BOOK REVIEWS

Post Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought – Gene Edward Veith, Jr. (2020)

Gene Edward Veith, Jr, Post Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 308 pp.

Followers of Christ can always count on Gene Edward Veith Jr. to deliver up-to-date and candid analysis of our culture and its relationship to the church. Such is the case in his most recent book, Post Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture.

Veith’s analysis of contemporary thought and culture is sharp, clear, and crisp. He “rounds the base pads” by alerting readers to reality (part 1), the body (part 2), society (part 3), and religion (part 4). Each part is explored in great detail and subjected to the weight of biblical scrutiny.

Veith’s research is impeccable and show a depth of understanding that is hard to find these days. The presentation of his findings is objective and gracious, yet he never withholds any data for fear of offending the sensibilities of post-modern people. His approach is honest, forthright, and gracious.

While much of the book is discouraging as it reveals the true condition of the current culture and the state of the church, Veith is quick to show how followers of Christ can thrive in such a climate.

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

BOOK REVIEWS · Historical Theology · Puritans · Theology

A QUEST FOR GODLINESS: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life – J.I. Packer (1990)

A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life by J.I. Packer is a superb introduction to the English Puritans.  For too long, the Puritans have been marginalized, unfairly caricatured, and relegated dusty boxes of books in the garage.  Packer intends to bring the Puritans to the forefront of Christian thought, precisely where they belong.

Part One: The Puritans in Profile

J.I. Packer begins by arguing (and rightly so) that current day Christians need the Puritans.  Indeed, “the Puritans exemplified maturity; we don’t.  We are spiritual dwarfs.”  The author reminds us that “Puritanism was at heart a spiritual movement, passionately concerned with God and godliness … Puritanism was essentially a movement for church reform, pastoral renewal and evangelism, and spiritual revival; and in addition – indeed, as a direct expression of its zeal for God’s honor – it was a world-view, a total Christian philosophy …”

Packer discusses Puritanism as a particular movement of revival.  It is true that revival strikes at the core of who the Puritans were and what they sought to accomplish.  Packer’s definition, then, is appropriate and accurate.  “Puritanism I define as that movement in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England which sought further reformation and renewal in the Church of England than the Elizabethan settlement allowed.”

The author includes a helpful section on the practical writings of the Puritans.  Central to Puritan thought was a God-centered education.  They were in the strict sense of the word, “mind-educators.”  Packer writes, “The starting-point was their certainty that the must must be instructed and enlightened before faith and obedience became possible … Heat without light, pulpit passion without pedagogic precision, would be no use to anyone.”

The Puritans are often painted into the corner as cold and emotionless, dry and boring.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Packer rightly adds, “All the Puritans regarded religious feeling and pious emotion without knowledge as worse than useless.  Only when truth was being felt was emotion in any way desirable … So the teaching of truth was the pastor’s first task, as the learning of it was the layman’s.”

Additionally, Puritans are often charged with teaching doctrine and neglecting application.  Again, this is an inaccurate caricature.  Rather, the Puritans were famous for preaching and teaching doctrine and always proceeding to the point of application.

Part Two: The Puritans and the Bible

John Owen is the primary Puritan discusses in this section.  Owen is regarded by most to be the among the greatest of all the Puritans.  He wielded and continues to wield enormous influence among Reformed theologians.

Packer zero’s in on Owen’s approach to God’s revelation.  First, he describes how Owen would have reacted to the “irrationalism of the neo-orthodox idea of a ‘knowledge’ of God derived from non-communicative ‘encounters’ with him.”  But he moves  forward to describe the essence of Owen’s approach: “Mere rational instruction thus proves ineffective; only the illumination of the Holy Spirit, opening our heart to God’s word and God’s word to our hearts, can bring understanding of, conviction about, and consent to, the things that God declares.”

The author continues to guide the reader in understanding Owen’s understanding of the giving of revelation, the inspiration of Scripture, the authentication of Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture.

At this point, Packer moves into deeper waters as he surveys the general attitude of Puritans as interpreters of Scripture.  He cites Thomas Watson: “Think in every line you read that God is speaking to you – for in truth he is.  What Scripture says, God is saying.”

Part Three: The Puritans and the Gospel

In chapter eight, Packer includes his introduction to John Owen’s, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” and is perhaps the best chapter in the book.  Packer demonstrates that “universal redemption is unscriptural and destructive to the gospel” a notion that is very unpopular in the church.

