BOOK REVIEWS · Calvinism · Theology

The Eternity of Hell Torments – Jonathan Edwards (1739)

Jonathan_Edwards_engravingThe doctrine of hell is under attack.  The opposition to eternal punishment is more diverse than one might expect as unbelieving philosophers and some pastors in the emergent church seek to extinguish this doctrine once and for all.

In the 18th century, people opposed hell as well.  Yet it was taught with more faithfulness and fervency than most pulpits in these days.  Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, The Eternity of Hell Torments is a fitting example of this faithfulness and fervency.

The text is Matthew 25:46 – These shall go away into everlasting punishment.  Two initial observations are advanced:

  1. The duration of the punishment on which they are here said to enter: it is called everlasting punishment.
  2. The time of their entrance on this everlasting punishment.

The doctrine as also set forth:

The misery of the wicked in hell will be absolutely eternal.

With the presuppositions and doctrine in place, Edwards moves forward by advancing four key points.

1. It is not contrary to the divine perfections to inflict on wicked men a punishment that is absolutely eternal.

Edwards argues that sin deserves such a punishment, namely, “that sin is heinous enough to deserve such a punishment, and such a punishment is no more than proportionable to the evil or demerit of sin.”

It is not contrary to God’s mercy to inflict eternal punishment on sinful men. Indeed, “It would be a great defect, and not a perfection, in the sovereign and supreme Judge of the world, to be merciful in such a sense that he could not bear to have penal justice executed.”

2. The eternal death which God threatens, is not annihilation, but an abiding sensible punishment or misery.

The Scripture never hints at the God-dishonoring doctrine of annihilation – a doctrine that surfaces in Edwards day and is even more popular now.  The argument against annihilation is clearly articulated here.

3. This misery will not only continue for a very long time, but will be absolutely without end.

Edwards utilizes several exegetical, grammatical, and biblical  arguments to point readers to the reality of eternal punishment.  “Such expressions,” says the Puritan divine, “are used to set forth the duration of the punishment of the wicked, as are never used in the scriptures of the New Testament to signify any thing but a proper eternity.”

4. Various good ends will be obtained by the eternal punishment of the wicked.

Edwards presents four good ends of eternal punishment:

  • Hereby God vindicates his injured majesty.
  • God glorifies his justice.
  • God hereby indirectly glorifies his grace on the vessels of mercy.
  • The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever.

He notes, “The sight of the wonderful power, the great and dreadful majesty, and awful justice and holiness of God, manifested in the eternal punishment of ungodly men, will make them prize his favor and love vastly the more; and they will be so much the more happy in the enjoyment of it.”

Application

In typical Edwardsean fashion, the author concludes by setting forth three important points of application:

  1. Be entreated to consider attentively how great and awful a thing eternity is.
  2. Do but consider how dreadful despair will be in such torment.
  3. That you may effectually escape these dreadful and eternal torments, be entreated to flee and embrace him who came into the world for the very end of saving sinners from these torments, who has paid the whole debt due to the divine law, and exhausted eternal in temporal sufferings.

And Edwards directs the attention of every reader to Christ and his gospel:

Justice therefore never can be actually satisfied in your damnation; but it is actually satisfied in Christ.  Therefore he is accepted of the Father, and therefore all who believe are accepted and justified in him.  Therefore believe in him, come to him, commit your souls to him to be saved by him.  In him you shall be safe from the eternal torments of hell.

 

Apologetics and Worldview · BOOK REVIEWS · Philosophy · Theology

A History of Western Philosophy and Theology – John Frame (2015)

frameThe Word of God is emphatic about our role as we enter the marketplace of ideas. The apostle Paul sounds the warning in Colossians 2:8 – “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Scripture instructs Christ-followers, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ …” (2 Corinthians 10:4–5, ESV).

John Frame maintains and promotes such a mindset in his latest offering, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (HWPT). The discipline of philosophy, which is defined as “the disciplined attempt to articulate and defend a worldview,” is broken down into three subdivisions including metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory. Readers familiar with Frame’s work will immediately recognize his commitment to perspectivalism, a powerful grid for thinking which includes three perspectives: normative, situational, and existential. This commitment has been clearly articulated and defended in his Lordship series, a series of books which are essential tools in every pastor’s library.

HWPT is dedicated to Dr. Cornelius Van Til, whose influence is evident throughout the book. Readers who are entrenched in Van Til’s methodology will quickly recognize themes such as the Creator-creature distinction and the charge that non-Christian thought lapses into the intellectual bankruptcies of rationalism and irrationalism.

On a large-scale, HWPT leads readers on a fascinating journey that educates, contextualizes, and warns.

