2014 Top Books

I suppose a “better late than never” is in order. I recently came across a 2013 Top Ten list of books I compiled for a friend on my personal blog and it made me miss the thinking involved in compiling these lists for what I read in the past year. So, I determined I ought to make one for last year, almost halfway through this year.

I typically try to have a ‘canon of theologians’ list – the goal being to read a different theologian in church history each month – to read through every year, but outside of Christian books, I also try to vary my reading. However, on this outlet I’ll limit the list to my favorite Christian books I read in 2014. Some of these will be new releases, while others are classics that I try to re-read occasionally. Other than the first book on the list, these will be in no particular order.

The King in His Beauty by Thomas Schreiner

By far the best book I read this year. Beauty is an appropriate superlative for this book. Schreiner has done an excellent job of compiling a theology of the Bible. I am in particular agreement with his thesis of “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s reign” but for me the reason this book is beautiful is because of its content, and how this thesis unfolds through the book. The theme is a constant reminder of everything that points to “the King in His beauty.” What a beautiful hope we have as Christians. And so not only is this book doctrinally rich, with much to learn from it, but even more importantly it will make you pause and worship. I’m thankful the church has such a gift.

The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus by Alan J. Thompson

This is an excellent work chronicling the events of Acts that primarily focuses on the work of Christ. Of course the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost is an important event in Acts, but Alan Thompson doesn’t want us to forget – as we often do – that Christ is in his “session” during this time in history as well. The Lord is Risen and is reigning, these are ultimately His acts.

Summary of Christian Doctrine by Louis Berkhof

Berkhof is one of my favorite theologians. His complete Systematic Theology is probably the work I reference most often. This summary is a great, concise resource as well. It’s a short treatment of key dogmatic issues, and is a pleasure to read. Another benefit is the opportunity to read straight through book hitting every topic. Something you most likely don’t do with a full systematic. It helps us “remember.” Something we desperateley need in order to continue to grow in areas of the Christian faith. This would be a great place to start if you’re interested in reading Berkhof. It’s also a great book to giveaway.

Expositional Preaching by David Helm

The first book I read in the 9Marks “Building Healthy Churches” series, and I’m not sure I’ve read a better introduction to expositional preaching. It’s a quick read, but it makes a great case for what is called expositional preaching. It is a style that is making a comeback in recent years, and many would argue it’s the only style of preaching that we should do regularly. Helm gives many good scriptural examples and application of what it is and how we serve our churches by preaching this way.

Behind the Ranges by J. O. Fraser

An amazing story. I was not familiar with Fraser before coming across this work and I was blown away with his pioneering work in China with the Lisu people. His endurance and patience with the work among the people is something that we should all be in awe of, and is something that I ask for more where we serve. We need more J. O. Fraser’s in the church today.

The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It seems an antiquated word in our world today. But how utterly and completely scriptural it is. Maybe the reason we need to continue reading these types of works from the Puritans. They had a real grasp of sin that eludes many of us in our modern world. Watson will guide you through this doctrine from the Word, encouraging true repentance. The day of the Lord is now.

The Presence of the Future by George Eldon Ladd

Living in the “already and not yet.” Ladd is a well known Baptist theologian who talk much of the Kingdom from Scripture. This book is a treatment of eschatology and its primary focus on Christ who ushered in the end times, but explains the time has not come to fulfillment. I enjoyed this book because of my interest in this area of biblical study.

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

A classic work. One that has endured and one that I love reading. It’s truly a journey walking with Christian – the book’s protagonist – through his life. If you haven’t taken this journey through the Christian life before, you need to take a walk with Bunyan this year. The edition linked to above is the Banner of Truth edition and is a beautiful copy you can keep for years to come.

