The Best Books I Read in 2017




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The first Evangelical Protestant to catalog a list of what we now call spiritual disciplines was Richard Rogers. This list was found in book three of Rogers’ Seven Treatises — and this third book is soon to be republished by Reformation Heritage Books as Holy Helps for a Godly Life. Rogers divided these “helps” into public and private helps for godliness, and among the private helps, he included reading. The reading Rogers prescribed included the reading of both Scripture and other books.

Reading has been one of the most significant means of helping me grow as a Christian. It began when I was a child, with my parents’ household rule of reading the Bible daily before watching anything on television. We were expected to read three chapters a day, and four on Sunday. As a result of this regimen, I had read through the entire Bible seven or eight times by the time I left home, and many portions of Scripture (especially Psalms, Proverbs, and many of Paul’s letters) dozens of times. My parents also directed me to other good Christian literature, such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, E. M. Bounds’ Power through Prayer, and missionary biographies. 

Having benefited so much from books myself, I’m always glad to find new books to read. (For more on bible reading, see my post 15 Ways to Feed on the Word in the New Year) That’s one reason I enjoy all the book lists that appear at the end of each year. I’ve been providing one of my own for several years, with the hope that others will be helped by some of the same books that have helped me. 

The following books are my favorites from 2017. Keep in mind, these were not necessarily published in 2017 — in fact, most of them were not. They are simply some of the best books that I read (in whole or in part) last year. 

The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation – Michael Reeves. Since 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I devoted a lot of my reading to its history and theology. This is probably the best short introduction to the Reformation.

2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 3: Renaissance and Reformation – Nicholas R. Needham. A more detailed study of the church in the sixteenth century. Needham is a great writer and his narrative almost reads like a novel. Though the book is obviously well researched, Needham doesn’t use heavy footnotes; however, each section includes helpful readings from the primary sources. This is a long book, so includes much more than Reeves.

Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity – Kevin J. Vanhoozer. A helpful book on how the Reformation solas can help steer the contemporary church toward true unity in the gospel. 

Theology of the Reformers – Timothy George. Magnificent study of five key figures from the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simmons, and William Tyndale. Demonstrating an admirable grasp of both primary sources and secondary literature, Timothy George guides readers into the world of the sixteenth century with profundity, verve, and wit. This book is a tour de force in historical theology and was easily one of the best books I read last year. Highly recommended.

Athirst For God: Spiritual Desire in Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons on the Song of Songs – Michael Casey. A rich study on one of the burning, shining lights in the church between Augustine and Luther. 

The Story of Christianity – Justo L. Gonz├ílez. An excellent survey of church history. If you read it, get the one volume edition, which has additional material not found in the original two volumes.

Z for Zachariah – Robert C. O’Brien. This was the best novel I read this year (except for the C. S. Lewis books I re-read!). Much better than the movie.

Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way – J. I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett. I’ve been thinking a lot about catechesis this year, partly as a result of Tim Keller’s excellent breakout session at TGC. Packer and Parrett present a compelling case for restoring catechesis to the church. (As a first step, our church will be using The New City Catechism this year, encouraging families to work on the 52 questions together, one question per week.)

Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture – David P. Murray. An excellent treatment of the problems men (especially pastors) face in midlife and the need for intentional rest, renewal, and restoration. Murray relates how his own experience of burnout and resulting health problems in his forties led to serious changes in his lifestyle. This book is, in many ways, like Wayne Cordeiro's Leading on Empty (a book Murray seems unaware of, or at least never quotes). In some respects, it is even better. Cordeiro writes as a mainstream evangelical megachurch pastor. While his advice is often good, his theology is sometimes sloppy and his applications out of reach for ordinary people with limited resources. Murray is more grounded, both in theology (writing from a Reformed perspective) and in real life. Murray covers almost all the bases (sleep, recreation, exercise, diet, life purpose, goal setting, time management, personal relationships, and one's relationship to the gracious God of the gospel throughout) and includes lots of helpful statistics, insightful quotes, personal stories, and practical application. I read the book in less than twenty-four hours and will probably read through again more slowly. Highly recommended.

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way – Michael S. Horton. This is now my favorite contemporary systematic theology. Superior to both Grudem and Berkhof, in my opinion. Horton’s treatment of each loci of theology is philosophically-nuanced, historically-aware, and biblically-grounded. With an eye on the drama, discipleship, and doxology of biblical doctrine, Horton presents a vision of Christian theology that is both catholic and Reformed. For the same material in more condensed form, see Horton’s Core Christianity and Pilgrim Theology. Or, to go even deeper, see his four volumes of dogmatics published by Westminster John Knox.

The Confessions – Saint Augustine (translated by F. J. Sheed). This was my third time through Augustine’s Confessions, this time with Sheed’s translation. The translation itself is good, although I still prefer Maria Boulding’s translation, but Sheed’s notes and glossary are really good and helped me better understand the structure of Confessions. I read it slowly this time, taking notes on most of the books.

Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken – David A. Powlison. This is the best book I’ve read for dealing with sexual sin and suffering. Helpful in both diagnosis and cure, this book is short, deep, thorough, convicting, and drenched in grace.

Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis – Michael Ward. Brilliant. I'll never read The Chronicles of Narnia in the same way again. (I also re-read The Silver Chair this year. Easily my second favorite of the Narnian books, after The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). For a more accessible version of this material, see the author's (poorly titled) The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens. 

Galatians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) – Douglas J. Moo. I probably read 85% of this excellent commentary. Moo is a theologically informed exegete, with Lutheran-Reformed leanings. While he is sympathetic to the New Perspective on Paul, he is not uncritical, and thus defends a nuanced Lutheran reading of the letter. I found this commentary quite helpful this fall, as I preached through Galatians. I recommend it highly.

Who Is Jesus? (Crucial Questions #1) – R. C. Sproul. Sproul, who passed into glory last month, was surely one of the greatest popularizers of the Reformed faith in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I’ve read many of this books over the years, and just read this little booklet last week. I was impressed with both the richness of its content and the quality of Sproul’s writing. A great booklet to give to an unbelieving friend who is considering the claims of Jesus.

The Holy War – John Bunyan. Not quite as good (or readable) as the better known Pilgrim’s Progress, this is still a brilliantly conceived allegory with profound insight into the human heart (Mansoul) and the warfare waged between Christ and Satan for the hearts dominion. As I read, I was wishing that backslidden and apostate Christians I know would read it. Bunyan’s astute observations about the nature of apostasy are frighteningly accurate. No earnest believer should read this without serious soul searching.

Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister Is Called to Be – Sinclair B. Ferguson. This 800-page book just came out a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve already read about half of it. Collecting many of Ferguson’s essays, chapters, and forewords into one volume, this book is worth its weight in gold. Though it is occasionally repetitive, with the same quotes and anecdotes showing up in more than one place, Ferguson’s reflections on the “three Johns” (Calvin, Owen, and Murray), the pastoral theology of the Puritans, and other topics related to preaching and pastoral work is a treasure trove of wisdom. 

1 comment:

mwh said...

Interesting titles. Always enjoy reading your annual list. Expands my horizons to books I might not otherwise come across.

Been intrigued by a few medieval saints myself this year.