Doriani, Daniel M. Putting the Truth to Work: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Application. Phillipsburg, P & R Publishing, 2001.
Putting the Truth to Work is a helpful book which presents practical approaches and theoretical methods for developing faithful biblical applications in sermon preparation and delivery. The author provides an introduction to hermeneutics with an eye toward developing sermon applications. Once the groundwork has been laid, he then develops distinct plans for applying unique genres of Scripture in a Christocentric fashion.
Dr. Daniel M. Doriani was a professor of New Testament, Dean of the Faculty, and Vice President of Academics at Covenant Theological Seminary in Missouri from 1991 to 2003. He transitioned into the senior pastor role at Central Presbyterian Church (PCA), a 1700-member church in Clayton, Missouri. Last year, he returned to Covenant Theological Seminary as Vice President of Strategic Academic Projects and professor of theology. He has authored many books on a variety of subjects, including hermeneutics, homiletics, and some New Testament commentaries.
“If a teacher’s ultimate crime is to propound heresy, the penultimate crime is to make biblical truth sound boring” (121). This book is strong medicine for an epidemic of boring preaching. Putting the Truth to Work is written in two sections, divided by a brief interlude. The first section of the book focuses on the nature, sources, and methods of discerning biblical applications. The second section gives plans for applying narrative, doctrinal, and ethical texts, considers issues with applying these texts Christocentrically, and concludes with a method for selecting a sermon text.
The initial chapter dialectically considers three proposed theories for interpretation and application. The thesis is the traditional view that exegesis precedes application in a two-step process, so that application rests upon exegesis. The antithesis theory proposes to erase the distinction between meaning and application, since “Scripture itself links interpretation with relevance” (20). On this view, exegesis is inextricably linked to application, such that meaning is application. Finally, the author proposes a synthesis of these two theories as “a permeable barrier between exegesis and application” (22). This “fuzzy boundary” maintains the primacy of exegesis in the applicative task, but also acknowledges the interdependent relationship between meaning and application. The author then argues that a theory of application is both necessary and desirable, and that a consideration of the communicative context is also essential to the nature of sermon application.
The second chapter develops a God-centered theology of application, using Scripture’s own use of Scripture, particularly Jesus’ use of Scripture in the Gospels, as an exemplar. Jesus’ example gives us insight into the proper use and the misuse of the Bible in application. Christ demonstrates what Paul later asserts in 2 Tim 3:16-17, that all Scripture is profitable.
The following chapter is dedicated to a discussion of the role of the interpreter in the interpretive and applicative tasks. The author outlines a general model for application which displays the various interrelations between the text, the interpreter, and the audience. Doriani then examines the different perspectives on reading a text, the relationship between knowledge and action, and the hermeneutical spiral—all within a discussion of the courage, character, and credibility necessary to faithful biblical application. This chapter is simply brilliant.
The fourth chapter discusses the seven biblical sources of application: rules, ideals, doctrine, redemptive acts in narrative, exemplary acts in narrative, biblical images or symbols, and, finally, songs and prayers. The author highlights that this list is not co-extensive with the genres of literature found in Scripture, though there is significant overlap. A rubric is also provided for discerning twenty-eight options for the relevance of a text.
Then the next chapter gives four aspects of application for consideration. These are four categories of questions which should be highlighted for the audience in the development of applications. The preacher should consider questions about duty, character, goals, and discernment for the audience. These four categories of questions combined with the seven sources from the previous chapter form the rubric of twenty-eight relevant applications for a given text. The tendency of many evangelical preachers is to ask duty-related questions, to the detriment or disuse of character, goal, and discernment-related questions. The author suggests “going beyond law” (98) is crucial to faithful biblical application.
The final chapter of the first section further considers the use of the four categories from the preceding chapter. The author considers the misuse and the proper use of each of the categories of questions, and also provides a two-page critique of utilitarianism in preaching.
