Book Reviews

The message of worship
John Risbridger, IVP, 2015, 293pp, £12.99

It is wonderful that the Lord has given John Risbridger the energy and commitment to give us such a full and rich resource on a subject that is often at best misunderstood, and at worst used by Satan to divide the body of Christ.

“The invitation to worship God is the highest privilege of human beings, a privilege squandered by human rebellion but gloriously restored to us through the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.” Risbridger’s aim is to “allow Scripture to speak, in the hope that the question, ‘what kind of worship do we like?’ is gradually replaced by the better question: ‘what kind of worship is it that God seeks?’” Risbridger definitely lets the Bible speak – each chapter takes a passage of Scripture as a control and springboard into deepening the understanding of the nature and breadth of worship. As the Word of God both constructs and drives his argument, he defines worship as a response to God’s revelation of himself in the Word, “empowered by the Holy Spirit, which finds expression in every aspect of human life and experience”. It was encouraging to see the biblical conviction stated over and over again that the Word and Spirit work in perfect tandem to drive the truths about God into hard hearts and heads, to produce whole-life transformation. Having defined worship in this way, Risbridger focuses more on congregational worship rather than on the worship of the individual believer, with the purpose of “reducing the heat and increasing the light in our well-worn debates”.

From the very start of the book, looking at Psalm 8, the shape of authentic worship is outlined – revelation, leading to adoration and action. He then invites us to study scriptures that demonstrate this pattern – so we see that as God reveals himself first through the types and shadows of the Old Testament, and then ultimately through the reality of the salvation won through Christ, we are brought out of rebellion into a life of worship – serving our Saviour and his body, the Church, in view of God’s great mercy.

Actually, Risbridger takes us further by reminding us that we are not just brought into worship by Christ, but that we are incorporated into the perfect worshipper – Christ himself, being the only one whose perfect worship makes our service of God possible. This is a great book for drawing the heart to the beauty and majesty of Jesus, and I am humbled by the care with which Risbridger has worked so diligently and with obvious personal devotion in the Scriptures to emphasise the privilege of being a Christian worshipper.

I was also encouraged by the focus on the importance of making the Word of God clear and intelligible in the Christian gathering. This is because we are told over and over again that it is the Word of God which provides the driving force in our meetings. At the same time Risbridger is keen to impress upon the hearers of that Word the need for a deep transformational response of fruitfulness seen in obedience and service through building the body of Christ. He picks his way carefully and responsibly through the minefield of 1 Corinthians 12-14, so that even if one disagrees with his conclusions about the valid use of spiritual gifts in the gathering, one would not feel second-class. Yet there is also a robust challenge to those who might seek to elevate some gifts above others.

There is a healthy emphasis on the corporate nature of our engagement with God, reminding worshippers of their responsibility to be a part of a body, which needs to function as a whole: “Public prayer is not a performance to which we merely listen in; it is an engagement with God in which we participate.” Again, the author seeks to make the intelligibility of the Word of God central to our corporate worship.

Lastly, Risbridger encourages not just transformation, but a deep emotional engagement with a personal Saviour. From Hebrews 10, after registering concern about the trend for the “idea of worship to be reduced to the pursuit of intimate communion with God”, he warns against an overreaction against this, saying that,

to draw near to God is to engage with the holiness of his presence, the richness of his grace, the greatness of his power and the fullness of his love. Without such an expectation our churches are little more than religious clubs; with it they become supernatural communities of grace.

 It is a timely warning to those who sit with loose complacency to the Word of God when the Spirit brings it to our hearts.

I only noticed a few things which could have been clearer (especially for a lowly church musician). Having (hopefully) convinced the reader that the Spirit and Word work together in revealing the person and nature of God, producing a response of faith and obedience, I wondered if the less discerning reader would come away thinking that the Spirit is more tightly linked with the response than the revelation. For instance, in the chapter on John 4, we are told that if the Holy Spirit is present in our worship (because we worship in spirit and in truth), then we should anticipate surprises in worship, because “the wind blows where it pleases”. However, this verse (John 3:8) seems to be more about who is born again, rather than surprises that may happen in a Christian meeting. The real surprise is that the Spirit (like the Word of God in John 5:24) is bringing life to people like the Samaritan woman.

