January 20, 2021
Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Dever's book is helpful. I've listened to a lot of 9 Marks interviews and sermons/lectures and read extensively from their website, so not a lot of the content here was new to me. But because they were originally sermons, it was helpful to watch a skilled expositor teach topically. Homiletically helpful, one might say.
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January 18, 2021
"Lacking a church is not equivalent to lacking a decent supermarket or movie theatre; it is like lacking a hospital or a source of water. It is an utter necessity."
Sam Allberry, Why bother with church?, pg 19
January 14, 2021
Longtime readers of this blog-and virtually anyone who has any idea that this blog even exists-are most likely aware of my habit of posting a top 10 list of my favorite reads from the previous year. Anyone who knows me in real life also knows that I can be somewhat indecisive, and narrowing this year's list down to 10 seemed like more decisions than I wanted to deal with. So I'm pleading a special case for a special year, and giving a top 16 list.
Other differences from previous lists include my inclusion of re-reads (because I was hit so deeply by my re-reading of Till We Have Faces), allowing multiples from the same author (the Carson books deserve it), and how I've written (I normally stack these books up in front of myself, but I'm in the process of moving, and so they're pretty well all packed up).
1. Till We Have Faces- CS Lewis
I cannot communicate forcefully enough the impact of re-reading this book. I think the first
time I read Till We Have Faces was 4 or 5 years ago, and I remember spending a good portion of the time just trying to keep track of the story. I also remember being completely captivated by one phrase: the stench of holiness.
This read through, my attention was drawn to what I think Lewis was trying to get at: our deep and subtle ability to deceive ourselves.
2. Educated- Tara Westover
Tara Westover has a harrowing personal story. I deeply resonated with parts of it, and am deeply grateful that I couldn't relate to more. She writes beautifully, and her deepest question is one that many of us struggle with: how can I see and name something as wrong and still love the people involved?
3. Enjoying God- Tim Chester
Perhaps the most spiritually beneficial book I read the first half of the year. Chester draws on the work of John Owen in Communion with God, but this isn't just the re-hash of someone else's work. He spends chapter after chapter demonstrating how we can experience intimacy with God in our everyday moments in life. Not in a mystical, detached, or ethereal way, but in a manner that is God-centered, Bible saturated, and theologically informed.
4. And Every Morning The Way Home Gets Longer and Longer- Fredrick Backman
I've heard rave reviews of Backman and decided to listen to this little book at work. Imagine my shame as the mailman is walking around town alternately laughing and crying. In a very brief story he grapples with death, love, friendship, and family in a way that puts most philosophers to shame.
5. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor- DA Carson
Wasn't sure which of the Carson books to put first, but this gets the nod. Carson takes a series of letters and journal entries from his father, and weaves them together with a mini biography of his dad and a history of Evangelicalism in mid 20th century Quebec. It's masterfully done, but more important than the accomplishment is the life being focused on: Tom Carson was indeed an ordinary pastor, a church planter and pastor who saw very little fruit during most of his ministry. And yet in spite of the difficulties and discouragements, he remained faithful. Which is all Jesus ultimately requires of his stewards. Thoroughly encouraging.
6. John- DA Carson
While the previous Carson book inspired me in ministry, this one helped me in the more normal sense. I both taught and preached through John (in different settings) from late 2017 through mid 2020. I don't think I picked up Carson's commentary until sometime in 2018, but from that point it has been a near and dear companion. Obviously it wasn't the only one on my desk (or Logos software) but it was the only one I made sure to read every week. Helpful on language and historical data, but shines when it comes to theology and practical implications of the doctrine for the believer's life. And if you want to dig deeper on anything, Carson's footnotes are a great place to start.
7. The Killer Angels- Michael Shaara
I grew up watching the movie Gettysburg which is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It's cliché to say, but the book is so much better it is not even funny. I felt like I was in the shoes of Longstreet and Chamberlain (the other depictions are good, but you get the feeling that Shaara has more sympathy with these characters than the others). This book reinvigorated my appetite for history in general, and military history in particular.
8. Heidelberg Catechism
I'm not Reformed with a capital R, so there a few quibbles I'd have...but overall, this is a beautiful summation of Christian truth in a Question and Answer format.
Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
9. A Big Gospel in Small Places- Stephen Whitmer
Witmer takes on an issue of pressing importance for me personally: given the bigness of the Gospel need in this world, should Christians bother with small places? His answer: depends on on the Christian. Some are called to the global cities, the culturally strategic places, the places of worldly influence. And some of us are called to Nazareth. The Gospel is for all kinds of people in all kinds of places-or perhaps more accurately, every person in every place. Important or insignificant. Big or small.