Education

Frame has a reputation for educating not only his Seminary students but a rather broad reading audience. HWPT is no exception. The author gives readers an up-close look at the history of western thought. Unlike the typical tour of philosophy and theology, Dr. Frame provides readers with the proper lens with which to view such ideas. The book is built on the immutable, authoritative, infallible, inerrant Word of God. Readers are alerted in advance that the author carries certain presuppositions, above all – an allegiance to sacred Scripture. The author clearly reveals the presuppositions which guide his writing and inform his worldview:

As a Christian, I am committed to a worldview that comes from the Bible: God the Creator, the world as his creation, man made in his image, sin and its consequences as our predicament, Christ’s atonement as our salvation, his return as the consummation of all things.

Such an admission is rare in the world of philosophy. Frame’s candor should be respected and greatly appreciated by believer and non-believer alike.

Context

HWPT stands alone by contextualizing the various philosophic movements and the thinkers who represent those movements. The author helps readers understand how various philosophers influence future generations and worldviews. Such an approach is greatly needed, especially among undergraduate students who often see philosophy in bits and pieces instead of a unified whole.

Warning

The most helpful aspect of HWPT is the warning extended by Dr. Frame, a warning that takes Colossians 2:8 and 2 Corinthians 10:5 to heart. The author demonstrates how various philosophers have influenced generations and have contributed to the erosion of the Christian mind. These thinkers, most of whom continue to rule from the grave are exposed and for their futile thinking, which generally follows Van Til’s charge of being rationalistic and irrational at the same time.

I commend HWPT to pastors, Bible College students, Seminary students and Christ-followers who have a passion to see the picture in the world of philosophy and theology. HWPT is a serious book for serious Bible students. It is a book that I will return to again and again. May God use John Frame’s latest work to glorify the great God of the universe and encourage a new generation of Christian theologians, philosophers, pastors, and leaders.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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

BOOK REVIEWS · Calvinism · Theology

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief – John Frame (2013)

a frameHow does one review a systematic theology by one of the leading minds of the evangelical world?  How does one summarize the thoughts of a 1,100-page book that towers with truth; a book that takes readers to the top of the theological mountain?  Anyone who attempts to read and devour Systematic Theology by John Frame will be faced with such questions.  Indeed, while the oxygen is scarce at the top of this theological peak, readers will be delighted to enjoy the view that Dr. Frame presents.  As one might expect, every branch of systematic theology is explored.  The author invites readers on a journey which introduces them to God who relates to creatures as their covenant Lord.  The three lordship attributes are articulated throughout the book – control, authority, and presence.

Several thoughts help capture the essence of this incredible book.  While some will be put off by such thoughts, my hope is that a majority of readers will be motivated and inspired to pick up Dr. Frame’s work.  This powerful book is marked by at least ten features:

  1. It is God-Centered
  2. It is Scripture-soaked
  3. It is unashamedly Calvinistic
  4. It is conservative
  5. It exposes liberal scholarship and lays bare its erroneous presuppositions
  6. It is biblical
  7. It is mind-penetrating
  8. It is heart-softening
  9. It is personal
  10. It leads readers to worship God

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief by John Frame is a theological tour de force.   This weighty volume is drenched with Scripture and is drowning with biblical wisdom.  I cannot think of any other writer who has influenced my thinking, outside of Jonathan Edwards himself.  This work is a true labor of love, a gift to the church, and a tool that will sharpen the minds of Christ-followers and serve as a heart-tenderizer for many years to come!

Highly recommended

5 stars

BOOK REVIEWS · Calvinism · Theology

Hand in HAND – Randy Alcorn (2014)

AAThe debate over the sovereignty of God and the free will of man originally heated up between Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius in the 4th century.  This debate has raged throughout church history and does not show any signs of letting up.  Arminians accuse Calvinists of serving a “tyrant God” who plays the role of a puppet master, making free will an illusion.  Calvinists accuse Arminians of serving a “timid God” who is weak at the knees.

Hand in HAND by Randy Alcorn addresses the thorny issue of God’s sovereignty and the free will of man.  Alcorn does not promise to end all arguments.  But he does enter the ring as a sort of “theological referee.”  The author is a former Arminian theologian who has since turned into a Calvinist.  While Alcorn prefers to say that he is a 4 point Calvinist, since he is uncomfortable with particular redemption, he is committed to Calvinistic presuppositions.  This theological shift allows the author to sympathize with Arminians and provide some good teaching points for Calvinists who tend to be overzealous.

Alcorn begins by reassuring readers that the subject should be discussed and notes six important reasons for  pursuing the matter:

1. To develop a deeper appreciation for God and his Word, which reveals him to us.

2. To help us mirror Christ’s humility.

3. To embrace all of God’s inspired Word, not just parts of it.

4. To foster unity in the body of Christ.

5. To avoid fatalism and crushing guilt.

6. To prevent us from becoming trivial people in a shallow age.

The author surveys the biblical data which point to the biblical reality of God’s sovereign control over all things as well as human responsibility.  He notes how these two realities intersect, creating a paradox not a contradiction.

