Significant Books for Pastors in 2015
A few years ago I wrote a post that has become a habit—collecting a list of “significant books” for pastors published during the past year. A wealth of books and the crunch of time conspire to make reading choices both frustrating (how does one choose?) and critical (I must choose wisely).
“Best books” lists are unavoidably idiosyncratic—hence an effort at recommending “significant” books for pastors. This may well mean a pastor should read them, but it certainly means a pastor should, at least, be aware of them. My criteria remain the same: (a) I try to include a range of genres, since different books contribute different kinds of things to pastors; (b) I’m looking for books that specifically benefit pastors, but this necessarily means keeping in mind the people they serve—some books may deepen a pastor’s well, others stir his soul, still others serve as a reference work, while some serve those in his church more directly by becoming a go-to recommendation or a book-table staple; finally, (c) devotional books and “how-to-do-ministry” books will be rarer on this list, not because they’re unimportant but because their benefit and relevance can differ so widely from person to person.
This list names no “winner” since different pastors have different needs and interests. I’ve enumerated these for ease of reference, with no hierarchy of importance implied.
1. The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. In this important book, a manifesto of sorts, the authors issue a clarion call for pastors to be what they’re called to be. Amidst the dizzying array of pastoral models currently on offer—most of the recent vintage and doomed to a shelf-life of months—this book is like a dose of smelling salts that will awaken, rouse, and clarify the self-understanding of the pastor and a vital aspect of our calling. Inspiring, convicting and ennobling.
2. A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, John Frame. This is simply a stunning book. Frame’s project here is massive: to survey the most influential thinkers in the Western tradition and to evaluate them through the lens of Scripture, its truth claims, and its assumptions about revelation, human reason, the noetic effects of sin, etc. Whether you’re well versed in philosophical categories or your Philosophy 101 course is but a distant (and unpleasant) memory, Frame proves to be a remarkably clear and unrelentingly biblical guide. This is a book that will not only inform the mind—an education lies within these pages—but will help discipline it to think theologically.
3. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, Russell Moore. Christians are called to be “in the world but not of the world,” but the recent velocity of cultural change has made the urgency of careful reflection on this calling all the more pressing. Russ Moore provides insightful analysis and wise counsel to equip Christians to be a faithful presence that is at once winsome, prophetic, and unswervingly focused on the abiding reality and priority of the gospel.
4. Newton on the Christian Life, Tony Reinke. Crossway’s series “Theologians on the Christian Life” is a tremendous idea that’s brilliantly executed. I’ve yet to be disappointed by the entries in this series that explore giants of the past for wisdom specifically on the path of discipleship. Tony Reinke has written a splendid book on John Newton that, far from being a biography, mines Newton’s life, and especially his letters, for a veritable fount of Christ-imbued spiritual wisdom. You will quite simply savor Jesus more after reading this, and you’ll be better equipped to care for others through the tutelage of Newton’s compassionate, discerning, and Christ-besotted pastoral counsel.
5. Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, Tom Schreiner. Luther’s claim that justification by faith alone is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls is both supported by scripture and borne out by history. Because this doctrine is central, frequently misunderstood, and often under assault, pastors can never take sola fide for granted and must be alert to mistakes in its formulation (including our own) and attacks against its importance. In this focused, substantive, yet accessible book, Schreiner examines this doctrine biblically and historically, and with extraordinary fairness explains and responds to some of the main contemporary challenges lodged against forensic justification. Having written commentaries on the biblical letters in which justification is central (Romans and Galatians), and, significantly, having changed the view on justification he had previously defended in the Romans commentary in his later book on Paul’s theology, Schreiner has thought long on this subject and is particularly qualified to write this book.
6. Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion, Richard Lints, and Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God, John Kilner. Few areas of theology are more crucial in our cultural moment than the nature of man, and no topic is perhaps more central to biblical anthropology than the image of God. This year produced two excellent books that deal with this idea from different angles. Lints’s treatment (in the NSBT series) traces this theme from a biblical-theological standpoint (and in the process does some excellent systemization) and focuses on the profound way in which our identity is a reflection of God himself. The resultant reflections on idolatry are insightful and penetrating. Kilner’s learned book is a much more comprehensive treatment—perhaps the most comprehensive treatment in print—on the imago dei. And, as a leading evangelical ethicist, Kilner’s insights on the implications of this doctrine are critical for the brave new world in which we’re living.
7. The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive, Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop. In recent years, “community” has often been a buzzword or slogan more reflective of cultural impulses than biblical ones. The idea itself is, of course, central to God’s purposes for his people and a core assumption of a biblical ecclesiology. Dever and Dunlop understand this, and their excellent book from the 9Marks series will reinforce, and may well expand, your vision for the church’s interpersonal life and corporate witness.
8. What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?, Kevin DeYoung. Kevin brings his typical clarity, winsomeness, and wisdom to this book on what is obviously a subject of heightened cultural and pastoral importance. He’s read and digested the most important works (esp. Robert Gagnon’s massive The Bible and Homosexual Practice—the pastor should have, or, at least, know of, this book) and makes the fruit of his study accessible to any reader. Read it and put it on your book table.
