A Reading List for 2014

One of the great joys of being a pastor is that taking time to read books is part of the job. You cannot effectively teach, shepherd, rebuke, exhort, and develop yourself in mind and heart without reading good books. The great British preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “Give yourself unto reading. The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. You need to read.”

So here’s a reading list for me this year. There are 26 books, not counting fiction. Here’s a few things, off the top of my head, to consider as you examine my list.

  • These are not the best books out there or the “most important” books of all time.  Some of these books I have on my shelf that I have yet to read. A couple are books I need to re-read. Most are books that I feel like I personally need to read (for any number of reasons).
  • There are not a lot of new titles and I don’t have a lot of room for books coming out in 2014. I am not biased against newer books, but there are a lot of older books and timeless classics I should read.
  • At the same time, I will probably read a book that isn’t on this list. A review copy will probably come my way that I’ll read through quickly. I try to be very selective with new books simply because there are hoards of them that are released every month! I simply can’t keep up.
  • This is a big list. But I’m a husband, a dad, and a pastor, and I also enjoy being around people. So, the reality is that I will not read them all. In fact, I hope I don’t. I hope to read a few of them really well rather than plow through just to say I read a lot.
  • I need to read more fiction. I’m working on it, and I hope I come across a few good fiction works this year to enjoy.
  • I need to books in other disciplines. I have a lot of theology here, but I need to read some stuff in business, sociology, philosophy, etc.
  • You shouldn’t read a book just because it’s on my list. Many of these books have to do with my job or things you are just not interested in.
  • You should read a few books that are on my list. Reading a book that is more pastoral or theological in nature will do at least two things: it will 1) stretch your intellectual capacity, and 2) build a bridge for conversation with your pastor.
  • This all might change in a blink of an eye. I may scrap this list or much of it and add other books. Come spring, I may want a lot more spiritual formation or ethics or something else. So, I hold this list with an open hand.

Also, do us all a favor and leave a comment letting us know about a few books that are on your must read list for 2014.

Luther, Introduction to Romans
Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb
Kidner, Psalms 1-72 Psalms 73-150 

McGrath, Historical Theology
Shelley, Church History in Plain Language

Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching
Lloyd-Jones, Preacher and Preachers

Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (I will take all of 2014 to work through this. You can too!)
Packer, Knowing God
Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World
Carson, Exegetical Fallacies
Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism
Machen, Christianity and Liberalism
Bray, The Doctrine of God

Lewis, Abolition of Man
Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas
Sire, The Universe Next Door
Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant

Spiritual Formation
Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor
Smith, Desiring the Kingdom

Donald, Lincoln

Collins, The Hunger Games (3)
Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (6)
Various short stories and poems

Adler, How to Read a Book
Meeker, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters
Collins, Good to Great

Reading Ruth: Four Themes to Keep in Mind

Ruth is a literary masterpiece. Death. Suspense. Love. Brokenness. Redemption. Often we think it is mainly about a romantic encounter between a strong man-hunk and an unworthy pauper girl. That’s in there, of course, and it certainly adds to the drama. The author knew what he was doing–it draws us in!

Ruth is, however, mainly about God and his activity and purpose. Here’s four themes to keep in mind as you read the book.

  1. God welcomes non-Israelites into his covenant. From the outset of the book, the author makes clear that Ruth is a Moabite (1:4). She is referred to as “the Moabite” throughout (2:2, 6, 21, etc.). God is not anti-Gentile. So long as the non-Israelite is devoted to Yahweh, he welcomes them into the covenant. God does this with Rahab in Joshua and with the Ninevites in Jonah.
  2. God works through ordinary means. There is not one mention of a miracle or vision or angels in Ruth. Rather, God works through the everyday means of ancient Israelite culture. Naomi sends Ruth to Boaz’s field and Ruth “happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz” (2:3). God also directs events from behind the scenes through Naomi’s plan for Ruth to seek out Boaz on the threshing floor (3:1-5).
  3. God graciously guides a particular family’s life. Naomi was all but hopeless after her husband and sons died, as she may not have an heir to continue her line. Boaz, too, did not have an heir of his own. Yet by the end of the book, after Boaz and Ruth marry, Naomi is redeemed and Ruth’s son becomes Naomi’s heir (4:13). In this way too, Boaz is given a child. Naomi’s friends give God all the glory (4:14-15).
  4. God sovereignly works out his redemptive plan. Boaz and Ruth’s son is not merely an heir of Naomi. The son, Obed, becomes the father of Jesse, who is the father of David (4:17). Thus Obed begins the Davidic line, which will eventually bring David to the throne. More than that, God works in the lives of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz so that David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ, would become the Redeemer of all God’s people.

Review: Preaching: A Biblical Theology

Jason Meyer. Preaching: A Biblical Theology. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. $16.73 (Amazon). 368 pp.

