BOOK REVIEWS

Sola: How the Five Solas Are Still Reforming the Church – James K. Allen, Ed (2019)

Jason K. Allen, Sola: How the Five Solas Are Still Reforming the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 2019), 135 pp.

The heart of what Luther and the reformers discovered during the sixteenth century can be summarized in what we know today as the five solas of the Reformation, namely, that sinners are saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (sola Christus), on the Word alone (Sola Scriptura) for the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria). These concise statements, what Jason Allen refers to as the “perennial touchpoint of theological and spiritual formation.” The solas, then, form an unbreakable bond on which the Reformation was built and on which the church stands.

Sola: How the Five Solas Are Still Reforming the Church, edited by Jason K. Allen is a primer on the the reformation slogans and the important they have on the church in our generation. Each sola is carefully define, explained in its historical context, and defended biblically. Finally, each author presents the practical application that comes as a result.

These theological realities that the five solas represent not only set sixteenth century Europe on fire; they set individual hearts ablaze wherever they were proclaimed and lived out. And these unchanging truths have the power to spark new reformation and revival in our hearts today.

Sola: How the Five Solas Are Still Reforming the Church is a perfect entryway for anyone who seeks to understand why the Reformation still matters. These truths are not optional for Christ-followers. Rather, they stand at the very center of the gospel and should be boldly proclaimed.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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

BOOK REVIEWS

Remaining Faithful in Ministry – John MacArthur (2019)

John MacArthur, Remaining Faithful in Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 71 pp.

The mandate to finish strong is the calling of every follower of Christ. Men called to pastoral ministry must carefully heed this call, which is the theme of John MacArthur’s most recent book, Remaining Faithful in Ministry: 9 Essential Convictions for Every Pastor.

As his life and ministry drew to a close, Paul the apostle wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). The former blasphemer completed his mission on this earth and glorified the Lord both in his life and in his death.

Aspiring to remain faithful is one thing. But actually finishing strong is quite another. Tragically, pastoral failure commonplace, only bringing shame and reproach on the church.

Dr. MacArthur argues that pastors need to shore up their convictions, which help them be faithful in ministry:

  1. Convinced of the Superiority of the New Covenant
  2. Convinced That Ministry is Mercy
  3. Convinced of the Need for a Pure Heart
  4. Convinced of the Need to Preach the Word Faithfully
  5. Convinced That the Results Belong to God
  6. Convinced of His Own Insignificance
  7. Convinced of the Benefit of Suffering
  8. Convinced of the Need for Courage
  9. Convinced That Future Glory is Better than Anything This World Could Offer

MacArthur briefly explains each conviction. Each chapter is a short, Scripture-soaked spur for pastors who aspire to be faithful ministers. Frankly, every man who intends to finish strong in the Christian race should read Remaining Faithful in Ministry. While the author focuses on pastors in particular, the principles are immediately transferable to all followers of Jesus Christ.

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

BOOK REVIEWS

Why I Love the Apostle Paul – John Piper (2019)

John Piper, Why I Love the Apostle Paul (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 204 pp.

The aim of John Piper’s most recent book is to help readers get to know Paul the apostle. Piper’s motive is that Paul’s “God-entranced soul and his unparalleled vision of Jesus Christ and the authenticity of his life would move you to admire him and believe his message and embrace his Lord.”

The name of the book is Why I Love the Apostle Paul. Thirty reasons are supplied in short, readable chapters as Dr. Piper unpacks the heart and soul of one of the greatest thinkers and theologians of all time.

This book reveals the underbelly or the foundations of Piper’s well-known Christian hedonism. Many have fought against the very notion of such a worldview. Some have cast it aside as heretical; others have discounted it or marginalized its value. The arguments for Christian hedonism that Piper presents are not only biblical; they are robust, logical, mind-shaping, and heart-warming. The central thought of Piper’s Christian hedonism is this:

God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

Piper’s latest offering, while not necessarily an apologetic for Christian hedonism, is a worthy defensive and brilliant articulation of the philosophy which has undergirded the author’s life and ministry.

Quite frankly, Why I Love the Apostle Paul is an enthralling book. It is certain to open many eyes to the depth, breadth, majesty, and beauty of the gospel. The deep biblical realities that Dr. Piper unfolds are powerful and encouraging. This is a book that deserves to be read over and over again!

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

BOOK REVIEWS · Theology

Doubt and Assurance – R.C. Sproul, Ed. (1993)

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Doubt and Assurance, Edited by R.C. Sproul is a worthy read that is sure to help doubters; those who struggle with assurance of salvation.

Part one surveys the anatomy of doubt.  R.C. Sproul, Alistair McGrath, W. Andrew Hoffecker, Os Guiness, Sinclair Ferguson, and R. Bruce Steward join forces and roll out six impressive chapters that are theologically driven and geared to explain the various aspects of doubt.

