An Excellent Resource for Studying Romans

For most people who are not scholars or serious students of the Bible, Romans is one of its most intimidating books. At least some of the reason for this is that they have heard over and over from those who do study it in depth that it is so thick with theology. This means that many average Christians do not attempt to understand Romans. This is unfortunate since Romans has been influential in the history of the church (for example, as the book which prompted Martin Luther’s theses) and so crucial to our understanding of the message of the Bible as a whole.

In his small volume Introducing Romans, Paul Jeon, prompted by a pastor’s desire to help his people understand the book, provides a very helpful outline of Romans using the name of the letter as an acronym. This six-part summary is a helpful tool for getting a grasp of Paul’s exposition of the gospel: Revelation of God’s Wrath; Only Way to Become Righteous; Made Alive in Christ; Adopted for Glory; New Lifestyle; and Salvation According to God’s Mercy. While this structure requires the “N” and “S” sections out of order relative to the text, the value of the mnemonic device makes it worth this break in the flow of the letter.

Each chapter is organized into three sections: Reflections on the Bible; Reflections on Church; and Reflections on Culture. This approach provides helpful guidance for understanding the text and applying its message to two real life arenas. Each chapter includes suggested discussion questions to facilitate the use of the book for group study. He also provides several recommended resources for taking the next step in studying Romans.

One critical note about the book is that it contains a number of typographical errors that should have been corrected by modern spelling and grammar checking software. Despite this minor problem, I highly recommend this book.

Calibrating Our View of Mission

The term “missional” has come to prominence in recent years in application to the ministry or mission of the local church especially. As is the case with any such terminology, there is a great deal of variety in how this concept is understood and applied. One of the demands this makes on us as thoughtful people is to make sure we understand what we mean by the term so that we can put it to work for us as we do ministry and execute mission. The first two books on our reading list this year help us do this by providing complementary, but different, views of the mission of the church.

In the part of the church in which I participate, the average person would likely respond to the question “What is the mission of the church?” with an answer that centered on the evangelistic task. They would say something like “getting people saved” or “bringing people into the church” or other similar language. We get a little uncomfortable with the language of social justice or care for the environment. In our “conservative” world such ideas feel a little too “liberal” for us. Are we right about that? Is our view of mission too narrow? That is what these first two books are intended to help us think through, and perhaps challenge us to think differently about.

In The Mission of God’s People, Christopher Wright is asking “‘What does the Bible as a whole in both testaments have to tell us about why the people of God exist and what it is they are supposed to be and do in the world?’ What is the mission of God’s people?” (Wright, 17) This book follows Wright’s previous volume The Mission of God, which he says argues for reading the whole Bible through the lens of God’s grand mission. (Wright, 17) Turning to how this view plays out in the lives of God’s people, Wright presents a bigger conception of mission than many of us will have considered. He provides us a helpful definition of how he defines the term “mission” as it informs his writing and practice. By mission Wright means, “all that God is doing in his great purpose for the whole of creation and all that he calls us to do in cooperation with that purpose.” (Wright, 25) With this God-sized view of mission in mind, Wright helps us see that the mission of God’s people includes the evangelistic task, but it also is connected to God’s bigger project, the redemption of all creation. This is what makes this book helpful—it stretches our view of mission.

Enter Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert and their book What is the Mission of the Church? Their book is written from a pastoral perspective, rather than Wright’s more academic approach, but fundamentally asks the same question as Wright. In their exploration of the question, DeYoung and Gilbert provide the reader with two very helpful observations. In the conversation, some might say debate, current in the church about the meaning of the term “missional,” DeYoung and Gilbert describe the two primary points of view as “zoom-lens people” and “wide-angle people.” (DeYoung and Gilbert, 93ff) In this system, they would put Wright in the wide-angle category, and thus some of their book is a critique of his. As noted above, the circles I have found myself in would fall into the zoom-lens category. DeYoung and Gilbert point the reader toward the fact that the New Testament writers use both ends of the range with equal facility; sometimes going wide, sometimes zooming in.

Toward the end of the book, DeYoung and Gilbert also make a helpful distinction between the activities of the individual Christian and the church. They note that the church has a different, narrower group of tasks and priorities focused on “proclamation, witness, and disciple making.” (DeYoung and Gilbert, 233) They argue that though there are certainly aspects of the wide-angle view that influence these tasks and priorities, the wide-angle view is more applicable to the day-to-day lives of individual believers. Their way of talking about this that the church’s focus should be on those things that more directly advance these three aspects of mission. (DeYoung and Gilbert, 235) These may or may not include activities that are in the broad categories of social justice, for which they provide a very helpful definition in chapter six, environmental care, and seeking human flourishing.

These two books, especially read together, are helpful tools for challenging our thinking about mission. For many of you, Wright will challenge you to expand your view of what mission means, showing you the view through the wide-angle lens. For others, DeYoung and Gilbert will challenge you to zoom back in to the centrality of the gospel in the mission of the church, a point on which all these authors agree. God is on a mission, as Wright notes, and we have a role in it, as DeYoung and Gilbert emphasize and is summarized in the Great Commission—making disciples.

2014 Reading List

This year’s reading list is on the related themes of calling, vocation, and work. The question of how we understand these three words and how they relate to both our individual everyday occupations and the work we do together as the church should be one we are asking. Our list for this year is assembled to help us think about these topics. As usual, there are six books to read, one every two months. The exception to this is the first pair, which I think should be read as closely together as time allows. (Also, since I am late publishing this list!)

