Review: Saved By Grace Alone

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Saved By Grace Alone: Sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2018.

Summary: Fourteen sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36, demonstrating from this text that salvation is by grace alone, due to our inability because of sin, and God’s loving initiative for his glory and our salvation.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a Welsh preacher who succeeded G. Campbell Morgan as pastor of Westminster Chapel in London. His ministry at Westminster began in 1939 and concluded because of health reasons in 1968. For a time he was president of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in the UK. His ministry was marked by consecutive exposition of different portions of scripture, combining careful exegesis of the text, treatment of the broader theological implications of the passage, and personal applicative appeals to his listeners. One series on Romans was published in fourteen volumes. In the case of this book, he takes fourteen sermons, preached over three months, to cover twenty-one verses in Ezekiel.

If that seems daunting, you are in for a surprise if you read this book. Lloyd-Jones preaches for the lay person and not the academic. Here is an example from one of the early chapters, on the Bible:

“This book is not a human book, it is not man’s ideas. It is the word of the Lord. Ezekiel had not been spending weeks and months in study, trying to understand the situation, and at last felt that he had discovered it and went to address the people; not at all. While he was sitting in helplessness and hopelessness with his fellow countrymen, the word of the Lord came to him. And that is still the only hope for our world. The word that comes to the world today is precisely this old word. Here is a perfect summary of the gospel” (p. 18).

The gospel in fact is the theme of this series of sermons, each on a verse or two from Ezekiel 36. As the title indicates, Lloyd-George is contending that this passage teaches us about God’s saving work, and that it is by grace alone. Following the passage, he traces Israel’s rebellion, their folly, and inability of themselves to live up to God’s standards. That is why Ezekiel is writing to exiles in Babylon. Exile reflects his just judgment on their sin, and there is nothing they can do to escape it or make up for their wrong. Yet God does not stop there. This would only be bad news, not gospel. Although they profaned God’s name among the nations, God will vindicate his name by restoring them, separating them unto holiness, bringing them back to Canaan, cleansing them from sin, giving them hearts able to obey, a new Spirit within them, a salvation that touches every aspect of their existence.

In each sermon, Lloyd-Jones moves from what salvation meant for the people of Israel to the parallel of what salvation means in the New Testament, accomplished through the work of Christ, confronting us with and cleansing us from sin, restoring us to life in Christ, reclaiming and going beyond what was lost in Eden. While showing the damage of human rebellion against God upon every dimension of life, and life’s futility under this regime, Lloyd-George repeatedly goes on to explore all the ways God in his grace meets us to liberate us from its hold, bringing forgiveness, and the indwelling Spirit, and an expanded vision of the purposes of God in us.

He also addresses his hearers (and readers), coming back again and again to commend the grace of God in Christ as our only hope. The sermons are wonderful examples of calling people to faith. Here is one example:

“Can you say, ‘My God?’ Do you know him personally? That is what Christ came to give you: not only forgiveness, not only new understanding, not only cleansing and holiness, but all that in order that we might be enabled to go into the holiest of all with full assurance of faith and know that we will always be there. Have you got that? Are you in that position? That is Christianity. That is the ultimate of it; the acme, the glory of it. He gave himself for us that he might bring us to God” (p. 147).

These sermons are not only valuable for exploring this passage in Ezekiel, and its gospel implications and as a model of appealing to someone to come to faith. They also preach the gospel to those of us who have believed. My heart was warmed by these truths afresh in reading Lloyd-Jones, even though I first believed them as a child. I can never get beyond but only go deeper into all that it means to be saved by grace alone through Christ alone. This book was a valuable aid in that journey.

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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.

Review: Basics for Believers

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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:

  1. Put the Gospel First (Philippians 1:1-26)
  2. Focus on the Cross (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 2:5-11)
  3. Adopt Jesus’s Death as a Test of Your Outlook (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 1:27-2:4, 2:12-18)
  4. Emulate Worthy Christian Leaders (Philippians 2:19-3:21)
  5. 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.”

  1. Emulate those who are interested in the well-being of others, not in their own (Philippians 2:19-21)
  2. Emulate those who have proved themselves in hardship, not the untested upstart and the self-promoting peacock(!) (Philippians 2:22-30)
  3. Emulate those whose constant confidence and boast is in Jesus Christ and in nothing else (Philippians 3:1-9)
  4. Emulate those who are continuing to grow spiritually, not those who are stagnating (Philippians 3:10-16)
  5. 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).