One chapter is devoted to addressing the matter of Open Theism, a theological cousin of Arminianism which denies God’s definite foreknowledge of all things and affirms the libertarian free will of the creature.  Alcorn makes it clear that both points are patently rejected in Scripture.

Several features make Hand in HAND a worthy book; a book that will likely win the Gold Medallion Award:

First, Alcorn writes with the proper tone and spirit.  Much of the debate the occurs over these matters produce more heat than light.  Dave Hunt’s Book, What Love is This is a good example of this mean-spirited approach which caricatures a given theological view.  Alcorn approaches the subject with humility and gentleness and invites readers of differing opinions to pay careful attention to the arguments.

Second, misunderstood terms are clearly defined.  The author does a good job of providing working definitions that are biblical and understandable.  The clear terminology should help in future debates between Calvinists and Arminians.

Third, the lines of orthodoxy are clearly drawn.  Both Calvinists are Arminians are included in the so-called box of orthodoxy.  This point is of great value, especially when both schools of thought accuse each other of heresy.  Alcorn invites both sides to engage in meaningful debate without name calling.  Additionally, Alcorn rightly notes that Open Theism is outside of orthodoxy.  Any theologian who refuses to grant God the ability to possess definite foreknowledge of all things has moved outside the perimeter of orthodoxy.

Fourth, a determinism continuum is presented.  Sadly, many readers and students of theology are unaware of the theological landscape which includes many views concerning determinism and free will.  The author clearly describes and defines these views: Hyper-Calvinism (outside orthodoxy), Compatibalism, Molinism, Libertarianism, and Open Theism (outside orthodoxy).

Fifth, Biblical Calvinism is presented correctly.  Apart from the merits of particular redemption which could be debated at another time, the author does a terrific job of presenting Calvinism as a biblical system which is passionately God-centered; a system which promotes evangelism and engagement with culture.  Additionally, the author demonstrates repeatedly that Calvinism embraces the notion of free will, (what Alcorn prefers to call “meaningful choice”) by pointing readers to the definition popularized by Jonathan Edwards – “choosing according to one’s strongest inclination.”

Sixth, all readers are admonished to trust a sovereign God.  In what proves to be the best chapter in the book (chapter 10), the author encourages readers of all theological backgrounds to trust in a God who is sovereign.

Hand in HAND will not be received well by Open Theists and Hyper-Calvinists.  Some Arminians and Calvinists may be bothered as well by some of the content.  But as a pastor who has travelled a very similar theological path from Arminianism to Calvinism – and even attended the same Bible College, I trust that thousands of people will devour Hand in HAND in the days ahead.  There is no doubt that Alcorn’s work will spark questions and stimulate debate.  But my prayer is that the debate will produce more light than heat.  And in the final analysis, people will be drawn closer to the Savior and bank on his all-sufficient grace.  Indeed, he is sovereign over all!

5 stars

Biography · History · Theology

CHARLES HODGE: The Pride of Princeton – W. Andrew Hoffecker (2011)

0875526586_bWho says reviews don’t matter?  “I could not put Hoffecker’s book down.”  Seven simple words uttered by Dr. John Frame prompted me to pick up Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton by  W. Andrew Hoffecker.  The author makes a solid contribution to P & R’s American Reformed Biographies Series.

I first encountered Charles Hodge in Seminary.  His piece on the decrees of God made an indelible imprint on my mind and has influenced my thinking since those early days.  Hoffecker’s work puts skin on the bones that I was confronted with in my Seminary days.  Here we find a man of courage and a man of deep conviction.   Charles Hodge was a man willing to put his neck on the line and battle for truth.  He laid the groundwork for men who would follow and continue to fight on the theological battlefield; men like B.B. Warfield and Gresham Machen.

A few highlights worth mentioning include Hodges’ faithful fight against liberalism.  Like today, the liberalism of the 19th century was popular and would influence young minds if left unchallenged.  Hodge was not content to sit by idly.  He boldly confronted the pernicious error of 19th-century liberalism (which oddly enough is seeking to permeate the church once again – primarily through many emergent sympathizers).

The second highlight is Hodges’ unwavering commitment to Reformed theology.  Call him a guardian, a defender, an apologist – or just a diehard Reformed theologian.  Hodge may have been willing to sacrifice certain negotiable doctrinal points.  But he drew the line in the sand when it came to the doctrines of grace.

Charles Hodge is a model of teaching excellence.  He is a worthy example of what it means to stand for the truth in a dark world.  Young pastors and seasoned pastors alike would do well to emulate the courage and conviction of the Pride of Princeton – Charles Hodge.

