Posts Tagged With: book review

Review of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard

0617152145aThis book offers a breakdown and historical overview of what the author refers to as the 11 distinct ethno-geographical nations that make up the US and Canada. His broad history and analysis is mostly correct. You may be surprised at how well the history of colonial settlement, migrations, and assimilation connects and translates to today in a way that helps explain the socio-political characteristics and traits of the different American regions. Today’s political battles and cultural differences are direct product of the history of settlement and migration in the various regions of North America.  The author is writing from a secular perspective, and is left-leaning politically, although it doesn’t affect his analysis too much until the last chapters. I would recommend this book first of all for Americans to understand better what national culture they grew up in, based on where they are from, and how and why other American nations differ in their social and political habits. I’d also recommend it for those traveling or moving to a different location in the US or Canada. I’ve lived in several different parts of the US, and always noticed cultural differences of attitude, behavior, and treatment of outsiders, but I feel like I understand better where the lines are drawn and how they developed to what they are now after reading this book. (Hint, it doesn’t normally coincide with state borders.)

The author does an especially good job explaining the fascinating history of how the distinct colonial nations of the east coast expanded west and maintained many of their distinctive features in a new location, whether in the midwest or on the west coast.  He shows how the patterns of settlement determine the social and political characteristics of western states today.

Woodard could have done a better job tracing the changes in religious belief and how the nations were impacted and altered by those changes, especially “Yankeedom.” He doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on that aspect, not drawing a line between the public Christianity of the puritan fathers and the social activism of liberal churches and post-Christian New England, to mark when and how the change came about, and what impact it had on the nation. He seems to think that the Puritans deemphasized individual Christian faith, although of course those who know the Puritans know that if anything they are often perceived as being too introspective about their faith. And New England was also the birthplace of the Baptists in America, an offshoot of the puritans, who later made such inroads in the Deep South.

All in all it’s a very useful book.

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Book Review: Strange Fire

Book Review: Strange Fire.

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Remembering Archbishop James Ussher

Arcbishop James Ussher (1581-1656)  is one of the most eminent, learned, and holy saints of church history.  Although he is often remembered for his dating of creation at 4004 B. C., he was much more than a historian.  It has been said that in his day, if all the Presbyterians had been like Samuel Rutherford, all the Congregationalists like John Owen, and all the Anglicans like James Ussher, they would have been able to find a way to be united in one fellowship.  All three were great friends and closer doctrinally than they were divided by the political matters that buffeted their day.  He’s a review I wrote of one of his most important doctrinal works a few years back:

