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Book Review: Biographical Preaching by R. Larry Overstreet

R. Larry Overstreet, Biographical Preaching: Bringing Bible Characters to Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2001) [Christianbook.com   Google Books]

Reviewed by Doug Smith

One of the turning points in my life occurred when I first began sitting under expository preaching.  Another happened when I began to learn what expository preaching was, and how to do it.  It’s not that God uses only expository preaching; He certainly uses other approaches.  However, there is nothing like taking a text of Scripture and explaining its content and urging its implications on a congregation.  Furthermore, it seems to be a logical implication of texts like 2 Timothy 3:14-4:4 and even the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).

There are many helpful books available on the general subject of expository preaching.  Many authors helpful break down the steps of studying a book or passage of Scripture, analyzing it, and preparing a sermon that faithfully communicates the text.

Preaching consecutive textual units (through a book or portion of a book) is probably the most frequently promoted way to preach expository messages, but it is not the only way.  Dr. Larry Overstreet, an experienced pastor and seminary professor, has written a persuasive volume advocating Biographical Preaching as another approach for the preacher.  His book is clear, concise, practical, and of a rare breed.  While not the only book on the subject, it is one of few readily available, and it treats the matter with more depth than any subsection the present author has reviewed in other books on preaching (although the brief treatment by Irvin Busenitz in MacArthur’s edited book, Preaching, previously entitled Rediscovering Expository Preaching, is worth a look.  Its appearance in The Master’s Seminary Journal is here in pdf form:  “Must Expository Preaching Always Be Book Studies? Some Alternatives”).

Summary

The meat of the book is comprised of seven chapters.  In order, they deal with the definition, philosophy, value, method, mechanics, model, and variety in biographical preaching.  In addition, there are two appendices containing example sermons.

Overstreet views good biographical preaching as a subset of expository preaching.  He defines it as “the method of preaching that expounds a Bible character, based on careful exegesis, to deduce the principles that regulated his or her life and to apply the principles to the modern listener” (13).  He distinguishes between historical biographical sermons, which emphasize “the development of the person in history,” and character biographical sermons, which focus on “the inner nature of the person” in all areas: “spiritual, mental, moral, emotional, social, and even physical” (15-17).

One key issue in biographical preaching is the nature of the narrative portions of Scripture.  Most biographical material in the Bible is drawn from the narratives of Scripture, which do not directly relate commands to readers.  The issue at hand is whether narratives are intended to be prescriptive (telling us how to live) or merely descriptive (relating what happened in the storyline of God’s activity).

After setting forth the role of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the Bible (an act that guarantees its accuracy) and in empowering the preacher, Overstreet considers the purposeful intent set forth in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which teaches that “‘All Scripture’ is purposeful for (1) teaching, and/or (2) rebuking, and/or (3) correcting, and/or (4) training in righteousness, and (5) for an overall purpose stated in 3:17” (28).  In addition, he cites Romans 15:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11 to demonstrate that Christian believers can look to the Old Testament for instruction and hope (29).  He concludes:  “The biographical preacher, then, can approach the Word of God with confidence that the principles gleaned from the lives of the people included therein are pertinent and relevant to lives today” (31).

Although the author sees practical relevance in the narratives of the Bible, he does not lose sight of their theological significance.  Since the narrative portions of Scripture highlight “the working of God in and through the lives and actions of people,” the preacher must remember that “God is always the ultimate focus of a biblical narrative” (32).  Furthermore, each narrative can be viewed at three levels:  the ground level of the individual(s) in the story, the middle level of how the story figures into the bigger story of the people of God, and the top level of how the narrative functions in the overarching plan of God (33).  Proper exegesis is necessary to analyzing and applying the text appropriately and avoiding reckless spiritualizing or allegorizing (32).

Overstreet argues for the value of biographical preaching because of its popular appeal, practical nature, powerful ability to impact lives, and profitability in making the Bible come alive for people (chapter 3).  He then lays out a method for this approach:  examining the relevant texts, studying the background, analyzing the person, using imagination, and focusing the sermon (chapter 4).  He provides helpful lists of questions to ask to gather key data concerning the person’s life, character, and practical application (82-84).

Chapters five and six give further strategies and examples to promote thorough preparation, while chapter seven advocates the use of dramatic monologues in biographical preaching — assuming the perspective of the character (possibly including props and costumes).  Appendix one gives a sermon example, while appendix two shows how a monologue may be presented.

Evaluation

Overstreet lays a great homiletical foundation and reviews essential elements of sermon preparation.  His theology and view of Scripture are clearly articulated and underlie his views on preaching.  His focus on application and contemporary relevance appropriately shape his approach to biographical preaching (the sermon is not a lecture, but something to teach us about the life that pleases God).  Furthermore, I found the book convincing on the usefulness and propriety of biographical preaching.

The book is realistic and helpful for one seeking to preach a biographical sermon.  The author is honest about the hard work involved, but does not leave the preacher to guess how hard it will be.  Practical helps are given, such as the lists of questions to ask (an invaluable inclusion) and examples of sermons.  Overstreet walks the preacher through essential elements in preparing, such as outlining, transitions, titles, introductions, conclusions, and illustrations.  He leaves no doubt as to what is involved in preparing a biographical sermon.

