It’s now 2017 — 2016 has come and gone. I can’t believe I’m even writing that sentence, yet here we are. What a rollercoaster it was. An election year, one in which the media cycle was more annoying than in recent memory. But despite the controversies and scandals and stories, my continued recourse was always reading. Reading, for me, is not only an educational or informative or enlightening practice, but often is a therapeutic exercise by which my personal theology is refined or my personal demons are exorcised.
With a lot of bloggers already publishing their “best of” or “top 10” lists of books for 2016, I thought I’d do something a bit different. What follows is a complete list of all the books I’ve read this past year. They’re listed alphabetically, as I’m trying to refrain from “ranking” them as opposed to recommending them in general. Furthermore, this isn’t meant to be, necessarily, an endorsement of all the contents of each of these works, as there passages from which I would divert from a few of these writers. Nevertheless, each of these books were practical and beneficial in their own way and I’d advocate for their reading as you have the opportunity.
I, like you perhaps, was first introduced to Jefferson Bethke with his wildly popular spoken word video “Jesus > Religion.” This launched somewhat of a firestorm ministry for Jefferson, in part because he was “forced” to explain himself and become his own apologist. This turned into a book of the same name (which you should definitely read). This book, though, serves as his follow-up writing endeavor and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s Not What You Think is a discussion as self-explanatory as the title itself, speaking to various themes and topics and doctrines which are either grossly misinterpreted or misconstrued, or confused with the truth. Jefferson aims to reorient our natural inclinations when it comes to God, his people, his church, and our duty in the world. Very often — too often, in fact — we’re driven to accept the colloquial and accepted beliefs about God which are often wrong and even dangerous. Many have the idea that God’s mad, distant, and vengeful with them. But this isn’t the truth. As Jefferson says, “Jesus is a God who comes close. A God who is near, who we can touch, who can see our mess.” (40) This one’s well-worth your time.
I am an ardent fan of Horatius Bonar’s works. His The Story of Grace is still one of, if not the best book on grace I’ve ever read. This prior work, The Blood of the Cross, is no exception. In it, Dr. Bonar endeavors to converse about the blood of Christ and all its far-reaching ramifications. He begins by expressing the ways in which all mankind is guilty of the bloodshedding of the cross. We all have blood on our hands, and in that way, we should all be concerned with both the promises and consequences of Christ’s blood. Bonar continues to express the varying ways in which this blood has been misconstrued or disregarded. And through it all, he seeks only to exalt the blood of the cross, which alone is able to make men free. Regardless of background, age, race, or status, the blood of the cross is able to save you. “No amount of defilement can dilute the efficacy of that blood, or make it less free to the polluted soul . . . this blood breathes no vengeance, no wrath. All in it is grace, — grace to sinners, — grace to the murderers, — grace to the uttermost. Free love to the unloveable and the unloving is the very essence of the message which it brings.” (Bonar, 61, 113)
In 2016, we saw the home-going of one of the stalwarts of the Christian faith in the 20th century. Jerry Bridges went home to be with the Lord in March of last year. He was prolific author and an even more passionate theologian. He sought to bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus by exalting the marvelous gospel of God. And in his The Transforming Power of the Gospel, he seeks to show how this same gospel changes a person from the inside out. Far too often, when one speaks of spiritual change or growth or transformation, there’s a moralistic undertone to it all. But not so with Bridges’ discussion on the matter. Through it all, he endeavors to root the transformation and sustain the transformation in Christ’s atoning work. It’s not your sacrifice or surrender that change you — it’s the Spirit’s grace working in and through you. Bridges goes on to say that “both our eternal standing on and our day-to-day standing with God are based not on our own performance but upon the sinless life and sin-bearing death of Jesus.” (Bridges, 15) This is an important book for anyone who wishes to see real spiritual growth rooted in the gospel and talked about practically.
