P.T. O’Brien and Plagiarism

Over on Aquila Report, I just read the article on P.T. O’Brien and the plagiarism that was found in his commentaries. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it can definitely be said that he should have been more careful with how he used his information. Now, no details were given in the report as to the person(s) he plagiarized and where in his commentaries. So, we need to be cautious about how much we can say.

On the other hand, plagiarism might just be the easiest thing to do in commentary writing. Indeed, in some ways, it seems endemic to the genre. I read my commentaries in chronological order so that I can get a sense of the history of interpretation on a particular passage. Unattributed references to ideas introduced by previous commentaries are everywhere. Honestly, I am fairly certain that I see this every week. Sometimes, they fall into the category of things that they all say, and can fairly be categorized as forming part of the common stock of knowledge. Many other times this is not true. All it seems to take is one unattributed instance of copying, and then subsequent commentators seem to think that the tidbit is fair game.

This makes me wonder whether someone has it in for P.T. O’Brien and just pointed out what just about every other commentator does all the time. Take the Ephesians commentary, for instance. First of all, it was published 17 years ago (the Philippians commentary is 25 years old now!). Why hasn’t any expert in the secondary literature on Ephesians (or Philippians) caught that plagiarism until now? More importantly, why didn’t D.A. Carson, one of the most well-read and erudite New Testament scholars of the present age, catch the plagiarism when he edited the book? Why did Carson continue to recommend these commentaries so highly in his book on commentaries? The Ephesians commentary is one I’ve read all the way through, and I don’t remember having any of those moments where I thought to myself that O’Brien had plagiarized anything, and I read at least 30 commentaries on Ephesians when I was preaching through it. This is suspicious to me.

What I would rather have from Eerdmans is a chart listing the instances so that I can make up my own mind about it, because there is no way I am giving my O’Brien commentaries back to Eerdmans for a refund. They are just too good to give up. A chart would be far more helpful to scholars and pastors so that they will not perpetuate the plagiarism, but will track down the ideas back to their original source and attribute properly. With the current policy, the O’Brien commentaries will live in a sort of no-man’s land, with people not sure what to do with them. I am quite sure that there is still plenty of O’Brien left in his commentaries, and it would be a pity to waste it. Eerdmans, please let us sort out the wheat from the chaff. Do the pastoral and scholarly world a favor, and let us see the findings for ourselves. That way, we can still salvage what is good from his commentaries, and there is a lot of that.

Is the Federal Vision Gone?

Since the internet debate has died down quite a bit from its heyday about a decade ago, many people have assumed that the Federal Vision is gone and dead. A highly erroneous conclusion. It is not dead. Every one of its proponents is still out there, spreading their false doctrine industriously, now under cover of darkness, since they no longer present themselves as targets online. The missions field is especially problematic, with the FV gaining ground in Russia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa. Even in the PCA, the issue is not dead. Jeff Meyers is still at large, as is Mark Horne. They are influencing many Covenant Seminary grads through their internship programs. Douglas Wilson is basically the only FV proponent still visible much on the internet, as we might expect, since he is the one who presents the public persona of the FV. If anything, the battle concerning the FV, while it has practically disappeared from the internet, is still very much alive and well in churches.

Enter now my friend Dewey Roberts into the field. He argued the Leithart case before the SJC. The SJC had determined that Dewey had not proven his case. A large part of that, I suspect, is that Dewey was probably using early drafts of his book to argue his case. When I talked to him about it on the phone, he was saying many of the things that came out in the book. Before the SJC, the way to win a case is to compare the teachings of Leithart (or whoever is on trial) to the Westminster Standards only. Here is what the defendant believes, in his own words, and here is what the Westminster Standards say. Dewey’s purpose in this book is much, much broader than that. He is comparing the Federal Vision to historic Christianity, and his findings are that they are two different things. The main thesis of the book is that the Federal Vision is either Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian in its system, and is therefore not Christian doctrine.