CULTURE · Theology

The Eclipse of the Gospel and the School of Hard Knox

A Powerful Man

I stood in the shadow of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland. Clouds gathered overhead and people walked curiously through the front doors. Here, the famous reformer, John Knox faithfully tended the flock until his death in 1572.

Once inside this massive cathedral, I was transfixed by the sheer beauty of this place. I was overwhelmed by the architecture – the awe-inspiring flying buttresses that point worshippers to the transcendence of God. A single elevated pulpit is located in the center of the sanctuary. It stands strategically above the worshippers, which symbolically places God’s Word above sinful creatures.

John Knox brought reform to Scotland and re-energized a nation that had all but forgotten God. Knox helped awaken a nation that neglected God’s truth which led to a virtual eclipse of the gospel. Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes Knox as a man who preached “with the fire of God in his bones and in his belly!  He preached as they all preached, with fire and power, alarming sermons, convicting sermons, humbling sermons, converting sermons, and the face of Scotland was changed …” Simply put, the faithful preaching of Knox brought much needed reform to the Scottish landscape and renewed evangelical fervor to the church.

John Knox courageously raised the banner of the gospel and defended the truths of the Protestant Reformation. He was unashamed of the gospel (Rom. 1:16) and fearlessly proclaimed the Word of God. He stood boldly and with Peter and the apostles, obeyed God rather then men (Acts 5:29). Indeed, Knox is a true exemplar of faithfulness in the face of adversity.

A Personal Lesson

As I made my way out of St. Giles, my mind was filled with stories surrounding the life and ministry of John Knox. As I turned to gaze again at the rising fortress where Knox served the Lord, a thought occurred to me. It was not a new thought. Rather, it was a lesson that has moved me for many years now but in this moment, the lesson was magnified as I scanned the edifice of St. Giles. The lesson is this: church history matters.

It seems like such a simple lesson. But it is a lesson that many contemporary Christians are unfamiliar with. Even as a young Bible College student, I failed to understand the importance of church history. The buildings seemed so old and the names were so hard to pronounce. It is a sentiment that is not unique to me. I hear it all the time. I hear the cruel remarks about John Calvin and the caricatures that biased people have cooked up about Jonathan Edwards. But when we move past all the petty talk and face reality, we realize that church history truly does matter.

A Pivotal Mindset

First, Church history matters because when we forget the past, we fail to learn valuable lessons that impact our lives. George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So Christians who minimize the importance of church history are vulnerable to the theological error that plagued the church in the past. Additionally, they repeat the sins committed by our forefathers.

For example, Arius committed a fatal theological error by teaching that Christ was the first created being. This theological controversy which erupted in 318 A.D. led to a series of erroneous Arian propositions:

  1. The Son was created by the Father.
  2. The Son owed his existence to the will of the Father.
  3. The Son was not eternal, that is, there was a time when he was not.

Such teaching stood diametrically opposed to Scripture and was outside the bounds of orthodoxy. In the end, Arius rejected the full deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Second, Church history matters because it strengthens our faith. Scripture instructs, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Heb. 13:7, ESV) The term remember is a present imperative verb that means, “keep thinking about,” or “call to mind.”

Remembering godly leaders in church history is not optional; it is a command in sacred Scripture. The author of Hebrews does not limit the scope of these “leaders” to men like Moses, Abraham, Paul or Peter. He instructs us to remember leaders “who spoke to you the word of God.” So remembering leaders like Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, Luther, and Spurgeon is an important part of the Christian pilgrimage. We do well to follow in their paths by boldly proclaiming the truth and living faithfully before the Lord, even when our detractors heap insults on us for faithfully remembering these heroes of the faith.

Third, Church history matters because God ordained specific events that lead to the worldwide spread of his glory. Church history truly is “his story.” Whenever we discount history, we subtly stand in judgment over God and claim to know a better way. Whenever we disparage church history and subtly place ourselves in a position that was never ours to enjoy. Indeed, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3, ESV).

The School of Hard Knox

John Knox was a faithful man who led a gospel-centered life, according to the grace that was given him by his Savior. His relentless preaching helped drive away the darkness and restore the light of the gospel to his land. Almost five hundred years later, St. Giles still stands but the truth has fallen on hard times. Once again, the gospel is being eclipsed by man-made philosophy and foolishness.

As Christ-followers, we must learn well the lessons that church history teaches us. When we forget the past we falter in our faith and fail to exalt the sovereign purposes of our Savior. When we forget the past, we become comfortable stumbling around in the dark and begin to glory in our ignorance.

Let us become educated in the School of Hard Knox. And may the gospel shine brightly again. “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14, ESV). And may we recover our love of truth and our passion for the gospel.