One of my favorites passages of Scripture is undoubtedly the scene from Luke 18 depicting the Pharisee and the tax collector going up to the temple to pray. The remarkable and visceral picture of God’s grace and mercy in this scene is what makes it so applicable to modern Christendom. On display in this parable are all the people of the world. Reduced to just two figures, Christ sees all of mankind. Those that are running and those that are working. The faker and the fugitive. But no amount of goodness or righteousness or virtue of our own will ever amount to the righteousness God requires. And that’s the point. This is what Jesus speaks to in this story, that by his own sacrifice “there is more virtue in mercy to save, than there is in the law and sin to condemn.” (Bunyan, 214-15) Bunyan’s treatment of the passage is extensive and thorough. I was most appreciative of his insight into the Pharisee’s “pretend righteousness.” You will greatly benefit from reading this one.
The enduring quality of the works of Martin Luther is owed, no doubt, to his “down-to-earth” sensibilities. Rather than keeping spiritual truths and biblical insights in lofty ivory towers only the learned could apprehend, Luther sought to bring the gospel to the common man. He understood that it made the gospel of no effect if it stayed in lecture halls or classrooms. And in that way, Luther reflected the very God he served. It’s this that Gerhard Forde wishes to discuss in his own interpretation of Luther’s writings. Forde is insistent upon a resurgence of Lutheran thought, not because its inherently Lutheran, but because it is Scriptural. Man’s hope doesn’t reside in him climbing heavenward. No, man’s only hope is in a down-to-earth God that meets him where he is, in his present, paltry, putrid state. This is what the gospel promises. “The gospel comforts because it puts and end to the voice of the law . . . [it] is the joyful message that in Christ this new creation has already and actually broken in on us, and the promise that it will be carried to its completion. It is the story of one who came down to earth and lived ‘under the voice’ and died under it as we all do, but yet arose triumphant and broke its power and brought it to and end. The gospel is the story of him who shattered the grammar of earth, who broke open the closed circle of the voice of the law and gave us the gift of hope.” (Forde, 16-17)
I was privileged to be apart of the launch team for RJ Grunewald’s newest release, Reading Romans with Luther. After the success of RJ’s condensation of Luther’s Galatians commentary, turning to Romans was not only natural, it was necessary. But the manner in which RJ approaches this commentary is fresh and exciting, not just regurgitating Luther’s words but providing keen insight into Luther’s comments and their biblical bases. More than just law and gospel, Reading Romans with Luther is almost like a little systematic theology book, one which anyone can pick up, read, and apprehend. Its depth isn’t found in its extensiveness and exhaustiveness, but in the richness of Luther’s commentary. Couple that with RJ’s profound appreciation for not only Luther but for Scripture as a whole and the themes covered, and what you have a crucial work that seeks to further bring lofty theology down to earth. If you haven’t yet, preorder this one.
As one who has only recently come to a knowledge of the distinction between God’s law and God’s gospel as an overarching theological perspective, I’ve been gobbling up all the works I can find to help gain further insight into this crucial doctrine. RJ’s The Art of Law & Gospel is, perhaps, the best place you can start. This short book serves as sort of a primer on distinguishing between law and gospel and is extremely beneficial for those looking to begin a theological journey into this distinction. The significance of this doctrine is seen when we stand rightly before God with nothing in our hands and nothing to our name. “The Law shatters the self-made delusions about the goodness we offer and leaves us broken with nowhere to turn but the cross.” (Grunewald, Law & Gospel, 11)
The biggest “surprise read” is by far Daniel Hochhalter’s Losers Like Us, in which he gives each apostle of the Lord Jesus ample treatment for who they really are: normal, everyday guys, with nagging problems and scary skeletons in closets. This creates a great space for free discussions of these men as, well, men. There’s nothing special or extraordinary about them. And that’s the point. We’re often guilty of lofting the characters of Scripture high above what was originally intended, making them into our personal theological heroes when they’re there to point us to the true and better hero, Jesus Christ. Christianity doesn’t need more heroes. “No,” Daniel says, “it needs more losers — people who finally understand that the only thing they have going for them is that Jesus loves them.”
