Author Archive for Stephen Thompson

02
Jun
18

Fierce Marriage

fierceWhere does a book on marriage begin?  For Ryan and Selena Frederick it began very early in their own marriage with a huge health crisis.  When you are faced with a life-or-death situation, you realize you will have to figure out where you stand on a lot of issues in a hurry.  Having to learn in a hurry the lessons that many couples require decades to acquire, they were then in a great position to be able to counsel others in the lessons they have learned.  The result is Fierce Marriage: Radically Pursuing Each Other in Light of Christ’s Relentless Love (Grand Rapids: Baker; 2018).

The strongest part of this book really is the Fredericks themselves and their stories.  They come through the pages as an incredibly likeable pair.  They seem fun, approachable, and honest.  They have a candor that just draws you in.

In contrast to a lot of Christian marriage books, stories and practical advice carry a much higher load than working through Scripture.  It’s not that the book is lacking in Scripture at all, but it never feels like the focus.  Scripture is here for grounding in each chapter and then doesn’t show up a whole lot once they start “getting practical.”  I would have liked to see things a little more integrated, but perhaps they feel like the world is already pretty well served with Christian marriage books, so this is how they make their contribution stand out.

There is a lot in here which is memorable because of the humor running through it, but I am suspicious how it really works.  For example, in their section on dealing with conflict they discuss their idea of “fighting naked” (203-205).  The idea is that when you are arguing, you should come without armor on, but with a certain amount of vulnerability.  They said you can even take it to the extent of literally getting naked to fight, which they said usually turns into laughter and intimacy.  That sounds great, but I’m thinking of most conflict that I have experienced in my marriage … the idea of suggesting, “hey, want to try getting naked for this fight” … it just isn’t going to happen.

Along these lines, they have a long chapter on sex which I think has some very good suggestions.  The one thing they don’t acknowledge though is that there are a lot of couples out there that are simply sexless and it is a major problem in their marriage. For a couple in that position, they really have nothing to offer.  I’ve worked with several families that are struggling with this area and I think they would find this chapter on sex to be incredibly discouraging.

Overall, I have a hard time recommending this book.  There are just so many really outstanding Christian books on marriage that I would reach for first.  Keller’s work is excellent.  Harvey’s When Sinners Say I Do is great.  Maybe Smith’s Marriage Matters.  It’s not because Fierce Marriage is a bad book … it’s just not one I’m likely to recommend.  If you want to get a taste of the Frederick’s writing on this subject, they have a lot of material available for free on fiercemarriage.com.

Baker Books provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

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17
Mar
18

Book Review: Willing to Believe

Image result for willing to believe sproul bakerOne of the most disputed aspects of Christian theology through the centuries has been the nature of man’s free will.  To what extent is our will able one its own to accept and appropriate salvation?  Must God supernaturally intervene to produce faith, or is that something that an individual can achieve on their own.

Obviously this goes to the heart of the Christian message.  Your idea of how a person comes to salvation will have a huge impact on how you do ministry, how you approach evangelism, how you think about the nature and character of God himself.  Because this is such a foundational issue, it often leads to characterizing those who disagree with straw man stereotypes which are easy to beat down and mock.

The late RC Sproul had a gift for being able to read the views of others and understand what they were saying, even if he disagreed with them.  His goal was always to represent those views in the most accurate terms he could – in ways that people who held those beliefs would recognize their own view.  In Willing to Believe he brings that approach to the views of nine influential thinkers in church history that have contributed to the array of views we see around us today.

Several of the thinkers are those who are influential in Sproul’s own Reformed camp:  Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards.  You can look at these and see the thread of thought running through these men.  While Luther, Calvin, and Edwards have unique insights, on the whole they are following in the tradition laid down by Augustine.  Sproul devotes small sections to look at some other influential voices within these, like Turretin and the synod of Dort.  All of these look at the need for God to produce faith.  Man is indeed free, but without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, our freedom is only a matter of choosing the sin that we prefer.  Our sin nature makes us incapable of reaching out to God in faith apart from the Spirit miraculously intervening in one’s life.

In contrast to this, Sproul looks at five competing approaches.  He looks at Pelagius, the ancient heretic who argued that man could earn his salvation by his own works.  He looks at the Roman Catholic system which he labels semi-Pelagian.  James Arminius is shown in contrast to the views of the Reformation, breaking from Calvin and Luther and embracing a view that is closer to the Catholic views.    Charles Finney had a view that man’s nature is not inherently depraved and therefore there is no obstacle to faith except the need to present the gospel.  Finally we see Chafey, a major influence in Dispensationalism, whose doctrine of prevenient grace means all men have the power to grasp God’s free offer of grace.  Sproul shows how Billy Graham was the heir of Finney and Chafey.