Review of A Body of Divinity by Archbishop James Ussher

by

Riley Fraas

March 20, 2010 Archbishop James Ussher, A Body of Divinity: Being the Sum and Substance of the Christian Religion, Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007. This short, 450 something page systematic theology book comes with impressive accolades.  A. A. Hodge regarded it as the most important book for understanding the theology of the Westminster Assembly, noting that it was available to all of the Westminster divines.  I can easily see why one would say this.  Ussher’s doctrine as expressed throughout the book reminds me greatly of the Westminster standards, including its main points of emphasis, its ordering, its language and terminology, and its style.  This is an invaluable resource for understanding the theology of the Westminster Assembly for all of us who look back to the Westminster Assembly as a formative event in the doctrine of the church (especially we [who are among the] Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists.)  Although Ussher did not attend the Westminster Assembly due to his political loyalty to the King as primate of the Church of Ireland, he was invited more than once. The book is a question and answer format which enthralls the mind and begs not to be put down.  This format reminds me of the Larger Catechism.  It is very readable.  At the same time, it is absolutely packed with sound doctrinal truth in such a way that instead of making for hard reading (like some other theologians who are too concise and do not explain their points thoroughly,) Ussher makes theological points easy.  Yet he says much in a few words.  His phrases strike to the root of matters which he addresses and make deep truths appear self-explanatory.  I find Ussher’s quality of making hard doctrines simple for the reader similar to the effect I felt when I first read Calvin’s Institutes. Ussher’s theology is warm and overflowing with praise to God.  It has a devotional quality to it which elicits true piety rather than simply engaging the mind in a scientific fashion.  One of his strengths is that he expertly provides the biblical basis for nearly all of the doctrines he asserts, going to great lengths not only to assert points of doctrine but to show that they are based on God’s revelation in the Bible.  Therefore this book is very useful to explain the biblical basis for the doctrines expressed in the Westminster Standards, which echo Ussher’s theology but only provide a few proof texts as references without illustrating how those Bible texts prove the doctrine which they express.  A high point in Ussher is his discussion of the external and internal evidences that the Holy Scriptures are God’s inspired word.  This section has the effect of fleshing out and proving the truth of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s most magisterial summary of the evidences of God’s inspiration of the Bible. Ussher has an experiential emphasis which applies the system of doctrine taught in Scripture to the main duties of the Christian life.  He answers not only what a Christian is to believe, but what he should do in light of these beliefs.  He therefore gives a lot of coverage to practical matters of the church and the Christian life, explaining in greater detail those Christian duties which are set forth in the Larger Catechism. This book deserves to be considered a must-read by all Reformed Christians who have attained a little more than the most basic understanding of the truths God’s word, along with Calvin’s Institutes and the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  I am almost inclined to think that this book would be even better than A. A. Hodge’s commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith as a text for elder training in churches.  It is not strictly speaking a commentary on the Westminster Confession, since it predates the Westminster Assembly by a few decades.  However by reading this book one would get an excellent grasp of the theology in the background of the Westminster Assembly which became framed in the great confessional documents which that body produced. One assertion which has been made about Ussher is that he was a “hypothetical universalist” in the vein of Moise Amyraut or Richard Baxter.  However, Ussher’s Body of Divinity proves that this assertion is false.  For example, in speaking of Christ’s office of priest, p. 150 reads, “What is his Priesthood?  It is the first part of his Mediation, whereby he worketh the means of Salvation in the behalf of Mankind; and so appeaseth and reconcileth God to his Elect”, and on p. 153 we find, “What profit cometh by his Sacrifice?  By his most painful Sufferings he hath satisfied for the Sins of the whole World of his Elect, and appeased the Wrath of his Father.”  Without a doubt Ussher places the decree of Christ’s Mediatorship logically after God’s decree of election, so that God’s intention in Christ was to save his elect and no one else.  That Ussher asserts on the other hand that Christ suffered “the whole Wrath of God due to the Sin of Man[1]” is a common understanding in Reformed orthodoxy.  Expressed in other words it is to say that Christ’s death was sufficient to expiate the sins of all of humanity, but effective only for the elect, as Heppe notes, “That the satisfaction of Christ would be sufficient to atone for sin-guilt in all men, if the Father would let it benefit them all, is generally recognized.  Cf. e. g., Riisen (XXII, 11): ‘…the satisfaction of Christ might be said to be sufficient for the redemption of one and all, if it had seemed good to God to extend it to the world[2].’”  Ussher is manifestly in line with Reformed orthodoxy both before and after his time on this point, and so the assertions that he was a hypothetical universalist are unfounded. Ussher’s Body of Divinity is recommended with heartfelt thanks to Solid Ground Christian Books for making it yet again available to the general public (notwithstanding one or two disagreeably baptistic footnotes by the editor who takes issue with Ussher on the usual predictable subjects.)  Please do pick up a copy and read it for yourself. Buy Ussher’s Body of Divinity here.  [Currently 5$ in hardback!]

[1] Ussher, p. 153.
[2] Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, London: Wakeman Great Reprints, 477.
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Review of “Le Comte De Monte-Christo” by Alexandre Dumas

from wikipedia

from wikipedia

Alexandre Dumas, Le Comte De Monte-Christo, II vols., Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1981.

It’s Christmas Day, which along with some happy family festivities, gives this pastor an excuse to take the day off, and finish some reading.  Originally published in 1845, this novel is known in English translation as “The Count of Monte-Christo.”  I started reading this book over a year ago, and have made steady progress over time.  I picked it up after reading recommendations from Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Craig Troxel and some others that preachers ought to include some fiction in their reading.  I have made sparing use of this advice, evident in the length of time that it took me to read this book, since most of my reading time is devoted to Scripture, theology, church history, and piety.  

I must agree that it is good for those who labor in teaching or preaching to read fiction if they can find the time.  Fiction exercises the muscles of the imagination since it forces the author to construct entire characters, settings, and stories from scratch.  It requires more imagination than non-fiction, like the way a painting requires more creativity than taking a photograph.  It acquaints the reader with human nature since it must make the imaginary believable based on the common knowledge of humanity in order to capture its readership.  This imaginative creativity does wonders for communication skills and qualities of expression and illustration that aid a preacher or teacher in his work.  