Knowing as I do the history of the Leithart case rather well, I think I made the same mistake Dewey did, actually, but from the reverse direction. Dewey argued his book in front of the SJC, while I expected his performance in front of the SJC negatively to impact the book. Neither of us was right. This book is quite well done, carefully argued, and theologically perceptive. I thought, over the course of some 350 blog posts, and countless comments, that I had considered the FV from just about every possible angle. Dewey showed me wrong. He has many angles that I had not thought of before. If the peacefully slumbering PCA (at least on FV concerns) will read this book, they will find that there is still work to be done, and that we need to do it. The gospel really is at stake, and the Federal Vision really is heresy, not just heterodoxy.

I have a couple of things I would criticize, one very small thing, and one more substantial thing. The small thing is the chapter endnotes. I hate endnotes. I have made no bones about the fact. One has to twist one’s hand in very awkward positions in order to be able to flip back and forth. If the purpose of footnotes is to avoid distracting one from the main line of argumentation, then endnotes fail miserably, because the added time of flipping back and forth makes it very difficult to keep on the thread of the main argument. But chapter endnotes are even worse than book endnotes, since you are constantly losing your place. Why couldn’t we have had footnotes on the same page as the text?

The more substantial criticism I have is the number of times Dewey quoted Guy Waters’s book on the FV as an original source. Now, Waters’s book is truly excellent, and one of the most important publications on the debate. Nevertheless, I prefer to see sources quoted first-hand, rather than second-hand. That way, if one wants to follow the paper trail backwards, one can examine the quotation in its original context much easier. The FV proponents will, of course, cry foul because they, like so many artists, are being misunderstood, boo hoo. The Ninth Commandment is often abused as the last refuge of the heretic. This criticism does not, I think, affect the validity of Dewey’s arguments.

I learned a lot from this book, and I hope that my readers will buy the book and read it, as well. Federal Vision proponents, know this: Dewey has your number, and he got it well. We know what you’re trying to do, and we are on guard.

I Am Going to Enjoy This

Robert W. Jenson wrote the Brazos commentary on Ezekiel in 2009. I am really going to enjoy reading this commentary, even though he is not a conservative in his theological outlook. The reason I am going to enjoy this commentary is that he doesn’t hold with the prim and proper divorce of theology and exegesis. Instead, he refreshingly allows (even demands!) his doctrinal categories to determine the direction of his exegesis. Of course, everyone actually does this. In fact, the more that people protest that they don’t, the more viciously non-self-aware those scholars are. Jenson also injects his commentary with humor. He says:

The proposition that exegesis of the Old Testament might call up points of Christian doctrine of course offends the modern exegetical academy’s chief dogma. That, vice versa, Christian doctrine should shape interpretation of Old Testament passages offends it even more deeply. But the exclusion of the church’s doctrine from interpretation of the church’s scripture is after all a very odd rule on its face; and it is indeed as Christian scripture that the church reads what she calls the Old Testament. How the academic community came to be committed to an antidoctrinal, and thus in this case ironically ahistorical mode of exegesis, is an often told tale that need not be repeated here.

The present commentary, like the others in the series, thus offers alternatives to the modern academy’s prejudices. I will not often argue theoretically the legitimacy of christological or trinitarian or ecclesiological readings I present, but will mostly allow them to convince readers by their own sense and appropriateness to the text at hand-or not. I do ask for suspension of a priori incredulity-who knows, the church might be right about how to read her own scripture (pp. 25-26).

Lastly, Jenson issues a serious (!) warning about reading his commentary:

The purpose of a commentary is to assist readers’ involvements with the text. Perhaps readers should therefore take warning before going further. Attention to a text can turn into experience of its matter, and the judgments and promises of God as given through Ezekiel are so extreme that they can easily undo ordinary religiosity-to say nothing of the disastrous spiritual adventures that might be ignited by his visions (p. 30).

I find myself wishing that more commentators wrote like this.

When Should We Read Commentaries?

Ask five different pastors this question, and you will get five completely different answers. Paul Levy, for instance, reads a couple commentaries all the way through before starting a sermon series. After that, he uses them only when he’s stuck. Others (and this seems to me to be the majority position) advocate that one should only use commentaries at the very end of the process of writing a sermon or Bible study. Oftentimes, the justification for this position is that one must make allowance for the work of the Holy Spirit, and we should not merely parrot what other people say. Some even advocate that no commentaries should be read until after the sermon is written. My experience is a little different.