I found the author irenic concerning other views.  He respectfully interacts with Sidney Greidanus (192, note 1; Overstreet refers to Greidanus’s Preaching magazine article, “The Necessity of Preaching Christ from the Old Testament”; cf. related article, “Biographical Preaching Revisited”, a response to “Salvaging the Old Testament Biographical Sermon” by Timothy Peck, an article endorsed by Overstreet), who does not see a legitimacy to biographical preaching.  He also disagrees with Warren Wiersbe in Preaching and Teaching with Imagination (where Wiersbe suggests that monologues should only be done by those with adequate training and talent; see 199-200, note 5).

My only caveat — and at this point it is a personal one — is the advocacy of dramatic monologue for a sermon presentation (chapter 7).  I understand that my opinion may be the minority in many circles today, but – with all due respect to those who disagree – I have not yet become convinced that drama has a place in the public worship meeting of the church.  I understand that some of the concerns overlap with much preaching:  using imagination to fill in some blanks; dramatic use of the voice, etc.  I am also aware that God sometimes commanded people, especially the Old Testament prophets, to do dramatic things (in those cases, as an illustration of a spiritual truth for the nation Israel or as an analogy for something God was going to bring to pass).  However, what I continue to come back to is that drama was not unknown in the Greek culture of the ancient world.  It was perfectly accessible in the apostolic age.  Yet, nowhere in Scripture is it commanded or modeled as a strategy of communicating truth to the church.  My fears are that it could contribute to an entertainment mindset (even if that is not the intention), and, perhaps even more significantly, inadvertently undermine its content because of the nature of its medium (truth being presented by someone who is pretending to be someone else).  Perhaps I am carrying things too far here.  Intelligent hearers will know that the preacher is not really the individual he is portraying.  Nevertheless, I daresay that those who are convinced that dramatic monologue has a place in the preacher’s toolbox will find in this book some very practical helps for preparation, even if I am not convinced of its propriety.

Conclusion

I heartily recommend Biographical Preaching as a valuable resource.  It is an enjoyable and clearly written resource that persuasively shows the value and propriety of biographical preaching and gives a clear strategy to walk one through the steps of preparing such messages.  For those of us committed to preaching through books of the Bible, utilizing resources such as this to give a little more variety to our preaching may help breathe new freshness into our preaching, as we show people today what we can learn from the individual lives recorded in the Bible.

Book Review – Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007. Jacketed Hardcover, 341 pp.

(Review copy courtesy of InterVarsity Press.)

Table of Contents

Excerpts:

PDF Introduction: Can hermeneutics be saved? PDF 1. The necessity for hermeneutics

Graeme Goldsworthy (Th.M. & Ph.D., UTS Virginia) is a retired lecturer at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. His other books include Prayer and the Knowledge of God (IVP, 2005), According to Plan (IVP, 1991; 2002), Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Eerdmans, 2000), Gospel & Kingdom, The Gospel in Revelation, and The Gospel and Wisdom. These last three titles have been reprinted as The Goldsworthy Trilogy (Paternoster, 2001)

Is there a key to interpreting the Bible? What should our basic presuppositions for hermeneutics be? What do we need to take into consideration when we approach the exegesis and interpretation of the Bible?

Description

Graeme Goldsworthy argues that the gospel is the hermeneutical key to the Scriptures and reality. In this book, he considers the basic foundations of proper biblical interpretation. His book is divided into three major sections. He lays some ground rules, shows faulty structures that deserve to be torn down, and suggests how we should rebuild in their place.

Section one, “Evangelical Prolegomena to Hermeneutics” (chapters 1-4), looks at the foundations of hermeneutics, particularly the basic presuppositions that support a proper approach. In this section, the author stresses the importance of the doctrines of grace alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, faith alone, and the Trinity. He also deals with the effect of the fall upon the human mind and the significance of the role of the risen Christ as mediator.

The second section, “Challenges to Evangelical Hermeneutics” (chapters 5-12), surveys the history of interpretation and the problems of faulty presuppositions and approaches. The author admits that he relied on secondary sources for this section, in order “to show some of the reactions and evaluations occurring in recent scholarly comment, particularly by evangelicals” so that we can “see how the various trends in hermeneutical theory have troubled and exercised the critical judgment of evangelicals” (p. 87). From allegorical interpretation in the early church to Enlightenment rationalism, postmodern “reader-response” approaches, and even evangelical pragmatism, the author relentlessly sifts through approaches that have eclipsed the gospel. He shows that liberals do not have a monopoly on the eclipse of the gospel, but many approaches adopted in conservative quarters have also obscured its clarity, including literalist and subjective approaches. He argues that a “proper grammatico-historical exegesis stems from the fact of the incarnation” (p. 99).

