As I did a couple of years ago, I thought I’d collect the books I read this past year and provide a brief comment or two on each one. The list is maintained alphabetically (according to the author’s last name), as I am trying to refrain from “ranking” them as opposed to recommending them in general. Each of these volumes were practical and beneficial in their own way and I’d advocate for their careful meditation as you have the opportunity.
It isn’t all that groundbreaking to say that to understand the doctrine of justification is to understand the life of a Christian. Indeed, we might uphold the truth that a Christian’s life is best summed up in a divine sense of losing oneself in his justification. The fruits of sanctification are borne out of the deep roots of justification. To mistake this is to mistake the essence of the gospel. Such is why volumes like John Beart’s The Sinner’s Justifying Righteousness are so essential. In this little work, Beart takes you through the doctrines of both God’s eternal law and God’s eternal gospel, delineating how they work in harmony to bring about God’s purposes in redemption. “The gospel,” Beart writes, “[does not] come commanding and calling for a righteousness for justification, but revealing a righteousness already wrought out . . . it is not by ascending or descending, by fulfilling the law, and satisfying justice ourselves, but by believing in what another has done.” (122–23) This work, though not widely read or regarded, is splendid and would be well worth your careful perusal.
We all have expectations for God. Even if we don’t admit them verbally, each of us operations with specific standards we expect God to meet, ways we determine he will or should work. But, as is always the case, those expectations are dashed when the truth of the gospel is read and studied. The God of the gospel is a God who constantly works and wills in ways we’d never predict, with people we’d never presume he’d spend time with, in places we’d never hope to fine him. “He is a God who turns our every expectation insight out,” writes Chad Bird in his marvelous Your God Is Too Glorious. (18) I’ve become infatuated with Chad’s writing. The honest, sincere perspective on grace and forgiveness from which he writes is a constant refreshment to my soul. In Your God Is Too Glorious, Chad endeavors to explore the mysterious ways and places which are touched by the glorious Creator himself — ways and places which always surprise us. “The mystery of where God is found in our world,” Chad writes, “is that he’s not where he’s supposed to be.” (25) You would be incredibly uplifted if you made this book part of your library — part of your life.
I am extraordinarily grateful to be able to read the works of Horatius Bonar. He is the most-beloved theological writer I’ve studied, one whose pages I constantly frequent. I return to Bonar’s The Story of Grace quite often, and I imagine I will do the same with Man: His Religion and His World as well, the latter of which is a rather unconventional treatise in its presentation. It doesn’t contain a large, sweeping biblical narrative, but is actually an investigation into the contrasting and counterfeit truths that mankind purports as authentic and self-evident. Man operates on an unsustainable system of tit-for-tat, in which attempts to pay off God through his perceived goodness. “Man tries, by endless instalments,” writes Bonar, “to pay the eternal debt which has cast him into prison, and made him an alien from his Creator.” But, in contrast to that failing system, “God comes forth, and in one sum pays the infinite debt, and the prisoner goes free.” (50-51) Man, in trying to pay back God for the debt of sin he owes, actually robs God of the glory of his grace. And yet, despite this act of cosmic thievery and heavenly treason, “there is no case,” continues Bonar, “of any one on this side of hell too bad for cure, or too vile for pardon.” (37) This is the truth of the gospel — a truth which blasts all the counterfeits options of manmade conjuring into oblivion. Because Man: His Religion and His World deals with the heart of man, it remains a surprisingly relevant volume worthy of more present attention.
There are many reasons I adore the writings of Horatius Bonar, but chief among them the astute manner in which he expounds and explains the good news of Jesus Christ living, dying, and rising again for sinners. Such is what you’ll find in The Rent Veil, which is a masterful inquiry into the glories of the gospel as found in the epistle to the Hebrews. As the title suggests, Dr. Bonar is particularly intrigued with reflecting on the wonder of access to the Father as is made possible by the blood of the Son. This access is nothing but a miracle of grace. “We are saved by a dying Christ,” Bonar writes. By dying, he dooms death to death. “He conquers it by being conquered by it; he slays it by allowing himself to be slain by it. He crucifies it, kills it, buries it forever.” (10, 22) What a thought that the Son of God crucifies sin by being crucified himself! That he buries the curse by becoming a curse on behalf of those who are cursed! This, indeed, is the paradoxical glory of the gospel of the cross — a gospel that declares everything finished. “That which saves the sinner is done,” Bonar writes. “Another has done it all. Messiah has done it all; and our gospel is not a command to do, but simply to take what another has done.” (23) Despite being a shorter work, The Rent Veil is nonetheless permeating with breathtaking views of Jesus’s gracious work on the cross.
