Book Review: The Future of Justification

John Piper’s book responding to the work of N. T. Wright has been one of the most anticipated titles of the year. I have no figures to back that up, but I think it’s true. And yet, in a summary on Piper’s web site, Piper’s assistant comes out of the gate with this sparkling endorsement: “Not everyone should read John Piper’s new book on justification.”

The reason for this is not because it’s not a good book, but because it’s a book written to respond to a specific theological development that has been influential in some circles and made no headway at all in others. So if you’re reading this review and you’ve never heard of N. T. Wright, or the “New Perspective on Paul,” then this book might not need to be on your Christmas list. But if you know of Wright and the influence of his ideas, I highly recommend it. In fact, I think it’s a model of serious, robust theological study in the service of God and his church. A few distinctives of this book make this true:

  • Piper’s goal is not to win a fight, but to serve the truth. I highlighted this in a post last week. His motivation for this book is concern over Wright’s teaching, not a personal need to beat up an opponent. Of course, anybody could just declare this at the beginning of a book, but the rest of this book actually bears the marks (it seems to me) of what Piper calls the “desire to be a faithful steward of the grace of truth.”
  • Related to this is the rigorous concern to be accurate in explaining and responding to Wright’s views. There are no straw men to be found in this book. In fact, Piper sent Wright a copy of the manuscript and asked for his comments, and Wright’s response more than doubled the length of the book. Piper has clearly taken the time to comprehend and process Wright’s ideas. The book quotes Wright extensively, and seeks to honestly unpack what Wright means. More than once Piper actually defends Wright against incorrect conclusions people could conceivably draw from his work.
  • The book places the focus where it always should be for the theologian: the Word of God. Of course, it’s entirely legitimate to use other sources, but Piper consistently does straightforward, careful exegesis of Scripture, and that is the backbone of the book. This is vital for theological discussion to do any good in the service of the church.
  • The fruit of reading a book like this, at least in my own heart, is rejoicing in the cross. I think N. T. Wright is badly mistaken on some points. But I didn’t walk away from the book thinking Wright was an idiot (far from it); I walked away from it humbled and thankful to God for giving me the gift of his own righteousness in place of my sin, counting his perfect record as mine. That the book led me to glory in Christ, not the intellect of John Piper, makes it an example of great Christian scholarship.

Piper, for my money, is the best living example we have of theology on fire: a rigorous mind and a passion for God, not balancing each other out or offsetting each other but informing each other. His love for the truth of the Word and the glory of Christ in the gospel are on full display here. I found his arguments compelling, of course, but I appreciated the book even more as an example of Christian scholarship.

Book Review: The Great Exchange

Jerry Bridges has a solid reputation for pointing believers to the cross, and this book is no exception. Built on the model of an older work called The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement, The Great Exchange is a meaty exposition of the gospel: the death of Christ in the place of condemned sinners, and the gift of his righteousness imputed to their account.

I was only three pages in when I began to think, “this is a very good book,” and I never changed my mind. The book is written in two parts. Part I is an overview of the atonement, summarizing the NT’s teaching and giving a great explanation of the OT backgrounds. This first 75 pages or so could really stand alone as a teaching tool to give believers a better understanding of what the cross means. Part II goes through each book of the NT, shows that book’s unique contribution to the doctrine of the atonement, and closely examines the key passages of each book relating to the atonement.

The book has a few minor weaknesses. There is some repetition, which is understandable given the goal of addressing every major passage on the atonement. There were also places where I felt like I was reading true statements, but not true statements that were drawn from the Scripture at hand. Lastly, at a couple of points I felt Bridges and Bevington’s defense of limited atonement was weak. None of these, however, make me hesitate to give this book an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

In the foreword, Sinclair Ferguson writes, “Here is spiritual food to be chewed and digested.” He is right. The Great Exchange is not a page-turner, one you plow through and then move on. If you read it that way, after a while you’ll burn out. It’s a great book to use as a guide to an extended study of the Bible’s teaching on the atonement– I think it would be great to use in a yearlong Bible study or even in personal devotions. However it’s used, it is a great presentation and explanation of the gospel, the truth to which we all need to keep returning every day: my sin for his righteousness.

