Basics for Believers, D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018 (Re-packaged edition, originally published in 1996).
Summary: Expositions of the Letter to the Philippians focusing on the core concerns of Christian faith and life.
This work is part of a series of expository studies by D. A. Carson originally published from the late 1970’s to the mid-1990’s being re-issued in a reasonably priced, re-packaged form. In this case, Carson exposits the Letter to the Philippians. These messages are lightly edited versions of four messages given during Holy Week of 1994 at the “Word Alive” conference in Skegness England. The second message has been broken into two messages.
The title of the work, Basics for Believers, might give the impression that this is a book for new believers. The subtitle actually helps us see the importance of the book for all believers: “The Core of Christian Faith and Life.” He draws this from his study of Philippians, in which he sees a church perhaps ten years old, challenged in various ways, and needing encouragement to re-focus and maintain their commitment to the core of the Christian faith, centering around the gospel of Christ crucified and raised, and a life lived worthily of that gospel. I suspect we all can use this, kind of like an annual physical that reminds us of essentials of healthy physical life.
The five messages address the following themes:
- Put the Gospel First (Philippians 1:1-26)
- Focus on the Cross (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 2:5-11)
- Adopt Jesus’s Death as a Test of Your Outlook (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 1:27-2:4, 2:12-18)
- Emulate Worthy Christian Leaders (Philippians 2:19-3:21)
- Never Give Up the Christian Walk (Philippians 4:1-23)
Several qualities about these messages stood out to me. I appreciated the gracious and clearly articulated explanation of the propitiatory work of Christ in his chapter on the cross. This is not a popular idea in contemporary discusses, often caricatured. Those who would oppose propitiation ought to consider and engage Carson’s articulation of this doctrine. Carson carefully connects doctrine and life throughout.
While these are not exegetical commentaries, but rather expository studies, it is very clear that Carson’s messages reflect disciplined exegesis and that his preaching outline arises from careful textual study and reflection. An example I particularly appreciated was in his fourth message, “Emulate Worthy Christian Leaders.”
- Emulate those who are interested in the well-being of others, not in their own (Philippians 2:19-21)
- Emulate those who have proved themselves in hardship, not the untested upstart and the self-promoting peacock(!) (Philippians 2:22-30)
- Emulate those whose constant confidence and boast is in Jesus Christ and in nothing else (Philippians 3:1-9)
- Emulate those who are continuing to grow spiritually, not those who are stagnating (Philippians 3:10-16)
- Emulate those who eagerly await Jesus’s return, not those whose mind is on earthly things (Philippians 3:17-21)
The outline elaborates both the basic theme of the text (“emulate worthy Christian leaders”) and summarizes the content of each section in memorable form. The outline alone gives much grist for reflecting on the question of, after whom we are modeling our lives.
The other mark of good exposition evident in this work is incisive application. Once again, I will give but one example from the first message on putting the gospel first. He has just cited a scholar who traced the course of a movement who in one generation believed the gospel and advanced certain social, economic, and political entailments, the next generation assumed the gospel and identified with the entailments, and the third denied the gospel and made the entailments everything. Then he asks:
“What we must ask one another is this: What is it in the Christian faith that excites you? What consumes your time? What turns you on? Today there are endless subgroups of confessing Christians who invest enormous quantities of time and energy in one issue or another: abortion, pornography, homeschooling, women’s ordination (for or against), economic justice, a certain style of worship, the defense of a particular Bible version, and much more….Not for a moment am I suggesting that we should not think about such matters or throw our weight behind some of them. But when such matters devour most of our time and passion, each of us must ask: In what fashion am I confessing the centrality of the gospel?” (pp. 31-32).
Theological acuity, exegetical and expository clarity, and searching application. All of these challenge the reader to join the Apostle Paul in his aspiration: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Reviews of other D. A. Carson books in this series:
The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus
The Cross and Christian Ministry
Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World