Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

ApologeticsStudyBibleI finished reading trough The Apologetics Study Bible earlier this week and want to write a bit about the experience. It has been my practice for nearly four decades to read through a different translation, version or edition of the Bible every 1-3 years. I haven’t kept track, but I’m guessing I’ve done it now somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 times since college. My preference is for study Bibles because of the wealth of notes and supplemental articles provided. There is value in exposing oneself to as many translations and commentaries as possible in a lifelong, systematic way, so this approach works for me. Of course, the thrust of any trek through the Word of God is to hear from the primary Author of the original scriptures and not the notes and commentary on it by others. Still, it doesn’t hurt to hear from both!

In January 2014 I started reading through The Apologetics Study Bible both because (1) it focused on defending the Christian faith with its supplemental reading, and (2) because I had never read completely the translation it uses – the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). It took me a few weeks longer to complete it than planned, spilling over into 2015, but I won’t tell anyone if you won’t. It was definitely a worthwhile endeavor.

Like most study Bibles, there are ample footnotes on nearly every page, worthwhile introductions to the books, helpful reference materials in the back, plus those articles and short inserts scattered throughout the text that address a host of questions, issues, interpretations, and ways in which some religions try to twist the meanings of certain passages to stray from historic, biblical teaching. I found these brief “Twisted Scripture” segments to be among the most helpful features because they specify how particular groups misinterpret certain passages, and they are located right by the verses in question, easily standing out visually on the page.

While I have certainly benefited from study Bibles that are largely the effort of a single person (e.g., The MacArthur Study Bible or The Evidence Bible), I generally prefer editions that contain the thoughts and writings of many contributors as is the case with The Apologetics Study Bible with its many dozens of contributors. Of course, that method lends itself to potential inconsistency in the type and quality of notes provided. This isn’t a major concern, though, as there were only one or two books where I found the notes to be very repetitious and, frankly, frustrating to read after a few chapters.

For example, after completing the Old Testament book of Numbers, I wrote the following note in it:

“The notes in Numbers are very frustrating to read. The writer correctly rejects the idea that it is a composite of various priestly, Yahwist, and Elohist sources. However, instead of addressing that point once in the introduction or in an article about it, he constantly references it in the notes. There is no value in filling notes repeatedly with “some think such and such, but I disagree.” Tell us more about what is true about the text – not what is not true about it.”

Fortunately, such objections were limited to no more than a couple of books, so the objections shouldn’t and wouldn’t keep me from heartily recommending the edition to anyone interested.

At just over 2000 pages, it isn’t an overwhelming size compared to some other study Bibles on the market, so it tends to be a quicker read than, for example, the ESV Study Bible at more than 2,700 pages which is what I read through over 2012-2013.

With this being my first time reading the Holman Christian Standard Bible, I found it an enjoyable, readable, understandable translation that seeks to be true to the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. Like any translation, it sounds a bit odd at times when the wording is very different than what I may have grown up memorizing or hearing frequently, but that is to be expected and is not at all a fault. I consider the HCSB a worthy translation for use, although I drift more toward the English Standard Version (ESV) and New American Standard Bible (NASB) as my go-to translations.

Overall, I can heartily recommend The Apologetics Study Bible as a valuable resource for helping the reader build up a strong, rational defense for the faith. After all, that is what Christian apologetics is all about. It is well worth the time to read every word of it and to keep it handy, especially for its plentiful articles and helpful resources in addition to the biblical text. It may not be the study Bible you choose to be your primary, permanent Bible to carry to church, but it deserves a place within arm’s reach as you explore the meaning of various texts.

What’s next for me? I’ll tackle The Reformation Study Bible the remainder of this year. About a year from now, I should be sharing with you about that experience.

What about you? What version/translation/edition of the Bible are you reading now? Which have you found most helpful?

TheologyOfTheReformersOne of my goals for the year is to give myself a mini theological education by reading three books:  (1) Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Wayne Grudem, (2) Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Gregg Allison, and (3) Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George. I knocked out the shortest of the three first – Theology of the Reformers – and am now in the midst of reading Grudem’s enormous work.

Even though I have a seminary degree, my focus was not theology. That education was also over 30 years ago, so there’s no guarantee how much I retained of what little theology I did study formally that long ago. With the great respect I have for the figures of the Protestant Reformation, it seemed appropriate to devote some time just to those key people, and reading George’s text seemed a great way to do so.

I’m not on the same academic playing field of Timothy George, so I won’t pretend to even be qualified to critique his well-researched and impressively written history, but I can react to it as a layman and speak to the importance of the content in the life a 21st-century American Southern Baptist.