“It was from the cross of Golgotha that the cradle of Bethlehem derived all its value and its virtue . . . It was the cross of Christ that rent the veil; overthrew the cold statutes of symbolic service; consecrated the new and living way into the holiest; supplanted the ritualistic with the real and the true; and substituted for lifeless performances the living worship of the living God.” (13)
Last summer, I tasked myself with navigating the uneasy theological waters of the book of Ecclesiastes with a company of teenagers in tow. At the outset, I honestly didn’t know what to expect by engaging a deep study of the book, but by the end of the series, I became adamant that Ecclesiastes is, perhaps, the most relevant biblical treatise in the canon. In it, we learn the categorical vanity of all things but the truth of God. Throughout all of the Preacher’s experiences and examinations of the wisdom “under the sun,” he can’t help but come to the conclusion that wasting one’s existence on earthly vices admits the beggarly nature of the soul without God. “Beggars we are,” writes Bridges, “with all the riches of the Indies, without him. He is the substitute for everything. Nothing can be a substitute for him.” (xii) This commentary by Bridges proved to be an invaluable resource in my study, directing and absorbing my thoughts in the gospel context of a book that has zero mention of the redemption. Yet, underneath all of the Preacher’s sentiments is a burgeoning tension between that which is and that which is to come. Bridges’ remarks serve to induce the reader into loosing his grip on the “dainties of the world.” “Whatever, therefore, else we may lose,” he writes, “let Christ be our heart’s treasure, and we are safe for eternity.” (58) This was an outstanding encounter with Ecclesiastes and aided my study in more ways than I can relay.
When Mockingbird Ministries announced the printing of before-then “lost” manuscripts of their patron saint, Robert Capon, I, for one, was ecstatic. Capon possesses a dexterity with the written word that few contemporaries can even approach. He was resolute in his elucidation of grace in the biblical narrative, and for that, I am grateful. In More Theology & Less Heavy Cream, you’ll find a very different side of Capon’s writing, one that’s full of more whimsy, satire, and recipes than, perhaps, you’re used to. This little work is a collection of essays from the mind of Capon as he writes from the perspective of he and his wife’s alter-egos, Pietro and Madeleine, throughout which they debate the merits of dinner party menus and, occasionally, the meaning of grace. The “dash of theology” that’s thrown into this volume makes it worth the read. For instance, this passage near the end of the work, in which he expounds on the vast differences between religion and the gospel, is one of the finest you’ll ever encounter.
“The Gospel is vastly, alarmingly, mind-numbingly simpler than the moralistic, judgment-loaded religion they’re selling . . . Religion always sells. You can get people to buy almost any version of salvation-by-toeing-the-line you want to dream up . . . The one thing you can never sell is grace. The human race would rather die than give houseroom to the outrage of free acceptance, while we are yet sinners. You can get people to buy acceptance after their sins are under control, or only when their disasters have been forestalled by proper behavior. But all the Gospel has to offer is acceptance now: in our sins and in our shipwrecks. And without condition. With no guilt left to be expiated and no good-deed lists asked for. You can always sell religion. But the Gospel of grace isn’t religion and therefore you can’t sell it for beans. Any gospel that sells is, by definition, not the Gospel.” (123, 126)
With More Theology & Less Heavy Cream, you’ll find playful insights into Capon’s kitchen balanced with just enough pops of theological banter to make for an intriguing and insightful read.