“Christ did not win a hypothetical salvation for hypothetical believers, a mere possibility of salvation for any who might possibly believe, but a real salvation for his own chosen people.  His precious blood really does ‘save us all’; the intended effects of his self-0ffering do in fact follow, just because the cross was what it was.  Its saving power does not depend on faith being added to it; its saving power is such that faith flows from it.  The cross secured the full salvation of all for whom Christ died.”

While Packer (and Owen) argue against universal redemption; i.e. unlimited atonement, they both believe strongly in universal invitations.  They reject the erroneous hyper-Calvinist notion that the gospel should only be proclaimed to the elect.  Packer adds, “The question of the extent of the atonement does not arise in evangelistic preaching; the message to be delivered is simply this – that Christ Jesus, the sovereign Lord, who died for sinners, now invites sinners freely to himself.  God commands all to repent and believe; Christ promises life and peace to all who do so.”

Often the preaching task is described as “bringing men to Christ.”  Packer is quick to note, however: “The task of preaching the old gospel could more properly be described as bringing Christ to men (emphasis mine), for those who preach it know that as they do their work of setting Christ before men’s eyes, the mighty Savior whom they proclaim is busy doing his work through their words, visiting sinners with salvation, awakening them to faith, drawing them in mercy to himself.”

Packer’s chapter on the Puritan View of Preaching the Gospel is also excellent.  “The Puritan view was that preaching gospel sermons means teaching the whole Christian system – the character of God, the Trinity, the plan of salvation, the entire work of grace.  To preach Christ, they held, involved preaching all this.  Preach less, they would tell us, and what you do preach will not be properly grasped.”

Part Four: The Puritans and the Holy Spirit

Part four summarizes the witness of the Spirit in Puritan thought, the spirituality of John Owen, and Owen’s view on spiritual gifts.  Owen’s work, Communion With God is a classic and should be required reading for all Christians.  Packer writes, “Communion with Christ then becomes a matter of acknowledging his presence in the power of his reconciling sacrifice and of observing the ordinance with reverent confidence that in it Christ comes to pledge his saving love to each one personally, so that ‘we sit down at God’s table as those that are the Lord’s friends … there being now no difference [contention] between him and us.'”

Part Five: The Puritans and the Christian Life

Part five summarizes the Puritan approach to the Lord’s Day, worship, and marriage/family.

Part Six: The Puritans in Ministry

Finally, Packer outlines the Puritan vision of the Word preached.  He cites Richard Baxter: “Labor to awaken your own hearts, before you go into the pulpit, that you may be fit to awaken the hearts of sinners … When I let my heart go cold, my preaching is cold … and so I can oft observe also in the best of my hearers that when I have grown cold in preaching, they have grown cold too.”

Packer is quick to point out in the Puritan belief in the “primacy of the intellect.”  He adds, “It follows that every man’s first duty in relation to the word of God is to understand it; and every preacher’s first duty is to explain it.  The only way to the heart that he is authorized to take runs via the head.”

The Puritans also believed in the primacy of preaching – a message that should not go unheeded today.  “Reverence for revealed truth and faith in its entire adequacy for human needs, should mark all preaching.”  John Owen is emphatic, “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word.”

The Puritans had a strong belief in the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit.  Packer writes, “The Puritans insisted that the ultimate effectiveness of preaching is out of man’s hands.  Man’s task is simply to be faithful in teaching the word; it is God’s work to convince of its truth and write it in the heart.  The Puritans would have criticised the modern evangelistic appeal, with its wheedling for ‘decisions’, as an unfortunate attempt by man to intrude into the Holy Spirit’s province.  It is for God, not man, to fix the time of conversion.”

The Puritans were expository preachers.  Their preaching was doctrinal.  “To the question, ‘Should one preach doctrine?’ the Puritan answer would have been, ‘Why, what else is there to preach?”  Packer adds, “Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep.  The preachers job is to proclaim the faith, not to provide entertainment for unbelievers – in other words, to feed the sheep rather than amuse the goats.”

Conclusion

A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life is an important book.  It unpacks the most important components of Puritan thought and introduces readers to the essence of Puritan theology.  It is true that we live in a different day.  However, the message that the Puritans proclaimed has not changed, not will it ever change.  The Puritans remind us of the importance of being faithful and refusing to capitulate to the winds of pragmatism.  The Puritans remind us to faithfully preach the Word of God and share the message of God’s grace to our dying generation.

BOOK REVIEWS

The Preacher’s Catechism – Lewis Allen (2018)

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Allen Lewis, The Preacher’s Catechism (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 216 pp.

