Book Review – “Practicing the Power” by Sam Storms

practicing power

My background is interesting.  I was raised Southern Baptist (and cessationist), became a Christian at a Pentecostal revival, began attending an Assembly of God church (and became a continuationist), and now am back in a Southern Baptist church, though not back in my cessationist roots.  Needless to say, I don’t feel I fully fit in with either group.  I believe that the gifts of the Spirit are for today, but I also feel there are many excesses and abuses that occur in many churches that practice them.  I cannot agree biblically with cessationism in total, but I cannot merely accept everything that passes itself off as being Spirit-led today, either.  Trying to find material that bridges that gap is very difficult.  Now, however, I have one book I can certainly point to as a starting point for those interested.

Practicing the Power by Sam Storms is, in my opinion, a wonderful book that is a great balance between theology and Scriptural exegesis with an emphasis on embracing God’s ongoing movement through the gifts of the Spirit.  I am very glad I was able to read and review this book published by Zondervan.

Let me preface by saying that the book is, in some ways, surface level.  But I believe that was the book’s intention.  There are other books out there that go deeper, and Storms points out several throughout this book.  But as an introduction to the issues, this book excels.

For those concerned that this book may be too excessive and perhaps not biblical, let me assure you that Storms is Reformed and the foreword is written by Matt Chandler.  While I may be wrong, I don’t think Chandler would have written the foreword for something that he felt was unbiblical.

Throughout the book, Storms tackles issues like prayer and fasting, deliverance, and especially the prophetic, which is where he spends quite a bit of time, as there are many issues surrounding that gift.  I think Storms does a great job throughout at tackling objections and concerns with continuationism, and I believe he does an outstanding job of bringing Scripture to bear on the issues.

For example, when talking about healing, Storms does not shy away from the fact that not everyone we pray for is healed.  But it doesn’t prevent him from pointing to the Scripture verses that say we should be praying for healing anyway.  He does not move so far to the God’s sovereignty side that he is hesitant to pray for healing, but he also does not move so far to the healing side that one feels healing must come no matter what.  I like Storms’ balance.

I think that Appendix 2 was probably one of the most helpful parts of the book.  In that appendix, Storms lays out 12 bad reasons for being a cessationist and 12 good reasons for being a continuationist.  Since it is an appendix, the reasons given must necessarily be brief, but I liked his overview.

I have often lamented that most doctrinal/theological churches tend to neglect (intentionally or otherwise) the reality of the Spirit in our lives, while most churches that are more open to the Spirit tend to neglect deep doctrinal/theological study and thinking.  Storms has done a wonderful job of bringing the two together in this book, and I hope it is the beginning of a merging that will be very powerful in the Church as a whole.

If you are interesting in understanding why some are convinced the Spirit still operates with the gifts mentioned in the Bible today, and you want to do so from a balanced, biblical, and well-thought-out perspective, Practicing the Power is a good place to start.

*Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers program in exchange for my honest review.

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Book Review – “God at War” by Gregory A. Boyd

god at war

I want to begin by saying that I don’t think any review I could write would do this book justice.  I will inevitably either give too little or too much information, and I run the risk of misrepresenting what the author is arguing.  But I will do my best to give my thoughts clearly and fairly.

For years, I have been wanting to read God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict by Gregory A. Boyd.  InterVarsity Press agreed to send me a copy.  I am thankful they did, and they have been very patient with me, as this book has taken me quite a while to read, and I still have the companion book to work through.

God at War is no easy or light read.  The book is 414 pages long, including the text, notes, a selected bibliography, and author/subject index, and a Scripture index.  I read through all of the text (293 pages) and notes (101 pages!), and flipping back and forth took me a while.

Boyd’s book is a good and challenging read.  In the book, Boyd is attempting to offer an explanation of theodicy that he feels does a better job of explaining the problem of evil than the traditional (Augustinian) view of theodicy.  To do so, Boyd argues that the Bible contains a warfare view of creation.  That is, there is a war raging between God and Satan (and his forces of evil), and this warfare is the overarching worldview through which we should think.  As a result, we should not be surprised that bad things happen to good people; rather, we should expect them, as we would expect bad things to happen during a physical war.

This requires us to rethink traditional explanations of how God and evil can coexist.  The traditional view sees God as being in sovereign control of everything that occurs, even the evil things that Satan and people may do.  A philosophical result of this view, according to Boyd, is that we must ultimately claim that everything that happens is, in some sense, according to God’s will and part of His good plan, even evil things.  To Boyd, this ultimately makes God responsible for both good and evil.

According to the warfare view that Boyd espouses in the book, bad things happen not as part of God’s overall will, but against God’s will as a result of free creatures (both demonic and human) choosing to do evil.  As such, there are truly things happening that are pointless.  Still, God is so good that He will ultimately bring good out of these things, though Boyd is clear that those things didn’t happen in order to bring about that good; rather, God causes good from inherently evil things that happen.