After an interlude which briefly reminds the reader about the importance of proper interpretation and understanding contexts (biblical and homiletical), the second section of the book begins with a plan for applying narrative texts. The types of narrative (drama, reports, speech stories) are surveyed and the components of dramatic analysis are rehearsed. The remainder of the chapter gives specific examples of narrative analysis from the Old Testament, the Gospels, and Acts. The following chapter gives six theses to correct certain misbegotten theories on interpreting and applying narrative texts.
Chapter nine gives a plan for the application of doctrinal passages by proposing “a check list for preachers” (225-6) and surveying several case studies in doctrinal sermon application.
The next chapter presents a plan for applying ethical texts. Biblical law can be applied identically, analogously, and typologically (241). Seven questions for “harder cases” are considered and then applied to two test cases from the Mosaic law. The subsequent chapter considers issues faced in applying ethical texts. The author suggests that the three uses of the law and the tripartite view of OT law are useful pedagogical and interpretive tools for the preacher, with some noteworthy caveats.
The twelfth chapter provides a review of the preceding chapters inasmuch as they were pertinent to a consideration of Christocentric preaching. The author presents Christocentric application as a way of bridging redemptive-historical and needs-sensitive preaching. The final chapter of the book concludes with general principles for sermon text selection.
In evaluating Putting the Truth to Work two strengths and one weakness will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some concluding remarks which discuss the usefulness of this book.
This book will provide many readers with valuable insights for developing biblically-faithful sermon applications. Two strengths of this book are: the “how-to” chapters in the book (7, 9, 10, 12) give useful questions, case studies, and action steps for improving sermon application, and the third chapter weaves together the intellect and character of the interpreter in a brilliant, biblically holistic fashion.
The “how-to” chapters in the book give useful questions, case studies, and action steps for improving sermon application. In the preface, the author highlights the “how-to” chapters as the “capstone” of the book, because they review the theoretical chapters while exemplifying how to compellingly present Christ to the audience (9). These chapters are the result of over two decades of academic ministry and nearly a decade-and-a-half of pastoral preaching ministry. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these chapters for a young, inexperienced preacher like this reviewer.
For example, Chapters Ten and Eleven function together as a strong corrective for moralistic/legalistic preaching, for merely redemptive-historical application, as well as the often oversimplified relationship between law and grace. One on side are preachers who struggle to find applications which are anything more than an injunction to “do better,” and on the other side are preachers who struggle to present applications which are anything more than an encouragement to “believe more.”
Doriani tells the former, “Not all Christians who want to obey know how to do it,” and the latter, “…however, sophisticated we are, there is a time to tell people what to do.” He continues, “If a theologian thinks people need metaphors and not mandates, he ought to get out more often” (263-4). These two chapters contain principles which can help set pastors free to preach the gospel as spiritually transformative in specific ways.
The third chapter weaves together the intellect and character of the interpreter in a brilliant, biblically holistic fashion. The third chapter of the book highlights several major theoretical issues in hermeneutics by considering the character and virtue needed to rightly resolve these issues and faithfully apply those resolutions. Many readers will find the practical chapters of the second section of the book to be worth their weight in gold; however, this theoretical chapter would be worth the price of the book, even if its cost was its weight in gold!
Theoretical texts on hermeneutics will often discuss the distinctions between a critical, dialogical, and submissive view of reading Scripture or present a particular perspective on the nature of the hermeneutical spiral. Homiletical texts will often discuss the importance of the biblical qualifications of eldership or the role of a preacher’s character in ministry. Doriani manages to weave theory and virtue together in a holistic manner that demonstrates how fluidly he is able to move between the ivory tower of academics and the concrete jungle of pastoral ministry. Readers will benefit greatly from his insights.
Despite providing a host of insights on the nature and task of biblical application, this book also had some weaknesses. One weakness in this book was the inclusion of a critical analysis of Christopher Wright’s view of biblical law.
