A Short, Yet Serious Series

Count me among the many Christians who find unique inspiration from biographies. Maybe it’s because we are imitators by nature. As image bearers, we reflect the character and nature of Him who created us (Gen. 1:27). God also commands us to imitate the apostles’ example (1 Cor. 11:1) and the model of any who keeps to their pattern (Phil. 3:20). In his book, Discipling, Mark Dever says, “Discipling is inviting [others] to imitate you, making your trust in Christ an example to be followed. It requires you to be willing to be watched, and then folding people into your life so that they actually do watch . . . All of us, in turn, should be able to say to the other Christians in our lives, as Paul did, ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.’ Maybe this is why Christian biographies are so useful.”

A Wonderful Place to Start

One reason why many faithful Christians struggle to profit from Christian biographies is that the best ones are typically long, some even very long. Does Arnold Dallimore’s magisterial work on George Whitefield ring a bell?

Evangelical Press has thus done us a favor with their “Bitesize Biography” series, which flies too far under the radar. I’d love to see every Christian and church profit from these volumes. Each entry is compact, yet full of impact for our faith and life. EP has put out twenty-seven (!) volumes so far, many focus on famous figures and many highlight lesser known paragons. Click on any of the titles below to get your copy. Tolle lege!

 

Some Help on Teaching Theology

A few years ago, I listened to a panel discussion in which someone asked Joel Beeke, “If you could take one set of books with you to a deserted island, what would you choose?” He said, without hesitation, “The Christian’s Reasonable Service by Wilhelmus à Brakel.” And I asked myself, “What? By whom?”

Beeke’s subsequent explanation convinced me I should buy the four-volume set. I then worked through all four volumes in a year, reading seven pages a day. I found myself enjoying—dare I say it—The Christian’s Reasonable Service even more than Calvin’s Institutes. Calvin’s work is gloriously devotional; à Brakel improves on Calvin with his relentlessly warm application.

A Devotional Doctrine of Scripture

I remembered à Brakel’s skill in heart-searching application earlier this week as I prepared to teach a Sunday School class on the doctrine of Scripture. I glanced around the study and grabbed the usual Reformed suspects I dialogue with when preparing a lecture: Calvin, Dabney, Hodge, Bavinck, Vos, and Murray. I find these men leading me to drink at theology’s deep wells. But they don’t always invite you to jump in and swim. The Christian’s Reasonable Service, however, always summons you to a deep theological and doxological dive.

For example, in his chapter, “The Word of God,” à Brakel concludes by talking about six obligations we have to Scripture. For two and a half pages he cries out, “Oh, delight in God’s word! Read it ‘in prosperity, adversity, darkness, seasons of doubt, times of perplexity, and your entire walk.'” To ensure we do this well he rounds out his exhortation with several pages of “Guidelines for the Profitable Reading of Scripture.” In order to see how useful à Brakel is, here are his five encouragements for reflecting on Scripture.

The reflection upon reading Scripture consists in”

  1. joyfully giving thanks that the Lord has permitted His Word to be recorded, that we may have it in our homes, that we can and were privileged to read it, and that it was applied to our heart;
  2. painstakingly striving to preserve this good spiritual frame which is obtained by reading God’s word;
  3. meditating while engaged in one’s occupation upon that which one has read, repeatedly seeking to focus his thought upon it;
  4. sharing with others what was read, whenever possible, and discussing it;
  5. especially striving to comply with what was read by bringing it into practice.

He then writes, “If the Holy Scriptures were used in such a fashion, what wondrous progress we would make in both knowledge and godliness! Children would soon become young men, and young men would soon become men in Jesus Christ.”

Doctrine that Lives

There’s something compelling to me in à Brakel. His a model of teaching worthy of emulation, I think. Each volume shows us what it means, as teachers, to be alive to God’s truth when teaching God’s truth. Let our doctrinal instruction pulse with Christ-exalting piety. Faithfully instructing others in the living word (Heb. 4:12) means teaching in a way that students, peers, and church members feel something of our flame of devotion. Wilhelmus à Brakel will help us all.

If you need any more encouragement to take up and read, consider Derek Thomas’ gushing praise:

No systematic theology compares to Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service for its explicit concern to weld the objective and subjective in theology. Emerging from the Dutch Further Reformation, à Brakel is without equal in exploring both the intricate details of the Reformed theological system whilst ensuring that at every turn theology is done in the interests of piety and the glory of God. In an era when the subjective has either been lost in a sea of postmodernity or viewed with suspicion for its apparent lack of academic integrity, only those who have never read this monumental treatise would dismiss it as guilty of either. An achievement to place alongside Calvin’s Institutes and the systematic theologies of Turretin, Hodge, and Berkhof.

