Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Book Review: What is the Gospel?

Gilbert, Greg. What is the Gospel? Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

Truth is being assaulted from all sides in our day. From the capitulation of the Biologos cadre, to the crass man-centeredness of Osteen, to the “God is an American conservative Republican” cultural Christianity crowd, there are voices out there to confuse believers, distort the truth, and eviscerate biblical Christianity. It’s time someone wrote a book reminding us what the gospel is, and what it isn’t.

Greg Gilbert’s brief (124 pages), accessible offering, published by Crossway under the 9Marks imprint, is just what the doctor ordered. Gilbert carefully points the church back to a biblical understanding of the gospel, and along the way he manages to distinguish between the results of the gospel and the gospel itself. It does not help people much if we talk in glowing terms of kingdom and cultural transformation if we haven’t made clear how one gets through the door. As he gently corrects, Gilbert’s tone is not polemical; he’s not going to alienate anyone, whether they are lost or merely confused about the gospel.

The book contains but eight chapters, four of which cover these topics: God’s righteousness, man’s sinfulness, Christ the Savior, and the response of faith and repentance. Gilbert reminds us that one does not need to be a Princeton grad to understand that Jesus died for my sins.

One of the great things about this book is that you can give it to an earnest seeker, and know that they will be exposed to a simple, solid, accurate, biblical, and compassionate explanation of gospel. I plan on keeping a box of these things in my study for just that purpose.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Review: Team of Rivals

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of AbrahamLincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

This is one of those books so thick that they ought to publish it with a set of wheels. That said, it is a fascinating exploration of the character and genius of Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin studies four main characters, Lincoln, plus the other men who were seeking the Republican nomination in the 1860 presidential election, Salmon Chase, William Seward, and Edward Bates. She traces the life of each, from childhood through their tours of duty on Lincoln’s cabinet in the dark days of the Civil War.

Goodwin does a masterful job of not only displaying (with a great deal of accompanying evidence) the character of each man, but how their political machinations throughout their lives either helped or hurt their political ambitions, ultimately culminating in Lincoln’s election. She documents the open disdain with which Lincoln’s rivals held the “rail splitter from Illinois,” and shows how everyone underestimated his intelligence and the shrewdness of his own political maneuverings.

Lincoln invites his rivals to serve in his cabinet, placing each man in a position where he can’t say “no” to the opportunity, and then patiently manages the fireworks that ensue from the clash of egos and ambitions at the top level of his administration. At each turn in the story, Goodwin shows how Lincoln outfoxes the newspapers, the politicians, the political parties, and his own cabinet members.

The genius of Lincoln, Goodwin demonstrates, is not that he “kept his friends close and his enemies closer,” but that he managed to turn enemies into allies, calling forth from each man the best of their gifts and skills in the service of a nation badly in need of strong leadership. Lincoln’s character (especially his humility) is seen in that many of his most contemptuous rivals became his most devoted friends, once they began to work closely with him. Edwin Stanton’s heartbroken tribute at Lincoln’s deathbed, “Now he belongs to the ages,” put a voice to the quiet awe in which many of Lincoln’s compatriots held him at the end.

This is a terrific book, from multiple aspects. First, I am guessing you won’t find a better, more complete accounting of the run-up to the 1860 presidential elections, and then Lincoln’s management of his administration. Second, it is an outstanding study of leadership and character. Third, it is a great biography of Lincoln. And last, it is so well-written, so well-documented, so detailed that Goodwin held my attention from the first page to the last. I recommend it highly.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review: Understanding Scripture

Grudem, Wayne, Collins, C. John, and Schreiner, Thomas R., eds. Understanding Scripture: An overview ofthe Bible’s Origin, Reliability, and Meaning. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

Without question, this is one of the best basic Bible introductions that I have read. Using a series of nineteen essays by eighteen different scholars, the editors have woven together a comprehensive introductory exploration of all the major questions that surround the phenomenon we call the Bible.

Part 1 addresses the issue of Bible interpretation. A sketch of the process of Bible interpretation is provided, showing due sensitivity to the issue of genre, followed by a good summary of the history of interpretation. As is true in the rest of this little volume, the two chapters are just the right length to tease out the major issues without burying the introductory reader in a flood of detail.

Part 2 explores five different reading strategies with which one can approach the text. This is clearly the most devotional part of the book, and the editors have chosen well for the contributors, with names like Packer, Piper, and Powlison. In reading this section, students might be tempted to blow through it and get to chapters with more technical details such as canon, or the use of the Old Testament by the New. But the reader should not forget that the whole point of studying Scripture is to, well, read it, and to read it with ever-increasing understanding. This section might well be where the payoff for the book is located.

Part 3 investigates the issues and problems surrounding the concept of the canon of Scripture. The Old and New Testaments are treated separately, as the canon issues between the two are quite distinct. An excellent chapter on the Apocrypha is also provided.

Part 4 delves into the reliability of the manuscripts and questions of textual criticism. The level of detail is just right for an introductory work, and the two testaments are again dealt with in two separate chapters. Part 5 continues that pattern by devoting a chapter each to archaeology and the Old and New Testaments. Plenty of examples are given, although it would have been nice for a few pictures to have been included in these chapters.

