Book Review: Invitation to Philippians

Sunukjian, Donald R. Invitation to Philippians: Building a Great Church Through Humility (Biblical Preaching for the Contemporary Church). Weaver Book Company, 2014.InvitationPhilippians

I read many books. I try to find ones that will enhance what I know, broaden my perspective, or teach me something new. Unfortunately, this book did none of those things. The series title, ”Biblical Preaching for the Contemporary Church,” suggested to me that there would be helps for those preaching to dig into the book, in this case, Philippians. Instead it was a series of sermons based on Philippians.

At first reading the sermons might appear generally okay. He offers the key thoughts of the letter in each sermon. Taken overall, he covers what Paul highlights (but there is a subtle and seductive shift, see below). The reader has to keep in mind that this is a survey of the letter, not an in-depth study. As such it might work as an introduction for the congregation to engage in further discovery of the riches of Philippians. It didn’t seem to encourage the congregation to take a further look into Paul’s letter.

One challenge of reading a sermon vs. hearing a sermon is the difference in style. I appreciate the comments in the Preface, “But I have tried my best to retain their oral flavor—I’ve wanted them to still sound close to the way we talk. This means there will be incomplete sentences, colloquial and idiomatic language, and other features of the spoken word.” P. 7) In this case the author succeeded and he is to be commended.

There are some legalistic, yet inconsistent problems in the book.

That’s one way you can be confident that people are committed to the work of the Lord—their homes are available. (p. 7)

You can be confident that God is at work in someone when you see that person stand up for the truth and willing to take the heat for it. (p. 8)

You can have confidence that God is in people’s lives when they give their money. (p. 9)

There are too many counter examples in real life to use these as the criteria “that God is at work.” But even worse, sanctification becomes the criteria of the Christian life, even above justification. Perhaps the following quote best demonstrates the trend toward moralism:

The answer is: The more love we have, the better choices we will make and the better people we will become.” (p. 16)

This confuses Law and Gospel and highlights sanctification over justification. And then he contradicts himself in Chapter 10, “The Christian Subculture: Righteous of Rubbish.” He wrote:

What is this tragedy that occurs if we let someone impose their rules and regulations on us, pressuring us into their spiritual lifestyle? What is the harm, the damage we suffer when we begin to think that following someone else’s codes will make us more righteous in God’s eyes? (p. 77)

The corrective he offers is really the same with a different coating:

What defines you as belonging to God is not some external behavior. What defines you is the internal presence of the Spirit of God. He’s totally changed everything about you and has become part of your life…. You’re pleasing to him not because you belong to a particular party, but because you act justly and fairly and mercifully toward all those around you. (p. 79)

The author leaves the listener/reader in a predicament. It’s not what we do, but what we do that matters? I think this misses the entire thrust of what Paul wrote in 3:1-9. Note how the author bring this chapter to a conclusion.

And this brings him finally to the great damage, the great harm, the overwhelming tragedy that comes if you let someone else define what you need to do in order to please God and be righteous in his eyes. (p. 82)

Going back to his criteria/standard by which the people should live “the better choices we will make and the better people we will become.” Sadly, the author leaves the confusion, and his criteria/standard reflects exactly what he is urging them to avoid.

Another problem I had with the book was the overuse of illustrations. In some cases, illustrations seemed to take at least half of the sermon. I appreciate the need for and value of illustrations, but this seems a little over the top. For instance, in Chapter 8, “Working out the Working in,” the first three pages are devoted to one illustration. In this case, I have to ask, does this help point to the main issue, or is it the main issue?

I wanted to like this book. I have spent considerable time over the past couple years studying Philippians. Yet this book is a disappointment. Overall, I don’t think the book offers enough for me to recommend it, especially in light of the strong legalistic yet inconsistent approach to the Christian life. The confusion of Law and Gospel is evident throughout. In the process the author has subtly changed the focus of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

I received a copy of this book from Cross-focused Books for an unbiased review.

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About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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