Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life

kelBob Kellemen, Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2017, pp. 246, $19.99

One man blazed a trail in the sixteenth century that laid the groundwork for countless numbers of Christians. Martin Luther was the primary agent who God used in a mighty way as he hammered his 95 theses on the castle door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. He unleashed a theological revolution known as the Protestant Reformation, where the doctrines of grace were recovered and the gospel began to exert a powerful influence in the lives of people.

Counseling Under the Cross by Bob Kellemen explores the life and legacy of Martin Luther and reveals how his theological framework influenced his counseling ministry.

What Shaped Martin Luther’s Pastoral Counseling?

Part one explores Luther’s background and alerts readers to the oppressive environment that was so common in the sixteenth century. Luther fought desperately to find peace with God but was doomed to failure apart from completed work of Christ which is received by grace alone through faith alone.

Kellemen explains how Luther’s anxiety impacted his life in his early adult years. Luther admits, “For I had hoped I might find peace of conscience with fasts, prayers, and the vigils with which I miserably afflicted my body, but the more I sweated it out like this, the less peace and tranquillity I knew.”

The author continues, “Before he came under the influence of the cross, Luther lived life as a man terrified that he would never find peace with God because his God was not a God of peace. Luther lived with a constant sense of guilt and dread in the face of a terrifying, angry, and unforgiving God.”

The only way Luther found relief is by casting all his hope and future on a sovereign God, by grace alone through faith alone. Kellemen writes, “The Christ of the cross transformed Luther the man terrified before God into Luther the man at peace with God.” This newly converted man now saw God in a different light which not only radically affected his life; it altered his ministry at every level.

What is the Shape of Martin Luther’s Pastoral Counseling?

“Luther’s counseling reflects his theology – it is cross-shaped and gospel-centered.” Part two reveals the shape of Luther’s pastoral counseling. The author examines Luther’s approach to pastoral counseling by exploring two primary angles.

First, soul care: comfort for suffering.Luther’s theology and methodology of sustaining and healing are presented with specific examples of how the Reformer encouraged and edified the saints.

Second, spiritual direction: confrontation for sinning.Specifically, Luther’s theology and methodology of reconciling and guiding are presented here. Again, the author paints a pastoral portrait of Luther and shows him at work among the Body of Christ. While soul care (noted above) involves comforting and encourages Christians, spiritual direction involves a confrontation with people. Kellemen adds, “In reconciling soul care, we seek to startle one another with the gospel.” Such a nouthetic approach is mandated in Scripture (Col. 1:28) and plays a vital role in biblical counseling.

EVALUATION

Counseling Under the Cross is a treasure chest of gospel nuggets. Bob Kellemen does a beautiful job of explaining how Martin Luther applied the gospel to everyday life. One of the most helpful aspects of the book is the emphasis on indicatives and imperatives. The author makes it clear that both are important aspects of the Christian life: “Salvation in Christ (gospel indicatives) frees, empowers, and motivates us through faith to serve others in love (gospel imperatives). Progressive sanctification is faith active in love – exercising the love that comes from faith in the grace of Christ.”

I strongly urge pastors, counselors, and church leaders to prayerfully study Counseling Under the Cross. Additionally, I urge readers to pick up a copy of my recent book, Bold Reformer: Celebrating the Gospel-Centered Convictions of Martin Luther, as a companion volume to Bob Kellemen’s excellent work.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

 

Advertisements

Enjoying God: Finding Hope in the Attributes of God

arcSproul, R.C. Enjoying God: Finding Hope in the Attributes of God, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017, 230 pp. $16.99

Enjoying God: Finding Hope in the Attributes of God by R.C. Sproul is written with the layman in mind. The author intentionally sets unnecessary theological jargon aside and aims for hearts and minds of everyday people. The end result is a biblical vision of God which draws readers into a profound sense of worship and awe.

The focus in Enjoying God is theology proper which sets forth a sampling of God’s attributes including omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, truth, immutability, justice, and love to name a few. Eleven chapters are devoted to exploring God’s attributes. Each chapter includes a brief explanation linked to the pertinent biblical passages.

