Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Review: Following Jesus, the Servant King

Thanks to the folks at Zondervan for providing a review copy and a slot in their blog tour.

Following Jesus, the Servant King: A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship (Biblical Theology for Life)is a new book out by Jonathan Lunde, Professor at Talbot School of Theology. This is just the second book in Zondervan's Biblical Theology for Life Series, the first being The Mission of God's People: A Biblical Theology of the Church's Mission by Christopher Wright. The goal of the series is to bring serious academic biblical theology to bear in a practical way on contemporary questions. Lunde's work tackles the topic of discipleship. His definition of discipleship is,
...learning to receive and respond to God's grace and demand, which are mediated through Jesus, the Servant King, so as to reflect God's character in relation to him, to others, and to the world, in order that all may come to experience this same grace and respond to this same demand (276).
This definition comes after carefully examining three key questions:
  1. Why: Why should I be concerned to obey all of Jesus' commands if I have been saved by grace?
  2. What: What is it that Jesus demands of his disciples?
  3. How: How can the disciple obey Jesus' high demand, while experiencing his "yoke" as "light" and "easy"?
The bulk of the book is spent unpacking these in order. In the 'why' question we look at the covenants in some detail. This is one of the key distinctives to Lunde's approach to discipleship, it's distinctly covanental. He repeatedly combs through each of the covenants (Edenic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New) looking at how Jesus fulfills them and also the relationship between grace and obedience. One of the strongest points he make is that no matter the covenant type (grant or conditional), grace was always prior to obedience, enabling it. Additionally, Lunde persuasively shows that every single covenant came with a demand of righteous behavior, whether it was a conditional or a royal grant covenant. Failing to strive to live righteously completely misunderstands what it means to live in covenant with God.

The 'what' question is probably the most memorable portion of the book. Here Lunde really zeros in on Jesus, especially focusing in on his relationship to the law, using three metaphors: Jesus the filter, Jesus the lens, and Jesus the prism. When examining Jesus as filter, Lunde looks at the question of continuity and discontinuity between the Mosaic Law and the New Covenant. What is found is that while some laws aren't to be literally observed by us in the New Covenant, often Jesus reinterprets them in a new way that heightens their requirement for obedience (e.g., food laws). The chapter on Jesus as lens explores how, with some laws, Jesus peeled back the tradition so that the original intent of individual laws and the OT as a whole could be seen and recovered (e.g., Jesus recovery of the emphasis on mercy). The lens provides clarity. Finally, Jesus is the prism because law the law travels in a different direction after interpreted by him. Some laws, like the law against adultery, are moved to a higher plane. Their demands are heightened. Because Jesus is the King, it is to him and his demands that we must render our obedience.

The third question, 'how,' is probably the toughest sledding. There's a lot of meaty exegesis and biblical theology going on. The aspect of his argument that I found most helpful was the discussion on the shape of life in covenant with God. Lunde focuses in on three main themes, remembering, receiving, and responding. We are to take time remember what God has done for us in redeeming us (e.g., Sabbath), we are to receive grace from God through the Holy Spirit which enables us to respond by living a life of faithfulness. Often it is through remembering that receiving and then responding happens. Given the emphasis on this covanental pattern, there is a very heavy focus on Jesus and his work of grace extended to us. Lunde, also helpfully takes us through some of the patterns of Jesus ministry, especially his focus on ministry to the marginalized. A strong call issues forth to us to follow in the suffering servant's, Jesus', footsteps in that regard. We are to receive and imitate Jesus' sacrificial inclusiveness.

The final section of the book provided some practical suggestions of how to carry this out, challenging both popular Evangelical methods of evangelism and our general biblical illiteracy. Here Lunde also stresses the necessity of being like Jesus in executing social justice as well as evangelizing. Lunde holds those two emphasis together well and rightly sees them as non-competing.

I have a lot of appreciation for this book. Certainly when one examines the sheer number of texts that Lunde does, you'll have minor disagreements with his exegesis here and there; that's a given. I don't want to focus on those, though, because I don't think that any points of disagreement are truly significant. I found his overall line of argument to be very helpful and persuasive. I've never thought about discipleship within the context of covenant before. It helped me see exactly how grace and the demand of obedience co-exist without one minimizing the other.

My main suggested improvement for the book would be to have more engagement with Acts and the Epistles. Very little attention is given to them, and I don't understand why. This would be particularly helpful, I think, to spend some time seeing what discipleship looked like in a non-Jewish setting, looking at how Christians in Greece and Asia Minor, guided by the apostles, followed Jesus. I don't think this would cause Lunde to change any of the stances he comes to, but I think it would make the book more practical and would add robustness to some of the points he made, especially about Jesus being 'the filter.' There is some material from Acts and the Epistles, but not nearly as much as there should be in my opinion.

Overall I found Following Jesus, the Servant King to be worth engaging. Pastors, especially those in a shepherding role, should get a copy of and read it. It also could be profitably used in adult Sunday school classes or other teaching sessions, if unpacked by the instructor. Lunde has a lot to say to the church. I hope his voice is heard and that it serves as an encouragement to more scholars to follow in his footsteps in applying solid scholarship to matters of first importance in the church.