I feel a little strange reviewing a book that was first published in 1996 – and one that I first read at least a decade ago. This is almost a classic. But since Baker Books has repackaged and published a fresh edition, I get to publish a fresh review. For full disclosure, Baker Books sent me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Okay, I will just come right out and say it: I love this book. D. A. Carson is one of my favorite NT expositors and Philippians is one of my favorite NT books. And since Basics for Believers is Carson’s exposition of Philippians… it’s like having one’s cake and eating it too.
I read it again for this review. Not much seems to have changed from my older edition. Which is fine with me; the older edition is awesome too. This is more of an exposition than a commentary. The difference, I think, is that a good commentary doesn’t try to do all the work for the reader. Commentaries (esp. the ones I read for my studies: scholarly, technical works that take a bit of caffeine and seminary training to use) walk you through the grammar and particulars of the original language, translation, context, and the reasoning of the text. Commentaries usually don’t present a smooth, finished, almost-preachable product.
Expositions, on the other hand, are polished and far less technical. Published expositions are often sermons-turned-into-books. That would describe Basics for Believers. Carson preached the meat of this book at a conference in 1994. And those sermons were adapted to form this book. So this is an exposition (not unlike all of John MacArthur’s “commentaries” or Kent Hughes’ Preaching the Word series).
Carson is always insightful. He pays close attention to the text and he presses in to see the flow of argument running through the epistle. This work is Carson at his popular-level (i.e., non-academic) finest.
I can think of several very helpful uses for this book. It would be an excellent supplement to a small-group Bible study on the book of Philippians; something everyone would read during the week to prepare for the meeting. You could read this book devotionally, alongside your Bible opened to the epistle itself. You could use this book to check your conclusions after you have done the work of exegesis and exposition yourself.
One word of caution for those who preach. If you’re anything like me then you probably should NOT read the authors who are most influential to you before you write your sermon. If you do, you will simply see everything just the way they saw it. And in this case it isn’t that that is a terrible thing – I can’t think of a place in Basics for Believers where Carson really misses the point. It’s just that you won’t do the hard work yourself, and you’ll be in danger of simply being a second-hander, passing on Carson’s discoveries to your listeners without trying to see them for yourself.
I heartily recommend Basics for Believers to anyone interested in the book of Philippians. Carson’s insights are a gift to the church. And he is, of course, eminently readable, interesting, and helpful. So go buy it: you’ll thank me later.