I cannot think of any living author outside of R.C. Sproul who has so revolutionized my view of God. My first introduction to Dr. Sproul came in 1988 as I devoured his best-selling book, Chosen By God. Those were formative years where the theological foundations in my life began to slowly take shape. Since then, I have consumed every book I can find by Dr. Sproul. He consistently points to a God who is holy, holy, holy. And he faithfully exposits the Bible in a way that exalts the living God.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

No Silver Bullets – Daniel Im (2017)

bulletsDaniel Im, No Silver Bullets, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2017, 268 pp. $11.02

Discipleship books are a “dime a dozen” these days. The upswing in these books is both a blessing and a curse. Great blessing comes when one of these books draws readers to Scripture, captures their hearts with Christ-saturated truth, and presents biblical principles for growing in the Christian faith. However, the rapid rise in books devoted to discipleship is also a curse for many of these books are trite, simplistic, and quite frankly, miss the mark entirely. Daniel Im’s No Silver Bullets is numbered among the former.

The subtitle captures the essence of Im’s proposal: 5 Small Shifts That Will Transform Your Ministry. The author maintains, “The only way change happens – significant, long-lasting, macro-level change – is through a series of small decisions, steps, or micro-shifts, that are put into action and completed one at a time.” These shifts are set forth in Section One and include the following with brief summaries:

  1. From Destination to Direction – Emphasizing disciples who are focused on a direction instead of merely completed a set of check-lists, which is so common in many churches. Such an approach is bound to lead to both spiritual growth and numerical growth. Maturity in this model is “a result of equipping your church members with the right tools at the right time, so that they can ‘run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith.’”
  2. From Output to Input – At the heart of this shift is a re-examination of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Extensive research reveals that maturing disciples read the Bible on a regular basis, strive to obey God, deny self, serve God and others, share their faith, exercise their faith, seek God, build relationships, and strive for to live transparent lives. These markers are referred to throughout as “input goals” which serve as indicators of spiritual growth and maturity. Once again, the emphasis is that micro-changes in these areas lead to life change.
  3. From Sage to Guide – This shift presents a fresh approach to theological education which places a premium upon application, a component that is missing in many church classrooms.
  4. From Form to Function – Here a renewed emphasis is placed squarely on the kingdom of God. Indeed, as Im writes, “A healthy church that is making disciples of all nations is supposed to be a forecast of the kingdom of God.”
  5. From Maturity to Missionary – The final shift focuses on the missional elements of the church. Mr. Im builds on the work of Timothy Keller who also emphasizes the missionary paradigm. Six specific components are presented: 1) The church must confront society’s idols, 2) The church must contextualize skillfully and communicate in the vernacular, 3) The church must equip people in mission in every area of their lives, 4) The church must be a counterculture for the common good, 5) The church must itself be contextualized, and 6) The church must practice unity.

These various shifts are explained comprehensively and linked to the Bible. Once again, readers are reminded that small shifts are preferable and will lead to lasting change in the lives of disciples and the corporate Body of Christ.

Section Two reveals the path of discipleship. This section unpacks the practical outworking of the material that Mr. Im presented in the first part of the book. Mr. Im suggests how to lead a church that needs to initiate strategic steps of change. But the author clearly communicates that change is never easy and requires courage.

An important step on the discipleship path involves vision, strategy, and values. Examples are offered and exercises are included to help pastors and leaders in this area.

Daniel Im’s presentation is biblical from start to finish. The principles are attainable in the local church setting and many practical suggestions are included that will help move churches forward on the path to discipleship. The emphasis on making “small shifts” is sure to be a hit with pastors and Christian leaders who are bombarded every day with ideas in books and suggestions from parishioners. At times, the material is repetitive but patient readers will be rewarded in the long-run for sticking with the author and following his life of thought.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World – Thomas Schreiner (2017)

covenantThomas R. Schreiner, Covenant and God’s Purpose For the World, Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2017, 136 pp. $9.97

Biblical theology is the discipline that reveals the storyline of Scripture. It looks at the big picture, which begins at creation and culminates with the new earth, where God makes all things new. “The purpose of biblical theology,” according to James Hamilton “is to sharpen our understanding of the theology contained in the Bible itself through an inductive, salvation-historical examination of the Bible’s themes and the relationships between those themes in their canonical context and literary form.”1

Thomas Schreiner makes a significant contribution to the field of biblical theology with his latest work, Covenant and God’s Purposes For the World. This volume, which is part of Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology Series is not as extensive as Hamilton’s work noted above or Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum’s, excellent volume, Kingdom Through Covenant. But the brevity of Schreiner’s short book is a real strength, as we shall see.

