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Posts Tagged ‘O. Palmer Robertson’


One of my congregants was born in another country, and another branch of the family of faith. When they moved to America and joined our congregation there was much that was new to her. One thing in particular was Covenant Theology.

Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God's Unfolding Promises to His PeopleShe and her husband were listening to Ligon Duncan’s lectures on the subject but was wondering if there was a book I could recommend. Months earlier I had picked up Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God’s Unfolding Promises to His People on sale. It came highly recommended by others. I hadn’t read it yet but lent them my copy. It turned out to be one of her favorite books of the year. As a result, I read it (at the time we were thinking of writing a middle school curriculum on Covenant Theology).

The book is appropriately named. To be fair I’ve read many of the key books on the subject, but Rhodes does keep it simple. He doesn’t duck controversies, but neither does he get bogged down in them. He doesn’t use technical language because this is intended to be for the average person in the pews. He succeeds, as indicated by the many recommendations I’ve seen online. The book includes a number of helpful diagrams (not charts!) to illustrate his point in a given chapter. These visual aids supplement the text nicely.

Covenants are often misunderstood. They are about relationships. One of the more famous definitions is O. Palmer Robertson’s “bond in blood”. The problem with that is it doesn’t work for the first covenant in Scripture. Nor the eternal covenant between the Father and Son if you hold to that (I do). Jonty Rhodes seeks to get at covenants through a series of questions (good questions) that bring us to the ultimate questions of how can I know God’s promises are reliable.

He begins in the Garden with what is commonly called The Covenant of Works. But he begins that chapter in the Upper Room and Jesus’ mention of the blood of the covenant. We can’t really understand Jesus’ death if we don’t understand covenants. Covenants are throughout Scripture, and Rhodes rightly notes “Covenant is the theme that links the different books of the Bible to make them one united story.” But, you might say, the Bible is about Jesus. Yes, and He reveals what He’s going to do through those covenants.

The word occurs more than 300 times. While it is connected to the word “to cut” we see from its use and context that “a covenant is a conditional promise.” Or to flesh it out some more, he says “A covenant is an agreement between God and human beings, where God promises blessings if the conditions are kept and threatens curses if the conditions are broken.” This doesn’t mean there aren’t covenants between nations or individuals (David and Jonathan made a covenant of friendship) but our focus is on the biggies that shape the Scripture.

Now Rhodes goes back to the Garden. God has created, separated and filled creation. He made Adam and Eve in His image to fill, subdue and rule it. These creation mandates involve marriage & family, work and study, arts and sciences. In addition to these positive commands about how they are to spend their time, we see the provision of food to sustain them. There was one negative command, that one tree whose fruit they couldn’t eat. Keep the commands and this Garden temple will grow to fill the earth to God’s glory, but break them and they ruin everything. The Bible never mentions that this comprises a covenant but we see commands, prohibitions and sanctions anyway (as well as the historical prologue of creation). We also see, Rhodes notes, the reality of Adam as a covenant or federal head in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. How can we properly understand how all humanity fell in Adam apart from a covenant? If we rule that out, we rule out the means of salvation with Jesus as the head of the new covenant.

As Rhodes notes, plenty of people don’t like the term covenant of works. Other terms used are covenant of life or covenant of creation. There doesn’t seem to be any grace in works. Adam did receive all kinds of benefits in creation without initially earning them. Continuing in them was a different story. But this intramural debate doesn’t interest him much.

The greatness of the Garden didn’t last long. Adam ruined it for himself, and all of us. His actions have affected every single human being who has lived, is living and will live. He is literally the most (or 2nd most) influential person ever. The second chapter engages us in Satan’s assault on God through His image, Adam. When he sins, the curse breaks out. God is applying the sanctions of the covenant, not having a conniption of divine proportions. The curses affect the creation mandates: our filling, subduing and ruling. Each is not attended with futility and failure, pain and problems.