The inclusion of a critical analysis of Christopher Wright’s view of biblical law. As the author is concluding his evaluation of the relative merits and demerits of the classical tripartite view of the OT law as moral, civil, and ceremonial, he takes an aside to briefly discuss Christopher J. H. Wright’s five-part view of the OT law (273-5).
Wright seeks to situate his taxonomy of OT law (civil, family, cultic, criminal, and charitable) within its redemptive-historical epoch (creation, fall, redemption, new creation) in order to emphasize the unity of divine revelation while putting a finer point on the distinctions between various biblical laws. While this gives an interesting scholarly brief on a way of potentially improving upon the classical tripartite division of the OT law, there is very little payoff for the reader with regard to the thesis of the book and chapter—namely, the application of ethical texts.
The point of the analysis is that “all laws retain some form of authority,” (275) but this point is almost lost in the tangential discussion of Wright’s view after the lengthy pedagogical and apologetic discussion of the tripartite view. In the opinion of this reviewer, the point could be made more clearly and directly by foregoing the analysis of Wright’s view. Admittedly, this is a relatively minor editorial criticism.
Putting the Truth to Work is a book which this reviewer will return to in the future as a resource for developing biblical applications in a variety of creative but faithful ways. This book stands as a testimony to the reality that all Scripture is profitable and applicable. It also functions as a guide for how to discern those applications in practice. Faithful application of this book will result in faithful application of Scripture, to the glory of God.
Rediscovering the Church Fathers is a convenient and accessible distillation of a selection of the important primary source documents from the first five centuries of church history. The author gives biographical sketches, theological overviews, and aids for properly interpreting and applying the writings of early Patristic writers such as Ignatius, Cyprian, Basil of Caesarea, and Ambrose.
Dr. Haykin is a noteworthy professor with decades of teaching experience and an authoritative researcher in the Patristics with a Th.D. in Church History from the University of Toronto. He has also authored or edited over twenty-five books in history and theology. Engaging with his perspective will help evangelical readers to broaden their historical and theological horizons.
Contemporary evangelicalism often acts as though it was born yesterday—although Christianity is a strongly historically-rooted religion. The literature and music of the twenty-first century North American church is rarely more than a few decades old. The life-or-death theological controversies of yesterday are ignored while ancient errors are expressed by the latest hip Christian teachers as merely a “fresh perspective” on the matter. Rediscovering the Church Fathers offers a thorough corrective to the historical myopathy of our age. As the author says, “Every age has its own distinct outlook, presuppositions that remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices which would go unnoticed otherwise.” (17)
According to the author’s assessment, “Far too many modern-day evangelicals are either ignorant of or quite uncomfortable with the church fathers.” (13) In his own words, he wrote this book to address the question, “Why should evangelical Christians engage the thought and experience of these early Christian witnesses?” (17) Haykin then provides solid reasons for studying the early church fathers, including: “to aid [the church] in her liberation from the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century; to provide a guide in her walk with Christ; to help her understand the basic witness to her faith, the New Testament; to refute bad histories of the ancient church; and to be a vehicle of spiritual nurture.” (28-29)
The author substantiates his case for studying the Patristics by providing a series of vignettes on the lives and theologies of various church fathers from the first five centuries of church history. The individuals included in this book are: Ignatius of Antioch, the author of the Letter to Diognetus, Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Basil of Caesarea, and Patrick. There is also a concluding autobiographical chapter on the author’s own lifelong journey in Patristic studies, which highlights much of the fruit of this endeavor for his spiritual vitality and perseverance in faith.
The book is a helpful and brief introduction to its subject, weighing in at a mere 176 pages of text. It serves as an excellent introductory work due to the author’s ability to weave accessible language together with elaborative content footnotes and primary source citation. Even when the author diverges from common evaluations (as with his perspective on Origen’s hermeneutics) he does so without guile and thoroughly explains his reasoning.
