Benn — Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther — A Review

Wallace P. Benn. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther: Restoring the Church in the Preaching the Word Commentary Series edited by R. Kent Hughes. Wheaton: Crossway, 2021.

The Preaching the Word commentary series is an interesting and helpful set of books. At the same time, this series is not intended to be the resource for in-depth analysis of the word. Instead, this series is helpful to preachers and Bible students who want to understand a book of the Bible and get a solid feel for how to communicate important truths from those books to the people of God. This newest volume in the set covering Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther is a great example of the style and intent of this encouraging series.

As a commentary that covers three significant historical books of the Old Testament from the time after the Babylonian exile, Benn’s work is full of encouragement for believers who are living in a world that is not precisely what they would want it to be. In the preface, the author writes:

“The position canonically and historically of these books written after the exile is also of particular significance to us, as I believe the church in the West is going through a time of exile or judgment because of its manifest unfaithfulness to the gospel and the Word of God. Despite many encouragements, liberal teaching has eroded confidence in the Holy Scriptures, and we are not winning generally against the huge neo-pagan secular and materialistic tide. May God have mercy on us and restore, revive, and bless his people so that our nations may once again be shaken by the power of the gospel to change hearts and transform lives.”

As a reader, I particularly enjoyed the applicational tone of this commentary. Every chapter points to the hearts of believers. Each chapter helps us to see how New Testament Christians can apply the principles Benn brought out from the chapters of Old Testament history. In his section on Ezra, Benn even included a familiar song of worship to help believers better respond to what we have seen.

In simplest form, I believe that this commentary is helpful to believers who want a book that will familiarize them with the text of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. It is better than a study Bible or Sunday School lesson, but not quite as intellectual or scholarly as many difficult commentaries. I believe that pastors can benefit from the applicational nature of this writing. Any believer can gain from using this book as an aid to personal study or devotional reading. There are great encouragements to rest in the sovereignty of God, to trust God’s ultimate goodness, and to obey his commands even in a world that appears to oppose you on every side.

What I would offer as criticisms here primarily apply in the work’s design. If you know the Preaching the Word series, you already know what you are getting when you read one of these books. But a pastor who wants something to help him truly juggle the thorny doctrinal or interpretive issues of a text may find himself wanting more. And, when Benn looks at something in a way different than you expect, there is not enough argument in the text to be convincing. As an example, at the conclusion of Esther, Benn suggests that the text may be showing us a flaw in Esther’s character, a bloodthirstiness in the response to those who would attack the Jews. I would ask if the author of the Scripture actually intends us to agree with that mindset, or is that something brought to the text from Benn’s own sensibilities and those of some other scholars? Unfortunately, the scope of this kind of work does not allow for a convincing interaction.

All-in-all, I would recommend this commentary with the understanding that we should let it be what it is. This book is simple, straight forward, and encouraging. It is helpful and a fine addition to any study notes on these Old Testament books.

** I received a free copy of this book from the publisher as part of a book reviewer program. My review is not influenced by the publisher in any way. **

The Pastor as Counselor — A Review

David Powlison. The Pastor as Counselor: The Call for Soul Care. Wheaton: Crossway, 2021.

Every pastor should read David Powlison. I seldom say that every anything should read anyone. Powlison is special. Though this dear saint recently went home to be with his Lord, the strong yet sweet words of a gracious author, teacher, and counselor live on.

The Pastor as Counselor feels to me like a sweet farewell. Published posthumously, this brief work serves as a helpful reminder of what Powlison spent his life teaching. Pastors are called by God to minister the word to people in both public and private settings. Because we have the word of God and the Spirit of God, we have strength and power to draw upon in helping others that therapists often lack. And, because faithful pastors serve people from a place of established relationship rather than weekly appointments, we have opportunities to minister to the hearts of people in ways that others simply cannot match.

This book will not teach you biblical counseling. What it will do is give you a solid argument for why pastors should be counseling in their congregations as well as a solid explanation of the advantages of such counseling. This book from the close of Powlison’s ministry could be a sweet introduction for many to a man whose work is truly valuable to the people of God.

** I Received a free copy of this work in exchange for posting an honest review as part of a reviewers program. **

Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church — A Review

Matt Smethurst. Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church. Wheaton: Crossway, 2021. 176 pp. $14.99.