9. 2 Corinthians (BECNT), George Guthrie. I always include at least one commentary on this list, and Guthrie’s wins my vote this year, for a few reasons. First, the BECNT series has been a great gift to pastors, combining exegetical detail with a sensitivity to the needs of the pastor in a useful format. In reading this commentary, one can almost imagine Guthrie conversing with a pastor over a cup of coffee about the meaning of the text and what it means for his church. For intricate detail on the Greek text, Murray Harris’s volume in the NIGTC series is indispensable (esp. for scholars and students), but with this commentary (along with Barnett, NICNT, and Seifrid, Pillar) the pastor has a wealth of resources to help him rightly handle this fascinating, and often difficult, letter.
10. Preaching, Timothy Keller. I encourage the pastors I interact with to read at least one book on preaching each year as a way to stoke the fires of their convictions and practices, and this is my choice for 2015. The twin strengths of this book could be summed up as “content” and “context”—Keller exhorts us always to be preaching Christ (from all of the Bible), and he helps us think carefully about doing so in a cultural context in which biblical/theistic assumptions have given way to largely secular ones. As always, Keller is original and thought-provoking, making this a fresh source of insight and encouragement for pastors.
I hesitate to expand this list with a string of “honorable mentions,” both because that list could be endless and the line between them and the above entries quite faint. I will mention just a few that have their own significance.
Christianity and Religious Diversity, Harold Netland. Globalization, diversity, inclusivism, pluralism—these now-commonplace terms speak to different aspects of the world in which modern Christians live, worship, and bear witness. Within this world, religious diversity raises numerous important questions—questions of revelation and epistemology, of corporate witness and personal faith. Few have written on religious pluralism more insightfully than Harold Netland. His latest book explores our world’s religious diversity and its implications for Christian commitment. Here is much-needed learning and careful thought on the church’s life and mission in a world of many faiths and many gods.
The Gospel According to Luke (Pillar), James Edwards. This latest entry in the Pillar Commentary series lives up to the standard set by some of the earlier volumes. Those who have benefitted from Edwards’s commentary on Mark’s gospel in this same series will once again find him helpful. Both commentaries are marked by evident familiarity with relevant literature, wisdom in exegetical selectivity, fresh (yet not fanciful) exegesis, and a warm, pastoral tone. Most pastors will make this commentary a top pick in their study of Luke, surpassed perhaps only by Bock’s two volumes in the BECNT series in utility.
Knowing Christ, Mark Jones. Inspired by Packer’s Knowing God, Jones has written a lovely book reflecting on the person of Christ, largely through the lens of the Puritans. Although exegetically sound and historically informed, this is not academic Christology; Jones has written this, in his words, “to give God’s people a glimpse of the person of Christ.” He has succeeded admirably.
The Pastor’s Book, Kent Hughes and Douglas Sean O’Donnell. The “pastoral handbooks” I’ve seen have often struck me as a bit stale, or too embedded in a particular church tradition. This one, however, is different and is by far the best one I’ve seen. This book will help pastors young and old to think freshly about a wide array of pastoral tasks and responsibilities, from Sunday worship, weddings, and funerals to pastoral prayers, baptisms, and visitation. Explanations, examples, resources—it’s all here, and it’s all immersed in Scripture, informed by vast pastoral experience, and focused on the gospel.
J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, Leland Ryken. A substantial biography on a figure of Packer’s importance is always noteworthy, and this is no exception. Ryken’s book is somewhat unusual, as much of it is structured thematically instead of narratively. I haven’t finished the book yet, and I suspect I’ll end up enjoying McGrath’s commentary on Packer more, but this is still a welcome, informative, and enjoyable treatment on a man to whom we owe more than we know.
Advances in the Study of Greek: New Insights for Reading the New Testament, Constantine Campbell. For those rolling their eyes, let me quickly admit: this book won’t be for everyone. However, for those persevering in their Greek (may their tribe increase), this book is an excellent and wide-ranging update on what’s transpired in the field since your days as a student. At least three sections will be particularly helpful for the earnest Greek-user: the book’s overview of aspect theory, its description of the paradigm shift that has occurred relative to deponency and the middle voice in Greek, and its discussion of linguistics and the impact this field has had on NT studies (which few students are ever exposed to). At a minimum, reading this book (or one like it) has the potential to rekindle that thrill you had when you began reading God’s inspired word in the language in which he inspired it.
Any selection in Crossway’s “Theologians on the Christian Life” series. In addition to John Newton (see #4 above), new in 2015 were books on Augustine (Gerald Bray), John Owen (Matthew Barrett & Michael Haykin), Herman Bavinck (John Bolt), J.I. Packer (Sam Storms), and Martin Luther (Carl Trueman).
As pastors, our challenge is not having books to read, or even which books to read. Our challenge is making time to read. John Wesley’s counsel to a fellow pastor is convicting:
What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading. I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence, your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety, there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian.
May this haunting diagnosis not be descriptive of us in 2016. May it rather be a year in which, if need be, we re-acquire a “taste” for reading, and so find our minds expanded, our souls enriched, our convictions sharpened, and our love for our Savior and his people deepened.
As Director of Theology and Training for Sovereign Grace, Jeff Purswell is the Dean of our Pastors College, leads our theological training, and helps develop theological resources. He is also an elder at Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville. He and his wife, Julie, have two sons.
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