“Word-Centered Church” by Jonathan Leeman

The following is a sort of mixture, both a book review and a personal commentary on some particular applications of the book’s substance.             

In his book, Word-Centered Church, Jonathan Leeman argues for a church theology and practice inundated by Scripture… in other words, a Word-centeredor Scripture-centeredchurch. Leeman writes, “[A Word-centered church] is a church where the words and teachings of Scripture reverberate back and forth, from mouth to mouth and heart to heart” (93).

So, he is not merely calling pastors to preach the Bible, he is calling all the members of a local church to participate holistically in the reverberating word-centeredness of their particular body. In this book, Leeman contends for what he calls a “faith proposition.” He says, “trusting God’s Word to build our churches is an act of faith” (29).

And yet, as any contender should, Leeman notes that many church leaders and members today are not seeking to build Word-centered churches. Numerous evangelical leaders and parishioners (Maybe the vast majority?) are seeking to build their churches by catering to a particular demographic.

In my own Baptist association in East Texas there are several “cowboy churches” and even a “biker church”! I have often wondered why some pastors haven’t stopped hiding the fact that they are seeking to build “affluent churches” or “white-urban-professional churches” or “hipster churches.” If we are targeting these demographics, why pretend we are doing something innovative or clever?

I have personally (to my shame) been a part of a collaborative effort in local church ministry to target a certain demographic on many occasions. As a matter of fact, the evangelistic parachurch ministry I once helped lead was largely built on the supposition that non-Christians needed to be drawn to church services by something other than the Scriptures and the gospel.

In addition to this parachurch experience, I was also one of four pastors on staff at a Southern Baptist church in North Texas who openly employed the Rick Warren model of targeting Saddleback Sam. This is a way of building local church practices, buildings, ambiance, and programs that would suit the tastes of a majority demographic geographically near the local church building. Leeman admits, “in the short term, this will build churches. Demographic and cultural loyalty is genuinely, empirically, demonstrably powerful” (73). I’ve heard this phrased many times as the argument by church leaders advocating for such practices.

 But Leeman is interested in more than just pragmatic strategies, and he effectively brings the reader into the place where the important question can be asked. Leeman sets the scene, inviting the reader to envision himself/herself visiting a church for the first time. He helps picture the imaginary venture, bringing the reader right to a seat in the auditorium, immediately before the start of the service.

Then Leeman asks, “What’s most important to you as you consider whether you will come back to this church?” (84). Every Christian – especially church leaders – must ask this question.

What is the most important thing about a local church?

Borrowing language from the Reformers and the Puritans, the two marks of a true churchare (1) the right preaching of God’s word and (2) the right administration of the sacraments or ordinances. Therefore, the most important thing about a local church – if it seeks to be a true church– is that it faithfully preaches God’s word. God’s word must be preached, taught, explained, believed, and treasured. This is not merely referring to the Sunday sermon, but to the whole life and ministry of the entire congregation. Still, the centrality of Scripture among a congregation certainly starts with the preaching.

In what follows, I will focus on the role of expositional preaching in the local church. I will first observe the divine authority of expositional preaching, then the expected response to expositional preaching. In each of these areas, I will point out the distinctiveness of expositional preaching from other forms of preaching I have experienced and the effects I have seen of expositional preaching under my own pastoral efforts.

Divine Authority

Expositional preaching happens when the main point of the Scriptural text is the main point of the sermon. An expositional sermon helps the hearer understand the Bible better and apply biblical truth to his/her life. In this way, expositional preaching is driven by God’s word, causing some to understand that the preacher is (in effect) speaking on God’s behalf, even as he speaks with his own words on a Sunday.

Leeman asks an important question when he writes, “How can ‘our words’ be ‘His Word’?” Indeed! How can a preacher – especially a cessationist preacher who believes in the sufficiency of Scripture – think that he is preaching “a word from God” as he preaches with his own words from his own mouth? 

