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.

15 Principles for More Glorious Worship

Worship God

I’ve intended to read Ross’ work for several years. How I wish it didn’t take a doctoral seminar to make me finally do so! Recalling the Hope of Glory is a biblical/theological train running at full steam—and every Christian would do well to jump on. Pastors and “worship leaders” in particular need to read Ross’ study. It’s now replaced Cosper’s (still) excellent Rhythms of Grace on my list of “3 Books Every Pastor Should Read on Worship.

Essential Principles for Developing the Worship of God

416jwtqigol-_sx331_bo1204203200_Ross’ final chapter in the book is, “Basic Principles for More Glorious Worship.” He writes, “The church . . . must always be discovering more meaningful and more glorious ways to worship God, for worship is essential to the spiritual life” (503). Now, if you read that statement out of context, your worship can get whacky real fast. Ross doesn’t mean for us to discover new ways of worshiping God wherever we want. He means for us to labor ad fontes—to return to God’s word to uncover more glory for our worship. He models this practice by giving fifteen final applications. I pray it will whet your spiritual appetite to devour this book.

  1. The revelation of the exalted Lord God in glory inspires glorious worship and fills us with the hope of glory.
  2. The evidence of the Lord’s presence makes worship a holy convocation in a holy place that calls for holiness.
  3. Sacrifice is at the center of worship as the basis and expression of it.
  4. Sound biblical proclamation informs all worshipful acts.
  5. The ministry of the Word, an act of worship itself, is the key to coherent, corporate worship.
  6. Individual public praise and thanksgiving is the evidence of the spiritual life that is alive in the church.
  7. Singing, chanting, playing musical instruments, and dancing are done to the glory of God are a part of the praise of the people of God.
  8. Worship is the response of the people to the divine revelation.
  9. Worship prompts moral and ethical acts.
  10. Great festivals preserve the heritage of the faith, unite believers, and gather resources for greater worship and service.
  11. The household of faith preserves the purity and integrity of worship.
  12. Worship possesses a balance of form and spirit.
  13. Worship is eschatological.
  14. Prayer enables all the acts of worship to achieve what God intended.
  15. Worship transcends time and space.

Letters for the Soul

rutherford-samuel1One of technology’s saddest effects is its contribution to the virtual disappearance of letter writing. Today’s correspondence (via email, text, or the like) tends to be an ephemeral exercise. Most of it floats around in the cloud, never to come back down again. When we die we won’t leave behind a stash of letters to edify the coming generations. Thus, we have to turn to the old saints.

And no letters are better to read than Samuel Rutherford’s.

Nearly Inspired

Consider what others said about Rutherford’s work:

  • “In Scottish homes for some two centuries the most widely read devotional classic, apart from the Bible, was Rutherford’s Letters.” — Stuart Louden
  • “But for that book of letters, hold off the Bible, such a book the world never saw the like!” — Richard Baxter
  • “These letters have been generally admired by all the children of God for the vein of piety, trust in God and holy zeal which runs through them.” — John Wesley
  • “When we are dead and gone let the world know that Spurgeon held Rutherford’s Letters to be the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of men.” — C.H. Spurgeon

Their Content

In Meet the Puritans Beeke and Gleason offer this overview:

Most of Rutherford’s letters (220 of 365) were written while he was in exile in Aberdeen. The letters beautifully harmonize Reformed doctrine and the spiritual experiences of the believer. Six topics dominate the letters: (1) Rutherford’s love to and desire for Christ (“I would desire no more for my heaven beneath the moon, while I am sighing in this house of clay, but daily renewed feasts of love with Christ,” he wrote); (2) his deep sense of the heinousness of sin (he spoke often of his own “abominable vileness”: “Only my loathsome wretchedness and my wants have qualified me for Christ!”); (3) his devoted concern for the cause of Christ (to David Dickson he wrote on May 1, 1637, “My sorrow is that I cannot get Christ lifted off the dust in Scotland, and set on high, above all the skies, and heaven of heavens”); (4) his profound sympathy for burdened and troubled souls (to one troubled saint, he wrote, “Our crosses are like puffs of wind to blow our ship home; they convey us to heaven’s gate, but they cannot follow it into heaven”); (5) his profound love for his flock (he wrote to Anwoth on July 13, 1632, “My witness is above; your heaven would be two heavens to me, and your salvation two salvations”); and (6) his ardent longings for heaven (“Oh, how long is it to the dawning of the marriage day! O sweet Jesus, take wide steps! O my Lord, come over the mountain at one stride”).