Although this book is primarily introductory, it does offer trenchant insights for more advanced readers of church history as well. With only six case studies presented, the author foregoes providing large portions of biographical information, giving only as much as is related to the specific chapter topic. Given his extensive study in the primary sources, he also has the ability to quote and explain them in significantly condensed detail. As mentioned above, even when defending a contemporary minority report on Origen’s hermeneutics, the strength of his position is that it is drawn from the original sources, rather than the usual oversimplified regurgitations on the harmfulness of allegorical interpretations of Scripture. The author’s incorporation of over five hundred citations into such a brief introduction is just one piece of evidence which points to the book’s excellent scholarship.
The first survey chapter discusses the thought of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius’ letters provide some of the greatest extant insights on life for Christians in the post-apostolic era—a life marked by suffering and persecution. Ignatius wrote to encourage unity despite the threats of persecution, on one hand, and the false teaching of the Docetists on the other. His letters also reveal that Ignatius believed he was called to martyrdom, and he sought aid and support in his vocation.
Ignatius’ sense of calling to martyrdom has been the source of his strongest criticisms from some scholars, though Haykin interacts sympathetically with the bishop’s letter to the Roman church. The author provides significant linguistic background regarding the development of the term “martyr,” from mere “witness” to “bearing witness to the person and work of Christ to the point of death.” (34) He also gives the general historical background regarding the persecution of the first century church under the Roman Empire and outlines the details available regarding Ignatius’ own arrest. Ignatius’ letters are thus interpreted, not as the unbalanced thoughts of a mentally ill person (as some critics have suggested), but as the intense struggles of a man faced with death or dishonor, who chose to renounce his own life in imitation of Christ.
The next chapter presents the apologetic value of the Letter to Diognetus. The anonymous author of this letter seeks to persuade a Greco-Roman pagan, Digonetus, to embrace faith in Christ. The letter serves as an example of the piety and reason found among the apostles’ successors. It begins with a prayer that God would convert Diognetus, then proceeds into a diatribe against the distinct idolatries associated with both paganism and Judaism. This section is reminiscent of 1 Cor 8 and Acts 17, where Paul argues against the polytheism of the culture.
After completing his reductio against the rival religions of the day, the author of the letter begins to extol the majesty of Christ, presenting his case for accepting Christianity and rejecting its competitors. This case is built firmly upon the revelatory nature of Christianity, with Christ himself at the center as the pinnacle of divine self-revelation. Haykin helpfully points out that the only apparent weakness in the author’s case stems from his wholesale rejection of Judaism, leaving Christianity as something of a novel revelation—rather than being rooted in the prior revelation of the Old Testament. Despite this flaw, the letter presents a strong example of worshipful apologetics, what John Frame calls “a presuppositionalism of the heart.”
The succeeding chapter gives a very interesting presentation on the exegesis of Origen. As Shawn Wilhite points out in his review, “Modern interpreters of Origen frequently dismiss his hermeneutics without analysis.” In contrast, Haykin presents a more nuanced understanding of Origen’s three levels of Scripture interpretation, a view which has exerted influence upon biblical exegesis ever since (particularly the medieval Quadriga). Origen’s hermeneutic is not as easily dispensed with as its modern caricature and his understanding of allegory was not as central to his exegesis as some have claimed. He was the pioneering Christian exegete of the Old Testament.
The subsequent chapter surveys the Eucharistic piety shared by Cyprian and Ambrose. These two Latin Fathers played key roles in the development of the church’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Interestingly, it was the drinking of communion wine which produced in Cyprian a “Eucharistic insobriety” distinct from worldly drunkenness, revealing to us the “richness of [his] experience of the Lord’s Table.” (96) This experience of the Eucharist was spiritually sobering, drawing believers’ hearts back to spiritual wisdom and away from the distractions of that age.
Ambrose of Milan was one of the key defenders of Nicene orthodoxy against Arianism. He found a Eucharistic typology in the OT accounts of Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine to Abraham. He also drew several arguments from OT miracles in favor of the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For him, the importance of union with Christ by faith was fulfilled in participation in the Lord’s Supper. He was also among the first to present an interpretation of the Song of Songs as an expression of the experience of the Eucharist.