Finally, a question: In the third section of the book that focuses on the Holy Spirit (Part 3: Worship and the life of the Holy Spirit), much is written about the response of believers in a gathering. Risbridger is as clear as in the rest of the book that the authentic response driven by the Spirit is the transformation of mind and life such that the believer proclaims “Jesus is Lord”. However, whenever an emotional response is linked closely to the Holy Spirit, my worry is always for the person of tender conscience who doubts the presence of the Holy Spirit if no emotional response is forthcoming. Also, many keep looking to their inner selves rather than the Word of God to “encounter the powerful, transforming presence of the Holy Spirit”. I think this is because they think that the Word “out there” does the revelation bit, and the Spirit “in here” does the response bit. My question, therefore, is this: if the Word and the Spirit work in tandem to open ears to the voice of God, then should not our response be driven equally by the Spirit and the Word together? I think Risbridger says this (interestingly, this section of the book concludes with studies on four emotion-rich psalms which do not mention the Holy Spirit at all) but greater clarity on this matter would have been helpful.

However, I do not want to make excuses for those who are simply comfortable letting the beauty of grace remain hidden inside a grumpy ex-terior! The gospel is wonderful; Risbridger is right to encourage us to cheer up!

Some last thoughts: When I was asked to review this book, I spoke to lots of my church musician friends who have much greater theological weight than I, in order to give me a couple of shortcuts! This is how the conversations have gone:

“Have you got John Risbridger’s book on worship?”

“Yes, I’ve got it but I haven’t read it”… “Yes, I’ve got it but I’ve only read the first couple of chapters”… “Yes, but I’m only half way through”…

In short, I have not met anyone else who has read the book all the way through! I am a church musician and, to some extent, a Bible teacher, but the book took me five months to read. It is not light reading. The best way to get the most out of a book is to write a review! The book is an excellent reference book on the subject of worship, which encourages deep study of the various biblical texts (helped by a study guide at the back). Church musicians would do well to take the book and use it for personal study, to remind themselves of the Word and Spirit-centred ministry we are involved in, whilst also rediscovering the importance of elements we can often miss in our songs – for example, lament and proclamation. The pastor would benefit from this book as a challenge to re-evaluate his thinking on the corporate nature of the Christian gathering, whilst sharpening him up on some aspects, like the Lord’s Supper and the place and nature of prophecy. Either way, buy the book… and more importantly, read it!

Richard Simpkin

Music Co-ordinator, St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, London


Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Scepticism
Timothy Keller, Hodder, 2015, 320pp, £16.99

If it is to be just, every book review must assess the book according to what the author has intended to produce. Tim Keller makes his aims for this work plain a number of times. He has tried to discern “the important broad contours of what the preaching task entails today” (p.212); it is not a manual but a manifesto (p.213). In other words, in this book what he is effectively doing most of the time is bringing his well-known overall vision of Christian ministry and life to bear on the specific task of preaching. It is important to note this, if the book is to be assessed fairly. This means that often what he says comes as no particular surprise to those who already know his work well. I do not at all mean this as a criticism, since a writer always does the reader a service when he spells out his thoughts and pushes them through with consistency.

However he cannot resist, as he happily admits, including as a lengthy appendix a summary how-to manual on “Writing an Expository Message”. I will start here, so as to be able to end the review on a much more appreciative note, since it is in this section that I had most concerns. (It is worth the reader noting that, especially with this appendix, there are some lengthy endnotes which ought not to missed as they include important background material for, and examples of, points made in the main text.) Of course much here is good. Keller has read widely on preaching (as on seemingly everything else!), and outlines a wise four-step approach to writing expository messages that deliberately expresses a consensus of existing respected literature on the topic. Any preacher would give his preaching a searching health-check by examining his preaching and preparation in light of this.

Now to my concerns: First, it seems to me that in some worked examples he applies an uncontroversial principle about how to move from text to sermon in a possibly unbalanced way. He states that the preacher has a responsibility both to the truth and to the people to whom he is preaching (p.221). The real questions arise, of course, in the practical interaction of these two responsibilities. To my mind the outlines he offers of different sermons to different audiences from John 2.1-11 (pp.299-300) end up shaping the core content of the sermon in ways which downplay what has previously been identified as the central theme(s) of the text.

Second, backing up a little in the process of preparation, it seems to me that he applies an otherwise insightful “gospel grid” in ways that flatten the text somewhat. He outlines what he calls a “deep gospel pattern” that he says sits in the background of every sermon he preaches. Every preacher has such a pattern in operation, of course, and the right first step is to do what Keller does and acknowledge it. His pattern identifies what the text says about five issues, in this order: what we face; what we must do; why we cannot do it; how Jesus did it; how we should live now (p.231). A strong law/gospel structure is obviously at work here. With certain texts, this grid will of course allow a greater richness of teaching and application to emerge than often does in contemporary evangelical preaching (e.g. it will regularly focus attention on Christ’s salvific active obedience, along the with the passive). Keller sees the great virtue of this grid as leading the preacher away from moralism and towards the presentation of Christ first of all, and moral exhortation only in light of Christ – and that is indeed a good thing. However he offers as a key example of its application an outline of a sermon on Genesis 22 (pp.233-34). There are good things in the outline, but some elements which seem to be rather central in the text (e.g. God as the one who provides) do not figure in the outline, and I wonder if this is because the standard “deep pattern” he is employing squeezes them out.

