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Book Review, Books

Book Review: Gentle and Lowly

November 30, 2020

Every year, thousands of books are published in the non-fiction Christian genre. Some are novel, others are republications of older works; most are not worth reading (remember C.S. Lewis’ maxim: read one old book for every new book that you read). Yet, every once in awhile, a modern author publishes an absolute gem that will serve the church for years to come. This year, Dane Ortlund, son of Ray Ortlund, has published one of the most helpful, encouraging, and needed books surrounding the person of Jesus for the every-day Christian. Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly seeks to answer the ultimate question that many of us wrestle with: How does Jesus really feel about us?

For many Christians growing up in the West, we are completely unaware of how our familial and cultural upbringing has shaped the way we view God and live in our Christian life. As a culture that values productivity, success, and hard-work, many times these mentalities bleed into our view of God. While we would not outright proclaim this, many of us functionally live our lives as if God is a boss rather than a father, a master rather than a friend, someone to appease rather than someone to enjoy. But, for those of who are in Christ, have our cultural glasses blinded us to the true character of Jesus towards us? Ortlund wishes to exchange your Western glasses with biblical ones, helping you to see that Jesus’s primary disposition is gentle and lowly.

Perhaps Ortlund’s book was so impactful for me because I felt like he was writing directly toward me: someone who is often “discouraged, frustrated, weary, disenchanted, cynical, and empty” (pg. 13). In the pit of despair, how does Jesus feel about us? While this sort of questioning may seem foreign to how we talk about God, Ortlund is unafraid to ask such bold and inviting questions. Through the use of biblical passages and puritan writers such as Thomas Goodwin, Ortlund beckons the weary Christian to the promise land of better rest in the biblical Jesus.

Put simply: Gentle and Lowly was by far the best book I read in 2020. My hope and prayer is that I may savor the words of Ortlund so that I may love Christ more deeply and also experience his love more often. For those Christians who are tired, discouraged, cynical, and frustrated, allow this book to be a balm to your wounded soul. To give you a simply taste of the healing you may encounter, please reflect deeply upon these words from the first chapter:

“His yoke is kind and his burden is light. This is, his yoke is a nonyoke, and his burden is a nonburden. What helium does to a balloon, Jesus’s yoke does to his followers. We are buoyed along in life by his endless gentleness and supremely accessible lowliness. He doesn’t simply meet us at our place of need; he lives into our place of need. He never tires of sweeping us into his tender embrace. It is his very heart. It what gets him out of bed in the morning.”

Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly (pg. 23).
Book Review, Ministry

Book Review: Reset

June 24, 2020

In this present historical moment, humans across the world have more access to information and opportunities for connection than ever before. Particularly for Americans, life is often described with one simple, yet repeated word: busy. The ever-growing demands of modern life coupled with our general restlessness given the advancement of digital technology in the forefront of our lives has caused us to become a people marked by burnout. For many, the concept of life being slow, calculated, methodical, or even restful is not only foreign, it’s impossible. In a short yet incredibly helpful book, professor David Murray (Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary), invites Christians in Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture to undergo a personal deconstruction so that they may in turn find more freedom and joy in this world.

When reading books surrounding rest, retreat, minimalism, or a host of other topics surrounding the one general theme of rest, many authors will choose to go in one of two directions. On the one hand, many authors will seek to convince you that you need to make significant changes in your physical and emotional life (work changes, more sleep, etc). On the other hand, other authors will you invite to discover the realm of spirituality (thus, the uprising of meditation and mindfulness). One of Murray’s greatest strengths is composing a picture of the whole human: physical, emotional, and spiritual. He does not offer simple platitudes that will only last for a minute but gives you a comprehensive picture of a life lived in Christ, which effects the way we pray, eat, sleep, and recreate.

After personally experiencing burnout, Murray invites his readers to find the richness of a life not marked by busyness, stress, and chaos but through an identify shaped by the work of Christ, which flows to every facet of life. Fundamental to our problem is not whether we have good time management (though that is important), but whether or not our lives are anchored to the grace-giving identity of being found in Christ. Critical to all of our restlessness, Murray seeks to apply the finished work of Christ as the foundation to all living.

