Here’s my top ten books of 2019 in no particular order, with a few honorable mentions thrown in for good measure, plus my top three articles of the year. Enjoy!
D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. In this short book (only 84 pages), Carson argues that many people in our culture (including Christians) wrongly abstract the love of God from his other attributes and simply equate it with unconditional affirmation. As one person told Carson to his face, “Of course God loves me, that’s his job!” When evangelicals contemplate God’s love, their minds typically turn to John 3:16, but not much further. In order to remedy this kind of superficial thinking, Carson sheds light on the different ways the Bible speaks about the love of God. Although brief, he tackles issues such as divine immutability and impassibility (the latter of which he does unhelpfully), all the while urging committed Christians to maintain the linkage between the love of God and the wrath of God. In short, this is typical Carson: Informed, engaging, and, with the exception of his treatment on divine impassibility, nuanced, and thoroughly biblical.
Bradley G. Green, The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life. D. Bruce Lockerbie famously said, “Wherever the gospel is planted, the academy follows.” But why? In this work, Green aims to answer this and a similar question: “What does the gospel have to do with the intellectual life?” (13). In short, Green contends that only the Christian worldview provides the necessary rationale for intellectual pursuits. First of all, the Christian doctrine of creation affirms that we live in an ordered world created by God, which means there is something there to study. In addition, God is a speaking God who fashioned his image bearers as knowing creatures, which means we can truly (though not omnisciently) understand his revelation. Building upon these thoughts, Green segues into the most mentally taxing section, providing readers with a metaphysical and theological framework for language. Although somewhat complex, his goal is to show that “Language is first and foremost a gift from God whereby we reflect God in the world” (126). With these thoughts in place, Green demonstrates that the intellectual life needs no justification—that is, we’re free to pursue the intellectual life simply because . . . well . . . we get to! We study to enjoy God!
John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence. A delectable morsel from the pen of a Puritan divine, Flavel’s aim is to display God’s overruling providence in a believer’s life. Akin to other Puritan works, reading Flavel is like a cool breeze on a hot summer day—refreshing and vivifying. As we’ve come to expect from these pastor-theologians, the book is characterized by mature biblical exposition, precise doctrinal explanation, and pastorally sensitive application. In short, I love John Flavel and can’t wait to meet him.
Kyle McClellan, Mea Culpa: Learning from Mistakes in the Ministry. What do you get when a seasoned pastor reflects on his early years of ministry? Lots of embarrassing stories, laughter-inducing anecdotes, and a sense of camaraderie. Take heart, brothers: You’re not the only bad pastor out there! There’s plenty of us! But if God used a donkey, then he truly can use any of us. On a more serious note, however, the two major takeaways that I found most helpful in the book are as follows: 1) American consumer culture has not helped pastors and churches. People tend to bring “the customer is always right” attitude with them to church. Unfortunately, what people want and what people need are two different things. 2) Pastors must be honest with search committees and the leadership body of their churches. What churches want is pretty simple: A great preacher and teacher, a skilled evangelist, someone who makes visitation of the sick a priority, a great counselor, a competent administrator and visionary leader. They want someone with academic credentials who is able to speak to the average person in the congregation. They want a pastor who is available to people, yet also active in the community—and of course he should lead his family well. In short, they want someone who will expand the ministry of the church, grow it numerically and spiritually, start new programs that will attract more people. Since no pastor has all these gifts, and since each person in the church thinks the pastor should prioritize what they value, people are feeling more and more let down with their pastors. In short, pray for your church.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. Definitely one of the best books I read all year! Sure, you’ll feel quite convicted as you make your way through this volume. But that’s not always a bad thing. Naming your sins is the counterpart to counting your blessings (21), and, if my experience is any indication, we need to kiss our sins on the mouth in order for them to lose their power over our lives. Walking with the Lord for twenty years has taught me that intelligent confession precedes joyful liberation. DeYoung blends historical and theological insights with personal stories while rounding out each chapter with specific ways for you to put to death each capital vice in your life. Pick up and read.
Theodore Dwight Bozeman, The Precisianist Strain—Disciplinary Religion & Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638. While the cumbersome title might dupe readers into thinking that Bozeman’s work is a cure for insomnia, don’t be fooled. Yes, the nitty-gritty details might turn some readers off, but I think many Christians (especially pastors) would profit from working through this volume. By way of summary: Bozeman sets the stage by tracing the history of the English Reformation, through to the establishment of Presbyterianism, to the eventual birth of Puritanism. The contours of Puritan spirituality—stringency, precision, and ascetical practices—arose amid societal destabilization, increasing levels of poverty, and moral laxity (chs. 2–3), all of which readied the people for a religious life marked by exactitude and scrupulosity. (Puritan pastors, for example, urged their parishioners to become “athletes of the fast” .) The upshot, however, was a lack of assurance of salvation. Almost all “cases of conscience” (what the Puritans called “casuistry”) revolved around this one issue. And the perpetual urging of “self-examination” tended only to exacerbate rather than ameliorate a penitents’ struggles (155). Consequently, one of the charges lodged against Puritans was that its piety reflected a regression to medieval spirituality—indeed, a “re-Catholicization” according to Bozeman. Out of this context arose an ensemble of preachers testifying to God’s “free grace”—most notably John Cotton (241). The “antinomians” (as they were dubbed) were Puritanism’s theological “antipode” (334). Whereas Cotton and other “antinomians” said the Puritans evacuated justification by faith of any meaning, the Puritans judged their theological opponents’ views “dizzily utopian” (334). Since I’m not well-versed enough in Puritan theology and history to assess Bozeman’s arguments, I’ll let the PhDs sort it all out. Nevertheless, I found this work an insightful piece of both historical and pastoral theology. In short, what you believe about God matters! And while practicing the spiritual disciplines is essential to the Christian life—including self-examination—we must guard against allowing this to degenerate “into a monotonously self-referential and inwardly focused piety” (Fred Sanders’s words in The Deep Things of God, 197).