As the cover graphic above shows, I read the 25th anniversary edition of the book published in 2013, so it has stood the test of time. I wish I knew how many seminary students have had this text as assigned reading because it is surely written primarily for academic consumption rather than for the people in the pews. That’s both a compliment in the depth of what is written and a lament in that the average layman may quickly be put off by the foreign language in practically every other paragraph, many times without translation. So unless you happen to know Greek, Hebrew, German and perhaps a few other languages, be prepared to regularly have a dear-in-the-headlights feeling as the next unknown phrase comes your way. It won’t keep you from catching the meaning of what is said, but it can be frustrating to anyone without a strong language background. (I’ve studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew, so I muddled through.)

Language aside, though, the book has great value to any reader interested in a more complete understanding of Protestant roots and beliefs. I believe it to be the case that far too many American Christians have no real sense of Christian or church history. (Heck, many probably confuse Martin Luther with Martin Luther King, Jr.) So a serious look at Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simmons and William Tyndale along with broader discussions of the religious climate of the late middle ages and the continuing impact of reformation theology can provide an important historical anchor to one’s faith and a better understanding of how we got to be where we are in Protestant theology. For those reasons, I recommend the book to you.

If you’ve ever read books centuries old or detailed accounts of conversations and debates between figures from hundreds of years ago, then you’ve probably been amazed and amused at the frankness with which those involved would throw verbal daggers at their perceived enemies with incredible wit and effectiveness. Such accounts sprinkled throughout this book bring to life the personalities as well as the issues involved and help place the reader in the historical context. A lover of history – especially Protestant history – will be thrilled with such accounts. Having this type of detail preserved is a treasure and important. We are indebted to Dr. George for doing so.

One of the tendencies of too many contemporary Protestants is to consider themselves to be the ultimate authority in matters of truth and theology regardless of what they may say when pressed about the role of the Bible or church history in such matters. A closer look at key leaders of the Reformation may help bring a greater balance to the contemporary American Protestant understanding of their place in the history of the faith.

We are not the culmination and pinnacle of 2000 years of trying to get theology right. We are the result of various offshoots and emphases (for good or bad) that are infused with bits and pieces from centuries and millennia past. Studying the reformers can help us attain a more realistic perspective of our place in Christian history – a place that should not see ourselves as the center.

Reading Theology of the Reformers is worth your time. It may be a challenge academically at points for some – maybe frustratingly so for those who only read English. Still, any willing reader can complete the text having learned much about the reformers, the issues around which they bravely lived their lives, and the importance of that period of Christian history for the church today.

TheGospelAtWorkBefore I get to my review of this book, you need to know why the book is of interest to me and the background I bring to it…

As a junior in high school in the 1970s, I felt led to pursue an education that would lead me into full-time Christian ministry. It was during my freshman year of college at the University of Kentucky that I decided my graduate studies would be at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, so I transferred for my remaining three undergrad years to William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri – just a few miles from Midwestern.

I double majored in psychology and religion in college and then spent three years getting a Master of Religious Education degree at Midwestern Seminary. I served as an associate pastor from 1982-1985 and then decided to move to Louisville to pursue doctoral studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. By that time, I had honed in on Christian education as my focus of ministry and I still assumed I would spend my life in related church or denominational positions.

As life happened and I got involved in other pursuits while furthering my education, plans changed. I became comfortable with the notion that maybe I was suited just as well for non-ministry educational roles, relegating my Christian ministry to volunteer service through my local church. I’ve continued that path for nearly 30 years.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone who has felt “called” to ministry to take lightly a shift in those plans. While I believe God has led and blessed my family and me along the way via the route taken, there have always been – always – lingering questions about my life and ministry, such as:

  • Did I make the right decision to leave full-time ministry for secular roles?
  • Could I have done more for the kingdom of God by remaining in full-time ministry?
  • Did I take the easy, convenient way out?
  • Did I pursue what I wanted, or what God wanted, and were those the same things?

I still ponder those questions. I still wonder if I should go back to full-time ministry to close out my work life doing that which has an unquestionable eternal significance versus very temporal impact in a business setting.

So with that info as background, it was with great interest that I read the book by Traeger and Gilbert, The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs. What would this book have to say to my situation? Being very familiar with one of the authors – a pastor a few blocks away from my church in Louisville – gave me encouragement that I would find sound, biblical wisdom within its pages.

I was not disappointed.