You can grab a set at WTS or RHB.

A (Short) Bibliography on Covenant Baptism

Baptism copy

I’ve received many questions about my theological pilgrimage from “Believer’s Baptism” (credobaptism) to “Covenant Baptism” (paedobaptism). But the most common has been: “What book changed your mind?”

I’m always tempted to say, “The Bible,” because my move across the confessional waters is indeed one of sola Scripture. God’s word alone gave—and continues to give—authoritative instruction on baptism. But, it would be wrong to say the journey was one of solo Scriptura. None of us exist in such a vacuum. God places His people in the church to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. He gives us teachers to guide us into and friends to help us hear the truth.

Many conversation partners joined me along the paedobaptist path. There were professors, mentors, fellow pastors, and ordinary church members. I also had a study full of books, many on the sacraments. I read every one I own on each position.

Maybe you are on a similar search for truth, or maybe you want simply to understand the covenant baptism position better. Here’s a short bibliography of what I think are the most helpful books representing the Reformed paedobaptist position.

Beginner

9781601781178Beeke, Joel R. Bringing the Gospel to Covenant Children. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2010.

Christian parents need to see that their children are in the covenant. They should also understand that baptism is only the start of covenantal parenting. There’s much work to do. Beeke’s little book gives wise counsel for Spirit-dependent, earnestly-evangelistic leadership of covenant kids.

1596380586Chapell, Bryan. Why Do We Baptize Infants? Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2006.

Chapell’s booklet is most useful for those unaware of the reasons why a Reformed church would baptize covenant children. Incredibly pastoral.

9781935369127Hyde, Daniel R. Jesus Loves the Little Children: Why We Baptize Children. Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2006.

An excellent and accessible defense of why Reformed churches baptize children.

087552429XSartelle, John P. Infant Baptism: What Christian Parents Should Know. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1985.

Sartelle’s booklet is similar to Chapell’s, but it a bit more rigorous in its theology.

Intermediate

9781596382183Chaney, J. M, and Ronald Evans. William the Baptist: A Classic Story of a Man’s Journey to Understand Baptism. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2011.

I’m amazed so few mention Cheney’s work. Sure, he downplays the reality of baptism signifying union with Christ, but he’s useful on virtually every other matter. The greatest value in the book, however, is its format. William the Baptist is basically a novel, saturated with pastoral dialogue, about one 19th-century man’s path into confessing covenant baptism.

9781601782826Fesko, J. V. Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010.

If you are looking for a “One Stop Shop on Covenant Baptism,” this is it. Fesko deftly works through the historical, biblical, and theological issues.

0875523439Murray, John. Christian Baptism. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1980.

The book short, but dense. Murray’s skill as an exegete shines through on every page.

Advanced

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Jeremias, Joachim. Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960.

Jeremias’ goal is to “lay before the reader the historical material relating to the history of infant baptism in the first four centuries in as concrete and sober a manner as possible.” His study of the extra-Biblical evidence around the early church shows the historical rootedness of covenant baptism. He also makes valuable conclusions related to the issues of household baptisms and corporate solidarity.

MARCEBAPTIMarcel, Pierre Charles, trans. Philip E. Hughes. The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism: Sacrament of the Covenant of Grace. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002.

When it comes to the subject of baptism, Marcel’s work is one every scholar must consider. Not many of us are scholars, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can profit from his teaching.

If you want a longer bibliography that lists representative paedobaptist and credobaptist books, try this.

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In Praise of Fussy Preaching

Yesterday, Stuart Olyott gave a useful answer to the question, “What is preaching?” I want to provide one more excerpt from his book Preaching: Pure and Simple. I hope it excites your interest enough to buy the book—it’s sound, simple, and satisfying.

41ZqPN9ZkLL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Sermons Need Clear Structure

Plain sermons are the best sermons. And plainness depends, to a large degree, on how easy the sermon is to follow and remember. So, what is one of plain preaching’s best friends? Olyott responds, “Our sermons will be both easy to follow and easy to remember if they always have a clear structure.” He then writes,

Preachers who love their people are fussy about the structure of their sermons. They know that the most ordinary person will never lose their way, as long as the sermon has unity, order and proportion. Unity means that the message holds together; it is not made up of several disconnected sermonettes. Order means that the sermon is made of distinct ideas which follow each other in a logical chain that leads up to a climax. Proportion means that each idea is given its proper place; unimportant things are not magnified, and important things are not played down. The worst preacher on earth will improve immediately if he remembers these three words.

Might your next sermon need some of this good ol’ fussiness?

What is Preaching?

