90 Days in John 14-17, Romans, James: a book review

Tim Keller is a pastor, popular author and a sought-after conference speaker. Even those of us on the egalitarian, non-Reformed end of the evangelical spectrum appreciate Keller’s graciousness, intelligence, and humility. He is kind of like our Calvinist, complementarian man-crush. Sam Allberry  is an editor at the Gospel Coalition, a global speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) an author, and the founding editor of Living Out (a ministry for those struggling with same-sex attraction). Keller and Allberry have teamed up for a 90 day devotional on John 14-17, Romans and the book of James. Their  walk through these passages were first published in Explore Quarterly, a journal published by the Good Book Company.

kellberryThe daily entries walk through a passage of scripture by breaking it up into a verse or two mini-sections, asking probing questions, and providing brief explanatory notes. Each day closes with suggestions on how to apply the passage, and often suggestions for what to pray in response. There is a blank, lined page for notes and prayers for each entry. These studies are designed to be done with an open Bible beside your devotional, so you can reference the words on the Page.

Carl Laferton, Good Book Company Editorial Director, writes a helpful introduction (seems like a series introduction as he makes no reference to the actual passages discussed in this volume). He suggests that as you read the passage for each day you note a highlight (the truth from God which strikes you most) the query (questions about what you are reading) and the change (ways God’s spirit is prompting you to change) (8). At the close of each study Laferton suggests writing a one sentence summary of how God spoke to you each day and a short prayer about what you have seen. This format is not reflected in the notes of Keller and Allberry’s daily entries; nevertheless it seems like a fruitful way to approach God’s word expectantly.

Because Keller and Allberry elected to write questions and notes for each verse or two mini-section, there isn’t a heuristic framework for the type of questions they ask. For example, many Bible Study methods use some version of Observation, Interpretation, Application. Mostly they ask the observational questions (questions about what it says in the text) and interpretive questions (questions about what you think the passage means) for every couple verse section, saving the application questions for the whole passage.

This is a 90 day journey and I have had this in possession for about a week. I haven’t been able to more than skim through it; however I read enough to get a sense of the entries for the purposes of this review. I will focus mostly on entries from Romans in my comments bellow.

The authors of this volume are both theologically conservative and this is reflected in their approach to passages and particular notes. That is to be expected, we all bring our own theological lens to scripture, but they do attend to what they read in each passage. So for example, in their discussion of Romans 1:26-32 they give a brief explanation of how homosexuality is viewed as a sin in the passage, “homosexuality is described as ‘against nature’ (para phusin).” But they are also careful to not turn it into a super sin as some conservative interpreters might, “But notice it comes after Paul has identified the root of all sin: worshiping something other than God. And it comes before a long list of other sins, including envy and gossiping. Active homosexuality is no more or less sinful than these—all come from worshiping the created, rather than the Creator” (104). This is perhaps a controversial passage to highlight (the only verses in this study which would address anything about homosexuality and the LGBTQ lifestyle) but it gives you a sense of how they attempt to follow the contours of the biblical text and are constrained by it.  Romans 9-11 give a classic Reformed understanding of election, predestination, God’s foreknowledge and the future of Israel (175-192), though not in a heavy-handed way.

The notes are not detailed. There are no footnotes or suggestions for further reading to delve deeply into the passage. Keller and Allberry give a non-technical, lay-person friendly interpretation of the passage, but if you do each daily study right, you, the reader, are doing all the heavy lifting, accessing biblical truth for yourself rather than depending on them for interpretation. Because they walk through whole books of the Bible, or sections of books in the case of John 14-17, this is much more detailed than those daily-thoughts-on-a-verse devotionals they sell at the supermarket.

Yet, because this work is not scholarly, there are the occasional lapses common to popular preachers. When they are discussing Romans 8:15-17 they write, “Abba means ‘Daddy,'” I know how well this preaches (I’ve preached it myself), but the best linguistic evidence would just translate Abba as father or dad without the informal, familiar feel of daddy. Nothing serious but not always careful speech. I also think breaking up passages into small daily chunks, can obscure the rhetorical structure and the flow of an argument. I think a bird’s-eye-view is so important for grasping an epistle’s meaning (especially a theologically sophisticated one like Romans). Keller and Allberry clearly have a road map they are following through each biblical book, but like your GPS they only reveal where to turn next. They don’t give you a large overview of the terrain, trajectory and destination of each book.  A good orienting essay introducing the books covered would help tremendously.