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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

Review: The Cross and Christian Ministry

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The Cross and Christian MinistryD. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018 (repackaged edition, originally published 1993).

Summary: In these expositions from 1 Corinthians, Carson sets forth the cruciform character of biblically faithful Christian ministry.

In the 1990’s, D. A. Carson published several collections of expositions. Recently Baker has begun “repackaging” them. Recently I reviewed The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus. The Cross and Christian Ministry is another of these repackaged works that I am glad is receiving a new lease on life. What Carson says about the cruciform character of Christian ministry is just as, if not more, relevant today than when these works were first published twenty-five years ago.

This book is a series of expositions from the book of 1 Corinthians, four on the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians and a final one from chapter 9. Each concludes with questions that may be used for reflection or group discussion. In brief, they cover:

1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5The Cross and Preaching. He begins by showing how the cross divides humanity as foolishness to the perishing and the power of God for those being saved. It is folly that outsmarts the greatest of human wisdom and yet includes many the world would exclude. He concludes about the message of those who preach, that testifies to God’s work, focuses on Christ crucified and relies on the power of the Spirit. He has pointed comments about those who try to manipulate audiences, particularly in youth ministry.

1 Corinthians 2:6-16The Cross and the Holy Spirit. This message notes three contrasts in the passage:

  1. Between those who receive God’s Wisdom and those who do not.
  2. Between the Spirit of God and the spirit of the world.
  3. Between the “natural person and the “spiritual” person.

He concludes by observing that the work of the Holy Spirit is essential for a person truly to understand the cross. We may intellectually grasp the meaning of the cross but nevertheless need the Holy Spirit to illuminate that understanding and overcomes our human resistance to facing our sin and God’s saving work.

1 Corinthians 3, The Cross and Factionalism. Factionalism fundamentally is a sign of Christian immaturity. It fails to realize that leaders are really servants, and will give account for their leadership. Sadly, factionalism both fails to recognize the great work of God, focusing on human beings, and inevitably diminishes the great inheritance we have in Christ as it focuses on only a select aspect of that inheritance. Carson notes that in factionalism, we cut ourselves off from so much that is good and enriching in the rest of the church.

1 Corinthians 4The Cross and Christian Leadership. In this message, Carson explores what it means to be a Christian leader in light of the cross:

  1. It means being entrusted with the “mysteries” of God. Leaders should faithfully fulfill that trust, and others should realize that such leaders are seeking to please God and not stand in judgment of them.
  2. It means living in the light of the cross which meant for Paul following a crucified Lord and embracing suffering.
  3. It means encouraging and enforcing the way of the cross among the people of God. We both help people to grasp the precious significance of the cross, and warn those who presume on the cross and fail to follow Christ in their daily life.

1 Corinthians 9:19-27, The Cross and the World Christian. The term “world Christian” was much used in mission-oriented circles in the 1990’s and might be similar to today’s “missional Christian.” Carson gives a wonderful definition that challenges the contemporary attractions of nativism and tribalism that focuses on either the greatness of one’s country or the pre-eminence of one’s own particular “tribe.”

“The allegiance to Jesus Christ and his kingdom is self-consciously set above all national, cultural, linguistic, and racial allegiances.

Their commitment to the church, Jesus messianic community, is to the church everywhere, wherever the church is truly manifest, and not only to its manifestation on home turf.

They see themselves first and foremost as citizens of the heavenly kingdom and therefore consider all other citizenship a secondary matter.

As a result, they are single-minded and sacrificial when it comes to the paramount mandate to evangelize and make disciples” (p. 133).

Carson emphasizes from the text that such people understand their freedom and their constraints in Christ; they do not stand on their “rights”; they set the salvation of others as their aim and understand that there is really no other way to be a Christian.

This collection of messages, originally given at several conferences, are not exegetical commentaries, but rather seek to make clear for both the original audiences and the reader the meaning of the text and its implications. Carson writes with clarity, devotional warmth, and a perceptive eye to application for the contemporary church. He particularly addresses any person in leadership, making us take a hard look at our own character and practice and vision in light of the cross. I’m struck with how well these messages have worn. While certainly one can spy references that are dated, it seemed to me that these messages if anything may be more timely in our own day, because they center around the timeless truth of the cross.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Expository Exultation

Expository Exultation

Expository Exultation, John Piper. Carol Stream, IL: Crossway Books, 2018.

