Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Book of Man by William J. Bennett

The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood

William J. Bennett

Thomas Nelson: 2011

Dr. William J. Bennett’s Book of Virtues is a favorite in our house. At dinner time, bath time, or bed time, the children ask me to read a story or poem from “the big book,” as they call it. And I’m always willing to; Bennett’s Book of Virtues has as much to offer the parents as it does the children.

I expected the Book of Man to be like the Book of Virtues, only for little boys. But the readings are more for older boys or men. Still, the subtitle, “Readings on the Path to Manhood,” is appropriate. After all, what man doesn’t continue on the path to manhood?

Bennett asks:

“What does it mean to be a man today?…While the plot, actors, and scenes are constantly changing, the virtues, characteristics, and challenges of manhood remain the same today as thousands of years ago.”

On how to be a man, Bennett says, “More can and should be said. That is what I offer here. There are examples worthy of emulation, stories worth knowing, lives worth studying and remembering, and counsel worth hearing…”

Bennett’s quotes span the time from Pericles to Colin Powell, while the characters range from Robert Murray M’Cheyne to Jimmy Carter.

Stories about men like Theodore Roosevelt or Martin Luther King Jr. are always inspiring, and Bennett gives us plenty. But equally inspiring are the stories of men like Terry Toussaint, Fort Valley, Georgia’s “proud sanitation worker.” Toussaint was inspired by Martin Luther King’s speech to a crowd of street sweepers in Memphis, TN:

“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures….sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, `Here lived a great street sweeper…’”

“For Toussaint, it’s all part of the day’s job. At fifty years old, he starts every day at 4:45 A.M. and never misses a day of work.” “I’ll always be the best that I can be at [whatever job I have],” says Toussaint.

Bennett examines manhood in every arena: Man in War; Man at Work; Man in Play, Sports, and Leisure; Man in the Polis (community); Man with Woman and Children (this section alone is worth the price of the book); and Man in Prayer and Reflection.

Not all of the selections are inspiring, nor do they all represent the best in man: “Marines are a different breed; we’re made to go after people. If you’re not killing someone or being killed, you’re not happy.” But, as Bennett says, there is something to be learned from each of them.

While my little boy isn’t ready for this book, I look forward to our reading it together when he’s older. I hope these selections will benefit, encourage, and inspire him as they do me. In the meantime, I’ll continue to use this excellent book to help me down my own path to manhood.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Thomas Nelson.

Born of God by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Born of God: Sermons from John, Chapter One

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Banner of Truth: 2011

488 pages

Highly recommended.

No mortal can exhaust the truths in the Bible. Or even, it seems, in one verse of the Bible. But that didn’t stop D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones from trying. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the man whose sermons on Ephesians fill eight volumes, whose sermons on Romans fill fourteen volumes, and who could preach for an hour on the text, “But God,” (Ephesians 2:4) preached thirty-two sermons almost exclusively from 3 verses.

Lloyd-Jones began preaching from John’s Gospel in October of 1962. Even though this series was only “to occupy him at intervals,” it is still remarkable that he was but in the “early chapters” when he retired from Westminster Chapel, London, in 1968.

This newest volume of Lloyd-Jones’ sermons, titled Born of God, consists of ten sermons from John 1:17, eighteen sermons from John 1:12-13, and four others from neighboring verses.

In this series, unlike in many of his others, Lloyd-Jones did not set out to go verse by verse through a book, or portion, of the Bible:

“I propose, God willing, not to give a detailed, consecutive exposition of John’s Gospel, but rather to pick out the application of the teaching to the state and condition of the Christian in this world.”

He primarily applies the texts in two ways: by warning presumptuous professors to examine themselves, while encouraging true Christians to grow in assurance.