I am a big fan of catechisms. So when I learned about The Preacher’s Catechism by Lewis Allen, I was intrigued. Actually, I jumped at the chance to read and review this book. Little did I know that this powerful little book would break me and convict me. It would mold and challenge me. It would encourage and edify me. The Preacher’s Catechism is remarkable in a myriad of ways, a few of which I will briefly describe below.

The Preacher’s Catechism is a book targeted to preachers. While some may consider this narrow target audience as ill-conceived, this strategy works well and helps accomplish the ultimate ends of the author.

Three convictions govern this book, which are set forth in the opening pages:

  1. The church needs preachers who last and thrive.
  2. Preachers must understand how preaching works, and how their souls work.
  3. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is an outstanding resource for the heart needs of every preacher.

With the governing convictions in place, Allen Lewis determines to utilize the pattern of the Westminster Shorter Catechism by targeting specific questions and answers to preachers. The book is arranged in four parts:

Part 1: The Glory of God and the Greatness of Preaching

Part 2: Jesus for Preachers

Part 3: Loving the Word

Part 4: Preaching with Conviction

Summarizing the essence of The Preacher’s Catechism is an impossible task. But at its very heart is a series of gospel-centered challenges and soul-stirring encouragements. This work is like a theological battering ram that is designed to crush pride, self-sufficiency, false motives and deeds of the flesh. But make no mistake. The author does not intend to merely convict preachers; his ultimate aim is to encourage them. Once the feeble scaffolding of the flesh is sufficiently toppled, the author winsomely directs the attention of preachers to the cross. “Listeners need to know that the preacher is contented in his God and rejoicing in his Savior,” writes Allen. He continues, “When our lives as preachers are filled with a sense of amazement about the grace that is ours in Christ, others start asking questions about that grace and seeking it for themselves.”

To call The Preacher’s Catechism a success would be a profound understatement. For this book captures what is truly important about pastoral ministry. It is a vivid reminder to keep the main thing the main thing. It serves preachers by admonishing them and encouraging them. But in the final analysis, it leads preachers back to the cross. It graciously beckons them to not only preach Christ crucified but to cherish the old rugged cross and lay claim to the saving benefits that Christ wrought for his elect.

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

BOOK REVIEWS

Steal Away Home – Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey (2017)

chMatt Carter and Aaron Ivey, Steal Away Home, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2017, 294 pp. $14.60

Church history is filled with stories of courage, adventure, adversity, and persecution. From the exile of Athanasius, the martyrdom of John Rogers and William Tyndale, or Luther’s trial at Worms, these stories are well-known and we are quick to pass them along to the next generation.

Steal Away Home by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey is a tale that will be new to many readers, however.  It was certainly new for me! The story involves two men from backgrounds that have very little in common. C.H. Spurgeon was the Prince of Preachers, a refined man with a rich theological heritage who occupied the pulpit in Victorian England. He was well-known around the world. He was a best-selling author and recognized by thousands. Thomas Johnson was a simple slave boy who was unjustly shackled in colonial America. He was known by few and treated like an animal. His slave master worked him to the bone on the Virginia tobacco fields.

Jesus Christ liberated Thomas Johnson. He freed him from the power and the penalty of sin. President Abraham Lincoln rescued Thomas Johnson from the sin of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln regarded as the crowning achievement of his presidency, liberated Thomas from his slave master. Jesus Christ liberated Thomas from the slave master of sin.

Through a series of Providential events, Thomas Johnson found himself at the front door of C.H. Spurgeon in London. After his training was complete, he and his wife made their way to Cameroon, West Africa in 1879.

PERSONAL TAKEAWAYS

Steal Away Home is a work of historical fiction. It becomes clear at the outset, however, that the authors spent many hours researching the details of this intriguing story. My hope is that a few personal takeaways will prompt many people to enter rich world of the 19th century and absorb some life-altering lessons.

1. The Humanization of C.H. Spurgeon

I have been reading Spurgeon and books about the Prince of Preachers for almost thirty years. This book brilliantly captures the essence of Spurgeon and is not afraid of revealing his warts, weaknesses, and worries. It is a breath of fresh air for anyone who is under the false notion that the famous preacher from London lived a life of ease. Spurgeon’s doubt and lifelong battle with depression is highlighted and his fears are revealed.

2. The Horror of Slavery

Most Americans recognize that slavery is a perpetual “black eye” on our nations’ history. But few understand the gravity of what these innocent African Americans endured. Carter and Ivey masterfully reveal the pitiful nature of slavery through the eyes of Thomas Johnson. Sympathetic readers will feel genuine grief as they walk with Johnson and experience the horror of his chains.