These claims are very different from what many are used to hearing, and they require a lot of explanation to back them up.  That is the focus of this book.

In God at War, Boyd focuses on understanding evil and how it works with God only as a supplement to arguing for his warfare understanding of the Bible.  He holds off on the explanations of how evil exists in a universe created by a good God for his follow-up book, Satan and the Problem of Evil.

The first part of this book focuses on the warfare view of the Old Testament, while the second part focuses on the warfare view of the New Testament.  I cannot possibly go over everything Boyd discusses in these parts, but I will offer a brief overview.

In the first part, Boyd works through the Old Testament, showing that from the beginning of Creation, there is an idea of warfare as God establishes order from chaos.  He moves on to show how this warfare view works its way out throughout the entire Old Testament, culminating in an understanding of Satan.

In the second part, Boyd turns his attention to the New Testament, arguing that Jesus’ coming on the scene is the beginning of an invasion, for lack of a better word, of enemy territory.  He walks readers through seeing Jesus’ mission being one of overpowering the enemy and taking back the world he has stolen, and Jesus demonstrates this through exorcisms and healings, both of which are direct confrontations with Satan’s minions and activities.  From there, Boyd focuses on the cross and resurrection as being in line most strongly with the Christus Victor view, over and above the penal substitutionary atonement view.  What I like is that Boyd does not set these views against one another, but orders them so that God’s redeeming people is a subset of His restoring creation by giving it back to Jesus as king rather than having forgiveness of sins being the main focus.  He ends by showing how the idea that we are at war (in the already/not yet state of affairs where Satan has been shown to be defeated, though not ultimately defeated yet) continues through the epistles and Revelation.  We see this in the fact that we are called soldiers who need to fight the good fight and put on the full armor of God while being aware of the devil’s schemes since he prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour, whom we need to resist as we stand fast, among other statements.  (I think I fit enough Biblical references in that abnormally long sentence.)

I will say that after reading the book, I can clearly see a clear warfare view in the entire Bible.  Whether that is because I have just finished the book, so it is in the forefront of my thoughts or because it is that clearly present has yet to be determined.  Boyd, however, certainly accomplishes what he set out to do: Show that the idea of warfare runs throughout the entire Bible as the theme that ties it all together.

I am certainly anxious to read his follow-up book now to see how this all works out in theory and practice.

The largest concern I have is with Boyd’s Open Theistic view.  It is clear that Boyd rests his arguments in this understanding of God’s sovereignty and knowledge, though I believe he made a statement that one could see a warfare view in Scripture without holding to Open Theism specifically.  I am still reading for and against Open Theism as contrasted with more traditional views of God’s knowledge and sovereignty, and I am not convinced that Open Theism is the best view.  Readers will want to be aware that Boyd is working out of that Scriptural understanding as they read through this book.

All in all, this is definitely a book I would recommend to those who are interested in spiritual warfare, a warfare view of Scripture, or in understanding theodicy in a deeper way.  Whether you walk away from the book convinced or not, I don’t think you will find a better explanation of a warfare view of Scripture than Boyd presents; at least, I cannot picture how there could be a more thorough one.  (Chapter 1 alone has 88 endnotes!)  You will not regret reading this book.

*Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review – “Justification” by N. T. Wright

justification

I want to preface this review by saying that N. T. Wright’s work is very dense (in a good way).  I have only read the book one time, and I feel I would need to read through it a second time, at least, to really grasp everything he is saying, as his explanation of justification seems to be a major overhaul of what  we normally think when we hear that word.  While I will do my best to provide my thoughts, I know it will fall way short.

Having been raised in traditional evangelical churches that held to a “Reformation” view of justification, I wanted to try to understand Wright’s views, as he is often linked to the “New Perspective on Paul.”  I put the word Reformation in quotes because, as Wright argues, those who hold to the traditional perspective on Paul are, in his view, actually not holding up to the ideas of the Reformation; namely that we will constantly reevaluate our ideas and views in light of what Scripture actually says.

While N. T. Wright has bits and pieces of his view throughout essays, articles, and other books, his book Justification is his attempt to explain his views on this issue in one place.  It was primarily written as a response to John Piper’s critique of his stance, and it works to lay out all of the historical and primarily exegetical reasons that he holds to the views he does.  Since it is a response to Piper, Wright holds little back as he points out the weaknesses in Piper’s critique, as he sees them.  Yet he does so out of a concern that everyone interpret Scripture rightly.  For Wright, this means trying to do more than just read the words of Scripture; it also means we must understand the context from which Paul was writing those words.

