Books

Top Ten Books of 2016


Ever since reading Louis L'Amour's Education of a Wandering Man when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, I've been keeping lists of the books I've read each year. For the past several years, I've also been writing some version of a Top 10 or Best of list. I enjoy reading such lists from other friends and usually discover new titles to read and explore.

These are not necessarily books that were published this year, but rather my favorites from the books I read this year. 

10. The Spirit and the Letter, Saint Augustine. One of my friends and conversation partners recommended this treatise from Augustine for his insights on the relationship between law and gospel, old covenant and new. I read John Burnaby's translation in the  Library of Christian Classics edition of Augustine's Later Works. Very good. 

9. The Road to Character, David Brooks. I actually haven't completed it yet, but after reading most of Brooks' thoughtful commentary on the 2016 Presidential election, I decided to buy his best-selling treatment of ethics. Brooks begins by contrasting two sorts of virtues, what he calls resumé virtues and eulogy virtues, and then builds his study of the latter around biographical sketches of historical figures as varied as George Eliot, Francis Perkins, Johnny Unitas, and Saint Augustine. After an election season where character seemed to matter less than ever before, this is an important book for everyone. 

8. John Owen and English Puritanism: Studies in Defeat, Crawford Gribben. This biography of my favorite dead theologian (or maybe second favorite, see #1 below) is both a study of a man and an era. It was both informative and interesting, providing new insight into the overall character of Owen's life and ministry. Gribben has done for Owen what Peter Brown did for Augustine, George Marsden did for Edwards, and Bruce Gordon did for Calvin. 

7. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’Kempis. There are definitely some theological problems with this pre-Reformation, medieval Catholic devotional classic. But read with discernment, it is helpful in many ways. It made me love Christ more and want to be more like him, and that makes it a book worth reading and re-reading. 

6. Saving Eutychus: How to Preach God's Word and Keep People Awake, Gary Millar and Phil Campbell. This is a refreshing and helpful book on preaching that lives up to its wonderful title! There are many books on preaching that help preachers with theology, exegesis, and exposition. But this book, while refusing to downplay the importance of these things, is particularly helpful on delivery. (And I think I’m preaching a little better now than I was at this time last year.) 

5. The Vine Project: Shaping Your Ministry Culture Around Discipleship, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. Like Saving Eutychus, this excellent book was published by our Aussie friends at Matthias Media. It is, hands down, the best manual on discipleship in the local church I have seen. I plan to use it with our church leaders in the coming months and years. 

4. Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M'Cheyne, edited by Andrew Bonar. I'm pretty sure I've now read every page of this magnificent collection of diaries, sermons, pastoral letters, personal letters, mission reports, poems, communion meditations, and more from this saintly nineteenth century pastor from Scotland. M'Cheyne used to pray, "Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can become" and often counseled people, "For every one look at self, take ten looks at Christ." Few volumes in my library have as consistently nourished my soul as this one. I feel sure I'll return to it again and again through the rest of my life.

3. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith. This is a popularly written, more accessible version of Smith’s earlier book, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith argues that we are embodied beings pulled along by our desires, not just thinking things or "brains on a stick." Christian education and spiritual formation, therefore, require something more than a data dump. Information alone will not a genuine disciple make. We must also attend to our hearts, our desires, our habits, and the liturgies of our culture. I will be reflecting on this book for a long time.  

2. The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, John Owen. This was my second time through Owen's soul-searching analysis of spiritual thoughts and affections. Convicting, yet nourishing. 

1. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin, edited by J. T. McNeill. Calvin's Institutes is profound, lyrical, and worshipful -- devotional theology at it's best. I first started the Institutes back in 2001, but didn't finish it. I picked it up again in 2008 or 2009, working through most of Books 2-3. A couple of years ago, I read about half of Book 4. And I've dipped in and out of the Institutes, reading some sections here and there (especially in Books 2-3) multiple times. But in July of this year, I decided to take the Institutes with me for a study leave. I read most of Books 1-3 in July, then took the rest of the year to finish Books 3-4. I'm so glad I did. Easily my favorite book of the year. And I can hardly wait to read it again.

Infinite Grace to Pardon Immeasurable Sin


See the consequences of that sin on all sides, the world is full of them.

Yet, saith Paul, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound,” and he gives us this as a proof of it: “And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification” (Rom. 5:16).

The Lord Jesus came into the world, not alone to put away Adam’s sin, but all the sins which have followed upon it. The second Adam has repaired the desperate ruin of the first, and much more.

By his death upon the cross, our Divine Substitute has put away those myriads of sins, which have been committed by men since the first offence in Eden.

Think of this!

Take the whole aggregate of believers, and let each one disburden his conscience of its load of sin.
      What a mountain!
      Pile it up! Pile it up!
      It rises huge as high Olympus!

