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This review first appeared on TGC Reviews, a resource website of The Gospel Coalition.

The cross is drifting from the center of our churches. The sermon is increasingly subjective and focused on self-improvement. The thought that “Christ suffered as a substitute, that God would desire such a thing, or that God is wrathful at all” is under attack. This not only describe churches, pastors and scholars outside Evangelicalism, but those even within our ranks. Opposed to the historic understanding of the atonement, they will agree that the cross stunningly displays God’s love, but “it is emphatically not his active judgment of sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ”. It seems, then, there is no better reason to have a book equipping pastors to display God’s glory to the nations through expositional preaching, dealing with the subject of substitutionary atonement. If God’s wrath against our sin and Christ’s bearing that wrath for us on the cross as our substitute is “the foundation and heart of our life together as a church”, we should see this theme clearly and deeply woven throughout the narrative of the entire Bible. It Is Well reveals the thread of penal substitutionary atonement not only to be biblical truth, but also as the foundation of redemptive history.

Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and president of 9Marks, and Michael Lawrence, associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, present 14 excellent expositions on crucial biblical texts that show Jesus Christ’s substitutionary atonement for sinners as a central theme of both the Old and New Testaments. Though there are “many images that the New Testament uses to talk about what Jesus accomplished on the cross,” says Dever, all the activity of the Old Testament “is pointing ahead to Christ as the ultimate atoning sacrifice.”

It Is Well begins in the Old Testament with Exodus 12 and the Passover, including expositions on Leviticus 16: “The Day Of Atonement” and Isaiah 52:13-53:12: “Crushed For Our Iniquities”. Eleven sermons from the New Testament follow: Mark 10:45: “Ransom For Many”; Mark 15:33-34: “Forsaken”; John 3:14-18: “To Save The World”; John 11:47-52: “Better That One Man Die”; Romans 3:21-26: “Propitiation”; Romans 4:25: “Delivered Over To Death For Our Sins”; Romans 5:8-10: “Justified By His Blood”; Romans 8:1-4: “Condemned Sin”; Galatians 3:10-13: “Becoming A Curse For Us”; 1 Peter 2:21-25: “Bore Our Sins In His Body On The Tree”; and 1 Peter 3:18: “Christ Died For Sins”. Many familiar with the current atonement debate will notice that these texts are the same passages taken up by both sides of the foray. Dever and Lawrence desire their sermons on these important texts to be “a supplement, a meditation, a path through the Bible to trace one of the deepest truths in God’s Word.”

This book is packed with solid exegesis and pastorally wise questions and applications. It Is Well excellently demonstrates what the finished product of the hard work of wrestling with the text looks like. Both men manifest for the reader right handling of the word of truth. They also exhibit the characteristics of good shepherds. They know their sheep and this knowledge impacts their study of the text. This leads to expositions that are not ethereal, but earthy with substantive questions and real applications. From “What happens when you have no substitute?” and “So what does this leave us to do (in regards to salvation)?” to “How could a holy God correctly love sinful men?” and “Did Jesus die for you?”, Dever and Lawrence use the questions that arise from the text to continually point back to the person and work of Christ thousands of years ago and to show how atonement applies to our lives in our time.

A worthy addition to the 9Marks series, It Is Well provides a practical resource demonstrating the importance and necessity of the exposition of the biblical text in the church and her pulpits. Far from being a mere collection of sermons, this work helps Christians realize the offense of sin before God and the greatness of Christ Jesus as Savior in both the Old and New Testament. Do not be put off that these chapters were first sermons for they do not read like manuscripts. Christ comes alive in both Testaments and the reader will find they are worshiping while reading! Dever and Lawrence show that not only is substitutionary atonement as old as the Passover, but Jesus himself taught it when telling about his mission and how God will redeem a people for His name and glory. It Is Well is a clarion call from the pages of Scripture for the church to go back to the heart of Christ’s work on the cross.

“God is the ultimate focus of Christ’s death on the cross.  Yes, Jesus died for sins and for the unrighteous, but ultimately Jesus died for God and his glory.  For when Christ brings us to God, he brings us into a right relationship with God.  It’s as if the universe is set back where it should be – a relationship in which he is the center and we orbit around him in a safe proximity and nearness, a relationship in which his glory is the point and we find our joy and meaning in being a display of his worth rather than our own.”

