Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review - Galatians For You

Galatians For You by Tim Keller, is the first installment in the God's Word For You series from The Good Book Company. Per the Series Preface, the series aims to provide expository studies of Biblical books for a broad audience in a manner that is "Bible centered, Christ glorifying, relevantly applied, and easily readable." Each volume is written with three different purposes/audiences in mind: "Read," as a guide to the contents of the book; "Feed," as a daily devotional, and "Lead," as a resource for preaching and teaching through the book. The books aren't intended to be commentaries, and the reader is not expected to have understanding of the Biblical languages or even a high level of Scriptural knowledge. Keller approaches the material verse-by-verse, providing historical context, links with other Biblical texts, insights from other theologians and scholars, and personal application (including reflection questions). There's also a Glossary of key terms, an Appendix on recent scholarship on Galatians, and a Bibliography for further study. Throughout his study of the epistle, Keller continually connects the text back to the overarching theme of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the freedom it brings to those trust in him.

To be honest, I pity the authors who have to write subsequent volumes in the series, because Keller has set the bar pretty high. I was initially skeptical about the Read-Feed-Lead format, but the book weaves together the different purposes and audiences quite well. In less skillful hands, a book with such a wide intended audience could easily degenerate into an appeal to the lowest common denominator, but not so here. Even in writing for enquirers and new believers, it is apparent that Keller wants to encourage readers to stretch and grow in their knowledge of the text, and ultimately of the Lord who gave it. And his questions for reflection are hardly fluff, but are actually quite thoughtful and even convicting. An example picked at random: from the chapter on Galatians 2:1-10, "Both personally and as part of your church, do you tend to over-adapt or under-adapt the gospel for the culture around you?" My only caveat is that I'm not sure that Keller's book by itself is enough to handle to Lead aspect (i.e., leading a Bible Study on Galatians, or preaching through it), but there is a companion study guide that is tailored for small group study.

The book's greatest strength lies in the way that Keller clearly articulates and emphasizes the theme of the Gospel of grace throughout his treatment of the epistle. From the very start, Keller stresses the need for Christians to truly understand the grace of Christ and to never underestimate their need for it. In fact, in his second chapter he writes:  
You might think: We covered this in Chapter One of this book! And we did - but this letter, in its structure as well as its content, shows us that the gospel of grace underpins every step of the Christian life. Paul will keep coming back to it; so should we, in our lives, our prayers, our thoughts, our preaching and teaching.
Grace is not only the means of gaining the salvation achieved by Christ's death and resurrection, it is also the means of living the Christian life. In discussing everything from the error of the Judaizers, to the work of the Spirit, to the role of the Law, to the profundity of the believer being adopted as a child of God, Keller ties it all back to the complete sufficiency of Christ's work and the utter folly of trying to improve upon. As Keller memorably puts it, "you can't add to Christ without subtracting Christ. He is either all [our] value or He is without value." Furthermore, Keller does a great job of translating the situation of Galatians, which revolves around discussions of potentially unfamiliar subjects such as circumcision and food laws, into terms more accessible to a modern audience, such as the threats posed by social/racial divisions in the church or the dangers of unflinching adherence to non-essential cultural and theological distinctives. On the latter, Keller does not hesitate to sound a word of caution for his own Reformed tribe, observing that championing justification by faith alone does not always protect against relying on good doctrine as a source of salvation. In Keller's treatment, Galatians is hardly relegated to the record of religious debate from millennia past; rather, it is supremely practical and relevant to readers in our own day (and all others).          

The few quibbles I had about the book did little to detract from its overall value. As mentioned above, despite its usefulness, I'm not sure it succeeds as a one-stop shop for preaching/teaching. Individuals seeking to lead a Bible Study or preach through Galatians would be advised to use Keller's book in conjunction with other resources. One other aspect of the book that nagged at me was the way that Keller glosses over Paul's references to people being cursed/condemned. To be fair, Keller makes it clear that Paul sees the right understanding of the Gospel as a matter of eternal life and death. But when discussing "the curse" or "condemnation", Keller devotes much more time to the subjective, present experience of his audience, such as the anxiety and insecurity of the person who constantly fails to live up to whatever standard of works-righteousness they have adopted. True as that is, I don't think Keller's emphasis on the subjective aspects of deviating from the Gospel do justice to Paul's concerns. In general, I'm not a fan of "turn or burn" type preaching and teaching, but given the sharp tone and language of Paul's letter to the Galatians, I wish Keller would have focused more on the big picture of what is truly at stake when the Gospel is corrupted. Nevertheless, this omission did not significantly interfere with my enjoyment of the book.  

In summary, Galatians For You is highly recommended for anyone seeking to better understand Paul's epistle, whether as a new believer or as a lifelong student of the Scriptures. Although the book is not overly-long, Keller has packed enough insight and application between its covers to keep the thoughtful reader engaged for quite some time.

(Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for writing a review, though without any stipulations on its content.)

1 comment:

  1. Gaines,

    Thanks for contributing to the blog tour.

    Shaun Tabatt
    Cross Focused Reviews