This is not a devotional book.  It is not full of illustrations or application points in your life.  Sproul’s desire in this is for you to understand the ancestors of your own view on the freedom of the will, whether in his own Reformed camp or not.  He presents each view fairly and – for those with whom he disagrees – he presents what he thinks are the Biblical weaknesses of the view.  Overall I thought it was a helpful work, if only to encourage us to discuss opposing views with fairness and honesty rather than straw men.

I received a free copy of this book from Baker Books in exchange for an honest review.

28
Feb
18

Book Review: The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus

Image result for the farewell discourse and final prayer of jesusSeveral years back, Albert Mohler wrote something that stuck with me:  “Here is a simple rule to keep in mind:  When D. A. Carson writes a book, buy it.”  At the time I was not very familiar with Carson’s work.  Nine years later, I can affirm the wisdom of Mohler’s rule.

The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus is a commentary on John 14-17, a well-loved section of Scripture recalling Jesus’ last words to his disciples before his betray, trials, and crucifixion.  Carson has already dealt with this at length in his outstanding commentary on John.  But the commentary is rather technical and is dealing with questions at an academic level that many are not looking for.

This book is a commentary as well, but it doesn’t get bogged down in grammatical issues or fighting through the vast history of interpretation of the Gospel according to John.  Instead, it focuses on a straightforward explanation of the text. I found it enormously successful, using it as devotional material in the mornings for the most part.  Carson does such a great job of presenting the truths of the Scripture and constantly connecting them to the lives of modern readers.

Throughout the work, Carson turns to the lyrics of old hymns.  Several times he breaks forth into his own poetry.  This is worship, even as it brings the words of our Lord to life. And throughout Carson writes with a pastor’s heart, constantly pointing people to the very real impact these ancient words have on the lives of Jesus’ people today.

This book was originally published in 1980, but as Christians should know, old works do not mean less valuable works.  Carson’s explanation of John 14-17 has the ring of truth and the power of the Spirit.  I highly recommend it … but I will give a small disclaimer.  Carson writes for a more mature Christian who will understand terms like parousia and who are not intimidated by vocabulary like otiose or proleptically.  That doesn’t mean that you won’t benefit greatly from reading the book anyway if you are a newer or younger reader, but it does mean that the book will push you.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Baker in exchange for an honest review.  There was no expectation of a favorable review, but I give one anyway.  Take Albert Mohler’s advice … when Carson writes a book, buy it.

07
Nov
16

Remember and Return

019319OK, I’ll admit it.  I’m not a fan of devotionals.  In general, the genre produces 365 days of (whatever) which usually ends up being a single verse of the Bible yanked out of context and then a paragraph or two of “encouraging thoughts” … it’s the prefect lightweight fluff for the American church.  I think devotionals are an important part of why the American church is so weak.

So when Baker Books offered me the chance to review a new devotional in exchange for an honest review, my first inclination was “no way” … but then I saw that the author was John MacArthur – a serious Bible teacher not given to “fluff.”  Curious, I accepted and have been making my way though this.

Remember & Return: Rekindling Your Love for the Savior is not your typical devotional.  It has 31 lessons instead of 365.  The typical devotion is probably 6-7 pages.  MacArthur’s style is not the normal devotional drivel.  It’s totally packed with Scripture and most chapters have an extended quote from a Puritan writer or other great voices like Martyn Lloyd-Jones or Charles Spurgeon.

The topic of the devotional, as listed on the cover, is Rekindling Your Love for the Savior, and MacArthur’s approach is pretty simple:  he simply works through what we believe about Jesus.  The approach is actually very shocking for the genre … there isn’t a lot of pandering to your emotions.  MacArthur basically is saying, “if your walk with Jesus has grown cold, what you really need is to be reminded of who he is.  When you see the Savior as revealed in Scripture, you will surely find your old love for him.”  For the person who loves devotionals, I wonder how attractive this approach will be.  Is it ‘enough’ to simply present the glories of Jesus?

My one complaint about this book is that each chapter ends with a “Daily Challenge.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but the challenges are not challenges at all.  For the most part, they have nothing for the reader to do at all.  For example, here is the “challenge” from Day 1:

Without making a concerted effort to change your direction, you’ll never deepen your relationship with Christ.  Jettison the excess baggage you’ve picked up along the way and once again give Christ first place in your life.  Don’t “be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3), but exercise “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). (p.14-15)

This isn’t an awful challenge except that MacArthur never defined what “excess baggage” looks like.  What exactly is the challenge asking the reader to do?  Most of the challenges really don’t have anything for the reader to do.

