Well, this year resembled last year in a lot of ways. It was definitely busier as ordinary life and ministry picked up pace, but there was still much quality reading time to savor. I’m glad I set a goal and stayed ahead because I have been bogged down by various trials these past two months and haven’t had much time or energy to read. Here are my top ten books that I read this past year—
10. Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
“All extremes except extreme devotion to the Enemy [God] are to be encouraged” (p. 33).
I believe I read this book in my younger years, but it didn’t hit me with the force it did this past year. Of course, the short book consists of fictional correspondence from an experienced senior devil instructing a junior devil in the art of tempting humankind. Reading through the letters, I couldn’t help but feel as though Lewis wrote this book recently as it was so relevant to the political/cultural phenomena going on these past two years. He mentions Marxism, social justice, propaganda, patriotism, and how “unbalanced and prone to faction” we humans are. Although he is a prophetic voice for sure, I was reminded that there are no “unprecedented” times. History repeats itself—“That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9). And behind all the global conflict we are witnessing is a spiritual battle. This was an thought-provoking read. If you haven’t read it in a while, you should plan to read it soon.
9. The Care of Souls by Harold L. Senkbeil
“This is the secret for sustainable pastoral work: You need to realize that you’ve got nothing to give to others that you yourself did not receive. Jesus loves you first, then you love him back by loving his sheep and lambs in his name and stead” (p. xx).
Pastoral ministry is thrilling and rewarding, but it is often fraught with difficulty, heartache, and even burnout. This veteran Lutheran pastor has given the church a gift. This book is a treasure trove filled with encouragement and instruction for pastors on how to care for Christ’s sheep in a sustainable way. He desires to help shepherds develop a pastoral habitus which consists of the ordinary means—or sacred channels—of grace rather than man-centered models of ministry. Rather than visionaries, CEO’s, or entrepreneurs, he reminds us that we are nothing more than stewards and servants—errand boys for Jesus. His writing style, raw stories, and humble tone encouraged me greatly to persevere in the throes of ministry. Even though he’s been in ministry for years, Senkbeil doesn’t pretend to have it all together, but daily relies on Christ for effectiveness in his work. He encourages pastors that even in the midst of real despair, there’s joy in being commissioned by Jesus for this unique calling and service.
8. Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey
“God has designed the mission n a way that the Gospel goes forward only through risk, only through cost, only through sacrifice” (p. 176).
Dave Harvey is one of my favorite authors. He has a way of saying familiar things in a fresh way that is captivating and motivating. This is especially true of this book. Ambition is sometimes thought of as a vice, but Harvey makes the distinction between selfish ambition that seeks its own glory and a godly ambition which seeks the glory of God alone. He argues that if you have life goals and dreams that seek to promote the glory of God and the good of others, then they should be pursued intensely with all your might. The accomplishment of your dreams will never occur without risk and sacrifice which will in turn make you more dependent upon Christ making you decrease and Christ increase (Jn 3:30). This exciting read instilled a desire in me to do things beyond the threshold of my own comfort and convenience, things I never expected to do, things that that can only be done through a desperate dependency on Christ. Harvey rescues our godly ambitions by showing that our most audacious dreams are from Christ, accomplished through Christ, and are ultimately done for Christ (Rom. 11:36). This is a far cry from a self-help, just-do-it, positive thinking book.
7. Saints, Sufferers, & Sinners by Michael Emlet
Loving others in these multifaceted ways means that we need to know and understand people well. Love doesn’t happen in abstraction, but in concrete, person-specific ways” (p. 3).
Michael Emlet is one of my favorite biblical counseling authors, so when this book came out this year, I wanted to read it right away. And I was so blessed by it. Adding a third dimension to Luther’s simul justus et peccator, he establishes a paradigm for counseling and soul care. We are to see one another as simultaneously saints who need confirmation, sufferers who need comfort, and sinners who need to be challenged. People and life circumstances are complicated and Emlet calls us to be wise, truthful, and compassionate counselors who take the time to understand the uniqueness of each individual—a ministry of presence and words. I found his instruction perceptive and his paradigm enlightening as it calls the counselor to a higher standard of excellency in the spiritual care of others.
6. Confronting Injustice without Compromising the Truth by Thaddeus J. Williams
“The oppressed deserve more than our good intentions. We must love them not merely with our hearts and hands but withour heads too. This includes carefully distinguishing true social justice from its counterfeits” (p. 4).
Our society has been bombarded with the social justice agenda and it is often difficult for Christians to navigate through all of the complexity and confusion. I understand the perils and pitfalls of a “social justice” that is detached from God and his Word. I have even spent time reading other books that critique social justice and wokeness (Baucham’s Fault Lines, Strachan’s Christianity and Wokeness, and Johnson’s What Every Christian Needs to Know about Social Justice). Even though I am in agreement with these authors and their cogent analyses and warnings, I found Williams’ book to be more compelling. Rather than being a mere polemical work, I found it to be more holistic, comprehensive, refreshingly balanced, crystal-clear, Gospel-centered, down-to-earth, and practical. He doesn’t simply explain what social justice is not, but shows what it is and what it could be. He gives an insightful critique of secular social justice while also calling Christians to engage real people and real problems that exist in our broken world.
5. Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett
“If the gospel reveals a trinitarian descent, our reception of that gospel involves an ascent into the triune life of God” (p. 106).