Matt Smethurst has given the church a true gift in his work on deacons in the Building Healthy Churches series from 9Marks. The books in this series tend to be short, readable, biblical, and practical. Deacons is no exception.

The role of deacons in any local church is an extremely important though often misunderstood office. God shaped his church perfectly, providing for deacons and elders to serve and shepherd the body. Yet in many cases, what deacons are to do or who deacons are to be is a mystery.

In this valuable resource, the author offers help for anyone involved in the church to aid us in thinking more clearly about God’s plan for deacons. Through these chapters, we learn of mistakes that many of us have experienced as well as the historical background to the office. The author takes his readers through the biblical qualifications for deacons and suggests multiple areas in which they may serve. In a nice closure to this work, Smethurst shows us both what benefits deacons bring to the church as well as the God-honoring beauty of their service. And, in a couple of helpful Appendices, we find a discussion of whether or not the Bible allows for women to serve in the deacon role and a helpful questionnaire that the author uses in his own church for potential deacons.

As an elder in a church with deacons who already serve well, I most certainly believe that this book will be an excellent resource. I believe that it can encourage our deacons and help us to better consider others to potentially serve. I also believe that this work can serve as a helpful source of ideas as we seek to better organize and direct our church’s ministry.

I also believe that this book can be a great tool for pastors and leaders in churches where the idea of the role of the deacon needs to be better understood and defined. Many of the chapters of this book would make excellent small group studies or could be the seed for faithful sermons that would help to teach the body about the gift of godly deacons.

Without reservation, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

—Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self — A Review

Carl R. Trueman. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Wheaton: Crossway, 2020. 432 pp. $20.99.

Some books we read are polemics. Some are mere complaints. But, every once-in-a-while, we come across a book that is genuinely enlightening. Such is Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

Carl Trueman, professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, is a Christian and historian. This work is Trueman’s analysis of the factors that have led us to our present cultural moment. As Trueman explains, his goal is to examine how our culture has come to both understand and even embrace the statement, “I am a woman in a man’s body.” This is not an analysis of basic biblical sexual ethics. Instead, this is a historical look at the forces that have come together over the past centuries to change how our society thinks so that a thought which would have been beyond comprehension to one generation is socially understood, accepted, and applauded by another.

Trueman, after looking at some ways of thinking about any cultural moment, traces the history of individualism beginning with the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He then examines the influence of poets from a few centuries ago such as Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake. We read the thoughts of important historical figures such as Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Then the author proceeds to more modern social and political influencers to explain how our culture has come to think as it does.

For the Christian thinker, this historical and philosophical timeline is a powerful tool to show us that the present moral and cultural situation is far more than sexual rebellion. Our present moment is tied to a full-fledged rejection of the biblical view of reality. In simple terms, the Bible presents to us reality as a thing external to us, a thing to which we must conform, a thing created and determined by God. But many throughout the centuries have begun to seek to declare that reality is internally formed by the individual and that communities do harm to individuals when forcing them to conform to an external standard. This sort of thinking works itself out in a belief that one’s gender is determined, not by one’s biology, but by one’s perception of oneself. That determination moves forward to expressing that a refusal to accept and applaud a person’s perceived reality will eventually be seen as a hateful attack on the person rather than a simple disagreement about the facts of a situation.

This work is incredibly helpful in explaining our present cultural moment. It is not, however, simple. Trueman is a skilled writer and thinker. He does quite well in presenting complex thoughts. But this book is not easy. Trueman must address the writings of philosophers, poets, and other influencers from the past, thoughts which are not always easy to unpack after a first or even a second reading. Thus, I would not recommend this book to a casual reader. This book would make an outstanding textbook for a college or seminary class. It is excellent for someone who enjoys philosophy. It is a true help to someone wanting to understand why there appears to be no common ground in the thinking of groups which differ on issues of our understanding of sexuality.

While I cannot call this work easy to read, I can say that this work is important. I have read nothing over the past several years that is even close to being as helpful as The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self in explaining how culture presently thinks and the roots that have born this fruit. Trueman is clear, fair, and kind. He does not take cheap shots. Nor does he gloss over important implications of what he sees. Carl Trueman does a true scholar’s work, and he should be commended.

Michael Kruger – Surviving Religion 101 — A Review

Michael J. Kruger. Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College. Wheaton: Crossway, 2021.