Part two covers assurance.  Contributors include Roger Nicole, John Gerstner, Ron Kilpatrick, Steve Brown, and John Richard DeWitt.  These shorts chapters include a brief theology of assurance and alert readers to this important and multifaceted biblical teaching.

4 stars

BOOK REVIEWS · Discipleship

HELP MY UNBELIEF – Barnabas Piper (2015)

“I believe; help my unbelief!” cried the father of a demon-possessed boy (Mark 9:24).  This cry of anguish is the cry necessarily which emerges from the mouth of every believer.  Why?  Our faith is growing.  Our faith is incomplete.  We are works in progress.  We still have much to learn.  In fact, Barnabas Piper argues, that questions are normal, even healthy in the Christian life.  This is the essence of Piper’s newest book, Help My Unbelief

When the man in Mark 9 cried out, “I believe, help my unbelief,” he was uttering more than a mere statement.  Piper adds, “Requests can stem only from belief, even it is just the tiniest inkling of belief.”  This kind of reasoning should breathe hope, strength, and confidence in believers who doubt from time to time.  For the very act of doubt, precipitates saving faith!  Once again: we are in process.  We are still growing.  God is in the process of refining our faith.  And he will complete the good work he started!

Piper introduces readers to the idea of “believing doubt.”  He says, “Believing doubt will always anchor in God’s character and word as unshakeable and then take on questions that harass and attack.”  While much harm can come from doubt, Piper maintains, “Doubt can save us from much trouble and lead to much knowledge … Doubt that seeks the truth and stems from the belief that God is the source of all truth.”

But the author also presents the idea of “unbelieving doubt.”  “When unbelieving doubt poses a question, it is not interested in the answer for any reason other than to disprove it … These doubts are the wild monsters that wreck faith and destroy the simplistically peaceful Christian lives so many people try to lead.”

This doubt can surface in several ways – intellectual, emotional, or even theological.  Truth be told, every Christian battles with unbelieving doubt.  This is why the writer of Hebrews says, “See to it that none of you has a sinful unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.”

God has given us certain evidences of saving faith which include repentance, prayer, and humility: “Through repentance, prayer, and humility believers move away from unbelieving doubt and grow in holiness.  The refusal to do these things is a spiritual red flag and evidence of wanting to be one’s own god.”

Piper discusses disobedience as unbelief: “Disobeying the command of God is disbelieving His character … He [God] is authority itself, the essence of perfect, flawless authority.  To disobey is to deny this about him.”  Piper also discusses obedience as belief.  In a statement to is dripping with the wisdom of his father, he adds: “Obedience is not the end; God’s satisfaction in us and our pleasure in Him are.  It doesn’t feel tangible in the moment, but as we grow in belief, we will find it gaining power over the desire to sin.”  Pure Christian hedonism!

Walking in obedience to God is not a magic formula or a recipe for perfection in the Christian life.  The author rightly notes, “Belief [which is to say – obedience to God] does not mean sin will go away … True belief is that which perpetually, magnetically pulls us toward the ‘not yet’ of Revelation 21.”  Believing the promises of God and being satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ leads us in the direction of the new earth where Jesus will make all things new!

Help My Unbelief is a plea for a faith which is transparent and vulnerable.  It is a call for vibrant Christian living in the face of unanswered questions.  And if offer hope for people who are desperately looking for answers.  The search for answers is welcomed here.  Indeed, the search for truth is a vital part of the Christian life.  The book is a call to action; action which is grounded in biblical faith.  While faith may waver and is “prone to wonder” as  Charles Wesley wrote, we can be assured that God will never leave us or forsake us.  He will complete the good work he started.

“I believe; help my unbelief” represents the tension, the need the promise for every follower of Jesus.  We do believe.  We do live every day in great need.  Our belief is imperfect, so we cry out for help.  But that cry come from a place of belief.  We hold fast to God even as we feel pulled by the current of doubt, fear, and temptation.”

– Barnabas Piper

Highly recommended!

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

BOOK REVIEWS

Reformed Preaching – Joel Beeke (2018)

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Joel Beeke, Reformed Preaching (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 475 pp.

Preaching the Word of God is at the very center of pastoral ministry. Indeed, the task of preaching God’s Word that should occupy a good portion of the pastoral week. Neglecting this critical responsibility results in weak sheep who are unable to discern the times. Minimizing or marginalizing preaching always leads to a malnourished flock.

