Book Review: Knowing Christ

posted in: Book Review, Evangelicalism, Jesus | 0

This review will be published, depending on when you read it, in ‘Foundations’ the theological journal of Affinity. It is reproduced in shorter form here.

Nearly 50 years ago the great Evangelical theologian J. I. Packer wrote and published Knowing God. That book, thanks to the Grace of the God it honours, has had a profound and wide influence. It is with an awareness of that, then, that I begin my review of a new book, by an emerging new voice in Evangelical Theology, which has a Foreword by Packer. Knowing Christ by Mark Jones is a new book from Banner of Truth, that seeks to carefully and calmly explore what it might mean to know Christ, through the lens of the New Testament and with assistance from the Puritans of the Reformed tradition. Whilst this may come across as an over-technical proposition for a popular level paperback, Knowing Christ is in fact a tour-de-force, with some surprises, that offers a heart-nourishing feast of exposition and inspiration.

At the outset of this review, it is worth noting the scope and style of book. Jones is keen to honour the legacy of Packer’s Knowing God, but with a particular focus on Jesus, one of the three persons of the Trinity. Lest accusations be levelled at the author and publisher for ignoring the Trinity, it is this reviewer’s opinion that Knowing Christ is a thorough-going-ly Trinitarian piece of historical, devotional and biblical theology. This is a book that weaves together a deep engagement with Scripture (Both Old and New Testaments, echoing a proper understanding of Christ and the Trinity) with a robust and careful reading of key Puritan and Reformed voices. In the former, the book echoes the author’s present pastoral ministry, and in the latter it showcases some of his academic interests. In the bringing together of these two strands, the reader is richly fed.

In his generous foreword, J. I. Packer writes: Have we ever, up to now, worked our way through any book that fully displays our Saviour as the brightest lights in the historic Reformed firmament have viewed him? Here is such a book…(p. ix). This question accurately reflects the way that Jones ‘uses’ the Puritans, and other Reformed voices. As the author explores what the Scriptures say about Christ, he invites us into a library, pointing at particularly well-observed expositions from the past. Jones engages with what the Puritans and others are saying – and this reviewer has now found many rich seams of devotional gold to pursue at a later date.
A book like this, of course, cannot fully ignore some of the contentious issues raised around discussion of the person and work of Christ. Three areas of particular interest stand out for this reviewer: Christological orthodoxy, the miracles of Jesus, and the treatment of emotions. This book stands firmly within the stream of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, providing a helpful riposte to some understandings of the person of Christ that emerge, in every age, like weeds. Further, this book surprised this Reformed Charismatic reviewer in its treatment of Jesus’ miraculous ministry. The emphasis is thoroughly on Christ himself, as Jones notes in his treatment of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1): “Christ’s role at this wedding reflects his role in history – indeed, even into eternity. He showed his glory by taking centre stage… The miracle was the announcement of a new age” (p. 136). The Resurrection is discussed, with the real impact of that miracle on the life of the believer discussed powerfully. The topic of the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ raises a range of questions – not least among them the place of emotions in the life of Christ. Jones deals sensitively with this, challenging the reader that “one of the problems in the church today is not that we are too emotionally driven, but that we are not sufficiently such after the pattern of Christ” (p. 70). The emphasis here, on the church today following the pattern of Christ, is exactly right, and part of what makes this book so helpful.
The title of this book, the foreword by Packer, and the study questions (found at the back – an editorial choice I have mixed feelings about, as it made the book flow beautifully, but may be less helpful for regular study) all point to the pastoral focus of this book. Rooted in the academy – Jones’ work on the Puritans is helpful, and partnered with careful and informed exegesis – but aimed at the heart of the regular believer in the local church, this is a very helpful book. I forsee a few potential key usages, however. Firstly, for personal discipleship, the readability and depth of this book would lend it to personal study or one-to-one ministry. Secondly, and particularly of interest to this reviewer, is the strength and emotional intelligence of the presentation of Christ. This would make the book invaluable for those seeking to pastor people coming to Christ from hyper-Charismatic, Roman Catholic, and other backgrounds where the Gospel invites the individual into a real and transforming personal encounter with the Christ of Scripture. Thirdly, this is a book for more mature Christians whose beatific vision can be ever expanded, as Jones covers topics like the Wrath of Christ.
A particular strength of this book is that it engages carefully and without sensation with the important but complex issue of the present state of Christ. Much of our focus, echoing the majority of the narrative of the Gospels, is on Jesus’ ministry and the Easter weekend – Jones encourages us in number of chapters to consider and enjoy the truth of knowing where Christ is now, and what He is doing for us. Christ now sits, exalted, enthroned at the right hand of the Father. And here, as Jones rightly and forcefully reminds us, Christ is at work. Indeed, “We must remember that Jesus is not seated in glory only as king, but as prophet and priest as well. His enthronement speaks not only of his power and majesty, but also of his grace and willingness to bless his people” (p. 173). One of primary ways that Christ is presently at the work of blessing His people is through his intercession, to which Jones devotes a particularly powerful chapter. This chapter is one of the shortest in the book, yet utterly rich. The tension of the present age is illustrated in beautifully Trinitarian language: “By interceding, he not only draws our names up  before his Father, but also sends down his Spirit in order to bless us” (p. 183).
In conclusion, then, this book is a feast. Robust in its exegesis and synthesising a range of notable Puritans and Reformed theologians, this book combines a pastors heart with a scholar’s mind in a way that is both readable and deep. The structure of the book, building as it does through a large number of relatively small chapters, is tied together by the author’s obvious passion for the Christ of Scripture, and his appreciation of the Puritans as particularly helpful guides. I noted earlier in my review a number of particular uses I could imagine for this book – as well as the way the author engages with some contentious subjects. Overall, I would commend this book to those in pastoral ministry as both nourishing food for themselves and a helpful tool for discipleship. I hope that this book recieves the wide readership it deserves.
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