Book Review–The Message of Romans (John Stott)

I heard the news of John Stott’s death only a couple of days after I started re-reading this Romans commentary. It was one of the first of the Bible Speaks Today series that I read, and for all the numerous things he will rightly be remembered for, I feel especially thankful for his contributions to and editorship of this series. In this volume, as with his other commentaries, John Stott models a truly evangelical approach to Scripture. He comes reverently to the Bible, believing it to be the very Word of God, eager to learn, ready to engage with difficulties of exegesis and doctrine, and most of all, expecting to encounter God through it.

A book like Romans of course is a daunting task for any Bible expositor. So many notable expositors and scholars have already tackled it in great depth. And there are many tricky theological issues it raises. What is “the righteousness of God”? What is the correct understanding of the doctrine of election? What place does the people and nation of Israel have in God’s ongoing plan? Who is the conflicted man of Romans 7? Was Junia an apostle? Whatever positions you take, you certainly can’t please all of the people all of the time in a commentary on Romans.

Stott starts with a preliminary essay, which includes several pages devoted to the New Perspective on Paul. He is to be commended on two counts for including this. First, that he pays any attention to it at all. By my reckoning, it is only the likes of Tom Wright that have really brought the NPP into the general evangelical consciousness in recent years.  Yet Stott clearly saw back in 1994 that this was going to become a debating point, and tackled it head on. Second, the way he seeks to correctly understand and fairly represent the opinions of the likes of Stendahl, Dunn and Sanders is also commendable. In some places I felt he articulated their points better than they did, such is his gift for clarity. Having said that, he does not go along with the conclusions of the NPP. I have previously blogged about John Stott’s take on the New Perspective here.

One key interpretive issue in Romans is the role and purpose of the “law”. Stott explains that “For justification we look to the cross, not the law, and for sanctification we look to the Spirit, not the law.” However, he wants to disagree with those who deny the law a place in the Christian life. “The moral law remains a revelation of God’s will which he still expects his people to ‘fulfil’ by living lives of righteousness”. He attempts to find a balance between the errors of legalism and antinomianism by saying “Legalists fear the law and are in bondage to it. Antinomians hate the law and repudiate it. Law-abiding free people love the law and fulfil it.” Do Christians have to obey the law? Yes and no … “not because the law is our master and we have to but because Christ is our husband and we want to.” The Spirit empowers us to keep the law – our freedom from the law is not freedom to disobey it.

As he ponders what the “righteousness of God” is, he notes three explanations often given. Is it (1) a divine attribute (2) a divine activity (his saving intervention), or (3) a divine achievement (the righteous status we are given)? He asks why we have to choose – “it is at one and the same time a quality, an activity and a gift”. He then expands on this to define the righteousness of God as “God’s righteous initiative in putting sinners right with himself by bestowing on them a righteousness which is not their own but his.”

He takes some time to defend the biblical concept of the “wrath of God”, from those who find this doctrine objectionable (again pre-empting a debate that has gained much momentum more recently in evangelical circles). “God’s wrath is his holy hostility to evil his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it his just judgment upon it.” The human predicament is not only sin, but God’s wrath upon sin.

Stott’s take on the identity of the conflicted man in Romans 7 is interesting. He cannot see it as a believer, since “a slave to sin” cannot be a Christian, and yet neither can he accept the unbeliever explanation. He concludes that it is a “regenerate” man, but not one who has the Holy Spirit. For Stott this leaves him with no other option than saying that the ‘I’ is an Old Testament believer. Stott of course strongly rejects the Pentecostal view of a subsequent baptism in the Spirit for a believer (as he makes clear in his comments on Rom 8:14-17), so cannot entertain the possibility that this ‘I’ could be a believer fighting sin in human strength alone without the empowering of the Spirit.

Stott has occasion to touch on subjects such as election and predestination, and while he seems to accept a Calvinist position, he prefers to refer to the concept of “antinomy” – two seemingly conflicting truths being held together – such as divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I like his suggestion that “the perseverance of the saints” should be renamed “the perseverance of God with the saints”.

As he tackles the subject of Israel, Stott is eager to underscore the importance of evangelism for all people, including the Jews. He includes a brief “manifesto of evangelism” that summarising the teaching of Romans on evangelism.