On the whole, this is a mixed bag.  There is a lot to like about this book … particularly the wealth of Bible verses …. and even the “daily challenges” are true, even if not challenging the user to do much if anything.  My guess is the type of person who likes devotionals will not like the depth of this, and most others will be distracted by the format.

03
Oct
16

What is Reformed Theology?

whatisreformedtheologyWhat is Reformed Theology? is a classic work by R.C. Sproul, reprinted with a simple but attractive new cover by Baker Books.  Sproul wrote this work in 1997 and there really isn’t a need for a new edition of it.  The Scriptures have not changed. The arguments for and against have not changed.

Sproul develops the work around two ideas.  The first half of the book is laying the theological groundwork upon which the interpretational grid called Reformed Theology stands.  This is a commitment to basing understanding theology on the basis of Scripture alone and a commitment to salvation by faith alone.  These were the two most important arguments of the Protestant Reformation and therefore they must provide the framework for any understanding of Reformed Theology which emerged so forcefully from that crucible.

Having established those points, Sproul continues with his characteristic clarity to work through the five “doctrines of grace,” commonly referred to as the TULIP.  This acronym was coined in the 20th century but it stands for five foundational arguments in a Reformed understanding of salvation:  [T]otal depravity, [U]nconditional election, [L]imited atonement, [I]rresistible grace, and [P]erseverance of the saints Sproul devotes a chapter to each of these and explains why the traditional titles are often misleading.  For example, he suggests that instead of “Total depravity,” he suggests the term “radical corruption” which more accurately describes the doctrine.  Throughout the book, Sproul writes for the typical church goer.  While seminary students will appreciate the work, it is meant to be consumed by anybody.

I appreciated this book greatly, but I do have some complaints.  First, a very common criticism of Reformed Theology is that limited atonement and irresistible grace are logically necessary concepts, but they have little to no Biblical support.  Unfortunately, Sproul does nothing to ameliorate these concerns, as these chapters are very light on scripture and heavy on logic.  That’s not because of a lack of Scriptural support, however … it’s a choice of how Sproul chose to frame the discussion.  For a deep discussion of  the Scriptural basis of these articles, I suggest Matthew Barrett, Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013).

My second complaint about this work is that Sproul equates Reformed Theology with Covenant Theology (chapter 5).  This really is not fair given the overall trajectory of the book.  What is Reformed Theology? aims to really answer the question “What are the doctrines of grace?” and Sproul answers that well.  But while Tom Schreiner and John MacArthur would both heartily agree with Sproul on the doctrines of grace, they would not agree that this obligates them to agree with Covenant Theology.  (Schreiner advocates New Covenant Theology while MacArthur is Dispensational.)  Sproul’s work also does not delineate all that Covenant Theology implies; for a fuller discussion of that I recommend Going Beyond the Five Points: Pursuing a More Comprehensive Reformation, edited by Ventura (CreateSpace, 2015).

Overall, this is a solid book and well worth the time of Christians to read.  If you are already convinced of the truth of the doctrines of grace, this will help you to be able to explain them more clearly.  If you are opposed to the doctrines, you will have a better understanding of what exactly those bloody Calvinists are claiming.  And if you’re on the fence, this lays out very clearly why so many see and embrace the doctrines of grace in the Bible.

20
Sep
16

America at the Crossroads

barnaIt’s no mystery that America is rapidly changing.  Things that would have been completely unimaginable just 20 years ago are now the law of the land. While many celebrate the changes that we have seen, others are distraught that America is so quickly throwing off her (at least nominal) Christian heritage.  Where is our nation heading and is there any hope of changing the course?

This is where George Barna steps in, with America at the Crossroads: Explosive Trends Shaping America’s Future and What You Can Do About It (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).  Barna is working through statistics comparing the attitudes of Christians today with Christians from even just 10 years ago, and doing the same with those outside of Christianity.  What he found should not be a surprise.

Christians are timid and withdrawn these days, afraid of engaging the culture (because their church is not willing to engage on serious cultural issues) and being content to live in a Christian sub-culture.  In the meantime, American culture has drifted far from any Christian roots it could once claim and when you look at the statistical trends, there is little reason for optimism that the culture is going to get better.

I recommend pastors read this book.  First, it will give you a bunch of compelling statistics that you can use as sermon illustrations.  But second, and perhaps more importantly, it shows where culture is heading and the pace at which it is doing so.  Living in the insulated environment of the local church, it’s very easy for a pastor to assume that these are problems elsewhere — not in my town, not in my church.

