Book Review: The Plight of Man and the Power of God

“The Plight of Man and the Power of God” by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

This book is based on a series of lectures delivered by British preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1941, as the world was engaged in another bloody war. The lectures focus primarily on Romans 1:16-32, showing quite thoroughly that man’s sin is truly a plight beyond redemption, save for the saving power of God’s grace. His goal is further to demonstrate the folly of the man-centered philosophies of his age and the century preceding — which were to have put an end to war — and the supremacy of Christ and His gospel.

In chapter 1, MLJ presents a religious history of mankind. Here he counters the popular (but unfounded) theory that religion “evolves” in stages from animism to polytheism to monotheism, from which point man may even see that he needs no god at all. Instead, using Romans 1:21 as his starting point, he explains that what has happened is actually the reverse: “Man, says St. Paul, started with the knowledge of God, and if he lacks it now it is because he has deliberately suppressed and lost it.” Furthermore, it is inherent in man to deny God, because of our state of sinful rebellion against Him. Therefore, our greatest need is to become aware of our sin, and of God’s power through Christ to forgive us of our sin.

In chapter 2, the author contrasts “Religion and Morality”. With Romans 1:18 as a source text, MLJ relates “ungodliness” to religious deficiencies, and “unrighteousness” to moral deficiencies. In the proper order of things, he says, right morality proceeds from right religion; that is, the true religion of Christianity. Our culture, though, has subverted these to the point where morality is more highly valued, and is seen as an end in itself, even within the Church. The terrible irony is that hundreds of years of humanity’s brightest philosophers attempting to produce a morality independent of God and His commands has produced nothing but a breakdown of religion, which has resulted in a total collapse of morality. Morality alone is unable to free us from what truly keeps mankind in bondage; only God can free us from our sin and cause us to walk in righteousness.

Having shown us in great detail our need to understand our sin, MLJ focuses on the nature of sin in chapter 3. The reason it is so unpopular to focus on sin, he says, is because “if the Christian doctrine of sin is right and true, then the very basis of the modern doctrine of man is entirely destroyed.” That is, all thoughts of man’s ability to better himself individually and as a society are put to rest in light of the Bible’s teachings on our total separation from God, and our inability to attain righteousness. Sin is rooted in our idolatry. We have placed other things (and, ultimately, ourselves) in God’s place, which leads to the destruction of individuals, relationships, societies, and nature itself. It is a problem totally beyond our ability to overcome.

MLJ further expounds upon man’s plight in chapter 4 by showing the result of our sin: God’s wrath… which he says is the only doctrine less popular than man’s sin! He emphasizes that, while many theologians attempt to focus on God’s love to the exclusion of His wrath, these attributes are really two sides of the same coin. God cannot be a God of love without hating and destroying sin. He goes on to explain the difference between God’s active wrath (where He directly intervenes to put an end to disobedience) and the far more common passive wrath (in which He simply allows sin to run its course, wreaking destruction everywhere). The danger when speaking of God’s wrath is to go to the opposite extreme of those who speak only of His love. If God were a God of wrath only, our plight would be cause for despair. We must see that “It is only in the light of God’s hatred and abhorrence of sin that we can really see His love, and appreciate the wonder and the glory of the gospel. The measure of His anger against sin is the measure of the love that is prepared to forgive the sinner and to love him in spite of the sin… The love of God is a holy love. It expresses itself not by condoning sin or compromising with it; it deals with it, and yet does so in such a way that the sinner is not destroyed with his sin, but is delivered from it and its consequences.”

In the fifth and final chapter, MLJ reveals “the only solution”. Were the Bible only the message of our plight, it would be terrible news! But instead, the message of the Scriptures is truly good news, because God has provided in Christ the means to escape from our sin! Because this news is so great, we must echo Paul’s words in Romans 1:16, being unashamed of the gospel, because it IS the power of God for salvation… for everyone who believes! Unlike the things in which men have boasted, which have only limited appeal (“Philosophy only appealed to the wise and learned… There was not even one philosophy which appealed to all… Military might and power appealed to the strong and noble, and the ideals of law and justice had their own votaries. Nationalism appealed only to the citizens of the various countries… what one gloried in was anathema to another, and every attempt to produce something universal which would satisfy all had failed“), Christians may freely boast of the universality of the gospel! We must spread this message in truth and love to others, so that they, too, may be reconciled before a loving God.

The overall message of this book, in the author’s words, are that “without a true anthropology, it is idle to discuss soteriology — diagnosis must precede treatment.” That is, we must not shy away from teaching the difficult doctrines of man’s sin and God’s wrath. If we do not have a right understanding of our sinfulness, our plight (anthropology), we will never see the necessity of our salvation (soteriology).

This book is an excellent resource for understanding both antropology and soteriology. It is short, engaging, and even more relevant now than it was nearly 70 years ago. I commend it to you wholeheartedly! Buy it here.

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