Review of ‘Preaching the New Testament’ by Ian Paul and David Wenham

Preaching the New Testament Paul, Ian and David Wenham, eds. Preaching the New Testament. 2013. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Expository preaching is not an easy task. It requires familiarity with the Bible and your listeners, as well as facility in bridging the contextual divide between the two. In other words, it involves at least three disciplines: exegesis, homiletics, and hermeneutics.

Preaching the New Testament is a collection of 17 essays by evangelical New Testament scholars who are also preachers. Edited by Ian Paul and David Wenham, it does not focus on “persuasive communication.” Rather, it offers “insights about how to interpret and communicate the New Testament today.” In other words, its focus is on exegetical and hermeneutical foundations of homiletics rather than on the mechanics of homiletics.

The first 11 essays are organized in canonical New Testament order, with specific focus on the Gospels (ch. 1), the infancy narratives (ch. 2), Jesus’ parables and miracles (chs. 3, 4), the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5), Acts (ch. 6), Paul’s letters (ch. 7), the Pastoral Epistles (ch. 8), Hebrews (ch. 9), the General Epistles (ch. 10), and Revelation (ch. 11). The remaining six essays address archaeology and history (ch. 12), New Testament ethics (ch. 13), hope and judgment (ch. 14), relational hermeneutics (ch. 15), exegesis and the “New Homiletic” (ch. 16), and evangelistic preaching (ch. 17).

As a Pentecostal, I was especially interested in the chapters on preaching Jesus’ miracles and Acts. Pentecostals typically ignore the hermeneutical divide between narrative and normative, between what Jesus and the early church did and what we should do. So it was interesting to see how evangelicals negotiate the divide. Though I did not agree with all the conclusions in these chapters, I learned from both of them.

Expository preachers needing help with this Sunday’s sermon will not find it here. Preaching the New Testament offers no plug-and-play advice for procrastinating pulpiteers. Rather, it should be read long in advance of preparing an individual sermon, perhaps as you are planning a new sermon series. It will stimulate insights into about the meaning and significance of the New Testament for contemporary audiences. For the mechanics of how to persuasively communicate these insights from the pulpit, you’ll need to read other books.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

What Christians Know (1 John 5:18-20)

What do Christians know?

According to 1 John 5:18-20, they know three things:

We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

The first thing Christians know is the relationship between belief and behavior. Throughout 1 John, John argues that belief in God must result in godly behavior. There is an intimate and necessary connection between faith and works, in other words. In verse 18, John states the matter quite forcefully: “anyone born of God does not continue to sin.” I don’t think that John literally means Christians never sin after the moment of their conversions. Rather, I think he means that sin does not have an abiding power over them. Why? “The one who was born of God keeps him safe.” That is, Jesus protects Christians from any “harm” the “evil one” can do to them. It is Jesus himself who makes possible the ultimate victory of Christians over sin.

The second thing Christians know is the assurance of their salvation. According to verse 19, “We know that we are children of God.” Notice what a strong statement this is! Know. Not think or believe or hope. “Know” is what philosophers call a “success term.” It indicates the successful accomplishment of a desired action. In this case, Christians have succeeded in attaining assurance of salvation. They know they are saved because they have put their trust in Jesus Christ. He is the one who makes knowledge of salvation actual.

And, therefore, it is unsurprising that the third thing Christians know is really a person, Jesus Christ, who makes knowledge of the first two things possible. Verse 20 says, “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true,” in other words, God. The reason Jesus Christ entered human history and took on a human nature was to give us the knowledge leading to salvation. He is in the position to give this knowledge because he himself is “the true God and eternal life.”

Obviously, these three pieces of knowledge are tremendously important from a personal and devotional point of view. What a comfort it is to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to receive assurance of salvation, and to be empowered for godly living! And yet, please do not fail to see the theological intensity of John’s personal and devotional remarks. They go straight to the heart, for example, of the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation. Doctrine determines spirituality; spirituality reflects doctrine. Truth is practical, and practicality must be truthful. That also is something Christians know.

Mortal Sin (1 John 5:16-17)

What should you do if you see someone sinning? In our culture, the typical answer to that question is, “Absolutely nothing!” There are several reasons for this answer.

For one thing, we have drunk deeply from the cup of John Stuart Mill. In 1869, Mill published an influential essay, On Liberty, which advocated “one very simple principle”: “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.” In other words, if you see someone sinning, unless he is sinning against you, leave him alone.

For another thing, we have eaten at the table of moral relativism. That ideology teaches that the commandments, “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not,” are relative to the culture or the individual that commands them. What is cannibalism in one culture is another culture’s four-course meal. One man’s pornography is another man’s art.