3. The Hallowed Ground of Friendship

Steal Away Home reminds readers of the importance and value of friendship. The friendship fostered by Spurgeon and Thomas is grounded in grace and nurtured by honest communication, genuine fun, rich encouragement, and biblical accountability. Like David and Jonathan, these two men are examples of friendship that glorifies God. Indeed, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). Indeed, friendship is hallowed ground that too few men tread upon.

4. The Hope of the Gospel

Finally, this story shows how the gospel operates in the real world. Apart from grace, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson were dead in trespasses and sins, without hope and without God. Indeed, apart from grace, Spurgeon and Johnson were both spiritual slaves. Both men, however, were set free as they cast their hope on the Lord Jesus Christ. In the course of their very different earthly paths, they wound up on the same spiritual path, which ultimately led them both to the Celestial City!

Steal Away Home encouraged me personally and moved my soul in ways that most books only hope to do. Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey stepped up to the plate and hit the ball out of the park.  Their work will no doubt be a contender for book of the year.  I commend their work wholeheartedly!

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

The Way Forward: A Roadmap of Spiritual Growth for Men in the 21st Century – Joe Barnard (2020)

Joe Barnard, The Way Forward: A Road Map of Spiritual Growth for Men in the 21st Century (Geanies House: Christian Focus Publications, 2020), 165 pp.

The Way Forward: A Road Map of Spiritual Growth for Men in the 21st Century by Joe Barnard addresses the unique spiritual needs of men in a way that is thoughtful, engaging, and biblical. Much like a skilled surgeon, Barnard diagnoses the problem and offers a deeply encouraging solution.

The author holds that an accurate diagnosis is an essential ingredient in moving men forward in a way that honors the Lord. With that in mind, he presents seven factors that contribute to the weak spiritual growth that is epidemic among Christian men. In the end, Bernard points out that men are failing to achieve their potential in Christ for a variety of factors, which prove to be complicated.

The prescription is a process of spiritual development that includes five characteristics – captivation, clarity, competences camaraderie, and self-control. The sum total of these qualities will help Christian men move in a Godward direction.

The first characteristic, captivation is worth focussing on. The author adds,

“I am convinced that no man will make serious progress toward spiritual maturity until he is captivated by the glory of Christ … Being captivated by the glory of Christ is the secret to mounting a coup against a false god … no amount of willpower can shove an idol out of the heart.”

These statements provide the fuel for the remainder of the book as the author is set on moving men toward spiritual maturity. Additionally, Bernard is quick to recommend other key books that should be required reading for men on a trajectory of spiritual growth.

The Way Forward is a valuable book, one that should be in the arsenal of every man committed to growing in the Lord.

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

BOOK REVIEWS

Getting the Gospel Right – R.C. Sproul

gospR.C. Sproul, Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie That Binds Evangelicals Together Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017, 235 pp. $10.70

There are many things in life that we “get wrong.” Some of the things we get wrong may cause temporary pain or inconvenience but usually do not pose a significant challenge to our daily lives. But getting the gospel right has eternal implications. R.C. Sproul addresses this matter in his book, Getting the Gospel Right. Originally published in 1999, Baker Books has repackaged this timely book for a new audience that probably never had the chance to read the original work.

The book includes three parts. Part One discusses the Controversy Concerning the Gospel. The debate reaches back to the sixteenth century when Luther boldly challenged the doctrinal underpinnings of the Roman Catholic church.

Dr. Sproul helps readers determine the marks of a true church which is distinguished by the faithful proclamation of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments (or ordinances for Baptist readers), and church discipline. Since the Roman Catholic church has jettisoned the gospel by abandoning sola fide, which is essential to the biblical gospel, one would rightly consider Rome to be an apostate church. To assign such a label to the Roman Catholic church does not automatically mean that certain individuals have not experienced personal salvation; it merely demonstrates how Rome has abandoned the biblical gospel. The author adds, “When an essential truth of the gospel is condemned, the gospel itself is condemned with it, and without the gospel, an institution is not a Christian church.”

The author presents the historical debate between evangelicals and Rome by clearly identifying the meaning of the term, evangelical. The term means “the gospel.” Sproul continues, “The Reformers used the term evangelical to define their movement as it related to the central theological issue of the day, the doctrine of justification by faith alone … the Reformers believed that sola fide is essential to the gospel, that without sola fide one does not have the gospel.”

Sproul continues by explaining the rise of liberalism and the ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) document that “heralded another subtle but significant shift in the contribution of sola fide to evangelical unity.”

