With my “Top Ten Books of 2019” set to release in a few weeks, I thought I’d share some of the books I’ve ready recently that will not make my top ten.
Johann Gerhard, Handbook of Consolations for the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death. Placed squarely within the ars moriendi (art of dying) literature, Gerhard brings the sweet blessings of the gospel to those living with the fear of death—or those on the precipice of facing the Last Enemy. Since one of my principal functions as a pastor is to prepare people for death, this book was of great interest to me. I found myself reaching for it prior to visiting some dear people in my congregation living with cancer. What a blessing to know that the beloved of the Lord need not fear death, for “to those who believe in Christ, death is changed into the most pleasant sleep.” We will rise again like the One who justified us.
John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood. Structured around a conversation John has with his friend Basil, the book serves as a helpful guide for those considering full-time ministry (although those already in ministry should read it as well). Since I’ve already reflected on this treatise before, I’ll refrain from saying much more at the moment. Suffice it to say that through his conversation with Basil, John tries to convince his friend that he’s not worthy of entering the ministry. While I can’t speak to Chrysostom’s level of sincerity, I can say that he highlights some of the difficulties pastors will face throughout their time in ministry.
Charles Wingard, Help for the New Pastor: Practical Advice for Your First Year of Ministry. While no longer in my first year of ministry, I need all the help I can get. Thankfully, Wingard does not disappoint. Here one finds a reservoir of wisdom from a retired pastor, currently serving as a professor of practical theology. Seminarians and young pastors, tolle lege.
Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? A beginner’s guide for students desiring to learn some of the basic questions swirling around regarding the reliability of the gospels. If you’re a more advanced student of the Bible, you probably won’t gain any new insights after working through this monograph. In full recognition of the fact that Williams is a New Testament scholar whose publications I find exceptional, I must admit that I had trouble following his writing at certain points in this volume. Poorly crafted sentences made it difficult to understand what he was trying to communicate.
Letters of Samuel Rutherford. Written by a God-intoxicated soul while imprisoned for his faith, the book is a treasure trove of wisdom, biblical counsel, and memorable statements sure to echo in readers’ ears for years to come. Here are a few of my favorite: “Stoop, stoop! It is a low entry to go in at heaven’s gate” (50). “Christ, Christ, nothing but Christ can cool our love’s burning languor” (51). “The thoughts of my old sins are as the summons of death to me” (69). “Christ is as full a feast as you can hunger for” (86). “Certainly, since I became his prisoner, he hath won the yolk and heart of my soul. Christ is even become a new Christ to me, and his love greener than it was” (108). “There is not such breadth and elbow-room in the way to heaven as men believe” (124). “It is easy to make conscience believe as you will, not as you know” (125). “Happy are you, if you give testimony to the world of your preferring Jesus Christ to all powers” (191).
Trevin Wax, Gospel-Centered Teaching: Showing Christ in All the Scriptures. Another beginner’s guide to learning how to showcase the Christ-Centered trajectory of Scripture. Students of the sacred page need to learn that all of the Bible is about Christ (Luke 24; John 5). While this may seem basic, years of interacting with Christians in local churches inclines me to believe otherwise. Rather than breathing in the air of the Trinitarian Scriptures, most believers—though well-intentioned—place themselves not only at the center of their lives, but also at the center of the Bible. Consequently, we treat God as if he simply exists to help us live the life we’ve chosen for ourselves—a cosmic life coach whose sole purpose is help us be all we can be. Wax provides a helpful antidote to this kind of thinking. In the course of the book, he not only demonstrates how the Bible placards the person and work of Christ in both the OT and the NT, but also provides a template for how Bible teachers can begin practicing this in their own ministries.
Francis James Grimké, Meditations on Preaching. A collection of disparate thoughts from Grimké’s book on homiletics brought together for a new generation of preachers. This is certain to light a fire in any preacher’s heart, reminding him of the need to study well, keep a continual Pentecost going on in his soul (82–83), and feel the wonder and privilege of spending one’s life in pastoral ministry.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3., Sin and Salvation in Christ. This is the first of Bavinck’s four-volume dogmatics that I worked through. I came away thinking, “Bavinck is a genius.” And the one word I would use to describe this work is “comprehensive.” This is not for the faint of heart or for those with a mild interest in theology and history. Yes, Bavinck takes you deep into some debates in the history of theology, but John Vriend does a wonderful job translating it into English. Admittedly, I’m a theology geek, so reading Bavinck turned out to be the highlight of my day, every day. It was like covering myself with a warm blanket during a New England snow storm.
Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. One of the most influential Roman Catholic philosophers in recent eras, Pieper’s work on language is required reading for anyone interested in navigating the rough waters of a host of issues in contemporary society. For example, what is “love”? What is “marriage”? What is a “human being”? What is a “man” or a “woman”? Answering these questions entails using words. But one of, if not the, features of postmodern philosophy is that language is incapable of conveying meaning—although this typically doesn’t prevent postmodern philosophers from teaching, writing, and using words to convey their thoughts (apparently they’re exempt). Pieper’s thesis is that treating language this way is ultimately an abuse of power. How so? Corrupting language prohibits people from participating in reality since one aspect of communication is the conveying of reality—that is, speaking what is real. However, language disconnected from reality (that is, from truth) serves a sinister purpose—namely, power. Additionally, corrupting language means both living and communicating lies. And lying implies a lack of respect for the dignity of another person. Thus, according to Pieper, the absence of genuine communication entails the presence of despotism (29–30). Since a well-ordered society is based on a well-ordered language, we’re in deep trouble.
Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church. In this popular-level work, Yancey weaves personal testimony in with brief historical summaries of the key figures who helped revive his faith in Christ and belief in the church. Yancey was raised in a strict, fundamentalist church in the south that was cultish, racist, and exclusionary, which left him jaded, disappointed, and turned-off from the church. Given his disappointment with religion, he wondered whether or not he would ever return to the church. But after reading the Bible for himself and coming to terms with Christ’s message, he discovered that he had been misled. In addition, he also began to read other authors who helped answer his questions as well as ignite his own love for Christ. For Yancey, these figures were Martin Luther King, Jr., G. K. Chesterton, Leo Tolstoy, John Donne, Annie Dillard, and Henri Nouwen—to name a few.