Lloyd-Jones says that it is every Christian’s duty to be joyful: “Without the joy there will not be much strength and without strength we shall fail in our representation of our Lord and Master and all that he stands for.” But, for this joy to be full, a Christian has to understand what Christ has done for them. And for that, they have to understand their plight without him. This, Lloyd-Jones says, is the right use of the law:

“Those who dismiss the law will never know much about grace….If I have preached the law in such a way as to make somebody say, ‘I’m completely and entirely hopeless and unless I can be saved by someone outside myself, I’m done for,’ then I have preached it properly.”

Yet he balances this by warning against falling back under the law. The doctrines of grace are essential to keeping believers from legalism, while the law is needed to prevent antinomianism. An understanding of both is needed in order to have true assurance and joy.

So that those with false assurance might be warned, while true Christians would grow in assurance, Lloyd-Jones gives numerous tests for people to examine themselves by. These tests fall under several divisions, including one’s relationship to the Son, to the Father, to the Holy Spirit, to the Church, and even to the devil. Most of these have to do with sanctification because, as Lloyd-Jones says, those born of God will be changed:

“When we are born, ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God,’ something happens to us. We have a new nature; we are given a new life. That must show itself.…”

For example, Lloyd Jones says that the Holy Spirit works in believers by giving them a desire for holiness:

“He causes us to examine ourselves and he creates within us breathings and longings and a hungering and thirsting after righteousness…a very good test is this: If you are more concerned about being holy than you are about being happy, then you are a Christian beyond any doubt….But if you are more concerned about being happy than being holy, there is doubt.”

Reading this book is thought provoking and edifying. The sermons are easy to follow, yet deep enough to satisfy a theologian. And Lloyd-Jones deals out both conviction and comfort, just as he meant to:

“My dear friends, have I strengthened you? Have I given you assurance that you are a child of God? God grant that I have! But if I have not, if I have disturbed you, if I have made you feel that you are not a Christian—then do something about it. Go to Him, acknowledge and confess it.”

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Banner of Truth Trust.

A Guide to Biblical Manhood

Stand Up! A Guide to Biblical Manhood

Randy Stinson & Dan Dumas

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Press, 2011

In A Guide to Biblical Manhood, Randy Stinson and Dan Dumas say that men need to act like men. “We need men who aren’t pre-occupied with their amusements or appearance, but instead are willing and able to take on manly challenges.” These manly challenges primarily have to do with leadership, provision, and protection.

The authors apply biblical examples to men’s roles within the workplace, home, and church. While I have some small disagreements, the overall message is sound, and the advice is helpful. I particularly enjoyed the sections titled, “Twenty Five Things a Dad Should Teach a Boy” and “Eleven Connecting Points between Baseball, Biblical Masculinity and Godly Character.”

The overall theme of this book is that true manhood is about humility and self-sacrifice; we can’t be reminded of that enough. But it has been said a lot lately. Biblical manhood and womanhood top the popularity charts among reformed writers. Anything that can be said has been, many times and many ways. This book offers nothing new, nothing that isn’t already said in many other books like Richard Phillips’ The Masculine Mandate. The strength of this particular book, however, is that it summarizes the others in less than 110 pages. More men are likely to read and benefit from it. And at $5.99, it’s not only a bargain, but the right choice.

Surprised by Oxford

Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir

By Carolyn Weber

Thomas Nelson, 2011

An unsolicited package from Thomas Nelson lay on my desk. Since I had decided to take a break from reading and reviewing new books, and this was the second to arrive within a week, I considered sending it back unopened. I’m glad that I didn’t.

Carolyn Weber tells how she arrived at Oxford on a scholarship that she worked excessively hard for. She was there to pursue a graduate degree and education. She left with those and infinitely more.

Weber’s honesty is refreshing. She was certainly not seeking Jesus, or even God. As a young, independent, intelligent academic, she didn’t want “Christian” on her resume, and she fought against the gospel, slinging her arguments “like arrows of outrageous fortune.” But her arguments turned to thoughtful questions, and her defenses began to fall as she realized that there was something great missing from her life. “Caro,” a friend of hers said, “I can see the conversion happening on your face….I can hear it in your multilevel homesickness.”