The book does not assume that the only valid ministry is that which happens in the context of vocational Christian ministry – quite the opposite. It extols the virtue of carrying into your daily work – whatever that is – the right attitude of serving as though you are serving Christ himself. The scripture verse repeated throughout is Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not for men” (New International Version).

One chapter is devoted to answering the question “Is full-time ministry more valuable than my job?” They state in the discussion, “The value of our work isn’t finally found at all in the particular thing we do; it’s found in the fact that whatever we do, we do it for our King.” They also add the helpful reminder that “We should never assume that God’s standard of value and honor is the same as ours.” Those are soothing words to someone like me who has struggled with this question for decades. I also appreciate the chapter’s reminder to “Consider yourself privileged and blessed beyond measure even to be in his service at all. Trust him. Trust his judgment. Trust his wisdom in how he is using you. Serve him with everything you are, wherever he has placed you.”

From the early chapters of the book, the authors make very clear their warnings against both the idolatry of work and idleness in work. They remind readers of the opportunity all believers have to worship Christ daily in their jobs when they bring the right heart and attitude to their work. They identify spiritually healthy and scripturally sound motives that undergird the believer’s work regardless of its nature. They offer advice on how to choose a job by flipping the normal sequence of priorities from a concern with self first, then others and lastly God to one that first seeks to please God, then serve others and lastly satisfying oneself. They make a distinction between the must-haves in a job scenario and the nice-to-haves.

Additional chapters deal with balancing work, church and family, handling difficult bosses and coworkers, what it means to be a Christian boss, how to share the gospel at work, and defining success. In that final chapter on success, their claim is that “for a Christian…the definition of success really has little to do with…money, power, influence, change, a respectable standard of living. Instead, success is defined as faithfulness–doing whatever we do with sincerity of heart because we know the King is watching.” When reading that definition, I was reminded of a definition of success I read decades ago that has ever since been my working definition of the term. I read it in the book Success, Motivation and the Scriptures: “Success is doing what God wants you to do in the way He wants you to do it.”

I commend this short 158-page book to individuals or Christian study groups for a closer look than this brief review provides. Discussion and reflection questions at the end of each chapter lend themselves to personal or group reflection. I suspect I’ll continue to wrestle on occasion with the fact that God has equipped me for certain ministry roles that I am still not filling. I remain open to the option of changing careers once more to close out my work life in ways that devote full-time attention to the gospel. However, I am more comfortable now having read this book continuing in my current or other secular roles than before, believing that God can and will use me for His purposes wherever I am if I am serving Him and others with the right motivations and attitude.

If you occasionally wonder if or how your work and the gospel cross paths, I suggest you read The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs.

The Insanity of GodNik Ripken is not the actual name of the author of The Insanity of God. The author uses a pseudonym out of concerns for the safety of the many people he and his wife have met with through many years of Christian service and missionary activity. The book tells the remarkable story of a young Christian couple from Kentucky who follow their call to the mission field, through a number of years of hard work with few encouraging results, through a crisis of faith upon the sudden death of one of their teenage sons, and then back to a faith resurrected as Nik met with and interviewed over 700 individuals across 72 countries where Christians have been and/or are persecuted for their faith.

Through the journey, their purpose changed from going to a people group in order to spread the gospel and grow disciples to one of encountering the living Christ and learning how to follow him through the example and extraordinary stories of those who risk all every day in order to live out their faith. Reading the book is a humbling experience for those of us who sit in the comfort of a church pew whenever and wherever we want, praising God publicly without fear of more than a little inconvenience here and there.

I have long had a passion for the persecuted church. I remember as a newlywed in our first apartment in Kansas City in 1979 stuffing envelopes with portions of scripture and hand addressing them to individuals in persecuted countries. I have long been affiliated with organizations that minister to and provide Christian resources for believers in countries where they are not likely to have access or the funds to purchase Bibles or other Christian literature. It was the dream of a lifetime for me to spend some time in China in 2012 meeting with believers from several mostly rural churches, celebrating with them the distribution of Bibles and worshiping God together. It was a privilege to briefly speak at some of those services, but mostly a blessing for me to see their faith, their joy at being given a copy of the Bible in their language, and their exuberant worship of the same Lord I worship.

The Insanity of God is a very honest account by the Ripkens of the questions they faced, the lack of answers that sometimes haunted them, and the healing that has come over time following the devastating loss of their son. It is filled with account after account of miraculous ways that God is at work around the world just being God and doing what he has always done. It is a very different story than our typical western, American, Christian experience. There are stories in the book that will encourage you regarding the ability of God to accomplish his purposes in the darkest, most evil environments on earth. There are countless examples of followers who risk all because Jesus is worth it.