I find that after I have gone through the text in the original languages very carefully, I still don’t have very many thoughts of my own. I am not much of an original thinker. I really only form my ideas of what the text says in conversation with others who have delved far more deeply into the text than I have.

As with any theological book, one eats the meat and spits out the bones. The same is true for commentaries. By all means, work through the text carefully on your own (and do it first, not least so that you can understand what the commentaries are saying). However, why limit yourself to your own ideas? Why not allow the historical stream of churchly interpretation to feed into your understanding of the text? I usually find that my final position on a text has a very eclectic set of nuggets gleaned from many different sources. I am often surprised at how it works. A commentary from which I got no help for weeks at a time sometimes justifies its very existence in one week where it nails the text and none of the others did. It can be breathtaking at times. Then there are those commentaries that very often have solid insights on almost every page (though these are rare).

To answer the objection about the Holy Spirit is easy. Firstly, the Holy Spirit comes through prayer. I seriously doubt that reading more commentaries constitutes an obstacle that the Holy Spirit cannot overcome. Furthermore, why couldn’t the Holy Spirit be operating through those commentaries to give you what you need? Can the Holy Spirit use the words of dead white European and American males (and a few of them alive still)? There are some excellent female interpreters of Scripture as well, who have written good commentaries (Joyce Baldwin and Karen Jobes spring immediately to mind)

The saddest thing of all in my mind is when a pastor thinks he is so much smarter than church history that he doesn’t need to read what anyone else thought on a passage of Scripture. Really? So you’re smarter than Calvin, are you? Smarter than Augustine? You have the Holy Spirit and they did not? We are not enslaved to any one interpreter. We are not required to believe everything that any non-inspired theologian wrote. Reading them does not mean that we are limited to them. But iron sharpens iron, as the biblical proverb has it. Why allow ourselves to be dulled by refusing to engage in the great centuries-old conversation about the meaning of the text? Limiting ourselves unnecessarily can result in very dull sermons, where so many nuggets in the text are simply by-passed so that the pastor can get up on his hobby-horse.

Make no mistake: there are dangers no matter what position you take on the reading of commentaries. The dangers of reading lots of commentaries are pride, an overdose of explanation, a presentation of too many alternative interpretations (which can easily bewilder a congregation), merely parroting in the sermon what others say, and confusion in one’s own mind about the meaning of the text. The dangers of reading too few commentaries, however, outweigh the dangers of reading too many, in my opinion. For here are the dangers of reading too few: ingrown, idiosyncratic interpretation; missing too many details of the text; application that has no root in the meaning of the text; stream of consciousness preaching; pride and over-reliance on one’s own interpretive skills (which would fall foul of Proverbs’ dictum to lean not on your own understanding); a despising of church history; a denigration of the Holy Spirit’s work in other ages of the church; chronological snobbery. It seems to me that the dangers of reading too many are more easily avoidable than the dangers of reading too few, since they are more obvious. If a sermon is the result of one mind interacting with many minds about the text, is there not a multitude of counselors? Isn’t that safer? I advocate, therefore, and practice an earlier reading of the commentaries in the process of sermon-writing and Bible study preparation. I advocate reading the commentaries (and as many as time and money allow) right after the careful reading of the text in the original languages.

Should We Read Expository Commentaries?

This question is a matter of debate over at Ref21, with Rick Phillips taking the pro side, and Paul Levy taking the con side. I have to say, having read many expository commentaries, that I whole-heartedly agree with Rick. Paul raises some important points, however, which deserve careful consideration.

The first point he raises is that “it is remarkable how many of these sermons are very similar and how they even sometimes cite each other.” It is true that I have seen expository commentaries cite each other. However, the very same point could be raised against more technical exegetical works. Indeed, I have seen many times a certain helpful quotation from someone like Westcott quoted in about ten more recent commentaries, none of them expository. Commenting on Scripture is an inherently accumulative discipline. That is, one accumulates insights from the best of church history. There is bound to be repetition. But there will also be nuggets that are gained in the twelfth or even twentieth commentary that were not present in the first or second. Furthermore, if some of the sermons are similar, then shouldn’t that be an encouragement to the preacher that if his sermon winds up looking a bit like those, that he is in good company, and is not spouting off heresy? While we certainly wish to discourage plagiarism, originality is not always a virtue!