Lest we think that Murray simply invites Christians to read their Bibles and pray more, Reset offers you a beautiful holistic life that is shaped around grace and rest. In other words, how does your sleep, diet, goals, technology use, spiritual disciplines, church attendance, and goal setting shape the person you are becoming now? Coupled with both biblical and practical wisdom, Murray will challenge the way you live so that you do not have to encounter burnout like many Americans are in this present moment.

This book, in particular, is helpful to pastors, as Murray writes as one who understands the demanding challenges of ministry. If you are a pastor or ministry leader that is experiencing the alarm signs of burnout, please, for the sake of your soul and your family, pick up Murray’s book and put in the hard work of self-examination. In the beginning of the book, Murray invites you to take an inventory of your current soul status. For many, this may be the gift that you desperately need. God is inviting you to find healing and rest in Christ, not so that you may do less for the King, but so that you may endure to the end with a heart that still loves God, your family and children, and your neighbor as yourself.

Book Review, Books, Ministry, Theology

Book Review: Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine

December 9, 2019

There are few authors that I enjoy reading more than Kevin J. Vanhoozer, both from his academic and pastoral repertoire. Vanhoozer is a master wordsmith and a brilliant scholar, yet, at the same time, possesses a warm pastoral heart that desires to serve the church. This volume is no exception to the breadth of knowledge and pastoral sensitivity that Vanhoozer possesses. Every pastor would be encouraged, challenged, and blessed to pick up this latest volume in 2020.

In his latest book, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine, Vanhoozer’s intention is “to help pastors fulfill their Great Commission to make disciples, with emphasis on the importance of teaching disciples to read the Scriptures…” (p. xi). Speaking personally, I was converted by simply picking up the Bible and reading, and thus, the intention of Vanhoozer’s latest book is a call to what I find most sacred in the Christian life: reading the Scriptures.

As a pastor, there are endless tasks to attend; the tyranny of the urgent really becomes tyrannical. In the day-to-day life of a minister, what should his time be consumed in? Vanhoozer argues that one of the most important tasks of a Christian pastor is to make disciples from doctrinal and theological positions, namely, from reading and obeying the Scriptures doctrinally. In other words, rather than leaving doctrine in the ivory-tower, the author argues that it is for the every-day Christian. Doctrine should inform not only what we believe but how we live as Christians in our present day.

Fitness and Doctrine

Vanhoozer does a beautiful job of exposing cultural idols and reforming them in a biblical perspective to show how discipleship is actually what people are longing for. Everyone believes in some sort of salvation or good news (gospel), the question is: which good news are you living for? Which vision of the good life have you been captured by? Vanhoozer argues that modern day culture has been infatuated with wellness and fitness, suggesting that this has become the da-facto god of our culture. From diet program, wellness seminars, workout sessions, clothing lines, and an overall desire to be fit, Vanhoozer notes that the language culture uses for the physical body can and should be adopted for discipleship in Christ’s body: the local church.

Rather than simply making people fit physically, pastors are called to “make disciples by training them to be fit for the purpose of godliness” (p. 44). Here Vanhoozer makes a helpful distinction, noting the sovereign grace of God in ultimately making (i.e. waking) disciples, “…while pastors may “make” (that is, train) disciples, only God can “wake” ( that is, create) them. Discipleship is about becoming who we are in Christ, and this is entirely, a work of God” (p. 44). Pastors then are called to make or train disciples the story of Scripture, which is a narrative of how we are to find the good life, and call them to obedience to that narrative. Just like the wellness culture calls for all-of-life devotion, so too does God call for all-of-life devotion, not in just beliefs but also in obedience: “Belief without behavior is empty. Genuine discipleship, in contrast, is the sustainable practice of hearing and doing freedom in Christ” (p. 45).

Doctrine for Discipleship

Often times doctrine and theology get a bad rap, supposing that they are irrelevant to modern life or simply impractical. Vanhoozer turns this idea on his head, noting that doctrine is everywhere (even outside of Christian circles), though it may not be labeled as doctrine. In other words, you are always being discipled by somebody or something; some grand narrative will be shaping your thoughts, values, and therefore, your actions. “Spiritual formation is happening all the time,” writes Vanhoozer, “Culture and society are in the full-time business of making disciples, not to life in Christ to a variety of lifestyles, all informed by culturally conditioned pictures of health, wellness, and fitness” (p. 63). Therefore, doctrine informs discipleship, meaning that the grand narrative of Scriptures gives us a lifestyle of how to live for God in this world, namely as “heralds and representatives of the Kingdom of God” (p. 64).