Keeping the faith once you leave the home is a challenge for any young person. It is harder to live in a world full of skeptics, hardships, challenges, and temptations. Students need to know that, while there may be many questions they face, all these questions have been asked before. Students need to grasp that there are thoughtful answers to their toughest questions. Michael Kruger, in Surviving Religion 101, offers students such answers.

Michael Kruger is no stranger to thoughtful argument. Having written on issues as complex as biblical canonicity, Kruger is not afraid of challenges. But unlike a seminary level treatment of complex theological or historical issues, this new work from Kruger is written for a person just headed off to college and it would certainly be accessible even to students a bit younger.

One of this books’ most excellent attributes is its sweet tone throughout. Unlike some apologetics works that aim to demolish enemy arguments, Kruger’s writing is soft and sweet. This is not because Kruger is soft on truth. Rather, Kruger has written each of the book’s chapters as a letter for his own daughter beginning her collegiate career. Kruger writes as a dad to a young lady he loves. He treats her potential questions seriously but never harshly. His arguments are thoughtful and helpful without resorting to sarcastic belittling.

A look at the table of contents will show the reader that Kruger walks through a variety of objections to the faith as well as personal struggles a Christian might face. The author understands that, as a young person walks onto the college campus, she well may be faced with difficult questions raised by people who are much smarter and much more well studied. As any faithful dad would want to do, Kruger reminds his daughter that there are answers available to her if she will take the time to think and to work a bit. He assures his daughter that she does not have to fear being around smart professors who do not believe, being faced with questions about the authenticity or reliability of Scripture, or being faced with the world’s moral objections to the morality of the faith.

As a pastor, I would strongly recommend Surviving Religion 101 to pastors, parents, student ministry leaders, and young people preparing for college. This book could be a great help to believers of any age who are facing the difficult objections that the world throws their way. I’m personally considering using the chapters of this text as a helpful outline for an adult Sunday School class in our congregation. My recommendation is that you buy this book, give it to students, and enjoy the strong argument and sweet tone as you take a stronger hold on your own faith.

*** I received a free eBook version of this book in exchange for an honest review. ***

Greg Gilbert – Assured — A Review

Greg Gilbert. Assured: Discover Grace, Let Go of Guilt, and Rest in Your Salvation. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019. 157 pp.

How do I know that I am saved? Should I question or even doubt my salvation? What do I do with my own fears about my salvation? Questions like these and others are what Greg Gilbert answers in a helpful and winsome way in his latest book, Assured.

What I enjoyed most about this work is Gilbert’s constant, clear focus on the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Unlike many authors who drive people only to check for good works to find salvation, Gilbert urges readers to focus strongly on the gospel first. The first question that a doubting person should ask is whether or not they believe the truth of the gospel. Do you believe in Christ? Do you know of your own sin? Do you believe that Jesus died to pay for your sin and rose again? Do you desire to surrender your life to Jesus in faith? Such questions are more important than other measures that often leave us doubting.

Gilbert is not at all promoting an easy believism in this work. On the contrary, he is quite clear that genuinely saved people will have lives that show that genuine faith. The point that Gilbert is strongly making, however, is that our focus should be far more on Christ than on self as we seek to be able to rest in God’s grace.

In this work, Gilbert will deal with the issue of assurance from a variety of angles. Gospel is first and foremost, but the author does not ignore the witness of the Spirit, good works, or the promises of God. He also addresses several mistakes that people often make that make assurance more difficult. Gilbert does not ignore the big problem of besetting sins but deals with the concept in a biblical and pastoral way.

I read through this book quite quickly, and I found it both helpful and enjoyable. This would be a great book to work through with a friend who is struggling with assurance, or even for you to read if you have your own doubts. It also might be a helpful tool for a short Sunday School series or home study.

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for agreeing to post an honest review.

D. A. Carson, Basics for Believers — A Review

D. A. Carson. Basics for Believers: The Core of Christian Faith and Life. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996, 2018. 157 pp.

Balance in Christian training can be tough. Some books or sermon series can take up a great deal of one’s time without imparting anything beyond the simplest of truths. Other writings can go so deep into minutia that they discourage readers and offer next-to-nothing for our daily lives. Teachers and authors who have the gift of true teaching, a gift that both shares information and promotes transformation, they are a treasure to the church.