Some of the best books on preaching contribute to the larger conversation with one or two insights that no other book seems to make. That’s why most preachers have several books on preaching on their shelves.

Those who are familiar with evangelical preaching know that there is a “crisis” in preaching today. Preaching often looks like a collection of random Bible verses, some self-help advice, and cute stories. Jason Meyer, lead pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, has written a new book to fortify the evangelical church against this kind of preaching. In Preaching: A Biblical TheologyMeyer has provided a wonderful addition to the preaching conversation.

As the title indicates, the book is a biblical theology of preaching, or more broadly, of the ministry of the word. A “biblical theology” means that Meyer analyzes what the Bible teaches about Scripture as redemptive history progresses (e.g. the ministry of the word will look different in Genesis than in does in Isaiah or John). This is the vital insight Meyer adds to the preaching conversation. He knows this book is different. Appendix 2 was written to tell the reader why his book is different.

The book separates into five parts. Part one covers a brief summary of the ministry of the word in Scripture. Part two digs into more detail and covers each epoch of biblical history. Part three addresses expository preaching today. Part four seeks to synthesize biblical theology with three elements of systematic theology. Part five closes the book with some applications for today. From start to finish, here’s what Meyer wants to accomplish: he wants to prove that “the ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word” (21, his emphasis).  This is also Meyer’s definition of preaching. The “encountering” piece may either bring a sweet aroma of life or a stench of death. I think preaching can be defined many ways, and I find Meyer’s definition very helpful, particularly for my preaching ministry, for it encapsulates its primary components: faithfully handling the word of truth (stewarding) in order to passionately and appropriately communicate it (heralding) so that hearers come face-to-face with the living God (encountering).

It’s these three “suitcases” that Meyer unpacks throughout the book. As Meyer moves through the history of redemption, he reflects upon each of the main stewards of God’s word, how they heralded the word, and what happened after the word was preached (or what happened after it was not preached rightly). Embedded in this reflection is a look at the call and fall narratives for the respective preachers. Meyer does this to reveal the biblical expectation of a true steward and herald will climax in Jesus Christ.

Section three on expository preaching is perhaps the most immediately practical portion for the preacher/reader. Here Meyer discusses the what, how, and why of expository preaching. For those more inclined to topical preaching, I highly encouraging you to ponder chapter 19 on “Why Expository Preaching?” He argues that it is thoroughly and demonstrably biblical and he provides six arguments to prove it. Perhaps his greatest argument is that “God did not give us a topical [Bible]. He gave us specific books, such as Isaiah and Romans. We must give the a voice, not compile them into topics or ten-step plans” (279).

For those who are already convinced of expository preaching, the what and how chapters will be helpful. What expository preaching should be is God-centered and gospel-saturated (251ff). In other words, preachers must exalt the glory and grace of God and always draw a line to the redemptive work of Christ from any text. How does expository preaching work? The preacher shares the point of the passage, shows why that is the point, and shepherds the flock to wherever the text leads (258ff).

Finally, let me say that this is not just a good preaching book, it’s a good theology book. Section two on the paradigm shifts in the ministry of the word is theological gold. Meyer writes in the introduction that he knows pastors are busy, therefore he encourages readers to “choose their own adventure” by either reading or skipping over section two (14-15). You may skip it initially, but come back to it. This section, in particular, will not only help preachers get better; it will sharpen their theology (namely, their biblical theology). And that’s always a good thing for preachers.

I plan on turning to this book for years to come, and I highly recommend it to you if you are a preacher or even if you are a curious sermon-hearer.

What Are the Psalms Designed to Do?

I answer that question in a portion of my sermon last Sunday on Psalm 47 titled, “God Is King of All the Earth.”

Let me start by saying the psalms are not primarily meant to teach us theology. They do that, of course. The theology of the psalms is deep, it’s robust. Theology literally means “a word about God.” The psalms are dripping with words about God, and we certainly learn theology from the psalms—the whole Bible is theological. The picture you get of God in the psalms is full-orbed and multi-faceted. They give our finite brains explosive theological insight into an infinite God.

Nevertheless, the psalms are not a textbook. They’re a hymnbook. This is what Israel used when they gathered to worship and sing to God. So, the theology in psalms is theology with a purpose. It’s not academic or ivory tower theology solely for purposes of debate. The psalms are designed, primarily, to give shape to the corporate worship and spiritual story of Israel. In other words, the Israelites knew that the psalms weren’t meant purely to be studied, but to be sung. They weren’t meant merely for reading, but for spiritual formation. The psalms gave Israel an experiential dimension to their theology to keep them from cold-hearted intellectualism.