6219394930_2580c323aa_bI’ve always found Stuart Olyott to be an underrated servant and preacher. When I preached through Mark’s gospel, few expositions I listed to were as consistently edifying as Olyott’s. He is bold, pithy, and direct—in the best way possible.

His book, Preaching: Pure and Simple, begins by mining the New Testament for instruction on what preaching is. Olyott shows, as he should, that biblical preaching involves four ideas represented by four Greek words.

Preaching Is . . .

  1. Heralding a message given by the King (kerusso): this tells us about the source of the message and the authority with which it comes.
  2. Announcing good news (euangelizo): this tells us about the quality of the message and the spirit in which it is given.
  3. Bearing witness to facts (martureo): this tells us about the nature of the message and the basis on which it is constructed.
  4. Spelling out the implications of the message (didasko): this tells us about the target of the message (the hearer’s conscience) and the measure of its success (did it change anyone’s life?).

He then concludes, “Until we are clear about this, we shall never really preach at all.”

2 Things Necessary

“There are two things which I have always judged chiefly requisite in a pastor, as he standeth related to his people—viz., labour and love. The former is a work of the head, the latter of the heart: faithful labour will speak his love, and sincere love will sweeten his labour. Labour without love is unacceptable to God; as a sweet perfume without fire, it cannot send forth its pleasant, fragrant savour. Love without labour is unprofitable to men; like Rachel, it is beautiful, but barren; both together—as soul and body are the essential parts of a man—are the whole of a minister.” — The Works of George Swinnock, 4:53.

M’Cheyne’s Favorite Book on Pastoral Ministry

9780851510873I’ve said before that Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry is the best book available on pastoral ministry. I believe no other work can compare in substance, depth, and conviction.

It thus smiled when I read a letter from M’Cheyne to Andrew Bonar during preparations for the Church’s “Mission of Inquiry to the Jews.” M’Cheyne starts by urging Bonar to join the team. Eventually M’Cheyne comes to ponder aloud what books he should bring on the trip. He says, “As to books, I am quite at a loss.” But he was certain as to a few essentials:

My Hebrew Bible, Greek Testament, etc., and perhaps Bridge’s (sic) Christian Ministry for general purposes,—I mean, for keeping us in mind of our ministerial work.”

I think he’s exactly right. If you have your Bible and The Christian Ministry always within reach, you’ll find fresh fire for faithful ministry.

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An Underrated Trilogy

A few weeks ago I was at a pastors’ conference sponsored by Reformation Heritage Books. One of the free giveaways was James Garretson’s excellent volume on Samuel Miller and pastoral ministry. After the session, I talked to numerous men who hadn’t heard of the book, let alone read it.

My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

Usefully and Diligently

For some years now, Garretson has quietly assembled an arsenal of work on pastoral ministry in the tradition of Old Princeton. He’s edited two volumes of various material from the Princeton men on Christian ministry. He’s also put together a collection of funeral sermons, memorial addresses, and magazine articles, honoring the labors of Princeton’s leading faculty.

In my view, his best work comes to us in three different books that each unveil one Princetonian’s teaching on gospel ministry. A feast awaits any hungry pastor. The Princeton men gave us a model of what pious, learned ministry looks like—and can achieve for Christ. Don’t let these volumes go unnoticed, brother pastor. Tolle lege!

0851518931Princeton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander and the Christian Ministry. How does one know whether God is calling a man to the pastoral ministry? Are we aware of the moral, intellectual, and physical qualifications needed for the Christian ministry? What are the best methods of sermon preparation and should the preacher pay as much attention to preparing his own heart as to preparing the message he is to preach? On what kinds of subjects should a pastor preach, and how should such preaching be done? What is really involved in being a shepherd of Christ’s flock? Do we know what kinds of discouragements and encouragements face the pastor in his ministry?

These are some of the issues this book addresses. Dr. James Garretson has drawn together wise, practical, and relevant insights into the call, qualifications, and work of the Christian pastor from the extant lecture notes of one of Princeton’s best loved and most respected teachers, Dr. Archibald Alexander. As you read this book you will feel as if you were sitting at the feet of this ‘first-class theologian, mentor and minister of the gospel’, alongside the many students of ‘Old Princeton’ whose lives and future ministries were moulded by Alexander’s inspiring classroom instruction. You will also discover to your lasting profit that Alexander’s wise counsel on pastoral theology, drawn as it was from the ever-fresh spring of Holy Scripture, remains of continuing value for today’s preachers who seek to walk in the sound and fruitful paths of their godly forefathers.

