07 April 2011

Book review — Acts, by R. C. Sproul

by Dan Phillips

Acts, by R. C. Sproul
(Wheaton:Crossway, 2010; 440 pages)

Acts joins volumes on Romans and John in The St Andrew's Expositional Commentary series, which transform sermons Sproul preached at St. Andrew's Chapel into book-form.

Each of the 62 chapters (plus an epilogue from 2 Timothy)  averages 7-8 pages, of which one page or more often is simply a reprint of the selected portion of Acts. This made the chapters the perfect length for reading during my morning devotions and Bible reading: just about the right length and depth to begin my time.

The style is what we have come to expect and appreciate from Sproul: readable, thoughtful, interesting, engaging. Sproul sprinkles his comments with wide-ranging stories and factoids and reflections. His wide reading and education, and his deep experience, enrich the commentary. Now Sproul takes a bit from ancient history, and then a bit of a word-study, then a side-trip to politics, and then a vignette from his own life and ministry.

However, one would not go to this volume as a commentary proper. Sproul moves too quickly over the text, and his focal points are necessarily selective. For instance, Sproul preaches on Acts 8:37 (152), without mentioning that its genuineness is textually unlikely. So no one will throw out his Bruce or Longenecker or Stott. However, there is edifying devotional material, and perhaps some suggestions for preaching.

There isn't a boring page in the book.

As one would expect, there is plenty of good, corrective theology. On Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit, Sproul says
The reason for the outpouring of the Spirit is not to make us feel spiritual. It is not to give us a spiritual high. It is so that we can do the job that Jesus gave the church to do. (27)
On Paul's conversion:
Just minutes before his conversion, all that Paul could think of was what he could do to Christ, but immediately after, all he could think of is what he could do for Christ, which reveals the essence of his radical conversion. (162)
On the modern charismatic movement: "My problem with Pentecostalism is that it has too low a view of Pentecost" (198).

On Christianity's exclusivism:
If all religions are equally good, then one stands out as terribly bad, and that is Christianity, because Christianity has no time for pluralism. It sees one way only. Now, that is downright un-American. Sometimes you have to make a decision where your allegiance is going to be—with the secular culture or with the One whom God sent into the world as our Redeemer. (318)
There are some unusual bits here and there. Sproul says that the church "for centuries" has called Acts 1:7-8 the "Great Commission," a term I've only heard applied to Matthew 28:18-20 (27). Maybe that's just my more parochial perspective. Again, one raises one's eyebrow at the phrase, "The price tag for forgiveness is repentance" (63), though we understand what Sproul means. Also, virtually Sproul's entire section on Acts 14:19-28 is devoted to politics — separation of church and state, criticism of government, tax-exempt status, flat tax, and also abortion (258-262). Though I basically agreed with with everything Sproul said, at one point I did note in the margin, "What verse are we on?"

A concern, however, arises from the fact that the text is sprinkled with a number of factual errors or inaccuracies. These are misstatements about Hebrew words (41, 338); and Greek words (156, 170, 433), and other things. One depends (I can say from grateful and humbled experience) on pre-readers and editors to catch one's mistakes like this, and one feels Sproul could have been served better in this regard.

I mention this (reluctantly) both for prospective readers, and for our readers who themselves do or will write. There is no doubt that Sproul is a deeply-studied scholar, and the respect he enjoys is well deserved. In this book, all of Sproul's allusions to history, etymology and geography; all his quotations from Calvin, Hume, Luther, Boice, Ramsey, Ovid and others, are undocumented. When such assertions are mixed with statements the reader recognizes to be inaccurate... the effect is that one would not quote any of the other allusions or facts, or use them in a sermon, unless one could verify them oneself. Or perhaps Sproul's status is such that one might say, "Sproul says that Calvin said...." But some of us obsessives like to get our hands on the source itself.

This book, provided me by Crossway for review, was a good read. One looks forward to future volumes in this series, and hopes that the preparation process serves Sproul well. His is a voice that continues to deserve respectful hearing.

Dan Phillips's signature


threegirldad said...

For instance, Sproul preaches on Acts 8:37 (152), without mentioning that its genuineness is textually unlikely.

