Review of Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel by Fred G. Zaspel
Old Princeton Seminary, I say Old Princeton because modern-day Princeton bears little resemblance. It would take a resurrection to rival Lazarus’ to bring it back from the dead. But Princeton Theological Seminary in the nineteenth century, and turn of the twentieth, was the model of everything you could want from an institution training the next generation of pastors. Strongly committed to the fundamentals of the faith, strong scholarship, and godly living.
In his most recent book, Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in the Light of the Gospel, Fred Zaspel states well that Old Princeton combined “the highest and best of informed scholarship matched by a humble piety and fervent love for Christ.” (pg. 33.)
B.B. Warfield (1851-1921), for whom the book is about, held the Chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Princeton Seminary. He knew well the great weight of responsibility he bore in the training of men to be ministers of the gospel, and he embraced it with single-minded devotion.
Warfield did not enter the ministry for fame and applause “he told a friend he gave himself to the Christian ministry simply out of a deep sense of love to Christ.” (pg. 20) Warfield embodied the ideal of Princeton Seminary, and really was the last of its conservative Reformed theologians, “It seemed to me that the old Princeton—a great institution it was—died when Dr. Warfield was carried out.” reflected J. Gresham Machen after Warfield’s funeral.
Dr. Zaspel’s latest book takes us into the writings of Warfield – sermons and articles – distilling Warfield’s understanding of Scripture as it relates to the Christian life. Written with the heart of a pastor and pastoral in its tone; it serves well as an introduction to the thought of Warfield. It’s primary focus, however, is on Christian living. For a more detailed look at the full theology of Warfield see the other book.
Warfield was a polemicist. Which means the focus of his work, and life, was the articulation and defense of the Christian faith. Not simply against other religions, but also against the often more deceptive false forms of Christianity.
In our postmodern age, a postmodernism that has infected the church, polemics are not popular, and perhaps they weren’t in his day either. Nevertheless, at Princeton Seminary this was an, “especially important aspect of the theological task. And it was a work Warfield took up with great vigor.” (pg. 29)
He understood that doctrine shapes life. That you can’t have one without the other. This, of course, doesn’t mean that because you have all right doctrine, that you are a Christian (Jas. 2:19), but you certainly cannot separate the two, “Warfield was a Christian and a theologian, but for him these two categories are virtually one and the same.” (pg. 37)
For Warfield the starting point was Scripture, because Christianity is, “a revealed religion. [It] is not about our search for God…It is all about God coming to us.” (pg. 43) And, “‘Apart from the revelation of God deposited for us in the Scriptures, there is no Christianity. Obliterate this revelation—theology may remain, but it is no longer a Christian theology; religion may remain, but it is no longer the Christian religion.’” (pg. 45)
The Word of God, then, forms the basis for the Christian life. A life that begins at conversion not before. You can outwardly clean up your life, but before salvation you can do nothing to please God. Apart from Christ even your best works are tainted by sin (Isa. 64:6). Lost sinners come to Christ, with no merit of their own, because they have none. But as beggars pleading for mercy. Therefore,
“Warfield loved to speak of Christianity…as a distinctly redemptive religion. Christianity is a ‘sinner’s religion,’ ‘a religion for sinners.’ It’s central message is not one of human values or life but of divine rescue. ‘In the centre of its centre, in the heart of its heart, salvation is deliverance from sin’” (pg. 51, emphasis in original)
Deliverance from sin, however, is not simply a deliverance from the penalty of sin. It is also deliverance from the power of sin. And so while Christianity is not outward morality apart from true conversion, it is not, therefore, less than morality. We are saved by grace alone, apart from works, but good works are organic to the Christian life. And, were there no change of life the purpose of salvation would be short-circuited. As Warfield states,
“Great as is the stress laid in the Scriptures on the forgiveness of sins as the root of salvation, no less stress is laid throughout the Scriptures on the cleansing of the heart as the fruit of salvation. Nowhere is the sinner permitted to rest satisfied with pardon as the end of salvation; everywhere he is made poignantly to feel that salvation is realized only in a clean heart and a right spirit.” (pg. 75)
