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Richard D. Phillips. Jonah & Micah. P & R Publishing, 2010. 432 pages.

Faithful exposition and application of the biblical text is foundational to the health of any local church. The Reformed Expository Commentary series strives to provide pastors, church leaders and teachers with biblically faithful exposition supported by fresh application. Richard Phillips is more than qualified and gifted to produce a volume about these minor prophets that stands in the long stream of the Reformed tradition: a tradition that is biblical, doctrinal, redemptive-historical and practical.

Jonah is about the amazing grace and mercy of God. Phillips says, “The book of Jonah challenges us to consider not only what it means to believe the gospel of grace, but also what it means to live the gospel of grace” (italics original). Jonah is an ideal companion along the adventure of learning about the massive depth of God’s grace.

The book of Micah, according to Phillips, gives shape to the Church’s challenge in our time. Though Israel faced the dark dual threats of neighboring nations and divine judgment, the bright light of gospel mercy shines through the promises of God. Though His people sin, God always responds to their repentance with matchless grace. “The God Micah presents to us truly is an incomparable God: sovereign, holy, and abounding in grace.”

This volume is helpful to pastors and bible teachers on a number of levels. First, Phillips is biblical. He walks through each book passage by passage and, though this volume is not intended to be exegetical, he does give careful attention to each text. When teaching about Nineveh’s repentance in Jonah 3:5-10, Phillips gives the immediate context of repentance, moves to what biblical repentance looks like in Jonah 3, and then gives a brief overview of repentance throughout the Bible. Second, Phillips provides a fine example of redemptive-historical interpretation of the Scriptures from a covenantal perspective. He shows where the text is pointing to Christ and how the Old Testament gives us examples of living by faith. Finally, each exposition, in one way or another, brings into focus the shining light of the gospel. Phillips does this in a way that never seems forced in his exposition or over-reaching in his interpretations.

There are a few areas of which potential readers should be aware.  First, if you do not share Phillips’ covenantal presuppositions, you will not agree with all the interpretations advanced in these expositions. If you are aware of this, you will be able to read what is helpful and what does not fit within your understanding of the Bible. The series and this volume are “committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.” This volume did not give as much attention to biblical theology as deserved in some areas, but the editors and authors are up front about their doctrinal foundations and intentions.

Secondly, in his opening exposition in Jonah, Phillips says,

When most people think of Jonah, they think only of the famous fish that swallowed him. Their first question is, Did this really happen? Or, What kind of fish was it? But these questions are incidental to the book. Far more importantly, Jonah brings us face to face with such important issues such as God’s grace for the wicked, God’s sovereignty over his servants, and the intense human struggle involved with forgiveness and repentance.

Curious, I flipped to his exposition on Jonah 1:17. There he says, “It is important to defend the validity of the text. But for those who can accept that God performs miracles in our world, the more important point is the text’s meaning.” I understand what Phillips is getting at, which is to say that too many people get caught up with the great fish and wrongly focus on it rather than the God who is sovereign over it and over Jonah. What I do not fully understand is how these statements made it to print because I believe the historicity of the Bible is never “incidental”. Phillips rightly sees the danger that lurks when the focus is shifted from God, but Jonah did not believe the great fish to be incidental, nor did Jesus in Matthew 12. I commend Phillips’ attempt at trying to ward off liberal attacks on the “validity of the text” (65), but his plan of attack seems to be liberal itself and therefore falls well short. Instead of saying the reality of the fish is incidental to the message of Jonah, Phillips would have been standing firm in the stream of his own tradition if he had not gotten caught up in the reality of the fish, focusing rather on to the even more striking reality of who God is.

Finally, though this commentary is practical and has appropriate illustrations, many times that did not always mean I would be able to make the same points to my congregation or class. That does not mean I thought his points were off-base, but only that I believe the Bible is alive and active. A pastor will need to not take the easy route of using Phillips’ illustrations and applications, instead doing the hard work of wrestling with what God has to say through the books of Jonah and Micah to their local congregation.

Jonah & Micah is pastorally helpful, as it is a good example of biblical exposition and produces application points and questions that are faithful to the text. If you have a limited budget and can only afford a few resources for the books of Jonah and Micah, or you are not Reformed, you may choose to buy other more exegetical commentaries that will help you wrestle with the text for yourself and your own congregation. But if you are looking for a companion study volume that shows the massive grace and unceasing mercy of the sovereign God, Jonah & Micah would be a helpful resource on your shelf.

This review first appeared at The Gospel Coalition’s book review site, TGC Reviews.

Justin S. Holcomb and Lindsey A Holcomb, Rid Of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault (Crossway, 2011), 272 pages.