This book was an engaging follow-up to Barrett’s None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God—a book that argues for a return to classical theism that emphasizes the uniqueness of God’s essence. Simply Trinity wrestles with two of the most complicated attributes of God—his simplicity and his tri-unity and how they relate to safeguard an orthodox view of the Trinity. He argues that in the recent reformed resurgence that brought the Church back to the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereignty in salvation, we have drifted away from the biblical, orthodox, and classical doctrine of the Trinity. We have drifted into what he calls “social trinitarianism”—a human-centered view of the Godhead that redefines the Persons as three different centers of consciousness/will, espouses a functional hierarchy, and emphasizes the interpersonal relationships of love between the three Persons rather than their eternal relations of origin. He warns that this theological drift which collapses and conflates the ontological and economic has led us to unwittingly repeat the trinitarian heresies of church history. Simplicity will keep us from drifting toward heresies that err on the side of extreme oneness or threeness. As a theological/metaphysical treatise, this book wrestles with some complex topics but is written in such a way that every Christian can follow its clear argumentation and conclusions. I believe it is an essential read.
4. L’Abri by Edith Schaeffer
“Chance? Coincidence? Luck? To us it was a tremendous instance of answered prayer, a wonderful demonstration of the existence of a Personal God who deals with His children as individual, meaningful personalities, and in an individual way” (p. 98).
I read this book in a reading group. As one who has benefitted greatly from the teachings of Francis Schaeffer, I was eager to read his wife’s personal account of their ministry and the details of God’s provision. I was impressed by the great diversity of people from all over the world that God brought to L’Abri searching for answers to life’s questions. The Schaeffer’s sought to faithful know and love the people God brought to them as well as to give careful, long, and thorough intellectual answers based on God’s Word. Not only did her account provide me with a compelling model for evangelism, apologetics, and deep community, but it also encouraged me to trust in God’s personal provision often through providential connections and circumstances. This work was massively encouraging from cover to cover.
3. The Wonderful Works of God by Herman Bavinck
“Any science, philosophy, or knowledge which supposes that it can stand on its own pretentious, and can leave God out of its assumptions, becomes its own opposite, and disillusions everyone who builds his expectations on it . . . Man is an enigma whose solution can only be found in God” (p. 4, 7).
This was the first work of this Dutch Reformed theologian that I’ve read. I was due to read through a systematic theology and this new publication of old work from 1909 entitled Magnalia Dei piqued my interest. It is very much a traditional systematic theology. The original English subtitle was Instruction in the Christian Religion according to the Reformed Confession. Every page is filled with deep, God-glorifying, Christ-exalting truth communicated in a reverent and devotional tone. Bavinck is uniquely skilled in communicating abstract, complex truth in a clear and fresh manner. He writes with a certain robust attentiveness to biblical, theological, historical, and cultural dimensions making it a relevant, life-changing experience. It took me most of the year to read through it, but my knowledge of the Gospel was broadened and my personal faith was deepened. This is a lofty yet accessible work guaranteed to set your heart ablaze with awe and wonder.
2. R. C. Sproul: A Life by Stephen J. Nichols
“Perhaps the greatest hope for the future lies in the present revolution of the laity. A new dimension of lay involvement, lay education, and lay mobilization is informing the major churches of America” (p. 106).
While reading this book while on vacation with my wife in Florida, I could hardly put it down. I blew through it so fast because it was so fascinating. I even decided to drive to Sanford to see St. Andrew’s Chapel and visit his grave. When it comes to a stalwart theologian like Sproul, learning of his personal life was intriguing and then to be reminded of all he accomplished with his life and ministry was staggering. Nichols tells so many amusing personal stories of Sproul, yet also covers momentous moments where he put his stake in the ground defending the Gospel and the Reformation. What I found most influential throughout the book was Sproul’s emphasis on the local church and the laity that makes up the majority of the church. His life’s aim was to start a movement that was theological and ecclesiological. He desired to bridge the gap between the seminary and the church, between the laity and the clergy. He was convinced like Luther that deep, robust theology was for the ordinary saints like the plowboy. His life beckons me to be more bold for Christ and the Gospel.
1. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman
“Sex is identity, sex is politics, sex is culture . . . We now live in a culture in which everything is politicized, and we have no choice in the public square but to accept this and engage accordingly” (p. 299, 335).
In this brilliant critique of the 21st century, Trueman shows the influential ideas that brought us to where we are—Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Freedom (as the subtitle states). The world is changing at an incredibly rate; future shock is a real thing. This world is radically different then the on I grew up in two centuries ago. As Christians we can be tempted to lament and wring our hands in defeat, but Trueman argues that understanding the reasons for the rapid changes better prepares us to respond with positive action than simply lodging complaint. Culture is something we are born into—it’s the air we breathe and the water we swim in. Each successive generation is unaware of the ways things used to be and of the countless revolutions that have unraveled the fabric of society. This astute work seeks to show that “the ideas informing “both the conscious thinking and instinctive intuitions of Western men and women have deep historical roots and a coherent genealogy” (p. 29). If you are wondering why our modern world is increasingly psychologized, sexualized, and politicized and you desire to establish a loving counterculture that stands on the truth of God’s Word and the transformative power of the Gospel, this book will prepare you to better understand and engage with our society.
Honorable Mentions: The Pastor as Counselor by David Powlison, The Secular Creed by Rebecca Mclaughlin, Rejoice & Tremble by Michael Reeves, Love God with All Your Mind by J. P. Moreland, What Every Christian Needs to Know about Social Justice by Jeffrey Johnson, Consequence of Ideas by R. C. Sproul, With All Your Heart by A. Craig Troxel, Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves, Cultural Apologetics by Paul Gould, and Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy by Mark Vroegop.