I think the answer Leeman gives is helpful. He says, “God speaks through us whenever we plainly and modestly relate whatever He has already said in the Bible” (100). Thus, the preacher engages in something Leeman calls “re-revelation” (Leeman attributed this jargon to D.A. Carson) when he reads and explains God’s singular special revelation (i.e. Scripture). And this is the only grounds for any preacher to claim divine authority when he speaks.

I have noted a bizarre dichotomy of feelings in my own heart as I stand to preach behind a pulpit each Sunday. On the one hand, I am terrified. I am fearful of God’s judgment against my own sin and shortcomings. Who am I to stand before God this day and speak on His behalf?! I am fearful of the people’s judgment against my lack of knowledge and skill. Who am I to speak commandingly to so many people, some far more knowledgeable and skilled than I am?!

On the other hand, I am overwhelmingly confident. I am confident in God’s trustworthiness, His wisdom, His justice, and His grace. I am confident of the people’s need for God’s truth, their need to understand it, to believe it, to submit it, and to be nourished by it. The reason for this dichotomy is that I feel the weight of my own ineptitude and the weight of God’s own majesty. As a preacher, I can speak with divine authority when (and only when) I faithfully read, explain, and apply God’s holy word.

Therefore, expositional preaching plays the role of giving divinely authoritative direction to a particular local church. Who are we? What shall we do? How shall we live? All of these questions are answered on the pages of Scripture, and it is the job of the preacher to expound the Scripture in the context of a particular church family so that they may be hearers and doers of God’s word.

A Right Response

Because expositional preaching is the kind of preaching that best displays divinely authoritative preaching, it is also the best kind of preaching for leading the hearer toward a biblical response. Preaching is not essentially guidelines for living, steps for improving, or suggestions for success. Preaching (when it is faithfully expositional) is a divine word from God that must be believed and heeded. Leeman notes that “the Bible does two things: It announces what God has done, and it confronts its hearers with this news and its implications” (110).

Expositional preaching, then, announces the indicatives and imperatives of God’s word and confronts the hearer in his/her error. The assumption here is that the hearer is in error, and Leeman addresses that in the book as well. But, for the sake of space, I want to focus on the response that expositional preaching expects from the hearer. It expects divine transformation.

Among my congregation in rural East Texas there may be a number of Christians who are struggling to hear expositional preaching. Their palates have been trained to lap up nutrient-sparse messages of moralism and self-improvement. Many churches within a 20-mile radius of our church building continue striving to package a better therapeutic or culturally-traditional model of doing church.

Because this is true, expositional preaching has been somewhat off-putting to some church members and many visitors. They do not like the emphasis upon propositional statements over motivational ones. They sometimes wonder why there isn’t the same stress upon southern and rural American values, and they chafe at some words of admonition against cultural conformity.

Some, however, have begun to see that it is life-transformation we are after. Some exhibit the fruit of the Spirit’s work in their lives through the reverberation of the Scriptures. Some have joyfully embraced the higher goal of transformation, leaving behind the worldly goal of self-affirming spiritual guidance.

I think of Steve, who read between the lines of my gentle admonition, now looking for ways to read Scripture together with his adult daughters who are grown and gone, all three seeming to be nominal Christians. I think of Kathy, who started reading Scripture together with her mother and three sisters one night each week. Kathy heard her mother pray for the first time about a year ago, and we baptized Wanda (Kathy’s 80-yr-old mom) into membership in 2018.

I think of David, who became a deacon about 2 years ago and joined a weekly study of systematic theology in order to understand the Bible better. I think of Donald, who seems like a 70-yr-old “cage-stage” Reformed guy because he has just begun to grasp what it means that God is truly sovereign and that sound doctrine is life-giving.

Conclusion

God’s word alone has the power to transform lives. In the local church, the role of expositional preaching is to unleash the beast of God’s word without any of the trappings we might try to place upon it in our effort to dress it up a bit or make it more desirable for our modern culture. Christ is King! His word of grace saves! And His Spirit works through His word to transform all those who love and trust Him.