In a ministerial world dominated by businessmen, brand-ambassadors, and executives, Hearers and Doers calls pastors back to “recover their vocation as ministers of the word and reclaim Scripture and doctrine as means for making disciples” (p. 91). Rather than relying upon the latest fad or the best small group technique, ministers “need to recover anew a confidence and competence in the ministry of the word of God” (p. 99). Doctrine is not aloof from the Christian life, rather it is the fuel that drives the engine of the Christian life. Pastors need to recover the importance of doctrinal formation, Scriptural inculcation, and theological catechesis for the church as a whole.

Conclusion

For those looking for practical tips on how to create a discipleship system or program in their church, Vanhoozer will come up empty. But if you are looking for a biblically ground call for the pastorship, one that is marked by the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, Vanhoozer will leave your ink dry from the penned notes. Dripped with biblical language, culturally awareness, and the intricacies of daily Christian living, Hearers and Doers will refresh and encourage your soul to continue the hard work of making disciples by the Scriptures.

Book Review, Books

Book Review: 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy

May 18, 2019

Originally published in Presbyterion Journal, Volume XLV, Number 1.

I remember hiking the mountains of Northwestern Wyoming and sitting awestruck at the vistas of God’s creation—mountains, lakes, trees, wildlife, and fresh, crisp, mountain air. Few places can arouse such feelings of awe and transcendence in my body than trapped deep in the forests west of the Mississippi river. I remember at one point, resting at a lake, with dozens of mountains shooting up like pipes of an organ, and simply thinking, “How could anyone ever capture the beauty and complexity of a view like this?” The shades of purple, brown, green, and white on the mountains, the ripples in the water, the craggy peeks, and the sense of isolation and trepidation that is formed only when staring at something so unique that appears to belong only in fiction novels. A similar feeling rushed over me when I picked up John Piper’s latest book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful. How can one book contain the depth, complexity, and assiduity of these mountain of men? How can one book contain the lives and stories of people like Owen, Spurgeon, Augustine, Calvin, and Tyndale, and not trickle off into thousands of pages? While the book will not give you a comprehensive picture of each person, Piper has presented some of the most key historical figures in Christian history in suitable space, drawing out the unique contributions and themes present within each person’s life.

 A theme that unites the entire book surrounds a story concerning Augustine and his passing of the baton to Eraclius, his assistant in the ministry. When Eraclius stood to preach at the transference ceremony, he felt a sense of inadequacy and proclaimed, “The cricket chirps, the swan is silent”,[1]with Augustine as the swan. As Piper points out, “[f]or 1600 years, Augustine has not been silent,” deeming him the great theologian who “shaped the history of the Christian church.”[2]Therefore, as Augustine has influenced many of the Christian leaders, it is fitting that Piper would begin his work with the swan himself.

Structurally, Piper’s book is divided into seven sections surrounding a particular theme.  These sections include three historical figures in each division. Each section has its own introduction and conclusion which provides an overview of the theme that Piper will draw out from the historical figures. For example, section four is devoted to Athanasius, Owen, and Machen, which are all read through the lens of orthodoxy amidst controversy. In this way, Piper can deal with the characters not in full but with a particular emphasis in mind. Lastly, Piper does an excellent job of blending in quotes (sometimes, quite lengthy) from the authors while at the same time adding commentary of his own. You really get the sense that you are reading both Piper and the character he is describing.

Those familiar with Piper’s writing will find that this work is similar in language to his others—saturated with language surrounding God’s glory, our joy, and the doctrines of grace present within the Scriptures. While you will certainly be learning about some of the main influences in Christian history, you will also be drawn to worship the God that these figures worshipped. The book does not simply recount facts—rather, it shows, with rich theology, the God in whom some of these men found worth dying for. You will read of men whose works will fill the best libraries, whose tales will inspire the next missionaries, whose humility will soften the proudest heart—and they will do so all surrounding one subject: the glorious Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When discussing history, it is all too easy to worship our heroes’ strengths and to minimize their failures, perhaps even rarely discussing them. Piper does not fall prey into this temptation. Again and again, the figures are exposed for what they are: humans that are desperate sinners in need of grace, who at times make terrible mistakes. When reading the accounts of these men, although their influence seems so unattainable for more us, you are actually drawn more into the humanity of these men. From Calvin’s scandal with Michael Servetus to Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic comments, Piper presents the men in their true colors, faithful and flawed. Furthermore, you are also given glimpses of the humanity of these mountain of men—John Owen who suffered the loss of eleven children and his wife, David Brainard’s physical afflictions, William Cowper’s depression, and William Tyndale’s immense persecution. The men that we study are not so distant that they cannot relate, for they all have the blood of Adam running in their veins like us. 

