readers see the pastoral heart of Calvin, which is undergirded by four central features of the Christian life: self-denial, cross—bearing, meditation on the future life, and the present life. Donnelly shows how Calvin lived an authentic and transparent Christian life, which inspired thousands of people in the sixteenth century and continues to inspire people in our day.

Additionally, Donnelly shows readers how Calvin lived in constant fellowship with the Lord and submitted daily to his lordship. “We are God’s,” writes Calvin. This acknowledgment was the very essence of Calvin’s Christian life. Also, Calvin was committed to mortifying idolatry and serving other people.

Over the years, I have read dozens of books about the French Reformer, John Calvin. This book is among the best. Thomas and Tweeddale should be commended for assembling such a worthy team of writers who celebrate a man that continues to wield a mighty influence on individual lives and the church of Jesus Christ.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

BOOK REVIEWS

Systematic Theology – Robert Letham (2019)

lethamRobert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 1005 pp.

Systematic Theology by Robert Letham is a solid work designed to fit within the framework of Reformed confessionalism. This volume is unique in that is begins with a treatment on the triune God. Dr. Letham begins by offered the dominant arguments for God’s existence and proceeds to show how the doctrine of the Trinity unfolding in church history and redemptive history, respectively.

The remaining sections appear as one might expect – the doctrine of the Word of God, the works of God, the image of God, the covenant of God, Christ, the Son of God, the Spirit of God and the People of God, and the Ultimate Purposes of God.

Letham draws on a wide range of evangelical writers as he articulates each doctrine – biblically, historical, and always in the conservative evangelical stream. This work is unusually objective. That is, while the author does not hide his doctrinal pre-commitments, he is eager to fairly represent his opponents.

As with any work of systematic theology, readers will likely not agree with everything. Some readers, like me, will need to look elsewhere on matters that pertain to baptism and eschatology.

Nonetheless, Systematic Theology makes a noteworthy contribution to a growing list of solid offerings. I will turn to this volume often and use it as a solid resource for theological study and reflection.

Dr. Letham is director of research and senior lecturer in Systematic Theology and historical theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

BOOK REVIEWS

Redemptive Reversals – G.K. Beale (2019)

redG.K. Beale, Redemptive Reversals (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 189 pp.

Redemptive Reversals and the Ironic Overturning of Human Wisdom by G.K. Beale is the latest installment in the Crossway series, Short Studies in Biblical Theology. Thus far, the books in this series stand on their own merits and make a unique contribution to the field of biblical theology. Dr. Beale’s book is no exception.

Redemptive Reversals marvels at the ironic overturning of human wisdom in seven short chapters that touch on sin, idolatry, salvation, the Christian life, faith, and eschatology.

For me, the chapter addressing idolatry was the most significant. Beale says, “What you revere, you resemble, either for restoration or ruin.” Hence, the idol worshipper finds ultimate misery in what felt like pleasure in the short term. Conversely, the one who worships God finds fulfillment and satisfies the reason for his creation.

Redemptive Reversals caught me by surprise as it takes a bit of a different approach to biblical theology. In the end, this volume is both useful and encouraging. I encourage readers to interact critically and thoughtfully with this excellent material and add it to the growing list of solid resources that bolster the discipline of biblical theology.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

BOOK REVIEWS

Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind – Owen Strachan (2019)

owenOwen Strachan, Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind (Geanies House: Christian Focus Publications, 2019), 418 pp.

I was recently asked by a parishioner to evaluate a professing Christian author. My response was tenuous as the author under consideration is notoriously difficult to nail down. Is he a Calvinist or an Arminian? A Complementarian or an Egalitarian? Does he affirm the authority, inherency, and infallibility of Scripture? One may never know. Frankly, it would be easier to nail jello to a wall than decipher the theological commitment of the author in question!

One of the many reasons, I appreciate Owen Strachan so much is that he is the polar opposite of the author above. Agree or disagree, readers always know where Dr. Strachan stands. His latest book is no exception.

Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind is a book that is desperately needed by the church in our day. Many in the church have lost their bearings (some appear to have lost their minds). The journey to the Celestial City has been sidetracked by compromise, theological error, and political correctness. Instead of sailing to our heavenly home with biblical fidelity, scores of people have surrendered their oars and are dog-paddling in a different direction. Rather than affirming what the Scripture affirms about mankind, they embrace the ideology of the zeitgeist. Instead of tethering their view of mankind to Christ, they cling to the flimsy and flawed view of culture.

