Under the pseudonym John Ploughman, Charles Spurgeon published earthy articles in his magazine, The Sword & Trowel, which were later collected into two volumes, John Ploughman’s Talk and John Ploughman’s Pictures. These two volumes are themselves now collected to form Spurgeon’s Practical Wisdom: Or, Plain Advice for Plain People (Banner of Truth, 2009). They were intended to be humorous (but not light), simple, colourful and blunt. Read today, the stance may seem a little condescending and the humour lacking subtlety, but the points are still made very effectively. Spurgeon takes broad swipes at all manner of vice, and stands up without apology for virtue. It is practical religion, with the emphasis on practical, although the Christian underpinnings of the proposed morality float readily and naturally to the surface. There seems to be something distinctively Victorian about the relentless nature of his genius, and it can be a little overwhelming at times (paragraph after paragraph of the same point made using waves of different illustrations and analogies) but it is also the reason for its effectiveness. As a study in how to communicate truth to a chosen audience, it is brilliant. Spurgeon seeks to enter the world of those to whom he is writing – adopting the appropriate frame of reference, vocabulary, tone, humour – and use it as a means to do good men’s souls and bodies. It should be read, then, in two minds: with one, we ought to take the plain advice; with the other, we should learn how to give it. In both regards, Spurgeon serves us well.
Not a new book, this, but a reset volume: John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Banner of Truth, 2009). This work has been available for a long time, but the previous edition had somewhat poor paper quality and binding which was quite quickly chewed up (I replaced mine at least once). For those who do not know it, it is divided into two parts. For some, the second part is the easier introduction, being a little more popular in style, and consisting of ten short chapters taking readers through the ordo salutis (order of salvation, the sequence of events in God’s saving sinners). The first part – on the necessity, nature, perfection and extent of the atonement – is not more or less profound but is denser and perhaps a little less accessible to those not accustomed to Murray’s style. The author never wastes a word: there is no flab in his writing, which makes it brief and clear and crisp (a tonic for the mind) but also means that concentration and acuity are required for reading. Some will appreciate this, others will find it more difficult. For all willing and able to penetrate to the substance, this volume will prove a rich treat, a draught of pure, cold water when there is so much brackish fluid swilling around. Murray reaches the heart by way of the mind: here we see that the truth makes us free indeed, free not least to honour and adore the God of our so great salvation. This ought to be required reading for all who desire to know the how and why of God’s gracious dealings with sinners, and this newly reset edition will make it all the more accessible and attractive. If you already have it, consider investing afresh in this clear and readable edition. If you do not have it, you have no choice: go and get one.
Fire from Heaven: Times of Extraordinary Revival (Evangelical Press, 2009) by Paul E. G. Cook is a curious combination of topical and historical material, in which instruction and application is interwoven with and arises from historical detail. Mr Cook focuses on the period 1791-1840 and the unusual works of God that occurred in England during this time. Assuming much of the vocabulary of revival, he contends that revival does not differ from the essence of normal religious experience, but in its degree, both intensively and extensively (he insists that revival is a Christian experience, but does tend to focus on its impact outside the church). Mr Cook rightly emphasises a ‘supernaturalistic’ view of salvation, bemoaning the impact of Finneyism, and calling saints not to seek revivals, but to seek God himself. The historical material is enlightening and moving, carefully researched and clearly laid out. The didactic material is earnest, even passionate, but some readers would doubtless wish to nuance or disagree with Mr Cook. What none will deny is the vibrant and vigorous godliness, tinged with a sense of eternity, which clearly characterises the subjects of this stimulating book, and which ought to stir up a sense of holy desire for more of the same in every true saint.
Kevin DeYoung gives us a title that I suspect no one else ever will: Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will (Or, How to Make A Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. (Moody Publishers, 2009). This is a straightforward, popular treatment concerning the knowledge of God’s will for our lives. DeYoung attempts to make plain what we can know and how we can know it, and what we can’t know and how to get on with life anyway. He exposes some of the nonsense (however well-meaning) identified in his elaborate sub-sub-title, and urges God’s children to get on with doing the known will of their heavenly Father, not looking for guidance where God has never given it, but using sanctified common-sense to work hard and plan well and trust fully. Some will feel that he is not quite ‘spiritual’ or mystical enough, while others will fear that he has left open a door for continuing revelation (he has, incidentally, after a fashion). Probably a book to read yourself before you put it into the hands of others, to ensure that it meets the particular needs in question, but a helpful, short, straightforward, straight-talking volume.
James Fraser of Brea was born in the north of Scotland in 1639 and converted shortly before his twentieth birthday, though not without much agony of soul. From his longer autobiographical memoir is extracted this Pocket Puritan volume, Am I A Christian? (Banner of Truth, 2009). Here he identifies twenty “objective grounds” for doubting whether he is genuinely converted, with his Scripture-soaked answers to each. Those who suffer similar trials and wrestle with similar doubts and fears may find here either specific answers to their own particular questions, or at least a sound method to follow in examining their own standing. There is some sweet balm here for wounded souls, for Fraser pulls no punches in dealing with the stark realities both of sin and of grace. (Fraser’s use of the word ‘conversion’ is interesting, and also treated here, and there is a brief biographical note.)
I recommend unstintingly Psalm 119 For Life: Living Today in the Light of the Word by Hywel R. Jones (Evangelical Press, 2010). Having its genesis in a series of expository studies in the Chapel of Westminster Seminary (California), our author walks us through each stanza of Psalm 119. Each chapter is brief, with a veiled but evident deep understanding of the text supporting the clear and pointed explanation and application. Dr Jones brings out the full-orbed relationship of a saved man and his saving Lord, not least in the matter of faith and obedience. Excellent as a daily devotional, a pattern for Bible study, or just as a refresher for the soul, this is a volume of rich poetry and rich piety. Take it up and read it.
The One True God (3rd edition, revised and expanded, Granted Ministries Press, 2009) is a spiral-bound but solid workbook by Paul David Washer intended to bring readers face-to-face with the God of the Bible: the student effectively undertakes his own exegesis. The questions demand Scriptural answers, the concern being to hear what God says about himself. At the same time – and it is plain from the very structure of this work – there is an evident appreciation of the stream of historic Biblical Christianity, within which this volume stands. Fourteen lessons deal with specific attributes of the Godhead, asking questions, giving space for answers, and providing a brief summary. More technical vocabulary is explained where necessary. The section on the names of God is a little gem. Perhaps best for group study under a competent guide, this also function well as an individual workbook, and well serves the intended aim of promoting an encounter with God through his Word.
One of many Calvin biographies that was produced in the quincentennial year, Bruce Gordon’s Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009) is an outstanding contribution to the field. Thoroughly-researched and broad of scope, situating Calvin in the theological, cultural and political currents of his time, this stands very well alongside older and other more current biographies. It is a modern treatment in the sense that hero-worship is very far from the agenda. Indeed, one sometimes gets the sense that – so keen is our author to avoid hagiography – there is something that borders on relish when the feet of clay are uncovered. Determined to be fair and frank, Dr Gordon provides a corrective to more defensive biographies but sometimes falls short in the empathy/sympathy department. There is more evident interest in the man than in his God. Again, this may be because, to write what certainly deserves to be one of the academic standards, one is obliged to bow to the standards of the academy. Still, Calvin the man and the minister are here before us, warts and all. We see Calvin as he saw himself and as others saw him, and should be left delighted in and grateful for the enduring kingdom which Christ himself rules.