Where to Begin

If you can afford it, grab the full set of letters published by Banner of Truth. Another option is to grab the shorter volume Banner puts out, which is a selection of just under 200 pages.

Once you have the book in hand, set it on your nightstand. Read one or two letters a night before bed. You can also read the letters devotionally. After morning prayer and study of God’s word, read one letter a day. Andrew Bonar’s edition of The Letters contained 365 notes for this reason.

Rutherford can be bleak—he lived in tumultuous times. But the Sun of Righteousness swallows up the affliction and suffering. As Rutherford said, “Be greedy of grace.” I do believe these letters will cultivate such hunger.

Tolle lege!

Book to Look For: On Sanctification

I consider Sinclair Ferguson the greatest living guide for pilgrims on the way to heaven—at least when it comes to biblical/theological books. His publishing output is broad and comprehensive. Rarely does a year go by without another contribution from the Scotsman. In late October he’ll published Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification. It surely will be a candidate for book of the year.

devoted7a-810x1280According to the Trust

The Banner writes:

Christians are transformed by the renewing of their minds. They understand that in large measure how they think about the gospel will determine how they will live for God’s glory. They learn to allow the word of God to do its own work, informing and influencing the way they think in order to shape the way they live.

In a series of Scripture-enriched chapters Sinclair B. Ferguson’s Devoted to God works out this principle in detail. It provides what he describes as ‘blueprints for sanctification’—an orderly exposition of central New Testament passages on holiness. Devoted to God thus builds a strong and reliable structural framework for practical Christian living. It stresses the foundational importance of fundamental issues such as union with Christ, the rhythms of spiritual growth, the reality of spiritual conflict, and the role of God’s law. Here is a fresh approach to an always relevant subject, and a working manual to which the Christian can turn again and again for biblical instruction and spiritual direction.

According to Ferguson

Here’s what Ferguson himself had to say about the book in an interview with Fred Zaspel:

Zaspel:
Do you have any new books in the works that we can expect?

Ferguson:
Thank you for asking, Fred. The Lord willing, yes. The next one is entitled Devoted to God, and is a treatment of sanctification. I realize there are excellent books on the theme of holiness (Walter Marshall’s classic, Ryle’s great work, and more recently Kevin de Young has written on the subject)—so obviously one needs to “justify” writing another one. The subtitle is Blueprints for Sanctification and the book begins with a somewhat different “take” on what “holiness” means. If there is a distinctive feature that justifies another book on the theme (can we have too many?) it probably lies in the approach. I have tried to focus on a selection of central New Testament passages that provide the groundwork for sanctification (“blueprints”) and work through them in a progressive and cumulative way. If readers know George Smeaton’s two great classic volumes on the atonement, Devoted to God is a kind of more modest (and doubtless very inferior!) attempt to do something similar with sanctification. In harmony with the principles of our Lord’s prayer in John 17 that sanctification takes place through his word, my aim has been to draw the blueprints for sanctification from within both the context and the atmosphere of the text of Scripture itself. I think the book is due out by the Summer of this year.

Tolle lege!

Real Leadership

9781433551222mOne of the most useful books I’ve read so far in 2016 is Mark Dever’s Discipling: How to Help Other Follow Jesus.

The final chapter offers nine basic steps to raising up church leaders. Tucked away in Step #6 (“Give Feedback”) is a sagacious point no pastor should miss—especially young pastors like me. Dever writes,

So many times I’ve seen men, particularly younger guys, act as if real leadership is shown in correcting others. That’s why young men’s sermons often scold. What they haven’t figured out is that you can often accomplish more by encouragement. There are times to scold. But 80 to 90 percent of what you hope to correct can be accomplished through encouragement.

As another pastor often says, “You can’t say, ‘Amen,’ if you don’t also say, ‘Ouch.'”

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Resources for Preaching the 10 Commandments

10 Commandments Podcast

Sometime back in 2014 I decided we’d spend the next few summers at IDC walking through the Pentateuch. It’s impossible to understand the rest of Scripture from the first five books. Also, because they are largely narratives, we wouldn’t need to spend years upon years getting through them.

So, last summer we journeyed through Genesis, largely shaping each sermon around a particular character or patriarch. June 2016 came around, and we began Exodus. The plan was to finish up chapter 40 at the end of September. But God’s Spirit gave me a hitch about that scheme, a hitch that asked, “Why not preach a “series within a series” on the 10 Commandments?”

