Book Review: Christian Beliefs

I’m an unabashed fan of Wayne Grudem. Aside from the fact that he’s charismatic and Reformed,* he has a real gift for explaining complex ideas well and showing the importance of theology for all believers, not just “professionals.”

Grudem’s Systematic Theology, now in the second edition, is intentionally written to be accessible to laypeople (although it’s as good as any in terms of academic quality). It’s a great resource, but it’s about 1200 pages, and that’s intimidating to most people. For this reason, there’s a 500-page version, Bible Doctrine, that’s edited down from the original, and now a third: this 150-page, bare-bones introduction to essential Christian beliefs.

Now, I think Christians who are serious about their faith (which should be all of us) should be interested in having something more along the lines of a 500-pager on the shelf as far as theology is concerned, if only to use the index when we come across tough questions. But I’m excited about this short version. It’s a great resource for new believers, for anyone who wants to strengthen their doctrinal foundation, and I especially think it would be terrific for a study group.

The book is divided into 20 chapters on major topics like the Bible, God, the Trinity, creation, prayer, the atonement, the Resurrection, etc. Each chapter is about 5 pages long and hits the high points of the doctrine with ample Scripture references, and also shows the importance and relevance of the doctrine to the Christian life. There are also review and application questions at the end of each chapter. These are sometimes a little trite, but many could be good discussion starters.

I especially like the fact that Scriptures are not just referenced but actually quoted, so that you can see how the verse supports what Grudem is explaining. This is, as Grudem says in the introduction, consistent with our belief that the “Word of God is powerful and effective;” that it does not return to him void. The book does not answer every question believers will have, but it is a God-centered, Bible-saturated explanation of the basics of the faith. If you want to better understand and be able to explain what you believe as a Christian, this book is a great starting place.

*Grudem does not like the term “charismatic;” he probably prefers “continuationist.” And lots of people don’t like calling him Reformed because of his views on the supernatural gifts and on eschatology. I can certainly concede his charismatic leanings as an asterisk to calling him Reformed, but when it comes to eschatology his views are within the bounds of Reformed thought. He is premillennial, but not dispensational. And although he believes in a future large-scale conversion of the Jews, he also believes that the church (not ethnic Israel) is the “true Israel of God.” See his ST, chs. 44 and 55. Sorry, the urge to footnote doesn’t just disappear when you graduate.

Book Review: Truths We Confess

R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (volumes 1, 2, 3)

Few people have done as much as R. C. Sproul to commend theology to the church. He has worked for years through his books, radio and conferences to show God’s people that theology is for all believers, not just for pastors or professors. So I was thrilled to see this three-volume guide to the Westminster Confession (WCF), which in Sproul’s (and my) judgment is the best human-authored summary of biblical truth. Who better than Sproul to make the Confession more accessible to the church?

In general, I found these books to be a great theological resource for laypeople. Sproul has a real gift for explaining and illustrating complex ideas, and his near-encyclopedic knowledge of the history of theology enables him to concisely show what specific issue the WCF is addressing in a given section. He also does a great job of applying the Scriptural truths of the Confession, showing their relevance in church life today. Not surprisingly, his treatments of the major emphases of Reformed theology, such as the sovereignty of God, election and free will, are terrific, and he asks the tough questions I think need to be asked of the Arminian (i.e. not Calvinist) view that most American Christians hold by default. Sproul is at his best on these topics.

I would humbly suggest, though, that the book is better as a brief systematic theology than as a guide to the WCF. Sproul gives very little historical background to the Confession, and he does not concentrate on explaining it line by line. To me these books seemed more like Sproul’s thoughts on theology in the order of the WCF than a commentary on the WCF itself. At times there’s almost a stream-of-consciousness feel—you generally like everything you’re hearing but aren’t sure where you are or where you’re going. In fact, there are several points where things are repeated nearly verbatim from earlier in the book, making you wonder if the editor was out to lunch. One example is that Sproul has a little rhyme he uses to describe antinomianism. This ditty is found on p. 64, 100, and 270 of volume 1, with no indication that we’ve heard it before.