The final section, “Reconstructing Evangelical Hermeneutics” (chapters 13-19), gives Goldsworthy’s prescription for a hermeneutical approach that is faithful to the Bible and therefore centered upon the gospel. Goldsworthy advocates “typology as a method of relating the Testaments” that underlines “the perspective of both their unity and diversity” (p. 238) by asking every text “how it testifies to Jesus” (p. 252). An extensive chart demonstrates how a macrotypology of the Bible works (pp. 253-256). He deals with the literary, historical, and theological dimensions of gospel-centered interpretation and takes a look at the concept of contextualization, including considerations relevant for Bible translation. He includes practical suggestions for Bible study (such as reading plans, taking notes, and prayer) and lists resources for teaching sound hermeneutics to children.

Evaluation

I found this book to be stimulating and fascinating. At least three strong points distinguish this book. The book is stellar in focusing on Christ as the hermeneutic of Scripture and reality, whereas many standard (even “evangelical”) hermeneutics texts neglect the scriptural idea that Christ is the hermeneutical key (Luke 24:27, 44). It seems so obvious, but it has been so obviously forgotten: “the principles of hermeneutics are to be found within the Scriptures themselves” (p. 22). Goldsworthy also persuasively argues that our hermeneutical approach is part of our sanctification, the renewing of our minds, made possible by the gospel. The fall affected our minds and ability for correct interpretation, but Christ even died for this—to justify and sanctify us from our faulty hermeneutics. Finally, the author’s analysis of how the gospel has been eclipsed by flawed hermeneutical approaches is no pedantic exercise but a helpful warning of how quickly we can move from the approach to the Bible advocated by Christ Himself and that displays His gospel in all its clarity. Neither historical proximity to the time of the apostles nor an accumulation of centuries of knowledge are fail-safe measures to ensure proper interpretation; only a renewed mind submitted to the Scriptures will protect Bible-believing Christians from alien influences that undermine the gospel in their hermeneutics.

Goldsworthy addresses several practical concerns with helpful warnings. He warns that separating biblical theology from systematic theology puts one “on the road to liberalism” (p. 271). He warns that the more dynamic Bible translations tend to iron out its metaphors, obscuring the way the text was originally communicated (pp. 290, 293). He writes that “recourse to commentaries and other helps is best left until later rather than sooner in the process of dealing with a text” (p. 313).

Despite the strengths of the book, one should use this book with much discrimination.

First, this book is not a handbook on hermeneutics for the average person.

Its best use would be at the seminary and graduate level. Even then, it may not be a good choice for an introductory hermeneutics class. Its lengthy treatment of matters related to hermeneutical theory is helpful. The author gives some advice about putting theory to work, but the book lacks a comprehensive method for hermeneutics. I point this out, not to denigrate the book, but to help people like me who might assume by its title that it would contain a comprehensive method for its approach. I recommend reading it in thinking through hermeneutical theory, but if you must choose one book to help you interpret the Bible, this is not the one. To see a work designed more for the purpose of equipping one to practice the gospel-centered interpretation the author advocates, see his introduction to biblical theology titled According to Plan: the Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (IVP, 2002) or the shorter summary by Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (IVP, 2002 — see my review here). (He does provide a brief overview the role of biblical theology in chapter 4 of this book.) The purpose of these works is to help one interpret the parts of the Bible in light of its big picture (something often neglected in hermeneutics texts), but are insufficient to equip one to deal with the various literary genres of Scripture.

Second, the reader should be aware of the author’s view on “literal” interpretation.

Goldsworthy classifies literalism as one of the culprits for the eclipse of the gospel in evangelicalism (p. 169ff.). While conceding that the incarnation required some literal fulfillment, he argues that the New Testament does not support a literal interpretation of Old Testament promises for the restoration of Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple (p. 170). He asserts that the “one great hermeneutic divide that separated Jesus from the unbelieving Jews concerned this very issue of prophetic fulfillment . . . That the Old Testament Scriptures are, as he says, about him (John 5:39-47; 8:39-47, 56-58) must seriously qualify literalism, since Jesus (as Jesus) is not literally in the Old Testament” and adds that “the hermeneutical principle of the Old Testament could only be understood Christologically” (p. 170). As convincing as his arguments appear, some may counter that New Testament events do not decisively rule out a future literal fulfillment, particularly since the prophets often saw events of Christ’s first and second coming together, like peaks of a mountain range that look side by side from afar.

Related to these views on literal interpretation is Goldsworthy’s amillennial eschatology. “Instead of the expected glorious reign of the Christ in a renewed Jerusalem, we learn that the scepter of the risen Christ is the preached word that will be the focus of the worldwide missionary endeavor of the church . . . Pentecost is the demonstration that the millennium has begun, Satan is bound, and Christ reigns through his gospel” (pp. 224-225, cf. p. 82).

Third, the author should probably give more caution in his advice about utilizing critical scholarship.

He suggests that Fundamentalism desires a return to pre-critical exegetical methods (p. 138, cf. pp. 181-182), although he may be painting with a bit of a broad brush, as some fundamentalist seminaries do engage critical works and even recommend critical commentaries as resources. While Goldsworthy recognizes the problem “of the extent to which we can plunder the Egyptians without returning to the leeks and the garlic” (p. 138), it seems that a further caveat should be given. There is a time and place to engage such scholarship, but it is probably best done—with much caution—by the trained scholar or pastor.

Conclusion

In this book, Goldsworthy addresses key issues in regard to hermeneutics. It is a challenging and worthwhile read for the serious student (although a subject index could have increased its usefulness), but may not be the best choice for a stand-alone guide to hermeneutics.