Age after age believers come and lay their enormous loads in this place. “The Lord hath made to meet on him the iniquities of us all.”
      What Alps!
      What Himalayas of sin!

If there were only mine and yours, my brother, what mountains of division would our sins make! But the great Christ, the free gift of God to us, when he bare our sins in his own body on the tree, took all those countless sins away.

“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”!

Here is infinite grace to pardon immeasurable sin!

Truly the “one man’s offence” abounded horribly; but the “one man’s obedience,” the obedience of the Son of God, hath superabounded. As the arch of heaven far exceedeth in its span the whole round globe of the earth, so doth grace much more abound over human sin.

 --C. H. Spurgeon, “Grace Abounding Over Abounding Sin,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 34

Equip Yourself Against Accusation with the Gospel


The genius of Christianity takes the words of Paul 
"who gave himself for our sins" 
as true and efficacious. 


We are not to look upon our sins as insignificant trifles. 
On the other hand, we are not to regard them as so terrible 
that we must despair. 

Learn to believe that Christ was given, 
not for picayune and imaginary transgressions, 
but for mountainous sins; 
not for one or two, 
but for all; 
not for sins that can be discarded, 
but for sins that are stubbornly ingrained. 


Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, 
particularly in the last hour, 
when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. 

Say with confidence: 
"Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. 
If I had no sin I should not need Christ. 
No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. 
The truth is, I am all sin. 
My sins are not imaginary transgressions,
but sins against the first table, 
unbelief, doubt, despair, contempt, hatred, 
ignorance of God, ingratitude towards Him, 
misuse of His name, neglect of His Word, etc.; 
and sins against the second table, 
dishonor of parents, disobedience of government, 
coveting of another's possessions, etc. 
Granted that I have not committed murder, adultery, theft, 
and similar sins 
in deed, nevertheless I have committed them in the heart, 
and therefore I am a transgressor of all the commandments of God. 
Because my transgressions are multiplied 
and my own efforts at self-justification rather a hindrance than a furtherance, 
therefore Christ the Son of God 
gave Himself into death 
for my sins." 


To believe this is to have eternal life. 
Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar passages of Holy Scripture. 


If he says, "Thou shalt be damned," 
you tell him: "No, for I fly to Christ who gave Himself for my sins. 
In accusing me of being a damnable sinner, 
you are cutting your own throat, Satan. 
You are reminding me of God's fatherly goodness toward me, 
that He so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son 
that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, 
but have everlasting life. 
In calling me a sinner, Satan, you really comfort me above measure." 
With such heavenly cunning 
we are to meet the devil's craft 
and put from us the memory of sin."

--Martin Luther, 
Commentary on Galatians

A Firm Foundation in the Weakness of Christ

The Son of God, then, who is Jesus Christ, holds out himself as the object to which our faith ought to be directed, and by means of which it will easily find that on which it can rest; for he is the true Immanuel, who answers us within, as soon as we seek him by faith. It is one of the leading articles of our faith, that our faith ought to be directed to Christ alone, that it may not wander through long windings; and that it ought to be fixed on him, that it may not waver in the midst of temptations. And this is the true proof of faith, when we never suffer ourselves to be torn away from Christ, and from the promises which have been made to us in him . . . . Proud men are ashamed of Christ's humiliation, and, therefore, they fly to God's incomprehensible Divinity. But faith will never reach heaven unless it submit to Christ, who appears to be a low and contemptible God, and will never be firm if it do not seek a foundation in the weakness of Christ.
--John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel of John, John 14:1

Does God Ordain Suffering or Oppose It?

A recent episode of The Gospel Coalition's podcast featured a discussion between John Piper, Matt Chandler, and David Platt about God's goodness in suffering. A tweet from TGC provoked some negative reactions from several high-profile Christian thinkers, including Jefferson Bethke, Brian Zahnd, and Jonathan Merritt. The main perspectives expressed in this debate seem pretty polarized at first glance: either God ordains suffering for his good purposes or God opposes suffering as an enemy invasion in the world he created. 

My guess is that most of those commenting through tweets are actually more nuanced in their theology than either of those simple propositions (both of which, I believe, are biblical) indicates. And the problem with so much of our online theological discourse is that it is hard to do good theology in short sound-bites and 140 character tweets. 

I would say that any discussion of human suffering rightly begins with a two-part recognition. 

1. First, suffering is an alien invasion into God’s good creation that results from human rebellion and sin. 
2. Second, suffering is addressed by our saving God in the cross and empty tomb of Jesus. 

