Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: The New City Catechism Devotional

The New City Catechism Devotional, edited by Collin Hansen.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2017.  Hardcover, 238 pages.

I’m always on the lookout for new family worship resources.  When I spotted this volume at my local Christian bookstore, I thought I’d check it out and give it a test run at home.  So, for a couple of months recently, this devotional served as the catechetical instruction in our daily family worship.  We read each question and answer, read the Scripture text, and then the contemporary commentary.  There is also a brief commentary by a figure from history, but we skipped over that in the interests of time.

For those unaware, the New City Catechism is a teaching tool written by Timothy Keller and Sam Shammas.  It appeared under 2014 under the auspices of The Gospel Coalition and Redeemer Presbyterian Church.  It seeks to condense and modernize Reformation catechisms — there are clear echoes throughout of both the Heidelberg and Westminster Shorter Catechisms.

I have several observations about this devotional and it seems best to divide them into two parts.  First, I’ll comment briefly on the commentary and then a little more at length on the New City Catechism itself.

Contemporary Commentary

Each question and answer of the NCC has commentary, both historic and contemporary.  Historic commentators include John Calvin and Augustine, but also less orthodox figures like John Wesley.  The contemporary commentators are men such as Tim Keller, John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan.

Because there is such a variety of authors, the commentaries or devotional components are uneven.  That happens with any compilation.  Here too: some are short, some are long.  Some read easier than others.  Some have better illustrations or clearer teaching.  Some were really good, others okay, and some mediocre.

I’m going to make some remarks further down about the New City Catechism and its teaching on baptism.  But already here I want to note that from a confessionally Reformed (i.e. Three Forms of Unity) perspective, the teaching in the commentary on baptism is at best inadequate.  If you are intending to use this devotional to teach your covenant children about the meaning of their baptism, then this book is not going to cut the mustard.  There is certainly nothing here about baptism as a sign and seal of God’s covenant.  Baptists will appreciate it more than anyone.

The New City Catechism

There are some things to like about the NCC.  It generally tracks with Reformation theology.  The NCC speaks biblically about the unpopular doctrine of hell in QA 28.  It draws attention to the cosmic significance of Christ’s redemption in QA 26.  In QA 34, obedience to God’s commandments is motivated not only by thankfulness (as in the Heidelberg Catechism), but also by love for God.

However, there are also some significant weaknesses.  There is one question and answer dealing with the Lord’s Prayer.  There is one question and answer dealing with the Apostles’ Creed.  There is a little more with the Ten Commandments — all ten are covered in four questions and answers.  In trying to keep the NCC to fifty-two questions and answers, all these important elements of Christian catechesis have been given short-shrift.  I’ll gladly take my Heidelberger back, thank you very much.

Were I to write a contemporary catechism (not that I plan to), I would be sure to address contemporary concerns.  The Heidelberg Catechism did that — look at Lord’s Day 18 and its four questions and answers on the ascension.  That was all because of polemics with Lutheran theology at the time.  One of today’s major battles has to do with creation and evolution.  While the NCC has two questions and answers dealing with creation, there is nothing to address the threat of evolution.  It’s not in the commentary either.  Should we be surprised?  Since Timothy Keller is a well-known ally of BioLogos, an organization promoting theistic evolution, I suppose not.

As mentioned above, one of the greatest concerns I have about the NCC is its teaching on baptism.  It’s not only what it doesn’t say — i.e. that the children of believers ought to be baptized.  It’s also what it does say, namely that baptism not only “signifies and seals our adoption into Christ [and] our cleansing from sin” but also, “our commitment to belong to the Lord and to his church.”  Does baptism signify and seal “our commitment”?  Doesn’t the one being baptized already belong to the Lord and, if a covenant child, also to his church?  Again, our Baptist friends might be willing to sign on the dotted line for everything in the NCC, but count me out.

Summary

Our family went once through the NCC Devotional, but that’ll be the last time.  Sadly, it’s not a catechism resource I can recommend to Reformed parents.  Perhaps a married couple with children out of the home might use it discerningly with benefit, but it just isn’t solid enough for families.  My top alternative remains Starr Meade’s resource on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.

Readers can check out the NCC and devotional resources online here.


Book Review: Visual Theology

Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth about God, Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  Paperback, 155 pages.

I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies.  These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students.  They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way.   Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end.

Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it.  Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew.  It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style.  So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics.  All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful.

Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things.  Visual Theology is different; it has four parts:  grow close to Christ, understand the work of Christ, become like Christ, live for Christ.  It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented.  It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness” (p.12).  You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ.  Visual Theology shows why and how.  I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly.

As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed.  For example, the use of creeds is affirmed (p.85); the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted (p.94); the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed (p.27); and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness (p.33).  Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election.

By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine” (p.79).  Some readers will detect gaps.  Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two.  Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings.  That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors.  Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing.  There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace.

I have one noteworthy concern:  the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism:  “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life” (p.27).  The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said.  The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism.  As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace.  However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position.  Discerning readers should be able to chew the rest of the meat while spitting out this bone.