Basil of Caesarea’s monastic reforms and influence in theological controversies are also discussed in their own chapter. He was influential in refuting Arianism and providing a defense of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit against semi-Arians and the Pneumatomachians.
The final survey chapter provides an analysis of the mission of Patrick of Ireland. Despite the collapse of the Roman Empire, the influence of Christianity on the British Isles persisted, largely due to the legacy of Patrick’s missionary efforts. In his youth he was taken to Ireland as a captive, where he met the Lord and strove for daily communion with him while tending sheep. After escaping from slavery he pursued a theological education and returned to Ireland to preach to those who had formerly enslaved him.
His missionary zeal was driven in some part by his belief that he was living in the “last days,” a commonly-held view during the fall of the Roman Empire. He also had a dream in which God strongly called him to evangelize Ireland. Patrick speaks of thousands converted under his ministry, despite strong opposition from Celtic pagans. He was taken into captivity twice more and mentions being near death a dozen times. The Celtic church inherited Patrick’s missionary spirit, spreading the gospel throughout Western Europe for centuries thereafter.
The book concludes with a motivating autobiographical picture of the author’s own engagement with the writings of the church fathers, followed by two appendices. The first appendix acts as a beginner’s guide to reading the Patristics, while the second is a critical reflection on the influential text The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) by Jaroslav Pelikan.
In evaluating Rediscovering the Church Fathers, two strengths and two weaknesses will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some brief concluding remarks on the overall value of the book.
This book provides evangelical readers with a valuable introduction to an era of church history which is often overlooked, if not altogether rejected as unhelpful. It deserves a wide reading. Two strengths of the book include: the author’s engaging writing style and the introductory chapter provides an excellent apologetic for reading early Christian authors.
Engaging writing style. The author’s writing style is engaging and personable throughout, but the introduction was particularly disarming, helpfully addressing the concerns which often preclude evangelicals from reading the church fathers. While the concluding chapter brings the book itself to an end, it also functions rather unexpectedly as yet another introduction. In this case, it introduces the reader to a lifetime of engagement in fruitful study of the church fathers. As will be discussed later, the editing of the survey chapters might have been stronger, but the introductory and concluding chapters were rhetorically brilliant, providing literary structure to a collection of otherwise seemingly unconnected chapters.
The book is structured to provide an introductory apologetic for evangelical readers to engage the church fathers, then gives a sample of the early Patristics with some aids in interpretation in order to whet the readers’ appetites, concluding with an appetizing example of a life lived enjoying the fruits of studying the early church fathers.
Excellent apologetic for reading early church history. While the primary content of this book is found in the survey chapters, the introductory and concluding chapters were worth the price of the book alone. As discussed above, in his introductory chapter the author provides a strong apologetic for studying early church history. Several of these points have already been highlighted in this paper, such as the way in which studying church history helps to illumine otherwise unrecognized presuppositions commonly held in our contemporary context.
A more potentially controversial assertion is that the writings of the Fathers will help to illuminate the intent of the NT authors. While the exegesis of the Fathers has often been disparaged, particularly in Protestant circles, it is an incontrovertible fact that the early Greek Fathers had a far better grasp of the Greek of the NT than contemporary scholarship (if only due to their historical proximity and common language). Haykin gives two brief but specific examples of ways in which the exegesis of the Fathers might act as a corrective to twenty-first century interpreters: the first regards Cyril’s understanding of 1 Cor 7:5 as a reference to liturgical, rather than individualistic, prayer; and the second draws insight from the Epistle to Diognetus for addressing the justification controversies associated with the New Perspective on Paul. (19-20)
The exegesis of the church fathers is a veritable gold mine of grammatical, syntactical, and linguistic aids for the contemporary exegete. As with mining, discovering this exegetical gold will be a process of hard work, heavy lifting, careful sifting, and thorough polishing—but well worth the efforts for the payoff of understanding the language of the NT with greater clarity and broader applicability.