Part 6 was devoted to the biblical languages. This section was either the weakest, or strongest part of the book, depending on the level of detail you are looking for. Peter Williams got into an astonishing amount of detail regarding Hebrew, for a layman’s introductory text. I enjoyed this chapter immensely, I suspect my students got somewhat lost in it. It will certainly give the average man on the street an great appreciation for those who know Hebrew well enough to translate it. David Black took a very different approach with Greek, and dealt with characteristics of Koine, the range of Greek styles in the New Testament, and some basic linguistics. The section concluded with a great chapter on the Septuagint. Peter Gentry handled this section and included in it several pages on translation strategy (functional versus formal equivalence).

This is probably my major criticism of the book. Gentry’s paragraphs on translation strategy should have been expanded into a complete chapter on the history of the English text and the translation rationales behind the myriad modern versions. He did a great job handling the issues, and I wish he’d been asked to contribute a whole chapter on it.

The final part, on Old Testament and New, included a chapter on the history of salvation by Vern Poythress, and a chapter on the New Testament’s use of the Old, by C. John Collins.

This is a terrific lay-level textbook for Bible Introduction. It’s too short (203 pages) and too basic for graduate use, and possibly even for undergraduate use. But in the church, which is where I am using it, it is perfect in terms of its writing level and content complexity. I highly recommend this book for personal or church classroom use.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mile-high Mistake

Football Mama and I just finished watching the Denver Broncos break our hearts. Tell me now, why do you take a kneel-down with 31 seconds left in regulation, when you've got the best quarterback in the league and a better than even chance of getting close enough for a field goal?

Especially when you've no guarantee of winning the toss in overtime, and you could lose by sudden-death if Baltimore scores a touchdown!

Well. There went the season. Denver made too many mistakes, at both the coaching and player level, and Baltimore was just too strong. On the one hand, Denver gave it to them on a mile-high silver platter. On the other hand, Baltimore earned it by making fewer mistakes, and consistently stronger play.

Phooey. Now I've got an entire season to brood about it. Go Packers.

In case anyone is paying attention, last year, with a quarterback reputedly not good enough to play in the NFL, Denver won it's first playoff game, beating the former SuperBowl champion Steelers in an away game.

This year, with the best quarterback in the league, Denver loses at home, even though its special teams contributed two touchdowns to the effort.

Tebow should be given a chance somewhere. Just sayin' . . .

Friday, January 4, 2013

List of Twelve Top Books

In Sunday's message, I encouraged folks to make an intentional effort to grow in Christ this year. The text was from Paul's own testimony in Philippians 3:7-16, and the critical point was that "pressing toward the mark of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" implied specific, strenuous effort.

It is this passage in which we see clearly that sanctification is, as Jerry Bridges puts it, a "joint-venture" between us and God. Paul says in verse 12, "I press on so that I may lay hold of [our part of our own sanctification, notice the implication of effort] that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus [God's part of our sanctification]."

In any case, among the practical suggestions that I gave for areas of growth in which to strive in this new year, was a recommended reading list of good books. I've been asked to provide this list, so here it is. Note that the list is weighted heavily toward theology in general, and the holiness of God in particular. While it contains some samples of application (Priolo, Viars, Metzger, and one of Bridges), these books are more about knowing God than they are practical Christian living.

There are multiple reasons for that. One of them arises out of the text. Paul speaks in verse 8 of "knowing Christ my Lord," and verse 10, "that I may know him." Our deepest errors are not failures of practice, but a failure to know God, and the truth about God, properly. I would argue that all failures of practice can ultimately be traced back to a defective knowledge of God, and a defective love for Him.

In no particular order, here's the list:

There are many excellent books that could be added to this list. Most of these on the list are books I find myself turning to over and over again. A few are recent additions that I believe are "best in class" or close to it.

God has given the church teachers (Ephesians 4:11). Use them. Pick them well, pick them carefully, but use the teachers with which God has blessed His church.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Finished fixing the Falcon Down manuscript! Yesterday's investment in reading the Style and Template portions of the Open Office Writer Guide was time well-spent. I have fully finished reformatting the manuscript with proper styles and fixed all the problems with italics. Now I'm moving on with the story itself (it's over 50% complete at this point).

If you're wondering what all this is about, you may read the first three chapters of Falcon Down right here. I'm anticipating that the book will be available around the first of May. Here's the preliminary version of the back-cover blurb:

Flying low, slow and blind over a moonlit Bering Sea, Major Jacob Kelly put his sleek F-16 fighter through its paces on a Project Hydra test flight. He didn’t know that an air-to-air missile from a Soviet fighter covertly trailing him was about to start a sequence of events that would place him into a desperate fight for survival. Incarcerated in a secret facility deep within the Soviet Union, Kelly discovers the most daring and ruthless program of international espionage in the history of the Cold War. He faces torture, interrogation, and certain death—unless he can escape . . .

Falcon Down is the first in a series of four novels from author C. H. Cobb that bring the two superpowers to the precipice of war in the turbulent final decade of the Soviet Union.