Tuesday, December 18, 2012

History's Greatest Sermon

J. Stephen Yuille, Living Blessedly Forever: The Sermon on the Mount and the Puritan Piety of William Perkins. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012. 151 pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

This book is wonderfully devotional. It will greatly interest ministers and average Christians. It combines historical reflection on William Perkin’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount with contemporary application. This mixture makes this work particularly suited to helping ministers prepare sermons on this portion of Scripture.

The book consists of nine chapters. After a brief historical introduction including reasons why we should study Perkins, Yuille treats Perkins on the Sermon on the Mount in general. This chapter presents helpfully the general structure and flow of argument of Christ’s sermon. Chapters 3-8 unfold the bulk of Perkins’s treatise. These chapters summarize the material under the headings of blessedness, repentance, righteousness, sincerity, contentment, and faithfulness. The last of these synthesizes Perkins’s seven final observations under the rubric of “faithfulness.” This is the most analytical portion of Yuille’s investigation. He largely summarizes, digests, and condenses Perkins for a contemporary audience. Chapter 9 closes by exhorting us to lead godly lives that flow from our living union with Christ (143-144).

The greatest strength of this work is its potential to foster piety and sound preaching. It is well-written and gripping. Its use of a wide range of historical and contemporary sources serves as a compendium of sound material for understanding Christ’s sermon. Moreover, Perkins brought different theological assumptions to the text of Scripture than many do today. For instance, he assumed that the statement “you are the salt of the earth” applied primarily to ministers (41). He also applied Christ’s exhortation against casting our pearls before swine to church officers exercising disciple and excluding offenders from the public means of grace (116-117). The assumptions and assertions made by men of another age can challenge our interpretation of Scripture and even surprise us at times. This is one of the primary benefits of historical theology. The contrasts that Yuille draws between Perkins and modern interpreters are frequently illuminating. Whether or not Perkins is right or wrong, such observations make us ask fruitful questions that we might not consider otherwise.

The greatest weakness of this book is as a work of history. The primary problem is that it is often unclear whether the author is presenting Perkins’s thought, his own reflections, or those of contemporary authors. Failing to distinguish clearly between these elements makes it hard to distinguish between what is historical and what is contemporary. For example, after citing Calvin on page 42, Yuille refers to the view of “most commentators.” The reader does not know whether he means “most commentators” in Calvin’s time or most commentators since his time. This difficulty is prevalent through this work. The author complicates the matter by citing at least as many contemporary Bible commentators as he does Puritan authors. This means that readers with a historical interest will frequently be unable to distinguish Perkins from the rest of the material. However, this will not likely hinder readers whose primary goal is contemporary application. The book is still edifying and spiritually fruitful.

Read this book to help you preach on the Sermon on the Mount. Use it prayerfully to become a godlier Christian. And may the Lord bless it to drive us back to read spiritual giants such as William Perkins.

This review is scheduled to appear in The Puritan Reformed Journal  January 2013 issue.