Book Review: The Heart, Character, and Life of the Church, by Joe Thorn
Meet Joe Thorn. He’s married, has four kids, and serves as the pastor at Redeemer Fellowship Church in St. Charles, Illinois. Joe’s a Moody Bible and Southern Seminary graduate, hosts a podcast called Doctrine and Devotion, and writes books (including Note to Self and Experiencing the Trinity). Unless you’re at a Spurgeon lookalike conference, he’s hard to miss. He’s a bearded, tattooed, punchy Reformed Baptist pastor who loves God, loves the church, and wants you to do the same.
Joe’s most recent work is a three-part series on the church: The Heart of the Church, The Character of the Church, and The Life of the Church. Each book is about 100 pages and can be read in about an hour. If you’re looking for an accessible, Reformed Baptist introduction on the doctrine of the church, this is a resource I’m happy to recommend. Let me explain why by summarizing each book and hitting some highlights.
THE HEART OF THE CHURCH: THE GOSPEL’S HISTORY, MESSAGE, AND MEANING
Summary: Many churches today are unhealthy because they’ve zeroed in on the wrong thing and are driven by something other than the gospel. Being gospel-centered is more than having the right focus; right doctrine should lead to heart-felt devotion. If the church is created by the Word of God (1 Pet. 1:23), then the gospel is a good place to start. Book one, therefore, is broken into three parts: history, doctrine, and God’s role in salvation.
I should offer a quick heads up to the Dispensational reader: Thorn’s explanation of the storyline of Scripture is that of a covenant theologian. Chapter one presents the interpretive lens for how the Bible is put together as the covenant of works and covenant of grace. Part two (doctrine) meditates on six essential gospel doctrines in which Thorn helps the reader delight in God’s grace and the spiritual blessings that come from the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Finally, part three unpacks God’s work in our salvation. Brief, clear and saturated with Scripture, this review of the doctrines of grace reflects a heart of humility, gratitude, and worship, which is appropriate for one who has come to know something of their sin and God’s mercy.
THE CHARACTER OF THE CHURCH: MARKS OF GOD’S OBEDIENT PEOPLE
Summary: Thorn wisely writes, “What the church is determines what the church does” (10). Eager to see as many people as possible saved by God’s grace (good!), some churches rush to evangelism and skip over understanding what the church is (tragic!). Knowing that God’s plan for his glory involves the church as an essential component, we would do well to make sure we know what God says about the church. With that aim, Book Two is divided into five parts: the right preaching of Scripture, the right administration of the ordinances, biblical leadership, church discipline, and a focus on Jesus’ mission for the church.
Before we look at some highlights from this book, let me add that I appreciate the author’s reference to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. There may be good reasons not to use it for a church’s statement of faith (see Wright’s article), but this historic confession is a wonderful tool for meditation and instruction (even if you, unlike Thorn, choose not to tattoo “1689” on your arm).
After talking about the centrality and sufficiency of God’s Word in preaching, Part 2 discusses the right administration of the ordinances (baptism and communion). There’s much to commend here. Thorn rightly shows how the ordinances display the gospel, but in a book about the church, I think he’s off on the role they play in church life; in other words, he understates the ecclesial shape of the ordinances. To be sure, he writes, “Generally, baptism is connected to a local congregation and membership in that church” (48). But a later argument for open communion (61–62), runs the risk of diluting, if not contradicting the relationship of the ordinances to church membership.
While a church should open the table to baptized believers from other churches (as in “close communion”), how could a church bar someone from membership (for not being baptized) yet admit them to the effective sign of church membership, that is, the Lord’s Supper?
Part Three features a helpful section teaching about church leadership: elders, deacons, and the congregation under King Jesus.
Part Four offers a brief and helpful teaching on church discipline. Theologians have sometimes separated discipline as a third essential mark of the church, but as Ed Clowney points out, even Calvin “included discipline in the proper observance of the sacraments.” All that to say, the ordinances and church membership are necessarily integrated in church life.
Finally, Part Five argues that every church member shares the responsibility of evangelism and discipleship. Thorn is careful to separate essential gospel implications (improving our cities or neighbor’s quality of life) from the mission of the church. While I may not put all this as an “essential” mark of a church, I loved his teaching on the priesthood of all believers as it relates to church authority.
THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH: THE TABLE, PULPIT, AND SQUARE
Summary: A church begins with the gospel and is defined by its essential marks. But what should a church do? Jesus makes it clear for us: a church should make disciples (Matt. 28:19–20). Book Three is about how a church does that. Thorn writes, “Disciples are made when the people of God following the Son of God are instructed and transformed by the Word of God. . . . Discipleship requires the church” (12). From there, the book breaks into three parts: the Table (church fellowship), the Pulpit (church assembled), and the Square (church in the city).
Part One shows how God uses friendships to help us grow in Christ-likeness. Thorn’s writing works so well because of his concise, biblical, and helpful definitions. For instance, he writes, “The biblical concept of hospitality leads us to treat outsiders like insiders because we, who once were outsiders ourselves, have been welcomed into God’s kingdom and made to be insiders” (29). Amen!
Part Two, the Pulpit, focuses on the importance and role of corporate worship under the truth of God’s Word. Here, Thorn makes sometimes confusing ideas like the Regulative principle or liturgy accessible. He shows that doctrine, rightly understood, leads to devotion to God. As the seventeenth-century Christian Henry Scudder once wrote, Sunday “is God’s great mart or fair-day for the soul, on which you may buy of Christ wine, milk, bread marrow and fatness, gold, white raiment, eye salve, even all things which are necessary, and which will satisfy, and cause the soul to live.”
Finally, Part Three looks at the outward focus of the church. Our good works, as a fruit of the Spirit’s work, serves our gospel witness and makes the church both bright and salty (Matt. 5:13–16).
As a pastor who loves God, loves his church, and is committed to Scripture, Joe Thorn succeeds in helping us think carefully about the bride of Christ. You may not agree with every conclusion he makes, but these three books will prod you to open your Bible, wrestle with its teaching, and grow—not just in doctrine, but devotion. That’s how he served me.
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