Book Review: The Big Picture Story Bible

I know firsthand that it’s a great blessing to grow up hearing Bible stories. But too often, we can become so familiar with these stories, like David and Goliath, Noah and the ark, that we fail to see how the whole Bible fits together as one grand Story, the story of God creating and redeeming his people. When we don’t get this, the individual stories quickly become little morality tales, and we miss the forest for the trees.

Enter the Big Picture Story Bible. I bought three books the week my son was born, and this was one of them (the other two will wait for later reviews). He’s now heard most of it twice. Simply put, this book is a huge hit at our house, and I think it will be for years to come.

I have never seen such a theologically-minded children’s book– it’s just as edifying to Melissa and me as it is to Sam. It masterfully tells the story of creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the promises to Abraham. It traces the people of Israel from Canaan to Egypt to the Promised Land to the exile and back. It covers the coming of Christ, his death and resurrection, and the spread of the church. Even the OT prophets get a chapter– something you don’t see in a lot of Bible storybooks! Through all these sections David Helm is careful to show how the story at hand fits into the larger context: the story of God, his people, and Jesus, “God’s Forever King.”

One of the coolest things about this book is the illustrations. More than just depicting the action in the stories, they actually underscore the book’s emphasis on the unity of Scripture. For example, when Israel enters the Promised Land, there’s an illustration that looks like an earlier one of Eden. The illustration for the Exile, when Israel has to leave the Promised Land, looks like the one where God sends Adam and Eve out of Eden. And there are many more parallels like this.

This book is probably on about a 7-8-year-old reading level, but it’s really designed to be read to children. I look forward to reading it over & over with our kids and watching them appreciate how God has woven together his great story of redemption.

Book Review: Christian Beliefs

I’m an unabashed fan of Wayne Grudem. Aside from the fact that he’s charismatic and Reformed,* he has a real gift for explaining complex ideas well and showing the importance of theology for all believers, not just “professionals.”

Grudem’s Systematic Theology, now in the second edition, is intentionally written to be accessible to laypeople (although it’s as good as any in terms of academic quality). It’s a great resource, but it’s about 1200 pages, and that’s intimidating to most people. For this reason, there’s a 500-page version, Bible Doctrine, that’s edited down from the original, and now a third: this 150-page, bare-bones introduction to essential Christian beliefs.

Now, I think Christians who are serious about their faith (which should be all of us) should be interested in having something more along the lines of a 500-pager on the shelf as far as theology is concerned, if only to use the index when we come across tough questions. But I’m excited about this short version. It’s a great resource for new believers, for anyone who wants to strengthen their doctrinal foundation, and I especially think it would be terrific for a study group.

The book is divided into 20 chapters on major topics like the Bible, God, the Trinity, creation, prayer, the atonement, the Resurrection, etc. Each chapter is about 5 pages long and hits the high points of the doctrine with ample Scripture references, and also shows the importance and relevance of the doctrine to the Christian life. There are also review and application questions at the end of each chapter. These are sometimes a little trite, but many could be good discussion starters.

I especially like the fact that Scriptures are not just referenced but actually quoted, so that you can see how the verse supports what Grudem is explaining. This is, as Grudem says in the introduction, consistent with our belief that the “Word of God is powerful and effective;” that it does not return to him void. The book does not answer every question believers will have, but it is a God-centered, Bible-saturated explanation of the basics of the faith. If you want to better understand and be able to explain what you believe as a Christian, this book is a great starting place.

*Grudem does not like the term “charismatic;” he probably prefers “continuationist.” And lots of people don’t like calling him Reformed because of his views on the supernatural gifts and on eschatology. I can certainly concede his charismatic leanings as an asterisk to calling him Reformed, but when it comes to eschatology his views are within the bounds of Reformed thought. He is premillennial, but not dispensational. And although he believes in a future large-scale conversion of the Jews, he also believes that the church (not ethnic Israel) is the “true Israel of God.” See his ST, chs. 44 and 55. Sorry, the urge to footnote doesn’t just disappear when you graduate.