I’ll try to say a little about “Le Comte De Monte-Christo” without giving away spoilers so that others may enjoy it as I did.  I picked up this novel because it was recommended as an exciting read, and because I wanted to practice my French reading ability.  I was not disappointed.  Dumas’s writing is characterized by profound character development, action and adventure, and surprising twists and turns.  The reader is transported to scenes including the picturesque Mediterranean, sea voyages, imprisonment in a dungeon, a deserted island, and the swanky quarters of the rich and powerful in Rome and Paris.  As one might expect with a classic French author, I am deeply impressed with his grasp of what it means to be human.  He has the knack of tying plot strings together by making the impossible seem believable.  This novel is pervaded by a Christian worldview.  It is not quite so noticeable in the first half but really becomes prominent as one nears the end of the book.  The major themes are severe misfortune, abandonment, vengeance, crime, divine providence, riches, love, honor, murder, and forgiveness.  God is an important character in this novel, and he interacts by his kind mercies and justly retributive providences in the things that occur.  The moral of the story is found on the last page “Only he who has tested extreme misfortune is able to feel extreme happiness.”

I highly recommend it for those looking to read an intriguing adventure with thick plot-lines and idiosyncratic characters.

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Review of “John McMillan” by Dwight Raymond Guthrie

Guthrie, Dwight Raymond, John McMillan: Apostle of Presbyterianism to the West 1752-1833, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1952.

I have to admit that I love to read about the history of Christianity on the American frontier.  This book has added interest for me because it is all about the events that established and founded the region where I grew up.  The names of persons, places, towns, hills, rivers, creeks, schools, and churches described in this book bring back childhood memories for me.  It is written from a Christian perspective of admiration for the life and ministry of John McMillan.

McMillan was a man for his time.  He was an able preacher and theologian, yet Guthrie chiefly notes him for his indomitable strength of character.  McMillan was plainspoken, and could be bluntly direct in the way that he interacted with people.  It took a hardy soul to live, minister, and plant churches on what was then the western frontier.  Having studied at the legendary “Log College”, McMillan was pious, a preacher of the gospel, a maintainer of theological orthodoxy, a revivalist, and a concerned pastor.  Through McMillan’s ministry, several churches, two colleges and a seminary were founded.

This book contains fascinating descriptions of the lives, character, and culture of the people who first settled this part of the country, as well as colorful anecdotes.  The people of western Pennsylvania were under threat of Indian attack at any time, and they went to the meetinghouse to worship armed with their longrifles.  Guthrie notes that one particular minister was known for always checking his rifle prior to reading out his sermon text.  Often the ministers were not paid their promised salaries.  While there were some churches where the trustees willfully reneged on their obligation, at other times the people were under extreme financial hardship themselves and barely able to survive.  Guthrie relates a tale about one church unable to pay its minister’s salary.  It commissioned a couple of its members to take a barge full of newly-ground flour on a dangerous and risky voyage down the Ohio river to the Mississippi to the favorable market in New Orleans in order to procure the cash to pay their minister what they owed him.  Now that’s being resourceful!  Guthrie relates McMillan’s response to political situations, like that of the Whiskey Rebellion.  He was adamantly against the rebellion and refused to administer the Lord’s Supper until they submitted to the civil government.

All in all this book is an enjoyable read.  It will be of interest to those who would like to know more about the history of western Pennsylvania.

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6 Reasons to Read Pierre Viret: The Angel of the Reformation by R. A. Sheats

I’ve just had the pleasure of completing Pierre Viret: The Angel of the Reformation by R. A. Sheats.  This is the finest specimen of a spiritual biography that I can recall reading in recent memory.  Here are 6 reasons why I recommend that you read it.

1. It is an action-packed, page-turning thriller.  From conflicts with Romanists, Protestant magistrates trying to control the church, & ignorant parishioners, to empoisonment, to illness, to blessed fruit, to a surprisingly gentle character in the face of opposition, capture, and imprisonment, I just couldn’t put this book down.  The action is non-stop.

2. It is well-written.  Sheats writes with an effusiveness and expressiveness of style that can only come from being immersed in 16th century French literature for months without end.  Her English prose ebbs, flows, and punches.

3. It is doxological.  As a spiritual biography should be, it glorifies God in all things.  This book will drive you to your knees in thanks to God for His mighty acts in history.

4. It fills in important historical gaps.  Pierre Viret (1511-1571) is a name that is largely forgotten, but it clearly should not be.  Viret, along with the more famous Calvin and Farel together formed the triumvirate.  These three pastors worked closely together, were dear friends, and were used mightily in French-speaking Switzerland.

5. Pierre Viret is an inspirational figure.  Dauntless, courageous, always loving, gentle, and pastoral.  Here are some notable quotes from the author:  “If Farel was the Peter of the French Reformation, and Calvin was the Paul, without a doubt Viret was the John.”  “The only thing that holds me to my post is Him. –Pierre Viret”

6. The beautiful glossy color photographs on location in Switzerland and France.  They made me want to go visit all those places.  Now, I have to someday.  Honestly.