Part Two includes a critical analysis of The Gift of Salvation, the joint statement by Roman Catholics and evangelicals in October 1997. Sproul’s comments and critiques are straightforward and gracious. He affirms the points of agreement between Rome and evangelicals but he also identifies several doctrinal deficiencies. These deficiencies who prevent most evangelicals from endorsing such a document.

Part Three includes a detailed exposition of The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration, a document that was drafted by notable evangelicals including D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, and others.

The document includes a series of affirmations and denials and is essentially an exposition of the document, which includes safeguards and doctrinal sideboards which help preserve the very essence and purity of the gospel.

We may get things many things wrong in life. Such decisions may prove painful in the short run, but in the final analysis, such decisions have little effect upon our lives. Failing to get the gospel right, however, has eternal implications.Getting the Gospel Right reminds readers of the importance maintaining our allegiance to the truth of God’s Word. Trifling with the gospel is simply not an option for followers of Jesus Christ.

BOOK REVIEWS

The White Flag Unfurled

wf

These 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

Order your copy of The White Flag: When Compromise Cripples the Church here!

BOOK REVIEWS

Unshackled: The god of WM. Paul Young

lies

WM. Paul Young, Lies We Believe About God, New York: Atria Books, 2017, 273 pp. $13.48

Lies We Believe About God is the latest book from the author of The Shack, WM. Paul Young. The author originally penned The Shack at the request of his wife as a Christmas gift to his six children. First published in 2007, this book has sold over 20 million copies and was recently unveiled as a feature film.

The Shack struck a central chord in people, many of whom confess that the storyline helped them overcome personal pain and tragedy, what the author refers to as, the Great Sadness. Wes Yoder, who endorses The Shack summarizes the ideas in this story. He writes, “The Shack is a beautiful story of how God comes to find us in the midst of our sorrows, trapped by disappointments, betrayed by our own presumptions.” Eugene Peterson adds, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good.”

But many reviewers of The Shack were less sympathetic. In the minds of some, the nature of God was compromised and the boundaries of orthodoxy were broached. But since The Shack is a novel, the line between fact and fiction became blurred and the theological intentions of the author were difficult to discern.

Young’s most recent offering, Lies We Believe About God, puts to rest any speculation about his views of God and Christian theology. The truly impressive feature about Young’s most recent offering is its transparency and honesty. The author presents twenty-eight “lies we believe about God” in terms that are unmistakable. Readers will no longer be able to sweep the theological statements in Young’s previous novels under the carpet. His views concerning God are set forth in plain terms, giving readers a better understanding of what was proposed in his previous novels.

The question for discerning readers to ask is whether or not Young’s views measure up to the scrutiny of God’s Word. Three critical areas of concern surface in the book, Lies We Believe About God.

A Flawed View of God

It is a great irony that a book which sets out to challenge the so-called “lies we believe about God,” does in fact, promote views of God that fail to match the biblical record. First, Young promotes a soft view of God. Specifically, he argues that God is not in control.

Instead of accepting God’s will of decree, which is settled in eternity past, the author questions God’s sovereign control: “Does God have a wonderful plan for our lives? Does God sit and draw up a perfect will for you and me on some cosmic drafting table, a perfect plan that requires a perfect response? If God then left to react to our stupidity or deafness or blindness or inability, as we constantly violate perfection through our own presumption?”1 John, one of the characters in Young’s novel, Eve concurs: “When it comes to plans and purposes, God is not a Draftsman but an Artist, and God will not be God apart from us.”2

Instead of accepting a sovereign God who ordains everything that comes to pass, Young posits a God who reigns by love and relationship alone. “The sovereignty of God is not about deterministic control … Love and relationship trump control every time. Forced love is no love at all,”3 writes the author.

Yet, Scripture contradicts what Young would have us believe. The Bible presents a God who exercises control in creation, providence, and miracles. Proverbs 21:1 illustrates the control of God in vivid terms: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” In Ezra 6:22, the LORD “turned the heart of the king of Assyria.” In Ecclesiastes 7:13-14, God’s providential control over all things is clearly illustrated: “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.” And Ephesians 1:11 shows us the overarching purposes of our God: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Indeed, God exercises sovereign control over all things.

The Westminster Catechism argues, “The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby for his own glory he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” That is, God is the sovereign king who does as he pleases (Ps. 115:3). God reigns (Ps. 99:1-5). His control knows no boundaries. God acts in order to advance his glory (Exod. 14:4). And we rest in the infinite wisdom of God’s plan, knowing that his purposes can never be thwarted (Isa. 46:9-10; Job 42:2).