Book Review: Truths We Confess

R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (volumes 1, 2, 3)

Few people have done as much as R. C. Sproul to commend theology to the church. He has worked for years through his books, radio and conferences to show God’s people that theology is for all believers, not just for pastors or professors. So I was thrilled to see this three-volume guide to the Westminster Confession (WCF), which in Sproul’s (and my) judgment is the best human-authored summary of biblical truth. Who better than Sproul to make the Confession more accessible to the church?

In general, I found these books to be a great theological resource for laypeople. Sproul has a real gift for explaining and illustrating complex ideas, and his near-encyclopedic knowledge of the history of theology enables him to concisely show what specific issue the WCF is addressing in a given section. He also does a great job of applying the Scriptural truths of the Confession, showing their relevance in church life today. Not surprisingly, his treatments of the major emphases of Reformed theology, such as the sovereignty of God, election and free will, are terrific, and he asks the tough questions I think need to be asked of the Arminian (i.e. not Calvinist) view that most American Christians hold by default. Sproul is at his best on these topics.

I would humbly suggest, though, that the book is better as a brief systematic theology than as a guide to the WCF. Sproul gives very little historical background to the Confession, and he does not concentrate on explaining it line by line. To me these books seemed more like Sproul’s thoughts on theology in the order of the WCF than a commentary on the WCF itself. At times there’s almost a stream-of-consciousness feel—you generally like everything you’re hearing but aren’t sure where you are or where you’re going. In fact, there are several points where things are repeated nearly verbatim from earlier in the book, making you wonder if the editor was out to lunch. One example is that Sproul has a little rhyme he uses to describe antinomianism. This ditty is found on p. 64, 100, and 270 of volume 1, with no indication that we’ve heard it before.

There was very little to disagree with here theologically (again, not surprisingly!), but I was surprised to see Sproul take an almost Roman Catholic view of the recognition of the NT canon, emphasizing the church’s decision more than God’s inspiration of the books. I also thought his section on creation was weak. Although I take the same view of creation that Sproul does, that the days of Genesis 1-2 were literal human days, I didn’t think he responded all that well to other views or presented a strong case for his own.

Although the book has its flaws, I found it to be a good explanation and defense of historic Reformed theology. Sproul has a good sense for what most Christians believe, and he is good at showing us where broad evangelicalism is at odds with Scripture. In these volumes he makes theology accessible to everyone, challenging us to take our faith seriously and also showing that the fruit of that effort is a heart more devoted to God and his kingdom.

Book Review: The Gospel & Personal Evangelism

Mark Dever, The Gospel & Personal Evangelism

(By the by, the RTS-Charlotte Bookstore has this book for cheaper than Amazon. I’m just saying.)

Mark Dever is one of my favorite pastor/authors. Best known for his book 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, he is an influential advocate of biblical preaching, gospel-centered churches, and theologically-informed passion for Jesus. He also has a reputation among those who know him well as a committed evangelist. C. J. Mahaney, another well-known pastor and author, tells a story in the foreword to this book about going to lunch for the first time with Dever and finding out he knew the entire staff of the local Subway by name, that he had had conversations about the gospel with all of them. Apparently Mahaney has been urging Dever to write this book for years, and I’m glad he did.

In this small book Dever asks seven basic questions about personal evangelism.

  1. Why don’t we evangelize?
  2. What is the gospel?
  3. Who should evangelize?
  4. How should we evangelize?
  5. What isn’t evangelism?
  6. What should we do after we evangelize?
  7. Why should we evangelize?