While some may be intimidated by the size of this book, I found myself captivated by the stories of these men who have walked before us. I remember planning one night to devote thirty minutes to this book and wound up reading two hours on accident; I simply could not put the book down. I was drawn into the lives of these men who knew God in a way that almost seems foreign to modern day evangelicalism. With every story, I was a fly on the wall in the execution of Tyndale, the preaching of Whitfield, and the pipe smoking of Lewis. Those who are fearful to pick up this book due to the size will be pleasantly surprised that not only is it incredibly readable, it is highly engaging. 

For those looking for an introduction book surrounding some of the key figures of Christian history, I would heartedly recommend John Piper’s new book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy. Again, the book will not give you mastery of each person, but it will give you a comprehensive picture of their lives. Perhaps one of the best things you could do this year is read about the way God has been faithful in preserving the writings and stories of men like these. You may find that as you discover more about our Christian heritage, you will be amazed at how merciful and gracious, transcendence and sovereign, beautiful and stunning that our God truly is. 


[1]John Piper, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2018), 17.

[2]Ibid., 17-18.

Book Review, Books, Ministry

Book Review: The Imperfect Disciple

May 29, 2017

My bookshelf continues to get larger with books published by Jared C. Wilson simply because his writing is saturated in the finished work of Jesus, grounded biblically in the Scriptures, and in tune with the needs of evangelicalism in North America. Time and time again, Wilson brings you back to the cross of Calvary, inviting you as a fellow brother to bow beneath King Jesus in awe and reverence. This remains true in his new work The Imperfect Disciple as he avoids simple truisms and platitudes, but rather expounds the messy, joyful, frustrating, hopeful journey of following Christ as his disciple. For those struggle with books on discipleship that simply give recipes, tips and helps, I highly recommend you bask in the wisdom of Jared Wilson, being drawn in by his love of Jesus and for the church.

One of my favorite aspects of Wilson’s writing is his ability to engage in real-life scenarios. As a former small-town Pastor, Wilson brings experiences that are common to all of us. Whether that is feeling awkward about giving a friend a tract about the Gospel or sitting by a friend who has cancer, Wilson doesn’t shy away from the nitty-gritty, real-life events that we face all the time. In this respect, Wilson doesn’t narrow discipleship to a program or church-event—it is the life-long call of every Christian to follow Jesus, both with its disappointments and victories.

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Book Review, Books, Ministry

Book Review: God the Son Incarnate

May 27, 2017

Stephen Wellum’s God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ is one of the newest editions to the Foundations of Evangelical Theology set. This lengthy work focuses on Christology specifically, seeking to answer the fundamental yet critical question: who is Jesus Christ? For those new to study of Christology, this book will give you insight into the progression of Christology development; for those who are well versed in the field, Wellum’s work will be a welcomed perspective in evangelical scholarship. As others have noted, Wellum’s strengths are lucid thoughts and coherent arguments which help him fully develop his Christological positions. As a way of summarizing, Wellum provides his own thesis:

“Ultimately, the thesis of this entire work is one theological conclusion with many parts. Based on the warrant and critique of the previous chapters, we must confess that the identity of the Jesus of the Bible is that he is God the Son incarnate.”

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Bible, Book Review, Books

Book Review: Unlimited Grace

January 7, 2017

How does one grow in their Christian faith? Is it by our efforts, God’s work, or a myriad of influences that impact our lives? Bryan Chapell presents a compelling case to see our Christian growth both founded in God’s grace and empowered by God’s grace. In other words, even in our sanctification, we do not use our good works as a means of earning God’s favor. God, through the sending of his Son, has given us the acceptance that we need through the Son’s finished work.

Chapell returns again and again to the Gospel message for the motivation for obedience. Throughout the entirety of the work, he calls believers to pursue obedience out of love for the Lord. Only grace can make a heart of stone love that which it previously hated. Chapell calls this “heart chemistry,” citing John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

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