Yet we see mercy as well. God did not simply execute these traitors, he let the live. But He also have them a promise that someone would come to set things right again. Rhodes also gets to the more “theological” aspects of the curse that need to be dealt with: guilt, grime (internal corruption) and the grave.

His third chapter brings us back to the reality of covenant conflict, or rather the conflict in the OT seen through the lens of the covenant. Satan continues his war on God’s people in an attempt to thwart the seed of the woman. The conflict is frequently one of words, with the false messages of the Evil One continuing. Here he address the covenant with Noah. He slips in a little about common grace since this covenant is not specifically about salvation but provides the stage for redemption. It also mirrors the creation mandates and promises. Like Adam, this “second” Adam sins and fails to bring comfort to God’s people.

This brings Rhodes, and us, to the covenant with Abraham (his new name by virtue of the covenant). The seed of the woman will come through Abraham’s line. God promises a great name (unlike Babel which sought to make a great name for itself), great people and to bring a great blessing to the nations. God will repair the damage done by Adam, but through Abraham’s promised seed. The covenants progressively reveal God’s promises to His people. They are rightly seen as building upon one another rather than disconnected from one another.

The Mosaic covenant is one that continues to perplex people today. Is it reflective of the covenant of grace, the covenant of works or does it have elements of both?

It arises because God has been keeping His promises to Abraham about a great nation, and is about to fulfill His promise about the land. Their redemption from slavery helps form a gracious background to this covenant. Yet, like the covenant of creation it seems very much about how to remain in the land, or be removed from the land for prolonged & persistent disobedience. We should see the sacrifices as provisional until the Seed comes. This covenant doesn’t lay aside the promise, and like Abraham they were accounted righteous by faith. Like Abraham they were also to walk uprightly before Him (Gen. 17). To think that conditions, or holiness, reflect back upon the covenant of worship seems to be mistaken. Rhodes puts it this way, the covenants with Abraham and Moses are the same girl in a different dress. To put it another way: while obedience doesn’t produce salvation, salvation produces obedience.

The next development is the covenant with David. God narrows down the line for the seed further. The skull crusher will come from David. We see here, as well, God’s conditionality. If a particular son disobeys, he will be disciplined. But there is the son who will set all things right. Just as David disobeyed at times, Solomon gets distracted by girls, gods and gold. David’s line is more failure than faithfulness until the Babylonian exile.

In the chapter of the New Covenant, Rhodes addresses the newness of the covenant. He also draws out the consistency of the New Covenant with the previous ones. It has the same promises, not different promises. He also develops and already-not yet approach to this covenant. We see forgiveness as well as holiness. We see the promise of a new heart and the Spirit. We see the familiar promise that “they will by My people and I will be their God.” Like the earlier covenants, they are all about salvation, not simply forming a nation with land. Those served the purposes of redemption and the boundaries are about to be expanded. The Gentiles doesn’t replace the Jews, but are grafted onto the vine (or more properly, Vine). We are admitted into the true Israel.

It is here that he finally addresses the question of the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son. This is alluded to in many Scriptures, particularly in John’s Gospel. The Father makes a conditional promise to the Son: He will give Him a people for His pain. Jesus fulfills the covenant of works for their salvation. It will not be wasted work based on the promise of people given to Him. This brings us to the doctrine of election. It also brings us to double imputation and union with Christ. The covenants are not an isolated doctrine but inform a number of doctrines.

He further explores these in covenant salvation which explores the role of each member of the Trinity in salvation, previously agreed upon. The Father chooses, the Son dies & intercedes, and the Spirit applies that salvation to the people chosen by the Father at the appointed time. This brings us to the doctrine of limited or particular atonement. It is best understood with the framework of the covenant. He brings this forward to the question of assurances. Aside from this covenantal understanding of salvation we lose the grounds of assurance.