Each of these is unpacked in a chapter of about 10 pages. His answers and explanations are simple but powerful. The book is designed to briefly encourage believers to share their faith, and it does that job very well. I myself am a lousy evangelist, often racked with guilt over my failure to interact with nonbelievers. Reading books on evangelism has often piled on to that guilty feeling, but this one made me excited to be more intentional in pursuing non-Christians. Dever shows that our excuses are illegitimate, that the gospel is great news, and that our love for God, desire to obey him and love for the lost should make us eager to preach the gospel. He also exposes ideas, even good ones, that are mistakenly viewed as the gospel (social action, “God is love,” moral reform) and shows how they fail to carry water when cut off from the true gospel.

A couple of minor flaws hinder the effectiveness of the book. One is the number and manner of Dever’s Scripture citations. He refers to Scripture often, which is of course a good thing, but frequently just lists several references at the end of a sentence, rather than quoting one or two relevant passages and explaining them. I appreciate his command of Scripture, but I think most readers are less likely to grab a Bible and look up seven verses than they are to pay attention to an explanation of how one or two verses support the point he’s making. There are also awkward transitions, abrupt endings, and even editorial mistakes that give the book, especially the last two chapters, a feel of having been hurried through. These aren’t dealbreakers by any means, but hey, this is a book review.

The greatest thing about this book is its honesty. Dever does not claim to give a foolproof method of evangelism; in fact, he is careful to distinguish between evangelism and the fruit of evangelism. The gospel produces a fragrance of life to some and death to others (2 Cor 2:15-16). But we should nonetheless be confident that God will bless our efforts to spread the good news. Believing that conversion is his work, not ours, frees us to be faithful and entrust the results to him. This book encouraged me to be more intentional about sharing my faith. Pick it up if you need that kind of encouragement too.

Book Review: The Israel of God

O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

“If you abandon Israel, God will never forgive you… It is God’s will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue for ever and ever.” This expresses the view of many Christians—witness the popularity of the Left Behind series, John Hagee’s ministry, and any number of books that explain the role of modern nations in biblical prophecy.

Is this true? Is the modern nation-state of Israel the continuation of the Israel of the Bible, so that when we read prophecies addressed to Israel we may assume they will find their fulfillment in present-day Israel or ethnic Jews? Robertson’s book asks that question: who is the Israel of God? He examines Israel in terms of its land, its people, its worship, its lifestyle, and its future, concluding that the present-day incarnation of Israel is the church of Jesus Christ: all those, Jew and Gentile, who are saved by trusting in his work and are a people set apart for him. Identifying the nation of Israel as a “people of God” distinct from the church dishonors the sufficiency of Christ’s work and seeks to step backwards in redemptive history—to return to types and shadows when the ultimate reality has been revealed.

Palmer Robertson is a master biblical theologian. He has a great eye both for the forest and the trees of the Bible; he can see the big picture as well as how all the details play their own vital role. As he traces different themes through the Old and New Testaments, he is faithful to each text in its historical context but can also see how OT themes anticipate NT ones, how the NT answers the questions of the OT. Simply put, the book is masterfully argued, and it is compelling in its entirety. I came in expecting to agree with his thesis, but understand my own position better after reading the book.

A couple of minor complaints: the chapter on Israel’s worship, which unpacks Hebrews 7 and shows that the high priesthood of Christ renders any other priesthood useless, is 32 pages long. I started to get bogged down about 2/3 of the way through and wonder when he was going to make his point. The material is excellent, but could probably be condensed (yes, it’s ironic for me to say that). I also thought there were a couple of weak spots in his exegesis of Romans 11—one or two straw-man arguments and logical leaps. I’m inclined to agree with his conclusion, though, which is that in Rom 11 Paul is describing all of God’s elect, Jews and Gentiles, being saved through history, not a future event where Israel is converted as a nation.

Robertson may be shouting into a tornado here, but he needs to be heard. His voice brings sober and responsible handling of Scripture to a hotly-debated topic, and he demonstrates its serious implications for our doctrine and practice. Read this book with Bible in hand, and you will be more grateful that Jesus is the high priest of a better covenant.