Book Review: Getting the Gospel Right

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Getting the Gospel Right:  Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul, Cornelis P. Venema, Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006.  Paperback, 92 pages, $6.00 US.

This is a short little book dealing with an important, relevant topic.  Though not really in the Canadian Reformed churches, the doctrine of justification has been under debate elsewhere in the Reformed/Presbyterian community.  Most of this debate takes place in connection with the so-called Federal Vision.  However, it seems that there are also connections to what has been called the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP).

This book is an entry-level introduction to the NPP from a Reformed perspective.  The author is a United Reformed minister, professor of doctrinal studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and also president of that institution.   Getting the Gospel Right is a shorter, popular version of another book published by Banner of Truth, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ.

The book is divided into three parts.  In the first section, Venema outlines “the Reformation perspective on Paul.”  This perspective essentially boils down to five key features:  1) Justification is a principal theme of the gospel; 2) Justification is primarily a theological and soteriological (having to do with the doctrine of salvation) theme; 3) the Reformation claimed that the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of justification emphasized obedience to the law as a partial, meritorious basis for justification; 4) the Reformers insisted that “works of the law” in Paul refer to any acts of obedience to the law which are then regarded as a ground for acceptance with God; 5) the righteousness of God is something that God freely grants and imputes to believers.

In the next section, Venema outlines the “New Perspective on Paul.”  He does this by laying out the views of three scholars:  E.P. Sanders, D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright.  The NPP has been critical of the Reformation perspective on Paul.  I think Venema fairly lays out their views in this chapter.  Because of his influence, Venema spends the most time with Wright.  He notes that Wright is unclear and obscure on certain important issues such as his understanding about the work of Christ.  When speaking about what the gospel is, Wright emphasizes the Lordship of Christ.  Venema notes that this emphasis “suggests that his view has more affinity with what historians of doctrine term the ‘classic’ or ‘victory over the powers’ conception than the penal-satisfaction emphasis of the Reformation.” (56).  Because of his emphasis on the question of who belongs to the covenant (as being the question that justification seeks to answer in Paul’s writings), “he does not articulate a doctrine of the atonement along the lines of classic Protestant theology.” (57)

The last substantial section features a longer critique of the views of Sanders, Dunn and Wright.  He believes (rightly) that the rejection of the Reformation perspective is partly based on confusion between Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism.  The Reformers never said that the Roman Catholic doctrine was Pelagian nor (speaking anachronistically) that the Judaists of Paul’s day taught Pelagianism.  Rather the charge was one of semi-Pelagianism.  This is just one problem among several that Venema highlights in this chapter.

Venema concludes, “Though it may be admitted that the new perspective has illumined some significant aspects of Paul’s understanding of the gospel, its claims to offer a more satisfying interpretation of Paul’s gospel than that of the Reformation seem at best overstated, and at worst clearly wrong.” (91).  I’m looking forward to reading the longer version of this book.   I can certainly recommend this one to those looking for a place to start in trying to understand the controversies that have beset many North American Reformed churches in recent times.

If I have just one small beef, it’s the use of Internet sources in some of the footnotes.   Since this book was published many of the links no longer work.  Since authors like N.T. Wright have a wide following, one can google the titles and find them, but it is a bit of a nuisance.  I’m not sure how a problem like that can be solved.


A Brief Evaluation of Harvest Bible Chapel Beliefs

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Under Teaching Tools, I’ve added a new resource briefly outlining a Reformed evaluation of the beliefs of Harvest Bible Chapel.  I was asked by one of my parishioners to prepare this evaluation.  Since a lot of others here in Southern Ontario are wondering about what they believe and how we should regard them, I thought I’d share it here in case it might benefit anyone else.


Book Review: The Pearl of Christian Comfort

Pearl of Christian Comfort

The Pearl of Christian Comfort, Petrus Dathenus.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2005.  Paperback, 87 pages, $10.00.

