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St. Paul, MN
5 Stars Out Of 5
Gospel-centered view of Romans 1-7
February 24, 2014
St. Paul, MN
Each volume of the God's Word For You series takes you to the heart of a book of the Bible, and applies its truths to your heart. The central aim of each title is to be: Bible centered, Christ glorifying, Relevantly applied, Easily readable.
Each title in the series can be used "To read_ as a book that explains and explores the themes, encouragements and challenges of this part of Scripture. To feed_ as part of personal devotions, or alongside a sermon or Bible-study series. Or, to lead_ as a resource to help one teach God's word to others, both in small-group and whole-church settings."
This is a devotional, introductory-level commentary designed for personal reading and growth rather than a technical commentary.
Special note: The series introduction on page 5 states: "These books are not commentaries." I respectfully disagree. This title is more accessible than the average commentary, but still functions much like a commentary, so I am treating it as if it is a commentary.
Structure and Features:
"Romans 1-7 For You" includes an introduction to the Book of Romans. Each textual section in Romans 1-7 is covered in a chapter, which is then split into roughly two equal parts. At the end of each part are three "Questions for Reflection." The Scripture text is not included in the commentary, but verse references from Romans are bolded to help the reader follow along in the commentary as he reads the Bible text. At the end of the book is a glossary where bolded words in the commentary are defined. Following this are three appendixes and then the bibliography. The first appendix is a helpful summary of Paul's flow of thought through the first seven chapters of Romans. The next appendix defines idolatry and explores how to identify and dismantle the idols of the heart â€” those underlying motives that stand behind our sins. The last appendix is a brief, two and a half page discussion of the recent debate over the New Pauline Perspective and how that impacts our understanding of Romans. He concludes that it doesn't require a completely new reading of Romans, while it can add to our understanding here and there.
Throughout Keller's discussion of the text are pastoral nuggets of wisdom. Quotes become sidebars in the text to encourage the reader to continue reading. Lists of three reasons for this, or three kinds of churches, and other pastoral wisdom are brought to bear on the text. This is fitting for a devotional commentary where the comments need not directly flow from the text itself. That said, the commentary aims to illumine the Scriptural text and does just that.
Like most books I have read by Tim Keller, there are several fantastic quotes and extremely helpful insights or ways of putting things. I wanted to provide an excerpt which gives the flavor of the commentary as a whole, and also hones in on the important message of Romans 1-7. This excerpt is from the section on Rom. 3:21-31.
"Righteousness is a validating performance record which opens doors. When you want a job, you send in a resume. It has all the experiences and skills that make you (you hope!) worthy of the position. You send it in and say: Look at this. Accept me! Your record has nothing on it that disqualifies you from the job; and it has (you hope!) everything that will qualify you for it.
"Every religion and culture believes that it's the same with God. It's not a vocational record; it's a moral or spiritual record. You get out your performance record and if it's good enough, you're worthy of life with God and you're accepted. And then Paul comes along and says: But now_ For the first time in history â€” and the last â€” an unheard of approach to God has been revealed. A divine righteousness â€” the righteousness of God, a perfect record â€” is given to us.
"No other place offers this. Outside of the gospel, we must develop a righteousness, and offer it to God, and say (hopefully and anxiously): Accept me. The gospel says that God has developed a perfect righteousness, and he offers it to us, and by it we are accepted. This is the uniqueness of the Christian gospel; and it reverses what every other religion and worldview, and even every human heart, believes." (pg. 79-80, italics original, bold emphasis on the verse numbers and glossary terms, removed)
This commentary is packed with gospel goodness. Romans 1-7 is perhaps the most gospel-central section in the New Testament, and Tim Keller is the perfect author to lead us through this section. His insight into legalism and religiousity on the one hand, and licentiousness and atheism on the other, helps us see how the gospel cuts into all kinds of people. This is no dry theological tome, but an exultation in the gospel of God's grace. Keller does advocate a reformed view of salvation, but is very irenic and pastoral in how he explains the text. His position on Romans 7 is that it describes the struggles believers continue to face after salvation. Keller is careful not to force the reader into a theological mold but encourages them to see the text and feed on it. His practical insight and emphasis on application combine to provide a commentary that doesn't stop with the head but moves to the heart quickly. It can be read as a devotional book with benefit, or used as a text for an adult Sunday School class or small group study. I highly recommend it.
This book was provided by The Good Book Company, via Cross Focused Reviews. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.
In this exciting new addition to the God's Word For You series, published by The Good Book Company, pastor Timothy Keller offers what he explains is not a commentary, but rather an "expository guide" to the first seven chapters of Romans, intended to serve readers by "opening up the Scripture and suggesting how it applies to us today" (p. 10). To this opening, he adds, "My prayer is simply that it will help you to, in Luther's words, 'break through': in your understanding of the gospel message; or your experience of the gospel life; or both." In my opinion, he achieves his goal well, and offers his readers a tremendous resource for delving more deeply into this (especially) theologically rich portion of Scripture.