Reviewed by Doug Smith

This review is revised from its original appearance at www.sharperiron.org.

Book Review – The Expository Genius of John Calvin

The Expository Genius of John Calvin. By Steven J. Lawson.  (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2007), 142pp.

Steve Lawson is pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama.  Known for the “Expositors’ Conferences” he holds, this man has a goal. He aims “to raise the bar for a new generation of expositors” (xiii). Lawson quotes with approval T. H. L. Parker: “Expository preaching consists in the explanation and application of a passage of Scripture. Without explanation it is not exposition; without application it is not preaching” (p. 79). This book gives us a look at the expository preaching of John Calvin as a model and gold standard for ministry. Calvin was committed to systematic exposition of the Bible, preaching each verse in the text he covered. This book is significant because people need to hear the Word of God taught and applied, not another self-help message or a man’s ideas artificially buttressed by proof-texts. Lawson wants to see a new reformation, and believes that a renewed commitment to biblical preaching is essential for it to happen.

DESCRIPTION

Lawson’s book is simple. This book is almost pocketsize and is an easy read. Eight chapters and 132 pages of prose distill Calvin’s philosophy and practice of preaching, delineating thirty-two distinct characteristics. Two appendices give examples of the textual units Calvin covered and the flow of one of his sermons. After providing the biographical and historical context of Calvin, Lawson proceeds to consider the elements of his preaching. Calvin’s presuppositions, personal devotion to Christ, and homiletical methods are surveyed.

One comes away from this book with a well-developed portrait of Calvin the preacher. Here was a man committed to the absolute supremacy of God’s Word, for himself and his congregation, knowing that “when the Bible speaks, God speaks” (p. 27). Here was a man committed “to behold the majesty of God” in the Word (p. 40) as he sought food for his own soul. Here was a man committed to discovering through diligent study the intended meaning of the text and declaring what it said and required of its hearers. He “made disciplined study a way of life, remaining in his study until the meaning was clear” (p. 41). Here was a man who approached the text with a literal (not literalistic) hermeneutic, rejecting fanciful allegorization. He said, “The true meaning . . . is the natural and obvious meaning” (p. 71). Here was a man who preached through entire books of the Bible, verse-by-verse, not skipping over controversial, difficult, or unpopular material. He viewed the role of the preacher as that of “a dispatched messenger with the divine message” (p. 26), seeing not the preacher, but God’s Word as the final authority. Here was a man committed to prayer and a living orthodoxy, since the “light of truth must yield the warmth of devotion to God” (p. 44). Here was a man committed to a rigorous schedule, often preaching ten times in a two-week period!Although plagued by opposition from enemies and health problems, he preached as often as he could. Even when an invalid, he arrived at church, carried in on a stretcher to preach (p. 48)! While Calvin did take time to visit the sick and give counsel, he saw the pulpit ministry as that which took priority. Here was a man so committed to declaring God’s truth authentically that he left behind manuscripts and notes to speak simply from an open Bible. But this was no off-the-cuff discourse; rather “an entire lifetime of learning stood behind each message” (p. 58). Here was a man who spoke plainly to people in words they could understand, while retaining biblical terminology and avoiding the watering down of truth. Here was a man who did not waste time with trivialities outside the text, but tried to orient his hearers to the text as soon as possible, using his introductions “like a freeway entrance ramp” (p. 54).Here was a man who reasoned persuasively and used vivid imagery to drive home the point. Here was a man who relentlessly pressed upon himself and his hearers the demands of God on their lives.

EVALUATION

Lawson’s book is well researched, well organized, simple, and to the point. He does an excellent job portraying a model of expository preaching. His concise quotations of primary and secondary sources and succinct summaries of the elements of Calvin’s preaching make for a quick read (I read it in one evening; my wife read it over several days, taking a chapter a night), but provide enough depth for further meditation and review.

If the book had any weakness, it might be that it held up Calvin’s example in such a positive light that caveats against a slavish imitation of his habits were lacking. For example, although Calvin, to communicate more simply, used neither manuscript nor notes, it does not follow that contemporary preaching must avoid written aids to be biblical. However, some who read this book might be tempted to avoid the use of aids although their giftedness and personality may be much different from Calvin’s. Lawson points out that Calvin did not use homiletical headings (clearly articulated “points” of a sermon), but this structure may not be something that should necessarily be abandoned, so long as it does not get in the way of communicating the message of the text and is a help to the preacher and hearers in organizing and summarizing biblical truth. Likewise, although Calvin ushered hearers into the text soon with minimal or no extra-biblical material, contemporary audiences may need a bit longer ramp into the text, particularly if they are accustomed to hearing four to eight sermons a month (instead of twenty) at the most.However, the points are well taken that preachers should communicate simply and get people into the text soon, and Lawson does suggest that styles may vary among expositors, so long as they are faithful in discovering and communicating the message of the Bible (p. 84).

Pastors and aspiring pastors ought to read this book. It provides an excellent model for pulpit ministry, giving correction to those who need it and encouragement to those who are faithfully laboring in the Word. The Expository Genius of John Calvin would be a great book to use in mentoring another man in the ministry, as the chapters are ripe with potential for helpful discussion.

