Thoughts on Recent Books

This is probably the first of two or three posts on some recent reading.

Mark Dever's new and short book The Gospel and Personal Evangelism delivers on its title. This book is not a lot of things. It's not technical. It's not pragmatic. It's not exactly missional (Dever's style is a bit more traditional). But it is faithful. Faithful to the gospel (a good chapter defining the essential message). And faithful in defining personal evangelism - what it means to faithfully share the gospel with other people. Dever tackles the confusion people often have about personal evangelism and the reasons and excuses we use for not doing it. He also talks both about why we should evangelize, and how. And, thankfully, he carefully steers us away from salesmanship in evangelism.

The best book I've read this year is probably David Peterson's Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness. This was the first book in the series New Studies in Biblical Theology (edited by D. A. Carson). I've come to greatly appreciate this series and plan to read all of these books over the next few years - each one I read is excellent. This one particularly so. Peterson, an Australian scholar who teaches at Moore Theological College, develops a biblical theology of sanctification from the ground up, laying stress on what theologians have traditionally called "positional" or "definitive" sanctification.

Peterson persuasively shows that this is the dominant emphasis of Scripture when talking about sanctification - and that an ongoing life of holiness is the appropriate expression of this definitive saving act of God. This book challenges some of the exegesis often used to argue for progressive sanctification - while acknowledging that there is still a process of change underway in the lives of believers (with Scripture using language of renewal/transformation to describe this).

I liked Peterson's book a lot, but am still processing some of his arguments. For an article length peak at Peterson's basic thesis, see the entry on "Holiness" in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology.

On the (sort of) lighter side I read John Grisham's The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. I was amazed and saddened at the miscarriage of justice described in this non-fiction account of the investigation, trial, and inprisonment of a man falsely accused of murder in Ada, Oklahoma. This was a very interesting book but the fact that this was a true story made it less enjoyable. I prefer Grisham's legal suspense novels to his attempt at reporting true crime.

Christians at the Cross: Finding Hope in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus by N. T. Wright is a short series of sermons and meditations that Wright preached during Holy Week in 2007 and has now published. The best part of the book is the metaphor off which he works - of the gospel story likened to a song with four parts:

(1) the melody - the basic retelling of the gospel events of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus;

(2) bass - the grounding of the gospel story in the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly Isaiah's servant songs;

(3) tenor - the shrill and sometimes dissonant note of the world's suffering, evil, and pain, which only makes sense in light of the divine suffering of the cross; and

(4) alto - the subtle, almost unnoticed, yet necessary part we play as individuals and communities responding to the gospel.

The metaphor was worth getting the book. But frankly, beyond that, Wright's sermons and meditations were not all that riveting. He has written much better books (e.g. his excellent The Resurrection of the Son of God) and others have written more faithfully and passionately about the meaning of the cross.

For what it's worth, I generally find Wright more helpful on the resurrection (both its historical defense and theological implications) than on the cross. Though Wright affirms substitutionary atonement, I find his thinking on the doctrine of justification confusing and misleading and his New Perspective leanings unpersuasive.

Much better on the meaning of the cross is a little-known book by William Farley, a pastor from Spokane, Washington, called Outrageous Mercy: Rediscover the Radical Nature of Christianity. Farley's work is pastoral and popular, not at all technical - and while I thought he may have done a bit too much proof-texting, his overall theology is very good and his application quite helpful.

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