I love the Bible. The upper room discourses & Jesus’ high priestly prayer, the book of Romans and James, contain some of my go-to passages. If you are looking for a devotional or guided study to discover these sections of scripture, this is a good choice. It would be  impossible to read through this in 90 days and not grow in your understanding of these books and their meaning. And reading this devotional, as intended, will help you hear the voice of God in the text. Keller and Allberry are good guides, by no means perfect, but this would be helpful alongside other resources which help you to engage the Bible. I give this three-and-a-half stars.

I received this book via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

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The Cross and the KEEP OUT SIGN: a ★★★★★ kids’ book review

I am a father of four kids eight and under. So I read to them a lot. As far as religious kids’ books, I like books that tell the old, old story well in a way that is both  age appropriate and compelling. The Garden, the Curtain, and the Cross is a great book. It gives kids age five to eight (my test group) a big picture sense of why Jesus died and rose again. Author Carl Laberton tells a story which is accessible for my kids and true to scripture. His story is beautifully illustrated by Catalina Echeverri’s stunning illustrations. On the first day I got this book, I already read it several times with my kids. It opened up a great conversation with my eight year old about what the Bible tells about sin and we loved talking about what was happening in the pictures.

t5garden_medium3d-g7wvjnz5osg52qzrnorvrq67frvh6m4zHere is a brief synopsis of the book [spoiler alert]: It begins in the garden where there was nothing bad, ever and there was no one sad. . . ever. And best of all God was there. Unfortunately the people did a terrible thing and decided they wanted a world without God in charge. Because of their sin, God sent them out of the garden and put warrior angels in front of it like a big KEEP OUT sign. People still kept sinning because they didn’t want God in charge.  God wanted to remind people how wonderful it was to live with him, so he had his people build a temple. In the center of the temple was the wonderful place where God was. But around that wonderful place was a curtain with pictures of warrior angels—God’s big keep out sign telling them that because of their sin, they couldn’t come in. After hundreds of years God sent his son as a person (Jesus) to open the way to God’s wonderful place. The people put Jesus on a cross. Jesus took all our sin—the bad things we do and the sad things they cause—and the curtain in the temple tore in two signalling God’s wonderful place was open again. Jesus rose three days later and welcomed all who trust in him back to God’s wonderful place.

I like this book a lot and my kids all liked it. It is a perfect book to explore the meaning of Easter with kids. Another plus for the book is that Jesus isn’t depecited as another blond haired messiah. He has dark hair and some color. The final pages depict the post-resurrection Jesus with bright face with a glowing white hair and beard nd a golden sash (see Revelation 1:13-16).I give this book high points for biblical and theological accuracy but it was the art work that initially grabbed me.  Below, illustrator Catalina Echeverri reads the story alongside her illustrations. This will give you something of a taste of what to expect. I give this book five stars. ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from the Good Book Company via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

Hyde and Go Preach: a book review

Paul’s pastoral epistles are sometimes identified as his letters to Timothy and Titus, These are fruitful for pastoral leaders; however we shouldn’t jump to the false impression that the rest of Paul’s letters are non-pastoral. Most of Paul’s letters are directed to congregations he formed and pastored. Even when Paul isn’t ‘the pastor’ (as in Romans) he stll comes off pastoral. . In a new  expositional commentary,  From the Pen of Pastor PaulDaniel Hyde explores the pastoral implications of the books of I & II Thessalonians (one of Paul’s early church plants).

fromthepenofpastorpaul_1024x1024This isn’t a normal verse-by-verse commentary. It was born out of sermon series that Hyde delivered at Oceanside United Reformed Church where Hyde pastors (he is also adjunct instructor at Mid-American Reformed Seminary and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary). Hyde’s sermons walks through the Thessalonican correspondence, rooting his understanding of Paul in the Reformed tradition. Hyde’s chief dialogue partners include ancient preachers, medieval theologians, Reformers and the Puritans, and modern scholars like FF Bruce, and John Stott (14-15).