Rhodes then explores the covenant people further with a view toward church government. He provides an interesting approach. Congregationalism is like a bunch of self-governing circles, lots of churches but seemingly no Church. The Presbyterian form of government sees a chain, self-governing congregations that are joined to for a Church. The Episcopal form is a pyramid with all under the authority of one head on earth who mediates that power through bishops to pastors and congregations. From here he moves into the visible and invisible churches and then into the question of infant baptism. The covenant is essential for understanding the church and sacraments properly.

The last chapter returns to covenant life, how the covenant informs our experience of life in the Church and the church. We receive the promised Holy Spirit (promised explicitly in the New Covenant but discussed by Paul in terms of the Abrahamic covenant in Galatians) who produces obedience in us. This is because the Spirit unites us to Jesus. He briefly touches upon the law and gospel distinction.

We discover that this book about covenants brings us to consider much of theology. They are not isolated but form the structure of Scripture and therefore theology. This is a book well-worth studying. It is worthy of recommendation to your people. It may not dig as deep into some controversies as someone may like, we see the breadth of issues that may interest people. This is not a plunge into the deep end but like wading into the pool while inviting people to swim in the deep end when they choose.

 

 

 

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Habakkuk is not a minor prophet who gets much attention. It is a book that is difficult to read since you have little hope there as he complains to God and the answer is not quite to his liking.

It just doesn’t “preach” in our day of itching ears, prosperity and easy living.

This week I begin a sermon series on Habakkuk. As you begin you aren’t sure if the resources will be worth your while. You aren’t sure if you are going to get helpful perspectives and cover historical, exegetical, and practical issues well enough to prepare you to bring the Word to God’s people. Only time will tell if I refresh weary souls.

Calvin’s Commentary on Habakkuk is my interaction with the historic community. I try to pick at least one older commentary. We shouldn’t ignore how it was interpreted in the past. We stand on their shoulders rather than figure out everything from scratch. You generally can’t go wrong with Calvin.

Quick Review: Apparently general rules can be broken. In his lectures on Habakkuk, Calvin seemed to have very different interests than I did regarding the text. There were a few application points that I used, but for some reason it was largely an exercise in missing the boat. Perhaps by me. I often read him last and by then my ADD was flaring. Maybe that was the problem- a me issue.

D. I’ve got O. Palmer Robertson’s volume in the New International Commentary of the Old Testament series covering Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah. This is my more technical commentary for Habakkuk. Robertson is a capable scholar, so I feel like I’m in good hands as I seek to tackle any of those more technical questions.

Quick Review: This commentary covers three of the minor prophets. Thankfully it was not superficial. It could have been more in-depth but I did find it helpful at some key points. While not as valuable to me as some others, it was useful and I’d use it again.

Similar to that is Walter Kaiser’s volume, Micah -Malachi, in The Communicator’s Commentary Series. It should focus a bit more on how to preach it. We’ll see.

Quick Review: I was not impressed with this commentary. Granted, it spans from Micah to Malachi, but I thought that it didn’t go into enough depth. It didn’t contribute much to my understanding and application of Habakkuk. I think I could have saved time by not reading this, but it didn’t generally take long to read. At times I disagreed with his conclusions, but there wasn’t enough background given for him to  change my mind about his views. This is a snorkling, not suba nor deep sea diving kind of commentary.

I read some good reviews on Habakkuk by Heath Thomas, part of the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series. This is also more to the exegetical/technical side of things. It offers to bridge the gap between biblical and systematic theology.

Quick Review: Initially I was disappointed. I was not thrilled with the layout and wished that I’d begun to read the volume before the series began. After the commentary on the three chapters, he had chapters on some of the themes that arose in the book. I never got to those. After the initial disappointment I found that his verse by verse commentary was very helpful. At times I was discouraged as he claimed a particular portion was among the hardest passages in the OT to translate/interpret. Hard words on a hard topic. This would be one of the volumes I’d encourage you to read to grapple with Habakkuk as he grapples with the justice of God.