Secondly, he is not convinced that all sermons should be turned into books. This appears to be a more general point that he fleshes out in his points about the difference between preaching and reading, and the fact that not all sermons are great. I agree that not all sermons should be turned into books. Of course, when one considers how many Reformed and Presbyterian preachers there are out there (to take but a small segment of the Christian Church), the vast majority of preached sermons never make it to print. There are well over a thousand sermons preached every single Sabbath day just in the Reformed and Presbyterian community. I would be shocked if more than five of them wind up getting published. That being said, his implied caution to hot-shot preachers who think they’re pretty good is well-taken: don’t automatically assume you are the exception! Every preacher is tempted by the thought that their words are pure gold, and that everyone should hang on their every utterance.

The point about the difference between preaching and reading is a valid one. I am not necessarily in favor of always editing sermons for publication by taking out the specific applications to a particular congregation (unless, of course, specific names are mentioned). One of the problems that preachers typically have is making applications specific enough. I know that I have this problem. It is all too easy to make an application hang out in the realms of generality without ever giving a concrete example, or bringing it home to people in a sharp way. If the sermons are written already with a view to publication, do they have this problem, or do they get edited with this problem in view? Of course, there is also a corresponding danger: if preachers are making their sermons ready for publication before they are even preached, they can often sound like lectures, in the sense that there is not enough repetition and glue holding the message together in a unity. The repetition and glue is not so necessary in a print form. Still, these points do not mean that the difficulties are insurmountable.

Lastly, he wants preachers to read the great books and the classics. A hearty amen from me on that. I don’t, however, see why reading the classics and the greats has to exclude reading expository commentaries in preparation for preaching on that passage. A pastor should read widely, and in many fields. To see how preachers have handled the passage in the past can sometimes even be a life-saver on particularly difficult passages, where the exegetical works might give no help at all.

The New Edition of the Reformation Study Bible

At GA this year, I met Lisa Stolz, senior account manager of church outreach at Ligonier Ministries. We had a great conversation, at the end of which she offered to send me a copy of the new edition of the Reformation Study Bible for review on the blog. I said I would be delighted. Here are my thoughts on the new edition.

What’s new: how does this edition differ from the first edition? In several important ways. 1. It is now based on the ESV, not the NKJV. 2. It has maps and illustrations peppered throughout the text, and not just at the back (no doubt Ligonier saw how effectively the ESV Study Bible had made use of this concept). 3. They have definitely improved the binding of the Bible. Even the leather-look edition that I received looks extremely sturdy (quite thick material), and is Smyth-sewn. 4. They have included not just theological articles throughout the text, but also some longer articles at the end, and most importantly (to my mind, anyway), 4. They have included the ecumenical creeds, the Three Forms and Unity, and the Westminster Standards (I understand the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible includes these as well).

How does this study Bible compare to the ESV Study Bible (which, along with Joel Beeke’s Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible, are the only competitors, to my mind, for the best study Bible for Reformed Christians)? Well, the ESV Study Bible is addressed to a broader audience. The ESV Study Bible has a few more maps and illustrations than the Reformation Study Bible does. However, the ESV Study Bible does not include the creeds and confessions. They are both bound well. Size-wise, the Reformation Study Bible is slightly smaller, though both are significant tomes. I like the printing of the ESV Study Bible slightly better. The notes are slightly more fulsome in the ESV Study Bible, though the new edition of the Reformation Study Bible has significantly increased its comments. You will see more breadth in the ESV Study Bible, more depth in the Reformation Study Bible. They would actually complement each other rather well. I would recommend either to any new Christian, and I would recommend both to any who can afford to have both. I do not have a copy of the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible, and so I can make no comparison to that study Bible, although I am sure that it is excellent work.

Tim Keller’s Book on Preaching

I was very pleasantly surprised to read Tim Keller’s book on preaching. I was afraid I would encounter a low view of preaching, an antinomian spirit, a denigration of exposition, and an exaltation of things that have no business being in the worship service. I encountered none of these things in this book. Although the book is not perfect, the good definitely outweighs the bad, and by a fair margin.