That is an appendix, however, and not the bulk of the book. In the rest, Keller sets out very lucidly what he is primarily about, and much here is excellent. The first major section focuses on “serving the Word”. The argument develops as follows:

  1. Expository preaching should be the main diet of a church’s preaching ministry. This is good stuff that is standard for many (although, I realise, not all), with some worries expressed about how a good principle can be mishandled through over-application.
  2. It is Christ and the gospel of grace, and not Christ’s benefits in the abstract (such as forgiveness), which (who!) must be preached. For my money there is excellent material here that could enrich much evangelical preaching, which curiously often holds out Christ’s benefits without his person.
  3. We should aim to preach the finished work of Christ from every text, and that will lead to the sharpest application. This is a fine chapter, I think, with some stimulating examples of reading different Scriptures carefully in light of Christ.

The second major section focuses on “reaching the people”. Keller is mostly on familiar territory here, sometimes summarising and sometimes applying specifically to preaching things he is well known for having written and taught previously. His key points are:

  1. In preaching, Christ must be contextualised in every culture. One small quibble here: his examples are always insightful, but are mostly drawn from his wide and learned reading. Many preachers who lack some combination of the time, inclination, academic ability (and congregations who can cope with such things and match him in this) could feel rather disempowered by it all. Perhaps worse, they might try to copy him and stumble badly. Some everyday-ish examples of such contextualisation would have made this chapter more useful to more preachers.
  2. Preaching must engage with our culture’s most basic narratives, and must do so in two ways: affirming them where possible (because in the West they have Christian roots), and revealing where they fall short.
  3. Preaching must not only set forth the truth but, in Jonathan Edwards’ words, must aim to give “a sensible idea or apprehension of it” (p.165). Indeed Keller goes so far as to say that “the main purpose of preaching” is to make the truths of the gospel seem real to people (p.164). I found this to be one of the best chapters in the book. Too much preaching that rightly aims to be expository either does not know how to do this while also being expository, or imagines that, having seen the expository light, it can dispense with this aim altogether. Keller builds strongly on Edwards to argue against that tendency.

A final shorter main section follows, on “Preaching and the Spirit”. I found this to be the most personally challenging to me as a preacher. He urges that preachers must seek to be themselves formed by the Holy Spirit through the Word, before they can be the vehicle for such action by the Spirit for others. There is a focus here on the person of the preacher which was central in Lloyd-Jones’ writing (although somewhat idiosyncratically, perhaps), but which has not been as central to other influential evangelical writing on preaching as it should have been. Keller helps restore the matter here (although whether the point is as clearly driven by 1 Cor 2:4 as he thinks is a topic I will leave for now).

He ends with a challenge to ask ourselves what the “subtext” of our preaching is. I found this short section to be explosive – and the one stand-out part where I was presented with a (to me) entirely new thought. What does our preaching communicate “between the lines”?, he asks. Is it, “aren’t we great for believing what we do?” Is it, “aren’t I great for preaching like this?” Is it, with more of a training focus, “isn’t this truth great?” Or is it, as it should be, “isn’t Christ great?”? (pp.201-204). Of course we would all immediately insist that our own preaching falls into the latter category, but I think that Keller has provided here a very sharp set of analytical questions which can give, if applied with humility, a very sober take on what we are actually about below the surface in our preaching.

So, to whom will this book do most good?

No one should think it is the first thing to give to a trainee preacher to get them schooled in good exposition. Keller clearly does not intend it to be that. Nor, I would add, would I encourage someone to read it who had lost sight of the rigorous disciplines of text-work necessary for expository preaching, since it may (of course against Keller’s intentions) serve to take their eye further off that ball. However, for the preacher who is pressing on reasonably well with those disciplines, but whose capacities in other areas have either fallen away or never caught up – deeply Christocentric interpretation, profound “under the skin” application that really bites into our culture, habits of life and practice that make preaching more than merely teaching – there is much excellent material here, set out with great clarity and persuasiveness.

Tim Ward

Associate Director, PT Cornhill Training Course