Apologetics and Worldview · BOOK REVIEWS · Calvinism · CHRISTIAN LIFE · Theology

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering – Timothy Keller

kellerI have yet to meet a person who enjoys pain and suffering.  Yet suffering is a part of the warp and woof of life.  It is not a part of God’s original intent for creation.  Since Adam’s first sin, pain and suffering have been an abnormal part of the cosmos.  Suffering is an unwelcome guest who bullies his way to the table and makes demands – much like a  soldier on a bloody battlefield.

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller addresses this topic with candor and clarity.  Keller leaves no stone unturned here.  The book is organized into three sections:

Understanding the Furnace

Keller introduces the problem of pain and suffering and explores some of the philosophical challenges that Christ-followers must understand and address.

“Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity,” writes Keller.  Yet our culture has a tendency to respond to suffering in ways that are helpful and wrongheaded.  The moralist response to suffering is to “do good.”  The fatalist’s response to suffering is to “hang in there” and “endure.”  The dualist response to suffering is “purified faithfulness.”  And the secular response to suffering is focussed on “technique.”  A combination of these erroneous responses to suffering litter the current milieu and produce a generation of confused and discouraged people.

Keller rightly alerts readers to the importance of worldviews and their relation to the subject of pain and suffering.  Ultimately, the matter of pain and suffering is a matter of faith.  “Faith,” writes Keller “is the promise of God.”  He adds, “We can be fully accepted and counted legally righteous in God’s sight through faith in Christ, solely by free grace … It means freedom from fear of the future, from any anxiety about your eternal destiny.  It is the most liberating idea possible and it ultimately enables you to face all suffering, knowing that because of the cross, God is absolutely for you and that because of the resurrection, everything will be all right in the end.”

Facing the Furnace

Part two provides readers with the theological muscle – a crucial part of the battle.  Keller unpacks the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and provides a painful but biblical rationale for the role of suffering the lives of people.

At the heart of this discussion is an important look at the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The author summarizes, “That is, in order to satisfy justice, in order to punish sin so that in love he could forgive and receive us, God had to bear the penalty for sin within himself.  God the Son took the punishment we deserved, including being cut off from the Father.  And so God took into his own self, his own heart, an infinite agony – out of love for us.”

Keller’s treatment in part two travels great distances to help resolve the problem of evil – the so-called “Achilles heal” of the Christian faith: “So while Christianity never claims to be able to offer a full explanation of all God’s reasons behind every instance of evil and suffering – it does have a final answer to it.  The answer will be given at the end of history and all who hear it and see its fulfillment will find it completely satisfying, infinitely sufficient.”

While Keller never attempts to provide a comprehensive answer to the problem of evil, his treatment of this thorny subject is some of the best in print.  He may not satisfy the disciples of David Hume, Voltaire, or Sam Harris – but he does give ample ammunition for believers who are looking for honest answers.

Walking With God in the Furnace

Parts one and two explore the philosophical and theological angles of pain and suffering.  Part three helps readers with practical application.  They are given practical tools for “walking with God in the furnace.”  The very notion of walking with God in the furnace assumes pain – pain that some are unwilling to admit.  But practical experience reveals that we live in a broken world; a world which has been torn to shreds by the consequences of sin.

Keller urges readers to walk with God in suffering: “If you go into the furnace without the gospel, it will not be possible to find God in there.  You will be sure he has done terrible wrong or you have and you will feel all alone.  Going into the fire without the gospel is the most dangerous thing anyone can do.”  So the gospel is the first and last defense of every Christ-follower; indeed it is the hope of the watching world.

Second, the author stresses the importance of weeping during seasons of adversity.  Elijah serves as an example of a man who cried out in great agony.  He was a man unafraid of weeping.  Such an approach is not only honest – it is a sign of emotional health.

Third, Keller demonstrates the need for trusting in God during days of pain and adversity.    Joseph is portrayed as an example of a man who trusted: If the story of Joseph and the whole of the Bible is true, then anything that comes into your life is something that, as painful as it is, you need in some way.”  Jesus too demonstrated trust in his Father and points believers in the identical direction.  Keller continues to alert readers to other tools that they should utilize during their dark days.

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering is a watershed book that deserves to be read.  Christ-followers will no doubt be encouraged by this Christ-exalting book; a book which drives readers to the cross of the suffering Savior.

Highly recommended!

BOOK REVIEWS · Theology

THE FLIP THAT FLOPPED: The Consequences of Doctrinal Compromise

flip

In Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped, the author sets out to fundamentally transform the classical view of God.   This transformation is creative and innovative.  It is intuitive and will attract the attention of many readers.

Pagitt sets forth three goals at the beginning of the book:

  1. To see that changing your mind, drawing new conclusions, and engaging new ideas all lie at the heart of Jesus’s message and life.
  2. To behold the big, beautiful story of God as you find new ways to live in it.
  3. To invite readers to a full and vibrant life in God.