Overall, despite not necessarily agreeing with his every viewpoint, I would say this is another excellent work and valuable for anyone personally studying or teaching through Romans. There are of course the works by Douglas Moo and Tom Schreiner which I would recommend to those wanting to go into more exegetical depth, but Stott should not be underestimated and there is plenty of well argued and thought-provoking material in here to help shape your understanding of this important New Testament book.

Book Review–Generous Justice (Tim Keller)

Both the previous Tim Keller books I have read were outstanding (Prodigal God and Counterfeit Gods), so I was greatly looking forward to this one. The format is very similar to both those books – a relatively short (less than 200 pages) hardback with eight chapters. His goal is to help people see the connection between the Christian message and justice. To give you a flavour of the book, I’ll summarise some of his main points in each chapter using his own words.


In the introduction he states his conviction that:

the Biblical gospel of Jesus necessarily and powerfully leads to a passion for justice in the world. A concern for justice in all aspects of life is neither an artificial add-on nor a contradiction to the message of the Bible


there is a distinct relationship between a person’s grasp and experience of God’s grace, and his or her heart for justice and the poor.

1. What is Justice

He starts off by defining justice for us, indicating that it is something God cares about deeply:

God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. This is what it means to “do justice”. … This is one of the main things [God] does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause.

The implications for us are obvious:

What should God’s people be like? They must be people who are likewise passionately concerned for the weak and vulnerable.

This was God’s intention for the Israelite people:

Israel was charged to create a culture of social justice for the poor and vulnerable because it was the way the nation could reveal God’s glory and character to the world.

He highlights Job 31:13-28 as “one of the most important texts in the Scripture for the study of Israelite ethics”:

Remarkably, Job is asserting that it would be a sin against God to think of his goods as belonging to himself alone. To not share his bread and his assets with the poor would be unrighteous, a sin against God, and therefore by definition a violation of God’s justice.

2. Justice and the Old Testament

Are the Old Testament laws concerning justice still binding on us in the New Covenant era? Keller cites Craig Blomberg:

Every command [from the OT] reflects principles at some level that are binding on Christians

He argues that “the Mosaic laws of social justice are grounded in God’s character, and that never changes”.

God’s concern for the poor is so strong that he gave Israel a host of laws that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass.

Just as Israel was a “community of justice”, so the church is to reflect these same concerns for the poor.

The Bible does not oversimplify poverty, but recognizes its many and varied causes. The multi-faceted nature of the problem means the solution must go deeper than public policy and social programs.

3. What Did Jesus Say About Justice?

He quotes John Newton:

One would almost think that Luke 14:12-14 was not considered part of God’s word, nor has any part of Jesus’s teaching been more neglected by his own people. I do not think it is unlawful to entertain our friends; but if these words do not teach us that it is in some respects or duty to give a preference to the poor, I am at a loss to understand them.

and add his own challenge:

[Jesus] is saying that we should spend far more of our money and wealth on the poor than we do on our own entertainment, or on vacations, or on eating out and socializing with important peers.

Lest we fear that Keller is laying down some kind of legalistic rules, he clarifies on the role of grace in justice:

An encounter with grace inevitably leads to a life of justice … A lack of justice is a sign that the worshipper’s hearts are not right with God at all

4. Justice and Your Neighbour

This chapter explores the parable of the Good Samaritan. Some of the most powerful material is drawn from some sermons by Jonathan Edwards.

in dealing with the objection that many of the poor do not have upright, moral characters, [Edwards] counters that we did not either, and yet Christ put himself out for us.

Again, he grounds our impulse to help our neighbour in the gospel:

Before you can give this neighbour-love, you need to receive it. … Once we receive this ultimate, radical, neighbour-love through Jesus, we can start to be the neighbours the Bible calls us to be.

5. Why Should We Do Justice?

Keller examines the motivations for justice:

Our real problem is that, while knowing [we should help the poor], we are insufficiently motivated to actually do it. … The Bible gives believers two basic motivations – joyful awe before the goodness of God’s creation, and the experience of God’s grace in redemption.

He challenges our attitude to our money:

Just men and women see their money as belonging in some ways to the entire human community around them, while the unjust or unrighteous see their money as strictly theirs and no one else’s … If you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice.

There are some really hard-hitting challenges:

People changed by grace should go, as it were, on a permanent fast. Self-indulgence and materialism should be given up and replaced by a sacrificial lifestyle of giving to those in need.