9781601782984An Able and Faithful Ministry: Samuel Miller and the Pastoral Office. Samuel Miller (1769–1850) played an integral part in founding Princeton Theological Seminary, which became one of the most influential training grounds for Presbyterian ministers in the nineteenth century. While Miller is most commonly remembered for his writings on church office, he also played a significant role instructing students and shaping their theology of preaching and pastoral ministry. In the present volume, Jim Garretson highlights the narrative of Miller’s life and the major ministerial emphases found in his published writings, sermons, and unpublished lecture notes. As a result, readers will come to know the spiritual convictions of Miller’s heart and understand the theology of ministry he imparted over the course of his lifetime.

9781601784131Thoughts on Preaching and Pastoral Ministry: Lessons from the Life and Writings of James W. Alexander. In Thoughts on Preaching and Pastoral Ministry, James M. Garretson provides a detailed narrative of James W. Alexander’s life in order to better understand his approach to gospel labors. Garretson draws deeply from Alexander’s correspondence, tracking the spiritual development of his life as it shaped his practice of pastoral ministry. In addition, assessments of Alexander’s sermons, books, and especially reviews provide valuable personal statements that shed light on his character and convictions. Throughout, Alexander is allowed to speak for himself so that the reader may enter into the spiritual pulse that animated his life and actions. Bracing, heartening, and at times frustrating, Alexander’s growth as a Christian and development as a minister is the story of a man subdued by God’s grace and a life marked by a growing conformity to the likeness of Christ. For those whose privilege it is to serve as ministers of the gospel, Alexander’s life and instruction provide inspiration and wisdom for how to do pastoral ministry well and with all of one’s heart.

If you want to listen to Garretson speak on Princeton and pastoral ministry, try this message from the 2012 Conference at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Book Recommendation: On Pastoral Ministry

A couple of weeks ago I came across John Henry Jowett’s 1912 Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale University entitled, “The Preacher: His Life and Work.” What a work! Jowett’s exhortations on the ministry are some of the more exhilarating ones I’ve read in some time.

Behind the Message, There Was a Man

blrudgbgkkgrhgookjqejllmvowobjikfzeqq_35After hearing the great Dr. Fairbairn preach, Jowett told his students at Airedale College, “Gentlemen, I will tell you what I have observed this morning: behind that sermon there was a man.” Although The Preacher provides scant autobiographical information, I had the same sense in reading Jowett’s work—there was a weight in its message.

Jowett was born in 1863 in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Like many great ministers before him, Jowett initially resolved to study law. God soon called him into the gospel ministry. He went on to train at Edinburgh and Oxford before assuming his first pastoral position at St. James Church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The church held over 1,000 seats, and none were empty during Jowett’s ministry.

In 1911 he became the pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. John Bishop says,

The church was crowded long before the hour of Jowett’s first service. Reporters crowded the side galleries, expecting to find a sensational preacher with dazzling oratory and catchy sermon topics on current events. Instead they found a shy, quiet little man, bald-headed and with a cropped white moustache, who spoke in a calm, simple manner.

He was at Fifth Avenue when he delivered the Lyman Beecher lectures on a pastor’s life and ministry. He stayed in New York until 1918 when we was called to succeed G. Campbell Morgan at Westminster Chapel in London. It was his last pastoral post, as he died in 1923.

Pithy and Practical

The Preacher contains seven different lectures: 1) The Call to Be a Preacher, 2) The Perils of the Preacher, 3) The Preacher’s Themes, 4) The Preacher in His Study, 5) The Preacher in His Pulpit, 6) The Preacher in the Home, and 7) The Preacher as a Man of Affairs. If you read anything in the book, read lectures 2, 4, and 5. Here are a few appetizers for you to meditate on:

  • “We may become so absorbed in words (of preaching) that we forget to eat the Word.” (42)
  • “We may become more intent on full pews than on redeemed souls.” (54)
  • Worldliness will cause “our characters to lose their spirituality. we shall lack that fine fragrance which makes people know that we dwell in ‘the King’s gardens.’ There will be know ‘heavenly air’ about our spirits.” (55)
  • Worldliness will cause us to be “wordy, but not mighty. we are eloquent, but we do not persuade. We are reasonable, but we do not convince. We preach much, but accomplish little. We teach, but do not woo.” (57)
  • If the gospel “is to be the weighty matter of our preaching, we surely ought to be most seriously careful how we proclaim it. The matter may be bruised and spoiled by the manner. The work of grace may be marred by our own ungraciousness.” (101)
  • “Happy-go-lucky sermons will lay no necessity upon the reason nor put any constraint upon the heart. Preaching that costs nothing accomplishes nothing.” (114)
  • “Here (in private prayer), more than anything else, our secret life will determine our public power.” (158)
  • “Men never learn to pray in public: they learn in private. We cannot put off our private habits and assume public ones with our pulpit robes.” (159)
  • “If men are unmoved by our prayers they are not likely to be profoundly stirred by our preaching.” (159)

Where to Find It

You can find reasonably priced reprints of Jowett’s book on Amazon. If you don’t want to spend money from your book budget, you can read it for free on Archive.com or Google Books.