I may never again preach through Exodus. Did I want to miss out on the opportunity to think carefully about one of the Old Testament’s most important sections?

An Oddly Compelling People

As we lead our little congregation, there are a few things we want to be true about IDC (a praying, disciple-making, welcoming, and singing church). Should God allow these few things to flourish in our lives, we believe a kind of congregational life will arise. You could call this corporate life as being mere faithfulness. But we like to think of it as oddly compelling. We find Scripture instructing God’s people to love the Lord in such a way that the world thinks us odd. But odd need to be off-putting. It seems to us that the biblical view of “odd” is quite compelling. “People will see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven,” Jesus said. Faithful churches are strange to the culture—strangely attractive.

What best summarizes the church’s oddly compelling lifestyle? Those “Ten Words” once written on stone tablets, now written on human hearts.

Recovering a Forgotten Friend

I could be my personal experience, but a special study of the 10 Commandments seems to have disappeared from evangelicalism. The saints of old would give us a good talking to about this. For what were the ordinary tools of catechesis the church used throughout the centuries? The Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and . . . yep . . . the 10 Commandments.

I have many theories on why gospel-preaching churches no longer hold the Stone Tablets’ hands. The fundamental reason surely is the widespread neglect of the Old Testament in most churches. We’ve so rightly divided Scripture that we assume the Old Testament belongs not only to a different age but different people. But even if you’re theologically convinced the Commandments belong to a former age, you can’t deny that they are still instructive—in some way—today (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6, 11).

At least that’s what we believe at IDC. So, Lord willing, on September 11th we will stare at those stony scratches Moses made.

7 Useful Resources

I’m thankful there is a cottage industry of resources on the 10 Commandments. But cottages tend to get crowded. Best friends can thus be hard to find. Here then are some of the most helpful resources I’ve found in my study (with publishers’ description included).

1596380365mHow Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments by Edmund Clowney. For many Christians, conditioned to emphasize our freedom from the law, Jesus’ words seem strange, even incompatible with the gospel of grace. If Jesus did not abolish the law, then how should we look at the Ten Commandments today?

Clowney explains how Jesus intensifies the law and expands its scope to every situation in life. But as the author did so often during his ministry, he goes further, finding Christ in the law and showing how he fulfills it for his people. Thus believers will learn more, not only of God’s character revealed in the law, but also of the gospel with its focus on Christ.

Divided into eleven chapters, each with study questions for reflection and application, this book is an ideal resource for group study and personal growth.

0875522378mTen Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life by Joachim Douma. The Ten Commandments provide “the fundamental pointers we need for our concourse with God and our neighbors,” writes Professor J. Douma in this work. As the subtitle indicates, the Ten Commandments are a manual for the Christian life, relevant to all thought and experience.

In this commentary on the commandments, Douma tackles the difficult yet practical issues of our time with insight, thoroughness, and faithfulness to God’s word. Discussions of the commandments span current issues from religious art to sorcery and witchcraft, from Sunday observance to civil disobedience, from abortion to euthanasia and suicide.

Because the commandments speak to every area of life, this volume lends itself to a wide range of uses. Pastors, professors, counselors, and thoughtful laypeople will gain much wisdom and direction from this careful, up-to-date exposition of the Ten Commandments.

9781601780638mThe Rule of Love: Broken, Fulfilled, and Applied by J.V. Fesko. In The Rule of Love, J. V. Fesko gives an introductory exposition of the Ten Commandments. Beginning with the importance of the prologue, and then addressing each Commandment in turn, he sets forth a balanced and biblical approach that places the law in proper perspective. Throughout the book, Fesko analyzes the historical context of God’s giving the law in order to help us accurately understand the moral demands God places upon humanity.

Yet, Fesko does not stop there; he also discusses the covenantal and redemptive context in which the law was given. Thus, he shows that the law is not presented to us in order for us to present ourselves right before God. Rather, it demonstrates our failure to love God as we should and points us to Christ and His perfect obedience in all that God requires of us. Fesko also shows how Christ applies the commandments to His people by the indwelling power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

This is an excellent survey of the Ten Commandments that promises to bring about a more accurate understanding of the proper uses of the law, as well as engender profound gratitude for all that God is for us in Christ.

080246372XmThe Law of Perfect Freedom: Relating to God and Others Through the Ten Commandments by Michael Horton. The Ten Commandments are not Moses’ bright ideas or simply God’s suggestions; they are God’s categorical requirements. In The Law of Perfect Freedom, Michael Horton weaves theological truth with practical application to help believers live out the Ten Commandments. Understanding how to live out these commandments brings vitality and victory to our walk with God.