In the early part of the period in which these books are scheduled, you will find a brief review of each one on Let My People Read. I hope this will help encourage you to look at them, and I hope your reading will lead to some discussion of them via comments on those review posts.

Here is the list and schedule:

  • Jan – April: The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission by Christopher J. H. Wright Amazon Christianbook
    What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert Amazon Christianbook
  • May – Jun: Children of the Living God by Sinclair B. Ferguson Amazon Christianbook
  • Jul – Aug: The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life by Os Guinness Amazon Christianbook
  • Sep – Oct: Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Timothy Keller Amazon Christianbook
  • Nov – Dec: Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good by Amy L. Sherman Amazon Christianbook

All these books except the Ferguson work are available as Kindle books. All except the Ferguson and Keller are available in ebook format from Christianbook. All but the Ferguson and Sherman books are available from iBooks.

A Different Approach to Reading Through the Bible

There are numerous Bible reading plans available at numerous internet sites. Most of these are organized around reading the Bible in small sections every day with the goal of reading it all in a year. Over at the Gospel Coalition blog, Peter Krol suggests a different approach, reading the Bible as quickly as possible. I can attest to the value of this approach. For most of us, the Old Testament is heavy going when we read it. My own experience with reading as Krol suggests is that reading large sections helps focus attention on the big themes in each book. As he notes, this is particularly helpful with books like Leviticus and the books of Kings and Chronicles.

Although we’ve missed the last couple of years, there will be a recommended reading list for 2014 published here soon. In addition to that list, make sure the Bible is on your list to read this year. Whether you try Krol’s approach or another plan, get started and stick to it. Happy reading in 2014!

A New Blog I’m Following

You will see that I have added a new blog to our Blogroll: Preaching Barefoot. This blog is written by my cousin Zack Eswine who pastors the Riverside Church in the St. Louis area. The title comes from his story of the first time he preached at his church, but it also is representative of his view of pastoring. His most recent book is about this, and though I have only read an excerpt here (click the Google Preview button just below the cover image), the book is ordered and I look forward to reading it before the year ends. I think you will appreciate his heart for pastoring that permeates the words he writes. Reading this blog is not so much about enjoyment as it is meditation on what Zack says, especially for those of us in pastoring roles, whether vocationally or as lay elders and leaders.

New blog added to our Blogroll

We recently have gotten to know Kyle Owenby and have added his blog to our Blogroll (see the list on the right). Kyle is a Reformation historian and instructor in history at a small college in North Georgia, and you can learn more about him on his blog site. Kyle has recently been reviewing some interesting books and has given us permission to link to them here. As we see reviews that may be of interest, we will add notices for you. Maybe we can even get Kyle to write some pieces for this site in the future. Hope you enjoy getting to know his work as much as we have.

Happy reading!

A Different Perspective

In the course on God’s World Mission I’m taking this semester we have been asked weekly to read a series of web sites to broaden our awareness of world events and thinking beyond our American Christian perspective. One of the sites is a blog authored by Vinoth Ramachandra. According to his blog site, “He serves on the Senior Leadership Team as Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), a global partnership of over 150 autonomous and indigenous university student movements. His multi-faceted role includes giving public lectures and seminars in universities, and helping Christian graduates think and respond as Christians to some of the social, cultural and political challenges they face in their national contexts throughout the world. He has also taught in several theological seminaries and conferences in other parts of the world.”

I have found his perspective on current issues very helpful as a check on my parochial American Christian mindset and in broadening my view of what it means to be a Christian in an increasingly shrinking and connected world. I encourage you to visit his blog regularly. A link to it has been added to the Blogroll list on the right side of this page.

Thinking About the Church

I started the year intending to post at least once a month in 2011. So much for that resolution! Life just happens and over-runs our intentions so often. As I take a break from work at the office on this day before Easter I am thinking about a discussion I had recently in a meeting with my fellow elders at my local church about a new focus in ministry we are preparing to announce.

One of the realizations to which we have come is that many of the issues we face and frustrations we hear about, and experience ourselves, as we serve in leadership can be summed up in a simple lack of understanding of biblical ecclesiology. Once again, God’s timing is right on target since the seminary class I am taking this semester is a systematic theology course covering Spirit, Church, and Last Things. The assigned text for the ecclesiology segment of the course is Edmund Clowney’s The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry, Mission. Having read it and in the context of our discussions at my local church, I would recommend it as a resource for assessing both your own personal understanding of what the Church is, should be doing, and how it should be and do those things. If you’re in church leadership I would say it’s a mandatory read with the goal of evaluating what, or maybe more accurately whether, you are devoting enough time to these questions in the teaching cycle of your classes and sermons.

What struck me about this book the most is the contrast between the individualism of our church membership today versus the family, community context the Bible presents as normative. Certainly there are lots of differences between our culture today and that of the first century that mean we must do specifics differently, but it’s the attitude about what the church is that needs to be thought through critically and ruthlessly in our day.

I’m reminded of a statement I made once as I was teaching on this that I think sums up what the Bible says about it. “He is more important than we. ‘We’ is more important than me.” Wonder what church would look like if we thought and acted from that attitude?

Reading Martin Luther King

Yesterday we celebrated the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Radio talk show host Dennis Prager posted the text of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” dated April 16, 1963. King had an amazing way with words, both written and spoken, and the whole text of the letter is worth reading, I was particularly struck by the prophetic nature of the excerpt below in light of the first book on our 2011 reading list.

“…In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”

This begs the question “Where are we on this?” What do you think?