Joel R. Beeke addresses the matter of preaching in his latest volume. Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of the People underscores the importance of the preaching task and inspires every expositor who is set on obeying the biblical mandate. Beeke alerts readers to his purpose early in the book:

May God graciously use this book to promote God-honoring preaching that addresses the real needs of his people – preaching that is not only biblically doctrinal, covenantal, historian-redemptive, and practical, but also biblically and warmly experiential both in its applicators and discriminatory dimensions for the building up of the universal church.

At the center of Beeke’s concern is preaching that engages the affections, a quality that is sorely absent from many Reformed pulpits. He offers a stern warning for preachers who provide good instruction but fail to nourish the flock of God! This identical concern also occupied the attention of Jonathan Edwards:

I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided that they are affected with nothing but the truth … Our people don’t so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched; and they stand in the greatest need of that sort of preaching that has the greatest tendency to do this.

Herein lies the dilemma for the preacher – engaging both the head as well as the heart. Tragically, too many Reformed preacher’s aim for the head and miss the heart altogether. Beeke’s work seeks to remedy this dreadful state of affairs. This work focuses on three areas that help accomplish the above objective.

Part One describes Reformed experiential preaching. Beeke writes, “Reformed experiential preaching uses the truth of Scripture to shine the glory of God into the depths of the soul to call people to live solely and wholly for God.” Such preaching “reaches people where they are in the trenches and gives them tactics and hope for the battle.” Beeke offers several benchmarks that help shore up the definition of Reformed expository preaching:

  • Tests genuine Christian experience by the standard of biblical truth – idealistically, realistically, and optimistically.
  • Draws lines distinguishing between believers and unbelievers.
  • Makes frequent and wise application of truth to life.
  • Balances biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical elements.
  • Cultivates a life of communion with our God and Savior.
  • Builds experience upon the foundation of Scripture.
  • Goes beyond contemporary superficiality into the deep wisdom of old paths.
  • Offers food to satisfy the new spiritual sense of the believer’s soul.
  • Touches the heart with the bitterness of sin and the sweetness of grace.

Experiential preaching passionately proclaims the timeless truths of Scripture without apology. Experiential preaching is deeply Reformed, that is, “it helps people to see God as the great King of grace, present and working at all times and places to carry out his wise plan of eternal love.”

Part Two illustrates Reformed experiential preaching. Fifteen chapters are packed with examples of how to preach in this fashion. The like of Calvin, Goodwin, Bunyan, Edwards, and contemporary pastors like Lloyd-Jones are presented which provide a wealth of information and inspiration. This section is historically illuminating and practical from start to finish.

Part Three addresses preaching experientially today. A host of lessons are set forth for contemporary preachers to meditate upon and immediately apply. Beeke urges preachers to be balanced in their approach: “We must speak with the tenderness of a nursing mother and the earnest love of a father, sharing with them not only the truth but opening our very souls to them.”

The author encourages preachers to be bold, even when some react with scorn to biblical dogma: “At first a sinner may dread and hate God’s sovereignty. But when convinced of his responsibility to repent and his inability to do so, God’s sovereignty becomes the sweetest of attributes, for only a sovereign Savior can help us.”

Above all, our preaching must be Christ-centered. This theme occurs again and again in this volume, leaving preachers no room to equivocate or compromise. Preachers are reminded that “it is a fact of human nature that men would rather do penance (to try to atone for sin by doing good works) than repent (to hate and forsake sin). Therefore, faithful preachers must be Christ-centered as they stand behind the pulpit.

It is exceedingly difficult to convey the depth and richness of Joel Beeke’s Reformed Preaching. This volume is educational, inspirational, and will serve preachers for many years to come. I eagerly commend this work and trust that it will be a mighty tool for many and fervently pray that the flock of God will be better nourished as a result of this marvelous book!

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

BOOK REVIEWS

Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life

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Bob Kellemen, Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2017, pp. 246, $19.99

One man blazed a trail in the sixteenth century that laid the groundwork for countless numbers of Christians. Martin Luther was the primary agent who God used in a mighty way as he hammered his 95 theses on the castle door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. He unleashed a theological revolution known as the Protestant Reformation, where the doctrines of grace were recovered and the gospel began to exert a powerful influence in the lives of people.

Counseling Under the Cross by Bob Kellemen explores the life and legacy of Martin Luther and reveals how his theological framework influenced his counseling ministry.

What Shaped Martin Luther’s Pastoral Counseling?

Part one explores Luther’s background and alerts readers to the oppressive environment that was so common in the sixteenth century. Luther fought desperately to find peace with God but was doomed to failure apart from completed work of Christ which is received by grace alone through faith alone.

Kellemen explains how Luther’s anxiety impacted his life in his early adult years. Luther admits, “For I had hoped I might find peace of conscience with fasts, prayers, and the vigils with which I miserably afflicted my body, but the more I sweated it out like this, the less peace and tranquillity I knew.”