9781581349832mKeeping the Ten Commandments by J.I. Packer. They are often mistakenly considered God’s ‘rules’—his outdated list of do’s and don’ts that add up to a guilt-ridden, legalistic way of life. But as beloved author and Bible scholar J. I. Packer probes the purpose and true meaning of the Ten Commandments, readers will gladly discover that these precepts can aptly be called God’s design for the best life possible. They contain the wisdom and priorities anyone needs for relational, spiritual, and societal blessing—and it’s all coming from a loving heavenly Father who wants the best for his children.

Not only does Packer deliver these truths in brief, readable segments, but he includes discussion questions and ideas for further study at the end of each chapter. This book will challenge readers to view the commandments with new eyes and help them to understand—perhaps for the first time—the health, the hope, and the heritage we’re offered there.

0875523757mThe Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses by Vern Poythress. What does the Old Testament have to do with Jesus Christ? Everything.

The first five books of the Old Testament were written centuries before the birth of Jesus. Yet they intricately involve him. Here Vern S. Poythress explores Genesis through Deuteronomy, demonstrating how the sacrifices and traditions of the Hebrews graphically foreshadow Christ’s relationship with his people. Dr. Poythress also explains how the penalties of the law refigure the destruction of sin and guilt through Jesus.

Christ himself is the key that unlocks the riches of the Old Testament. With remarkable clarity and insight, Poythress opens the door to our understanding the law of Moses and its relationship to the gospel.

0851511465mThe Ten Commandments by Thomas Watson. In this book Thomas Watson continues his exposition of the Shorter Catechism drawn up by the Westminster Assembly. Watson was one of the most popular preachers in London during the Puritan era. His writings are characterized by clarity, raciness and spiritual richness. The series of three volumes, of which this is the second, makes an ideal introduction to Puritan literature.

There are few matters about which the Puritans differ more from present-day Christians than in their assessment of the importance of the ten commandments. The commandments, they held, are the first thing in Christianity which the natural man needs to be taught and they should be the daily concern of the Christian to the last.

In The Ten Commandments Watson examines the moral law as a whole as well as bringing out the meaning and force of each particular commandment. In view of the important function of the law in Christian life and evangelism this is a most valuable volume.

And Don’t Forget!

In addition to the books above, every preacher would be wise to consult the Westminster Shorter Catechism for precise commentary and the Heidelberg Catechism for pastoral counsel. They are like perfectly aged, truth-filled wine for the soul. Your heart will be glad.

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Resource of the Year?

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 8.23.32 AMThe study Bible industry is living and active. Rarely does a year go by without a publisher announcing work on or completing the publication of their study Bible.

One of the more recent entries is Reformation Heritage’s KJV Study Bible. Dr. Joel Beeke—the general editor—says,

I think the best features of this study Bible is that it (1) supplies insightful thoughts at the end of each chapter for personal and family worship, so that those leading worship can find quick help; (2) provides the first study Bible ever published in the KJV that is thoroughly grounded in Reformation theology; and (3) contains excellent notes that help you understand the text without doing all your thinking for you.

For me, his first point represents this work’s unique contribution. Family worship suggestions on every chapter of God’s word? What help for every Christian parent! If you aren’t inclined to the Authorized translation, but still want the family worship helps, you will soon be blessed. RHB plans to release their Family Worship Bible Guide this November. This resource pulls together all the family worship helps from the KJV Study Bible and puts them in one place.

Click here to see the study notes on Ephesians and the corresponding thoughts for family worship.

Pastoral Ministry & Old Paths

Old Paths

“Pay careful attention to how you walk,” the Untimely Apostle said. The days are evil and few. Slippery slopes abound, so Christians must pay attention. When it comes to walking there is something comforting about an old path. The weeds have long been trampled out. The path itself was cut ages ago and has thus become nearly one with the earth.

Ah, yes. The glory of old paths.

Walking on Pastoral Paths

Pastors must pay peculiar attention to their path. If they are faithful, they will usually lead from the front. The sheep trail behind hearing the shepherd’s voice, following with trust and care. Therefore, a wise pastor won’t choose a path marked, “Contemporary,” “Culturally Relevant,” or, “Fresh.” Such things—especially in our day—are about as sturdy as an egg’s resistance to a boulder. Faddish paths tend to leave egg on the face. Wise pastors will instead choose paths of pastoral practice well trod by great men of old.

