Favorite Books from 2020

I’ve already scanned through a number of best books of 2020 lists from friends and public intellectuals and have filled my shopping carts accordingly. 

Here’s my list, with a few caveats: (1) These weren’t necessarily published in 2020. They’re just my favorites from what I read last year. (2) I decided not to include books I was re-reading, of which there were quite a few (e.g. from favorite authors like John Owen and C. S. Lewis). (3) I've also not included reference books, such as commentaries. 

10. Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People by Joel R. Beeke. I actually started this book in 2019 and finished in 2020, but it is the best new book specifically aimed at preachers or pastors that I’ve read in the past couple of years. 

9. Can We Trust the Gospels? by Peter J. Williams. This short book packs in a lot and persuasively argues for the historical trustworthiness of the gospel narratives. This would be especially helpful for church people who are shaky in their confidence in Scripture. 

8. 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: Volume 1: The Age of the Early Church Fathers by Nicholas R. Needham. This excellent overview of the first few centuries of the church covers the most important figures, controversies, and events. Books like this remind us of how resilient the church is and how faithful Christ the Lord is in building it. 

7. Finding the Right HIlls to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage by Gavin Ortlund. All biblical doctrine is important, but not all doctrines are equally important. The Trinity is more foundational and important than one’s specific view on the nature of the millennium, what it means to speak in tongues, or the modes and subjects of baptism. But how do churches distinguish between essential and non-essential - and the large middle ground between? That’s what this book is about. 

6. God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God by Mark Jones. This is the best popular level treatment of God’s attributes I’ve read, even surpassing Packer’s Knowing God and Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy (both of which I re-read this year). 

5. All that is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism by James E. Dolezal. Defends the classical doctrines of God’s simplicity, immutability, and eternity. Worth the effort. 

4. The New Park Street Pulpit, Volume 5 by Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Excellent, as Spurgeon’s sermons almost always are. A more detailed review forthcoming (on Goodreads). 

3. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry. Riveting history of the Spanish flu. I started reading this during the pandemic and finished a few months in. Helpful historical perspective. 

2. Thomas Charles’ Spiritual Counsels, edited by Edward Morgan. Essays and letters from one of the 18th century Welsh Calvinistic Methodist fathers, a man who apprenticed under John Newton. This was one of the books Martyn Lloyd-Jones asked for during his final days on earth. Deeply spiritual and edifying. 

1. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane C. Ortlund. Soothing gospel balm for the sin-weary soul. There’s a reason why this book keeps showing up in top ten lists. It’s just that good.   

News Worth Sharing

I once worked in a stockroom with an atheist named Bubba. That wasn’t his real name, but the nickname he went by. I frequently shared my faith with coworkers, and the management had already warned Bubba that I might raise the subject with him. “They told me about you,” Bubba informed me shortly into our first shift together. He promptly declared his atheism, maybe trying to head off my evangelistic zeal. 

Before going further, let me say that I sympathize with Bubba’s hesitancy to talk with religious people. Even as a Christian, I’m turned off by zealots who seem too eager to peer into my soul or help me mend my ways. No one likes self-righteous finger wagging in their face. 

I tried a different approach with Bubba. “I believe bad people go to heaven and good people go to hell,” I said. He perked up. “Now this I’ve got to hear!” he said. I described how Jesus said that “it’s not the whole who need a physician, but the sick,” and that he “came to call not the righteous, but sinners” (see Mark 2:17). 

Bubba listened with interest and we had numerous conversations in the following weeks. We didn’t work together long and have now lost touch. But I’ve never forgotten those conversations with my atheist friend. 

As a pastor, I now believe it’s more important than ever to clarify the message of Jesus and distinguish it from mere morality or religion. Someone once said, “the gospel is good news, not good advice.” Jesus didn’t come to reward the righteous for their superior morality. Nor did he shun the misfits and screwups of society. He accepted lavish gifts from prostitutes and went to parties with tax collectors — who were often guilty of extortion and thus far more despised than an auditor for the IRS. Religious leaders scoffed at Jesus and wondered why he hobnobbed with sinners. But Jesus didn’t choose followers on the basis of their goodness. Grace, by definition, is extended to the undeserving. 