The author continues, “Before he came under the influence of the cross, Luther lived life as a man terrified that he would never find peace with God because his God was not a God of peace. Luther lived with a constant sense of guilt and dread in the face of a terrifying, angry, and unforgiving God.”

The only way Luther found relief is by casting all his hope and future on a sovereign God, by grace alone through faith alone. Kellemen writes, “The Christ of the cross transformed Luther the man terrified before God into Luther the man at peace with God.” This newly converted man now saw God in a different light which not only radically affected his life; it altered his ministry at every level.

What is the Shape of Martin Luther’s Pastoral Counseling?

“Luther’s counseling reflects his theology – it is cross-shaped and gospel-centered.” Part two reveals the shape of Luther’s pastoral counseling. The author examines Luther’s approach to pastoral counseling by exploring two primary angles.

First, soul care: comfort for suffering.Luther’s theology and methodology of sustaining and healing are presented with specific examples of how the Reformer encouraged and edified the saints.

Second, spiritual direction: confrontation for sinning.Specifically, Luther’s theology and methodology of reconciling and guiding are presented here. Again, the author paints a pastoral portrait of Luther and shows him at work among the Body of Christ. While soul care (noted above) involves comforting and encourages Christians, spiritual direction involves a confrontation with people. Kellemen adds, “In reconciling soul care, we seek to startle one another with the gospel.” Such a nouthetic approach is mandated in Scripture (Col. 1:28) and plays a vital role in biblical counseling.

EVALUATION

Counseling Under the Cross is a treasure chest of gospel nuggets. Bob Kellemen does a beautiful job of explaining how Martin Luther applied the gospel to everyday life. One of the most helpful aspects of the book is the emphasis on indicatives and imperatives. The author makes it clear that both are important aspects of the Christian life: “Salvation in Christ (gospel indicatives) frees, empowers, and motivates us through faith to serve others in love (gospel imperatives). Progressive sanctification is faith active in love – exercising the love that comes from faith in the grace of Christ.”

I strongly urge pastors, counselors, and church leaders to prayerfully study Counseling Under the Cross. Additionally, I urge readers to pick up a copy of my recent book, Bold Reformer: Celebrating the Gospel-Centered Convictions of Martin Luther, as a companion volume to Bob Kellemen’s excellent work.

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

BOOK REVIEWS

The Kremlin Conspiracy – Joel Rosenberg

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Joel C. Rosenberg, The Kremlin Conspiracy. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2018, 466 pp. $18.29

Political thrillers are a “dime a dozen” these days. Some of these books are not worth the paper they’re printed on – others pack a punch. Joel Rosenberg’s latest offering is the latter sort.

The Kremlin Conspiracy is a well-researched political powder keg of a book. Joel Rosenberg writes with a deep understanding of Russian culture and has a good working knowledge of the intelligentsia – both American and Russian.

This book traces the career of former U.S. Marine and U.S. Secret Service agent, Marcus Ryker into the heart of the former Soviet Union for a tale that explores geo-politics, corruption, spy-craft, and the inner workings of the Russian government.

Though a work of fiction, the author blends current events into an exciting tale that readers will not soon forget. The story moves fast, the characters are both interesting and believable and is written with great skill. Readers who enjoy Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn will receive a jolt, albeit without any vulgarity or profanity. Block out several hours for this one. Joel Rosenberg hits another one out of the park!

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

BOOK REVIEWS

The Story of His Glory – Brian Hedges (2019)

Brian Hedges, The Story of His Glory (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 54 pp.

We live in an age of confusion and uncertainty. As a result, our culture is untethered from truth and disconnected from reality. Christian readers are renewed and refreshed, then, when an author courageously asserts what God has plainly revealed in a winsome and compelling way. Such is the case in The Story of His Glory, the new publication from the pen of Brian Hedges.

One of the great strengths of this work is the author’s posture of humble certainty. His certainty is not found in his own abilities or his intellectual acumen. Rather, his certitude is wholly depended upon the written Word of God.

The author invites readers on a journey through the Bible that begins in Genesis 1:1 and ends in the closing verses of Revelation 22. What takes place in between is the greatest story ever told; a story that has both personal and cosmic implications.

The story begins with the Creator God who made all things for his glory. As such, he exercises comprehensive authority over his creation. Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden which subsequently affected all humanity, leaving us under the wrath of God for our sin.

Hedges guides readers from creation and Fall to the redemption where God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ becomes the fulfillment of the promise that God made with Abraham. Jesus lives the life that none of us could live and dies a death we all deserve to die. “Jesus was our representative,” writes Hedges, “whose sinless life and perfect obedience would bring life and salvation.” Jesus bears the sin of every person who would ever believe. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit …” (1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus was crucified, buried, resurrected on the third day, and ascended to the right hand of the Father, where makes intercession for his people.