I won’t say that you must read it.  I will only say that if you don’t, you’re really missing out.

Order here.

Read my expanded book review on the Ordained Servant Online.

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Review of J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir by Ned B. Stonehouse

machen 2Gresham Machen (1881-1937) was a figure who towers above most of the rest in the history of Christianity in the 20th century.  He is best known for his valiant fights against liberalism: at large, for Princeton Seminary and especially in the Presbyterian Church in the USA, for founding an institution, Westminster Theological Seminary, and a denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  But his influence on Christianity in America today goes far beyond the latter two accomplishments.  In a biography of Machen by one of his close associates, Ned Stonehouse, Machen is described as a student, a scholar, a professor, a vibrant Christian, a friend, a son, and finally, as a leader of a movement for reformation.

This biography gives many details about Machen’s personal life and character.  Stonehouse draws heavily from personal correspondence between Machen and the most important person in his life, his mother.   This is a book that I had started reading some time ago, but to tell the truth, I had been discouraged by the incessant details toward the beginning of his life detailing his childhood in Maryland and undergraduate studies.  I wanted to get to the exciting stuff!  At times I had the feeling Stonehouse was idealizing the mundane in a way that smacked of hagiography.  But when I finally picked the book back up, and got through the portion on Machen’s early life, my interest picked up quickly in the narrative of Machen’s graduate studies in Germany.

The parts that I benefited from the most in this book were the interesting details of Machen’s life that I hadn’t read about already in various other accounts, especially events other than the events of 1926-1937 concerning Princeton Seminary and the Independent Board of Foreign Missions.  (Imagine a day when events at these institutions was covered intensely by the New York Times!)  When he went to Germany as a graduate student, for instance, he was confronted by the arguments of some of the most renowned voices of liberal theology and biblical interpretation.  I had been unaware of just to what extent Machen was impressed by their version of Christianity and their religious fervor!  He was really shaken in his faith, at moments.  Under the instruction of the leading biblical scholars in the world, he sometimes was driven to doubt basic orthodox Christian tenets like the inerrancy of Scripture and the literal, physical resurrection of Christ.  It was wrestling with the best arguments that the liberals had to offer, and his later coming to terms with the old paths laid out in Holy Scripture, that later made him such a capable defender of biblical orthodoxy.  In his experiences in the German Academy, Machen was being prepared for the work that God would have for him.  It is notable that even after having served for many years as Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary where he had built a reputation for stalwart biblical conservatism, he still recommended Germany as the top choice for advanced studies, that is, for students that he believed had real potential.

Machen served during the Great War with YMCA, performing retail duties in France before he got to do any spiritual work near the close of his tour.  But his response to the political climate of World War I shows his continuing love for Germany and the German culture, even as he was convinced that the only acceptable outcome would be an outright victory for the Allies.  His sense of fairness, however, would not permit the Germans to be demonized or those of German decent in the United States to be abused without protest.

Several things stick out in my mind about Machen after reading Stonehouse’ biography.  First of all, his thoroughness and skill as a scholar is prominent.  Machen’s articles and books were universally respected, even by unbelieving liberal scholars, in an age dominated by secular Bible scholarship, despite the fact that his conclusions were solidly orthodox and evangelical.  Here was a man of high intellectual ability, applied to the science of the New Testament, who was known and regarded for his forthright yet congenial manner of writing and speaking, even in important debates.  His major works, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, Christianity and Liberalism, and The Virgin Birth have not lost their relevance to this day.  Secondly, he was a true man of culture.  Here was a man who spoke several languages, enjoyed sports, hiking in the alps, an occasional cigar, and was able to enjoy God’s gifts with humility and thankfulness to the Creator.  His dedication to his work sticks out.  Machen had the freedom to give himself wholeheartedly in the Lord’s service to whatever he laid his mind to.  He remained single throughout his life, and this doubtlessly gave him liberty, time, and energy to contribute many things for the Lord’s cause.

As I review the details of Machen’s concluding judicial process and trial, I can’t help but think of it as an echo of the Protestant Reformation 400 years before his time.  In Machen’s bold yet humble stand for the truth of God’s word and the rule of law in the Presbyterian Church, (when it had come under the influence of unbelieving modernism,) Machen is a 20th century Luther.  Here was a man that God had raised up just for these moments of crisis.  His childlike faith in the Savior is what sustained him even to the day of his death.  As his final telegraph states, “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ.  No hope without it.”

This book is available for purchase here.

