Becoming a Welcoming Church by Thom Rainer

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Thom Rainer has become the guru of all things local church. This book, another of the small, attractive, hardback volumes published by B&H Publishing that he has turned out over the last few years, teaches us how to become a welcoming church. It’s not so much a book of suggestions as one of necessity because all of its recommendations are drawn from real data from church visitors.

Rainer explains that visitors often don’t rate our friendliness, facilities, or services in the way we do. Our friendliness is often in “holy huddles” that excludes visitors, our facilities are laid out nicely only because we’ve had years to get used to it, and our services are not as geared to visitors as we have allowed ourselves to believe.

Chapter 1 chips away our determined belief that we are welcoming and asks us to be willing to do a true evaluation. He warns us that we may be in for quite a shock. In this chapter, he explains what consistently bothers visitors (hint: it has nothing to do with doctrine or gospel faithfulness) and what makes for happy visitors. As I read over these lists, I marveled that there was no spiritual element, just practical things that we could work on. Chapter 2 goes on and give us what he calls a confidential report where he digs deeper into how our churches are viewed by visitors. Chapter 3 looks at the practical items of signage, parking, and websites. Chapter 4 describes how visitors expect a safe and clean church and what is most important on that list. Chapter 5 explains greeters and welcome centers while Chapter 6 is a concluding chapter. There is an appendix with a church facility audit and secret guest survey.

If you are familiar with Rainer’s work, this book is classic Rainer. I happen to be blessed to be a pastor of a friendly church yet see several things on these pages that we need to shore up. This book is a practical, top-notch work and I highly recommend it!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Determined to Believe? by Lennox

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This book is one of the most thoughtful, balanced, and needed volumes that I have seen a long time in the always turbulent Calvinist/Arminian debate. He takes us back before these later labels to the more correct label of theological determinism and helps us wrestle with the sometimes tricky concepts of the sovereignty of God and human freedom. In tone and in content this book is a tour de force that refuses to accept the theological constraints that have been foisted upon us and takes us back to the Bible itself.

Both in the brief prologue and the introduction on what this book is about, we immediately notice something that is rare in this debate –civility. There’s no way he can agree with everyone, but he is altogether kind to those with whom he cannot. Occasionally, I almost wondered if he’s spilled too much ink in a cautious attempt to be respectful. Still, that may be what this subject demanded.

He had me by just a few pages into chapter 1. His discussion of the nature and limitations of freedom brought the subject into clear focus as he explains the difference between the liberty of spontaneity and the liberty of indifference. He introduces terms like determinist, indeterminacy, compatibilists, and incompatiblists. He makes an indisputable case that there can be no morality without freedom, nor love without free will. He gives a great discussion of how there are both atheists and Christians who hold to determinism. Chapter 2 dives into various kinds of determinism including physical determinism and theistic determinism. The logic employed is flawless and unanswerable. Chapter 3 develops some of the earlier thoughts to discuss the moral problem with determinism. As you will see, there is a major moral problem with it. Chapter 4 with its interesting title of “weapons of mass distraction” talks about the plethora of labels that have overtaken this debate. He turns us to Scripture and shows us what the apostle Paul said about following men or labels and how perhaps this debate stumbles out of the gate in the approach to it that so many of us take.

Chapter 5 begins part two that now feels comfortable to address God’s sovereignty and human responsibility head on. Again, he writes with clarity and does not allow himself to be bound by the clichés that have robbed the debate of its vitality. In chapter 6 he turns to the biblical vocabulary and instead of turning to a theological book goes straight to the Bible to discuss and define foreknowledge, predestination, and election. Part three begins with a chapter on human capacity and its limits and it is where we are now able to discuss some of the common arguments given, including some of the letters of TULIP. The next chapter looks at the human condition and digs into God’s righteousness and justification by faith. Chapter 9 tackles what the Bible says about being drawn by the Father and coming to Jesus Christ. Chapter 10 asks hard questions about the common explanations given for regeneration. Chapter 11 cycles to the gospel and human moral responsibility. The balance of the book looks directly at some of the key Scriptures that serve as the battleground of this issue: Romans 9 – 11 (5 chapters), several passages on assurance (1 chapter), several passages on endurance (1 chapter), and passages in Hebrews (2 chapters). The book ends with a very brief epilogue and questions for reflection.