He includes this wonderful quote from Robert Murray M’Cheyne:

If you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and undeserving.

6. How Should We Do Justice?

In some ways this was the chapter I most wanted to read. It’s one thing to be convinced of the need to do justice, but another to find real-world hands-on practical ways of doing it. And Keller agrees that helping the poor is not simple:

God does not want us to merely give the poor perfunctory help, but to ponder long and hard about how to improve their entire situation.

He lays down some helpful guidelines for those running social projects such as “those helping a neighbourhood should live in it” and “leadership for community development should be multiethnic and interracial”.

He claims that “it is naive to focus only on the individual” (whether evangelism or meeting needs) – some structures need changing.

If your church is not in a poor area, “begin by discovering the needs in your locale.” Ask questions (e.g. of the local council), and let them tell you.

He devotes some space to addressing the thorny issue of what the relationship and proportion between social justice and evangelism should be. While maintaining that “the most loving thing anyone can do for one’s neighbour is help him or her to a saving faith in God”, he also contends that

Deeds of mercy and justice should be done out of love, not simply as a means to the end of evangelism. And yet there is no better way for Christians to lay a foundation for evangelism than by doing justice.

7. Doing Justice in the Public Square

Keller discusses the difficulty of getting widespread agreement since “freedom” and “equality” are not neutral terms and it makes it hard to agree on justice.

We all agree that freedom should be curtailed if it harms people, but we can’t agree on what harm is, because we have different views of what a healthy, flourishing human life looks like.

We must recognise the “common grace” present in every culture:

When we speak publicly, we should do so with thoughtfulness and grace, in recognition that Christians are not the only ones who see what needs to be done in the world.

8. Peace, Beauty, Justice

The final chapter presents God as a master craftsman, who “weaved” the world together in creation, and gave it “shalom”. This “fabric of shalom” has been broken by the fall.

In general, to “do justice” means to live in a way that generates a strong community where human beings can flourish. Specifically, however, to “do justice” means to go to places where the fabric of shalom has broken down where the weaker members of societies are falling through the fabric, and to repair it. … Reweaving shalom means to sacrificially thread, lace, and press your time, goods, power, and resources into the lives and needs of others.

He again draws on Edwards to make the point that

Human beings will only be drawn out of themselves into unselfish acts of service to others when they see God as supremely beautiful

The book closes with a succinct summary of its main challenge:

A life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith.


Overall this is an inspiring book on justice, but perhaps a little light on practical examples. Its real strength lies in laying biblical and gospel foundations for justice, and with Keller’s knack for putting things in a fresh and compelling way. Writing as he does to the very polarised political situation in America, some of the arguments he weighs in on are probably not so contentious here in the UK. But there is plenty of food for thought. The real challenge is to allow a message like this to make a tangible difference on our churches and day to day lives.

What I feel would complement this well is some stories and examples of what what individuals, small groups and whole churches can and are doing. As I think of my own church, I am glad to report that there are many brilliant social action projects already going on, plus countless individual acts of service and kindness towards those in need. But at the same time, I feel that it is easy to leave the burden to the few, and live an isolated life that rarely interacts with those who need our help the most. As Keller says in the book, we may to “ponder long and hard” before it becomes clear what we can practically do. Maybe I’ll get my cell group brainstorming on this next time we meet.

Book Review–The Message of Obadiah, Nahum & Zephaniah (Gordon Bridger)

This is the most recent addition to the Bible Speaks Today series, which is slowly approaching completion, filling in the few remaining gaps in the Old Testament. Bridger’s task is to cover three of the least well known of the minor prophets, whose short books are largely dominated by pronouncements of judgment.

The first thing that stands out is the length. Bridger has written over 300 pages on just 7 chapters of prophecy. This is both a strength and a weakness. It allows him plenty of space to highlight New Testament parallels and explore various areas for application. But at the same time I wonder whether it makes this less accessible than other BST volumes – this is longer than the commentaries on Isaiah and Jeremiah.

In the introduction, Bridger is keen to underscore the contemporary relevance of these books, by reminding us that all Scripture is God’s word to us. These books teach us the importance of facing up to sin and judgement and the importance of responding in repentance and faith.

