Archive for the 'book review' Category


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.


book review: The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in its Proper Place


9780801018664This book is small but packs a powerful punch. Andy Crouch writes from personal experience and conviction, in what has worked (or not worked) in his family as far as managing technology and its effects. It has numerous Barna research results expressed in varying graphics, including bar and circle graphs and sobering statistics.

Crouch breaks the book down into 10 commitments, such as We develop wisdom and courage together as a family, and We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do, each getting a chapter. I really appreciated that he didn’t give hard and fast rules, the kind books like this can claim, “If you just put these rules into practice, you won’t have any troubles.” Instead, he offered principles that he and his wife really work hard to live by, candidly shows how they have succeeded and failed, and in all has written a book that encourages flourishing and celebrating all of life in a family rather than just focusing on cold hard facts about technology and its effects on the family.

I enthusiastically recommend this book to all. It obviously has the most impact on parent/children families, but I believe it is relevant even to the single person, or a couple without children. We all need to be reminded how important relationships with skin on are, and that we are to be the masters of our technology rather than allowing ourselves to be mastered.

I was given a complimentary copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are mine; I was not obligated to give a positive review.


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.


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.


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.


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.


The Heart of Revelation

410injcq9ol-_sy344_bo1204203200_If there is any book that can capture the fascination and imagination of Christians, it is Revelation.  For most of 2000 years, John’s apocalypse has has been a source of so much intrigue and debate.  Much of that debate centers on what all of the strange imagery found in the book means.  Is this history written in advance, a play-by-play of things yet to come?  Is this a series of pictures describing the entirety of the church age, while we wait for the return of Christ?

The hardest question, though, is what this book means to us right now.  For example, if you believe Jesus will rapture his church away and Christians won’t be here to see any of what is recorded, is there actually any value in reading the book today?  And if you believe the millennium is right now, you still might look at the book and wonder what you are supposed to get out it.

Scott Duvall has written a very helpful book, The Heart of Revelation: Understanding the 10 Essential Themes of the Bible’s Final Book.  In this, Duvall avoids getting pulled into these debates and instead looks at Revelation to find the major themes that the book teaches.  These themes are true for the church at all times, regardless of your preferred understanding of the endtimes.  These themes are: God, Worship, The People of God, The Holy Spirit, Our Enemies, The Mission, Jesus Christ, Judgment, The New Creation, and Perseverance.

Duvall spends a chapter on each of these, focusing on how Revelation teaches the topic.  He is thorough without ever feeling wordy.  He is very sharp in staying on his topic, and he brings a pastor’s heart throughout.  There is a constant push for you to love the God of Revelation and to see how the message of this book is not just a curiosity for the end of the world, but rather is full of tremendous truths that are relevant to your life right now.  The book is written at a level that I think anybody can appreciate (I’m giving it to my 13 year old to read next.)

Overall, I am very grateful that Duvall has written The Heart of Revelation and I recommend it highly!