The author stresses the need for creatures to recognize their accountability to God. Each person is not only invited to come to Jesus for salvation; each person is commanded to come. When a person receives the free gift of salvation, everything must be reorganized around the lordship of Jesus Christ. Hedges writes, “The cosmic regeneration will be nothing less than the reordering of the entire universe under the lordship of Jesus Christ and God his Father.” In other words, as stated above, the implications of the gospel are both personal and cosmic. Each follower of Christ is commissioned, then, to share this timeless story to the nations!

There is much to commend in The Story of His Glory. The writing is clear and exalts the triune God. The author sets forth a basic biblical theology that is both understandable and engaging. He introduces the high points of God’s historical redemptive purposes. Other books that present a strong case for biblical theology include God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment by James Hamilton, Kingdom Through Covenant by Peter Gentry and Steven Wellum, The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross by Patrick Schreiner, Biblical Theology by Nick Roark and Robert Cline, and What is Biblical Theology? by James Hamilton. Each of these books is valuable in its own right. Hedge’s book is the shortest of them all. However, it is also the most likely to be read because of its readable format.

This work is so valuable that each incoming member of the church where I serve as senior pastor will receive a copy. It is also a fitting gift for unbelievers. Such a gift will undoubtedly spark discussion and open doors for conversation about the gospel.

The Story of His Glory may possibly be the shortest book you’ll read all year. But it will surely be among the most powerful.

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

BOOK REVIEWS

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God – Brian Zahnd (2017)

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Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017, 210 pp. $10.19

COMMENDING JONATHAN EDWARDS

I will never forget a very special evening with a small group of Christ-followers at the McLean home.  My good friend, Don suggested that we read Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards in one sitting – on our knees.  And so a group of middle-aged adults gathered in Don’s living room alongside several children (whose knees were much more nimble) – and we read Edward’s classic sermon – on our knees.  It is a moment I will not soon forget.  We were humbled.  We were drawn into the very presence of God.  And like the 18th-century congregation in Enfield – we were cut to the quick.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is not only one of the most well-known sermons in American history; it is one of the most powerful sermons ever preached on American soil.  In one sermon, the Puritan divine highlights both the awesome wrath of a holy God and the matchless grace and tenderhearted love of Jesus Christ.

The sermon is derived from Deuteronomy 32:35 – “Their foot shall slide in due time.”  The doctrine that Edwards sets forth is simple: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”

Edwards concludes with a strong application which is meant to awaken sinners and flee from the wrath of God.  Current readers (along with the original Enfield congregation) are faced with a momentous decision as Edwards warns them to the sobering reality of God’s wrath: “There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.”

Readers are challenged to take advantage of “the door of mercy wide open” which beckons them to receive the grace of God in Christ. The concluding words of the sermon leave sinners with an important decision; the most decision they will ever make: “Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.  The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation.  Let every one fly out of Sodom: “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.”

CONDEMNING JONATHAN EDWARDS

The congregation in Enfield was humbled and mercifully drawn to the Savior as literally, thousands have since been Edwards first preached his sermon on July 8, 1741. But not everyone is eager to receive the biblical message that Edwards preaches. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God has received a fair amount of criticism over the years.  It has been and continues to be maligned and caricatured.  Often found on a list of required reading for college English courses, the sermon is mocked for its candid language and scary images.  Many readers simply cannot stomach the God that Edwards presents or submit to the God that Edwards loves and serves.

Brian Zahnd’s new book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News is the latest thunderbolt against the Edwardsean vision of God. Zahnd argues that Edwards depicts God as a “sadistic juvenile dangling spiders over a fire.”1 He likens Edwards’s vision of hell to “the Almighty’s eternal Auschwitz.”2 And Edwards’s vision of God is compared to a “sadistic monster.”3

Zahnd’s work is a best-selling release in the Christology category on Amazon. It has been highly touted by well-known authors. And it has received rave reviews on Amazon as readers are drawn to a softer version of God and a worldview which is miles away from Reformed theology. But does this popular book stand up to the scrutiny of Scripture? Does Mr. Zahnd’s critique of Reformed stalwarts like Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin have any merit? At least four major concerns surface in Mr. Zahnd’s book.