Dr. Schreiner’s book unpacks the various covenants that unfold in Redemptive history including the covenant with creation, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and the new covenant. “The covenants,” writes Schreiner, “help us, then, to see the harmony and unity of the biblical message.” Ultimately, the author achieves this goal as he alerts readers to the apex of God’s saving work: “The promises of Abraham are fulfilled in the new covenant that Jesus brings, for he is the true offspring of Abraham, and all those who belong to him are the children of Abraham. The land promise is fulfilled in an inaugural way in his resurrection and then in a consummate way in the new creation.”

Covenant and God’s Purposes For the World demolishes the “cookie cutter” approach to hermeneutics that Dispensationalism offers. In its place, is a clear portrait of God’s redemptive plans for his people – a plan that promises “a new world of peace and righteousness is coming in which God the Lamb will reign … The promise that David won’t lack a man on the throne is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He reigns now from heaven at God’s right hand as the son of David, as and Lord and Christ.”

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

  1. James Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 47.

Steal Away Home – Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey (2017)

chMatt Carter and Aaron Ivey, Steal Away Home, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2017, 294 pp. $14.60

Church history is filled with stories of courage, adventure, adversity, and persecution. From the exile of Athanasius, the martyrdom of John Rogers and William Tyndale, or Luther’s trial at Worms, these stories are well-known and we are quick to pass them along to the next generation.

Steal Away Home by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey is a tale that will be new to many readers, however.  It was certainly new for me! The story involves two men from backgrounds that have very little in common. C.H. Spurgeon was the Prince of Preachers, a refined man with a rich theological heritage who occupied the pulpit in Victorian England. He was well-known around the world. He was a best-selling author and recognized by thousands. Thomas Johnson was a simple slave boy who was unjustly shackled in colonial America. He was known by few and treated like an animal. His slave master worked him to the bone on the Virginia tobacco fields.

Jesus Christ liberated Thomas Johnson. He freed him from the power and the penalty of sin. President Abraham Lincoln rescued Thomas Johnson from the sin of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln regarded as the crowning achievement of his presidency, liberated Thomas from his slave master. Jesus Christ liberated Thomas from the slave master of sin.

Through a series of Providential events, Thomas Johnson found himself at the front door of C.H. Spurgeon in London. After his training was complete, he and his wife made their way to Cameroon, West Africa in 1879.

PERSONAL TAKEAWAYS

Steal Away Home is a work of historical fiction. It becomes clear at the outset, however, that the authors spent many hours researching the details of this intriguing story. My hope is that a few personal takeaways will prompt many people to enter rich world of the 19th century and absorb some life-altering lessons.

1. The Humanization of C.H. Spurgeon

I have been reading Spurgeon and books about the Prince of Preachers for almost thirty years. This book brilliantly captures the essence of Spurgeon and is not afraid of revealing his warts, weaknesses, and worries. It is a breath of fresh air for anyone who is under the false notion that the famous preacher from London lived a life of ease. Spurgeon’s doubt and lifelong battle with depression is highlighted and his fears are revealed.

2. The Horror of Slavery

Most Americans recognize that slavery is a perpetual “black eye” on our nations’ history. But few understand the gravity of what these innocent African Americans endured. Carter and Ivey masterfully reveal the pitiful nature of slavery through the eyes of Thomas Johnson. Sympathetic readers will feel genuine grief as they walk with Johnson and experience the horror of his chains.

3. The Hallowed Ground of Friendship

Steal Away Home reminds readers of the importance and value of friendship. The friendship fostered by Spurgeon and Thomas is grounded in grace and nurtured by honest communication, genuine fun, rich encouragement, and biblical accountability. Like David and Jonathan, these two men are examples of friendship that glorifies God. Indeed, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). Indeed, friendship is hallowed ground that too few men tread upon.

4. The Hope of the Gospel

Finally, this story shows how the gospel operates in the real world. Apart from grace, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson were dead in trespasses and sins, without hope and without God. Indeed, apart from grace, Spurgeon and Johnson were both spiritual slaves. Both men, however, were set free as they cast their hope on the Lord Jesus Christ. In the course of their very different earthly paths, they wound up on the same spiritual path, which ultimately led them both to the Celestial City!

Steal Away Home encouraged me personally and moved my soul in ways that most books only hope to do. Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey stepped up to the plate and hit the ball out of the park.  Their work will no doubt be a contender for book of the year.  I commend their work wholeheartedly!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

Wrath Upon the Wicked To the Uttermost – Jonathan Edwards (1735)

The sermon is dated May, 1735.  Jonathan Edwards makes his way into the pulpit to Jonathan_Edwards_engravingread his manuscript – which was his consistent habit.  The full title of the sermon is When the Wicked Shall Have Filled Up the Measure of Their Sin, Wrath Will Come Upon Them to the Uttermost.  The text that the preacher from Northampton utilizes is 1 Thessalonians 2:16 – “To fill up their sins alway; for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.”