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Valuable Insights from “The Forgotten Spurgeon” by Iain H. Murray with personal reflections

by Riley Fraas

Of all the great preachers and theologians in the hall of Church History, few are as broadly appreciated, read as far and wide still in our present day as Charles H. Spurgeon. Revered throughout evangelicalism as a preacher and evangelist, the preacher at the London Metropolitan Tabernacle exemplified the heavenly gift through his wit, his understanding and application of the human condition, his pointed focus, and soundness to the teaching of Scripture. I personally remember seeing his works in the bookstore at a large charismatic megachurch that I attended many, many years ago. That Spurgeon is still read so broadly is a testament to his staying power and appeal. In this book by the distinguished historian Iain H. Murray first published in 1966, Murray’s book focuses attention on episodes in Spurgeons life ministry which, according to Murray, had received short shrift in previous biographies and works on Spurgeon.

Murray’s premise is that Spurgeon’s role in doctrinal controversies has been downplayed because those who had hitherto written about him did not share the beliefs that he fought for in those instances of his ministry. They tend to either describe his involvement in doctrinal controversy as out of character, an aberration, or a forgivable flaw in context with all the “good” produced by him in contrast to the controversies, like winning the lost. Spurgeon’s response during times of controversy usually came in the form of sermons preached during the times of the controversies. Murray’s thesis seems plausible to me, though I must admit that I have never read any of the biographies of Spurgeon that he cites. Due to the efforts of Murray and others, I have a hunch that Spurgeon’s distinctive theology which sets him apart from much of what passes for modern evangelicalism, that is, his adherance to the teachings of the Puritans and Reformed soteriology are now better known than they were fifty years ago. That is, in my judgment Spurgeon is probably more widely recognized as a Calvinist today than he once was. But I decided to write this review because I think Murray’s book offers insightful thoughts from Spurgeon on many practical things which are still confronting ministers of the gospel today. My intention is not to write a comprehensive book review summarizing all the details in every chapter of the book, but to highlight insights which I find engage me in my current context, and hopefully others will benefit from them as well. I will stick to Murray’s book and will not be quoting any other works. I will use the term “Calvinism” to represent a soteriology which holds that salvation is unconditionally of the Lord from start to finish, which is the way in which Spurgeon embraced and used the label.

  1. The Preacher in Park Street

It is commonly thought in evangelical circles that Calvinist preaching does not appeal to the masses. If it can cause growth anywhere, it would seem to be only among the most intellectual and rationally educated demographic like university students, software engineers and physics teachers, or maybe in certain ethnic communities where people have been raised on it. According to this thinking, industrialized South London was no place where Calvinism should flourish, humanly speaking. Yet despite all of these human factors, Spurgeon’s ministry, particularly known for its bold exposition of the doctrines of grace from Scripture, flourished among factory workers, housekeepers, and chimney-sweeps. What a testimony this is to God’s grace! Doesn’t this sound a lot like the God we read about in the first chapter of Corinthians, who has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise? And my own limited experience confirms that it is often the most humble of station that are best prepared to embrace a Sovereign God who works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Ephesians 1:11) Many of the people I’ve known in churches where the doctrines of grace were taught have been truck drivers, welders, municipal workers, or nurses. The example of the success of Spurgeon’s ministry in hardscrabble South London ought to serve as an example and encouragement to us preachers who are committed to the same doctrines that he professed. We base our hope for growth and discipleship not on the education or intellectual powers of the hearers, but only on the grace of God and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit on the mind of the redeemed sinner. Murray also notes that Spurgeon was more noted for specifically preaching on the doctrines of grace earlier in his ministry, but that later in life, he widened his field, so to speak, by preaching on other topics more frequently without changing his position on the sovereign grace of God which saves. (35) Probably this is a growth cycle that many Calvinistic preachers go through as they mature and come to a greater understanding of the Scriptures. Over time, they come to understand the Scriptures better, so they find more doctrines and topics in each passage to address in preaching. The effect is a greater variety.

  1. The Lost Controversy

Spurgeon’s first major controversy arose through criticism from those Murray calls “Hyper-Calvinists”, who through peculiar attempts at logical resolution denied the free offer of the gospel to all hearers. It seems that Spurgeon had not yet come under the widespread attention of the larger Arminian camp which preached “free will” in opposition to Calvinism, but he had managed to arouse the ire of Hyper-Calvinists by the freeness with which he offered Christ crucified to all sinners who heard him. Actually, (as Murray notes,) Hyper-Calvinism is a misnomer because it disagrees with Calvin who clearly articulated and preached the free offer of the gospel.