Summary: Contends that the purpose of preaching is expository exultation; that preaching is integral to worship in the preacher’s work of making clear and exulting over the text of scripture as it reveals the glories of God.

This is one John Piper book that I can unequivocally endorse. While I might differ with him in other matters, I found myself saying “Amen” again and again as I read this book. The reason for this is that he recovers and articulates as well as anyone since Martyn Lloyd Jones and John Stott the glory and high calling of preaching. His central contention is that preaching, properly done is “expository exultation.” What does he mean by this?

“The title Expository Exultation is intended to communicate that this unique form of communication is both a rigorous intellectual clarification of the reality revealed through the words of Scripture and a worshipful embodiment of the value of that reality in the preacher’s exultation over the word he is clarifying. Preachers should think of worship services not as exultation in the glories of God accompanied by a sermon. They should think of musical and liturgical exultation (songs, prayers, readings, confession, ordinances, and more) accompanied and assisted by expository exultation–preaching as worship.”

Piper offers a helpful correction to the mentality that says worship is over when the music ends, where the message is kind of a letdown or a time for the mind to wander.

The remainder of the book is an unpacking of the above statement. He begins with a discussion of how fitting it is for the people of God to gather for corporate worship and then shows how preaching as expository exultation is integral to our corporate worship and rooted in the persons of the Trinity. The following two parts of this work focus on both the supernatural and natural aspects of expository exultation–the work of the Holy Spirit and the proper use of our skills to communicate with clarity and logic the reality of God and his work revealed in the biblical text.

The next part of this work was perhaps one of the most illuminating parts for me that explained why much biblical exposition falls flat. We may say what the text says, even individual words, and what it means, and how it bears on our lives. But Piper contends that we often do not clearly communicate the reality to which the text bears witness as we direct attention to the text so that people discover that reality for themselves, not by hearing us, but by seeing that this is what the text says. Good preaching shows how reality shines through the text.

He then turns in the next part to the central realities to which he believes the biblical text bears witness. They are the glory of God, Christ crucified, and the obedience of faith. Piper would contend that all three run through scripture and ought run through our exposition of it. Then in the following part, he shows how these three central realities run through even the Old Testament. He concludes by reminding the preacher of the high calling and indispensable importance of expository exultation in the life of the church. And he speaks personally to aspiring preachers:

“But he who called you is faithful. He will do it. I testify from forty years in the ministry of the word, through the best and the worst of times, God loves to help the preacher who is desperate to make the word plain for the holy happiness of his people, by the blood of Christ, for the glory of God. He will help you.”

So much preaching seems disconnected from the glories of God and the work of Christ we sing and celebrate in music, liturgy and ordinance or sacrament. Too often it seems merely to be an inspirational message to help us engage another week, or a series of marching orders. Piper articulates a vision of preaching consistent with the rest of worship–that God is the glorious hero of the scriptures we preach, that the decisive act in the story was the life, death and resurrection of the Son, and we are invited through the regeneration and empowering of his Spirit to participate through the obedience of faith in this great venture of God in his world. Those are the realities we make clear from the text of scripture and over which we exult and lead God’s people in joyous exultation both in corporate worship and lives of worship. No wonder Piper has been at it forty years and continues to preach and write with such passion!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Preaching by the Book

Preaching by the Book

Preaching by the Book (Hobbs College Library), R. Scott Pace, (Heath A. Thomas editor). Nashville: B & H Academic, 2018.

Summary: A step by step guide to preparing and giving messages rooted in biblical texts in a slim volume.

There are numerous guides to preaching, most which are both inspiring and perhaps a little daunting. What caught my attention is the straightforward character of this little book. I could see a person, perhaps faced with his or her first sermon, working through this book in preparing to preach.

First of all, the author outlines his theology of preaching that affirms that the purpose of preaching is that the Word of God, expounded faithfully by ministers of God trusting in the work of the Spirit of God results in the people of God hearing, worshiping, and obeying God. Critical in this process is that sermons arise from and be based in the text of scripture. The remainder of the book unpacks a process by which this is done, which is outlined in seven steps:

1.  Begin with prayer.

  • Prepare your heart.
  • Pray for help.