A Theological Antidote to Compromise

Reenchanting Humanity is a theological antidote to the rampant compromise which is currently polluting the church and corroding the pillars of the Christian mind. But Reenchanting Humanity is more than an antidote. It is more than a defensive reaction to the godless ideology that infects the church. Rather, it is an offensive biblical bombshell that destroys error and bolsters the Christian worldview.

The lofty aim of Reenchanting Humanity is “to give future pastors of Christ’s church great confidence in the doctrine of man.” Strachan’s hope is that “those facing many challenges to this doctrine from inside and outside the church, will gain strength from or rigorously biblical and theological study of theocentric anthropology.”

Rooted in the Imago Dei

Dr. Strachan’s goal is achieved in the space of 418 pages. He anchors this tour in anthropology by demonstrating that creatures are made in the imago Dei. In other words, we have been created by God – for his glory. As such we have intrinsic value. He rightly notes, “Mankind is not an accident; mankind is the special creation of almighty God. By recapturing the biblical account of human origins, we recapture human dignity, human worth, and our own identities.”

But the Bible clearly describes how creatures sinned and fell far from God. Strachan skillfully shows readers the many consequences of the fall and helps them decipher where work, sexuality, race and ethnicity, technology, and justice fit in a fallen world.

The chapter entitled, Contingency is thought-provoking, challenging, and illuminating. The author writes, “Humanity was, is, and will be contingent. We are wholly dependent on God, wholly under divine control, and wholly and unalterably beings made by God.” He continues, “We need God. We depend on him for existence, but just as significantly, we depend on him for purpose, meaning, and the discovery of hope. Take away the Lord, and all is futile.” And so the fact of contingency weighs heavily on creatures. Tragically, however, many either refuse to acknowledge their contingent status or give up entirely. But Strachan reminds us, “The biblical portrait of man’s temporality drives us not to despair but to worship God. Once reconciled to the reality of our finitude on the earth, we may reverse our natural instincts and adopt a mind-set of savoring all the wonder, mystery, beauty, pain, promise, challenge, and purposefulness of our God-given days.”

Consistent, Compelling, and Countercultural

Reenchanting Humanity is clear, consistent, compelling, comprehensive, and countercultural. These important attributes will likely make the book vulnerable to criticism and mark out the book as a target for detractors. But readers who maintain their allegiance to Scripture will appreciate Strachan’s approach, which is relentlessly biblical and faithful to the truth.

Quite frankly, I found Reenchangting Humanity enthralling. Strachan never backs away from controversy and he is unafraid of telling the truth about the condition of mankind. But the book concludes with a majestic crescendo as the author guides readers to the Lord Jesus Christ and the story of the second Adam: “Truly, he is the new humanity, and he is leading a new exodus to the new heavens and the new earth. He is the salvation and ontological restoration we so desperately need; his new covenant blood washes us clean, makes us new creations, and gives us new names.”

Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind is not only highly recommended; it is one of the best books of 2019!

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The White Flag: When Compromise Cripples the Church – Foreword

Peacetime Christianity does not exist. Not yet anyway. Not as long as we wage war with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Until Jesus comes back, the battle rages and there are no days off. 

Not everyone sees it this way, of course. I remember in my first pastorate when a deacon told me that most days in his life, he spent about two minutes or less in prayer and if ever anything really serious came up he would devote a little more time to it. He and another man actually reprimanded me for suggesting that two minutes in prayer wasn’t enough. It was not my desire to put a time limit on prayer, but for us to realize something that is crucial to walking with Christ: there is no such thing as peacetime Christianity. 

The problem, of course, is so many live a peacetime Christianity in the midst of an all-out onslaught against the truth. Can you imagine a soldier in the midst of the fierce battle of Iwo Jima writing a letter about how great the weather was that day? Or what about a heart surgeon in the middle of a triple bypass beginning his fantasy football draft? Too many professing Christians are living casual lives almost oblivious to the compromise happening all around them, even in their own hearts, homes, and local churches. 