According to Spurgeon, Hyper-Calvinists were guilty of not preaching the gospel to sinners as our Lord commanded, since Hyper-Calvinism preaches the gospel only to those who are sensible and conscious of their sinfulness, not to the dead and indifferent. The biblical way is to offer the gospel to senseless sinners, not sensible sinners on whom God has already been working. Spurgeon said of their preaching,

I do not believe in the way in which some people pretend to preach the gospel. They have no gospel for sinners as sinners, but only for those who are above the dead level of sinnership, and are technically styled ‘sensible’ sinners.” (Murray, 49.)

The problem with the Hyper-Calvinist approach is that those who are truly touched savingly by God’s grace are the last ones who will consider themselves to be fully convinced or sensible of their condition. The awakened sinner only sees his wretchedness and misery, not his awakened state. Therefore, he will assume that the message of reconciliation preached to those who sense their sinfulness is not for him, since his senses do not even begin to plumb the depths of how truly sinful he is, he thinks. On the other hand, when the only requirement for receiving the gospel is that one be a sinner and rebel against God deserving of eternal hell, not necessarily one on whom the Holy Spirit is working, then the truly awakened will perceive that this is a message for them, and that Christ is truly offered to be their Savior.

Ironically, where the Hyper-Calvinists fall short on this point is at the same point where the Arminians fall short. By requiring that the hearer be in some sense prepared mentally and spiritually first in order for the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection to then be applied to him by the preacher, they were implying that the power of Christ’s atonement did not extend itself to the unbelief and hardened obstinacy of those for whom he died, but that something else is required before this atonement may be applied to sinners in preaching. In contrast, biblical Calvinism recognizes that it was not for the awakened and spiritually concerned that Christ died, but for hardened sinners and enemies of God, even for the very people who crucified him. In this way only the Calvinist message based on Scriptural teaching that Christ died to save to the uttermost all His elect is actually able to freely offer the gospel to all hearers. Hyper-Calvinism, then, with its offer of salvation limited to those who were already showing signs of being elect, falls short of a true representation of Calvinism, and more importantly, of Christ’s atonement as revealed in Scripture, because it does not offer Christ to hardened sinners.

Calvinists are precisely those who believe that hardened sinners are saved by grace in their state of spiritual death in keeping with Ephesians 2:4-5, But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, If we are to be true to our beliefs, we must present the good news of reconciliation with God to the worst sinners imaginable in our preaching, that is, to those who are entirely unawakened and unenlightened, who are completely numb in a deathly stupor. This point hit me when I read Murray’s book. I began to feel convicted about one recent sermon in particular, at a wedding, when I recall having said something to the effect that “if the Holy Spirit is drawing you, then embrace Christ the Savior and be saved by him.” Although my intent was to be true to God’s sovereignty in salvation in the way that I presented the gospel, I am now of the opinion that I was being hyper-calvinistic in this type of appeal, as if Christ were not freely offered to those on whom the Spirit has not begun to work. But perhaps the more weighty consideration is that those on whom the Spirit is working will not be cognizant of the fact at that point in time, and that by putting in the description that those who should come are those who are being drawn by Him, I may cause certain hearers to exclude themselves from the invitation, namely those who are most sensible of their sinfulness! I am thankful to Spurgeon and Murray for helping to bring to my attention a serious flaw in my preaching. If I truly believe that salvation is of grace alone, as a good Calvinist, then I cannot fail to freely offer forgiveness of sins and eternal life to those who are completely dead in their sins and without any taste for the things of God, in the way that God has appointed, that is, upon condition of faith in Christ.

  1. Arminianism against Scripture

Spurgeon held that Arminianism does not merely affect a few doctrines which can be separated from the gospel, rather it involves the whole unity of biblical revelation and it affects our view of the whole plan of redemption at almost every point.” (Murray, 74)

It’s hard to argue with Spurgeon’s position that Arminianism destroys the coherance of the biblical plan of redemption. The whole biblical plan of salvation fails if just one link in the golden chain of salvation found in Romans 8:29, 30:

For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

But even more than messing up the plan of salvation revealed in Scripture, Spurgeon believed that Arminianism had dire consequences for the preaching of the free offer of the gospel itself. Murray writes, “[Spurgeon] held that if the Arminian position were true he would have no real redemption that he could preach, because it would throw the message of the gospel into confusion. (77)

The gospel of reconciliation with God through Christ is of course given within the context of the fuller sweep of biblical revelation. But even more than that, Arminianism, according to Spurgeon, undermines salvation itself. By teaching that not everyone for whom Christ died will be saved, Arminianism ends up holding forth a general atonement intended for everyone in general but no one in particular. That is to say, according to Arminian teaching, Jesus did not really die for anyone. Spurgeon says,

The Arminian holds that Christ, when he died, did not die with an intent to save any particular person; and they teach that Christ’s death does not in itself secure, beyond a doubt, the salvation of any one man living…We say that Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.” (82)