2.  Read the passage.

  • Read it casually.
  • Read it carefully.

3.  Discover the point.

  • Summarize the main idea
  • Simplify the main idea.

4.  Study the parts.

  • Study the supporting concepts.
  • Study the significant words.

5.  Identify the precepts.

  • Discern the theological truths.
  • Discern the doctrinal truths.
  • Discern the spiritual truths.

6.  Apply the principles.

  • Evaluate our personal condition.
  • Formulate our practical response.

7.  Develop our plan.

  • Construct our sermon outline.
  • Craft our sermon points.

Chapters 2 through 4 elaborate these seven steps. Then Chapters 5 through 7 help with fleshing out the sermon outline into a message that may be preached. It begins with Introductions and emphasizes brevity and clarity that whets people’s appetites, as well as providing a varying diet. Chapter 6 on Illustrations proposes the various kinds of illustrations that might be used and pitfalls to avoid including the overuse of illustrations, and using yourself or your family excessively in illustrations. Chapter 7, reflecting the Baptist origins of this work, discusses Invitations. This is often neglected in other traditions, where a passage is taught, but no response to it is invited in the context of the service.

One subject that I would have liked to seen addressed in this section would be the question of whether one ought write out sermons, preach from notes, or work from memory. It seems that it would be helpful for many to talk about how not to be tied to a text or written notes and yet avoid the wandering and rabbit trails that may accompany extemporaneous preaching. Perhaps the author assumed that preachers figure out what works best for them over time, which seems to be the case, but this is little help for the person starting out.

That aside, what Pace offers in a handy format is a guide that really can serve as a guide throughout the process of preparing a message from a biblical text. He distills a life of preaching wisdom into a concise, slim volume easily taken along with one’s Bible, study tools, and laptop into the study, or coffee shop. Much like a travel guide organized with the traveler in mind, this little guide can be pulled out throughout one’s preparation to preach to inspire and to give sound direction.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus

Farewell Discourse

The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of JesusD. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980, repackaged edition 2018.

Summary: A study of John 14-17, based on expository messages on these texts.

D. A. Carson has had a distinguished career as professor, lecturer, scholar, and Bible teacher, publishing over 50 popular and scholarly books as well as numerous scholarly articles. Several collections of his expository messages were published in the 1980’s and 1990’s and recently have been re-packaged by the publisher and re-released. This work does not appear to be revised in any way, and there are no notes or updated prefaces to that effect.

In the preface to this work, Carson notes that this work reflects a popular rather than scholarly approach to John (Carson also has published a scholarly commentary on the Gospel of John). This work is based on messages given on John 14-17 at various conferences and has been converted to essay form. In this case, listing the chapters may be helpful to see how these essays have been organized:

  1. Prologue — John 13
  2. An Introduction to Triumphant Faith — John 14:1–14
  3. The Coming of the Spirit of Truth — John 14:15–24
  4. Three Clarifications — John 14:25–31
  5. Spiritual Intimacy with Jesus Christ — John 15:1–16
  6. Counting the Cost — John 15:17–16:4
  7. Two Special Ministries of the Spirit — John 16:5–15
  8. But First, the Cross — John 16:16–33
  9. Jesus Prays for Himself and His Followers — John 17:1–19
  10. Jesus Prays for All Believers and for the World — John 17:20–26

Each chapter other than the prologue begins with the biblical text in the New International Version. This is followed by an exposition of the text in plain language that both draws out the theological content of the text and its practical and devotional significance. One of the recurring elements is Carson’s quotation of the texts of hymns that illustrate and underscore his points. This may seem dated to some, but to reflect on the words, whether one knows the music or not, may be helpful.

One of the highlights for me was Carson’s careful and clear discussion of the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit, a great concern of Jesus in this discourse. Here, for example is his discussion of what it means in John 8 for the Spirit to convict the world “…of righteousness.”

“The question is: Whose righteousness? If Jesus’s righteousness is in view, then clearly the Counselor does not convict the world of Jesus’s righteousness in exactly the same way he convicts the world of it’s own sin. One would have to suppose that the Spirit convicts the world of its sin, but convinces the world of Jesus’s righteousness (thus producing an unwarranted change in the verb); or perhaps that the Spirit convicts the world of its sin and also convicts the world of its shortcomings in the light of Jesus’s righteousness (which introduces an unwarranted explanatory note into the text).