CONCERNS WITH SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF A LOVING GOD

The Portrait of God

The first concern is regarding the portrait of God. Readers will quickly discover that the portrait of God in this book is painted with a different kind of brush which renders an altogether different portrayal of God. What we find is a God utterly devoid of wrath. To be fair, Mr. Zahnd affirms the existence of God’s wrath and divine anger in Scripture but maintains these biblical realities are only metaphors, none of which are designed to be taken literally. And “liberalizing a divine metaphor,” according to Zahnd “always leads to error. We easily acknowledge that God is not literally a rock and not literally a hen, but we have tended to literalize the metaphor of divine anger.”4 But Zahnd confuses anthropomorphic language that attributes body parts to God or compares him to a rock or a hen or an eagle with the reality of God’s wrath. Instead of affirming the plain teaching of Scripture, Zahnd simply says, “God is not wrath.”5

Once the author dispenses with any literal notion of God’s wrath, he is able to make the following sweeping statement about God’s character: “The revelation that God’s single disposition toward sinners remains one of unconditional love does not mean we are exempt from the consequences of going against the grain of love. When we live against the grain of love we suffer the cards of self-inflicted suffering. This is the ‘wrath of God.’”6

So instead of facing God’s all-consuming wrath, unrepentant sinners are merely enduring a season of “self-inflicted suffering.” Time does not permit a detailed examination of the myriad of passages that point to God’s wrath. But notice, for example, a holy God’s response to sin in Psalm 5:5-7.

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

R.C. Sproul helps dismantle the idea that God loves all sinners unconditionally:

I can think of no more pernicious lie to destroy people’s souls than this, which some preachers are spreading around the world: God loves you unconditionally. No, he does not. If we do not meet the conditions that he established for us in creation, then God will send us to hell forever. That is what the Bible says, even though the culture does not. He requires perfect obedience. Unless that condition is met, none of us will ever step inside the courts of heaven. Unless the terms of the covenant of creation are kept perfectly, we will rendezvous in hell, where we justly belong because of our disobedience.7

God’s response to sin in Psalm 5:5-7 may sound severe to the typical postmodern ear. But the Scriptural reality of God’s wrath stands. Despite the overwhelming biblical evidence, though, Zahnd categorically rejects the wrath of God. He argues, “You have nothing to fear from God. God is not mad at you. God is never going to be mad at you.”8

“The true biblical test of any theology,” writes Stephen Wellum, “is whether it accounts for all of the biblical data.”9 While a few select passages that concern God’s wrath are selected from the Old Testament in Zahand’s work (and ultimately explained away as “metaphors”), the New Testament reality of God’s wrath is simply set aside. Passages such as Matthew 3:7; John 3:36; Romans 1:18-19; 2:5; 5:9 and Colossians 3:6 are strangely missing. One wonders how 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 would be explained in a book that discounts the wrath of God:

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed because our testimony to you was believed.

A.W. Tozer was deeply concerned about views concerning God that failed to match the teaching of Scripture. He writes, “It is my opinion that the Christian conception of God current in these middle years of the twentieth century is so decadent as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers something amounting to a moral calamity.”10 The pattern that Tozer identified in those days continues in our day, even among people who bear the name of Christ. That pattern is repeated in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.

The Prescription for Forgiveness

Like many other popular pastors and teachers, Zahnd repudiates penal substitutionary atonement. Influenced by Jürgen Moltmann’s, Crucified God, the author makes these general assertions:

  • “The cross is many things, but it is not a quid pro quo to mollify an angry God.”11
  • “Yes, it was a murder that God knew would happen – because of our addiction to sin and violence – but God’s foreknowledge of this killing doesn’t mean that it was God’s will for Jesus to be murdered.”12
  • “The cross is not a picture of payment; the cross is a picture of forgiveness. Good Friday is not about divine wrath; God Friday is about divine love.”13
  • “The cross is not the place where God vents his wrath on Jesus. The cross is the place where human fear and anger are absorbed into God’s eternal love and recycled into the saving mercy of Christ.”14

All these statements are clear indications that the author rejects penal substitutionary atonement. Zahnd echoes the rantings of Steve Chalke who has likened penal substitution to “cosmic child abuse.” Zahnd writes, “The cross is not where God finds a whipping boy to vent his rage upon; the cross is where God saves the world through self-sacrificing love. The only thing God will call justice is setting the world right, not punishing an innocent substitute for the petty sake of appeasement.”15

Zahnd agrees with the conclusion of Tony Jones’ book, Did God Kill Jesus? Both writers agree and emphatically declare that God did not kill Jesus. Zahnd continues, “Among the many problems with Calvin’s theory of the cross is that it turns God into a petty tyrant and a moral monster. Punishing the innocent in order to forgive the guilty is monstrous logic, atrocious theology, and a gross distortion of the idea of justice.”16 Zahnd continues, “A theory of the cross that says it was God who desired the torture and murder of Jesus on Good Friday turns the Father of Jesus into a cruel and sadistic monster. It’s salvation by divine sadism.” 17

What are we to make of these revealing statements which ridicule penal substitutionary atonement? To begin with, anyone who compares God to a “sadistic monster” should rethink their strategy and repent. The reality is this: “Penal substitution,” writes Roger Nicole, is the vital center of the atonement, the linchpin without which everything else loses its foundation.”18 Emil Brunner cuts through the theological fog and offers this timely advice: “… He who understands the Cross aright – this is the opinion of the Reformers – understands the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ.”19

Zahnd maintains that God knew about the cross but never “willed” the horrific events of the cross. However, two passages in the book of Acts show the sovereignty of God in salvation and demonstrate God’s involvement in the cross from start to finish:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:22–23, ESV).

for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:27–28, ESV).