There was very little to disagree with here theologically (again, not surprisingly!), but I was surprised to see Sproul take an almost Roman Catholic view of the recognition of the NT canon, emphasizing the church’s decision more than God’s inspiration of the books. I also thought his section on creation was weak. Although I take the same view of creation that Sproul does, that the days of Genesis 1-2 were literal human days, I didn’t think he responded all that well to other views or presented a strong case for his own.

Although the book has its flaws, I found it to be a good explanation and defense of historic Reformed theology. Sproul has a good sense for what most Christians believe, and he is good at showing us where broad evangelicalism is at odds with Scripture. In these volumes he makes theology accessible to everyone, challenging us to take our faith seriously and also showing that the fruit of that effort is a heart more devoted to God and his kingdom.

Book Review: The Gospel & Personal Evangelism

Mark Dever, The Gospel & Personal Evangelism

(By the by, the RTS-Charlotte Bookstore has this book for cheaper than Amazon. I’m just saying.)

Mark Dever is one of my favorite pastor/authors. Best known for his book 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, he is an influential advocate of biblical preaching, gospel-centered churches, and theologically-informed passion for Jesus. He also has a reputation among those who know him well as a committed evangelist. C. J. Mahaney, another well-known pastor and author, tells a story in the foreword to this book about going to lunch for the first time with Dever and finding out he knew the entire staff of the local Subway by name, that he had had conversations about the gospel with all of them. Apparently Mahaney has been urging Dever to write this book for years, and I’m glad he did.

In this small book Dever asks seven basic questions about personal evangelism.

  1. Why don’t we evangelize?
  2. What is the gospel?
  3. Who should evangelize?
  4. How should we evangelize?
  5. What isn’t evangelism?
  6. What should we do after we evangelize?
  7. Why should we evangelize?

Each of these is unpacked in a chapter of about 10 pages. His answers and explanations are simple but powerful. The book is designed to briefly encourage believers to share their faith, and it does that job very well. I myself am a lousy evangelist, often racked with guilt over my failure to interact with nonbelievers. Reading books on evangelism has often piled on to that guilty feeling, but this one made me excited to be more intentional in pursuing non-Christians. Dever shows that our excuses are illegitimate, that the gospel is great news, and that our love for God, desire to obey him and love for the lost should make us eager to preach the gospel. He also exposes ideas, even good ones, that are mistakenly viewed as the gospel (social action, “God is love,” moral reform) and shows how they fail to carry water when cut off from the true gospel.

A couple of minor flaws hinder the effectiveness of the book. One is the number and manner of Dever’s Scripture citations. He refers to Scripture often, which is of course a good thing, but frequently just lists several references at the end of a sentence, rather than quoting one or two relevant passages and explaining them. I appreciate his command of Scripture, but I think most readers are less likely to grab a Bible and look up seven verses than they are to pay attention to an explanation of how one or two verses support the point he’s making. There are also awkward transitions, abrupt endings, and even editorial mistakes that give the book, especially the last two chapters, a feel of having been hurried through. These aren’t dealbreakers by any means, but hey, this is a book review.

The greatest thing about this book is its honesty. Dever does not claim to give a foolproof method of evangelism; in fact, he is careful to distinguish between evangelism and the fruit of evangelism. The gospel produces a fragrance of life to some and death to others (2 Cor 2:15-16). But we should nonetheless be confident that God will bless our efforts to spread the good news. Believing that conversion is his work, not ours, frees us to be faithful and entrust the results to him. This book encouraged me to be more intentional about sharing my faith. Pick it up if you need that kind of encouragement too.

Book Review: The Israel of God

O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

“If you abandon Israel, God will never forgive you… It is God’s will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue for ever and ever.” This expresses the view of many Christians—witness the popularity of the Left Behind series, John Hagee’s ministry, and any number of books that explain the role of modern nations in biblical prophecy.

Is this true? Is the modern nation-state of Israel the continuation of the Israel of the Bible, so that when we read prophecies addressed to Israel we may assume they will find their fulfillment in present-day Israel or ethnic Jews? Robertson’s book asks that question: who is the Israel of God? He examines Israel in terms of its land, its people, its worship, its lifestyle, and its future, concluding that the present-day incarnation of Israel is the church of Jesus Christ: all those, Jew and Gentile, who are saved by trusting in his work and are a people set apart for him. Identifying the nation of Israel as a “people of God” distinct from the church dishonors the sufficiency of Christ’s work and seeks to step backwards in redemptive history—to return to types and shadows when the ultimate reality has been revealed.