John Currid often provides lots of archeological & historical background in his commentaries. As a result, I picked up his volume Habakkuk: The Expectant Prophet. It is not very thick, but I expect to get some good nuggets from it.

Quick Review: I think this may have come from a sermon series he did. I was not disappointed in the slightest by this volume. It was probably the most helpful book I read. He answered some exegetical questions, and had some. great illustrations that I used. There was some ANE background on subjects like sieges. I got more than nuggets from this one.

Even shorter is D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ (I’ll never say it the same after watching the Lego Ninjago Movie with the kids. “Your name is L-loyd. I was there, I named you.”) From Fear to Faith: Studies in the Book of Habakkuk and the Problem of History. The cover is pretty ugly with a rocket launcher and some B-movie monster (okay, actually a statue of some ancient idol that looks like a B-movie monster). Go figure. Maybe in addition to watching wrestling with the grandkids he watched monster movies.

Quick Review: If you are looking for exegesis, help understanding what Habakkuk means, wrestling with textual issues etc. This isn’t really the book for you. L-loyd-Jones goes after the bigger picture in this book. While written in the 50’s with the threat of Soviet communism looming large, he does provide some good direction in helping you to make those epochal adjustments from Habakkuk’s day to ours. There were some great quotes in this book.

Habakkuk: Struggling with God’s Justice

Sadly, my sermon on Habakkuk 1:1-4 did not record properly.

The Babylonians are Coming! The Babylonians are Coming! (Hab. 1:5-11)

Seriously? (Hab. 1:12-2:1)

The Righteous Live by Faith (Hab. 2:2-5)

Woe Unto Them! (Hab. 2:6-20)

In Wrath Remember Mercy (Hab. 3:1-15)

I Still Believe & Rejoice (Hab. 3:16-19)

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A Great Little Book

February is fast  approaching, and with it my responsibility to preach on Jonah.  In my cold-induced haze, I went stumbling through my as-yet-unboxed commentaries looking to find my stash on Jonah.  There was one in particular I was looking for, one that finally became available in the U.S.  only recently.  Sinclair Ferguson’s Man Overboard! seemed to be just that- lost at sea!  I could not find it.

This morning, since we all have horrible colds and did not go to public worship, I was doing a bit of cleaning.  A thought came to mind of a few places it just might be.  I could not imagine putting it in a box.  I had 3 places in mind, and thankfully it was in the 3rd place.  I rejoice that I will be able to refer to Sinclair Ferguson’s fine little book on the wayward prophet.

Man Overboard!: the Story of Jonah by Sinclair Ferguson.  He is a theologian who writes with a pastor’s heart.  This little book is no different.  You are not overwhelmed with Hebrew (though there is some in important places), or tedious arguments for/against the historicity of Jonah.  That is not the purpose of this book.  It is to drive the message of Jonah into your heart.  Perhaps this first chapter will whet your appetite.

Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy: The Gospel According to Jonah by Bryan Estelle. This is part of the Gospel in the Old Testament Series which I love and recommend.  It keeps these Old Testament books within the larger context of the whole of Scripture- the message of reconciliation accomplished through Christ.

Hosea-Jonah (WBC Series) by Douglas Stuart.  I heard Dr. Stuart preach at my church in NH way back when.  I have pretty much all his commentaries.  Yes, I was impressed.  I have not read this yet, but have started the section on Jonah.  As is common in the Word Biblical Commentary Series, it is more academic.  It has lots of Hebrews and interacts with the various views put forth by scholastic liberals.  It is a very good academic commentary, though not all of them in this series are as solidly evangelical.

Here are some books I don’t have, but find interesting.

Jonah (Geneva Commentary Series) by Hugh Martin.  It is small, and published by Banner of Truth.  Based on reputation, I’d say this is a concise, solid commentary.

Jonah: A Study in Compassion by O. Palmer Robertson. Once again published by Banner of Truth, this book brings the perspective of the missionary-theologian to bear on the book.

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