Of all Robert Capon’s writings, his treatment of the parables is undoubtedly his most popular. I am working my way through his comments on each of Jesus’s parables, having previously finished his Parables of Grace and now Parables of Judgment. (Next, Parables of the Kingdom.) In working his way through Christ’s parables of judgment, Capon treats each passage in a way you might not expect at first. And it’s precisely the unexpected manner in which grace is seen and found throughout the parables that make them so timelessly profitable for the Christian reader. As is the case in many of Capon’s writings, his insistence on free grace doesn’t give way. In fact, he doubles down on that exegesis with the following passage:
“Grace doesn’t sell; you can hardly even give it away, because it works only for losers and no one wants to stand in their line. The world of winners will buy case lots of moral advice, grosses of guilt-edge prohibitions, skids of self-improvement techniques, and whole truckloads of transcendental hot air. But it will not buy free forgiveness because that threatens to let the riffraff into the Supper of the Lamb.” (41)
I have been profoundly enriched by reading Capon’s handling of the Gospels, and by being constantly reminded that “it’s the dead who are Jesus’ dish, not the living; nothing is all he needs—and all he will accept—for the making of anything, old creation or new.” (Capon, Judgment, 72) This will be a work I return to often.
Zack Eswine has become, perhaps, my favorite current theological writer. I connect with his writing at a very deep level. I often feel as though he’s writing directly to me. And yet at the same time, I feel that he’s truly writing himself. He’s spilling his soul on every page, pouring out his heart for both the glory of his Savior and the good of the church. Such is what you’ll find in his splendid collection of reflections on “the gospel according to Ecclesiastes,” entitled, Rediscovering Eden. I relied heavily on this book throughout my own study of Ecclesiastes this summer as I endeavored to show a group of teenagers the uncanny and unexpected ways in which the gospel deals with life’s messes head-on. Ecclesiastes itself is a book in which the Preacher doesn’t stick to the conventional methods of delivering sermonettes, but rather, “addresses the exceptions to account for what is.” (9) That’s really what Ecclesiastes is about, a book that “determines to show us how to find our way, amid the broken sacred of the world.” (23) Throughout, Eswine continually refers to creation as “once-Eden,” an adept moniker that, I think, perfectly captures the essence of the now: a world that once was perfect and beautiful that is now fallen and corrupt, and that groans to be restored and remade. It is to this brokenness that Christians are uniquely called and uniquely gifted by the Spirit to enter and sit and preach the good news.
“Ecclesiastes seems like one of God’s ways to say to us, This world and your life are more broke than you now realize and what God created for us is more satisfying than we believe . . . God intends to reveal himself as the One Who Goes There. He intends to equip his people with a voice and language and method that has the capacity to do the same. ‘Getting prepared by God to find a language adequate for handling life as it is’: this is the calling set before us in Ecclesiastes.” (37, 39)
Eswine’s handling of Ecclesiastes is tremendous, investigating each uncomfortable statement of the Preacher in order to show that it is God himself who’s calling us “into this discomfort and wants us to see that God is there.” (26–27)
Without question, some of the most interesting and intriguing bits of the Gospel accounts are those in which Jesus teaches the crowds through parables. Oftentimes, Jesus’s illustrations leave many confused or concerned, with his powerful teaching of the gospel of the kingdom coming to them in unexpected and unseemly ways. Each parable acts almost like a heavenly thief, accosting the listener’s preconceived notions of religion and faith and speaking new life into their ears. As Chad Bird rightly says in the foreword:
“The parables upend all our notions of a God who plays by our rules . . . The only hero of the parables is the messianic madman who gives away the gold of forgiveness like it’s candy; who hides oceans of grace in a drop of faith; and who continually crowns the last, the least, the little, and the lifeless.” (xi–xii)
The parables of Christ have received their fair share of erroneous interpretations throughout the centuries, many insisting on putting us at the center of the narrative, therein turning them into moralistic stories that seek to us how to behave or get along better. But, as with the rest of Scripture, Jesus himself is the interpretive key by which we are to unlock the parables’ true meanings. Such is why I’m thankful for Daniel’s and Erick’s efforts in crafting Scandalous Stories: A Sort of Commentary on Parables. Though this work is light, it’s hard-hitting when it comes to demonstrating the capsized-logic of grace that runs rampant throughout all of Jesus’s heavenly stories. And that is its best quality. It doesn’t waste time with copious amounts of exposition. Dan and Erick cut to the quick of each story, revealing both how we’re naturally prone to read them and how they should be read. Scandalous Stories is a welcome edition to my library — you’d do well to add it to yours as well.