May God raise up many more preachers who humbly believe the “faith proposition” Leeman calls for in this book, and may God glorify Himself through the ministry of many Word-centeredchurches.

From Eden to New Jerusalem | A Book Review

I recently read T.D. Alexander’s “From Eden to New Jerusalem.” It was a wonderful introductory book on Biblical Theology. Every Christian would benefit from this book and its content.

Introduction

Alexander makes no difficult task of discovering his thesis in this book. He states at the outset that he seeks to answer two of the biggest questions of all time, namely “Why does the earth exist?” and “What is the purpose of human life?” The author provides answers to these questions by walking through the metanarrative of holy Scripture and helping his reader see the major themes that run straight through the entire story. In my own estimation, Alexander’s work was a delight; I believe he was successful at proposing a biblical and interesting answer to each of these questions. The purpose for human existence is a familiar question and answer to me, but the divine intent in creating planet earth is a concept that hasn’t been given much time in my own mind. This book added quality and content to both of these concepts for me. Alexander’s book is a marvelous and accessible text that brings the reader from Eden to the New Jerusalem by briskly walking through the Scriptures in a remarkable way.

Summary

The tall task of seeking to answer huge questions is matched by the author’s panoramic view of the Scriptures, as well as his firm grasp of the major themes in the overarching story. He demonstrates a keen familiarity with the Bible’s story-like composition as he calls the reader’s attention to the opening and closing of the canonical collection. Alexander points out the similarities found in the biblical accounts of creation at the beginning and re-creation at the end. Alexander says:

By providing a closely matched beginning and end, the opening chapters of Genesis and the final chapters of Revelation undoubtedly frame the biblical meta-story… Whereas Genesis presents the earth as a potential building site, Revelation describes a finished city. Underlying the construction of this city is the expectation that God will reside within it, sharing its facilities with people from every nation.[1]

In this way, the author sets the stage for how he intends to answer those two big questions. Genesis and Revelation do indeed provide a marvelous frame for the picturesque story of God’s purposes for earth and humanity. Alexander nearly repeats himself in his conclusion when he makes a more direct statement, offering answers to the original questions. He says:

As we move from Genesis to Revelation, a consistent and coherent pattern emerges, centered on the idea that God created this earth with the intention of constructing an arboreal temple-city. This unique metropolis, as God’s abode, will be inhabited by people who display the holy nature of God himself.[2]

Here, the author provides concise answers to the two questions: (1) the earth exists to be a dwelling place for God with humanity, and (2) humans exist to be appropriate image-bearers of God. Alexander’s arguments display designs that are introduced at creation and climax at recreation. He traced more than the two following concepts in this book, but these seemed to me to be the convergence of all streams.

The Temple-city. It seems clear that the purpose for earth’s existence (according to Alexander) is to be one massive “arboreal temple-city,” and this is what it will one day be. Alexander seeks to demonstrate this idea is not only how God intends the earth to be eventually, but that this is God’s intention from the very beginning. The author highlights the coherence and order found in the Garden of Eden. He also shows how God commissioned the apex of His creation (humanity) to cultivate the same characteristics throughout the earth. Of course, Adam failed in this task, but God’s purposes were not thwarted.

The Tabernacle and Temple were miniature replicas of the cosmic temple-city in which God dwelt with humanity. Alexander provides some parallels between Eden and the Tabernacle, when he says, “As divine sanctuaries, both are entered from the east and cherubim guard their entrances. The golden menorah that stood in the Holy Place may have been designed specifically to resemble the tree of life” (34). Such resemblance is also found in the later Temple, but these both point to a greater demonstration of God making His “tabernacle” or dwelling among humanity. Of course, Jesus Christ is a clear touch-point for humanity; He is “God with us.” Alexander points out, however, that this incredible condescension is not the last step in the progression of God dwelling among humanity.