These aren’t fluffy-feel-good-sermons addressed to the felt needs of the congregation. Hyde simply walks through the text: warnings about false teachers, apostasy and the man of lawlessness; advice for living; wonder at the public Second Coming of Christ. I appreciated that Hyde counters contemporary  eschatologies which treat Jesus’ return more as an occasion to fear than as our ultimate hope.

If I ever preach through Thessalonians, I will find this helpful; however, I didn’t find hyde an easy communicator to relate with. I like the substance of what Hyde says, but wish he took greater pains at accessibility. He moved quickly to deep theology and discussing applications without much in the way of  illustration (i.e. personal anecdotes, pop-cultural references, or stories). He is more likely to underline a point by quoting Calvin or one of the Puritans than to connect his message to life.  I also wish his go-to-theologians weren’t mostly  dead white guys (not that there is anything wrong with that).

The expository nature of this book, makes it less useful if you are studying particular verses, but Hyde does a nice job of drawing out important themes. I give this three stars.

Note: I received this book from Cross-Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

 

Discipleship in the Way of Jesus: a book review

Jesus last words to his disciples (as recorded in Matthew 28:16-20) instructs them ‘to make disciples of all nations…’. Yet many Christians are not actively involved in discipleship relationships where they are being challenged to grow in relationship with Jesus, and challenging others as well. In Rediscovering Discipleship: Making Jesus’ Final Words Our First WorkRobby Gallaty makes a impassioned plea for Christians to get on with the task of discipleship making.

9780310521280_1Gallaty’s book divides into two parts. In part I, Gallaty presents a biblical model of discipleship in the way of Jesus and attempts to answer some of the reasons why discipleship is not practiced more broadly in the church today. Gallaty begins by examining Jesus’ model of relational discipleship (chapter one). He goes on to explore the Word-oriented spirituality of the Hebrews, historical examples of disciplemakers (i.e. Augustine, Luther, Baxter, Edwards and the Puritans, John Wesley and the early Methodists) and how an uninspired comma in the KJV translation Ephesians 4 obscured that the ministry was the purview of the whole people of God.

Part II focuses on discipleship methods. Gallaty urges a slow-cooker method of discipleship instead of fast-food and quick fix methods (chapter eight). He argues for “D” groups of 3-5 people as the most effective way to disciple people(chapter nine). He deals with ‘road blocks’to discipleship and encourages us to move forward with intentionality and growing competence. He instructs us to invest in the faithful and available and teachable, “Look for those who are hungry and eager to learn. Seek out evidence that God is at work in their heart and in their life. Disciple those that know Jesus and want to know what it means to follow them” (174).

In his final chapter he gives a five principles for ‘D-groups.’ The groups should be (MARCS):

  1. Missional (encouraging participants in personal evangelism)
  2. Accountable
  3. Reproducible
  4. Communal
  5. Scriptural.

  I appreciate Gallaty’s relational, intentional and systematic approach to discipleship. I liked that he roots his discipleship model in the methodology  of Jesus (reminiscent of Robert Coleman’s Masterplan of Evangelism). This is good stuff.

Nevertheless I have a couple of critiques. His MARCS typology is  really helpful, but I wish his concept of ‘missional’ meant more than just evangelism though certainly it means this. Mission should include mercy, justice, advocacy and other ways believers have enacted the Kingdom. Also his concept of accountability focuses completely on the sin/holiness domain. Certainly group members should ask hard questions and call one another to task, but in the context of accountability, I think we need to share the positive word of where we see God’s Spirit at work in each other’s life. I have been in too many ‘accountability groups’ that taught me more about being a good legalist than being a gracious saint. At other points in the book, I thought he was too flippant with traditions he disagrees with (i.e . where he disparages the lack of discipleship of lay people in Catholic history).

On the whole, Gallaty’s passion and thoughtfulness on discipleship are inspiring and he give practical advice on implementing a discipleship program. I give this four stars and think that it is a good read for pastors, ministry leaders and mentors.

Note: I received this book from Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

 

 

A PostHope Hope: a book review

Can Hope survive  with the collapse of epistemology certainty? Is God necessarily existent for spiritual experience? Can the nihilism of our age open us up to the possibility of grace? Phenomenologist and deconstructionist John D. Caputo wrestles with these questions and more in his intellectual memoir, Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim). The book is a spiritual autobiography of sorts, but it only reveals the broad contours of Caputo’s life, focusing on the development (or deconstruction?) of his thoughts on God, faith and certainty.