One such teacher and treasure to the church is D. A. Carson. Carson’s book Basics for Believers is an excellent example of teaching that is both easy-to-understand and certainly not shallow. Carson has a way of writing that is clear and helpful even as he opens our eyes to important truths from the word of God.

Basics for Believers is a book that arose from a series of 4 sermons that Carson preached through the book of Philippians. Carson’s messages have been adapted to make five chapters of helpful and enjoyable reading. This book walks verse-by-verse through Philippians. Carson is not here writing a scholarly commentary. Nor is he simply summarizing the text. But, as a good preacher would try from the pulpit, Carson is working to communicate important truths to believers in ways that will encourage, convict, and change them.

I would recommend the use of this book in a couple of ways. Basics for Believers would be a fine read for any growing Christian. This work would also be a helpful resource for a Sunday School teacher or group leader wanting to walk a group through Philippians. I believe that anyone who reads this book will walk away with an appreciation for the grace of God and a challenge to live to his glory in all things.

** Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for writing an honest review.

Andy Crouch – The Tech-Wise Family — A Review

Andy Crouch. The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017. 224 pp. $11.00.

Modern families who care about their children must consider how technology impacts their lives. Andy Crouch recognizes this truth, and shares with us some strategies that he and his family have tried to implement in order to manage the challenges of 21st century living.

I read this book upon my wife’s recommendation. She had heard Any Crouch on a podcast, and she thought that his book could offer our family some well-needed guidance. We have 3 little ones in our home, all of whom love their devices. How can we help to keep our house from becoming one of those places where a family communicates more through texts than through conversation?

Crouch offers some lovely and lively looks into his family and their decision-making process regarding technology. Perhaps the greatest benefit of this book is that Crouch suggests a God-centered approach to keeping all of the parts of life in their place. It is wise for a family to determine how, when, and where they wish to use technology. Once those decisions are made, it is helpful for a family to structure their home, even in its shape, so as to make this strategy more possible to pull off.

One example is that the Crouch family has made parts of their home sort of tech-free zones. In those places, the family makes sure to have other things available to occupy minds. Musical instruments, art supplies, and books to read help make certain parts of a home places where a child may not feel the immediate pull of a device on his or her young mind.

Another beauty of this book is that it is not a couple hundred pages of horror stories. Yes, there is a chapter on the dangers of sexually explicit content on the Internet. But even that chapter does a great job of pointing out that the heart behind being careful here is a heart of godliness.

The weakness in this book is a weakness that I find almost unavoidable in such a work. Crouch, as he shares his family’s standards, can tend toward a tone of legalism. For example, the book demonstrates a Sabbatarian shape, and the rules that he promotes regarding tech and the Sabbath are surely not for everybody. At the same time, as a non-Sabbatarian, I find Crouch’s handling of that theological topic unconvincing.

Other categories of Crouch family rules could be made legalistic if readers are not discerning. The author tells us of their family standard of 1 hour per day, 1 day per week, and 1 week per year when technology is put away. This is a good practice, but readers will need to be careful not to receive it as a universal rule. Similarly, the Crouch family tries to avoid tech while in the car. Again, this is a good rule, but it may not work for every family.

If you can read this book without receiving recommendations as rules, The Tech-Wise Family will be of great help. The ideas are creative. The concept of having everything in its place is wise. And, for sure, Christian families need to do some very real thinking about how to manage their technology instead of letting their technology manage them.

Schreiner – Run to Win the Prize — A Review

Thomas R. Schreiner. Run to Win the Prize: Perseverance in the New Testament. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010. 128 pp. $10.61.

The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is an important teaching in the word of God. At the same time, this doctrine is often misunderstood or caricatured to the detriment of those who misunderstand it. Thomas Schreiner, author and seminary professor, attempts to clarify this doctrine in a simple and accessible way in Run to Win the Prize.

Run to Win the Prize is a condensed and simplified version of a larger work entitled The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance by Schreiner and Caneday. At the same time, Run to Win the Prize is an attempt by Schreiner to respond to some misconceptions about the conclusions of the larger and more exhaustive work on the topic. But readers need not fear that this shorter version is unhelpful. Schreiner uses the smaller book size to great effect as he helps readers to consider some very important perspectives on perseverance.

First, Schreiner insists that the New Testament does teach perseverance. He argues that a person genuinely saved by God will remain saved. At no point does Schreiner allow for a view that holds that we keep ourselves saved by good works—a form of legalistic works righteousness. Nor does Schreiner ever offer a view that Christians who are genuine Christians can ever end up ultimately lost.