~ Michael Lawrence, It Is Well, 215

When we find our joy and meaning in living as “a display of his worth rather than our own”, we do what we were created to do.  We find ultimate joy when we decrease and He increases because He is the ultimate focus of everything.  Though everything around us and everything within us tells us to put ourselves on display for all to see, Christ died so we could live for Our Father and His glory.  When He is the center, everything is as it should be… even when thinking about the ultimate purpose of the cross.

This review first appeared on TGC Reviews, a resource website of The Gospel Coalition.

Michael Lawrence. Biblical Theology In The Life Of The Church: A Guide For Ministry. Crossway Books, 2010. 240 pages.

Seeking to produce a theological vision for ministry today, Michael Lawrence addresses the need for biblical theology in the life of the church. “Our theology determines the shape and character of our ministry,” he says. Though this book is about theology, it is really about pastoral ministry. Biblical Theology In The Life Of The Church puts the essential tool of biblical theology back in the pastor’s tool belt.

Biblical Theology divides into three sections: The Tools That Are Needed; The Stories To Be Told; and Putting It Together For The Church. Section One: The Tools That Are Needed, explores the exegetical, biblical theology, and systematic theology tools that are needed to “construct a theology that tells the whole story of the Bible.” Beginning with the grammatical-historical method of exegesis, chapter one teaches you how to use this method in the different literary genres of the Bible. The heart of this section forges the tools of biblical theology to “give your whole Bible back to you” and helps pastors and theologians escape the pitfalls of moralism, legalism and hobbyhorses by staying faithful to the story of the Bible. To do this, Lawrence offers six tools of biblical theology: covenants, epochs, canon, prophecy, typology and continuity. Covenants, epochs, and canon form the details of the story, while prophecy, typology and continuity put the details together so it can be read as a single story about Christ and the gospel. Lawrence applies these tools to build a practical theology that opens the entire canon of Scriptures for preaching and daily ministry. He closes Section One by demonstrating how to move from exegesis to biblical theology to systematic theology—“the attempt to summarize in an orderly and comprehensive manner what the whole Bible has to say about any given topic.” According to Lawrence, the tools of systematic theology, namely biblical knowledge, personal knowledge and situational knowledge, allow sound application of the whole biblical story to our context. He effectively argues that the church needs both biblical and systematic theology because though biblical theology seeks to understand the whole story of the Bible, systematic theology uses that foundation to connect the biblical story with our own.

Section Two: The Stories To Be Told, applies Section One by taking five major storylines of the Bible—creation, fall, love, sacrifice and promise—to tell it’s whole story, from Genesis to Revelation, from the vantage point of that particular theme. Each chapter in this section uses the exegetical, biblical and systematic tools to show “the many ways in which our story is already incorporated into and interpreted by the biblical story” and how the Bible gives “an all-encompassing worldview that challenges the idolatrous worldviews of our age.”

In the final section, Section Three: Putting It Together For The Church, Lawrence takes Chapter eleven to focus on the main use of biblical theology in the church, namely preaching and teaching, and demonstrates how to begin with the a biblical text and do biblical theology. Through four text studies, Lawrence demonstrates how to get from a particular text to the major biblical storyline running through that text. Further he demonstrates how that specific text connects to the rest of the Bible so it can be applied soundly and faithfully to our lives. Chapter twelve skillfully agrues that biblical theology is not just useful for preaching and teaching, but for every ministry in the local church. Lawrence skillfully applies biblical theology to the four case studies of counseling, missions, caring for the poor and church/state relations.

Lawrence’s pastoral heart and wisdom fills every page. He exhibits a tremendous command of the Scriptures and a pastoral ministry characterized by the conviction that God’s Word, and not our words, actually changes and shapes people’s lives. By opening up the entire Bible to use in ministry by doing biblical theology, Lawrence helps pastors give their congregations a profoundly deep theology that impacts every aspect of their lives. Moreover, Lawrence reveals the beautiful tapestry of the Bible by teaching and imploring pastors to teach or preach on any text through the lens of “the ultimate revelation of Jesus Christ, his saving work, and his promised kingdom.”