Since the book is not a commentary, Keller makes no effort to offer the same level of details regarding contrasting opinions, grammatical analysis, historical background, and theological interpretation that full-length commentaries offer (which is just fine, since there is already a vast multitude of wonderful commentaries on Romans in print), though fortunately, he does offer a very small and manageable amount of all these things in this book. Clearly, this book is intended for "thinking laypeople" who are ready to dig deeper into God's Word. Since there are numerous references to the text and not as many quoted passages, it also seems intended to accompany - rather than replace - the reading of the actual biblical text (a feature which I, as a minister, greatly appreciate!).
It struck me as a bit strange that the book is divided into twelve "chapters", yet each chapter is further divided into two equal readings (of about six pages each). Why was it not simply acknowledged that the book actually has twenty-four chapters? Was it feared that readers would be less drawn to the book if more chapters were listed on the contents page? Or, were they limited in how many catchy chapter titles they could come up with? The short readings are nice, of course, but any class or group who is considering using the book to guide their study should know up front they would either need to allow for twenty-four weeks' worth of conversations, or else double up on the readings each week.
I was also a bit curious about how exactly this book was "edited from the study of Timothy Keller", as the cover claims (which is different from the "Galatians For You" volume in this same series). I looked in vain for an "acknowledgments" page, or any other place which explained how Keller originally presented this material, or what process it went through to become published in book form. The only clue of other people participating in the process at all is the series preface by Carl Laferton, who's named as the "series editor". Still, this doesn't indicate whether Laferton, or Keller, or some anonymous third person actually crafted the final version what is written for us here.
Still, the book is presented (I think) in a very engaging and readable way, with plenty of inspiring observations throughout the text. In fact, I have yet to see a more exciting and accessible resource to help lay-level readers genuinely study (and not simply think about) God's Word - even as challenging a portion of God's Word as the epistle to the Romans! Though not aimed at advanced readers, Keller does a wonderful job of concisely answering many of the most commonly raised questions on each passage of Scripture, without venturing so far in his answers as to presenting any debatable or controversial views on anything. On the contrary, the comments that are offered by Keller seem to be solidly biblical, and well within the realm of agreement among the vast majority of evangelical Christians.
The one potential "hot topic" that Keller does mention is the so-called "New Perspective on Paul", which he only discusses for two-and-a-half pages in the final appendix to the book. While this may be a subject that most readers of this book have never even heard of, and perhaps no interest in (in which case they can ignore the appendix), it is one that is significant since it is being discussed with increasing regularity among scholars and pastors, and which can potentially affect the way that readers understand the writings of Paul. Fortunately, though, Keller agrees with most evangelical pastors (and myself), concluding that "ultimately, we must still read the book of Romans as Paul's defense of the gospel of free grace....The new perspective can't dislodge the classic understanding of Romans" (198).
Other helpful features of the book include a glossary of challenging words (including conversational terms, such as "analogy" and "licentious", as well as theological terms), a detailed outline of Romans 1-7, a helpful appendix on the theme of "idolatry", and a recommended bibliography (which includes a diverse list of twenty-three titles, only six of which are commentaries on "Romans"). Also, while the text itself is focused on helping readers understand the text of Romans, each of the (twenty-four) sections of the book concludes with relevant and probing "questions for reflection" - questions which are sure to be helpful in understanding how the text directly applies to our lives today.
Though it might seem a bit disappointing that this volume (like other forthcoming volumes in the series) only covers half of a biblical book, I believe that this should be regarded as a strength, rather than a weakness. Far too often, we try to rush ourselves through books of the Bible, simply so that we can say that we've read it, when there is so much benefit to reading the text in smaller and more "digestible" portions, considering more deeply what the text actually means, and reflecting more thoroughly on how our lives should change as a result of what we've read. Perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, Romans is a book that requires some thoughtfulness and reflection from readers - and perhaps better than any previous work, this new book from Timothy Keller should serve as a very helpful guide for the less experienced readers hoping to do so!
The Bible for You series looks to be a promising set of books for the Christian reader. I've purchased Galatians for You and have read Judges for You, so Romans 1-7 for You is not my first round through the park. The books are all about the same length, so Romans had to be split into two books, whereas Galatians is only one. Since the Old Testament books are significantly longer than the New Testament epistles, the author goes through them section by section, whereas the New Testament books are done verse by verse. This makes them excellent resources for Bible studies as well as for preaching through whole books of the Bible.
Romans 1-7 for You is an excellent volume in the series. This is Paul's magnum opus and his clearest treatment of the gospel. Therefore, Tim Keller's book gives excellent exposition verse by verse though the first seven chapters of the book of Romans. The style of writing is sermonicâ€”clear explanation coupled with heart-penetrating application. It serves both as a model for Bible study and for sermon prep. It inspired in me the same kind of delight I have had in the best Bible studies that I can remember having participated in.
Although Romans can be a very controversial book, Keller is firmly set within the evangelical tradition and does not stray off into arguments over minutiae. I am a Baptist and Keller is a Presbyterian, but nothing in the book seemed to me like the pursuit of any agenda except the faithful exposition of the text. I heartily recommend it as an encouragement and model of sound Bible study.
I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. The opinions expressed are my own.