The book is laid out in two parts.  In the first part, Wright explains why the discussion matters, how to approach the discussion, explains some background on first century Judaism, and then gives some helpful explanations regarding the term “justification.”  The second part applies what he has laid out in the first, as it works on exegesis with central parts of the New Testament dealing with justification: Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Romans.  In addition, the book includes a section with notes, a bibliography section for those who want to dig deeper, a name index, a subject index, and a Scripture index.  All told, the book comes in at 279 pages, but it is far from a quick read.

Wright sums up God’s purposes in justification as being God’s “single-purpose-through-Israel-for-the-world” (p. 243).  In other words, to really understand justification, we have to step back and follow the flow of the entire Scriptural narrative, understanding that Israel is the primary focus, rather than creating a division between Israel and the rest of the world.  This flows along with what I have been reading lately regarding our need to read Scripture with a large picture view as opposed to taking it apart at the expense of the whole.  Why did Jesus come?  Because Israel, being weakened by the flesh as all humanity is, failed to bring God’s restoring work to the entire world, as they were supposed to do.  Jesus, then, came as the Messiah, God incarnate, to do what Israel failed to do.  By dying on the cross forgiveness could be offered, by rising from the dead the resurrection was inaugurated, and by going back to be with God, the Spirit could come.  Together this allows us, through faith, to be forgiven, to begin the process of being made new, and to be enabled to live the way we should, something the Torah could never accomplish.

As Wright argues, a large part of Paul’s explanation of the “mystery” of God was that both Gentiles and Israel were brought back to God, together, in the same way, through faith in the Messiah.  Both Israel and the Gentiles had failed, and both needed to be restored to God.  Israel mistakenly thought this was accomplished through Gentiles being made to follow the Torah and the ways of Israel.  Paul points out that both Jews and Gentiles need to follow the ways of the Messiah and be restored through faith in Him, as the one who brought the promises to Abraham, that he would be the father of many nations, to fruition.

Wright points out that the focus on justification as the aspect of receiving forgiveness of sins, while important, is not the whole point of what God is doing.  He likens it to taking the steering wheel of a car (which is vitally important) and mistaking it for the car itself.  I found this refreshing and eye opening.

This, of course, can have major implications for how we read certain passages.  For example, I found that reading Romans with this in mind made it seem quite different from the way I had read it with my prior understanding.  Romans 7, for example, seems very different when understood from Wright’s perspective.  The traditional argument over whether was talking pre-conversion or post-conversion disappears.  In reality, he is merely explaining his discovery that the Torah, which he had tried to follow as a faithful Jew, could not deal with his broken/fallen self.  All it could do was show him his weaknesses.  This, then, leads the way to understanding how life in the Messiah is the answer to this dilemma.  Read this way, Romans 7 has nothing to do with whether or not Christians still struggle with temptation to sin and whether or not they fall a lot.  While that may be an important discussion, Wright’s perspective would mean that Romans 7 is not relevant to that issue, as I understand it.

While there are some great insights through Wright’s book, interestingly, however, I seem to sense a lot of the same emphasis even coming from Piper and others.  I have seen a huge push for understanding the entire story of redemption (creation, fall, redemption, and restoration) in many traditional works of evangelical scholars.  In other words, I wonder how much Piper (and other traditional Pauline scholars) and Wright (and others who focus on the New Perspective) are really saying the same thing in slightly different ways or with slightly different emphases?

Overall, I found Wright’s book refreshing and challenging.  I do want to read it again, as well as reading more works by Wright.  I also want to read Piper’s book that Wright is responding to, although I probably should have read it first, to see what the primary issue seems to be in Piper’s perspective.

I would highly recommend Wright’s book to anyone wanting to understand his perspective on justification as it is presented in Paul’s writings.

*Note: I was provided a complimentary copy of the book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review – “A Peculiar Glory” by John Piper

peculiar

After reading several books by John Piper (as well as reading articles by him and hearing him talk about a few things), I have discovered that Piper seems to be hit or miss.  Some of his books I really love, while others I truly find myself struggling through.  A Peculiar Glory falls into the latter category, and it is primarily the writing style that got me this time.

This book is Piper’s defense and explanation of the way we know the Bible is the word of God.  It takes a very Reformed stance, arguing primarily from an internal witness perspective rather than from an evidential perspective.  For some this is a great thing, and I definitely think that the Spirit must help us believe, as do most evidentialists.  I cannot put my finger on it, but I just felt something was missing in Piper’s working it out.

Piper starts by explaining how he feels the Bible held on to him, rather than the other way around.  I love reading biographical information about people, so this was a great part. He then moves on in Part 2 to explaining how we know what books and words make up the Bible.  This was a pretty common explanation.  Part 3 examines what the Bible claims about itself.  To some, this will seem circular; but I think we have to take into account what a book says about itself.  This may not be the only thing we rely on, but it must be considered.