Although pastors are the most likely audience for this book, church members would benefit from it as well. Although this book is about Calvin, those who are not from his particular theological tradition will also profit from it, so long as they agree that the urgent need of people is biblical preaching. It is a good book for those looking for a church home or churches looking for a pastor, as it provides an excellent gauge for the type of preaching that most glorifies God and best meets the spiritual need of people.

This book ought to make those of us who have faithful preachers more thankful. It ought to encourage congregations to set men aside full-time to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer as soon as they can, if they are not already doing so. It should cause us to pray for fruitful study in the pastor’s life that results in fresh application of the truth to the heart of himself and his congregation. And we ought to pray for men training for ministry and those training them. Let us cry out to God, that He would continue to send forth laborers to proclaim His Word with honesty, clarity, and urgency.

CONCLUSION

Steve Lawson has given us a wonderful treasury of wisdom and a model of excellence and faithfulness in this book.I was convicted, encouraged, and had my appetite whetted for more. (He plans further books in this series, including Martin Luther, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon). There is nothing Christians need more than to understand and obey God’s Word, and nothing preachers need to be more devoted to than understanding, obeying, and declaring the whole counsel of God through systematic expository preaching.

Lawson’s goal is worthy, and this book certainly does “raise the bar” by holding forth Calvin as a model. But the standard required is no less than what God expects of his ministers: “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). May He raise up men devoted to this task and congregations that will encourage and grow from it, to the praise of His glory.

Reviewed by Doug Smith

Book Review – God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible

Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 160pp. Paper.

One of the most helpful features of much modern technology is the “zoom” option. From cameras to word processors, the ability to see both small details and the big picture is helpful to understand more about what we are looking at. Vaughan Roberts’ book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible is one attempt to give students of God’s Word “an overview of the main storyline of the Bible” to provide a helpful framework to keep in mind when studying its parts (20). Roberts helps readers “zoom out” to see what the forest of biblical theology looks like so we can better understand the purpose of the individual trees in the Bible and thus “get [our] bearings when [we] land in any part of it” (20).

DESCRIPTION

Roberts aims “to help Christians find their way around the Bible and to see how it all holds together and points us to Jesus” (14). Some have called this book “Goldsworthy lite,” thinking of it as a simplified version of Graeme Goldsworthy’s approach to biblical theology. Roberts admits as much, saying, “Anyone who has read Gospel and Kingdom[by Goldsworthy] will see its influence in these pages” (10). Both writers see Scripture as a unified and interconnected work. Roberts explains:

The Old Testament on its own is an unfinished story; a promise without a fulfillment. We must read on to the New Testament if we want to know what it really means. And the New Testament constantly looks back to the promise it fulfills. (19-20)

God’s Big Picture sees the kingdom of God as the unifying theme that shows how the Bible fits together. This theme is not forced upon the Scripture but arises out it and it sufficiently encompasses the whole of Scripture in a way that allows “each part to make its own distinct contribution” (20-21). Furthermore, “God’s kingdom was the dominant theme in Jesus’ teaching” (21). The kingdom of God is understood to be presented throughout Scripture as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing” (21).

In eight chapters, the book traces the kingdom motif throughout the Bible.

“The Pattern of the Kingdom” introduces us to elements of this unifying them by looking at Genesis 1:1-2:25. “The Perished Kingdom” (Gen. 3) shows the results of man’s rejection of God’s kingdom. “The Promised Kingdom” (Gen. 17:1-8; Gal. 3:6-14) focuses on God’s promises of salvation. It particularly emphasizes God’s covenant with Abraham, which promised a people, a land, and blessing, and shows that, from the start, the kingdom of God was intended to include Gentiles as well as Jews. “The Partial Kingdom” (a lengthy chapter in comparison with the others) covers passages ranging from Genesis 12 to 2 Samuel 7:1-17 to trace the kingdom through the history of Israel and highlights the promise of a king. “The Prophesied Kingdom” focuses on the role of the prophets in announcing the coming fulfillment of the promises of the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God “sums up the prophetic hope” (108), according to Roberts. As the book turns to the New Testament in “The Present Kingdom,” the author states:

At first sight we may feel that a genealogy is an uninspiring way to start the New Testament, but, if we remember God’s promises, we will be on the edge of our seats as soon as we read the words: ‘A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham’ (Matthew 1:1). He is the one who fulfills the promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 and to David in 2 Samuel 7. The apostle Paul expresses it clearly: ‘no matter how many promises God has made, they are “yes” in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 1:20). (107)

The chapter shows how Jesus brings the kingdom of God. As for God’s people, Jesus did what Adam and Israel failed to do. Jesus is the place of God’s kingdom, fulfilling the purposes of the tabernacle and temple. God’s rule and blessing come about through the new covenant Jesus establishes and the blessing that flows from His kingship. These things came about through the “triumphant success” of the cross (114). There was no other way for Christ to bring God’s kingdom apart from His obedience to the Father and death as a substitute for sinners. His resurrection inaugurates a new age of God’s blessing.