Despite providing an insightful introduction and valuable survey, the book also had some drawbacks. Admittedly, these issues are comparatively minor in the context of the overall usefulness of this text. The many strengths of the book far outmatch its few weaknesses; however, two problems in this book include: discussion of certain subjects at a non-introductory level and the editorial flow of the chapters resemble six unrelated journal articles presented in succession rather than a single, continuous text on the subject.
Discussion of certain subjects at a non-introductory level. Allen Ray Mickle has argued in his book review that “the language and details offered put this book out of reach of most average Christians.” Mickle overstates his case, since the concept of the “average Christian” is fuzzy at best and what language is and is not “out of reach” for them is an even more subjective matter; however, there were still a few points in the text where more than an introductory familiarity with church history would be required in order to understand the author’s contentions.
An example of this problem occurred in the discussion of Origen’s theology, where the “uncreated/unbegotten” versus “created/begotten” debate in the Christological controversies of that time was mentioned without any explanation. (73) This is problematic, in part because the distinction is likely to be unfamiliar to most readers who are not already well-versed in the theological controversies of the early church period, but also because the term “begotten” is no longer commonplace in contemporary English discourse. The problem of discerning the definition of an unfamiliar term (such as “begotten”) is easily resolved by reference to a dictionary; however, many readers would likely be grateful for a brief content note on the nature and significance of the theological controversy mentioned.
Somewhat disjointed editorial flow. It is quite clear that the main survey chapters in this book are generally unrelated articles which have been edited together for a single volume. This was not deeply problematic for an introductory historical text such as this one, because it is based on selected writings rather than chronology or a unifying theme. The introduction and conclusion help to hold the book together and provide useful intratextual cataphoric and anaphoric references, respectively. Those chapters do provide some editorial cohesion (where there would have been little without them), but there was no engagement of the subject matter between chapters, even via footnote.
For example, the low views of Judaism found in the Epistle to Diognetus contrasts sharply with Origen’s devout exegesis of the OT, presenting an opportunity for greater critical engagement between the chapters at some level. This is a minor point of criticism in contrast with the overall usefulness of the book, and may simply be an example of certain strengths entailing certain other weaknesses.
This book was roundly successful as an engaging introduction to the Patristics. It provides vignettes which focus on some historically influential but contemporarily overlooked church fathers. More well-documented churchmen, such as Augustine and Athanasius, were omitted while the apologetic value of the Epistle to Diognetus and the hermeneutical influence of Origen was extolled.
The book fills a valuable niche in the broader category of church history, serving to “whet the appetite” for deeper reading in the Patristics. In a time when much of evangelicalism appears to have lost its historical roots, this book provides fresh discussions of some of the earliest leaders in the church, some of their theological insights, and devotional fervor drawn from their examples. May Rediscovering the Church Fathers be the gateway to many readers’ lifelong engagement with the faith of our fathers.
Frame, John. Apologetics to the Glory of God. Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1994.
Claiborne, Nathaniel. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Nate Claiborne, April 14, 2011, sec. 1. Accessed October 22, 2013. http://nathanielclaiborne.com/rediscovering-the-church-fathers/.
Mickle, Allen Ray, Jr. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Working Out Salvation with Fear and Trembling, June 8, 2011, sec. 1. Accessed October 22, 2013. http://allenmickle.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/book-review-rediscovering-the-church-fathers.
Wilhite, Shawn. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 17, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 93.
What is the gospel? Greg Gilbert provides an answer across eight brief chapters in his book entitled after that question. Writing for 9Marks Ministries, Gilbert is senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church. In this work he attempts to define the gospel as briefly, but still thoroughly, as possible.