Interestingly, RefTagger "thinks" briefly before displaying the message, "This reference could not be loaded at this time." If you then click on the link, Biblia.com tells you there is no such reference in the ESV, and suggests verse 36 as an alternative (with the superscript at the end of the verse noting that "Some manuscripts add all or most of verse 37...").

Thanks for the comment about undocumented quotes. It seems all too common these days.

I'm adding this to my "to read" list.

donsands said...

Thanks for the good review. Short and yet well done and thorough. Sproul is such a good elder to the Church. I am encouraged by his insight and teachings always.

Robert said...

Thanks for the review, Dan. Especially in the sense that you are showing all of us to think critically whenever we read commentaries/books by any author. I have great respect for Sproul...as a pretty much newborn Christian, I went to a conference with Sproul, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan speaking about atonement. I always like his knowledge of history (especially that of the church) and how he brings in his own experiences to help teach principles from the Bible.

Seth said...

The only thing I didn't like about his expository commentary on Romans was the lack of references for his quotes. I too am obsessive about that and really like to know where the quote came from instead of saying, "Sproul says Hume said..."

DJP said...


...a conference with Sproul, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan speaking about atonement

Oh, dude, you're just not going to do much better than that! Sounds stellar.

I always like his knowledge of history (especially that of the church) and how he brings in his own experiences to help teach principles from the Bible

Exactly right.

Jeph said...

Good review there!
It makes me wanna grab a copy for myself.

philness said...


Wow. It is always amazing to me how many times a Pyro topic is the same subject I'm musing over. I just recently began my mornings in Acts and my evenings to mining its treasures.

Question: I moused over Acts 8:37 in the post and it was blank so I flipped to it in my ESV here at work and it wasn't there either. Can you throw a brother a bone?

Robert Warren said...


It's the nefarious Alexandrian Cult.

RealityCheck said...

Thanks for the review Dan. I have always appreciated Sproul and have wanted to read the two previous books in the series and now the third, so many great books but so little time.

Come to think of it, at the rate I’m going, I just might never get around to reading, “Love Wins”. ;-)

DJP said...

...and that would be a tragedy


Tom Chantry said...

Robert Warren,

Too, too funny.

Tom Chantry said...


Acts 8:37 (from the KJV - just about the only place you'll find it):

And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Those words cannot be found in any of the earliest manuscripts. The evidence for them is flimsy at best. Some try to argue that similar statements in the church fathers (belief in Jesus as the Son of God) prove that this was original. It probably wasn't.

Interestingly, when I preached on Acts 8 at a recent baptism it occurred to me that this statement actually interrupts the flow of the passage at its most powerful moment. While it is almost certain that some conversation must have passed between the eunuch and Phillip between the making of the request and the entry into the water, I am grateful for Luke's omission of that conversation - if indeed he knew what they said. The force of the passage is that nothing prohibited this man - a gentile whose injury prevented his full conversion to Judaism or his entry into the temple - to be baptized. It is a powerful message of grace, and the insertion of what is most likely a specious verse at that point tends to obscure the message.

H.L. Jackson said...

None of you at Pyromaniacs is worthy to tie the shoes of R.C. Sproul. That any of you would feel worthy to review his works is an exhibition of extreme hubris, as was Turk's open letter to Mike Horton.

This is nothing but another blatant attempt to tug at the robe of a true giant in order to drive traffic to your silly site. You may continue to pat yourselves on the back, along with your sycophants donsands, Chandtry, et al., but you are adding absolutely nothing to the kingdom with these solipsistic blog entries.

Please stay in your own lane, worshiping at the feet of your lightweight champion theologian MacArthur and leave the heavy lifting of understanding and expounding upon God's word to the more fully equipped.

Stephen said...

H.L. is exactly right. People that Pyro are worthy to peruse and praise: John, John, or John.

Rich reformed writers that Pyro simply does not have the aptitude to understand or dare question: Rob, Rob, or especially not, the robust radical Rob.

mike said...

and i am keenly aware of your shortcomings, and petty uselessness, because I am an expert shoe-tier from way back.
and even though i did not read what you wrote, i am also aware that it must also be useless, as are you,

so there

Thomas Louw said...

@ H L Jackson.
Sorry was that your toes?

Was your finger in the draw?

My friend I think you must check your attitude. There is a gentile way of critiquing someone and then there is the Jackson way.