Before Edwards wrestles with the doctrinal implications, he makes two important observations:

1. To what effect was the heinous wickedness and obstinacy of the Jews, viz. to fill up their sins.

2. The punishment of their wickedness: “The wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.”  There is a connection between the measure of men’s sin, and the measure of punishment.  When they have filled up the measure of their sin, then is filled up the measure of God’s wrath.  Edwards observes, “God often punishes men very dreadfully in this world; but in hell “wrath comes on them to the uttermost.”  He alerts his congregation to the certainty of this punishment: “For though the punishment was then future, yet it is spoken of as present: ‘The wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.'”

Edwards repeats his doctrine and continues by setting forth 3 primary propositions.

Doctrine

When those that continue in sin shall have filled up the measure of their sin, then wrath will come upon them to the uttermost.

Proposition #1:

There is a certain measure that God hath set to the sin of every wicked man.

Edwards explains, “But sometimes the reason why God lets them alone is, because they have not filled up the measure of their sins.  When they live in dreadful wickedness, they are but filling up the measure which God hath limited for them.”  In other words, each person shall live until they reach the tipping point.

Proposition # 2:

While men continue in sin, they are filling the measure set them.

Proposition # 3:

When once the measure of their sins is filled up, then wrath will come upon them to the uttermost.  God will then wait no longer upon them.

Edwards notes, “Now is the day of grace, and the day of patience, which they spend in filling up their sins; but when their sins shall be full, then will come the day of wrath, the day of the fierce anger of God.”

God’s wrath is never fully exerted against wicked men while in this world but once they have filled up the measure of their sins, wrath will come upon them to the uttermost as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:16.  Edwards makes five important observations about God’s wrath which will be unleashed on unregenerate men when they reach what I call the “tipping point.”

1. Wrath will come upon them without any restraint or moderation in the degree of it.

“The wrath of God will be poured out like fire.  He will come forth, not only in anger, but in the fierceness of his anger; he will execute wrath with power, so as to show what his wrath is, and make his power known.  There will be nothing to alleviate his wrath; his heavy wrath will lie on them, without any thing to lighten the burden, or to keep off, in any measure, the full weight of it from pressing the soul.”

“Then shall wicked men know that God is the Lord; they shall know how great that majesty is which they have despised, and how dreadful that threatened wrath is which they have so little regarded.  Then shall come on wicked men that punishment which they deserve.”

2. Wrath will then be executed without any merciful circumstances.

Edwards is quick to point out that in this life, God shows forbearance with sinners; he is merciful.  “But in hell there will be no more exercises of divine patience.”

3. Wrath will be so executed, as to perfect the work to which wrath tends, viz. utterly to undo the subject of it.

“The soul will be, as it were utterly crushed; the wrath will be wholly intolerable.  It must sink, and will utterly sink, and will have no more strength to keep itself from sinking, than a worm would have to keep itself from being crushed under the weight of a mountain.”

4. When persons shall have filled up the measure of their sin, that wrath will come upon them which is eternal.

Edwards provides his congregation with divine perspective and adds, “Nothing can be longer than eternity.”

5. When persons shall have filled up the measure of their sin, then wrath will come upon them to the uttermost of what is threatened.  Sin is an infinite evil; and the punishment which God hath threatened against it is very dreadful.

Application

Jonathan Edwards jumps immediately to application and draws the attention of his congregation to three concluding points.  He is especially concerned to warn natural men to flee from sin!

1. Under what great means and advantages you continue in sin.

Edwards challenges adults who grew up in Northampton and were warned repeatedly to flee from sin.  Some have even had what Edwards refers to as “awakenings,” but they continue in sin.  He refers to some congregants who “narrowly escaped death by dangerous accidents” yet they continue to persist in their sin.

2. How dreadful the wrath of God is, when it is executed to the uttermost.  To make you in some measure sensible of that, I desire you to consider whose wrath it is.  The wrath of a king is the roaring of a lion; but this is the wrath of Jehovah, the Lord God Omnipotent.

3. Consider, you know not what wrath God may be about to execute upon wicked men in this world.

Edwards concludes with a stern warning: “Therefore it behooves all to haste and flee for their lives, to get into a safe condition, to get into Christ; then they need not fear, though the earth be removed, and the mountains carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled; though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof: for God will be their refuge and strength; they need not be afraid of evil tidings; their hearts may be fixed, trust in the Lord.”