Charles Hodge has a sharp disagreement with the soft view of God presented in Lies We Believe About God. Hodge writes,

“This is the end which our Lord proposed to himself. He did everything for the glory of God; and for this end, all his followers are required to live and act … If we make the good of the creature the ultimate object of all God’s works, then we subordinate God to the creature, and endless confusion and unavoidable error are the consequence. It is characteristic of the Bible that it places God first, and the good of the creation second.”4

The errors which result from promoting a God who is not fully in control, as Hodge maintains, will have serious consequences and have tragic consequences on one’s perception of God.

Second, Young presents a God who submits to people. The notion that God submits to the creature emerges in The Shack as well. The Holy Spirit figure, Sarayu, tells Mack, “We have limited ourselves out of respect for you … Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to power is to choose to limit oneself.”5 And Papa sympathetically responds to Mack who is reluctant to demonstrate emotion: “That’s okay, we’ll do things on your terms and time.”6

The Jesus of The Shack confesses to Mack, “Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.”7

In Young’s novel, Eve, Adonai says to Adam, “Our Love will not withhold from you the consequences of your choices. We honor and respect you, so We consent and submit to you” (emphasis mine).8 Later in the story, Adonai makes a similar remark to Lily: “Look up and into My face. I am here and will never leave you. In any dance you sometimes lead, but always both submit. So now, dear Lilly, you must choose, and I submit to you.”9

In Lies We Believe About God, the author maintains that the word control is not a part of God’s vocabulary: “God submits,” writes Young “rather than controls and joins us in the resulting mess of relationship, to participate in co-creating the possibility of life, even in the face of death.”10

Yet, we never find God submitting to the creature in Scripture. To the contrary, the creature submits to the Creator. Job learned a quick lesson when he tried to turn the tables on God. He learned the importance of submitting to God, not the other way around (Job 38-41).

John Frame helps us understand the importance of God’s authority and the proper response of the creature: “The first thing, and in one sense the only thing, we need to know about God is that he is Lord …This is a confession of lordship: that Yahweh, the Lord, is the one and only true God, and that therefore he deserves all of our love and allegiance.”11

The soft view of God who submits to the creature must be rejected as it fails to stand the test of biblical faithfulness.

A Fallacious View of Humanity

Young rightly holds that humans are created by God in the imago Dei. Since humans are created in God’s image, they have inherent worth and significance. The author should be commended for highlighting this important aspect of anthropology, which admittedly, is neglected by some Christians.

Additionally, the author believes that humans are sinners. However, sin is redefined and fails to measure up to the biblical test. “Blind, not depraved, is our condition,”12 writes Young. He continues, “Sin, then, is anything that negates or diminishes or misrepresents the truth of who you are, no matter how pretty or ugly that is.”13 Such a view find no biblical support and is a foreign concept in Christian theology.

Young acknowledges that sin involves “missing the mark.” But he adds, “The mark is not perfect moral behavior. The ‘mark’ is the Truth of your being.”14 But Young goes one step further in his redefinition of sin: “And what does the truth of your being look like? God. You are made in the image of God, and the truth of your being looks like God.”15

Now that Young has redefined sin, he is in a position to pose an additional question: Does sin separate us from God? Young argues that the notion of sinners being separated from God is a lie: “A lot of ‘my people’ will believe that the following statement is in the Bible, but it isn’t: ’You have sinned, and you are separated from God.’” 16 The biblical proof he offers is Romans 8:38-39, that is, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Such an explanation, however, fails to consider the context of Romans 8 which is a clear promise to the elect of God, not the entirety of the human race.

Two responses are in order. First, Young’s reformulation of sin is inadequate as the Bible clearly teaches that all people are sinners by nature and choice. John MacArthur sheds light on the real meaning of sin:

“Sin must be understood from a theocentric or God-centered standpoint. At its core, sin is a violation of the Creator-creature relationship. Man only exists because God made him, and man is in every sense obligated to serve his Creator. Sin causes man to assume the role of God and to assert autonomy for himself apart from the Creator. The most all-encompassing view of sin’s mainspring, therefore, is the demand for autonomy.”17

When sin is redefined from a man-centered viewpoint, this only strengthens the resolve of his quest for autonomy. Yet this is exactly what we find in Young’s version of sin – a Creator catering to the needs of the creature and satisfying his autonomous bent.

The Scriptures paint a portrait of sinful creatures which is undeniable and devastating: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5, ESV) Indeed, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9, ESV) Edwin Palmer writes, “Total depravity means that natural man is never able to do any good that is fundamentally pleasing to God, and, in fact, does evil all the time.”18 The biblical evidence for total depravity is overwhelming and conclusive (Ps. 51:5; Isa. 53:6; 64:6; Eph. 2:1-3; Rom. 3:23; 5:12).