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that one of the leading influences in my ministerial life the past several years has been the combined ministries of Christ Hold Fast and 1517. Both of the predominantly Lutheran parachurch organizations have made it their pristine endeavor to showcase God’s flawless grace for incredibly flawed people. Such is what you’ll find in The Sinner / Saint Devotional. This work, edited by Dan Price, is a collection of sixty devotionals exploring the remarkable gospel truths found in the Psalms. The psaltery, the Scripture’s hymnal, is, perhaps, the most visceral book on the Christian experience ever composed. The words of the psalmists are timeless encounters with some of the severest of human adversities. They display for us the indelible truth that the Christian faith is predisposed to give hope to the hopeless. Even when we fear what surrounds us, “it’s not antithetical to our faith when we admit our fears,” says Elyse Fitzpatrick. (97) Nearly all of the 150 psalms are the cries of God’s disciples enduring untold anguish. As is evident throughout, the struggles of the psalmists have no bearing on whether or not they’re truly redeemed. So writes Donavon Riley:
“The righteous person is not the one who never struggles, never falls into sin, and is applauded for his saintliness. A righteous person is righteous because he trusts only in what Jesus does, and therefore God declares him to be righteous for Christ’s sake.” (73)
Regardless of what comes our way in this life, because our righteous standing is wholly outside of us, our confidence is sure notwithstanding the winds and waves that crash and crush our hope. God’s peace “is a gift and not a product,” encourages Bruce Hillman, which is why “you can’t work your way into it,” and neither can you really lose it. (127) The peace of God is there for us forever in the person of Jesus Christ. And he has promised to never leave or forsake us.
I am so thankful for this devotional. It’s stuffed with gospel truth and continually points me to Christ. You’d do well to add this to your bookshelf.
Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield is still considered one of the leading theological minds of the 20th century. Many still reckon him to be the last great Princeton theologian. His contributions and influences on a number of crucial Christian doctrines and apologetic arguments are still being felt today. It was with a deep reverence, then, that I worked my way through Warfield’s The Saviour of the World. This little work is a collection of nine addresses centering on God’s plan of salvation of the lost, all of which attest to the truth that there’s no one outside of this divine plan. “A sinner may be too vile for any and every thing else,” says Warfield, “but he cannot be too vile for salvation.” (24) The gospel of God is precisely orchestrated for sinners, and sinners are all that there are. “There is none so lost,” he continues, “that he may not be found by him, and, being found by him, be also found in him.” (26) What’s more, God’s gospel of salvation is wholly complete.
“All has been done by him. His saving work neither needs nor admits of supplementary addition by any needy child of man, even to the extent of an iota. When we look to him we are raising grateful eyes, not to one who invites us to save ourselves; nor merely to one who has broken out a path, in which walking, we may attain to salvation; nor yet merely to one who offers us a salvation wrought out by him, on a condition; but to one who has saved us, — who is at once the beginning and the middle and the end of our salvation, the author and the finisher of our faith.” (237)
All throughout Warfield’s discourses, the Lord’s sovereign hand in the salvation of sinners is made abundantly evident. And his sovereignty continues to this day, this moment. “Christ our Saviour is on the throne,” Warfield comments. “The hands that were pierced with the nails of the cross wield the sceptre.” (186) Such is the lavish comfort of the gospel that’s afforded and attended to sinners. Praise be to the Savior of the lost.
Of the many authors I repeatedly visit and, likewise, eagerly anticipate future works, Jared C. Wilson has become one of the leading candidates. What’s more, after having met Jared at the inaugural “Normal Pastor Conference” in Orlando, Florida a few years ago, his writing has becoming even more engaging. He’s not a reclusive theologian pontificating on pedantic biblical matters — he’s an impassioned author whose mission is to write for pastors and disciples, for the good of the church, and for the glory of God. Jared has often referred to Gospel Deeps has his personal favorite of all the books he’s authored, which is quite a statement when you consider all the titles he’s had published. Gospel Deeps is a rich exploration of the multifaceted gospel of God. “The further into the gospel we go,” Jared writes, “the bigger it gets . . . The further into Christ’s work we press, the more of our vision and the more of our heart it fills.” (20) This is a sentiment which I’ve grown fond of over the years: the notion of discipleship as more of a cave dive and less of a mountain climb brings a heightened (deepened) and nuanced picture of what means to be a disciple.