To the Calvinist preacher of the gospel, it is a comfort to know that he has a full, real, specific, and particular atoning sacrifice to preach to all men in general. Because Christ died to save a particular people, his death is both powerful and effective to save them, and when they hear the gospel generally preached to all men, those who are called and chosen will respond in faith and obedience, all of which are fruits procured by the death of Christ himself on their behalf. That is to say, the blood of Christ conquers the sin of unbelief and turns it into faith. Arminianism, on the other hand, believes that the sinner dead in trespasses and sins must supply the faith himself (or at least, that his will is the determining factor,) meaning that Christ’s death has not fully washed his mind and renewed his conscience. Without the doctrine of particular redemption, then, there is not a full atonement.

  1. Arminianism and Evangelism

Arminians say that sinners are commanded, therefore they must be able; Hyper-Calvinists say they cannot be able, therefore they must not be commanded. But Scripture and Calvinism sets forth both man’s inability and his duty-and both truths are a necessary part of evangelism.” (106)

The thing which most sticks out for us in our present day, as fifty years ago when Murray wrote this book, is the contrast between the modern method of evangelism and Spurgeon’s gospel-preaching. Spurgeon did not try to make conversion into an easy thing by boiling it down to a decision for the better of two options. His God was bigger than that. Rather, he would forcefully preach the inability of the hearers to respond, followed by a command to repent and believe the gospel. Murray supplies another quotation from Spurgeon,

We may lay God’s commands, like an axe, to the root of the tree, but, reasonable as these commands are, you will still refuse to give God his due; you will go on in your sins; you will not come to him that you may have life; and it is here that the Spirit of God must come in to work on the souls of the elect to make them willing in the day of His power. But oh! In God’s name, I warn you that, if, after hearing this command, you do, as I know you will do, without His Spirit, continue to refuse obedience to so reasonable a gospel, you shall find at last that it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah; than for you; for had the things which are preached in London been proclaimed in Sodom and Gomorrah, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Woe unto you, inhabitants of London!…I charge you by the living God…obey this divine message and you shall have eternal life; but refuse it, and on your own heads be your blood forever and ever!” (107)

What a contrast we find in such quotations with the easy-believism of our day. As in the day when Murray wrote this book, we find little that will stand the test if this kind of preaching is the model of gospel-preaching. Spurgeon preached both the necessity of believing and the hearers’ natural inability to believe with equal fervency, with glorious results. Could we do that in our preaching? What might happen if we did?

The other aspect of his preaching which is noted by Murray in contrast to the Arminian type of evangelism is his emphasis on regeneration. Spurgeon believed, based on Scriptural teaching, that only a life-giving miracle of the Holy Spirit can raise a sinner dead in sin and unbelief to life in Christ. He did not shy away from preaching this doctrine even to the unconverted, because he believed that to make the hearers’ eternal destiny seem to depend on their own decision-making would be to invite false conversion and impiety. I find this aspect of his preaching to be convicting. How many of us of the Reformed or Calvinistic persuasion make a point of preaching on the topic of regeneration, and how do we associate this topic with the gospel? Yet so many of the great evangelists of old have preached on regeneration as the other side of the coin from the “free offer.” George Whitefield and the great awakening comes to mind. What would a ministry of the word look like in this day and age if it had a similar emphasis on regeneration by the Spirit of God?

  1. The Downgrade

The one other aspect or controversy of Spurgeon’s ministry that I would like to touch on regards is that which Murray calls the “Downgrade.” The Baptist Union of which Spurgeon had been a part and among which he had ministered for several years had undergone such change that the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture was being undermined. Although Spurgeon has been accused by some of separating from the Union over his rigid adherance to Calvinism, Spurgeon’s own quotations show that this was far from the truth. He was fighting over the very foundation of Christian truth, that Scripture is the only and the inerrant rule for the faith and practice of the church, a position which was being actively weakened and undermined at the time in the Baptist Union of which the Metropolitan Tabernacle was a part. I find it instructive and interesting that Spurgeon’s main concern in this controversy was such that he laid aside, if you will, the debate between Calvinists and Arminians in order to defend the position of Scripture in the Christian church. It seems that Spurgeon would have been content to continue serving in a Union which included some Arminians, doubtlessly in an attempt to win them over to a more biblical view of salvation, if it could only be agreed that the sixty-six books of Holy Scripture were the inerrant and infallible authority. This episode offers a glimpse into Spurgeon’s view of fellowship between the churches. I personally find it instructive as one who serves in a conference which includes a diversity of views on the topic of soteriology. In what ways are Spurgeon’s efforts at finding unity in a common view of Scripture as inerrant and divinely inspired to be imitated? Or is it regretful in some way that he tried to remain an influence on the Union for as long as he did? I find the question of where to draw the line in terms of fellowship between churches to be one of the trickiest knots facing Christian churches today. Where do you balance the safety of high standards of doctrinal purity with the desire to be an influence on a broader range of churches through fellowship? Spurgeon’s example is something I will be chewing on for insights into this conundrum.   