The reality, of course, is that we’re all undeserving. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 6:23). All are sick. All need a physician. The gospel is good news, not because it rewards good people who have their act together, but because it offers forgiveness to all who trust in Jesus — regardless of their past. The gospel isn’t advice about what we must do, but the powerful declaration of what God has already done to redeem a lost and dying world. The heart of this declaration is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ: his death for our sins and his triumph over the grave three days later on that first resurrection morning. 

As an old hymn says, “Living, he loved me / Dying, he saved me / Buried, he carried my sins far away / Rising, he justified freely forever / One day he’s coming, oh glorious day.” 

And that, my friends, is news worth sharing.

15 of My Favorite Books from 2019

I love to read people’s best books reading lists at the end of each year and often choose several books for my reading pile based on these lists. Perhaps my list will be helpful for your pile. 

Here are fifteen of my favorite books from 2019. 

Note: these aren’t necessarily books published in 2019, just books that I read (or at least read portions of) last year. They are in no particular order, suggested with only minimal comment. 

1. The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology by Ernest Kevan — A monumental study on Puritan perspectives on the law of God that fairly covers the antinomian controversy of the seventeenth century. One of the most thorough and helpful books on the Puritans I’ve read. 

2. The True Bounds of Christian Freedom by Samuel Bolton — This volume relates to the one above, as one of the most important actual Puritan books on the law. This little book exceeded my expectations. Far from a ham-fisted defense of the third use of the law, this is a closely reasoned, carefully nuanced look at gospel, law, and freedom, organized around six questions. (1) Does our being made free by Christ free us from the law? (2) Does our being made free by Christ deliver us from all punishments or chastisements for sin? (3)Is it consistent with Christian freedom to be under obligation to perform duties because God has commanded them? (4) May Christ’s freemen come into bondage again through sin? (5) Is it consistent with Christian freedom to perform duties out of respect for the recompense of the reward? (6) Does the freedom of a Christian free him from all obedience to men? Very helpful. 

3. The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters by Albert Mohler — Another book that exceeded my expectations. I’ve read several of Mohler’s books, but this is the only one I’ve really liked. But I like this one a lot and think it’s one of the best leadership books I’ve read. 

4. The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-72 by William Manchester — I listened (at 1.5x speed) to this 57+ hour audio book over many months (actually, mostly in 2018) and was enthralled every step of the way. Manchester is a masterful story-teller, and his chronicle of US history from the Great Depression to Watergate did not disappoint. Highly recommended. 

5. Getting Shredded in Simple: How to Transform Your Body Quickly with Common Sense by Paul Maxwell — “Eat less. Move more. It’s that simple.” 

6. Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing by Robert Caro — Utterly fascinating memoir (sort of) from the biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson. 

7. Atomic Habits by James Clear — This book builds on Charles Duhigg's excellent book The Power of Habit, as well as other research, presenting a streamlined four-step plan for building good habits and eliminating bad ones. I could nitpick and point out a few things I didn't like, but won't. It's a good book. I'm glad I read it. If you need help in forming better habits, you'll benefit from it. 

8. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss — This first volume in The Kingkiller Chronicles is a fresh, sprawling, beautifully-written epic fantasy—fiction at its best!—and was easily my favorite novel last year.

9. The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard — Carefully-researched and well-written narrative history of early 18th century pirates, including Samuel (Black Sam) Bellamy, Edward Thatch (Blackbeard), and Charles Vane. The New England Puritan Cotton Mather also makes an appearance! I listened to the audio book and enjoyed it much more than Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which I also read last year. 

10. Batman: White Knight by Sean Murphy — Easily the best graphic novel I’ve read in a long time and fresh new take Batman. Murphy is both author and artist—and the art is amazing. 

11. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin — Profound, lyrical, and worshipful. This is devotional and systematic theology at its best and remains one of my top ten favorite books of all time. This was my second time all the way through the Institutes, and my third time through Books 1-3. This year I read through using (most of the time) the read-through-a-year plan published by Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Well worth it. 