Sometimes, when people hear a strong message of eternal security for the saved, they will respond with a twisting caricature of the doctrine. Opponents will claim that a person can pray a prayer, be saved, and then live however sinfully they want without consequence. Schreiner’s work speaks boldly against this view by arguing that the warning passages in Scripture are very real, very serious, and intended for believers.

Many Christians interpret passages such as the opening verses of Hebrews 6 as passages intended for people considering Christianity, but who are not yet converted. They, if they turn from grace, will be lost. Others suggest that the warning texts teach that someone can lose their salvation by intentionally walking away. Schreiner offers a third option.

Schreiner suggests that the warning passages are genuinely for Christians. He argues that the passages say exactly what they want to say, warning that a believer who intentionally turns from Christ and walks away will be lost. But Schreiner adds the biblical perspective that no genuine believer actually will make such a turn against the Lord. Schreiner argues that the warnings, genuine warnings, are means that the Lord uses to keep genuine believers. Like warnings on bottles of poison that declare to a person, “If you drink this you will die,” the warnings in Scripture, Schreiner argues, tell believers that if they turn from Jesus they will die. And, Schreiner argues, just as you and I would never drink the poison because of the warning, neither will genuine Christians ever turn against Christ so as to fall away eternally.

Schreiner also addresses briefly the misconception that an understanding of the doctrine of perseverance of the saints leads to a Wesleyan doctrine of perfectionism. The author is clear that he is not in any way teaching any form of sinless perfection among saints before the eschaton. Instead, he argues that believers are warned by God and kept by God. Believers will grow and be sanctified. But Believers will not be perfected until they leave this life.

I found Run to Win the Prize to be thoughtful, encouraging, and helpful. Personally, I am not certain that I agree with Dr. Schreiner regarding the audience for all of the warning passages. I believe it is possible that some of the passages are for those who have been exposed to Christianity, are considering it, are understanding its truth, but who are tempted to reject Jesus and walk to the Jewish temple religion (obviously pre AD 70). But, even if I disagree there, I must be humble enough to allow Dr. Schreiner to cause me to think my conclusions through thoroughly.

For sure, this book is a great help for believers in showing us that a true understanding of eternal security, perseverance of the saints, does not do away with our call to obedience and sanctification. Schreiner’s book sounds a clear call for all saints to recognize that God warns us sternly to remain in the faith, and God works in us, even using those warnings, to keep us in the faith.

Carson — The Farewell Discourse of Jesus — A Review

D. A. Carson. The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus: An Evangelical Exposition of John 14-17. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018. 242 pp. $13.89.

 

As a pastor, I have taught through the Gospel According to John at least twice, and of course have gone back to the text many times. Whenever I study this book, I eagerly refer back to D. A. Carson’s commentary in the Pillar set. So I am a fan. And thus I am a fan of this shorter work by Carson aimed at helping anyone in the church body to gain a greater understanding of John 14-17.

 

Carson is a brilliant writer. He can move from faithful exegesis and examination of Greek on the one hand to citing the lyrics of sweet old hymns on the next. He can go from heavy argument on more difficult verses on the one hand to talking us through what it means that Jesus calls us his friends on the next. Carson knows how to be the scholar and he knows how to right as a fellow believer with all the rest of us.

 

Carson’s work on the farewell discourse feels much like his commentaries, though the heavier lifting is not there. Unlike a scholarly commentary, when Carson runs across a debated point in the text in this work, he will not offer 4 or 5 alternative views before making his argument for his preference. Instead, he simply gives us the argument he believes is correct. This is no weakness to this book. Rather, it is a product of the purpose of the text. Carson is writing here for pastors and laypersons who want to go deeper in their study but who do not want to purchase a $50 commentary on the subject. He wants to be readable and understandable without bogging people down in minutia. And Carson, as always, does an excellent job of finding the balance between heavy scholarship and readability.

 

If you would like a solid book to help you to do an in-depth Bible study with other believers on the farewell discourse of Jesus, this would be a great tool for you. No, it is not a fluffy work. No, it does not offer you study questions and outlines for the study. This book simply takes you through the text, shows you its meaning, and draws for you helpful application. If you are interested in such things, this book is a good one.

 

** I received a free copy of this work from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.