Evangelism by Mack Stiles

The second book in the 9Marks series I read this year. I have read Stiles – who often writes on evangelism – before and wasn’t disappointed. This book is very accessible and is a good defense of why the church needs to be evangelizing It’s also and encouragement to do so. I was looking for resources to give away as gifts to pastors over here and found some great ideas in this series. Evangelism is an area that is tragically neglected in our churches today.

On the Incarnation by Athanasius

I was encouraged by a couple of friends on Twitter to read this during the holiday season, and what a beautiful read at Christmas time. The incarnation being the true miracle of the season. God becoming man is something that we should constantly be in awe of and try to remind ourselves often. This book will help do that. It’s also refreshing to read something of such antiquity.

That concludes my list.

What books were your favorite from last year since you’ve had four months to think about it, and why?

Enabled to Understand

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I’m currently reading Alan J. Thomson’s The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s account of God’s unfolding plan. It’s been a great read so far, as are most of the books from the excellent New Studies in Biblical Theology series.

In his chapter on the importance of the resurrection, shortly after showing that “Luke not only affirms significance of the physical resurrection, but also highlights its meaning and significance.”

We see as Jesus walks along the road with his disciples in 24:36 his teaching “is all about reminding them of what [he] had told them and their understanding of the Scriptures.” He reveals to them the words that he had spoken have now been fulfilled according to God’s plan as written in the Scripture. “When the Scriptures are referred to in Luke 24, the emphasis is not on a particular verse or two. Rather, the emphasis is repeatedly on the totality of Scripture.”

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! (24:25)

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (24:27)

They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (24:32)

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (24:44)

Then what do we read happened?

“The disciples are then enabled to understand the Scriptures.”

Isn’t it interesting that only after Jesus explained the whole of the Scriptures that they were enabled to understand?

This should be a huge challenge to us.

People must understand the totality of the Scriptures.

How can we expect people to know the hope [the resurrection of the dead in Christ the first fruits] to which they have been called if they do not understand the foundation of that hope? The fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus Christ and his continuing work to this day provide us with assurance.

We must teach the whole counsel of the Word of God. Only then will people see the beauty of the King and be truly transformed. Only then will our churches start to understand that it is the church that God has blessed to reach the nations. Only then will the nations understand as well. Only after they understand the Scriptures.

Satisfaction with Life

Satisfaction is a curious sentiment, feeling, or a state of being. Contentment is likened to it. What is it to be satisfied in this life? I suppose it has a lot to do with how someone would define contentment. If their quality of life met the demands of their definition, we could call them satisfied. So, what are these demands, or conditions that must be met? Are they physical, spiritual, financial, or otherwise? Consider this:

If asked, would you say that your satisfaction with life is directly proportional to your financial situation?

A recent poll just released by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that it is. At least, that’s the case for the nearly 1,000 African Americans they polled. However, I doubt the numbers are in any way tied to a specific people. I would argue that this outlook pervades most races and classes.

The results of the poll aren’t terribly striking. We would expect them. It really seems common sense. The more well off one is financially, the greater that persons satisfaction with life.

But, is this the way it should be, especially for Christians?

I would argue that our satisfaction with life should have absolutely nothing to do with our financial situation. Is this a bold claim? It probably seems more bold to some than it should, because all we know is a culture that has adopted this way of life.

But God’s Word tells us that Jesus Christ came and lived and preached the good news of the kingdom to us so that his joy may be in us, and therefore that our joy would be complete (John 15:11). We are to believe in the good news of Jesus Christ. Abiding in Christ is where our joy rests, not in fleeting circumstances, not in earthly trials and tribulations, but in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God.

Amen.

Maligning the Word of God

There are a few passages in the Pastoral Epistles that warn against “maligning the word of God.” I thought it would be profitable to look at those passages so as to understand the setting in which Paul used them, as well as the different examples he uses to make the same point, which should ultimately provide for us a direct line of application for our context.

First the passages that Paul uses and the context.

Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. (Titus 2:3-5 ESV)

Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled.
(1 Timothy 6:1 ESV)

It’s interesting to note that both of the instances Paul uses this phrase has to do with submission. As we mentioned, he is specifically dealing with social constructs, but what implications do these exhortations have for us?

And finally, what is the application for us? In all we do we should strive to uphold the name of God and the teaching that flows from His name. If we profess to be followers of Christ, then our actions (submission) should bring glory to God’s name, as the life of Christ did. He lived to glorify the Father.

Let us then, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. The implications of this practice for the church body is transformational. Think how our lives and our congregations would be realigned if we truly sought to count others as more important than ourselves.

The Sovereign Call to Discipleship

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The shocking call of Jesus.

The way Jesus commenced his ministry was quite distinct from other teachers of his day. In fact it was remarkable that Jesus called others to follow him, and did not merely teach that they should be devoted to God. Studies from this period reveal to us that, “rabbis did not summon others to follow them. Instead, would-be disciples sought rabbis out and asked to serve as their disciples.”

But Jesus was different, he is the one who initiated the call, and further, he didn’t wait for a response. His call to be followed was effective. “He sovereignly and authoritatively called them to do so.” They dropped everything and followed him.

Other evidence from this period shows that disciples would typically study under a rabbi for a few years, graduate, and then attract their own students. Not so with Jesus, “disciples are called upon to follow Jesus literally and to leave their families.” Again, he doesn’t teach them that they should only follow God, “rather, he emphasizes the difficulty of following him and the cost of discipleship.”

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It’s often easy for modern day readers to be ignorant of the religious culture of Jesus’ day. This ignorance tends to flatten out much of the significance of what was actually going on in many of the events. A Jewish person would have been much more shocked at the actions of Jesus than we are. It’s easy to read past the significance of the details in the story. But it’s in these details that we see the uniqueness of the person of Jesus. Jesus acted the way he did because of his divine call. And within Jesus’ call for disciples to follow him instead of the ways of God lies the point that these details help reveal to us:

The deity of the Son. Jesus is God.

-all quotes taken from New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ by Thomas R. Schreiner

Jesus and the Most Explosive Political Argument of His Day

The following is a section of notes from Dr. Schreiner’s course “Theology of the New Testament.” This was a fascinating quote that he pulled from Günter Klein (who was a Bultmannian, so read through that lens). Still, there is much to agree with in his view, especially for many Christians’ political agendas in our time. Note the bold highlights (me), and the way that Jesus treated the “most explosive political question of his day.”

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Jesus did not believe kingdom could be inaugurated by human agency, contra the Zealots (Mark 4:28).

Jesus focused on individual repentance, not corporate repentance. Note Günter Klein, Jesus “projected no socio-political programs, he did not demonize the structure of society . . . and he did not call for revolution.”

“This is not to say that he was for a moment blind to the repressiveness of his day” (403-404). “He warned of the dangers of riches and power. But he did not call for an attack upon the structures of his day. Instead, he called for the payment of taxes, even to Caesar.” In this command “Jesus sovereignly declares as irrelevant what apparently was the most explosive political question of his day; he even goes so far as to downgrade it to a trifle by referring to God’s proprietary rights. But it is precisely God’s claim which makes us aware that his rule will not prevail by man changing any kind of structures but only by man changing himself and by preparing him for God’s coming” (404).

Locating evil in social structures “conflicts with Jesus’ proclamation which so uncompromisingly located evil in man’s heart” (415). It is not the transformation of social structures but the message of the gospel which “puts an end to man’s self-idolatry and frees him for a new obedience” (416). Individuals have been transformed, “but can it ever be said of a structure that in it Satan has been overthrown by Christ” (416)?