The author begins with Scripture, foregoing a mere lexical word search on “gospel,” moving directly to the Pauline presentation of the gospel in Romans 1-4. This produces a gospel which can be reduced to (at bare minimum) four categories: God, man, Christ, response. While not all of these four categories need to be explicit in a gospel presentation (for the apostles’ teaching was never so formulaic or reductionistic), none can be completely absent either, without being less than the gospel of God.
These categories are briefly surveyed in the initial chapter then each receives further development and elaboration in its own ensuing chapter. God’s sovereign role as the righteous Creator is the fundamental building block for all of reality and for relationship to him. Man is created morally good, but rebels against God’s authority and sinfully severs the relationship between Creator and creature. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Jesus Christ the Savior is God incarnate and comes to endure penal substitutionary atonement in behalf of fallen, sinful humankind – suffering the penalty for our sin and exchanging it for the reward which his perfect obedience merited. This is grace, and humanity will respond to that grace in faith and repentance or in persistent sinful rebellion.
Three further chapters help to elaborate upon some of the implications of the gospel. Gilbert discusses the relationship between the gospel of the cross and the kingdom of Christ, showing that one’s response to the gospel is evidenced in one’s membership in the kingdom, particularly its current outpost in this world: the church. He then helpfully disambiguates several ideas which are often confused with the gospel and explains how the power of the gospel works in believers’ lives to produce obedience rather than license.
In evaluating What is the Gospel? three strengths and three weaknesses will be surveyed and discussed, as well as questions which may remain for readers upon completion of the book.
This book presents much strength and will be useful in multiple teaching and witnessing contexts. Three strengths of this book include: condensed brevity, clear and helpful illustrations, and practical usefulness.
Condensed brevity. What is the Gospel? presents a brief, book-length argument for the centrality of the cross of Christ, with its many implications, as the beating heart of the gospel. The author does not merely cite a variety of biblical texts as proof for his theological conclusions, but persuasively, penetratingly argues for the incomparability of the cross of Christ. Eventually, language simply fails to supply adequate adjectives to fully describe the importance of the cross.
The initial four chapters effectively draw the reader in to the fundamental structures of the gospel. It would be difficult to remove any one of the four planks supporting Gilbert’s gospel presentation without losing an essential piece of the biblical portrayal of God in relationship with sinful man, saving us from his own wrath, and our necessary response to this good news.
The author clearly has strengths in distilling complex truths into simple (though not simplistic) language, developing helpful literary structures, from the sentence to the discourse level. He writes winsome, thought-provoking, evocative sentences which fit well within the entire discourse. It was a pleasure to follow such a focused, consistent argument on a single, vital subject.
Clear and helpful illustrations. The author has clearly studied and thought deeply on the subject of the gospel of Christ. Quotations and illustrations throughout the book were generally illuminating and strengthened the overall logic of the author’s arguments and their rhetorical force.
The illustrations also provided the sorts of strength which good stories and analogies always give: connection to the audience, practically and experientially relating sometimes abstract ideas to concrete realities, and providing food for further thought (not to mention being fun to read). Particularly enjoyable were the illustrations that many people view God as an “unscrupulous janitor” who merely sweeps sins under the carpet (42) and the idea that most people hold that human nature is basically pure, like perfect quartz covered in mud, rather than shot through with filth (54). The story of his son jumping into his arms at the pool (72) was also an apt analogy for his points on Christian living by faith.
Practical usefulness. The book is eminently readable and does not require a strong theological background to understand the points being discussed. Any issues raised are helpfully explained before being discussed, so the book does not require one to be a scholar in order to understand it. The book may often lead readers to worship the Lord after being reminded of the importance and the greatness of the gospel in fresh and vivid ways. It will also be a valuable resource for quotation in evangelistic sermon preparation and delivery. It is a book which will be useful to new believers, new church members, as well as the unconverted (I’ve given away a copy or two to unbelieving co-workers who expressed interest).