Roberts’ bite-size overview of the Gospels culminates in his assertion that the kingdom has come, although it has not yet come in its fullness (119). He compares Jesus to a conductor who has returned to offer salvation to those who have refused to play God’s tune. While some submit to this redeemer, they will continue to play some wrong notes and produce discord, since there is still a future aspect to the kingdom (118-119).

In “The Proclaimed Kingdom,” the author says, “The promises of the kingdom will not be completely fulfilled until [Christ’s] second coming” (123). He gives 2 Timothy 3:1 and James 5:3 as reasons for viewing “the last days” as the time between the first and second comings of Jesus, meaning that, according to New Testament usage, we have been in the last days for the last two millennia. God has delayed Jesus’ return “so that more people will have a chance to hear the gospel and repent before it is too late” (125). Right now, God is working by His Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel to extend His kingdom. The Spirit is reversing the judgment of Babel (separation of nations along linguistic lines) and, in a way peculiar to this age, He indwells and empowers believers to bear witness to the truth before those who do not believe. The return of Jesus takes place after the gospel is preached to all nations.

The church is God’s people (131). God’s place is this holy people who trust Christ. God’s Spirit dwells in us individually and as a Christian community (131), and helps us to enjoy God’s rule and blessing by living according to His standards (132).

The present age leaves us longing for “The Perfected Kingdom.” In this chapter, Roberts surveys the book of Revelation to show what God has told us about the complete fulfillment all His promises, particularly as His people are with Him in the new creation, in the new temple, enjoying His rule and blessing forever.

EVALUATION

The book has several advantages. Its brevity and ease of reading make it accessible to a wide audience, even as young as high school. Most of the chapters are short and include questions for discussion and application, making it ideal for Sunday school, classroom use, or personal study. It contains many helpful charts. It whets the appetite for further Bible study and is useful even for students advanced in their hermeneutics that may be familiar with the minutiae of Scripture but have forgotten what the view of the whole thing looks like. It is common to hear that we should interpret a text in light of its immediate context, the book that it is in, and the whole Bible, but sometimes it is difficult to see how it fits in with the rest of the canon. Vaughan Roberts has given us a resource that helps in this area.

As useful as the book is, the reader should be aware of Robert’s views of the interpretation of the days in Genesis 1, the nation Israel, and eschatology. These particular concerns would keep me from recommending the book for private study to those without a good grounding in the Scriptures and Christian theology.

Roberts states the following about God’s creation of the world:

Whether he completed the job in six literal twenty-four hours days or over a longer period does not really matter (Christian opinions differ over how we should interpret Genesis 1). What is important is the fact that God is the creator of all things. (27)

However, such an issue may well matter a great deal, as one’s view of the days of Genesis could impact one’s view of the historicity of Adam and Eve, the origin of sin, and even the events of the gospel itself. Some spiritualize the days of Genesis into long ages simply to accommodate a supposed body of scientific evidence that would render the literal interpretation nonsensical. These interpreters may well be guilty of compromising the very foundations of the gospel (albeit unintentionally).

Dispensational readers may quickly notice that Roberts’ does not share their views on the nature of Israel and predictive prophecy. His amillennial eschatology surfaces frequently in the last half of the book (I write as a premillennialist).

Roberts plainly states, “The new Israel is the church” (131). As far as a future for Israel, he discourages readers from looking for fulfillment of the Old Testament promises “in the State of Israel” and says not “to expect a new temple to be build there” (108). He writes:

God made his promises to Israel in ways they could understand. He used categories they were familiar with, such as the nation, the temple and material prosperity in the land. But the fulfillment breaks the boundaries of those categories. To expect a literal fulfillment is to miss the point. (109)

It would have been helpful to see his analysis of Romans chapters 9-11 (especially chapter 11) in regard to these points.

Neither the 1,000 years of Christ’s reign nor the 144,000 should be understood in terms of literal numbers, according to Roberts (145, 148). The lake of fire is seen to represent eternal death; Roberts does not clearly indicate whether he thinks this means there is an eternal conscious torment of the damned or not (144).

He also makes his amillennial views clear when he speaks about other passages in Revelation in an endnote, writing:

Revelation 20:2-3 speaks of Satan being bound and then thrown into the Abyss at the start of the thousand-year period. There is good reason to believe that those events have taken place in the past. Revelation 12:10 makes it clear that Satan has already been hurled down from heaven. He was defeated by the death and resurrection of Christ and has been bound ever since. He is powerless to stop God calling his elect into his kingdom, but he has still not admitted defeat and continues to attack God’s people. Revelation 11:7 describes him coming up from the Abyss to attack the witnessing church. He could not have come up from the bottomless pit if he had not already been thrown down into it. I believe that occurred when Christ died and rose. That is when the millennium began. It will continue until just before the return of Christ.

These concerns should not result in a dismissal of Roberts’ book, but they need to be pointed out. Because of them, I think the book would be most useful in a classroom setting or a discipleship/mentoring relationship where a more competent teacher can help the student when these issues arise.