12. The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric by John Carrick — This is a unique book on preaching that builds "a theology of sacred rhetoric" on four different moods of verbs: the indicative, the exclamative, the interrogative, and the imperative. Carrick grounds everything in Scripture, with many passages quoted at length, and then illustrates with examples from five preachers: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Samuel Davies, Asahel Nettleton, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Carrick builds a strong (irrefutable, I think) case from Scripture that we need both the indicative and imperative, and that "true preaching always involves explicatio et applicatio verbi Dei" - both the explication and the application of the word of God. Preaching at its best includes an appeal to the mind (indicative), heart (exclamative), conscience (interrogative) and will (imperative). An extreme towards either indicative or imperative will lead a church into serious error. "If the indicative is permitted to predominate to the exclusion of the imperative, the preaching will inevitably tend in the direction of quietism and antinomianism. If the imperative is permitted to predominate to the exclusion of the indicative, the preaching will inevitably tend in the direction of moralism or legalism." I don't of any other book on preaching that sounds the particular notes found here. Highly recommended. 

13. Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing by Jay Stringer — A thoughtful and compassionate book by a Christian therapist, based on his counseling experience and research of over 3800 people. I would place this alongside David Powlison’s Making All Things New, Tim Chester’s Closing the Window, and William Struther’s Wired for Intimacy, as one of the most helpful books on this difficult topic. The unique contribution Stringer makes is in connecting unwanted sexual behaviors with childhood experiences, trauma, and sexual abuse (although Powlison touches on some of this too). Well worth reading for pastors, counselors, or anyone struggling with pornography or other sexual sins. 

14. Evangelism as Exiles by Elliot Clark — Based on 1 Peter and his experiences as a missionary to Muslims, Clark provides a compelling and challenging exhortation to Christians to engage in gospel proclamation.

15. The New Park Street Pulpit, volumes 1-4 by Charles H. Spurgeon — The first four volumes of Spurgeon’s 63 volumes of sermons, which I’m now slowly reading through—a multi-year project, to be sure! Urgent, evangelical, theological, convicting, encouraging. (For more detailed reviews of each volume, see my Goodreads account.) I spent a lot of time in these sermons and don’t regret one moment. Reading Spurgeon is changing my preaching. 

Watchfulness Requires Wakefulness

When I was eighteen, I fell asleep at the wheel. My dad was preaching at a church two hundred miles from the farm where we lived in Tokio, Texas. We left early enough that morning to make the three-hour drive and arrive before the hymns began. I was driving while Dad went over notes for his sermon, prayed, and took a brief nap.

We both woke up at the same time, as the minivan careened right, then bounced along the wide shoulder of the straight (and mercifully empty) Texas highway.

Both of us were startled.

No one was hurt.

I’ve never forgotten the experience, and two decades later I’m more cautious, more wakeful, and more alert to the danger of drowsiness—especially when my family of six makes the long trek from Indiana to Texas or Georgia to visit family. I’ll do anything to stay awake: Roll down a window. Chew straws. Eat sunflower seeds. Drink absurd amounts of caffeine. Slap myself in the face. The frightening realization that my vehicle, traveling the interstate at seventy miles an hour, is only a few careless seconds away from a fatal collision makes me vigilant. As long as I’m behind the wheel, sleep is not an option.

Watchfulness demands wakefulness. If the eyes are shut in slumber, they are not open for observation. You cannot be alert and asleep at the same time. When Jesus told His disciples to watch and pray with Him for one hour, He was telling them to stay awake. There is, therefore, a physical dimension to this discipline.

In The Christian in Complete Armour, William Gurnall explains watching in both literal and metaphorical senses. “Watching, literally taken,” he says, “is an affection of the body . . . a voluntary denying of our bodies sleep, that we may spend either the whole or part of the night in pious exercises.” As fasting is temporary abstinence from food, so watching is temporary abstinence of sleep.

This is the sense in which Paul lists “watchings” among his ministerial credentials in 2 Corinthians 6:5: “in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings” (KJV).

We also see the literal aspect of watchfulness in David’s earnest pursuit of God in Psalm 63:6: “When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches.” The psalmists compare themselves to sentinels, entrusted with guarding the city through the long, lonely vigils of night. So we read in Psalm 130:6
My soul waits for the Lord
More than those who watch for the morning—
Yes, more than those who watch for the morning.
And in Psalm 119:148: “My eyes are awake through the night watches, that I may meditate on Your word.”

Jesus Himself observed such vigils, either praying long into the night or rising before dawn to meet with God (Luke 6:12; cf. Mark 1:35), and believers should sometimes do the same. As Gurnall says, “No doubt, for a devout soul, upon some extraordinary occasions—so superstition be avoided and health regarded—thus to watch unto prayer is not only laudable but delectable.”