A number of comments jumped off the pages as challenging to me as I sit in the comfort of my home, writing this across from bookshelves filled with Bibles and Christian resources. Here are a few of them:

“Suffering is one of God’s ordained means for the growth of his church.”

Regarding American Christianity: “How in the world was it that these people managed to get so much more excited about what happened on a high school football field on Friday nights than they did about the resurrection of Jesus at church on Easter Sunday morning?”

“I saw no separation or distinction between accepting Christ and surrendering my whole life to Him to do what He wanted me to do.”

“How is it, I wondered, that so many people are willing to die for financial or humanitarian reasons while many Christian groups insist on waiting until it is safe to obey Jesus’ command to ‘Go’ into all the world?”

Regarding the paperwork and committee process they had to go through in order to be appointed as missionaries: “When they asked me the same question about when I had received my call, I looked around the meeting room and simply said, ‘I read Matthew 28.'”

“Their stories convinced me that it would never be enough to feed and shelter them. We do that much for animals.”

“The stronger the persecution, the more significant the spiritual vitality of the believers.”

From a Russian believer: “For us, persecution is like the sun coming up in the east. It happens all the time. It’s the way things are. There is nothing unusual or unexpected about it. Persecution for our faith has always been–and probably always will be–a normal part of life.”

Regarding obedience to the great commission: “You don’t have to come back. You just have to go.”

From a believer in Eastern Europe: “Don’t ever give up in freedom what we would never have given up in persecution!”

“God, evidently, was doing today everything that He had done in the Bible!”

“Believers who experienced and endured persecution found their faith strengthened, deepened, and matured. They were being changed.”

“Jesus was worth whatever his faith might cost him.”

“Rather than thinking that we are all alone and that we have to start from scratch in wolf country, a much better and more effective strategy for carrying out the great commission, especially in our world’s toughest and most discouraging places, would be to learn what God has already been doing and is doing there, join Him, and together figure out how we can build on that.”

“For decades now, many concerned western believers have sought to rescue their spiritual brothers and sisters around the world who suffer because they choose to follow Jesus. Yet our pilgrimage among house churches in persecution convinced us that God may actually want to use them to save us from the often debilitating, and sometimes spiritually fatal, effects of our watered-down, powerless western faith.”

“Ruth and I have seldom encountered a mature believer living in persecution who asked us to pray that their persecution would cease. We have never heard that request. Rather, believers in persecution ask us to pray that ‘they would be faithful and obedient through their persecution and suffering.'”

“The freedom to believe and witness has nothing to do with the government or political system… They (and you and I) are just as free to share Jesus today in Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Communist countries as you and I are in America. It isn’t a matter of political freedom. It is simply a matter of obedience.”

“If we spend our lives so afraid of suffering, so averse to sacrifice, that we avoid even the risk of persecution or crucifixion, then we might never discover the true wonder, joy and power of a resurrection faith.”

“We are often asked if we believe that persecution is coming to America. My response is often rather pointed. I say, quite sincerely, ‘Why would Satan want to wake us up when he has already shut us up?’ Why would Satan bother with us when we are already accomplishing his goal? He will likely conclude that it is better to let us sleep.”

“Perhaps the question should not be: ‘Why are others persecuted?’ Perhaps the better question is: ‘Why are we not?'”

Such statements are, indeed, challenging and they ring true to the gospel. Jesus promised his followers that they would be hated and persecuted just as he was. Those of us who claim the faith and yet fail to experience any persecution are either living in an oddity of history when for a short while in a limited geographical area Jesus’ words are not being fulfilled, or (far more likely) we simply aren’t living up to our calling in ways that bring about the persecution experienced by so many around the world for the past 2,000 years.

As I see lukewarm Christianity stagnating the lives and witness of tens of thousands of American churches, as I see pastors, leaders and church members turn aside from historical, biblical doctrine in order to be liked or non-controversial in a politically correct environment, I mourn at the loss of real, life-changing faith such accommodation brings.

I wonder about the possibility of such persecution of Christians ever becoming the norm in America. On one hand, I see the legal and cultural consequences growing for those who live and profess sound biblical faith and practice. On the other hand, though, Ripken’s comments above about us avoiding persecution because we are spiritually asleep may sadly describe our future instead.

None of us long for the physical, career, family, cultural impact of persecution in our lives. Yet it is simply true that throughout Christian history the church has thrived under persecution. The faithless get weeded out and the spiritually mature continue on as faithful, inspiring examples to others, even to death if need be. Maybe persecution would be the best thing that could happen to the church today.