Obadiah is divided into three sections – the sovereignty of God, the judgments of God and the triumph of God. Bridger has an interest in applying his teaching not just to individual Christians or churches, but also to the political arena and society in general. This is particularly true in the comments on Nahum, which he says has a particular message to super-powers. He tackles themes such as the legitimacy of war, climate change, and self-indulgent addiction to alcohol, sex and money. In his commentary on Zephaniah he draws several parallels between Baalism and the failings of our own society. Bridger writes from a British perspective, and illustrates his points with various recent events from the UK.

Although the general outlook of each of the three books is one of judgment, Bridger reminds us that the justice of God is a positive thing, and that a message of judgment is an implicit call to repentance. The day of the Lord is not just a day of destruction but also a day of deliverance. He defends the unity of Zephaniah against those who claim 3:9-20 is a later addition, and brings out an interesting alternative interpretation of the one well-known verse in these books (Zeph 3:17), in which he suggests that it may be God, rather than us, who is silent – he delights in us not just by singing, but by looking on in silence like a mother with her baby.

Overall, this is a thorough and solidly evangelical commentary on these three books. This shines through in the way Bridger makes several connections to other parts of Scripture, and New Testament teaching in particular. He demonstrates how these books point forward to Christ. The fact that the tone of the biblical material he covers is more gloomy than cheerful makes this a fairly sobering read in places, and by drawing out warnings for believers and the church Bridger himself takes on the mantle of a modern day prophet, calling God’s people and society as a whole to repentance.

Book Review – Spirit of Truth and Power

This collection of papers from the Ninth Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, published by Rutherford House, who kindly sent me a copy for review, features 12 papers on the subject of the Holy Spirit.

1. The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament – David C Searle
One of the key arguments in this is that ministries of the Spirit did not change as dramatically as some have suggested from Old to New Testament. In other words, the types of thing the Spirit is said to do in the NT he also does in the OT. The basic idea seems plausible, but it seemed more an assertion that this is the case rather than a successful proof.

2. Trinity of Life and Power: The Relevance of Trinitarian Theology in the Contemporary Age – Bruce McCormack
McCormack starts by arguing that we must come to grips with the Reality of God as he really is, and resist attempts of our own to define him (particularly from a political or pastoral perspective). We must start with the Bible, not councils. He starts to examine the Biblical evidence for the relationship between Father and Son, particularly noting the theme of the Son’s subordination to the Father, which he argues is not limited to the economy of salvation. He is concerned that, in fear of subordinationism, some have attempted to eliminate this element of subordination from their definition of the Trinity. But the Trinity is not a democracy of persons. Another interesting point he makes is that the fact that the Holy Spirit has been called the “anonymous person” of the Godhead is not necessarily a problem. In fact, the Holy Spirit wills this to be so, since he has a very self-effacing ministry, and thus “we make a mistake if we try to make the Holy Spirit an independent interest in his own right.” The discussion does get quite technical in a couple of places (e.g. on “perichoresis”), but there is some interesting stuff in here.

3. ‘And from the Son’: The Filioque Clause in East and West – Nick Needham
This paper is essentially a historical overview of the controversy between East and West over the ‘Filioque’ clause. He explains the varying positions and emphases of those in the early church, moving on to deal with the controversy over the addition of the clause itself, before an interesting section examining the diversity of opinions amongst modern protestants. Overall it is a well explained paper, but the fine details of the point under discussion can get quite confusing.

4. ‘The Spirit Moved Over the Face of the Waters’: The Holy Spirit and the Created Order – Colin Gunton
Explores various passages linking the Spirit with creation, and laments that the early church Fathers did not give us much help on the role of the Spirit in creation. He quotes Luther who says “it is the office of the Holy Spirit to make alive”. He has an interesting section on the eschatological significance of the Spirit in creation: “Wherever the Spirit is, there the true end of creation is anticipated”. Again a very learned paper which was hard to follow in places for a  theological novice such as myself. The most interesting part for me was his discussion of the Spirit and culture, and whether cultural artefacts (whether works of art or methods of farming) can be considered in some way as inspired by the Spirit.

5. The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus – Donald Macleod
Starting by affirming the uniqueness of Christ, Macleod then asks whether it was simply due to his divine nature supporting his human nature. He gives five good reasons why this is not the case, arguing there is overwhelming biblical evidence for the Spirit’s constant presence in the life of Jesus. He draws a helpful connection between the Spirit and the Father – it is through the Spirit that the Father ministers. He argues (as does Hawthorne in the Presence and the Power) that Jesus must have been filled with the Spirit from the womb if John was (Luke 1:15).