The good things: 1. He has a very helpful way of connecting the first use of the law to the third (though he does not use these terms). A general movement in the sermon that he recommends goes something like this: the law is what you are supposed to do, but you can’t do it. Jesus has done it, so if you are united to Him by faith, here is how you can do it, by growing in your faith.

2. In general, he uses excellent sources, and usually the best, to bolster his points. You see names like Ferguson, Lloyd-Jones, Clowney, Carson, Spurgeon, Old, Perkins, Dabney, Calvin, Edwards, and Packer.

3. In an age when preaching is falling on hard times, Keller is definitely going counter-cultural here. In fact, his thoughts on culture are very helpful at places. He has a balance between acknowledging what can be a point of contact, while using that same point of contact to confront the culture at various points, including both unconsciously held narratives as well as explicit idolatries.

4. He advocates a mostly responsible redemptive-historical understanding of Scripture (see my one caveat below) that sees Jesus in the Old Testament.

5. The gospel is for Christians and unbelievers. He has a robust view of the possible hearers, and a helpful taxonomy of various spiritual places that hearers could be.

6. There are many insights that are eminently quotable. Here are a few: “[Secular people]…won’t even consider real Christianity unless they see it is not identical to moralism” (p. 62). “We need not only the Bible’s prescription to our problems but also its diagnosis of them” (p. 97). “[I]magine that the Bible is not the product of any one human culture or set of authors but is a revelation from God himself. If that were the case, then it would have to offend every person’s cultural sensibilities somewhere. No matter who you are, you inhabit an imperfect culture that shapes your beliefs, and the Bible-if it were authoritative revelation from God-would then have to be outrageous to you at some place. Since that is the case, it is no argument against the Bible to say, ‘It offends me at this point.’ That is precisely what you should expect” (pp. 113-114). It should be pointed out that Keller is not advocating a low view of Scriptural authority here. Rather, he assumes a high view.

There are many other good things about this book. I have not been exhaustive, but only representative.

There are a few caveats that I feel are necessary to point out. First, although Keller does have what seems to me a responsible redemptive-historical hermeneutic that sees Christ in the Old Testament, he also tries to use a bit of the Christotelic hermeneutic, compliments of Tremper Longman (pp. 86-87). I used to think that a second Christotelic re-reading was fully compatible with Luke 24 and John 5. I no longer think that is true. Yes, the New Testament does help us understand the Old Testament. The question is whether the NT sheds light on what is actually there in the OT, or whether the NT changes the meaning of the OT. It is not entirely clear to me which of these positions Keller would ultimately assume, although the majority of his argumentation favors the former, more orthodox position.

Secondly, Keller references Krister Stendahl’s article “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” which was a seminal article in the formation of the New Perspective on Paul. While it is possible that there is some good in that article, it would have been nice to see Keller offer a caveat, so that people would not think that Keller is endorsing the NPP. He does the same with N.T. Wright in at least one place.

Thirdly, there are a few false dichotomies he uses that I do not think are terribly useful. On pages 157ff., he advocates (rightly) that the human being is a whole being, body and soul, mind and heart, and that we should not separate these things. The heart can think, biblically speaking. It is not just emotions (p. 158). He advocates preaching to the heart (again, how could one disagree?). The quibble I have has to do with how Keller sees truth, propositions, and the mind. It seems to me that Keller does not really see the truth by itself as carrying the weight of conviction that Scripture says it carries. Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free. Jesus did not say “the truth dynamically spoken.” Keller agrees with Edwards that there is no opposition between mind and heart (p. 161). Well and good, except that he also advocates an essential element of making the truth “gripping and real to the heart” (p. 160). He is not excluding rational argument and doctrine (p. 162 makes this plain). Is there room in Keller’s theology for God using a dry-as-dust-but-orthodox sermon to transform someone’s life permanently? Another example of what I am asking is on page 169, where Keller (ironically) uses a proposition to denigrate propositions. He argues that the imagination is more affected by images than by propositions. Perhaps, if one has a low and narrow view of propositions. But why must propositions be dull and unimaginative? Why can’t propositions use imagery, metaphor, word-pictures? He brings in the example of Genesis 4:7, and the imagery of sin being like an animal crouching at the door. He argues that this imagery conveys more information “than a mere proposition could do.” But if you look at his own statement, it is a proposition. Furthermore, so is Genesis 4:7! It is a proposition that sin is like an animal crouching at the door. It seems to me that Keller simply has a narrow view of what propositions can do, as if they can only be premises or conclusions in a formal logical argument. Related to this is something that is simply false on page 287, footnote 4, where Keller agrees with Smith in critiquing what he calls “an approach to ministry that is too rationalistic and focused on information transfer and the transmission of right doctrine and beliefs. His response is that we change not by changing what we think as much as by changing what we worship-what we love and fill our imaginations with.” This is a false dichotomy. It is difficult to square this kind of thinking with Romans 12:1-2, where we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Is doctrine really this boring?