“This is not to give the false impression that the condition of the world is unimportant. To the contrary ‘the conversion of the individual as such brings about changes within the world.’” (417). It does not agree “with the exuberance of some ranting revolutionary to build the kingdom of God. It seeks change because it has perceived God’s mercy, yet it knows full well that changing structures does not bring salvation any closer.” Revolutionary ideology “leads to that fatal misunderstanding which says that Christ is gathering ‘the dispossessed so they together might overthrow the mighty.’ What here is laced with Christian terms and so unashamedly ideologized is the very opposite of love and would only succeed in perpetuating human conflict” (pp. 417-418).

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See New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ by Thomas R. Schreiner for more of his view on the Kingdom of God.

On Unity in the Community of Faith

Gregg Allison commenting on the Spirit as creator and sustainer of unity in the community of faith:

“Churches do not have to attempt to create unity among their members; the Spirit provides that for them (Eph. 4:3). What must instead happen is that churches are to work hard to maintain that unity, which seems to be fragile and undergo breakdowns because of the sinfulness of church members (Eph 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19).

Mindful that they are natural enemies who have been brought together not naturally but by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, church members rely on the Holy Spirit to be able to express genuine love toward one another (Rom. 15:30; Col. 1:8) in an atmosphere of righteousness, peace, and joy fostered by the Spirit (Rom. 14:17).”

-from Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (118-119)

Preaching and Preachers, Part 2

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching & Preachers. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 346 pp. $22.99

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This is the second part of a two part review. I split up the reviews because the nature of the new release by Zondervan. It is the 40th Anniversary Edition of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones classic Preaching & Preachers. If you are unfamiliar with the book, it began as a series of lectures that Lloyd-Jones delivered to the students of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. These lectures were held during the spring of 1969, over the course of six weeks. They were published two years later into a single volume which has, since that time, become a classic text on preaching. I will attempt to discover why it became so popular.

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In Part 1 of the review I sought to focus solely on the additions to the 40th Anniversary release. So, part 2 is simply a review of Lloyd-Jones’ book.

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Part 2

If Lloyd-Jones was fearful of the decline in preaching during his day, how much more should we be over 50 years later? Preaching is a calling that is gaining more and more ire from the general public, and is even being pushed to the periphery in our churches–as it was in Lloyd-Jones’ day. So what does this book about preaching have to say to modern preachers and to the act of preaching itself?

Lloyd-Jones begins his series of lectures by stating that preaching is the primary task of the church. And it’s for that reason that he says after many years in the role he is prepared to lecture on this topic because as he says, “to me the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can every be called” (17). He argues for the primacy of preaching because it has fallen out of importance in many of our churches. He spends several pages discussing issues that have contributed to this before defending his view. He executes this defense by walking us through the appropriate Scripture references that testify to the primacy of preaching in the life of Jesus and the early church. Lloyd-Jones then reinforces his argument by calling on Church history.

“Is it not clear… that the decadent periods and eras in the history of the Church have always been those periods when preaching had decline?” So, “what is it that always heralds the dawn of a Reformation or of a Revival?” It is renewed preaching. A revival of true preaching has always heralded these great movements in the history of the Church (31).

Throughout the book, Lloyd-Jones often employs “personal reminiscence” to illustrate examples of the points he is trying to prove. He begins his defense of the sermon this way, by reminiscing, and then sets about to prove wrong “modern” thoughts and assertions that there are better ways of communicating than that of a sermon. Lloyd-Jones felt strongly the preacher was to do something. He wasn’t merely to make a speech. It was more than that, it was interacting with the people. They must go away effected if true preaching had taken place.

As I read through the book it became evident to me why this book has remained a preachers classic. I believe it’s because the book has an element of timelessness to it, as Scriptural arguments should. Though there are topics that Lloyd-Jones addresses that were definitely products of his time, yet he also addresses those topics in a way that seems as though he is speaking directly to us in our day. This is the sense in which this book continues to have a following.

I also became much more aware of why Dever says that he never fails to mention this book “as being the most fun to read” (255). It’s a fun read because the Dr. has many, many stories that he employs to illustrate the points he is making. I have no doubt these stories were much more colorful as the Welshman retold them in his lectures than they are in the book. While entertaining, the frequency of them became somewhat tedious as I worked through the chapters.

