Please bear with me. I have a huge backlog of books that have been sent my way for review, so there will be a few more of these kinds of posts. I like reviewing Focus books because a. they are usually such good books, and b. they don’t have nearly as big a presence over on this side of the pond as they deserve. Fortunately, some more people are starting to realize the quality of these books, but it won’t hurt to bring some more attention to this very fine publisher.
I’ll start with what I regard as the two most important books of the lot. The other volumes are all helpful, but these two have the broadest scope and importance.
First off, this little book on pastoral ministry is an absolute gem. This man has a way with words, and he focuses on what is most important. Here are some of those gems: “The importance of the pastor depends on the value of the sheep. Pursue the pastoral metaphor a little further: Israel’s sheep were reared, fed, tended, retrieved, healed and restored- for sacrifice on the altar of God. This end of all pastoral work must never be forgotten- that its ultimate aim is to lead God’s people to offer themselves up to Him in total devotion of worship and service” (p. 17). The first chapter alone is priceless, because of its focus on the labor of the minister in the Word. He says, “Certainly, we must not make the disastrous error of going on preaching what is called the simple Gospel, isolating a few mere facts, wonderful as they are, until the last manjack is known to have been converted. What are all the hungry sheep going to do until then?” (p. 22). And then, one more (I can’t resist, it’s so good): “The pastor is called to feed the sheep, even if the sheep do not want to be fed. He is certainly not to become an entertainer of goats. Let goats entertain goats, and let them do it out in goatland. You will certainly not turn goats into sheep by pandering to their goatishness” (p. 23). What an indictment of modern “preaching!” Highly recommended.
The second book I want to point readers to is this meaty gem on the law of God. The law of God is under attack today from many different quarters, and one of the main aspects about the law that is under attack is its three-fold division into moral, civil, and ceremonial law. This three-fold division is very often attacked as being unbiblical. This book will not be popular with those who like edgy, new-fangled “interpretations” of the law of God. Instead, it is a profoundly unoriginal (and I mean that as one of the highest of compliments!) exposition of the law of God. No one will be able to challenge the three-fold division of the law in a responsible way without dealing with these arguments. Just to whet the appetite: I didn’t know how catholic the three-fold division of the law was until I saw it in this book: his examination of the early church fathers shows that, although still developing, the seeds of the three-fold division are clearly present in the early church. Because of its ubiquity in the Reformed confessions, I had always assumed that the three-fold division was a Reformed innovation. That is certainly not the case. This book is not the easiest read (it seems most geared towards pastors and scholars), but it is easily the most scholarly treatment of the subject in existence. Pastors interested in the definition of the law will need to have this book on their shelves.
Next, we will look at three exegetical works. These are all more popular level books. There is no need, in my mind, to defend the publishing of more books like these, since, although there are a large number of such books, there are not very many good books explaining the Bible on a popular level. This book on Jonah is concise (158 pages), clear, and has some excellent illustrations. Normally I am very leery of illustrations, because oftentimes they take away from the main point, instead of helping people to remember it. If it is too funny, for instance, people will remember the joke, but not the point it was meant to illustrate. I also tend to prefer illustrations that work on multiple levels, so that I can bring them back later in the sermon to do double duty. But I still use them sparingly. So it is refreshing to see a good illustrator at work. Smith’s use of illustration is helpful, not harmful. The illustration about Super-Bowl parking (pp. 129-131) is such a great illustration about having compassion on people because we know something about them that the world does not: they are blind, bound, and dead. It illustrates so well the problem with Jonah: he was honking his horn at the Ninevites, because he did not care about their spiritual condition: it created frustration and anger rather than compassion. For those who are uncomfortable with anything hinting at Sabbath-Day violation, it would be very easy to adapt: just adjust it to the BCS championship game.
The next volume is one on Acts. This series is under-represented in commentary recommendations. However, any series that publishes so much of Dale Ralph Davis and John Mackay deserves some serious respect. I’m glad also to see that they are using better quality paper. The author of this volume has done some serious homework. His scholarship is up to date up through 2007 (he references Bock’s commentary on Acts). It is a pity that he could not make use of Peterson, or the revision of Longnecker, or Pervo (Derek Thomas’s commentary came out after Milne’s). This is also a fairly extensive commentary, being 517 pages. His focus is pastoral (p. 7-8). He views the history of Acts as not just descriptive, but also prescriptive (p. 9). And Acts is a book of mission (p. 9). These are helpful emphases that will be a boon to preachers trying to wade through the normally liberal, non-theological commentaries of Haenchan and Conzelmann (whom Milne has read).
The next volume is not so much a commentary, as a help to teachers and preachers. It has suggested outlines, and works on the main themes in the major sections, to seek to contribute a global picture of Isaiah’s message. With a book as big as Isaiah, it is incredibly easy to lose the forest for the trees, and this book will help prevent that from happening. This would also be a good book for the congregation to read as the pastor is working his way through preaching the book.
This little book is a very helpful introduction to sanctification. It is important, in the battle, to remember all the various aspects of the work of Christ on the cross. Still does not stint on any of them. Sin’s guilt removed, sin’s power broken, Satan’s reign defeated: these are the basic building blocks of our victory against sin, which Still develops mainly by way of the metaphor of warfare, training for warfare, and the zeal of soldiers in battle. Highly recommended!
I remember Rev. Al Baker at the recent conference of the Gospel Reformation Network saying that one of the biggest neglects right now in the Reformed world is the doctrine of regeneration. Maybe it is because we are tired of hearing about being “born again,” when our world and culture have distorted and diluted it past belief. If that is so, prepare to be shocked back into the biblical picture of what regeneration is.
There is a lot of hype about small group studies these days. I’m sure many of us can give personal anecdotes on horrible experiences we’ve had with small group “Bible” studies. In looking through this book, it is amazing to discover how many ways that a group like this can be a hindrance instead of a help. It is a good thing that someone has some clear, biblical ideas on this (what, a small-group Bible study that actually discusses the orthodoxy of the leader? You’re joking, right? See p. 25).
This little book asks and answers one fundamental question: what do we do until Christ comes back? The problem is that all too many people think of eschatology as impractical. It’s just something we expect to happen in the future. It shouldn’t really affect our lives, should it? Carson says different: what we should do is hold out the Bible to other people. This book is too brief (48 pages) to develop the ideas much, but it does stick to this one point well.
Lastly, but not least, we have this book that will help answer some questions we have about the unseen world. This is a substantial book addressed at correcting our ignorance (and our ignoring of!) the unseen world. I love the quotation from the last Screwtape letter that Sproul quotes here, where the Christian finally sees at the moment of his death, and recognizes the demon’s involvement (and the ceasing of that involvement), as well as the angels, and what they were doing (not “Who are you?” but “So it was you!”). For anyone who is tempted to get bogged down in the everdayness of this world, this book should help jolt them out of it.