There’s a bit of truth in both of these reasons for doing nothing, but only a bit. Christians are neither competent nor capable to intervene in every case of wrongdoing. If we tried, we wouldn’t have time to do anything else. And anyway, sometimes we do confuse morally universal norms with culturally relative practices. Marriage is a moral norm; wearing a white dress to a wedding is a cultural practice. We’d look silly if we imposed white dresses on a culture that had a different color scheme for weddings.

With these qualifications in mind, however, there are times when we are obligated to do something when we see someone sinning. The question is really not whether we should do something, but what we should do and when. First John 5:16-17 provides Christians with guidance on answering these two questions.

If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

Regarding what, John advises us to pray. Other Scriptures advise us to stage an intervention of some sort. (See Matthew 18:15-17, Galatians 6:1-2, and James 5:19-20, for example.) But here, John counsels us simply to bring the issue before God in humble supplication. We may not be competent or capable of intervening, but God is. So pray!

Regarding when, John advises us to intervene in the case of a “brother,” that is, a fellow Christian. As Christians, we know what is on the line with sin, namely, life and death. Repentance leads to life. Lack of repentance leads to death. If you love your brother or sister, you will pray for their repentance.

As Christians, when it comes to the sins of others, God does not call us to either busybody-ism or indifference. But he does call us to concern. And the first expression of concern is always prayer.

God’s Obligation in Prayer (1 John 5:13-15)

Is God obligated to answer our prayers? Yes…and no.

Let’s start with no. God is not obligated to answer any number of prayers. For example, he is neither obligated nor able to answer impossible requests, such as squaring a circle or revoking the law of non-contradiction. Furthermore, he is not obligated to grant immoral requests. He will not – and morally cannot – help you cheat on your high school geometry test, your spouse, or your taxes. Finally, although he is able, he will not answer immodest requests, such as praying for the winning lottery numbers or getting a date with a supermodel. (Although when my wife agreed to marry me, I certainly felt like I’d won the lottery and gotten a supermodel thrown in to boot.)

So, with the obvious exceptions of impossible, immoral, and immodest requests, is God obligated to answer our prayers? Let me add one more qualification: There’s no such thing as unanswered prayers, as long as you remember that “No” and “Not yet” are also answers.

Now that the question has been properly qualified, I think we can provide a strong affirmative answer: God is obligated to answer our prayers. How do I know this? Because God’s word says so! Consider 1 John 5:13-15:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

John makes three statements here that are important in our prayer lives:

First, the most important prayer request we can make is for the gift of eternal life. According to John’s own testimony, the entire point of this letter is to enable his readers to know that they have eternal life. And how do we know we have eternal life? We must have faith in Jesus Christ. He is God’s Son, the atoning sacrifice for our sins, the means by which God saves us and welcomes us into eternity. This most important prayer request puts all our other requests into proper perspective. If we don’t have eternal life, nothing else we ask for matters. If we do have eternal life, nothing else we ask for matters that much.

Second, we can approach God confidently in prayer because we know he listens to us. The gift of Jesus Christ is the greatest gift that can be given or received by anyone. If God gives us that gift, then he truly cares for us, and if he cares, then he also listens.

Finally, if God listens, he answers. John makes a bold declaration on God’s behalf. Any prayer request offered “according to God’s will” is answered affirmatively. The key thing, then, is to pray like Jesus whenever we pray: “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Spirit, Water, Blood (1 John 5:6-12)

When a juror hears evidence in a trial, he asks two questions: (1) what is being said and (2) who is saying it. Yesterday, we looked at the content of the testimony presented in 1 John 5:6-12, which I summarized as God’s life through God’s Son. Today, let’s look at the character of the witnesses.

Verses 6b-10 provide the relevant information:

And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.

According to these verses, there are three (possibly four) witnesses to the fact that God’s life comes through God’s Son: Spirit, water, blood, and (possibly) God himself. (It is unclear whether God’s testimony is identical to that of Spirit, water, and blood, or distinct from it.) We know what these words mean, of course—who doesn’t know what the words blood, water, and Spirit mean?—but in the context of this passage, what do they refer to?

The Spirit obviously refers to the Holy Spirit. Both here and in John 15:26, a basic function of the Holy Spirit is to “testify” to Jesus. At the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven declared, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

What does the water refer to? In his commentary on 1 John, Colin G. Kruse points out that in Greek, the phrase “by water” (verse 6) is the same  as “with water” in John’s Gospel (John 1:26, 31, 33). In the Gospel, “with water” described the mode of John’s baptism. Since we know that Jesus also baptized converts (John 4:1-2), it does not require a huge stretch of imagination to assume that “by water” describes the mode of Jesus’ baptism. Perhaps, then, “by water” means that Jesus’ earthly ministry testifies to the fact that we have eternal life through him.