Jonathan Edwards reminds us of the importance of faith in Christ and the dreadful consequences of anyone who refuses to turn from their sin and flee to him for forgiveness.  His preaching may sound strange to the postmodern ear.  His theology may be uncomfortable.  His tone may appear sharp and uninviting.  But these concerns only indicate the great height from which we have fallen.

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God – Brian Zahnd (2017)

zhand

Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017, 210 pp. $10.19

COMMENDING JONATHAN EDWARDS

I will never forget a very special evening with a small group of Christ-followers at the McLean home.  My good friend, Don suggested that we read Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards in one sitting – on our knees.  And so a group of middle-aged adults gathered in Don’s living room alongside several children (whose knees were much more nimble) – and we read Edward’s classic sermon – on our knees.  It is a moment I will not soon forget.  We were humbled.  We were drawn into the very presence of God.  And like the 18th-century congregation in Enfield – we were cut to the quick.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is not only one of the most well-known sermons in American history; it is one of the most powerful sermons ever preached on American soil.  In one sermon, the Puritan divine highlights both the awesome wrath of a holy God and the matchless grace and tenderhearted love of Jesus Christ.

The sermon is derived from Deuteronomy 32:35 – “Their foot shall slide in due time.”  The doctrine that Edwards sets forth is simple: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”

Edwards concludes with a strong application which is meant to awaken sinners and flee from the wrath of God.  Current readers (along with the original Enfield congregation) are faced with a momentous decision as Edwards warns them to the sobering reality of God’s wrath: “There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.”

Readers are challenged to take advantage of “the door of mercy wide open” which beckons them to receive the grace of God in Christ. The concluding words of the sermon leave sinners with an important decision; the most decision they will ever make: “Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.  The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation.  Let every one fly out of Sodom: “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.”

CONDEMNING JONATHAN EDWARDS

The congregation in Enfield was humbled and mercifully drawn to the Savior as literally, thousands have since been Edwards first preached his sermon on July 8, 1741. But not everyone is eager to receive the biblical message that Edwards preaches. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God has received a fair amount of criticism over the years.  It has been and continues to be maligned and caricatured.  Often found on a list of required reading for college English courses, the sermon is mocked for its candid language and scary images.  Many readers simply cannot stomach the God that Edwards presents or submit to the God that Edwards loves and serves.

Brian Zahnd’s new book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News is the latest thunderbolt against the Edwardsean vision of God. Zahnd argues that Edwards depicts God as a “sadistic juvenile dangling spiders over a fire.”1 He likens Edwards’s vision of hell to “the Almighty’s eternal Auschwitz.”2 And Edwards’s vision of God is compared to a “sadistic monster.”3

Zahnd’s work is a best-selling release in the Christology category on Amazon. It has been highly touted by well-known authors. And it has received rave reviews on Amazon as readers are drawn to a softer version of God and a worldview which is miles away from Reformed theology. But does this popular book stand up to the scrutiny of Scripture? Does Mr. Zahnd’s critique of Reformed stalwarts like Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin have any merit? At least four major concerns surface in Mr. Zahnd’s book.

CONCERNS WITH SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF A LOVING GOD

The Portrait of God

The first concern is regarding the portrait of God. Readers will quickly discover that the portrait of God in this book is painted with a different kind of brush which renders an altogether different portrayal of God. What we find is a God utterly devoid of wrath. To be fair, Mr. Zahnd affirms the existence of God’s wrath and divine anger in Scripture but maintains these biblical realities are only metaphors, none of which are designed to be taken literally. And “liberalizing a divine metaphor,” according to Zahnd “always leads to error. We easily acknowledge that God is not literally a rock and not literally a hen, but we have tended to literalize the metaphor of divine anger.”4 But Zahnd confuses anthropomorphic language that attributes body parts to God or compares him to a rock or a hen or an eagle with the reality of God’s wrath. Instead of affirming the plain teaching of Scripture, Zahnd simply says, “God is not wrath.”5

Once the author dispenses with any literal notion of God’s wrath, he is able to make the following sweeping statement about God’s character: “The revelation that God’s single disposition toward sinners remains one of unconditional love does not mean we are exempt from the consequences of going against the grain of love. When we live against the grain of love we suffer the cards of self-inflicted suffering. This is the ‘wrath of God.’”6

So instead of facing God’s all-consuming wrath, unrepentant sinners are merely enduring a season of “self-inflicted suffering.” Time does not permit a detailed examination of the myriad of passages that point to God’s wrath. But notice, for example, a holy God’s response to sin in Psalm 5:5-7.