Fourthly, I do not share his view of the inadvisability of preaching through entire books to a mobile city church. Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia has just as mobile a congregation as Redeemer does, and yet they preach straight through book after book of the Bible. It doesn’t seem to have hurt Tenth very much, to put it mildly.

I am not sure what I think of his three tiers of communication related to the gospel (the introduction, pp. 1-7). Initially when I read it, I thought that it makes sense on one level. However, what Keller did not make clear is what impact this would have on his view of, say, women in ministry. Keller is in favor of the dictum that a woman can do anything in worship that a non-ordained man can do. But if this is true, and a non-ordained man can preach, then may a woman do so? This certainly would seem to fall foul of 1 Timothy 2.

Although I have had to explain at somewhat greater length my quibbles with Keller’s book, I do not want the readers to get the impression that the quibbles outweigh the good things. Quibbles always take longer to explain. Furthermore, my list of good things is only representative, whereas the quibbles are pretty much exhaustive. This is still an excellent book on preaching, and I would recommend it to anyone who is committed (as everyone should be with any theologian, including this blogger!) to eating the meat and spitting out the bones.

Books You’d Rather Not Read Yourself

(Posted by Paige)

Two curious questions for you:

One, in your church, who has responsibility for choosing and vetting the material used in Bible studies or classes for women? I know that some churches have pastor or elder-led systems of review in place, and some not so much.

Two, if you are someone who has this responsibility, are there any titles – whether written for popular audiences or specifically for women — for which you would appreciate a sound and careful review, so that you do not have to read the books yourself?

Putting together a Library of a website with resources for Christian literacy, and hoping to include a shelf of Reviews of Books You’d Rather Not Read Yourself. Give me some suggestions! (Some of these are truly painful to read – so this is Christian service in action! :)

At Long Last!

We have been waiting for a long time for this theologian’s major works to be translated. Now, thanks to David Noe, we have an excellent beginning. Junius was an extremely important and well-known theologian during the time of Protestant Scholasticism. His debate with Arminius is not without irony, since, at the time, it was Junius who was well-known, while Arminius was a nobody. Now, everyone thinks it is the other way around. It is time to resurrect Junius and put him back in the mainstream of the Protestant canon of authors. This particular treatise is very important because of two main reasons: Junius clearly and eloquently articulates the archetypal/ectypal distinction in theology. Secondly, it was Junius’s Prolegomena here that formed the foundation for most prolegomena to follow. Tolle Lege.

Douglas Bond hit it out of the park in Grace Works!

Posted by Bob Mattes

Bottom line up front: Take a little of your Christmas cash and buy this book, then read it cover to cover. The gospel is under attack on many fronts, even from those with advanced degrees who claim to be Reformed. Mr. Bond sets record straight in the modern battle over the gospel of grace.

I have to admit my skepticism when I first received a copy of Douglas Bond‘s Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn’t). In this day and age, we see the free use of euphemisms like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is anything but democratic or accountable to the people. The history of the Church records power and sovereignty of God in preserving Christ’s bride, but it also contains the record of heretics and their heresies that claimed to be true to the Scriptures whilst gutting the gospel of grace.