But wakefulness in Scripture is more often a picture for mental and spiritual watchfulness. Gurnall observes, “Watching is taken metaphorically for the [vigilance] or watchfulness of the soul,” and, in this sense, watching “is not a temporary duty,” but the urgent and ongoing posture of one’s life.

We see this in Romans 13:11, where the apostle Paul reminds believers that the hour has come for them to awake from their sleep. But he is not rebuking them for taking a nap. Paul isn’t against Christians getting their seven hours of sleep or catching a few Z’s on a Saturday afternoon. Siestas are not a necessary hindrance to one’s sanctification. No, Paul writes about spiritual slumber. He seeks to rouse his Roman friends from the moral stupor of sin. Here are his words in full:
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. (Rom. 13:11–14)
Notice the reason for his exhortation. “Wake from sleep,” he says, “for salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Paul was writing to people who were already believers, so why did he refer to salvation as something yet to be obtained? When most of us talk about salvation, we refer to something in the past, something that has already happened to us. Sometimes the Scriptures do this too. Paul elsewhere teaches that we have already been saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). But sometimes the Bible views salvation as a future event. So, here. This salvation is a deliverance we have not yet experienced, a rescue we are still waiting for. And this future salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.

The next verse clarifies and extends the analogy: “The night is far spent, the day is at hand.” The day Paul has in mind is the day of the Lord, the final, eschatological day, the great day of salvation and judgment—salvation for the church, judgment and wrath for the unbelieving, disobedient world. Paul writes with a two-age schema in mind, viewing human history in terms of two eras, the present age and the age to come. The present age is the night, the age of darkness. The age to come is the day, the age of life and light. Believers live in the overlap of the ages. We are children of the future day, children of the light, and yet we live in the present age of darkness, the age of night. But since we are children of the light, we are to “cast off the works of darkness, and . . . put on the armor of light.” We are to throw off the nightclothes and get dressed for the dawning day.

Paul also used this schema in writing to the Thessalonians when he addressed believers who knew that the day of the Lord would come like “a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). Though this day will surprise the spiritually unprepared, who vainly assure themselves of peace and security, believers will not be surprised: “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness” (1 Thess. 5:4–5). How, then, should we live?
Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Thess. 5:6–8)
This is the sobriety, the alertness, and the wakefulness to which we are called. As people who belong to the day, we must be mentally sober and morally alert, dressed in the Christian armor of faith, hope, and love. To be watchful is to be wakeful.

Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline

Here is a brief excerpt from the book, followed by endorsements from Don Whitney, Derek Thomas, Steve Lawson, and others. 

The Value of the Heart 

Watchfulness is needful because the heart is valuable. According to A. W. Pink, keeping the heart is “the great task which God has assigned unto each of His children.”[1] In the words of Solomon: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). Solomon is not talking about the blood-pumping organ in your chest, but the control center of your life. He is talking about your soul. 

Your heart, or your soul (the biblical words are synonymous), is the most important part of you. It is command central. It is the seat of your thoughts, affections, and desires. In The Holy War John Bunyan pictures the heart as the central palace in the city of Mansoul: 

There was reared up in the midst of this town a most famous and stately palace; for strength, it may be called a castle; for pleasantness, a paradise; for largeness, a place so copious as to contain all the world. This place, the King Shaddai intended but for himself alone, and not another with him. . . . This place Shaddai made also a garrison of, but committed the keeping of it only to the men of the town.[2]
Jesus said the soul is more valuable than the world: “What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). He also taught that your words and deeds flow from this central part of your being: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). Who you are in your heart is who you are. The various streams of your life flow from the fountain of your heart. If your heart is not watched, then your life will be a mess.

The problem is that our hearts have become sick, diseased by the deadly contagion of sin. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it? (Jer. 17:9)

Until purified by God’s cleansing power and changed by God’s transforming grace, our hearts are incapable of true godliness. The good news for believers is that God has, in fact, changed our hearts: “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Into the darkness of our benighted minds, God brings light. Into the chaos of our inner worlds, He brings order. The Lord of new creation speaks the words of life and light to our dead, darkened souls. He cleanses our hearts through faith (Acts 15:9). 