Affirming the love and mercy of God at the cross but discounting his wrath is wrongheaded, dangerous, and unbiblical. R.C. Sproul laments, “A god who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol.”

Finally, the reckless abandonment of penal substitutionary atonement undercuts the gospel of Jesus Christ. Penal substitutionary atonement is not an invention of Calvin – it is the plain teaching of Scripture. Christ bore the penalty for our sins. Christ was the substitute for every sinner that would ever believe.

We deserved wrath – yet Jesus stands in as our substitute (Heb. 9:26). We were the enemies of God and separated from him because of our sin – yet Jesus reconciled us to God (Isa. 59:2; Col. 1:20-22; 2 Cor. 5:18-19). We were slaves to sin, yet Jesus was our redeemer (John 8:34, 36; Mark 10:45; Col. 1:13; Eph. 1:7). We deserved the wrath of God – yet Jesus was our propitiation (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10) and satisfied the righteous demands of the law by absorbing the white-hot wrath of the Father.

We have an unshakable hope because we are saved from the wrath of God and saved through the Son of God. These realities give rise to a new way of living. These realities spark new motivation. These truths propel us into the future and enable us to live our lives to the glory of God!

The Paltry Nature of Scripture

The problems in Zahnd’s book intensify when one considers his view of Scripture. To be clear, the author claims to have a high view of Scripture. However, his view must be clarified:

When I point out that the Bible is the penultimate word of God that points us to the ultimate Word of God who is Jesus, I do so as a person with a high view of Scripture and a lifelong commitment to the Bible. When we speak of the Word of God, Christians should think of Jesus first and the Bible second. It’s Jesus who is the true Word of God, not the Bible.20

Earlier, in an attempt to strip the Bible from any kind of wrath, Zahnd writes emphatically, “The Bible is not the perfect revelation of God; Jesus is.” This convenient hermeneutic allows the author to bypass any form of divine wrath and bears a strange resemblance to the neo-orthodox notion that the Bible is not the Word of God; rather it contains the word of God.

“Jesus is greater than the Bible,” according to Zahnd. Indeed, “Jesus is the Savior of all that is to be saved … including the Bible. Jesus saves the Bible from itself! Jesus shows us how to read the Bible and not be harmed by it.”21 This unwarranted pitting of the Bible against Christ is a subtle move that opens a Pandora’s box which only invites doctrinal error and confusion. It is an unnecessary hermeneutical hurdle that trips the unsuspecting and ultimately undermines the authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture. Paul clearly affirms that Scripture is “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16).

We believe, however, that the Bible is God’s absolute truth for all people, at all times; it is our final authority for discerning truth. And we reject any clever hermeneutical hurdles that minimize doctrinal propositions, even realities that make us uncomfortable.

The Preoccupation with Mystical Experience

The final concern in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God makes sense of the previous unsettling theological problems, namely, a preoccupation with mystical experience. Listen to the author as he explains the pathway that led him away from the biblical vision of God: “But it wasn’t primarily reading theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri Nouwen, and Stanley Hauerwas that led me away from an angry-God theology; it was mostly mystical experiences in prayer …”22 Zahnd continues, “… But having learned to sit with Jesus in contemplative prayer, I have discovered by my own experience (emphasis mine) that what John said is true: God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. God is the eternal life of self-giving love. There is no darkness. No anger. No violence. No retribution. Only love.”23

But do we come to understand the purposes, plans, and attributes of God through contemplative prayer? Certainly not! There are only two clear routes to knowing God. First, we come to a knowledge of God through general revelation (Ps. 19:1-4). General revelation will not lead people to a saving knowledge of Christ but it makes them sufficiently accountable to God (Rom. 1:19-20).

Second, we come to a knowledge of God through special revelation. We know God through the Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:3). We come to know him by becoming familiar with his attributes. Thomas Watson says, “God’s glory lies chiefly in his attributes, which are the several beams by which the divine nature shines forth.”24

And we come to know God through the Scriptures. It is the Bible that reveals an accurate portrait of God for us. One must never make human experience the starting point in theology. “To do so,” Louis Berkhof warns, “drags God to man’s level. It stresses God’s immanence at the expense of his transcendence. The final result is God made in the image of man.”25 This is exactly what emerges in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Whenever experiences trumps Scripture, the inevitable result is theological error.