Second, the Bible clearly teaches that sinners are separated from God. Apart from grace, sinners are without hope and are utterly cut off and separated from God. Isaiah 59:2 says, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul demonstrates that sinners are separated from Christ. He refers to them as “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). Our only hope, then, is found in Christ alone who came to forgive us and reconcile us to a holy God (Eph. 2:13-22).

A Faulty View of Salvation

Two major problems can be summarized here. First, Young promotes universal reconciliation. In The Shack, Papa answers Mack’s questions concerning the efficacy of the cross. Papa says, “Honey, you asked me what Jesus accomplished on the cross; so now listen to me carefully: through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.”19 Mack asks, “The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?”20 Papa answers resolutely, “The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two-way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally.”21

In a stunning admission, Young says,

“The Good News is not that Jesus opened up the possibility of salvation and you have been invited to receive Jesus into your life. The Gospel is that Jesus has already included you into His life, into His relationship with God the Father, and into His anointing in the Holy Spirit … God has acted decisively and universally for all humankind.”22

If there is any question about the universalism here, the author removes any cause for doubt: “Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation? That is exactly what I am saying?”23 He continues, “Here’s the truth: every person who has ever been conceived was included in the death, burial, and resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. When Jesus was lifted up, God ‘dragged’ all human beings to Himself.24

The Bible paints a very different portrait. The Bible speaks of people apart from grace who are enemies of God (Col. 1:21; Rom. 5:10) and children of wrath (Eph. 2:1-3). Only the redeemed are reconciled to God.

Appealing to passages like John 12:32 is insufficient and fails to build the case for universal reconciliation. Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” All people must either mean “all without exception” or “all without distinction.” As we compare Scripture with Scripture, clearly the later is in view.

Jesus proclaims, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13-14). ). Jesus speaks of two trees, the healthy and the diseased. Speaking of the diseased tree, Jesus says, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:19). Moreover, Jesus teaches about two kinds of houses, the one that is built on the rock and one that is built on the sand. “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it tell, and great was the fall of it” (Matt. 7:26-27). Indeed, every person who refuses to build his “house” on the rock and build his or her life on the promises of God; every person who rejects the Son and his work on the cross will endure an eternity of wrath (John 3:36; Rom. 2:8; 2 Thes. 1:9). “At the end of the day, there are only two ways – the way of the kingdom or the way of death.” Scripture is clear: not everyone will pursue the way of the kingdom. Universal reconciliation is a lie.

Second, Young argues that the cross was not God’s idea. The author poses the question, “Who originated the Cross?” Young’s answer is disturbing, to say the least: “If God did, then we worship a cosmic abuser, who in Divine wisdom created a means to torture human beings in the most painful and abhorrent manner … Better no god at all, than this one.”25 In a few words, the author not only repudiates the reality of God’s involvement in the cross of Christ; he casts aside penal substitutionary atonement.

The apostle Paul speaks of the power of the cross (1 Cor. 1:17-18), “making peace by the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20) and even boasts in the cross (Gal. 6:14). However, Young says, “Nothing not even the salvation of the entire cosmos, could ever justify a horrific torture device called a cross.”26

When we contrast the Bible with Young’s view, we find that the cross was God’s idea after all. 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:

“this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” (Acts 2:23–24, 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)

The faulty view of salvation which is promoted in Lies We Believe About God is deeply troubling and must be rejected by discerning Christians.

Conclusion

Paul Young has shared openly and honestly about some of the hurts in his life. Pain and suffering, while inevitable in this life are regrettable realities. The dark night of the soul will likely affect most of us. And so we sympathize with Young and his Great Sadness and pray that God will minister in deep and abiding ways. But no amount of personal tragedy or loss can excuse the propagation of false views of God.

It is a great tragedy when an author writes a book that minimizes God or misrepresents God. A.W. Tozer helps us understand the importance of understanding God rightly: “Worship is pure or base as the worshipper entertains high or low thoughts of God.”27 How we think about God matters! For “there is nothing more important than knowing God.”28 Our view concerning his essence and attributes is not a mere academic debate among theologians. Our view of God affects how we approach him and how we worship him. Tozer continues, “For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.”29

“God does not lower his standards to accommodate us.”30 Therefore, our responsibility is to view God rightly, worship God rightly, and approach God rightly and reverently. Indeed, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”31

The chief problem in Lies We Believe About God is an undermining of biblical authority.  It ultimately caters to the creature and encourages the autonomy that he craves. When the authority of the Bible is compromised the people of God always pay a price. It’s not too late to get unshackled.  True freedom is found in submitting to Scripture, trusting and obeying Jesus Christ who loves sinners, and worshipping God in the way that he demands!