But even after new birth, our hearts must be kept. They must be guarded from fleshly desires that wage a relentless guerrilla warfare against our souls (1 Peter 2:11). Sin’s dominion over us is broken, but its seditious influence remains. The heart must be watched, for “the heart hath a thousand wiles and deceits.”[3] Sin still dwells within.

In his book Soul Keeping, John Ortberg compares the soul to a beautiful, crystal-clear stream high in the Alps that strengthened and refreshed a mountain village. The stream was fed by mountain springs, which were tended by an old man called the Keeper of the Springs. His job was to remove branches, leaves, and other debris from the springs, lest they pollute the stream.

One year the village decided to fire the old man and spend their money elsewhere. With no one tending the springs, the water became polluted: “Twigs and branches and worse muddied the liquid flow. Mud and silt compacted the creek bed; farm wastes turned parts of the stream into stagnant bogs.” Though no one noticed at first, eventually the village was affected. Some people got sick. Kids no longer played in the water. Its crisp scent and sparkling beauty were gone.

Finally, the council of the village reconvened and rehired the old man to clean up the springs. After a time, “the springs were cleaned, the stream was pure, children played again on its banks, illness was replaced by health…and the village came back to life.” “The life of a village,” Ortberg writes, “depended on the health of the stream.”

Are you keeping your soul? Is your innermost soul a palace cleansed and prepared for the dwelling of the king? Are the thoughts, words, and behaviors flowing from your heart pure and refreshing? Or have you neglected your watch? “The stream is your soul. And you are the keeper.”[4]


If you love your Bible, if you love the Puritans, and if you love your own soul, then this little book is a banquet awaiting you to come and indulge your spiritual appetite! Brian Hedges has woven together a wonderfully edifying book on a forgotten spiritual discipline – watchfulness. He has created a tapestry rich in Scripture and the masters of the inner life: Owen, Bunyan, Flavel, Boston, M'Cheyne and others. I can well imagine this little volume sitting next to my Bible to be read along with morning devotions or for family worship. May the Lord Jesus use this wonderful little book to help His people become more watchful.
—Brian Borgman, Pastor of Grace Community Church, Minden, NV | Author, Feelings and Faith: Cultivating Godly Emotions in the Christian Life and co-author with Rob Ventura of Spiritual Warfare, a Biblical and Balanced Perspective

In a sea of antinomian easy believism, Watchfulness is a five-alarm fire bell calling us all to work out our salvation with fear, trembling, and effort. It’s about time. In twenty years of ministry, I have not read a single article, let alone book, that deals with the urgent issue of watchfulness. This book is long overdue and desperately needed.
—Todd Friel, Wretched Radio | Author, Reset for Parents: How to Keep Your Kids from Backsliding

Watchfulness is a book for all types of Christians. Whether you just met Christ yesterday or you’ve been walking with Him for dozens of years, this book is a helpful reminder that we must diligently keep watch over ourselves, and each other. I recommend without hesitation that you pick this up and start implementing it today. Hedges has done the Church a great service with this gem!
—Jason M. Garwood, Teaching Pastor of Cross & Crown Church in Northern Virginia | Author, Be Holy: Learning the Path of Sanctification

Channeling the likes of Owen, Bunyan, M’Cheyne, and Calvin, Brian Hedges cares for the Christian’s soul with the expertise of a seasoned pastor and a wise shepherd. He instructs the reader in the needful and often neglected spiritual discipline of watchfulness. If you would enjoy Christ more, safeguard your soul with greater effectiveness, and live the faith-filled life more intentionally, devour these pages. It will do your soul good and sow seeds for a life of devotion to Christ.
—Jason Helopoulos, Associate Pastor, University Reformed Church, Lansing, MI | Author, A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home

Many Christians today are unaware of one of the most fundamental spiritual disciplines necessary to advance in the Christian life, namely, watchfulness. By drawing from the vast riches of Scripture and the writings of Puritan divines, Brian Hedges shines a much needed light on this often neglected subject. This book will elevate your pursuit of personal holiness as it brings to the forefront of your mind the eternal benefits of watching over your heart and being alert for your enemy.
—Steven J. Lawson, President, OnePassion Ministries, Dallas, Texas | Professor of Preaching and Director of Doctor of Ministry Program, The Master's Seminary | Author, A Long Line of Godly Men series

