Free Church Book Reviews

Our books this month offer the best of writers connected with the Free Church, along with titles designed to start or encourage you on your way with the Lord. 

BOOK OF THE MONTH: ‘Flourishing in Tensions’, Michael Bräutigam (2022) 

Flourishing in Tensions, by Michael Bräutigam, is a beautifully written book about discipleship. As the title suggests, the book recognises that the life of discipleship is often one of tensions. As we follow Jesus, we are frequently confronted with questions and challenges, whether in theology or in life experience, where we do not have all the answers and we are not able to explain everything. But these tensions are not a reason to despair. In fact, they are an opportunity to flourish as we recognise that it is only Jesus who has all the answers, and we find comfort, hope and peace as we trust and follow him. 

The book offers many profound and helpful insights. First, the author draws threads from the discipline of psychology which are helpfully woven into discussions about how we should cultivate a mindset that will help our discipleship. Secondly, the book interacts with a vast wealth of knowledge from some of the greatest theologians of history, particularly Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a result, the reader is led through centuries of wisdom as these theologians wrestled with the challenges of life as a disciple. Finally, the book offers some profound observations of its own. Particularly striking is the recognition that, in a culture that often speaks of leadership, not enough is said about follow-ship. As disciples, our primary aim is not to be great leaders, it is to be great followers. This book would be of benefit to all Christians, but perhaps especially for those a little further on in their walk and who are ready for some deeper thinking. The book is like a walk in the Scottish hills; at times it will stretch you, but the viewpoint it gives you will take your breath away. 

This book is available from Wipf & Stock

Thomas Davis, Carloway Free Church 

‘Why We’re Protestant’, Nate Pickowicz (2022) 

He’d connected with the church 6 months ago, and had since become a Christian. The guy I was meeting had a lot of questions. His upbringing was a blend of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; in his hometown these churches faced each other across the street. Now he wanted to know why we were different. What kind of church was this, and how had we got here? It was as I wondered how to help my new friend that Why We’re Protestant (2022) fell into my hands. Nate Pickowicz has done the Church a great service in combining a potted history of the European Reformation with a clear explanation of the five solas in an attractive book you could read in a morning. It’s pitched mainly at Christians and church-goers who struggle to distinguish between Catholicism and gospel churches.

As nominal church-going declines in Scotland, I don’t imagine this as pressing a problem here as it is in Pickowicz’s New England. However, I would say this book is pitched ‘high’, so would be suitable for any Christian who wants a historical primer to the Reformation, or to refresh their understanding of gospel truth. Or indeed, Christians who want a book to give a friend who is unsure what kind of church they’re walking into! I hesitated before giving this book to my friend as it hits head issues more than heart issues. But his recommendation ultimately means more than mine. When I asked him what he’d taken away from it, he said it was that we can do nothing to be saved – it’s only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus. Now he knows what kind of church we are, and a bit of where we come from. I’m thankful for Why We’re Protestant. 

This book is available from Mound Books

Joe Hall, Bon Accord Free Church, Aberdeen 

Before You Share Your Faith’, Matt Smethurst (2022) 

Before You Share Your Faith is not a book on evangelism. Instead, it’s a short primer exploring what we can do to prepare our hearts and minds for the simple (but often daunting) task of talking about Jesus. It’s not a book on practicalities (though Smethurst provides plenty of personal stories to illustrate his points) but rather it addresses our heart attitude through chapters such as “Grasp the Gospel” and “Love the Lost.” Crucially, in his conclusion Smethurst reminds us that evangelism must always come, first and foremost, from our desire for God’s glory, making it, ultimately, an act of worship.  

Of course, at just over a hundred pages, there’s little here that is especially ground-breaking. What Smethurst does well, however, is to clearly and concisely address some of our primary struggles with evangelism (fear, missing opportunities, not knowing the answers, etc) and respond with simple gospel truth. There’s a lot packed into this short book, and a helpful “recommended resources” section is included at the end for anyone who wants to read more. Before You Share Your Faith does an excellent job of clarifying a really challenging topic, giving us just enough to think about without wandering off into digressions or debates.  

What I appreciated most about the book was Smethurst’s tone. He openly acknowledges all the difficult emotions surrounding evangelism, particularly guilt and fear, and he responds to those emotions with humility and gentleness. Rather than lecturing us, Smethurst describes times where he’s been scared, or failed in some way (such as the time he ignored a perfect opportunity for evangelism and instead rushed off to go write his book on evangelism!). These stories make the book relatable, but thankfully it never falls into the trap of saying, “everyone messes up, so it’s fine if you do, too.” Instead, Smethurst takes our guilt and our fear and he uses them to lead us to the gospel. 

Before You Share Your Faith is short enough to be read in a day, but there’s enough here to keep us thinking long after we’ve put it back on the shelf. For anyone who finds evangelism challenging (so, essentially, for everyone), Before You Share Your Faith will provide the encouragement we need to honour God through telling others about Him. 

This book is available from Mound Books

Rachel Horrocks-Birss, St Andrews Free Church 

The Power and The Glory’, John Stuart Ross (2022) 

This is a fascinating book that tells the remarkable story of the birth of the church in Manchuria and Korea through the agency of little-known Scottish United Presbyterian missionary John Ross. His unrelated namesake does a very good job of reconstructing and interpreting his life in the context of the influences of 19th century Scottish church life, Britain’s colonial impact upon China, and emerging missionary thinking.  

Ross was a pioneer in seeing the necessity of the evangelisation of these countries being carried out primarily by local believers. He therefore planned individual discipleship and collective local leadership of churches from early on in his ministry. He ensured that early Chinese converts were well taught and then sent them out to evangelise. The story of the founding of the work in the Korean border areas is particularly fascinating and gives a sample of Ross’s approach. Working close to the border Ross was intrigued to know more of the country, which was then closed to foreigners. By careful observation and questioning of reluctant traders he was able to learn the Korean language and translate the scriptures. The church was then founded with the minimum human agency of a recent convert selling copies of Luke as he travelled as a trader. As a result, groups of worshippers arose in many different places. Reading this I was intrigued to think of how this remarkable founding of the church may have shaped its life during the periods of Japanese occupation and current totalitarian rule.  

The book contains much more on Ross’s life and work, including the development of the Manchurian church, its maturing and revival. At times I found the changes in narrative timeline slightly confusing. Also, the very detailed description of aspects of Scottish church life during Ross’s youth and discussion of other missionary characters at times seemed slightly out of step with the lighter picture painted of Ross’s own activities due to the lack of sources available on his life. However, these are minor quibbles. John S Ross has done a great service in bringing this hidden figure into the light and the book is well worth reading to better inform us of the history of the Church in this very important but much neglected part of the world. 

This book is available from Mound Books

Duncan MacPherson, North Harris Free Church 

We are always looking for new reviewers to join the team. You don’t need any experience – just a love of reading and a willingness to write a paragraph of your thoughts. If you’d like to get involved, please email [email protected]