The most helpful section of the book may have been the discussion of “confusing sin with sins” (53-54). Oftentimes this can be an obstacle to someone’s understanding of the full-orbed teaching of the gospel regarding sin. The gospel doesn’t tell us “nobody’s perfect,” meaning that we all make mistakes but God loves us anyway. The gospel says we commit sins because we are sinners all the way down to our very nature and this state and behavior deserve the wrath of God.
It is difficult to discern any truly problematic weaknesses in the actual content of this book. Gilbert’s presentation is spot-on in many ways. Given the helpfulness of its directness and overall brevity, I hesitate to critique the book simply for not including portions on certain subjects germane, though not central, to the definition of the gospel. However, I see no better alternative. Three weaknesses of this book include: very little discussion distinguishing religion from the gospel, no mention of baptism as part of human response, and very little explanation or argumentation in support of beginning at Romans 1-4 in defining the gospel. To reiterate, these are relatively minor criticisms in light of the overall helpfulness of this work.
Very little discussion distinguishing religion from the gospel. This point is understandably left at the level of implication, noting the scope of the book and publishing space limitations, etc. However, given our current context in the West it may have already become necessary to explain the difference between the gospel and religious moralism. Tim Keller has often raised this point in his teaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Too often the true gospel is mistakenly reduced to some merely religious effort at making people more moral in some way, shape or form (better parents, better students, better citizens, better sex lives, etc.). The gospel needs to be helpfully and clearly distinguished from these sorts of misrepresentations and misunderstandings. Gilbert does not explicitly do so, which may prove problematic for some readers.
No mention of baptism as part of human response. Again, this may not be a necessary point in a book which is intended to purely answer the question “what is the gospel?” However, baptism is one of the first faithfully obedient acts which a believer takes and is one of the most significant events in a gospel-believer’s life. It also deeply signifies and symbolizes the gospel as portrayed in the Scripture and as experienced by the believer. It is requisite for church membership, and one might have expected at least a sentence or two on the subject, possibly in the chapter on human response or on the kingdom of Christ.
However, given some of the on-going disagreements even among confessional Protestants regarding the subject (credobaptism vs. paedobaptism vs. Lutheran baptismal regeneration, etc.) and the historical controversies surrounding the subject (Catholic baptismal regeneration, Anabaptists, persecution of dissenters on the subject, etc.) it may have been too deep a topic to delve into without quickly getting in over one’s head (pun intended) and straying too far away from the subject under discussion, the gospel.
Very little explanation or argumentation in support of beginning at Romans 1-4 in defining the gospel. It may be easy for certain readers to understand Gilbert’s impulse to move immediately to the first section of a Pauline epistle when attempting to concisely, biblically define the gospel. However, he may be preaching to the choir with reference to such readers. There are four Gospels in the New Testament. Why not begin with one of them? The reader who might ask such a question only receives Gilbert’s provisional suggestion that the best approach to defining the gospel would be accomplished “by looking at what the earliest Christians said about Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. “ (27)
But why choose Romans 1-4 rather than James 2:14-16 or John 20:21 or a whole host of other places where the earliest Christians said things about Jesus? Clearly, Gilbert believes this passage most directly serves the purpose of defining the gospel, but there are some prior theological and methodological issues which drive him to that conclusion. Not all of those issues can be discussed, again, in such a brief volume, but it might have been helpful for some readers to understand more of Gilbert’s reasoning for beginning where he does in this regard.
After reading this book, many will be spurred on to further questions about the depth and riches of the gospel, as well as other implications surrounding the gospel and the Christian life. Particularly, readers may be left with questions about the relationship between the law of God and the gospel, which isn’t explicitly discussed. Readers will be grateful for Gilbert’s discussion of the absolute necessity of “pointing to Christ” on judgment day (82-83) as an ineluctable part of the gospel, but may be left with lingering questions about the commands of God and how to live as a Christian. Many other books have been written on those subjects and hopefully Gilbert’s book leads many readers on to pursue greater knowledge of God and His word.