CONCLUSION

Vaughan Roberts’ small volume of biblical theology is useful to help us “zoom out” and see the big picture of the Bible. Despite the caveats given above, the book is still valuable to help us see what the Bible is all about so we can interpret its parts in light of it as a whole. God’s Big Picture is a great starting point for encouragement to be better students of God’s Word, clear proclaimers of His truth, more obedient children of God, and more faithful evangelists in spreading the good news of King Jesus.

Reviewed by Doug Smith

Book Review – Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness

Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation. By Brian Vickers. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2006.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brian Vickers (M.A., Wheaton College; M.Div., Ph.D., the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. A member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Institute for Biblical Research, Dr. Vickers is also the Assistant Editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. His articles have appeared in Trinity JournalEusebiaThe Southern Baptist Journal of TheologyGospel Witness, and The New Illustrated Holman Bible Dictionary.

Perhaps you have heard the word justification defined this way: justification is God’s treating me just as if I had never sinned. But is this true? Does justification merely equal forgiveness of sins—as amazing as that is—or is there something more? Do we need an external righteousness that is not our own?

These are questions of eternal significance. In Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation, Brian Vickers argues that the question of whether Scripture teaches the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer is not a mere academic debate but a matter that concerns the heart of the gospel and salvation (p. 15). Vickers states his argument on page 18: “The contention of this book is that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a legitimate and necessary synthesis of Paul’s teaching.” He has produced a persuasive and rewarding book defending this Scriptural doctrine.

Vickers desires to avoid the twin extremes of seeing too much in a particular text by importing ideas into it (eisegesis) and seeing too little in the text by failing to see the big picture (ignoring the interpretation of Scripture by Scripture). As a corollary goal, he hopes to show that “Protestant theology, particularly the Reformed tradition, has not been dominated only by systematicians who cared little for exegesis” (p. 18, footnote 4).

Vickers states that the book does not thoroughly examine all of the concepts related to imputation. Topics such as righteousness and union with Christ are not given an exhaustive treatment but are dealt with in light of their implications for imputation. He also informs readers that the book overlooks much important historical material to focus on the matters of exegesis related to imputation. Finally, this book does not contain a section devoted to a study of the New Perspective on Paul, although Vickers gives extensive bibliographical listings and interacts with proponents of New Perspective views in various sections as these ideas relate to imputation.

To give context and frame to the discussion, chapter one sketches the history of the doctrine of imputation, beginning with the Reformation and continuing to the present. The chapters that follow are an examination of key texts relevant to imputation and contain rigorous exegesis, technical language, and copious footnotes. Vickers concludes with a synthesis of Paul’s teaching and a final chapter on the importance of the doctrine of imputation. Each chapter closes with a helpful summary.

Vickers demonstrates that the doctrine of imputation was not fully developed by the Reformers but was refined by their followers in writings and church creeds. He argues that imputation, though often associated with covenant theology, is not restricted to a covenantal framework (p. 34, footnote 36). He shows that modern theologians can be found across the spectrum, including those who embrace traditional views and those who deny imputation but finds that the traditional view is a neglected doctrine in modern times (p. 44). Vickers notes that “the inductive and descriptive nature of biblical theology” can provide “a guard against unfounded deductions” from particular texts, but it can also pose a danger by preventing any kind of synthesis of various texts (p. 69). He argues for the legitimacy of systematic theology, particularly in regard to imputation.

Chapter two focuses on Paul’s quotation of Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed in God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3, English Standard Version). Vickers shows that Paul’s understanding of Abraham is at odds with Jewish tradition that sees Abraham’s works as the ground of his justification. By studying the context of Romans, Vickers concludes that Abraham is ungodly, and he receives imputed righteousness through faith apart from works. Vickers sums up his conclusion on imputation in Romans 4:

Romans 4:1-8 is about the appropriation of righteousness, and that righteousness, as a status declared by God, is most clearly linked in this text with the non-imputation of sin, i.e., forgiveness. This status is brought about by the reckoning of faith as righteousness. Faith is not itself the righteousness, but as is made clear in the context, faith is the instrument that unites the believer to the object of faith. The object is thus the source of the righteousness that is reckoned to the believer (p. 111).

Chapter three discusses Romans 5:19 (“For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous,” ESV), as well as its immediate context of 5:12-21 and other sections of Romans. Adam and Christ, as representatives of the human race, determine by their actions the status of those they represent. Vickers concludes that this passage presents the basis for the counting of the believer as righteous in Romans 4. He writes:

The righteous status, made possible by Christ’s obedience, is applied to the believer when he puts his faith in God. Christ’s obedience “counts” for the status that is secured at the cross, and appropriated by faith, through which comes the declaration of the actual status, “righteous” (p. 157).

Second Corinthians 5:21 (“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” ESV) is the focus of chapter four. Vickers argues that Paul draws heavily on the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah (such as chapter 53), which prophesy of Christ’s sufferings while placing them in a sacrificial context. This shapes the meaning of the phrase “made sin.” Furthermore, he says:

From first to last this is an act of God, who made Christ a sacrifice for sin by causing the sins of others to be counted to him. The twin statements, “a new creation” and “become the righteousness of God,” both centered in the phrase “in Christ” and dependent on his representative death, indicate that just as sin was reckoned to Christ, so too is Christ’s sacrificial death counted for righteousness to those “in him.” God counts them as righteous because they have Christ’s righteousness, they have Christ himself, and he has them (p. 190).