Where can we find such paths? In the books of old.

Three Glories of Old Paths

I tend to read any new book on pastoral ministry that shows up from a reliable publisher. The modern books on pastoral ministry usually only serve to increase my pining for the old ones. Maybe I’m just a soul aged before my time. Or maybe there is something different about an old book. In fact, I’d argue there are three peculiar advantages to reading earlier works on pastoral ministry:

  • Dignity. Our culture’s obsession (many a church’s obsession, as well) with casual authenticity is systematically destroying something God says every one of his elders must have: dignity. The old men radiated dignity in life, love, faith, and purity.
  • Gravity. This second point is a natural consequence of the first. My personal definition of dignity, after all, is the gravity attending godliness. There is a gravity in the old writings on ministry absent from today’s works. Pastoral ministry was serious business. Eternity hung in the balance. The pulpit was the sacred desk, not a bar table to sit behind. The prayer closet was real. The study was his home.
  • Maturity. This, for me, is probably the greatest reason to read the old books. Modern books on ministry are full of biblical awareness and personal experience. But they lack what I call “piercedness.” In my view, the new books don’t pierce like the old ones because they often come from young pastoral pens. Let me listen to a man who is decades into the ministry. Such a man has seen much and so can say much. He has piercing views in the heart. He pierces through the chaff and gives us the blessed wheat for ministry.

To the 19th Century We Go

Let me thus suggest a few 19th–century books on pastoral ministry for pastors to read. I have a theory as to why the 1800s produced such excellent reflections on ministry, but I’ll leave that for another time. Four old, trustworthy, and proven paths for ministry are:

0875521649mWords to Winners of Souls by Horatius Bonar. Bonar gets the first nod because he unleashes conviction aplenty in less than one hundred pages. This is a book you can—and probably should—reread every year.

9780851510873mThe Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges. Simply the best book on pastoral ministry yet written. It comes in second only because of its length (400 pages) being off-putting to some today.

0851518931mPrinceton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander and the Christian Ministry by James Garretson. Oh, how I wish this one got more press! It’s far too underrated. Here’s your opportunity to sit in a seminary class on ministry with Alexander. It may be the most useful class you ever take.

41sqaNuDw7L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Pastoral Theology by Thomas Murphy. Murphy’s work is essentially his rehashing of Archibald Alexander’s teaching. This work cuts to the quick and is astonishingly expansive. It’s also available for free online.

Christ in the Front, Not in the Footnotes

We Preach Christ

Preachers are covenant heralds of The King of King. “Him we proclaim.” We know “nothing except Christ and him crucified.” We declare “Jesus Christ as Lord.” “We preach Christ crucified.”

Or do we?

The Glory of Christ Front and Center

I’m not yet done with it, but Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters is routinely magnificent in its meditations on ministry.

For example, in chapter two Ferguson drives home the danger of separating the benefits of Christ from the person of Christ in preaching. He writes,

Wherever the benefits of Christ are seen as abstractable from Christ himself, there is a decreasing stress on his person and work in preaching and in the books that are published to feed that preaching. That is accompanied by a stress on our experience of salvation rather than on the grace, majesty, and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Is it possible that most preachers reading these pages own more books on preaching (and even on preaching Christ!) than they own on Christ himself?

If that is true (a survey would certainly be illuminating), we should probably ask a further question: Is it obvious to me, and of engrossing concern, that the chief focus, the dominant note in the sermon I preach (or hear), is ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’? Or is the dominant emphasis (and perhaps the greatest energies of the preacher) focused somewhere else, perhaps on how to overcome sin, or how to live the Christian life, or on the benefits to be received from the gospel? All are legitimate emphases in their place, but that pace is never center stage.

When I read that, I write in the margin, “Most convicting, Dr. Ferguson. Bless you.”

Don’t Put Him in the Footnotes of Your Sermon

In that paragraph quoted above Ferguson offers, in a footnote, an illustration for how we commonly let Christ’s benefits supersede a focus on Christ himself. He says,

This [separation] might be illustrated by the way in which, for example, John Owen’s work Of the Mortification of Sin has undoubtedly been read by many more younger ministers than either his Glory of Christ or Communion with God. That may be understandable because of the deep pastoral insight in Owen’s short work; but it may also put the practical cart before the theological horse. Owen himself would not have been satisfied with hearers who learned mortification without learning Christ. A larger paradigmatic shift needs to take place than only exchanging a superficial subjectivism for Owen’s rigorous subjectivism. What is required is a radical recentering in a richer and deeper knowledge of Christ, understood in terms of his person and work. There can be little doubt that Owen himself viewed things this way.