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

R.C. Sproul helps dismantle the idea that God loves all sinners unconditionally:

I can think of no more pernicious lie to destroy people’s souls than this, which some preachers are spreading around the world: God loves you unconditionally. No, he does not. If we do not meet the conditions that he established for us in creation, then God will send us to hell forever. That is what the Bible says, even though the culture does not. He requires perfect obedience. Unless that condition is met, none of us will ever step inside the courts of heaven. Unless the terms of the covenant of creation are kept perfectly, we will rendezvous in hell, where we justly belong because of our disobedience.7

God’s response to sin in Psalm 5:5-7 may sound severe to the typical postmodern ear. But the Scriptural reality of God’s wrath stands. Despite the overwhelming biblical evidence, though, Zahnd categorically rejects the wrath of God. He argues, “You have nothing to fear from God. God is not mad at you. God is never going to be mad at you.”8

“The true biblical test of any theology,” writes Stephen Wellum, “is whether it accounts for all of the biblical data.”9 While a few select passages that concern God’s wrath are selected from the Old Testament in Zahand’s work (and ultimately explained away as “metaphors”), the New Testament reality of God’s wrath is simply set aside. Passages such as Matthew 3:7; John 3:36; Romans 1:18-19; 2:5; 5:9 and Colossians 3:6 are strangely missing. One wonders how 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 would be explained in a book that discounts the wrath of God:

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed because our testimony to you was believed.

A.W. Tozer was deeply concerned about views concerning God that failed to match the teaching of Scripture. He writes, “It is my opinion that the Christian conception of God current in these middle years of the twentieth century is so decadent as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers something amounting to a moral calamity.”10 The pattern that Tozer identified in those days continues in our day, even among people who bear the name of Christ. That pattern is repeated in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.

The Prescription for Forgiveness

Like many other popular pastors and teachers, Zahnd repudiates penal substitutionary atonement. Influenced by Jürgen Moltmann’s, Crucified God, the author makes these general assertions:

  • “The cross is many things, but it is not a quid pro quo to mollify an angry God.”11
  • “Yes, it was a murder that God knew would happen – because of our addiction to sin and violence – but God’s foreknowledge of this killing doesn’t mean that it was God’s will for Jesus to be murdered.”12
  • “The cross is not a picture of payment; the cross is a picture of forgiveness. Good Friday is not about divine wrath; God Friday is about divine love.”13
  • “The cross is not the place where God vents his wrath on Jesus. The cross is the place where human fear and anger are absorbed into God’s eternal love and recycled into the saving mercy of Christ.”14

All these statements are clear indications that the author rejects penal substitutionary atonement. Zahnd echoes the rantings of Steve Chalke who has likened penal substitution to “cosmic child abuse.” Zahnd writes, “The cross is not where God finds a whipping boy to vent his rage upon; the cross is where God saves the world through self-sacrificing love. The only thing God will call justice is setting the world right, not punishing an innocent substitute for the petty sake of appeasement.”15

Zahnd agrees with the conclusion of Tony Jones’ book, Did God Kill Jesus? Both writers agree and emphatically declare that God did not kill Jesus. Zahnd continues, “Among the many problems with Calvin’s theory of the cross is that it turns God into a petty tyrant and a moral monster. Punishing the innocent in order to forgive the guilty is monstrous logic, atrocious theology, and a gross distortion of the idea of justice.”16 Zahnd continues, “A theory of the cross that says it was God who desired the torture and murder of Jesus on Good Friday turns the Father of Jesus into a cruel and sadistic monster. It’s salvation by divine sadism.” 17

What are we to make of these revealing statements which ridicule penal substitutionary atonement? To begin with, anyone who compares God to a “sadistic monster” should rethink their strategy and repent. The reality is this: “Penal substitution,” writes Roger Nicole, is the vital center of the atonement, the linchpin without which everything else loses its foundation.”18 Emil Brunner cuts through the theological fog and offers this timely advice: “… He who understands the Cross aright – this is the opinion of the Reformers – understands the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ.”19

Zahnd maintains that God knew about the cross but never “willed” the horrific events of the cross. However, two passages in the book of Acts show the sovereignty of God in salvation and demonstrate God’s involvement in the cross from start to finish:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:22–23, ESV).

for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:27–28, ESV).