Though “theology” may invoke thoughts of conflict or ivory towers, Lawrence proves that biblical theology is “really useful theology” and that the better theologian you are, the better pastor you will be. As a pastor, Biblical Theology In The Life Of The Church has been one of the most helpful books I have ever read. It stirred my affections for the God of the Bible and His Word and helped me better understand the whole counsel of God and how it applies to all of life and ministry. Of all the books that will vie for your attention this year, do not let this one get pushed to the periphery. Get this book, read it, and find help for teaching biblical theology to your fellow staff, elders, and other church leaders. Even if you are not a pastor or lay leader, it will help you teach, train, counsel, and exhort other Christians. Biblical Theology In The Life Of The Church truly is a God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, Word-centered guide for ministry.

God creates everything for his glory… All of life and history is about glorifying God. My very reason for drawing breath today is to glorify God.”

~ Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, 124-125

Why are you breathing today?

“All that may be known of God for our salvation, especially his wisdom, love, goodness, grace and mercy on which the life of a soul depends, are represented to us in all their splendor in and through Christ. No wonder then that Christ is glorious in the eyes of believers!”

~ John Owen, The Glory of Christ, 20

Open our eyes this Lord’s Day, O Father, to see the beauty and glory of your wisdom, love, goodness, grace and mercy revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Raise your people’s affections for your Son, Jesus, this day. Glorify yourself in your Son as you liberate captives from death, break open the prison of those bound, and pour out a gladness and joy that washes away the mourning.  Speak, O Lord, this day by your Son through the Spirit and let us see You in our Savior in new and glorious ways!

“He [Satan] would have us think that we’re better off without God, that our best interests are served by pursuing our own desires and enlarging our liberty from anything that would restrict us from fulfilling those desires.  But Satan was lying on that day when he deceived Adam and Eve, and he is still lying.  Satan intends our enslavement, not our freedom.  He doesn’t intend to enhance our lives; he intends to hasten our death… Our ears need to be saturated with the Bible and our minds shaped by the worldview the Bible creates, so that we will recognize the lie when it’s whispered softly and sweetly in our ear.”

~Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, 134

“Jesus’ body bore our sins on the tree, and it was a horrible, bloody, fatal, and physical reality.  The New Testament tells us this to underscore the extent of the servant’s service on our behalf (cf. Phil. 2:5-11).  Not only did he take the form of a man and humble himself to wear the garb of a servant, but he also became obedient.  He even became obedient unto the ghastly death of the cross for our sakes.  We see that the whole point was to emphasize how full, complete, and extensive was the servant’s obedience to the Father on our behalf.  Even when his body is marred beyond human semblance, he bows himself down and says, “For the sake of the salvation of sinners, my Father, let your will be done.”

~ Sinclair Ferguson; Christ, the Sin-Bearer, in Atonement, 113-114

“But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’”

Psalm 40:16

Seeking God is one of the main priorities of the church.  “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).  John Piper, in a sermon on Psalm 40, says, “We seek to behold his beauty, to be with him, to meditate on him. This is our central business in the church—to see the beauty of God. To get our heads into the heavens. To know him for who he is. He is the main reality—not buildings, not Christians, not missions, not heaven. God himself is what we seek.”

But this seeking isn’t complete, it seems, until we proclaim His greatness.  In verses 9-10, David tells how he did not hide or conceal what God has done for him.  He told the people about God’s faithfulness, steadfast love and salvation.  In verse 16, the seeking in the first half is concluded in the second half with proclamation, namely continually saying, “Great is the Lord!”  Piper says, “He is supreme and his supremacy is your passion.”  Part of having a passion for His supremacy is proclaiming it!

So the church’s mission to our neighbors and the nations in which we tell them who God is, what He has done and that salvation is found in Him alone through Jesus Christ flows out of the church’s pursuing God.  A passion for evangelism does not simply flow out of a burden for the lost.  It flows out of a heart that seeks God, a heart that rejoices and is glad in God (Psalm 40:16a).  When we go hard after God and pursue our joy in Christ alone, God is glorified.  When God grants joy and gladness in Him through our seeking, we find that our seeking and loving and worshiping of God is not separate from our proclamation of Him.  Piper says:

“Our passion for God is our persuasion for the nations… our joy in God is both our worship and our evangelism.”

This review first appeared on The Gospel Coalition’s excellent new book review site, Thanks to Mike Pohlman and John Starke for the great service they are doing for the church!