Weber’s conversion was no half-hearted decision. For months she privately read the Bible, and for months she asked tough questions. These questions take her, and the reader, into deep theological territory. Yet it’s always with a fresh and personal perspective; accessible and enjoyable. And the gospel pours from the pages of this book. Weber makes us hungry to dig into the New Testament with the zeal of a new believer.

Weber’s writing is free from pious jargon; she undercuts her own praise of clichés by rarely using them. The author avoids both the superficiality and the pseudo-intellectualism that Christian writers are often guilty of. Hers is exactly the kind of writing that I want to read. And her story is exactly the kind I needed to hear. Alister McGrath describes it perfectly: “A hugely readable journey of cultural and spiritual discovery, sparkling with wit and wisdom.” Surprised by Oxford is the warmest and most enjoyable memoir I’ve read this year.

John Calvin: Man of God’s Word Written and Preached

John Calvin: Man of God’s Word Written and Preached

By Peter Barnes

Banner of Truth: 2011

I should start with an apology for this review. It seems as though reviewers of Christian books feel obligated to give a positive review unless the book contains heresy, or a lack of what the reviewer considers a sufficient dose of the gospel. To that I can’t submit. Those are important. But it is also the reviewer’s job to tell the reader if the book will be worth their time. Is it readable? Does it tell us anything? Does it inspire? If not, it’s not worth the money.

Peter Barnes says nothing heretical–nothing, even, that I disagree with. I had hoped, expected, to love this book, considering the subject, and to sing its praise. To that end, I can say three things. Barnes has done his research, and his book makes us want to read Calvin. Also, for someone who knows nothing about John Calvin’s view of Scripture, this may be a fair introduction. But the book sounds like a seminary research paper, and is as dry.

Barnes has nothing new to say. In fact, Barnes himself says very little. He takes the reformed writer’s obsession with quotes to a new extreme. Regarding how Calvin structured his sermons, for instance, Barnes throws out 6 quotes, and then picks the one he thinks best. Here are the contents of a typical page:

“Dawn DeVries writes….Andrew Blackwood suggests….Not for nothing does William Bouwsma describe….Herman Selderhuis perhaps exaggerates….T.H.L. Parker waxes eloquent….Randall Zachman begs to differ….,” (pages 48-49).

Barnes strives to point out flaws in Calvin’s preaching or writing, as if we should be astonished that the man from Geneva was human. Calvin’s sermon breaks, for instance, were sometimes “unnatural,” or even “somewhat disconcerting.” Barnes spends a few pages describing the abruptness of Calvin’s sermon endings. In one sermon, Barnes tells us, Calvin “breaks off quite suddenly…He then launched into the prayer after the sermon!”

“Nor was his exegesis always entirely convincing.”

The reader may fairly ask: Whose exegesis is “always entirely convincing?”

Barnes amazes us with such insights into Calvin as his belief that “The preacher is called upon to be faithful to God before he is sensitive to the seeker,” or, “Calvin held to what today would be called `intelligent design.’”

“Calvin almost never told anecdotes in the pulpit,” nor does Barnes in his book. It is almost entirely free of narrative or warmth.

Barnes mentions Calvin’s polished writing and speaking. Unfortunately, the simplicity and brevity of Calvin’s style has not rubbed off:

“One ought not be beguiled into thinking that the Lord’s supper with its celebration of the once for all perfect sacrifice of Christ is anything like the Mass where, supposedly, Christ is repeatedly sacrificed,” (page 70).

This style, along with the content, makes Mr. Barnes’ John Calvin unsuitable for the lay person. The shortness of the book and lack of anything new make it useless to the scholar.

Why God Won’t Go Away by Alister McGrath

Adherents to new atheism say that religion is irrational, evil, violent, and should not be tolerated. Their movement is “an enthusiastic advocation of atheism and a seething criticism of both religious belief and cultural respect for religion.”