I would highly appreciate your comments below.  My intent is to get a discussion going. –RF 

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Book Review: Augustine of Hippo by Simonetta Carr

A Review of Augustine of Hippo by Simonetta Carr

A Christian biography for children

By Pastor Riley Fraas

Carr, Simonetta. Augustine of Hippo. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books. 2009)

Children’s books from Story Bibles and Bible stories, to other kinds of books, offer to children a first taste of fruitful Christian reading which will lead to a lifetime of blessing by reading solid Christian literature.  After books which teach them about the Bible and its story of redemption, I believe this book will be quite edifying for children of Christian families.  Second to knowledge of the Scriptures, a knowledge of the history of the Christian Church is the best help to godliness for Christians and guard against falling into error.  And one of the most beneficial types of books on Church History is biographies of great Christians from history.  Well-written Christian biographies enthrall the reader and inspire to greater faith and love to God.  Simonetta Carr brings to life for children one of the true giants in the halls of Church history in her book, Augustine of Hippo.  (This book is one of a series by the publisher featuring biographies of important Christian leaders, Church fathers, Reformers, and theologians called Christian Biographies for Young Readers.)

The book is attractive, with colorfully -drawn and brightly-printed illustrations throughout in a large “coffee table” size that facilitates parents reading it to their children.   We have “trial tested” this book in our home and the kids could not get enough of it.  We will have read through it several times before our family outgrows it.  I am sure of it.  This book would be great to read with your children or grand-children.

Augustine was a bishop (overseer), theologian, and preacher of the gospel in a dusty two-bit town called Hippo in North Africa in the late 4th and early 5th centuries A. D.  This was a formative period in the Church.  Christianity had become established by Roman law after long periods of persecution, and the liberty given to the Church allowed for free course in preaching and transmission and copying of the Scriptures.  This freedom led to great advances in theology, preaching, and the availability of the Bible.  There were also important controversies at this time which helped to clarify for the Christian Church what the Scriptures teach:  their most basic doctrines.  Such controversies gave to Church an opportunity to study the Scriptures more carefully on the topics in question and get a more thorough understanding of what Christians had always believed.  The 4th century birthed the landmark Nicene Creed, which clarified Christian belief on the doctrines of the Deity of Christ and the Trinity.  Because of the tremendous influence of towering figures like Augustine, this period of Church history is known as the patristic age, meaning: age of the fathers of the Church.

Augustine was a man who came to Christ later in life, after a mischievous youth and dabbles with a mystery cult that was popular in his day.  The tender story of Monica, his faithfully-praying Christian mother, is a gripping part of his life story recounted in the book.  Her prayers being answered, Augustine would be converted to the true Christian faith, and would later go on to serve God as a bishop, pastor, preacher, and theologian.  Through his preaching and writing he would become without a doubt the most influential figure in the history of the western Church.  Hailed as a great saint and Church father still today by the Roman Catholic Church, his writings on Scripture were immensely influential in the life and ministry of key Protestant Reformers of the 16th century like Martin Luther and John Calvin, (through whose ministry the Church was brought back into conformity with the Holy Scriptures after a long period of decline.)  Augustine’s influence and language is still keenly felt by the Church today.  He is especially known for his contributions to the Christian Church’s understanding of the doctrines of Original Sin (the natural and innate sinfulness inherited by every human being from the sin of Adam our ancestor) and the supremacy of God’s grace in bringing the sinner to life in Christ.

In Simonetta Carr’s book, readers will be gripped by the story of Augustine’s wrestling with the Bible before he came to the faith, his prayerful and beloved mother, his conversion experience, his reluctant ordination to the gospel ministry, his response to the sacking and ransacking of Rome by Germanic barbarians, his wrestling with the doctrines of sin and God’s sovereignty, and the debates and controversies that he waged to defend the truth of the Scriptures against various errors and movements that arose while he served as bishop of Hippo.  As a way of introducing a taste of Church History to children, this book will inspire in its readers an appreciation for the ancient heritage of our common faith as Christians and praise for the God who has directed and protected His Church through all ages of Church history.

And parents or grand-parents will definitely benefit from this book, too!  My advice to parents, grand-parents, and children is: Tolle Lege!  (Latin translated: pick up and read!)

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