This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class.  For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and moreVisual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation.  You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying!


Book Review: How to Plant a Reformed Church

How to Plant a Reformed Church, The Missions Committee of the United Reformed Churches of North America, 2015.  Paperback, 104 pages.

As the title suggests, this is a practical guide for Reformed church planting.  It comes from the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA).  Many of my readers are familiar with the URCNA.  For those who are not, this federation of churches emerged out of the 1990s-era Christian Reformed Church.  As the CRC drifted away from Scripture on issues like women in office, faithful Reformed believers headed for the exits.  As a new confessionally Reformed federation came into existence, there was also an eagerness amongst many of these believers to be outward looking.  Church planting and missions was in the DNA of the URCNA from the start.  Especially in the United States, some of their instituted churches date back to church plants begun in the 2000s.

Fast forward to the 2010s and discussions were taking place about how to collate lessons learned from these early endeavours.  Could the URCNA Missions Committee put together a resource that would help churches better do the work of church planting?  The Orthodox Presbyterian Church had developed their own guide:  Planting an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (you can find it here).  When I was a missionary, I found that manual incredibly helpful, even though I’m not a Presbyterian.  Many lessons learned in the OPC are transferable to other contexts, even to the type of cross-cultural work I was doing.  Some URCNA church planters discovered the same, but also saw the need to develop a resource that would be more explicitly aligned with URCNA beliefs (the Three Forms of Unity) and church government.  That led to this little book.

There are many helpful insights in How to Plant a Reformed Church.  How do you decide when it’s time to plant a church?  Where should you plant a church?  How should it be overseen?  How do you promote the church plant in the community it’s placed?  When do you know that it’s time to institute the church?  What’s the role of the classis?  All these are questions addressed here.  There are also five appendices with teaching materials for church plants.  They cover topics like:  “What is Church Membership and Why Is It Necessary?” and “What is Reformed Worship?”  As a pastor in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, I think much of this could be transferable to our context here, and equally to the Canadian Reformed Churches.  I’m sure that others in different contexts could also make use of the wisdom in this book.

Besides the practical bent, I also appreciate the emphasis on developing a confessional ethos in church planting.  The title says How to Plant a Reformed Church, and ‘Reformed’ there means unabashedly confessional.  This approach has nothing to do with the bait-and-switch model — i.e. attracting people by pretending to be something other than Reformed.  Like the OPC manual, this book emphasizes beginning with the end in mind.  If we want a truly Reformed church, then the approach needs to be confessionally Reformed from the get go.  The book explains how.

If it’s not obvious, I have high praise for this resource.  I hope it not only gets read, but that it stimulates Reformed churches, URCNA and otherwise, to continue giving attention to the spread of the gospel.  After all, that’s a principal reason behind the existence of the church.  We’re here to proclaim Christ crucified and be God’s instruments to see more people worship him in churches everywhere.

A free electronic copy of How to Plant a Reformed Church is available here.


Book Review: Loving Jesus More

Loving Jesus More, Phil Ryken.  Wheaton:  Crossway, 2014.  Paperback, 175 pages.

The Bible compares our relationship to the Saviour in several ways:  disciple/Teacher, sheep/Shepherd, servant/King, and more.  One of the most powerful images is that of the Bridegroom and his Bride.  Jesus is the husband, and the church is his beloved wife.  We are in this relationship with Christ where he deeply loves us and is covenantally committed to us.  Unfortunately, we don’t always reciprocate that love as we ought.  That’s what this book is about.  The title says it all:  it’s aimed at stirring up Christians to love their Saviour more.  What Christian wouldn’t want to do that?

Phil Ryken is the president of Wheaton College in Illinois.  He’s written numerous books besides this one.  Loving Jesus More came out of a series of chapel messages he delivered at Wheaton College in 2012-2013.

Though it comes from a scholar, this book is far from being academic in tone or approach.  Rather, its tenor is thoroughly devotional and pastoral.  Ryken gets to the heart of the matter, diagnosing why we don’t love the Saviour more, but also showing the way forward.  He does all of this by faithfully expositing and applying relevant Scripture passages.

For a short book, it punches well above its weight.  The writing is crisp and winsome.  Let me give you a brief sample.  In chapter 2, Ryken writes about doubt and how doubt can impact your love for the Saviour.  He notes:

Some believers spend too much time doubting their faith, and not enough time doubting their doubts.  Yes, there are some reasonable questions that thoughtful people have always raised about the Christian faith.  But there are also some very good questions that faithful people should raise about their spiritual doubts:

  • Have I studied what God has to say on this question, or have I been listening mainly to his detractors?
  • Am I well aware of the how this doubt has been addressed in the history of Christian theology, or has my thinking been relatively superficial?
  • Have I been compromising with sin in ways that make it harder for me to hear God’s voice and diminish my desire for the purity of his truth?
  • Is this a doubt that I have offered sincerely to God in prayer, or am I waiting to see if God measures up to my standards before I ask for his help?  (p.33)

The book is peppered with appropriate illustrations (many of which I’ve noted for my own preaching and teaching!).  Moreover, Loving Jesus More also includes a Study Guide with helpful questions for reflection or group discussion.

