Basic Christianity | Book Review


What does it mean to be evangelical? Derived from the Greek euaggelion — “gospel” or “good news” — the word describes things that are related to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Since the Reformation, it has been used as shorthand for Protestants generally. With the Great Awakening, it began to be used of a specific type of Protestant: Bible-based, Cross-centered, conversion-required and action-oriented.

Now in the United States, the word more often than not is used to describe a brand of partisan politics, at least in the popular press. This is unfortunate, because the gospel itself cannot be reduced to partisan politics. It is bigger and more fundamental than that. John Stott’s Basic Christianity helps readers remember this by outlining a truly evangelical understanding of Christianity.

Stott writes: “Christianity is a rescue religion. It declares that God has taken the initiative in Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sins. This is the main theme of the Bible.”

Over the course of 11 short chapters, Stott covers who Christ is, the nature and consequences of sin, the atoning work of the Cross, and the necessity of responding to Christ personally.

In the Preface, Stott pens this brief description of basic Christianity:

We must commit ourselves, heart and mind, soul and will, home and life, personally and unreservedly, to Jesus Christ. We must humble ourselves before him. We must trust in him as our Savior and submit to him as our Lord; and then go on to take our place as loyal members of the church and responsible citizens in the community.

Over the course of its nearly 60 years in print, Stott’s little book has found a remarkably broad audience — internationally and ecumenically — and for good reason. It is biblical, orthodox and evangelical in the best sense of the word. I recommend it highly. An individual can read it profitably, but I think the best way to read it is with a group. The third edition helpfully includes group discussion questions at the end of the book.

Stott first wrote Basic Christianity in 1958 for a British audience. It has been revised twice, in 1971 and 2008. As far as I can tell, this 2017 Eerdmans reissue is nearly identical to the third edition. Changes include a new cover and minor reformatting of the text. The biggest change is that all Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the 2011 edition of the New International Version.

 

Book Reviewed:
John Stott, Basic Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

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

Review of ‘Finding the Will of God’ by Bruce K. Waltke


Finding_the_Will_of_God_350Bruce K. Waltke, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016).

In this book, Bruce K. Waltke asks a provocative question: “Is finding God’s will a biblical idea?” He concludes that it is not. Indeed, he claims that phrases such as “finding God’s will” and “seeking the will of God” reflect “a pagan notion” and amount to “divination,” which the Bible condemns. This is a strong claim, of course—perhaps a bit too strong.

On the other hand, Waltke is right to point out at least two faulty assumptions in the notion of “finding God’s will.” The first is that God makes His will difficult to know. When Christians become anxious about “finding God’s will,” they are implicitly saying that God hasn’t made His will known to them or that He is hiding it or that it is, in some sense, “lost” and in need of “finding.” But do such implications square with the character of God as revealed in the Bible?

“If we really believe in God as the perfectly loving Father,” Waltke writes, “we can do away with our notions of him as an almighty manipulator and con man who never quite lets us discover his will. God is not a magician or trickster. God loves us enough that he sent his Son to die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. So does it make sense that he would play games with his children, hiding his will?”

Another faulty assumption with “finding God’s will” has to do with people’s motivation. Waltke relates a conversation he had with a young man who was “seeking God’s will.” He says, “I asked that young man who his god is. Is it the Almighty God, who created us and in love sent his Son to die on the cross for us? Or is it personal success, with the right car, the perfect home, and the ideal job? God is more interested in my holiness than in my success.”

I once saw an Instagram meme with the first of Campus Crusade’s “Four Spiritual Laws” printed in the foreground: “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.” In the background was the picture of a Christian facing lions in the Roman Colosseum. It’s a funny way of making a serious point: Sometimes, God’s will for His people involves suffering, pain, and even death. As Paul wrote in Philippians 3:10: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”

God-Loves-you-and-has-a-wonderful-plan

Given that most people interested in “finding God’s will” want to avoid that kind of outcome, you can see why Waltke thinks “finding God’s will” is a “pagan notion.”

The antidote to “finding God’s will” is “following the guidance of God.” Waltke begins with the assumption that God reveals His will for us in Scripture. “What God desires from each of us [is] that we humbly think his thoughts; in this way we humbly learn to obey him.” Once we have learned God’s will from Scripture, we turn to what we desire to do. “God created you,” Waltke writes, “and if you have the mind of Christ, he shapes your perspective and character.” Often God leaves decisions up to the Christ-shaped choices of His followers. In that sense, Waltke affirms what Augustine wrote centuries ago: “Love God and do what you want.” After the Bible and personal desire, Waltke discusses “wise counsel” from others, “circumstances, “sound reasoning,” and “miraculous interventions.” People whose thoughts are shaped by Scripture, whose desires are formed in Christlikeness, who receive advice from godly believers, who make the most of the circumstances God has placed them in, who uses their brain, and who responds affirmatively when God miraculously leads them are following God’s guidance. They are doing God’s will.