Doctrine is easier to learn than godliness. Yet true doctrine is according to godliness. Brian Hedges faithfully guides his readers to cultivate godliness through ‘watchfulness’ by answering the questions what, why, how, when, and who. Drawing particularly from the insights of Owen, Bunyan, and M‘Cheyne, he makes the dead speak to us with a fresh voice on a neglected topic for the refreshment of our souls.
—Ryan M. McGraw, Morton H. Smith Professor of Systematic Theology, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary | Author, The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen

We need constant reminders to be watchful lest we fall. And when these reminders come clothed in grace and pastoral sensitivity, they are all the more welcome. Brian Hedges has put together a small gem of a book that urges us to greater care and watchfulness. Gospel-driven exhortation and warning to busy Christians. Timely and necessary.
—Derek W.H. Thomas, Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church, Columbia SC | Chancellor’s Professor, Reformed Theological Seminary | Teaching Fellow, Ligonier Ministries | Author, How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home

In the volume you are holding, [Brian Hedges] has brought together the biblical teaching on watching over our souls and seasoned it with insights from great works by godly men who were both passionate and practical about watchfulness. This book is needed. It fills a space on the subject of the Christian life that has been empty far too long.
—Donald S. Whitney, Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality | Senior Associate Dean for the School of Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky | Author, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life


[1] A. W. Pink, Guarding Your Heart (Pensacola, Fla.: Chapel Library, 2010), 9.

[2] John Bunyan, The Holy War (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1993), 20.

[3] Owen, The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, in Works, 6:175.

[4] John Ortberg, Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 13–14.

The Best Books I Read in 2017


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. González. 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. 

The Spoils of War

“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1)

The good news in the story of Jesus’ temptation is that Jesus obeyed God and defeated temptation at every point where Israel, and Adam, and you and I have failed! Jesus was tempted as our brother, captain, and king. Adam, our first representative, was tempted in paradise and failed. Jesus, the second Adam and our final representative, was tempted in the desert and conquered. He reversed every aspect of the fall.

What Jesus won in this initial victory was soon to be completed in his decisive victory on the cross and over the grave. Just as the young David, freshly anointed as Israel’s king, assumed the role of champion and defeated Goliath on Israel’s behalf, so Jesus, anointed by the Spirit in his baptism, assumed the role of our champion, to defeat and disarm the devil.

When an ancient king won a battle on behalf of his people, he shared with them the plunder of the battle. His victory meant wealth for them. So it is with Christ. He has won the decisive battle against sin and Satan, and he shares with us the spoils of war.

The story of Jesus’ temptation has a very practical application, but it is different from what we might first expect. The application is not merely moral exhortation to resist or flee temptation, though Scripture does, of course, command us to both flee and resist. But the Scriptures do so much more. They provide us with rich and wonderful, gospel-laden, grace-infused, Spirit-inspired applications of Christ’s priestly work to our lives.

For example, we learn in Hebrews 2 that Christ shared human nature with us. He was “made like his brothers in every respect” (v. 17). He “partook” of our same “flesh and blood” (v. 14), or had the same basic human nature that we have. As we saw in the first chapter of this book, the eternal Son united human nature to himself in the incarnation. And his union with us in nature becomes the foundation for our union with him in grace. His shared humanity with us equips him to be a “merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17) who “suffered when tempted” and therefore “is able to help those who are being tempted” (v. 18).

Also, in Hebrews 4:14–16, we see that Jesus not only helps us but also sympathizes with our weaknesses because he “has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (v. 15). When you are tempted, Jesus doesn’t stand over you with condemnation and judgment. He stands beside you with understanding and compassion and readiness to give mercy and grace to help in time of need. Do you see what the writer to the Hebrews is doing? He is appealing to Christ’s incarnation and priestly work in order to encourage tempted and suffering believers.

Finally, we see also in Hebrews 4 that the same one who took our nature, endured temptation, and conquered it on our behalf has now ascended to God in human nature. Our great high priest “has passed through the heavens” (v. 14). He is at the right hand of God, interceding for us (Rom. 8:34). Take heart in knowing that you have a brother on the throne.

Married to Christ

"The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh (Eph. 5:31–32). And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage— indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage—it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his . . . Here we have a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom."
—Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray (Book Review)

Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray is 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.