The basic idea that runs through this book is what the author refers to as a “flip” – which is nothing short of revising one’s views about God, Scripture, and the Christian life in general.  Pagitt adds, “The Flip at the center of this book is one that turned me around as a pastor and a Christian writer as well as my personal life and faith.”

The Flip That Flopped

Several “flips” are addressed in this work.  But the one that keeps surfacing concerns a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God.  At the heart of this book is a commitment to panentheism.  This worldview, also known as process theology is a radical departure from the traditional understanding of God, yet is receiving a hearing in the emergent church and some liberal churches.  One might consider such a view a halfway house between theism and pantheism.  But make no mistake – panentheism is outside the scope of historical orthodoxy.

All is in God?

To be fair, the author never uses the word, panentheism.  Yet this panentheistic theme runs throughout the book.  Pagitt argues, “God is not a separate single subject … If God were not a separate being from all things in the cosmos, then we need not simply say God exists.  We can say that God is existence.  All is in God.”  Such language is the classic lingo of panentheism.

My initial impression: Surely this is a typo!  The author can’t possibly mean what he is saying.  But as I continued to read, my suspicions were confirmed.  “… All that exists is In God,” writes Pagitt.  He tries to justify this “flip” by appealing to the rationale from Acts 17:28 where Paul quotes Epimenides of Crete: “In him, we live and move and have our being.

In addition to promoting panentheism, the author posits the notion of universalism: “Beyond that, the power of God that was alive in Jesus is alive in us.  In short, the fullness of God is active in humanity without assistance from any religious system.”  He continues, “Instead, we can recognize that all people live, move, and exist In God.”

Evaluation

Flipped is a radical departure from the biblical understanding of God.  The notion that all people “exist In God” simply fails to match the biblical data.  Much to the contrary, we find a distinction between the Creator and the creature.  Whenever one denies such a distinction he makes a dangerous theological move with several critical implications.  What are the implications of denying the Creator-creature distinction?

  • Misreads and misinterprets Scripture.
  • Compromises God’s character.
  • Compromises biblical authority.
  • Minimizes the transcendence of God and emphasizes the immanence of God in biblically inappropriate ways.

Readers should recall how God is truly presented in Scripture.  He is never presented in a panentheistic scheme – ever!  Rather, he is presented as the absolute personal God.  This absolute God is transcendent; that is to say, he is over and above the scope of the universe.  He is distinct and independent of his creation (Isa. 57:15; Isa. 40:10).  He is preeminent  (Isa. 40:25-28; 44:6-8).  Jonathan Edwards adds, “His power is infinite, and none can resist him.  His riches are immense and inexhaustible.  His majesty is infinitely awful.”  And God carries supreme authority over all.  Nothing rivals the supreme authority of God (Job 41:10; 37:9-14).

The Triune God holds all things together.  In a few words, St. Paul demonstrates both the transcendence and the imminence of God: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible; whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him, all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17, ESV).  God is sovereign (Dan. 4:34-35).  Nothing can thwart his sovereign decrees!  He is distinct from the created order (Acts 17:24-29).  And the Bible tells us that God is wholly other (Isa. 46:9).  This is a far cry from people who “exist In God.”

God is not only absolute; he is personal.  He cares for his creation.  He is intimately involved with his creation and he delights to meet the needs of his creatures.

God is the Sustainer (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3).  He is the Healer (2 Chron. 7:14).  He is the Protector (2 Sam. 22:2).  He is the Shepherd (Ps. 23:1-6).  He is the Forgiver (Rom. 5:1).  And Scripture demonstrates the ultimate love that God expressed on the Cross when Jesus died for sinners (Rom. 5:8).

Flipped will likely attract many readers; especially readers who are committed to theological liberalism.  The author seeks to fundamentally transform the vision of God by convincing readers that  “… All that exists is In God.”  The only problem: The view presented here is dead wrong.

A.W. Tozer understood the importance of getting God right.  He rightly noted in his best-selling book, The Knowledge of God:

The gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most [awe-inspiring] fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his heart conceives God to be like … So necessary to the Church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the Church with her worship and her moral standards decline along with it.  The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God.

May followers of Christ heed Tozer’s advice.  We certainly do not need to flip our views of God.  Any deviation from the biblical vision of God will have tragic consequences in the church and the culture in which she seeks to minister.  Any flip will become a flop that ignores the clear teaching of Scripture.