Alister McGrath’s new book, Why God Won’t Go Away, isn’t his first response to the new atheist rhetoric. Besides other writings, he has also engaged in several public debates with the group’s most prominent leaders, including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

McGrath knows his subject. He’s read the books of the leaders (Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett), and he reads the blogs of their faithful followers. Having been an atheist himself, McGrath, who is now a prominent evangelical theologian, understands the reasoning of both sides and has much to contribute to the conversation.

McGrath quotes leading scientists, philosophers, more reasonable atheists, and new atheists themselves, to show that new atheism is often dogmatic, bitter, and irrational. Two examples will suffice. In a televised interview, Christopher Hitchens declared Mother Teresa “a fanatic and a fundamentalist and a fraud,” said “millions of people are much worse off because of her life,” and that it was “a shame that there was no hell for her to go to.” Sam Harris, speaking of religion, said that “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Who, may I ask, are the fanatics?

The New Atheist’s main arguments against religion are religious violence, reason, and science. McGrath, with skill and wit, uses their own arguments against them. This is not something that they’re prepared for, so they seem to be changing tactics. One new atheist blogger wrote: “I’m beginning to believe the best we can do is to just shout at them, ‘You’re stupid, you’re idiots, you’re morons!’”

McGrath’s is a small book, but it’s probably the only one I’ll read on the subject. Few thinkers, including scientists or more thoughtful atheists, take the rants of these angry fundamentalists seriously, and the movement as a whole does seem to be “running on empty.”

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty?

Alister McGrath

Thomas Nelson: 2010

John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock

John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock

By Iain H. Murray

The Banner of Truth Trust: 2011

“Servant of the Word and Flock” is an apt subtitle for Iain Murray’s new biography of John MacArthur. The book leaves us convinced that no ministry is as important to MacArthur as serving his church by teaching and preaching God’s word. Murray points out that the one stipulation Dr. MacArthur made when accepting the call to Grace Community Church “was that he be allowed thirty hours a week for study.”

“Surely one of the greatest strengths of MacArthur’s preaching ministry is his complete confidence in the text,” Murray writes. MacArthur would take this as a compliment. “When I started ministry,” he says, “I committed myself to expository preaching, just explaining the Bible, because I know that there was nothing I could say that was anywhere near as important as what God had to say.”

Though MacArthur has served Grace Community Church for over forty years, and attendance is in the thousands, if all that he did was preach, most of us wouldn’t know his name. But that’s not the case; MacArthur writes more books than most Christians read. Murray gives ample attention to these as well as the controversy that sometimes follows (as in the case of The Gospel According to Jesus, which sparked the so-called Lordship Controversy). Because these books, including MacArthur’s Study Bible and New Testament Commentaries, are translated in dozens of languages and shipped over the world, often at no cost to the recipient, MacArthur ministers to millions whom he has never met. That doesn’t count those who listen to his sermons, free of charge, compliments of Grace to You.

Murray’s book concentrates more on MacArthur’s work than on the man himself. Still, we read about MacArthur’s past, his childhood, and how he was shaped by his father and grandfather. We read of his humility—when the only rental car available was a Cadillac, he chose to walk the last several blocks to his appointment so as not to send the wrong message. We read about his love for others, especially his family: “The family is the one environment where your devotion, faithfulness, and consistency matter most,” wrote MacArthur. Murray even dedicates an entire chapter to MacArthur’s wife, Patricia, of whom MacArthur wrote: “For every grief I ever caused her, she has given me a thousand blessings in return.” Murray shows that, as one of MacArthur’s friends said, “His greatest sermon is his life.”

While Murray’s appreciation for his subject is obvious, the book is by no means an exercise in hero-worship. Murray addresses MacArthur’s failures and sometimes disagrees with his beliefs. One preacher from Brazil speaks for many when he wonders how MacArthur can be “soteriologically reformed and dispensational at the same time.” Though Murray doesn’t dwell long on his disagreement with MacArthur’s views regarding the end times, he does state them, and he observes that a literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy is inconsistent with the way the New Testament writers often interpreted Scripture.

