Book Review: Essentially One, Jonathan Lamb (IVP, 2020)

“Unity is God’s mission. It arises from who God is, how he acts
and what he will finally achieve.” 202

I have already had the privilege of reading many fantastic books this year, and some of the more recently published ones are reviewed on this blog. Few of those, however, have challenged and encouraged me as deeply as Jonathan Lamb’s latest book. Essentially One, Striving for the Unity God Loves is a brilliant call to the believer to pursue, embrace, and celebrate unity. Not at the cost of the truth of the Gospel, but wonderfully in that truth.

Jonathan’s book is richly centred on God’s word, each chapter taking a key passage of Scripture and centring its discussion around it. Jonathan identifies his concern in the introduction, and also suggests the remedy. “It is my conviction that we will only be able to counter unnecessary division and work to maintain the unity of the Spirit if we are utterly
convinced and motivated by the big themes of Scripture, exemplified
in gospel priorities and made real by the Spirit’s empowering work
in our lives.” (xviii.)

This book is a call to unity, one pursued as we dwell on God’s word, and are equipped by the Spirit. Split into four parts and sixteen chapters, Jonathan walks the reader through the Biblical picture of unity, and challenges us to take up this charge, to seek and to celebrate unity.

A Clear Structure

Essentially One is simply divided into four parts. Part 1 considers the call to be ‘Joining God’s Mission’. Part 2 addresses ‘Difference and Diversity’. Part 3 ‘Confronting Challenges’ discusses conflict, change, division and discipline. Finally Part 4 practically examines how it looks to be ‘Changing our Attitudes and Behaviours’.

In a study of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 in Chapter 4, Jonathan draws out this overarching theme of unity. We cannot, he writes (39) “overestimate the significance…of Christian unity” in Jesus’ prayer. Christ’s hope for the church is that unity might feed the lives and activities of all believers. Through the fourfold structure of this book, Jonathan astutely identifies the weight Scripture gives to Christian unity, challenges attitudes and sin that may upset such unity, and gently advises, often practically, how we might achieve this unity.

An Exegetical Heart

And it is clear throughout this book that the means by which Jonathan hopes to teach and challenge on this issue, is through a thorough and consistent application of Scripture. Essentially One is a masterpiece in biblical exegesis.

Each of the sixteen chapters takes an often sizeable passage of Scripture and Jonathan builds his case around God’s Word. The first chapter, based on Acts 10, is a great example of this. Through a simple walk-through of the passage Jonathan explores three foundation truths: God accepts all, Jesus is Lord of all and Salvation is available to all (7-8). His argument is consistently grounded in Scripture, and there is a clear Gospel joy at the heart of this book – a united church is a dwelling place of God? “[What] a wonderful conclusion!” (33.)

More so than this, Jonathan does not offer his own comment in isolation, but humbly draws on the voices of Christian leaders and thinkers from both recent years and long ago. This is a helpful sideline to the main thrust of the book. Not only is there a sense of unity in learning from Christians who have gone often long before us, but there is a helpful humility in plumbing the depths of Christian commentary and literature from centuries gone by, rather than an assumption that recent writing is better/more appropriate! I found this to be a real encouragement throughout. Essentially One speaks to the contemporary British church, but with the wisdom of Christians past and present, and in total and ultimate reliance on Scripture itself.

A dismantling of ‘tribal’ walls

This book at times makes for uncomfortable reading. Not because anything Jonathan writes is unhelpful or inaccurate, but because you can’t help but feel like he is speaking directly to you. Time and again throughout the book Jonathan speaks of ‘tribes’ and ‘tribalism’. He discusses factions, subgroups, interest groups and splinter organisations. All within the church. This book is not a call for blind unity irregardless of the beliefs of the other, but rather it is a radical call to Biblical unity in Christ.

“We must remember that fellow Christians of whatever label – those whom the Father knows – are identified with the same Lord Jesus and indwelt by the same Holy Spirit.” (40.)

Whatever label we have for ourselves and others, this book checks our preconceptions. Do I too readily dismiss another church for being ‘too charismatic’, or ‘too old-fashioned’? Do I allow myself to be attracted to/put off by the slick social media or stage setup of another church? We know the labels that we as Christians give to other believers in the UK, especially those who quite clearly do not belong to ‘our tribe’. But Essentially One challenges us to ask questions of our own hearts. There is a damaging arrogance, of which sadly many evangelicals can be accused, in believing that our tribe is the only one to have got it right. This book confronts that, encouraging us instead to seek unity with God’s people, for the sake of His name.

Our tribes may look different, but if genuine and convicted Christian believers inhabit another, Jonathan asks then (66): “How can we possibly exclude those whom God has accepted?”

This is not a blanket and unthinking acceptance, and there is much in this book that encourages healthy discourse around secondary or tertiary issues. Jonathan’s discussion around churches communicating with one another in the local area for example is one such helpful thought on this. But it is a call to remember that in God, we are one body, though many parts. It is a book that forces us to ask the question: where is it in my own life that I hinder, rather than further, Christian unity in the church and contexts in which I live and work?

Summary

I hope this review has illustrated just how good I think this book is. I would gladly recommend it to anyone within my own church context (the Grace Baptists) as well as the other two church families I have been a part of during my adult/university life (Independent Anglican and Scottish Free Church). This book showed me my sin in many areas, but it also encouraged me that the means by which I confront, repent, and put to death such sin are found in God’s Word. Essentially One is a brilliant, and biblical call to unity, one that the British church sorely needs. Whatever tribe you belong to, and maybe you feel it’s a tribe to which Jonathan Lamb could never belong, I would encourage you to ask God for a humble heart, and to grab a copy of this book and give it a read.

At the end of each chapter there are questions for reflection and discussion. Normally, I (often wrongly) find such questions to be a mild inconvenience, worth skipping over before you head to the next chapter. Essentially One, however, bucked that trend for me! They were insightful questions, clearly probing the hot topics of each chapter. They would allow this book to be read within a discussion group context, or one-to-one, and would benefit any reader as they work their way through this book.