He goes on to discuss how Jesus was led by the Spirit, and how the Spirit gifted him for ministry and empowered him to perform miracles. He is particularly emphatic about the role of the Spirit at the cross: “[Jesus] owed his triumph entirely to the ministry of the Holy Spirit”, and points out that it was the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11). A helpful paper that is essentially going over the same ground that Hawthorne does at greater length.

6. The Spirit and Biblical Hermeneutics – Francis Watson
Watson sets out by outlining two popular conceptions of the relationship between the Spirit and the Scriptures, both of which he rejects. The first view is that “the Holy Spirit bridges the gulf between the text and ourselves, causing what was written then to become divine speech now, addressed to us”. In other words, according to this view, you don’t worry so much about what it originally meant, you just pray for the Spirit to illuminate the text for you.
The second view he rejects is that the Spirit is associated above all with the church, and so we look to the church to lead us into an interpretation of the meaning of the Bible, and that means our understanding may change – the Spirit will again and again cause the Bible to be read differently.
The issue with both views is that they view the Spirit as a solution to some problem with the text. He turns to Acts 2 to show the inextricable link between the words of Scripture and the events of Pentecost – “The Pentecost event is interpreted by Scripture, but Scripture in turn is interpreted by the event.”

7. Proclamation in the Power of the Spirit – Timothy Ward
We have been taught to be suspicious of discourses of power, and the sermon is a prime example. Some preachers seek to avoid this by avoiding any kind of proclamations or exhortations, preferring to share, reflect and imagine. “Preaching goes as tragically astray when it muses and reflects on those matters which it should be proclaiming, as it does when it confidently proclaims what the preacher cannot know”. Ward emphasises the role of the Spirit at work on both the preacher and the congregation. The faithful biblical preacher’s task is best described as “a contemporary re-enactment of the speech act which was performed in the original authoring of the text”. It is vital that the preacher has allowed the Spirit to apply the message to their own life before preaching it.

8. Word and Spirit in Conversion – Paul Helm.
Helm begins by exploring two incompatible answers to what secures our acceptance before God – a moral justification (through infused or personally acquired righteousness), versus a forensic justification (classic Reformation doctrine). He examines the charge that forensic justification logically leads to the justification of antinomianism. He counters this with some interesting arguments from Turretin to help show that while faith alone justifies, that does not mean that faith can exist alone, apart from other virtues such as love. He argues that “faith does not contribute causally to justification, any more than does obedience. Faith is essentially receptive…”. He concludes by observing that the first view of acceptance leads to obedience motivated by fear, while the second has obedience motivated by love.

9. The Holy Spirit in the Life of the People of God – Bob Fyall
Fyall begins with the interesting observation that although Calvary and Pentecost cannot be repeated, they must be reappropriated. He discusses the role of the Spirit in various aspects of church life, and generally rejects the charismatic approaches to meeting structure and spiritual gifts. He uses Eph 5:18 to show how Spirit-filled worship entails singing and teaching. He concludes the essay with reflections on the Spirit’s role in preaching and mission.

10. Acknowledging the Paraclete: Tertullian on the Spirit – David F Wright
Wright begins by telling us that Tertullian espoused ‘New Prophecy’ (Montanism). Then follows a discussion of Tertullian’s theology of the Spirit that goes largely over my head. It is not made any easier by the fact that Wright himself concedes that Tertullian’s arguments can be complex. Of interest was the discussion of Tertullian’s belief that the Spirit could reveal new (and typically much stricter) standards of morality, and how he felt they could be protected from being duped by an evil spirit.

11. ‘God has framed unto us wings of his Spirit and Word’ Peter Martyr Vermigli on Word and Sprit – Peter Ackroyd
The Reformers generally believed that “the primary vehicle of the Spirit’s work, the normal dispensation of the grace of God, was the Word of God.” Peter Martyr was a Reformation-era pastor-scholar, well known at the time, and the first half of this paper recounts his story. Martyr had an emphasis on the Spirit in his writings. He explains the Spirit’s role in union with Christ as “The Spirit grafts the believer into Christ, and grafts his dispositions, property, sense and ‘motions’ into us.” Like Calvin and Bucer, he emphasised the Spirit as teacher. On the relationship between Word and Spirit, Martyr believed that it is the Spirit who is Christ’s agent of regeneration; but the word is the instrument of his work. He believed that study of the Scripture was not possible without the help of the Holy Spirit.