Palmer Robertson is a master biblical theologian. He has a great eye both for the forest and the trees of the Bible; he can see the big picture as well as how all the details play their own vital role. As he traces different themes through the Old and New Testaments, he is faithful to each text in its historical context but can also see how OT themes anticipate NT ones, how the NT answers the questions of the OT. Simply put, the book is masterfully argued, and it is compelling in its entirety. I came in expecting to agree with his thesis, but understand my own position better after reading the book.

A couple of minor complaints: the chapter on Israel’s worship, which unpacks Hebrews 7 and shows that the high priesthood of Christ renders any other priesthood useless, is 32 pages long. I started to get bogged down about 2/3 of the way through and wonder when he was going to make his point. The material is excellent, but could probably be condensed (yes, it’s ironic for me to say that). I also thought there were a couple of weak spots in his exegesis of Romans 11—one or two straw-man arguments and logical leaps. I’m inclined to agree with his conclusion, though, which is that in Rom 11 Paul is describing all of God’s elect, Jews and Gentiles, being saved through history, not a future event where Israel is converted as a nation.

Robertson may be shouting into a tornado here, but he needs to be heard. His voice brings sober and responsible handling of Scripture to a hotly-debated topic, and he demonstrates its serious implications for our doctrine and practice. Read this book with Bible in hand, and you will be more grateful that Jesus is the high priest of a better covenant.

Book Review: On Being Black and Reformed

Anthony Carter, On Being Black and Reformed: A New Perspective on the African-American Christian Experience

Anthony Carter is one of the leading voices in a small but growing movement of black Reformed pastors and churches. This short book (about 100 pages plus appendices) is a sort of manifesto for the black Reformed movement. Carter opens with a question: “Do we need a black theology?” He suggests two answers. First, yes, we emphatically need a black theology, and second, yes, we unfortunately need a black theology. Emphatically, because all theology is done from within a cultural context, and because of the presence of unsound black theology. Unfortunately, because conservative theology typically fails to answer the questions of the black community regarding their own suffering, and because the troubles inflicted on blacks in this country tended to have a “Christian flavor.” For these reasons, we do need a black theology—and it must come from the faithful interpretation of Scripture in the context of our history, tradition and Christian experience.

The second chapter is one of the better presentations of Reformed theology I’ve read. This is maybe because Carter doesn’t get bogged down in the five points. He spends most of his time on the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of man, and the sufficiency of Christ, and he unpacks each of these well. Chapter 3, “The Church from Chains,” examines the historical side of the black Christian experience in America. The fact that there is an African-American church at all is both a testimony to the sovereignty of God and an indictment of those who bought and sold blacks and Christians who refused to welcome them into the church. Carter shows both diligence and negligence on the part of evangelicals in preaching the gospel to the slave population, and then the unspeakable reality that once they were converted, blacks were generally treated as second-class citizens of the Kingdom. This chapter is well done and shows real insight into God’s working in history.

In the fourth chapter, the heart of the book, Carter presents Reformed theology as the best way to handle the questions and struggles of black Christians. Reformed doctrine can celebrate God’s sovereignty in bringing the black church through centuries of suffering, and also lament the sinfulness of man that brought that suffering about. This view of God and man makes possible the kind of sanctified, God-honoring grief we see in the Psalms, a grief the black church has experienced, but that we don’t see much in the church today. Reformed theology has something to offer the black church, and the black church has contributions to make to the Reformed world. A richer appreciation of the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of man and the sufficiency of Christ can help bring about in our country the kind of reconciliation which Christ died to achieve among his people.

The book closes with a brief argument for why African-Americans should embrace Reformed theology: it is biblical, historical, and experiential. There are also several appendices dealing with racial reconciliation in the church. This book is a good read. Carter writes well, knows his history, and is passionate about the need for black and white Christians to hear each other. His thoughts here helped open my eyes and gave me a greater appreciation for the history and contributions of the black church. It made me long for the kind of reconciliation we will see in heaven as the great multitude sings the praises of the Lamb, and it made me want to see that realized more in the here and now.