In chapter five, Vickers offers a synthesis of imputation taken from the texts examined in chapters two, three, and four. His position is strengthened by looking at the relation of other texts to imputation: 1 Corinthians 1:30Philippians 3:9, and Romans 9:30-10:4. He finds that Paul teaches that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers, His obedience having counted for those united to Him by faith. God has acted “through Christ on behalf of sinners, who though undeserving are forgiven and declared righteous as a free gift from God on the basis of Christ’s substitutionary death” (p. 232).

Vickers concludes that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a doctrine derived from a biblical-theological study of Paul’s writings and, therefore, is the teaching of the Scriptures.

Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness will challenge many readers, particularly those not acquainted with Hebrew and Greek words and grammar. The book is highly technical in some places, and the footnotes may become wearisome. However, Vickers has done his homework. He has produced an in-depth biblical-theological study that is well worth the effort to mine its gold. Educated readers, particularly pastors and seminarians, should obtain this book and study it.

Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness effectively bridges the unnecessary gap many try to create between biblical and systematic theology, revealing the need for both and the legitimacy of a synthesis of the various pieces of the puzzle, based on proper exegesis. Vickers admits that there is no single text that explicitly states that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer, but, with thorough exegesis, consideration of objections, and interaction with other scholars, he convincingly demonstrates that the doctrine of imputation is nonetheless a scriptural teaching that Christians cannot afford to discard.

In the end, Vickers accomplishes his goal to show the legitimacy of imputation as a synthesis of Paul’s teaching, demonstrating that good systematic theology is based on proper exegesis. The book has reinforced for me the need to study the Bible carefully and to interpret Scripture with Scripture, so I neither read too much into a text nor miss the forest for the trees. It has also spurred renewed gratitude to God for the gift of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us through faith that unites us to Him. What grace that God counts Christ’s obedience as ours! What good news we have to share! Truly, as Edward Mote penned, our “hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

This review is revised from its original appearance at www.sharperiron.org.

Reviewed by Doug Smith

Book Review – Family Worship: in the Bible, in History, and in Your Home

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”  (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 NKJV)

“For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.” (Genesis 18:19 NKJV)

Several years ago, my pastor suggested that I read Donald S. Whitney’s book, Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 1991).  This is a book that I regularly return to, with God using it to challenge and enrich my devotional life, particularly in regard to Bible intake and prayer. Not long afterward, I also had the opportunity to take the author’s seminary class on that very subject and have found it to be the best class I have had so far.

Dr. Whitney, who teaches Biblical Spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky has also written a very helpful 32-page booklet (including study/discussion guide) entitled Family Worship: in the Bible, in History, & in Your Home. As the title suggests, the author presents the Scriptures relevant to family worship and shows us its importance in church history. Then he tells us how we can implement family worship in our own homes, answering objections (such as single parent homes, variety of ages of children, homes where dad is not a believer, etc.), and pressing upon us the urgency of the delightful duty of family worship.

So, what is family worship? According to Whitney, all you need to do is 3 things: read, pray, and sing. You could read a chapter of the Bible, spend time in prayer, and praise God with song. The time need not be long, but it should be regular. It need not be burdensome, and can often be incorporated into a family meal time. If time permits, you could also use a catechism (question & answers to help children learn the teaching of the Bible), memorize Scripture, and read other good Christian books. Family worship is a great way to emphasize the priority of God in your home.

Now, let me be very open with you and admit my own struggles for consistency in this area. I have four young children and a very busy life with the different responsibilities I juggle. But that does not excuse me. I am accountable to God for the training of my children and for the spiritual aroma of my home. I have implemented (and slacked from…and returned to, etc.) these principles of family worship, and, with the help of God, desire to establish this as a distinctive part of my family life for all my days.

I know I am not alone in this struggle. I recall hearing of a visiting preacher who asked a church how many had family worship regularly at their home. No one said they did. Is this not a sad commentary? Should this not be a joyful, daily part of the lives of the people of God? I strongly urge you to consider yourself in this matter. Do you have family worship? If not, why not? Will you start now?

Whitney’s book should be a help to you as you begin or reexamine your family worship. It would also be a helpful resource to teach a Sunday School class (or series of classes) on this subject.

You may order the book and/or accompanying CD lecture from The Center for Biblical Spirituality.  (Click here to view the order form.)

If you are a pastor or other church leader, you may be interested to know that the Center for Biblical Spirituality offers discounts for multiple copies, including a Father’s Day special.

Another helpful article by the same author is “Simplifying Family Worship,” available at www.biblicalspirituality.org/fworship.html.  (If you want to get a little more taste of his material, you might also check out the following free .mp3 downloads:  “Family Worship” at SermonAudio.com, requires registration; “Family Worship” Part 1 and “Family Worship” Part 2 at Countryside Bible Church, direct links.)

For the glory of God and the sake of your family, take Whitney’s advice: begin or renew family worship today!

Doug Smith, CAPS Graduate and Tri-Cities Area CAPS Representative

(HT: Paul Schafer for all the audio links!)