“Every angle of the gospel we look at ends up showing us a different reflection of God’s glory . . . The gospel in fact is scaled to the very shape of God himself . . . To know God better is to know better that eternity won’t exhaust his knowability.” (60, 132)
The pursuit of the knowledge of God is one that grows deeper and deeper the longer we’re engaged in it. There’s no limit to the depths of Jesus’s gospel. It’s a glorious dive into his undiscovered fullness of grace and truth. So let’s go exploring.
It is interesting that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is still visited with no small amount of hesitation and ambivalence. It seems there’s no equilibrium to be found between the poles of a Pentecostal spirit and a cessationist heart. Despite all the conversation and controversy over the Trinity in recents years, the Holy Spirit often remains overlooked and disregarded. That’s where books like Jared Wilson’s Supernatural Power for Everyday People step in and shine. Throughout the pages of Supernatural Power, Wilson endeavors to demonstrate the Holy Spirit’s incalculable influence on our everyday lies. “I am firmly convinced,” writes Jared, “that too many Christians spend most of their lives trying to carry out their everyday routines in their own strength.” (xv) I, too, am persuaded that like many other doctrines and truths of Scripture, we cherry-pick that which we like and ignore that which we don’t like. We’re very often selective disciples. We’re attuned to that which fits into our lives or which sounds good to our ears. But anything that’s uncomfortable or unsuitable to our current lifestyle is met with deaf ears. “If we don’t hear God,” Jared continues, “it is not because God is not speaking, but because we have gone deaf.” (59) I fear we have gone terribly deaf to the things of the Spirit of God, most likely because we’ve let our Bibles become caked with dust.
“We may struggle to hear his voice, but very often that is because the dust is so thick on our copies of his Word . . . If you want to know what God has done and is doing and is going to do, read the Bible. If you want to know how to live and how to love and how to survive and how to thrive, read the Bible. If you want to know what God thinks about you, read the Bible . . . Your time in the Bible is the primary means by which the Holy Spirit empower you to live your life.” (67, 71)
Jared’s words in Supernatural Power are incredibly prescient for the current Christian climate. They’re momentous words that direct us back to the pivotal ministry of God’s Spirit, the Spirit that embraces and empowers our everyday lives.
Well, that’s pretty much it. What do you think of my list? What books did you complete in 2018? And which ones are you planning on completing in 2019? I, for one, am looking to finish a few more non-theological works. Feel free to discuss below — I’d love to hear from you!
John Beart, The Sinner’s Justifying Righteousness: A Vindication of the Eternal Law and Everlasting Gospel (London: Seeley & Burnside, 1829).
Chad Bird, Your God Is Too Glorious: Finding God in the Most Unexpected Places (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018).
Horatius Bonar, Man: His Religion and His World (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1851).
Horatius Bonar, The Rent Veil (Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 1999).
Charles Bridges, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009).
Robert Capon, More Theology & Less Heavy Cream: The Domestic Life of Pietro and Madeleine (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2016).
Robert Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989).
Zack Eswine, Rediscovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing, 2014).
Daniel Emery Price and Erick Sorensen, Scandalous Stories: A Sort of Commentary on Parables (Irvine, CA: 1517 Publishing, 2018).
Daniel Emery Price, The Sinner / Saint Devotional: 60 Days in the Psalms (Irvine, CA: 1517 Publishing, 2018).
B. B. Warfield, The Saviour of the World (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991).
Jared C. Wilson, Gospel Deeps: Reveling in the Excellencies of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
Jared C. Wilson, Supernatural Power for Everyday People: Experiencing God’s Extraordinary Spirit in Your Ordinary Life (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2018).