Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the GospelWritten by Fred G. Zaspel Reviewed By Tony Reinke
This volume is another excellent contribution from Fred Zaspel on B. B. Warfield, and it also serves as the inaugural volume in Crossway's new series,Theologians on the Christian Life, edited by Stephen Nichols and Justin Taylor. The next volume scheduled for release is Francis Schaeffer on the Christian Life (February 2013). (In the interest of full disclosure, I'm under contract to write the volume on John Newton, which was not the case when I agreed to write this review.) I am drawn to this new series because it promises to help a broad cross-section of Christian leaders and Christian lay-readers get introduced to a number of the more intimidating and significant theologians in church history. B. B. Warfield is an excellent starting point.
Warfield was a voluminous writer, and harnessing all of his works is not an easy task. Fred Zaspel is clearly up to the challenge. His skill in bringing Warfield's writings together is especially well-reflected in the sections of the book where he writes micro-synthesis paragraphs-that is, paragraphs that draw from many different sources and synthesize a particular theme with great brevity (see p. 67). Zaspel digests themes particularly well, and he uses just enough direct quotes from Warfield to give the reader Warfield's flavor. The balance between direct quote and summary digest is very good.
This book is about sanctification, and one of the particular strengths of this volume-indeed one of the strengths of Warfield himself-is the dual emphasis on both the doctrines of the gospel (the work of Christ) and of the Savior (the person of Christ) in sanctification.
First, Warfield understood that the Christian life cannot be lived successfully without doctrine. In Zaspel's words, doctrine is “the stuff of the Christian life” (p. 39). “The entirety of the Christian life and experience is our response to revealed truth” (p. 38). And much of this book lays out foundational “stuff” for that pursuit (inerrancy of Scripture, deity of Christ, reconciliation, regeneration, conversion, justification, etc.). Indeed, some readers may grow a little anxious that a full-fledged theology of sanctification is postponed until page 99.
Second, and perhaps easier to neglect, the Christian life requires that we focus on the person of Christ. Warfield has left us with brilliant studies of the maturity of Christ on earth and of his emotional life. Zaspel writes, “Warfield's heart beat hot for Christ” (p. 33). Throughout the book, both of these strands of Christ's work and person run concurrently. In this way, the Christian life is both driven by doctrine and focused on Christ. We cannot take our eyes off either. They are inseparable. Zaspel closes the book with perhaps the best summary of this when he writes, “Warfield's point in all this is not to articulate certain points of doctrine, but by this to encourage us, his readers, to live in light of the glory that awaits us. Our life here is lived in Christ, for Christ, by Christ, and in view of Christ and the glory that shall be ours when we are with him” (p. 225). The Christian life must be lived with a constant eye on the person of the Savior. Perhaps the best chapter in the book-chapter 12, “Looking to Jesus: Our Model and Forerunner” (pp. 143-61)-is an especially beautiful “adoring gaze” at the Savior's person and glory.
I can find little disagreement with what Zaspel writes in this book. He is clear and concise in his points, and his words are sharp. He understands Warfield very well. And I could write many paragraphs on the strengths of this book. If I have a point of criticism it is in what Zaspel leaves unsaid-and given the nature of this project I know a lot of what Warfield wrote about sanctification must, by necessity, be left unsaid. Still, at a few places I think Warfield's further contributions to the topic of sanctification could have been helpful, and particularly in two areas.
First is over the nature of our struggle against sin. As Warfield well understood, God is utterly for us and entirely against our sin at the same time. Sanctification is nothing less than being enlisted into God's army to fight God's war against our indwelling sin. Here's how Warfield says it:
The Christian life on earth is a conflict with [indwelling] sin. And therein is the dreadfulness of our situation on earth displayed. But we are not left to fight the battle alone. The Christian life is a conflict of God-not of us-with sin. And therein is the joy and glory of our situation on earth manifested. As sinners we are in terrible plight. As the servants of God, fighting His battle, we are in glorious case. (Faith and Life [London, 1916], 202)
I find this point to be encouraging, affirming of my position in Christ, stimulating of my meditation about God, and motivating in my struggle against sin. Warfield's point about the God-for-us-ness of the Christian struggle against sin is critical. In our personal sanctification, we are taken up into a common cause; with God, we battle against the sin we find yet in us. I did not see that Zaspel makes this point in the book.
Second, this book offers readers who are experiencing suffering and trials little more than a call for patient endurance (pp. 70-71, 220). Trials are good for the Christian; therefore they are to be endured in the moment, and we are to endure them by looking to the Savior. These are all true and helpful points Zaspel makes. But Warfield offers us more than endurance; he encourages us to give thanks for the trial and to give thanks in the trial. This is what Warfield calls “the marvel of the Christian life”:
Here is the marvel of the Christian life. Not patience in afflictions merely, but thankfulness for them, says Adolph Monod, is our duty, nay, our privilege. Exult in joy over them, cries Paul; rejoice in them because we recognize in them but the “growing-pains” by which we are attaining “unto a full-grown man-unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, that we may be no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of man in craftiness, after the wiles of error; but dealing truly in love, may grow up in all things into Him which is the Head, even Christ.” (The Power of God Unto Salvation [Philadelphia, 1903], 88-89)
Trials in the Christian life bring eternal benefit and value, and so we can thank God for the trials even as we experience them. That certainly is a marvel of the Christian life and worthy of such strong language by Warfield. Again, I think this is a point that can press the doctrine of God's sovereign goodness into the Christian life.
On either of these last two points, one could say I'm being nit-picky to suggest that Zaspel should have included these additional details. Perhaps. I choose these examples because Warfield himself chose to frame the points with strong language. Nevertheless, it is very clear that Zaspel knows Warfield well. (That the word joy appears over 70 times in this book illustrates the point well enough!) In the end, I highly commend this book, with the encouragement that once you finish it, you move to Zaspel's other outstanding work, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010). After you have read both of these excellent introductions to Warfield, you are ready to go one step further: to pick up and read Warfield himself and make a lifetime of further discoveries.
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Other Articles in this Issue
In his influential address, “Discourse on the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology, and the Right Determination of the Aims of Each,” Johann Philipp Gabler (1753–1826) lodged the programmatic proposal that scholars ought to distinguish between biblical and systematic theology...