The notion of sanctification has always been one riddled with controversy. Man’s insistence upon having something to do with his salvation creeps into his understandings of God’s process of “setting apart” his people. Thus, more than just recently, sanctification has been the juncture at which man deems he’s the master of his fate and controls his spiritual destiny. With this understanding, you’re as sanctified as you want to be. Yet, I would contend and continue to hold that sanctification is as much God’s prerogative as justification, and just as much involves the personal relinquishing of your own spiritualness in favor of the Spirit’s movement on the soul. This and more Walter Marshall deals with in his The Gospel-Mystery of Sanctification, a seminal work on the nature of a Christian’s sanctification. In exhaustive fashion, he endeavors to prove that “as we are justified by a righteousness wrought out in Christ, and imputed to us, so we are sanctified by such a holy frame and qualifications, as are first wrought out, and completed in Christ for us, and then imparted to us.” (Marshall, 50) The “gospel-mystery” of sanctification, then, is that both justification and sanctification are gifts imputed to the sinner by sheer grace.
In my continued quest to learn more about the beauteous and broad doctrine of the distinction between law and gospel, it was natural that I turn to the fellows behind the work at Mockingbird to gain further insight. If you’re unfamiliar, Mockingbird is one of the best sites to read about not only this distinguishing doctrine but also on the harmony and synergy between Scripture, society, and pop-culture. What we find, and what they endeavor to say, is that man’s problems have been the same from the Fall. We’re all addicted to a law that we hope will justify us and save us. But this manmade law can only result in failure and fatigue, never deliverance. And that’s when the words of the gospel show up and provide the only relief we seek. “The Law commands that we love perfectly. The Gospel announces that we are perfectly loved.” (McDavid, Richardson, and Zahl, 54)
If you put a gun to my head and forced me to pick a favorite book of 2016, this would be it. Sammy Rhodes’ This is Awkward was such a revelatory book for me, touching on multiple themes and topics that resonated with me greatly. Sammy isn’t afraid to be open, vulnerable, even with the awkwardness of his personality or past. He speaks to important subjects, too, ones that don’t often get attention in the broader evangelical room. I appreciate this book so much for the hope it sparked, the laughter it created, the truth it spoke, and the gospel it delivered. Sammy’s ability to weave mundane thoughts and occurrences into profound instances of eternal truth is compelling. Jesus came to eradicate the awkwardness that arises because of fear, shame, and guilt. He came that we might know who we are and what he thinks about us. “The cross is tangible proof that God literally loves you to death. One look at the cross, and you can know exactly what God thinks about you.” (Rhodes, 168)
In my expedition to learn all I can about the distinction between law and gospel, and in order to beef up my knowledge of this doctrine, I began searching for as many books as I could on the subject. One I stumbled upon, which is now an absolute favorite, is William Romaine’s Twelve Discourses Upon the Law and the Gospel. The appropriately titled work is a collection of sermons delivered by the renowned evangelical Anglican author and pastor, William Romaine. Each discourse is deliberate and pointed, as he seeks to bring his audience to a clear understanding of their grave need and the glorious manner in which God has met that need. Beginning with the law and traversing through man’s inability to keep it, Romaine brings you to the point of desperation, which is precisely where the gospel shows up to give those who are desperate the hope of Christ. Indeed, in this gospel, none are to despair. “There is not a wound of sin so deep, a disease of sin so desperate, but the blood of Christ applied by the Holy Spirit can heal them . . . The blood of Christ can raise the deadest soul to justification of life.” (Romaine, 255) For those who are, likewise, interested in diving into the glories of God’s law and gospel, this is a volume worthy of your attention.
Being a work of 20 sermons by the revered Charles Spurgeon, Storm Signals is, perhaps, one of the best collections of Spurgeon’s sermons. As with anything he said or did, this book is deeply evangelistic, rooted in rich gospel truths that promise Jesus’s best for our worst. Through each sermon, you’re invited to realize your utter hopelessness and God’s absolute sufficiency to pull you up on the rock of his salvation. In a way that only Spurgeon can, he gives ample space for the most destitute soul to find their solace in Christ’s accomplishments. There is no ground left untouched by his blood. “Jesus is a home for the homeless, a rest for the weary, a comfort for the comfortless.” (Spurgeon, 273)
This is probably the most obscure work on this list but it’s nonetheless essential. The Grace of the Gospel is the republishing of a sermon by Hugh Stowell on the subject of the true gospel of grace and how it’s been maligned and marred by Roman Catholicism. Rev. Stowell doesn’t hold anything back in this lecture, unafraid to call a spade, a spade and heresy, heresy. He spends the first half of the talk discussing the full, unabashed truth of the gospel, which “offers full, free, and perfect redemption.” (Stowell, 13) He then continues to express how the Roman Catholic Church, and especially the office of the pope, has deformed the gospel, making it about man’s fitness and faithfulness instead of Christ’s. This is a great little work that can easily be read in a single sitting.