Christ the Center

Dear brother preacher, the Lord’s Day is right around the corner, and we must ask afresh, “Whom will we preach?” That’s the most important question, even more than, “What will we preach?” We preach Christ because Christ is the gospel. Let our preaching lift the chin of our congregation to consider Christ dead, buried, risen, and ascended to heaven. Let our preaching call for sinners to get into Christ. Let our preaching sound forth the sweetness of a Savior crushed in our place.

Let us not tear asunder Christ from His benefits. Let us preach the Benefactor who graciously gives His benefits to all who believe.

365 Days and 207 Books Later

A Banner Year

As I stand on the precipice of another year gone and look back on the last year, I’m convinced 2015 will hence be remembered as a “banner year” in my life.

Our fourth son was born. We moved into our second home. I began Ph.D. studies. I started losing my hair (I’m still trying to discern what, if any, relation it has to doctoral work). After three years of slow, steady growth on Saturday nights, God opened the door for our church to meet on His Day. Theological questions of critical nature popped up, possibly forever altering certain convictions and ministerial trajectory. Suffering struck our church in a new way and brought a taste—not just a sense—of God’s sweet sovereignty.

It was a banner year indeed.

It was also a banner year for book reading. For the first time in my life, I crossed the two-century mark in reading, completing 207 books over the last 365 days.

When the Truth is Terrifying

In 2013, I read 156 books and last year I read 160. How, I’m asking myself, did I add some 47 books to this year’s “Completed Books List?” The simple answer would be to blame the increase on Ph.D. work, for over 50 of the books I read came from some Ph.D. seminar syllabus. As I’ve considered this landmark of sorts in the last week I’ve come to realize the real answer lies within my heart; I love reading books.

Such a statement begs for a derisive, “Duh!” “Of course, a person who reads 207 books in one year loves reading books,” you might say. To which I’d respond, “Did you see where I put the accent? It’s not that I love reading books, but that I love reading books.”

And for the first time in my life that truth terrifies me.

On Books and The Book

What clear and concerning to me is that 2015 revealed a trajectory in my soul, one that proves I tend to reach for man’s book than God’s book. By my calculations, I finished, at least, one book every forty-two hours this year. That means I read tens of thousands of man’s words every two days or so while only reading a few hundred of God’s words.

In years past I’ve been able to say with a clean conscience that my persistent reading of books catalyzed even higher reading of The Book. But this year was different (I’m still trying to discern exactly why this is so). I was too quick to put down The Book to read another book. I thus stand rebuked, first by my words.

In December 31, 2014’s post recounting 160 books read I wrote at the end:

Here’s what I do know: books build my soul in myriads of ways, but not as powerfully as The Book does. I think I held that perspective well this year, and I want to do so even more next year. My conviction then going into 2015 is going to be different than in years past. I really don’t care how many books I read as long as The Book receives my most ardent love and attention.

Tears well up when I reread those words, for The Book didn’t receive my most ardent attention.

Henry Martyn’s example also rebukes me this year. His practice of reading is surely most pious and wise. Do you know it?

Archibald Alexander recounts it in the middle of some sage counsel to the pastor’s study habits:

It has been said that everything a minister studies should have a reference to the word of God. Through whatever fields of science or of literature he may rove, he should come back with superior relish to the Bible. In the varied regions of philosophy and taste he is permitted to rove, but the Bible should be his richest banquet. Make it a rule always to prefer it. If at the hours of devotion you are strongly drawn toward some new and interesting publication, if you are tempted for this to omit the regular study of the Scriptures, regard it as a temptation, and resist it accordingly. You may recollect the resolution of the pious Henry Martyn. He would never allow himself to peruse a book one moment after he felt it gaining preference to the Bible. As long as he could turn to his Bible with a superior relish, so long he would continue reading, and no longer. Go thou and do likewise.

Relish for The Book decreased this year and preference for books increased.

A Fresh Resolve

I thus enter 2016 with fresh resolve and zeal to situate my soul in Scripture. I want holy Martyn’s model to be real in my life next year. Should the Lord tarry and grant me another 365 days, I hope to write a post on December 31, 2016, that announces something different than this one did.

Over 200 books in one year is a banner I thought I’d be proud to wave. But instead, I find myself eager to let the banner fall—and raise a more inspired one in its place.