Whether we realize it or not, we Reformed folk owe a huge debt to Petrus Dathenus (1531-1588).   Whenever we gather for worship in our churches, we sing the Psalms on tunes that Dathenus was instrumental in spreading around Europe.  Most of our liturgical forms were put together by Dathenus.  Through his Dutch translation, Dathenus was responsible for introducing the Heidelberg Catechism to the Reformed churches of the Netherlands.  Our church order, too, is largely based on work by Dathenus and others.

Before becoming Reformed, Dathenus was a Carmelite monk in what is today Belgium.  Some of the Carmelites became sympathetic to the Reformation — and were burned at the stake for it.  This made an impression on Dathenus and was part of the means by which God converted him.   He went on to become a Reformed pastor.

This is an important little (87 pages) book by Dathenus.  It was originally written to instruct and comfort “all troubled hearts who are not properly able to distinguish between the law and the gospel.”   It takes the form of a dialogue between Dathenus and a young woman named Elizabeth.  Elizabeth has just come back from church and is depressed because of what she heard.  The minister preached the curse of the law and this left Elizabeth in despair.  Through the course of the book, Dathenus shows how the law is necessary (it points to Christ and guides our thankfulness), but also how the gospel really is good news for sinners.

The beauty of this book is in its simplicity.  It’s not a complicated theological book, but a simple, warm pastoral conversation.  More than that, this little book is packed with Scripture and points to the hope of the gospel.  That makes it truly a “pearl” of Christian comfort.  Highly recommended!


Top Ten Influential Books

There’s this thing on Facebook where people are invited to share the top ten influential books in their lives.  A while back I was tagged for this too.  It didn’t take much thought — I had my top ten in ten minutes.  For my own future reference, and perhaps to point you in the direction of some good books too, I thought I would post it over here as well.

1. The Word of God — a light for my path, wisdom from above, good news for a great sinner.
2. The Defense of the Faith (3rd edition), by Cornelius Van Til. This book and its biblical approach has been foundational for everything, not just apologetics.
3. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, by J. I. Packer. Combined with the next volume, this set me to learn from the Puritans.
4. Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, by Leland Ryken. This busted all kinds of preconceived notions of the Puritans.
5. All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson. This is the first Puritan book I read. It’s powerful!
6. Expository Preaching with Word Pictures, by Jack Hughes. This one unfolds the method behind Watson’s genius and applies it to preaching today.
7. Christ-Centered Preaching, by Bryan Chapell. The book my seminary preaching prof dissed, but which many of us loved and learned lots from.
8. The Christian Soldier, by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This helped to bridge the gap between my military ambitions and the desire to serve in a different army.
9. Competent to Counsel, by Jay Adams. How do you apply Van Til’s presuppositionalism to counselling? Adams made a good initial effort to show us.
10. War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, by Carlos M. N. Eire. Was the Regulative Principle of Worship invented by the Puritans? No, Eire demonstrates that its pedigree goes back to at least Geneva.

There are lots of other books, but I’d say that those 10 were definitely some of the biggest ones in my life so far.


Mohler: Conviction and Passion in Ministry

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An orthodox preacher of the Word without passion is like a high-voltage wire without a generating station.  Here’s a quote from Albert Mohler’s book The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters:

The most faithful and effective pastors are those who are driven by deep and energizing convictions.  Their preaching and teaching are fueled by their passionate beliefs and sense of calling.  With eternity hanging in the balance, they know what to do.  They see every neighborhood as a mission field and every individual as someone who needs to hear the gospel.  They cannot wait until Sunday comes and they can enter the pulpit again, ready to set those convictions loose.  (page 54)

This makes me think of the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah was sent mostly with messages of judgment — there wasn’t a lot of good news that he could bring for the foreseeable future.  Reading Jeremiah from front to back can be a bit of a downer.  Yet with that kind of message, Jeremiah said that he was compelled to prophesy and do it with vigour.  He said in Jeremiah 20:9, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”  If that was true for Jeremiah, the prophet of so much doom and judgment, how much more shouldn’t it be true of preachers today entrusted with the good news of Jesus Christ?


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