The Church is metaphorically presented in the New Testament as the temple of God. In Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, and elsewhere the author points to the imagery of the temple-city as used to describe the assembly of God’s people in Christ. Of course, the Church is also presented as the “body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12; Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:27), and Alexander argues for a logical progression. “Since Christ’s body is the temple of God and since… Christians are those who are ‘in Christ’, it naturally follows that the church, as the body of Christ, is also the temple of God” (71).

Still, the author makes clear that the temple-city to come is yet to be enjoyed, even by those who are counted among the church in the here and now. Citing the author of Hebrews, Alexander reminds his readers that the city we await is a “city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). Therefore, Alexander argues that the temple-city, of which God is the architect, will one day cover all the earth. In the new creation there shall be no chaos or disorder, but all shall be as God intended from the beginning. God will dwell with humanity in the worldwide temple-city called in Scripture “the new Jerusalem” (Rev. 21:2). This divinely prepared city will undoubtedly be a marvelous dwelling, in which image-bearing humans will enjoy communion with their God.

Holy Priest-Kings. Alexander, in the concluding statements of his book (cited above), asserts that the purpose or end of humanity is to “display the holy nature of God” (188). God created humanity as image-bearers, and Alexander says, “To be made in the ‘image of God’ is to be given regal status” (77). He traces royal attributes in Adam, Melchizedek (the mysterious priest-king), Abraham, and the nation of Israel. Adam, who was the first vice regent of God on earth, failed to fulfill his role of image-bearer well, and the same is the case for those humans who followed him. The need for a more perfect representative is repeated again and again, and Alexander points out the issue when he says that no image-bearers can “be genuine priest-kings and simultaneously disregard God’s instructions” (84). The role of image-bearing can only be filled appropriately by humans who are reflecting the nature of the supreme King accurately.

Jesus is the key figure who reinstitutes God’s kingdom on earth, and Alexander recalls, “The establishment of this kingdom, one of the central ideas of the Gospels, is intimately associated with who Jesus is and what he does” (89). Jesus is the God-man, and His right representation of God’s holy nature brings the human purpose into marvelous focus. Like the concept of temple-city, the concept of image-bearing priest-kings narrows at Christ and also expands from Him.

The Church enjoys this image-bearing priest-king status in the same way that the Church enjoys the status of being the “body of Christ.” Therefore, Alexander argues, the Church is now the visible kingdom of God on earth. However, the fullness of what the image-bearing priest-kings will be is yet to come in the new heavens and the new earth. The author describes a future time, as presented in Scripture and brought about by God Himself, when humanity will appropriately display the holy nature of God. As Alexander says, “Then, and only then, shall we know life as God intends it to be” (192).

Marc’s Review

There was so much to enjoy about this concise book. I appreciated Alexander’s ability to trace concepts and themes from one end of the Scriptures to the other. I was thrilled to see the end result of God’s masterpiece as Alexander helped his own readers understand how to focus in on the overarching story of the Bible. In my judgment, Alexander did meet his own stated goal of answering the two big questions of life. The purpose for the earth is to be an “arboreal temple-city,” and the purpose of humanity is to “display the holy nature of God himself.” Of course, the two answers are more fully developed in this book and even more so throughout the Scriptures.

Alexander was able, I believe, to demonstrate the biblical view that God intended something like a temple-city from the beginning. The correlations between Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22 are tremendously striking indeed. Alexander highlighted continuity and further development of this concept throughout the biblical text, and it was not forced or manipulated. I would even argue that the emphasis Alexander placed on certain key elements, such as the detailed décor of the Temple and the building metaphor in association to the New Testament Church, helped open my own eyes to be better able to see more of the same semblance elsewhere.

The theme of image-bearing priest-kings was also strongly communicated. I was familiar with the ‘Image of God’ in the creation of Adam and Eve, and I was familiar with the notion that God commissioned Adam and Eve as something like ambassadors or delegates to rule as extensions of the supreme King. What I did not know so well was that this same concept was repeated in others before the coming of Christ. I was fascinated to see that the delegation of God’s vice regents was actually quite a staple of the Old Testament storyline. Alexander has helped me to understand that Christ’s role as the ultimate Priest-King is and was more expected than surprising. This too has expanded my understanding of who the Church is today and what she is to do. The implications of Alexander’s highlighted themes are many, to be sure.