12. The Work of the Holy Spirit in Revival and Renewal – David Smith
Smith starts off by noting the postmillennial optimism of early evangelicalism. He moves on to question some of the assumptions even in Reformed circles about what the Bible teaches on revival. He points out that even in the NT we see the revival fires of Pentecost cooling somewhat. He challenges those who are optimistic about revival as to whether this prevents them facing up to the challenges of discipleship and mission in a post-Christian culture. “The confident announcement that revival is breaking out around us obviously reassures Christians who are deeply troubled by the loss of a Christian culture, and enables them to hang a ‘Business as Usual’ notice on the door of the church.” He goes on to argue that “Whatever the prospects for revival may be, the greatest priority of the churches in the Western world is surely missiological in nature, and this will involve a process of biblical reformation…” He also questions whether all that we call revival is indeed to be considered a genuine advance, citing the tragic story of Rwanda as an example. However he concludes on a more positive note, noting the rapid growth of Christianity in the southern hemisphere.

There is plenty in here that I found stimulating and interesting. However, some of the essays are quite technical and theologically dense, meaning that this will not be a particularly accessible book to those who have not already done some college level studies. Having said that, despite getting lost in a few places, I did glean a number of useful insights along the way. It is currently available for half-price – £5 on the Rutherford House website.

Book Review–A Praying Life (Paul Miller)

I must confess that after seeing that the endorsements for this book were all from Reformed theology professors, I feared that this book would be a rather dry but theologically precise exploration of the subject of prayer. I was completely wrong. This is a book about developing an intimate relationship with God through prayer.

It is organised into 32 short chapters, making it an ideal format to work your way through in small chunks while you attempt to apply the insights to your own prayer life. Miller is very honest about the difficulties and struggles we find with prayer, which are largely because we have a dysfunctional relationship with our father, not intimate but distant. We struggle because we are focusing on praying, not on God.

He emphasises being real in prayer, coming “messy”, without pretence. He encourages us that it is OK to pray like a child – wander all over the place and ask for what you want.

Miller argues that Jesus was the most dependent person that ever lived. Because he can’t do life on his own, he prays. When Jesus prays, he is not performing  a duty; he is getting close to his Father.

He devotes some chapters to issues of disappointment and cynicism. Throughout the book he tells stories of his own prayer life, particularly relating to his mute daughter Kim. It is full of very practical examples and advice for how to pray for others, culminating in some examples of his own system of “prayer cards” and journaling.

He has a lot of helpful material on living in your Father’s story, as we recognise that God is retelling the story of his Son in our lives. Gospel stories involve suffering; they are neither comedies (fun but not real) or tragedies (not fun but real), but are stories of hope.

Overall I would say this is an extremely refreshing and inspiring book on prayer. It is theologically sound, very real and honest, and has been very helpful for me as I am well aware I need to learn to pray better.

Book Review–The Message of 2 Timothy (John Stott)

This is, I think, one of the earliest volumes in the Bible Speaks Today series, originally published in 1973 by John Stott as a standalone exposition of 2 Timothy, entitled Guard the Gospel. Stott sums up the overall message as a call to “guard the gospel, suffer for the gospel, continue in the gospel, and proclaim the gospel”.

The introduction includes a brief survey of the debate over authorship, in which he makes many of the same points made in the intro to The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus. With over 100 pages of commentary devoted to the four chapters of 2 Timothy, he is able to take his time, discuss the meaning of each phrase, and, as always, draw out plenty of practical and devotional insights from the text.

He warns against the temptation to alter the substance of the gospel message, a call that is no less relevant almost 40 years after the first edition was published. He shows how faithfulness to the gospel involves more than just not modifying it, but we are also to live holy lives in accordance with it, demonstrating both purity of doctrine and purity of life. And we are not to hide away while doing so, but we are to proclaim the gospel, which will sooner or later involve us suffering for the gospel.

You can escape persecution by withdrawal from the world, or by assimilation to it. It is only for those who are both in the world and in Christ simultaneously that persecution becomes inevitable.

At the risk of regular readers of this blog finding the conclusions to these reviews predictable and repetitive, I have to say yet again that I highly recommend this for anyone wanting to study 2 Timothy or preparing to teach on it. Stott doesn’t just write with insight, but also with integrity, as his own lifelong passion has been to guard, to live and proclaim the gospel.