Murray tells us twice that these 240 pages are “little more than a sketch; this is not the time, nor I the writer, to give a full portrait.” While it may not end up being the most complete biography, it is hard to imagine that there will be one as well-written and interesting. We do, however, have reason to agree that “this is not the time.” Though MacArthur turns 72 on the nineteenth day of this month (June 2011), he has no plans to retire:

“As the Lord permits, I hope to continue teaching God’s word and shepherding His flock until the day I go to be with Him.”

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Banner of Truth in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Give Them Grace by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick

Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus

By Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson

Crossway, 2011

In the forward to Give Them Grace by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson, Tullian Tchividjian says it’s “the best parenting book [he’s] ever read, because it takes the radical, untamable, outrageous nature of the gospel seriously and applies it to parenting.” And the authors do take the gospel seriously. The difference between their book and other Christian parenting books, they say, is that theirs emphasizes grace rather than law:

“Most of us are painfully aware that we’re not perfect parents. We’re also deeply grieved that we don’t have perfect kids. But the remedy to our mutual imperfection isn’t more law, even if it seems to produce tidy or polite children.”

These two experienced mothers don’t pretend that they are perfect, that their children are perfect, or that they have the secret key to perfection. They don’t give readers a formula for parenting; there are no “three steps,” or even specified rod dimensions (though they do say that an open hand is okay, regardless of what other parenting books have said). Instead, they remind us that it is God, and not parents, who determines a child’s destiny in this life and the next, and that we need His grace as much as our children do. They also give lots of encouragement to weary, imperfect parents:

“[God] doesn’t treat his dear children as ‘disappointments’ whose disobedience and failures take him by surprise or shock him. He does not suspend his love until they get their acts back together. He already knows the worst about you (in yourself) and loves and approves you nonetheless (in Christ).”

If applying the gospel can be overdone, these authors do it proudly: “We’ve encouraged you to dazzle [your children] with the message of Christ’s love and welcome, and then when you think that surely they must be tiring of it, go back and drench them with it again.”

The only problem with this is that when we apply the gospel to every event in life, and especially when we use it to correct, children will tire of it. Not every moment needs to be a “teachable moment.” Do we need to bring up Jesus’ agony on the cross every time our child acts like a child?

The authors give an example of how we might apply the gospel to a child who pouts after losing a baseball game: “Yes, losing is difficult….Jesus Christ understands losing because he lost relationship with his father on the cross….He’s using this suffering in your life to make us both look up and see his love.”

Besides the superficial view of suffering in the above quote, this loose way of applying the gospel, especially when often repeated, takes the power out of the message and can weary the children. Something sadder than a child growing up never hearing the good news is a child who grows up hoping to never hear it again.

Besides overdoing the application of the gospel, the authors are also guilty, like the authors of many of our Christian books and blogs, of overwriting. Some of their words have become so popular (peruse, enjoin, facets, eventuate), that I expect to see them in half the Christian books I read, though I’ve never heard them in real conversation. Add a few phrases like, “radical message of grace,” “soul-satisfying repast of grace,” and “construct a methodology,” with extra doses of drama and intellectualisms, and an over-all good message becomes unpalatable to readers who prefer a simpler style.

Still, the most important things to be said about this book are that it leaves room for failure, emphasizes the superiority of the gospel over the law, and is primarily about imperfect parents glorifying a perfect God (rather than themselves or their children). These things put Give Them Grace above many other Christian parenting books.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.

Review: John Knox and the Reformation

John Knox and the Reformation

D.M. Lloyd-Jones & Iain H. Murray

The Banner of Truth Trust: 2011

In an address given in Edinburgh in 1960, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “perhaps the greatest of all the lessons of the Protestant Reformation is that the way of recovery is always to go back, back to the primitive pattern, to the origin, to the norm and standard which are to be found alone in the New Testament.” That the speaker was guided by faithfulness to “the norm and standard” found in the New Testament is evident in his writings, which is why I love reading him and am delighted that his work is still published years after his death.