Hoping Against Hope by John D. “Jackie” “Brother Paul” Caputo

Caputo was raised in a devout Catholic family. He spent four years as a De LaSalle monk,  before his illustrious career as a philosopher and theologians (thirty-six years as professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and professor of philosophy of religion at Syracuse University for seven years). In Hoping Against Hope he gives voice and personality to these various stages of his intellectual development. As a child Caputo was an altar boy in pre-Vatican II Catholicism who had memorized the Baltimore Catechism. Caputo refers to this younger self  as “Jackie.” “Brother Paul,” is the monk Caputo who grew callouses on his knees in an attempt to learn prayer and had a love for the mystics. The professor, “John D.,” is the the philosopher who’s tongue was loosed by Jacques Derrida (the other Jackie) and the French Postmodernists.

Caputo writes:

My life as a philosopher gas taken place in the distance between theology and philosophy. Like everyone else, however far forward I thought I moved, I was always circling around my origins. I soon found that the audacity of the philosophers who “dare to think” according to the Enlightenment motto, fails them when it comes to theology. There they panic, in fear of contamination. They treat the name of God like a terrible computer virus that will corrupt all their files, or like a real one, like the Ebola virus, where the odds of recovering are against you. So, mostly at the beginning of my professional life, when “John D.” stepped forth and responded to the title “professor,” while telling Jackie to stay at home, I was worried that they would say, “This is not philosophy, this is just his religion.” But my religion is between me and Brother Paul and Jackie and several others. How can they know anything about that? (104-105).

With the Continental Philosophers, Heidigger, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotoard, Levinas, and others, Caputo thoroughly rejects the narrative of the Christian tradition and the official line of the Roman Catholic church. He dismantles dogma, expresses his antagonism toward  the afterlife and a God that is either ‘ the Prime Punisher and the Royal Rewarder (64). He also regards the arguement between atheism and theism to be wrong-headed. With a Zen-Koan-like-air he proclaims, “God does not exist. God insists” (114). He gives fresh and unique interpretations of scripture and imagines the textual variants he wishes to one day uncover. Caputo’s thoughts run far a field from classic Christian orthodoxy.

But his project isn’t wholly negative. Caputo upholds active service to the poor and marginalized and the non-religious religion of love. He says his idea of nihilism is stolen from the mystics and he employs insights from Miester Eckhardt and Marguerite Porete (both mystics ran a foul from official church teaching). What Caputo proposes is a religion of the Rose–“The rose is without why; it blossoms because it blossoms; It cares not for itself, asks not if it’s seen” (27). He brings this verse from Angelus Silesius into conversation wiht Lyotard’s religion of the smile and posits a nihilism where all of life is received as a gift  (with or without a giver), where all of life is received without condition (181).

As an intellectual memoir/spiritual autobiography I give this three stars and thought it was an interesting read. I especially loved the ‘short nocturnal dialogue’ where Caputo imagines a dialogue with himself at his different stages of faith and intellectual development. I appreciate how Caputo’s postmodernity leads him to pluralism and relativism without the need to posit an underlying universal faith in God.  However, I am unconvinced by Caputo’s theological vision and see his radical (or weakness) theology as incompatible with the Christian gospel of grace. I was aware of Caputo before reading this book, so wasn’t particularly surprised by what he says here.  I have read him before and have seen him lecture. I find him fascinating. I also find it ironic that I received this book from Cross Focused reviews. If Caputo mentions the cross at all (and I don’t remember that he does in this book), it is clearly not his focus. Anyway, I received this book in exchange for my honest review. ★★★

Evangelism is Hard: a book review

I have friends that came to faith through Christianity Explored, the evangelistic DVD course produced by All Souls Langham Place, London, staring Rico Tice. I even had the opportunity to review that course for another context, so I am aware of Tice’s ministry. So that piqued my interest in his new book, Honest Evangelism: How to Talk About Jesus Even When it’s Tough (Good Book Company, 2015).