This little gem could be quite edifying reading for a number of quiet Sunday afternoons.  I’d also recommend it as a gift for those who make public profession of faith.  They’re openly stating their love for the Saviour – and we should encourage that love to grow.  And, for all of us, don’t we desire to grow in affection for the Saviour who literally loved us to death?  That growth will happen through the Scriptures, and also through faithful books like this one based on Scripture.


Book Review: The Story of Reality

The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important That Happens in Between, Gregory Koukl.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.  Paperback, 198 pages, $15.99 USD.

There are two types of apologetics books:  there are the ones that tell you about defending the faith and then there are the ones that show you how to defend the faith.  Greg Koukl’s new book falls into the latter category.  It’s a book written with two main types of readers in mind.  It’s for Christians who are struggling for answers to the big questions that come with the Christian faith.  It’s also written for unbelievers who are open to considering the claims of the Christian faith.  For both readers (and others), I think Koukl has something powerful to offer.

The Story of Reality is a basic overview of most of the key elements of a Christian worldview.  When I say it’s basic, I mean that it’s not written at a highly academic level.  A high school or college student should be able to manage it.  However, behind the basic level of communication, one familiar with the issues will recognize that Koukl is no slouch.  The deeper stuff is in his grasp, but he has distilled it into something readily understood.

The concept of “worldview” is increasingly being criticized in Christian circles as something created by modern philosophy.  Perhaps it’s for this reason that Koukl recasts the notion in terms of a story.  In this story, there are characters and there is a plot.  The main characters are God and man.  The plot involves creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.  But unlike other stories, the Christian story (laid out in the Bible) is objectively true — it is reality.  Koukl addresses other competing “stories” such as materialism, mysticism/pantheism, and Islam.  He critiques these stories and shows how they’re inadequate for explaining the state of things as we see them.  He then also provides ample argumentation to illustrate that it’s only the Christian story (or worldview) that can be true.  Christianity is true because of the impossibility of the contrary.

Readers familiar with Reformed presuppositional apologetics will recognize what Koukl is doing.  His method is generally in that school.  As I’ve noted before (in my review of his previous book Tactics), Koukl is a student of Francis Schaeffer, who in turn had been a student of Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til was one of the pioneers of Reformed presuppositional apologetics.  One of the key features of that school is a commitment to the place of Scripture in apologetics, not only as a foundation, but also as part of the actual method.  Similarly, throughout The Story of Reality, Koukl is constantly either quoting or, more often, paraphrasing the Bible.  This is highly commendable!

This is not to say that Koukl is always consistently in the Reformed school of apologetics.  There are a couple of places where I put some question marks.  In chapter 21, he discusses faith.  He correctly notes that faith, in itself, does not save.  Rather, faith is the instrument through which we are saved.  Then he writes this:

This is why reason and evidence matter in the story.  It is critical to get certain facts right.  Put simply — reason assesses, faith trusts.  That is the relationship of reason to faith.  Reason helps us know what is actually true, leading to accurate belief.  Faith is our step of trust to rely on what we have good reason to believe is so.  (page 137)

There is some truth in this.  You can say that faith needs and uses reason as a tool.  However, there are also important limits to this.  Above all, the unregenerate mind misuses and abuses reason because of sin.  Unregenerate reason is not going to assess facts correctly.  Deadened by sin, reason does not help you know what is actually true.  Moreover, even when regeneration comes into the picture, human reason is going to run stuck with certain pieces of the Christian worldview (or story).  Think of the Trinity.  Reason assesses that doctrine and says, “Sorry, it doesn’t make sense.”  Does faith then stop trusting?   Faith has reasons for believing in the Trinity, but those reasons come down to the faithfulness and reliability of the One who revealed it to us, not the logical self-evidence of it.

There were a few other questionable statements.  In this blog post, I interacted with his suggestion on page 51 that the Big Bang is compatible with Genesis.  In chapter 11, he opines that the Bible teaches that animals have souls.  The biblical evidence offered for this is debatable.

I also want to draw attention to an omission.  The subtitle tells us that the book will tell us “everything important that happens in between” the beginning and the end.  But in Koukl’s story, an important part is missing.  It’s the part where the lives of believers are transformed by the gospel.  It’s the part where the Holy Spirit works to change us and make us into new people who take every thought captive for Christ in every area of life.  I was hoping to read at least a paragraph, preferably a chapter, about that vital and wonderful part of the Story.  It’s incomplete without it.

Despite my criticisms, overall this is a well-written and well-argued book.  Koukl deftly anticipates questions and objections.  He uses helpful illustrations.  The chapters are of such a length as not to be intimidating.  If you know an unbeliever who is showing interest in the faith, I’d suggest buying two copies — one for yourself, and one for her or him.  Offer to read it together and discuss it.  You’d for sure find yourself enriched and, who knows, perhaps it would be God’s instrument to work faith in the heart of your friend too.