Some of Barna’s stats are very convicting (like only a third of evanglical Christians share their faith with an outsider in a given year).  Other stats seem frankly hard to believe. According to Barna (page 59), 29% of atheists/agnostics pray to God in a typical week and 17% read the Bible in a typical week.  Really?  3 out of 10 people are praying to a God they don’t believe in every week?  Almost as unbelievable on the same page is the claim that 100% of evangelical Christians pray in a typical week and 88% read their Bibles; I think those numbers are likely much higher than actual.

The book is crammed with statistics but Barna does a nice job of making the book more than just a long list of numbers. At the end of each short chapter, he gives his assessment of where the culture is heading.  Spoiler:  it’s continuing on the trajectory we’ve seen in recent years.

Probably the best part of the book was his closing chapter on “what you can do.”  His answer revolves around Christians living an authentic Christian life, fully broken before a mighty God, and fully committed to engagement with the people of our nation.  Surely that is the right track and I thought this discussion (much longer than the other chapters of the book) was right on.

My biggest complaint in this book is that Barna seems to have no grid for understanding the sovereignty of God in the moral demise of America.  He does not hold out divine initiative as a hope for transformation of the nation, spurring us on to prayer.  Nor does he consider the possibility that our godless drift might be the result of God’s judgment on America.  I appreciate his call for Christians to realize their place in helping to stem the decay of our nation, but I would have liked to have seen a greater emphasis on God’s role in this too.

Overall, this was a very interesting read and worth one’s time if you are a thinking Christian in America who wants to engage with his or her culture.

20
Sep
16

Unlocking the Bible

unlockingthebibleAs in every age, there is a lot of interest in the Bible.  Ask the average Christian and they will tell you that they know they should be reading the Bible more.  People who are curious about Christianity understand that this is the book on which the faith is based.  But for many people, wading into the Bible is a deep mystery.  Where do you even start?  Why are the different books in the Bible so different?  What is the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?

For people who ask these questions, Jeff Lasseigne has written Unlocking the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).  This book aims to give you an overview of the Bible, illustrating how the pieces fit together and giving some tools for how to understand where the Bible came from, where a given book fits into the Bible’s story, how to study a passage and get as much as you can out of it, and even how to effectively teach the Bible to others.  It’s an ambitious target, and the results are hit-and-miss.

It should be stated right up front that this is a book for somebody who is fairly new to the topic.  There are nuggets in here that are helpful, but if you are generally familiar with the Bible, you would probably do better looking at a book that specializes in the area that interests you.  The material is good, but it is definitely a beginner’s level. There is only so much you can cover.

Lasseigne writes from an unabashedly evangelical perspective (specifically dispensational premillennial, if those terms mean anything to you.)  He is absolutely convinced that this is the word of God and he wants you to love it like he does.  He does a solid job of bringing all of these ideas like where we got the Bible and can we trust that it has been transmitted through history accurately very well.  His overview of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the often overlooked time between Malachi and Matthew is solid, but simple.

Fully half of the book is giving an overview of each of the books of the Bible, including its theme, a dozen or so interesting facts about the book, and some famous quotes from people who have appreciated the book.  It’s a little different from the overview you get in a good study Bible … this is more little nuggets designed to make you curious about the book, or little details you can bring up while you are teaching the book.

This brings up one of my two major complaints about the book.  Of the seven regular chapters of the book, one of them is dedicated to how to teach the Bible.  What he says is true and good, but in general this book is a lot more basic than I would hope somebody who is looking to be a Bible teacher would be reading.  That chapter felt a little out of place for the overall target audience of the book.

My second complaint is the humor and stories included throughout.  Now, I don’t mind humor at all … for example, I think Matt Chandler and Alistair Begg are brilliant in including reverent humor in their messages.  I think that is where Lasseigne is trying to go, but it misses.  It’s just trying to be funny for the sake of being funny.  He has a two page illustration of funny quotes by flight attendants which was genuinely funny, but it served no purpose.  This happens a lot in the book.  It’s a shame because he says himself:

When it comes to using stories and illustrations as seasonings, we don’t want to overdo it by substituting stories for sermons or illustrations for illumination!  Too much seasoning spoils the meal.  I’ve heard messages made up of stories and silly jokes and very little Bible study.  That dishonoring to the Lord and is a dereliction of duty (140).

I don’t think his stories go to the extent of replacing content, but it was clear after a while that he was simply including these stories to lighten to the tone of the book rather than to advance the material, for the most part.  After a while I was groaning as I came to another.

Overall, I think this is a valuable book to somebody who is a new believer and who is trying to get an understanding of what all of these books in the Bible are.  I think for that audience, this book succeeds very well.   If you already have a basic understanding of that, I would suggest looking at other book that deal with the topics in more depth.