Conclusion

Overall, I found Alexander’s arguments to be clear, biblical and compelling. Each of the concepts mentioned above were thoroughly outlined from the Scriptures themselves, and logically sound. God from intentionally established the purpose for earth and humanity before creation, and God has been moving these purposes forward throughout history. The Bible’s overarching story is a spectacular display of God’s wisdom and power, as He has been building a city in which to dwell with a holy people. Both the people and the city are the products of God’s intentional and affectionate attention.
I would recommend this book to every adult Christian. It will help the reader understand how the Bible tells the story of God’s redeeming work from creation to re-creation.
Alexander, T. Desmond. From Eden to the New Jerusalem. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2008.

[1]14

[2]188

Making Sense of the Old Testament | A Book Review

I recently finished reading Tremper Longman’s “Making Sense of the Old Testament.” I recommend it to any Christian who feels unfamiliar with and distant from the Old Testament. This book is accessible to any adult reader and helpful for any Christian who wants to begin discovering the riches found only in the Old Testament.

Introduction

Making Sense of the Old Testament” is a great introduction to the Old Testament generally and a wonderful guide to equip modern readers for entry into the foreign landscape so characteristic of the Old Testament. The author keeps a fast pace and covers quite a lot of content in an effort to raise the reader’s gratitude for and acquaintance with the Old Testament. Longman states his these in the preface, “My argument in this volume is that it is vitally important for us to work at our appreciation and understanding of the Old Testament” (11).

Summary

Below I have provided a brief summary and overview of the book. It is broken down into three sections, each with its own contribution to author’s overall stated task.

Section One

Opening with several reasons the Old Testament is really quite attractive to Bible students who spend much time and effort there, Longman paints with broad strokes to begin forming a picture that will entice the reader rather than repel him. He says the Old Testament is full of “gripping stories,” “heart-wrenching poems,” “images of God,” “and guidance for life” (13-17). One of the most important and appealing attributes, among those Longman lists, is that of providing background to the New Testament (17).

Quickly after this inviting depiction, Longman admits and points out a few difficulties that the reader is bound to face when he begins his journey through the Old Testament text. It is long and diverse, it is very old (no pun intended), and it is culturally alien to most any modern reader (18-21). Indeed, these do inhibit an easy immersion, but these may also add to the joy of discovery. As Longman mentioned the last of his distancing difficulties, he gets to the heart of the matter when he says that many readers simply do not know what to think about the time in redemptive history that predates the Cross of Christ (22).

His book is intended to stimulate (not discourage) Old Testament readership, so the author spends the remainder of the book attempting to equip and encourage the reader for the task. Longman notes nine principles for proper biblical interpretation to help the reader navigate his way across this unfamiliar terrain: discover the author’s intended meaning; read Scripture in its context; identify the genre of the book and the passage; consider the historical and cultural background of the Bible; consider the grammar and structure within the passage; interpret experience in light of Scripture, not Scripture in light of experience; always seek the full counsel of Scripture; discover how the Scripture passage presents Christ; and be open-minded and tolerant of other interpretations (23-54).

Section Two

The next two sections deal with the matter of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. Any reader of the Bible will inevitably have to come to some perspective on this issue. The second section of Longman’s work focuses primarily upon the continuity of divine character and work. In fact, it is the very nature of God as “Yahweh” that unifies both Testaments under one theme. Longman said that he does not allow any single theme to “totally subsume” the Bible, but he then went on to explain that God as covenantal self-revealer is just that kind of singularly unifying theme. Longman says, “I do not believe the Bible can be totally subsumed under any single theme… However, there is a unifying theme, and that is God himself. To the question ‘What is the Bible about?’ the obvious answer is that the Bible is about God” (59).

