A Great Commenduction to Romans

Commentaries have a very bad name and no-one, it seems, wants to read them. I’ve been able to talk a

few of my non-preaching friends into reading a commentary, but on the whole my recommendation has been met with the kind of knowing smile I would give an astrophysicist should he or she claim that rocket science isn’t really that complicated.

Which explains why both the author and the publisher are at pains to convince us that Tim Keller’s new book, ‘Romans 1-7 For You’ “Is not a commentary”, but rather “an expository guide”. The intent is not to juice every syllable or leave no phoneme unturned in the search for meaning. Rather, Keller takes what Paul wrote, explains it a good deal without being exhaust(ing/ive), applies it to the every day, pokes at how you think and what you want, relates it with culture and leaves you with the distinct feeling that you understand and appreciate the text rather more after reading Keller’s comments…I mean expository guide…than you did before.

I’m not sure you get to say it’s “not a commentary” and follow that up within two paragraphs of the start of the book by helpfully explaining that, “Servant here is literally slave – doulos“. Or pointing out, as he does, that “Much has been written about how to translate the word Paul uses here, hilastrion…” etc…
On the other hand, it’s not a very detailed commentary, and certainly if you subsist on a diet of William Hendriksen (does anyone?) then you’ll regard this as superficial.

So I’ll just call it a ‘commenduction’. Part commentary, part introduction. And really, it deserves its own word because I’m not sure anyone else has done this. There are introductions, there are commentaries for preachers, there are commentaries for the phoneme-splitting PhD-ers…The closest I’ve come to an engaging, well-written commentary before this is the ‘Welwyn Commentary Series’. Most of those are simply expository sermons however, and are far less commentary-ish than what Keller’s doing. Booksellers should ease their conundrum of where to put this book, but stocking it on the ‘Christian Life’, ‘Bible Study’, ‘Small Group Studies’, ‘Commentaries’ and ‘Theology’ shelves…that should cover it.

For normal people, this book will be a fantastic way of getting you into the book of Romans and getting it into you. For understanding what’s going on behind the text as well as in it, and making you want to read your Bible more. It boldly and humbly and lovingly addresses personal, moral and societal issues such as homosexuality, and encourages you to sit under rather than on top of God’s Word.

For preachers, it will do exactly the same thing. No-one’s going to throw out their complete set of Lloyd-Jones commentaries as a result of this book and its presumed successor, ‘Romans 8-and-some-other-chapters For You’. But possibly having not seen the wood of God’s truth for the trees of Lloyd-Joneses comments, this may prove a blessing.

For small group leaders, it gives a great format for leading discussions (including questions at the end of each chapter), as do the first two books in this series: Galatians and Judges (I’ve greatly enjoyed leading my small group through the Galatians volume).

And there are enough piercing one-liners to keep Twitter feeds busy until the next volume is released. Not just twee throwaways, but as one friend doing counseling work put it to me, “If no Lewis quote is to hand, Keller is the next best thing”. That is, short statements that open up deep truths and leave you thinking more deeply about the Word and how it impacts your life. For example, “If you don’t understand or believe in the wrath of God, the gospel will not thrill, empower or move you”, and “Faith is simply the attitude of coming to God with empty hands…[it is] only the instrument by which you receive your salvation, not the cause of your salvation”.

I do have quibble on the content, which is where Keller says that “The main difference between a Christian and a religious person is not so much their attitudes to their sins, but toward their ‘good deeds.’ Both will repent of their sins; but only the christian will repent of wrongly-motivated good works, while the religious person will rely on them.”

Doesn’t that mean that the “religious person” – a non-Christian – has not in fact repented of their sins at all? The Pharisees and Judaisers being cases in point. I don’t think the Bible leaves room for the notion of a truly-but-only-partially repentant person, and such a concept seems a little unhelpful, reducing repentance to something more akin to regret than genuine sorrow, a la 2 Corinthians 7:10 and godly v worldly sorrow.

All in all, the series is a great concept, and in this third book of the series Keller has in my opinion done an outstanding job of helping us better know and love what God said, who God is and what God has done.

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