Paul Distilled

Gary Burnett
Wipf and Stock, 156 pages

As a pastor, I am always in search of solid resources to help share the truth of Scripture to the congregation I serve. This need was heightened at the start of the COVID pandemic. Like so many others I scrambled to hold our congregation together and desperately sought helpful resources. This is when I encountered Gary Burnett, a New Testament scholar, writer and consultant. Burnett developed a series of short talks, Paul in Ten, for his congregation in Belfast. Over the course of the next year Paul in Ten would become a concise and delightful examination of Paul’s reaching, Paul Distilled.  Full disclosure, as I benefitted from these resources, I got to know Gary Burnett and provided an endorsement of his book.

Many readers of the apostle Paul would concur with Peter, who wrote that Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). In Paul Distilled, Burnett helps us find a way through the complexity of Paul’s writings, addressing the pieces of his writing that are hard to understand and have often been distorted.

Burnett doesn’t simplify Paul; rather, he unpacks the work of the apostle in a fresh manner that creates an accessible “on ramp” for the new reader of Paul, while at the same time providing space for the seasoned reader of Paul to drink deeply from the well of Paul’s work.

Seeking a consistent theme for the book, Burnett sought to distill Paul’s central essence. What Burnett found, he writes, “Surprised me a little … I began to realize that at the very heart of things for Paul is simply the love of God.” Indeed, most readers of Paul seem to focus on understanding his writing on particular subjects without ever understanding Paul’s initial motivation for writing. In identifying the love of God as Paul’s primary motivator, Burnett offers a solid base from which to unpack Paul’s thoughts on any number of topics. These range from the clearly theological questions around the centrality of the cross, the importance of the resurrection and the Lordship of Christ, to what many would consider more practical issues like the role of women in the life of the church, poverty, and justice.

In working to distill the thoughts of Paul within the pages of the book, Gary does not forget that Paul tells us to, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). To that end Gary adds good amount of practical application and personal narrative, with reflection questions at the end of each chapter, to challenge the reader to not only gain a better understanding of Paul, but to better appreciate how we too are to live a life centered on the love of God.

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Neil Craigan is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and author of Human Again: Life in the Image of God.