James Montgomery Boice. The Parables of Jesus. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1983. See here to buy the book.
James Montgomery Boice was a renowned Presbyterian pastor. This book, The Parables of Jesus,
is a collection of sermons that he preached in 1980-1981 about Jesus'
parables in the synoptic Gospels. One reason that Boice decided to put
them in book form was that they convinced a young man who heard them to
doubt that he was truly born again, notwithstanding his religiosity.
That conviction led the young man to a genuine profession of faith.
Boice concluded that others could benefit from his sermons.
main problem with the book is that it reminds me of the old Puritan
spiritual insecurity. It runs like this: We have to realize that we are
sinners to be accepted by God. On the other hand, we can only know
that we are true Christians when we look at our lives and our hearts and
see spiritual fruit: a love for righteousness and a hatred of sin. So
we need to believe that we are bad, yet we also need to think that we
are good (albeit imperfectly good) to have assurance that we are saved.
What's more, we need to be able to identify God's work on our hearts:
God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And in the backdrop
(or maybe even the forefront) of all of this is hell: those who are
unsaved and fail these tests will spend eternity in hell.
is a lot of pressure there, some of it about things that may be
difficult for a person to control! What if you're like me: you want to
do the right thing, but there's just so much sin within you that you
wonder if God is working in you at all? Suppose you are going through
Boice's sermons and you find that you do not particularly care for that
kind of God? Well, Boice does refer to one of Jonathan Edwards' sermons
that talks about how human beings are enemies of God. I guess Boice
would say that your dislike for God is evidence of your sinfulness,
which deserves damnation. But, to his credit, Boice does try to offer
hope to the struggling soul. He encourages people to be open to God,
which gives God the opportunity to work on their hearts. Still,
according to Boice, they need to realize in doing this that their being
open to God does not merit them salvation. Boice also exhorts them to
be honest with God about their hard hearts and their dislike of God, and
God may renew them.
This kind of
spiritual treadmill may have some assets. In my opinion, it's a good
thing for people to take a moral inventory of themselves and to be open
to God. But is there a place for relaxing in God's love and grace? And
fear of hell being part of the mix can stress a person out, when people
already have enough stress in life. Perhaps Boice's sermons would have
been better had he emphasized God's love and grace more. He did have
sermons about the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the
Prodigal Son, but there could have been more in his book about God's
love and grace. There could have been more encouragement. A Lutheran,
for example, would probably take hell as seriously as Boice, but her
interaction with the parables would highlight God's love and grace. It
would also make salvation look accessible, not merely possible or
elusive (not that Boice intends to portray it as such, but that is the
impression that I get).
On account of what I
say above, I cannot say that I "like" the book. But I cannot say that I
dislike the book, either, because it does have positives. Therefore, I
give it three stars.
What are some of the book's positives, in my opinion?
first of all, while the book does smell (to me at least) of Puritan
insecurity, it also echoes Puritan practicality. For example, Boice
gives us things to look for within our hearts and actions when we are
trying to determine if we are materialistic. He talks about the
importance of having gratitude rather than a feeling of
self-entitlement. In these cases, Boice offers practical tips about how
one can have a constructive outlook on life.
Second, Boice does
well when he actually attempts to explain parables in light of their
immediate context. A lot of times, he does not do this, but rather he
imports other parts of Scripture or his Reformed views into his
interpretation of a parable. But when he does wrestle with the
immediate context of the parable and seek to arrive at an interpretation
that way, he does that rather well. His attempts to determine whether
the "world" in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13) means
the world or the church comes to mind as an excellent discussion.
was rather ambivalent about one story that Boice told. Boice talked
about how Christian H.A. Ironside was challenged to a debate by an
agnostic. Ironside accepted the challenge, but on one condition. Both
sides would have to bring to the debate people who were down and out at
some point, but their lives became better in response to the message of
the speaker, whether that message be the Christian Gospel or
agnosticism. Ironside could definitely bring people to the debate who
became positively changed as a result of the Gospel, but the agnostic
could not find people who became better as a result of becoming
agnostic. Of course, we're supposed to conclude from this that
Christianity is right and agnosticism is wrong. On the one hand, this
story did encourage me to appreciate the positive changes that
Christianity has brought in people's lives. On the other hand, I do
think that there are agnostics who can testify that agnosticism has made
them better: less judgmental, more appreciative of people rather than
having the ulterior motive of trying to sell them the Gospel, etc.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.