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

Biography · BOOK REVIEWS · Calvinism · CHRISTIAN LIFE · Church History · Counseling · Discipleship · Theology

Spurgeon’s Sorrows – Zack Eswine

spurgeonI have a friend who was born in 1834.  That would make him 183 years old.  He went home to be with Jesus in 1892 – at the peak of his ministry and in the prime of his life.  I have often asked why God takes the heroes of the faith so soon – Jonathan Edwards, John Bunyan, and John Calvin all died in their 50’s.  David Brainerd and Jim Elliot died before they reached the age of 30.  While the question is interesting to ponder, the question is not ours to ask.  Enter the Creator —

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? (Job 38:2, ESV).

You know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great (Job 38:21, ESV).

And the LORD said to Job: ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?  He who argues with God, let him answer it’ (Job 40:2, ESV).

I have been learning from my friend, C.H. Spurgeon for nearly 25 years now.  He has taught me many lessons.  He introduced me to Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, a book he read over 100 times in his short life.  Spurgeon has taught me the importance of expositional preaching.  On many occasions, he has reminded me about the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching, not to mention living the Christian life.  He has inspired courage and conviction and prompted me to be unwavering, even in the darkest of days.

But one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from my British friend is how to deal with melancholy.  Zack Eswine helps highlight some of those lessons in his book, Spurgeon’s Sorrows.  The subtitle accurately reflects the basic theme of the book, Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression.  

Spurgeon’s Sorrows is arranged in three parts.  Part One walks readers through the basics of depression.  What is it?  How can one recognize it?  What is spiritual depression?  Part Two presents a path for helping people who suffer from depression.  And Part Three is a practical section that offers practical assistance for dealing with depression.

Chapter nine is worth the price of the book as the author directs readers to the promises of God and shows how Spurgeon utilized this habit of claiming the promises of Jesus in his daily walk with God.

Spurgeon’s Sorrows is a short book filled with biblical counsel for people who battle depression and provides help for anyone who is reaching out to folks who are wading through the Slough of Despondence.  In the final analysis, readers are encouraged to cling to their Savior who promises to walk with them through every valley.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters (Psalm 23:1–2, ESV).

BOOK REVIEWS · Puritans · Theology

A Puritan Theology: Doctrine For Life – Joel Beeke and Mark Jones (2012)

A comprehensive assessment of A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones is something akin to sharing one’s thoughts or emotions while gazing at the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the Statue of Liberty, or the Lincoln Memorial.  This magnum opus is like oxygen for the barren soul, light for a blind man, a symphony for a deaf man, and a Super Bowl ring for a lame man.

A Puritan Theology is exactly what it suggests.  The authors meticulously walk readers through each branch of systematic theology and discuss the typical view that was embraced by the Puritans.  Where the Puritans disagree, the authors are careful to represent each side with graciousness.  The book is nothing to trifle with.  It is a veritable tome that just falls short of 1,000 pages.  But readers should not be intimidated by the sheer volume; rather they should make their way through this valuable book, noting key insights and marking Puritan writers they were previously unfamiliar with.

While the entire book is worthy of a careful read, several chapters stand out as especially significant.  I enjoyed Chapter 4 – Stephen Charnock on the Attributes of God, Chapter 5 – The Puritans on the Trinity, Chapter 6 – John Owen on Communion with the Triune God, Chapter 10 – The Puritans on Providence, and Chapter 44 – John Bunyan’s Preaching to the Heart.  A few additional chapters are worth examining in some detail.

Chapter 26 – The Puritans on Understanding and Using God’s Promises

Beeke and Jones’ remark, “The promises are the pathways where Christ meets the soul.”  It is critical to have a correct understanding of God’s promises.  Additionally, it is important to distinguish between different kinds of promises.  For instance, “Absolute promises make known a certain and sovereign purpose, while conditional promises reveal what God will do if the fulfillment of those promises glorifies Him and is best for His people.”

Christians must make right use of God’s promises.  The Puritan Andrew Gray is cited in this regard and notes ten specific ways to make right use of God’s promises:

1. Believing the promises greatly promotes the difficult work of mortification.

2. Believing the promises helps a Christian in the spiritual and heavenly performance of prayer.

3. Believing the promises upholds a Christian afflicted by spiritual desertions and temptations.

4. Believing fosters patience and submission in the midst of the saddest afflictions.

5. Believing helps a Christian distance himself from the world and live more as a pilgrim on earth.

6. Believing is the mother of much spiritual joy and divine consolation and helps a Christian to express praise.

7. Believing is a notable means to attain spiritual life.

8. Believing raises a Christian’s esteem of the thing promised.

9. Belief is the door through which the accomplishment of the promise enters.

10. Believing secures the advantages mentioned in 2 Peter 1:4: we are brought to the blessed conformity with God that we lost in the fall, and we put off the ugly defilements that are Satan’s images on our souls because of the fall.

The authors point to the Puritans who urged their readers to pray the promises of God which involve submission to the will and way of God.