I don’t see how you’d want to dig into this subject without availing yourself of this incredible book. I give it the highest recommendation!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Philippians and Philemon (NTL) by Cousar

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This volume by Charles Cousar in the New Testament Library (NTL) series covers Philippians and Philemon. I’ve read some unfavorable reviews on this book mostly owing to its brevity. While that charge is true, I came away rating this book better than I expected. It does hold to the familiar NTL pattern, is less critical than I anticipated, and provides insight.

After a bibliography, we have an Introduction to Philippians. He begins by acknowledging the theme of joy. (How could we trust any book on Philippians that ignored the theme of joy?) He introduces us to both the city and the church at Philippi. Its history in the Roman Empire, as well as its significance, are clearly reviewed. He refers, as he has at other times, on the fondness Paul has for this congregation. When he moved to the subject of authorship and integrity of the letter, he admits that the Pauline authorship is rarely questioned. Though he mentions a few absurd prognostications about authorship, he seems comfortable with Paul. As to place and date of writing, he presents briefly the evidence for Rome, Caesarea, and Ephesus before cautiously choosing Ephesus for this commentary. He explains Paul sending this letter as a thank you to the Philippians. He discusses structure and suggests an outline. As with any of these Philippian commentaries, he discusses the opponents. I thought he provided his best observations when he discussed the message of the letter. In less than 70 pages, he provides a commentary on Philippians that is worth consulting.

I felt the Introduction to Philemon was simply too short and discussed too little. What he did discuss, though, was some of the things that you wrestle with in such an introduction. The commentary on Philemon was unacceptably brief.

While this volume may not rate as highly as some in the series, it’s by no means a throwaway volume, at least on Philippians. If you are filling out your NTL collection, there is still value here as this author does his best work in providing nuggets for the preacher.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Preaching God’s Word (Second Edition)

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Now in its second edition, this book by Terry G. Carter, J. Scott Duvall, and J. Daniel Hayes lives up to its subtitle: a hands-on approach to preparing, developing, and delivering the sermon. It strikes me as a success because of its clear value as a first textbook for someone learning how to put together a sermon. It does better than most at keeping a big-picture view as it assembles the pieces of the sermon. There are other books that, perhaps, dive deeper into the details – the works of Jerry Vines comes to mind – but this one may be “just right” for a wide array of readers.

The book is divided into three parts: eight chapters on developing and preaching a sermon, three chapters on preaching the New Testament, and four chapters on preaching the Old Testament. Duvall and Hays had earlier produced a hermeneutics textbook entitled Grasping God’s Word, which is also published by Zondervan, so this book assumes an understanding of hermeneutics and goes straight into putting together a sermon after that work has been done.

The first chapter introduces their 11-step sermon process. Chapter 2 covers the first five steps: grasp the meaning of the text in their town, measure the width of the interpretive river, cross the principlizing bridge, consult the biblical map, and grasp the text in our town. As you can see, they word this information in practical terms aimed at our maximum understanding. Again, they avoid being either too shallow or too deep and succeed at being “just right”.

After all that wonderful help for putting the sermon together, the other two parts on the Old and New Testaments look at the genres and their unique challenges for the preacher found in each. Most of these were wonderful. The value of the chapter on preaching Revelation might correspond to your own prophetic viewpoint. Actually, they tell you that that might be the case when you preach the Book of Revelation.

If you’ve been called to preach and are trying to figure out how to put a sermon together, you owe it to yourself to check this book out.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

First and Second Chronicles (Interpretation) by Tuell

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Here’s a moderately critical work that’s one of the best in the Interpretation Bible Commentary series. Steven Tuell, who has also written a succinct commentary on Ezekiel that has been well received, writes on First and Second Chronicles here. Though you might consider a work of 250 pages on both books of Chronicles a little too brief, he makes good use of every page. To my mind, the best contributions of this book are the theological reflection on and a big-picture presentation of Chronicles.

The Introduction begins by opining the diminished acceptance of Chronicles compared to other books of the Bible. He explains that to many Chronicles is little more “than a dull rewrite of Samuel and Kings”. The author works against that comman viewpoint and champions Chronicles as a unique book of the Bible that covers the broadest historical range of any book in the Bible – from Adam to the Babylonian Captivity. Though I don’t care for the label “Deuteronomistic history” as a description of Joshua through Kings, he gives good explanation of how they interact, are similar, and are different. He highlights how Chronicles uses other scriptures widely. In fact, he says, “the most distinctive feature of Chronicles is the large degree to which it reproduces other biblical texts”. He looks at Chronicles as it relates to Ezra and Nehemiah, and from there launches into an explanation of date and composition. The dating he explains is more conservative than what you might expect in a more critical series. The brief section on the theology in Chronicles is just a preview of what you will find in the commentary itself.