Book Review – 1&2 Kings (Peter Leithart)

The unique selling point of the Brazos Series (also known as the SCM series) is that the volumes are written by theologians rather than biblical exegetes. In a fascinating series preface, the editor Rusty Reno calls into question the validity of approaches that attempt to approach the text of Scripture from a “neutral” mindset in which the expositor impassively and objectively gathers linguistic and contextual evidence, in order to eventually arrive at the “most probable” meaning of a given unit of thought. Rather, he argues that the church has always interpreted the Scriptures from within a theological framework (for example the Nicene Creed), and this serves to guide us as we make interpretive decisions.

The difference in philosophy is apparent right from the start. In the introduction Leithart doesn’t spend his time discussing who wrote it, and when they wrote it, but rather makes a case for seeing Kings as “gospel”, and thus to be read in an “evangelical light”. 1-2 Kings is a prophetic narrative, making it clear that there is no salvation for Israel from within Israel: neither Wisdom, Torah or temple can save them. He also argues that Israel’s history is not only evangelical, but “ecclesial”, the history of the people of God – both Israel and Judah, though divided politically are viewed by Yahweh through the one lens of the covenant.

There is roughly one chapter of commentary per chapter of the 1-2 Kings. In his comments on the early part of 1 Kings, he draws out parallels between Solomon and Joshua, but also very compellingly shows how Kings presents Solomon as a “new Adam”, hence pointing forward to Christ. He shows how the idolatrous failures of successive kings effectively reverse the exodus and conquest, re-Caananizing the land of Israel.

Each chapter will typically contain something of an excursus as he goes off for a couple of pages exploring a subject raised indirectly by the text, sometimes theological, sometimes political, sometimes ‘ecclesial’. It makes for very lively reading, as he approaches many subjects from refreshingly different points of view.
Leithart is always looking for parallels and contrasts of the story of Kings and the story of Jesus. He ends each chapter by bringing Jesus into the picture, and thus it serves as a fine example of preaching Christ in all the Scriptures. In fact, often I would get to the end of a chapter and find myself wanting to preach a sermon on the passage – surely the mark of an excellent commentary.

Overall I would say its a great read, and definitely worth checking out if you are either preaching on 1-2 Kings, or want to be inspired to see them in a fresh light.

Book Review–The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (John Stott)

Apologies for the lack of posts here recently. My energies recently have been focused on preparing some talks for Southampton and Solent CUs.

Although this commentary does not cover all three pastoral epistles, Stott uses the introduction to discuss the arguments for and against Pauline authorship for the pastorals as a whole. He does not go into exhaustive detail, but the discussion is fuller than normal for the Bible Speaks Today series.

He works verse by verse through the two letters in expository fashion, not just explaining the text, but applying it to contemporary church situations and is always willing to briefly comment on theological issues raised. Both letters contain plenty of material directed to church leaders, a passion that Stott shares, believing that “the health of the church depends very largely on the quality, faithfulness and teaching of its ordained ministers.”

His discussion of gender issues is sensitively handled, and he argues for a creation principle of male “headship” which has varying cultural expressions. This leads him to categorise women teaching alongside men raising their hands and women plaiting their hair – practises that may or may not be appropriate in different cultures as expressions of an underlying principle. It is an interesting suggestion, although it does require him to maintain that the first century cultural expression of this principle is the exact opposite of the modern one in this case.

He suggests that the ministry of deacons includes teachings, and that they functioned as assistants to the elders. The treatment of the subject of money in chapter six is particularly insightful, discussing simplicity and destitution. “Money is a drug, and covetousness a drug addiction”.

The letters of 1 Timothy and Titus have plenty to say on the importance of sound doctrine, a passion that Stott shares. He also highlights the emphasis on the importance of good works that permeates the letter to Titus. He describes Titus as being about “doctrine and duty” – in the church, the home, and the world. He argues that there is an “indissoluble connection” between doctrine and duty and that “any doctrine that does not promote godliness is manifestly bogus”.

As with all Stott’s contributions to the Bible Speaks Today Series, this is one that I would highly recommend for anyone wanting to go deeper in their personal Bible study.