In a fallen world where unspeakable evil occurs, the church must be a place that shines the hope of the gospel into the darkness. One dark corner of our world is sexual assault. The statistics are astonishing. One in four women and one in six men have been or will be victims of sexual assault. The effects are horrific. And the world is not short of remedies: self-help, self-love, and self-heal. Unfortunately for the victims, these answers are “horrible news.”

Justin Holcomb, a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, and his wife, Lindsey Holcomb, equip the church to rise and meet the challenge of helping victims of sexual assault, not by the empty hope of self-help, but by grace, redemption, and restoration in the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let me be up front with the matter. I really liked this book. Pastors should read it, and victims of abuse will be encouraged by the authors’ honesty and care. So to briefly comment on the book’s content and its usefulness to pastors, counselors, and victims, let me give four brief reflections on its value to the local church’s ministry to the afflicted.

First, Rid Of My Disgrace deals honestly and directly with sexual assault. It presents a clear and full definition, giving victims, churches and pastors clarity on what constitutes sexual assault. They describe in vivid detail numerous effects the assault brings upon a person. Victims will feel like they are not alone, while pastors and counselors will have an invaluable resource for learning what is going on inside the victim when their own words cannot express the inner turmoil. We need an honest and direct book because “surveys and studies indicate that most people know almost nothing about the dynamics of sexual violence and have little or no experience in dealing with it.”

Second, Rid of My Disgrace displays the prevalence of sexual assault and its effect on the victims. “One in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. These statistics are probably underestimates . . .  every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted.” These numbers are overwhelmingly high, even considering the problem of under-reporting, and it knows no boundaries of “color, race, religion, nationality, lifestyle, sexual preference, education, class, occupation, ability, or disability.” No matter where we live or minister, there are hurting people all around us, even on Sunday mornings.

The only thing more sobering than the numbers is its effect. Sexual assault can affect every aspect of your life: “your faith, your daily attitudes and emotions, your-self image, your relationships, and your sexuality.” Our churches, along with their pastors, ministers, staffs, and volunteers, can discover new avenues for gospel proclamation and transformation if we can begin to grasp the prevalence of sexual assault and its devastating effects.

Third, Rid Of My Disgrace is gospel-centered and immensely practical. The foundation for healing from the first pages is the gospel. The Holcombs never stop returning to it, continually pointing people to the grace found in Christ alone. God’s way of redeeming his people was through Christ’s suffering on the cross, but the cross is also where our disgrace is transformed. This a practical theology of grace applied to the disgraceful experiences and effects of sexual assault. Our counseling ministry will have this book on hand and will be used in our training seminars classes.

Fourth, God is glorified in every chapter. One of the phrases you hear at Mars Hill Church is “It’s all about Jesus,” and this book is no exception, as Jesus is exalted on every page. God’s grace, his “one-way, unconditional love expressed through, and founded on, the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ” is marveled at from cover to cover. Even if you have never been sexually assaulted or have never ministered to someone who has, this book will cause you to contemplate the depths of the riches of the grace of God in the person and work of Jesus.

Sin is devastating. Maybe more than we realize most days. But the wretched nature of sexual assault gives us a glimpse of sin’s deep darkness. However, the Holcombs show that even if sin goes deeper than you could ever imagine, God’s grace goes deeper still.

Darrin Patrick. Church Planter: The Man, The Message, The Mission. Crossway Books, 2010. 240 pages.

Church planting is a growing movement in the evangelical world. There are a number of books, articles, conferences, boot camps and networks devoted to planting churches. Even The Gospel Coalition is supporting this trend with an event tied to their national conference next April. Enter Church Planter written by Darrin Patrick. Patrick is the vice president of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network and the founding pastor of the Journey Church in St. Louis, MO.  Serving in ministry for over twenty years as a pastor and planter, Patrick has helped Acts 29 plant more than 300 churches and is more than qualified to write on this subject.

The book is divided into three sections: The Man, The Message, and The Mission. The first section, The Man, takes a look at the type of man God uses as a pastor/church planter to “carry the message of Jesus into the world.” He is a rescued man, a called man, a qualified man , a dependent man , a skilled man , a shepherding man , and a determined man .  Patrick ends each chapter with stimulating questions or thoughts on how to improve in each of these areas, emphasizing what God has done for the man in Christ, how He gifts the man to “honor God with a life devoted to his kingdom and his people.”

The second section focuses on the message the man carries into the world. First, the gospel is a historical message, centered on the Person and work of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, which calls for faith and repentance, and exposes and shatters the idols of the heart.

The final section deals with the man’s mission. For Patrick, the heart of mission is compassion and is carried through the local church. This mission is to be characterized by “care” and aim for transformation, endearing people to the gospel.

A few strengths deserve mention. Every chapter begins with a page of excellent quotes dealing with the chapter’s topic. John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Richard Baxter, and many more set the tone for each chapter. Also, the book focuses on the character and work of the pastor/planter and the message he proclaims. This is not a how-to manual and that might be its greatest strength. Church Planter is packed with exegetical, theological and pastoral insight that will be more helpful to any planter than a mere how-to manual filled with strategies and principles.