Lloyd-Jones’s biographer, Iain H. Murray, is another advocate of looking back, and is another whose writings I can’t resist. With the Banner of Truth’s recent release of John Knox and the Reformation, I had the privilege to read both men in one book.

This short but valuable title consists of three chapters. “Remembering the Reformation” and “John Knox: the Founder of Puritanism” are addresses that Lloyd-Jones gave in 1960 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland. The third chapter is Iain Murray’s “John Knox and ‘The Battle’,” which is a biographical sketch of Knox that concentrates on his efforts to reform the church in Scotland.

John Knox and the Reformation is published for the 500th anniversary of the birth of Knox (2014), but not out of a “purely antiquarian or historical motive.” As Lloyd-Jones says, “the times in which we are living are too urgent and too desperate for us to indulge a mere antiquarian spirit.” Rather, “we look at these men in order that we may learn from them, and imitate and emulate their example.” He supports his view with Hebrews 13:7: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

Though Knox was, and still is, an object of controversy, there’s no denying that God used him greatly. Murray writes: “The only true explanation of Knox’s preaching is in words he applied to others of his fellow countrymen, ‘God gave his Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance.’” Of a sermon that Knox preached to discouraged Protestant forces after beaten by the French, one man said, “The voice of one man is able in one hour to put more life in us than five hundred trumpets continually blustering in our ears.”

But again, the aim of this book isn’t to teach us about Knox, but to help us to learn from Knox. Lloyd-Jones and Murray each spell out the lessons that we can glean and apply to our day, and we would be wise to take heed.

When I asked what I should read for spiritual growth, a pastor and mentor told me that other than the Bible, he benefitted most from the biographies of great Christians. I’ve found this to be true for myself, and especially true of Iain Murray’s works. John Knox and the Reformation is no exception.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from The Banner of Truth Trust in exchange for an honest review.

Unleashed by Erwin McManus (Not Recommended)

In his book Unleashed, Erwin McManus says that Christianity has become too civilized. He rejects the belief that “Jesus died and rose from the dead so that you can live a life of endless comfort, security, and indulgence,” and he says that it’s his “mission to destroy the influence of the Christian cliché, ‘The safest place to be is in the center of the will of God.’”

Following Jesus is not about safety or security. McManus points out that John the Baptist lost his head while in the center of God’s will. “We look to Jesus not to fulfill our shallow longings or to provide for us creature comforts. We look to Him to lead us where He needs us most and where we can accomplish the most good.”

McManus calls Christians to reject conformity and security, and to embrace what he calls the barbarian way, which is “about love expressed through sacrifice and servant hood.” Like early followers of Christ—John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul—we “are called to a path filled with uncertainty, mystery, and risk.”

McManus presents a strong argument, and he backs it up with lots of Scripture. His overall message is good; it’s one that I love hearing, whether it comes from John Piper, David Platt, or McManus himself. But his book falls short of the others when it comes to application. How do you live out this unleashed, barbarian faith? McManus’s examples are jumping off a house, jet skiing off the coast of Wellington, and an ATV ride through the wilderness that ends in a trip to the emergency room, “a vital locale for the barbarian.”

The barbarian way also involves pursuing our dreams, going for the promotion, and striving to reach our full potential, which sounds like the prosperity gospel that McManus does such a good job of refuting. At this point the faith he describes sounds tame and unimpressive—more like self-esteem. And while McManus is often clear about what Jesus’ death did not secure, he’s not clear about what it did do. The gospel is muddied with statements like, “His purpose was to save us not from pain and suffering, but from meaninglessness.”

I’m probably missing the point. There is a radical, barbarian faith that expresses itself by street preaching in New Orleans, serving as a missionary in Haiti, or rebuking King Herod. I’m sure that McManus has these in mind rather than irresponsible recklessness, but he doesn’t make that clear, and we’re left wondering whether we should sell all that we own and give to the poor, or sell all that we own and take a dangerous vacation.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for an honest review.