Tolle lege!

Favorite Books of 2016

It looks like I’ll cross the 200 number for “Books Read in 2016.” I thought whittling down my list to a select few would be unusually difficult. This year, however, it came easily. I was able to read precious few titles published in the last twelve months. Most of my readings were for doctoral/dissertation studies, which means the vast majority of the books I read were published at least 150 years ago. So, this year’s list doesn’t have as many titles as usual. I pray nonetheless they will be of help to you.

My criteria for favorite books remains the same:

  1. Does this book have a special benefit to ordinary pastors?
  2. Is this a book worth rereading every year?

Five books I read answered those two questions with a resounding, “Yes!” Here they are, with a bonus title at the end.

Favorite Books for Ordinary Pastors Published in 2016

9781784980214m#5—Zeal Without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice by Christopher Ash. By God’s grace, pastoral burnout is not something I’ve experienced. But it’s a constant threat. I’ve longed considered Ash to be always worth reading and Zeal Without Burnout doesn’t disappoint. While I would have enjoyed reflection on what we can learn about battling burnout from Jesus’ life, Ash remains theologically and pastorally adept. An added benefit is that you can read this book in one short sitting. I’d encourage every pastor to make a resolution to read Zeal Without Burnout the first week of each new year.

9781433551222m#4—Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus by Mark Dever. Mark Dever is the most dedicated and fruitful discipler I know. This contribution to 9Marks’ valuable Building Healthy Churches series distils Dever’s wisdom into a one-stop-discipleship shop. What I appreciate about Dever’s approach is how he extols making discipling a natural part of your life in Christ. Here you don’t find a delineated program or ten-step guide for conforming others to Christ. Rather, you get simple encouragement and biblical truth to shape for your context. Pastors will particularly enjoy the chapter, “Raising Up Leaders.”

9781433550515m#3—Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer: In Our Homes, Communities, and Churches by Meghan Hill. This book sat on my shelf for several months before I finally cracked its pages. What a book! To say I read it would be an understatement—I delightfully devoured it. I found Hill to be useful in all kinds of areas, but what challenged me most was her counsel on a church’s corporate prayer and the family’s regular prayers. Simply put, Praying Together is one of the most stirring books on prayer I’ve yet read.

devoted7a-810x1280#2—Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification by Sinclair Ferguson. Ferguson remains wonderfully prolific. I’ve seen many put his other 2016 publication, The Whole Christ, on their “Best Of” lists—and rightfully so. I just think Devoted to God is even better. It has all the classic qualities of Ferguson’s ministry: deeply exegetical, winsomely Reformed, and continually insightful. I’ve usually said, “If you can only read one book on sanctification, read Ryle’s Holiness.” I now may say, “Read Devoted to God.” I thank God for Ferguson’s service to Christ’s church.

9781433553479m#1—ESV Reader’s Bible. Add my name to the large list of individuals praising Crossway’s work on the Reader’s Bible. I held off on buying the six-volume set, partly because of its cost, and partly because I thought, “Surely it can’t be as momentous as many are saying it is?” I eventually took the plunge and am here to say, “Take this year’s Christmas money and buy a Reader’s Bible.” I find its benefit hard to put into words. The paper, font, and sensory experience make this a Bible reading experience unlike what I’ve had. Maybe that’s just it—my Bible reading felt fresh. Who wouldn’t be eager for such an encounter with God’s word?

Favorite Book for Ordinary Pastors Not Published in 2016

74154Homiletics and Pastoral Theology by W.G.T. Shedd. Each year I come across an old work on pastoral theology/ministry and think, “Why hasn’t anyone recommended this to me before?” Shedd’s masterpiece did that for me several months ago. Shedd served as a Professor of English Literature for part of his academic career. Literary and rhetorical skill shine through on each page (hence why Wilson can ransack the book for pithiness). This brother knows what style is and teaches us how to preach it. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget his teaching, “The fundamental properties of good discourse are as distinct and distinguishable as those of matter. Many secondary qualities enter into it, but its primary and indispensable characteristics are reducible to three: plainness, force, and beauty.” Feast away my preacher friend. Feast away.

Click here to see my Favorite Books of 2013, 2014 and 2015.