Affirming the love and mercy of God at the cross but discounting his wrath is wrongheaded, dangerous, and unbiblical. R.C. Sproul laments, “A god who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol.”

Finally, the reckless abandonment of penal substitutionary atonement undercuts the gospel of Jesus Christ. Penal substitutionary atonement is not an invention of Calvin – it is the plain teaching of Scripture. Christ bore the penalty for our sins. Christ was the substitute for every sinner that would ever believe.

We deserved wrath – yet Jesus stands in as our substitute (Heb. 9:26). We were the enemies of God and separated from him because of our sin – yet Jesus reconciled us to God (Isa. 59:2; Col. 1:20-22; 2 Cor. 5:18-19). We were slaves to sin, yet Jesus was our redeemer (John 8:34, 36; Mark 10:45; Col. 1:13; Eph. 1:7). We deserved the wrath of God – yet Jesus was our propitiation (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10) and satisfied the righteous demands of the law by absorbing the white-hot wrath of the Father.

We have an unshakable hope because we are saved from the wrath of God and saved through the Son of God. These realities give rise to a new way of living. These realities spark new motivation. These truths propel us into the future and enable us to live our lives to the glory of God!

The Paltry Nature of Scripture

The problems in Zahnd’s book intensify when one considers his view of Scripture. To be clear, the author claims to have a high view of Scripture. However, his view must be clarified:

When I point out that the Bible is the penultimate word of God that points us to the ultimate Word of God who is Jesus, I do so as a person with a high view of Scripture and a lifelong commitment to the Bible. When we speak of the Word of God, Christians should think of Jesus first and the Bible second. It’s Jesus who is the true Word of God, not the Bible.20

Earlier, in an attempt to strip the Bible from any kind of wrath, Zahnd writes emphatically, “The Bible is not the perfect revelation of God; Jesus is.” This convenient hermeneutic allows the author to bypass any form of divine wrath and bears a strange resemblance to the neo-orthodox notion that the Bible is not the Word of God; rather it contains the word of God.

“Jesus is greater than the Bible,” according to Zahnd. Indeed, “Jesus is the Savior of all that is to be saved … including the Bible. Jesus saves the Bible from itself! Jesus shows us how to read the Bible and not be harmed by it.”21 This unwarranted pitting of the Bible against Christ is a subtle move that opens a Pandora’s box which only invites doctrinal error and confusion. It is an unnecessary hermeneutical hurdle that trips the unsuspecting and ultimately undermines the authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture. Paul clearly affirms that Scripture is “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16).

We believe, however, that the Bible is God’s absolute truth for all people, at all times; it is our final authority for discerning truth. And we reject any clever hermeneutical hurdles the minimize doctrinal propositions, even realities that make us uncomfortable.

The Preoccupation with Mystical Experience

The final concern in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God makes sense of the previous unsettling theological problems, namely, a preoccupation with mystical experience. Listen to the author as he explains the pathway that led him away from the biblical vision of God: “But it wasn’t primarily reading theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri Nouwen, and Stanley Hauerwas that led me away from an angry-God theology; it was mostly mystical experiences in prayer …”22 Zahnd continues, “… But having learned to sit with Jesus in contemplative prayer, I have discovered by my own experience (emphasis mine) that what John said is true: God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. God is the eternal life of self-giving love. There is no darkness. No anger. No violence. No retribution. Only love.”23

But do we come to understand the purposes, plans, and attributes of God through contemplative prayer? Certainly not! There are only two clear routes to knowing God. First, we come to a knowledge of God through general revelation (Ps. 19:1-4). General revelation will not lead people to a saving knowledge of Christ but it makes them sufficiently accountable to God (Rom. 1:19-20).

Second, we come to a knowledge of God through special revelation. We know God through the Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:3). We come to know him by becoming familiar with his attributes. Thomas Watson says, “God’s glory lies chiefly in his attributes, which are the several beams by which the divine nature shines forth.”24

And we come to know God through the Scriptures. It is the Bible that reveals an accurate portrait of God for us. One must never make human experience the starting point in theology. “To do so,” Louis Berkhof warns, “drags God to man’s level. It stresses God’s immanence at the expense of his transcendence. The final result is God made in the image of man.”25 This is exactly what emerges in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Whenever experiences trumps Scripture, the inevitable result is theological error.

HOW SHALL WE THINK ABOUT GOD?