10. American Buffalo- Steven Rinella
I'll admit to being a bit of a MeatEater fanboy, and so I thought a family road trip would be a perfect time to listen to Rinella's book on an American Icon, the bison or buffalo. Well, the book is really good, but unless you want to explain his analogies explaining Bison bison sexual organs to your children, pass on the audiobook for the car ride.
11. Zeal Without Burnout- Christopher Ash
This is a brief book. It's not groundbreaking in it's suggestions. But Ash is firm in reminding his readers that they are not God, and God does not expect them to be. So much of ministry burnout is based on our own idolatries of self, productivity, and pleasing people. But this book will call you back to simple obedience within the creaturely constraints which God himself has placed upon us.
12. Jack- Marylinne Robinson
I love all of Marylinne Robinson's novels. To be honest, I think Jack is weaker than the previous body of work, but that says more about the quality of Robinson's previous work than this particular novel. The only quibble is how lost I imagined I'd be if I didn't already have Gilead and Home in my mental furniture. Not sure how the opening 50 pages (probably less than that in a normal copy, our librarian ordered it in large print) of dialog would have landed otherwise.
13. Conservatism- Roger Scruton
In a time when the label conservative can carry an awful lot of baggage, much of which seems quite the opposite of conservative, it was refreshing to read an intellectual history and explanation of that term many hold so dear. A reminder that conservatives seek to conserve, not tear down or burn things. Timely.
14. One Assembly- Jonathan Leeman
An argument that when the New Testament authors (and the Holy Spirit under whose inspiration they wrote) used the word ekklesia, "assembly", to describe the church, they actually meant for assembling to be a constitutive part of the definition of the church. While the church is more than a gathering of people, it cannot, in fact, be less. I found his argument persuasive.
15. No Quick Fix- Andy Naselli
A helpful look at the how sanctification actually takes place in the life of a believer, countering the "let go and let God" ideas which were/are articulated in Keswick theology, and carry popularly into much of modern evangelicalism.
16. Tess of the Deurbervilles- Thomas Hardy
I'd never read any Thomas Hardy...and while this is definitely not my "kind" of book, I did enjoy it. Thoroughly. Enough to give it some space in the top 16. Like all good fiction, it made me think.
Books I Enjoyed, But Not As Much as the Top Tier...roughly in order of enjoyment
Hank the Cowdog, John Erickson; If you have kids and aren't reading Hank the Cowdog to them, what are you doing with your life?
The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb, Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel
Weakness is the Way, JI Packer
The Gospel of John, James Boice; Brilliant collection of sermons!
The Last of the Mountain Men, Harold Peterson
Mom Enough, Ed. Tony Reinke
The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan
Visit the Sick, Brian Croft
Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger
Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Ulysses S. Grant
Forgotten Church, Glenn Daman
Right Color, Wrong Culture, Bryan Loritts
The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, Ernest Hemingway
Church Elders, Jeramie Rinne
Comfort the Grieving, Paul Tautges
John, Carl Laney
The Trumpet of the Swan, EB White
Servant of All, Richard Enlow
Doubtless, Shelby Abbott
Poirot and Me, David Suchet
Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah
The Fellowship of the Ring, JRR Tolkien
What Did You Expect? Paul Tripp
Coronavirus and Christ, John Piper
Spirits in Bondage, CS Lewis
Charlotte's Webb, EB White
Alexander Hamilton, Charles Conant
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Books I also read:
The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Take My Heart and Make it Break, Steve Shanks
Hokahey!, Richard Hardoff
Why Social Justice is not Biblical Justice, Scott David Allen
January 13, 2021
Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds by Jen Wilkin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My wife's bible study group is going through this book, so I thought I'd read it. It's very good. An excellent apology for and introduction to studying the scriptures which could easily be repackaged for a male audience.
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January 11, 2021
"Church leader, are you as interested in promoting the kingdom of Christ as you are your own church's program?
Getting catholic and working with other churches means making sacrifices and losing control."
Jonathan Leeman, One Assembly, pg 107
January 09, 2021
I'm working on a sermon for this coming Sunday out of 1 Samuel 15. I did an overview last week of chapters 13-15, focusing on what I take to be the main point: Saul's descent, highlighted by repeated failures to obey the voice of the Lord. So the thrust of the sermon, then, was that you and I are to take Saul as a warning, that failure to obey God altogether, or even to "obey" on our own terms, is a dangerous course to take. The end of that way is death.
Instead we are to see that obedience is better than sacrifice. To listen to God's voice is better than the fat of rams. There is no act of service or outward penitence or sacrifice which replaces the simple, humble, heart posture of obedient service. Listen, obey. Hear, do.
But how can we be sure this will pay off in the long run? Why is it worth it to bear fruit in keeping with repentance? Can we actually trust God to reward those who diligently seek him (Hebrews 11)?