While this commentary might not be my first choice when I’m digging into a passage in Chronicles, I still see it as a great second choice and one that I will enjoy consulting. What I see in the commentary proper is of distinct value.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Understanding the Ecology of the Bible-An Exciting New Carta Introductory Atlas

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If you’ve had the privilege of reading some of these attractive introductory atlases published by Carta, you know how rewarding they can be. This latest one on the ecology of the Bible by prolific writer Paul H. Wright, who excels on works of Bible geography, history, and even a major Bible Atlas, is one of the best yet. Mr. Wright has already produced in this series of introductory atlases works that include an overview of the New Testament, one on geography, one on biblical kingdoms and empires, and one on biblical archaeology. Mastering these works by Mr. Wright will greatly expand your Bible study.

Don’t for a minute think of 48 large pages on the ecology of the Bible as an esoteric effort. So much is missed in Bible passages when you miss these details. For many of us, the natural world and ecology we live in are so different from that of the Bible that we can easily miss even the main flow of the story itself. I believe a thorough perusal of this work would be the equivalent of a college class. Fortunately, the writing is accessible and even beginners can glean so much here.

It’s thorough enough to be effective as I didn’t see any ecological or natural world item that was overlooked. The pictures were so beautiful that I would catch myself thinking, wow, I’d like to be there! The maps are all top-notch and what we’ve come to expect in any work bearing the Carta imprint. Again, I especially adored this title and I’m a fan of all these Carta introductory atlases. Look this one up!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Jeremiah and Lamentations (Reformation Commentary on Scripture)

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Don’t think of this as a curiosity piece. There’s real value here as previous generations have distinct contributions they can make to our understanding of the Bible. The Lord has spoken in every generation. This large, beautiful volume is the latest release in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series. Covering Jeremiah and Lamentations, this book of 600 large pages makes many important observations that can enrich our Bible studies.

I can’t imagine the amount of research that was required by J. Jeffery Tyler to produce this volume. Without a doubt, this book also has great historical value. The trends in the Reformation become clear as a more careful return to the text of Scripture is apparent in their work. My only problem with calling this a historical work would be a possible misinterpretation that you couldn’t use it as a commentary. For my time, this volume’s expository light is its greatest asset. In addition, the Book of Jeremiah is always one of those where you would appreciate a little more help.

All of this is not to say that you will fail to enjoy the historical contribution this book makes. There is a general introduction that overviews the Reformation and explains what this commentary series is trying to accomplish. There’s also a wonderful introduction to Jeremiah and Lamentations in the Reformation. I enjoyed reading it. There were the names I was very familiar with and those I had never heard of it at all. All facets of the Reformation were fair game for this work and even the Anabaptists were brought into the commentary. Some of those unknown names reminded me that all of our heroes are not household names. Many more than we know are worth knowing. When the introduction explained the main themes that the Reformers often discussed it’s easy to see that those probably are the true themes of Jeremiah and Lamentations. Maybe new is not always better!

Every passage gets an overview and commentary from the Reformers in the commentary section. Again, it must’ve taken so much sifting to cherry pick for us readers the best of the bunch. The editor doesn’t excessively quote any one Reformer and that variety strengthens the work.

I’ve only reviewed a few of the volumes in this series so far, but I really like this one! When complete, this series will be a force to be reckoned with. In the meanwhile, don’t miss this great commentary on Jeremiah and Lamentations!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Understanding the Twelve Tribes–A New Carta Resource!

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This volume is another of the outstanding, profusely illustrated resources published by Carta. At this point, they have several of these large paged (9 X 12”) in a similar design that will provide the opportunity for much pleasurable study for Bible students. This new volume by Menashe Har-El is a fascinating treatment that will open up your thinking to all kinds of new things you didn’t know. The author is a biblical geography expert who has taught and written widely. This work illustrates several biblical passages that only gets a cursory look in other volumes. The word “fascinating” is not an exaggerated description.

The subtitle “Boundaries and Surrounding Nations” articulates the value of this book. After a broad introduction, the geographical division of the land among the tribes at the time of Joshua is explained. Some boundaries were natural landmarks while others were erected with piles of stones or fences. There’s further development of the tribe of Dan because it went to the coast and interacted with the area that the Philistines came and possessed. Dan also inhabited the far north of Israel.