In steps Dr. David Steele with this book, The White Flag: When Compromise Cripples the Church. In this book you now hold, Steele sounds the alarm on the critical state of so many local churches today which are raising the white flag of surrender to a wicked and corrupt culture instead of standing firm in truth and calling sinners to repentance and faith in Christ. It is critical that Christians today see the war for truth all around them and wake up from their slumber of capitulation. “We must,” as Steele writes, “repudiate lazy, lackadaisical, passive Christianity.”

As the author lays out the reality of the spirit of our present culture, the reader will be reminded that not only are there those outside the church seeking to destroy the truth, but there is arguably an even greater threat from those inside the church who intentionally or unintentionally twist the truth. Pay careful attention to Part 2 as we are shown how too many within the church are seeking to dismantle God, disregard doctrine, denigrate the work of Christ, disregard Christ’s judgment, and demolish the Christian mind. 

In each of these areas, too many professing believers are watering down the truth of Scripture. Sometimes this is not done intentionally but results from a chain of pragmatic choices that only hoist the white flag of compromise ever higher. And regardless of intentionality or not, there will be serious consequences for those who impugn the character of God, make light of his truth, scoff at Christ’s work, neglect his coming judgment, and numb the Christian mind. The key is this: there is no neutrality! If we are not intentionally seeking to actively combat these errors, then we have placed ourselves on the wrong side of this war for truth. 

When you see a medical doctor for a serious health issue you are facing, you most likely want one who will not only tell you the truth, but is also willing to go through the details of both how this happened, and what the solution is. This is exactly how Dr. Steele writes in the pages ahead. With skillful precision and an honest, yet loving bedside manner, you will be shown the truth of how the church has slipped into such a state of compromise. But you will also see the way out. Yet, I need to warn you: lowering the white flag isn’t for the faint of heart. You must be willing to stand boldly upon the holy, authoritative, inspired, inerrant, and all-sufficient Scriptures. You must reaffirm your commitment to the perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of Christ. You must be serious about personal holiness and you must be zealous to proclaim the gospel to all people, calling them to repent of their wretched sinfulness and to flee the wrath to come by placing their faith in Christ alone as their only suitable and all-sufficient Savior.

You must understand the robustness of the Christian worldview and be willing to be a contributing soldier in the present war. You must desire to be discerning in all things and willing to graciously, yet firmly, confront those who are in moral or doctrinal error in the church. But you must also remember it’s all worth it! Christ is coming soon to rule and reign with his people forever. Never forget that and in the words of Francis Schaeffer: “Keep on!” 

What you will find in the pages ahead is a gospel-rich, doctrinally-sound, Christ-honoring, historically-relevant, Scripturally-saturated, intellectually stimulating, well-illustrated, and functionally useful book. Dr. Steele will step on your toes at times. He may cause you to bemoan the age in which we live. But you will be emboldened to strap on the sword of the Spirit and do battle against the forces of evil. 

I bid thee well, oh reader! And if providence would have us meet somewhere down the line, may we both have a much greater resolve to never raise the white flag of surrender because we have been so masterfully and lovingly exhorted by our dear brother, David Steele. With that, I leave you to read this book for yourself. 

Allen S. Nelson IV 

Author of From Death to Life: How Salvation Works and Before the Throne: Reflections on God’s Holiness 

June 2019 

Pick up your copy of The White Flag: When Compromise Cripples the Church today!

BOOK REVIEWS

The White Flag Unfurled

wfThese are troubling times. We live in a day which is marked by theological error and apostasy. Leaders are falling, truth is routinely maligned, and compromise is celebrated. A glance across the cultural milieu reveals an unfurled white flag. The white flag has been hoisted high and a diabolical deal has been struck. This flag reveals a horrifying reality which must be addressed, namely – final surrender in the church.

The White Flag: When Compromise Cripples the Church diagnoses our current condition and offers biblical action steps for marching forward in a way that glorifies God. It is call to faithfulness in age that is characterized by weak knees, passivity, and capitulation. It instills courage in weary Christ-followers who toil in a post-Christian era.

“Here is a passionate call from a pastor’s heart, from a man widely read, who sees with great clarity the difficult situation the church now faces, with opposition without and weakness and compromise within, who believes the battle will be won by the faithful believing and by the courageous teaching and proclaiming of the Word of God.”