  1. WM. Paul Young, Lies We Believe About God  (New York: Atria Books, 2017), Loc. 329.
  2. WM. Paul Young, Eve (New York: Howard Books, 2015), 181.
  3. Ibid, Loc. 347.
  4. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology – Volume I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint 1995), 536.
  5. Young, The Shack, (Newbury Park: Windblown Media, 2007)106.
  6. Ibid, 83.
  7. Ibid, 145.
  8. WM. Paul Young, Eve (New York: Howard Books, 2015), 239.
  9. Ibid, 258.
  10. Young, Lies We Believe About God, Loc. 355.
  11. John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002), 21-22.
  12. WM. Paul Young, Lies We Believe About God, Loc. 296.
  13. Ibid, Loc. 1645.
  14. Ibid, Loc. 1643.
  15. Ibid, Loc. 1645.
  16. Ibid, Loc. 1663.
  17. John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2017), 453.
  18. Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1972), 13.
  19. William P. Young, The Shack, 82.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Young, Lies We Believe About God, Loc. 889.
  23. Ibid, Loc. 898.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid, Loc. 1101.
  26. Ibid, 329.
  27. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1961), 1.
  28. John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002), 1.
  29. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 1.
  30. R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995), 88.
  31. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 1.
BOOK REVIEWS · Calvinism · Gospel · Theology

Grace Works – Douglas Bond (2014)

bond

I once titled a sermon  Grace Works, based on Titus 2:11-14.   Verse 11  reminds us that grace has appeared in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.  This grace has saved us.  This grace has transported every believer from death to life.    This grace saves us, sanctifies us, and secures our future with Christ.  Indeed, grace works!  So when I learned about the new book by Douglas Bond, entitled Grace Works I requested a copy from a company I write reviews for.  It was a great decision!

Douglas Bond is concerned; deeply concerned.  He along with a handful of evangelicals including R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, Jerry Bridges, John Piper, and Tim Keller are concerned that the gospel is being eclipsed by works-based righteousness.  John Calvin had a similar concern in the 16th century: “We must exercise the utmost caution lest we allow any counterfeit to be substituted for the pure doctrine of the gospel.”

Douglas Bond alerts Christ-followers to this gospel counterfeit in his latest book, Grace Works.  The author shows how this counterfeit gospel has emerged throughout church history.  He demonstrates the subtle shift that took place in European churches that once glowed with Reformation fervor.  He cites several examples of how the gospel has been distorted and continues to be distorted in the contemporary church.

At the heart of the book lies a concern that many believers appear to be confused about the biblical gospel.  While many give lip-service to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, many continue to add requirements which muddy the “waters of grace” in the final analysis.

The author cites Tim Keller approvingly who says, “It is only in the gospel of Jesus Christ that you get the verdict before the performance.”  Bond adds, “Every other religion requires performance before the verdict.  But in the gospel, Christ has stooped down and perfectly obeyed for us, as our substitute.  Jesus the righteous one was righteous in our place.  By the grace of the gospel, performance will follow, but in justification the verdict is already in: we are forever righteous in Christ.  That is immeasurably good news!”

Yet, a stunning number of professing evangelicals are repudiating justification by faith alone by adding requirements which is tantamount to a works-based approach.  The road back to Rome may be paved with good intentions, but thoughtful observers can hear the gnashing of teeth.

Bond warns readers of the subtle ways that law creeps into the gospel, especially when pastors and Christian leaders make obedience a requirement for justifying grace.    Bond adds, “Serious error arises when trusting and obeying are required as concurrent actions the sinner must do in the context of his justification.  Trusting is not sufficient – which is the same as saying that faith alone is not sufficient; you must also obey the law to win God’s final favor.”  Several examples are cited and once again readers are warned to flee from the works-based system of Rome.

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Douglas Bond is to be commended for writing a book that is timely, especially in light of the so-called New Perspective on Paul movement.  The gospel shines brightly in Grace Works.  The doctrines which were rediscovered by the Protestant Reformers are put on display.  The law is put in its proper place as a tutor which leads us to Christ.  Readers are reminded that the law cannot justify; nor can the law sanctify.

My hope is that Grace Works receives a wide readership and that thousands of people will be equipped in gospel-centered reality.  My hope is that many will see the errors of the Roman road; that they will turn back and swim in the waters of free grace and be refreshed by the sola’s of the Reformation!

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

Highly recommended!