Such difficulties are overcome if the Spirit is convicting the world of its sin, and also convicting the world of its righteousness (p. 162).

He goes on to discuss how there can be good and bad righteousness, for example, the righteousness that is as a filthy rag. What I appreciate in this example, and found throughout was that in clear prose, rather than technical commentary, Carson offers clear explanations of things often left in a fuzzy state in our minds, with a finger on the biblical text.

I also deeply appreciated his comments on Jesus prayer for the unity of all believers and his understanding of a biblical ecumenism:

“[T]he things that tie together true believers are far more significant than the things that divide them. The divisive things are not necessarily unimportant: sometimes they are points of faith or practice that have long-range effects on the church for good or ill, reflecting perhaps some major inconsistency or misapprehension concerning the truth. Nevertheless the things that tie us together are of even more fundamental importance. Regardless of denominational affiliation, there ought to be among Christ’s people a sincere kinship, a mutual love, a common commitment, a deep desire to learn from one another and to come, if at all possible, to a shared understanding of truth on any point. Such unity ought to be so transparent and compelling that others are attracted to it. To such biblical ecumenism (if I may so label it) there is no proper objection. Indeed, it is mandated by the Final Prayer of the Lord Jesus himself (p. 233).

This is a rich resource for devotional reflection, and for Bible study leaders and pastors who will preach on these texts. So often, such works go out of print, not to be replaced by an equivalent or better work. The publisher is to be commended to introducing a new generation to this fine work by D. A. Carson on these final teachings and prayer of Jesus on the night before he was crucified.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Encountering God through Expository Preaching

Encountering God through Expository Preaching

Encountering God through Expository PreachingJim Scott Orrick, Brian Payne, Ryan Fullerton. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2017.

Summary: An argument for expository preaching as the means by which the people of God encounter the living God through the word of God, and an explication of the practices in preparation that lead to this in experience through the preached word.

The authors of this book both define what preaching is and set out their purpose in an opening statement in answer to the question, “what is preaching.” They respond:

“Preaching occurs when a holy man of God opens the Word of God and says to the people of God, ‘Come and experience God with me in this text.’ Encountering God through Expository Preaching is an explanation of this sentence.”

This book accomplishes what it promises and more. It sets forth the high calling, privilege, and sheer joy of preaching. The writers begin with the “holy man” and assert that godly character, and particularly that one is progressing in one’s own growth is critical to preaching that leads people to experience God. Giftedness is not enough, and often will result both in the cult of the preacher, and disappointment.

Then they turn to the defense of expository preaching, and particularly expository preaching that gives careful attention to the context of the text within the passage, the book, and ultimately the whole Bible. Particular emphasis is given to situating the text within God’s unfolding covenant purposes. This is not mere verse by verse explanation but canonical and biblical theological exposition, where the themes of scripture and the whole of scripture shape the treatment of a particular passage. While preference is given to preaching through books of scripture, they allow that topical preaching is both warranted by scripture itself, and that it may be done expositorily.

The authors conclude the first part with three chapters on the importance of the Holy Spirit in preaching that invites people to experience God. Careful exegesis and good homiletic practice are insufficient to transform our listeners. The Holy Spirit illumines both us and those who hear the Word preached. He emboldens the preacher, particularly in the face of opposing powers, he lights us up, fills us with love and gives us words. Finally, we constantly rely on Him through relying upon His Word, upon the Lord’s gospel, upon God in prayer, and upon the prayers of our people.

They then focus on early preparation. What I found is that this did not concern exegetical practice or turning exegetical outlines into preaching outlines, as so many similar texts do. To some degree they already addressed this in the chapters on context, and will in broad outline in the following chapters. But they begin by focusing on the importance of delivery, and also the reading of the preaching text–itself a form of preaching when done well. One of the most trenchant observations made here is that good teachers are able to anticipate how their words sound in the ears of their hearers.

The next three chapters are built around a little rhyme suggesting four questions each sermon must answer:

How does it fit?

What does it say?

How is it built?

Why does it stay?

“How does it fit?” answers the question of how the text fits into the overall context of the Bible. “What does it say?” focuses on what needs to be said about the message of this particular text to one’s audience. “How is it built?” looks at the way a passage develops its main idea. “Why does it stay?” is about why this passage has lasting relevance and how it may be relevant in the lives of the preacher and the hearers.