A false representation of God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is simply unacceptable. Yet, false views of the living God continue to be proclaimed and variations of the gospel continue to be propagated. A.W. Pink lamented, “How vastly different is the God of Scripture from the ‘god’ of the average pulpit!”26

I offer three important principles that will help shape the Christian mind and enable readers to approach God with reverence and worship him in a way that is consistent with Scripture.

1. Always distinguish between the Creator and the creature

Tozer writes, “To think of the creature and Creator alike in essential being is to rob God of most of His attributes and reduce Him to the status of a creature. It is, for instance, to rob Him of His infinitude: there cannot be two unlimited substances in the universe. It is to take away His sovereignty: there cannot be two absolutely free beings in the universe, for sooner or later two completely free wills must collide.”27

2. Banish idolatrous thoughts of God

Tozer adds, “Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them.”28 We must strive to worship God rightly and maintain steadfast allegiance to his Word, which is our reliable guide for determining his plans, purposes, and attributes. For “among the sins to which the human heart is prone, hardly any other is more hateful to God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on His character. The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than He is – in itself a monstrous sin …”29

3. Commit to thinking biblically about God

Steven Lawson offers a fitting challenge that every person needs to hear: “I believe that the greatest issue facing the church in any century is a proper understanding of who God is. What is needed in the contemporary church today is a steady diet of the attributes and perfections of God. It is our high theology that produces high doxology … Until there is a right knowledge of God, there will never be the right knowledge of self, nor the proper remedy applied to our own inners lives.”30

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God will no doubt attract the attention of many people. It will be received by people who are unwilling to submit to the biblical portrait of God. My desire is not to be argumentative or divisive but to invite Brian Zahnd to reconsider his assertions concerning God. For Zahnd’s views lead the unsuspecting down a path that rejects a biblical portrait of God and repudiates penal substitutionary atonement. Such views lead readers on a trajectory that will, in the final analysis, lead to a spiritual wasteland. These views are bolstered by other popular writers. But truth is not a matter of majority rule – Truth is determined by God and his infallible Word.

CONCLUSION

God is still angry with sinners. His wrath is being revealed from heaven against ungodly people (Rom. 1:18). And the wrath of God will be unleashed on every person who refused to turn from sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ: “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts” (Ps. 8:12-13).

The words of Jonathan Edwards were true on July 8, 1741. And Edwards’ words remain true today: “The bow of God’s wrath is bent and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart and strains the bow; and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”31

But Edwards was never content to leave his hearers without hope. He was always eager to draw the attention of people to the saving grace and mercy that flows freely from the cross: “God has magnified his free grace towards you, and not to others; because he has chosen you, and it pleased him to set his love upon you. O! what cause is here for praise! What obligations you are under to bless the Lord who hath dealt bountifully with you, and magnify his holy name! What cause for you to praise God in humility, to walk humbly before him.”32

The lament of A.W. Tozer gives us pause and instructs us in a day which is fraught with theological error: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”33 May be bow low in humility before this great and awesome God. May we delight in him and affirm each attribute that the Scriptures reveal. May our minds be ignited with zeal for his name. May our hearts be filled with joy as we contemplate his majesty. May our lips proclaim his goodness and his glory. And may our hands and feet be mobilized to share the saving message of the gospel for the joy of the nations!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

  1. Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017), 3.
  2. Ibid, 5.
  3. Ibid, 11-12.
  4. Ibid, 17.
  5. Ibid, 202.
  6. Ibid, 18.
  7. R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith – Volume One: The Triune God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006), 216-217.
  8. Ibid, 19.
  9. Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 228.
  10. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Lincoln: Back to the Bible, 1961), 2.
  11. Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, 82.
  12. Ibid, 84.
  13. Ibid, 86.
  14. Ibid, 115.
  15. Ibid, 86.
  16. Ibid, 101.
  17. Ibid, 102.
  18. Roger Nicole, Cited in Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior  (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 194.
  19. Emil Brunner, Cited in Ibid, 195.
  20. Ibid, 50.
  21. Ibid, 57.
  22. Ibid, 204.
  23. Ibid, 205.
  24. Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, reprint 1692), 55.
  25. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 54.
  26. A.W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 11.
  27. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 8.
  28. Ibid, 3.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Steven J. Lawson, Expositor: A Conversation on Preaching – Preaching the Pastoral Epistles (May/June 2015), 39.
  31. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, ed. Edward Hickman (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834), 9.
  32. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners, ed. Edward Hickman (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834), 679.
  33. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Lincoln: Back to the Bible, 1961), 1.