I contend and will continue to maintain that Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling is not only one of the best books on ministry ever written, it’s one of my favorite books of all time. It exposes you and enriches you at the same time. Awe essentially serves as a follow-up to that work, being a more inclusive conversation on the importance and preeminence of worship in the life of a Christian. Tripp speaks to something called “awe amnesia,” which is what’s happened to us all as a result of the Fall. We’ve forgotten to rightly place our true and foundational awe before the Lord, and in so doing have corrupted good things, making them little, fallible God’s. This can be seen in nearly every area life, from work to home to ministry to devotions to parenting to church, etc. The battle for our attention, our devotion — for our awe is ongoing, all around us. Paul goes on to say, “It’s only when my heart is captured by the awe of God that I will view my identity rightly. And it’s only when I view my identity rightly that I will have a proper sense of need and a willingness to abandon my plan for the greater and more glorious plan of God.” (Tripp, 47) If you haven’t read this yet, do it now.
Octavius Winslow is one of my favorite writers of all time, second only to Horatius Bonar. Winslow’s ability to expound at length on a particular doctrine and always bring the thought home to the blood of Christ is unparalleled. Winslow was a deeply evangelical preacher, and this is very apparent in his writing. As the subtitle for this would indicate, The Ministry of Home is a book with an explicit target audience: the family. Winslow designed these treatises to be read in the home, perhaps during family devotions. But through these 20 readings, you will be continuously directed back to your Savior, your Shepherd, the One who “watches over us by day, by night, moment by moment, with unwearied care and with unslumbering love.” (Winslow, Ministry of Home, 238) This is an excellent work.
Another volume by Octavius Winslow completed this past year was his The Precious Things of God, in which we’re given 12 lengthy chapters on the precious promises of God. From the preciousness of God’s Son to his grace to suffering to prayer to worship, and many others, the reader is directed to adore God through the remembrance of the plethora of things he has accomplished on our behalf. That in Christ, all things are finished. In the Son of God, by his blood, “we cannot conceive of any condition in which you, as a child of God, may be placed, any circumstance by which you may be surrounded, any sorrow by which you may be depressed, any perils that may confront, any darkness that may overshadow you, or any wants of which you may be the subject, in which you may not find some promise of his blessed Word that meets your case.” (Winslow, Precious Things, 143)
What do you think of my list? What books did you finish in 2016? And which ones are you planning on completing in 2017? Let’s discuss below in the comments — I’d love to hear from you!
Notes & References:
Charles Spurgeon, Storm Signals (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1885).
Hochhalter, Losers Like Us: Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014).
Gerhard Forde, Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-to-Earth Approach to the Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing, 1972).
Horatius Bonar, The Blood of the Cross (Kelso: J. & J. H. Rutherford, 1850).
Hugh Stowell, The Grace of the Gospel—How Popery Mars It (Preston: H. C. Barton, 1851).
Jefferson Bethke, It’s Not What You Think: Why Christianity Is About So Much More Than Going to Heaven When You Die (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2015).
Jerry Bridges, The Transforming Power of the Gospel (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012).
John Bunyan, A Discourse Upon the Pharisee and the Publican, edited by George Offor (London: Blackie & Son, 1873).
Paul Tripp, Awe: Why It Matters for Everything We Think, Say, & Do (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).
Octavius Winslow, The Ministry of Home; Brief Expository Lectures on Divine Truth (London: William Hunt & Co., 1867).
Octavius Winslow, The Precious Things of God (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1867).
RJ Grunewald, Reading Romans with Luther (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2017).
RJ Grunewald, The Art of Law & Gospel (RJGrune.com, 2016).
Sammy Rhodes, This Is Awkward: How Life’s Uncomfortable Moments Open the Door to Intimacy and Connection (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2016).
Walter Marshall, The Gospel-Mystery of Sanctification (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1859).
William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015).
William Romaine, Twelve Discourses Upon the Law and the Gospel (London: Book Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge, 1835).