Book Review – The Philosophy of Tolkien (Peter Kreeft)

As someone who has not read The Lord of the Rings in its entirety (I got about a third of the way through), and who doesn’t have a particular passion for fiction or philosophy, this book might not seem the most obvious of choices for me. But a blog review I read a while ago piqued my interest, I put it on my Amazon wishlist, and lo and behold, it arrived as a Christmas present.

Fortunately, despite its title, this book does not require you to have a deep knowledge of everything Lord of the Rings and Tolkien. Simply having seen the movies will be enough for you to follow along for the most part. However, Kreeft clearly loves the the book and makes the assumption that his readers share his passion. More than that, Kreeft is in full agreement with Tolkien’s Christian (and distinctively Catholic) worldview.

The way the book is structured is to answer about 50 key philosophical questions. For the most part these are nicely phrased in layman’s terms: “Does God exist?”, “Are we both fated and free?”, “Is knowledge always good?”, “Do principles or consequences make an act good.”

As well as covering the most obvious philosophical questions, there are some surprises. “Are angels real?”, “Do things have personalities?”, “How can words be alive?”.

Each question is discussed with a look in the Lord of the Rings for any clues to Tolkien’s worldview as well as some quotes from C S Lewis that state a similar perspective directly. So in many ways, this book is much about the worldview of Lewis as it is of Tolkien.

Whilst the one or two pages devoted to each answer can only scratch the surface of the topic, there is certainly plenty of food for thought. What made Lewis in particular so refreshing (and Tolkien seems to have shared this characteristic), was a kind of old-fashionedness to his point of view – he wasn’t afraid to question whether the “progress” of modern thinking was indeed progress in the right direction.

Despite focusing on the writings of Tolkien and Lewis, Kreeft also has a good way with words and brings some of his own ideas to the table. In a section on the power of music, he claims that “music is the original language. … Poetry is fallen music, and prose is fallen poetry”.

Overall I would say that despite losing me in a few places (especially when talking about ‘Faerie’), this was a very interesting angle to approach these philosophical questions from. Kreeft also succeeds in demonstrating how, whilst at first glance The Lord of the Rings is absent of any reference to God, Christ or even religion, Tolkien’s Christian worldview shines through very clearly.

Book Review–Seeking the Face of God (Martyn Lloyd-Jones)

This book contains nine “reflections on the Psalms” from the famous preacher Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. What is curious about this book is that it contains no preface or introduction explaining why these particular sermons were chosen for this volume. Obviously nine sermons is no systematic coverage of the Psalms and, starting with sermons on atheism (Ps 14:1) and dead religion (Ps 50:21), it is not obvious that the original series (if indeed there was one) was necessarily on the topic of “seeking the face of God”. Whilst a couple of the sermons are clearly follow-ons from the previous one, there is no other indication that these form either part or the whole of a series. A footnote reveals that at least one of the sermons was preached in 1957.

Following the evangelistic thrust of the first two sermons, the remainder of the sermons focus in on the importance of knowing God. Lloyd-Jones has a way of homing in on single phrases that other expositors might rush past to get to the more readily “preachable” verses. An example would be his two-part treatment of Ps 84, in which he devotes an entire sermon to Ps 84:3.

For me, the high points in this brief volume are the sermons in the second half, particularly the one on Ps 63:1-3. It is in these sermons that the book earns its title of “Seeking the Face of God”, as Lloyd-Jones presses home the importance of knowing God’s presence. The most important thing is to know that God is with us, that we have access to him, and that we can enjoy his presence, in the most humbling, the most difficult, the most truing of circumstances. He makes several of the same points that he does in the sermons contained in “Joy Unspeakable”, arguing that we need to become “God intoxicated”, and that we give him no rest until he has satisfied the longing of our hearts and granted us the Spirit in fullness.

Are you enjoying God? We are meant to. Shame on us if we are not.

Just because a man is an outstanding preacher, does not mean you can select a bunch of his sermons and automatically get a coherent book. However, despite its slightly disjointed start, I really enjoyed these reflections on the Psalms, and especially appreciated the fact that Lloyd-Jones is not content to simply be a master expositor, helping us understand the meaning of the text, but also preaches to the heart, urging us to desire to know God personally.

Make it the central thing of your life to gaze upon God, to arrive at a knowledge of Him that will be intimate and personal, a communion with Him that will ravish your heart and cause your soul to rise up to Him. Seek His face, and go on seeking it.