HOW SHALL WE THINK ABOUT GOD?

A false representation of God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is simply unacceptable. Yet, false views of the living God continue to be proclaimed and variations of the gospel continue to be propagated. A.W. Pink lamented, “How vastly different is the God of Scripture from the ‘god’ of the average pulpit!”26

I offer three important principles that will help shape the Christian mind and enable readers to approach God with reverence and worship him in a way that is consistent with Scripture.

1. Always distinguish between the Creator and the creature

Tozer writes, “To think of the creature and Creator alike in essential being is to rob God of most of His attributes and reduce Him to the status of a creature. It is, for instance, to rob Him of His infinitude: there cannot be two unlimited substances in the universe. It is to take away His sovereignty: there cannot be two absolutely free beings in the universe, for sooner or later two completely free wills must collide.”27

2. Banish idolatrous thoughts of God

Tozer adds, “Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them.”28 We must strive to worship God rightly and maintain steadfast allegiance to his Word, which is our reliable guide for determining his plans, purposes, and attributes. For “among the sins to which the human heart is prone, hardly any other is more hateful to God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on His character. The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than He is – in itself a monstrous sin …”29

3. Commit to thinking biblically about God

Steven Lawson offers a fitting challenge that every person needs to hear: “I believe that the greatest issue facing the church in any century is a proper understanding of who God is. What is needed in the contemporary church today is a steady diet of the attributes and perfections of God. It is our high theology that produces high doxology … Until there is a right knowledge of God, there will never be the right knowledge of self, nor the proper remedy applied to our own inners lives.”30

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God will no doubt attract the attention of many people. It will be received by people who are unwilling to submit to the biblical portrait of God. My desire is not to be argumentative or divisive but to invite Brian Zahnd to reconsider his assertions concerning God. For Zahnd’s views lead the unsuspecting down a path that rejects a biblical portrait of God and repudiates penal substitutionary atonement. Such views lead readers on a trajectory that will, in the final analysis, lead to a spiritual wasteland. These views are bolstered by other popular writers. But truth is not a matter of majority rule – Truth is determined by God and his infallible Word.

CONCLUSION

God is still angry with sinners. His wrath is being revealed from heaven against ungodly people (Rom. 1:18). And the wrath of God will be unleashed on every person who refused to turn from sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ: “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts” (Ps. 8:12-13).

The words of Jonathan Edwards were true on July 8, 1741. And Edwards’ words remain true today: “The bow of God’s wrath is bent and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart and strains the bow; and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”31

But Edwards was never content to leave his hearers without hope. He was always eager to draw the attention of people to the saving grace and mercy that flows freely from the cross: “God has magnified his free grace towards you, and not to others; because he has chosen you, and it pleased him to set his love upon you. O! what cause is here for praise! What obligations you are under to bless the Lord who hath dealt bountifully with you, and magnify his holy name! What cause for you to praise God in humility, to walk humbly before him.”32

The lament of A.W. Tozer gives us pause and instructs us in a day which is fraught with theological error: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”33 May be bow low in humility before this great and awesome God. May we delight in him and affirm each attribute that the Scriptures reveal. May our minds be ignited with zeal for his name. May our hearts be filled with joy as we contemplate his majesty. May our lips proclaim his goodness and his glory. And may our hands and feet be mobilized to share the saving message of the gospel for the joy of the nations!

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

  1. Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017), 3.
  2. Ibid, 5.
  3. Ibid, 11-12.
  4. Ibid, 17.
  5. Ibid, 202.
  6. Ibid, 18.
  7. R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith – Volume One: The Triune God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006), 216-217.
  8. Ibid, 19.
  9. Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 228.
  10. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Lincoln: Back to the Bible, 1961), 2.
  11. Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, 82.
  12. Ibid, 84.
  13. Ibid, 86.
  14. Ibid, 115.
  15. Ibid, 86.
  16. Ibid, 101.
  17. Ibid, 102.
  18. Roger Nicole, Cited in Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior  (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 194.
  19. Emil Brunner, Cited in Ibid, 195.
  20. Ibid, 50.
  21. Ibid, 57.
  22. Ibid, 204.
  23. Ibid, 205.
  24. Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, reprint 1692), 55.
  25. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 54.
  26. A.W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 11.
  27. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 8.
  28. Ibid, 3.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Steven J. Lawson, Expositor: A Conversation on Preaching – Preaching the Pastoral Epistles (May/June 2015), 39.
  31. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, ed. Edward Hickman (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834), 9.
  32. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners, ed. Edward Hickman (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834), 679.
  33. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Lincoln: Back to the Bible, 1961), 1.