Sinclair Ferguson. By Grace Alone: How The Grace Of God Amazes Me. Reformation Trust, 2010. 123 pages.

As a pastor and professor of theology, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson has probably encountered hundreds of un-amazed Christians in his classes and congregations. In fact, myriads of Christian men and women do not find the grace of God amazing. Do you? Or have you become accustomed to it?

By Grace Alone is Dr. Ferguson’s account of how the grace of God amazes him. Based on seven stanzas of a remarkable African hymn, “Umbuntu Bg Imana” (“O How the Grace of God Amazes Me”), Ferguson provides not only devotional reflections on the hymn’s lyrics, but a study on the foundational biblical material of the hymn. His purpose is clear: By encountering afresh the power of God’s amazing grace, readers can refresh their joy and banish the “spiritual lethargy and indifference that take God’s goodness and love for granted.”

A few strengths deserve mention. Ferguson takes two sobering and wonderful chapters to lead readers into the depths of Jesus’ sufferings and the immense cost of God’s great grace to sinners, bringing reconciliation. He carefully and methodically presents the wonder and mystery of the cross, namely that the Innocent One was falsely abused, accused, tried and condemned to a brutal, slow death, one that He could not save Himself from if He was to save others. Ferguson does an excellent job connecting the charges brought against Jesus to those all sinners will face before the judgment seat of God, namely blasphemy and treason. Every person, beginning with Adam, is guilty of these two charges. “We are all guilty. But Jesus has come!”

Writing on the believer’s guaranteed security in Christ, Ferguson takes up the spiritual battle Christians face and delivers a helpful description of Satan: “Satan can attack but never ultimately destroy true Christian faith, because we are preserved by grace. Therefore, he seeks to destroy our enjoyment of the grace of God. In this, sadly, he frequently succeeds.” With a brilliant, pastoral exegesis of Romans 8:31-35, Ferguson unveils the four “Fiery Darts” Satan uses to destroy our enjoyment of God’s grace: 1) God is against you, 2) Satan has accusations that you are defenseless against, 3) you will be defenseless on judgment day, and 4) your track record in life shows that you cannot persevere to the end. Satan targets Christians with these well-aimed lies, but Romans 8 shows us the “wonder of the gospel”—that you can be sure “God is for us because this God, the God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up to the cross for us all.” This truth is the “wonder of the gospel” and “inexpressible love.” Our security is guaranteed because God cannot be thwarted in His goal of conforming us to the image of His Son. The cross accomplishes for us everything we need to get through the Job-like experiences of life and to be transformed from one degree of glory to another. Ferguson helps readers see that the gospel can be brought to bear on every aspect of the Christian life, especially when they are in the midst of intense spiritual battles.

Ferguson fills the pages with wisdom and his pastor’s heart shines through as you feel as if he were meeting with you, bringing the Word and gospel to bear on the corners of your life. Consider how you would answer the question, what is God really like? Ferguson says, “The question of God’s nature is foundational for the Christian life. In a sense, every failure in the Christian life can be traced back to a wrong answer to this question. How we live the Christian life is always an expression of how we think about God.” He then shows that Satan wants to distort our view of God and our understanding of His gracious character. Ferguson’s exegesis of the narratives of Adam and Eve and Job reveals that Satan wants to deceive us into believing lies about God’s love, character and purposes. Understanding the reality of this ongoing spiritual attack, he reminds readers that the answers to all the questions and tempting deceptions are “found in a single word: Jesus.” By Grace Alone wonderfully and continually points to grace, not discounting personal responsibility in sanctification but emphasizing more than anything else Jesus Christ and God’s grace to men through Him.

By Grace Alone proves a worthy companion volume to his earlier work, In Christ Alone. I heartily recommend it. Every chapter concludes with an exhortation to the reader or a probing question—better than some study guides found in other books. By Grace Alone would enhance personal devotions and prove very helpful in mentoring relationships with new and old Christians. Church staffs could benefit from reviewing this book during weekly staff meetings—remembering and rejoicing in the power of God’s amazing grace in Jesus. “Grace is not a ‘thing’”, Ferguson says. “It is not a substance that can be measured or a commodity to be distributed. It is ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor. 13:14). In essence, it is Jesus Himself.” Come read, relish and revel in the amazing grace of Jesus Christ!