Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018

Book Reviews

Faith. Hope. Love. The Christ-Centered Way to Grow in Grace

Mark Jones, Crossway, 2017, 287pp, £13.18 (Amazon) / £6.71 (Kindle)

Ten years (or so) ago, few people were interested in vinyl. Today, its resurgence has inspired a new generation to slow down and savour their enjoyment of music.

The same could be said of catechisms. In recent decades, only a very small minority of Christians have faithfully persisted with the time-honoured question-and-answer format of catechetical instruction. But in the last few years – particularly with the wide circulation of The New City Catechism – the irreplaceable value of catechisms in helping Christians slow down and savour their faith has been rediscovered.

Mark Jones’ latest book, Faith. Hope. Love., makes a unique contribution to the catechetical resurgence. His 58 questions and answers focus on the “three beautiful sisters” of faith, hope, and love – the triad of theological virtues beloved by Paul, and employed by Peter and the writer to the Hebrews. Although theologians have written on this famous triad for two millennia, as Dr. Jones observes, there has been little over the past few hundred years from a Reformed perspective. And so his first objective in this book is to help contemporary Christians rediscover the beauty and importance of these foundational virtues.

His second objective is to systematically explore what the Scriptures teach about each virtue by asking practical but profound theological questions of each. As with all good catechisms, Faith. Hope. Love. digs increasingly deeper into each topic, turning this volume into a brief and accessible ethics textbook. So, for instance, the section on love moves from establishing love as the foundation of Christianity, to exploring why and how we are to love and respect human life; how our generosity in love is to be shown in the local church; and how we show love with regard to our speech.

Throughout each chapter, Dr. Jones weaves the wisdom of previous generations by drawing on the insights of the Reformers and Puritans. Like the most accomplished of tour guides in a museum, the author dips into the enormous contributions of John Flavel, Thomas Goodwin, Herman Witsius, John Owen and others in an accessible and undistracting way that leaves the reader eager to learn more.

I found Dr. Jones’ exploration of faith encouraging and inspiring. His explanation that “faith lays hold not of something irrational but of truths that we cannot attain in our natural state” (39) is very helpful, particularly in our materialistic, post-Christian context. His nuanced discussion emphasising the essential importance of good works – “Good works are the necessary path believers must walk to final salvation”, amidst the all-sufficiency of faith, “When we first believe, we are as justified as we will ever be” – is excellent. And the wonderful reminders that, “Christ would have to relinquish his office as priest in order for someone to lose his or her justification”, and “God could bar us from heaven only if he were prepared to excommunicate his own Son from heaven. As safe as Christ is in heaven, so are his people”, are almost worth the price of the book in itself!

The section on hope begins by distinguishing how we commonly understand “hope” today with the Christian’s understanding of hope (“a Spirit-given virtue enabling us to joyfully expect things promised by God through Jesus Christ”), and lifting our eyes to the uniquely trinitarian nature of the Christian hope. As the author guides us still deeper, he draws the strands of faith and hope together by emphasising that, “The already of faith gives birth to the not yet of hope” – which he helpfully and very practically connects with the Lord’s Supper.

Inevitably, there are a couple of chapters – regarding the salvation of our children (28) and our comfort in the face of their death (29) – where Dr. Jones’ Presbyterian understanding of covenant theology comes to the fore. Personally, I found his emphasis on a hypothetical analysis of God’s covenant to Adam’s children before the fall unconvincing. Similarly, I disagree with the presumption of salvation in the children of believers that is stated in the Canons of Dort (though not in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the confessional standard of the Presbyterian Church of America in which Dr. Jones serves), and which forms the basis for his hope in the face of the death of the children of believers.

However, whilst we disagree on these issues, I am thankful that he had the courage to include and answer these questions. Even if we come to different conclusions, the questions and presentation of the biblical data alone should prompt serious Christians to further study. I am also thankful for the pastoral way in which Dr. Jones engages with these deeply personal issues. His ministry experience is evident not only in the gentle way that he answers these profound questions, but also in the way that he guards against false hope (for instance, by not giving in to the temptation to evade our theological convictions about original sin).

The chapters on love are warm and challenging in equal measure. Dr. Jones draws on various Scriptures to establish that love is the foundation of Christianity, and quotes from Geerhardus Vos and Martin Luther to demonstrate that the great hope we have as sinners is not that we can make ourselves attractive and loveable, but that we become attractive because we have been loved by the free grace of God. His brief explanation of how Jesus satisfied each of the Ten Commandments by loving God perfectly is helpful and thought-provoking. Similarly, the way he draws faith back into the discussion and emphasises (quoting Richard Gaffin) that, “Paul does not teach a ‘faith alone’ position… Rather, his is a ‘by faith alone’ position” – thereby emphasising the essential importance of good works – is very balanced.

If I could have asked Dr. Jones to add an extra chapter in the practical outworking of love, it would have been to engage with how we should love our non-Christian friends who live very non-Christian lives. Although the chapter (44) on loving those who are in higher/lower positions than ourselves is a helpful, big-picture reminder of the counter-cultural way Christians are to love people who are (in some ways) different to us, I would have appreciated more emphasis on how we can best live out Christ’s love whilst we are surrounded by questions of sexual and gender identity, and the other contemporary pressures Christians are facing in the West.

But these are small criticisms. Faith. Hope. Love. is an inspiring read that draws its readers into the wonderful truth that, through the Lord Jesus Christ, “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecc 4:12).

As the author observes, “The proliferation of catechisms in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras was a sign of health in the church” (16). I pray that the same would be true in our day and generation, and that God would build up and bless his church through catechisms like this book.

 

James Midwinter
Pastor, Emmanuel Church, Leamington Spa

 

Next book review >>   Back to contents page >>