John Owen, Discourse on the Holy Spirit. Since I spent several months working through Owen’s massive tome, I feel almost obligated to place this in my top ten. Typical of the Puritans, this gem clocks in at 631 pages. While Owen’s prose is difficult to navigate at times, I found that limiting myself to three to five pages a day helped tremendously. You can’t read through Owen quickly; you must pace yourself, giving adequate time to process what he says. For me, coming across the wonderfully pastoral sections that drip with the honey of the gospel made it all worth it.
A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. For those interested in the intellectual life, this book is a must. With years of wisdom at his disposal, Sertillanges arms a new generation of intellectuals with habits sure to help them pursue their studies. Here are my favorite pieces of advice: 1) Study in the presence of God and with eternity in mind; 2) virtue is necessary for intellectual pursuits; 3) live in the open air and spend time in the sun; 4) care for the body contributes to temporal beatitude; 5) intellectuals must be ascetics—to a degree; 6) discipline yourself for solitude (“solitude is the mother of results” ); 7) be a generalist and a specialist; 8) know that most disagreements arise over matters of first principles; 9) accepting your limitations as a human being is a virtue; 10) a great memory is a precious resource.
Rick Reed, The Heart of the Preacher: Preparing Your Soul to Proclaim the Word. Reed is a longtime pastor-turned-seminary president. As the title makes clear, Reed argues that the most significant aspect to preaching is the preacher’s own heart: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). The book comes in two parts. First, Reed records fifteen heart-tests a preacher will face, including matters such as ambition, comparison, fear, criticism, failure, and pain. Second, Reed finishes by outlining ten ways preachers can strengthen their hearts by drawing attention to personal soul care, prayer, realistic expectations, and regular exercise. Most of all, however, Reed argues that the most important factor in preaching is maintaining a genuine love for Christ. This was an easy but great read. I highly recommend it for pastors.
Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary. This was one of the best books I read all year. As I worked through it I kept saying to myself, “This is what theological scholarship should be.” Not only is Pennington’s work well-researched, it’s also well-written—something that cannot be said for all scholarly publications. (Some scholars seem to think opacity is a sign of profundity.) Briefly, Pennington situates the Sermon on the Mount within the confluence of the Jewish wisdom tradition and the Greco-Roman virtue tradition—thus presenting Jesus as the true Philosopher-Sage-King (36, 101,111). With the Shema (Deut. 6:4) clearly in view, the Sermon is a discourse on righteousness, highlighting God’s call for “whole-hearted orientation” toward him in one’s life (78). As the title suggests, Pennington argues that the Sermon on the Mount is about human flourishing since image-bearers of a holy God cannot truly flourish unless they are in covenant relationship with the Triune God of Holy Scripture.
Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders, ed. The Task of Dogmatics: Explorations in Theological Method. A compendium of essays focusing on matters related to properly defining and engaging in dogmatic theology. In my opinion the most stimulating entries were: Kevin Vanhoozer, “Analytics, Poetics, and the Mission of Dogmatic Discourse”; Scott Swain, “Dogmatics as Systematic Theology”; Brannon Ellis and Josh Malone, “Divine Perfections, Theological Reasoning, and the Shape of Dogmatics”; Mike Allen, “Dogmatics as Ascetics; and Gavin Ortlund, “Why Should Protestants Retrieve Patristic and Medieval Theology?” Note: Although I enjoyed this book, I do not endorse all the articles, especially not the article by Katherine Sonderegger.
Leland Ryken, The Soul in Paraphrase. A wonderful collection of poems and sonnets that direct readers’ attention to the majesty of God and beauty of holiness. Collectively, these entries highlight the complexity of life, the twists and turns involved in traversing a fallen world, coping with disappointment, heartbreak, tragedy, and death. But that’s not all—along the way, you encounter writings that consist of beautiful prose, complex ideas, and spellbinding structure (think Hebert’s “Aaron” as an example). Your heart will sing, your soul will soar, and your gaze will lift heavenward.
David Powlison, How Does Sanctification Work? In beautifully written prose, Powlison delineates the multiplicity of ways God conforms his children into the image of his beloved Son. Combining biblical instruction with personal stories, Powlison pulls readers into the wonder, joy, and challenges of the Christian life. I heartily recommend this book to my friends.
Top Three Favorite Articles:
Scott Swain, “That Your Joy May Be Full: A Theology of Happiness” – An exquisite example of sound reasoning from a theologian drenched in Scripture and thoroughly acquainted with the classical theologians in the history of the church. I only wish I had picked his brain more when he was my prof in seminary.
William Wood, “Axiology, Self-Deception, and Moral Wrongdoing in Blaise Pascal’s Pensées,” Journal of Religious Ethics (2009): 355–384. While the subject matter is the nature of self-deception in Pascal’s Pensées, I also found it insightful for my own personal life.
Michael Allen, “Disputation for Scholastic Theology: Engaging Luther’s 97 Theses,” Themelios 44:1 (2019): 105–119. This was Allen’s inaugural lecture as the John Dyer Trimble Chair of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. Allen mines the wisdom of Luther and the reformed scholastics to see how their theological protocols might inform theological education in the present.
 For those interested in the basic issues involved in divine simplicity and impassibility, do your best to track down the following two articles—Gavin Ortlund, “Divine Simplicity in Historical Perspective: Resourcing a Contemporary Discussion,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 16:4 (October 2014): 436–453; Kevin DeYoung, “Divine Impassibility and the Passion of Christ in the Book of Hebrews,” Westminster Theological Journal 68 (2006): 41–50.