Douglas Bond’s book, though, remains true to its title and will prove to be a great blessing to the modern Reformed church if widely read. Mr. Bond serves as a ruling elder (RE) in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and writes as one with first-hand experience with the errors that he corrects in his book. Given the presbytery in which he serves, I have no doubt of what he sees on a regular basis. Overall, RE Bond displays an excellent knowledge of both church history and current controversies over the gospel.

Grace Works! provides an easy read. RE Bond broke the book into seven parts, each with several short chapters that end with discussion questions. Thus, the book would make an excellent Sunday school or small group resource. RE Bond wrote Grace Works! for real people in real pews, easily digestible yet powerful in its defense of the gospel of grace. You won’t find any clever, human “cutting-edge” theology here, just the matchless gospel of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

RE Bond starts the book by appealing to history to show that any church can lose the gospel, and very quickly. He cites Calvin and Screwtape, C.S. Lewis’ demon from The Screwtape Letters, to illustrate Satan’s scheme for undermining the gospel down through the ages and even today. The strategy never changes because people never change. RE Bond doesn’t speculate or pontificate, he cites specific examples from church history of the slide into apostasy, of which there are no shortages. The worst of it lies in the fact that when a denomination slides into apostasy, it puts the orthodox on trial, not the heretics.

RE Bond hits the nail on the head on page 30 early in the book:

In our hatred of strife and controversy and in our love of peace and unity, we Christians sometimes play the ostrich. We hope controversy and gospel attack will just go away; we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it won’t happen to us.

Those of us in the PCA have seen this time and again. I saw a popular teaching elder who started a secret political party in the PCA turn around and publicly declare as “cowards” 29 ordained church officers who together took a public stand against serious gospel error. The sizeable audience apparently missed the blatant hypocrisy displayed, but then it wouldn’t be polite to question a popular teaching elder, would it? The orthodox make easy targets because they just won’t change or compromise the gospel of Christ. How intolerant are the orthodox!

RE Bond goes on to lay the groundwork by clearly explaining the gospel from Scripture and the Reformed confessions. The gospel presents the matchless grace of God freely given to all those who will trust in Christ alone for their salvation. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone – how simple! Yet, sinful human beings prefer to obtain their salvation the way Smith Barney claimed they made their money, the old fashioned way – by earning it.

Then in creeps the mixing of works into justification, replacing  or “augmenting” grace with some form of legalism. RE Bond does a great job of tackling the errors and consequences of legalism. He adroitly covers the order of salvation (ordo salutis), the confusing of justification and sanctification, the Scriptural use of law and gospel, the proper place of faith and works, and the correct rules for Biblical interpretation – the analogy of faith.

In Part 6 of Grace Works!, RE Bond then deals with current errors creeping into the conservative Reformed denominations, including the mythical “objective covenant”, confusion on the sacraments, and final justification. He does so without naming names, although anyone who has been paying attention to the last 20 years or so can easily fill in the blanks. RE Bond clearly demonstrates the corrosiveness of those who take an oath that the Confessions contain the doctrines taught in Holy Scripture, yet write and teach against those same Confessions and doctrines. He also cautions against the “fine print,” where officers espouse orthodoxy but then caveat with fine print that guts the orthodox statement. I’ve seen this myself during Internet debates and even in church trials. As RE Bond quotes from various sources on page 222:

The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.

RE Bond encourages us, citing the apostle Paul, to be Bereans. Don’t accept the clever words or “cutting-edge” theology of PhD holding teaching elders at face value. Dig into the Scriptures and the Confessions to see if they are right. Paul commands us to do no less. We’ve seen several prominent examples in the PCA of officers denying errors at trial that they later lead and teach openly in seminary-like settings after their acquittal. The Enemy stands proud of such tolerance.

Grace Works! closes by encouraging readers to catechize their children, to actively teach them what Scripture teaches about the gospel of grace. If we don’t, apostasy is just a generation away. RE Bond lastly encourages us to stand in unity on the gospel and the law of Christ, the means of grace rightly understood and administered, and in our Reformed Confessions without small-print caveats. Only then will our denominations remain orthodox for the next generation and those to come.

Your church officers need to read Grace Works! Your congregation needs to read it. And not just read it, but stand for the gospel of grace and teach it to your congregations, your children, and you children’s children.

Full disclosure: Bob received a courtesy copy of this book from P&R for review.

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