As Ripken says in his concluding remarks, “I know this all sounds crazy. But I assure you that it’s not. It’s just… THE INSANITY OF GOD.”

ESV Study BibleEvery couple of years on average since I attended college in the 1970s I have read some version or edition of the Bible I have not previously read. If it’s just the straight text of some version without a lot of study notes, then more often than not I complete it in about a year. The more substantive editions, however, require more time to work through and digest. Such is the case with the ESV Study Bible I just completed after an unusually long time of about three years reading it. The 2,752 pages are an absolute wealth of information, not to mention an excellent Bible translation.

The English Standard Version (ESV) was first published in 2001 by Crossway Bibles, with the extensive Study Bible published in 2008. You can access a free online version of the ESV (not the Study Bible) at www.esvbible.org. Purchasing a hard copy of the Study Bible entitles the purchaser to have access to the full Study Bible online, along with the ability to invite up to five others to share online access.

The ESV Study Bible was the result of the combined efforts of 95 evangelical Christian scholars and teachers. As you would expect from a study Bible, additions to the biblical text itself with the relevant footnotes and cross-references include thorough introductions to each book of the Bible, numerous additional articles, maps, illustrations, charts, timelines, and a concordance. After completing the biblical text with the accompanying notes, it was a mini education in itself to read the sections related to biblical doctrine, biblical ethics, interpreting the Bible, reading the Bible, the canon of Scripture, the reliability of Bible manuscripts, archaeology and the Bible, the original languages of the Bible, the Bible in Christianity, the Bible and world religions, and the Bible and religious cults.

For those that don’t know, I graduated from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1982 and did further Doctor of Education study at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary a few years later. I have to confess that I could confidently advise young men and women today to invest themselves in a relatively small set of resources including the ESV Study Bible and several other books and they would be soundly equipped doctrinally for their ministry. Of course, there is more to ministry than knowing doctrine, so there is still much value in formal ministry education, especially for the practical side of ministry functions. For myself, though, if I got a do-over, I would trade all the theology and biblical studies courses I took for a few good study Bibles and other resources and spend the time learning their contents inside and out.

Most of us, though, don’t read the Bible because we’re in a full-time ministry vocation. If we read it (and that’s a big “if” with most Americans today), we do so as individuals committed to or seeking to know God better and to serve him more faithfully. That is why having such an excellent study Bible in hand is a great help to any Christian at any stage of spiritual maturity. The meat within its pages will satisfy the spiritually hungry who has known and served the Lord for decades as well as the new or not-yet believer who is eager to learn.

A few years ago I completed the MacArthur Study Bible by John MacArthur. It was also excellent – a treasure trove of information and insight. There is something to be said, though, for a study Bible like the ESV Study Bible being the cumulative effort of 95 scholars and teachers as opposed to one man, no matter how excellent and sound that one man may be in his doctrine, research and writing. For that reason, plus for the additional sections in the ESV Study Bible, I have to give the nod to the ESV as my preferred study Bible between the two of them, although I usually read the notes from each when preparing to teach or preach. They are complementary, not in competition with one another.

Next on the Bible reading list for me is The Apologetics Study Bible for two reasons: (1) I have not yet read through the version called the Holman Christian Standard Bible that this study Bible uses, and (2) the focus of the additional helps in this study Bible are geared toward Christian apologetics which is the practice of understanding and giving reasons for ones faith as well as responding to objections from others regarding the faith. We can always use a little improvement in that regard, so I look forward to spending now through 2014 working my way through the 2000+ pages of The Apologetics Study Bible. The few parts I’ve read to date show great promise for continuing to learn and grow in the faith.

I’ll end with a confession… You might think that someone with a seminary education and several years of ministry behind him who has read the Bible cover to cover 20+ times would have a good grasp of it all by now, but that’s the humbling thing about each effort to read another version or edition of the Bible. There are so many stories and lessons each time I read that jump out as though I’m reading them for the very first time. Maybe I’m a little dense. Maybe God uses different stories and passages to speak to us where we are at the moment, and with each reading I’m in a different place in my spiritual journey that responds to different stories and teachings.

Growing in Christian faith isn’t something anyone masters this side of heaven. There is always more to learn and far more to growing in Christlikeness than any of us have yet experienced. While God is perfectly capable of speaking to us through any good translation with or without study notes written by others, it seems reasonable to me that we use the minds God gave us and the incredible resources available to do our part in seeking to know Him and His Word more fully. Spending time – however long it takes us – to slowly study and ponder a comprehensive study Bible like the ESV Study Bible is time well spent, honoring God with our mind and seeking Him with our heart.