Much of what you hear about this book is that it is definitely a book on preaching that should be read. You’re not going to agree with everything, but as previously mentioned this may have a lot to do with when the book was written, Lloyd-Jones, in the informal lecture setting at WTS, was reacting against much that was happening to preaching during his day.

Lloyd-Jones knew what it was to be a preacher. Maybe that’s why this book is important to read. He exemplified the preacher. Staying in one congregation for over 30 years, is a feat very uncommon in our day.

He had much wisdom in those years of experience to glean. Listen and learn.

 

 

Two Conditions

“Here we see two conditions that, in the Scriptures, always go together, for it is in knowing and serving the Lord that the people of God find blessings, and are freed from masters that bring harm, not good. As Israel forsakes the Lord she ends up serving others, whether Philistines, the Midianites, the Assyrians or the Babylonians, masters that oppress. Jesus’ words ‘no one can serve two masters’ is that everyone will serve one, a truth that Paul addresses foundationally in his claim that unless one is a servant of Christ, he as a servant of sin. (Rom. 6:15-19). The plight of Israel in Egypt illustrates this larger truth that runs throughout the Scriptures.”

-from The God Who Makes Himself Known (34)

Book Review: Contend

What is it to contend for something? It’s almost outdated language for us. We don’t often hear the word “contend” anymore. I was curious, so I did a Google search of the term. Surprisingly there aren’t many results. Roughly the first ten search entries were dictionary and thesaurus definitions. I quickly clicked over to the images page and found a little more of what I expected, sports images: boxing, football. These associations we understand a little more clearly. Contending for a title.

But what does it mean to contend as Christians? Armstrong offers this definition in his latest book:

“Contending must be understood and exercised as an act of mercy toward those who doubt and those who have been deceived, regardless of whether they claim faith in Christ.”

Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World by Aaron Armstrong

Armstrong picks up Jude’s theme of contending from the following verses and uses it as the main thesis for his book. “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

The beginning of the book paints a picture for us of how the church got where it is today. This book is definitely written to a contemporary audience, so Armstrong doesn’t go too far into the past. He addresses a few of the most recent movements and the reactions to those movements–movements of their own–to help us understand where we find ourselves, the primarily evangelical West.

Armstrong’s primary audience is the church. Just as Jude encouraged the Christians in his day, those who have a “common salvation,” so Armstrong attempts to encourage the church our day to contend.

Evidently we are to contend as Christians, but what is it we contending for? This question Armstrong addresses in the following chapter. He lays out broadly and then more specifically what we are to contend for. Nest he tells suggests exactly “how” we are supposed to contend as Christians. Mainly referring to the attitude with which we contend, because as contending deals with relationships, it can get uncomfortable and messy. Armstrong raises the issue of the Internet and how it can be and how it has been hotbed for heated debate in recent days. These references to modern struggles throughout the book, some very personal as Armstrong is not averse to naming specific names, are helpful.

The final few chapters are about the realm in which we contend. Armstrong first talks about church leaders and their role in contending and then addresses the congregation’s role. We are to function in the body so as to encourage and spur one another on to contend. He concludes with a summarizing and final challenge for us to contend as Christians.

Aaron Armstrong has written a helpful modern manifesto on contending for the gospel, and Cruciform Press with this volume yet again continues to publish tracts for our times.

I would recommend this book for those who are struggling with living the Christian life in these last days. Often it’s difficult to understand how our faith integrates into the world around us. Armstrong really helps to answer these questions and gives a context where it occurs.

This would be a great book for small group study. Not only to better understand what it means to contend, but also in order to hold each other accountable to this active task that we’ve been called to.

 

Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World by Aaron Armstrong

*I received this book free from the publisher through the Cruciform Press blogger review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.*