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.

Timmy Time on the Romans Road part II: a book review

A little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to review Tim Keller’s Romans 1-7 For You. Tim Keller is one of my favorite pastor-theologians and where I don’t always agree with him, I am always grateful for the way he presents his theological convictions with grace and respect. In Romans 1-7 For You, Keller walked readers through the first seven chapters of Romans, making the case for the universal need for salvation through Jesus Christ and how the just live by faith. But the real treasure in Romans begins after these introductory chapters.

Romans 8 unfolds the mystery of life in the Spirit, our adoption as sons and how in Christ we are more than conquerors,  Romans 9-11 unpack the mystery of predestination and Israel’s hope, chapter 12 tells us how to live in light of the gospel in community, chapter 13, as citizens of the state, and chapter 14-15 describe further how to care for one another and fulfill God’s mission in our world. The final chapter has a list of names of Paul’s coworkers, many of them women.

In Romans 8-16 For YouKeller explores these texts from the second half of Romans. Almost a full third of this commentary is devoted to Romans 8 (a beautiful chapter to camp in). However, Keller honors the shape of the biblical text and walks readers through each section of the text, pulling out points of interest.

Keller is more pastor than scholar and he draws heavily on such evangelical luminaries as Leon Morris, John Stott, F.F. Bruce and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  As to be expected, this is a Evangelical Reformed take on Romans, but it is written at an accessible level for pastors and lay people alike (one of goals of the series). I am especially grateful for the stress that Keller puts on Paul’s anguish for his people when he turns to his discussion on election (58). He also does a good job of emphasizing the diversity of Paul’s coworkers in Romans 16.  Not being quite as Calvinist as Keller, I do have sections that I quibble with but I appreciate Keller’s attention to the text. I also favor a more Anabaptist reading of Romans 13, but probably need to dig deeper in personal study before I commit to a view.
On the whole like this volume. Serious students of Romans would want to go deeper and may make use of the commentaries he lists in his bibliography. Yet for many of us Romans, as a whole, remains opaque to us. We love to quote passages and put isolated verses to work in our evangelism, but have a difficult time tracking Paul’s argument from beginning to end. If that describes you, I commend this volume (and Keller’s early volume) to you. After all, Romans 8-16 is for you. I give this commentary four stars.

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

I give this commentary 4 stars

Timmy Time on the Romans Road: a book review

Charismatics like Corinthians, emotional people like Philippians and justice advocates like Galatians. But ‘serious theologians’ love Romans. I’m kidding, although Romans is highly significant. This is Paul at his deepest. It is no wonder that ‘Romans is a book that repeatedly changes the world by changing people” (7).  Augustine was converted from his reading of Romans, Luther came to a fresh understanding of Justification and countless others have been inspired, challenged by this Pauline Epistle.

Tim Keller has written an accessible, non-technical commentary on Romans which will help pastors and ordinary readers unearth the treasures of Paul’s most theological letter. As part of the God’s Word for You series, Romans 1-7 for You is designed for you to:

  • Read–a guide to help you appreciate the letter
  • Feed–a daily devotional to help you grow in Christ
  • Lead– Notes to help you illustrate  and explain the opening chapters of Romans

This made me think of other appropriate rhymes (‘Heed’–putting Romans into practice or ‘Weed’–using your reading of Romans to get right with God), but these three give a sense of what this book is about and how it should be read.

As this is a commentary, Keller follows the outline and shape of the book of Romans. Walking through chapter by chapter, Keller articulates the message of Romans to us: we learn the power of the gospel (1:1-17), our universal need for the gospel (1:18-3:31), how Abraham and David illustrate justification (Romansr 4), how Jesus–the second Adam–brings us salvation (Romans  5),  our identity as one united with Christ (6:1-7:6) and as people at war with sin (7:7-25).

Keller is one of my favorite pastor-theologians. He does a great job of explaining the text. I certainly appreciated walking through Romans again (reading it along side my Bible). I  think that it will serve as a helpful teachers resource for anyone seeking to hand on the truths of this Epistle. As I got to the end of the book, I was disappointed that I  have to wait to see how Keller treats the last half of Romans (which has some truly fantastic and difficult to understand stuff). I eagerly await the next installment!

 

Where this book loses  a few points for me is the Glossary. The glossary explains difficult words and concepts which illuminate what Paul (and Keller) are saying. These include Biblical terms like ‘gentiles,’ ‘circumcised’ or ‘Kingdom of God’; theological terms like ‘orthodoxy,’ or ‘doctrine’; and general words used in this book like ‘non-sequiturs,’ ‘subjective,’ or ‘perverse.’ However Keller speaks of ‘expiation,’ ‘propritiation’ and ‘federal headship.’ I think he ably describes what he means by these concepts within the text of the book itself, but a glossary which fails to describe the most technical terms is not good pedagogy (also not in the glossary).

However on the whole, I found this to be solid resource. Lay leaders, clergy and general readers can all delve into this book with benefit. There are twelve chapters which are each divided into two parts. This means you could divide this book up into 24 readings and read through it devotionally over four weeks. I give this book 4.5 stars.

Thank you to the Good Book Company and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.