  • DR. PETER JONES, Director, TruthXchange; author of The Other Worldview, Escondido, CA

Pick up a copy for a reduced price today at Amazon.com http://the white flag

BOOK REVIEWS

Emblems of the Infinite King – J. Ryan Lister (2019)

eemJ. Ryan Lister, Emblems of the Infinite King: Enter the Knowledge of the Living God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 181 pp.

From time to time, I enjoy a good children’s book. There’s something about taking a break from my usual theologically robust reading schedule and immersing myself into a book designed to inspire and educate kids. J. Ryan Lister’s book is targeted to pre-teens and teens but I won’t be shelving this book with other notable children’s books by C.S. Lewis and Douglas Bond. Emblems of the Infinite King: Enter the Knowledge of the Living God will be strategically placed in my section devoted to biblical theology. Lister’s book will stand proudly next to works of biblical theology penned by Thomas Schreiner, Patrick Schreiner, Peter Gentry, Stephen Wellum, George Eldon Ladd, and James Hamilton.

Emblems of the Infinite King invites young readers into God’s redemptive drama and presents the definitive pillars of the Christian worldview – creation, fall, redemption, and consummation in a compelling story. The introduction sets the necessary tone as readers are presented with a series of life-changing keys:

“His strong and wise command cut through the empty silence as he reached out of the shadows to offer an ancient key … Those who turn this key will never be the same.”

“It will show your deepest guilt and display your darkest shame.”

“You’ll see who you were made to be and what you’ve really become.”

“ … The way ahead is the path that leads into the throne room of the Son, this one they call the Death Killer, who gives his life to pay your ransom.”

A brief note about the underlying story that undergirds the book. One reviewer questioned the validity of the imaginative elements of Emblems of the Infinite King. This critique is perplexing, especially in light of the stunning efforts of C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and J.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings). And who can argue with the effectiveness of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the best-selling books of all time? One of the great needs in the church is a Christ-saturated imagination which is theologically robust and Reformed, one that captures the heart and makes the human spirit soar. Tragically, much theological writing is aimed squarely at the mind but bypasses the heart altogether. Emblems of the Infinite King strikes a biblical balance that celebrates orthodoxy but also warms the heart with imaginative prose and a compelling story.

Each chapter describes a particular key that explains a doctrinal reality that ultimately leads to the throne of God. Dr. Lister presents each branch of systematic theology in the framework of the story and guides pilgrims on a journey that glorifies the King, the Death Killer – the central figure of the redemptive drama.

Make no mistake – this is a serious book. And serious books have life-changing implications. The author writes clearly and creatively. But even more important, he writes with biblical precision. It is obvious that Lister has thought through each turn in the story and has a passion to either introduce readers to the King or help strengthen their relationship with him.

I must add that this is a beautiful book. Frankly, it is stunning. First, the cover is majestic and begs prospective readers to turn to the first page. The book is illustrated by Anthony M. Benedetto. Young people will be instantly drawn to his breathtaking illustrations that add so much to this volume.

2019 has been a great year for Christian publishing. Of the 170 books that I’ve read this year, Emblems of the Infinite King is among the best of them! Emblems of the Infinite King is a modern-day Pilgrim’s Progress that is sure to encourage many young people and will be a strategic tool for parents and grandparents to help disciple children for God’s glory.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

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THE UNQUENCHABLE FLAME: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation – Michael Reeves (2009)

Veritas et Lux

I place books on church history in two distinct categories – boring or breathtaking.  The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation by Michael Reeves is of the later sort.

The Puritan, Richard Sibbes called the Reformation “that fire which all the world shall never be able to quench.”  Reeves is careful to keep the fire stoked in his work on the Reformation.

The author helpfully explains the historical context of the Reformation and links together the important pieces that ultimately led to the formation of what we now know as Protestantism.

Reeves provides a basic and very interesting overview of the key players that emerge in the Reformation.  He is especially concerned with Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.  He also summarizes the Reformation in Britain and the Puritans.

The author fans the 493 year Reformation flame by responding to Mark Noll’s assertion that the Reformation is essentially over.  Indeed…

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