The emotional importance of this question for the believer is, in my estimate, hard to overstate. And it's the question I'm grappling with again in 1 Samuel 15, wherein we are told twice that God regretted making Saul king (v11, v35) but in between those two statements, we hear from Samuel, God's authorized spokesperson in the story, telling us that [God] the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret." Well. Which is it? Is the narrator wrong about God, or is Samuel? Or are we supposed to read both statements as true, and attempt to figure out how they complement one another?
Unless we take the Bible to be the work of some very incompetent and uninspired writers, I think option 3 is what we must work with. I once heard Kevin Deyoung say something to the effect of, "here is an important hermeneutical principal: the Biblical authors were not stupid." The author understands his perspective on God to be correct, yet there is nothing in the narrative which would cause us to question Samuel, either. The writer wants this tension to sit with us and force us to contemplate who God is, what he is like, and how that impacts our relationship to him.
I think the direct statement which Samuel gives us in 1 Samuel 15:29 (quoted above) is the normative position of Scripture. God is God, he is transcendent, qualitatively different from us, and unchanging in his character and will. This truth, God's unchangeableness, is known doctrinally as God's impassibility and his immutability. These doctrines state, respectively, that God is not overcome by any passion, nor does he change. And we can see the cash value in this as sinful creatures, right? The fact that God is not overcome by any emotion is why he does not simply pull a Zeus and start breaking things when he gets angry. And by breaking things, for us that would mean casting us into hell. God's impassibility is in a sense a conditional necessity for the kind of patience he displays, seen in 1 Samuel 15 in the order to wipe out the Amalekites for crimes they began committing hundreds of years beforehand. Talk about ample time for repentance! More to the point for believers, Romans 3 tells us that God passed over all the "former sins" committed during the sacrificial era, in anticipation of a sacrifice (Christ) which was actually effective in assuaging his wrath.
But what, then, do we make of regret? Dale Ralph Davis notes in his commentary on 1 Samuel that, although nuances vary across the 29 times the Hebrew word for "regret" in reference to God in the OT, it never seems to lose some aspect of emotion. God's action in history seem to be making a turn. But has God changed? Hardly! We might note that in this chapter God gave Saul an instruction, which Saul failed to obey. The change, the fall, the shortcoming is on Saul's part, not God's. God's actions change toward Saul as a result of God's unchanging nature.
But you might then postulate that perhaps God's character remains the same, while his will changes. But in addition to that flying in the face of Scripture (eg, Eph 1:11...indeed, Michael Horton notes in his Pilgrim Theology that we have more evidence in Scripture affirming God's unchanging will than his unchanging character), it also is simply unnecessary. God's will has not changed, ever. But his relationship with human beings is always dynamic, and he does indeed respond to human action. Not as one who is passively receiving that action without the ability to change it (contra modern notions of free will), but as one who is allowing, as it suits his purposes, fallen creatures to make decisions and take action. God has the sovereign right, and providential power, to turn the heart of any man, including kings (Proverbs 21:1). Nonetheless, in his wisdom, he allows us as his creatures to make decisions for which there are real and often eternal consequences. We never act upon God, Saul's disobedience to God does not create some lack or deprivation in God because Saul failed to carry out an order. But we act in relation to him, and his instructions require obedience on our part.
And here, I think, is where the emotional piece comes in. God takes no pleasure in our disobedience, though he allows it. Further, though some would say he must allow it, we know this is not true (see Genesis 20:6). God can and often does prevent and restrain sin. Indeed, we know that for anyone to trust Christ and be saved God must sovereignly act upon them, sending his Holy Spirit to cause a New Birth giving new spiritual eyes and new hearts (John 3, Ezekiel 36, 2 Corinthians 4). So what we must have a category for is a God who allow things which cause him some emotional sense of regret. Saul has disobeyed God. This has not left God scratching his head, wondering what to do. He has known from before the foundation of the earth that Saul would do so, and even in Genesis we read that the King to come will be of Judah's line, not Benjamin's. But God cares about Saul, and God is not pleased when Saul blows this opportunity to obey. Ezekiel 33:11 reminds us that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. While Saul has, in this chapter, entered upon a trajectory leading to his death by the end of the book, God isn't doing happy dances that now it's time for David. He regrets.
It's not the same as our regret, for God it utterly unlike us. But it must have enough similarity that the Biblical author finds it the appropriate word. But is sad over sin. It's a sadness that ultimately leads to sending his Son to put things right.
January 06, 2021
Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples by Michael S. Horton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I love reading Horton. I'm not reformed (at least not in the legitimate, Westminster/Dordt, fashion), so I often differ with him. But he writes with a clarity and beauty of expression that is often missing in modern theology.
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