Chapters 42 and 43 – The Puritans on Preaching 

My two favorite chapters in this work focused on the biblical mandate of preaching God’s Word.  The Puritans, the authors note, “had a profound sense that God built His church primarily by the instrument of preaching,” an appropriate place to begin, given the reluctance of so many men to preach strong, dogmatic, theologically-informed, expository sermons.   “The Puritans were earnest preachers who made it their aim to please God rather than people.”

The authors point to the power of Puritan preaching who “preached out of a biblical framework to address the mind, the conscience, and the heart.”  Beeke and Jones add, “The Puritans thus reasoned with sinners through plain preaching, using biblical logic to persuade each listener that because of the value and purpose of life as well as the certainty of death and eternity, it was foolish not to seek and serve God … The Puritans understood that a mindless Christianity fosters a spineless Christianity.

There is no doubt that the Puritans aimed straight for the mind – but never to the exclusion of the heart: “Puritan preaching wooed the heart passionately … The Puritans used compelling preaching, personal pleading, earnest praying, biblical reasoning, solemn warning, joyful living – any means they could – to turn sinners from the road of destruction and to God via the mind, the conscience, and the heart – in that order.”

The Puritans were convinced that preaching must by definition, be doctrinal preaching: “The Puritans believed that to live well, people must know doctrine.”  J.I. Packer concurs: “Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites, but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep.  The preacher’s job is to proclaim the faith, not to provide entertainment for unbelievers.”

The Puritans simply believed that preaching was the primary way to nourish the flock of God.  John Owen writes, “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word.”  Beeke and Jones offer a challenge to readers: “It is not enough just to read the Puritans.  We need the authentic, biblical, intelligent piety of the Puritans in our hearts, our lives, our sermons, and our churches.”

The Puritan approach to the pulpit is a powerful antidote to the sappy preaching that is so prevalent, especially in American pulpits.  It is a vivid reminder that preaching stands at the center of God’s purposes for the church.

Chapter 52 – Puritan Theology Shaped by a Pilgrim Mentality

J.I. Packer notes, “Puritans saw themselves as God’s pilgrims traveling home, God’s warriors battling against the world, the flesh, and the devil; and God’s servants under orders to do all the good they could as they went along.”  The authors picks up on these pilgrim portrait by showing how the Puritans lived the Christian life in practical terms.  First, they had a biblical outlook.  Thomas Watson (my favorite Puritan) and John Cotton are given as examples of men who sought to live their lives in a biblical framework.

Second, they had a pietist outlook – that is to say, they feared the Lord.  Beeke and Jones continue, “The genius of genuine Reformed piety is that it marries theology and piety so that head, heart, and hand motivate one another to live for God’s glory and our neighbor’s well-being.”

Third, they had a churchly outlook.  The authors explain, “We can learn much from the Puritans, especially when so many churches today give scant attention to purity in worship and put all their emphasis on what pleases people rather than God.  The Puritans did the opposite.  Their goal was to please God through holy worship.  The question was never, ‘What do I want in worship?’ but always, ‘What does God want in worship?'”

Fourth, they had a warfaring outlook.  There was a battleground mentality that the Puritans embraced, striving always to battle “the triple-headed enemy” by the power of the Spirit, through the instrumentality of God’s Word.  The authors reflect the mentality of the typical Puritan: “The Christian fights against the devil, the world, and his old nature by looking to Jesus and using the armor of His provision to stay upright as he progresses from this world to the next.”

The Puritans were indeed on a spiritual pilgrimage.  In the final analysis, the authors note: “They can teach us, as no other group of writers in church history, how to live a disciplined life to God’s glory without falling into dead orthodoxy or deadly legalism.”

Summary

A Puritan Theology is a labor of love that should be cherished by the church for years to come.  It should be read for helpful theological insight.  It should be read devotionally.  The contents are bound to equip, encourage, and rebuke.  For me personally, the Puritans have been a deep source of encouragement, especially concerning the nature of God, the promises of God, the sovereignty of God, the lordship of Christ, sanctification, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Of course, no one surpasses the courage demonstrated by the Puritans as they sought to faithfully live the Christian life in the power of the Spirit.

It is not uncommon for people in our generation to marginalize and malign the Puritans.  Even more disturbing, it is not unusual to find people who caricature the Puritans or assign them false motives.  I know of one personally who accused the Puritans of becoming Unitarians!  Much to the contrary, the Puritans were a godly lot who battled sin and believed the promises of God, forever faithful on their Christian pilgrimage.  Oh, that we would learn the lesson of church history well and seek to emulate the Puritans.  May their love of Christ and his gospel permeate our hearts and minds.  May their hatred of sin enter the area of our lives.  May their disdain for the triple-headed monster – the world, the flesh, and the devil be weaved into the fabric of our worldviews.  And may their passion for God’s Word and holiness become a part of the warp and woof of our lives.

Highly recommended!