Though sanctification, or the Lord’s work conforming us to His image, is lifelong and often painfully slow, it is a real moving forward as Fred Zaspel writes,
“The progressive experience of sanctification involves effort and struggle on the part of the believer. We are responsible at every step to work out the salvation which we have received.” (pg. 107)
At the moment of salvation the Christian surrenders to the Lordship of Christ, and offers his life up to him in willing service. Using the account of the conversion of the Apostle Paul (at that time Saul of Tarsus) on the Damascus Road, Warfield affirms that Saul’s two questions, “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:5), and “What shall I do Lord?” (Acts 22:10) are not unique, but are typical to all true conversions:
“No one can call Jesus Lord save by the Holy Ghost; but when the Holy Ghost has moved with power upon the soul, the amazed soul has but two questions to ask: Who art thou, Lord? and What shall I do, Lord? There is no question in its mind as to the legitimacy of the authority claimed, as to its extent and limitations, as to its sphere, as to its sanction. He whose glory has shone into the heart is recognized at once and unquestioningly as Lord, and is so addressed no less in the first question than in the second. Who art thou, Lord? is not a demand for credentials; it is a simple inquiry for information, a cry of wondering adoration and worship. And it is, therefore, followed at once with the cry of, What shall I do, Lord?” (pg. 195)
Warfield would have known nothing of receiving Christ as Savior from hell, but not submitting to Him as Lord. No such dichotomy existed in his mind, nor does it exist in Scripture.
Of course, we cannot live this life in our strength. By His precious Holy Spirit, the lord lives His life through us. By prayer, Bible study, meditation on Scripture, and corporate worship we become strong stable Christians. Warfield also recommends “books of devotional reading, commentaries, and books that are intended to help us interpret the Bible ourselves.” (pg. 171) Who are some authors he recommends?: Charles Spurgeon, Matthew Henry, the Puritans, Archibald Alexander, J.C. Ryle, Jonathan Edwards, John Bunyan, Charles Hodge, et.al. (ibid.)
Lastly, let me say, all of this must be coupled with a fidelity to the truth. We have been given a trust. Once we have the truth we musn’t let go of it. No matter the opposition. We are to guard the truth of God’s Word (1 Tim. 6:20). All Christians have the responsibility to learn and defend the truth of Scripture. And certainly this is the minister’s primary responsibility. Regarding 1 Timothy 6:20-21, Warfield writes,
“A practical lesson imposes itself upon us. Preach a full-orbed, a complete Gospel. The deposit is not yours to deal with as you will; it is another’s entrusted to your care. The deposit is not your product to be treated as you will; it is the creation of another placed in your keeping. You are but its witnesses. Bear your witness truly and bear it fully. Keep the deposit inviolate.” (pg. 201)
There is so much rich teaching in this book, both from Warfield and Fred Zaspel. so much I learned on the work of the Holy Spirit, prayer, Bible study, meditation on Scripture, etc..But, for the sake of a short review, getting longer by the minute, I will leave you with the above thoughts.
So, let me say in conclusion, Warfield was both systematic and exegetical. In fact, this book is built around expositions of Scripture passages. For each topic in the Christian life Zaspel introduces a Scripture passage (s) and then gives Warfield’s exegesis. These are not shallow devotionals either. This is interpretion born from study, prayer, and biblical meditation. This is what I took away from the book. How does it compare with other books on Christian living? Warfield dug deep, bringing out every turn of meaning and every point of application from Scripture. Though challenging, this book is encouraging. With the command to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12b) your immediately met with, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13)
This is a book I will turn to again and again. This is not simply great historical theology, though it is that, this is teaching from Scripture that will transform your life. It has made me a better Christian. And, I can give no better endorsement than that.
Note: I received this book as a free review copy from Crossway Publishing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”