This second reality asserts something remarkable: when God allowed sin to enter this world, even he was affected. It is not only humanity that has suffered as a result of sin. God himself chose to suffer both with us and for us, in order to rescue and redeem the good world he created.  As D. A. Carson thoughtfully writes:

When Christians think seriously about evil and suffering, one of the paramount reasons we are so sure that God is to be trusted is because he sent his Son to suffer cruelly on our behalf. Jesus Christ, the Son who is to be worshiped as God, God’s own agent in creation (John 1:2-3), suffered an excruciatingly odious and ignominious death. The God on whom we rely knows what suffering is all about, not merely in the way that God knows everything, but by experience. [1] 

The ultimate answer to human suffering, then, is in the suffering of God himself through the cross. The letter of Hebrews says that Jesus was “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). God, the eternal one, the source of all life, suffered the taste of death; his plan for bringing many sons to glory was only accomplished by making “the founder of [our] salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10; cf. 5:10). This means Jesus is a high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses, since “in every respect [he] has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15; cf. 2:18). Jesus knows our pain. 

Our God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is unique among the religions of the world. He alone has entered into the reality of our suffering. “Jesus of the Scars,” a poem written by Edward Shillito in the wake of World War I, beautifully captures this:

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow;
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone....[2]

The writers of Scripture felt the reality of suffering keenly and addressed it often. One of the most profound passages addressing suffering is found in Romans 8. Paul’s words offer an insight that should radically transform our perspective on suffering. Here is one of the keys to understanding how and why God works out his purposes in our lives. In this passage we see that God uses suffering—all suffering, without exception—to accomplish his ultimate purpose and our everlasting good. God uses suffering to conform us to the image of Christ.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Rom. 8:28-29).

Notice that Paul doesn’t say suffering itself is good. He says all things (including suffering) work together for the good of Christians. The context of this passage makes it especially clear that Paul has suffering in mind, for he refers to “the sufferings of this present time” (v. 18), the created world’s “bondage to decay” (v. 21), our “groaning” for the future redemption of the body (v. 23), and the reality of suffering and persecution for the name of Christ (v. 17, 35-36).

So suffering is not good, but God uses it for good. I find the distinctions made by C. S. Lewis wise and helpful:

Suffering is not good in itself . . . In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish between (1) the simple good descending from God, (2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted suffering and repented sin contribute.[3] 

The good promised in Romans 8:28-29 is a “complex good” in which the dark threads of evil and suffering, culminating in the cross, are woven together by God to accomplish his ultimate purpose. He aims to produce a new race of human beings, restored in his divine image, who will live in a new world.

So does God ordain suffering or oppose suffering? Is suffering our enemy or God's gift? The answer is complex. In and of itself, suffering is not good. But God exploits suffering for good, and this is part of his sovereign plan.  


This post is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 11 of my book Christ Formed in You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change

Notes

1. D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2nd Edition, 2006) 159.
2. Edward Shillito, “Jesus of the Scars,” quoted in Carson, 170.
3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1940, 1996, 2001) 110-111.


Christ Defeated the Monsters (A Meditation from Luther)

The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain
(Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1308-1311,

tempera on poplar panel)

Let us see how Christ was able to gain the victory over our enemies.

The sins of the whole world,
            past,
            present,
            and future,
     fastened themselves upon Christ
     and condemned Him.
But because Christ is God
            He had an everlasting
            and unconquerable righteousness.

These two,
            the sin of the world
            and the righteousness of God,
                                    met in a death struggle.
                        Furiously the sin of the world assailed the righteousness of God.
                                    Righteousness is immortal and invincible.
                        On the other hand, sin is a mighty tyrant who subdues all men.
                                    This tyrant pounces on Christ.
                        But Christ's righteousness is unconquerable.
                                    The result is inevitable.
                                                Sin is defeated
                                                and righteousness triumphs and reigns forever.

In the same manner was death defeated.
            Death is emperor of the world.
                        He strikes down
                                    kings,
                                    princes,
                                    all men.
                        He has an idea to destroy all life.
            But Christ has immortal life,
                        and life immortal gained the victory over death.
                        Through Christ death has lost her sting.
                        Christ is the Death of death.

The curse of God waged a similar battle with the eternal mercy of God in Christ.
            The curse meant to condemn God's mercy.
                        But it could not do it because the mercy of God is everlasting.
                        The curse had to give way.
            If the mercy of God in Christ had lost out,
                        God Himself would have lost out,
                        which, of course, is impossible.

Therefore,
            Christ
                        the power of God,
                        righteousness,
                        blessing,
                        grace and life,
                                    overcometh
                                    and destroyeth these monsters,
                                                                        sin,
                                                                        death,
                                                                        and the curse,
                                    without war or weapons,
                                    in his own body
                                    and in himself.

'Christ," says Paul, "spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it." (Col. 2:15.)
            They cannot harm those who hide in Christ.
                        Sin,
                        death,
                        the wrath of God,
                        hell,
                        the devil
                                    are mortified in Christ.

Where Christ is near the powers of evil must keep their distance.


--from Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians 3:13, a composite from the Watson and Graebner translations, line breaks and formatting are my own.