The final three chapters weigh the respective advantages and disadvantages of preaching from a manuscript, preaching from an outline, and preaching without notes. While a manuscript provides for precision of utterance, and avoids rabbit trails, and an outline helps with remembering what one wishes to say, the writers come down preferring the practice of preaching without notes. They favor this both in terms of what it requires of the preacher in terms of personal holiness, an outline based on the text, a simple and memorable outline, and reliance on the Holy Spirit. It also allows for better communication with and engagement with one’s audience, including more eye contact, and more natural movement and vocal variety.

What this book does is de-emphasize some of the more technical aspects of sermon preparation to focus on the spirituality of preaching–the character of the preacher, one’s own encounter with God in the text through the ministry of the Spirit, and reliance upon the Spirit in both preparation and proclamation.

While there is much of worth for anyone who aspires to preach, it should be noted that a premise of this book is that the office of preacher is limited to men–evident in references to “a holy man, ” and in the argument for preaching without notes that “it encourages masculinity” and that “for preaching to be effective, the preacher must be a masculine man” (p. 200).

While I do not agree with this premise, I found much of worth in this book, and particularly the strong argument for expository preaching, that this is really to expose God’s word under the power of God’s Spirit, so that the people of God may experience, worship, and obey the living God. It has been my joy to experience the living God under the expository  preaching of both holy men and women of God, and I can’t imagine why those charged with preaching the Word of God would want anything less or else.

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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.

 

Review: Preaching with Accuracy

Preaching with AccuracyPreaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching by Randal E. Pelton. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2014.

Summary: This book contends that to preach with accuracy, one needs to find the big idea in the text, but not only that, to understand that idea in the context of the book, and ultimately all of scripture, which means connecting it to the person and work of Christ.

Randal Pelton thinks that much of “biblical preaching” isn’t biblical enough because preachers have failed to find the big idea in their chosen text. Often, they are preaching something tangential to the big idea. Furthermore, truly biblical preaching sets the textual big idea (texbi is Pelton’s term) within the contextual big idea (conbi) and ultimately within the canonical big idea (canbi) which will center on the person and work of Christ. Hence, Pelton is contending that it is not enough to turn one’s exegesis of a passage into a sermon. Rather one must place the text in its theological context in God’s redemptive story (Pelton assumes the unity of the canon, while recognizing the diverse literature and settings in which the books of scripture were written).

The book begins with an argument for exposition today from 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, arguing that it is the word of God explained plainly that God uses in the hearts not only of his people but even the outsider. He then contends that many preachers fail to preach accurately because they are preaching small ideas in the text rather than its main or big idea. After showing how to appropriately “cut” the text, that is, choose the textual portion on which to preach so that one isn’t only preaching part of the development of an idea, he provides specific help with “do it yourself” examples for identifying the textual idea in various genres. He then gives similar instruction in finding the contextual big idea, noting things like God or Christ as the key actor in narrative, that epistles are arguments and one must identify the thread of argument, and situate the text within this, and so forth.

Finally, he addresses how to find the canonical big idea. This seemed to me to be the vaguest part of the book. Pelton quotes Sinclair Ferguson, who said that there is no “simple formula, an elixir to be sprinkled on our sermons to transform them into the preaching of Christ” (quoted on p. 138 of Pelton). Ultimately, he would argue that Old Testament texts, indeed all texts, should be read in light of the gospel. He contrasts his approach to that of Sidney Greidanus, but I found Greidanus far more specific in how to go about this (in a much longer text) that Pelton. But both ultimately advocate forms of Christ-centered preaching of all biblical texts. This is an alternative to the “book of stories and rules” or “God’s handbook” approach, or approaches that moralize narratives (this is what Nehemiah did and we should too). In his concluding chapter, he describes how one moves from this textual work to the sermon with the encouragement that the work he describes in the book should come early in the week so that it can be fleshed out in a message.

This strikes me as a very helpful book for someone in the early years of preaching, or someone who preaches who has not yet had the benefit of seminary, who is committed to expository preaching. It helps transform sermons from either running commentaries on the Bible, or when one is preaching through a book, preaching disconnected messages that fail to show how the book coheres. More vitally, it shows the pastor how to provide a theological framework in his messages to hang the big ideas of a text onto the framework of the biggest ideas in the Bible of God’s redemptive story that culminates in Christ. And it has the virtue of being concise and practical while pointing those interested to further resources.