It is generally agreed that the blood refers to Jesus’ death. It is, of course, Jesus’ death that gives us eternal life by providing an “atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 2:2, 4:10). Calvary, then, also testifies to the fact that we have eternal life in the Son.

Now we are in a position to better understand the meaning of 1 John 5:6-12. John is essentially saying that the publicly available facts of Jesus’ ministry—his experience of the Holy Spirit, his baptizing ministry, and his death on the cross—all testify to the truth that God’s life comes to us through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

Review of ‘C. S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet’ by Alister McGrath

C S Lewis McGrath, Alister. 2013. C. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Carol Steam, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

C. S. Lewis—Jack to his friends—looms large in the American evangelical mind.

On the one hand, this is surprising. A communicant in the Church of England, Lewis was generically orthodox but not specifically evangelical in theological or spiritual emphases. His closest lifelong friends were a homosexual Unitarian (Arthur Greeves) and a traditionalist Roman Catholic (J. R. R. Tolkien). And he drank and smoked prolifically, at one point having a barrel of beer in his rooms at Oxford for the use of his students.

On the other hand, Lewis’s influence on American evangelicals is not surprising. After World War II, American neo-evangelicals shook off their Fundamentalist separatism and irritability and began to actively engage culture with an eye toward changing it. Lewis—the Oxford don who wrote well-regarded studies of medieval English literature, well-written works of Christian apologetics, and well-loved children’s stories—modeled the kind of influence evangelicals wished to exercise on culture high, middlebrow, and popular.

Writing about Lewis is thus something of a cottage industry among American evangelicals, with new titles on this or that aspect of his thought or life appearing regularly. Alister McGrath’s new biography of Lewis is part of that cottage industry—though McGrath is a British evangelical—but nonetheless a welcome addition to it. The broad outlines of Lewis’s life have been sketched before, by Lewis himself (in Surprised by Joy) and by others. What distinguishes McGrath’s biography is the use he makes of Lewis’s collected letters, published in 2004 (volumes 1 and 2) and 2007 (volume 3) by Walter Hooper, Lewis’s literary executor. A careful reading of these letters leads McGrath to argue, against Lewis and Lewis scholars, that Lewis misremembered the date of his conversion to Christianity, placing it in 1929 when it actually occurred in 1930. Whether McGrath’s letter-based argument will win the day is an open question.

McGrath organizes his narrative of Lewis’s life in five parts: “Prelude” (1898–1918), “Oxford” (1919–1954), “Narnia,” “Cambridge” (1954–1963), and “Afterlife,” which focuses on the ongoing influence of Lewis, especially among American evangelicals. He weaves together Lewis’s inner world of ideas and outer world of circumstances into a warts-and-all tapestry. Those who have only read Lewis’s works—whether scholarly, apologetic, or fictional—may be surprised at some of the warts.

The two biggest surprises, at least to readers unacquainted with Lewis’s life, may be his relationships with two women, first Mrs. Jane King Moore, and then Joy Davidman. The former was the mother of Lewis’s deceased war buddy who was financially supported by him from the end of World War I until her death in 1951. The same age as Lewis’s deceased mother Flora, Mrs. Moore evidently filled a maternal void in Lewis’s life. (His relationship with his father Albert was strained through his adult life.) At some point, beginning perhaps in 1917, their relationship was also sexual, probably ending prior to his conversion. From 1930 until her death in 1951, she lived with Lewis and his brother Warren at their home, The Kilns, which was deeded in her name.

Joy Davidman was an American divorcee, ex-communist, and convert to Christianity, whom Lewis married, abruptly and without notice to friends, in a civil ceremony in 1956. The marriage began as a legal convenience, allowing Davidman and her two sons to remain in Oxford once their residence permissions expired. But it grew into real love. Indeed, the death of Davidman by cancer in 1960 brought forth A Grief Observed, Lewis’s harrowing account of loss.

I mention these two relationships in particular because evangelical readers of Lewis can be so impressed with Lewis’s apologetic for Christianity and literary imagination that they forget he was a flesh-and-blood human being, with all the sins and weaknesses of the race. We—I speak as an American evangelical—cannot idolize the man, which he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to do anyway.

By the same token, however, we shouldn’t discount Lewis’s real literary achievements. Lewis’s academic works—especially on Edmund Spenser and John Milton—can still be read with profit. His apologetic works still offer suggestive critiques of atheism and naturalism. And his fiction can still delight and instruct both children and adults alike.

I highly recommend Alister McGrath’s biography of C. S. Lewis. It humanizes the legend and contextualizes his achievements, but it doesn’t debunk him in the process. Lewis, being dead, can still speak—to American evangelicals and to others. McGrath’s biography gives his life and ideas an earthy voice for a new generation.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

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