I have a few concerns with Church Planter. First, the writing style of the book represents a trade-off, which will attract some and repel others. There are phrases, sentences, and illustrations throughout the book that will come across to some readers as edgy and shocking for the sake of being edgy and shocking. For instance, dealing with qualification of “one-woman-man,” he writes, this qualification suggests “an unspectacular sex life would keep a man from being a qualified pastor.” This overstates the main point of the qualification because the Bible certainly does not teach that having an average sex life will disqualify a man from ministry. Unfortunately, Patrick’s edgy style and use of overstatement throughout Church Planter will cause of large percentage of his potential audience to be thoroughly put off and not hear his important message. There are I know men who would benefit from reading this book, but I cannot give it to them, much less recommend it without some qualifications.

Secondly, Patrick writes in the preface about working with other churches, denominations and networks to plant gospel-centered churches in spite of theological disagreements on the issue of gender roles in the church. He writes, “We must learn to disagree well. Why? Because the gospel must go forward. And the gospel will not likely prevail in a given city with only Reformed, male-led churches.” This sentence is out of step with the rest of the book and Acts 29. Two of the three convictions of Acts 29 are that they are Reformed and male-led. Patrick himself is Reformed and complementarian. I am convinced the gospel championed in this book will prevail in any given city because the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), even if the only church in the city proclaiming it is Reformed and male-led. Patrick’s argument that we must cooperate with theologically differing churches in order for the gospel to “go forward” and “prevail” is unpersuasive and paradoxical.

Finally, I was not convinced that the “heart of mission” is compassion.  Quoting a number of passages in Matthew and Mark, Patrick says, “It is clear that compassion motivated Jesus’ ministry.”  Further, “The motive for mission is compassion… We go on the mission of the Savior because we share the compassionate heart of the one who sees people as sheep without a shepherd.” Nothing Patrick writes in this chapter is false, it seems this is just not all that could be said about the heart of the pastor’s mission.  There is nothing on how compassion partners with truth, God’s glory, or the passages in the New Testament where Jesus, as in John 4:34, says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” It seems that compassion flows from the heart of the ministry, rather than being the heart itself. Reformed pastors and church planters will do well to hear Patrick’s call to have a heart that imitates the compassion of the Savior, but the message of the gospel can be easily lost in the fog of compassion.

Church Planter will greatly serve the church and the planters they raise up because it focuses so much attention on Christ, the gospel and the calling and qualifications of the pastor/planter, and less on methodology and planting strategies. Patrick’s experience and insight fill every page. He casts a much needed vision that incorporates every important aspect of church planting and gives churches, networks, and planters a solid foundation. My concerns aside, Church Planter will be foundational for church planting networks, denominations and churches, seeking to plant gospel-centered, Christ-exalting churches in areas needing a witness to the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

I’ve reviewed Transformational Church: Creating A New Scorecard For Congregations by Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer for The Gospel Coalition’s book review site, TGCReviews. Here is my final paragraph:

“Transformational Church does not set out to provide careful exegetical work or a biblical theology of the church. This is a book that publishes the results of analyzed data from a large church survey. Though Stetzer and Rainer’s intention is not to offer another methodology, it seems this book has more potential to become another new model of doing church, rather than defining what the Church actually is biblically and theologically. It seems to me that if Transformational Church turned our attention to the Bible first and let the data come alongside and show real world proof, the authors would have published a resource that would better accomplish their vision of helping churches and church leaders be transformational rather than seek to do transformational ministry.”

At the bottom of the page, Ed graciously commented on the review and lovingly spoke to the book’s approach and goal. I have responded and hope that the interaction glorifies God, builds up the Church and furthers the discussion about how the Church can better accomplish her mission in the world.

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.

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!

My review of John Piper’s A Sweet & Bitter Providence can be found on TGC Reviews.

Concluding remarks:

“This book will be a tremendous resource for the church, especially in a small group setting. I agree with the publisher’s call to “Read the book of Ruth in a new way and be inspired to take great risks for a great and sovereign God.” In reading A Sweet & Bitter Providence, the Holy Spirit not only strengthened my faith, convicted me of sin and taught me more about God’s character, it also challenged me to be a more godly father to the two precious daughters God has given me. I pray that God would enable my wife and I to raise them to be bold women like Ruth… God-trusting, strategic-planning, risk-taking, purity-pursuing, Christ-exalting women who love the sovereignty of God over all things.”

I have begun reviewing books for The Gospel Coalition and their new online publication of helpful appraisals for books and other resources, TGC Reviews.  The site launched yesterday evening with a number of book reviews, excerpts, interviews, and recommendations.  My review of Josh HarrisDug Down Deep can be found here.