The Jackson way is loaded with emotion. Tone it back my friend. Change your glasses.

Are you for Apollos, for Paul, O sorry you are for Christ?

We all are for Christ first my friend.

We are all hacking our way through this life, making mistakes, misunderstanding scripture passages, misunderstanding fellow believers.

Never attack, defend because of who the other person is but, because something his says is unscriptural or he seems to be ill informed.

Tom Chantry said...

Hey Don Sands,

You didn't get capitalized, but at least you got spelled correctly!

DJP said...

Just think if it hadn't been a positive review.

Tom Chantry said...

No kidding. Apparently your blog is unworthy to tie the shoelaces of his book!

Thomas Louw said...

You know what struck me.
Your description of RC Sproul’s book and how I would describe John MacArthur’s commentaries is similar.

I actually read MacArthur’s commentaries as devotionals and have been wondering what I will use next.

My hat off too you Dan, seems even if you positive about someone your seen as negative.

Wonder if Jackson actually read your post.

DJP said...

< whisper >

I often wonder that, too, Thomas; but I'm not allowed to say it.

< /whisper >

Robert said...

Mr. Jackson,

I'm not going to get into the Apollos vs. Paul type debate, but would only say that I remember a certain debate about baptism between the "lightweight champion theologian" and the man whose shoes you claim I am not worthy to tie. Certainly I am thinking that neither of these men would actually claim that they are any better than the rest of us. That is because if one examines Scripture closely, one can determine that me must be humble if we are to follow the example of Jesus. And both men can (and hopefully do) handle constructive criticism.

donsands said...

"You didn't get capitalized, but at least you got spelled correctly!" -Tom

And I appreciate that.

RealityCheck said...

Based on H.L.’s comment I’m at a loss for just how MacArthur and Sproul became such good friends. One would think that, considering how smart Sproul is, he would have kept his distance from the lightweight MacArthur. Hmmm.

Oh, and if anyone from Pyro’s membership team is watching could you please see that I was sent the latest copy of “Sycophants Monthly” as I don’t have any listing for a Chandtry?

Tom Chantry said...

Well, you know me. I'm a sycopahndt. I bow to John MacArdthur. And I agree with everything Dan Phillidps says.

- Chandtry

RealityCheck said...

Hey, at least you’re in good compandy.


Aaron Snell said...

The irony is, Sproul would probably be first in line to rebuke Mr. Jackson.

Tom Chantry said...

A note on that, Aaron. I only met Sproul (briefly) once. He was speaking in chapel at Westminster West. Keep in mind that among Presbyterians, it is unavoidable that all anyone wanted to hear out of Sproul at a Van Tilian school was some comment on apologetics. In fact, he spoke at length about his apologetic - unashamedly, but entirely without rancor or arrogance. His whole bearing was one of warmth and glad fellowship with common believers in Christ.

Stephen said...

I perceived much sarcasm from Mr Jackson and tried to post a comment piggy-backing on it last night but it appears it got lost in cyber-space. Presumably flagged for spam because I had several veiled links to theologians/pop-culture icons, a play on John vs. R.C.

Anyway, really people? solipsistic, sycophants, hubris, "tug at the robes", more fully equipped, calling Johnny Mac a "lightweight theologian" (people can call him arrogant or disagree with him, but I've never heard lightweight) .... I was laughing halfway through his comment and am still laughing.

RealityCheck said...

I have never met Sproul but, as I said in my first post, I have always appreciated him, meaning, not just his teaching but how he teaches. He has always seemed to be an extremely humble man, quick to laugh and only showing anger when he (like MacArthur) believes the Truth is under attack. Such righteous anger is not only to be praised and encouraged but one has to seriously question why so many professing Christians have such a problem with it.

trogdor said...

H.L. Jackson should've posted that as @FakeSanePerson to get in on the previous post's action. Dude, absolutely hilarious. Keep the comedy coming!

So yeah, I've been reading Sproul's Romans book, and totally love it. Can't wait to get to Acts. You can definitely tell it's basically a sermon collection rather than commentary proper, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. You don't get three-page discourses on the proper translation of an obscure verb tense, but you get a lot more accessible teaching and practical exhortation. It's challenging and deep without being overwhelming - really good for a lay-level commentary, I think.

Can't wait to read his Acts, and the others in the series.