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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. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers

Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers
Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers by Simon Vibert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was attracted by the idea of this book. Study great preachers to look for the qualities that define the greatness of their preaching. Vibert starts with the greatest of all, Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount. He then explores the work of twelve others, ranging from Tim Keller to John Piper to Nicky Gumbel to Mark Dever and even Mark Driscoll (obviously before some of the controversies surrounding his ministry).

The plan of each chapter is a brief personal profile of the person, a digest version of an exemplary sermon with side notes on what makes it exemplary, followed by a summary of the particular qualities of excellence evident in this person. What is striking are both some commonalities and the differences. Common to all seems to be a faithfulness to scripture and a passion for the glory of God as well as an ability to connect personally through story and pastoral awareness of one’s audience. But there are unique lessons to be learned from each as well. For Keller, it is to anticipate objections, to read thoroughly and widely, to create intrigue, and to preach for a verdict. For Vaughn Roberts, it is careful interaction with the biblical text, a clear and memorable sermon structure, an economy of words, and a commitment to mentor the next generation of preachers. For David Cook, it is to be genuinely interested in people, to apply the sermon first to oneself, and to enter the congregation’s world before drawing them into the world of the text.

Vibert’s conclusion summarizes these qualities and then poses a really interesting question, “wherein lies the power of good preaching?” Is it in the Word of God, is it in the Holy Spirit, is it in the person of the preacher submitted to God? In the end, Vibert argues that the answer is “yes”, that it is an “intermarriage” of all three that can be observed in scripture, church history, and in great preaching in our own day.

I both preach on occasion and have been involved in the training of younger ministry colleagues in preaching so I found much of interest that confirmed my own convictions. There was a significant glaring omission that I could not overlook–the absence of women or non-white exemplars such as Isaac Canales or Ajith Fernando or Ken Fong, and many others. It seems that the unspoken assumption is that excellence in preaching can only be attained by Anglo men. The author does not address this omission other than it may reflect the result of a survey among ministry peers. This lack of cross-cultural awareness is disturbing and undermines the otherwise worthy ideal of this book.

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Review: New Testament Exposition

New Testament Exposition
New Testament Exposition by Walter L. Liefeld
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For several years I had the privilege of working with a team that led training workshops for staff in our organization on the practice of expository preaching–that is giving a message that exposes or explains the meaning of a biblical text such that those who listen can understand and apply what they’ve heard to their lives. Several of our team members were Trinity Evangelical Divinity School graduates and reading this book, I understand now where much of the framework we used came from.

This is not a new work, first published in 1984. But it is a helpful guide to the step by step process of preparing biblical expositions. Like any good professor, Liefeld begins by defining what we mean by exposition and gives helpful clarifying examples of what is and is not exposition and what characterizes good expository preaching.

Part II focuses on preparing the text, the work of exegesis, noticing compositional and narrative factors, attending to semantic patterns and even matters of emotional tone in the text.

Part III, titled “Applying the text” focuses on preparing a message based on good exegetical work. Some of his most helpful comments for me were found in chapter 7 on determining the application and the essential and challenging work of discerning the main applicative thrust of the passage in its original setting and then considering the situation of those one is speaking to and addressing the hearts and minds of those who listen. He also provides good instruction on structuring sermons and shows various ways a sermon from the same text can be structured that are faithful to the text. He also addresses how to handle difficult New Testament texts and concludes with a sample of how he would prepare a message based on the text of Romans 6:1-14.

What I missed (and perhaps was assumed) was much discussion of the spirituality of preaching, of what is involved in listening to the text so that one hears and is personally addressed by the word of God. What I also missed was any thoughtful discussion on the role of engaging the imagination in preaching. This all seemed very “workman-like”. It is true that the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 2:15 encourages Timothy with the words, “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (ESV). Anyone who cares deeply about living up to this exhortation will find Liefeld’s book an indispensible aid. My only encouragement would be to complement these books with ones like John Stott’s Between Two Worlds or D Martyn Lloyd-Jones Preaching and Preachers. Both of these writers were gifted expository preachers and their books fill out the elements of preaching not found in this slim volume.

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