Kevin M. Kisler
Living by God's Promises, by Joel R. Beeke and James A. La Belle. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010, xviii + 172 pages, $15.00, paper.
If the physical property of density could be applied to truth, then Living by God's Promises, though brief, would be as difficult to heft as an anvil. This weightiness results naturally from the transcendent importance of the volume's subject matter, the promises of God, which are "the grounds of our hope, the objects of our faith, and the rule of our prayer" (2). However, the book's unique format also contributes: two contemporary authors, Joel Beeke and James La Belle, team-up to "condense" the unrivaled insights of three Puritan writers (Edward Leigh, William Spurstowe, and Andrew Gray), each of whom wrote extensively on God's promises (xi). The authors' stated goal is to employ contemporary language to make these materials accessible to "the common layperson" (xviii).
The book edifies faith in a number of ways. First, Beeke and La Belle expose the reader to important theological paradigms. For example, they place God's promises within the covenant of grace, thereby exalting Christ as the mediator of the covenant who receives and apportions the promised blessings to those united to him by faith (19).
Second, the authors provide memorable working definitions for vital concepts. They demonstrate that "freeness" is "bound up within the nature of a promise," describe the covenant of grace as the "bundle of all the promises," and summarize regeneration as God "taking eternal possession of a heart by His Spirit" (39, 14, 119).
Third, at many places the writing stirs the soul, as the printed words reproduce Beeke and La Belle's earnest voices as preachers. For example, we are exhorted against abusing God's promises so as to delay penitence because "though true repentance is never too late, late repentance is seldom true" (44). Meanwhile, a right appropriation of the promises by faith recognizes that "what the Lord has given we will surely possess" and that "we have nothing to commend us to Christ but our need and His call for us to come to Him" (102, 125).
Fourth, Beeke and La Belle labor strenuously to show the inherit relevancy of God's promises to the Christian life, as we are called upon to bring the promises to bear in circumstances ranging from affliction to facing temptation by "believing them, applying them (depending on them), and praying them" (54).
Fifth, the authors demonstrate pastors' hearts by anticipating ways present sufferings make the promises appear uncertain. To this end, they instruct us that "hope is the grace of God that enables us to patiently wait for the Lord to perform His promises, especially regarding redemption and eternal life" and that God "is never late but always on time" (126, 64). Finally, they remind us that God provides himself as the great goal of the promises, so that "the core of the divine promise is not so much the thing promised but God Himself" (15-16). What a glorious recalibration of our understanding of salvation: through Christ, God grants us the most precious and infinitely valuable gift of allhimself.
While these attributes, and others left unmentioned, commend their work, Beeke and La Belle do not entirely attain their goal of presenting this material in a manner accessible to the typical Christian in our day, even one within a Reformed congregation. On the surface, the authors sometimes struggle in using truly contemporary language. They employ the King James Version in the many Scripture citations. They also revert on occasion to bygone language, using illustrations such as "sweet nectar" (85) and constructions like "be our hands ever so full" (53). This is by no means uniform. At moments, such as chapter two's opening, the authors compellingly use personal illustrations, written in contemporary fashion; more such examples would have helped the book's tone.
However, the greatest obstacle to this volume's intended breadth of usefulness is the aforementioned density of the material. There is no doubting that Beeke and La Belle possess studied faculty with their Puritan sources, enabling them to organize vast amounts of data into a coherent and trustworthy whole. But the resulting number of points and sub-points, often contained in numbered lists at the end of chapters, is excessive, giving the feel that the volume is an extended outline. Can most in our day meaningfully process a list of twenty-seven ways to use the promises for pursuing holiness or twenty-two applications of the promises in the struggle against sin (to cite just two examples out of many)?
Though Beeke and La Belle have "condensed" the material by shortening the manner of its presentation relative to its original form, a more helpful methodology would have been to shine a spotlight on a few core truths under each main heading, using elaboration to encourage understanding and retention. Admittedly, setting aside any truths, valuable in themselves, can almost be painful for the conscientious communicator of God's gracious ways with men (as preachers experience weekly in sermon preparation). However, too much of a good thing can become a hindrancealmost like trying to drink from an open fire hydrant!
While Beeke and La Belle have generally modernized language, they have not modernized concepts and the overall framework in which these concepts are presented. In that sense, they have expected our contemporary mindset to adjust to the Puritan comprehensiveness. Interaction with such unquestionably worthy historical fathers of the faith should challenge our present Christian understanding and be a catalyst for growth. But many readers of this volume run the risk of being overwhelmed, of bruising themselves on this well-intentioned little anvil.
However, the book could be used beneficially to guide a study group or Sunday School class, if led by a skillful presenter capable of sifting through the material in accord with the understanding and maturity of those under his direction. In addition, the careful organization and depth of the materialnot to mention the authors' contagious ardor for their topicwould provide a superb motivation and resource for a topical series of sermons on God's promises.
Kevin M. Kisler
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Ordained Servant Online, June-July 2011.