And for us today, the book of Psalms serves the same purpose. Israel’s history is our history. In the psalms, we see their story intersect with our stories. Think about how often a particular psalm has resonated with you–perhaps more than Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy–and for good reason. Therefore, if the theology in the psalms does not make you want to sing, then you severely misunderstand them. In fact, I would argue that if the psalms never make us want to sing, our hearts might be a bit out of tune.

Listen to the whole message.

Review: Wesley on the Christian Life

Fred Sanders. Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. $14.79 (Amazon). 262 pp.

When I was first introduced to Reformed theology, I quickly labeled John Wesley as a no-zone for developing my beliefs. This was due mostly to the waywardness of many Wesleyan and Methodist churches today. Associating Wesley with his followers was unnecessary and unfortunate. After reading Wesley on the Christian LIfe, the newest book by Fred Sanders in Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series, I have since repented of my theological bigotry. If you stop reading this review now, know this: this book will “strangely warm your heart” (as Wesley was famous for saying), no matter your theological persuasion.

On the whole, this book is flat-out good. Sanders does a wonderful job of presenting Wesley to us. In each of the ten chapters, he walks through one focus of Wesley’s teaching. Sanders resists theologizing and exegetes Wesley on Wesley’s terms, not his own or what he would like Wesley to say. What’s even better is that Sanders provides an accessible (read: non-academic) introduction to Wesley’s life and writings, primarily his sermons. Kudos to Sanders, and Crossway, for giving the church an even-handed account of this giant in church history.

With this on the table, here’s three elements that make this book worthwhile.

Heart Religion or Bust
Wesley may be thought of by some as a preacher who was sub-theological and merely focused on pragmatism (he is the founder of “Method-ism” after all). However, Wesley’s preaching was not sub-theological, but rather “something more immediate than a systematic theology” (44). It was theology that made you sing—what all good theology should do.

Wesley was saved from being a self-righteous church boy. He was devoted to external, religious forms that never went more than skin deep, but after his conversion to real Christianity, Wesley knew that to be a Christian meant more than behavior modification. It meant “heart religion.” This means, among other things, that the Christian recognizes sin is rampant and pervasive, but God’s grace is sufficient and complete (84).

Most of Wesley’s teaching in general and on heart religion in particular flowed from his understanding of the new birth (77). Wesley hammered home justification by faith (see ch. 5), but the new birth makes justification experiential. Justification is something God does for us; the new birth—regeneration—is something God does in us (78). Justification brings us to God; regeneration makes us want God. And this new birth is not just to holiness; it is also to happiness. True joy for the believer is only found when we worship God from the heart.

Gospel-Centered Before It Was Cool
It’s pretty popular to be “gospel-centered” nowadays. Wesley was gospel centered before there were conferences for it. He held firm the truth that we need the perfect righteousness of Christ if we have any hope of standing before God (133). He valued the sheer grace and favor of God in the salvation of sinners (148). Wesley knew that personal holiness could not be the ground of one’s relationship with God (108). At the same time, he knew that the gospel demanded a response of nothing less than full surrender and devotion. Grace cannot be earned, but it can be cultivated by means. Here, Wesley is solid on the traditional “means of grace” that both Reformed theologians and Catholic mystics love to talk about (ch. 7).

Chapter 6 is called “Grace First, Then Law.” For Wesley, the law makes us see our need for Christ. Then, Christ, in the gospel, leads us to radical obedience to the law. Sanders writes, “He was always on guard against a certain kind of evangelical preacher who never preached anything but free forgiveness, and who never brought the word of the law to his hearers” (157). In this, Wesley would be welcomed by even the most faithful Lutheran theologians.

Serious Sanctification
Wesley took sanctification seriously. Period. Wesley is firm on grace, but he teaches that grace leads to transformation, and whatever transformation happens is owed to God (169-170). Because this is true, no one should be “content with any religion which does not imply the destruction of all the works of the devil” (203). Wesley simply preached what he practiced—even those from other traditions commending him for his holiness.

Of course, Wesley muddied the waters with his doctrine of Christian perfection. What is it? Perfection is being perfected in love, yet it is not infallible, nor is it sinless, and it is improvable (208). It is capable of being lost (Wesley also believed one could fall from grace), and it is a progressive work (208-209). It is never self-sufficient and always dependent on grace (210-212). While I am thankful for Wesley and his ruthless commitment to holiness and “growth in grace” (196), I am confused by this doctrine. It’s too simple to find fault with Sanders for not explaining this doctrine well enough. While at times I think Sanders could be more critical of Wesley, the fault really lies with Wesley. Wesley tries to do justice to the biblical word “perfect” (e.g. 1 John 4:17), and I commend him for this. But it seems like sloppy exegesis and a poor biblical theology of sin to me. 

In the end, Wesley calls for a complete and full deliverance from sin (217). That’s not a bad thing. While this doctrine may not scratch where I’m itching, Wesley himself is still a prime motivator for holiness in light of God’s grace. And for that, I’m thankful.