Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, by Carl Trueman.
Buy and read this book. First, it is helpful in a pastoral manner: both in presentation and in content. He does not merely lay out a proposition as a historical detail, but he constantly brings the proposition into the focus of practical ministry.
For example, he may point to some ways in which much of the contemporary protestant church fails to understand the Reformation emphases summarized in the solas – it is especially helpful when he demonstrates that often those who think themselves closely aligned with the solas have fundamentally missed the mark.
Another pastoral aspect comes through in his advice on how to better act as a pastor. Rather than leaving a doctrine (such as sola scriptura) as an artifact to be examined, Trueman shows how one should examine and perhaps alter his preaching to rightly reflect the doctrine.
Second, Trueman writes well. This first makes the book a pleasure to read. It makes the information easy to receive. It provides a good model for those who would wish to learn to speak and write better (I assume much of his audience will be pastors – most of whom could certainly stand to improve their English language skills: A vitamin of the most healthful parts packed in sawdust will never make it past the throat; and a sermon of correct doctrine which cannot be swallowed will be left uselessin the pew).
Third, the book is informative: I learned from reading the book.
A book which exhorts, informs and teaches is a blessing.
Chapter One: The Pearl of Great Price
The Reformation was – and the continuing reformation must be – a theological task, wherein the Scripture confronts the sinful heart. The human heart has an extraordinary, an unending power to distort and cover over the Gospel. Thus, the human heart will continually seek to push the Gospel far away (Romans 1:18). There lies the need and reason for continual reformation.
The contemporary church is awash in means of changing the outside of the presentation – when such changes can never respond to the true depth of moral failure which makes the Gospel needful for humanity:
What this [a clear, theological understanding of human depravity] meant [to the Reformers] was that humanity would always seek to make God in its own image, always seek to worship him on its own terms, always seek to worship itself or its own forms than to face up to the experience o standing before God’s holiness and coming to him on his own terms (34-35).
Since this is true, we must both refuse to transform the Gospel into something more palatable for our culture – and for ourselves. We cannot make outward change to appease the culture, nor traditional maintenance to please ourselves the model of faithfulness.
Chapter Two: Meeting the Man of Sorrows
This chapter sets out Luther’s theology of the cross, a theology of suffering which displays God’s judgment and mercy in reality altering truth. Here is a place where the reformation work must certainly continue, because we understand far too little of the demonstration of the cross.
Here is a mere hint of the beauty and pastoral concern of the chapter:
Suffering and weakness are not just the way in which Christ triumphs and conquers; they are the way in which we are to triumph and conquer too. In other words, if suffering and weakness are the ways God works in Christ, it is to be expected that these are the ways he will work in those who follow Christ. One does not become a theologian by knowing a lot about God; one become a theologian by suffering the torments and feeling the weakness which union with Christ must inevitably bring in its wake (49).
The church must not let itself be subverted by a culture which seeks to pave the way of life with ease and entertainment. The Gospel of the Cross is not a Gospel of a wonderful plan for your life – at least not in the manner in which is it is routinely expressed. Yes, to see Jesus, to glorify God and enjoy him forever is the greatest “plan for your life” that one could imagine. But it is not the plan of a better house, a better job, more comfort.
But is at just this point of suffering that the church can and must speak: the church can speak to life as it is; the church must speak to the true sorrow and pain of this life brought about sin and death. The cross gives us something needful to say.
Chapter Three: The Oracles of God
This chapter presents the Scripture and the consequent sermon as the efficient cause – the practical means by which the Scripture is brought to bear upon the human heart.
The typical conservative Christian will willing affirm that the Bible is “true” and yet miss the significance of such a claim. As Trueman notes, any number of written documents are “true” – a bus schedule is “true”. The trouble does not lie in the fact of truth, but in the significance of that claim – and the true nature of the Scripture’s claim when presented rightly in the sermon:
…we do well to bear in mind James Packer’s point that preaching is not simply communication; it is far more than that, in that it actually brings Christ, God himself, to the congregation. The sermon may be made up of words, but what take place is far more than the mere transmission of information; the Holy Spirit uses those words to point to Christ, to create faith in Christ, and thus to unite individuals to Christ (83-84).
Those who call for something beyond sermons, something new (whatever the current concern may be) fail to understand the truth of the words of Scripture brought to bear in a sermon.
Chapter Four: Blessed Assurance
Trueman contrasts the common understanding of the Gospel as a matter of one’s subjective experience with assurance as a conclusion based upon God’s action. While most (?) Christians define assurance in terms of personal experience – whether the legalist who can point to perfection, or the emotionalist who points to his “joy” – assurance should rightly be understood as a conclusion which one reaches on the basis of the nature of God’s work in Jesus Christ.
Assurance, rightly understood, necessarily transforms the Christian life:
Thus, the whole of the Christian life is profoundly shaped by the one brilliant insight: that God’s love is unconditional and total, that it brings us salvation as a gift, and that, most amazing of all, we can know this salvation for certain in ourselves (105).
Permit just one pastoral implication of a correct understanding of assurance – this is a matter for which the counselor must take especial notice. When assurance hinges upon one’s subjective experience, suffering shakes one’s view of God: How can a good God permit me to experience sorrow? Where assurance is a matter of one’s subjective emotional state, the “counselor” must somehow raise the sufferer’s feelings:
She needs to be able to see that God is much greater than her experience of him; she needs to know that, whatever her current feelings of anguish and despair, God si trustworthy and loving; and she needs to know that assurance is not necessarily about emotional highs but about knowing that God is faithful even though the whole world appears to be falling apart around her. ….that will only happen when the emphasis in preaching is not on ourselves but on the Christ of the Bible (122-123).