Further explaining the reality that God communicates through the use of concrete images and metaphors, Longman then went on to introduce the reader to some of the more prominent metaphors in Scripture. God is “Covenant King” (59-71), “Divine Warrior” (71-85), and “Immanuel” (86-102). Each of these are powerful and profound depictions of God’s character and nature, and each reveals God in real time and in real relationship with humanity. Furthermore, each of these are metaphors that God uses to reveal Himself in both the Old and New Testaments. This denotes significant continuity.

Section Three

The last section continues to address the continuity and discontinuity between the two Testaments, but here the author also attempts to tackle a particular difficulty. Most New Testament Christians (to say nothing of modern unbelievers) will likely have a very tough time saying anything consistent about the law of God in the Old and New Testaments. The author presents the spectrum of ideas from within the Christian community in the form of two polar opposites – C. I. Scofield and Rouses Rushdoony. Longman quotes Scofield (a dispensationalist), who wrote,

“The most obvious and striking division of the word of truth is that between Law and Grace. Indeed, these contrasting principles characterize the two most important dispensations—Jewish and Christian… Scripture never, in any dispensation, mingles these two principles” (p. 105).

On the other end of the spectrum, Longman describes the theonomist position (of which Rushdoony was a proponent). Longman said that those who hold the theonomic view “argue that the Old Testament laws and penalties are still in effect today” (105). As was mentioned, each of these views oppose each another, but the author’s point was to draw a stark contrast in order to provide a third option.

Dividing the law of God into three categories (moral, civil, and ceremonial), Longman went on to skim the surface of how modern Christians might understand these laws and apply the Old Testament generally to life today. The Old Testament exposes the reader to him or herself as the characters of the narrative illustrate real thoughts, words, and deeds. In these historical accounts, the reader may gain insight and learn lessons. In the poetic portions of Scripture, the reader may let his or her soul run free among the sweeping emotional highs and lows found there. In the wisdom literature, the reader may understand precepts for living life well before God; and in the prophetic portions, the reader may heed the warnings and cling to the hopeful promises.

Marc’s Review

This book was accessible, helpful, and full of good reasons for the reader to take up and read the Old Testament. In my estimation, Longman achieved his goal of making a case for working at an appreciation and understanding of the Old Testament. It will certainly take work, but the author has argued well that the effort is well worth it.

The great benefits of this book are many, but the introduction to some critical Scriptural concepts was fantastic. Continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments, God as Covenant King and Divine Warrior, God’s presence among humanity, Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament types, and the Christian’s relationship to God’s Law were all essential concepts that the Bible student will have to address if he or she is to progress in understanding the biblical text. Longman’s book does a great job of providing an introduction to these concepts and others.

Additionally, the nine interpretive principles will be a marvelous help to any new Bible reader. The average Christian does not need to know what “Biblical Hermeneutics” means, but he or she needs to have them when interpretative work is being done. Longman’s principles serve as exactly that, and even the most elementary of readers can pick up and use these simple principles.

Still more impressive about Longman’s book was the accessibility of it. As a pastor, I have been discouraged to learn just how infrequent many Christians read anything of real value. The likelihood that many Christians will read a book on biblical interpretation and understanding is slim (at best), and that statistic only goes down if the book they open is slow or difficult to follow. This work was very fast-paced. There were several times I was forced to move on to the next topic before I was completely satisfied with Longman’s address of the previous one. However, the average reader will likely appreciate the quick bursts and introductory-level content.

Conclusion

I am glad to have read this book, and glad to review it. It has been a fresh reminder of many wonderful and challenging things. I will recommend this book to those in my congregation (as well as other Christians) who are interested in reading the Old Testament with greater understanding and higher appreciation. In this book, Longman has succeeded in helping his readers make sense of the Old Testament.

 

Longman, Tremper, III. Making Sense of the Old Testament: 3 Crucial Questions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.