From there, the book surveys the boundaries and major neighbors of Israel. First, we have a fascinating look at Egypt. From there we learn about the Amorites, more details about Egypt because of the interaction with Moses and the Exodus, Dedan and Tema (modern Saudia Arabia), and the land of Edom (later called Petra).

Several other people groups and nations are mentioned, and many Scriptures are quoted. These places are too quickly skimmed over by Bible students. In truth, they impact a large swath of Scripture and this book gives incredible help to our understanding.

The book is filled with incredible Carta maps! Without doubt, Carta maps are the best in print today. They are colorful, accurate, use miles/feet for measurement, and specifically illustrate what the author is discussing. The map of ancient routes in the holy land and the one showing the boundaries of the Tribes are exceptional. Other maps effectively bring alive the boundaries of Israel. Additionally, the pictures are beautiful and outstanding throughout.

Do you love digging in your Bible studies? You will want this book!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Old Testament Wisdom Literature by Bartholomew & O’Dowd

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This book exceeded the expectations I had when I picked it up. Not that I imagined it wouldn’t be a good volume, but that it would just be another introduction to the poetic sections of the Old Testament. What I found instead was a look at only those poetic books that could legitimately be called wisdom literature – Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. The unique contributions of those three books, as well as wisdom in the Old Testament as a whole, the ANE background, how Jesus both carried on and fulfilled Old Testament wisdom, plus all the theological implications of wisdom, are found in this well-written book.

The book begins with an introduction that explains why the subject of Old Testament wisdom is important. Chapter 1 introduces Old Testament wisdom itself including its historical background. Chapter 2 tackles the ancient world wisdom. I often think those discussions are overblown by scholars because they always mistakenly assume the Bible draws from other sources rather than the other way around, but the scholarly review is still well done here. Chapter 3 ties wisdom into the genre of poetry in the Bible and explains a lot of technical aspects of parallelism and other devices of poetry.

When the book reaches chapter 4, in my opinion, it really blossoms. The chapter on Proverbs that reviews structure and design, and how wisdom is essential to it, makes for revealing reading. I loved it. Chapter 5 is a continuation as it looks at what the authors call “Lady Wisdom” and “Dame Folly”. These two chapters together really added something to my understanding.

Chapter 6 on Job was just as provocative. They dug in with so many wonderful thoughts that would help someone who was diving into the book of Job. Chapter 7 probes the scholarly debate over Job 28. I personally don’t see the problem that many scholars do, but it’s well explained here. Though it is likely just a matter of personal taste, I didn’t get as much out of the discussion on Ecclesiastes as I did on Proverbs and Job. I disagreed with both some presuppositions as well as some conclusions. Still, there were nuggets to find.

Chapter 10 took us to Jesus as the Wisdom of God. Wisdom as a controlling focus in the New Testament is not one I can accept to the degree that some people do, yet it’s equally true that wisdom has not vanished from the discussion when we enter the New Testament. You can do your own weighing of the subject in this chapter. The final two chapters are about theology. There’s much to gain as you read these two chapters, plus they give some guidance on how our Western eyes often miss the point.

Bartholomew and O’Dowd really pulled off the production of a good book here. It’s my new favorite introduction to Old Testament wisdom literature.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels

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I call this book a discovery. What is uncovered is the fact of how much we need this book though I had no idea of its importance until I saw it. There’s an incredible amount of geographic information in the Gospels that affect the understanding of passages. This attractive volume will be a handy reference to answer every question about geography, questions that even major commentaries often overlook, that you will encounter as you read the Gospels.

A fine team has been assembled to put this book together. Barry Beitzel, who has already produced well-received Bible Atlas materials, is the editor and head writer in a group that includes Paul Wright, Todd Bolan, J. Carl Laney, and John Beck among others. You might call that something of a dream team.

A quick scan of the contents page will show you the Scriptures addressed in the commentary. Once you peruse these chapters you will quickly see how central geography’s role was in each one of them. In addition to the fine writing, there’s plenty of helpful maps, diagrams or illustrations, and pictures. As one who owns most every Bible Atlas in print today, I’m pleased to report that the maps and pictures are not just repeats from other works. In other words, it will truly give you an additional benefit beyond your favorite outstanding Bible Atlas. I especially appreciated some of the pictures of modern archaeological dig sites too.

The book achieves quality scholarship, copious footnotes, and real theological development of the geographic material. The first thing I thought when I picked it up was – this volume looks nice! Using it only strengthened that assessment. I suspect that this will become a greatly-loved and widely-used resource.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.