As a Pentecostal, I read Waltke’s book with people in my “tribe” in mind. Pentecostals are Bible people through and through, but there are also restless people in our Movement who are always looking for the latest communiqué from God—a sign, a voice, a vision—about what to do next. Waltke’s book is a good counterbalance to that tendency, a reminder that Scripture is “the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct,” in the words of the Assemblies of God’s Statement of Fundamental Truths. While Waltke—a Calvinist theologian—is open to miraculous interventions, my guess is that he would say that they happen less frequently than we say they do. Pentecostal readers need to keep this difference of emphasis and experience in mind as they read his book.

Still, I recommend Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? It challenges faulty assumptions about “finding God’s will” and sketches an easy-to-remember framework for “following the guidance of God.” It would make a good resource for a sermon series on the will of God, though Pentecostals will want to tweak it here and there. Discussion questions at the end of each chapter make it appropriate for small group use too.

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P.S. This review first appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

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

Review of ‘Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism’ by Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts


New_Testament_Textual_CriticismStanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).

This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts describe their Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism as a “distinctively midlevel textbook on New Testament textual criticism for interested and serious students and with recent scholarly discussion in pertinent areas in mind.” It is, in other words, a textbook for students in college and graduate school who are majoring in New Testament studies. Why, then, do I think pastors and other Christian thought leaders should read this book too?

To answer that, go back with me to 2003, when Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code. Although the book is fiction, Brown prefaced it with these words: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Unfortunately, many of Brown’s allegedly “accurate” claims—especially about the Bible, Christian theology, and church history—were simply wrong, sometimes at the most basic, factual level.

Regardless, those claims left an impression on readers. Understandably so! Many readers nodded their heads when Leigh Teabing, one of the book’s characters, said this about the Bible: “Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.” In other words, powerful people monkeyed around with the text of the Bible in order to confer divine status on their preferred ideology.

Two years later, Bart D. Ehrman published Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Unlike Brown, who is a novelist, Ehrman is James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman wrote, “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” And one of the reasons for that is what Ehrman elsewhere calls “the orthodox corruption of Scripture.” In other words, the orthodox altered the text of the New Testament in order to give themselves a “biblical” weapon to use against heretics.

Now, imagine that you are a well-meaning Christian and you read The Da Vinci Code. It raises questions about the accuracy of the New Testament text. Your pastors say it’s bunk, but then you read Misquoting Jesus, and you start to wonder whether they know what they’re talking about. And then you start to wonder whether the Bible itself is trustworthy.

Notice how quickly a fictional narrative can lead to a factual question with serious spiritual implications. Pastors who are unaware of the questions percolating in popular culture and unprepared to provide serious, well-thought-out answers to them are not serving members of their congregation well. At some level, then, pastors must know how to answer the kinds of questions raised by Dan Brown’s and Bart Ehrman’s statements.

Which brings me back to Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism. In this book, Porter and Pitts provide readers with a nuts-and-bolts explanation of that discipline. They define the goal of textual criticism as the “reconstruction of the original the [New Testament] documents based upon the manuscript traditions currently available.” They then walk readers through major witnesses to the New Testament text and the various text-types that arose over the centuries. They define what a textual variant is and outline how external and internal evidence help decide what the original text most likely said. They then conclude with their discussion with several chapters on modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament, as well as translations of it into English.

With the exception of a brief (and to my mind, conclusive) refutation of Bart Ehrman’s orthodox-corruption-of-Scripture thesis, the tone of the book is introductory rather than apologetic. Nonetheless, their introduction of the discipline of textual criticism has apologetic implications. If we can recover the original text of the New Testament with reasonable confidence, then we can be reasonably confident that it has not been corrupted for political (Dan Brown’s point) or theological (Bart Ehrman’s point) purposes. In other words, when we read the New Testament, we have access to the worldview, beliefs, and practices of Jesus’ earliest disciples. I would further argue that in having access to them, we have access to Him.

Again, Porter and Pitts do not make these apologetic points. Their focus is on introducing the discipline to students, and they do this well and objectively. Anyone interested in the textual criticism of the New Testament thus will find accurate information here. Still, as a minister, I can’t help but think that this introduction is capable of inoculating readers against certain viruses of the mind about the Bible contained in both pop culture and certain academic quarters.

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

Review of ‘The Challenge of Preaching’ by John Stott


The-Challenge-of-PreachingJohn Stott, The Challenge of Preaching, abridged and updated by Greg Scharf (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015). Paperback

Preaching is not the only thing pastors do, but it is one of the most important things—if not the most important thing. Pastors thus need to work at perfecting their craft through constant attention to proper exegesis and hermeneutics, effective introductions and conclusions, and helpful outlines and illustrations. Because it is so useful in all these regards, John Stott’s The Challenge of Preaching should find a prominent place in every pastor’s library.