Tice begins where most evangelism books do not. The opening sentence of his introduction  says, “I find evangelism hard” (11). Coming from one of the most visible and effective evangelists, it is refreshing to find that he too finds evangelism difficult. His first chapter he discusses the difficulty that awaits the would-be-evangelist. He says first that hostility, persecution, hardship, rejection will be our experience. But the other half of the story is that in addition to hostility, you will see hunger for good news. Tice writes, “The same rising tide of secularism and materialism that rejects truth claims and is offended by absolute moral standards is proving to be an empty and hollow way to live” (20). While Tice offers no guarantees on the results of our efforts, he writes, “Hostility and hunger, that is what you will find as you tell others about Jesus. And of course, at the moment you open your mouth, you don’t know which you are going to be met with; and you don’t know what your words may do to people years later. You have to risk the hostility to discover the hunger”(23).

In chapter two, Tice explores how ‘evangelism is worth it.’  He roots evangelism in three motivators: the glory of Christ, the guarantee of new creation, and the grim reality of death and hell (25).  Certainly he sees the reality of hell as a significant piece of evangelism (loving people means warning them), but I think his order is significant. Tice begins with the glory of God, then the promise of new life in Christ, before addressing hell and death. This is not scare tactic evangelism, but he doesn’t ignore hard subjects. In Chapter three Tice talks about why we (still) don’t evangelize. His conclusion is that it is because we harbor idols in our hearts which keep us from participating in God’s mission. Chapter four, gives three truths to remember as we share our faith: God’s sovereignty, God’s grace and God’s power (48).

Chapter five begins the practical section of the book. Tice lays out his approach to the gospel and frames the gospel in terms of Jesus’ Identity, Mission and Call (62) which is the same approach he takes in Christianity ExploredIn chapter six he encourages us to bear witness in our own style. Peter was confrontational, Paul was intellectual, the ex-blind man was testimonal and the woman-at-the-well was invitational (76-79). Tice encourages us to bear witness in whatever style is most like us. In chapter seven, he explores how to evangelize in a culture of increasing tolerance and permissiveness. In his final chapter he exhorts us to pray and proclaim.

Some questions I have whenever I read an evangelism book is, “Is this the full gospel ?” ” Does the author rely too much on ‘technique’?” “Is the story they are telling compelling?” I think Tice does a good job of letting the gospel sing, placing evangelism in the wider context of God’s purpose and plan. But he does focus his presentation on Jesus’ mission, on dealing with the problem of guilt and death. I think more could be said here about freedom, participation in God, restoration, but I didn’t feel like Tice’s presentation was reductionist or transactional. He is also organic in his advice on how to share your faith, prioritizing it without prescribed methods. I felt called by Tice to more purposeful witness, but I didn’t feel guilt-tripped by him. In the end, this is a helpful book for anyone seeking to share their faith. I give it four stars.

Notice of material connection:
I received this book from The Good Book Company via Cross Focused Reviews. I was asked to write an honest review.

The Resurrection in Your Life: a book review.

When Jesus hung on the cross and died for our sins, that was not the end of the story. Jesus rose from the  dead and that changed everything. Author Mike McKinley presents the case that because Jesus’ resurecction was a historical event, The Resurrection in Your Life walks through the Easter events to Pentecost in Luke-Acts. In ten short chapters, McKinley walks through ten passages which explore the meaning of Christ’s resurrection and ascension and the gift of the Spirit.

Mckinely is the pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church in Virgina. This book grew out of a sermon series he did (143). Each chapter includes a passage from Luke or Acts, a written sermon on the passage, reflection questions and hymn lyrics which explore the theme. McKinley’s theology is traditional Baptist and Reformed leaning.

McKinley is a good communicator and I think I would enjoy listening to these as sermons. He makes judicious conclusions based on his text and relates his theme(s) to life. However, I had hoped that he would be more theological reflective on the meaning of the resurrection and its impact on our life, something similar to Eugene Peterson’s Living the Resurrection or Practicing the Resurrection. Instead these are pithy sermons based on resurrection (and ascension and Pentecost) accounts. Fine as far as they go, but  I wished for something a little more focused and a little deeper. I love that McKinley sees the integral place that the resurrection has for our salvation, I just wish he unfolded it a little more.

This is a three star book for me, but I don’t have any real criticism. I think anyone who reads this book will find points where you are challenged. I underlined several sentences in my copy. I appreciate how passionate McKinley is about how we don’t have a dead Jesus but a risen Savior. ★ ★ ★

Notice of material connection, I received this book from Cross Focused Reviews and the Good Book Company in exchange for my honest review.