Parts 4 and 5 are where the book takes a turn, in my opinion.  These parts deal with how we can know the Bible is true and how they are confirmed to be true.  The basic argument, as I understand it, is that we primarily know the Bible is true by the confirmation of the glory of the gospel of Christ throughout the text and as it comes alive in our lives.  That is, we mainly know that it is true by the revelation of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we read and are transformed by the word.  Ultimately, then, it is not about the proofs (although they may come, and Piper does not totally discount evidentialist proofs), but it is about the Spirit of God causing people dead in sin to come alive to the truth of the gospel in the word.  If anyone is convinced of the veracity of the Scriptures, it is because God caused them to believe it through exposure to it.

While I believe there is some truth here, it seems to me that it doesn’t put enough weight on evidence.  True, we don’t want to elevate evidence above the Scriptures themselves, but neither do we want to border on ignoring it.  Again, Piper does not argue for ignoring evidence; throughout he talks about using it.  It’s just that external evidences (history, archaeology, etc.) seem very minimally considered.

Piper’s goal is noble.  He wants to know how someone in a culture very distanced from all the information we have access to could come to know the Scriptures are God’s revelation.  If they don’t know about the textual evidences in manuscripts, the historical reliability of the text, etc., how could those people know that the Bible is God’s word?  Piper writes:

“What turned my focus (not my approval or my interest) away from historical reasoning as a support for faith was the realization that most people in the world–especially in the less-educated, developing world–have neither the training nor the time to pursue such detailed arguments in support of their faith. And yet the Bible assumes that those who hear the gospel may know the truth of it and may stake their lives on it–indeed must stake their lives on it.” (Kindle location 2196)

Piper’s answer certainly alleviates that problem.  I credit him greatly for showing us that we do not have to have knowledge of those other areas to know the Bible is God’s word.  But as a lay apologist, I struggle with minimizing so much great knowledge that we have.

Let me state clearly that I read this book a little along, as the style just seemed harder for me to get into this time, and I struggled reading it for long stretches at once.  So I may have spaced it out too far and missed something that would make it all click better.  I may have to read it again sometime and see if it flows better the second time around.  So if I have misrepresented Piper above, it is unintentional.

It is a good book, and I would recommend it to others, with the head’s up that if they are not Reformed/Calvinist, there may be things here they disagree with.  If you are an apologist looking for detailed arguments in favor of the word of God along the lines of McDowell, Craig, Koukl, or others, this book is not that kind of apologetic.  If you are looking for a way to see how to defend the word of God using the Scripture itself, I think you will find this a valuable book.

*I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book from Crossway in exchange for my honest review.  

Book Review – “Four Views on Hell”

Hell

Zondervan’s “Counterpoints” series is a great series.  It allows readers to learn about multiple views on an issue with each presented by a proponent of that view followed by responses from the other authors in the book who hold to different views on the same topic.  This give and take allows strong representatives of the various views to have a small discussion for us to read and consider.  Recently, Zondervan released an updated version of a previous book, Four Views on Hell, and I requested a copy from BookLook Bloggers to read and review.

The four views presented (with the author who presents it) are eternal conscious torment by Denny Burk (the traditional view), terminal punishment/annihilationism by John G. Stackhouse Jr., [Christian] universalism by Robin A. Parry, and a protestant understanding of purgatory by Jerry L. Walls.  Preston M. Sprinkle provides an introduction and conclusion to the book.

I certainly feel I have a better understanding of the various views after reading the book.  Each viewpoint is well presented, and the responses are very well done.

I do feel that Denny Burk’s responses were the least kind.  It’s not that he was outright rude, but whereas the other authors seemed to try to find as much good as they could in the other contributors’ essays, Burk did so almost dismissively before jumping into his refutation of their views.  Stackhouse, Parry, and Walls seemed much more generous in their responses to each other.

I also have to admit that the essay on purgatory seemed out of place in this volume.  As Walls explains it, purgatory, from a protestant perspective, is strictly sanctifying, and is only for believers who are already destined for Heaven.  Walls admits that his view on Hell is essentially a view of eternal conscious torment, if I understood him correctly, as it has the clearest Scriptural support and the longest tradition in the history of the Church.  In his explanation, the other views on Hell would bear the burden of proof to overturn such a longstanding view.  Perhaps purgatory was included in the book because some mistakenly associate it with Hell and punishment, but once it is explained, it seemed very out of place.

What I liked is that all the authors are clear that they believe that some aspect of Scripture supports their view.  They are all Christians, all believe Jesus is the only way to God, and all turn to Scripture for support.  None of the views are entirely devoid of Scriptural support, although some rely on Scripture more than others.

If you are looking for a balanced book to help you understand the various Christian viewpoints on Hell, this book, though far from exhaustive, is a great place to start.

*Note: I was provided a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.