First published in 1982 as Between Two Worlds, The Challenge of Preaching now appears in a third edition, abridged and updated by Greg Scharf, and published by Eerdmans. In many ways, it is a primer on preaching, an introduction to the craft. But like the best primers, it is a touchstone that helps experienced preachers test the quality of their preaching.

Chapter 1 identifies three challenges to preaching: “Distrust of authority makes people unwilling to listen,” Stott writes. “Electronic advances have changed the expectations of both listeners and preachers. The atmosphere of doubt makes many preachers too tentative.” Despite these challenges, Stott believes preaching is a theologically necessary task, and in Chapter 2, he outlines its theological foundations focusing on God’s revelation, Scripture’s authority, the Church’s need of biblical renewal, the pastoral role of teaching and preaching, and preaching’s expository character.

Chapter 3 identifies the essential task of preaching as building a bridge between “the biblical world and the modern world.” Theological conservatives typically focus on the former, while theological liberals on the latter, but Stott insists we must keep eyes on both. “We must struggle to relate God’s unchanging word to our ever-changing world without sacrificing truth or despising relevance.”

Stott next turns to how preachers prepare themselves through personal study (Chapter 4) and their sermons through careful organization (Chapter 5). Chapter 4 struck me with particular force. It is easy for many activities to fill pastors’ calendars. Time for study becomes a luxury. If preaching is as important as Stott says it is, however—and I believe he’s on track biblically—failing to schedule regular time for reading and reflection is failing to do one’s job with adequate preparation. In the short term, this can be managed, but in the long term, one’s ministry becomes spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually weak.

Chapter 5 talks about writing one’s sermon. This is a nuts-and-bolts chapter that focuses on selecting the text, isolating the main thought, arranging your material, adding your conclusion, and then—when everything is in place—planning an introduction that draws the congregation in and prepares them to hear the Word of God.

Preaching cannot be reduced to the mechanics of sermon-writing, however. Who preaches is as important as what is preached. In short, the pastor’s life itself preaches the gospel and gives credibility to the sermon. Chapter 6 focuses on sincerity and earnestness. Stott writes: “To be sincere is to mean what we say and to do what we say; to be earnest is also to feel what we say.”

Chapter 7 focuses on courage and humility. “Preachers, like prophets, believe they bring a word from God, and are not free to change it,” Stott notes. “Therefore all preachers have at various times to choose between truth with unpopularity and falsehood with popularity.” This requires courage. But speaking unpopular truths can render us “stubborn or arrogant.” Like Elijah, we can complain, “I alone am left.” The antidote to this arrogance is “a humble mind, humble motives, and humble dependence.”

The Challenge of Preaching is a short book: 102 pages in the main body and another 23 pages in the appendices. It can be read in a single sitting. I highly recommend it to new pastors because it covers the whole range of preaching topics quickly and memorably. However, I also recommend it to veteran pastors. It has a diagnostic simplicity that will help them identify and correct bad habits they have developed.

I conclude with one final quote that warmed my Pentecostal heart: “At the same time [that we are studying] we should be praying, crying humbly to God for light from the Spirit of truth. Like Moses, we must beg him to show us his glory (Ex. 33:18). Study is no substitute for prayer; prayer is no substitute for study. We must do both. It may help to study on our knees, because this attitude reminds us that we worship the God who reveals himself in the Bible, and we are humble before him.”

Amen to that!

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

Review of ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls Today’ by James C. VanderKam


The-Dead-Sea-Scrolls-Today James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010). Paperback / Kindle

One of the greatest—if not the greatest—archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century was the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls opened new windows onto the world of Second Temple Judaism, especially the theology and practices of the Essene community. Unfortunately, they also spawned an entire industry of conspiracy thinking and pseudo-scholarship that distorts popular understanding of the scrolls even to the present day.

The great merit of James C. VanderKam’s The Dead Sea Scrolls Today is that it lays out an intellectually responsible view of the scrolls in lucid prose for an informed, popular audience. Successive chapters describe the finding of the scrolls, the variety of manuscripts discovered, why the Qumran community was Essene, the theology and practice of the Qumran community, and the relationship of the scrolls to the Old Testament and the New Testament. A final chapter outlines the major controversies about the publication of the scrolls, providing a non-conspiratorial explanation for the delay in publication of some of them. Throughout, VanderKam’s presentation of the material is fair-minded and its organization logical and easy to follow.

If you know nothing about the Dead Sea Scrolls, I highly recommend starting with this book. It is an indispensable introduction to a topic that has great significance, not only for Jews and Christians, but also for anyone fascinated by the history of the ancient world.

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

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